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A B&B like no other

The following account is one that I never expected to write, it was never planned, but not much I ever do is. It is an account of one of the most astonishing but equally enjoyable discoveries I have made in my life so far. I hope it excites the reader as much as it did me.

Finding ourselves with a day to kill on our return journey (see previous post) through Brittany and Basse-Normandie, I had to find a camp for the night. We could have stayed in Cherbourg, but I thought why not stay within striking distance thus giving ourselves an easy journey to the port and another chance to explore a bit more of this previously unvisited part of France.

Out of the blue I found Chateau de Pont-Rilly, reasonably priced, looked nice, but I thought well the pics are going to look nice anyway, but I expect we will get a converted stable or such. Who cares it’s just for the night.

What we actually got was jaw droppingly fantastic! We found our way to where we thought it might be as the chateau wasn’t marked on our Michelin road map and the sat nav thought it was somewhere entirely different. We’d sacked the useless English fool the day before anyway for his terrible pronunciation of French. I mean come on, at least try. It’s Fougeres not four gears for God’s sake!

Luckily the owners had installed small direction signs on all the approaches so we just followed them until we came to a very modest looking gate with a small sign declaring Chateau de Pont-Rilly.

We entered the small, unmade drive and stopped to be amazed. There in the distance almost a kilometre away along this dead straight narrow track was the Chateau in all its splendour. We approached at the speed of a horse drawn carriage taking in the beautiful vista.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Nearing the building the road changes to large cobblestones flanked by decorative canals and faced with a grander but still modest iron gateway.

As we came even nearer I could see a man painting a window frame in the house and from around the side a woman walked towards us. The lady turned out to be one of the owners, a couple Madame and Monsieur Roucheray, and they directed us to the rear of the building and asked us to park anywhere, before greeting us with an offer of drinks.  Introductions were completed over pots of tea and coffee, as I sat amazed at the scene before us.

M Roucheray

M Roucheray

Madame Annick generously told us that we were allowed to roam as we wished and practically nowhere was out of bounds, before offering a tour of her magnificent palace for the next morning after breakfast, which we hurriedly accepted.

In 1982 Annick and Jean-Jacques had discovered the place in virtual ruin whilst looking for somewhere in the region to live.  They were living and working in Paris and wanted to move away from the madness of city living. Successful in the field of furniture design and interior decoration their skills were to be put to good use in the restoration of Chateau de Pont-Rilly.

Having seen photos of the Chateau when they found it, I thought “what a huge task”. Only a fool or someone with a bottomless pit of money would take that on. Clearly neither of this pleasant French couple are fools and I don’t know how much money they have left now, but the job is done and they are still smiling!

chateau ruin

The chateau during renovation

The story of the restoration of the Chateau is as remarkable as the Roucherays themselves. A large manor house existed here from at least the middle of the 16th century but it was in the 18th century that the Marquis d’Ourville was to have the place transformed into the grand house that exists today.

When Annick and Jean-Jacques stumbled on this crumbling wreck of a building a dream was born. Could they possibly have had any clue as to the enormity of the task they had set themselves? Anyone that has seen the current glut of restoration projects on TV recently would be left in no doubt as to the enormity of the task. The walls were crumbling, plaster had fallen off, leaking pipes caused water to run through the floors and generally the whole place looked like the set of a Hollywood horror movie. I can imagine standing looking at the huge grey edifice with only the wind and the cawing of crows disturbing the silence. The ghosts of ancient nobles and their servants of long ago and the noisy chatter of American troops as they sat around the grounds, smoking and playing cards as they waited for action during the second World War. Undaunted, the Roucherays took the challenge on, bought the property and set about the biggest job of their lives.

Now I like a challenge , but the enormity of this task cannot adequately be described. Not only is there the size of the project, but the time involved in historic research, sourcing authentic materials, rebuilding the roof, the floors, the windows, the plasterwork, the electrics, the plumbing and the myriad small details that had to be right. Imagine all of that and you might begin to get an idea.

Not only did they have to contend with all of this but also the wishes of their close neighbours one of whom wanted to construct a large dairy facility very close to their land.  If that person had had their way the beautiful valley and decorative canals would have been filled in to create the dairy complex.

Luckily for Pont-Rilly the Roucherays found an ally in officialdom. Regional Protection Services librarian Hervé Pelvillain took an interest and set to work constructing the case to convince the Minister of Culture to make the Chateau a classified Historical Monument, which secured its future.

First the job of stopping the commercial development had to be undertaken. Ancient trees had been felled and the building of the dairy complex was already underway, but thanks to the efforts of Monsieur Pelvillain the building permit was reversed and work stopped. Now, over 30 years later the growing vegetation has disguised much of the un-demolished building work and has left no lasting damage.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

 

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Work could now resume on the Chateau and the work of restoration could go ahead apace. Jean-Jacques found traces of the original paint on the panelling and would match the colours to recreate the past. His talents would be put to much greater use as the work progressed.

I am certainly no expert, but Jean-Jacques’ talents as an artist must surely rate up there with the best. His work is now on display everywhere you look in this great house. From the authentic colours matched, to the murals painted onto those panels, his skills beam out their talent to the world.  The faux marble fireplaces and columns painted to look like real marble are reminiscent of Wren’s Hampton Court Palace and Barry’s Reform Club, having the desired effect without the undesirable cost. The period furniture blended with the genuine article and magnificent drapery pay testimony to the skills of Annick. The curtains are hand sewn. She proudly showed a complete 12 place cutlery set contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte along with period French bracket clocks and paintings of characters that seemed to belong there.

On one wall hangs a great naval scene of Cherbourg in August 1858 with Britain’s Queen Victoria’s Royal yacht “Victoria and Albert” centre stage flanked by great French ships like the then new Bretagne, herself a curiosity. She was laid down as a sailing ship and fitted with a steam engine as she was being built.

Napoleon III welcomes Victoria & Albert by Langlois

Napoleon III welcomes Victoria & Albert by Langlois

The scene commemorates Napoleon III receiving Victoria and Albert to show off his impressive navy. It is the work of an artist, himself a native of Normandy, Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois. Langlois was born in Beaumont-en-Auge in 1789 at the outbreak of the French Revolution. He must have been a good school student because he was sent to the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris. It was and remains one of the four Grandes Ecoles set up by the revolution as an elite college for exceptional students. After leaving college he embarked on a military career and fought with Napoleon at the battles of Wagram and Genoa in 1809 and in 1815 took part in the Battle of Waterloo. He fought with such bravery and ferocity that he was made a colonel at the age of 26.

Retiring on half pay from the army due to the injuries he received, he then took up art as a career. For the most part he would paint battle scenes on enormous canvasses to be used in dioramas, a kind of forerunner to the cinema. These would consist of a large two-sided theatre in which these large paintings along with mirrors and magic lanterns would recreate famous scenes and transport amazed audiences to the centre of battle or on a trip to the pyramids of Egypt or any fantastic place that most people could never see. Unfortunately most of these large works were destroyed by fire.

Napoleon III’s PR exercise rebounded on him. Victoria returned home fuming and summoned the Prime Minister Lord Derby to rebuke him at the state of her navy. Within a year Derby had been replaced.

Since Waterloo in 1815 peace had broken out and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Britain had lapsed into a false sense of security. British politics, it could be said was suffering a period of turmoil and indecision during the 1850s and 60s. The office of Prime Minister changed hands no less than six times in the period 1852 to 1868, not a time for stable decisions. Budgets for war had been reigned in and the navy was a casualty. It was also a time when new technologies, not armies were marching forward. The last great wooden battleship, ironically the biggest, was launched in 1844 although it would never be used in battle. Wood had given way to iron cladding leading to all iron vessels and sail was giving way to steam.

Napoleon’s new navy took the wind from Victoria’s sails and put it straight up her government. His new steamships looked impressive but Her Majesty was not amused. In 1859 the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was formed and by 1860 under the stewardship of Lord Palmerston a series of forts were begun around Portsmouth at first and added to around the south coast. They were criticised as “Palmerston’s Follies” as they appeared to be built facing the wrong way round. In fact they were built to defend Portsmouth from a land based attack rather than from the sea, but in truth before they were finished their guns were outdated and they only ever served as a curiosity, which remains the case today.

Every part of this great house displays something of great interest, a work of art or an intriguing antique. The furnishings and finished decor are exquisite. Relics of the 18th century bearing the marks of Louis XVI hang as reminders of the house’s heritage.

Mme Annick at the window with its original glass

Mme Annick at the window with its original glass

A drawing room

A drawing room

Outside the house, the stables look ready to house a new generation of horses should they arrive at any time. The chapel is ready to welcome a small congregation or a happy wedding party. The old mill house with its chiming clock has an elaborate wooden staircase that would look more at home in the grand house. The beautifully restored greenhouse is a tranquil and evocative repose for Jean-Jacques to listen to his favourite French composers in the company of its lush vegetation. At the opposite end of the gardens which are stocked with beautiful herbaceous borders with their wild flowers blending with the manicured lawns and flanked with decorative canals is a modern pergola built to complement the  greenhouse. Peacocks roam with the wildfowl to complete the stunning scene.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly is a gem that thanks to this lovely couple is available to be enjoyed by the rest of the world or at least those lucky enough to spend a short but tranquil time here. It’s not a place to be spoiled by families with young children, you won’t even find a TV here, but in truth you wouldn’t want to waste a minute of your time here other than just enjoying it.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

If you would like more details about this amazing chateau contact us or view their website here.

Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events, tours and special offers here.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Coggin

A very British Holiday

A few years ago the current Mrs Coggin and I took our car to Ireland with family and on our return booked on to a fast ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. You know the kind of thing, an aluminium speedboat with two hulls, but big enough to swallow 200 cars and 800 passengers. Powered by 4 high speed diesel engines that provide so much power that it would indeed prove difficult to keep upright should you feel the need to water ski behind it.

We set out on this super ferry safe in the knowledge that our crossing time would be a full two hours quicker than the conventional ferry thus negating the possibility of throwing up the evening meal on the way home. We set off into a blustery wind that made it hard to settle, but were safe in the thought that this wouldn’t take too long and we would be safe on dry land in a short space of time. If you have ever experienced leaping off the top of a wave in a small boat to land with a jolt on the next wave just in time to repeat the process you’re getting the idea. Soon we were within the safety of the breakwater outside Holyhead harbour and slowed to a near stop while the vessel billowed and bobbed about, a not too pleasant sensation. After a while the captain announced that we were to turn into the wind for comfort so the breaking waves would crash over the bow instead of our broadside.

This wasn’t a great piece of news to the current Mrs C who had spent most of our exhilarating journey lying on the floor in a vain effort to retain the steak and chips of earlier. I tried, dutifully to reassure her with comforting phrases like, “you’d better get up were getting off in a minute”.

Then the P.A announced. “At the moment we’re unable to berth owing to the dangerous conditions, so we will give it a little while to see if it settles down a bit, sorry for the delay”.

Mrs C. looked up at me from her preferred position, prostrate, almost Nelson at Trafalgar like.  Her pretty blue eyes streaming tears and leaving rather alarming trails of black mascara running down her now revengeful face.

“If we ever get off this bloody thing alive Coggin, you’re a dead man”!

A little extreme I thought. “Am I responsible for the weather”?

“You put us on this blo……raaaaaalph…..”.

Enough said.

Then another announcement

“Owing to the dangerous conditions and the continuing poor weather forecast telling us it’s not going to abate soon, we are unable to dock at our berth. We have taken the decision to return to Dublin to try later. Sorry for the inconvenience”.

What followed was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. Truly, it was right up there with Arsenal losing at Wembley to Swindon, Ipswich and West Ham.

It was with not a little trepidation therefore some ten years later that I tentatively attempted to re-introduce the idea. Ten years of  “never again”, “you can go on your own then” and “I’ll meet you at the airport on the other side”.  After some subtle coaxing and saying things like, ”it’s different now, this is a big ship and it’s July it will be fine, look at that sunshine out there”.

The weather on the Sunday as it turned out wasn’t too great. Rain and a bit windy for the time of year, to be honest. I looked at the forecast and quickly switched it off! Winds in the channel expected to gust up to 50 mph. No way must she hear of this, so various diverting tactics were deployed like talking to her for instance. An early night was needed for the early start next morning.

I had looked at some British destinations that we could just drive to and maybe stay in an inexpensive hotel if we could get a deal somewhere, but of course this was the high season, the first week of the school holidays. All over Britain local landlords and ladies were sharpening their sheering scissors waiting to fleece us of our hard earned cash, so I was fervently doing my best to hang on to some of it in anticipation of having a great time. Then a light switched on it seemed. Living only a few minutes from a cross channel port we could be on board one of those ferries that we often watch whilst tucking in to fish and chips in the car by the shore in Southsea and land in our own car in France.

I then had a scan to see where we could go or what we could do. People that know me, know that one of my all time favourite movies is the 1953 French movie “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot”, or as released in Britain and the USA, “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”.  I had looked at the locations used many years ago and discovered that the hotel depicted in the movie was in fact the Hotel de la Plage, the name used in the film and existed just as it was all of those sixty odd years ago.

We arrived at Portsmouth bright and early on a lovely sunny Monday morning. “That’s a touch”, I thought to myself. “A nice day and not much wind. It was close, but I’d got away with that one”.

Which queue? We wondered.  “None of them mate”, came the reply after enquiring from a port worker.

“Cancelled yesterday, you should have got an email”.

Well we didn’t!

The lovely Liz (she reads this) marched into the terminal to sort things out, returning about 10 minutes later.

“Sorted we’re going to Caen on a ferry that leaves in 20 minutes, get moving! They had no way to contact us. Our one is still in France”.

No email because we had booked online through Ferries Direct and they hadn’t forwarded our contact details to Brittany Ferries who then had no way to let us know. Of course Ferries Direct weren’t open on Sunday so a lesson learned, book direct, instead of Direct! If you get my drift?

Following our last minute diversion we finally arrived in the country of our destination, France. Not the right port but a port nevertheless. We had got up early in eager anticipation of our not meticulously planned week in France and now we were here.

I remember a few years ago reading a review of the hotel and the disappointed traveller revealed that the hotel staff at that time knew nothing of its history and connection with the great Jacques Tati. Tati was a comedy icon in France for more than three decades and thanks to British television periodically airing the very amusing and charming film here, even my children grew up aware of it.

Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot

Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot

I searched on Booking.com for Saint Marc-sur-Mer and there it leapt out at me, Hotel de la Plage, now a Best Western group hotel, who claim to have over 4000 hotels in 100 countries. The tiny village of Saint Marc-sur-Mer, a suburb of Saint Nazaire in Brittany, has now totally embraced the heritage of the movie and the lovely beach has been renamed Plage de M. Hulot. A room was available at a modest £380 for five nights with a non-sea view or quite a bit more to look at the sea. Well I know what the sea looks like and thanks to Street View I had a good idea about the non-sea view so went for the cheaper option.

The diversion left us with a longer sea crossing and a little further to drive the other side, but undeterred we battled on. Hotel de la Plage is situated in a very pleasant little hamlet in the area of Saint Marc-sur-Mer, which is completely unspoilt by commercial development. It faces the clean and pretty beach looking out over the estuary of the River Loire as it exits out to the Atlantic.

The staff were friendly and helpful and our room on the second floor had the added bonus of a bathroom with a sea view! Completely renovated in 2008 it benefits from modern, if modest fitments and fittings throughout. Claiming three star status, the hotel is unpretentious, but never the less charming in its superb situation. We opted to eat there the first night and were not disappointed. The restaurant proved to be extremely popular with both the guests and locals and was very busy for a Monday night. We had got off to a good start.

Hotel de la Plage

Hotel de la Plage

The weather for the area was unusually poor for the time of the year, but promised to improve through the week, which it did. Tuesday though was miserable and wet so we made the decision to explore in the car as we hadn’t planned anything else. What transpired was that we went to places that we agreed would have been great to visit on a nice day!

Brittany

Untypical Brittany weather

Wednesday was much improved weather wise so this was the day to explore the World of Monsieur Hulot, Imagine our surprise when he joined us on the beach!

Monsieur Hulot 2015

Monsieur Hulot 2015!

A young French comedian Cyril Guillot has taken on the role of the great Tati and is employed to entertain not only hotel guests but also anyone attending the beach. Tati was famous for his visual comedy and the young M. Guillot has recaptured Hulot’s characteristics very well. You can view the real man here in the whole movie https://vimeo.com/19873779 .

We took up residence on the sun beds at the front of the hotel and M.Hulot later joined us with his tennis racquets and bucket and spade as he made his way to the pier, sadly lacking the small lighthouse it had in the movie. However Hulot managed to catch “two fishes” as he was keen to tell me later.

Cyril Guillot as M. Hulot with Liz

Cyril Guillot as M. Hulot with Liz

Thursday we chose to visit the port town of Saint Nazaire. We had read a review of the town that described it as drab and boring with its only points of interest being the former German U-boat pens, so strong that any thought of demolition was abandoned a long time ago. They survive as a bleak reminder as to their former use. Built to house a flotilla of twenty WW2 U boats they are freely accessible to the public who can roam through them as they want.

U-boat pens at St. Nazaire

U-boat pens at St. Nazaire

One interesting use of the concrete bunkers has been the installation of an exhibition of the great Trans-Atlantic Liners built in Saint Nazaire, Esca l‘Atlantic. You are transported into the interiors of the liners “Isle de France” of 1927 and the “Normandie” of 1935 then the “France” of the 1960’s. A proud reminder of the ships that once competed for traffic to the New World, that were built here in Saint Nazaire. A tradition that continues today with the current construction by STX of the “Harmony of the Seas”, which will be the world’s largest ever cruise liner built so far, at an incredible 227,700 Gross Tonnage. She is due to be completed in 2016. Compare that to the Titanic and its measly sounding 46,328 GRT.

Harmony of the Seas under construction at STX yard

Harmony of the Seas under construction at STX yard

Also in the dock were the two Russian amphibious assault vessels the Mistral Class Vladivostok and Sevastopol. Launched by STX in 2013 and 2014 respectively, they should have been delivered to the Russian Navy following successful sea trials, but owing to the military situation in Ukraine final delivery was held up for political reasons, after intervention from French President François Hollande. Delivery has been postponed indefinitely due to the continuing situation.

Vladivostok at St Nazaire

Vladivostok at St Nazaire

Following Esca l’Atlantic it was a long walk around to the Espadon (Swordfish) a large French submarine now housed in the covered and fortified old lock entrance to the dock.

French submarine Espadon

French submarine Espadon

In service from her commission in 1960 until she became a museum in 1987, Espadon was a non-nuclear, diesel powered sub that saw no action during her lifetime. Here though you can get a feeling of the cramped conditions endured by her crew of 63 that could stay submerged for up to 45 days. One would imagine that farting might be a capital offence. Her two diesel engines gave her a total output of 4.400 hp. Despite seeing no action she was not without incidents. During an exercise in 1963 she was hit by two unarmed torpedoes that damaged her propeller, forcing her to surface. On another occasion she was in an underwater collision with another submarine that caused extensive damage to her bow.

After Espadon we walked the short distance to the museum of economic development of St Nazaire. Showing the history of the area over the last 10000 years or so, with some interesting archaeological finds as well as a few exquisite ship models.

I have to disagree with the review I had read about the town as there are some very pleasant areas and it reminded be as being not unlike Southend-on-Sea in certain parts. Ok, maybe the reviewer had been to Southend, and my view of it does go back to the 1950’s.

Friday saw a trip over one of the great modern road bridges to be found in France. Completed in 1974 and opened in 1975 the Saint Nazaire bridge spans the River Loire from Saint Brevins les-Pins. When built it was the longest bridge in France and at the time the longest cable strung bridge in the world. Toll free since 1994 it negates the need for the long drive through Nantes to cross the river.

Saint Nazaire Bridge

Saint Nazaire Bridge

Saturday was the end of our stay in the Brittany region and due to a cock up on my part over the return sailing I had to find another hotel to stay for the spare night that I had accidentally built in to our holiday. This of course was no problem to an experienced and intrepid traveller such as I. I returned to the internet and simply booked a little b&b near our departure port of Cherbourg. This would give us a brief chance to explore a region of the Basse-Normandie not yet discovered by us. So a place named Pont-de-Rilly was plucked from obscurity for our next stay.

After sacking the guy who had been giving me directions from my iPhone throughout our French adventure, mainly because of his terrible pronunciation of French place names and roads. I had opted for the most volatile method of navigation aids, almost guaranteeing some disruption to the harmony enjoyed so far. My wife Liz was going to read the map and give directions.

After studious scrutiny of the Michelin road map, Liz had worked out a route across country using little using byways and departmental roads. I, now more mature and balanced in my attitude had concluded that whatever the outcome we couldn’t get really lost. There was a coast not far from us in almost every direction that we could simply follow to Cherbourg. What could possibly go wrong?

And so we settled into a relaxing cross country drive with concise and clear directions delivered in Liz’s new French accent, a great improvement on the fool sacked earlier. So after many instructions such as “at the next roundabout take the third exit onto Rue de la Resistance”, often followed shortly by “well we can go this way anyway”, we arrived in the tiny village of Negreville and found our b&b. The tiny signpost led to an equally modest gate and the driveway into our temporary home.

Avenue d’honor Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Avenue d’honor Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Somewhere in the distance was a large 18th century chateau in its beautiful surroundings. Our gobs were well and truly smacked!

On arrival at the main house we were met by Madame Annick Roucheray, the owner with her husband Jean Jacques. No doubt she had been alerted by the man painting a window frame that we were coming down the drive. In truth the drive is so long, he could have written to her to tell her of our approach.

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

Chateau de Pont-Rilly

It turned out eventually that the painter was Madame Roucheray’s husband Jean-Jacques and no ordinary painter!  What was to follow was truly remarkable. So remarkable that I have decided to dedicate it to a separate post altogether. Look for the Chateau de Pont-Rilly post coming next week.

After leaving the grandest house I’ve ever slept in by a country mile, we ambled off with hours to spare to reach Cherbourg our ferry port. “Pick a place on the map”, said Liz. “Errr……. There! Barfleur”.

So again relying solely on the map and read splendidly once more by Liz, we took off quite slowly, but surely along the lovely quiet lanes occasionally crossing a busier national road or two. Now and again we would arrive at a rural crossroads. With Liz strangely silent I would ask, “Which way now”?

“Well, we could try left”?

“Or right”?

“Hmmm, we could be here so I think left”.

OK we proceed again.

“We’re on this number road but it’s not on the map “!

We pressed on, eventually coming to a sign for Barfleur.

We had arrived in historic Barfleur on the day of a festival and it was very busy with revellers. Barfleur, once with a population of over 1200 now has only about 650 residents. It was once the main departure point from France to England. This is where the Normans under William le Bastard embarked for their successful invasion of England in 1066. In 1120 William’s grandson Prince William son of Henry 1st of England was drowned when his vessel the White Ship was dashed against the rocks, not far from Barfleur.

Then in 1194 Richard the 1st of England or Richard the Lionheart, embarked from here after being released by The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

Barfleur

Barfleur

The harbour side restaurants were very busy but we were ready for lunch. At the centre of the festival area, a large queue had manifested leading to a stall selling moules et frites. The chefs engulfed in thick smoke and constantly wiping their watery smoke filled eyes whilst choking in the smoke seemed to battle against the odds to serve their fayre. Through this scene the music of a jolly looking, rotund French accordionist permeated the smoky air and amusingly the seated diners and the standing queuers all began to join in by singing along. Somehow I found it difficult to imagine this scene being emulated anywhere at home.

Following a lovely lunch we decided to make our way on to Cherbourg via the coast road and enjoy the last of the sights on offer. What was on offer was more countryside, similar to the south of England. Not unlike that of the south Kent coastline or Sussex. We passed one of the tallest lighthouses in Europe at Phare de Gatteville, When built in 1835 it was the tallest in the world standing 75 metres (247ft) and like many other tall buildings claims 365 steps to get to the top.

Phare de Gatteville

Phare de Gatteville

At Cherbourg it was ice cream on the beach and an attempt to listen to Arsenal beating Chelsea in the Community Shield, but constant signal interruptions made it painful so I gave up.

We boarded the fast ferry Normandie Express which steadily zoomed its way across the Channel at 42 knots and bringing our brief adventure to a close.

It wasn’t long before we were reminded where we live though. Arriving on time we thought. “home in twenty minutes”. Wrong!

Normandie Express

Normandie Express

The whole of the motorway including the junctions for London and Chichester and along the coast was entirely closed for roadworks. No diversions in place, no information. Was it entirely necessary to close it completely? I doubt it somehow. Luckily, Liz was driving and knows the locality better than me, so she threaded her way around the back lanes until finally getting back on the road two junctions along. Is there any need for this? After a week of hassle free driving, as soon as we get off the boat, bang!  Welcome home.

 Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events, tours and special offers here.

The Prickly Issue of the Scottish Pillar Box

Now for something that everyone has had the occasion to use at some time or other in their lives. Nothing less than the humble pillar box.

You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much exciting about a post box? The most exciting thing you could do with one is to post a letter through its eager aperture, waiting to devour its daily ration of letters and small packets. You would be forgiven for thinking that, wouldn’t you? Of course you would be incredibly wrong. In fact it has something of an explosive history.

Introduced here in the UK in 1853 by Anthony Trollope, then a humble employee of the Post Office, following a successful trial in the Channel Islands.  It had a shaky beginning. Early models leaked rainwater and soaked the contents within. Gradually it evolved into a watertight reliable receptacle and spread throughout the country.

Many of the early examples had been replaced but were kept in store in lieu of being displayed in a museum somewhere. Then the fireworks began. The yard that they were being stored in took a direct hit from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and the precious cast ironware, rendered asunder was lost forever.

Then in the early 1950’s after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth new post boxes were ordered. Some were made in London and many were to be produced in Scotland at The Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch and by the Carron Company near Falkirk.

Despite the fact that patterns were made and many people would have been involved in the design and manufacture of these latest pillar boxes no one seems to have picked up on a flaw that would spark anger and unrest among the more fervent nationalist Scots. The cypher of the new Queen Elizabeth proudly displayed on the front of the boxes bore the legend EIIR just as they did wherever they were placed throughout Her Majesty’s realm. Proudly that is until some began to be the victims of vandal attacks and even home made explosive devices.

In Inch, a part of Edinburgh, following the installation of a gleaming new red post box, the box was daubed with tar, subject to attacks with a hammer before being blown to pieces, within three months. Such was the fervour of opposition felt in Scotland that a lawsuit was brought against the Lord Advocate in Scotland. The case was that of MacCormick v Lord Advocate. This case claimed that Queen Elizabeth had no right to use the term Elizabeth the Second within the confines of Scotland as she was indeed the first Queen Elizabeth that Scotland had had and as such contravened the terms of the 1707 Act of Union.

It certainly is true that The Queen is in fact the first Queen Elizabeth of not only Scotland, but the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The result of the case was that the Queen as a matter of the Royal Prerogative can call herself whatever Her Majesty pleases. However, it was decided to move the offending boxes elsewhere and replace them with new ones bearing the Crown of Scotland and omitting reference to the monarch.

The Type C large pillar box first introduced in 1899, has spread throughout what was the British Empire and can still be found doing its work as far away as Hong Kong.

Pillar Box

 

Ray Coggin is both a qualified Taxi Guide and a qualified City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights tours and themed tours) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events and tours here.

 

 

 

The Angel of Albania?

Whilst rehearsing my Queensway and Bayswater walk a slightly odd occurrence happened. About halfway through the walk I decided to investigate a previously not included monument on Inverness Terrace.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Benton

Photo courtesy of Stephen Benton

After taking a few pics, I had to venture into the undergrowth of the unkempt ornamental gardens surrounding the mounted bust to read the plaque on the wall behind.

Inverness Terrace Garden

Photo courtesy of Stephen Benton

In 2012 this odd looking monument to a man in strange headgear had appeared in this garden to which I had wondered why it was there and who did it represent? Of course I had forgotten about it until now.

It was installed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence.  It is the creation of Albanian sculptor Kreshnik Xhiku who has produced other nationalistic monuments for sites around the world.

Emerging somewhat suspiciously I’ll admit from the bushes, I crossed the road and was heading for the next stop when a stranger approached me. “I saw your interest in the statue”, he said. I was a little startled and said “OK”?

“Do you know about it”? he asked.

“Nothing at all”.

“I can tell you”.

Intrigued I responded, “Please do”.

“I could talk for hours on it,” he said.

“Try five minutes”. I replied.

What followed I found truly astonishing. Here was a smallish, smiling man in his fifties, unshaven, a little unkempt. He seemed to appear from nowhere carrying a small bag of shopping. I hadn’t seen him when I was scrambling around the statue, even though I had looked around to see who would have been watching me as I climbed over the fence to investigate.

“Are you Albanian” ? I asked.

“Yes” he smiled. He then proceeded to give a lecture on the subject and the importance of the man depicted by the statue.

Albanian princes it seems would be captured by the Ottoman Turks and taken back to Constantinople as hostages as insurance against attack. Skanderbeg was a son of one of those princes.

Gjergi Kastrioti or George if you insist on being English was born in Albania in 1405. Then captured by the Ottoman forces and taken to Turkey aged eighteen and remained there for the next twenty years. He became a trusted leader and attained high office in the Empire, but he never forgot his Albanian roots. In 1443 he deserted the Ottomans and returned to Albania where he soon became leader of Albania and Macedonia.

For twenty five years he defended Albania against the Turks, preventing them from reaching Rome and conquering Christendom. Seen as the saviour of the Christian West against the Ottoman Muslims, he became a champion of Pope Pius II for whom he assembled an army to crusade against the Turks. When Pius II died he joined forces with the Venetian army and fought until his death in 1468.

His comparison at the time to Alexander the Great got him the name Skanderbeg from the latinised Alexander.

Had Skanderbeg not prevailed, the Ottoman Empire would have extended through the Balkans and eventually overthrown Italy and Western Europe changing history, possibly forever.

I had felt humbled by the knowledge of this little foreign stranger, but became even more impressed as he then remarked how British History would have turned out completely differently had Prince Arthur Tudor survived to become King instead of his younger brother Henry. Henry VIII would never have existed, Britain may have remained under the influence of Rome and somebody completely different may have been on the British throne today.

I had enjoyed this guy’s astonishingly enlightened input so I thought I would repay the compliment and ask him to accompany me to my next stop. I turned to put it to him, but he was nowhere to be seen.

As the guy once said, “It’s a funny old game isn’t it”?

Skanderbeg

If you would like to discover more secrets of Bayswater then click here to find out about our fund-raising walk which will be taking place on Saturday 25th July at 2pm. We are raising funds for the Magical Taxi Tour more details of which can be found on our recent blog post.

Ray Coggin is both a qualified Taxi Guide and a qualified City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights tours and themed tours) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

A Tragic Anniversary

60 years ago today on the morning of 13th July 1955, Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain met her tragic end in Holloway Prison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXQvKLGYTho

This event was to prove instrumental in changing attitudes on the punishment of women offenders and how the law dealt with them.

The murder of playboy racing driver David Blakely outside the Magdala public house in London’s fashionable district of Hampstead, shook a respectable neighbourhood to its core. It followed a very recent murder incident in the leafy suburb, which must have left residents thinking is it safe to live here?  The repercussions of this case resulted eventually in the abolition of the death penalty.

On the evening of 10th April 1955, David Blakely had been staying with his friends Anthony and Carol Findlater in their home a short walk from the Magdala when David and his pal Clive Gunnel went down the hill to the pub to get some more drink.

rsz_magdala_pic (1)

Ruth Ellis it seems, suspected that Blakely had spent the weekend with a rival lover out in Berkshire, before returning to the Findlaters’ apartment. She had been waiting nearby for Blakely to appear. Only a couple of weeks earlier Ruth who had been pregnant with Blakely’s child had been badly beaten up by him whilst in a terrible rage, causing her to miscarry. Goaded by her rival suitor, a man called Desmond Cussen, Ruth had probably been driven to Hampstead by him, possibly in his privately owned taxi. Cussen is thought to have bought the taxi as a novel mode of transport.

Ruth Ellis had spent the previous Friday with Cussen and her son Andre on a practice mission in Epping Forest being shown how to handle Cussen’s ex-service revolver. A fruitless mission it seems, according to the young Andre, who would say that she failed not only to hit the target pinned to a tree, but couldn’t even hit the tree.

Realising that Blakely had gone down to the Magdala she followed in the taxi to  confront him. Armed with Cussen’s Smith and Wesson .38, she stopped him as he emerged from the pub. Ellis pointed the gun at him and fired. She missed, but as Blakely tried to take cover behind a parked car, another shot rang out, then another and another. All in all, five shots were fired and Blakely collapsed in a pool of blood. Unfortunately one of the bullets ricocheted and hit a passing woman on the finger, ironically this was to prove fatal for Ruth Ellis, as the fact that an innocent bystander was hit was enough for the judge to order the jury to convict and sentence her to death.

Ruth Ellis’s executioner was Albert Pierrepoint. He had been responsible for despatching over 460 condemned prisoners, but this event was one of the last he was to carry out. Siting a lack of payment over a later execution, he then retired. Some nearly seventeen years later, when visiting Ruth’s relocated grave during a press publicity stunt he broke down in tears over her grave.

Questions over the whole affair remain unanswered. Maybe they will never be answered. Was the whole affair an attempt by the “Establishment” to cover up a more important issue concerning the British Secret Services? There are strong suggestions that this may have been the case.  Did Ruth actually fire all the shots herself, or were they fired by someone else? From a parked vehicle perhaps? These questions were never examined at her trial. One woman who is tirelessly investigating the affair trying to seek the answers to those questions to this very day is author Monica Weller.

Monica co-wrote the autobiography of Ruth’s older sister Muriel Jakubait and has spent the last 12 years continuing to unearth clues as to the real happenings of that April day sixty years ago. The results have been staggering, truly mind boggling. Government secrets, MI5, spies and a famous espionage scandal that continued into the 1960’s. Monica has and continues to piece together the jigsaw which when the last piece is inserted, will present a completely different picture of the whole affair.

Learn more

If you would like to learn more about Monica’s findings we recommend her book and blog and if you would like to be notified of a very special event that London and UK Taxi Tours are organising with Monica Weller later this year then sign up to our newsletter here

In the meantime why not get a few friends together and tour the sites connected with this and other 20th Century crimes on one of our Murder Mystery Tours.

Ray Coggin is both a qualified Taxi Guide and a qualified City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights tours and themed tours) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

The Children’s Magical Taxi Tour Charity Guided Walks

You may know that in addition to being a qualified Taxi Guide I am also a City of Westminster Guide and this July I will be leading  a pair of charity guided walks. The theme and purpose of these walking tours is not only to entertain you, but to raise funds for The Children’s Magical Taxi Tour to Disneyland Paris. This year, this wonderful event will take place for the 22nd year running.

This most worthy of causes is now an annual event that sees approximately one hundred London taxis take sick children from London on the trip of their lifetime to see the wonders of Disneyland. Many of these children are suffering from terminal diseases such as cancer and other such terrible afflictions.

London taxi drivers (via The Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers) organise many different charitable events each year like trips for veteran soldiers and other groups deemed in need of a bit of help.

A very hard working and dedicated group of London’s licensed taxi drivers, toil all throughout the year in order to make this happen. A large amount of money has to be raised to fund the trip, which last year cost in the order of £1400 per cab. These sums are raised by means of sponsorships and events held over the course of the year, in order to put very sick but very happy children in a cab and onto the ferry across the Channel to France.

The organisation of the trip is an enormous, but well perfected operation. The one hundred taxis are accompanied by support crews, which include ambulances, medical staff, The AA, technicians from taxi manufacturer London Taxi International, and at least fifteen Police officers from the City of London Police and the French Gendarmerie. All these people give up their time to assist on the trip.

Leaving London, the convoy has to be seen to be believed. On the Motorways it’s over three miles long. The snakelike procession makes its way inexorably through Kent on its way to Dover, only to be swallowed whole by a P&O ferry, before being disgorged into France.

On the French Autoroutes the convoy is escorted through the Toll Plazas and rolls on without delay as the City of London Police motorbikes hold up traffic under the authority of the Gendarmerie to allow unhindered progress. Of course the Police have no official authority in France, but they are respected just the same, often lying to motorists with “deux minutes s’il vous plaît”, knowing it’s more likely to take “dix minutes” to pass.

Along the way the children are met with cheering well-wishers, all waving them on and on arrival Disney characters line the streets to greet them. Throughout the stay, the children are entertained by the Disney characters and the kids’ faces tell their own story.

On the Saturday the children have the run of Disneyland, special arrangements having been made to avoid the long queues, so that the kids can get on as many rides as possible.

Even the anti-climax of the trip home is the whole logistical miracle in reverse as fuel and comfort stops are made with the precision not far short of a formula one team.

I will be leading two guided walks and all money raised from these walks will be donated to The Magical Taxi Tour charity (registered charity 1026395).

Walks with qualified Westminster Guides normally cost around £10 each.  As this is all about raising money for this most worthwhile of causes we would very much appreciate it, on behalf of the children, if you could donate a minimum of £8 per person.

Saturday 4th July 2pm to 4pm – The Reluctant Banqueteers and a Head on a Stick Charity Guided Walk – a guided walk around Victoria (more details on the link)

Saturday 25th July 2pm to 4pm – Sharks Teeth, Peter Pan and More of Secret Bayswater Charity Guided Walk  – a guided walk around Bayswater (more details on the link)

This is a unique opportunity not only to donate to a very worthy cause but also to be entertained for a couple of hours in two of the most famous but contrasting areas of London.

Ray Coggin is both a qualified Taxi Guide and a qualified City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights tours and themed tours) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

Peter Stringfellow supports licensed taxis

Nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow today expressed his desire to help London’s licensed taxi trade in their fight for survival.

The screencaps below tell the story including his reply to me.   Follow him on Twitter to find out how he gets on.

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Comedian Ross Noble uses London and UK Taxi Tours from Heathrow

Amongst the furore of controversy that has beset the London taxi trade this year, with all the daily bile directed, quite justifiably against the regulating body Transport for London and the anger and frustration that they have caused, how refreshing that one of TV’s most popular comedians, Ross Noble, decided to take a licensed taxi after flying into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 from his home town of Newcastle.  Ross resisted the rows of touts in the terminal and the temptation of using a hailing app, making his way down to the rank to climb into one of the waiting taxis.

Luckily for yours truly, I was next in line when Ross in an almost apologetic tone, asked if it would be possible to take him to somewhere in Kent. I can tell you now that there wasn’t much in the way of resistance on my part. Ross had been inflicted with a bit of a croaky voice and gave me the address details before we moved off as he feared he wouldn’t be able to speak in the cab.

Needless to say the trip went without incident or delay and we arrived at Ross’s not inconsiderable country pile where he was magnanimous enough to pose for this picture before leaving the cab.

Ross Noble

 

 

100th Anniversary of The Sinking of RMS Lusitania

The Lusitania Disaster 7th May 1915.

During the few days before she was due to sail from New York to Liverpool the German Government had issued adverts in the press warning the public as to the dangers of travelling on the RMS Lusitania through a war zone.

Despite this the public chose to ignore the warnings in large numbers and she set sail on May 1st with 1266 passengers and a crew of 696. Although this was well short of her capacity of 2198 passengers and 850 crew, she was still well patronised despite the warnings.

This warning was published in American newspapers.

NOTICE!

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY

Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.

Built for the Cunard Line about five years before her rival White Star Line’s Olympic class ships, which included Titanic, Lusitania was a little smaller and was fitted with the new Steam turbine engines, whilst the White Star company fitted their ships with slower triple expansion engines, making the RMS Lusitania and her sister ship RMS Mauritania faster ships.

She had steamed event free for 5 days but it was feared that as she approached Europe that she should be afforded some protection from U-boat attack. No such cover was provided by the British.

The Germans viewed the ship as a hostile warship. She was carrying munitions and supplies destined for the Woolwich Arsenal and her decks had been modified with gun emplacements. Both Governments had defied the protocols put in place concerning commercial shipping, the Germans for attacking a passenger vessel and the British for loading it with munitions.

Only 240 miles from Liverpool and a bit over ten miles off the Old Head of Kinsale she ran across the path of U-20 at about 2.10pm. The U-boat captain, having been informed by his Government that the ship was a legitimate target, fired a single torpedo at the bow of the ship. This was a common tactic to stop commercial vessels, allowing time to take to the boats before sinking the target. On this occasion following the explosion at the starboard bow, a secondary explosion occurred from within the hull. This caused the ship to suddenly list to starboard and rapidly progressed the sinking process., with the loss of 1191 lives. Of the rescued survivors 3 died ashore from their injuries.

The subsequent inquiry is regarded as a cover up and did its best to pin the blame on the Lusitania’s captain. Winston Churchill the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time had only a few days earlier stated that it would be advisable to encourage foreign shipping into British waters, knowing that any attacks might expedite America’s entry into the war. At the time of the crisis he had taken himself off to Paris for the weekend and was unable to be contacted. No orders were given to provide escort, the rest is history

The effect of the tragedy was that public opinion in the USA swayed against the Germans but it was to be another two years before America joined the Great War.

Debut for Westminster Guide

I did something last Wednesday that I had spent a year in training for but had never actually carried out, owing to being too busy on other projects. However, it proved to be both an enjoyable and fulfilling experience leading a group of oil company executives on a tour of the Victoria/St. James’s area of Westminster.

We began at the St. James’ Court hotel in Buckingham Gate and spoke about the Emmanuel Hospital that had stood on the site for three hundred years until it was cleared to make way for the hotel, with the founding family’s Coat of Arms still represented on the gates of the hotel. One of my guests for the walk happened to be from Japan and his colleagues seemed a bit stunned as I spoke a bit of Japanese to him as we begun our tour. It was a bit of a bonus for me too as I have been getting less and less practice with the lack of Japanese tourists in London. I think due to the unfavourable exchange rate for Japanese people. Of course in reverse it is a great opportunity for us to go to Japan as it’s very affordable for us right now.

Our walk took in some of London’s most iconic tourist spots like Buckingham Palace and Westminster Cathedral and the Abbey. Not often walking guides’ most favoured stops, as some seem to think “leave it to the bus tours”! However, I think it would be daft to ignore them as you walk past provided that you can spin an interesting anecdote along with a bit of the history.

Westminster Cathedral

Our stroll around the St. James’s and Victoria area in this case, was scheduled for one and a half hours and I’m pleased to say that we were able to keep to the schedule.

The Sanctuary SW1

The Sanctuary SW1

Descriptions of the buildings and surrounds were accompanied by some anecdotes about characters associated with them, hopefully a bit of humour and salacious tales of outrage and intrigue thrown in too.

Mindful of my guests needing to be at their restaurant tables for 7.30pm we arrived on time with a few minutes to speak about the restaurant and its predecessors before my smiling guests went off to enjoy their meals.

Having been asked to stand in for a colleague at rather short notice, I surprised myself by actually quite enjoying the experience. So much so that I have decided to include a few walks in our tour schedules now, so look out for some announcements in that regard.