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The True Benefit of Government Subsidised Culture

My first visit to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square

sunny 16 °C

I'm not much of a museum person. Generally when I go into a museum, my primary goal is to see how quickly I can make it through to the other side. For all the time I spent in Paris in 2005, I only made it to one Museum, the Orsay. I never went to the Louvre, frankly the lines scared me away. And in 2006 when I made all those trips into New York, I skipped most of the big museums, only venturing into the Skyscraper Museum down in Battery Park and one visit to the Natural History Museum, which I liked because they had exhibits with mannequins, which is always cool. Plus, dinosaurs.

2006 08 26 F11 T-Rex.JPG

For this reason, despite living for the last year and a bit in London, a cultural capital with a large selection of museums for all tastes, I haven't really been to many of them. I have been to the London Transport museum (because I am a train geek), the Canal Museum (because I like boats) and a visit to the British Museum (because I felt like I had to).

Today, though, I was out for a walk and found myself outside Charing Cross Station, looking down the street at the National Gallery and I thought to myself, "I need to go to the National Gallery." So I went.


In 2001, in a bid to increase attendance and bring culture to the masses, the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced free admission to many museums and galleries. In London, all the big museums and galleries are free, which means my one visit to the British Museum didn't cost me a penny, though I did drop a pound in the voluntary donation box, because I am good like that.

Today, upon spying the National Gallery, it was this lack of admission charge that had me thinking I would go in.

See, just a few minutes before, I had been wandering through Charing Cross Station, looking for a free toilet. I had hoped that it wouldn't be the case but was not actually shocked to find that the toilets cost money to use. It is a sad fact that most of the train stations have pay-per-use toilets. Only St. Pancras Station seems to have free ones. Perhaps it is to impress those coming from the continent aboard the Eurostar. We wouldn't want the French to think us too money grubbing. At least not until they've exited the train station and tried to take a black cab.

Anyway, Charing Cross wanted £0.30 to use the facilities. Thirty P for a ... pee? Outrageous. Not when there are cleaner and free bathrooms to be had at the museum down the street.

So I went to the National Gallery, walked in, walked down the stairs, did my business, and left.

That is the story of my first visit to the National Gallery. I wasn't inspired by any of the art, or the beautiful architecture of the building, but I did think the toilet very clean and tidy.

Clean toilets. The true benefit of Government subsidised Culture.

Posted by GregW 14:31 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

I’m Henry the Eighth, I am

Hampton Court Palace

sunny 22 °C

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the reign of Henry the Eighth. The king, I mean, not the guy who got married to the widow next door.

Henry the VIII was born in 1491 and ascended to the throne on April 21st, 1509 after the death of his father Henry the VII. He married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon soon after taking the throne, in June of 1509.

After 24 years of marriage, however, Catherine had been unable to give Henry a male child, at least one that could live beyond infancy. Henry requested an annulment from the Roman Catholic church in Rome. The church refused, and eventually Henry split the Church of England from the Catholic church, creating the Anglican church that exists to this day. Henry annulled the marriage, and married Anne Boleyn.

Henry was to marry a few more times, eventually having six wives. He married his last wife, Catherine Parr on the 12th of July, 1543 at Hampton Court Palace.


Hampton Court Palace is in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, about a 30 minute train ride from Waterloo station. The Palace was originally built for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, King Henry’s favourite ecclesiastical official, at least until he couldn’t secure the annulment from Rome. After that, he fell out of favour with the king, and the Palace reversed back to King Henry the VIII.

William the III enlarged the Palace in the 1600s, trying to create a rival to the French’s showpiece, Versailles. The work was never finished, and today the palace is part Tudor, part Baroque. It is still pretty.


I headed down on Saturday with some friends to check out the Palace. In addition to being able to tour the Palace and the gardens, recreation of daily life in the Palace take place. In addition, the day also included a recreation of the marriage of Henry to Catherine Parr.

No monarchs today live in the Palace. Queen Victoria opened the palace to the general public in 1838.

The Tudor gatehouse and astrological clock, made for Henry VIII in 1540


The Kitchens that Henry had made to feed his 1,000 strong court.

Main hall for feasting.

Private apartments.

Privy Garden, Christopher Wren designed southern entrance in the background

Main fountain


World's largest grape-vine! Seriously, check with the Guinness folks!

The King and Queen getting married.

They have a topiary maze. I found my way out, no problem. Luckily I am so smart.

Posted by GregW 07:13 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Come On, Gromit!

Topiary of a man and his dog in Birmingham

sunny 20 °C

Walking to work in Birmingham every day in Birmingham, I pass a motorbike with side car that is sitting up on a traffic island on a busy motorway. A man with a large nose is driving the motorcycle, and his dog sits in the side car, looking awfully scared.



It's Wallace and Gromit!

Wallace and Gromit are the main characters in a series of claymation programs and an academy award winning movie. Wallace is the man, an unsuccessful inventor from outside Manchester. His dog, Gromit, is the smarter of the two, and often keeps his master Wallace out of trouble.


Why, though, are they parked up on a traffic island above a tunnel entrance in Birmingham?

According to the BBC, "poised on a motorbike and side carriage on Great Charles Street, Wallace and Gromit are welcoming anyone coming into the city via the Queensway tunnel. Made out of over 10,000 individual plants on two meter high fibreglass frames, the duo are part of the City Centre Floral Trail, Birmingham's entry into the National Britain is Bloom competition."


Given the traffic along Queensway most days, hopefully they give the motorists a little smile and perhaps reduce the road rage level just a touch.


If nothing else, they give me a smile most mornings.

Come on, Gromit!

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

I died in hell - They called it Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele - visiting a rebuilt Ypres, the Passendale Memorial and Tyne Cot Cemetery

sunny 13 °C
View Lille and World War I Battlefields on GregW's travel map.

The final of my entries on my trip around the World War I battlefields of Flanders. The Brooding Soldier in Flanders' Fields looks at the start of the war and the Second Battle of Ypres. A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead published on April 8th, 92 years less a day from the battle, looks at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National monument that stands on the battlefield today. This final entry, I died in hell - They called in Passchendaele looks at the Battle of Passchendaele and the end of the war.

The Battle of Arras, of which the Vimy Ridge assault was one of many offenses, came to an end in mid-May. While some progress had been made pushing into the German lines, no major breakthroughs had been made. The war settled back into the trench warfare stalemate that had characterized most of the previous 2 years.

The attack had left a bulge in lines where the British and French forces were surrounded on three sides by German troops. This is known as a salient, and the danger with a position like this is that the Germans could attack near the back of the salient, cutting off a large portion of troops and stranding them without supplies.

In June of 1917, the British offensive started, its goal to take the village of Passendale, just a few miles from Ypres. The battle, which lasted for months, would become known as Third Battle of Ypres. It also became known under another name, the Battle of Passchendaele, with an old Dutch spelling of the name of the town used.


The offensive did not go to British plans from the start. By this point, the land was ravaged, and stripped of all greenery to hold the soil together; the fields had become mud bogs.

“There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere.”
- Private R.A. Colwell, Passendale, January 1918


For four months the British and Colonial troops practised a bite and hold strategy, making small gains and then hunkering down to hold the position. The fighting was awful, with tanks getting stuck in deep mud, and soldiers even drowning in it.

“We could not believe that we were expected to attack in such appalling conditions. I never prayed so hard in my life. I got down on my knees in the mud and prayed to God to bring me through.”
- Private Pat Burns, 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion, Passendale, November 1917

On the 6 November 1917, the Canadian Corps took the town of Passendale, ending the battle.

“Then on October 30, with two British divisions, the Canadians began the assault on Passchendale itself. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rainstorm and for five days they held on grimly, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. On November 6, when reinforcements arrived, four-fifths of the attackers were dead.”
- Source Veteran Affairs Canada website

The entire enterprise had achieved very little. Both sides suffered incredible loses, and while disputed it is possible that the Allied forces suffered even heavier losses than the Germans.

“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)”
- Line from Memorial Tablet, poem by Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers, November 1918.

Many of the dead are buried in nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery. The cemetery is the largest Commonwealth cemetery for war dead in the world, with almost 12,000 men buried there. In addition, a memorial contains the names of another 35,000 men who died and whose final resting place is unknown.





Within Passendale itself, which is a nice little countryside town, is a memorial to the Canadian troops who took the town. At the end of Canada Lane is a small stone in a well maintained garden that has an inscription that reads.






= = =

By the end of 1917 a number of events had unfolded that would dramatically shape the rest of the war. The French morale had dropped to an incredible low, and they decided to take up defensive positions against the Germans. This left burden of pushing against the Germans to the British and her Commonwealth allies. However, the United States congress had declared war on the Germans, and while there wasn’t a massive army immediately available, the Americans started to mobilze. The Germans, meanwhile, had signed a truce with the Russians, thereby freeing up all the troops on the Eastern Front to move to the Western Front.

In the Spring of 1918, the Germans launched an offensive to try and end the war before the arrival of a large number of American troops. The German offensive was successful, pushing to with 120 kilometres of Paris.

"Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end."
- Field Marshall Earl Haig, Order of the Day, 12 April 1918.

It is during this time that my Grandfather entered the war. He had enlisted back in 1916 (despite being too young to enlist), but wasn’t mobilized until April of 1918. He was in a logistics unit, and was stationed somewhere in France. He wasn’t in France for long. A train he was unloading was hit by a bomb dropped from an aircraft. Injured, he managed to make it away from the scene and found shelter until he was discovered. He was returned to London to recover. He had been hit with shrapnel, and had a large wound on his thigh. Throughout his life small pieces of the shrapnel that was still in his leg would work their way to the surface of his skin, coming to the surface as small black marks.

My Grandfather, living in Great Britain and not Canada, would of course not fought with the Canadian Corps had he been deployed to the front. He didn’t come to Canada until 1920, when he moved to Toronto. I never knew him at all, as he died before I was born.

In August of 1918 the Allied forces launched a counter-offensive, and made major gains. By October, it had become clear to the Germans they could no longer launch a defence against the armies, and that defeat was imminent. The Germans started negotiating a peace with the Allies, and on November 11, 1918, the Great War officially ended. It was the war to end all wars.

Ypres was mostly destroyed in the four years of the war. The site of so many important battles for the British troops, debate started as to what to do with the site. Some declared that it should be preserved as ruins, a reminder of the ferocity of the fighting that occurred there. Others declared that great monuments should be built.

“I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres… A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the World.”
- Winston Churchill, Minister of War, January 1919

The residents of Ypres had other plans, of course. They returned home, and started rebuilding. Like the farmer strolling across the field in Vimy, their life continued and they got on with it. While the politicians debated about the appropriate memorial, the citizens of Ypres rebuilt their town, including rebuilding the Cloth Hall (the medieval trading market) and the Cathedral to their former glory.

Cloth Hall, Ypres:


St. Peter's Church, Ypres:



Cemetery and Farm Outside Ypres:




Passendale Church:

“In February and March, the return began in earnest. I arrived at Dikkerbus on Wednesday, 17 May 1919. I found 200 people there, who were living where they could. Some had been able to make their house or stable habitable. First they had to work for days in order to move away the earth or wood, because shelter had been made in them. Sometimes they received a little help form the Chinese labourers or German prisoners. They used a few planks to hide holes in the walls, and the best ones to repair the roof. Most people, however, had built huts for themselves.

This is how the first inhabitants lived, in poverty, but happy all the same. They had their own homes, and weary with wandering, they were now once again where they belonged, and that was the most important thing.”
- Achiel Van Walleghem, priest, 1919

Life going on. A more fitting tribute to the lives lost I cannot imagine.

As for “The War to End All Wars,” were it only so. In the rebuilt Cloth Hall is the In Flandes’ Fields Museum, from which the majority of the quotes included in these blog entries have come. The museum ends with a counter, currently at 216. 216 is the number of war zones in which the Red Cross has operated since the end of World War I. The display also points out that not a day has passed since November 11, 1918 that some place in the world was not at war.

In Tyne Cot, on the headstone of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young is a message that says "Sacrificed to the fallacy/That war can end war.”


Sacrificed in Flanders’ fields.

Posted by GregW 01:00 Archived in Belgium Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial to those that died during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the larger Battle of Arras in April, 1917

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View Lille and World War I Battlefields on GregW's travel map.

The second of three entries on my trip around the World War I battlefields of Flanders. The Brooding Soldier in Flanders' Fields looks at the start of the war and the Second Battle of Ypres. This entry entitled A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead, published on April 8th, 92 years less a day from the battle, looks at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National monument that stands on the battlefield today. I died in hell - They called in Passchendaele looks at the Battle of Passchendaele and the end of the war.

Following on from the second battle of Ypres, trench warfare continued for the next couple of years, with much death and destruction but only small movements in the lines. By 1917, while still at a stalemate, the British and French forces were winning a war of attrition. The German forces, fighting on two fronts, had inferior numbers. The British army sought to exploit this by advantage by breaking the German lines and moving the war from the Trenches and out into the open.

The Battle of Arras was a month and a half long offensive on a number of fronts. The first attacks occurred on April 9, 1917.

One of the fronts was at Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge is a gradually rising escarpment on the western edge of the Douai plain, strategically important because it allows those at the top of the ridge to have unobstructed view for kilometres. The ridge had fallen under German control in October 1914 and by April of 1917 no one had been able to dislodge their hold on the ridge.


The 4 Canadian divisions that made up the Canadian Corps launched an attack on 5:30 am, Easter Monday, April 9th, using a combination of artillery, air attacks as support for the infantry charge up the hill. In preparation, the soft chalk ground had been lined with tunnels to connect the front lines with the reserves and supplies in the back.

Over the next four days the Canadians slowly made progress cutting into the German lines, and by nightfall on the 12th of April, the Canadians had captured the ridge. In the battle, Canada lost 3,598 men, and saw another 7,004 wounded.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that the four divisions of the Canadian Army fought together as a single unit, and within Canada it is viewed as one of the primary events that gave Canada its identity as a nation separate and distinct from Great Britain.


It is atop Vimy Ridge that the largest of Canada’s World War Monuments sits. It is dedicated to all those Canadians who died during the Great War.

To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.
- Inscription on Memorial





The monument is also inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France but whose bodies were never found or graves were lost.


A cloaked figure stands at the front, or east side, of the monument overlooking the Douai Plain. It was carved from a single, 30-tonne block and is the largest piece in the monument. This sorrowing fi gure of a woman represents Canada—a young nation mourning her dead. Below is a tomb, draped in laurel branches and bearing a helmet and sword.
- from Veteran Affairs Canada website


Down the road from the memorial, through the pine forest, are a few different cemeteries with Canadian dead. As I walked between the cemeteries, the visitors centre and the memorial itself, the weather turned time and time again, going from sunny to cloudy to raining to hailing and back again in a matter of minutes, almost like 4 years worth of weather within a few hours.


As I wandered the cemetery, it was raining. I huddled up against the cold rain and tried to keep my camera dry as I took pictures, but couldn’t help but think about what these fields must have been like for a infantry man back during the war, when a full winter’s blast and hard rain would pelt them for weeks on end.



When the sun was out, though, I couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the place, with the green ridge sloping down away from you, allowing you to view miles of beautiful French countryside, the pine forests rising up behind you. I would sometimes find myself getting lost in the beauty of the place, only to suddenly remember where I was and feel guilty for thinking nice thoughts about the scene of so much death.



Through the whole trip, I found myself alternating between a number of emotions: pride in my country; grief for those fallen; shame that I have never had to go through something like that, but also relief that I grew up in a place and time mostly featuring peace; wonder at the beautiful French and Belgian countryside; and even some sorrow that I never got to know my grandfather, who also fought in the war.


As I left Vimy Ridge and drove south, I saw a farmer cutting through a field that was fenced off. Like much of area around the ridge, it was closed off to human traffic due to the large amount of unexploded artillery shells and mines that still are buried in the scarred and undulating land today. In the 1990s a mine removal engineer, after successful de-arming a mine just a few weeks before, was killed in a tunnel collapse. In 2001, the entire village was evacuated after 170 tons of explosives containing mustard gas were found to be improperly stored.


The farmer, though, strode casually through a field which still might have had the fire power to kill him. He obviously was familiar with the land and knew where we could walk. It was his casual attitude that reminded me of what I had seen in Bolivia after rioting and fighting had brought the city to a standstill. As the rioting died down, the people of Bolivia got back out on the streets.

“Walking back to my hotel it was interesting to watch the people of La Paz on the streets. Some young boys were playing soccer on a street that was normally bustling with traffic, groups of people were having casual discussions on street corners, a young couple walked by my hand in hand. Less than 3 hours ago armed combatants had been running down these streets, and now people used them so casually.”

From ultimate horror, people just get on with life. To the farmer, this wasn’t the site of a horrific battle and proud Canadian achievement. This was a farm field, close to his own house and livestock, and the fastest path was through it.

After the dreadfulness, we pick ourselves up and move on. Life continues.

Posted by GregW 13:00 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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