Eccentric England: The Headington Shark

Headington Shark
Henry Flower

Once again, I’m back in Oxford for my annual summer working holiday. I love this place. This quintessentially English city offers beautiful colleges, the world’s coolest museum, even the chance to bump into the Queen.

But all this pales in comparison to the sight of a giant shark crashing into a roof.

The Oxford suburb of Headington is a bit dull, so local resident Bill Heine at 2 New High Street decided to commission sculptor John Buckley to create a 25-foot shark to adorn his roof. It was put up on August 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. As Heine explained, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

The clipboard Nazis in the local council were not amused. They tried to have it removed as a pubic hazard. When their engineer said it was perfectly safe, they tried various other excuses. Much legal wrangling ensued.

Decades later, the naysayers are all gone and the shark is still there. It’s a much-loved local landmark, a modern folly. I see it every time I come in on the bus from London and enjoy pointing it out to newcomers. There’s even a Headington Shark Appreciation Society on Facebook with more than a thousand members. So if you’re coming to Oxford, pop on over and see the Headington Shark.

Exploring Normandy, France: The Harbor Town Of Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue

The land of Calvados, Pont l’Evêque cheese and World War II history, Normandy, France, is one of those places that manages to pack almost everything into one region. Coastline, farmland, history, culture, food – in a trip to Normandy you can get it all.

Well known for some of its larger cities and the World War II beaches like Utah and Omaha, an often forgotten gem of Normandy is Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, a small fishing village just east of Cherbourg. A tiny village in the off-season, during the warmer months it explodes with French and Brits descending upon their vacation homes. Which makes late spring or early fall the perfect time to explore: the weather is nice and the streets are quiet.The first harbor to be freed by the Allied Forces in 1944, the village is also home to the La Hougue Fort and Tatihou, part of 12 groups of fortified buildings across France that have UNESCO World Heritage classification. Built by King Louis XIV’s famed engineer Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban, the Vauban fortifications include citadels, urban bastion walls and bastion towers. In Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue you’ll find one just east of town and the other on the island of Tatihou, both built after naval Battle of La Hougue saw twelve French ships sunk in the surrounding waters. Go to La Hougue Fort early in the morning and have the place to yourself, the waves crashing on the rock wall that surrounds the fort and, if you’re up for it, an excellent promenade.

In town you’ll find the infamous Maison Gosselin, a family-owned store that’s been in operation since 1889. It’s still set up like a classic store – you take your produce to be weighed before you pay for it – and it’s complete with regional products like Sel Guerande sea salt and plenty of options for Calvados. In fact the wine cellar almost seems bigger than the store itself. Foodie heaven.

From here you are a short drive to the WWII beaches, Utah Beach and the Utah Beach Museum being the closest. Omaha Beach, which houses the Normandy American Cemetery is just a little further east.

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When in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue:

Eat:

Le Pub le Creperie – Owned by an ex-Parisian named Philippe, this is the place to go for good crepes. You can also get the traditional serving of moules frites (mussels and fries). Be sure to accompany with the rose. 36 rue de Verrue.

Oysters – One out of four oysters in France come from Normandy, and Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of oyster production. You can visit a local oyster production complete with a tasting at Ets Lejeune.

Shop:

Snag a classic striped mariniere French sailor shirt. Check out local boutique Cap Saint Vaast Marine (12 rue de Verrue) for the classic brand St. James. While you’re at it, stick to the maritime theme and pick up a few jars of flavored sea salts at Maison Gosselin.

Do:

Get up early and check out the La Hougue Fort; you’ll have it to yourself and the fortified walls are beautiful in the early morning light.

Go to Ile Tatihou. The island is limited to 500 people per day so make sure to book a time on the local ferry that shuttles visitors to the island.

Get outside. In the summer Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of activity, from cycling to sailing.

Like Castles? Go To Slovenia

castles, LjubljanaThe little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.

No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”

Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.

For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.

Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.

%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.

One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.

Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.

Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.

This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.

Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap in Slovenia You Really Must See!

World War II Bomb Closes Berlin Rail Station

World War Two, Berlin
Berlin commuters got an unwelcome reminder of their city’s wartime past today when a bomb from World War II was discovered near the city’s main railway station.

The Hauptbahnhof was closed for several hours as bomb disposal experts dealt with the device, the BBC reports. Flights to and from Tegel airport were diverted.

The device was a 220-pound Soviet bomb and was discovered at a building site a mile north of the train station. While this may seem to be too far away to cause concern to those using the station, German bomb disposal experts are extra careful, especially after three of their number were killed while attempting to defuse a wartime bomb in Gottingen in 2010.

The bomb has now been defused and taken away. All transport has resumed.

Berlin was hit hard in World War II. As you can see from this image taken by the British army shortly after the war, the city was pretty much leveled. Nearly half a million tons of ordnance was dumped on the city and an estimated one in eight bombs didn’t go off. While most explosive devices were cleaned up in the months after the war, they’re still being uncovered on a regular basis.

Germany isn’t the only country that has to worry about wartime ordnance. In 2001, workers found a World War II grenade near Gatwick Airport in England.

Last year the BBC published an interesting interview with a German bomb disposal expert.

[Photo courtesy No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes A (Sergeant)]

Crypts Discovered Under Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral
Workers at Coventry Cathedral in England have discovered several well-preserved crypts underneath the ruins, the Daily Mail reports.

A maintenance team has been working to repair a crack in the ruins of the 14th century St. Michael’s church, which became a cathedral in 1918 and was mostly destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. When the workers investigated the floor of the cathedral, they discovered nine hidden crypts dating back to the 1350s. They also discovered some bones, thought to be of Coventry’s nobility. Coventry was a wealthy and important city in medieval England and the crypts reflect that in their fine workmanship.

Despite being in ruins, the cathedral is still holy ground as well as a historic monument. The World Monuments Fund has put it on its Watch List to highlight its deteriorating condition. The current cathedral is located right next to it. Cathedral officials announced that they hope to open the crypts to the public to augment what is already the most popular tourist site in Coventry.

The BBC has released a short video of the crypts.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Walker]