I want a turret

John Ruskin's turret at Brantwood

I want a turret. Not just any old turret, but a turret with a view. Somewhere that I can have a desk, old and preferably with a leather inlay, a chair, comfortable obviously and I want the turret built on to my library, the one I hope to have with walls of bookshelves, floor to ceiling with a ladder to reach the top shelf. I know exactly what my turret should look like because I have a model to work with.

Brantwood, Coniston Water

That turret belonged to John Ruskin, 19th century visionary and advocate of free schools and libraries, amongst other things.  He built it onto his bedroom at Brantwood, overlooking Coniston Water in the Lake District, after he bought the house in 1871. I felt perfectly at home in that turret when I visited but, unfortunately, I don’t think it would quite work on my modest suburban home.

It did fit perfectly at Brantwood though where Ruskin, a regular traveller throughout Europe, settled for the last three decades of his life. Set on 250 acres on the banks of  Coniston Water, Brantwood began life as a modest farmhouse. What the visitor sees today is Ruskin’s creation of a grand home where visitors would arrive by coach and enter through a glazed doorway. The dining room that they would have been served in had a magnificent seven arched window providing a magnificent view of the Lake.

Coniston Water has a long and varied history. The Fells above the lake were a source of copper for the Romans and, during medieval times, it was owned by the monks of Furness Abbey. Just over five miles long the lake was the setting for numerous attempts on the world water speed record and in 1967 Donald Campbell tragically lost his life attempting to exceed 300 miles per hour. He actually managed 320 miles per hour on one run but the return leg saw his vehicle Bluebird somersault and crash killing Campbell instantly. Campbell’s was not the only body to end up in the lake either, in 1976 a local school teacher was murdered and her body dumped in it.

Coniston Water, Lake Disrict, Cumbria

Whatever its associations, today Coniston Water, the third largest lake in the English Lake District at almost 5km², is a drawcard for tourists from all over the world. Many come to see the famous lake that took Cambell’s life, some come to see the places that Arthur Ransome put into his famous children’s book, Swallows and Amazons, while many others come simply to admire the sheer beauty of the place.

Coniston Water

Whatever your reason for visiting, you should not miss taking a trip on the lake with Coniston Launch www.conistonlaunch.co.uk. The engaging commentary by the skipper provides information about the history and surroundings of the lake and special cruises on the solar-electric powered launches are also scheduled that will take you more deeply into the world of Swallows and Amazons or the history of the world water speed record attempts on the lake.The view from the launch is the best view that you are going to get of Brantwood and if John Ruskin was still around today he would probably be sitting at his desk in that turret watching you and the world go by.

Every writer should definately have a turret.

View from John Ruskin's turret at Brantwood

“Morning breaks as I write, along those Coniston Fells, and the level mists, motionless, and grey beneath the rose of the moorlands, veil the woods, and the sleeping village, and the long lawns of the lake-shore.”

Notes by Mr Ruskin on his drawings by J.M.W.Turner, 1878.




Flinders Island: an unspoiled haven

Flinders Island had me hooked. I was there for just over four hours and the weather was lousy, but I loved it. The biting wind cut into us as we crossed the tarmac and it was bitterly cold despite the fact that it was supposed to be spring, but apparently spring here is renowned for being windy.

The wind had been forecast, and it was cold and overcast when we left Melbourne in the Beechcraft, but the clouds cleared by the time we arrived and the descent over the western side of the island gave us glimpses of the diverse landscape, with sandy dunes edging coastal lagoons and impressive, rugged, granite ridges running the length of the island. Apart from a weekly cargo ferry that carries a limited number of passengers, this is the only way of getting to the island.

Leaving the small airport we escaped the wind and climbed into our waiting rental car. Flinders Island, the largest island in the Furneaux group just off the north east coast of Tasmania, has around 450 kilometres of road and, with no public transport on the island, a car is a necessity. Our pilot and guide Dale, who has a place on the island ‘not yet habitable’ he says, but he has a plan, explains that you have to wave to passing drivers, it’s a tradition. And so it is, the driver of every car that we pass acknowledges us.

Out of the airport we headed for nearby Whitemark, the civic and commercial centre of Flinders Island. With a population of less than a thousand, spread over 1300km², the settlements on Flinders Island are not large, but Whitemark has the necessary facilities – a post office, bank, supermarket and service station, and of course the bakery, where we later stop to pick up fresh bread before our flight home.

Our main purpose here was to have lunch and for that we headed for the Furneaux Tavern at Lady Barron on the south coast. Before we settled in for a leisurely lunch though, Dale drove us up to the nearby Vinegar Hill lookout, from where you get an uninterrupted view over the smaller offshore islands. Although whipped up by the winds the ocean was a compelling blue and the view was reminiscent of one from a similar lookout I had visited some years previously on Crete. Dragging ourselves away from the sheer natural beauty of this area we headed back down for lunch.

Situated onAdelaide Bay, with views across Franklin Sound, the Furneaux Tavern provides, not only accommodation and a fully licensed restaurant, but also one of its greatest assets, the inspiring view from the verandah. The light catches on the picturesque small islands dotted throughout the bay and you may catch sight of fishing boats delivering fresh local produce to the island. The day we were there was not conducive to lazing on the verandah but the large picture windows of the Shearwater Restaurant gave on to the same view, and we had the added comfort of a roaring log fire while we tried to choose from the variety of local dishes on offer.

The restaurant sources fresh local produce where possible. Particularly plentiful around the island are scallops, crayfish and scale fish, with local wallaby providing an interesting alternative for the more adventurous, and the local, award winning, Unavale Sauvignon Blanc was a resounding success as we relaxed in this comfortable, friendly atmosphere.

After an extremely enjoyable four hours, that literally changed the way I am thinking about future holidays, we were back in the air, headed once again for the rat race that is life, but I will be back. 

Visiting this gem of an island you won’t find 5 star resorts, but that’s as it should be. There are plenty of comfortable accommodation options for couples and families, ranging from cabins to very well appointed beach houses, offering that little bit of luxury, many with outstanding views. There is plenty to do if that’s what you want, beach and off shore fishing, bush walking in the Strzelecki National Park and bird watching, with the island being home to several breeding colonies of endangered species, or you can simply relax and do very little.

This is not a place for shopping, there are no designer outlets or gift shops selling miniature replicas of historical monuments. You won’t get guided tours of palaces or ancient sites. What you will get is a sense of well being, a feeling of peace, of escaping the rat race, and an appreciation of the landscape. Indulge, not in extravagance or luxury, but in your surroundings.

As Australians we travel thousands of kilometres to the romanticised lands of Europe. We explore the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies or the American west, and that’s fine. But sometimes we should just stop and take a breath, look at what is around us and take the time to just be, as individuals, as a family. Flinders Island is one of those rare, unspoiled places where you can do that.


Mosaics, mud and a midden:Excavations of a Roman Palace

Take a hole in the ground, some willing volunteers and a spot in the English landscape and you have the potential to discover something amazing. There have been lots of people on this spot before you in the last few millennium and with a bit of luck they will have left something behind.

All I managed to find were some bits of broken pottery, some oyster shells and a few animal bones, but they were 2000 year old bits of pottery and they were left there by some wealthy Romans. Ok, so it was a midden, an ancient rubbish tip, but exciting all the same. I was in Sussex, at the Fishbourne Roman Palace, taking part in an archaeological dig to try and discover more about this palace site.

It was the cutting of a water main trench in 1961 that unearthed the first evidence of this Roman site and led archaeologists to begin excavation on, what turned out to be, one of the largest and most elaborate first century Roman palaces in Europe. Its elaborate design that included bath suites, formal gardens and a hypocaust (under floor heating) has led to conjecture as to who the high ranking occupant would have been. It is generally thought to have been King Togidubnus, a client king of the Attribates tribe who controlled a substantial part of south-western Britain and was also known to have aided the Emperor Vespasian.

Attempting to unearth the remnants of these ancient people is not as glamorous as one might think. There’s a lot of mud (particularly in the English climate), high expectations that you will be the one to discover the find of the season but, ultimately, there’s a lot of nothing. It’s the little things, though, that really make you glad to be there. Someone, 2000 years ago, drank from the cup that was tossed on the rubbish heap, broken and forgotten. Someone opened those oysters and ate them  – maybe at a banquet or even at one of those legendary Roman orgies. Someone walked this very spot, that you are now digging on, dressed in a toga and possibly wearing the gold jewellery that has come to light in previous excavations.

Today the Fishbourne Roman Palace is open to the public and its biggest drawcard is its mosaics. One of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in Britain it includes the famous Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic complete with representations of sea panthers and sea horses. This floor was laid in the second century and when lifted for conservation, was found to be covering an earlier first century mosaic.

In room 13 is another example of one mosaic being superimposed upon an earlier one, with the original geometric pavement being replaced around AD 100. The centre of the new mosaic depicts a head of Medusa, if you look closely you can make out part of her right eye and eyebrow and some of her snaky hair. These two mosaics have been left in situ and you can also see ruts running across the floor that were gouged by medieval ploughing.

Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed by fire at the end of the third century leaving us, 1700 years later, to try to piece together its design and its history and to speculate on its occupants and their lifestyle. If you are heading to the south of England it is well worth a visit.

Fishbourne is just outide Chichester off the A27


Where to next?

How do we decide. How on earth do we figure out where to go next? That’s the dilemma I’m faced with at the moment. Choice is a good thing but, here in Australia, we are literally spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding our next holiday spot.

Today in the Travel section of the weekend paper there was an overwhelming number of options to choose from. For less than $1,500.00 , air fare included, I could head to Kota Kinabalu or Kununurra, the South Pacific or Singapore, Ningaloo or New Zealand,Vietnam or Vanuato,

For less than $3,000.00 I could spend a week in any number of European capital cities or take in the Top End of Australia.

If I’m feeling more adventurous I could travel on the Trans-Siberian Express, cruise the Norwegian Fjords, visit the impressive Iguassu Falls and the ‘untamed Patagonian landscape’, travel the Gibb River Road in a 4WD, even climb Mt Kilimanjaro.

I could go on, but I think you get the message. So, how do we choose? Obviously our budget dictates our choice to a certain degree but, in this day of ‘have now – pay later’ (whether you agree with the concept or not), even that doesn’t necessarily limit us too much.

Then there are the ethical questions. Should we be supporting our own economy and travelling within Australia? Do our visits to other countries and cultures broaden our perspective? Should we be considering the impact of travel on the landscape and choosing destinations that support responsible tourism?

If we can sort this out in our heads we then need to decide on a few practicalities. How long can we be away for, do we want sunshine, surf and swimming pools or a winter wonderland? Are we taking a break simply to relax and get away from the grind of daily life, are we out to experience different cultures and lifestyles or do we want to indulge our passion for adventure and excitement? Do we want to stay in a resort, a hotel or may be rent an apartment and self cater? Do we want to stay put in one place or travel around? Do we want to hire a car or campervan, or use public transport?

Decisions, decisions. But at least I have the freedom and luxury of having decisions like these to make.

As for my travel plans …… yet to be decided, I’m still trying to choose!!

the Seaside


I have always loved the seaside. I say seaside not beach because they are two very different things.Australia has the beach,England has the seaside. Most summers when I was young and we lived in the north of England, my parents would bundle my brother and myself into the car and, come rain or shine, transport us to a world of fun. Sometimes it was only an hour away to Cleethorpes or Skegness but there were the years, several of them, when we headed to the south coast.

The summer holiday was a time to relax, a time for family fun. Simple pleasures that meant so much. Sandcastles at the beach with little paper flags in their turrets, turrets made by packing wet sand into our plastic buckets and upending them on the castle. Boats fashioned out of sand by the men, my dad, my uncle and my grandfather, large enough for us to sit in and make believe. Skimming stones over the waves and collecting as many different shells as possible in our buckets. There always seemed so much to do. Visits to amusement arcades, fun fairs and boating lakes, rides on steam trains and donkeys, walks along the pier or over the rocks with their never ending array of minute life in the hidden pools. The parents seemed to enjoy it as much as the children did. They too shrieked with delight on their way down the helter skelter, dug with ceaseless energy to create sand sculptures and were overawed with the finds from the rock pools. They seemed to think nothing of walking miles to find just the shell that was missing from the collection or to stumble along the beach with ice creams dripping down their hands as a treat for the children.


The sounds of the holiday makers were of fun times. There was the excited babble of the children, squeals of delight, laughter and the occasional raised voice of a parent admonishing a child who, once reprimanded, would be back at play, none the worse for the telling off. It wasn’t only the children who were having fun. The adults had thrown off the personas they carried around with them for eleven months of the year. Their annual summer holiday transformed them and endowed them with a carefree and easy going attitude. They would worry again when they returned home but for that short time they relaxed. The older generation also were not forgotten. Grandparents, younger than I am now, could be seen in their deckchairs overseeing the family group. They would be kept supplied with sandwiches and ice creams and the occasional bottle of stout. The grandfathers would sometimes be seen with their trousers rolled up and their handkerchiefs knotted on their heads paddling with the grandchildren or fossicking in the rock pools for crabs.


It was a carefree time. A time to cherish. All too soon things changed, we grew up, we acquired responsibilities, we became adults. Expectations changed. Oh …. And technology got in the way.