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October 11, 2010

WEEKENDER’S $90M FIRE DAMAGE BILL


David Ellis

WHEN the renovators were called in to repair some fire damage to a weekender on England's River Thames in 1992, the owner wanted the work  to match the original as faithfully as possible.

This may have been a simple request had the place in question been a 1960s brick bungalow, or even a rustic riverside farmhouse.

But this was neither: the building was Windsor Castle, and the owner was the Queen.

Yet after the renovation job that cost an astonishing AU$90m, visitors to Windsor Castle today are often little aware that they are walking amid furnishings, murals, drapes and carpets that are largely painstaking replicas of the originals destroyed in that disastrous 1992 fire.

Windsor Castle's origins date back over 900 years to when William the Conqueror built a little timber and earth fortress on a 30m high hill overlooking the Thames, as protection for London against invaders from the west (London being a solid day's march away.)

Over the centuries the solid stone castle as we know it today evolved, with its role changing from that of a fortification to a royal palace – in fact the rambling 1,200-room bastion is the largest inhabited castle/palace in the world, the oldest in continuous occupation, and the world's only working royal residence that is open to the public.

Both Edward III and Henry VI were born here.

And the Queen who, with the help of hundreds of thousands of paying tourists a year, pays for the upkeep of this sprawling collection of rooms and galleries, halls, chambers, ballrooms, chapels and drawing rooms – not to mention the hectares of surrounding manicured gardens – considers it her favourite retreat, spending most of her weekends here.

In November 1992 the fire that broke out in the north-east corner of the Castle ravaged over 100 rooms and nine State Rooms, but fortuitously most of their priceless arts works had been removed just days earlier for display elsewhere.

Hundreds of specialists were brought in to restore the least damaged areas, and create new rooms and chambers in those areas that had been totally destroyed – their brief being to make them fit as harmoniously as possible with the remainder of the castle.

Hundreds more artisans and craftsmen were recruited from private companies, government departments and voluntarily came out of retirement to recreate furnishings, art works, murals, drapes and tapestries, ornate candelabras and chandeliers, carved staircases, carpets and polished timber wall panellings.

Many visitors today don't distinguish where the original ends and the renovated begins. A clue is the floors: while these intricately patterned new areas have been hand-crafted to resemble the original parquet designs, it will take years of tourists' feet for them to assume that well-trodden look.

Allow at least two hours at Windsor Castle. Areas of particular interest include the China Museum, the Ante Throne Room, King's Drawing Room and King's Bed Chamber, the Queen's Drawing Room, Queen's Ballroom, the Queen's Guard Chamber, Presence Chamber and Audience Chamber, St George's Hall and Private Chapel (resting place of ten British sovereigns,) the State Dining Room and the Grand Reception Room... and the remarkable gardens.

The castle abounds with treasures dating back centuries, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and van Dyck, and priceless English furniture and porcelain.

And don't miss the extraordinary Queen Mary's Dolls' House, a Lilliputian masterpiece that was created in 1923 on a scale of 1 to 12.  It took 1,500 tradesmen three years to complete, with every room of the 7-storey mansion-in-miniature built and furnished to exactly as it would have been at the time – including working lifts that stop at every floor, electric lights, and even running water in all five bathrooms.

Windsor Castle is 50kms from London. Travel agents can book you onto organised tours from London as part of UK holiday programs, or simply take the train to either Windsor or Eton Stations that are each about 5-minutes walk from the Castle.

You can do a self-guided tour using a guide book or audio unit, and there are conducted tours of parts of the castle grounds. 

Windsor Castle is 15km from Heathrow Airport, causing one American tourist to famously ask a guide as planes flew over every few minutes: "Why would they build a famous castle so close to an airport?"

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HOTO CAPTIONS:  

 

[] WINDSOR Castle, the favourite weekend getaway of England's Queen Elizabeth.

 

[] THE magnificent chapel within Windsor Castle.

 

[] READY to have a few mates around for dinner: the King's Dining Room is fit, well, for a king.

 

[] QUEEN Mary's Dolls House at Windsor Castle: 1500 tradesmen took three years in the early 1920s to create its extraordinary detail.                                                                                                                                             

 

October 03, 2010

CAPTAIN COOK’S WALK INTO SAILING HISTORY

David Ellis

THERE are five reasons most people know about England's little North Yorkshire town of Whitby: James Cook, fish and chips, Dracula, a modern-day TV soap, and old steam trains.

Sitting astride the Esk River estuary, Whitby's 14,000 hardy souls have learned to live with the hammering winds that come in off the North Sea in winter, while in summer it can also be postcard-perfect rustic England, particularly on its older eastern side.

PICTURESQUE Whitby Harbour.
In those summer months its one of the quaintest harbour towns in the country. Tourists flock here to enjoy sunny strolls along the waterfront, the local fish markets, browse the antique stores, and eat fish and chips at outdoor cafes, in little restaurants whose window boxes overflow with fire-engine red geraniums, or with a pint in back-street pubs where battered haddock and chunky golden potato chips have been turned into an art form.

And taking a stroll around the narrow alleyways in search of history, in Grape Lane they find the one-time home of Quaker ship-owner, John Walker and the sea-farer student who lived in his attic – James Cook.

Cook was born at Marton near Middlesborough, and was apprenticed to a grocer in nearby Staithes. But his real love was the sea, and one day he walked the 21km into Whitby to ask Walker if he would teach him seamanship and navigation.
IT was in the attic of this house in Whitby that the young
James Cook lived while learning seamanship
under mariner John Walker.

Today in the museum that occupies Walker's one-time terrace house, visitors learn about Cook's life in Whitby, about the Endeavour that was built here, and of Cook's world travels; there's also a statue of Cook on West Cliff and a plaque in town given by Australia and New Zealand to commemorate his achievements.

And if you are in Whitby on the morning of Ascension Day each year, you'll see a group of civic and business dignitaries making apparent dopes of themselves as they squelch through the mud of Whitby Harbour to plant, of all things, a hedge before the tide comes back in.

This bizarre ritual started in 1159 when three Norman noblemen on a pig-hunt discovered a hermit giving comfort under a hedge to a boar they'd arrowed. They beat man and beast to death, but in his dying moments the hermit prayed that God would forgive them.

ONE of Whitby's many harbourside pubs that have
turned battered haddock and chips into an art form.
Hearing the story later, the Abbot of Whitby was so angered he ordered that as pennance every Ascension Day a group of 'noblemen' erect a hedge on the mudflats of low-tide Whitby Harbour, or lose title to their lands. And to make their task all the more difficult they could use, not spades, but simple 'penny knives' such as that carried by the hermit.

The ritual is still carried out annually 850 years later, and if the 'Penny Hedge' does not survive three incoming tides it has to be built again.

Up the hill overlooking the Estuary is an old hotel, and it is here when the winds howl in off the North Sea and the fire crackles in its grate that the visitor draws mind-pictures of that day in 1885 when Dublin-born writer Bram Stoker decided during a stay that it would be Whitby where 'my Count Dracula will come ashore from Transylvania.'

Stoker was captivated by the destructive storm that raged during his stay at the hotel and which sank the Russian schooner Dimitry of Narva on the nearby Tate Sands as she made for safety in Whitby: in his book he has Dracula coming ashore 'during a ferocious storm' from the Russian ship Demeter of Varna.

AUTHOR Bram Stoker wrote his classic
novel Dracula during a stay in Whitby
And for rail buffs the local North Yorkshire Moors Railway has regular tourist-train runs using restored steam and diesel locomotives hauling historic carriages to five nearby towns with their yester-year Tea Rooms serving wonderful home-made scones, pies and traditional pasties.
GOATHLAND Hotel 15km from Whitby –
renamed Aidensfield Arms for TV soap Heartbeat.

And on select nights, there are silver-service dinners in restored timber-lined Pullman carriages on runs into the countryside.

At Grosmont the old locos are still serviced in the original engine sheds – but it's the 15km run to tiny Goathland that's the most popular day-trip, for this was Aidensfield of TV's Heartbeat series, and where you can visit the Aidensfield Arms, Mostyns Garage, the Village Store and Greengrass's farm.

Whitby's a bit off the beaten track, but well worth the effort. For more information go to www.whitby.co.uk



Struth! UK's Most northerly hotel a derelict award-winner

John O'Groats "derelict hotel and sheds lurking with tourist intent"
STRUTH !  David Ellis looks at the more weird wacky and wondrous in the world of travel

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that a popular British tourist destination has just won an award it probably won't be bragging about – the town of John O'Groats has been named winner of the 2010 Carbuncle Award for being the most dismal place in Scotland.

John O'Groats – population around 300 – attracts visitors for one main reason: it is the most northerly town in Britain, and therefore the furthest from the other end of the country, Land's End that's 1407.5km (874 miles) to the south.

But apart from this it's got nothing going for it says architecture magazine Urban Realm, that awards the Carbuncle each year. "It's a bleak outpost, notorious for being so desolate – we wonder why we even bothered to go there… it is the most anti-climatic tourist attraction that we know of – and the UK is not lacking in these.

"The main hotel is derelict and the most striking feature is a large car park… various tourist haunts hang around this and give the impression of not wanting to look at each other like early arrivals at a party; the whole effect is augmented by a series of sheds and caravans, lurking with tourist intent."

While that large white Gothic, and now derelict, hotel dominates the town, John O'Groats still attracts some thousands of visitors a year. And it regularly makes it into the nightly news with headline-seekers pushing babies in prams the 1407km from Land's End, riding penny-farthing bikes and in one case a child's scooter along the same route, and even dribbling marbles along a network of roads from Britain's far south to its far north.

And locals are quick to point out that John O'Groats has now got a new Café Bar to augment its several gift shops, a small museum, craft shops, a pottery and candlemaker, and a Tourist Information Centre that sells books of local interest.

And that there's a tourist hotel nearby, various B&Bs and a ferry to Orkney – although only between May and September.

October 02, 2010

Melbourne: Classic Hotels Define the City



David Ellis with John Rozentals

THERE may only be a few CBD blocks separating Melbourne's Adelphi and Windsor hotels, but in terms of style they might as well be in different galaxies — and both very desirable galaxies at that.

The Adelphi, in Flinders Lane, just a hop from Federation Square, City Square, Flinders Street Station and the Yarra, exudes cool. It's arty and hip, its decor still edgy nearly 20 years after its construction.

Stainless steel, varnished ply and bright leather combine artfully in the guest rooms, though occasionally, as with the angular sofas, a tad of comfort has been sacrificed to design. Those minor shortcomings are about to be corrected during a major refit.

The avant garde flows through the public areas as well, especially on to the rooftop, with its modern decking, bright chairs and an amazing 25-metre lap pool, which at one end has a glass bottom and juts out over Flinders Lane, nine storeys below. If you're going skinny dipping, can we suggest backstroke?

Even the reception area offers plenty of interest. At the moment it's home to a couple of pieces from the private collection of Damien Hodgkinson, one of the hotel's directors: a metre-tall ceramic stature of Chairman Mao (one of many churned out in China during the 1970s) and a car from an old carousel at St Kilda's Luna Park.

The Adelphi was designed by award-winning local architects Denton Corker Marshall and its construction within the confines of an old inner-city warehouse hailed as a prime example of urban renewal.

How appropriate, because the Adelphi preceded and sits just a stroll away from Federation Square, which in the late 1990s arose phoenix-like next to the Yarra on the site of the old Jolimont Rail Yard.

It's one of Australia's most exciting cultural and recreational precincts, home to the futuristically designed National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre, the equally striking Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and on a slightly less cerebral note, Abbaworld.

There's ample shopping and eating, plus a state-of-art children's playground and bike-hire facilities that make nearby Kings Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens just so accessible.

Within easy walking distance across the historic Princes Bridge are the Arts Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria International and the Melbourne Theatre Company's cutting-edge MTC Theatre.

If ready access to this golden mile of culture is high on your list of priorities, so, too, should be the Adelphi.

Less than a kilometre to the north-east, the Hotel Windsor is a very different animal that represents a bygone era among Australian hotels.

It was built in the early 1880s, amid the great land boom that followed Victoria's gold rushes. The developer was shipping magnate George Nipper and, as with the Adelphi, an eminent architect was involved ... this time Charles Webb, who had designed the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the South Melbourne Town Hall.

Nipper went bust and work was completed by the Honourable James Munro and the Honourable James Balfour, who added the Grand Ballroom, the Grand Staircase and the cupola-topped towers. For a while it was a "dry" hotel, known as the Grand Coffee Palace.

'The Duchess of Spring Street' became a mixing pot for politicians and businessmen, and in 1898 the Australian Constitution was drafted there.

And if you stay there, it could well be in a room once occupied by Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck or Rudolf Nureyev.

To stay in one of the suites — complete with stained-glass door, entry hallway, substantial sitting room, and a dining room that can be set for 10 from its antique sideboard packed with classy crockery, cutlery and glassware — is an exhilarating experience.

So, too, is to wander through hallways restored to their original grandeur, complete with gold-leaf decoration, panelling and chandeliers, and to relax in the elegant restaurant for traditional high tea and champagne, with, of course, cucumber-and-cress sandwiches. Well in advance bookings are essential.

And the Windsor's location is completely appropriate ... right opposite what must surely be Australia's grandest Parliament House, and handily close to Treasury Gardens, Fitzroy Gardens, Captain Cook's Cottage, and Carlton Gardens with its World-Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building.

It's a different side of Melbourne to Federation Square, but it's equally satisfying.s

Book either hotel through travel agents.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] HOTEL Windsor – a child of the great land boom that followed the Victorian gold rushes.

[] PRIVATE grand-style dining in-suite at the Windsor.

[] THE Adelphi Hotel's glass-bottom pool overhangs the street…

[] CITYSCAPE: looking back towards Melbourne's Arts Centre and city from the Royal Botanic Gardens, exhilarating stroll from the Adelphi Hotel.


- All photographs Sandra Burn White