Friday 29 June 2018

Nostalgia at the Derwent Pencil Museum, UK

Guest blogger this week is author Narrelle M Harris, whose new book is A Dream to Build a Kiss On: a contemporary Sherlock Holmes/Watson romance told in chapters of 221 words. 

I love a one-note museum – a space dedicated to one just one idea or one thing.

I’ve tasted the peculiar delights of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, the fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a sulphur museum in Poland, and on one memorable occasion, a Hungarian salami museum.

Basically, I can’t resist an oddball museum. When I found I would be near the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District, you bet your best set of coloured pencils I went to see it.

Pencils, whether grey graphite or brightly coloured, have a more intriguing history than you might give them credit for, and this museum in Keswick is all over it.

A special HB Derwent Pencil Museum pencil is yours on paying the entry fee of £4.95.

It's rather a lot for a pencil, admittedly, but my heart still beats a little faster in the presence of a pristine new writing implement, never before pressed to paper.

Visitors can also get a quiz to fill out during their exploration of the museum, which charts the history and social impact of the pencil.

Among the things I learned was that the term ‘black market’ originated with the trade in stolen graphite in the 1700s, when the stuff was worth more than gold and used in munitions as well as writing.

Notorious graphite thieves with names like ‘Black Sal’ and ‘The Dandy Wad Stealer’ are surely deserving of some great swashbuckling novel by a latter-day Robert Louis Stevenson.

I also found that the real-life 'Q', Charles Fraser-Smith, liaised in World War Two with the Cumberland Pencil Company to devise a pencil containing a hidden compass and map which was otherwise indistinguishable from a regular pencil.

The program was so secret that, decades later, Derwent pencil makers had to reverse-engineer how it was done, in a technique that was not as simple as you’d think.

There’s a giant pencil in the museum which holds a Guinness Book of Records award.

There’s also one of only two special pencils made for the Queen’s Jubilee (Queen Elizabeth II has the other one) and case upon case of pencil sets in all their deliciously bright, charming glory.

The Derwent Pencil Museum may appeal to kids, but I can’t help feeling the greatest allure is for adults.

We grown-ups are the ones soaking in the nostalgia of our childhood days of carefree colouring and untrammelled creation, before anyone pronounced judgement about whether we were any good.

The back room of the museum is adorned with beautiful drawings done in Derwent – of animals, landscapes and flora.

Tubs of both ordinary and watercolour pencils sit on tables, along with squares of art paper, inviting all to travel back to the creative days of our youth.

Using a photograph I’d taken of a forbidding looking swan at Windermere the day before, I succumbed to the urge.

I took up my colours and didn’t care that I’m no artist. I drew my little swan and I was happy.

The Derwent Pencil Museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, UK. Find opening hours and other details at its website.

You can also support Narrelle’s fiction (and get rewards!) at her Patreon:

Saturday 23 June 2018

Review: Sage Hotel Melbourne, Ringwood

For this review I was hosted by the Sage Hotel Melbourne, Ringwood.

If you ask inner-city Melburnians what they think of the eastern suburb of Ringwood, be prepared for some wrinkling of noses. The district had a bad rep in years past, of being somewhere poor and dodgy.

So it was with some surprise that I stepped out of Ringwood train station yesterday, to find the area north of the railway had been transformed by the rebuilding of the Eastland shopping centre.

It's still very outer-suburban - a huge mall with plentiful chain stores - but the frontage has been transformed into an attractive public square lined by restaurants with outdoor seating.

Next to this is Realm, a new public building which includes the local library.

And on top of the shopping centre, though entered from the main road, is the new Sage Hotel.

It's an eye-opener. One doesn't expect much from suburban hotels, but the Sage is impressive by any standard.

My room is compact but attractive, with a sleek modern look. The big windows face the Dandenong Ranges, so there's a lot of natural light and a view beyond the nearby suburban streets.

The room has a practical set-up, with a useful desk and a straightforward bathroom area. The hanging zone for clothing is open and a bit constricted, but otherwise there's sufficient space to move.

Where the hotel really stands out is in its public areas. The area beyond reception is one big open space, artfully divided by long open-sided bookshelves stacked with works ranging from art volumes to thriller novels.

The largest area is a combination of lounge, bar and co-working space. Alongside the comfortable lounge chairs is a number of desks which guests can use, and which are also available for hire by business people wanting a temporary workspace.

Opposite the lounge area is the restaurant, Partake. This is another open space, with a range of tables from banquettes to high tables. There's some impressive art on the walls, and even more impressive food on the menu.

To give you an example, last night I had this for dessert: the raspberry and strawberry mess with meringue, crème légère and Persian fairy floss.

It was excellent, and a symbol perhaps of how much Ringwood has changed.

And with its proximity to the Dandenong Ranges and the Yarra Valley, the Sage Hotel has a lot to offer tourists, as well as business people and hungry locals.

The Sage Hotel is located at 211 Maroondah Hwy, Ringwood, Australia. For more info and bookings, visit its website.

Friday 15 June 2018

Hadrian's Wall by Bus

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

Last year Narrelle Harris and I visited Hadrian's Wall, constructed in AD 122 by the Roman Empire in order to mark and guard its northernmost border.

You can hike the entire length of the wall, but that's a long way to walk - the trail runs 135 kilometres from eastern Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. And the best section is in the middle, where the hilly country with its lower population has left much of the structure intact.

The solution for us was to catch the seasonal AD122 bus. The bus runs between the railway stations of Haltwhistle (in the west) and Hexham (in the east), with easy connections to Carlisle and Newcastle.

As it stops at key sites along the wall, including museums and former forts, it makes the historic structure accessible to everyone, though there's still some walking to do from the bus stops to the wall itself.

Not everyone's up for a long walk, especially in such hilly country, so it's a good option for travellers who are less mobile.

In the end we did walk a section of the wall, taking a leisurely two hours to stroll up and down the sloping trail west from the fort site now known as Housesteads.

Once we'd had enough of that, we used a farm access road to get back to the main road, where we were happy to flag down the next bus. A day ticket allows multiple rides, and the bus will pick up anywhere that's safe along its route.

The walk was great, but we were happy to get back on the bus and use it to reach the ruins of the former Roman military town south of the wall, Vindolanda [pictured above].

We used it the next day as well, to see some of the wall-related sites closer to Haltwhistle. It was a great way to explore Hadrian's Wall, and allow some walking without exhausting ourselves.

For more details about the AD122 bus, click here.

Friday 8 June 2018

Mind Your PMQ: Hong Kong's Design Hub

I was hosted on this trip by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

When I visited Hong Kong last year, I spent an afternoon at PMQ.

Opened in 2014, this arts and design hub is housed within the former Police Married Quarters from the British colonial era.

The complex contains workshops, galleries, pop-up shops and food outlets, housed within two seven-storey blocks remaining from the original institution.

These wings are linked by a modern structure called QUBE, which has a rooftop garden.

It's interesting to wander around the complex, up and down between the floors. There's always something new to see in each shopfront.

For an article I was writing, I talked to some young designers who were able to get a start in otherwise-expensive central Hong Kong by taking on a shop in PMQ.

One, Coney Ko [pictured left], designs and sells jewellery with a retro look reminiscent of Art Deco. Another, Yeung Chi, is an award-winning fashion designer.

It's a fascinating place to visit, both for its outlets and its heritage. To learn more about the latter, you can join a regular free PMQ Heritage Interpretation Guided Tour.

For tour bookings and more information, visit the PMQ website.

Friday 1 June 2018

Nexus of Change: Gdańsk Shipyard, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

In 1980, the Solidarity trade union was founded at the Lenin Shipyard (later renamed the Gdańsk Shipyard) in Gdańsk, Poland.

Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity became the first independent trade union recognised in Eastern Europe's communist bloc, after a massive strike forced the Polish government to legalise it.

A decade of struggle, repression and civil disobedience followed, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of Europe's communist regimes.

The Wall's collapse can be traced back to Solidarity, its foundation having forced the first cracks into the totalitarian structure.

Nowadays the Gdańsk Shipyard is much reduced as a working facility. On part of its former footprint stands the European Solidarity Centre, opened in 2014 with an exhibition explaining the long struggle for freedom which began here.

I walked through it on my 2016 visit, and for a student of history it was fascinating. From mock-ups of communist-era homes and offices, to chilling details of the surveillance state, it gives a sense of what it was like to live through those times.

At the end of the exhibition is a stylised replica of the circular conference table which negotiated a peaceful end to the regime. I saw it as a symbol of hope. Not every tussle for power has to end in bloody civil war.

In addition to housing the Centre, the shipyard site has hosted major rock concerts to mark Solidarity's struggle, and its distinctive Gate Number Two has become a symbol of freedom.

The gate still stands, and makes an impressive architectural counterpoint to the hyper-modern ESC building.

In a time of political uncertainty across Europe, with democracy seemingly shaky, this site - so crucial in the spread of freedom across the continent - is well worth a visit.

The European Solidarity Centre is open daily from 10am, admission 20zł ($7). For more details, visit its website.