A day at the seaside

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie, Molly and I headed out to Weymouth for a day at the seaside. In case you’ve never been there, Weymouth is a medium sized town on the Dorset coast, now famous for having hosted the sailing events for the 2012 Olympic games. I spent several of my childhood years growing up in Dorset, so feel a close connection to the area.

We’ve been to Weymouth a few times before and have always been impressed by the town’s ability to be a tourist destination while also having it’s own identity and sense of purpose. The big draw, clearly, is the beach. It’s big, sandy and protected from the worst of the weather by the Isle of Portland to the south. Here’s what I’m talking about…

And here’s some more. As you can see, it’s a pretty family-friendly place, with the gentle slope of the beach making it ideal for adults and kids alike to play around in the water.

At the southern end of the beach, there’s an area where dogs are allowed, too. So this is where we inevitably ended up. In fact, Molly had seen the other dogs from about a mile away and had dragged us there at top speed. She’s not always a big fan of the water (I think she’s put off by the breaking waves), but today was an exception.

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like 32 kilograms of high speed, soaking wet Labrador…

But she seemed to be enjoying herself. So did Natalie. And so, for that matter, did everyone else. Including me.

Weymouth also has a very picturesque and incredibly busy harbour, with a good mix of working and pleasure craft. Here’s what greets you as you come in from the sea. Just the thing after a hard day’s sailing.

And here’s the view looking out from the main quayside area. The town is on both sides of the harbour, with the two areas managing to be both picturesque and bustling at the same time. In these current austere times, it’s nice to see a coastal town thriving like this. (And yes, I have considered moving there. I fact, I still am considering it…)

As we walked along the southern side of the harbour towards the sea, we came across some gig rowers taking part in a regatta. As coincidence would have it, this is a team from the Clevedon Pilot Gig Club, which I have recently joined. I don’t know how the team did in the race, so we’ll assume here that they absolutely destroyed the competition and won by several boat lengths.

And as we walked further, we came across a veritable nest of boats as they changed crews for the next race. Having now been gig rowing twice, I can confirm that it is, indeed, as much fun as it looks. Possibly even more fun, in fact.

We stopped for a little while to watch the rowers. Molly, for one, was enthralled.

At the entrance to the harbour is the imposing Nothe Fort, a massive fortified structure built in the 1860s and designed to protect nearby Portland Harbour. It’s now a popular tourist attraction as well as a reminder of the role that Weymouth and Portland played up until very recently as a major naval port.

The views from the area around the fort are fantastic. You can see why this part of the world is so popular with watersports enthusiasts and why the National Sailing Academy is based here.

We also stumbled across the rest of the gig racers, taking a break while their team mates took their turn at the oars. There was an incredibly sociable atmosphere, with people from the various teams sharing war stories over a beer and a barbecue. This, it struck me, is what sport is all about. Molly had the same idea, so I dragged her swiftly away from the barbecue and we continued on our way.

But not without a parting glance at the gigs waiting patiently at the start line for the next race. One day soon, this could be me…

The ‘bear’ essentials

I took the train to London earlier this week and shared the first part of my journey with a very unusual individual. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he came from and I don’t know where he was going. But I very much doubt that I’ll ever forget his face. And I certainly won’t forget the day that I travelled with a bear.

A bear on a train

When I first saw him, he was perched on the bench on the station concourse. His dark eyes were fixed straight ahead, as if in an attempt to avoid the stares of his fellow passengers. His companion, a furtive teenager in trendy clothes and a baseball cap, was immersed in his phone. There was something admirable, I felt, about the way the youth was able to project an aura of normality, as if hanging out with a bear is just what one does on a Monday morning.

On board the train, I managed to nab a seat near the bear. I didn’t want to sit too close, as bears are notoriously volatile travellers, but I needed to know more. At first, I thought I was perhaps the only person in the carriage who could see him, as everyone else just walked on by as if nothing was amiss. Even the conductor checked the teenager’s ticket without a word*. But as he continued on his rounds he grinned to himself and let out a slight chuckle, so I knew that it wasn’t just me.

Sadly, after just one stop, the bear and his companion alighted from the train and disappeared into the crowd. I tried to watch where they were headed, but soon lost them in the melee of the morning rush hour. Where were they going? What were they doing? Would our paths cross again? It seems I’ll never know. But I certainly won’t forget the day that I travelled with a bear.

* The bear, you will be pleased to note, travelled for free.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 3)

This will be the last Dublin-related post, I promise. It’s just that I don’t get out as much as I would like, so a weekend away gives me plenty to write about. Well, I guess I always have plenty to write about, so perhaps what I should have said is that a weekend away gives me something interesting to write about.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you a little bit about our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland (part of the Anglican communion, if you’re interested). There’s also a catholic cathedral, Christ Church, up the road. I did mean to visit that, too, in the interests of balance and general comparison, but got distracted by the opportunity for some last minute book shopping. Sorry.

I won’t go into the history of the cathedral, as you can read about that on its official website or on Wikipedia. What I wanted to tell you about, though, is the thing that I love about all churches and cathedrals. And that is how they make me feel. Because while I’m not a particularly religious person, places of worship like St. Patrick’s fill me with a deep sense of serenity that stays with me for days afterwards.

I don’t know whether it’s the cavernous size of the building, or the striking architecture or the sheer mass of stone that makes up the place. It might be the profound silence. Or perhaps it’s the sense of history, a reflection of all those who have gone before. Whatever it is, it gives me the ability to shut out my everyday worries and to think more clearly about the things that matter.

Before I risk sliding into some kind of spiritual epiphany, lets look at some photos. I only had a little camera with me, I’m afraid, and no tripod, so the pictures are a little grainy. But hopefully they’ll help you to get some sense of the place. Here’s the nave leading towards the altar.

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And here’s the altar itself. The seats to either side are where the choir sits. I guess it’s deliberate, but I really liked the way the altar was lit up so brightly while the rest of the cathedral was in comparative darkness. Like a beacon on a distant hill top or a lighthouse shining out over stormy seas. (OK, that’s perhaps too much, now…)

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The choir stalls used to serve as a chapel for the ‘Most Illustrious Order of the Knights of Saint Patrick’. Now that’s what I call a name. The flags are those of the families of the Knights of the Order. Apparently, the order still exists, though the last surviving Knight died in 1974.

(This lack of new members might be because they’d have to swear an oath to the Queen of England, which – for entirely understandable reasons – Irish people tend to be a bit funny about. The other question, of course, is why my family doesn’t have a flag. I don’t have an answer for that, though, I’m afraid.)

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Here’s one of the smaller transepts. I think that’s the right name, but don’t quote me on it. I loved the window, but what especially caught my attention was the vacuum cleaner in the corner. I really wouldn’t want to be the one who has to do the dusting here.

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And here’s the view back down the nave. You can’t really see the colours very well on the photo, but it was like standing under a multicoloured tree with the late autumn sun shining through the leaves. Which is, again, no doubt entirely deliberate.

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There were a great many memorials around the edge of the cathedral and I nearly wandered straight past this one. But I stopped to read it for some reason and it instantly made me very sad.

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Over a hundred and fifty years ago and we still haven’t learned the lesson. Perhaps we could all do with thinking a little more clearly about the things that really matter.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 2)

You may remember that I wrote last week about my recent trip to Dublin and promised to post more when I had a few minutes. Well, I’m sat here at my desk about to start work, so thought I’d tell you a bit more about my visit while I have a cup of coffee and before the day starts in earnest.

One of the highlights of our trip was a short visit to Howth, which is a small-ish fishing community that has become a commuter suburb of Dublin itself. It’s on a beautiful part of the coast with a great beach and lots of seafood restaurants – and it’s only about twenty minutes from the city on the handy DART train service.

We started off with a bit of a wander around to get our bearings. This wasn’t too difficult, as there are only a few streets and the village is on a hill, so you can always see where you are in relation to the harbour. Here’s the church in the middle of the town, which I thought was particularly picturesque.

Howth Church

We also took a stroll along the sea wall that embraces the fairly sizeable harbour, most of which is now filled with sailing boats and other pleasure craft, though there seems to still be a small fishing fleet. Here’s the harbour.

Howth Harbour

As you can see, we weren’t the only people who’d come here for a nice walk on a sunny autumn day. In fact, a fair proportion of Dublin seemed to have had the same idea.

Howth Harbour Wall

This is the old harbour lighthouse at the end of the sea wall. It’s not operational now, as it has been replaced by a more modern light-bulb-on-a-stick type affair. But as a symbol of ‘here’s a welcoming harbour, safe from the storm’, I much prefer this one. If you’re into these things, as I am, then there’s a brilliant short history here.

Howth Habour Light

After our walk, we decided to have a spot of lunch. There is a long row of seafood restaurants and cafes along the harbourside, but we weren’t feeling particularly posh so grabbed some seafood chowder and squid rings from a stall in the car park and ate them sitting on a wall. Sat among the hustle and bustle of the harbour, sunshine + crisp sea air + a bowl of hot soup = one happy Simon.

After we’d finished our impromptu meal, we headed off for a walk along the big sandy beach that extends away from the village. The island you can see in the photo below is Ireland’s Eye, which looked like a great place to go kayaking (if one has a kayak). The island’s odd name has a bit of a story behind it, which you can read here if you so wish. (Don’t build your hopes up, it’s only a bit of a story.)

Ireland's Eye

And don’t worry, there hasn’t been a tsunami. This fishing boat was just on shore being repaired.

Howth Beach

All in all, a fantastic day out. And we still had time to head back into Dublin city centre and do a bit of book shopping. So if you’re in town and looking for something to do for half a day or so, I’d heartily recommend a quick trip to Howth. And make sure you try the chowder.

A weekend in Dublin (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I flew over to Dublin for a bit of a weekend break. We haven’t been away anywhere for a while, and we have fond memories of when we last travelled to the city some fifteen years ago, so we were looking forward to seeing how the place had fared. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be ‘not very well’. While Ireland’s capital grew quickly during the boom years of the ‘celtic tiger’, the recent downturn has most definitely taken its toll. On the city and on its people.

I should perhaps mention that my view of the city may have been influenced a little by my holiday reading. I often read in magazines about people who take ‘themed’ reading with them on their travels, so had bought a copy of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, on the grounds that it sounded fairly relevant to our trip. However, I forgot to take it with me, so popped into a bookshop on my arrival and bought a copy of Fintan O’Toole’s book ‘Enough is Enough’, which chronicles briefly the history of the crisis that Ireland has pretty much leapt into head first and sets out what O’Toole (who is, according to the book’s blurb, a well-known commentator and newspaper columnist) thinks the country should do to sort itself out.

It’s clear that the city has spent a lot of money on infrastructure in the last decade or so. There are some lovely paths along the banks of the River Liffey, complete with trees, sculptures and some very decorative lamp posts. There are also a number of new-looking bridges and a vast array of shiny office blocks, most of which seem to be a little on the empty side. We even found a brand new shopping centre with about twenty empty units and one solitary little Starbucks quietly doing its thing in the far corner.

Here’s a view down the river. Note the cool harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge and the rather wonky building with the cylindrical glass window thing.

The River Liffey in Dublin

Here’s a close-up of the wonky building, which turns out to be a new convention centre. (I just googled ‘wonky glass cylinder building dublin’, and perhaps unsurprisingly it came out on top.) It may be an example of something cool in architecture terms, but it seems a little gratuitous to me. The city’s hospitals, it pains me to note, look a lot less modern. (Something that Fintan O’Toole would probably also not hesitate to point out.)

Office building by the river

The Samuel Beckett Bridge may also be slightly more artistic than is strictly necessary, but I guess we can cut the city a little more slack here, given that it (a) serves a useful purpose, (b) has a suitably Irish theme and (c) looks unbelievably cool. Although having just looked it up on Wikipedia, I see that there is criticism that it (a) is in the wrong place from a traffic point of view and (b) only lets you turn in certain directions, forcing many drivers to use a nearby toll bridge instead (hmm, sneaky). And it did cost 60 million Euro, which seems quite a lot. Anyway, here’s a picture of the bridge up close and personal. It really does look very nice.

The 'harp' bridge

In a class of its own, though, and not in a good way, is the natural history outpost of the National Museum of Ireland. Being big fans of the Natural History Museum in London, we thought it would be good to see what its Irish counterpart had to offer. Unfortunately, the museum’s collection seems to have been put together sometime in the late Victorian era, with little in the way of updates since then. Glass case upon glass case full of rather mangy looking stuffed mammals may appeal to some, but an engaging exploration of flora and fauna on the Emerald Isle it is not. The building itself, though, is very nice. Here it is…

Natural History Museum

Now, I’m sorry if my description of our little city break is less than upbeat. But in my defence, I’m just telling it like it is. Dublin is not doing too well. I was shocked not only by the empty buildings, the poor state of public services and the large number of homeless people begging in the streets (as well as the parlous state of the museums), but also by the downbeat nature of the people of Dublin themselves. The city seems to have lost completely the fizz that once made it such an attractive destination. It’s as if Dubliners have become so overwhelmed by their fall from grace that they can’t even imagine a way out, let alone find their way towards it. A little melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s honestly how it felt.

There were some good bits, though. I’ll explore some of these in my next couple of posts (this is part one of, probably, three), but I have to mention now the fantastic little gardens that seemed to pop up when we least expected them, such as this tiny one in the gap between two buildings.

Garden

Check out in particular the sculpture at the back. Here it is closer up. Admittedly, the gate to the garden was locked, so I’m not sure who is supposed to enjoy this little area of tranquility in the heart of the city, but it sure was pretty (if inaccessible).

Tree sculpture

Lest you think that our mini-break was a bit of a disaster, let me assure you that we did, in fact, have a great time. Natalie and I very rarely get any time together that isn’t taken up with work, family or household issues, so it was brilliant to have some time away and to just wander around chatting away to each other. To reconnect. To find the balance that is so easily lost amid the hectic of everyday life. But Dublin. Oh, Dublin. What have you done to yourself in these fifteen short years since last we met?

They didn’t teach me that at school

I’ve been learning quite a lot recently. Since my father died a couple of years ago, I have been helping my mother to move back from France, where they lived, and to get her settled here in the UK. This has meant finding somewhere to rent here, selling the house in France and sorting out the enormous amount of administrative stuff that comes with it.

Now, my mother is not – how shall I put this – the most organised of individuals. If she wants to do something, then she’ll generally do it. But when it comes to things that she’d rather not think about, such as paying bills or doing her tax return, then she has a remarkable capacity to forget all about them.

Take this morning, for instance. My mother rang me with the news that the plumber had arrived at the house in France to fix the heating, only to find that there was no mains water. He rang my mother, who promptly rang me. I rang the water company, who informed me that the water had been cut off because my mother has not paid the bill. Fantastic.

Annoying, but easy enough to sort out. I convinced the lovely people at the water company to send me a copy of the bill, so that I can make sure that my mother pays it and that the water gets turned back on. All done and dusted. Experience tells me, though, that while this particular crisis is well on its way to being managed, it will inevitably not be long before something else crops up.

The snag, from my point of view, is two-fold. Firstly, I’m the only one in my family who speaks French, so when problems arise with things in France, I’m the one my mother calls. And secondly, I’m far too nice to say no. She is my mother, after all, and I want her to get everything sorted out, even if it is – at the current rate – likely to take decades.

It’s also a great learning experience for me. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned how to surf French bureaucracy and have developed my language skills in hitherto unexpected areas. Here are just a few examples, in broadly chronological order:

  • reporting a death and getting a death certificate;
  • organising a cremation and a funeral;
  • writing and giving a eulogy;
  • hosting a wake;
  • schmoozing with the local mayor;
  • getting bank and utility accounts into my mother’s name (without anything being frozen in the process, which apparently is quite an achievement);
  • driving a tractor;
  • liaising with the notaire (French solicitor-type person) to sort out my father’s estate;
  • getting a bit shirty with the notaire because a year is not ‘fairly quickly’;
  • dealing with home insurers and convincing them to maintain cover despite my father having cancelled the policy and nobody having paid the bill;
  • sorting out a tax return;
  • arranging a high speed international house move;
  • coordinating a large number of family members in respect of a high speed international house move (spreadsheets were involved);
  • getting two unruly border collies across the channel without causing an international incident (it was going so well until the lady at customs tried to stroke one of them);
  • discussing with an estate agent why the house in France has not yet been sold and what we can do to make it more attractive to buyers;
  • negotiating payment of local and national property taxes, when nobody was sure what taxes need to be paid, which had already been paid and to whom they needed to be paid;
  • liaising with the estate agent once he had found a buyer for the house, to make sure that nothing – absolutely nothing, you hear me – gets in the way of the sale process;
  • selling a tractor (this is, incidentally, far more complicated and bureaucratic than one would anticipate initially); and
  • resolving a small issue around the non-payment of a water bill and disconnection of service (though you know that bit already).

I can say with some confidence that none of the French that I learned at school was of any use in any of these particular situations. The key, I found, was to be delightfully charming on the phone (i.e. don’t yell), to recognise what needed doing when, and to keep close track of a never-ending series of reference numbers.

At no stage, you will be pleased to hear, was I required to talk about my holidays, conjugate a verb or ask directions to the train station.

An unexpected day out

I had an unexpected day out in London last Wednesday. I don’t mean that someone grabbed me and Fedex’d me to Charing Cross or anything like that. I mean, that only happened to me that one time. But I had a really great day. It was the first time for ages that I’ve been to London and actually had some time to look around.

I’d planned to go to the capital for a couple of work meetings and had saved money by booking my train tickets a couple of weeks in advance. Typically, no sooner had I booked my (non-refundable) tickets than one of my two meetings got postponed. And then, while I was actually on the train out of Bristol, the other one got pushed to a later date, too. But what the hell. All the more time for sightseeing…

I started off with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I thought at first that it wasn’t that impressive, but then realised that I’d come in through the back door by mistake. But as I made my way around to the front entrance, I was struck by how well everything had been put together. They had, for example, made some fantastic use of visual artwork to set a nautical tone. Here’s my favourite…

The writing on the wall

The other thing that impressed me was the scale of the place. Being in a rather large old building with a three-storey roofed courtyard in the middle, there was plenty of scope for larger exhibits and displays that really showed the majesty of some of our maritime heritage. Here’s a rather imposing display of figureheads…

Figureheads

There was also a particularly emotive exhibition about some of the people who have featured prominently in Britain’s seafaring heritage, with the stories behind them and displays of some of their possessions. Some of the stories were rather profound. And others were, quite simply, heartbreaking. The sea and untimely death, it appears, go hand in hand. There was also some more brilliant artwork…

More writing on the wall

I then wandered up the hill to the Royal Observatory, home of the Astronomers Royal, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. It’s funny, really, how something of such prominence in the history of the world should consist of such a modest, understated collection of buildings (if you ignore the massive dome housing a 28-inch refracting telescope). But as a keen physicist and astronomer myself, I was, to be honest, a little overawed.

Royal Observatory

There are also some great views from the hill on which the observatory is sited, looking north over the whole expanse of London. Here, for example, is Canary Wharf. (A sign, perhaps, that the era of understatement is over.)

Canary Wharf

And here’s the charming Millennium Dome, or whatever it’s called now. Which, apparently, you can see from space. But not, luckily, from Bristol.

The Dome

And here, far away in the distance, is the Gherkin. If you’re not sure which building I’m talking about, the Gherkin is the one with the diagonal stripes and a black lid. And no, I don’t know why it’s called the Gherkin. It looks more like a goth’s lipstick.

The Gherkin

Yes, I couldn’t resist. Here’s me standing over the prime meridian. My right foot is in the eastern hemisphere and my left foot is in the west. Zero degrees of longitude. The world starts here. I’m glad I thought to wear some smart shoes.

Me on the meridian

While at the observatory, I stopped in to look at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. And, quite simply, wow. I mean, wow. Some of the images just took my breath away. Clearly, the organisers will go nuts if I stick any of the photos up here, so check out their website and see what I mean. Or even better, catch the exhibition while it’s on (it’s there until 17th February next year – and entry is free) and learn more about the photos and the people who took them.

An my way back to the station to catch the train home, and after a mad dash to check out the flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I stopped in to see my little sister and her new baby, Otto. He’s only about a month old, so he’s still really teeny. Here’s the little fella. As you can tell, he was absolutely delighted to see me…

Otto

And then, after a rather tiring but absolutely fantastic day, it was time for home… and bed.

Up, up and away…

I was awoken at seven o’clock last Friday morning by my wife’s insistence that she could hear a balloon. Now, I know that I don’t always function particularly well first thing in the morning, but I challenge anyone to describe what a balloon sounds like. I thought at first that it might be some kind of Zen koan. But then it struck me that this weekend is the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and things started to make a bit more sense.

A quick glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was, indeed, a huge hot air balloon floating past at an alarmingly low level, its burner roaring as the pilot attempted to avoid the chimney pots and telegraph poles along our street. See what I mean in the photo below.

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The morning and evening ‘mass ascents’ are the highlights of the annual event. It’s quite rare that the winds (which usually blow the other way) bring the balloons in our direction, though, so we grabbed our cameras – and the dog – and headed out into the garden for a better look.*

It turned out that the balloon that had woken us was a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, which was heading towards us from the launch site to the north east. They made a brilliant sight as they emerged out of the sun, even if the photo below doesn’t really do them justice.

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I figured that we still had a few minutes before the rest of the balloons got to us, so I dashed in to feed the dog and to get us each a cup of tea. When I got back, things were definitely starting to happen. I was beginning to wish, though, that I’d put some jeans on over my jim-jams – or at least a dressing gown.

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It was fantastic to stand and watch the different balloons glide serenely overhead. And it was a particular fluke that most of them seemed to pass directly over our garden. This is my favourite photo, which I took as one of the balloons was just coming up over the house.

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This is my second favourite photo. I wish the sky was always this blue.

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Some of the balloons were quite a bit lower, though, so we could wave at the people dangling out of the baskets. A few of them were particularly enthusiastic.

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Molly was also quite enthusiastic. We’ve tried hard to socialise her to the sorts of things that she’s likely to come across, but I have to admit that low-flying hot air balloons full of screaming, waving people was not on our list. Once she’d got the obligatory initial bout of woofing out of the way, though, she seemed to take it in her stride.

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And then, as quickly and as silently as they had arrived, the balloons were gone.

* I’ll spare you the photos of me wandering around in a dazed fashion wearing only my Canon DSLR and a pair of pyjamas, because there’s already enough filth on the internet and I have no desire to add to it.

And a positive (though slightly odd) museum experience

Having been perhaps a little negative in my review of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in my previous post, I wanted to tell you about the other museum that I went to during my recent stay in Germany. Because this one was pretty fantastic and was a much better example of what a museum should be like. But the story of how I came to be there is a little odd, so I’ll start with that.

In the museum

Light, colourful and cheerful – not your average museum

The reason for our trip to the continent was an invitation to the wedding of Natalie’s brother, Dom, to his fiancee, Kathrin. For reasons that are still a little unclear, the pair had decided to get married in Duisburg, which is in the middle of the industrial Ruhr region of Germany. (And quite a way from where they or either sets of parents live, hence the slight confusion.) The ceremony was at midday and the reception didn’t start until the evening, so Dom and Kathrin (DomKat?) thought that they had better arrange some kind of activity for their guests in the afternoon.

They decided, as you do, that what the wedding party needed was a guided tour of a museum. And not just any museum, you understand, but the Museum der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt – the Museum of German Inland Waterway Navigation. I may come across as a little dubious here, but the museum was actually pretty amazing and I’m really glad that they took us there.

In the museum

Not your typical museum (or wedding) behaviour

The museum itself is housed in an old swimming baths, with separate pools for men and women. But rather than do away with the old decor, the people who run the museum have decided to integrate it into their exhibits – and have done so spectacularly well. And while our guide admitted readily that this was the first time in eight years working there that he’d hosted a wedding party at the museum, he took it all in his stride and quickly got into the spirit of things.

The focus of the museum is on two ships, one a genuine old sailing boat and one a slightly shortened replica of a modern day motor barge. These are berthed, in a fit of inspired genius, in the old swimming pools, which have been retained exactly as they would have been. With gratings installed at what would have been water level, this means that you can wander around both above and below the waterline of the ships. In one case, they have even set up a small diving scene, with a mannequin in a diving suit and a whole load of rusted objects strewn around the ‘sea bed’.

In the museum

Underwater view: Making the most of the surroundings

Around the edges of the swimming pools are a variety of models, artefacts and display boards highlighting other aspects of the history of Germany’s inland waterways, including historic boats and sailing ships (from dugout canoes onwards), old anchors (which we were encouraged to try to lift) and even a replica of an old sailors’ tavern.

At each stage of our tour, we were encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits, whether by looking around the replica of the modern barge, trying out the pump that would have been used to provide divers with an air supply (that’s what the thing is in the photo of the happy couple, in case you were wondering) or wheeling cargo around on an old sack-truck. Our guide even came up with a range of novel photo-opportunities for the bride and groom, including on the bridge of the freighter, mucking around with the pump (as you’ve already seen), ringing an old ship’s bell or posing alongside the majestic old sailing barge.

In the museum

Visitors are encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits

To be honest, this isn’t the sort of museum that I would have visited if I had been in charge of the itinerary. But it would have been my loss, as the people who run the place have taken what could have been quite a dry topic and have made it into something exciting, vibrant and alive.

Rather than just hearing about names, places, dates and objects that are so often seen as the key to the past, we were introduced to the people who worked on the boats and experienced in some small way what life was like for them and their families. And that, to me, is what history is all about.

How not to run a museum

When I was in Germany a couple of weeks back, my wife and I took an hour or so away from our family duties and paid a quick visit to the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Romano-Germanic Museum, or all about the Romans while they were in Germany) in the centre of Cologne. The city was a major Roman settlement and every time someone tries to build something – or even just dig a hole – more of its history comes to light. Given this amazing potential, we had high hopes for the museum and its exhibits.

In the museum

If you build it, they will come. Er, no.

To say that the museum fails completely to do justice to the city and its historic past, however, is to be polite. True, it does have some fantastic pieces, such as a huge Roman mosaic and a spectacular array of statues. But in this electronic, hands-on age, to simply line everything up and label it shows a distinct lack of effort. Cologne’s history is truly amazing, but the museum seemed more like a musty old storeroom than a celebration of the city’s past, present and future.

Some Roman coins

Boooooring!

Now, I may not be an expert when it comes to museums. But I have been to quite a few over the years and I know what gets me engaged and what just turns me off. So here are my top six Römisch-Germanische improvements, just in case someone rings me up tomorrow and says ‘OK, Herr Smarty Pants. You think you can do better? So why don’t you just get back over here and show us what you’ve got, my friend?’

1. Make it welcoming. When we wandered in through the museum’s front door, we were faced with a miserable looking lady sat at a desk in the corner. Once she had (grudgingly) sold us two tickets, these were checked by a surly security guard before we were allowed into the exhibits themselves. Everything about it screamed ‘what do you think you’re doing here, pond scum?’ Not a great first impression. Let’s replace the desk with a counter front and centre, get the lady to smile, greet visitors with a ‘welcome to the museum’ and replace the security guard with someone in a ‘Civus Romanus sum’ T-shirt.

2. Ditch the uniforms. Patrolling the exhibits were a team of uniformed staff, whose purpose seemed very much to be making sure that we didn’t cause any trouble, steal anything or enjoy ourselves in any way. I didn’t see them interact with any of the visitors, though their eyes followed us around the room throughout our visit. What’s that all about? I’d swap the official-looking uniforms for something less formal and task these people (who are all perfectly pleasant, if the lady I approach to ask if it was OK to take photos is anything to go by) with making sure that everyone was enjoying the museum and getting the most from their visit.

3. Introduce some interactivity. Lining up exhibits in glass cases with little labels is sooooo last century. Rather than just looking at little Roman lamps, lets get some replicas that we can play with. Same with the coins, jewellery and cooking implements. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could get some drama students to dress up as Romans and give people a bit more insight into the history of the people behind the objects by telling stories, giving demonstrations and getting visitors involved. Why just read about weaving when you could have a go at it yourself?

4. Make some noise. Even though there were quite a few people wandering around the exhibits while we were there, the museum was as silent as the tomb that it clearly wants to be. People stared silently at the statues and spoke in hushed whispers, if at all. This is nuts. Lets get hold of some Roman music to get an atmosphere going, perhaps even some live musicians at weekends and Roman holidays. And why aren’t there sound effects for any of the exhibits? Or audio-visual presentations to accompany some of the major pieces? It’s really not that difficult, people.

Statues

Interactive? Not so much.

5. Open a cafe. This must have been the first museum that I’ve been to that doesn’t have a cafe or restaurant. Once you’ve looked around the exhibits, you leave. That’s it. It’s almost criminal, in my view, that there’s nowhere to sit and mull over what you’ve seen while you down an espresso or tuck into some hearty soup. It’s also a great waste of a potential revenue stream. Especially because there’s an open air courtyard on the top floor that’s just crying out for a coffee bar and some patio chairs.

6. Open a decent shop. While there is a sort-of shop in the foyer area, it’s basically a shelf with a few dusty books on it. If this is going to be a family attraction (and it should be), then we need things that adults and families alike can purchase to commemorate their visit and to help them to learn more about the city’s history. While a few scholarly texts are fine, how about something a little more exciting for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a professor of ancient history?

There we go. Nothing too Earth-shattering, but a few simple ideas for making the Römisch-Germanisches Museum less like a mausoleum and more like the celebration that it should be. I’m sorry to go on about this. But history is incredibly interesting and provides real insight into our present and future as well as our past. Museums that make history out to be something inaccessible that should be revered in silence do a disservice to us all.