Shunt Bar was the best bar I’ve ever stepped inside. Located under London Bridge station, it’s not somewhere you’d ever find unless you were looking for it. You got in by opening a plain red door next to the ticket barriers by the Joiner Street entrance. There was no sign, no advertising, not even the name by a bell. It was like opening the wardrobe and stepping into Narnia.

Shunt was massive – endless rooms and creepy corridors to explore. In one alcove was a library room where you could sit with a glass of wine and peruse some books. In another was a cinema. Another led to a pool room, and another to a stage. There would always be some kind of art exhibition and some kind of performance art. Stuff I’ve seen there includes circus performers, burlesque, mime, cake baking, film shorts, rope dancers and experimental theatre. Shunt was a completely different experience every night I visited. I’ve never found a bar I enjoyed hanging out in quite so much, and I’ve had a misspent youth (and not-so-youth) hanging out in *a lot* of bars.

I’m not a big fan of crowds, one of the reasons why I loved Shunt so much. It was a super sized bar in London, where in most bars you’re likely to be squeezed in the middle of a seething mass of other drinkers, unable to find a seat and having to wait half an hour to get served. Because of fire regulations, despite the vast, cavernous size of the venue, only 200 or so very lucky people were allowed to be inside at any one time. It was always easy to find a quiet corner to sit down and have a chat – one evening a friend and I hid in one of the darkest corners and amused ourselves by jumping out and scaring unsuspecting people as they walked by. They just thought we were part of the entertainment.

Originally meant to be closed in 2009 due to the redevelopment of London Bridge station, Shunt was granted a stay of execution due to delays in those works, but the end was inevitable. It finally shuttered its doors on 16th April 2011, a sad day indeed. I miss Shunt. I doubt there’ll ever be anywhere else quite like it.

If you’re interested, the former owners are having a sale of some of their Shunt gear tomorrow (Saturday February 4th) in Bermondsey. Details on their Facebook page.

Hay-on-Wye

Posted: February 3, 2012 in United Kingdom
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Located just over the Welsh border in Powys, Hay-on-Wye is known as ‘the town of books’. There are over 30 bookshops in the small market town, where only 1,900 live. It’s paradise for book lovers, with many places selling discounted books or second hand books and you can happily spend an entire day browsing the many specialist, antiquarian and charity book stores.

Hay-on-Wye really comes to life during the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, which this year is happening between 31 May and 10 June (and coincidentally will be the 25th festival). Last year featured talks with literary giants like Henning Mankell, Ian McEwan and Bill Bryson, along with Brian Cox talking about cosmology, Germaine Greer talking about the King James Bible and an acoustic set by Beth Orton. The line-up for this year’s is going to be finalised in the next few days – keep an eye on the official web site.

I like the idea of going to the festival, but ten days seems a long time to take off work, and a long time to spend with not much else to do than listen to people talk. Since the town is so small and there isn’t enough local accommodation for the 80,000 or so people who pour into the area to get their literary fix, if you don’t book super early you’re likely to get stuck with camping or in an expensive B&B a long drive away.

So, instead, I visited one day on the off season, when it was nice and quiet and there weren’t huge crowds to push through to get at the book shelves. It was very quiet, and we mused on how the book shops can possibly make enough money to sustain themselves during the rest of the year.

A few of the shops weren’t staffed, and simply had a price list and an honour box for people to pay in. This one particularly caught my eye, since it was outside, simply bookcases in a field, a very strange thing to see indeed. They are partly protected by a cover over the top, which stops the worst of the elements from damaging the books, but they still weren’t in a great condition. I really liked the idea of a 24 hour library, though. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all our public libraries were open 24 hours? I’d love to go and pore over dusty reference tomes or sit in a comfy chair and read a book there in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

The streets of Berlin are full of street art and graffiti – it’s one of the things that I love most about the city. I like both, but I prefer street art, as to me graffiti always seems to be a bit territorial, and all it seems to be doing is shouting ‘look at me!’, but street art usually wants to say something and make you think. Graffiti is tags and scrawls – sometimes the tags are elaborate and multi-coloured and can take days to put up, sometimes they are literally writing on a wall. Street art, on the other hand, is generally stencil based or done at home and then pasted up in the chosen location. This can be done very quickly indeed – all the better for avoiding being caught by the police.

There are all kinds of tours to take around Berlin – you can take tours in a Trabant, comedy coach tours and slightly icky pub crawls. When I was last in Berlin a few months ago, I found a walking tour that focused on street art called The Experience Alternative Berlin Tour. Berlin’s always been a great city for artists – there are legal graffiti zones, weekly art and craft fairs and flea markets where creatives can sell their wares and small, independent galleries everywhere.

The Experience Alternative Berlin tour is free and you can join it every day at 11am and 1pm outside Starbucks in Alexanderplatz. It lasted about three hours and took us around places like Tacheles (the famous artists’ squat in an old department store), the Eastside gallery and the YAAM beach bar.

Probably one of the reasons that these tours have become popular here is that recently Germany launched a new visa for Americans called an Artist Visa, which allows them to stay and work in the country – as long as their work is art-related. I enjoyed hearing about the history of some of the pieces and learn about the artists, and it also helped me find some graffiti hot spots that I’d not even discovered, even though I used to live in Berlin.

Here are photos of some of my favourite pieces from the walk. Sadly, I imagine that even though my trip to Berlin wasn’t so long ago, these have probably all vanished from the city’s walls by now. Graffiti and street art have depressingly short life spans.

Tempelhof Airport

Posted: February 3, 2012 in Germany
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Once Hitler’s favourite airport, Berlin’s Tempelhof was closed in September 2008. Berlin is not a particularly big city, and it really didn’t need three airports, so plans were made to redirect all air traffic from there and Tegel to Schönefeld. The last time I saw Tempelhof, I was flying in to it, so it was quite a shock to return a few years later and find it had been permanently closed for business. Peering through the windows, you can see trollies still lined up inside, waiting for people to load their suitcases on to them. A single plane waits outside the back gates, now simply an exhibit to visit on tours of the ex-airport.

The runway areas have been turned into a massive public park, and cyclists, rollerbladers and joggers now use them for exercise, passing signs that directed taxiing planes to their proper gates. The park measures some 950 acres in size, and it’s difficult to get a sense of the scale from photographs. It’s about three times the size of London’s Hyde Park, or close in size to New York’s Central Park.

Grün Berlin, which runs Tempelhofer Feld, as the former airport space is now known, and several other unusual park spaces in the city, will be spending some €60 million developing it in the next five years. I’m not quite sure what they’re intending to spend all that money on, as it’s pretty fantastic as it is. There’s a BBQ area, a dog walking field, a picnic area and a six kilometre jogging/skating/rollerblading/space hopping trail. It’s open every day from sunrise to sunset.

In a way, things are just returning to the way they used to be. Before Tempelhof Airport was built on the site, Tempelhofer Park was a parade ground, and families would bring picnics to eat once all the marching and shouting had stopped.

Jack in the Green is a colourful festival that celebrates the long awaited arrival of summer. Jack is also known as the Green Man and decked out in foliage, usually in a conical (and comical) shape. It was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, but died out in the 19th century as the Victorians were not amused. The whole thing was far too bawdy for their liking. Now several areas are reviving it, as it’s fun to dress up and a good excuse for a party. Three places that have re-started this very English festival are Whistable,Rochester and Hastings. In Hastings, a seaside town on the south east coast of England, it takes place over the May Day bank holiday weekend in the ruins of the Castle.

The best day to attend the festivities is on the bank holiday Monday — this year May 7, although there are things going on over the whole weekend as the town tries its best to eke out as many tourism pennies from the public as possible. The day kicks off in the morning when Jack is released, followed by a grand procession, with everyone making their way through the old town to the remains of Hastings Castle to congregate and watch Morris dancing and eat, drink and be merry. In the main castle area, there’s a stage, along with a beer tent and, hopefully this year, more than two toilets. Over the bridge, in the Ladies Parlour are craft and food stalls. The atmosphere is fantastic, but it’s best to head off before evening, when the town starts to become tired and emotional.

Almost everyone takes the opportunity to dress up and there are some fantastic costumes to see, including the bogies – burly men painted in green, chimney sweeps with blackened faces and the purple ladies Hannah’s Cat.

To find out more about this year’s Jack in the Green, head to the official web site. There isn’t a full programme yet, but it will likely be put up there soon.

 

Spreepark was the East German equivalent of Disneyland, first opened in 1969 in the middle of Treptow Park, Berlin. It was left to rot after being declared bankrupt in 2001 and today is an eerie place to mooch around, a place where you’ll hang with decapitated fibreglass dinosaurs, rusting tea-cup rides and gaze up at the massive, multi-coloured Ferris wheel which will never turn again.

The amusement park, which was originally called Kulturpark Plänterwald, was in its heyday a popular place to take the sprogs – it was the only theme park in the DDR and 1.7 million visitors a year tumbled through its turnstiles. When the Berlin wall fell and opened up the rest of the world to the former East Germans, popularity started to sag. The park was given a facelift and re-launched as Spreepark, modelled after Western theme parks, but the concept didn’t really take off in Germany.

Norbert Witte, one of the men in charge of Spreepark, ‘borrowed’ six of the park’s attractions and legged it to Lima, Peru, where he attempted to use them to open another amusement park and capitalise on that lucrative Peruvian market. The whole thing was a bit of a disaster, and in 2004, Witte was jailed for seven years for attempting to smuggle €21 million worth of cocaine back to Berlin. He’d hidden it in Spreepark’s Magic Carpet ride. Really.

You can get inside Spreepark either by paying the security company or sneaking in – your choice. It’s also a popular place to hire out for techno parties, and by film crews (the ending of the recent action thriller Hanna was filmed there).

Imber

Posted: January 9, 2012 in United Kingdom
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Imber is a remote hamlet in Wiltshire that can no longer be found on the map. This is because on 1 November 1943, the villagers were told they had 43 days to evacuate their homes as the area was to be requisitioned by the US military as part of the war effort.

So, people left their homes, their farms and their businesses, taking the things they could with them and selling the things they couldn’t, like their farm animals, for well below their real value. No compensation was ever given. Once the US army packed up shop and left, the villagers had been led to believe that they would be allowed to return to their homes. They never were.

Imber is still being used as a military training ground today and is only open to public access a few days a year. The best way to find out when those days are is from the Forever Imber web site. I headed up there a couple of summers ago with some friends, after reading about it in the book Bollocks to Alton Towers, which made it sound like an interesting place to visit with phrases like “wandering round the village on an August afternoon is a solemn and faintly surreal experience ”. I have to admit, we were a little bit disappointed. Although we were allowed access to the road, the military were still on site and tried their best to keep us out of the buildings. Never being one to do what I’m told, we snuck in anyway, but there wasn’t much to see. The buildings that were accessible had been stripped bare, with shell casings littering the floors and phrases like ‘stolen from the people’ scrawled on the walls.  

Perhaps the best part of the trip was the actual drive into town. Along the road immediately leading to Imber is a tank graveyard, where signs in front of rusting tanks warn any stray members of the public, “danger unexploded military debris, do not leave the carriageway”.