Iowa’s Route 6 – The Road Built in an Hour, 1910

To build a solid, major road, hundreds of miles long in one hour defies belief, but that is what the Iowa State authorities performed in 1910. Read how they pulled it off.

In the USA in 1910 the motorcar’s popularity was really taking off with the launch of the Model T Ford two years earlier. In Iowa State, before the U.S. Highway System came into being in 1926, roads were maintained and promoted by local organisations which sought to drive traffic into their communities.

Yet there was one major obstacle on the road to prosperity; Iowa was gaining a nasty reputation for the poor state of its roads.

They would become impassable for weeks at a time due to snow and mud, farmers weren’t able to get their products to the nearest rail station and it slowed and even halted mail delivery at times. Iowa got nicknamed the ‘gumbo state’ (gumbo being a thick brown stew).

At a Good Roads Convention in Des Moines on March 8–9, 1910 it was decided that a well maintained River-to-River Road from Davenport to Council Bluffs would help change Iowa’s reputation.

To that end 10,000 Iowans turned out one day under the White Pole Auto Club’s banner, and with thousands of picks, shovels, ploughs, and scrapers they made tremendous progress.

Amazingly, these men completed the road in just one hour; all 380 miles (612 km) of it, and with road signs erected by the day’s end!

That road is Highway 6

Governor Carroll arranged for the farmers who lived along the route to work on the road (docublogger.typepad.com)

Now, Iowa possessed a road that within a year was widely recognised as the standard of the world.

This is a real road, and even when the ocean-to-ocean highway shall be a fact in the luxurious future, transcontinental automobile travellers may continue to look forward to this particular stretch in pleasant anticipation.” wrote Victor Eubank, after completing the pioneering Raymond and Whitcomb cross-country tour in 1912.

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Birmingham, Gloucester, Plymouth, and their Trans-Atlantic Twins

Birmingham 

Birmingham, Alabama’s towering skyline (elements.envato.com)

The ‘Magic City’ was founded in 1871 and was planned from the very beginning to become the massive manufacturing hub it burgeoned into. Today, it is Alabama’s premier metropolis and is regarded as one of the US’s best places to earn a crust. Because the city was always planned to be a centre of industry, it was named in homage to Britain’s own hub of enterprise and industry.

Across the pond in England’s West Midlands, Birmingham city vies with nearby Manchester as Britain’s ‘2nd City’. Outside of the heady superlatives of London, Birmingham is the country’s powerhouse of economic diversity which is why it’s dubbed ‘The City of 1001 Trades’.

The name ‘Birmingham’ (pronounced ‘Birming’um’)  comes from the Old English ‘Beormingahām, meaning the home or settlement of the Beormingas – an Anglo-Saxon tribal name meaning literally ‘Beorma’s people’. Founded in 1154, its profile rose as Britain’s profile burgeoned throughout the world, being but a market town until the Industrial Revolution plugged it in to England’s vast canal and rail network and propelled it into a teeming metropolis.

Today (2021), Birmingham is a city of a million people known as ‘Brummies’. It hosts a royal ballet company, the Repertory Theatre and Hippodrome that are all nationally renowned. Its National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is 190,000 m2 (over two million square feet) large and its library is the UK’s largest. The city also hosts no less than four top football clubs. Birmingham gave the world music bands Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and UB40. Formula One World Championship and the CART Indy Car World Series winner Nigel Mansell; Prime Minister Nevil Chamberlain and Homeland actor David Harewood all hail from Birmingham too. 

Iconic canal boats moored up in the city’s 35 miles (56km) of waterways (birminghammail.co.uk)

Although Birmingham is not exactly festooned with Renaissance architecture, the city likes to boast that it has more miles of canal waterways than Venice in Italy. So, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood you should absolutely take a tour the city in a traditional canal boat. Birmingham also boasts five Michelin starred restaurants and numerous festivals, including one of the world’s largest St Patrick’s Day parades. A stay in the city should also include heading to Victoria Square, with the Council House, Symphony Hall and Town Hall, all built as triumphs of Victorian architecture. There are top museums and galleries throughout the city and visitors can also stroll through Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or satisfy their sweet tooth at Cadbury World.

The grand Victoria Square, Birmingham, England (en.wikipedia.org)

Gloucester

This hardy Massachusetts city is synonymous with the North Atlantic deep sea fishing industry and it’s where Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous and movie The Perfect Storm were set. Gloucester is one of the USA’s most historic settlements, founded way back in 1623. Today, it is still a working fishing port but also a popular tourist destination. 

Gloucester, Massachusetts’ bustling harbour (tripsavvy.com)

England’s namesake is similarly a smallish, historical port in an out-of-the-way corner of the country. Gloucester, England sits on the river Severn, close to the Welsh border. And it is the UK’s furthest inland port. Its docks are accessed by the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal connecting it to the Severn Estuary then the seas beyond.

The City’s original Roman name was ‘Glevum’ but later took the Welsh name ‘Caer-loyw’ meaning ‘fort-bright/light/glowy’. ‘Loyw’ pronounced ‘gloyw’ by some had the Anglo-Saxon ‘cester’ (old fort) added later to become ‘Gloyw-cester’, then Gloucester. This ancient city was founded in 48 AD as an important fort and Roman colony. It remained strategically important during the Dark Ages, with St Peter’s Abbey being built in 680 AD and King Edward the Confessor holding court there in 1051. Later, it was in this strategic hub King Henry III was crowned and Gloucester’s significance in the Middle Ages is underlined by the fact that many monastic orders flocked to the city. Gloucester grew during the 16th-17th Centuries and construction of its canal began towards the end of the 18th Century, but was only completed in 1827. By that point, however, shipping of the industrial Age had largely outgrown Gloucester’s port facilities.
In the 20th Century, Gloster Aircraft Company would manufacture the UK’s first jet aircraft. In 2007 the city suffered biblical flooding that ironically disabled its water supply for 17 days.  

Famous residents of Gloucester include Methodist Church founder George Whitefield and the founder of Sunday Schools, Robert Raikes. The composer of America’s national anthem John Stafford Smith, Comedic actor Simon Pegg, not to mention the infamous serial murderer couple Fred and Rose West also called Gloucester home.

Gloucester Cathedral, opened in 1089 (gloucestershirelive.co.uk)

This city, within easy reach of the Forest of Dean to its west, and the quaint Cotswold Hills to the east, is a modest one of about 130,000 people but its rich history can be seen throughout its streets. The city centre street layout is the same one the Roman legionnaires laid down all those centuries back and visitors can view half-timbered Tudor shops, the tailor’s house from Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and the city’s very fine 11th Century cathedral where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Gloucester’s best place is its Historic Docks where you can explore the bars, shops and eateries nestled among the renovated red-bricked warehouses around the harbourside. With so much history there is as much to discover within this ancient city’s borders as there is in the bucolic splendour beyond.

Gloucester Docks (aboutglos.co.uk)

Plymouth

Another Massachusetts city, dubbed ‘America’s Hometown’. Although a small city on the fringes of America’s economic development, Plymouth is at the root of its cultural development.

Downtown Plymouth Massachusetts (joesretirementblog.blogspot.com)

It was at Plymouth Rock the fabled Mayflower Pilgrims made landfall in 1620 and, after surviving that first brutal winter, celebrated Thanksgiving the following Fall after a successful harvest restored their vigour and durability. This signified the moment the newborn USA came off of life support to begin its own baby steps. 

Of course, it was England’s port of Plymouth that the Mayflower set sail from. This longtime home of the Royal Navy is all the way down in the south west of the country and now hosts the largest naval base in Europe aside one of the world’s most impressive natural harbours.

Plymouth’s etymology derives from its position at the mouth of the River Plym; ‘Plym’ meaning ‘plum tree’ in Old English (and ‘ploumenn’ in Cornish). Plymouth was an important trading port for tin from prehistoric times well into the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, it managed to retain its Cornish culture distinct from the rest of England. It wasn’t until England’s coming-of-age when the Spanish Armada swept up the Channel that the city came to be an important base of naval operations, and the Naval Dock was established in 1689. From then on, its long seafaring tradition flourished. It was from this Cornish bastion in the late 16th Century Sir Francis Drake made a name for himself on his many voyages and forays. The Plymouth Company was issued with a royal charter by James I of England to establish settlements on the coast of North America, and the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620 to found the 2nd permanent colony in N. America. The city became ever more economically dependent on the Royal Navy thereafter which certainly kept the city busy over the centuries. On 28 May 1967, another intrepid Francis – Sir Francis Chichester – returned to Plymouth after the first single handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world and was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators.

Today Plymouth is a city of over 250,000 whose citizens are called ‘Jenners’. Famous residents includes the great globetrotter Francis Drake as well as actor Donald Moffat, known for his portrayals of US presidents real and imagined.

It is rapidly diversifying its economy from one servicing the ‘Fleet’ to one that services its ballooning numbers of visitors instead. Visitors who are fascinated by aquatic creatures really should spend a few hours at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium, the deepest in Europe. Just a short walk away is the historic Barbican area of town. There, explorers can visit Plymouth’s very own Gin distillery, grab a bite to eat at Jacka – the oldest bakery in the UK, or simply wander the cobbled streets and take in Barbican’s old-world charms.

The Old-World narrow streets around the Barbican district

The place where Admiral Drake finished his game of bowls as the Spanish Armada crested the skyline is a bracing and awe-inspiring park that offers panoramas of Plymouth’s vast natural harbour; gateway to the deep, blue sea beyond. Plymouth Hoe is the no.1 spot to crash out on the grass with a picnic. Perhaps even take a dip in the Tinside Lido – Plymouth’s landmark outdoor, art deco swimming pool.

Plymouth Hoe on which Admiral Sir Francis Drake infamously finished his game of bowls before sailing out to attack the Spanish Armada (historic-uk.com)
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5 Fabulous Towns for Foodies and Connoisseurs

Cheddar, UK

West Country Farmhouse Cheddar (coombecastle.com)

If you like any cheese at all it will likely be Cheddar cheese; it is the most widely eaten cheese in the world. With a mild taste, inoffensive to even the most trepid palate, it’s popular either sprinkled over a dish like your favourite pizza, stuffed into a ham and cheese sandwich or just eaten by itself.

Officially Cheddar cheese is described as ‘a relatively hard, off-white, sometimes sharp-tasting, natural cheese made from cow’s milk’.

Since the 12th Century the cheese’s popularity has grown and now Cheddar cheese has a place on millions of people’s dinner tables.

Cheddar is a town of 5000 residents and is nestled at the foot of a stunning gorge on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in England.

Cheddar Gorge is the town’s centrepiece; with its dramatically steep, craggy walls, and a slaloming road running through, it’s breathtaking for drivers who cannot resist the urge to take their eyes off the road.

It is the caves of Cheddar Gorge that provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese in the past, and they still do. These caves, alongside the nearby Wookey Hole Caves, are now a popular family day out.

Cheddar, and its breath-taking gorge (countrylife.co.uk)

As a popular tourist destination Cheddar boasts plenty of bars and restaurants where you can sit outside and gawp at the rock walls around you. Can you still get the finest Cheddar cheese in the world there? Most definitely!

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is family-owned, independent, and has been making award-winning cheeses since 2003. Their Cheddar Cheese is still matured in the caves.

Then there is The Original Cheddar Cheese Company which opened its doors to business all the way back in 1870 and their shop and café are located at the same spot at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge. The shop is now world-famous and remains family-operated today.

Pilsen, Czech Republic

The world-famous Pilsner Urquell (theeverydayman.co.uk)

There are a gazillion types and sub-types of beer out there and none more popular than Pale Lager, otherwise called Pilsner. Described as a ‘very pale-to-golden-coloured with a well-attenuated body and a varying degree of noble hop bitterness’ …whatever that all means.

It does go down a treat on a hot Summer’s day, I know that much, and millions agree.

Pilsner came about in the early 19th Century as a result of a fermenting process imported into Bohemia from neighbouring Bavaria and that produced a beer with a longer shelf life. It’s popularity took off from there. It is no surprise that the people of the modern Czech Republic state, of which Pilsen is its fourth largest city, love the drink so much they only half-jokingly refer to it as a soft drink, or ‘liquid bread’.

Pilsen is a fine city of 175,000 residents, and it packs quite a punch to entice visitors with.

Its spacious town square is rimmed with townhouses showcasing grand Austro-Hungarian architecture and in its centre sits St Bartholomew’s Cathedral which offers a breathtaking vista from its church tower – the tallest in the country.

With its history, many parks, and landmarks like the iconic Prazdroj Brewery Gate it is no surprise that Pilsen was European Capital of Culture, 2015.

The Pilsner Fest in full swing (mistoprodeje.cz)

Its real draw is as the capital for beer lovers. One of the world’s biggest pilsner brands, Pilsner Urquell, still has its brewery in the City and is a mecca for lager lovers the world over. Visitors to the brewery can enjoy guided tours where they will learn about the history of Pilsner’s famous beer and, of course, enjoy a glass or three; nowhere does it get any fresher than straight from the company’s beer cellars.

And the highlight of the city calendar is the Pilsner Fest. Whilst in the neighbouring German city of Munich they have their world-renowned Octoberfest, also in October Pilsen hosts a two day festival of beer of its own which draws bigger and bigger crowds every year.

Cognac, France

The unique Cognac brandy (vinepair.com)

Cognac is a unique brandy produced by twice distilling white wines. So while it does indeed taste like brandy, it reflects the exclusive flavour sensations not found in other brandies.

Unlike Cheddar cheese, what makes it so sought after is that it must be made according to strictly defined regulations; namely, it must be made in or around the town for which it is named. As a result the Cognac commune, in the Charente department in southwestern France, is the centre of the universe for lovers of the iconic brandy.

So what of Cognac the town? It’s inhabited by 18,000 and is absolutely dripping with fine historical architecture. It has its own medieval quarter of unusual buildings, built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and situated on narrow cobbled streets and which contain sculptures of the salamander, the symbol of King François I, as well as gargoyles and richly decorated façades.

With its red banner, Hennessy’s Cognac Maison (blog.ruedesvignerons.com)

Over 200 producers of Cognac ply their trade and five of the biggest of them have their ‘Grande Marque’ Cognac houses in the town centre. They are Hennessy, Martell, Otard, Camus and Remy Martin, and each welcomes visitors with open arms.

Surely there is no more authentic place to enjoy a glass to sip on than in Bar Luciole on the banks of the Charente River. With more than 130 varieties of Cognac, whatever you order the team can provide a personal introduction to each and every one of them.

Every year in the last weekend of July the Cognac Festival is held, and is a very popular event. Fishermen’s huts are converted for the occasion and visitors can sit around tables and savour delicious cognac cocktails, and each night revellers can let their hair down dancing and foot-tapping at two concerts.

Camembert, France

Moist, soft, creamy camembert (countryliving.com)

Camembert is a moist, soft, creamy, surface-ripened cow’s milk cheese. It was first made in the late 18th century at Camembert, Normandy, in northern France. It’s a divisive cheese due to its strong taste. However, for those who enjoy stronger varieties of cheese Camembert is delicious and quite healthy too. So nutritious, in fact, the cheese was famously issued to French troops during World War I, becoming firmly fixed in French popular culture as a result.

It is now internationally known, and many local varieties are made around the world, yet the original Camembert, named Camembert de Normandie, can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from Normandes cows.

The quaint village of Camembert in Normandy, France (normandyfoodie.wordpress.com)

Meandering along quaint country lanes around Camembert, in Normandy, northern France you’ll be struck by the verdant hedgerows and the patchwork of pastures where cows sedately ruminate upon their lot under the glorious French sunshine.

It’s a lovely corner of the world, even if it sits off France’s radar as a top tourist hotspot. Yet, the village of Camembert is somewhat petite, but any fromage fan need not stray far from the village to find all the top sights (and smells) related to this much loved cheese.

At the Maison du Camembert you can learn all the history and secrets of camembert cheese production, then gorge on some gooey goodness inside the round, cream-coloured building next-door which resembles a round of camembert.

You can also visit the very home of the woman who invented Camembert, Madame Harel was inspired to create Camembert by a passing Brie cheese maker during the French Revolution in the beautiful, imposing 17th Century Beaumoncel Manor. Do check it out!

And there is no better place to stock up on Camembert than at the last remaining cheese farm located in the village – the Durand Cheesemonger at the Héronnière Farm.

The nearby Vimoutiers village is a great base to discover the area from.

Frankfurt, Germany

The much loved Frankfurter hotdog (washingtonpost.com)

Not to be confused with similar sticks of meat like the ‘Vienna Sausage’ the Frankfurter Wurchen aka ‘Frankfurter’ or ‘Hot Dog’ to most of us, is a cheap, tasty and versatile dish best eaten with little slices of gherkin or roasted onions, or even sauerkraut then topped with mustard or ketchup.

With protected geographical status since 1860, the authentic Frankfurter is a thin parboiled sausage made of pure pork in a casing of sheep’s intestine, and its taste is teased out by a special method of low-temperature smoking.

Yet, where did it get its name from? Frankfurt in southern Germany is the nation’s 5th largest metropolis and one of Europe’s major financial hubs. A city where the River Main flows past tree-lined embankments, and tourists and city workers relax on their lunch breaks to the backdrop of sleek skyscrapers clustering the city skyline.

Frankfurter fans should flock to the Kleinmarkthalle. A cultural melting pot; a culinary Aladdin’s Cave; this indoor market place has over 60 vendors and its Frankfurters are the best on the planet.

The Main Festival, to the backdrop of the Frankfurt skyline (frankfurt-tourismus.de)

Frankfurt is home to a number of other Teutonic, culinary delights than just frankfurters, this includes its own ‘Apfelwein’ apple wine and pastries. Visitors can delight in Frankfurt’s drinks, foods and vivacious vibes at its many festivals, such as the Main Festival and Fressgass Fest.

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Lundy – The English Island Home to Pirates, Corsairs and Rebels

The tiny isle of Lundy has sheltered rebels, eccentrics and even a band of Barbary pirates. This is the story of Lundy’s rich history.

Map showing Lundy to the south of the busy Bristol Channel (en.wikipedia.org)

Lundy seems an innocuous island; sitting just 10 nautical miles (19km) off the Devon coastline, it’s a mere three miles (5km) long by 1/2 mile (1km) wide, and home to just 28 islanders.

You could say it’s a place coveted much more than it can cater for, being strategically well placed yet barren and too small for any community to grow and prosper. Many have come and gone thus, and virtually every period of British history has left a mark on this speck of rock.

Ancient History

Evidence of human habitation goes a far back as the late Stone Age, with Bronze Age burial mounds.

A cemetery was later uncovered dating from the 5th-6th Century AD. Interestingly, it included four gravestones with Latin and Celtic inscriptions alternatively.

The Vikings gave Lundy its name, meaning ‘Puffin Island’; named after the distinctly black and white seabirds with brightly coloured bills that once crowded the granite island.

No doubt those Norse raiders, who plundered and pillaged and marauded the coasts of northern Europe during the centuries when the light of civilisation was dim, came to regard the steep-sided isle with fondness for it served as a fantastic launching off point for raids on the nearby British coastline for which the Vikings were notorious.

The Marisco Family

The stout but cute Marisco Castle (ecastles.co.uk)

Lundy’s written history only began after the Norman Conquest, and with it, a long association with de Marisco family began. The Marisco family history is shrouded by the depths of time akin to how fog often shrouds Lundy from the English coast.

They were a noble family held in high esteem in the Norman king’s court at first, but their fortunes ebbed over hundreds of years until they were but mere yeomanry.

King Henry II granted the island to the Knights Templar in 1160, the Templars being a major maritime power for a while. Yet the Marisco family got in there first. It seems the Mariscos held a claim to the throne because a family member was the bastard offspring of the royal line; they wouldn’t kowtow to the king.

In 1235 William de Marisco murdered a King’s messenger, then later an assassin tried to kill King Henry III and he confessed to being sent by William. The rebel fled to Lundy, built a lightweight castle, and from there ruled the land like his own little realm.

His family turned to piracy, preying on shipping along the busy Bristol Channel trade routes.

Finally, Henry III sent troops to invade Lundy and William and 16 of his ‘subjects’ were captured.

William was hung, drawn and quartered for his treason and the king built another fortress of his own to secure the island.

Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, another rebel, would later possess Lundy until the King of England again seized the island in 1322.

A Pirates’ Den

Popular depictions of pirates are those in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th Centuries. And many might think of England as this traditionally strong naval power that ruled the seven seas since time immemorial.

But the fact is England was basically a backwater European power until the Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588, and pirates infested the British coastline throughout the medieval age. For instance, there was the great Cornish Killigrew family who served as governors, MPs and notorious pirates throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

Over the next few centuries Lundy harboured pirates both foreign and British, including other Marisco family members. The port of Bristol was an up-and-coming trade hub and ships sailing to and from often had to pass close by Lundy at low tide which made them easy pickings for British, French, and Spanish pirates, and Lundy served as excellent a forward operating base for medieval pirates as it had for the Vikings.

There were pirates of a different kind too.

The Barbary pirates of North Africa plagued Mediterranean Christendom by enslaving its peoples with coastline raids, and attacks on Christian shipping.

Barbary pirates were based on Lundy for five years whilst they prowled the British Isles for Christian slaves to sell in N. Africa’s slave markets (en.wikipedia.org)

Barbary pirates became increasingly bold, and they began to venture beyond the Mediterranean environs.

Incredibly, these N. Africans would voyage as far north as the waters around Britain, Ireland, and even Iceland.

Sometimes whole town populations were carried off to be sold in the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1627 a group known as the Salé Rovers arrived at Lundy from modern-day Algeria. These Barbary pirates under the command of a Dutch renegade named Jan Janszoon flew an Ottoman flag over the island that was a virtual stone’s throw away from England – the nation that would come to rule the seven seas within two centuries.

Slaving raids would be launched from Lundy and captured Europeans were held there before being sent to Algiers to be sold. These rovers maintained their little Barbary realm for five years.

The island got the occasional visit from sea raiders even as late as the 1700s.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Lundy’s residents continued to live outside of the law as Britain came into the modern era.

Thomas Benson, the Sheriff of Devon, diverted convicts who were supposed to be deported to Virginia to Lundy instead in order to build a cave that Benson used to hide stores as part of an insurance swindle.

In 1802 Lundy’s next owner was an eccentric Irish nobleman, Sir Vere Hunt, 1st Baronet of Curragh, who tried to establish an Irish colony on the island, complete with its own constitution, divorce laws, coinage and stamps. It failed however because the island’s topography was little good for a self-sustaining community to thrive on.

By 1834 the island changed hands yet again when William Hudson Heaven purchased it for just under £10,000. Heaven claimed it to be a ‘free island’, and successfully resisted the jurisdiction of the mainland magistrates. He built a church, a villa named Millcombe House and a road, but these building projects almost bankrupted him.

A puffin coin minted in 1929, equivalent to a British penny (en.numista.com)

Yet the Heaven family remained for two more generations, minting its own ‘puffin’ coinage. (which the House of Lords fined them £5 for …not to be paid in puffins.)

They eventually sold up in 1968 after much financial hardship suffered over the decades.

Eventually, the National Trust acquired Lundy and it manages the isle to this day.

Shipwrecks and Lighthouses

It’s perhaps no surprise that more than one ship has been wrecked by Lundy’s granite rocks over the years.

At the end of a long voyage from Africa, though not carrying slaves, a ship named the Jenny was only hours from reaching Bristol port when she crashed onto Lundy’s coast in 1797. All hands were lost, save the First Mate and the site of the tragedy is known as ‘Jenny’s Cove’.

In 1906 a Duncan class pre-dreadnought Battleship HMS Montagu ran aground. The ship’s crew believed they were actually on the mainland until a lighthouse keeper informed them otherwise. Strenuous efforts by the Royal Navy to salvage the badly damaged battleship during the summer of 1906 failed, so they gave up and sold her for scrap.

Two German Heinkel He 111 bombers crash-landed on the island in 1941 in separate incidents, and remains of one of the aircraft remain.

The island’s first lighthouse was built 10 years before Jenny’s tragic demise, and two lighthouses replaced that one in 1897.

Island Getaway

Lundy today; the Lundy Tavern with St Helen’s Church behind (inews.co.uk)

Today, Lundy is home to a large, varied bird population, plus Sika deer, grey seals, black rats and even its own horse breed.

Lundy also attracts thousands of visitors every year, with its own pub and holiday huts for overnight visitors. It is popular with birdwatchers and rock climbers, having the UK’s longest continuous slab climb, ‘The Devil’s Slide’.

In a 2005 opinion poll of Radio Times readers, Lundy was named as Britain’s tenth greatest natural wonder.

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Reflections on Life in Prague

My experience of the Czechs and Prague after five years as an expat.

(First published in Feb 2019)

I arrived in Prague in late 2013 to pursue a life as an ESL teacher and to escape a humdrum existence in the UK, and I’m sure glad I did. The city was so darn great I stayed for over five years.

Here, I reflect upon what I made of Prague society and its foibles I had to negotiate in order to survive then thrive.

The Czech Republic

First of all, it is not ‘Czechia’, let’s clear that up straight away.

A name concocted by the Western hemisphere, and used by Google Map last time I checked, yet rejected by most Czechs themselves.

The idea was to give brand Czech Republic a new name that rolls off the tongue, and, indeed, it does. If you have ‘Slovakia’ why not ‘Czechia’? It might also be nice to have a noun on the front of the Czech Football strips instead of ‘Czeska’ — the equivalent to having ‘English’ written on the front instead of ‘England’.

But, I believe, there was some controversy in giving the state a new name that, in Czech language terms, only actually refers to Bohemia (the equivalent of England) which the people of Moravia (Scotland) objected to.

Besides, ‘Czechia’ sounds dangerously close to ‘Chechnya’ and you can only imagine the damage to Czech pride and prestige if foreign dignitaries, English stag parties, et al left ‘Prague’ believing some piss like liquid to be Czech beer and that they still spoke Russian there (No offense, Chechens!).

I digress.

Prague. I arrived there on October the 14th, I think, in 2013 to complete a short, very intense teaching course before being let free on the city to preach from ‘the book’ (English File, 3rd Edition, usually) and keep the wolves at bay in the process.

Prague’s reputation as one of the World’s top city breaks is well established. A city of over a million souls, it sits in the heart of Bohemia with the grand Vltava coursing through its heart in turn.

The city is packed with Renaissance, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau-I-don’t-know-quite-what architecture. Much of it crumbling, though no less charming because of it. Particularly gorgeous examples of Austro Hungarian architecture are found in Mala Strana which sits at the foot of Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in the world.

I won’t add to the volumes of tourist literature that already exist except to say that places I always liked was Vinohrady, off the tourist center and Prague’s hipster central along with all the usual accoutrements one has come to expect from these parts of any popular city (nice park, cafes bars and farmers markets with good food and pretentious prices, etc).

Letna park and its Metronome from where one can get the best views of the city.

Zizkov Ridge, a good place to go for a run (123rf.com)

Zizkov Ridge with its giant statue of Jan Žižka on a steed (more great views) and Riegrovy Sady Hill where you can watch the sunset (although do put down your smartphone for all of 10 minutes and just take it in).

Further afield, travel is cheap and Kutna Hora with its human bone church, complete with a chandelier made out of bones, is worth a visit.

Cesky Krumlov is a jewel of the Czech tourist board’s, though glutted with throngs of camera wielding tourists who click away like sheep. (presumably prepping their friends and loved ones for mammoth 72 hour, 15,246 picture holiday photo presentations once they get home, those poor people!)

For me though, my favourite place out of Prague was Swiss Bohemia, a national park straddling the Czech/German border.

From Hřensko you really must follow the ‘red’ circular route that basically passes through Pravčická Brána, Europe’s largest sandstone archway, with an old pub built alongside from where you can enjoy a great panoramic view with a beer (and with possibly one of the greatest pub views in Europe?). It then comes back down to a halfway restaurant for a fine lunch and then the route takes you down into a steep gorge where you can catch a Viennese style boat along a section of its rocky rushing river, and then back to Hřensko.

Pravčická Arch, with the pub to the left (en.wikipedia.org)

The route is actually 9.5 miles but it doesn’t feel it, it’s such a comfortable route (I quoted my Dad 4 miles). You’re guaranteed not to regret it!

Its People

What about Czechs themselves? a much more interesting topic for me. A culturally homogeneous society of over 10 million. Their gene pool is basically 2/3rds Slavic and 1/3rd Germanic and its largest ‘immigrant’ peoples are Vietnamese, (sole proprietors of the country’s potravinys (cornershops)) Ukrainians as well as some Roma.

They are tall people. Their women particularly so, rising to 5 centimeters taller on average than British women. They are also big girls; not fat, just big framed… and gorgeous. I thought French women were pretty, being the stylish people they are but Czech girls are another level up altogether, being Slavic, they are often regarded as the most beautiful in the world. What is more, they’re modest about it too whereas all too often in the UK, where beauty has been sexualised by its consumer culture, with too much make-up, etc.

Before I arrived, the stereotypes of Czechs I knew of were that, firstly, their Slavic name tells you they are Eastern European, though they are actually Central European and they appreciate the distinction.

I also imagined what I had seen in Poles I had met, with their seeming lack of manners, and serious, Slavic mannerisms and expected the same from Pragians (or Pragites?) I think I also remember hearing that the service was pretty unfriendly and that they never smiled, oh, and that they would do stuff like offer you complimentary bread to your food order then add it to your bill, the sneaks.

The service was actually pretty friendly in my experience (I think it had improved quickly in the internet age) Yes, it could be pretty apathetic, and sometimes you felt they thought they were doing you a favour by letting you eat in their restaurants and this is a legacy from their communist era (ended in 1991 in the Velvet Revolution) where restaurants were state-owned and customers needed proprietors more than the other way around. But the stereotype is redundant; out of all the times I used various services, I can only remember 2 or 3 bad experiences in 5 years.

Some guy did try that trick with the complimentary bread, and got nowhere and I remember the time a waitress who brought me my food in a quiet pub, and when I asked for a little tartar sauce, she tutted and scorned like I had had a change of mind and now wanted a completely different dish altogether. She still got a tip for some reason.

And then there was that memorable day with the Unicredit Bank account manager…

Her name was Valeria. I had dealt with her a couple times before, her manner was a little unprofessional but I’d had no complaints. Then one day, long story short, I needed to get my online password changed at the bank. I didn’t have a smartphone but I was based just 10 minutes around the corner. So I went in and got her to type in the new number on their records, then returned to my computer to try logging in… no luck. I went back to her a second time to try again, came back… still not working.

I’d been perfectly polite up till now and, upon seeing her again, before I’d even opened my mouth… “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE???!” she shouted, palms turned up in exasperation. “I AM ON MY LUNCHBREAK!” This, coming from a bank employee. Taken aback, explained I still couldn’t login. ‘You forgot to do something-or-other!’ She was right on that point, so, with the wind taken out of my sails, I stormed off.

10 minutes later, she had realised she had overstepped the mark and called me to do some damage control, but it was too late and, for the first time ever, I made a formal complaint.

Are Czechs too serious? (blog.foreigners.cz)

I mean, coming from a bank clerk, for goodness sake! But overall, perfectly good service. It is true they don’t smile much however and I remember often seeing company fun day out photos in my students’ places of work where half the people in them looked like they’d been blackmailed into attending.

But this only reveals one of their most salient qualities — Sincerity. I mean, are they unsmiling or is it us Westerners oversmiling? Of course, there are plenty of times when we’re genuinely happy and we smile but there’s also a whole lot of other more banal interactions we’re indifferent about yet we also smile.

Why? because our consumerist culture has fed in customer service mannerisms into everyday life — I do it myself by greeting my students, or even distant relatives, like a salesman. But Czechs don’t have this legacy, so for them, if they feel regular about something, you know about it.

It is the same with when I used to greet them at the start of a lesson, ‘Hi, you alright?’ I expect the response ‘Yeah, fine’ — it’s effectively saying hello twice; yet for Czechs, it is a sincere question: ‘You, alright?’ ‘No, not really, I’m having some problems with bank right now and maybe wife will leave soon.’

This could also mean some innocuously sounding questions, that were part of an ESL lesson plan, could quickly cause an awkward moment: (manager in the same class as team members)

Q: ‘What are the qualities of a good boss?’

A: ‘…………….’

Of course, who wants fakeness? I personally liked knowing where I stood with them.

What else? For anyone who feels the Western, consumer-driven pop culture is a bit sickly these days, Czech lifestyles feel refreshingly wholesome by comparison. Whereas for us Brits and Yanks, shopping generally takes up a big part of our leisure time.

Czech cottage culture (pinterest.com)

It might surprise you to know that on the weekends, according to one of my more qualified students (a senior spokesman for the Ministry of Transport), over 30 percent of Pragians get into their cars and head to the quaint countryside or nearby mountains and spend their weekends in their own cottages; gardening, cycling around or even mushroom picking!

For me, this is strange; in Britain, people who live in the city generally stay in the city and weekend cottages are the preserve of our professional classes. But for Czechs, cottages are much more available for people of much more modest incomes and this is a legacy of the Communist era when foreign travel was much restricted and the landowning class had had their lands confiscated.

The positive side of this was that cottages became widely available for them and Czechs really do enjoy the simple pleasures of their weekend cottages, leaving city neighbourhoods quite deserted in places. I honestly loved the idea, I mean, It wouldn’t be my cup of tea but I thought it was very endearing.

On the other hand, they’re very liberal about drugs and turn a blind eye to smoking weed in public. I remember seeing a pot plant in plain view on someone’s window ledge one summer, bars were you could buy weed with a discreet request, and a pub I used to frequent where, before the smoking ban started, you’d go there in the evenings, sit down in a back room and latch onto a merry-go-round of joint toking. It was great at times for a while though it got too much. How many people on their death beds lament how they didn’t take enough drugs in their lives? Not many, I suspect.

And then there is the beer. They easily drink the most beer per head in the world. For them, it’s only half-jokingly called a soft drink or ‘liquid bread’ (and they love bread rolls). Now in Britain, if you saw a guy at 7 in the morning at a tram stop on a regular workday sipping a beer, you might guess he was an alcoholic; maybe his child had died that week, or something, and he was going off the rails, but not in Prague. This sight isn’t a rare one and it took me a while to get used to it.

You can get a half litre bottle for very cheap and plenty of people have a beer every night. You can see little old ladies having a chinwag over a beer or city workers having one for lunch, it is very casual for them. It was nice at times, especially in Summer but, again, got too much after five years. Plus you go to a bar and the waitresses are offering you another before you’ve even finished your current one. It’s like I don’t know, give me a chance to finish this then I’ll decide!

They have a lot of bureaucracy, but show a lot of disregard for it at the same time.

There was the time I was on the underground and I’d left my metro pass in another pair of trousers and was caught empty-handed by a ticket inspector. Ouch, I thought, this is going to hurt. It was Ok, they were just going to write me a ticket where I’d have to show my monthly pass at an office and pay a 50czk (£1.50) fine, but they needed to see my ID. I didn’t have one. (in Britain we don’t need them, and I’d never got into the habit of carrying one) So they said I had to go to a police station with them. This was getting serious now, I was breaking the law with no I.D. and no metro ticket on me. We got to the station and I was beginning to worry. I told them my details; they checked their database. Maybe they’ll put me in the cells for a while until they find out who I am? But after a few minutes of checking their files, it seems they couldn’t find anything so they just let me go.

Weird, but I wasn’t exactly up in arms about it. It happened other times as well where schools could’ve fined me for missing deadlines for stuff but just didn’t.

And yet, their country seems well run; they currently have the lowest unemployment levels in the EU, and although they actually rank pretty highly in the corruption index, it isn’t so bad that it affects its well-run infrastructure, with a good healthcare system and, in Prague, a public transport system regarded as one of the best in Europe. In my home town in Britain, if the bus is only 10 minutes late, it’s a good start to the day, yet in Prague the trams, trains, etc were never that late. In Britain I remember once, I caught a bus home to my village. The company had hired a Polish driver who barely spoke English. We were on the 309 bus but he took the 310 route, stopping 10 miles short of my village and I had to hitchhike the rest of the way. This is the standard First Bus company had set themselves.

But in Prague, I was on a tram where there was a malfunction on the tracks or something. We had only been waiting a couple of minutes but the driver was out of his chair, pacing around the tram trying to solve the problem; he cared about being late. Five minutes later a transport manager pulled up in a car and they quickly fixed it and we were away again.

Being culturally homogeneous, they are not very cosmopolitan and can sound downright racist at times, but this is merely due to an overall freedom from political correctness in their culture and also shows itself in their somewhat backward attitudes to gender roles where many still believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen.

On the other hand, this means they’ve retained the sort of social cohesion that many in the UK pine for. Citizenship levels are high there. You see it in their metro system where the station platforms don’t have electronic gates — people are trusted to be honest. Or you might get some chavy thug looking teenagers on a tram, but they’ll give up their seats for an old person without hesitating. I’m not saying British society is totally different but I was certainly impressed.

I used to live around the corner from Bohemians 1905, a Czech ‘Premier League’ football club with a humble stadium but one of the most raucous fan bases in the league.

The Bohemian fans at their Ďolíček Stadium are rumoured to be the most vociferous in the country (billsjohn.wordpress.com)

One night me and my Liverpool fan flatmate thought we’d go and watch them host the mighty Sparta Prague (Czech Rep’s Man U) and the Bohemians’ biggest game of the season, always a sell out. We didn’t have tickets but I thought we could still get in, however. We went to the front gate; no tickets. So we went round to a side gate, showed a security guard we had the money (£4.50 per ticket), he pointed to a guy waiting on the inside of the gate for just such a moment with two valid tickets and did not add a single crown to the price. Great! We got in, sat down and watched a pretty good 2–2 draw.

It’s little things like this I loved there; just not being so fixated with technocracy like we Brits are.

They seem to be at this optimum point where they are enjoying Capitalism and ‘Democracy’ and the freedoms which come with it yet they haven’t been saturated by the toxic amoral culture and values that we in Britain and, probably, America are used to.

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I moved to Prague to escape the soulless housing estate where my mum lived and job in either telesales or admin. Prague was good in so many ways; you take its beauty for granted and forget how lucky you are to live comfortably there.

The thing about being an expat who can’t or (mostly) won’t learn the local lingo, is that you easily get stuck in this social bubble where, yes, there are lots of English speakers but they come and go and unless you are an extrovert, it’s hard to enjoy deep friendships and relationships.

As the years went by, I felt ever lonelier and more bored. I increasingly turned to escapism in drink and weed until I realised that the highlight of my week was nothing more than watching football with my Spurs fan and good buddy, Drew.

I’ll remember fondly Bar 7 and Tommy, its connoisseur in hospitality, (Drop in and you won’t be a stranger.) together with the bar’s worldly, lovable rogue and a man so legendary, he has his own FB page of memorable quotes, ‘Aussie Chris’. (My favourite one, in reference to an ex of his: “…she had a Baywatch body and a Crimewatch face”) Plus a few other characters.

Many a good night was had at Bar 7, with pie eating competitions, pub quizzes scrabble and banter (tripadvisor.co.uk)

My time there was good and the memories I have are mostly good so, so long Ahoj Praha!

The 5 Most Famously Named Towns in Europe

There are quite a few towns behind the names of famous… ‘stuff’. (the now-renamed) Asbestos in Canada or Balaklava in Ukraine are two examples.

Some of these quirky towns really are the centre of the universe for fans of the ‘thing’ and, in this article, we find out about five of these towns, the connections they have and what makes them so worth discovering.

Rugby, UK

44.9 million fans enjoyed South Africa’s triumph over England in the 2019 World Cup Final (rugbyworld.com)

It was during a game of football being played at Rugby School in 1823 that a schoolboy named William Webb Ellis, being the cheeky scamp that he was, caught a lofted ball and decided to run with it instead of letting the ball hit the pitch as he should have. And so, Rugby Football was born.

This game, where fifteen players fight to force an oval ball across the line in the opponents’ half, is known for its combativeness which overspills into borderline violence, and it has the highest number of catastrophic injuries in any team sport. In its two most popular forms — Rugby Union and Rugby League — it is one of the most popular team sports in the world; 857 million people watched the World Cup in 2019.

The birthplace of rugby football as you’d expect boasts many attractions which stir the passions of sporting enthusiasts. A town of 70,000 people, Rugby offers a pilgrimage for those who want to immerse themselves in the history, culture and development of the game. First stop should be the World Rugby Hall of Fame. In this state of the art sporting temple visitors discover rugby’s greats and the moments that defined the sport.

Then there is the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum. Housed in the building in which a man named James Gilbert made the very first rugby football in 1842, this little museum is especially popular and they still manufacture hand made balls here which visitors can buy from its shop. You can also take a stroll along the Pathway of Fame to learn about some of the greats in the game and see William Webb Ellis immortalised in statue.

The world-famous Rugby School (brittanica.com)

Rugby School is where the game was born and is one of the most famous private schools in the country. It is close to the town centre and a walk around its perimeter gives an excellent view of its imposing Victorian architecture and, more importantly, the hallowed field the first ever game of rugby football was played.

Naturally Rugby has its own rugby club — the Rugby Lions. Although its team plays in just the 6th tier of the English rugby union system, it is a venerable club which was founded in 1873 and is just one of four clubs entitled to an all white team kit.

Pilsen, Czech Republic

The hugely popular Pilsner Beer (outdoortrip.com)

There are a gazillion types and sub-types of beer out there and none more popular than Pale Lager, otherwise called Pilsner. Described as a ‘very pale-to-golden-coloured with a well-attenuated body and a varying degree of noble hop bitterness’ …whatever that all means. It does go down a treat on a hot Summer’s day, I know that much, and millions agree.

Pilsner came about in the early 19th Century as a result of a fermenting process imported into Bohemia from neighbouring Bavaria and that produced a beer with a longer shelf life. It’s popularity took off from there. It is no surprise that the people of the modern Czech Republic state, of which Pilsen is its fourth largest city, love the drink so much they only half jokingly refer to it as a soft drink, or ‘liquid bread’.

Pilsen is a fine city of 175,000 residents, and it packs quite a punch to entice visitors with. Its spacious town square is rimmed with townhouses showcasing grand Austro-Hungarian architecture and in its centre sits St Bartholomew’s Cathedral which offers a breath-taking vista from its church tower — the tallest in the country. With its history, many parks, and landmarks like the iconic Prazdroj Brewery Gate it is no surprise that Pilsen was European Capital of Culture, 2015.

The Pilsenfest may be overshadowed by the Octoberfest, yet I had loads of fun at the 2016 event (festivaly.eu)

It’s real draw is as the capital for beer lovers. One of the world’s biggest pilsner brands, Pilsner Urquell, still has its brewery in the City and is a mecca for lager lovers the world over. Visitors to the brewery can enjoy guided tours where they will learn about the history of Pilsner’s famous beer and, of course, enjoy a glass or three; nowhere does it get any fresher than straight from the company’s beer cellars.

And the highlight of the city calendar is the Pilsner Fest. Whilst in the neighbouring German city of Munich they have their world renowned Octoberfest, also in October Pilsen hosts a two day festival of beer of its own which draws bigger and bigger crowds every year.

Cognac, France

Cognac is almost exclusively produced in the environs of Cognac, France (normandin-mercier.fr)

Cognac is a unique brandy produced by twice distilling white wines. So while it does indeed taste like brandy, it reflects the exclusive flavour sensations not found in other brandies. Unlike Cheddar cheese for example, what makes it so sought after is that it must be made according to strictly defined regulations; namely it must be made in or around the town for which it is named. As a result the Cognac commune, in the Charente department in southwestern France, is the centre of the universe for lovers of the iconic brandy.

So what of Cognac the town? It’s inhabited by 18,000 and is absolutely dripping with fine historical architecture. It has its own medieval quarter of unusual buildings, built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and situated on narrow cobbled streets and which contain sculptures of the salamander, the symbol of King François I, as well as gargoyles and richly decorated façades.

Over 200 producers of Cognac ply their trade and five of the biggest of them have their ‘Grande Marque’ Cognac houses in the town centre. They are Hennessy, Martell, Otard, Camus and Remy Martin, and each welcomes visitors with open arms.

Hennessy’s Grande Marque cognac house on the banks of the Charente River (blog.ruedesvignerons.com)

Surely there is no more authentic place to enjoy a glass to sip on than in Bar Luciole on the banks of the Charente River. With more than 130 varieties of Cognac, whatever you order the team can provide a personal introduction to each and every one of them.

Every year in the last weekend of July the Cognac Festival is held, and is a very popular event. Fishermen’s huts are converted for the occasion and visitors can sit around tables and savour delicious cognac cocktails, and each night revellers can let their hair down dancing and foot tapping at two concerts.

Marathon, Greece

The ‘genuine’ Marathon race from Marathon to Athens is still ran every year (tornosnews.gr)

You’ll be no doubt familiar with the origins of the popular Marathon race; in Ancient Greece in the year 490BC an Athenian army heroically defeated a Persian invasion force at the village of Marathon. Legend has it that a herald was sent to deliver news of the victory to Athens. He ran the whole way and arrived at Athens so utterly exhausted, he collapsed dead immediately after the good news passed his lips.

And so, the Marathon race came into being to commemorate this feat, measured out at 26.2 miles (42.2km) – the distance that messenger had run. It is now an Olympic event and seen as the ultimate physical challenge to attempt in a lifetime. Around 500 marathon events are held annually worldwide.

The town where the first ever Marathon set off from is an unassuming place but a tumulus (burial mound) still stands where the Greek casualties of that famous Battle of Marathon were laid to rest. Roughly 30,000 people call it home.

It is proud of its associations with the running event; unsurprisingly one of the biggest Marathons is the one which recreates the first one over 2,500 years before. The Athens Classic Marathon has been held annually since 1972. It sets off from Marathon town, faithfully following the original route to a grandstand finish at the Panathenaic Stadium in the capital.

The Tomb of the Athenians is in the environs of what is an otherwise unassuming town of Marathon, Greece (ancientgreeceexperience.com)

Taking from the tradition of the Olympic Torch the race features the Marathon Flame, which is lit at the Battle of Marathon Tumulus and carried to the stadium in Marathon before the beginning of each race. 16,500 runners took part in 2019 and the current record was set in 2014 by Felix Kandie with a time of 2:10:37.

Enthusiasts absolutely must visit the Marathon Run Museum if they visit the area; with more than 4000 exhibition pieces this is the no.1 place to discover the history of the modern Marathon Race.

Cheddar, UK

Ubiquitous around the world, nothing beats the original cheese, ‘cheddared’ in the caves of Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England (bbcgoodfood.com)

If you like any cheese at all it will likely be Cheddar cheese; it is the most widely eaten cheese in the world. With a mild taste, inoffensive to even the most trepid palate, it’s popular either sprinkled over a dish like your favourite pizza, stuffed into a ham and cheese sandwich or just eaten by itself.

Officially Cheddar cheese is described as ‘a relatively hard, off-white, sometimes sharp-tasting, natural cheese made from cow’s milk and to ‘cheddar’ is actually a technical term – referring to the process of cutting up the curds, stacking and then turning them by hand as they drain and firm up under their own weight. Since the 12th Century the cheese’s popularity has grown and now Cheddar cheese has a place on millions of people’s dinner tables.

The town of Cheddar is a modest one of 5000 residents and is nestled at the foot of a stunning gorge on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in England.

Cheddar Gorge is the town’s centrepiece; with its dramatically steep, craggy walls, and a slaloming road running through, it’s breathtaking for drivers who cannot resist the urge to take their eyes off the road. It is the caves of Cheddar Gorge that provided the ideal humidity and steady temperature for maturing the cheese in the past, and they still do. These caves, alongside the nearby Wookey Hole Caves, are now a popular family day out.

As a popular tourist destination Cheddar boasts plenty of bars and restaurants where you can sit outside and gawp at the rock walls around you. Can you still get the finest Cheddar cheese in the world there? Most definitely!

Cheddar village is nestled in England’s most impressive gorge (cornersoftheworld.co.uk)

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is family owned, independent, and has been making award winning cheeses since 2003. Their Cheddar Cheese is still matured in the caves.

Then there is The Original Cheddar Cheese Company which opened its doors to business all the way back in 1870 and their shop and café are located at the same spot at the mouth of Cheddar Gorge. The shop is now world famous and remains family operated today.

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