Features list

Here is a list of some of the features I have written:

This page will eventually have links to full articles on separate articles. For now they are all listed below.

Features

The self-doubt of artists (unedited version)

Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Realities Of Being A Live Artist

Family photography has no place on a professional blog/website

An interview with Garry Cook

Fans for the memories

Amir Khan – This boy Khan box

The resurrection of Rovers

From Russia with Love

Flickr’s finest photographer

How to be an editorial photographer

Hurst’s shirt, Gazza’s puppet and Jimmy Hill’s chair

Bring your pictures to life

Travel

Disneyland Paris

Ribble Valley, UK – Journey to the Centre of Britain

Jordan – Wadi place to be

India – Roads to hell

West Bank, Israel – Jealousy zealousy

Tobago

Tunisia – Welcome to the Dar side

Austria – Being in Wien

French Alps – Plagne crazy

Istanbul – Turkish delight

French Alps – Summer Plagne

Antwerp – MAS Observation

ROME – Vatican, Colosseum, pick-pockets

Kiev – Conquered

Highlands of Scotland – Where eagles dare

Ribble Valley cycling – Biking bliss


Features

The self-doubt of artists (unedited version)

by Garry Cook

Do you suffer from the debilitating and terminal disease called self-doubt? Yep, me too.

It is an aggressive cancer which constantly attempts to redefine who I am as a photographer, it’s an artist’s very own black dog.

NOTE: This is written from the point of view of me as a photographer. Similar feelings of self-doubt are available to other artists.

Self-doubt is not something I am happy to admit exists within me. In every other part of my life (or normal life, as I like to call it) there is no self-doubt in any form. I don’t suffer from it I never have. Do I sound like an arrogant f*****?

What I mean is, I’m confident, relaxed and not flustered too often. I like pressure (though increasingly less so compared to my early 20s) and like experiencing things (except roller-coasters and stuff like that).

But within photography pressure often transforms itself into self-doubt and I bloody hate it.

I’ve always had a sense of regret with photography. Missed photographs, missed opportunities. Thinking about the image I didn’t take during a project rather than the (sometimes quite good) ones I did take. I think this feeling is exclusive to photography.

Self-doubt, however, is applicable to the wider world of artistry. Painters, writers, actors, performers – anyone involved in artistic endeavours.

I read an interview recently in the British Journal of Photography in which Giles Duley stated that (and I’m paraphrasing wildly here) ‘like most artists, I suffer from self-doubt’. It was as if he was talking directly to me.

As a photographer self-doubt comes at me from all angles. No matter what the project, assignment or commission is, the self-doubt permeates my thinking.

Did I do a good job? Am I good enough to do this work? Have I failed in fulfilling my assignment?

But it doesn’t stop there.

My internal conversation then answers these questions: You didn’t do a good job. You’re not good enough for this. You’ve produced a load of crap this time.

These are statements of fact in my brain. They keep repeating: That was f***ng sh*t. Those photos a P*ss*ng b*ll*cks. I don’t know how to stop this naught part of my brain talking. It keeps me awake in the middle of the night.

Do you feel the same way? Some artists I know do, some don’t. I think the ones who say they don’t are psychopaths. But don’t tell them I said that.

I consider myself to be able to make informed, balanced judgements in all aspects of my life, including photography. So I know when I’ve taken a good photograph (often at the time of clicking) and I can conclude that a set of images could have been better if they, upon review, they are lacking aesthetically or technically.

Yet beyond this form of self-evaluation comes the self-doubt.

I spent six weeks on a commission earlier this year, repeatedly trying to improve and capture a street scene. I hated what I was producing. The deadline came and I submitted the images. I wasn’t happy. Self-doubt was consuming me. It was an agonising month of hearing nothing back from the people who commissioned me. Then I got feedback, saying that they were brilliant. Rather than joy and happiness I only felt relief. And I had wasted a month thinking dark thoughts.

Yesterday, I got an email of a performer I photographed at a festival. I felt I did fairly averagely for the festival as a whole. Some of the images I took looked flat and uninspiring. The performer said of the images I sent him: ‘There are some really excellent ones… in fact a couple of them are some of my favourite photos that I’ve had in recent years’.

At the time I felt that I had not quite captured him as I wanted to.

My former photography MA course leader once described me as being hyper-critical of my own work. I had described an assignment brief I did as failing to fulfil every point of the (admittedly difficult) brief. I just felt I was being honest.

And it’s not like I am a perfectionist. I never have been. I put far more importance on getting work done rather than perfecting it. I don’t do Photoshop manipulation in any of my images. Ever. And I have what I consider to be a high percentage rate in ideas/completing projects. I’m running at about 40per cent completion rate for photography ideas which, for an artist, is phenomenally high.

It is possible that this self-doubt drives me as a photographer and inspires me to producing greater images. But, to be honest, I put myself under so much pressure during a photo shoot that this pressure should be enough on its own to produce great images. By the end of a big job, my body temperature is maxed out and it feels like I’ve had a two-hour gym session. I get home and it’s like I’m drunk.

I’ve tried to overcome the self-doubt in various ways. Photographing non-commissioned projects, photographing my own kids, myself, taking advice on the technical aspects of photography I sometimes pay little attention to. I’m good at taking advice. Photographer Andy Ford is a kind of mentor to me. He’s brilliant technically with equipment and lighting set ups.

But the doubting goes on.

So I want to say to self-doubting artists out there: You are not alone. I haven’t a clue how to solve this problem, but you are not alone.

Ends

Here are some photographs I quite like:

2926 blackpool aug10

kevin haynes, dave watson, cotton and steel, salford museum and art gallery113 derelict zuppagarry cook smoking 0072012 nov palestine 968 day 3italy, trentino, dolomites, five fingers, mountains, garry cooksearch party, derelict live, preston, garry cookSt George is cross in Preston – England flags as Germany beat us 4-13683_blackpool_syndicate_sept10-scaled5003393_blackpool_sept10-scaled500krissi musiol, dance collector, garry cook, preston, market, the birley, pr1 gallery, mmu crewe, uclanDSC_0029Women and Alcohol goes to London PhotomonthWomen and Alcohol goes to London Photomonth

Trying to choose some of my favourite images has gone and got me full of self-doubt again. Can someone recommend a therapist?


Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Realities Of Being A Live Artist

by Garry Cook (published on Double Negative website)

This is an article I was commissioned to write by Liverpool-based, north-west focused arts website Double Negative and their #BeACritic project.

You can see the Double Negative article here in all its glory with photos and everything here.

The article was also a top recommendation by website Cureditor.

garry cook cureditor

Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Realities of Being a Live Artist

Normal Rules Do Not Apply: The Realities Of Being A Live Artist

frances kay

It is obvious from the passion displayed by its practitioners that live art is here to stay. If we can give artists in the North-West more moral and financial support, says Garry Cook, then who knows what they could end up producing?

As live-art continues to position itself at the cutting edge of performance, the North-West of England has established itself as an innovator in this ultra-niche area. But just how difficult is it to write, produce and deliver inventive performance in this genre – and what support is available for its artists?

Good, contemporary live art focuses on creating experiences while pushing the boundaries between humour and despair, surrealism and reality, confession and misinformation. The genre sits somewhere between satire and social criticism: where inhibitions and standard politically correct rules do not necessarily apply. It is this attention to detail which makes collaboration, support networks and, ultimately, funding so crucial to a live artist’s future development.

I’ve seen live-art executed brilliantly by artists: such as Jade Montserrat’s homage to Josephine Baker, Shadowing Josephine; or Frances Kay’s hugely hypnotic live wine drinking and critique of beauty and conformity, Sorry. Then I’ve seen it delivered brutally. Female duo LEAK who, wrapped in cling film, pissed and defecated into mixing bowls before simulating sex acts on each other on the floor of a dirty basement toilet (where the emphasis was less on simulating and more on stimulating). As I said, normal rules do not apply.

“The North-West is incredibly fortunate to have a well-established support network for artists”

The North-West is incredibly fortunate to have a well-established support network for artists. Venues like Contact Theatre, Z-Arts and the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) (all Manchester) put on their own events, as well as hosting exciting external happenings — like Manchester International Festival, Domestic (‘Performance stripped bare’), Emergency (‘A free day-out for the curious’) and Flare International Festival of New Theatre. New arts venue HOME acts as a sort of bridge between these and conventional theatre. In Preston, the University of Central Lancashire is doing great things with its growing Derelict live art programme.

For individual shows, active organisations like hÅb – which has been around since the mid-1990s but started running Word of Warning (WoW) in 2012 — are crucial: not only for development, but by also offering a sense of artist inclusion through their consistently engaging and active profile. But WoW – who are also behind the aforementioned Domestic and Emergency festivals — are just one segment in a complex network of support for artists.

Take The Midnight Soup, for example. Performed by Leo Burtin, it is a beautifully surreal performance, delivered across a dinner table where the audience are the guests, helping to prepare and eat the food. The show, about suicide and family, has been hugely supported: not just by a large creative production team, but also funders, including ARC (Stockton Arts Centre), Live At LICA (now renamed Lancaster Arts at Lancaster University), Talk with LEAP development agency, Lancaster University and Word of Warning. Additional support — providing rehearsal and workshop space, technical equipment, and places to sleep — came from The Lowry (Salford), Residence artist community (Bristol) and Space Six studios (Newcastle).

Then there are the individuals: Mark Whitelaw, core artistic collaborator; Becci Sharrock, creative producer; David McBride, lighting designer (week to 10 days); Lucille Acevedo-Jones, costume/set designer (week to 10 days); Phil Cole, paid intern and production manager/stage manager; Adam York Gregory, website, design, promotional materials; and Rajni Shah, mentor. It is a long list.

“Funding is crucial; there isn’t enough money in putting on live-art events for it to become fully self sufficient”

Burtin says the unofficial list is even longer: “On top of these guys are all the artist-friends whom I tested bits of material on, who came in for an hour or two during rehearsals etc… That list is ever growing. Without the support I got from other people and organisations, there would be no show.”

On the issue of financial support, Chris Fagan, the man behind Liverpool’s The1st4 platform, puts it succinctly: “Funding is crucial; there isn’t enough money in putting on live-art events for it to become fully self sufficient.”

But while funded artist support is great for those who can get it, there clearly needs to be a more general sustainable model where artists can earn a living from touring work, a practice which is becoming increasingly expensive. The industry knows it has got problems in this area. Arts Council England launched a £45million Strategic Touring Fund in 2012 to research and address these issues; it is still open for works spanning 2015-18 (the last deadline is Friday 22 January 2016 for those that are interested).

Fuel Theatre has had success in developing touring; working with They Eat Culture in Preston on increased local engagement while developing a show with Andy Smith entitled The Preston Bill. Part of this project included offering bursaries to local artists to develop work in response, and using the ‘Pay What You Decide’ model (already used successfully by Stockton’s ARC).

Of course, attaining funding is an art form in itself. Some are simply better at getting it than others. It is vital that more support is given to developing artists who are not proficient in writing applications. For every supported artist, how many struggle to finance and develop their work before giving up the dream for good?

“Too often, the innovative, ground-breaking performers working within live art are performing to other innovative, ground-breaking performers”

Just one interaction between a producer or developer could be the difference between an artist going on to greater things, or opting for the nine to five comfort of a call centre. You can only get so many ‘regrettably your application has been unsuccessful on this occasion’ emails before despondency leads to retirement. Failed application feedback is the most common way this interaction is carried out currently, but you would be surprised how many organisations offer this service but fail to deliver on it.

It is no secret that the biggest problem facing live art is its ability to reach out to new people. Too often, the innovative, ground-breaking performers working within live art are performing to other innovative, ground-breaking performers. It is almost a closed shop – but not by choice. This is where councils are failing performers. Arts development officers, along with libraries and museums, must offer more support to artists. They have knowledge and reach in marketing and local engagement terms which no artist could achieve on their own.

Though things are slowly changing, too often arts development officers have been keen to bask in the glory of an independently-run event on their patch while failing to offer support in the development of artists and their work. There is evidence of this changing now with some institutions, like Liverpool’s Bluecoat gallery and the Harris Museum in Preston, who are both bringing live-art into their buildings with increasing success. In Lancaster, their multi-disciplinary First Friday event generates a buzz around the city every month.

UCLan’s Derelict festival has also enjoyed success by placing performers in city centre venues. But it is clear that there is space in the North-West for festivals to match the profile of Fierce in Birmingham and Bristol’s In Between Time. Fagan agrees that new festivals – backed up by performance being incorporated into exhibition programmes within museums – is the best way to foster new talent.

“I don’t know of any artist supporting themselves directly through their art”

“I think to see it develop and grow there needs to be some kind of platform or festival which attracts established and new artists to come and work in the area”, Fagan notes. “That’s one possible way that live art could become sustainable. One development I have seen over the last few years is the inclusion of performance as part of a gallery’s exhibition programme.”

Addressing the problem of earning money, Fagan is blunt: “I don’t know of any artist supporting themselves directly through their art. Many teach or run workshops. Many, especially the younger artists, support themselves through the regular part time bar or office jobs.”

Lancashire-born artist Frances Kay, whose first major performance was at Poolside Emergency in Liverpool (an off-shoot of Emergency, Manchester). She studied a theatre and performance foundation degree at UCLan. Kay describes a successful contemporary performer as “an artist who is making enough money to sustain their performance”. Kay finances her career with bar work at the local Wetherspoons.

“There are levels of making money as an artist, but the most general answer is it’s pretty difficult,” she adds. “Again, it depends on the life-style you want to live. There are alternative ways of living, where so much money is not an issue, but to live, say, a ‘normal lifestyle’ in UK – then I honestly do not know whether I could work full-time as an artist. I would like to. I do know, however that it is not any time soon. My view of being able to work as an artist full-time [would] include more than just performing and finding another way to bring in some dosh, [possibly] relating to performance, theatre or education.

“I do not feel I could end a career as an artist until I have attempted to work full-time, which has not happened yet. I have always worked full-time in pubs, clubs, and shops whilst being a performer. Although I do know that if the adrenaline rush of creating or performing a piece is lost, then it’s probably time to hang up.”

It is obvious from the passion displayed by its practitioners that live art is here to stay. But if we can give them a bit of support — moral and financial — then who knows what they could end up producing?

Garry Cook

This article has been commissioned for the collaborative #BeACritic project — an annual programme of mentoring and commissioned critical articles for North-West-based writers, initiated and supported by The Double Negative, Liverpool John Moores University and Arts Council England. See more here

Are you an artist or organisation interested in developing a touring programme? Arts Council England’s £45million Strategic Touring Fund is still open, for works spanning 2015-18. Last deadline Friday 22 Jan 2016, see link


Family photography has no place on a professional blog/website

by Garry Cook

children, blue sky DSC_0101_2 DSC_0105_1

It’s the biggest mistake I see by student or amateur photographers (who want to be a proper photographer*). Images, no matter how experimental or no matter how unoriginal, of the photographer’s family.

It’s lazy, cliched and uninspiring.

Asking relatives to allow you to take photographs of them is the easiest thing to do for an aspiring photographer. They want to help you on your way. Yes, you can get the odd child, wife or husband who will be difficult. They are sick of being photographed, your camera irritates them. But on the whole they, and your extended family, will not say no.

The problem is, whatever project you are doing is going to lack that extra bit of tension – created through nerves, effort and time constraints – which photographing strangers brings. It’s too easy for the snapper who photographs his family to fall into family snapshot mode, producing glorified images of gardens and family gatherings which say little about either the people in the images or the photographer themselves.

If you want to do a project successfully you have to break new ground as a photographer, physically and mentally. When you do this, you will know about it. You will feel exhausted from the process, you’ll feel the buzz of satisfaction knowing that you used all your skills as a photographer – including the often overlooked skill of communication.

There are photographers more experienced than me who believe family photography is the easy way out for a photographer. Martin Parr said something along these lines at a symposium in London a few years back.

That’s not to say you should not photograph your family. Documenting them growing up or growing old is important. Just don’t present this work as your next big project, especially if you aspire to be a documentary or art photographer. You won’t impress anyone who knows about photography that are worth impressing.

*NOTE: Proper photographers don’t really exist any more.

OTHER NOTES: These photographs are of my daughter Betsy, aged 3 (Aug 2015, Gibside near Newcastle). She posed in return for a small packed of sweets. No sweets, no photos.

OTHER OTHER NOTES: This blog is mainly aimed at aspiring art and documentary photographers, particularly those making photo projects


An interview with Garry Cook

performance photography, garry cook, preston tringe

An interview I did

Critically-reclaimed photographer Garry Cook is about to step into the unknown with his most superlative project to date. His reward-winning show is a ground-breaking theatre-based cross-platform consciously-conceived contemporary concept where documentary photography meets verbatim theatre meets community non-engagement across a table of social issues, human rights and compassion without condiments. This thoughtlessly-provoking absurd notion infiltrates the resurgence of people in an inhumane world where propaganda, tyranny and smoking cigarettes are socially acceptable schisms. His noir-fetish genius is encountered here through a diverse interview where the themes of his show – war, weirdos and wankers – are discussed alongside other philosophical prophesisings.

What is Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting about?
Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting is about the fight in our lives. The fight between selfishness and selflessness, the fight between right and wrong, the fight between us and them. It looks at human behaviour, ignorance and prejudice and how we judge people who are different from us. I ask questions about what is important to an individual and how disassociated we have become from the world around us. You could almost describe it as a series of contrasts, the biggest contrast being that despite the serious subject matter it is quite funny.

What can the audience expect if they turn up?

They will see three documentary photography slideshows presented in an innovative way. The wrapping is that they will be entertained. At the heart of all this is a desire to discuss some serious issues but I’ve never lost sight of the aim to engage with the audience through shock, surprise and humour. When you leave any theatre you don’t remember every word spoken or every bit of every scene, you remember how you felt – that’s where your memories come from, the feelings. This show will give you new feelings, most of them good.

What was the inspiration behind Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting?

I’ve always explored different ways to bring photography to a wider audience. The traditional methods are obviously exhibitions and books. I’ve experimented with printing images on objects. I’ve also added music and video to photo projects, anything to try and increase one person’s engagement with a single image. In a museum, the average amount of time an individual looks at a piece of art is 30 seconds – but for a photograph it is less than five seconds. Maybe as little as two seconds. I wanted to do something which engaged directly with an audience and which extended this interaction between a viewer and an image. I’ve been fortunate to witness, close up, the work of some extraordinary performers. They opened up the possibilities to me. It took a while to work out exactly how bringing photography into a theatre situation could work but once I made that first breakthrough, which was a five-minute sequence I first performed at the Liverpool International Photography Festival, the reaction of the audience was enough to know that it would work.

You avoid revealing personal information in your work. Why is this?

I come from a journalistic background. And I don’t mean the sensationalism of cheap sex stories, celebrity paparazzi photographs and scandal. My desire was always to tell a story as fairly and accurately as possible. This invariably was someone else’s story. My opinion was always irrelevant. I still feel like this in my head, where the story I want to tell is never my own and, over time, this developed into a morbid fear of revealing myself through words.

Sometimes I want to write about how I’m really feeling and my emotions but the acute fear of exposing myself stops me. When this feeling is mixed with the emotional reluctance of a slightly stiff upper-lipped British man, you end up with a toxic combination of reluctance. Maybe I should think of my experiences as a commodity, to dissect and publish as confession. But have I really done anything which is that interesting? No. And why go through the pain of mining myself for something to write about when Sting has spent 40 years doing this so that he could describe how I feel?

How do you feel?

I can’t tell you that.

Can you describe your career to date?

I’ve written for over 40 national and international newspapers and magazines. My photography has been exhibited in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool. I’ve written several books, most of them include documentary photography alongside words. Kids also like my rhyming Albert the Pug books. I did the drawings too.

You say you struggle to write about yourself, but one of your books – Stay At Home Dads Are Not Welcome Here – is about your personal experience of taking your daughter to play groups full of mothers while another, Palestiniana, is a commentary on the conflict between Israel and Palestine seen through your five-day trip across the West Bank. You say you don’t write about yourself but have actually written two books written in the first person in an almost diary-like form. Is this not a contradiction?

No.

How can you say that?

What I mean is, I’m so emotionally reclusive that I am unable to write about my own deep feelings and insecurities, so instead have used a mechanism of writing about my own everyday, mundane experiences to allow me to describe the extreme situations of others. In Palestiniana, these others were Palestinians. In Stay At Home Dads, they were men.

But you are a man.

Yes, but while writing that book I still felt like a journalist writing about the experience of being a lone dad in a room full of mad women.

You came across as a man who was complaining that he was not a woman.

That’s because I was.

Is Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting your best ever work?
I know everyone always says it, but this is my best piece of work. And this time I really mean it when I say it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Nothing.


Fans for the memories

by Garry Cook (published in Practical Photography magazine, June 2006)

When Prime Minister Tony Blair says your work is full of ‘raw emotion and unique’ you know you’re doing something right.

Stuart Clarke has been taking photographs in and around football grounds for fifteen years.  What makes him different, unique even, is his lack of interest in the games themselves. His photographs concentrate on the passion of the fans, the sculpture of the stadia and those inconsequential moments that most of us miss.

Breathtaking photographs in football are not unusual, but surely no single person has managed to produce as many beautiful, amusing and descriptive images of the game as Clarke. Just look at the euphoria on the Manchester City fans’ faces at Ewood Park, or the Sunderland fans looking up in his most iconic photograph.

Clarke’s world of football is like no other. From nothing he created his own gallery in the Lake District town of Ambleside on the off chance it would succeed. It did. He launched a touring exhibition that few curators wanted to put on. He turns them away now.

As we sit in the upstairs office of his gallery beneath a huge black and white photograph of four children at Clydebank’s former Kilbowie Park ground – one gestures a ‘V’ sign at the camera – it is hard not to be impressed with what Clarke has achieved.

Anyone who has accidentally stumbled across Clarke’s gallery in the Lake District will know what a delightful surprise it is. He has also has produced five stunning books, while his exhibition has graced no less than 88 venues across Britain. Not impressed yet?

In 2006 Clarke began a jaw-dropping world tour which saw his beautiful pictures across six continents and in 14 countries.

After completing a degree at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) Clark, born in Hertfordshire in 1961, was forging himself a promising career in media photography. But while on commission in Glasgow to photograph the history of the Scottish pop band Wet Wet Wet, Clarke visited Clydebank’s stadium (the very match which produced the picture in his office) and got his big idea. He began turning up unannounced at empty football grounds – often up to seven in a day – as he devised his plan to archive the Britishness of British football.

When Clarke began his quest, football was living under the shadow of the Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. He has clicked away as the game has transformed from a decrepit, cold and rusting sport into an expensive, pristine product.

Clarke’s power is in his quirky observations. By all means admire the technical brilliance, the lush colours and the moments he has captured, then study the more candid shots and understand what they say about us. But don’t turn up to the free to enter gallery expecting posed shots of David Beckham.

Clarke explains: “I kind of do a bit of a story that is unfolding without necessarily doing any momentous moments. If I’d been at Crystal Palace’s ground when Eric Cantona jumped on that guy I would have loved to have got that picture because I knew it was historic, but the history I am getting is almost the inbetween moments and everyday moments.”

His early work was shot in black and white but he says he soon realised the power of colour in football.

He says: “I began in black and white because that was what I was trained for. But I quickly thought this has got to be in colour, Chelsea were blue, Watford yellow, Sunderland red and white. It’s the nature of our support. There is so much colour association.”

The interest shown in him now is a far cry from when he first tried to launch the exhibition. In the early days he found it difficult to persuade curators to put on his show. His first exhibition was launched at Burnley’s Towneley Hall. “Curators were women in art galleries who thought football was for the back pages of a newspaper. Why bring it into an art gallery? It was quite a victory for me to that some of them had to eat humble pie, over-ruled by their bosses, to put on a show which brings in the numbers.”

Clarke says he takes between 15 and 60 shots when visiting grounds and can expect to get one or two ‘crackers.’

He has embraced the digital age in as much as he now has an in-house Imacon scanner and printer, combining Laserchrome photographic prints digitally imaged on Durst Lambda to Fuji Crystal Archive paper with trusted Ilford Cibachrome prints, but he refuses to put down his trusty medium format Bronica – despite the occasional nightmare that they will stop producing film for it.

“People keep telling me, ‘you’ll be trading that in soon for a digital’ but I think in my mind as long as I can I’ll keep going with it. I feel comfortable with it. It feels part of me. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. The feel and the style of the imagery would change a bit in digital.”

But he worries: “What if film is going to be outlawed? I don’t want to be left trying to find some film and a lab which will develop it. If I can see that coming I’ll have to make the change beforehand.

“I used one Bronica for many years until it stopped working. Now I’ve got three. I’ve just got two more because I fear I won’t be able to get them anymore – and brand new because their almost as cheap brand as second hand. They are amazing quality.”

And he reckons the lookdown viewfinder suits his work. “I like that because it relaxes some of the people because they don’t actually realise I’m photographing people,” he says. “They just get on watching the game – I don’t want them all staring at me. I don’t use any zoom lenses, I just use my standard lens and get close up, I like the simplicity of the process.” He prefers Kodak EPP and Fuji Provia film. His awesome stadium panaromics are taken with a now obsolete Widelux camera.

Taking his pictures abroad offered a new perspective for Clarke.

“For years it’s been about Preston and Rotherham the English minutia of the game,” he says. “But I really want to test the best of those pictures over fifteen years and see if they can stand them up for a foreign audience. Will they find them interesting?

“I think the difference is that with the English pictures I assumed a lot. That the viewer would know why it’s funny to laugh at Doncaster Rovers or Rotherham. But take those pictures to Madagascar or South Africa… apart from really big clubs like Man Utd and Chelsea they won’t really know too much about our traditions and folk stories.

“And bringing pictures back from South Africa or Madagascar to Britain the same is true – they’ve got to be pictures which really draw people into them just by the way they look and not because they mean something if you read all the captions.

“They’ve still got to be very iconic. After fifteen years I feel very confident that I’ve trained my eye to find things that are very iconic, that are very simple, strong composition that draw the eye in. Colours and shapes, strong imagery. Pictures that make you go, ‘wow,’ even if you don’t like football.”

He says his inspiration comes from two sources. “Lowry was in my mind, his going to the match picture, and the photographer Donald McCullin – not that he ever touched football but that feeling of walking down the street, of less than sparkling lives but people making the most of it. Football was very central to those people’s lives and that was the great attraction for me.”

During his time working within football Clarke has seen many transformations. He doesn’t think a budding photographer would find it so easy to follow in his footsteps today.

“Then you could say Mr Groundsman, can I come in and take a few photos?” he recalls. “He’d be pleased. He’d put his fork down and show you around, share a few jokes with you. Today the marketing man would be very curious as to what you wanted to do with these pictures and whether it had any conflicting use with what they wanted to do.”

With plans for up to nine books – including some non-football projects – the next five years are well mapped out.

But his passion for football remains at the forefront of his work. His plan for the Germany World Cup is typical. “The proximity means there’s a chance of me coming back in the middle of it to see how people are enjoying the World Cup back in Ambleside and Burnley.” There aren’t many who would swap the stunning Olympia Stadion Berlin for a few days in darkest East Lancashire. Is that true passion or football fever?

There can be no more seen image of Clarke’s than his quintessential John Motson capture. Luck or good judgement had Clarke at Wycombe Wanderers ground in 1990, the morning of an FA Cup tie. You will have seen the film of BBC commentator Motson suffering the extreme cold in blizzard conditions.

Motson himself admits: “This photo did more for my image than I could have imagined. It has also made the sheepskin coat a cult garment. The amount of people who ask where was it wand when… I tell the story about the localised snowstorm – always a good start for after-dinner speeches. I have a big pile of it in postcard form – thanks to Stuart – which I use for special occasions and thank-yous.”

One of Stuart Clarke’s best known images is ‘Looking Up’, taken at the Fulwell End of Sunderland’s former Roker Park home. It has an incredible tension about it.

Clarke, a Watford fan, says: “Sunderland kids looking up – everybody loves that pictures, or the Manchester City crowd going mad [at Ewood Park when they won promotion]. Some pictures go beyond their own teams. Even Manchester United fans will admit to liking that picture.”

Of the Manchester City picture taken in 2000 Clarke says: “It is a goalkeeper’s view of the crowd, with the fans going bananas, a big sort of panoramic sweep of the crowd and the guy with crutches gives it something, a bizarre shot. There is something almost biblical about it. I love that and also, commercially, it’s sold loads of copies for me. That’s not bad.

“Looking up with the Sunderland fans is a bit more studied. It was very composed and thought out. I had stared at this group of people for 25 minutes before I took the picture. I picked the moment. The other one was more spur of the moment.

“Those two pictures mean a lot to me. Crowd shots, because of the human factor, although I love empty stadiums because I know they were built for people by people. The simplicity of some pictures like the red gates at Doncaster. I think that’s my skill. I’m not sure everyone sees it. But those quirky little things are me at my observant best.”

All images © Copyright Stuart Clarke

(except the image of Stuart Clarke which is © Copyright Garry Cook)


Amir Khan – This boy Khan box

by Garry Cook (published in Lancashire Today magazine, 2004)

Bad news for Amir Kahn’s opponents. He’s started weight training. To make himself stronger. It’s not enough that the 17-year-old is already battering opponents twice his age with raw power married to lightening speed. He says he wants to improve his strength to stop getting bullied in the ring by the seniors – but he adds that it hasn’t actually happened yet. They can’t get near him, that’s why.

Young Bolton boxer Khan is the most exciting fighter to emerge from a British boxing ring. Ever. He is so good he has scared the UK selectors into picking him for this summer’s Olympics in Athens. Despite being too young to fight senior matches in Britain, he is the first home country fighter to qualify for the Olympics after some sensational boxing abroad.

For safety reasons, Britain has a minimum age of 18 for senior boxing. But not so abroad, hence Khan was reluctantly allowed to take part in Olympic qualifying events.

With Pakistan, and even America, desperate to have Khan fight under their flag, the Amateur Boxing Association faced a stark choice of picking the kid, or losing him to another nation. They wanted to make him wait four years. In the end they had no choice. Boxing is a sport over-flowing with politics to its detriment, and Khan played his cards perfectly to win himself a dream trip to the Olympics.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t work to do in order to qualify. His target was to get to the semi-finals of the Strandja Cup in Bulgaria in April and gain automatic qualification to Athens. The big problem was Georgian fighter Avtandil Kashia who he was drawn against in the opening bout. Kashia had beaten Khan in a disputed 29-20 points victory in the European Championships in Pula, Croatia, a month earlier.

Privately, Khan and coach Mike Jelley believe there were political reasons why he was not awarded a win for that fight. But this time in Bulgaria there were no such problems. A convincing 40-18 victory set Khan on his way to Olympic qualification. He won the tournament to boot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was named best technical boxer. It should be underlined that he faced hardened fighters, men twice his age – Europe’s best fighters, some world-rated.

It was in January when jaws started dropping. Khan travelled to his first senior competition, the Adidas Box Gala in Germany. There, German champion Enrico Wagner and World Championships bronze medallist Martin Dressen were bish-bash-boshed out of the competition.

“I was a bit nervous,” recalls Khan of his first senior match, “but I boxed three times in Germany and I was the only lad to win three fights on the trot.

“I enter every fight with confidence, never think I’m going to lose it. When I go in the ring I feel dead strong. I have that self-esteem that I can do it when I go in there. My footwork is too quick for them, my speed, strength, it just happens. It all works for me when I’m in the ring. Now I’m a senior the technique has to be correct for me.”

“I got that extra confidence after I won. I realised I could do it against the seniors just like I could do it at junior level. People, I think, didn’t want me to go to the seniors too early because I was 17 and they thought I might not be mature enough, or strong enough or not good enough. Once I went to Germany and I proved them wrong, a lot of people thought, yeah, I can do it.”

It is worth pointing out that Khan, compared to both Naseem Hamed and his hero Muhammad Ali, is no Big Time Charlie.

There is no Prince Naz flash with him. He is as pleasant a young men as you could meet. He talks about maturing in boxing terms; socially he’s there already. His one concession, though, is that “I’m very good on my footwork and I’m fast but I can be a bit flashy sometimes.”

Last year, Khan took gold at the European Cadets and European Student Championships. He won the Junior ABAs (Class 5) and the International Junior Olympics. If his dad Shajaad wasn’t busy watching every fight, he’d be spending all his time building trophy cabinets.

Khan stared off boxing at a club near his home in Heaton because “I was a bit hyper- active’. He moved on to Bolton Lads Club and then, aged 12, Bury Boxing Club at the Seedfield Centre, linking up with coach Jelley. One or two locals, like David McDonald, had begun to notice his talent at Bolton and were blunt in telling the Khan family that Jelley was the only man who Khan-do. They weren’t wrong.

Jelley looks like a throwback to the seventies, all moustache and retro tracksuit. But he is an incredibly hard-working coach and mentor who has done it for Khan. And, frighteningly, there is another. Twelve-year-old brother Haroon has made a similar splash in the sport as his brother did at the same age.

Dad Shajaad, who will be in Greece with his two brothers, son Haroon and daughter Tabinda, said: “Mick’s been great with him.

He’s been to virtually every fight. The fight in Croatia when he didn’t get through, Mick wasn’t there. The next qualifiers in Bulgaria, Mick was there and he talked to him until he was going into the ring, telling him what to do. All his coaches, when they tell him what to do, he takes it all in.”

Jelley, whose father Joe founded Bury’s Boxing Club 69 years ago, agrees: “Yes, all the way down the line he does what he’s told. I told his dad three years ago he would be a world champion in ten years. He does as his told and he’s not afraid. He wants to be world champion. His strength is that he says he’s going get there.”

He adds: “He stands a reasonable chance of getting a medal. It all depends on the draw and the five judges say round that ring.

He’ll be walking out on that pitch with his shirt and tie on feeling a million dollars – that’s the first gold medal. The next aim is to get him on that podium. Let’s hope he can get there. It’ll shock a lot of people.”

Khan says of Jelley: “He has helped me a lot. Given me extra skills, confidence. He motivates me before I go into a fight. He gives me tactics before I go in the ring, which I always listen to.”

Studying a sports development diploma at Bolton College has made Khan aware of the science and ethics of the sport, too. “I have learned what muscles you use in sports,” he says. “In boxing, it helps me a lot, because I know what muscles I am using in the ring and how I should build them.”

He adds: “There is art in boxing. There is a lot of technique in boxing and people don’t see that, people just think we are hitting each other. The opponent is going to come to me – you must show how much you want to win the competition. That guy is going to want to win the match as much as you. It’s just an automatic reaction. I just switch on and do the job.”

“Europe is the hardest route to qualify for the Olympics in the world. If I’d gone to Pakistan it would have been a lot easier to qualify there. Asia is not as strong as Europe. In Europe you’ve got the Russia states which is divided into so many countries which makes it hard. It was just representing the country. I’ve gone to school in England, I live in England, I was born In England. My main priority is to represent my country.”

But for the elder Khan, the next step is the Olympics.

Preparations are already underway. And what of the pressure? “I ain’t really bothered. The pressure was mainly on me before when I had to qualify for the Olympics because people had high hopes for me to go to the Olympics but now I have made it, it has taken the pressure off me. That was my main aim.”

Khan’s career plan was only ever to make the 2008 Olympics and despite the pace of his current progress, he could still travel to Beijing rather than turn professional.

He said: “I don’t want to turn professional at a young age. I want to be a lot maturer when I turn professional because it might just wear me out or do me in if I go in early. I will be twenty-one in 2008. I still won’t be that old. If I get the chance to go to the Olympics again, I will take that chance.”

It is almost too much to ask for Khan to bring back gold. It shouldn’t happen, should it? Not in a million years. But it could.

Read more: Amir Khan after the Olympics


The resurrection of Rovers

by Garry Cook (published in Total Football magazine)

It’s the only truly original way to celebrate a promotion in English football. Forget dancing in the stands, naming your newborn child after the entire first-team or getting the club crest tattooed on your arse.

In the small Lancashire town of Bamber Bridge they mark the success of local clubs Preston North End and Blackburn Rovers by turning out en masse to resurrect a blue and white coffin from a pub cellar

Strangely, they do the same when either team gets relegates with the very same coffin going in to the cellar at the end of the parade

For Blackburn’s promotion to the Premier League in 2001 it wasn’t so much a wake, more a *!?* up outside a brewery as various cowboys, nurses, bishops and nuns – plus a moustached Mother Teresa in a fetching backless habit – swigged lager on a tour of the town, all proudly lining up behind an empty milk float.

In a carefully planned event, half of Ewood Park plus local dignitaries, marching bands, karate clubs, club mascot Roar and baffled Rovers legend Ronnie Clayton lined the streets to cheer on the strange looking group and their entourage of twenty odd floats as they snaked their way to what has become the almost biblical Trades Hall pub cellar entrance.

Here, in what was surreally reminiscent of a sketch from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and complete with a dead-ringer for Michael Palin, a cartoon coffin carrying a ginger-haired baby doll dressed in full Rovers kit is raised from the cellar and carried by two OAP undertakers to a ceremonial milk float. You just could not make this stuff up.

The utterly bizarre ceremony began life over fifty years ago in 1948 following Rovers relegation from Division One. In the various ups and downs since then, the coffin has been raised and buried in ever extreme circumstances. Emotions came to a head in the early seventies when vigilante mourners took over the ceremony and cremated the original coffin, such was their displeasure at Blackburn’s faltering fortunes. Football is, quite literally in these parts, a matter of life and death.

Witness to every resurrection and burial held over the last 53 years is little George Rimmer, now in his 85th year. Shaky on his feet, George rode the procession in an American jeep before raising the coffin from the cellar floor.

“I’ve been coming to this ceremony since it started in 1948. I’ve been through the war and nothing is going to get stop me doing this,” George muttered.

In a stirring final speech to mark the resurrection, ‘Bishop’ David Tuson paid respect to Rovers’ Uncle Jack Walker, who passed away last season.

He proclaimed: “Look down on your team from the heavens above, be proud Jack Walker for what they have done. You have come from near, you have come from far, to see Blackburn Rovers as they are. Nothing will stop us, young and old, from celebrating as we have been told. This team I said was far too slow, did not like it down below.”

And to whoops of delight Tuson concluded: “Preston tried and Preston failed, to climb the mountain that Blackburn scaled. I bless thee in the name of the Bitter, and of the Mild, and of the Holy Lager. Amen.” Amen indeed.

EXTRA TEXT

Here’s Bishop Tuson’s speech in full:

Oh Walker, Jack Walker, Walker
Look down on your team from the heavens above, be proud Jack Walker, for what they have done
I bless thee one and all in the name of the bitter, and of the mild, and of the Holy lager
This team I said was far too slow, did not like it down below
The humiliation of going down, came then the strength they have found
To ascend the Premier League Blackburn Rovers have returned

The other teams are nowhere to be seen, for Blackburn surely are the cream
In the wake they are scattered across the land, for Rovers had the upper hand

Preston tried and Preston failed to climb the mountain that Blackburn scaled
Someone said we should not celebrate this tradition we started in 48.
But we shall march on through the Brig and have this day as we always did.
Down Station Road, you know the rout, people will cheer it, car horns will hoot

You have come from near, you have come from far, to see Blackburn Rovers as they are
So nothing will stop us, the young and the old, from celebrating as we have been told

Things of kind, tender nursing care will benefit from your people out there
It all goes to charity from ten pence to a pound, there is nothing comes out and there is not a sound

From the drivers, the Bishop, the nuns and the band we all do it for free and I think its right grand
And so we march down this little village down yonder, up there, and back to the Withy’s

There is football tomorrow, and a grand tug of war, it’s on Brownridge field in case you aint heard.
There will be people from far and wide, who come to watch the seven-a-side

It will be a grand do just like today and for years to come you people will say, when Blackburn went up to the Premier League, I was in Brig on July the 14.
And what a grand do and what a good show, the coffin was blessed by the Bishop you know
And forbid that it never go down below
And so you good people with heads held high walk through the Brig at Blackburn Rovers side

I bless you all in the name of the bitter and of the mild and of the Holy lager, go in peace, enjoy your day
Amen.


From Russia with Love

by Garry Cook

At first I think I have to say that I am new in cyber space and I have only good intentions. you should know that I am not very good writer in english,please be patient to read my messages and see many mistakes.to be fair I don’t know what you want to know about me, in principle.

First of all I wish to ask your full name, mine Irina Timerkhanowa. I am usual girl. I think I should tell you about me, my interests,tastes and hobbies.I think I will tell you about things I want to know about you and you will know my future questions. I am 25 years old, my birthday is 18 August  1985.

I so much don’t want to get older, when I can see old women I am getting crazy to think that it is my future. I do all the best to keep my youth and I keep my body well. In spite of all difficultes here I am trying to be in good condition and I do a lot of exercises to be in good shape!

I am about 172 cm tall (5.6) and my weight is about 56 kg. I’ve been told I look well enough, and I think that all women have own beaty. I have never been married and don’t have kids but I love them and they love me!

I have one youngest sister and it is great problem for us because we have only two rooms flat.you can’t imagine what does it mean to be born in small town in Russia,there are not any chances to live well,to get a good job.All young people leave towns to search great luck in big cities but nobody waits for them there. I want to leave Russia,I know it sounds ugly but I know that I will be lost here like many young girls before me.

It is not place to grow children and have stable future.

I want to meet my right man. I think in future I can work as fitness trainer I have a certificate. My mother is my great problem too,she has a great dream to see me married and she wants to make me happy but I think it is only my business I am not a little child. She tells me every day that I should get married very soon.

To be fair I am not sure I  am able to explain all in first message I want to say so much! I just want you to know that I am not afraid to work, I am fairly goal oriented and I am sure you will be not disappoined to meet me in real life.I am going to spend three months abroad to work in any good place,agency promises to help me because it is only the way I can leave Russia. I will have all documents to travel in a few days and i will travel to Moscow then,from Moscow I will travel to you and they ask me about name of the city i am going to work, if you don’t mind to meet me please tell me the name of your city and nearest international airport! I will book my flight from Moscow!

I think  it would be so great to meet my love and stay there forever. I know that it is not so easy like I think but I think it is possible that I meat my real love. I want to love and to be loved I want to build our own happiness, only me and my man there.

I don’t smoke,I tried to smoke when I was younger.I may have a glass of red dry vine,sometimes it helps to relax. I try to take care of my body and face. I know it is all I have. My soul may have any itnterst for you later, I thinkso.I am not a little girl and I know that at first almost all men look at body ,legs and face.God created males such persons. Well,I think I am lost in my letter,I am not sure you understand my goals,please feel free to ask.

I live in Russia! Region Sibiria, Irkutsk Oblast’ (Area) in a small town Angarsk. My adress:

town Angarsk

Factory street 17, flat 42..

My city is really far from center of our country.Moscow and St Petersburg are located far from my place.

I would like to write if we understand interests of each other. If you understand my soul,my interests. If it is difficult read so long letters please let me know. I will write then shorter one.

I write from another city now. Name of this city is Irkutsk. The reason is we don’t have internet cafe in my town. It is mean that it take me 1 hour to get in this city by bus. Please don’t worry if i will answer you not so fast. I hope that you will understand me that it is difficult be in another city fast. I don’t have private mobile phone.In our small town only 3 digital phones.This phones can use only for call inside Russia. If we have to call

inside the country we have to order call through the operator. It’s impossible to call abroad.

Russia really is very difficult country!!! Please write me about yourself. I have to know everything. Your interests,hobby and so on. The last one. I have several very important questions to you.

Do you like alcohol drinks? Do you drink it often? Have you been rude with women?

Well,I have to stop or I will write without ending. Kiss you !see you later. In my next e-mail I will write you more things about myself and more details about my trip and work.

Yours Irina

P.S. I should go in the Internet of cafe in other city,

therefore following time I shall write to you in a day, or two.

NOTE: To avoid any confusion, this woman is a scammer. See this page here.

NOTE TWO: Irina is also know as: Ekaterina Solovyeva, Karamelka, Irina Komelina, Diana, Ekaterina Razgonova, Elena Kashkova, Svetlana Kiselyova, Inna Lihachova, Irina Komelina, Marina Krestyaninova, Natalia Jurtikova, Natalia Yrtikov, Elena Sharina, Tatyana Kiseleva, Vnisy, Svetlana Startseva, Elena Ushakova, Irina Russkih, Tatyana Krestyaninova, Natalia Loskotova, Ekaterina Samaeva, Olga Bondareva, Daria Iskrinka, Daria Kleschevnikova, Daria Lebedeva, Natalia Andrianova, Irina Astah, Anna Kurshakova, Oksana Tkach, Elena Kiseleva, Natalia Orehova, Irina Shalagina, Maria Talanova, Elena Griaznova, Olga Vohmyakova, Lubov Kuznetsova, Ksenia Chercazianouva, Galina Scherstobitowa, Tatyana Gorbunowa, Valentina Semenchugowa, Valentina Simenchugouva, Elena Tyulkina, Julia, Natalia Denisowa, Irina Vdovichenko, Natalia Loskutova, Anastasia Belostotskaya, Elena Okuneva, Ludmila, Tatyana Shihmatova, Alina Sabitova, Marina Goloubinova, Marina Sirotina, Olga Zikova, Elena Voronina, Evgenia, Anna Wotintseva, Natalia Kalyonova, Elizaveta Onjanowa, Daria Sapichewa, Elena Prozorova, Anastasia Bambourina, Ekaterina Tsaregorodtseva.

All images © Copyright


Flickr’s finest photographer

by Garry Cook (published in Photography Monthly magazine)

Rebekka Guoleifsdóttir is one, if not the, outstanding photographer on flickr, the photo community website.

The Icelandic photographer, known as _rebekka on the site, is both an example of how the internet can make you famous and how it can bite your bum.

Rebekka’s stunning landscapes, with a smattering of sexy and humorous self-portraits, have fuelled a fanatical following for the 29-year-old. She’s been featured in news and magazine articles around the world, been commissioned for major advertising campaigns, held exhibitions and does a tidy line in print sales.

And all because of the profile her photographs on flickr gave her. Rebekka’s camera skills were honed as she uploaded her pictures to flickr. Her exceptional photography would eventually have reached a wider audience on its own, but there is no doubt her web presence accelerated the process.

Success for her, success for flickr, success for the internet. Jolly good.

The following is an interview I did with Rebekka via email in 2007.

Tell me about yourself.

I live in the town of Hafnarfjörður, in Iceland. I sent most of my life here, aside from the seven years (from age 4-11) when I lived in Gainesville, Florida. I joined Flickr in April 2005.

How did you discover flickr?

I was talking to a friend about needing some place to store drawings online, so I could easily show them to people, and he pointed out Flickr to me. I liked the way it was set up, and when I began browsing other peoples pages my interest in photography was sparked. I decided to upload some photos I’d taken alongside the drawings, to see if anyone would like them.

How long was it before you started getting noticed – when people started viewing your pics as soon as you uploaded?

I suppose the first photo of mine that caused any kind of stir was a shot of my torso, a nude, if you will, which I put up there out of sheer curiosity (not really expecting anyone to look at it).

The views on my photostream doubled overnight, and obviously I found it rather entertaining to receive a bunch of comments about looking good. I’m human after all. So I started uploading more self-portraits, along with other photos, and the views steadily increased. However, I did start putting more work into my photographs, because the more attention I got, the more I wanted that attention to be for the quality of the photos, not for the shape of my body.

Things changed dramatically when I uploaded a photo called Eve, in august 2005, of an apple “floating” in front of my face, which became astoundingly popular and controversial, for the fact that many people refused to believe it wasn’t faked. I simply tossed the apple up and caught it with a shutter speed of 2500. Quite simple really.

The photo ended up on Explore, and over 200 people added me as a contact overnight, and after that, I felt I needed to continue to progress and evolve, so I wouldn’t be regarded as some kind of one hit wonder.

It was a bit scary, as I felt I would never be able to top that photo. But amazingly, I seem to have achieved my goal, my popularity on flickr has grown continuously since then,  at the present there are over 16,000 people who have me on their contact list, which explains why I get instant feedback whenever I upload something, and my photostream has now been viewed 2,710,000 times.

I’ve seen your Toyota Prius set – what professional work have you done as a result of flickr?

The Toyota project was the largest professional project I’ve done, by far. It was quite terrifying , to be honest, as I’d never done any type of commercial work before, but I learned a great deal from it, and it certainly helped get me more recognition here in Iceland. Apart from that I’ve done a few photo shoots for magazines and one cover for a CD. I haven’t been seeking out professional work in the past months, as I want to concentrate on school for now, there will be plenty of time for the other stuff when I graduate.

What has been the most remarkable thing about your flickr experience?
Obviously,  the fact that thousands of people worldwide know who I am is the strangest thing for me.  I never expected that to happen, ever, and I’m still amazed by it.  Out of curiosity, I tried entering my full name into Google the other day, and was stunned to see page after page after page of links to blogs and websites all over the place mentioning me, in languages ranging from Portuguese to German to Chinese.  Very surreal for me, because despite this attention I’m very down to earth, and don’t view myself as any different than I was before flickr, except I’m a better photographer, of course.

Do you expect to become a professional photographer?

I do, most certainly.

If so, how will flickr fit in with that work? Will you still upload?

That will remain do be seen. I suppose I will. Flickr has become a part of my life, in a way, and I’m very grateful to have discovered it, and for all the doors it has opened for me.

You can visit Rebekka’s website here.


How to be an editorial photographer

by Garry Cook (published in Freelance Photography Made Easy magazine, Aug/Sept 2006)

You might think that with an edition everyday, getting your pictures printed in a newspaper would be easy. Well, think again. In the fast and furious world of daily newspapers there’s no time to think and even less time to pitch.

Freelance photography with national newspapers is only for the brave. Work can range from stalking a celebrity to sitting outside someone’s house for hours or days waiting for a murderer’s wife to emerge. But it’s not always as glamorous as that!

At the sharp end it can be brutal. If you’re not available for jobs at the drop of a hat or if you haven’t got the right equipment or expertise don’t waste the time of the men on a national picture desk. It’ll do you more harm in the long run should you later be in a position to offer a picture.

Getting that first bite can be tough. Firstly, you must know the market. All the tabloids have frequently recurring themes. Be acutely aware of them.

Ideally you need to approach a picture desk with a brilliant picture in the bag which is what they’re after and can’t get themselves.

Opportunities, be they an event, accident or catastrophe, are not easy tocome by. Luck can play a huge part. But luck only works if you are prepared for it.

Remember the oil depot explosion at Buncefield in Hertfordshire a few years back? That is a classic example of opportunity knocks – provided you happened to be near the depot and had your camera to hand, as a couple of amateur cameramen were. In similar situations – major fires, accidents or riots – the picture desk will be desperate for defining photos and few people are likely to have them.

But don’t despair if there is no major catastrophe on your doorstep over the next few weeks – there are still a few ways you could get your pictures into print.

The red tops, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express for that matter, often use a bikini beauty on the beach to illustrate the start of a heatwave or Indian summer.

An infant panda or a baby bat feeding from a bottle of milk are classics, but neither are easy produce. That’s the point. It will be something equally unusual, interesting or new which will get your foot in the door.

Know your local area. While news desks get inundated with press releases telling them of events and picture opportunities, they are not always covered adequately.

Jon Snape, deputy picture editor at the Daily Star Sunday and Sunday Express, says: “Even though we have deals with some of the large agencies there are many occasions when ‘the picture’ is missed by them if they weren’t even at the event so freelances are vital.”

Look out for any events which might be worth attending. These could include celebrities opening a shop or community centre, or a promising sportsman tipped for the top who is appearing locally. Even your MP could be on his way into a high cabinet office.

Three years ago I went along to a run-down sports centre in Bury to take photographs of a then 17-year-old boxer tipped to go to the 2004 Olympics. He was unknown at the time. Now there are very few people in Britain who have not heard of Amir Khan. The pictures have since been used several times.

Specialising in one particular area can help.

If you’ve heard the immortal line ‘we’re going to use it’, your next worry will be what to charge. You must not be afraid of asking for the going rate. Being a member of a union can boost your confidence in negotiating.

The NUJ’s freelance rate guide states that a national newspaper should pay £90 for an ordered photo. It’s a disheartening figure but it should be used as a starting point, not a maximum amount. However, many picture desks self bill, basically meaning you take it or leave it.

Daily Star Sunday man Snape says: “If you disagree strongly with that amount paid, you can always call and try to get it increased. This is not the case with exclusives where a fee will normally be agreed beforehand. You can put a rider in the caption stating a minimum usage fee but this may put people off depending on the figure.”

He adds: “We sometimes need people to do pictures for us and will commission a freelance to do the work. If your work is known then you should be in the frame for a call.

“Make sure when the picture is sent, you attach details of what the picture is about, a detailed caption if is it is sent on spec.”

On copyright he adds: “Most papers hold a library of the pictures they have used but the copyright holder is kept with it and if there is a re-use of the picture you will be paid again but as a repeat fee so it will be less. Copyright should only become an issue if the newspaper wants exclusive rights.”

It is vital to include accurate caption details with any submissions. In most cases, submissions can be made by email. ISDN and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) are other options. Snape warns: “Just make sure that files are jpeg’d down so you don’t clog up the inbox – the easiest way to p*** people off on deadline!”

Unlike magazines, newspaper print allows for decent reproduction of quite small files.

Snape points out that newsrooms are almost entirely digital now. “If you are going to submit pictures on hard copy make sure that the office has capability to scan them – sounds stupid but in the digital age scanners aren’t really needed any more.

And once you’ve made contact with the desk, they will be more open to your submissions.

“All freelances submit live pictures on spec. Pricing varies massively between titles and newspaper groups,” says Snape. “If approaching direct, always find out a contact name and email address but don’t over use it. Sending in good pictures on spec is one thing, overloading the email with any old crap will only wind people up.

“Bear in mind that most journalists like a tipple or two so once they get to know your work, invite them out for lunch – you lose nothing by meeting face to face and most will be impressed that you’ve made the effort even of they can’t make time. But don’t push it and ring every week. There are a few photographers that nobody will speak to because they are renowned for pestering.

“The other route is to get in touch with the local news agency and they are normally prepared to syndicate on your behalf – for a cut of course.”

Depending on experience, you might find a local news agency or local newspaper a more achievable entry into print. In the local press deadlines aren’t as tight, digital media is not as crucial and (hopefully) an editor will be more approachable.

Local newspaper’s pay poorly, if at all, but the boost to your portfolio is immeasurable. It is definitely worth getting in touch – and keeping in touch. If they know you’re about, are reliable and able to step in at the drop of a hat the call will come.

A letter to the picture editor is fine, but the real impact comes from being seen. When an editor turns to his photographer and asks ‘who can do this job for us?’ it’ll be your name that is mentioned. You already gave the photographer your business card when you bumped into him at the county cricket final…
Do’s

Have confidence when approaching a picture desk. Don’t apologise for calling or pre-empt your pitch with the words ‘I’ve never done this before…’ or ‘I usually just take pictures as a hobby…’

Attend as many events as possible. The experience will be worthwhile, the contacts you build could be crucial.

Enjoy talking to people. If you’re not a conversationalist you’ll never find anything out. Chit chat also makes the people you a photographing feel at ease.

Send a brief letter with an example of your work on disk and on paper. When you do call in for the first time with an offer, a picture editor will at least have a vague idea of who you are.

Keep buying papers to keep yourself familiar with what’s going on.

Constantly think up ideas, subjects and themes to photograph. And follow them through. I remember a local photographer got great exposure in a local paper in Lancashire through his hobby of photographing gas towers. As well as getting his pictures printed, the nationals picked up on the quirk factor and ran the story too. He would have got money for that and also from British Gas who decided to pay for an exhibition of his work.

Don’t’s

Waste a picture desk editor’s time with unsuitable offers. Make sure the picture you are offering is suitable and at least has a chance of getting in the paper. If you’ve not seen similar shots in a particular newspaper, don’t even bother. The Sun are not going to publish your beautiful landscape… unless there is a credible news angle.

Turn up at events unannounced. Contact the press officer or secretary in advance, ask for accreditation. Be honest about who you are, explain you’re a freelance trying to build up your portfolio. They’ll probably let you attend as a photographer, for free.

Undervalue your work. The going rate is the going rate. Know what it is. Any union has examples, try the NUJ. Don’t offer a cheap rate or agree to one. And never offer to do anything for free because ‘you’ll just be pleased to see your picture in print’. As well as making it harder to get paid of that company in the future, you’re also devaluing the industry and effectively
taking money out of the hands of established freelancers. The professionals will not thank you for it.

Call a picture desk if you don’t have the right equipment. Newspapers are incredibly fast moving environments. If you offer a picture, you must be able to deliver it within hours, not days. In almost every instance you must be fully digital and able to email or ISDN pictures there and then.

Be put off. You might have heard this one before, but it’s true. Only the determined and thick skinned will keep putting themselves up for rejection. If you haven’t got a thick skin, go out and get one fast. A great picture can be rejected for many reasons, some not in your control like bad timing. A major news story can clear out all that day’s pages.

All images © Copyright


Hurst’s shirt, Gazza’s puppet and Jimmy Hill’s chair

by Garry Cook (published in Lancashire Today magazine)

It’s the trip to football heaven you’ve always wanted to make. The National Football Museum has assembled a staggering assortment of wonderful artefacts, items and memorabilia which create a stunning history of the sport. And last month England’s temple to football stepped into line with the country’s other eighteen National Museums by allowing visitors in for free.

If you thought the museum, based in Preston and attached to North End’s Deepdale Stadium, paid homage to only the Lilywhites you’d be very wrong. The people of Lancashire, thanks in part to the history of PNE, have found themselves with not just a National Museum, but also a football collection of world-wide significance which together simply takes the breath away.

The museum snakes its way under the Sir Tom Finney Stand and up into the Bill Shankly Kop, telling the story of football and displaying some of the most memorable objects the sport has produced. World governing body FIFA houses its Museum Collection here, with perhaps its centre-piece the hat-trick ball struck by Sir Geoff Hurst in the World Cup Final at Wembley in 1966.

It’s acquisition, along with the replica Jules Rimet trophy which England won by beating Germany in that final, have made the museum the envy of cities across the world.

But it could have all been so different. The battle to bring the Museum to Preston was hard fought. Several cities, including Sheffield and even, god forbid, Carlisle, were in the running to secure the ‘National’ title. But it was a meeting with an ex-journalist called Harry Langton which won the museum, run entirely independently from North End, its status.

Langton, who died in 2000, had collected football merchandise and items of interest for 46 years. FIFA bought his collection and when the idea of a National Football Museum in England was first mooted, and after talks with Langton, a deal was struck to buy the display and bring it to Preston. Subsequently the collections of the FA, the Football League and Wembley Stadium have moved to Lancashire.

The museum, which cost £19 million, opened in June 2001 houses a staggering 25,000 objects in the collection – though only 1,000 are on show at any one time. Its three curators take in new items on a weekly basis, but as marketing manager Mark Bushell admits it can be difficult choosing what’s in and what’s out.

“Some of our best items have been given to us by members of the public,” says Bushell. “But we can only take items in which have a genuine national significance and it can be heartbreaking sometimes having to turn things away.

He added: “Preston was chosen because of its history; it was the first ever club to win the Football League and do the double and, in Deepdale, has the longest continuously used ground in the world.”

The replica Jules Rimet trophy is probably the most famous item. Since the original was stolen from Brazil in 1983, the replica is now so valuable it was bought by FIFA for £250,000 five years ago. Not bad for a gilded bronze statue.

But it is the story behind the trophy – uncovered by the museum and to be told in a forthcoming book – which is truly amazing. The statue was produced prior to the 1966 Final by goldsmith George Bird after the original was stolen from a stamp fair. The FA approached FIFA and requested permission to make a gold replica because they didn’t think the original would be recovered. Famously, Pickles the dog found the original in a hedge but the FA, in secret, went ahead anyway and made a bronze replica without FIFA’s knowledge.

Bushell takes up the story as the celebrations took place on the Wembley pitch. He revealed: “It was real Keystone Cops stuff. Three policeman, one with the replica under his jacket, scrapped the original from Nobby Stiles’s hands and passed on the fake to another player.

“From then, the fake was passed around the dressing room with Howard Wilson and in all the following celebrations. Every photograph at that time was of the fake. The original was kept in a vault for four years until the Mexico World Cup.

“The fake then lay under George Bird’s bed for 27 years until, after his death, his widow decided to auction it. No-one ever knew this story until we uncovered it as part of our research in 2001.”

One of Bushell’s favourite pieces is Jimmy Hill’s antique chair which he sat on for three years in Fleet Street while PFA chairman as he battled to abolish the maximum wage. It was picked up during a meeting with Hill at his home and was handed over by the ex-player, manager and TV pundit to the museum. Bushell says this is how the museum gets many of its exhibits.

“We can’t compete with private collectors so we appeal to them to loan us items.

The most important development to the National Football Museum recently was its successful bid to win ‘free entry’ status last month. This followed tireless campaigning for the museum to match the direct revenue funding status enjoyed by England’s other 18 national museums. £2 million worth of funding has been secured by the North West Development Agency to pay rent for the next 60 years while staff and running costs have been covered until 2006.

Visitor numbers have already risen as a result and the 42,000 visitors in 2002 could now swell by as much as 150% judging by similar ventures elsewhere.

Much of the influx should come from the North West but Bushell stresses: “It’s not just a Preston museum. It’s as much about Arsenal as Everton, as England and the international game.. The museum offers a social history, not just for football supporters.”

The FIFA collection is now owned by the museum for what Bushell describes as a ‘considerable amount.’ The Museum cost £19 million to launch, of which £7 million went into actually building it. And as it is no secret that FIFA paid £250,000 for the replica Jules Rimet trophy now on display, it is safe to assume that the cost of entire FIFA collection, and other exhibits, ran into millions of pounds.

But Bushell says that even after amassing a huge array of items there were still vital areas left un-addressed. “We still had gaps, like Gazza,” he recalls. “So we stared asking people for help. We got in touch with Mel Stein who was Gazza’s agent, and found his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in a brown paper bag in an office drawer.” The award now sits proudly on display in the museum – not far from Gazza’s glorious Spitting Image puppet.

The tale of the ’66 World Cup ball is proof that such items are best kept in a museum. Bought by the Mirror Group, Virgin and Eurostar UK in 1996 from German ‘66 international Helmut Haller, the ball – which had acquired over 30 signatures from the likes of Eusebio and Pele – was put on display at Waterloo Station.

“It was left in direct sunlight and all the signatures faded,” says Bushell.

“It’s unbelievable, but it happens a lot. I see so many framed jerseys slowly deteriorating in Directors Room’s at stadiums. At least here at the museum they will be preserved. That’s why FIFA agreed to let us have their collection.”

To see the greatest trophies of all time – World Cup’s, the FA cup, medals, shirts – under one roof is too good an opportunity to miss. If you’ve never been to Deepdale… you should now.”

All images © Copyright Garry Cook

*But not at Deepdale as the Museum is no longer there.


Bring your pictures to life

by Garry Cook (published in Photography Monthly magazine, 2007)

For everything that is great about the digital revolution, it is all too easy to take photos and forget about them.

If you’ve got thousands of photographs on your hard-drive which no-one has ever seen, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

In the old days we would get your prints from the chemist and bore our family to death before stuffing them into a draw. Now, your pictures lie dormant on your hard drive gathering digital dust. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Along with new technology comes new ways of bringing your pictures to life.

If you want to resuscitate your snaps and see them waltzing around cyberspace then undoubtedly the best place to start is Flickr (www.flickr.com), the feel-good photo community where photographs take on a life of their own. Flickr is the most popular photo site in Britain and a staggering one million pictures are uploaded every day worldwide.

It has everything going for it: It’s easy to use, fun, friendly – and highly addictive. Flickr works on two levels. Firstly, like most photo hosting sites it is a decent archive for your images. You can hide or make them available from the public as you wish.

But it is as a gallery that Flickr impresses most. Watching one of your shots grow – following how many times it is viewed – is a strangely thrilling experience. If you’ve ever sold something on eBay and been caught up in the delight of watching the bidding increase, you’ll know how much of a buzz this is.*

But the beauty of the site is the ability of other users to leave comment, with mean-spirited notes are virtually non-existent. Comments can range from ‘love your pic’ to more technique-based discussion.

Flickr is a mish-mash of photography skills, from the amateur to the highly professional. You can lose hours rambling round the site. My favourite contributor is an Icelandic woman called Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir.

Often using herself as a model, Rebekka’s unique style has won her a cult following on the site – to the point where she has had over 2,700,000 views and 16,000 people have added her to their contact list since she joined in 2005.

She originally used the site to display her drawings, but after catching the photography bug her pictures led to her being asked to do various commissions, most notably a promotional shoot for Toyota’s ground-breaking Prius car.

She said: “I liked the way Flickr was set up, and when I began browsing other people’s pages my interest in photography was sparked.  “The fact that thousands of people worldwide know who I am is the strangest thing for me. I never expected that to happen, ever, and I’m still amazed by it.

“Out of curiosity, I tried entering my full name into Google the other day, and was stunned to see page after page after page of links to blogs and websites all over the place mentioning me, in languages ranging from Portuguese to German to Chinese.

“Flickr has become a part of my life and I’m very grateful to have discovered it, and for all the doors it has opened for me.” There are many curators who believe that entire exhibitions will eventually be uploaded to sites like Flickr, giving the maximum audience possible to some of the best photographs in the world. On a site like Flickr you’re not going to receive thousands of hits straight away.

What comments you get, and how many people view your pictures, can be affected greatly by how you tag them and what groups you put them in.

Tags are self-explanatory. You tag a photo ‘dog’ and someone will find it when they do a search under that word. But you can also add your photographs to groups – collections of pictures started by fellow users that can be on any subject (and there are some very weird ones).

If you do manage to find a subject which does not have its own group (and you’ll be hard pushed to do that) just start your own. It’s easy and will add another dimension to your photography.

These ways of discovering photographs also create a kind of popularity contest for your images, and you’ll be amazed when you realise that your favourite landscape of Bamburgh Castle at dawn has been gazumped in the ‘favourited’ stakes by a shot of a disused Texaco garage. Flickr is often used as a resource for people hunting pictures.

The site employs staggered copyright system, the level of which you choose, but anyone wanting to use a picture for, say, a blog will usually send you a message and ask permission. Politeness rules on this site. NME photographer Guy Eppel uploads his images of pop and rock stars to the site.

He said: “I do worry about people stealing images, but as long as it’s for their own personal use, people can download mine as far as I’m concerned. However in a community you just hope that everyone gets along and is civil to one another, therefore doing the correct thing.

“I get to put my work out to a wider audience than rather just to the people who specifically know of me. It’s a good way of sharing ones work with your peers and I get inspiration in other areas of photography outside of my genre.”

The ease of Flickr means it has a huge audience of browsers as well as uploaders. Ultimately this means that if you tag and put your photos into the appropriate groups they will be seen and commented on.

Signing up for Flickr is free and you can upload 100mb worth of pictures a month (for a small fee uploads are unlimited). Most other services have a similar subscription set-ups.

Elsewhere, on Geograph (www.geograph.org.uk) you can submit pictures which represent every square kilometre of the British Isles. Much of Britain has already been filled, but there’s still plenty of spaces left. If you fill an empty square first, your picture ‘owns’ it. Subsequent pictures are known as ‘supplementals.’

Woophy (www.woophy.com) runs along similar lines as Geograph but on a global scale. As you can probably imagine, there’s a long way to go before this grid is complete.

Smugmug (www.smugmug.com) is similar to Flickr in that you can leave comments – you can also rate photos – while fotki (www.fotki.com) has tried to adopt the Flickr ethos (and look).

Zoomr (www.zoomr.com) is a fledgling photo sharing site with the added bonus of geo-tags (something subsequently picked up by Flickr). Geo-tags allow your photographs to be referenced to a map location of where they were taken. There are other innovations on zooomr like the merging of sound to photography of Zooomrtation, but that’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself.

Another site which might come in handy is Slide (www.slide.com) which allows the creation of slide shows of your pictures which can be added to websites or blogs. It is easy to get bogged down in the myriad of websites and applications which can enhance your digital photographs, but the main advice is: Dive in!

Try one of these sites and you’ll soon find yourself picking up other tricks along the way. Like everything digital, baffling techniques soon become simple exercises once you’ve poked around the program for half an hour. And these sites are worth it – they could save your digital life.

As well as Rebekka (www.flickr.com/photos/rebba/) and Guy (www.flickr.com/photos/guyeppel/), other great photographers to look out for on Flickr are San Francisco-based Merkley who specialises in (sometimes) nude pictures of women.

See his photoshopped images at http://www.flickr.com/photos/merkley/ Also good with photoshop is Dutchman Peter Verheyen (www.flickr.com/photos/frans-peter-verheyen/), while comedian Dave Gorman (www.flickr.com/photos/dgbalancesrocks/) does a great line in quirky street photography.

There are some great landscapes from London-based Andrew Houser (www.flickr.com/photos/houser/) and Mystery Me from Durham also has some eye-catching photographs.

Daniel Webb from Dunfermline (www.flickr.com/photos/dhansak79/) has some interesting landscapes while Brazil’s Paula Anddrade (www.flickr.com/people/paulapcda/) produces some great shots with models. But the main advice is explore – you never know what you’ll find.

* Examples shown here of my own images on flickr. Interestingly, my most popular images are of dogs and scantily clad men and women.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Travel

Disneyland Paris

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

WHAT’S tall and dark and has a seven-year-old grabbing on to his dad for fear of his life? The answer is the Tower Of Terror – and it’s no laughing matter.

My seven-year-old son Teddy and I didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for when we entered the Hollywood Tower Hotel in Walt Disney Studios, sister park to Disneyland Paris.

The Tower Of Terror is the tallest building in the two parks and we entered expecting freaks, frights and fear. It started with spooky music and lightning as the giant lift in which we were seated moved creakily up a level.

Then the true terror was unleashed with total blackout.disneyland paris

There was a sudden jerky drop and ferocious blast upwards and the doors drew back so those on the ground outside could hear our screams.

It was an experience my son and I will never forget – but then memories are what Disney does best.

The two parks are packed with rides, tours and shows to impress even the fussiest kids.

We began our Disney experience with a spot of laser blasting, Buzz Lightyear style, on a ghost-train with a difference that we rode three times.

Then we tried the Star Wars-inspired Star Tours, an unexpectedly brilliant simulator.

I now feel personally responsible for destroying the Death Star.

Part of the fun of Disneyland Paris is the journey on stress-free Eurostar from London St Pancras. Arriv-ing at Hotel New York, just a few minutes’ stroll from the action, we were greeted by Mickey and Minnie Mouse.disneyland paris mickey mouse

After the short walk through colourful Disney Village to Disneyland itself, even this cynical dad had entered into the spirit.

The main park is split into four sections, all easily reachable from the central area in front of the castle.

Disneyland Paris is currently marking its 20th anniversary, with celebrations extended throughout the summer.

That means extra-special light shows and parades throughout the day and into the evening.

Disney Magic On Parade is joyously extravagant, with all the familiar characters delighting the crowds in a blaze of brilliant colour.

And the Disney Dreams spectacle, an awesome light show that turns Sleeping Beauty Castle into a multicoloured canvas, was jawdropping.

Backed up by 40-metre-high dancing jets of water, blazing towers of flame and fireworks, this perfectly-choreographed show is what Disney is all about.

disneyland parisWe even wore Mickey Mouse light-up ears that changed colour in time with the effects. It all adds to the magic.

The queues can get long on some rides but there are ways to avoid them. Hotel residents get access to the park at 8am, two hours before it opens to others.

Some rides in Discoveryland open early so you can be the first to take a spin – then be at the front of the queue when the big rides open at 10am.

There is a lull in activity at lunchtime and the big parades at 3pm and 5pm see people lining the street – so you can sneak an extra turn on Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Peril, Pirates Of The Caribbean or Autopia.

Youngsters will be awestruck by Fantasyland boat trips, It’s A Small World and Le Pays des Contes de Fees (Land Canal Boats).

Add the ultra-popular Peter Pan Flight and spinning fairground staples like Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups and Dumbo the Flying Elephant and you’ve got a children’s paradise.

disneyland parisOlder kids will be drawn to the thrills and spills of Adventureland and Frontierland, with Indiana Jones and Big Thunder Mountain thrillers, Space Mountain: Mission Two and, over at Walt Disney Studios, Nemo-inspired spinning dipper Crush’s Coaster.

Traditional rides are still hugely popular. Slinky Dog Zig Zag Spin from Toy Story and a dizzying Carsinspired spinning circular ride got the thumbs-up.

But after the Tower of Terror we needed a rest. And the Moteurs… Action! Stunt Show Spectacular was a massive hit.

A series of car and motorcycle stunts was unleashed against a backdrop of fire and explosions, with enough twists and turns to keep the audience gripped for 45 minutes.

Lunch is easy in Disneyland, with everything from couscous and spare ribs at themed restaurants to Planet Hollywood.

This is a good time to switch parks as we did to visit Frontierland’s Phantom Manor.

When our heads finally hit our pillows all we could say was: “Wow!” On our final day the Disney experience continued until 4pm when we walked 100 yards to the Marne-la-Vall©e train station and picked up our luggage, transferred by the hotel so we could enjoy every last minute.

“Normal life seems a bit strange,” said Teddy upon our arrival back in London on Sunday night. I couldn’t agree more.

disneyland paris garry cook teddy cook

DISNEYLAND PARIS FACTS

DISNEY’S 20th anniversary celebrations take place until the end of September.

During the celebrations prices for a two-night, three-day package including return travel with Eurostar in April start at £1,610 for a family of two adults and two children (aged four to six).

It includes accommodation in a lakeside room with continental breakfast at Disney’s Hotel New York and three-day hopper tickets with unlimited access to Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park.

Book before April 28 for up to 30% off Disney hotels and park tickets for holidays taken before August 31, 2013. Kids under seven go free (even during school holidays) for bookings made before April 28 for holidays taken before November 7. Transport not included.

See disneylandparis.com or call 08448 008 111.

Eurostar travels from St Pancras International to Disneyland’s Marne-la-Vall©e station daily in just two hours 40 minutes. See eurostar.com.

Virgin Trains operate regularly on the West Coast mainline to Euston Station, just a few minutes walk from St Pancras. See virgintrains.co.uk.

disneyladn apris


Ribble Valley, UK – Journey to the Centre of Britain

by Garry Cook

The centre of Britain is an elusive place. Depending on your highly scientific and hugely mathematical method of calculation, the actual midpoint could be any one of a number locations.

Haltwhistle, a picturesque town near Hexham in Northumberland has made the strongest claim to the title simply by stating the fact on all the road signs leading to it.

Others believe the actual centre is in a field out the back of the old Calderstones Hospital in Whalley, near Clitheroe.

If you believe the people with the biggest calculators and most expensive GPS location equipment – Ordnance Survey – the real centre is a piece of grass near Whitendale Hanging Stones high up on an inaccessible hill a few miles north of Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. OS worked this out by including Britain’s 400 islands in their calculations.

But did you know that hardly anybody else knows about this? Apart from us now, obviously. The reason for this is simple: The exact centre of Britain is so remote, so exposed and so difficult to reach that nobody goes there.

You can’t have a tourist destination where no tourists can get to.

But that does not mean that claiming the Centre of Britain – for Lancashire – is any less important. And so, one blustery Sunday morning, my eight-year-old son and I set off for Britain’s mysterious centrepoint, flag in hand.

Preparation was difficult. Hardly anything has been published about Whitendale Hanging Stones and how to get to them. The advice available on the internet is difficult to follow.

But, after six weeks of intensive research, note talking and provisions packing, I formulated a plan. And this was it:

  • Drive to Dunsop Bridge. Leave the car at Puddleducks Cafe.
  • Cycle 2.5 miles alongside the River Dunsop, past Middle Knoll and then on to a farmhouse a further mile away.
  • Dump the bikes.
  • Follow the stream for two miles on foot.
  • Scramble up the steep hillside, then trudge across the heavy peat bogs until we can find an old shooters cabin (Grouse shooting is big round here – but thankfully not on Sundays).
  • Hike further up the hill until we find the centre of Britain, Whitendale Hanging Stones.

garry cook centre of britain 009 garry cook centre of britain 006 garry cook centre of britain 002 garry cook centre of britain 003

Believe me, it wasn’t easy. The cycle ride, particularly up Middle Knoll was hard enough.

“When are we leaving the bikes?” my son repeatedly asked during the one hour and fifteen minutes cycle ride. After almost an hour of this we had to have one of those inspirational dad chats in order to stamp out any further signs of moaning which could have jeopardised the mission.

The walking was fine until the point where we had to cross the stream, which was heavily swollen.

But once we had successfully achieved that (thanks to a convenient iron bridge installed by the local water board) we had a daunting hill to ascend. This hill, one of those which always has another summit you can only see when you reach what you thought was the summit, was steep enough to make little boys weep. But not this rejuvenated explorer who had been fully-refocused with the promise of a Mars Bar and some pop at the end of the journey.

The views as we approached the stones were stunning and felt more special because we knew that so few people have actually experienced them.

It was with huge smiles on our faces that we reached the stones – not just the centre of Britain but which also, for us, felt like the top of the world for fifteen minutes.

And now the secret is out, Lancashire can add the title of Centre of Britain to the long list of things it can be proud of.

It only took two hours and twenty minutes to find the stones and claim them for Lancashire but our memories will last a lifetime.

NOTE: Ordnance Survey centre of Britain grid reference SD 64188.3 56541.43

garry cook centre of britain 008


Jordan – Wadi place to be

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

Historical charm and modern-day splendour, Historical charm and modern-day splendour, IT WAS definitely an out-of-this-world experience – a bit like being on Mars.
Climbing a steep sand dune to see the sunset from the top of a craggy rock, the only indication I was not on the Red Planet was that instead of wearing a spacesuit I was barefoot as I struggled up the dark red sand.
The sunset came at the end of a perfect day in Wadi Rum, one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.
Like a darker, redder Grand Canyon, only more remote and with the added attraction of being inhabited by Bedouin tribes, Wadi Rum is like somewhere you only see in the movies. The fact it has been used as a backdrop for several films indicates how extraordinary it is. David Lean’s Oscar-winning Lawrence Of Arabia was filmed here.
Hidden down a long, lonely road, just 30 miles from Aqaba, it is one of several stunning vistas in Jordan.
Like any journey around Jordan, it takes a while to get to Wadi Rum. Miles from the main motorway, the mountains of Rum are home to ancient rock drawings.
I’m a sucker for a bit of history but these bits of graffiti pale into insignificance when compared to the natural land formations, especially the weathered rock path that cuts deep into the Jebel Khazali mountain.
The local Bedouins have embraced tourism, which now includes jeep rides across the desert floor and traditional tents where tired Western explorers can rest.garry cook wadi rum jordan
But the fun didn’t end at sunset. We took a trip to a Bedouin party at Jabal Rum Camp complete with a traditional feast, which included lamb cooked in a hole in the ground – an amazing end to an unforgettable day.
Jordan’s only coastal resort is Aqaba, the perfect base for wannabe explorers. I stayed at the exquisite beachfront Blu Radisson Tala Bay resort where the levels of luxury are in contrast to the life of a Bedouin.
With sweeping views of Israel and Egypt across the Gulf of Aqaba, the resort is an oasis in a desert land.
The hotel boasts five outdoor swimming pools and three restaurants. And there is no better way to relax than gazing at the sea view from your room.
The day after my Wadi Rum trip I was back on the road with our driver Yousef taking us to a genuine wonder of the world – Petra.
The majestic city, where buildings are carved out of sheer rock faces, was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. It was the home of the Nabateans, early Jordanian settlers, in the 6th century BC and was later ruled by the Roman Empire. It also featured in the final scene from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. The steep rock valley walkway to the city, called the Siq, is an entrance like no other as you near the magnificent 40 metre-high Treasury.
My sense of wonder was broken only by the horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists to and from the temple.
Round the corner from the Treasury, the valley widens to reveal dozens of equally amazing buildings carved into the rock face.
For the serious history junkie the Monastery is a 45-minute walk up 800 steps to a remote mountain top where the views are unbelievable.
They even call the vista looking out towards Israel in the west The End of The World. Of course, adventure does not have to be a two-hour drive away. Just half a mile up the road from the hotel is a quad bike trail.
And what better way to experience the dusty landscape than in the dirt trails on an off-road buggy? Quad biking is brilliant and surprisingly easy. Even the more timid of travellers can give the throttle some welly.
I still find it hard to believe I’ve been to Petra and followed in the footsteps of Nabateans, famous explorers – and Harrison Ford.
Great history coupled with modern hotel comforts, Jordan offers something totally different in a holiday.

JORDAN FACTS

FLY to Amman from Heathrow with BMI from £486 return. See ba.com. Fly with easyJet from Gatwick from £257 return. See easyjet.com. Or fly with Royal Jordanian from Heathrow from £495 return. Book via rj.com

ROOMS at the Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort, Aqaba, cost from £75. See radissonblu.com/resort-aqaba

Thrifty offers return transfers in a private car to Wadi Rum from £75 and to Petra from £85. See thrifty.com/jo

Entrance to Petra is £45. For more details see visitjordan.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


India – Roads to hell

by Garry Cook

I visited India for ten days. I went to a lovely wedding, explored Ludhiana, walked round the Golden Temple at Amritsar and visited Chandigarh. To top it all off I spent two nights in the fabulous Himalayan mountain town of Nainital.

It was quite and amazing experience. So why do I keep questioning if I should be enjoying myself in this exceptional multi-cultural country?

The answer is poverty. Deprivation is not exclusive to India but this country holds a sizeable chunk of the world’s homeless, hungry and humiliated.

India has a fast-growing economy built on industry, particularly manufacturing. But still it harbours huge misery and desperation.

You see it immediately from the train when you leave New Delhi Station heading north. Amongst the litter-strewn wage ground between the track and slums squat dozens of human beings in what acts as their open-air toilets. They shit on the ground.

The stench of the slums, even from 50 metres away in Agra is unbearable. So unbearable I didn’t dare go near.

And the beggars at every street junction and corner, who traipse up and down the trains (first-class excluded) or, like these two girls pictured (above), who relentlessly smile into carriages in the desperate hope of a few rupees.

I gave them a (large) packet of crisps and some biscuits. Does that justify taking the photograph?

Possibly not. But at least writing about it and showing this photo is better than ignoring it. Do I sound like Bono?

I remember Alan Whicker. I’ve seen Clive James. I watch Michael Palin. I knew what to expect in India. So I reckoned anyway. Nothing can prepare you for the stress of the roads.

It’s not so much the hustle and bustle and bump of traffic in the congested cities, it’s the torturous journies between towns that leave your brain battered and bruised.

Imagine travelling from Manchester to Newcastle or London to Leeds on a country road which regularly descends into a dirt track and which is littered with cows, horses and carts, huge trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws and cars all travelling on both sides of the road, often four abreast at 90mph, while oncoming traffic whizzes towards you.

For someone who prides himself on not getting stressed-out this was too stressful to bear.

Ludhiana to Chandigarh. Three hours each way. Nightmare. The booting and braking of my friend Hemant on dusty tracks left me scared of Ford Fusion’s for life. I decided to shut my eyes for almost the entire journey back to Ludhiana.

Ludhiana to Amritsar. Four hours each way. Absolutely horrendous. The Ayrton Senna-style drive to Amritsar was bad enough- we were late for the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony at Wagah. But coming back in the dark was emotionally devastating. Parts of this journey on the famous Grand Trunk Road were on dual carriageways. Unfortunately, dual carriageways do not stop some trucks from driving the wrong way down them. And then there was the Holy Cow! moment when Hemant blackspotted his Fusion’s tyres when Daisy the cow meandered into our 80mph path on a typically unlit piece of carriageway.

Ludhiana to Corbett National park. Fifteen hours in a mini bus. Along some of the bumpiest roads ever misconstructed. This was a nightmare from start to finish. So traumatised I was by this that my final journey, intended to be from Nainital to Delhi in this very same minibus was dumped in favour of the train. A decision I did not live to regret.

India has a huge amount to offer. Temples, mountains, culture by the bucketloads and enough diahorrea to keep everyone busy. But the roads, the speed and the fearless head-on driving give this monumental country it’s own unique selling point.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


West Bank, Israel – Jealousy zealousy

by Garry Cook

If I was about to write the answer to the frustrating, horrendous, unjust and simmering feud between Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine, my place in history would be assured.

Sadly there is no answer to this hugely complex problem. You would have a job on your hands solving the problem if it was created by a single factor. But when it’s a bitter mix of politics, history and religion even the conciliatory service ACAS would be out of its death.

There are and have been so many atrocities in this conflict on both sides that finding deciding the cause, never mind the solution, is hardly possible.

Just to begin to comprehend the problem requires knowledge of the various groups involved and their correct labeling. Is Hamas a group of freedom fighters or terrorists? Do you recognise Palestine as an independent state with a leader (Mahmoud Abbas)?

You also need to know geographical facts such as: the huge West Bank area is entirely inland and separate from the tiny sliver of coastal land that is Gaza.

Having been to Israel and the West Bank, having talked to Palestinians and Jews, having interviewed people from both sides, having photographed inside the homes of people from Israel and the West Bank, having walked beneath the fortified concrete towers where the Israel Army (or Israel Defence Forces) watch over the Palestinians, having walked alongside the huge concrete wall which wraps round Bethlehem, having walked the streets of Jerusalem, having heard stories of immense hardship from both sides… having done all this I can’t offer any inspirational insight into the conflict within Israel and what it would take to find peace.

I have seen with my own eyes streets and houses in the West Bank. While the perception of the Palestinians is of a people ‘living in shit’, as one Israeli said to me, the reality is different. They have a well-developed infrastructure.

Shops and businesses thrive in Bethlehem. Homes in Beit Ummar are bigger and more decadent than my own, more like the Spanish villas I stayed in when I was a kid rather than the dirty dusty shacks one might have assumed most Palestinian people live in.

This is not to say the Palestinian people are not oppressed. I have heard horrifying accounts of the impact the Israeli army has had on people’s lives: fatal shootings of loved ones, fathers and sons imprisoned for decades without trial, families petrified with fear during midnight raids on their homes by the Israeli army.

The Palestinians are oppressed. I’d hope even the most dismissive Israeli would admit that. But you then you’ve got factions of Palestinians – Hamas in Gaza – firing potshots into Israeli occupied areas.

And you can’t deny that Palestinian suicide bombers strike fear into the hearts of all Israeli Jews.

I’ve not even touched on the arguments over land, forcible removal of Palestinians for new Israeli settlements and a thousand other flashpoints and clashes.

All I know is that I’d love the hostilities to stop. And I know the people in these photographs would too.

But one thing I do know is that Jerusalem is an amazing city where Judaism, Christianity and Islam meet in a melting pot of staggering historical significance.

NOTE: Images on the streets of Bethlehem, the road to Beit Ummar and inside homes at Beit Ummar. Taken in 2008.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Tobago

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

I’m not saying the pace of life is slower in Tobago, but when the projector at the island’s only cinema broke down more than two decades ago, they never got round to fixing it.
But when you’re living in paradise, what’s the point of being cooped up indoors?
Sparkling shores, milky white beaches, exotic wildlife and reams of reefs to explore… I’m still racking my brain trying to decide why I came home.
Tobago might be smaller than the Isle of Man but it has a totally tropical taste. Just one-sixteenth the size of neighbour Trinidad, this pint-sized Caribbean island used to be seen as the lesser relation in the partnership.
But while Trinidad exploited its resources and became increasingly industrialised, Tobago took it easy.
Now the island is reaping the rewards of its laid-back attitude.
The natural beauty of its lush green mountains and chilled-out beaches are its greatest selling point. And just to make you feel better, almost the entire tourism industry is built on an ecofriendly masterplan.
Take my hotel, The Blue Haven. After 25 years of decay it was renovated in 2000 to incorporate enough energy-saving tricks to ensure it consumes less than half the electricity of a conventional hotel.
But it has kept its colonial feel of 50 years ago when stars like Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and Jack Lemmon were guests. Even the Queen held a cocktail party there in 1962 to mark Trinidad & Tobago’s independence.
It’s the perfect blend of history and conservation.
And, despite its name, it’s actually pink. It’s for purely cosmetic reasons that I’ll never forget this place.
Built on a rocky outcrop, it has a perfect panoramic view of the Atlantic.
One side of the island enjoys the pond-like Caribbean, but I preferred the crashing Atlantic waves on the south side.
Bacolet Bay, the hotel’s private palm tree beach, ticks all the paradise boxes.
Breakfast never tasted so good after an early morning swim across the bay.
Blue Haven’s owner, an Austrian called Karl, was kind enough to give me and my friends a lift home after we bumped into him late one night on the other side of the island.
He even joined in the singsong. When you’re in the hotel owner’s white sports car, he’s driving at 60mph and singing Roxanne at the top of his voice, you know you’re as close to perfection as you’ll ever get on holiday.
Tobago is steeped in history, having changed hands down the centuries 31 times as Britain fought the French and Dutch for control.
Its slave-trading history is as fascinating as it is abhorrent. The Fort King George museum overlooking capital Scarborough documents the island’s bloody past.
But there are other historical gems like James Bond author Ian Fleming’s hideaway island a mile off the coast from Batteaux Bay on the east side.
You can sit and watch it from high up in Jemma’s Tree House restaurant or the Blue Waters Inn.
The British influence has left the place with a pleasantly reassuring feel.
Thankfully, the cost of a bottle of the local Carib lager, at little more than £1 a go, is very un-British.
If you prefer birds to beer, you will have to be up early to see some of the 220 gloriously-feathered species which inhabit the island.
Fascinating as the rainforest walk was, the highlight of my trip was a tour of the cocoa plantation.
This are one of the ecologically-sound initiatives Tobago has reintroduced in an effort to maintain the island’s natural beauty.
Other must-dos include taking a ride on a glass-bottom boat to the Buccoo Reef where there are 44 species of coral, go swimming in the Nylon pool, watch turtles crawl up the beach; dive into the Argyle waterfall, and eat a traditional meal of crab and dumplings. The island might be laidback, but the fun is nonstop.

TOBAGO FACTS

Tobago Jazz Experience – gotrinidadandtobago.com Harris Jungle Tours: harris-jungle-tours.com Rum & chocolate: tobagococoa.com or rumchocolate.com. For information on tours to Duane’s estate, email infoattobagococoa.com or call 868 390 2021.
R&Sea Divers Company, Toucan Inn, Crown Point: Call 868 639 8120, see rseadivers.com or email rsdiversattstt.net.tt
Where to stay
SEVEN nights in Tobago with Virgin Holidays, including direct scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, starts from £1,599*, with accommodation at the award-winning, four-star Blue Haven on an all-inclusive basis with transfers included. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room. To book visit virginholidays.co.uk or call 0844 557 3859. (*prices as of early 2011)

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Tunisia – Welcome to the Dar side

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

I thought only my obsession with Star Wars and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, both filmed in Tunisia, would bring me to this North African country.
But even hardliners like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Judean’s People’s Front would be easily seduced by Tunisia’s Dar side of the Force.
Everybody likes to try something different on holiday and waking up in a Tunisian Dar hotel is brilliantly leftfield.
A Dar – which is a converted family home – offers an experience you simply can’t get anywhere in Europe.
From the bustling street these buildings look unremarkable but step inside and there’s a unique world of boutique luxury, serenity and service that will leave you totally de-stressed.
Using typical North African design features – think big rugs, tiles, whitewashed stone walls – Dars mix Tunisian culture with European comfort.
The high standard in design of a Tunisian boutique hotel is matched by the personal touch as many are family-owned.
Dar hotels typically have under a dozen rooms – some with as few as four – and offer the choice of cooking your own meals or having them served to you.
A weekend break at the multi-level Dar Om El Khair in Nabeul, with its stunning fi rst-floor pool and mini cinema, or the traditional Dar Said in picturesque Sidi Bou Said, feels a world away from home but is only a two-and-a-half hour flight from the UK.
And while the warmth – even in December – plus the miles of blue sky and beaches are a big pull, it’s the markets that are the mustdo attraction.
Found in the walled medina areas of towns, they are full of atmosphere, while bigger stores in Tunis offer branded goods at amazingly low prices. Jewellery and big-name clothes are shockingly cheap. Levi jeans are just £25.
You can ramble around the narrow souks for hours. Tunisia is particularly good for pottery. A large, beautifully decorated bowl will cost you under six dinars (less than £3) if you know how to haggle, while a packet of saffron costs just one dinar, or 50p. And when you need a rest the shisha cafés (a glimpse of how coffee shops used to be before Starbucks) offer a place to drink mint tea and smoke a hubbly bubbly, if that’s your thing.
The half hour I spent discussing a deal for two camel-shaped plates and a scarf was the most fun I’ve had in ages.
Having seen a fi xed-price stall earlier in the day (which is perfect for nonhagglers) I strode in to the medina within the walls of the seaside castle in one of Tunisia’s main tourist resorts, Hammamet, with supreme confi dence.
I knew exactly what I should be paying so when the stall owner and I began our business transaction, his over-pricing tactics were brushed aside with such ease I began to wonder if my great-grandad had been a Tunisian market trader.
“I cannot go below 40 dinars, or I will be paying to give you the plate, ” the trader protested.
“Yes you can, ” I told him. I’d previously seen the same plate for six dinars. We settled on six dinars. Result.
When I questioned whether a 50 dinar silk scarf was actually silk, he looked offended. “Are you calling me a liar, Mr Englishman?” he asked.
When his boss took over the bargaining, I asked about the same scarf and he confessed: “This is polyester, ” before adding, “but this one is pure silk – 80 dinars for you.” Yeah right!
The Tunisian food is excellent. I’ve never tasted couscous as light as in the Der Belhadji restaurant in Tunis. The seafood was even better. The squid and octopus are particularly enjoyable, as was the sea bream. And it’s all so cheap.
I particularly liked the hilly streets of Sidi Bou Said, just half an hour north of Tunis, where you can get sweeping views across the Mediterranean bay.
But for a dip in the lush blue ocean and a visit to the seafront fish restaurant El Mansoura – once visited by Madonna – it’s worth travelling an hour east, past the flamingos, to Kelibia.
From the restaurant vantage point you can watch brave souls step on to the seafront platform which takes the full force of the crashing waves.
It’s rude not to try different cultures so once I’d eaten my fish platter, my mate Carl and I took the walk of fear.
Gripping the railing for dear life, a huge wave engulfed us.
After the water drained away I was a little surprised to find Carl had gone but relieved to see him curled up like a baby, clinging to the railings at the other side of the platform. You just can’t pay for memories like this. Different? Tunisia is brilliantly different.

TUNISIA FACTS
Tunisair operate four flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £170 (inc taxes). For reservations call 020 7734 7644 or visit www.tunisair.com
Rooms at Dar Said start from 335 Tunisian dinars (£158).  All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.darsaid.com.tn
Rooms at Dar Om El Khair start from 60 Euro (£55) per night, based on two people sharing. All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.daromelkhair.net
For further information on Tunisa visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Austria – Being in Wien

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

With forests, lakes and winding streets, Austria is a readymade backdrop for the new James Bond flick Quantum Of Solace, released next month.
Its hairy mountain roads are ideal for Daniel Craig to dice with death in an edgeof-your-seat car chase.
And the peaks are perfect for skiing or dangling from a cable car.
The 22nd Bond film features Lake Constance in Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost state, and Bregenz – a small town sandwiched between the lake and the foothills of the Alps.
Up in the old town there is a striking city wall and cobbled streets to explore.
And in the park on the shores of the lake, oompah bands play to holidaymakers lounging in deckchairs.
Come nightfall, screens are put up on the bandstand and old black-and-white movies are shown. No doubt Solace will be up there in the playlist come autumn.
Austria is a picture-postcard country and, like 007, it is always perfectly turned out.
If you spot a piece of litter on the ground you’ve probably wandered across the border into Italy.
While the Bond locations will surely attract film fans, there are plenty more towns in Austria with scenery worthy of a movie set.
I visited Vienna and Klagenfurt, in the south of the country.
Everyone knows about Vienna. But it’s those lesserknown places where the beauty of Austria overwhelms you.
Klagenfurt, an 800-year-old city, sits on the edge of Lake Worthersee in the Carinthia region. This area is known as the Alpine Riviera and you can hop on a leisurely cruise across the lake and take in its natural beauty.
Lake Worthersee often freezes in the winter but in the summer it can reach 26 degrees – perfect for swimming – with clear blue water clean enough to drink.
And the crisp air doesn’t so much take your breath away as cleanse it with Alpine freshness.
There are 1,270 lakes in the mountainous region, perfect for walking, hiking, swimming and sailing.
And if you like golf, you won’t ever play on more scenic courses than the 11 dotted around.
Klagenfurt is exceptionally pleasing on the eye, with rows of pretty pastel-coloured buildings and immaculate public gardens.
It’s big enough to give you that city buzz when you walk out of your hotel but it’s not so big that you can’t escape to the countryside within five minutes.
Just a boat ride down Lake Worthersee is Velden, where there are fabulous bars and a glitzy casino you can lose your money in – which I did.
The casino is a great night out and you don’t have to dress too smartly to get in (jeans are acceptable).
Back in Klagenfurt, there’s lots for kids to do, including adventure parks and the brilliant Minimundus, the miniature monument world.
There’s also a reptile zoo and a dinosaur park.
If you’re into football, the new 32,000-seater Worthersee Stadium is flawless and has been designed to get the fans as close to the pitch as possible.
You won’t have to sneak into the toilets for a crafty fag either. You can smoke and drink in your seats – a privilege long since lost to fans in Britain.
But the highlight of my trip was an afternoon bike ride around Klagenfurt.
You know you’re experiencing a different culture when you see bikes unchained and lined up by the roadside ready to go.
They wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of Britain.
All you do is pay a small fee at the tourist office and you’re off.
There’s a similar, better system in Vienna – and a bike is definitely the best way to get around this massive city.
If you fancy a change you can always take a hydrofoil down the Danube to Bratislava. It only costs about a tenner and takes less than two hours.
But you’ll never get bored in Vienna.
Every major European city has one or two flagship mustsee buildings – Vienna has dozens.
And you can’t go wrong with 6,500 restaurants, 2,700 cafés and 111 drinking taverns.
Most nightclubs don’t charge to get in and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the cost of a round.
The locals like to drink the night away in small bars and you’re a lightweight if you go home before 5am.
But you’ll struggle to pick up a hangover – and believe me I tried.
The refreshing Austrian beer is as crisp and clean as the Alpine air.
And I’ll drink to that.

AUSTRIA FACTS
KLAGENFURT: Fly with Ryanair to Klagenfurt from Stansted three days a week from £10 each way. Stay at the Arcotel Moser Verdino from £60 per night single, £78 per night double. See Arcotel.cc for details.
VIENNA: easyJet flies daily to Vienna from Luton from £70 each way.

Alternately, fly to Bratislava with Sky Europe from Manchester or with Ryanair from Bristol and East Midlands, then on to Vienna by Terravision bus, which takes an hour. Buses can be booked through airline websites or terravision.eu
Stay at the InterContinental Vienna, which has rooms from £160 per night. See ichotelsgroup.com


French Alps – Plagne crazy

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

I went to France a novice skier and came back Plagne crazy.
And it’s not just because this huge French Alpine resort has seven villages called Plagne – Plagne Centre, Aime La Plagne, Plagne Village, Plagne Soleil, Plagne 1800, Plagne Bellecote, Belle Plagne.
No, it’s the slopes, the views and the delicious raclette.
They call this area Paradiski and it’s not hard to see why.
La Plagne has the lot – from gentle nursery slopes for novices like me to tough black runs.
The ten different resorts that make up the La Plagne area also cater for the more adventurous, from ice climbing and ice baths to mogul fields and the Olympic bobsleigh run.
I was a bit worried that La Plagne would be one huge, characterless, commercial resort – it was anything but.
Its collection of villages were every bit as cosy and Alpine as I had imagined.
And with each linked by ski runs, chairlifts and cable cars, you can explore them and the surrounding mountains to your heart’s content.
I stayed in an apartment at Le Chalet d’Anaite in Montchavin, a few miles east of the Plagne villages. It was immaculate and surprisingly roomy with two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and lounge area.
My stay at the resort coincided with the Telemark World Cup in January.
But even during the three-day event, the slopes were surprisingly empty and locals say it’s the best time of year to go if you want them to yourself.
I’d never heard of Telemark skiing before – but that didn’t stop me enjoying the spectacle of skiers speeding down the mountain, pulling off dazzling jumps and whizzing around 360-degree banked snow curves before sprinting across the finish line The night-time celebrations complete with torchlight procession to mark the sport’s 140th birthday were pretty cool too.
My own skiing career started under the guidance of Frederique, a delightful French woman who had me turning my ankles outwards while keeping my skis flat in no time (that’s how to brake, if you didn’t know).
In little more than an hour I was ploughing to a halt at ease and turning in satisfyingly big arcs. It was only the baby slopes – but I still impressed myself.
Even when I took a tumble it felt good to look up at the blue skies and jagged mountains.
A few hours later a serene ride up a chairlift took us to the Restaurant Le Saujet in Montchavin les Coches, the snuggest Alpine lodge you’ve ever seen.
The traditional food – I had pork, raisins and winter vegetables – was as good as the raclette I devoured at Le Petit Chaperon Rouge in Plagne 1800 the previous evening.
Even if you don’t like cheese, you’ve got to try raclette – where a huge slab of the stuff is slowly melted by a table-top heater on to your plate.
And what better way to celebrate a successful morning’s skiing and a big lunch than a 60mph jaunt down a 1500m bobsleigh run?
After being strapped in and saying our last goodbyes we were pushed off.
The bob was supposed to turn itself, though that didn’t stop it slamming into the sides with such force the four of us all thought we were going to flip over and die.
That apart, it was great fun.

We watched those more adventurous than ourselves strap themselves into the horrendous-looking mono-bob, a scary, one-man, selfsteering contraption. The victims (I mean riders) lie feet first and let gravity do the rest.
Later, we enjoyed another meal in one of the lodge restaurants. And the way the French do meals – slowly and with loads of drinking – there was no need to head to a bar.
By the time we got back to the chalet and my head hit the pillow, I was already dreaming of my return to La Plagne.

LA PLAGNE FACTS
WHERE TO STAY: It costs £530 per apartment per week or £188 per person per week based on three sharing, including breakfast at Le Chalet d’Anaite. To book visit anaite.com
FLIGHTS: Fly with easyJet from £54 return to Geneva from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. Visit easyjet.com
SKI & BOB HIRE: All the villages have hire shops. The bobsleigh holds four and costs £27 each.
SKI PASSES: If all you want to do is ski, six-day passes cost less than £150. A pass for a single afternoon starts from £15.
There are plenty of family offers, plus accomodation and ski pass inclusive deals available. For example, an apartment and six-day pass costs £112 in April. For details, see la-plagne.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Istanbul – Turkish delight

by Garry Cook

Some fantastic facts about Istanbul.*

*WARNING: Not your typical fun-filled happy facts.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the Yanks.

Turkey has the third fastest growth rate of Gross Domestic Product in the world (2004 to 2008), after China and India. In 2017 it is set to surpass India.

Turkey economy is the sixth largest in Europe.

Turkey is Europe’s second largest supplier of textiles and second largest supplier of automtive goods.

One out of every two household appliances in Europe are made in Turkey.

Turkey is the world’s leading exporter of the chemical element boron.

Turkey is the seventh most popular tourist destination in the world.

Three of the world’s eight gene centres are in Turkey.

There is so much traffic in Istanbul it seemed like the entire 12.5million population were trying to get to the same restaurant as me on Friday night.
But the negative points about this city stop there. Tourists are treated with respect. No areas are no-go to tourists and the history, culture, shopping and leisure trades were fantastic. That’s not to mention the tremendous food. It is an exceptional destination for all of these reasons.
From the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia to a Bosphorus boat trip and the Istanbul Modern, this place is fantastic destination.
It’s like experiencing the grand scale Cairo without fear for your safety and without pestering from locals.


Travel photography competition

by Garry Cook

A cruel lesson in budget flying. Thank you Ryanair.

It was noon on Wednesday when I booked my flight to Treviso, the Italian airport one hour and 10 minutes from Venice.

I was a little bit peeved that the ticket price had risen £10 for the return journey from when I checked the night before. I have a feeling it would have gone up again had I went through the booking process a third time. Ditto the tax for each flight for which the outbound journey differed vastly from the inbound journey, though I am sure it is exactly the same distance involved.

Both flights were cost £25 – before Slyanair’s creative additions. The total price came to a saddening £92, not quite what it said on the tin. It’s what you expect from these type of airlines. No price is upfront, a caseful of hidden extras.

As soon as the flights were booked, I arranged insurance (a snip at under £2.50), car parking place (£19 with online discount) and a hotel (45 euros). And then I went off to change my GB pounds into European Euros. On Wednesday night I packed my bag.

And when I say bag, I use the term specifically. I decided to use just one bag for my clothes, documents, toiletries and rather substantial camera equipment. Yes, it was heavy but it’ll save lumping two bags around Venice and even help out Ryanair as they’ll have no big bag to put in the plane’s hold. Only thing to worry about is my tripod, which thankfully comes wrapped in its own bag. Big mistake.

It’s not by choice that most people visit Liverpool, Speke, or travel through Knowsley. But I found myself hurtling down the M62 at 9.30am on Thursday morning towards John Lennon Airport (I had know idea he was as famous for being an aviator as he was for being Paul McCartney’s straight man). My credit card entrance to the single-lane, barriered car park didn’t work. And with reversing not an option due to the queue behind me I pressed for a new ticket, something the online booking website said not to do. I’ll worry about that when I come home.

After standing in a long check-in queue I handed over my Ryanair print-out sheet and passport. ‘No luggage?” She asks. ‘Just this’, I say, holding up my tripod. ‘You need to go to the Ryanair desk and pay a £10 oversize luggage charge’, she says. I’m not best pleases. This is the same bloody tripod that I usually ft into my non-oversize bag when I go abroad. And if I had done that, I wouldn’t be charged any ridiculous extra fee, even though I’d be taking up more room in the plane’s hold. Honestly, you try and do someone a favour by being resourceful, less wasteful, reduce your carbon footprint. Total bollocks.

I paid the £10 fee. Right, I want some water for the flight. I’ll pay for an over-the-odds litre bottle.

This was mistake No.2. When I go upstairs to passport control I am told that my unopened bottle of water must go straight in the bin. You can’t take liquids through security, even if they are unopened. The bucket bin outside the security gate is three-quarters full with unopened Ribenas, Cokes and Fantas. Water bloody waste. Did a terrorist ever hide explosives inside his Coke bottle?
Unfortunately, it got worse when I actually went through security. My hair gel and deodorant was also confiscated for being above 100ml. My toothpaste, thankfully, escaped the bin. I’m fuming. I reasoned that my gel is only half full, making it only 70ml. The security guard says and insincere apology.

Before booking my flights, people told me that Venice stank because of all the stagnant water in the canals. This is in correct. Venice stank because I sweated like a pig for two days but had no deodorant to rescue my armpits. Even if I could have found a shop to buy some Italian Lynx, it would only have been confiscated on the way back. Incidentally, coming back, it was an extra 12 euros for my tripod – payment by cash card only (I’m yet to discover the real cost of that).

The moral of the story is… whatever Ryanair claim the cost of flights are, double it and then add some more. This clarity pricing issue still has some way to go before it is consumer friendly. And don’t try and do Ryanair a favour by bringing less luggage – they’ll hammer you for it (as will passport security).

It’s fair to say I didn’t have a clue where I was when I got off the bus in Venice. Thanks to a very good website aimed at visitors to Venice (veniceforvisitors.com), I knew there was a bus service from Treviso airport, costing under 10 euros for a return, which was timed to coincide with Ryanair flights, so there would be no worry in getting to the city of lovers.

After an hour on the ATVO bus I could see Venice. When I got off the bus I could see a canal. This was going to be easy.

I walked over to the canal. There are over half a dozen bus ferries in front of me. No point in getting on one because I don’t know where they go, nor indeed where I’m going. My only hope was a small, poorly defined map I had printed off which showed where my hotel was. However, it only showed the part of Venice specific to its location and, as I noticed on the long road bridge in, this place is bloody massive.

One hour later.

It’s very hot. My heavy bag is digging into my heavy shoulder. I’m sweating. It’s 4pm and this holiday has started. Over a bridge. Over another bridge. And another. No sign of a Tourist Information bureau. Still, I can tell I’m going the right way by the exponential increase of people and cheap tat souvenir stalls.

Eventually I find a shop which sells maps. After ten minutes comparing my slightly inaccurate google print-out with my new purchase I think I know where I should be heading.

Seven bridges later – or was it seventy? – and I’m walking down Dorsoduro High Street towards my quaint little hotel, the Tivoli. Okay, there’s no High Streets in Venice, just narrow alleyways, but you get the idea.

After checking in, I was directed up a short flight of stars, down a short flight of stairs (that’s another bridge in my book) through a charming sun-trapping courtyard, up some more stairs and voila – or the Italian equivalent – there was my little haven, my box room. Single bed, tiny sink. Clean and comfortable. Just like it said in the online review (rating 8.2).

After dumping my stuff I end up going right around the full length of the Grand Canal, over the Rialto bridge and down to Academia bridge. I hadn’t planned to walk that far down, but I passed my hotel without realising.

Still, photography-wise I got some street scenes, some of the Rialto Bridge, seemingly the most famous in Venice, and some alleys (though I intended to get most of those after dark). It only took two pints of beer with my scallop and mushroom meal to knock me out. I had to go to bed for two hours. When I get up darkness is already falling. I race up to the Rialto bridge again.

I do the night shots thing with my tripod. Then it’s straight to bed, early to rise. St Mark’s Square and more photographs. Back at the hotel the continental breakfast is a little bit ropey but beggars can’t be choosers and I eat as much as I can. I have to be out of the hotel by 10.30am, so I have another lie down, then a shower.

The shower is further up the stairs, a tiny cubicle next to a tiny toilet in a tiny room. Really, it was tiny. There is no soap in the shower, as I realise once I have stripped off. And, as I packed lightly, I do not have any soap either. Bit of a problem that. Still, there is a tiny  complimentary bars of soap lying next to the sink in my room. Do I risk streaking down twelve stairs to my room to get the soap? Nah, this isn’t a Carry On film and I’m not Sid James. Get dressed, get soap, come back.

The remainder of my day – until my bus at 2pm – consists of visiting churches and museums, including the Guggenheim art house (too abstract for me, especially the three Jackson Bollocks).

By the time I got near the bus station I had an hour left to kill. I bought myself a can of something and found a place to rest. Time to sit on a wall and watch fat Americans pile on to gondolas. My back is saturated with sweat. Pity the poor bugger who has to sit next to me on the plane.

Still I managed to snatch a load of photographs in a tourist-style way and that is what this project was about. My only worry is the £200 budget. I’m close to the tipping point and I know I’ll have to pay for my tripod again. And I need some food at some point. I get an awful chicken sandwich at the airport, certainly not Italian food at its best. But at least it’s cheap.

The cost

Return flights: £94.21
Oversize luggage charge: £10
Car park: £19
Insurance: £2.50
Water: £1.20
Return bus to Venice: 9 euros
Map: 3 euros
Meal + two beers: 25 euros
Tip: 5 euros
Water: 0.90 euros
Hotel: 45 euros
Drink: 0.90 euros

Total: £197.21

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


French Alps – Summer Plagne

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

“ALLEZ!” shouted Bruno as we skidded down the terrifying forest trail.
“Allez!” shouted Bruno as we bounced our bikes through a craggy boulderstrewn alpine stream.
It had all started with the same “allez!” six hours earlier when Bruno, our French mountain bike guide, launched his machine through the snow to begin our 2,000-metre mountain descent.
Welcome to La Plagne, in the French Alps, in the middle of summer!
And, yes, I did mention snow.
There was no sign of the white stuff at the bottom of the valley as we stood in the baking heat watching children play under a huge fountain while others sunbathed by the edge of the lake at Plan d’eau de Macot. It was as if we’d arrived on a different continent!
Going from snow to sweltering in a few hours after a white-knuckle ride down through the high-altitude villages is a great way to experience the Alps.
From a barren, rocky, lunar landscape, through rolling grasslands to thick forests – plus amazing views of Mont Blanc across the valley – La Plagne makes the Lake District look like your next-door neighbour’s garden.
I’d never even been on a mountain bike until that morning. But Bruno was there to turn us into pros. He took us by telecabin (the cable car which Bruno called “the bubble”) to the peak of Roche de Mio, 2,739metres above sea level.
The air is so thin up there that pedalling up even small slopes leaves you gasping.
But the beauty of mountain biking in La Plagne is that most of the ups are by cable car. After that it’s downhill all the way.
What with slippery rock paths, narrow grass trails and bumpy forest routes, it could have been holiday hell – so thank goodness we had Bruno to give us confidence.
At 41, our guide was a glowing example of what mountain life can do for you. He charges around `35 for a half-day of unforgettable fun on two wheels.
Fitter than a man half his age, he even inspired me – a half-fit thirty-something – to aspire to becoming a mountain biking hero.
At least that’s how it felt.
Mountain biking is all about balance and braking. Your fingers are permanently glued to the brakes, while you stand on the pedals and lean back to negotiate drops as Bruno encourages you with another “allez!”.
If you’re going to try something new and out of your comfort zone, you might as well try it against the backdrop of the stunning Alps.
La Plagne, only a 90-minute drive from Grenoble and just over two hours from Lyon and Geneva airports, is best known as a winter ski resort. It is made up of several picturesque villages linked by cable car, ski lift and mountain trail.
And the lush alpine mountains are stunning in the summer months when the slopes lend themselves to a multitude of activities.
For every hardcore sporting event, there are a dozen less challenging activities. As well as adventure sports like kayaking, white-water rafting, climbing and quad-biking, there is also archery, paintballing, paragliding, trampolining and pony riding.
Plus there are adventure parks, festivals, wildlife walks, spa treatments, a walk inside a glacier and even circus training.
The resort has even made a big effort to make the summer activities cheaper. Some of the lifts are free while other services, like the daily shuttle bus up from the valley, have been reduced in price.
Look out for the Pass’Plagne (or Pass’Bike for cyclists), a card that offers big reductions on activities, entertainments and meals.
You can see – or attempt – some impressive tricks at the skate park in Plagne Bellecote and there are loads of smaller mountain bike trails with jumps and see-saws dotted around the villages.
We tried them out on day two, when Bruno took us across the mountain from our base in Belle Plagne to Montchavin via some stunning woodland trails, used both as crosscountry ski routes in the winter and for the gruelling 6000D – a 70-mile running race that goes up the mountain and back down again every July. Competitors are encouraged to finish within 25 hours, so mountain biking is definitely the easy option!
The highlight of the forest trail was ploughing our way down through a field of 2ft-tall grass and wildflowers and not falling off.
After the exertions of a downhill run, French cuisine on a mountainside terrace restaurant is heaven.
I can definitely recommend a meal at Le Matafan in Belle Plagne and Les Carons in Les Coches.
We stayed at the impressive Chalet Hotel des Deux Domaines in Belle Plagne, which has stunning views across the valley.
The trained staff – all British – run plenty of activities for kids and you can choose when they are looked after.
That leaves you free to tackle some of the delights the mountain has to offer. Baby listening and child patrol services also allow evening relaxation in the hotel hot tub, sauna, pool or bar.
Loads of extras are included if you book your break early in the year – including free wine, free food and soft drinks for the kids.
There are even free holidays for children and infants on offer.
Yes, there is no better place for kids, teenagers or even first-timers like me to learn a new skill or try something adventurous for the first time. So come on, allez!

LA PLAGNE FACTS
Package deals stopping at the Chalet Hotel Des Deux Domaines are available through Esprit Family Adventures, with prices starting at £75 a week per person, full board. Visit EspritFamilyAdventures.com or call Esprit on 01252 618 300.
For mountain bike guide Bruno Chavard of Evolution 2, Montchavin, 73210 Bellentre, call 04 79 07 81 85. Visit evolution2.com or e-mail Bruno.chavard@wanadoo.fr For more information about la Plagne visit la-plagne.com

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Antwerp – MAS Observation

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

Beer, chips and chocolate – what more could you possibly want from a city break?

In Antwerp you get the best food and drink in the world – in addition to the triple-fried chips – and it all comes wrapped in a diamond-encrusted blanket of art, culture and history.

Just two hours from London on the Eurostar, plus a short hop from Brussels, means this Belgian port has never been so easy to get to.

Effortlessly stepping on to Eurostar at St Pancras’ station in London makes you feel like you’re sticking two fingers up to air travel and the stresses of check-in, security queues and cramped aeroplanes.

From when you arrive at Antwerp’s ornate Central Station it’s obvious this place is special. And just across the square is the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, the perfect place to launch your adventure.

Antwerp is the city where, legend has it, a giant would chop your hands off and throw them in the river if you didn’t pay him for being carried across it. Antwerp literally means throwing of hands.

The city oozes history, from its typically Belgian zig-zag roofs to the busy cobbled streets and squares. But it is through the new MAS Museum that it is intent on making its mark on the rest of Europe.

The MAS – Museum aan de Stroom or “museum by the river” – is not just a museum. Labelled a love mark rather than a landmark, it is more iconic than any of the masterpieces it holds.

Built from several shades of red sand- stone and adorned with 3,185 aluminium hands cast from a Moroccan immigrant worker who mixed cement for the construction, it looks like a fantastical Legoland creation, housing 470,000 artworks.

It has ten floors, all with amazing views across the city through a huge spiral of wavy glass. One of its neatest quirks is the storage room, housing all the artefacts not currently on display but which are part of the exhibition tour.

Entrance to the building and its rooftop, which is open until midnight every night, is free. The idea is to turn the interior walkways and lifts into an extension of the city streets.

To visit the exhibitions across eight floors costs just a tenner – and you can download a free app for your mobile phone to get all the information you need on the exhibits in English.

Part of the remit of the MAS museum is to attract young people and that shouldn’t be hard. Antwerp is already well-known to its European neighbours as a party city.

Right now the docks area around the MAS is undergoing a cutting-edge transformation, so that night culture is set to thrive. Antwerp’s port was a trade frontier in the 19th Century and its importance has attracted no fewer than 169 nationalities to the multi-cultural city.

Add wealth to the mix – this is the diamond capital of the world – and you end up with great places to stay, superb shops and restaurants but without the sky-high prices of cities like Paris and London. At the MAS’ ’t Zilte restaurant, run by famous Belgian chef Viki Geunes, tables are booked up months in advance but there are dozens of exquisite smaller eateries nearby.

Restaurant Marcel has popped up in the shadow of the MAS. It’s a great place to try delicious dishes. Or, for a sunset view down the river, the Zuiderterras restaurant, on the edge of the docks, is a fabulous setting to enjoy dinner.

One of Antwerp’s big cultural attractions is artist Peter Paul Rubens, the city’s most famous former resident. His baroque paintings can be seen around the world but it is in Antwerp where his city-centre Rubens House has been faithfully preserved and his best works can be seen.

Fortunately, if you can’t tell your baroque from a barcode, there is a chocolate shop just round the corner. And not just any chocolate shop. The Chocolate Line, run by Dominique Persoone, is one of only three Michelin-starred chocolate shops in the world.

Cocoa cooking reaches a new level in taste sensations with Dominique, who was on hand to describe the intricate flavours of his amazing chocolates during my visit.

He served up – among other delights – a caramel of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and pine nuts! Believe it or not this was good, though I did find the soy-sauce creation a little too much for my Mars bar-loving palette.

Perhaps the only thing better than stuffing your face full of chocolate on holiday is a belly-full of ale. And you can’t go wrong with Belgian beer.

The number of bars, cafés and restaurants in Antwerp is staggering – it has more bars per person than any other city in the world.

The Antwerp beer tour, on a road tram, takes in Den Engel, the most famous bar in the city, Bier Central – which sells over 300 brews – and the brewery of ’t Pakhuis. The home brewery in the Zuid region of the city produces three fantastic beers which are sold only on its premises. Its Antwerp Blond is as good as it gets.

What makes Belgian chips, served in conical cartons with lashings of mayonnaise, so special is they are triple fried. They provide the ideal end to a boozy afternoon.

In fact, the magic triangle of beer, chocolate and chips makes Antwerp a dream destination for us British.

It’s all the things we love, plus your holiday quota of history and culture.

ANTWERP FACTS

A THREE-NIGHT package at Radisson Blu Hotel, return standard class Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International or Ebbsfleet International to Brussels and onward train journey to Antwerp plus daily breakfast costs £299pp. Offer is valid until October 31. Call 0203 327 3569 or visit railbookers.com
For more information call Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 or visit visitflanders.co.uk


ROME – Vatican, Colosseum, pick-pockets

All the architecture, all the history, and it comes down to this: Rome is the place where you get your pocket picked.

Sad fact as it is, wherever in the world you visit, be it a restaurant, country, hotel or airline, your experience is defined by the worst thing that happened. It’s the poor service, rude hoteliers or delayed flight that sticks in the memory like a neon signing flashing the words: DO NOT COME HERE AGAIN AND DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS PLACE TO ANYONE.

rome imageAnd so we come to Rome, a city of gigantic splendour, with architecture so grandiose that magnificent churches become merely ordinary as they clamber for attention against such iconic pieces as St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vittoriano.

There was fear before arriving in Rome – fear of having my camera equipment or wallet stolen. Muggings are not a major problem in the Italian capital but pick-pocketing is rife.

When, on Sunday morning, I realised my wallet was no longer in my sealed pocket as I stood on the No.60 bus en route to the Colosseum a wave of resignation swept over me. I knew I’d been done over good and proper.

restuarantBy the end of the day I’d ticked all the boxes of a full-on Rome adventure: Sistene Chapel, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, wallet stolen. If I ever go there again perhaps I’ll take an empty wallet especially for the pick-pocket experience.

Still, as my 250 euros, 50 British pounds and book of 12 second-class stamps feeds an Italian family for a week, let me recount what actually makes Rome a great European city.

The buildings. Aside from the must-sees like St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the ancient Colosseum, the majestic Vittoriano, a white monument built in honour of Italy’s first king at Piazza Venezia and the AD126 Pantheon, there are hundreds of other monuments, statues, fountains and churches to marvel at. There’s the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and Campidoglio.

The streets. You can try and take in as many buildings as possible but the true pleasure of Rome comes from that surprise discovery round the corner of the street you just walked down just after you got lost. In Rome, losing your bearings is never a bad thing. Wandering down the tight cobbled streets somewhere between Piazza Novona and Piazza del Popolo is how you discover the city.

rome sceneRome has an excellent bus service. Your hotel will be able to tell you which service you need depending on where you are heading. A day ticket only costs four euros. You can’t get tickets on the buses – only some stops have ticket machines.

The food. Pasta and pizza is the Italian way of life. As in any major city there are restaurants for the tourists and restaurants for the locals which the more savvy traveller seeks out. In Italy, the trattoria’s are the venues to enjoy.

Cheaper than restaurants, and often run by locals rather than big chains, they offer the sort of uniqueness that make dining in a foreign city a magical experience. At seven euros a pizza, trattorias can be half the price of a nearby restaurant.

We enjoyed a meal for two costing 20 euros at a trattoria while also paying nearly 60 euros for two meals in a restaurant near the Pantheon.

But as good as the food is, let’s get back to the historical stuff. In the Vatican Museum there are so many hugely significant works of art you will never be able to see them all. The Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum are a treasure your eyes must gaze upon. I’m no fan of painting but Raphael’s Transfiguration is the most stunning my 36-year-old eyes have witnessed.

The Sistine Chapel and the remarkable work of Michelangelo is what every single visitor to Rome goes to see. But you can’t take in the true breadth of the 12,000sq ft of work without learning about its history.

To do that, you need to book a tour – and as a tour booking helps you jump past mile-long queues which hug the outside of the Vatican walls from 9am every day, this is the best piece of advice I can give you. Book a tour – it’ll save you hours and hours of needless waiting around.

Exactly the same advice goes for the Colosseum – book in advance and avoid the queues. We didn’t actually take a Colosseum guided tour but waving our pre-booked home-printed tickets got us straight into the impressive arena without any waiting.

For the Vatican, I actually arrived 15 minutes late for my tour. But having the ticket allowed me to get straight into the Vatican Museum where I was able to book onto a later tour at no extra cost.

At the Colosseum, my ticket got me through the huge queues outside the arena, and again past further queues inside. A Colosseum ticket also gives access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day and also the following day. One point worth noting is that you must specify your visiting time when you book for the Colosseum but (and this is the confusing bit) if you book your ticket for 9am you can turn up any time of the day after then.

Taking advice on where to go always brings up new curiosities and the one recurring recommendation I got before arriving in Rome was: go to Trastevere.

Situated on the west side of the River Tiber, Trastevere is out of the way of the main tourist arteries. We waited until the final day of my three-day visit to go – but I’m so glad we made the effort.

Trastevere, where Julius Cesar built his garden villa, is a series of criss-crossing cobbled streets that meet at what was the most picturesque square (piazza) I encountered. The compactness of the square, lined with restaurants and with a fountain as its centrepiece, is complimented by the Santa Maria Church, one of the most ancient in the city.

garry cook at travestereThere are so many stunning pieces of sculpture and architecture in Rome your head would be spinning if I named them all. But standing head and shoulders above all others is the Fontana di Trevi, a tight piazza split in half, one part monolithic sculptured fountain and one part surf of people swilling over the steps and pavement to gawp at the fountain’s brilliance.

The Trevi is one of those architectural freaks, too big and overpowering for the piazza that houses it – yet the high constraining walls that envelope the fountain make the piece such an awesome experience.

From early morning until late at night, people swarm around the Trevi Fountain to take in the magic. Resplendent with marble tritons and lifesize leaping horses, the Trevi is a true masterpiece in a city where masterpieces can be found on every corner.

The fountain, designed by Nicola Savi, was completed in 1762, 30 years after work first began – and eleven years after the artist himself passed away. But his legacy undoubtedly lives on through his creation which gives Rome one of the most unique pieces of public art in the world.

Discovering stunning artworks is what you do in Rome. So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do (this does not mean picking people’s pockets).

police reportROME FACTS

Flights
Edinburgh to Rome Ciampino with Ryanair – £97.89 (plus extra £30 for a suitcase, with a maximum weight of 15kg). Carry-on hand luggage has maximum weight of 10kg, though in reality this is rarely checked – however luggage size is checked (55cm x 40cm x 20cm). I used a Utility Warehouse pre-paid credit card to avoid a surcharge of £5 per flight (=£10 per person for return tickets).

Bus from Ciampino Airport
Eight euros return with Terravision (link here. Do not book bus through Ryanair as the cost is over 30 euros for a return ticket. This is a Ryanair rip-off. There is also a bus service for four euros (each way). You can buy these tickets at Ciampino Airport.

Buses around the city
No.60 and No.62 go around or near most major attractions. No.62 for the Vatican, No.60 particularly good for pick-pockets. The buses get very busy and may be too packed to actually get on but they run frequently.

Hotel Turner
Three nights cost £85.88 (based on two people sharing and includes breakfast).

Vatican Tour
Three-hour tour (Museum, Sistene Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica) 36 euros, booked directly through the Vatican here www.vatican.va

This seemed to be the cheapest option, there are hundreds of operators offering Vatican tours.

colosseum bookingColosseum tickets
We booked with Omniticket though, as with Vatican tours, there are many. Cost 13.5 euros each (entrance only – no tour, but includes Roman Forum and Palatine Museum). The guided tour costs 17.5 euros.


Kiev – Conquered

by Garry Cook

I went to Kiev to interview a rock band. Forty per cent of the band were from Leeds. It’s a long story (but I have this one great memory of Death Valley Screamers rehearsing with a performance of The Vapors’ 1980 hit Turning Japanese).

You don’t go to Kiev for on a last-minute cheap deal. The landing fees charged by the Ukraine government to airlines are high. So no Ryanair, Easyjet and BMIbaby flying into the capital city.

The flights that do arrive at Kiev Borispol cost cash so the cheapest way to get there from Britain is via another country. I went London Stansted to Riga with Easyjet and then hopped on a airBaltic flight. It cost me around 300 quid though you may have to make a different journey (for a similar price, cheaper of your lucky).

Prices could go up in the summer of 2012 when the football European Championships visit* – but so will the inventiveness of the travellers seeking the cheapest way to get out there and support their team.

I do have anecdotal evidence of travelling across the country by road and, while it does not reach Indian levels of torment, it doesn’t sound great. But perhaps that is part of the beauty of Ukraine – visiting a country that is yet to be touristified. When you arrive in Kiev you feel like your witnessing one of the last remaining remnants of how the Eastern Bloc was. Like looking back through a snapshot in time of Soviet Union communism.

That’s not to say the impressive city of Kiev is in any way deprived, sunk in poverty or poorly developed.  The first (and only) Jennifer Lopez J.Lo retail store I ever saw was in Kiev. There are plenty of retail chain type bars and restaurants, even if I had never heard of the brand. Apparently there’s a TGI Fridays there (I actually ate in my first TGI at Riga Airport).

But it’s the foreboding megalithic architecture of the city that makes Kiev worth the effort**. It’s not a city that is built-up height-wise but the five and six storey buildings are impressive, particularly in Independence Square which displays all the symmetry and opulence if an imagined Soviet geography. Key government buildings around the hilly city are similar in the statement they make. While there are far more impressive designs in other parts of Europe in Kiev they represent the dominant Eastern Bloc Utopia which communism always tried to project to the outside world.

Now for the bad bit. Kiev is a pig to get around. There are virtually no signs for public transport in the city. For a first-time Ukrainian visitor this makes things hard. For a non-speaking Western tourist it is a nightmare.

It took me over half an hour to find the metro system after getting off my bus outside the rail station. There were no signs anywhere. I was looking for a giant ‘M’ or something similar. Nothing.

When I did eventually find the Metro station I had actually been standing outside for 10 minutes. The relief at finding the station was replaced by the horror of trying to use it. Again, no signs. No signs for which way to go, no signs for where you want to go, no signs on how to pay for your metro token.

The only written words I could find were hidden on the inside windows of the trains themselves and as these are written in Cyrillic, a language with no meaningful resemblance to the English alphabet, finding my destination station was incredible tough.

I actually thought I was never going to make it to my accommodation, which was hidden in an apartment block some distance on the other side of the Dnieper river. Various disaster scenarios flashed through my mind.

Even the bus journies are unusual. Small, frequent buses are routinely jam-packed with cash fares passed between passengers from one end of the bus to the other. The driver sorts out your change while driving and it comes back to you in the same way. Passed from passenger to passenger.

You get used to it but it’s a system I’ve never witnessed before or since. The buses cost 25UAH for each journey. Like the metro that’s very cheap.

And signage apart, my own country of Britain could learn a lot form Kiev’s transport system. Frequent, fast and cheap – any journey on the Metro costs just five pence. Interesting point:

Few people in this city speak English. Cyrillic is such a tough language I guess the locals give up on learning anything else. They’ve got enough on their plate.

So what can you see? Well, in no particular order (and all in very easy walking distance) are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the National Opera House, Golden Gate and the Presidential Administration building, which is up on the hill and next to the animal-adorned Art Noveau House of Chimaeras.

Then there is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and St Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in the city and are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra. These are all quite close to each other. Look out for Bohdan Khmelnytsky square, and you’re there.

The huge Dnieper river is an attraction on its own, with natural beaches and an amusement park on Venetsianskyi island, sometimes known as Hidropark.

Get yourself along to those and you’ll see plenty more along the way, including a stack of statues, war memorials and parks.

kristinas flat apartment blockAway from the city centre is a more bustling, less polished Kiev. Visit the east bank of the Dnieper around Levoberejna to see the queue for buses, fast-food shops, second-hand markets and the communist era housing which are reminiscent of the 1960s blocks that Britain has tried so hard to eradicate.

It is these areas that make Kiev such an experience, a destination not made for tourists but that is so much better because of it.

kristinas flat

I stopped in this area, a place called Kristina’s Flat which was, quite literally, Kristina’s flat. Her mum also lived in the ground floor apartment in a very Eastern Bloc feeling building in the Perova area of Kiev. It’s near the Park of Victory (which I didn’t see).

Kristina was in her 20s spoke decent English and rents out her spare double room to travellers like me for £13.52 per night. As I was on my own there was a possibility that someone else might have been sleeping in the other bed but this was not the case during my stay.

I only spent three days in Kiev and it was the hardest city and country I’ve ever visited (and that’s no mean feat when I’ve been to Egypt, India and the Palestinian Territories). But Kiev and Ukraine is one of the few places I would return to. I think the place has got a lot more to experience.

*NOTE: The 2012 European Championships are being co-hosted with Poland. You can read my travel essay from Warsaw here.
**NOTE: You might also notice an abundance of attractive women in Kiev.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook


Highlands of Scotland – Where eagles dare

by Garry Cook

You want eagles? He’s got them. It’s a brave man who promises you a sighting of one of the rarest and most graceful of birds in the world. But Jim Michie delivers at his word.

Signposted by the stunning Glenfinnan tower, Loch Shiel is one of the most outstanding stretches of water in Scotland, situated along the Road To The Isles in Inverness-shire.

This long and twisting road takes you some 50-odd miles from Fort William to Mallaig, the port which acts as a gateway to Skye, Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck.

And halfway along is Glenfinnan, the historical meeting place of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1745. Now it is home to Sileas, Jim’s 66-year-old boat which is able to take the traveller on a magical journey in search of the Golden Eagle.

Sileas was a rusting wreck when Jim got his hands on it a decade ago. A painstaking restoration has transformed the vessel into a delightful cruiser.

Despite the stunning panorama of Shiel, Jim soon realised that visitors were more interested in the Golden Eagles nesting high on the loch’s mountainside.

I thought I had enjoyed my quota of wildlife for the day as I had lunch in the nearby Glenfinnan House Hotel. While devouring my delicious butter beans on toast I gazed out of the huge bay window only to have my view blocked by two wandering deer who had decided to use the hotel grounds as a snack stop.

But it was the eagles I’d come for and as I was handed a pair of binoculars I was nervous. I expected the law of averages to leave me eagle-eyed-less.

The weather was warm during my Scottish saute, but on the loch it was freezing. Jim warned me that the cloud, which was clinging to the top of the mountains, would make a sighting more difficult. But he had seen three eagles the day before.

I held my breath as we approached Eagle Cliff. Jim slowed the boat. There, he said, was an eagle sitting on the rock. “I think I can see it,” I said. I re-focused the binoculars. Turns out I was looking at a rock. I was the only one who didn’t see the eagle. I was gutted.

We carried on down the loch. Jim pointed out areas of interest as we motored along. Over an hour and a coffee later we were heading back towards Glenfinnan. Second time lucky? You bet.

My first sighting was of a pair of huge soaring feathered wings gliding out over the moutainside, slowly floating out of view within seconds. It was a heart-stopping moment.

Then, to my joy, the majestic creature came back for more. It swirled above us and then settled on craggy rock edge. As we drifted to a halt, the eagle looked down as if waiting for us to move on. But we weren’t going to budge, not for an opportunity like this. It was a five-minute stand-off. It was amazing.

Then, effortlessly, away he flew. Soaring again, curving off over the mountain. Jim was as delighted as we were. We floated back to Glenfinnan. Literally.

Nature can be stunning, but just 24 hours later I was reminded that the work of humans can be equally breathtaking.

At the end of the Road To The Isles is the fishing port of Mallaig, gateway to the Small Isles. And it is to remote Rum, via the CalMac ferry, that my interest has been drawn.

Rum is a sizeable, largely unspoiled island, a walkers paradise and a wildlife haven of puffins, deer, otters and seals. There is no tarmac on the island, just some bumpy tracks and a handful of houses – only one a Bed and Breakfast. Rum’s population is 20.

However there is a very good reason to visit Rum – Kinloch Castle. The story behind this 100-year-old marvel is surpassed only by its splendour.

I have never seen a castle so complete, so extravagant and so perfect.

Built by playboy George Burrough in 1901, the castle’s interior remains almost entirely unchanged since its 1920s heyday.

Burrough, who’s father made his money in the Lancashire cotton mills, built the castle from scratch, sparing no expense. He would hold parties – some say orgies – on the island. The ‘wow’ factor you get upon entering the main hall is exactly how past guests would have seen it in the 20th century.

The working Imhof & Mukle Orchestrion organ was built for Queen Victoria. Burrough bought it instead. He had electricity via hydro-electric machinery installed at a time when just one city in the world – Glasgow – had electricity. The decoration is stunning, the huge ornaments collected from around the world, many from Japan are jaw-dropping.

It is the best castle I have ever visited, the Golden Eagle of castles.


Ribble Valley cycling – Biking bliss

by Garry Cook

cycling ribble valley

Cycling in a dreamland of undulating hills, strolling through a picturesque village and then dining in some of the country’s best restaurants.

I’m in the Ribble Valley. I won’t be too surprised if you’ve never heard of it.

Lancashire’s wealthiest borough is also it’s most rural and as a destination for cyclists few places can compare.

A criss-crossing of fabulous country roads and Quiet Lanes, the staggeringly beautiful scenery make the area a honeypot for day-tripping cyclists and touring families.

Unlike the Lake District just an hour further north, there are no major single site destinations in the Ribble Valley like Windermere, Levens Hall or Grizedale Forest.

Instead there are miles and miles of glorious countryside, punctuated by postcard villages like Dunsop Bridge, Chipping, Slaidburn and Waddington.

ribble valley view

Those who should know rate the area highly. The Queen famously stated in her autobiography that she wanted to retire to the area while Olympics cycling gold medal hero Bradley Wiggins regularly trains here. And it’s easy to see why.

Cycling is undoubtedly the best way to experience the area. A mixture of flat touring roads and spectacular hilly climbs means the Ribble Valley rider is spoilt for choice.

Many cyclists use visiting for the day use Whalley as a base. An hour from Manchester and situated conveniently off the A59, the road which links northern Lancashire to the M6, this busy village has ample free parking and some delightful cafes to refuel after a day in the saddle.

Heading north past the Station on Mitton Road (B6246) you are soon onto the country roads which make cycling so enjoyable

For an easy day round Longridge Fell and Jeffrey Hill through Chaigley to Chipping or keep going north to the Inn At Whitewell, where The Queen has lunch when she is in the area, and onto Dunsop Bridge.

inn at whitewell

For the more adventurous keep heading north past the Red Pump Inn at Bashall Eaves and beyond Browsholme Hall before taking a sharp right just after going over the bridge. You’ll recognise where to turn because the sign post points to Whitewell in both directions!

Up a short hill and turn right again, signposted three miles to Newton, and a long, steep hill is rewarded with views good enough to knock you off your bike. It’s here you will realise what the Ribble Valley is all about.

Lush green hills as far as the eye can see, the Trough of Bowland looming in the distance and the sort of up and down roads ahead of you which make cycling such a joy.

For those of you who want the perfect round trip heading to the Trough, as it is known locally, with a stop at cycle-friendly The Priory in Scorton, is the perfect five-hour ride

But the hilly loop from Newton to Slaidburn, or the steep climb from Newton over Waddington Fell to the village of Waddington offers a shorter-distance test.

A favourite stop-off for cyclists is Puddleducks Café at Dunsop Bridge. Here you can enjoy a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in a village which claims to be at the geographic centre of Great Britain.

The steep climb from the Inn At Whitewell is not for the faint-hearted but for those who want a real test, the climb from Hodder Bridge, near Chaigley, up Jeffrey Hill is as difficult as it gets.

Whalley itself has a smattering of high-end clothes boutiques and cafes, a fabulous abbey and a sandwich shop – CJ’s – famous for its generously huge butties.

Ten minutes up the road, the market town of Clitheroe offers non-cyclists a relaxing day out which includes the castle and its picturesque grounds, plenty of hot drink stop-offs – the highlights being Emporium and Callooh! Callay tea shop (both on Moor Lane) and Exchange Coffee Co. (Wellgate Street) offers some of the best hot drinks in the county.

Further into the countryside lunch is exquisite at Bashall Barn, a former farm which has diversified into food to great success. The site also boasts Bowland Brewery and a farm shop.

Fine dining is one of the highlights of the Ribble Valley with some of the best restaurants in the country.

cycle ribble valley view

The Michelin stared Northcote at Langho near Whalley is a leading light but there are several superb alternatives which are wallet friendly.

Perhaps the best, and fairly unknown, is the Freemasons at Wizwell.

A recent addition to the restaurant scene, the Freemasons menu is perfection. Hidden in the secluded village of Wizwell, locals would prefer it if the Freemasons remained their secret. If you don’t book ahead you won’t get a table – and that is all you need to know about how good the venue is.

But further up the A59, in the charming village of Sawley, is the Spread Eagle Inn which served me the best game meat I have ever tasted.

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But there are other gems dotted around the Valley, some of which can be spotted on the Ribble Valley Food Trail (though the website, launched in 2008, is not up to date).

cycling food

NOTE: What cyclists need after a four-hour bike ride (above).

NOTE TWO: This cycling journey inlcudes the Forest of Bowland.

 

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