If you fancy indulging your inner artist on your next British break, try one of these excellent galleries and art spaces across Britain.

The Baltic, Newcastle

Towering over the Tyne is Baltic, Gateshead’s striking contemporary art centre. Still emblazoned with the words Baltic Flour Mills, this uncompromisingly modernist building has just as much presence as London’s Tate Modern – and even more volume – it claims to be the biggest gallery of its kind in the world. Best suited to large-scale installations, its four galleries host an exciting and ever-changing programme of shows including headline-grabbers such as works by Yoko Ono, “musical paintings” by Malcolm McLaren and a fresh dose of Damien Hirst’s 1990s classic, Pharmacy.

Whatever the current crop of exhibitions, it’s worth visiting for the views. Look down from the glass-fronted lifts, the viewing terraces or the rooftop restaurant and you can admire the elegant geometry of the Tyne Bridge. Modelled on the design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s, it’s still a potent symbol of the city. Like its Australian counterpart, it now has a slinky performing arts centre for a neighbour: the miracle of computer-assisted architecture that is The Sage, nestling like a glossy-skinned pupa on the riverbank. Spanning the river in a graceful curve is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, better known as the Blinking Eye – surely the wittiest modern bridge in Britain. The whole scene is so inspiring that avant-garde photographer Spencer Tunick has used it as a location; the resulting series of studies, created with the help of 1700 naked volunteers, is one of his best to date.

For local visitor information, see www.newcastlegateshead.com.

Essential art at the Sainsbury Centre

You approach the pared-down hangar-like Sainsbury Centre on the UEA campus across a lush lawn, and step into a modernist temple of art. The building, an early work by Norman Foster, has simplicity and functionality at its core; it was designed to showcase the superb collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. High glass walls give space and light to the works, which are displayed not with an attempt to categorize or contextualize but to showcase each piece in its own right. This aesthetic approach sees an elongated Modigliani juxtaposed with an ancient marble figure from Cycladic Crete, with its long nose and neatly folded arms. There are moments of connection, and also of dislocation: your path through the gallery might take you from a silver Inca effigy of a llama to a carved wooden Polynesian icon or a masterful Roman portrait head. The eclectic layout is also particularly effective at highlighting the well-documented influence of ethnographic art on modern masters such as Henry Moore, represented by a rounded non-realist Mother & Child, and Picasso, whose early gouache nude shows a mask-like female figure.

Elsewhere, temporary exhibitions explore contemporary photography, painting and ceramics, and there’s usually space given to two other outstanding collections held by UEA. To round things off there’s the excellent light-filled Gallery Café and a gallery shop selling genuinely covetable crafts and gifts.

The Sainsbury Centre is on the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich www.scva.org.uk.

The De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Built in 1935 as a cultural house for the people – the vision of the ninth Earl De la Warr, the aristocratic, socialist Mayor of Bexhill – the De la Warr Pavilion is an architectural masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, and one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain. Curving, majestic but intimate and informal, it’s worth the trip to the coast for the building alone. It stands in a marvellous setting right on Bexhill’s beach, with an elegant spiral staircase protruding out towards the sea, huge glass windows, sleek terraces and a quirky, wavy bandstand.

It hosts a packed and eclectic programme of events. The light, airy gallery shows contemporary art exhibitions, the auditorium attracts an impressive line-up of international artists and entertainers, and the pavilion offers courses and talks, summer Sunday gigs on the bandstand, and a host of imaginative events – what better use is there for a flat white Modernist exterior wall than to project films onto it on summer evenings (just bring a blanket)?

De la Warr Pavilion, on the seafront, Bexhill, East Sussex 01424/229111, www.dlwp.com.

Tate Modern, London

From oversized upstart to national treasure in just ten years, Tate Modern has been adopted by the British public in a way that no one imagined possible for a gallery of modern art. Though its collection is an impressive survey of the big names of twentieth-century international art – including Monet, Matisse and Rothko – the real stars are the building itself, huge, grand and proudly displaying its industrial past as a power station, and Tate’s ambitious and playful curating.

At the outset Tate Modern did away with stuffy, chronological displays, instead hanging its collection thematically in a thought-provoking and irreverent approach. Architecture and art as adventure come together most strikingly in the Turbine Hall, and its headline-grabbing commissions of the Unilever series.

And Tate Modern continues to grow – literally. Three vast oil drums behind the main building are currently being excavated and will be turned into performance spaces and more galleries, while a Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension is planned above them.

Tate Modern, London SE1 020/7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk. Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri & Sat 10am-10pm. Main galleries free, special exhibitions around £10.

The National Gallery, London

Quietly presiding over the lions and pigeons of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is Britain’s second most popular visitor attraction, pipped only by the British Museum. Perhaps what really sets the National apart, though, is that despite walls heaving with the work of da Vinci, Raphael, Monet and Van Gogh, no single picture dominates in the manner of a Mona Lisa with all the iPhone-clicking crush that ensures. Instead, the collection’s strength in depth encourages more relaxed contemplation. Yet with over two thousand paintings to choose from, deciding precisely what to contemplate can be a daunting prospect. The secret is to plan your visit and stick to one era or even one painting at a time.

If you can attend a free talk given by the gallery’s team of experts so much the better. Sprinkled with anecdotes (for example, did you know Gainsborough was often too hungover to paint, leaving his portrait subjects out on the street?), they provide that modern term “infotainment” in spades. As you exit back into the tourist hubbub of the square you’ll be left if not ennobled then certainly enlightened.

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 020/7747 2885, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Banksy’s Bristol

The street artist known as Banksy has spray-painted walls in London, Detroit, Melbourne and, perhaps most controversially, the separation wall built by Israel in the West Bank. It was in the graffiti-hotbed of Bristol, though, that he fostered his talent and developed the stencil style that defines his work.

Much of Banksy’s early paintings around the city have been lost, but several key murals remain. Perhaps the most iconic is The Mild Mild West (1999), a striking image sprayed across a wall on Stokes Croft and showing a wobbly white teddy bear pitching a Molotov cocktail at advancing riot police. There’s great affection for Banksy’s image of Death (2003) on the waterline of The Thekla, a nightclub boat moored in Bristol Harbour. His original tag was removed by the city’s harbourmaster, prompting Banksy to return and paint a Grim Reaper figure rowing in the same spot.

The Banksy that most symbolizes his evolution from scourge of the council to Bristol’s favourite son, however, lies off the bottom of Park Street. Secretly created beneath sheet-covered scaffolding, The Naked Man (2006), an adulterous lover hanging from a window, was recently saved thanks to a petition from a Liberal Democrat councillor.

See www.bristol-street-art.co.uk/category/banksy-street-art for the exact locations of The Mild Mild West, the image of Death and The Naked Man.

The Lowry, Greater Manchester

The Lowry in Salford Quays opened in 2000, a strikingly designed arts centre housing theatres and gallery space. It owns 55 paintings and 278 drawings by the artist – the world’s largest collection of his work, many featuring those gritty, industrial scenes of Manchester and Salford. Yet as Lowry aged his fascination with people on the streets focused increasingly on the more bizarre characters. Take The Funeral Party (1953), a motley line-up of nine odd-looking individuals, most staring disconcertingly at the viewer in what looks like a British version of The Addams Family.

Lowry’s oil paintings often reflected this interest, through unflattering and brutally stark portraits. His “horrible head” series includes the haunting Head of a Man (1938), whose haggard face and bloodshot eyes seem to stare straight through you. When you finally tear yourself away, there’s almost a feeling of embarrassment, as if you’ve turned your back on a starving man. Indeed, the key to understanding the Lowry collection is his fascination with people, not industrial decay – Lowry was interested in everyday folk, not just outside mills, but at fairgrounds, football grounds and busy markets. As he said, “You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings.”

Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, www.thelowry.com.

The Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

By far the nicest way to reach Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art is by walking from the New Town along the Water of Leith. The imminent presence of the gallery is signalled by a rusting naked male statue by Antony Gormley, standing ankle-deep in the water. Steep steps take you up the riverbank to a hulking green Reclining Figure by Henry Moore, and the elegant symmetrical gallery itself.

The theme of art in the landscape is continued with Charles Jenck’s monumental earthwork Landform in front of the gallery, comprising spiralling paths and crescent-shaped pools and usually overrun with kids.

Inside, there’s a substantial collection by those glamorizers of the Scottish landscape, the Colourists: J.D. Fergusson, Peploe and Cadell, whose Fauvist palette and Post-Impressionist sensibility were a fervent rejection of the Victorian genre painting. Elsewhere, thematic rather than chronological displays juxtapose an early Francis Bacon with a late Stanley Spencer nude depicting his second wife.

Upstairs there are displays on Constructivism, plus a witty Matisse depicting himself painting a young model. And there’s a room simply devoted to “White”, with Ben Nicholson’s card reliefs, a white metal piece by local boy Paolozzi, and Mondrian monochrome squares enlivened by a dash of citrus yellow. Back outside, the sculpture- and flower-filled café garden makes the perfect end to a visit.

Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Rd, Edinburgh www.nationalgalleries.org.

The Wallace Collection, London

The result of five generations of connoisseurship and collecting, the Wallace Collection is housed in the private home of the Hertford family, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1897, and is now a free, public museum jam-packed with art, porcelain, furniture and sculpture in ornate silk-lined and chandeliered rooms, which have been immaculately and lovingly restored.

The Great Gallery, with works by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, is the artistic star, but if you go on one of the excellent (free) guided tours, the enthusiastic expert will point out all sorts of other gems, such as pieces of Marie Antoinette’s personal furniture, portraits of Madame de Pompadour, glitzy Sèvres porcelain, the ornate staircase from Louis XV’s bank, and an impressive armoury. The furnishings might not be to everyone’s taste, but when coupled with the fascinating stories and titbits of gossip about the family peppered throughout the tour, the result is to draw you into the rarefied world of this eccentric family and their unique collections.

Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 020/7563 9500, www.wallacecollection.org.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park

West Yorkshire might not seem like the most obvious location for a centre of modern art, but step into the glorious grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and it all suddenly makes a lot of sense. Situated on the Bretton Estate in the village of West Bretton, the 500-acre park encompasses hills, fields, lakes, woodland and formal gardens, which provide the perfect backdrop for the sculptures it shows, a juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made.

Most fitting of the sculptures are those by Henry Moore, who was born in nearby Castleford; the surrounding countryside inspired his work, so it feels a real privilege to be able to experience it within this context. Alongside Moore, the permanent, revolving, collection also includes work by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Hepworth.

In addition to the outdoor exhibitions, there are four indoor galleries, which are worth exploring in their own right. The Project Space is a particular highlight, housing changing exhibitions from the Arts Council Collection, which could include film and photography in addition to sculpture.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, West Yorkshire www.ysp.co.uk.

Jupiter Artland, West Lothian

Sitting in a tangle of busy roads in an unattractive semi-rural stretch west of Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland doesn’t appear to promise much. But its swirling metal gates are a portal to another world, one of parkland and woodland set around a seventeenth-century mansion, and a series of sight-specific artworks wonderfully woven into the natural environment.

Commissioned by the owners of the house, the works comprise a deeply personal collection, and one that is still evolving. The drive winds past sizeable rocks wedged in the branches of coppiced trees by Andy Goldsworthy, and then opens out to Life Mounds, monumental stepped earthworks created by Charles Jencks to evoke and celebrate the cell. The walk begins at Shane Waltener’s A World Wide Web, a scruffy shed in the trees with peepholes of varying heights which reveal a tangle of intricately constructed cobwebs within. Beyond, Anish Kapoor’s Suck is a disconcerting rusty iron sinkhole in the earth; then a break in the trees reveals Antony Gormley’s Firmament, a huge crouching figure composed of steel hexagons that frames the view of another iconic metal structure: the rust-red Forth Rail Bridge. The place is packed full of more artwork, see www.jupiterartland.org for more.

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

This magnificent building on the site of a former gasworks is more than just an art gallery: Tate St Ives is an experience of modern and contemporary art which reflects and highlights the natural environment that inspired much of the artwork on display.

While artists have been drawn to St Ives and its famous quality of light since the early nineteenth century, the gallery’s main collection celebrates a succession of painters and sculptors whose work is firmly rooted in modernist traditions, a tribute to the seaside town’s unique connection with many renowned twentieth-century artists. The gallery’s permanent collection includes some of Cornwall’s big names, with displays changed around frequently to showcase the works, while the gallery also features temporary exhibitions of current international stars and a programme of artists in residence to encourage the creation of new work relating to St Ives and its surrounds. Inside, the architecture and art beautifully fuses with the scenery and light, and the seaside location works a treat in the top-floor café from where you can feast your eyes on the vista as you tuck into delectable Cornish produce.

Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, www.tate.org.uk/stives.

 

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Britain’s most beautiful buildings are places of worship. Head to one of these five architectural wonders and prepare to drop to your knees in awe, if not necessarily in supplication.

Ely Cathedral, Ely

Ely Cathedral (pictured above) was created to invoke a sense of awe. Constructed over two hundred years, it’s an architectural tour de force, all the more impressive for standing apparently in the middle of nowhere – Ely isn’t exactly a big city. Perched atop the “island” of Ely, the cathedral looms over the dykes, drains and rich, black fields of the Fens. Pancake-flat and desolate in winter, this is perhaps the most melancholic landscape in England. Thanks to the Fens, Ely’s enormous West Tower can be seen for miles, a castle guarding the shore of a dried-up sea. God-like indeed to the monks that came across the watery marshes to serve here in the Middle Ages – for the folk that lived in wattle-and-daub huts, it must have seemed miraculous.

Not that it seems any less so today. The West Tower rises 215ft, most of it (incredibly) constructed in the twelfth century. Under the tower the great west door is the main entrance to the cathedral, a fine early English Gothic porch built of Barnock stone and Purbeck marble. Aficionados of English architecture are in for a real treat inside, beginning with the nave, surely one of the most inspiring interiors in England. It’s the fourth longest of the English cathedrals, but its Norman architecture, with distinctive round arches, is exceptional. Its crowning glory is the Octagon Lantern tower in the centre, which replaced the original tower that collapsed in 1322. Take your time studying this masterpiece of medieval engineering – critics often describe it as one of the most spectacular spaces ever built in an English church.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, www.elycathedral.org.

Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin

Even if you don’t believe the fanciful stories that Rosslyn Chapel conceals Masonic or Templar secrets in its sculpture, or perches on top of secret underground vaults, or is a resting place for the Holy Grail, it’s still a very odd place indeed. This weirdness has something to do with the chapel’s incongruous location, almost within touching distance of Edinburgh’s suburbs, and also the chapel’s bizarre appearance – it looks as if someone began building a miniature cathedral and downed tools halfway (and indeed this is probably precisely what happened: construction work seems to have halted when the chapel’s donor, Sir William Sinclair, died in 1484).

The chapel’s strangeness, however, is mostly due to its rare and wonderful profusion of stone sculpture. Across arches and architraves, voussoirs and vaults, hardly a stony surface lacks decoration, and the symbolism of some of it is intriguing. There’s a bound, upside-down Lucifer, a bagpipe-playing angel, a Dance of Death scene and over a hundred representations of the fertility figure known as the Green Man, some of them stunningly realized. Behind the altar stand the Prentice Pillar (or apprentice pillar), Master Pillar and Journeyman Pillar, all of which have attached legends.

Since 1997, the chapel has been half-buried under a protective canopy but in 2010 this was finally removed, revealing the chapel’s flying buttresses in all their glory.

Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, is seven miles from Edinburgh – (www.rosslynchapel.org.uk).

 

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden

One of London’s greatest architectural feats is in a place where you would never expect to find it. Just off the North Circular road, through the unremarkable suburb of Neasden, lies the largest active Hindu temple outside India. Its full name – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir – will win no awards for catchiness, but its majestic design, both inside and out, is a showstopper. It’s almost how Angkor Wat might appear if made of limestone: its seven tiered pinnacles bear similarity with that other great Hindu complex, as do its staircases and elaborate carvings of dancers and deities.

The miraculous nature of the temple is further enhanced by the manner of its construction. Built in only 27 months, it is made primarily of 2000 tonnes of Indian marble and 3000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone; uniquely for a modern British building, it contains no iron or steel for support. All that material was shipped to India, where an army of sculptors carved it into 26,300 separate sculpted stones. Those pieces were then transported to Neasden, where the temple was assembled much like an IKEA kit.

On the ground floor inside is an assembly hall, a shrine to the eighteenth-century saint Bhagwan Swaminarayan, to whom the temple is dedicated, a small museum and a shop. But the real reason to come in is to visit the mandir upstairs, the central shrine. In this magnificent marble space, filled with intricate carved pillars, are seven murtis, or icons of divinities – one underneath each of the seven exterior pinnacles. The air is cool, a near silence prevails, worshippers prostrate themselves. It’s here you’re reminded that this is a living, breathing temple, and not just a mind-blowing piece of architecture.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 105–119 Brentfield Rd, London, www.mandir.org.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London

In a secular city St Paul’s Cathedral continues to reign supreme as the greatest building inherited from a more generous past. Standing high at the top of Ludgate Hill, and with the view of the building from many directions still protected by planning laws, it dominates a large part of the city, and for many Londoners it remains a source of tranquillity and wonder long after the city’s other notable sights have become over-familiar.

What makes the building so great? There are many answers to this question. One of its triumphs is the marriage of a strong and immediately intelligible form – the dome, the barrel, the great walls turning and folding – with a wealth of beautiful detail. It’s also a wonderfully balanced composition: one of Wren’s greatest achievements was to give a structure with a dome, rather than a spire or a tower, a truly vertical emphasis. Climb up to the dome’s galleries inside and you’ll discover its secrets and find out how he managed to raise the dome so high. The dome itself is not a hemisphere: it is taller, egg-shaped – another brilliant touch that adds unmistakeably to the building’s impact.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London EC4. www.stpauls.co.uk

The stained-glass wonders of York Minster

It’s hard not be overwhelmed by York Minster. It took around 250 years to complete, is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and one of the most visited sites in northern England, a gorgeous pile of carved limestone with three towers rising to nearly 200ft high. Yet the real genius of York lies in that most underrated of art forms: stained glass.

It should be called “Gothic glass art” instead. For many, “stained glass” conjures up images of cold, dull Sundays in church, or boring museums. York isn’t like that at all; the Minster has one of the finest collections of stained glass in England, with 128 windows containing around two million individual pieces of glass. You’d have to be a real aficionado to work your way through every one, but there are some obvious highlights.

The 76ft-high Great East Window is truly monumental, a massive construction dating from 1408 and comprising an ornate tracery and 117 panels of carefully crafted biblical scenes, everything from the Creation to startling images of the Last Judgement. The Great West Window, completed even earlier in 1338, is known as the “Heart of Yorkshire” thanks to the heart-shape pattern in the tracery. Finally, the strangely modern Rose Window, which glows like a mighty star, its 73 panels of glass emblazoned with white and red roses, symbolic of the union between the houses of York and Lancaster. Completed around 1500, the window commemorates the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses.

York Minster, York, www.yorkminster.org.

 

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The British appetite for all things eccentric – particularly anything with a competitive element – ensures that on any given weekend you can find a bunch of people who lead otherwise sensible lives in a damp field somewhere snorkelling through bog water, racing pigs or chucking around black puddings. Here are the best ones to watch – from a safe and sensible distance of course.

Coal carrying

They breed them tough in Yorkshire. How else can you explain the idea of running for a mile with a sack of coal on your shoulders for fun? That’s the challenge that’s been laid down for the past 46 years in the World Coal Carrying Championships. Apparently the race started when two local coal merchants decided to settle a pub argument about who was fitter. It’s exhausting, sweaty and very, very hard.

Pig racing

Wallowing around in the mud may be their favourite pastime, but pigs can actually pick up a fair head of steam too. The nippiest porkers and their owners gather at Bath Racecourse every April where they’re put to the test to see who is the speediest piglet in the country. The pun-tastic “Ham National” involves eight pigs running around a track and jumping over some (very low) hurdles.

Cheese-rolling

Cheese-rolling, an organized bout of cheese chasing down a grassy mound in Gloucestershire, is one of Britain’s best-loved oddball events. It’s certainly in the best spirit of British amateurism: anyone can enter and all they have to do is fling themselves down a precipitous hill after an eighteen-pound wheel of Double Gloucester. The first one to reach it wins – and no prizes for guessing what. The official event was cancelled in 2010, but enthusiasts ensured an unofficial one took place, and you can always take part on your iPhone – a cheese-rolling app has been developed.

Bog snorkelling

The reckless, fearless and the just plain filth-loving join in this competition each year, whereby participants must navigate their way through a 60ft-long peat bog without using any kind of conventional swimming strokes. Snorkels, masks and flippers are allowed but you’re only allowed to raise your head above the gunk a maximum of four times. The perfect event for anyone who thinks that Glastonbury in the rain is just a bit too clean.

Bognor Birdman

Man has always wanted to fly, but unlike Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, the Birdmen of Bognor tend to spend most of their time flying far too close to and then very quickly downwards into the freezing sea water. Since 1971 contestants from across the world have come to the seaside resort town of Bognor to take part. The idea is to run off the end of the pier and attempt to fly as far as possible, usually in hang-gliders but often on bicycles, in Heath Robinson-esque wooden contraptions and in fancy dress. There’s a cash prize for the winner, though nobody has ever yet gone as far as 100 metres – the closest contestant coming within centimetres of this in 2009.

Gravy wrestling

Just what are you to do with leftover gravy? You could always ask the Rose ‘n’ Bowl pub in Stacksteads, Lancashire, to take it off your hands. Every year they get hold of 440 gallons of gravy for the gravy wrestling championships. Wrestlers are required to take down their opponent in a paddling pool filled to the brim with the brown stuff. The mess is so bad that local firefighters are drafted in to hose down the Bisto barbarians afterwards.

Pram racing

Having to drink seven pints of beer while covering two-thirds of a mile on foot doesn’t sound like such an arduous challenge. And it isn’t. Unless of course you’re dressed up as a baby and pushing a fully grown man in a pram for the entire distance. The Oxted Pram Race, running since 1977, requires its competitors to race some sort of pram device – with their team-mate inside – through the market town of Oxted, stopping at seven pubs along the way where they have to down a pint in each. Prams tend to be of the home-made variety, constructed out of old armchairs, wooden boxes and giant fish tanks.

Gurning

The ultimate antidote to Miss World, the World Gurning Championships are an exercise in ugliness in which contestants must curl their lips and extend their jaws into a “gurn” that usually looks something like a constipated pit bull terrier lunging after a sausage. It takes place as part of a local fair that has been held in the town of Egremont in Cumbria since 1267. Anyone can enter, though be prepared for fellow competitors to make pretty serious sacrifices. One winner in the 1990s even had his front teeth removed to perfect his trophy-winning gurn. That’s dedication. And frankly, that’s just weird.

Black pudding throwing

Cooked pig blood and fat wrapped in intestine has long been a favoured breakfast staple for Brits in the form of black pudding. They’re quite handy weapons as well. The targets at the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships in Ramsbottom, near Manchester, are Yorkshire puddings, placed on top of a wall, which contestants aim to knock off by way of a well-thrown pud. Dating back to the 1850s, this is a contest that defies logic, but certainly leaves one wondering what other British foods could be used for sport. Spam tennis anyone?

Stone skimming

There’s something beautifully pointless about chucking a stone into some water, but it’s not a spectator sport in itself. Skimming on the other hand attracts hundreds of competitors to the tiny island of Easdale. The idea is to make a flat piece of slate stone go the furthest distance along the water while “skimming” the surface at least three times. The trick is to have the correct stance, to throw it at the correct angle and to find a stone of just the right smoothness. Children have their own contest as do people over 50, who can compete in the charmingly named “Old Tosser” section.

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From Jersey up to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond, Britain is packed full of historic sites worth exploring. Here’s a few suggestions for reliving the nation’s long history, from Arthurian legends to its more recent nuclear past.

Soaking up the Saxon past at Sutton Hoo

When unearthed more than seventy years ago, the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo yielded some of the richest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. Treasure-hunters had been digging here for centuries without much luck. By the time Edith May Pretty bought the nearby property in 1926, tales of gold were just rumours, whispered stories told by the old men of the village. Yet Edith was intrigued, and finally, in 1938, she invited local archeologist Basil Brown to excavate the site. On his second dig the following year, Brown uncovered the remains of a vast burial chamber, later identified as a seventh-century Saxon ship – perhaps the last resting-place of King Redwald of East Anglia.

The site today, on a bluff above the River Deben, remains a wild, unkempt heath, open to the wind. Though Sutton Hoo’s main treasures have long since moved to the British Museum, the site’s absorbing visitor centre houses finds from subsequent digs, as well as reproductions of the main pieces and a life-sized re-creation of the burial chamber and contents. But don’t miss out on the main attraction; and remember it really isn’t “just a mound”.

Sutton Hoo (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is off the B1083 Woodbridge to Bawdsey Road in Suffolk.

 

 

Tracing the horrors of the Pendle Witch Trials

It’s Sunday evening around the campfire, and the drumming is intensifying. Entranced by the rhythm, half-naked girls are dancing wildly around the fire, leaping through the flames. Pentacle flags flap in the wind, and a shaman summons the spirits. It’s summer solstice at the Pendle Witch Camp, and it’s clear that four hundred years after the most notorious witch trial in Britain, bleak, windswept Pendle Hill has lost none of its powers to enchant.

The year was 1612, nine years after King James of Scotland ascended the English throne. Both fascinated and terrified by witchcraft, the paranoid king brought in harsh statutes for anyone found guilty of covenanting with the spirits or uttering spells. And so when ten women and two men, mainly from two rival peasant families from villages on the slopes of Pendle Hill, were forced into lurid confessions of witchcraft – drinking blood, burning effigies and using black magic to cause paralysis and even death – they didn’t have a hope. After five months of imprisonment in the jail at Lancaster Castle, all but one was found guilty and hanged in front of huge crowds on Lancaster’s Gallows Hill.

With its sinister history, it’s fitting that this isolated part of Lancashire should remain some of the most wild and unspoiled areas of the country, the brooding landscape of the ancient Forest of Bowland, of which flat-topped Pendle Hill forms an outlier, starkly at odds with the industrial cityscapes further south. You can also explore the area – visiting sites connected to the witches – by car on the 45-mile Pendle Witches Trail, which leads from the Pendle Heritage Centre, where you can read up on the trial, through the bucolic Ribble Valley and over the heather-clad slopes of the Trough of Bowland.

For more information, see www.visitlancashire.com and www.forestofbowland.com.

Visiting the fertile plains of Cerne Abbas

Most celebrated of all Britain’s chalk carvings has to be the Cerne Abbas giant, just north of Dorchester in Dorset. He’s been used in adverts peddling jeans, condoms and bicycles, and in 2007 shared the hill with a giant doughnut-wielding Homer Simpson (there was a movie to promote), but he’s attracted interest for a lot longer than that. And no prizes for guessing why: for this fellow, the “Rude Man” as he’s also known, is possessed of a rather alluring and unashamedly large phallus.

Legends explaining his significance run back to ancient times: he was a Roman tribute to Hercules; a Celtic British icon; a Saxon deity; and a slain Danish giant. But as there’s no written evidence of his existence till the late seventeenth century, most of these stories can be relegated to folklore. More convincing interpretations place him during the English Civil War, when he was carved as an insulting caricature of Oliver Cromwell  while others suggest he was a parody of Abbot Thomas Corton, expelled for malpractice from the nearby Benedictine Monastery. Whatever his genesis, however, it is his status as a fertility symbol that has always resonated most strongly with visitors to the site.

The best place to see the giant in his full glory is from the viewing area just off the A352 south of the village of Cerne Abbas.

Uncovering myths in Glastonbury

Towering over the Somerset Levels, a lone pinnacle in an open expanse of marshland, the five-hundred-foot-high mound of Glastonbury Tor has invited myth and conjecture for centuries. The tower-topped hill is visible for miles around, and has (allegedly) served as everything from the Land of the Dead to a meeting point for UFOs.

Glastonbury’s most fabled legend is its association with the mysterious Isle of Avalon – water levels around here are now much lower than they were in the past, meaning the Tor was probably once an island – and it was to Avalon that King Arthur was allegedly brought following his mortal wounding at the Battle of Camlan in the mid-sixth century.

Many of Glastonbury’s legends overlap, and so Arthurian tales are intertwined with another enduring local myth: the Holy Grail. Finding the Grail was the ultimate quest for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, though it would seem that they didn’t have too far to look. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, attempting to establish Christianity in this heathen corner of the Roman Empire, buried the Grail at the foot of the Tor. The spring of blood that miraculously flowed forth is now marked by the Chalice Well, though the waters’ red colouring has more to do with its rich iron content than any sacred symbolism.

For Glastonbury Abbey see www.glastonburyabbey.com and visit  www.nationaltrust.org for more on Glastonbury Tor.

Indulging in some amateur archeology on Hadrian’s Wall

Indiana Jones never had it this hard. Not once, in any of the films, do you see him stooped over a designated plot of turf, back aching and fingernails crudded with dirt, as a fine drizzle sweeps in from the North Sea. But then, this is rural Northumberland, not some studio set in LA, and the huge garrison fort that you’re helping excavate is very real indeed – a two-thousand-year-old medley of military quarters, bathhouses and civilian homes that constitutes the largest collection of Roman buildings on Hadrian’s Wall.

Built in 122 AD, the Wall ran 76 miles from the Tyne to the Solway Firth, its entire length dotted with milecastles, turrets and, as at Vindolanda, forts. The garrison here was home to around five hundred soldiers, whose daily lives are being pieced together by a similar number of volunteers each summer – unlike other historic sites, who work only with trained researchers, Vindolanda opens what’s left of its doors to everyone, giving ordinary members of the public the chance to play intrepid archeologist.

It’s tough work and you’ll probably shift a fair few barrow-loads of disappointingly empty earth before finding anything. But when you do, gingerly extracting a clogged piece of wood that was once a lady’s hair comb or a rotting strip of leather that turns out to be an archer’s thumb guard, the sense of discovery is electrifying.

Vindolanda (www.vindolanda.com) is 35 miles west of Newcastle.

Slipping into the time tunnel at the Museum of Brands, London

The West London Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is an unforgettable time warp. The main part of its collection comprises an enthralling chronological social history, represented by a vast assemblage of domestic products, toiletries, clothing, food, toys and more. Items range from the Victorian era to the present, laid out in a low-lit “time tunnel”. The earlier decades take you through a fascinating haul of human trappings, from the first Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin to World War II-era cosmetics.

It’s absorbing stuff, but when you start to recognize items from your own lifetime it gets particularly compelling. Browsing retro Daz, Britvic, Bisto and Kellogg’s packaging, you’ll be amazed at how these everyday objects resonate with the child in you. The toys are the stuff of collectors’ dreams: heaps of Star Wars paraphernalia, Planet of the Apes and Jim’ll Fix It board games, and the mighty Buckaroo. The winding route means you can lose yourself in the detailed displays, emerging hours later, awed and blinking, into the lobby. From the Mary Quant stockings to the Toilet Duck, Opie’s collection is a historical account, a nostalgia trip and a clever study of advertising all in one.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising is at www.museumofbrands.com.

Indulging in mead and murder at the Battle of Tewkesbury

For one weekend every summer, the genteel Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury turns the clock back to 1471, hosting in a field nearby a re-enactment of the bloody Battle of Tewkesbury, a decisive moment in the Wars of the Roses. It’s the centrepiece of the annual Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest event of its kind in Europe.

Most participants are sticklers for authenticity. Many spend the weekend as their medieval counterparts would have, living in tents, cooking over fires and so on. Spectators, however, are free to live a less ascetic lifestyle, sampling hearty food like hog roasts and traditional beers and meads, watching jousting and archery contests, and wandering among the colourful array of jesters, acrobats, jugglers, falconers, magicians, fire-eaters and storytellers. History buffs can go on guided tours of the battlefield site, and there’s much to keep kids entertained, from treasure hunts to the chance to make their own shields and wimples.

The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival (www.tewkesburymedievalfestival.org) is held annually on the second weekend in July.

Hunkering down in a nuclear bunker, Fife

For those of a certain vintage, who shivered through the ever-looming catastrophe of the Cold War years, Fife’s Secret Bunker place brings home the reality of a nuclear strike with all the visceral force of a punch to the guts. Yet even if you’re too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis or the beautiful, disturbing animated film When the Wind Blows, this is a grimly fascinating window on a time when vaporization was but a push-button away.

The bunker’s entrance lies deep within the bowels of a wooded rise, which – incongruously – overlooks some of Britain’s most scenic coast and bucolic countryside. It’s cunningly disguised within a kind of neo-vernacular farm building, which leads to a reinforced concrete walkway that goes down… and down… and horribly down further, till it feels like you’re on a particularly clammy bad trip to the proverbial centre of the earth. Once you’ve finally reached the shelter itself it’s more like Das Boot meets Tomorrow’s World, with corridors, dorms and antechambers glaring in submarinal sterility. Rows of spartan bunk beds sit primed for uneasy dreams, while a plant room straight out of a 50s B-movie processes the bunker’s air and generates its electricity.

Most unsettling of all is the main control room, still equipped with its primitive computers and control panels, military maps and clunky old red telephones hotwired for that fatal call.

The bunker is located at Troywood, some three miles north of Anstruther – see www.secretbunker.co.uk for more.

Peering into the gloom of the Jersey War Tunnels

Head north from St Aubin’s Bay up Jersey’s main valley road to St Lawrence, and you can step back nearly seventy years to the saddest and most poignant period in the island’s history. Jersey was occupied by German troops for most of World War II and five long years were a time of isolation and struggle during which over three hundred islanders were sentenced to prison or sent to concentration camps. The Germans carried out a number of defensive construction and engineering projects in the Channel Islands but the excavation of Hohlgangsanlage 8 (Ho8), a series of hillside tunnels in central Jersey, was by far the most elaborate and dangerous. Totalling over a kilometre in length, the complex was originally designed to be a weapons store but as the war drew on and casualties increased, the Germans converted it into an impregnable hospital.

Today Ho8 is a museum of wartime Jersey, sometimes simply called the Jersey War Tunnels. The displays are stuffed with memorabilia relating to the harsh realities of German occupation. There are also film clips to watch, and a reconstruction of the hospital’s operating theatre and wards. It’s an engrossing experience with a strong anti-war message, but it’s chilling too so when you emerge, you’ll be glad to see daylight once more.

Jersey War Tunnels, Les Charrières Malorey, St Lawrence, Jersey, www.jerseywartunnels.com.

Going back to the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge

On paper, it may not sound exactly fun: a UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to showcasing the extraordinary industrial heritage of a small slice of the Shropshire countryside. But if learning about the history of iron-smelting doesn’t sound like a top day out, be reassured: the mix of interactive exhibitions, historic re-creation and general light approach means there is much to enjoy at Ironbridge.

Most people make a beeline for the iconic Iron Bridge itself, designed by Abraham Darby in the late 1780s, but it’s a good idea to visit some of the museums first to get a sense of why and how the world’s first cast-iron-built bridge – a material previously far too expensive to use on such a scale – came to be constructed here. There are ten museums scattered over an area of six square miles, each dedicated to a different aspect of industry – from iron-smelting to tile-making and ceramics. Between them they create the most extensive industrial heritage site in the whole of England.

Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, www.ironbridge.org.uk.

 

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Britain is a nation bursting with song. While this most musical of islands has nurtured numerous world-class singers and bands, it almost bursts with festivals and concerts all year round. Here’s five favourite escapes for music fans. Add yours below.

Shetland’s legendary folk festival

Despite a surprisingly diverse live music scene, Shetland is best known for its world-class fiddle tradition. So venerated are its performers that the islands’ mythical Trows are said to kidnap them for their nocturnal gatherings.

Since 1981, local talent has been joined by performers from around the globe for the hugely popular Shetland Folk Festival. Hosted in large, well-maintained village halls across the islands, this springtime event spans four days with performances every day from early afternoon onwards. The emphasis tends to be on boisterous fun rather than steps being followed correctly – Shetland tunes are traditionally composed for dancing and locals pride themselves on playing faster than elsewhere in Scotland. But some of the best performances take place in the wee small hours, when well-oiled musicians and audiences trickle back from the outlying venues to the Festival Club in Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, for ad hoc jams till 3 or 4am.

At festival time, pop into The Lounge Bar at lunchtime on Saturday to hear guest musicians join the relaxed sessions upstairs. If you’re visiting at other times of the year, there’s still always plenty on: try Wednesday and Thursday nights at The Lounge or Tuesdays in the nearby Douglas Arms.

Shetland Folk Festival, late April to early May, www.shetlandfolkfestival.com

The Proms, London

As much a part of the British summer as a rain-sodden Wimbledon, the Proms can also lay claim to being the biggest classical music festival on the planet: a 58-day epic watched by millions around the globe. In recent years, Proms have been themed around John Williams’ film scores and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and the annual Doctor Who Prom – complete with daleks – is a sure-fire sell-out.

If you’re planning to go to several concerts, it’s more affordable to prom, which means queuing for a £5 standing ticket up in the gallery or in the arena, right by the stage. Eight weeks of concerts culminate in the raucous end-of-term party that is the Last Night, when a core of die-hard prommers – armed with Union Jacks and klaxons and sporting straw boaters – attempts to raise the roof with patriotic sing-alongs in the Rule, Britannia! vein. Last Night tickets are in high demand, so consider joining the misty-eyed, flag-waving hordes at the open-air Proms in the Park in London’s Hyde Park and other cities nationwide for big-screen link-ups to the main event.

The Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 www.bbc.co.uk/proms.

A global gathering in the Welsh hills

In the north Wales countryside a Filipino choir in pink and blue chiffon poses for a photo. Rajasthani musicians in turbans relax between shows, as a group of traditional Scottish dancers hurries by. Ukrainian folk singers enjoy the sunshine, while a gaggle of South African students head for lunch. A nervous Patagonian ensemble prepares to perform.

At first glance, it appears an unlikely scene. But every year, during the second week of July, around four thousand singers, dancers and musicians from more than fifty countries arrive in the verdant Dee Valley to compete in the six-day Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

Eisteddfods are Welsh festivals of competitive music, literature and performance dating back to the twelfth century. There are many Eisteddfods staged throughout Wales, but the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is slightly different. During the days, accomplished performers compete in a range of categories, including choirs, folk dancing and instrumental works. Shortly afterwards, the judges reveal their “adjudications” – which range from technical jargon to acerbic asides – and announce the winners. In the evenings are the main concerts. But arguably the most enjoyable part of the Eisteddfod is simply wandering around outside the pavilion, taking in the melange of national costumes, languages and cultures.

For more information visit www.international-eisteddfod.co.uk and www.llangollen.org.uk.

A celebration of Benjamin Britten on the Suffolk coast

Few composers have been so tied to a single place as Benjamin Britten, who loved the Suffolk coast his whole life: “I belong at home – there in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it”.

Today the Aldeburgh Festival remains very much Britten’s baby, a celebration of classical music established by him in 1948, along with singer Peter Pears and writer Eric Crozier, and inspired by the same sky-domed landscapes. Indeed, little has changed in this part of Suffolk since Britten’s day, a crumbling coast of shallow estuaries, grey seas and humble fishing towns. Snape Maltings, where the festival has been based since 1967, has also retained its Victorian character, despite evolving into a major tourist complex replete with shops, galleries, cafés and even boat tours up the Alde estuary.

Britten’s aim was to present new music and new interpretations of older or forgotten pieces, and today it’s the festival’s smaller concerts that reflect this heritage best. The young talent taking the Britten–Pears Programme composers course supply a range of new work, while the youthful Britten–Pears Orchestra offers fresh, dynamic takes on a range of classical pieces. Britten still features of course and his masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes, remains a fan favourite; the chilling tale of an alienated and brutal dreamer never fails to mesmerize audiences, a powerful evocation of the struggle of the individual against the masses.

The Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk (www.aldeburgh.co.uk) takes place over two weeks in June, with concerts at Snape Maltings plus venues in Aldeburgh.

Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends

Stop by at Port Isaac on a summer’s Friday evening, and an ethereal sound will rise to meet you: the vigorous roar of a male voice choir. As you follow the lane down to the minuscule shingle-beached harbour of this North Cornwall village, the sound swells, fills the air, and there, right on the harbour, is the source of the fulsome blend of bass, baritones and tenors: a circle of burly, middle-aged blokes giving their all to shanties, seafaring folk tales and blubbery ballads. Yes, it’s the Fisherman’s Friends, enthusiastically performing their weekly ritual of songs by the sea.

Port Isaac, otherwise a sleepy, picturesque village of some thousand souls, was already on the map following its appearance in the British TV series Poldark and Doc Martin, both of which were set here. Fans trickled in, the pubs recorded an upturn in business, and locals – or some of them – scratched their heads and smiled. But in 2010 something strange happened: the local a cappella choir (one of many in Cornwall) signed a million-pound deal with Universal Music and released a hit album.

The ten-man band was Fisherman’s Friends, formed from local fishermen, RNLI members, boatyard workers and Coastguard or Cliff Rescue staff, and all living within half a nautical mile of each other. They had already released two self-financed a cappella albums, but since the deal the band has gone viral, playing every festival on the circuit (including Glasto). A spell in these parts provides the perfect tonic for jaded city-dwellers – but you’ll have to join in a rousing chorus of “Pass Around the Grog”, “Haul Away, Joe”, “The Lifeboat Girl” or “Home from the Sea” to truly feel Port Isaac’s peculiar brand of full-throated exuberance.

The Fisherman’s Friends (www.fishermansfriendsportisaac.co.uk) perform every Friday evening between June and September at around 8pm.

 

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However good your intentions are, it’s often all too easy to retreat to the comfort of the hotel room and shy away from really engaging with the locals when you’re on your travels. Here’s a selection of holiday ideas that will thrust you into the heart of the community you’re visiting and foster a much deeper understanding on the place and its people. Share your own memories of meeting the locals below.

Stay in a Ukrainian village

Central Europe – if that’s how we should think of the mountainous region of western Ukraine – is an area with few international visitors, but already a sustainable model of tourism is being developed in the area. The Rural Green Tourism Association (RGTA), set up in 1996, is a community-run volunteer organization that helps villagers earn extra income through hosting guests. For example you could stay in the wooden houses of the Hutsul people in villages like Vorokhta or Yavoriv.

Visitors can spend their time walking in the polonyas, the mountain meadows where cool breezes waft across the long grasses. After a day’s hiking, expect to be liberally plied with food and drink, all made and prepared by the villagers, such as banosh (a mixture of sweetcorn, bacon and sour cream). Hospitality is unceasingly friendly and you’ll probably get a chance to watch or join in traditional dances (typically accompanied by the alp-horn-like trembita and the sopika, a form of flute) or to listen to their plaintive folk songs.

For more information on the RGTA of Ivano-Frankivsk, nearby hiking trails, getting there and how the homestay scheme works, see members.aol.com/chornohora.

Meet the Maasai, Tanzania

On a walk with the village’s herbalist, the parched plains of northeastern Tanzania soon appear less bare than when you first looked across their expanse of wiry plants. Every few minutes he bends a different branch down from a tree, offering a leaf to rub between your fingers to smell. Or he crouches down to the ground, digs away with his fingers and pulls up a gnarled root. For every such root or leaf he explains, by motioning to a part of his body, what ailment the particular plant is used against, such as the pepper bark tree, whose rough, black bark is used to treat malaria.

People2People’s cultural safaris are made up of countless intimate experiences like these. Accompanied by a translator, guests embark on customizable tours to visit and stay with members of four different tribal groups in Tanzania. You might join a Maasai warrior bringing his cattle in at dusk, help gather the harvest on a Bantu farm, or hunt for spring hares and grapple with the curious clicking languages of the Khoisan.

No specifics are guaranteed, however, as these aren’t displays put on for your benefit but a rare chance to interact with local villagers, observing and taking part in whatever they’re doing. In rural Africa time is fluid, and you may well spend several hours simply sitting under some welcome shade chatting with the elders. Then again, you may be lucky enough to be there for a special occasion such as a wedding, where distant family members will assemble from across the region and beyond, gathering for days of celebration and feasting. Whatever you see, it will be a different Africa from the one seen through binoculars from the back of a jeep.

People2People will customize a safari to suit your needs, which can also include more traditional activities such as wildlife-watching and trekking. For typical itineraries and reservations see www.p2psafaris.com.

Stay in an African village, Zambia

To understand what daily life is really like in an African rural community, a stay in Kawaza village, on the edge of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, offers an authentic introduction to its rigours and rhythms. Guests can drop in for the day or stay as long as they like; on arrival, you’ll have a chat with your guides to plan a programme that suits. Visitors are encouraged to get as involved as they can, whether it’s learning about traditional herbal medicine, fishing in wooden dugout canoes or simply helping to prepare traditional meals.

This is no show village, however. The Kunda people, former hunters who now mostly survive through subsistence farming, have seen how low-impact tourism can protect them against the vagaries of farming in extreme conditions. Villagers who provide services to guests are given a monthly salary and the remaining profit is ploughed back into the community, improving facilities at the school and helping those most in need. And at Kawaza visitors don’t just get the chance to see the school their money has helped fund – they are encouraged to help with some teaching too.

For directions and rates see http://www.africatravelresource.com/africa/zambia/southluangwa/central/kawaza-village/.

Walk with Rastas in Knysna Forest, South Africa

From the moment your dreadlocked host greets you with a gentle knock of his clenched fist against yours and an exclamation of “Irie” (roughly meaning “respect”), you know this isn’t going to be your typical township tour. While the representatives of the House of Judah, the local church, come and introduce themselves, you notice that all the houses are painted in striking tones of crimson, yellow and emerald. One thing’s for sure: you’re in Rasta territory.

In 2003, tired of being perceived as dope-smoking outcasts, the Rastafarian community in Khayalethu – a township between the outskirts of Knysna and the surrounding forest – went to the local tourism board with a proposal. They wanted to show tourists what their life was really like, and to protect to the richness of their local forest. It worked. Guests now make visits to people’s homes and are led on guided nature tours through the surrounding fynbos ecosystem, a complex ground-level array of succulents and heathers, most seen nowhere else in the world. Those keen to hang around a little longer than a few hours can stay in one of the families’ homes.

For more info and contact details see www.openafrica.org.

Meet the Bushmen at Nhoma, Namibia

Nhoma, a simple tented camp owned and run in partnership with the nearby Bushman village of Nhoq’ma, on the border of Khaudum National Park, offers guests a chance to get back to their primeval roots. Always wanted to know how to start a fire or make an arrow? Immersed in a hunter-gatherer society, you will here.

After a morning spent hunting spring hares or porcupines with the Bushmen, learning how to make small traps from twigs and animal sinews, there’s usually time in the afternoon to join in their games and perhaps buy a few souvenir ostrich-shell necklaces. At night, after dinner back at camp, guests can trek back through the dark dunes to sit and watch the Bushmen gather to dance and sing, with their shaman often falling into a trance which, they say, enables him to communicate with their ancestors. They’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years. Staying at Nhoma is one of the best ways of ensuring these traditions continue.

For rates, details of activities and further info on getting there see www.tsumkwel.iway.na.

Visit Bolivia’s Mapajo Community

On the border of La Paz and Beni, Mapajo Lodge is owned and operated by the communities of the Quiquibey River, who offer four- to six-day guided tours through the Pilón Lajas Reserve, a dense jungle of forests, streams and unexplored mountains packed with wildlife. Itineraries on offer include boat trips along the river to indigenous villages, where guests can learn traditional fishing methods, watch locals crafting bows and arrows, baskets and textiles, or go on canoe excursions by night.

To help you understand more about the biological and cultural diversity of the reserve, the lodge runs a visitor centre with a library and a small exhibition of arts and crafts. Accommodation is rustic: there are four twin-bed thatched cabins with hot-water showers, shared bathrooms (one cabin has a private bathroom) and a hammock, while water is piped in from a natural spring. It’s not exactly eco-chic, but then the focus here is not on staying indoors – it’s on discovering the unknown.

For prices, booking and details on activities see www.mapajo.com.

Meet the Huaorani, Ecuador

The Huaorani have long inhabited the headwaters of the Ecuadorian Amazon, hunting game with blowpipes and gathering food from the forest. They were the last of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples to be contacted by missionaries – in 1956 – and they now mostly live in permanent settlements, though at least one clan continues to shun all contact with the outside world.

On this trip you are taken to meet the small community of Quehueri’ono (“Cannibal River”), hunter-gatherers who live in the northwestern part of the Huaorani territory. Such a unique encounter is the result of years of consultation between their chief Moi Enomenga and an Ecuadorian travel company, Tropic EcoTours. For twelve years, Tropic has run hiking tours with Moi, employing Quehueri’ono villagers as guides – a sign of its success is that a permanent ecolodge, used as a base for village trips, has now been built, with five cabins equipped with twin bed, shower and flush toilet. For several days a Huaorani guide leads you through the rainforest, demonstrating how they use plants for medicine, shelter and clothes, and how to hunt monkeys by climbing up trees and firing poisoned darts from blowpipes. He’ll also point out an astonishing variety of wildlife, including blue morpho butterflies, greater and lesser kiskadees and several species of Amazonian kingfishers.

For itineraries, prices and booking for transport and accommodation see www.huaorani.com.

Live with nomads, Mongolia

A hundred or so goats head off bleating their complaints in one direction, while a herd of cows tramps off in another. A boy of perhaps ten rides by on his horse, with no saddle. All around smoke rises from the fifteen or so gers spread across this high plain, surrounded by a ring of forested hills. Here in the Terelj National Park, fewer than 100km from the Mongolian capital Ulaan Bator, the only signs of industrialization are the occasional solar panel or motorbike.

A typical day on a trip with Ger to Ger, a non-profit organization that promotes grassroots tourism development, starts with a journey on horse or oxcart from the ger where you spent the night onto your next resting post. The rest of the day is spent doing what your new hosts do. That could mean helping them collect the sheep at dusk, milking horses (the local tipple is Airag, fermented mare’s milk only slightly less alcoholic than vodka) or being taught how to use a bow and arrow. It is highly rewarding but can be pretty exhausting. With no translator you have to communicate with a Mongolian phrasebook and any props such as family photographs you might have with you. But for anyone keen to get a taste of what travel was like before everyone spoke English and booked online, a few days riding across Mongolia should suffice.

Ger to Ger’s office is based in Ulaan Bator. For itineraries and prices see www.gertoger.org.

Stay in an Isan village, Thailand

It’s far too easy to visit Thailand and come away feeling that you never really got to see what life for Thais is like outside of the tourist centres. If you’re curious, then a visit to the tranquil rice-growing village of Ko Pet in the northeastern Isan region may be just what you’re looking for.

Ko Pet is a village like many others in the region, with the difference that it has built a lodge so that small-scale tourism can supplement incomes from rice and vegetable cultivation. Guests (a maximum of six at a time) stay in the locally built three-bedroom Lamai guesthouse at one end of Ko Pet, surrounded by a garden of palms and mango trees, and are always accompanied by two of the villagers on visits into the village – who are there to provide translation and keep tours unobtrusive.

The activities on offer – joining elders foraging for edible insects or mushrooms, learning how to weave baskets from raffia, seeing silk being produced – are not staged, since they comprise what the villagers would be doing anyway. Guides ensure these are rotated between the twenty or so participating families, so there is little disruption of routine and income is spread evenly. Ko Pet may be in one of the more remote areas of Thailand but the scheme here is showing the way forward for rural tourism in Asia.

For directions and details of tours and packages see www.thailandhomestay.com.

Visit a Khmu village, Laos

But for the Mekong River on whose banks it stands, the village of Yoi Hai is cut off from the world, with no road cut through the dense jungle that surrounds it. Living here, surrounded by the cloud-covered heights of the hills, are the Khmu – an animist tribe who worship spirits in the trees and rocks that surround them. Until recently the population was even more isolated, but in 2000 the government decreed that they, and all the other hill tribes, had to form new towns on lower ground, partly in a bid to stamp out the opium trade and partly to improve access to healthcare and education. However, many tribal peoples have struggled to adapt to these more urban communities, with alcoholism and drug abuse on the increase.

Thanks to their relationship with the nearby Kamu Lodge, however, the future doesn’t look quite so bleak for the Khmu. The lodge – comprising twenty comfortable two-person safari tents and a thatched pagoda restaurant topped with solar panels – employs staff from local communities, is responsible for building a school and also pays a monthly community fund. You’ll get the chance to meet the people whom the lodge is helping – they will show you round the village, teach you how to cast a net into the river or how to pan in its waters for gold.

For further details, including rates and booking, see www.kamulodge.com.

Take to the hills in Bangladesh

When people talk of visiting hill tribes, Bangladesh is rarely the destination that comes to mind. Yet in the dense rainforests that line the country’s southeastern border with Burma and India, there are half a million indigenous people belonging to fourteen different tribes – and unlike in Laos, Thailand or Cambodia, very few tourists make the effort to visit the villages.

For the visitors that do come, however, Bangladesh Ecotours takes guests into the Chittagong Hill Tracts region (pictured at the top of the article) to stay with tribes, sharing in traditional feasts, shopping for handicrafts, and often finding themselves the audience for an impromptu song-and-dance given in their honour. In return for their hospitality, the company provides the tribes with funds for education and medical aid, promoting conservation projects such as reforestation and handicraft development.

For prices, reservations and information on how to get to Chittagong see www.bangladeshecotours.com.

Stay with a Samoan family

Customary Samoan hospitality has helped simple, family-run tourist lodges to prosper as locals have turned their beachside huts into guesthouses. Now, on both of the two main islands (Upolu and Savaii), for US$40 or so, you can spend the night on a mattress on the floor of a little open-sided fale, with a mosquito net and maybe a locker for valuables. Your hosts will prepare dinner and a tropical breakfast and can arrange for you to go off on hikes or join in with cousins and aunties in their chores if you wish.

During the day the men venture off into the milky blue sea to spearfish from outrigger canoes, a coconut-leaf basket ready for the catch. Women weave mats from sun-dried pandanus leaves or hack at coconuts to extract the flesh for copra. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you may get to witness a traditional tattooing session, using sharpened pigs’ teeth and ink made from candlenut soot. By night, as the sea laps at the stilts of your simple fale, you can sit and read Stevenson under the wide and starry sky.

For contact details, directions and further information on the various fales, visit www.samoa.travel/acc.aspx.

Live with the Maasai, Kenya

Over a week spent living with a Maasai family in the village of Olturuto, in the Kajiado district 30km from Nairobi, you’ll become immersed in all aspects of daily life of the herders and their families. Helping with the chores may not seem like a holiday, but a few days grinding maize to make flour, milking the cows or collecting water from the borehole is the best way to learn what life’s really like in an African village. The reality is that most of your day is spent not working as we know it, but slowly passing time – catching up on local gossip, making arrows, weaving baskets or simply taking some time to contemplate the vastness of your surroundings.

Assisted at all times by a translator, you’ll also get the chance to talk with elders and medicine men and spend two days on a more traditional tourist activity on safari in nearby Amboseli National Park, home to elephants, lions and giraffes. And while the chance to see a lion from the back of a jeep is what brings most tourists to Kenya, very few get the chance to experience the simple rhythms of life as a Maasai.

GSE Ecotours organizes homestays (lasting four to fourteen days) in five villages in the Great Rift Valley and Central and Eastern provinces. For further enquiries contact +44 (0) 870 766 9891.

 

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As Venezuela mourns its lost leader Huge Chávez, Alasdair Baverstock describes the mood in Caracas and reflects on the country’s reputation abroad.

Twelve hours after President Hugo Chávez died, the central square of Caracas was still occupied by his red-clad supporters. Through the television lens, broadcasting into homes around the world, the scene looked terrifying. Waving their arms and stomping their feet, the bereaved chavistas shouted out socialist chants, screaming “Long Live Chávez!” as grown men wailed openly beside them, for as far and as wide as the frame could see.

From where I was standing, just out of frame, the group was an annoyance rather than a riot risk. The crowd of perhaps fifty people followed the cameras wherever they went, competing to put on the most extravagant hysterics in order to have the news channel director point their cameramen towards them.

All photos by Alasdair Baverstock

As I spoke to the Chávez supporters about the death of their long-absent leader, others would join the queue to be next to talk to me, to shout into my recording equipment their radical views which I would later write down and send to my editors at the national newspapers, hungry for yet more Venezuelan madness. “It’s for this reason, this fervour, this courting of a dangerous image bordering on insanity”, I thought to myself, “that no tourists ever come to Venezuela”.

Away from the zealous exhibitionism, Caracas was in a somber mood. People didn’t want to talk to me about the future of Venezuelan socialism for my stories, they wanted to tell me about their personal grief at having lost what one resident described as “a part of herself”. Speaking from Chacao, a district affiliated with neither political persuasion, Marela Contreras told me “It’s a very great pain, he was part of us, we were part of him. My soul is hurting”. There was no violence in Caracas, as the news channels portrayed, only hurt.

On the night Chávez’s death was announced, I was on the streets of Caracas. The mood was not one of anger – although gunshots had been heard in the pro-Chávez western barrios immediately after the announcement – but of quiet contemplation. One anti-Chávez resident, José Sardinia, speaking from opposition stronghold Altamira in eastern Caracas told me, “today the country has lost the greatest man who ever appeared in Venezuela”. Extremely high praise given the vitriolic hatred which emanated from those districts when the leader was alive.

I originally started work in Venezuela as a Rough Guides author to the country and seeing up closing an entire nation, as a job such as guidebook writing enforces, teaches one to appreciate all aspects of the culture. Venezuela is a country that lends itself to tourism with all its weight, boasting gorgeous people, distinctive food, a passion for partying and one of the widest ranges of physical beauty found anywhere. It was now that I found myself, as a foreign correspondent in the capital, aiding the country in perpetuating the dreadful international reputation that keeps the tourists away. The same reputation that made my father, on the phone from active service in Iraq years before, tell me “Alasdair, don’t go to Venezuela. Hugo Chávez is not good news”.

The amazement with which the western world received the news last October that Chávez had won yet another election, and by a considerable margin, displayed the misunderstanding that we have of Venezuela.

Chávez came to power in 1999 after an immensely corrupt government was ousted by a military coup. The then-imprisoned officer, who had spend the previous two years in prison following a failed military coup, was remembered for his speech to the nation from the presidential palace in Miraflores, Caracas before he was taken away to prison. He said to his nation, sincerely and honestly, looking into the camera as the chavistas throughout Caracas today have learned, “we have failed in our attempts. For now”.

If Chávez’s death encourages more visitors to the country, then the boost it will give the ailing economy and the education of international affairs it will bring to her people can only be a good thing. If there’s a general trend of global tourism, it’s that first the adventurers arrive, the backpackers follow, and then the parents of the backpackers bring up the rear, jealous of their children and keen to visit to a country which they describe as accessible. Venezuela is still stuck firmly in the first category. So if you’re a backpacker, could you promote yourself to adventurer? Colombian tourism is booming, and the country is perfectly positioned to supply its neighbour with a steady stream of backpackers.

Chávez represented the voice of the people, to the people who listened to him. After years of oppression as Venezuela’s vast oil reserves made the few capitalists richer, Chávez was a breath of fresh air. He came to power and began giving things to people who had nothing before, for free. He appeared every Sunday on his weekly television program Alo Presidente, when he would sort out people’s problems live over the phone and wax lyrical for hours at a time.

He postured mightily against “the imperialists”, the American government who he blamed for the immense suffering throughout the country before he came to power. Chávez was loved throughout Venezuela, and once we come to grips with the full force of the adulation felt towards the controversial leader, the immense grief that the country is feeling, and the shock of having lost so great a character, then we can begin to see why those Chavistas were crying in front of the cameras, because they were crying behind them too.

 Explore one of the least-visited countries in South America in The Rough Guide To South America On A Budget.

Have you explored Venezuela? What were your impressions of the country and its people?

 

Taiwan’s small but creative movie industry has been experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years. This selection – mostly recent films – should help you get under the skin of the island’s dynamic and complex culture. Aficionados should also check out the movies of two Taiwan legends: Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.

Groundbreaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien was the first to allude to the 2-28 Incident in City of Sadness (1989); I’d also recommend Puppet Master (1993) and Three Times (2005). Tsai Ming-liang, meanwhile, is also highly acclaimed, but his stylized movies are slow-moving and can be tough to get into – Vive l’Amour (1994) is one of his best.

1. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

The most famous Taiwanese director is undoubtedly Ang Lee, but long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Life of Pi he made his name with a string of budget hits, including The Wedding Banquet (1993), set in New York. This equally entertaining family drama is set in Taipei, and is a mouth-watering introduction to Chinese cuisine: handmade dumplings, bubbling woks, gutting fish, manic vegetable chopping, giant steamers, inflating ducks, it’s all there. Real locations include the palatial Grand Hotel anyoutd Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Park.

2. Yi Yi (2000)

This three-hour epic by Edward Yang charts a troubled year in the life of a middle-class Taipei family. Ok, it’s long, but it manages to depict virtually the entire range of human experience. An emotional rollercoaster.

3. Formula 17 (2004)

Chen Yin-jung scored a big hit with this frank and humorous exploration of gay life in Taipei, starring Tony Yang as a naive seventeen-year-old in the big city. The plot is fairly conventional, but with the obvious twist that it’s all about men: boy wants boy, boy gets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy. The movie is still an artful reflection of middle-class, teenage, urban lifestyles in Taipei, utilizing locations such as Warner Village, Ximending and especially Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

4. Cape No. 7 (2008)

The movie credited with the revival of Taiwanese cinema is a gripping romantic comedy, blending historic and contemporary plots and touching upon Taiwan’s complex relationship with Japan (the main plot revolves around undelivered love letters, written when the Japanese were expelled from Taiwan at the end of World War II). Filmed in and around the southern city of Hengchun, and on the gorgeous beaches of Kenting – the rock concert scenes recall the Spring Scream festival.

5. Prince of Tears (2009)

The most recent movie set during the tragic “White Terror”, the period of martial law when Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang government brutally suppressed any opposition. Filmed on location, it’s a gorgeously crafted film, accurately recreating the sights and sounds of 1950s rural Taiwan (the plot focuses on daily life in a remote Taiwanese village).

6. Monga (2010)

A gangster film set in 1980s Taipei Wanhua district, jam-packed with action and brilliantly evoking the streets, gangs and fashions of the decade – the Longshan and Qingshui Temple scenes and Triad rituals are especially realistic. Brawls in Huaxi Street Night Market, gruesome choppings and a liberal dose of prostitution – it’s the seedy, violent side of Taipei that foreigners (hopefully) never experience in real life.

7. Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (2011)

Simply stunning. An epic portrayal of the oft forgotten Wushe Incident in central Taiwan in 1930, when members of the Sediq – one of Taiwan’s ‘aboriginal’ tribes – rebelled against the Japanese. The battle scenes are grimly realistic – the movie must contain the highest number of beheadings ever. Essential viewing, not least because it’s one of few movies to portray aboriginal people in an accurate way. It’s also beautifully shot on location throughout the lush, mountainous hinterland of Taiwan. No wonder the movie led to a spike in tourism.


8. You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011)

A heart-warming – but certainly not sentimental or syrupy – teenage romance primarily set in the 1990s, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Taiwanese author Giddens Ko. Packed full of teenage angst and high-school antics set amongst the classrooms of provincial Taiwan, it was filmed almost entirely on location in Changhua County and at Ching Cheng High School, which Giddens attended.

9. Bang Bang Formosa (2012)

This is a crazy, colourful romp through contemporary Taiwan. Retirees on tour bus excursions,  “betel nut gangs”, a shrimp fishing club, stinky tofu and the Taiwanese penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts are all ruthlessly skewered for laughs. The main plot – a posh Shanghainese girl travelling to Taiwan is kidnapped – also highlights the boom in mainland Chinese tourism to the island, only permitted since 2008.

 10. Din Tao: Leader of the Parade (2012)

Traditional Chinese music is big in Taiwan, and this movie – a poignant tale of a young man reconciling with his father – was inspired by the real-life Chio-Tian Folk Drums and Arts Group. This is Taiwan at its most vibrant and spiritual – the troupe mostly comprises kids down on their luck, gradually transformed by the music, the Taoist rituals and the boisterous parades. Filmed on location at Chio-Tian’s temple outside Taichung and other sites in the city; you’ll also get to see temples in Donggang, the Southern Cross-Island Highway and the Tropic of Cancer Monument in Fengbin. Unusually, most of the dialogue is in Taiwanese (Hokkien), a language you’ll hear a lot more than Mandarin in the south of Taiwan.

Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to Taiwan.

Britain has a lot of history, and heritage coming out of its ears, but it’s not all stately homes, worthy-but-dull museums and nerd-heavy battle re-enactments. The booming nostalgia industry throws up some fantastic participatory experiences. Here’s five of our faves.

Beamish, County Durham

Britain’s best open-air museum puts you right in the middle of daily life a century or two ago, with painstakingly reassembled buildings and re-created streets showcasing the years 1825 and 1913, from manor house to pit village. Any puzzling questions (What was that used for? What age can my kids start down the mine?) are fielded by costumed guides who share an absolute passion for their regional history, whether they’re driving the steam locos or serving in the sweet shop.

Wartime Weekend, Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester

The 1940s go with a real swing, from the afternoon tea dance to big band night, in Ramsbottom’s fabulous annual dress-up-and-join-in wartime festival. Steam trains on the East Lancashire Railway heritage line take enthusiasts right back to the days of starched uniforms and flouncy dresses (vintage gear is de rigueur), complete with jive competitions, marching bands, church coffee mornings, wartime markets and sassy troop entertainers. This is one place where you do mention the war.

Kentwell Hall, Long Melford, Suffolk

There’s only one place to get the lowdown on sixteenth-century fashion, or hear about the latest, newfangled farming implement, and that’s at Kentwell’s meticulously observed re-creations of daily Tudor life. It’s a full-immersion experience, with living, working, talking Tudor folk, rich and poor, going about their daily lives – right down to a steadfast incomprehension if asked about anything from a later age. Want to learn about spinning? There’s no app for that so you’ll have to listen carefully.

Eastbourne Victorian Festival, Sussex

Relive the glory days of the Empire in Eastbourne, when Britannia ruled the waves, bodices were big and whiskers even bigger. The town’s annual Victorian festival is an excuse for dressing up and showing off, whether you’re joining the icy sea-dip or attending music-hall gala night at the theatre – and Queen Victoria herself arrives by train to be met by singing schoolchildren and local dignitaries.

Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience

Sword-fighting sailors and roaming press gangs add a real whiff of authenticity to Hartlepool’s eighteenth-century seaport, where the oldest British warship still afloat, the HMS Trincomalee, takes pride of place. Quayside guides in period get-up point out the highlights, from a dramatic sea battle in the Fighting Ships show to good old-fashioned games of hopscotch and skittles. Cause any trouble, and you’ll be on eighteenth-century community service (that’s rat-catching duty, landlubbers).

 

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Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, uncovers the myths and mystery around the spellbinding Peruvian landmark.

This year, around a million visitors will make the epic journey to Machu Picchu – an odyssey that for most people entails a long flight to Lima, a second flight to Cusco, and then a three-and-a-half hour train ride (or four-day hike) to the ruins themselves. Strangely, almost none of these travelers will have the slightest idea what is it they’re going to see. It’s as if the Incas built this stone masterpiece in the clouds solely to serve as an envy-inducing photo backdrop. Which is a shame, because in recent years we’ve learned quite a lot about the fascinating reasons behind Machu Picchu’s existence.

The most common misconception about Machu Picchu has been handed down by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III. He was the citadel’s sole visitor from the outside world in 1911, the year that he is credited with rediscovering the spectacular ruins. (Three Peruvian farm families were living there at the time.)

Bingham had been searching for someplace else, the legendary Lost City of the Incas. That ghostly metropolis—officially known as Vilcabamba—was the redoubt to which a group of Inca nobles and their women had supposedly escaped (with a large stash of gold, the story went) when Francisco Pizarro and his rapacious Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532. Unfortunately, the hyper-ambitious Bingham was so eager to prove that he’d found the lost city that he ignored evidence that Vilcabamba was actually located not far west of Machu Picchu, in the Amazon jungle. Some local guides in Cusco still insist that Bingham departed Peru with a fortune in precious metals, but the truth is that he found mostly bits of broken pottery and human remains. Most of these have recently been returned to Peru after spending a century in the United States.

In the 1980s, the Yale University professors Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar proposed what is now the reigning academic theory about Machu Picchu, which is that it was built in the 15th century as a summer home for the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacutec. Burger compares the site to Camp David, the U.S. president’s weekend retreat where politics and recreation mix. While convincing – a rare real estate document dated 1568 even backs up the thesis – this explanation of Machu Picchu’s origins doesn’t fully account for the site’s spectacular natural setting, or for its enigmatic stone structures that draw spiritual seekers from around the globe.

The anthropologist Johan Reinhard argues that while Machu Picchu may have served as the Inca emperor’s getaway, its location was chosen for more than the nice views. Reinhard calls Machu Picchu a “sacred center,” and has demonstrated that holy peaks (or ‘apus’ in Quechua, the language of the Andes) lie directly to the north, south, east and west of the site. The Urubamba River, one of the chief symbols in Inca cosmology, practically wraps itself around the bluff on which Machu Picchu sits.

The Incas worshipped nature and the sun in particular, and the architecture at Machu Picchu is fully integrated with its environment. During the June solstice, the sun rises directly above a peak due east of the site and shoots a beam of light through a window of the spectacular semicircular Sun Temple, where it forms a perfect illuminated rectangle on a slab of granite. Some believe that the stone – whose surface appears to have been cracked – once held a gold statue of Pachacutec. A more recent twist on Reinhard’s theory posits that the famous Inca Trail, beloved by hikers, was designed as a pilgrimage for those who were preparing to enter Machu Picchu.

Because the Incas left behind so little hard information, we’ll probably never know for certain exactly why Machu Picchu was built. But mystery, along with the gorgeous stonework and mind-blowing scenery, will always be part of the site’s allure. For most people, walking into the ruins of Machu Picchu for the first time is a stirring moment, akin to entering a natural cathedral. For those who arrive understanding a little about its historic and spiritual importance, a trip that might otherwise be a very expensive photo-op can also be a life-changing experience.

Find out more about Machu Picchu and order the book at Mark’s website: markadamsbooks.com.

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