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Maestro of modernism: a look at Erno Goldfinger's North London lair...
posted by Richard Green on 01/05/2019

The Man: Erno Goldfinger (1902-1987) was an architect synonymous with the most brutal of London's Brutalist tower blocks, and for inadvertantly giving his name to a James Bond novel and villain.

To park the last point first - Erno Goldfinger married Ursula Blackwell - heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell soup and pickle empire - and Ian Fleming heard the name during a round of golf with Ursula's cousin. When Goldfinger was published in 1959 the real Goldfinger (6'2" and donineering) spoke to his lawyers, asserting that the fictional namesake (5' and maniacal) was bringing his name into disrepute.

Fleming parried with the suggestion that he'd change the title to 'Goldprick' instead, but in the end, Erno Goldfinger settled for an 'all characters in this book are fictional' disclaimer, legal costs and somehwat bizarrely, six gratis copies of the novel.  

By all accounts, Hungarian born Erno Goldfinger was a humourless man who was prone to impatient anger, especially with employees and associates. He progressed through the French Ecole Nationale, befriended notable architects like Le Corbusier, and then move to London with his wife.

The spiral staircase leading from the entrance to the living room. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Apart from his Hampstead flat, Goldfinger's London legacy is dominated by the Brutalist towers that he built to help solve the acute post war housing shortage - the 18-floor Alexander Fleming House at the Elephant and Castle, the 27-floor Balfron Tower in Poplar, and the 31-floor Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove are the most famous/infamous.

The towers proved immensley controversial and Goldfinger himself was moved to live in a top floor flat at Balfron Tower for two months in 1967 - just months after the explosion at the Ronan Point tower block. 

The excellent guided tours last about an hour and are booked on the day. Photo My Bathroom Wall

He held cocktail parties for other residents, which he was known to refer to as ' my tenants', to harvest their take on the tower's liveability. Imagining this dour urbane Magyar quaffing nibbles and booze with the tower's original East Ender inhabitants, it's hard not to recall J.G Ballard's main character (beside the building itself that is) of Anthony Royal, in his 1975 novel 'High Rise'. In the book, Ballard's fictional architect lives on the top floor of the doomed ivory tower, powerless to hold back the ensuing chaos. 

The concave fireplace in the lounge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The controvery continues to this day at the Balfron Tower in London's East End district of Poplar. The National Trust - in conjunction with Bow Arts - opened flat 130 to the public for two weeks in October 2014, and kitted it out in period decor. This was possible because the block has been emptied of its social housing residents. They were promised they would return, but they never did. Instead, surprise surprise, the block is now being remodelled as luxury flats - the original occupants and their lack of riches deemed to be surplus to requirements presumably.

The National Trust and Bow Arts used perky period decor in their 2014 project

The House: the couple set up home in leafy Hampstead, in an apartment designed by Erno and completed in 1939. 1-3 Willow Road is a relatively modest four story Goldfinger building that houses three apartments - the central one was the home of Goldfinger and his wife Ursula, and children, while the smaller properties - one on either side - are private residences the sale of which was used to fund the development with.

Main settee and art enselmble in a wooden showcase. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's possible to think of the National Trust - which now owns the Goldfinger flat - as the preserve only of large stately home style piles. But this intimate and wonderfully decorated home is a magnificent glimpse into the mind and lifestyle of of of the world's most famous modernist architects.

Willow Close defies its age and is a fascinating peek into the mind and lifestyle of this most controversial of architects. The view is pleasant and the aspect peaceful, but yet there is something rather blanched and cold about the interiors - a genius for functionality is at play indoors to be sure, but with so much wood and muted artworks, the effect is ever so slightly chilling.

The study area, with raised wooden platform leading to the lounge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The locale: the property is on a small sidestreet in the very well-to-do north London village of Hampstead, and overlooking Hamspead Heath.

Hampstead gives the lie to London not being entirely flat. It's wealthy tangle of streets wind up toward the top of Hampsted Heath. The area has some lovely places to eat and some interesting boutiques, and is a delightful place to head for a stroll.

Nearby and directly across the Heath is the similarly affluent and interesting hilltop village suburb of Highgate, famous for the spooky and historic Highgate Cemetery, and Waterlow Park. In between them lies Kenwood House, a grand 17th century stately home with ancient woodland and large scale sculptures in the grounds.

After the house tour, I headed straight for Sunday Lunch and a pint at the decidedly cosy King William IV.

***

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Willow Road, Hampstead, faces Hampstead Heath and is a 5-minute walk from Hampsted Heath Overground station, and a 10-minute walk from Hampsted Tube Staion on the Nothern Line. Highgate is also on the Northern Line, though on a different branch.

35 It is run by the National Trust, which offeres guided tours at 11am, 12pm, 1pm and 2pm; and self guided viewing from 3-5pm. It costs £7.20pp to visit, and tickets can't be booked in adavance, but only from the entrace of the property on the day: see National Trust Willow Road. Other good pubs nearby include the Freemasons Arms, the Holly Bush, The Wells and The Spaniards Inn. See Hampsted Village for a taster.


 
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The latest glass-bottomed skywalks open in Gibraltar and Seattle, and the best of the rest...
posted by Richard Green on 30/04/2019

Mark Hamill earning his fee. Stormtrooper No2 takes a more casual approach

May the reinforced glass be with you...and with actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the 1977 Star Wars (and four subsequent films) and was on hand to declare the platform open. His hamming was aided by the prescence of several extras from Boogie Storm - an unlikely troop of Stormtrooper-themed dancers who appeared in a heat of the UK's 'Britain's got Talent' in 2016.

Gibraltar's glass-bottomed 'Skywalk' is the latest in a global fad for fear-inducing experiences. They take what was already an outstanding view and render it terrifying by adding a pathway and a see through floor.

Skywalk at night. Photo MeteoGib Steve Ball

Bragging rights for these skywalks seem to be all about who's platform is the highest, and how far you can see from up there on a 'clear day'. Which reminds me of a friend in south London who was having new windows fitted in his flat by a workman wag. My mate was on the 5th floor and it's true that he had nice large windows. The workman stood back to admire the handiwork and declared, "on a clear day you could see Barbara Striesand from here".

The Rock of Gibraltar, with the airport runway running beside it

The Gibraltar Tourist Board can't promise quite that from atop The Rock, but for sure you can see the 842 metre high Jebel Musa in Morocco, some 20 kilometers away. The Moroccan sumit is likely the southern leg of the so called Pillars of Hercules - a term used in antiquity for the singular mountains that stand on either side of the strait.

So the latest Skywalk is on the Rock of Gibraltar, at 426 meter high monolith known simply as The Rock. The 360 degree viewing platform was built onto the the foundations of an existing WWII structure and is at a height of 340 metres.

The top of the Rock and Skywalk by day. Photo Visit Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar has been for centuries, and as such has been modified and tunnelled into. Visitors to the upper levels will find the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the Windsor Suspension Bridge, the ancient battlements, World War II tunnels, and the magnificent St Michael's Cave.

The Moorish Castle tower, built in the 14th Century. Photo Visit Gibraltar

puzzle I've been to Gibraltar many times and it makes for a refreshingly different city break, though most visitors day trip there as part of their holiday in southern Spain, plus the territory is inclreasingly popular with cruise lines. It's a friendly place with a facinating geography and history. 
31 Gibraltar International Airport is literlly a short walk from the main settlement and handled 548,000 passengers in 2016. Its runway famously bisects the main raod from Gib to Spain. It currently offers flights with British Airways to London Heathrow and Easyjet to London Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester, and Royal Air Maroc to Tangier and Casablanca.
weather Gibraltar is a year round city break destination, with the same climate as the surrounding south coast of spain. Summers are dry and hot, when temperatures can top 30 °C. Most rain falls between November and February, but generally only in short sharp downpoors, and winter temperatures rarely dipping below 10 °C.
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The Skywalk is inside the Gibraltar Nature Reserve on the Upper Rock. Admission costs £12 for adults and £7 for children ged 5-12, and free for senior citizens. For more information see Visit Gibraltar

Other great Skywalks...

Spece Needle, Seattle, USA: the latest glass-bottomed skywalk experience opened on 8th August 2018 at Seattle's iconic Spece Needle Tower. It's the worl'd first revolving glass floor and is the highlight of a USD$100m renovation, or 'spacelift' as it prefers to call it.

On a clear day you can see the ground. Photo Space Needle/John Lot

Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle rises 18m above the city streets and reflects a bold space-age vision of the future. The USD$100m makeover includes what's termed 'The Loupe', after the handle-free magnifying glasses used by watchmakers and jewelers. The gently revolving turntable is original, but now there is a circular glass floor to stand trembling on. 

The main observation deck, from which on a clear day you can see peaks of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, is above the glass floor level, and has been improved with the addition of 48 floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Visitors are encouraged to lean backwards against these for some harum-scarum selfies. The SkyCity revolving restaurant is on this deck too, and is due to reopen later in the year - also with added glass floors. SeeSpace Needle

Tianmen Mountain, Hunan Province, China: This extraordinarilly sheer-sided massive has long been known to the people of Hunan Province - and in fact there's a Tang Dynasty era Buddhist temple sits at the sumit built in AD 870.

It's not reported what you might see on a clear day - I'd be facing the rock anyway.

The pathway is 61 meters long, some which has 2.5" thick glass pannelling on its floor, is grafted onto the rock some 1,430 meters above the surrounding countryside. high is also 6,35 centimeters thick (2.5 inches).

The cable car rides up to the scenic area from the city of Zhangjiajie, in the northwest of Hunan Province. The city's international airport has flights from across China, plus Bangkok, Busan, Jakarta and Taipei. For more info see Zhangjiajie Tourism

Mirador de Abrante, Canary Islands: anyone driving across the rugged northern side of La Gomera should call here for a coffee and a view. Next door to the cafe/restaurant is a seven-metre overhang with glass sides and floor. If it's not foggy you can see the tiny villages of El Charco, Las Casas and the most isolated, La Montañet in the valley of Agulo, 400 metres below, with its houses and vertiginous agricultural terraces. On a clear day you can see Mount Teide - Spain's highest peak - over on Tenerife. 

On a clear day you can see Mount Teide, Tenerife. Photo Thomas Jundt/Flickr

Get to La Gomera on a short flight from Tenerife North with Binter, or from the port of Los Cristianos on the south side of Tenerife with Fred Olsen, and from Los Cristiano and La Palma with Naviera Armas

Jingdong Stone Forest Gorge, Beijing, China: this new glass-bottomed monstrosity claims to be the world's largest and longest glass-bottomed viewing platform, jutting out 33 meters from the cliff edge. 

Wills Tower Skydeck, Chicago, USA: Remember that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when the three friends press their heads against the glass to admire the view of Chicago? Well it was filmed at the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. So many visitors to the tower started doing the same that the developers decided to build four glass cube viewing platforms especially for them – collectively called the Ledge.

Willie Wonka eat your heart out. Photo Skydeck

Despite being built way back in 1973, the tower formerly known as Sears is still the tallest building in the western hemisphere. And now you don't have to strain your neck for a view – you just step into a glass box that extends out 1.3 metres from the skyscraper 400 metres above the bustling city streets. Don't look down, but out to the horizon, where on a clear day you can see across four states - Illinois of course, plus Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Nobody will have been wondering, but just so you know, the glass cubes are retractable, and are brought inside the building for cleaning and maintenenace. The tower is at 233 S Wacker Dr. Admission is $24 for adults, and $16 for children aged 3-11. For more info see Skydeck

Glacier Skywalk, Banff, Canada: the Skywalk stands 280 meters above the Sunwapta Valley in the heart of the Columbia Icefield, the largest area of ice in the Rocky Mountains.  

Nice views, shame about the steel/glass eyesoar. Photo Glaciel Skywalk

The Skywalk is accessed via the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, just off Highway 93 an hour's drive south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff. The nearest gateway airport is in Calgary International Airport, 140 kilometres to the east. Entry to the Glacier Skywalk is CAD $31 for adults and $16 for children aged 6-16. For more info see Glacier Skywalk

Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, Chamonix, France: 'Step into the void' as it is known, is a glass box skywalk at the top of the Aiguille du Midi peak, near Chamonix, in south-eastern France. The part cube may be minimalist, but the vertigo is not. 

David Blaine might be at home here - not me. Photo Wittur Group

With nothing standing between them and the blissful one kilometer void (a sheer drop of 12,604ft), than a 12 mm (1/2 inch) platform of glass enforced by steel frames.

Grand Canyon Skywalk, Nevada, USA: jutting out over the canyon 1,219 meters above the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon Skywalk opened in 2007 and has since proved hugely popular, especially as it's so much closer to Las Vegas than the more familiar views from the South Rim.

When the natural edge of a canyon just isn't enough. Photo Skywalk Grand Canyon

The horseshoe-shaped Skywalk extends out beyond Eagle Point by 21 meters and is a four-hour drive west of the South Rim visitor centre, and two hours east from Las Vegas.

The Edge, Eurika Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne's Eureka Tower is a self proclaimed 'gem in its urban skyline' located down by the Yarra River. It opened in 2007, is 297 meters tall, and as if a 91-story monolith isn't eye catching enough, its top 11 floors are 24 carat gold plated.

The Edge projects out from the 88th floor at about 300 meters above the city. No self respecting attraction down under would be complete with a few 'in the southern hemisphere' epethettes, and getting to the Edge, 'the ighest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere' will mean travelling on the fastest lifts in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Some bright spark grafted a glass box onto 88th floor. Photo Eureka Skydeck 88

The Edge is at 7 Riverside Quay, Southbank. Admission is AUD $12 for adults and $8 for children. For more info see Eureka Skydeck



 
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Summertime and the swimming is easy...10 spots worth packing your trunks for...
posted by Richard Green on 20/04/2019

Ik Kil, Mexico: just four kilometres from the Chichen Itza pyramids in Yucatan is the the magnificent fresh-water swimming hole of Il Kil. It's the most famous cenote in the area, which is an old Mayan word meaning 'sacred well', which are sinkholes formed when the roof of a limestone cave collapses. The pool is 35 metres deep, is home to shoals of black catfish, and the jungle scene is topped off by a curtain of vines dripping with beads of water.

The Mayans had a penchant for human sacrifice, so its no surprise that a giant steep-sided pool would be a green light for some drownings - in this case young people thrown in sacrifice to their rain god.

These days getting out of the water and back to the top of the cenote is a synch, as steps and tunnels have been carved into the walls and through the living rock.

Practicalities: some coach tours to Chichen Itza from Cancun call in at Ik Kil and it gets busy at times. There's a restaurant and a few stalls around the rim now too. If you want to dodge the hoards and sleepover to enjoy a morning or evening swim, then Hotel Ik Kil is right by the rim, or the Hotel Dolores is a 10-minute walk away. The swimming hole is about midway-ish between Merida (140 kilometres) and Cancun (205 kilometres) airports.

Erawan Falls, Thailand: this gentle 7-tier cascade fills numerous emerald green ponds along its 1.5 kilometre descent and is named after the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology because its top tier is supposed to resemble an elephant’s head.

Practicalities: the falls are in the Erewan National Park, a three-hour drive west of Bangkok. There are walking trails and footbridges as far as the 7th tier - which takes about an hour and a half to reach from the base. The national park is open daily from 7am to 4:30pm: it gets packed at weekends, so arrive early in the day if you can to beat the crowds. There are places to eat, bungalows and a camp site if you want to stay overnight, and frequent busses from Kanchanaburi. The nearest airports are Bangkok's Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports, about 200 kilometres away.

Fairy Pools, Scotland: on the Hebredian island of Skye, the Fairy Pools are a delightful waterfall and pool complex backed by textbook Scottish scenery and wildlife. While you are jumping off the rocks and splashing about keep an eye out for deer, sheep, rabbits, curlews, herons and plovers. 

Practicalities: the pools are about a 20 minute walk from the car park in tiny village of Glen Brittle. Go Skye run shuttle busses from Portree to the Fairy Pools car park in summer. People bathe and swim here in high summer in swimsuits, but most people most of the time you'll be better off with a wetsuit. The best airport to use is Inverness, 196 kilometres away. 

Pamukkale Pools, Turkey: okay okay, I know it's not exactly wild swimming, more wild paddling really, but this surreal phenomenon in southwestern Turkey is an unforgettable place to dip. Pamukkale means 'Cotton Castle' in Turkish, and the shallow pools are filled with slow-flowing water and are made form travertine - a sort of limestone that's deposited by the calcium-rich hot springs. It's what stalactites and 'mites are made from in grottos and caverns. It's a popular tourist site, but at 2,700 metres long and 600 metres wide, there's always space for you to strike to find a pool of one's own. 

Practicalities: the closest airport and train station are at Denizili, 65 kilometres from the pools. This cascade has been attracting tourists for over a thousand years and it's now protected as a World Heritage Site. Strictly speaking, visitors are only supposed to dip their feet in the pools, although this is hard to police.

Las Grietas, Ecuador: the extraordinary atmosphere of the Galapagos Islands gives this remote flooded crevasse a decidedly Jurassic Park-like twist. There are a couple of steep-sided cool-water pools of dazzling clarity, and a submerged one-metre swim-through tunnel that connects them.

A cleft in the rocks reveals the perfect finger of water at Las Grietas. Photo Gringos Abroad.com

Practicalities: take a speedboat taxi from Puerto Ayora to the ‘otro lado’ (other side) and follow the signs to the Finch Bay Hotel. Pass to the left of the hotel and follow the path across a lava field and through a forest of cacti for about 15-minutes, then descend the winding wooden steps. The nearest airport is one on the adjascent island of Baltra, which is connected to Santa Cruz Island by a short 5-minute ferry crossing.

Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa: this sublime natural swimming hole is by the village of Lotofaga on the south coast of Samoa's main island, Upolu. A volcanic eruption led to some ground collapsing to form a 30-metre deep circular pool that's fed from the Pacific Ocean via a number of small channels and tunnels. There is now a flight of wooden steps leading down to a diving and swimming platform.

Practicalities: the tropical climate means that this swimming spot is good year round. The main airport on Samoa is Faleolo Airport, 47 kilometres away. See Beautiful Samoa

Cummins Falls, USA: this handsome waterfall has been a hit with bathers for over a century. It's Tennessee's largest falls by volume of water, and the main drop is 23 metres, reached along a two-kilometre hiking trail. The main curtain of water splashes onto a wide and worn-smooth shallow terrace of rock pools.  

The waterfall and bathing plinths at Cummins Falls. Photo Michael Hicks/Flickr

Practicalities: the falls are 122 kilometres east of Nashville, which is also the closest airport. See Cummins Falls State Park

Ghasri Valley, Malta: on the north western coast of Malta's sleepier and smaller island of Gozo you'll find a sinuous inlet that looks purpose made for swimming and snorkelling. It winds between rugged limestone ridges for 300 metres before reaching the sea at the pebbly Ghasri Bay.  

Practicalities: the Gozo Channel ferry from Malta to Gozo takes just 30 minutes, and the nearest place to stay is the nearby village of Gharsi, which is home to the Gordian Lighthouse, with a light that began scanning the horizon in 1853. There's a road from the centre of the village to the Ghasri Valley. See Visit Gozo

Agua Azul, Mexico: this dramatic cascade of waterfalls is a cracking place for a jungle-fringed dip. This gorgeous stretch of the River Shumulha has plenty of pools upstream of the main area too. In fact, it’s best to head a little upstream to put some distance between you and the the tourist kiosks by the car park - that way you'll  probably find a pool all to yourself.

Practicalities: the falls are popular and you’ll find that many hostels and tour operators offer day trips or excursions to them from Palenque or San Cristobel de las Cassas. The car park is four kilometres from the main road. The nearest airport is Palenque, a 90 minute drive away.  

Devil's Pool, Zambia: a small plunge pool on the lip of the Victoria Falls in Zambia isn't a place for a leisurely swim, but with tons of water plummeting 108 metres down into the gorge right behind you, it is perhaps the world's most terrifying dip. 

The Devil's Pool is next to Livingstone Island. Hotel staff guide swimmers to the pool for safety. Photo Tongabezi

Practicalities: the Devil's Pool can only be attempted safely in the dry season - mid August to mid January - when the river level is low enough not to sweep swimmers over the edge. The falls are almost two kilometres wide and are shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, but the pool can only be reached from the Zambian side, after a walk over rocks and a swim. The Tongabezi is a riverside lodge that offers escorted trips to the pool. The Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Zambia is 10 kilometres from the falls, or Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe is 20 kilometres away. 


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