Shock and Awe the Estonian Way

Whilst icy dips in the Serpentine are national news, here in Haapsalu, on the north western coast of Estonia, there is no need for such a fanfare. This plucky band of ice swimmers just take the plunge when they get a chance. One quiet Wednesday lunchtime, I was invited to accompany them by Kertu who runs the Tiiker B&B in the town centre.


While Kertu got the ice clearing tools out, I couldn’t help but shiver,
despite being fully clothed in my winter wear. We set to work breaking up the thin layer of ice that had reformed overnight and scooping the slush out of the bathing hole. In the meantime, two more women joined us who were on their lunch break and had popped over for a dip.

We got into our swimming gear, not forgetting our woolly hats and went to the waters edge. Being very polite, they let me go in first.


After I had handed over my camera and photos of me were being taken, there was only one thing left for me to do. Get in.


The water was unsurprisingly freezing. Kertu had told me to take it easy the first time, which felt like very wise advice as soon as my nether regions touched the water. I stayed in for ages – at least several seconds but as soon as I was out of the water, I instantly regretted not staying in longer.


With my towel round my shoulders, I took in the scene. The brilliant sunshine poking through the clouds, the flawless ice on the frozen bay, the delicate sparkling ice crystals and four mad humans.

After glow

After a couple of minutes I felt the glow – the body’s attempt to deal with the aftermath by sending blood back out to the limbs. As well as the physical sensation, there was also something of a psychological ctrl-alt-delete. Now I could see why people perform this act of apparent madness.

We got changed back in the cabin, then mopped and tidied up ready for the evening bathers.

Kertu warned me that in an hour or two, I may start to shiver as my body readjusted. Sure enough, an hour or so later, I did start to shiver. It was time for a nice hot drink.


To go ice swimming in Haapsalu, ask Kertu:

For ice swimming in the UK:

The Eperlecques blockhaus – learning to like doilies

I’ve always had a dislike for fuss. I didn’t want to be fussed around as a kid and never liked any of the signs of fuss like lacework, frills, chintz – in fact, all the things that my grandparent’s generation seemed so enamoured by.

The paper doily seemed to sum it up. Being offered a slice of Victoria sponge cake by an old aunt is nice enough. Cake isn’t my thing, but it’s the thought that counts. Similarly, the floral patterned plate it comes on is fine. Again, not my choice, but each to their own. What used to get me was that little bit of frilly paper with holes in it sandwiched between the two. What’s the point? It’s just unnecessary fuss.

At least that was how I felt until I visited the Blockhaus at Eperlecques.

The Blockhaus was built in 1943 to provide a massive bunker to assemble and unleash the V1 and V2 revenge weapons against Britain.

It was made to a simple and practical design in the shape of a cuboid. 120,000 cubic metres of concrete was to be used to create an impenetrable factory. Thousands of slave labourers were drafted in and worked remorselessly to build it. But it was all for nothing. Germany no longer had air superiority and the allies were able to bomb it before the concrete had dried.

So it remains a memorial, a folly and also a lesson in architecture.

It is a perfect expression of form and function using the Brutalists’ favourite material – concrete.

Walking around the outside, it is hard not to feel both awestruck and belittled. But stepping inside was chilling. It is cold, even in summer, thanks to its size and dampness. But the real chill comes from being within such a vast unforgiving structure designed to annihilate cities full of people and build by people literally worked to death.

Later on, whilst looking for somewhere to eat in nearby Saint Omer, I noticed something different. The frowzy places with checked tablecloths, lace curtains, menus offering traditional home cooking now seemed appealing. It was an overt display of humanity and care. That fussiness was nice.

My doily-phobia is now cured.


Saaremaa – Juniper’s Love Island

At a time when juniper is in decline across the UK, mostly through poor land management, for a gin geek like me, a visit to an island where the plant is thriving promised to be quite an tonic.

But as I found out, as well as being a place of conservation, it is every bit a place of innovation. I met with Liisi Kuivjõgi at Orbu farm in pretty Leedri village who took time out to talk me through how they make their special syrup: and it is special. It has a taste and colour most similar to maple syrup but with subtle pine-forest notes, which admittedly doesn’t sound great to anyone familiar with 1970’s toilet cleaner. However, it is great, as are the various sauces and conserves all developed from the same process.

To make the syrup, they take fresh shoots from the new spring growth rather than berries. The shoots are steeped in water for four days then the resulting infusion is boiled down with sugar until rich and gloopy. This seems to give it a much subtler flavour, despite the rather vigorous syrup-making process.

Liisi and her sisters are planning. They are thinking about tapping their own birch and maple trees and seeing what new things they can make.

With a belly full of syrup, I grab some perfectly decent juniper beer made by Pihtla and head to my lodgings at the Aavikunurga Guesthouse in Randevere which are home to a different kind of innovation. As father of the modern Estonian language Johannes Aarvik, who grew up here, sought to standardise the various Estonian dialects. His methodical and open-minded approach included borrowing words from other languages like Finnish. It was readily adopted by the Estonian government and by doing so enabled a nation to be build in the inter-war years.

The next day I headed to the main town on the island, Kuresaare, for another meeting with some more innovators.

In the old electricity generating plant in Tolli Street, I met with Lisa who now brews Poide beer with her husband. With little experience but full of can-do spirit, they started brewing beer at home in Poide before up-scaling operations at their new building in Kuresaare.

Among a range of great beers, two stand out: The imperial brown ale and the rye beer which is like eating a slice of rich rye bread.

But leaving myself little time to linger, I went to visit another local produce provider. I met Maria and Inge at Idea Farm who have used their knowledge of food technology to grow the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices on a small-holding surrounded by beautiful woodland of pines, birches and of course juniper.

They make their own products which are available locally and through a little bit of personal exporting, also in Marlborough, England. Anywhere else, their small-holding with it’s neat rows of crops, would seem like a rural idyll, but on Saaremaare it’s just normal.

After grabbing a picnic, I headed for the beach, which meant walking through woodlands mixed with juniper. The sound of birds preparing nests and gentle waves lapping the shore while you can almost see the new juniper shoots pushing their way out a little further all serve to slow time down.

Sitting by the shore, nibbling some dried fish (I like it, but not to everyone’s taste), it’s a chance to reflect on what makes Saaremaa special. It is a beautiful island where juniper thrives. But what makes the island special is that it’s people have taken what nature has given them and made new things, all with a little love.

Useful links:

24 hours in Sillamäe – The push-pull of an open-closed town

Sillamäe is a small town in Estonia near the Russian border with a complex layered history, much like the shale it is built on. But what remains of the past and what does the most recent layer look like?

I went to find out.

After being destroyed in the Second World War, it was re-built as a town with a vision where its inhabitants would not want to leave, even if they could.

Built by gulag internees and POWs, this town had an urgent purpose. To supply uranium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program and help it catch up with the USA which had already demonstrated its capabilities at Hiroshima.

Closed to outsiders and removed from maps, to most of its inhabitants, this little town would have been a whole world.

Wandering around the neoclassical apartments, concert hall, and other municipal buildings, it has an eerily familiar feeling, at least for fans of The Prisoner. Perhaps it should be twinned with Portmeirion.

Having said that, my very first impression of Sillamäe during a torrential downpour wasn’t eeriness but queasiness from an overwhelming smell of gas. It would be easy to assume this is a bad sign for visiting this former Soviet nuclear town with a large tailing pond full of nuclear waste nearby. Making this pond safe and preventing spillage into the Baltic was a priority for the European Union on which work was completed in 2008.

One person who also felt the strange push-pull of the place was film director Roman Baskin who used it as the setting for his Estonian cult movie Vernanda a curious film that plays with the idea of being trapped in a town facing imminent doom.

Taking a wander down to the sea front, a must at any seaside town, offers a view of the Baltic and the port. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to run commercially viable ferries to Finland but the main hope still lies with heavy metals. Now the work is to extract niobium for mobile phones rather than uranium for weapons, which is progress.

As well as neoclassicism, the town also has a somewhat faded collection of grey brick Khrushchyovkas as well as a set of Brezhnev era panel-build flats which may be the most recent soviet relics, but also the ones apparently most in need of maintenance. The three sets of buildings each in its own distinct part of the town are like layers of Soviet history. Grand vision, shoddy improvement and shoddier decline.

The scrappier buildings have a smattering of graffiti, mostly in Russian with occasional bits of English and offer a reminder that at least 90% of the town’s inhabitants are native Russian speakers. Given the tensions between Russia and the West, what do these walls say?

Most comments are about Julia’s love-life. Lucky Julia…

There is a determined effort to make sure this town is on the up. Whilst the authorities are renovating the main thoroughfares and have added an eco-bike trail to the parkland. It’s the inhabitants who are taking the lead.

Sillamae Museum founded by two local artists provides both a look back as well as community activities. They have their work cut out for them as so much of the past is undocumented, but it’s their energy that makes the Sillamäe compelling and the museum a must, albeit with Google Translate.

As for where to stay, there’s the hotel – Hotel Krunk. Built as part of the neo-classical layer, it makes little of its architecture, but instead relies on serving passing trade with cheap beds. Reasonably priced food and drink are served at the attached restaurant accompanied by a continuous medley of Russian pop classics and a whirring glitter ball.

And with a full tummy, what better way would there be to cap off an evening than with a stroll around the neoclassical streets as well as let your ears – if it wasn’t for the smell of gas.

useful links:

The Skeleton Army

Industrialisation proved to be a brutal experience for many who turned to drink to drown their woes. Victorian England produced a new breed of crusaders who were determined to save people from their moral and physical squalor which meant abstention from the demon drink.

Going out for a Sunday walk in the late 19th century in a typical English Town or City, would have been an assault on the senses. Smog from the coal fires in every business and home, the smell of horse manure from the transport and the ghastly sound of two dissonant bands and choirs. If you followed the sound you would have come across a resolute company of Salvation Army volunteers in their Christian soldier uniforms being harried and harangued by another company of troops, the Skeleton Army.

And while the Salvationists would appeal to the citizens of town to repent their sins and take the pledge, the Skeleton Army would be there to stop the do-gooding. The Bethnel Green Post noted in November 1882:

“A genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… it contained a number shopkeepers’ names… I found that publicans, beer sellers and butchers are subscribing to this imposture… the collector told me that the object of the Skeleton Army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… Amongst the Skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…worthy of the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education and temperance and who, seeing the beginning of the end of their immoral traffic, and prepared for the most desperate enterprise.

When things got violent, the police were called on to intervene, although they didn’t behave in the way you might expect. In Weston-Super-Mare, three members of the Salvation Army were arrested and jailed for incitement to riot. Not that they were directly inciting anyone to riot, but wherever they went, the Skeleton Army followed and if they hadn’t been there, the Skeleton Army would have no reason to actually do the rioting.

In Worthing, the Salvation Army appealed for protection but the Home Secretary refused to give permission for the police to assist. All in all, government from magistrates to members of the cabinet seemed more fearful of the Sally Army’s organised and sober movement than a drunken rioting rabble.

However, not all meeting of the two armies led to war. There were occasions where Skeleton Army members and Salvationists shared tea and there were several conversions en route. Skeleton lout, Charles Jeffries left the mob and joined the Salvation Army and rising to third in command.


By the 1890’s the Skeleton Army had run out of steam and were disbanded, broken up by force or left to just fall apart, leaving the Salvationists continued their mission in peace. But despite the Salvation Army now being free to continue unhindered, the government didn’t fall at the hands of the sober masses and the publicans still had a steady stream of business.

The Gin Palace – a ship that ended an empire

HMS Agincourt must have look quite a sight as it steamed out of Scapa Flow in September 1914. Heavy and sitting low in the water; weighed down by a massive array of guns. It had far too many guns and too little armour to be a ‘proper’ Dreadnought and the Royal Navy wouldn’t have dreamed of commissioning such a ship for themselves. However, back in 1911, when the Brazilian Navy asked for it, there were no complaints in Britain. Foreign powers could have whatever they wanted as long as they paid hard cash. Intense rivalry between Brazil and Argentina meant that when Brazil commissioned a ship, it had to look impressive, and that meant guns. But, Brazil ran out of money and before the ship had even been finished, it had been sold on to the Ottoman Navy who had their own ideas on what made a ship impressive.

The Ottomans took no time in asking for the ship to be modified to their needs. They took the money which had raised by public subscription and lavishly decked the officers’ quarters. Alas, no Ottoman officer ever got to enjoy their little bit of luxury.

The ship was ready for trials when war broke out in August 1914. The Turkish crew was in England and the payment for the ship had already been made, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided that releasing warships to the Ottomans when they hadn’t formally declared their allegiance to the Allies posed a risk. The Turkish crew were barred from their ship which was impounded and the money confiscated. Istanbul was outraged – the Ottoman government sided with Germany and Austro-Hungary and the rest is history: Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of Turkey and the Middle East as we know it.

As for the Gin Palace, it didn’t have the most eventful war. The Royal Navy had had little time to make it battle ready and the only significant modification was the replacement of the Turkish-style toilets with something British bottoms were more used to. The ostentatious quarters remained intact but didn’t house regular Royal Navy officers or even reservists but a more refined set of gentlemen who had been reassigned from the royal yachts, perhaps nursing pink gins to relieve sea sickness.

Meanwhile the crew, a rag-tag bunch of early-released prisoners worked below decks to keep the hulk moving. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that its new patriotic name, HMS Agincourt, didn’t stick but instead it was nicknamed the Gin Palace (A-gin-court).

Its only significant action was in the Battle of Jutland where it reportedly fired 255 shells but isn’t known to have hit anything. As soon as the war was over, it was mothballed then send for scrap. Let’s hope some of those interiors ended up where they belong – in a Turkish bathhouse or an East-end London boozer.

A Charlton Heston moment in Latvia with putting mixture.

I had my Charlton Heston moment in Latvia.

And by that, I don’t mean waving a gun around at an NRA rally.

It wasn’t that dystopian.

By Charlton Heston moment, I mean that point in the Planet of the Apes where he is staggering through a desert and he stumbles across the last remnants of human civilisation – the Statue of Liberty.

I had been in the process of ticking off one of the lower items on my bucket list and searching for the source of kümmel.

150 years ago, kümmel was every bit the rival of gin and being made with caraway rather than juniper, it had one main advantage. Caraway has a calmative effect, reducing flatulence and that bloated feeling after a heavy meal. This ‘medicinal’ benefit help Ludwig Mentzendorff create a healthy business importing kümmel to Britain to sell to the new breed of entrepreneurs and growing middle class who wanted to show off their new found wealth with groaning dinner tables without showing their lack of breeding with clouds of methane.

It also proved useful on the golf courses where it soon earned the name ‘putting mixture’ for its ability to help golfers steady their nerves whilst its sugary-stickiness helped them keep hold of their clubs.

Kümmel, came from the village of Allažu (Allaschin modern day Latvia, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. It was produced by a Baltic German aristocrat Baron von Blanckenhagen, a hangover from the days of the Teutonic Knights, who owned land around Allažu which included a pure and reliable water source.

The upheavals of the 20th Century put paid to that business. In 1905 amid the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, the Blanckenhagen mansion was burned down. The distillery closed and entrepreneurial Mentzendorff’s opened up production of their own kümmel in France.

Baltic Germans moved ‘back’ to Germany as tension between Russia and Germany grew and several distilleries in Germany produced their own versions of kümmel, where it is still known as Allasch and is a popular digestif. But in Britain, its popularity never recovered.

So, I went to Allažu to see what remains I could find of the distillery. It was the middle of winter and the shortest routes to Allažu from Riga were along ice roads, making it feel like a proper adventure.

When I got there I realised that it was something of a forlorn hope to find anything. With no manor house, factory or any other sign that this used to be the home of putting mixture, what was there here to see?

I trudged around the manor parkland at the edge of the village, seeing if I could find some clue, anything to justify getting this cold when I had my Charlton Heston moment.

I saw some surprisingly lush plants among the grasses which looked familiar. I picked the seed heads with my numb fingers and rubbed them. It was caraway.

This is what was left of all the activity that took place here a century and a half earlier, keeping golfers in Scotland happy and dinner parties flatulence free.

I had a quiet moment of contemplation on what traces of our civilisation may remain after we are long gone. I popped a few seeds into my pocket and allowed the rest to fall from my cold, dead hands.

Then I went to the village shop. I bought some smoked river fish and rye bread. There was a row of spirits behind till and I asked if they sold kümmel.

They didn’t.