While in Belfast earlier this year, I noticed that only a small minority of tourists in the region were British. It’s easy to understand why – growing up in the 1990s I have vague childhood memories of ‘The Troubles’ on the news, of the bombings by the IRA and its fractions in England, and Gerry Adams’ pre-hipster beard – none of which screamed travel hotspot. But it’s actually this rich, if complicated, political history that makes Northern Ireland such a surprisingly fascinating destination. This is most apparent when exploring West Belfast, an area divided by Protestant and Catholic quite literally by the ‘Peace lines’ walls. Up to 25 feet in places and collectively miles long, since The Good Friday Agreement these have been used as a place for artists to express local and international political discourse and human rights.
I’m very spoilt for street art living in Shoreditch, probably one of the most densely graffitti’d neighbourhoods in the world. But like many I am still drawn to seeking out destinations where the walls are used as a canvas to tell local stories or the best of international artists. In many parts of South East Asia interest in the medium is growing side by side with millennials who spent their teens embracing music and subculture. While there are a few great spots in the region to see this, Georgetown is the best example of street art being embraced citywide, not just in one neighbourhood. The capital of Penang island in Malaysia, Georgetown is a small hop of a flight over from Kuala Lumpur, or even Melaka which was the route I took.The island is known for it’s mixture of colonial shop fronts, clan jetties and vibrant modern life.
Sitting on a non-descript suburban road in Walthamstow is one of London’s greatest gems – God’s Own Junkyard, a cavern of neon signs comprising of the biggest collection outside of North America. Owned and run by artist Chris Bracey up until his death last year, the large warehouse showcases both his own work as the country’s foremost neon sign maker and other collected signs from across the country.
Sometimes taking a wrong turn takes you to the right place. While I was exploring Portovenere during my recent trip to Cinque Terre, I stumbled upon the a most serene and beautiful cemetery. The site sits on the hilltop by the base of the city’s castle facing out across the water.I never know quite what the right approach is to take in places of local religious significance and mean no disrespect by sharing photographs – for me this was a place of utter calmness, a place to go to reflect on the beauty of the surroundings and escape from the crowds of Liguria.
On a suburban street away from the seafront in Margate is a mysterious place of unknown age and origin. The Shell Grotto, on Grotto Hill, is a subterranean passageway discovered in 1835 decorated in 4.6 millions seashells. These shells are arranged in ornate mosaics combining floral motifs within the walkways and more geometrical patterns within the ‘alter room’ at the end of the tunnels. The mosaics are made from a variety of different shells including locally occurring mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters. The bulk of the ‘background to the design is however made of flat winkle, rarely found locally and in closest abundance near Southampton. This adds to the intrigue of the origins of the grotto – multiple theories circle from being a pet project of a Victorian dandy to millennia old religious site, with Freemasonry in between.
The passageway meets centrally as a circular portal to the sky, lined with layers of shells spiralling to the light.
The passageways end in the rectangular ‘alter room’ where shrine like plinths are decorated in geometric and star shaped mosaic designs.
Along with the Grotto itself, the adjoining gift shop is well worth a visit. Shells of all kinds are available, along with sea themed gifts, jewellery and homeware.
The Shell Grotto is one of the most serene and magical places I’ve been to; the intricacies of the mosaics would make this a top tourist attraction if it was in one of the country’s major cities – it’s existence is almost unbelieveable. I can’t think of a better way to spend £3.50!