K is for Kensington

K is also for knackered as I’m bushed after the last three days and a very long journey home.  As my alarm goes off, I seriously consider postponing K.  But I am devoted to my loyal readers (both of you) and so I lever myself out of bed.  Actually, that’s only one consideration.  If I don’t go today, I’ll have to go tomorrow or Sunday – and as there’s a small wedding going on in Windsor this weekend I suspect the railway station will be slightly crowded.  I’m also meeting two of my friends today, so I’d be changing the arrangements for all three of us.  So, suitably attired and with a very heavy pack on my back I head off for Slough station.

Before I get there, I thought I’d better mention why I chose Kensington – after all, it’s not exactly a long way from home.  Firstly, I wanted an easy one after Jersey – especially as I have a busy next week with L – N.  Secondly. I haven’t been to the Natural History and Science Museums for a very long time – and I used to love them.  That’s why my friends are coming with me as well – they also have fond memories of both and wanted to see what they were like now.  (To make things easier I will give my friends names – John and Janice.  These are clearly not their own names, but subtle pseudonyms chosen to obfuscate their identity.)

I should also mention why my pack is so damned heavy today.  Tonight I am going to John and Janice’s house for our weekly (when we can all get together) gaming night.  Before you start to worry about us and sign us up for Gamblers Anonymous, I will explain that this is for table-top role-playing gaming.  The game that we are playing is called Deadlands – if you are interested, here is a link to a site about it.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadlands.  All you really need to know is that the rule-books are many, heavy and several of them are in my backpack.

So, I stagger off to Slough station.  Getting there I realise that it is less than 12 hours since I was last here.  The major change is that now it is packed with commuters – none of whom have the slightest interest in anyone else as they focus on getting to their train.  As a result, I begin to get irritated as I get bumped, barged, pushed and blocked by a variety of people most of whom seem to have a mobile phone welded to their ear.  When the train finally arrives, it is already crowded and I end up standing.  I do see a seat – but the woman in the seat beside has cleverly used my own tactics of a coat, bag and sullen attitude to keep it clear.  Tipping my baseball cap to her fine use of my own methods, I remain standing and try to read my book.  Today’s book is The Memory of Fire by Holly Lisle.  (A fantasy novel.  Pleasant but generic.)

My attempt to read my book are disturbed by the two young women directly in front of me who are loudly gossiping about people they know and what happened last night.  One is clearly surprised and let’s out a long, drawn out “Whaaaaaaat?”  I’m staggered.  I thought only cliched TV teenagers did that.  At that moment, the train stops at Langley and they leave along with a large number of people of similar age.  I realise they are probably going to Langley College – so the whole brain-dead moron routine makes a lot more sense.  The good news is I can now grab a seat, though I am uncomfortable with my heavy pack on my lap and having to read around it.  But I manage.

Rather than heading for Paddington, I change at Ealing Broadway which allows a gentle stroll across the platform and onto the tube.  The District Line (unlike the Spiral line) remains as it has since I used to travel regularly on it 30 years ago and I soon find myself heading upstairs at South Kensington.  I am (as ever) early, so I head outside and stand in the sun with a cup of coffee and a muffin.  It’s very pleasant – especially as I have that smug feeling of watching other people who are clearly on their way to work.  I finish my breakfast in a leisurely fashion and head back into the station.  John and Janice arrive at almost the same time and we head down the pedestrian tunnel to the museums.

I can remember walking down the street and seeing the buildings come into view and am disappointed that we won’t be doing that.  However, the tunnel ends in good time to get an excellent view as we approach the Natural History Museum.

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I recall this building being blackened with grime, so it’s good to see that it has been cleaned.  The entrance is still as impressive as I remember it.

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Inside is the cool gloom that I remember and the echoing sounds of other people.  This is somewhat marred by the most cursory security check ever (am I invisible?) and a barrier that forces you to walk right past the person asking you to give a voluntary donation.  My innate stubbornness kicks in at this point and I demur.  (It’s so rarely one gets the chance to demur.  I must look for more.)  To be fair, I will donate later on – just not when I’m being pressured to do so.

The first hall you come into (The Hintze Hall) is as impressive as ever, with the skeleton of a whale hanging from the ceiling.

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Around the sides are the skeletons of the things I really remember — and always wanted to see when I was here as a child – the dinosaurs.

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Initially, I’m elated — this is just how I remember it.  But as I think about it, I reckon the Museum is missing a trick.  I remember this huge space having the larger dinosaur skeletons in it — a truly impressive place in which to display them.  While the whale is amazing, it isn’t anything compared to the dinosaur skeletons.  Oh well, maybe they will be displaying them somewhere just as good.

Sadly not.  We head for the dinosaur galleries — as do most other people who come in here.  The galleries are set out in an educational way, with plenty of facts and background that is well balanced and instructive.  But is there something of value in the animatronic T-Rex?

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Apart from the way it scares small children (always a bonus), I would have preferred just a skeleton.  Due to the way the gallery is laid out, the larger skeletons are either above the main concourse, or alongside walls, so you can’t get a true feeling of the scale of the creatures.  But when they do have the room, the display really works.

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We head out of the dinosaur galleries suitably satisfied and head into the rest of the museum.  And then we discover the problem faced by the Natural History Museum.  As we walk past a seated row of 8 people all engrossed in their mobile phones, we realise that apart from the dinosaurs, everything in the Museum can be found on the Internet — and in a better format.  What’s the point of looking at a stuffed tiger when you can watch one on Youtube or Netflix?  Technology has moved on to the point where the Museum is almost redundant.  That feeling stays with me as we continue our tour.

There are some areas where the Museum has worked hard to engage the visitor.  The Earth Galleries have a truly spectacular entrance and then have lots of displays that you can interact with – in much the way that the Science Museum used to.

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But here it’s clear that the money that they are asking for is definitely needed.  Lots of the displays show signs of wear and tear.  Several are blurred and faded and need replacing.  It’s actually a little sad.

As we have our lunchtime coffee and cake we discuss this and how the Museum’s priorities have changed.  It’s noticeable that there are now multiple gift shops and cafe’s – undoubtedly for convenience, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s also a way to get more money out of visitors.  (Yeah but do they have any bookmarks?  None that I could find.)  Somewhat disappointed, we head for the Science Museum.

Like the Natural History Museum, there is a lack-lustre security check.  This one does actually look in my pack — but seeing it’s full puts him off and he takes my word for it that I’m not carrying anything I shouldn’t.  The pressure to pay is even more intense here, with a much smaller passage to get past the people asking for a donation.  I demur again.

I remember bits and pieces about the Science Museum — mostly the amount of interactive exhibits, but also the impressive Foucault’s Pendulum set up just inside the entrance.  So I look for it.  And it’s gone.  Seriously?  This pendulum demonstrates the movement of the Earth.  It’s truly amazing.  And it’s gone.

Heading in, the first galleries all seem to be about transportation and feels more like going around a motor museum than a science museum.  While there is a developmental flow as you move through history and see the various modes develop, there’s no real interaction.  It feels very superficial.  Given the amount they could include, that is possibly the only way to deal with it but I would have liked something a bit more structured.  Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting.  It just started to get me thinking more about my aching knees and back than it did the science.

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As we progressed through the museum, we found several galleries and displays which included the interactive exhibits that I was looking for.  These are now more computer based than physical, but still engage and entertain — some more than others.  But all three of us are starting to flag, so we head out without seeing everything – but planning to return.  There is one vital stop – the gift shop.  After a good deal of hunting I manage to find a bookmark and gripping my prize triumphantly, we head out into the sunny streets.

In the end, they are still the best way to get a free day out in London!  Next week, I have three places to visit and I’m going to spend the weekend resting and preparing.

 

 

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J is for Jersey (aka the Real J)

And I’m off again!  Two days after the Fake J and I’m heading out to the Real J.  Let’s just clarify that for those people who complained that I was calling Plymouth “fake”.  This blog is the one I intended for J, Plymouth was just shoe-horned in as I was going there anyway.  Besides, how could you complain about being re-introduced to the delights of the National Express song?

Apparently some people can complain about that as it is a bit of an ear-worm.  I can attest to that as I am alternating between National Express and Prorsum Semper Honeste as I get myself ready to go.  To be fair, it’s not the worst ear-worm I’ve ever suffered from.  This is:

 

Anyway, I shall move on confident that you’ll now be stuck with that for days.  So I wrote up the last blog entry and got some great feedback from it which, naturally, encourages me to keep going.  Will you never learn?

Packing this time is a bit different.  I’m going by plane so decide to pack a small suitcase rather than relying on the backpack.  I then pack a smaller backpack inside the suitcase for use while I’m away.  Because that doesn’t seem weird at all, no Sir, it doesn’t.  Because a flight is involved, there is a deal more planning as I have to get a train, another train, check in and then get the flight.  I have planned everything to get me to the airport right at the start of check in to minimize waiting around.

So I get impatient and head off an hour early.  It’s sunny and warm, the baseball cap and shorts are on, the age-appropriate hoodie has been packed and I’m off to Jersey.  Why Jersey?  Well, I only really know two things about Jersey.  Number One: Bergerac

Number Two: Gerald Durrell

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerald_Durrell

Ok, to be fair I know more than that about Jersey because I know about the cows and the fact they were occupied during World War II and they have a knitted garment with long sleeves named after them.  (The last one could, of course, just be rumour but I couldn’t think of a third thing).  But when I think of Jersey, Bergerac and Durrell are the two things that spring to mind.  Why?  Well when I was young I read Gerald Durrell’s books avidly and always wanted to visit Jersey Zoo as he created it.  And Bergerac?  I think everyone of a certain age would agree with me that John Nettles gave us the finest travelogue inspired police show on television for many years.

So, with a desire to visit based on a TV series from the 1980’s and a set of books I read over 30 years ago I head off.  Clearly my vision of the island will in no way differ from reality.

The suitcase causes trouble from the get go.  Although it’s quite light, it’s still a pain to lug it along.  It does, however, have wheels and one of those little handles that allow it to turn into an Andy-tripping machine as I complained about in a previous blog entry.  I give this a go and then find out why everyone with these things walk so slowly.  If you move at any speed other than glacially slow, the stupid suitcase wobbles from side to side until it flips itself over and drags along the pavement like a recalcitrant child being taken to piano lessons.  So I give up and carry it.  I get to the station, grab my tickets and dive onto the train with seconds to spare (and the extra hour that I have due to being stupidly early).  My reason for using the suitcase, by the way, is so that it’ll be a bit more robust in the hold as I think it’s too big for hand luggage.

I settle down with todays book – Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  Another book that seems to be about the difference between generations that makes me think about the reunion I went to over the weekend.  It’s a good read and I am only occasionally disturbed by concerns about what I’ve forgotten to pack.

I arrive at Reading where I will have a 30 minute wait.  There are signs everywhere saying that Channel 5 are filming there – presumably a documentary about the least attractive train station.  I make up my mind to avoid that.  After my disappointment in Plymouth, I decide to test a pasty from the Lands End Pasty Company.  Not bad – 7/10.  Needs more meat and more seasoning, but definitely better than the Oggy Oggy disaster.  The pastry is marvellously flaky and for the next hour I am brushing them off my shirt, shorts, bag and Evelyn Waugh.

The train arrives and the normal scrum forms to get on.  Given the fact there are relatively few of us, I don’t bother to get involved.  It strikes me that I’m actually taking a very relaxed approach to the whole journey today – maybe the weather is affecting me!  The journey to Gatwick is all very civilized and as we pass through Reigate we get the constant companion of the North Downs to my left.  It’s all green fields and hills and under the sun is very pleasant indeed.  Gatwick, by contrast, is manic with people charging in all directions dragging suitcases and children behind them.  I still maintain a certain composure as I wander through to check in.  As I get there, I look at the frame you can use to see if your luggage is small enough to be taken into the cabin and, not really expecting it to work, drop my suitcase inside.  To my surprise it slides neatly down into the frame – it fits!  My elation is somewhat dashed when I realise that it fits almost exactly.  There is no handle on the upmost side of the suitcase and there is just enough room for me to slide a hand down each end of it and I have to push my hands together and grip it and then try to slide it out.  It takes a couple of tries before I get it out at which point I look up to see a middle-aged woman who has been watching me and is politely trying not to laugh.  Glad that I have made at least one person happy, I head to the check in where the very helpful lady takes one look at my height and moves me to an aisle seat.

So now I have 3 hours to waster before my flight goes.  I grab a coffee and carrot cake and sit watching four men who are clearly having a business meeting while they wait for their flight.  Chuckling to myself at my good fortune to be on holiday I wonder how long I should nurse the coffee before heading through for the fun of the security check.  I leave it about 45 minutes and head through.  Now, I last traveled by plane a year ago – and as far as I’m aware nothing has changed since then.  However, it’s now clear that my shampoo and deodorant will have to be dumped as 100 ml is the largest size allowed.  I dump them – but manage to ignore the 150 ml can of Ralgex,  I’m glad I hadn’t bought suntan lotion as they would just be something else to replace.  I head through to the gate where I have to stand on a line and look at a camera.  Which doesn’t like me.  At all.  After about 4 rejections, the security officer suggests I remove my cap and glasses.  I do so and get straight through.

Now the luggage gets scanned and I start to question some of the rules.  The iPad mini has to be put through separately, but my phone can stay in my luggage?  I don’t have to take my watch and Fitbit off – that’s a weird one.  The Ralgex catches me out, so my bag gets shoved to one side and opened – along with about half of the bags.  The customs officer looks at the Ralgex and replaces it, saying that it’s below the limit (which it clearly is not).  I sigh, accede and smile sweetly before heading through to the Departure Lounge.

Inside, they have taken a leaf out of Ikea’s book and you now have to take a long winding march through the Duty Free shops before getting to anywhere with seats.  Ignoring the “bargains” I head through and look for the Boots on the other side.  Boots are clearly aware that everyone will need to replace items, so they have deliberately hidden away all the 100 ml items.  They have also got a lot of offers on 200 ml items that make them cheaper than the 100 ml ones.  Hmm.  I’m not too impressed with their business model though I can see why they do it – gives them a chance to cash in twice.

So I then settle down with Brideshead to wait for the Gate to open.  I amuse myself for  a while listening to the couple sat opposite me.  I can’t work out whether they are speaking a foreign language, or whether it’s English but with a very strong accent.  By the time the gate opens I still haven’t made my mind up.  I head through the gate with everyone else to find myself in yet another queue.  This has another facial recognition machine — but this one doesn’t mind caps or glasses.  Or so I am informed after I have taken mine off and am trying to juggle suitcase, glasses, cap, book, passport and tickets.  Whatever.

Eventually I get onto the plane where thankfully I can stretch one leg out into the aisle.  It’s actually not too bad – until the man in front decides to bounce up and down on his chair, ramming it against my knees.  Luckily he stops and falls asleep.  But the flight is nice and short and remarkably quickly I find myself walking out of Jersey Airport.  I’m not sure whether to get a taxi or a bus, but my decision is made for me as a bus pulls up literally as I walk out of the concourse.  I head on and grab the front seat upstairs.  I’m glad I did – given the size of the roads the taxi wouldn’t have been much faster and I get a great view across the bay towards St Helier.  As a school colleague might put it, it’s quite a cerulean scene.

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It’s a beautiful day.  The accents on the bus are fascinating – a mixture of English and French and sometimes its difficult to make out what language is being spoken.  The roads are quite small and it reminds me a lot of the Isle of Wight.  A further similarity is the large number of bicycles and motorbikes being used.  Jersey is clearly well sorted for bikes and motorbikes, including making sure there is enough parking.

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I will later be assured that Jersey is renowned for politeness and courtesy – but my initial experience is not a good one.  The bus is full and the back of the top floor has got several schoolchildren in.  One has got quite the mouth on him and I (like everyone else) have noticed this due to his predilection for using some of the coarser of the Anglo-Saxon terms available to him.  I have to admit that it’s getting to the point where I was going to ask him to tone it down, but one of the other passengers does it for us.  Shame he’s had too much to drink himself.  It ends up with him swearing just as much as the kid did, slapping the phone out of the kids hand, the kid yelling that he is going to call the police, the man being thrown off the bus and general mayhem and excitement.  I did consider getting out my warrant card and calming things down — but then decided that I can’t evoke my usual air of authority while my knees are showing.  Also, I’m on holiday.  So sod it.

Despite that, I’m in a good mood as I get off the bus and navigate my way across St Helier to the Hotel Sandranne.  I’m glad I’m not driving as St Helier has a large and complex one way system which would guarantee confusion.  However, for a pedestrian it’s not a problem – especially as the drivers are all incredibly polite and keep stopping to let people cross the road.  It confuses me initially – we so rarely see politeness in Slough!

I dump my luggage and then head to Royal Square where I have an average dinner sat outside in cafe style.  I could almost be in France – especially as there are several conversations in French going on around me.  It’s very relaxing and pleasant and definitely a good start to my visit.

Day Two

So here I am at the Hotel Sandranne – which can at best be described as faded chic, and at worst be described as tacky.  The room is a good size, but the bed linen is all pink except for the duvet cover which is floral with ruffles.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ruffled duvet cover before.  The room has a trouser press (definitely old school) and a fridge.  Not a mini-fridge, a proper fridge which sits and hums quietly to itself all night.  My window has a delightful view of the backs of some houses and looks directly onto a flat roof, which does give me some security concerns.  There’s no welcome pack or anything like that and the Wifi password is grudgingly given out by the receptionist when I ask for it.  (Actually she puts it into my phone without telling me what it is).  However, the bed is comfortable and they do serve a passable full English breakfast.  At breakfast I can see that most of my fellow diners are workmen, two of whom seemed to spend all night sat on the front porch smoking.  I mention this as you don’t often see people in armchairs on the front porch of a hotel.  All in all, I feel the best days of the Hotel Sandranne are many years past.

As I head into the bus station I note the odd naming conventions of the roads in Jersey.  Some are English (Charing Cross, Broad Street), some are French (Rouge Bouillon, La Rue des Mielles) and some have 2 names — although unless my linguistic skills are seriously atrophied they are not direct translations:

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I am also somewhat confused by the naming of the road that the Hotel Sandranne is in — Rouge Bouillon.  As far as I can work out the road is called Red Soup.  I cannot imagine how it got that name.  Other names are easier to work out and as I get to the bus station I see some of the evidence of the pride that the residents take in their history.

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So, today I’m off to the Zoo.  Some may say that travelling to Jersey just to go to a zoo is a bit of a waste – but I really don’t care.  I’ve wanted to visit here for nearly 50 years and I’m really excited that I’m finally going to get there.  The zoo opens at 10:00 and after a chat with the very helpful customer service lady at Liberation Station I sort out which bus I need to catch.  We have a short chat which involves having to explain my shirt to her (Good grief, it’s like talking to a dolphin).  It turns out she is not a fan of the Big Bang Theory but she still gives me some good advice.  I have about 45 minutes to wait so head out to some local geocaches.  I find one that involves a revolving clock – but it doesn’t operate before 10 am so I’ll return to this one later today or tomorrow.

I return to the station where I pass the time by reading The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers.  This is meant to be a book of horror stories but after the first couple, it’s padded out with some very bland material.

The bus arrives and just before 10 am I arrive at Jersey Zoo.  The zoo is quite small – only 32 acres – but is very well designed and so seems much larger than it actually is.  All of the enclosures are large and so I send a lot of time trying to find the animals.   They are also remarkably well trained.  When I do find them, they always manage to turn away from the camera just as I take a photo.  However, I do catch a few of them out.

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The fun of the zoo is somewhat dampened by the arrival of some children – but they are actually quite well controlled and taken around in small groups rather than  a coach load at a time.  I have a really enjoyable wander and then head for the Dodo Restaurant where I am quite disappointed that they don’t serve any poultry at all.  I am very sensible and have soup….and because I’ve been sensible, I then have cake as well.  I then head out for part 2, including feeding time for the gorillas and the orangutans.

The feeding times are excellent as the keepers accompany them with some very informative talks about the animals and the way they are looked after.  It’s good to hear them talk as they both clearly care deeply for the animals they look after and talk about the work they do with them.  Really impressive.  This is definitely a zoo for people who don’t like zoos as the trust does a lot of good work around conservation.

On the way out I manage to resist buying a ton of books (I already have most of them, but it’s a book shop!) and I head back to St Helier happy in the knowledge that I’ve managed to tick something off my bucket list.  Back at St Helier I have a good wander around, firstly down by the sea front and then around the town.  The docks give some great views over the bay and to Elizabeth Castle.

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However, low tide does seems to have caused some parking problems for some people.

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In town, there is quite an array of artwork to look at.  Some is clearly to do with the liberation.

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Some celebrates the produce of Jersey.

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And some is just a bit random.

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While I was photographing this I asked a police officer what it was about.  He had no idea.  Though he said that it might be because the residents of Jersey are referred to as crapauds as Jersey is the only Channel Island that has any toads on it.  Sounds as good a reason as any, but doesn’t explain why the toad is on top of a column inscribed with the names of crimes.  This road also has a lot of insets on the pavement:

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I can only assume these are somehow related.

What it does mean is that a walk around the centre of St Helier is surprising and interesting.  I finish off the day with dinner at the Adelphi (http://www.randalls-jersey.co.uk/pub-guide/st-helier/adelphi-lounge/).  This was recommended to me by the lady at the Hotel Sandranne and is a very good meal.

I head back to my hotel and review the general hilarity and mayhem going on in the WhatsApp group that was created on Sunday.  It’s been a good day and I head to bed.

Day Three

My last day dawns and its farewell to the Hotel Sandranne – which overall gets a 4/10.  It’s still sunny today but chillier so I’m doing a bit of dodging between pools of sunlight to stay warm.  However, as it goes on it gets warmer and the age-appropriate hoodie gets left in the pack.  My flight is at 17:40, so I need to be at the airport by 15:40.  Because it’s me that means I’m planning to leave St Helier at about 14:00.  My first task is to dump my suitcase and get rid of any of the local currency that I’ve managed to accrue.

As I walk around, I notice that there are no high rise apartments in St Helier – nothing over about 6 stories.  So although there has been some development around the docks it doesn’t make a huge impact.  (I later do see some high rise blocks but they are far from the centre of town).  I leave my suitcase in Left Luggage and start off with some geocaches.  The first one takes me on quite a hike out of the centre of the town and into the St Saviour area.  From here there are some great views back over the town and I also find the grave of someone famous.

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Leaving Jersey Lillie behind, I head back into the centre of town and then head up to Fort Regent.

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Fort Regent looms over St Helier in the same way that Dover Castle does and as I climb up the steps towards it I’m expecting a similar experience.  Imagine my surprise when I get to the top and find that my options are a car park or the front entrance of an Active Gym.  I head inside and speak to the receptionist who confirms that this is the entrance to Fort Regent and I wander inside with a deal of trepidation.  Basically, the entire Fort has been converted into a leisure complex with a central area that is used for an arena (Sarah Millican is performing here in September, folks!)

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The central area has been covered and in the whole is billed as follows:

A dedicated children’s play area with PlayZone, arts &crafts, quad bikes, excellent café and free films every Sunday at 9:00 make this a fabulous family venue. Our fully equipment gym caters for all needs or why not have a quick game of table tennis or pool or join one the sports workshops and try something new. Visiting acts and local productions provide entertainment year round plus The View Bar offers amazing views over St Heller whilst you relax with a glass of wine or too.

I am in two minds about this.  One side of me says that it’s great that use is being made of a heritage site and that it is adding value to the lives of many people who would otherwise never use it.  It’s a very efficient way of using something that otherwise would be left to slowly ruin over time.  The other side just keeps yelling the words “Bloody philistines!” in my ear and after a while gets quite annoying.  Despite that, as time goes on my view tends towards the latter as I walk around a site that has existed for centuries and is now being set aside for pilates classes.  There are information panels that tell you about the history of the fort, but they are carefully put up so as not to offend the people who are here to improve their bodies.  In fact they are so carefully placed that some are difficult to find — and if a major event is on, you can’t get to one of them.  But I persevere and find an external walk that allows me to walk around the ramparts.

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There are some marvelous views across the bay and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

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I am massively disappointed and I head back into town.  My feet are aching which doesn’t help my mood.  As a result, when I see this sign I feel the need to mock.

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Oh really?  The best in the world, eh?  Well, we’ll see about that.

Bugger me, they might be right.  Superb pasty, right balance of meat and veg, good seasoning, great pastry.  I can’t fault it.  Buoyed up by that I get my exploring feet back on and see what I can find.  That includes the revolving clock that I missed out on yesterday.

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The clock has three scenes on it representing Finance, Tourism and Agriculture and it rotates on the hour.  As it rotates, the clock chimes and plays tunes and is, frankly, the tackiest thing I have seen in quite some time.  If you visit St Helier make sure you see it.  It is to fine clock making what the Eurovision Song Contest is to classical music.

In my wanderings, I find some more art and a maze which is half hedge, half fountain.

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It’s excessively entertaining watching someone try to get their child through the maze.  Suitable cheered by the site of other people getting wet, I head back to Liberation Station and board my bus back to the airport.

Today’s book is The Enormous Room by E E Cummings.  It’s the story of what happened when he was accused of treason when working as a volunteer ambulance driver in Paris during World War I.  It’s remarkably good, surprisingly funny and (even more surprising) he uses capital letters!

I get to the airport in good time and then have my usual wrangle with security.  This time the Ralgex is rejected and I point out (in vain) that it was allowed through on the way out.  This time security required watched and Fitbit to be removed.  The security guard is very apologetic –  I can’t really blame him though.

I manage to get an aisle seat on the plane again and we have an uneventful flight which gets us in 20 minutes early.  That’s just as well as it means I catch an earlier connecting train which gets me home an hour earlier.  But it still means that its 21:30 when I walk through the door.  I’m knackered and I wish I wasn’t doing K tomorrow.

J is for Janners (aka the Fake J)

And so, nearly a year after starting and 10 months since “I is for…” the journey continues with a trip that originally I wasn’t going to include on the blog.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term “Janners”, the definition is as follows:

janner. Proper noun. (UK, dated, slang) An English person born within ten miles of the sea. (UK, slang) Someone from Plymouth, (UK, slang) The accent and colloquialisms of such people used by the people of Plymouth.

I qualify as I attended Devonport High School for Boys between 1977 & 1980, and this weekend saw a reunion take place down in Plymouth.  Despite living in Plymouth on and off for 2 decades I haven’t actually been back there for 10 years – and only made occasional visits in the decade before that.  There are a variety of reasons for this, which I’m not going to go into in such august and delicate company.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to include the trip as J (the “real” J is planned for tomorrow) but on the first evening in Plymouth I really wanted to write down some things that had happened – and so, dear reader, you get inflicted with an extra blog entry of drivel!  To whet your appetite further, I can tell you that J (the second J) – N will be done over the next 2 weeks and will involve (hopefully) flights, cable-cars, swash-buckling, dinosaurs and undoubtedly some very annoying fellow travelers.  I know you can’t wait, so let’s get on.

Day One

So with some misgivings, a sense of excitement, an age-appropriate hoodie and enough books for 3 days, I head out into the early morning sunlight of Slough.  Misgivings? Many.  I’m off to spend some time with people that I haven’t seen for 37 years and none of them are from the group I used to spend time with.  So I’m not sure how things are going to go.  Apart from that, it’s a warm day even at 06:15 and the shorts are on ready for a good weekend.  I do, of course, forget the baseball cap and as a result I’m writing this with a decidedly red head.  Even the book is appropriate – Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.  It’s about the difference in attitude between generations and will gel nicely with conversations that I have over the next 2 days.

All starts well with a hike to the bus stop.  I sit down, store the rucksack and reflect on the rather odd journey I’m taking today.  When planning this trip I found that the train ticket was wildly expensive (£50 more than the cost of the flight I’ll be taking tomorrow!).  Car hire was similar and so I fell back on coach travel.  However, to properly start that I have to get a bus to Heathrow.  So, 45 minutes after leaving home, I find myself heading in the wrong direction and become possibly the only person to travel to an airport in order to catch a coach.

For once the people on the bus with me aren’t annoying enough to entertain, so I alternate Turgenev with checking where I am and as a result realise that the bus could do the journey in about 15 minutes, but instead stops absolutely bloody everywhere.  I also discover that my luggage is, apparently, fair game for anyone else to move around for their own convenience.  An American couple join the bus and want to put their suitcases in the storage area, so just move my rucksack and shove it onto a shelf.  I, naturally, say nothing and sustain myself by glowering at them and then return to Turgenev.  Little did I know this would be the start of a trend.

So we arrive at the glittering emporium that is the Coach Station at Heathrow.  I join the small sea of people that are waiting for coaches and, like them, start to stare at the Departures Board which seems to enjoy showing little but “Wait in lounge”.  I wonder whether it’s like a kettle and watching it stops it from changing.  Despite my attempts to will it to change, it doesn’t so I settle down to wait for the coach.  In some ways this is very familiar – I did the journey from Plymouth to London by coach a lot in my teens and twenties and very little has changed about it.

And for some reason, this tune keeps running through my mind:

 

..and that’s why sometimes I laugh softly to myself as I wait for the coach.

When the National Express coach finally arrives I’m a little disappointed that they don’t have trolley service on them any more – though it would have probably started me giggling, so it’s just as well they don’t.  However, the embarkation plan works.  As the time approaches, I lurk close to the doors and as soon as the coach is announced I’m off to ensure I get first in line.  And of course, I’m behind the people who already knew which bay the coach would be coming into and thwarted my cunning plan.  The next plan is to try and get the seats with some reasonable leg room, so having handed my rucksack to the driver I head inside.  Right at the back, conveniently directly opposite the coffin-like toilet I find the seats with the decent leg room and grab one, only to find that it might have leg room, but it certainly doesn’t have arse room.  This is going to be an uncomfortable journey – and unfortunately someone decides to sit beside me so a cramped seating position now becomes a decidedly painful one.  That’s OK though – it’s only a 5 hour journey.  One note here – while clearly I am wider than the normal passenger the pain is not solely my fault as after a couple of hours my traveling companion turns to me and says “These seats are a bit bloody tight aren’t they?”  He is considerably thinner than me, so I am somewhat comforted.  Comforted mentally but not physically – after half an hour I’m wondering what the best way to avoid DVT it.  I resist the temptation to look up symptoms as my mobile phone although I am regularly checking it as other people heading for the reunion are updating our Facebook group.  I’m momentarily distracted by the man in the seat in front of me who is very proud of the fact that he paid £2.40 for his ticket – so much so that he tells the people with him 4 times in 5 minutes.  I have the horrible feeling that he’s going to keep going for the next 5 hours.  Luckily his batteries run down and he keeps mercifully quiet.

As we head down the motorway, I dip in and out of Turgenev in the same way people dip in and out of a jar of Nutella.  No, sorry, that just doesn’t work.  We all know what happens with Nutella.  The first slice of toast gets covered with a thick layer of brown deliciousness, flecked with the occasional sliver of yellow from the butter underneath.  The second comes about five minutes later and this time the Nutella is roughly knifed on in peaks.  For the third we barely wait for the bread to be fully toasted before covering it in Nutella and for the fourth we use our fingers to smear Nutella onto barely warm bread before gobbling it down, leaving ourselves with chocolate-smeared hands, face and (bizarrely) elbows like some avant-garde performance artist demonstrating his piece called “Secret Shame”.

Which explains why I never buy Nutella.

Anyway, I dip in and out of Turgenev in the same way people dip in and out of … fuck it, provide your own simile.  Let’s just say the book isn’t gripping and isn’t helped by the extreme discomfort of the seat.  I am distracted a little early on as I look up and see us sweeping majestically past the hotel at the end of my road.  I check my watch and, yes, it’s just gone 9 o’clock and 3 hours since I left home I have gone nearly 400 yards.  The journey gets lengthened near Reading when, for no reason I can divine, the driver turns off the motorway and heads down to a Park and Ride area where he stops the coach for about 12.7 seconds before heading back again.  The main reason for doing this appears to be the chance for us to sit in a traffic queue before we get back onto the motorway.  The man beside me turns to me and says “That seemed a bit pointless” and I have to agree with him — though the reason becomes clear on my return journey.

Apart from this brief interlude and the increasing pain in my arse and thighs, the journey is relatively uneventful.  We seem to have a set of very low tolerance drivers because we change drivers twice.  I’m sure drivers used to just drive the whole journey and wonder if it’s some health and safety legislation (it isn’t, as I find out on the return journey).  We get a break at Tiverton Parkway and while I normally begrudge the stop as it delays the journey, I’m desperate to stretch my legs.  But before we get off, we get the rules:

  • 20 minutes only.  There will be a headcount taken and we will leave people behind if they are late
  • Do not bring hot food onto the coach
  • We can bring hot drinks on but only if they have lids on

I’m now wondering what the problem with hot food is?  What if the food is warm?  How about food that was hot, but has now cooled down?  Does the lid on the hot drink have to fit?  I am full of questions that I wisely do not ask the driver as he fixes with me with a baleful eye and I head off to buy cold food and a cold drink (because it’s still really warm here, not because I want to avoid testing the boundaries).

I give up on Turgenev and have a chat with the man next to me.  He’s also heading to Plymouth for a reunion – he served there in 1962 and is meeting up with a group of ex-servicemen and women.  We both have a good moan about the price of beer and I help him with the location of his hotel — somewhat marred by the fact that the Coach Station in Plymouth has moved since I went there last so I give him some massively bad advice.

Luckily I spot this error as we approach and I correct myself.  The coach station is now located just off Western Approach and as we approach it is clear that Plymouth is welcoming us in the best way it knows – to absolutely piss down with rain.  The Coach Station exterior has been designed with an eye to form and nothing to do with function.  It looks trendy and interesting but provides absolutely no protection against sun or rain.

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The whole area is on a hill so when it rains heavily (like now) a lovely river runs across it — which is where some prat has decided to deposit my rucksack.  As I’m last off the bus, it’s completely soaked – and in about 10 seconds, so am I.  I dart for the lack of shelter provided by the structure (it looks far more effective than it actually is) and get the age-appropriate hoodie out of the pack.  Slip it on, hood up and head out for the guest house.

I head off to Citadel Road and the George Guest House.  It’s wet and bloody cold and I wonder what the hell is going on — I thought it was meant to be warmer down here!  By the time I get there, I’m soaked and it’s a relief to get into the room that I’ll be staying in for 2 days.  I’m right on the Hoe, so I’m looking forward to a good view up to the War Memorial.  Instead I have a lovely view of the backs of some houses with the Guildhall in the distance.  My room is clearly in what used to be the attic, so I can only stand upright in half of it.  This promises to give exciting opportunities for smashing my head open.  But it’s clean and I make myself a coffee before putting on some dry clothes and heading out for the first element of the reunion – a trip around the old school.

I’m due there at 16:00, so naturally I give myself an hour to complete a journey that will take about 20 minutes.  On the way, I take a quick trip down memory lane and stop by one of the places I used to live.

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Yup, 45 years on and it’s still a dump.  As I get closer to the school it starts to drizzle, but I want to try and get a photo from across the playing fields.  As I try to find a spot, but am thwarted by the trees that have grown up since I went here, I see another man who seems to be doing much the same.  I suspect that he may be one of the people I’m here to meet – so typically I don’t go and say hello but head on to the school.  I get in there at 15:30 and he joins me a few minutes afterwards – so Stu Evans and I become the first people to get to the reunion.  (Bizarrely, we later realise that he and I live within 10 miles of each other).

Over the next 45 minutes there is a steady stream of people arriving.  It’s weird.  People walk in and I look at them and there is something about their face that is familiar.  A few I can put names to but most have to give their names.  We soon get over the embarrassment of asking and very quickly the Conference Centre is full of the sounds of chatter and laughter.  It starts what is to be quite a strange feeling across the next couple of days – it’s not sad, it’s not maudlin (except for Dave May’s poetry!), it’s not depressing, it’s happy but tinged with a bit of regret.  Part of that regret is undoubtedly for the time that has passed – but it doesn’t feel bad.  Instead it’s exciting to find out what people did and what they are doing now.  I find it quite jarring when I find that 4 people here joined the police after school and have all retired after 30 years in a job that I am still doing — and hell that really makes me feel old!

The journey around the school is fascinating.  Since we were there it has increased in size and taken over buildings that used to be used by another school.  So initially we’re all in unfamiliar territory.  But as we go on we head into areas that are familiar and we all get into conversations about which rooms we used to use for what subjects and realise that after 40 years some things are exactly the same.  The colonnade is exactly how I remember it.

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But I’ve got a mission while I’m here.  I was never sporty at school and so haven’t got the memories that a lot of the guys have – or the team photographs that have been shared over Facebook in the last few weeks.  I only did one thing while I was at school that should have been recorded – and I don’t know if it was.  I’ve meant to come back to school to find out multiple times since I left but never have – so now the time has finally come.  Typically, the Honour Board I’m looking for isn’t with the rest of them in the Sixth Form Centre, but there in the School Theatre is the proof that I did go to this school and that I got one thing right:

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I know it’s stupid, I know it doesn’t make any difference — but hell it matters to me!  (If you want to know about small things mattering, just ask Tim Hoy about Prefects.  Ask, then prepare to be talking for a long time.  You may need a drink.)

The guy showing us around is justifiably very proud of the school and is very patient with us.  The Sports Hall is amazing as well as the Learning Commons  (you and I would call it a library, but a previous head apparently thought it somewhere people could “graze” for knowledge.  Damn good job I didn’t meet him or there would have been a good deal of mocking!).  By the time we finish we’ve been there for 2 hours, the caretaker is very keen on us going and we head off to our next stop – the Walrus pub.

The Walrus has clearly been selected due to its ambiance rather than the fact that it’s right beside the restaurant.  Wait sorry I meant that the Walrus has clearly been selected due to its proximity to the restaurant rather than its ambiance.  It’s always nice to walk into a pub where the glare of the barman and the regulars makes it perfectly clear that they do not welcome strangers here.  Because its a local pub.  For local people.  The barman was clearly efficiently and effectively trained at the local undertaker school and is one of the few people I have ever met that allow me to use the word “lugubrious”.  He was joined by someone who looked remarkably like Rolf Harris and being children of the 1970’s we left rapidly.

The evening carried on with our dinner at Everest Spice – http://www.everestspiceplymouth.uk/.  A very nice meal and I can thoroughly recommend it.  Unless you’re sharing the room with 24 people on a school reunion which means you will be crammed against a wall and have to suffer a rendition of the School Song.  If you go there, try the Lamb Kathmandu.  It’s excellent.  Unlike the rendition of the school song.

The evening finished at The Bank – a slightly more up-market pub than the Walrus. Not difficult.  Sitting on a kerb drinking Stella would be more up-market than the Walrus.  Plans are made for tomorrow.  We have our formal reunion in the evening, but a group is heading out to the Plume and Feathers and Dave Ware offers me a lift.  So with plans made, I head back to the George.

Day Two

I’m in the only B&B on the planet that doesn’t do breakfast.  I sleep fitfully – nothing to do with the alcohol obviously, and I’m up by 08:00 to start exploring Plymouth.  It’s sunny so the shorts are back on though it’s still chilly enough for me to put the hoodie on from time to time.  As I’m right beside the Hoe, that’s where I head – and it’s as fantastic as I remember.  As I head up to the Hoe, the familiar shape of the War Memorial rises in front of me.

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I head past the memorial to the statue of Sir Francis Drake and then across to Smeaton’s Tower.

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The Hoe has a ton of memories for me and, as an extra bonus, a couple of geocaches as well – so I tag them while I’m here.  After a good wander around here I decide to head into town and grab some breakfast.  As I’m in the West Country it seems only right to grab a local delicacy so I pick something low calorie and carbohydrate free.

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The particular one if provided by the Oggy Oggy Pasty Company who claim to serve “Pasties to Shout About!”  I will happily shout about the pasty I had.  Half of it was empty.  The other half was well filled, but seemed to have no seasoning whatsoever.  The meat was cooked to a temperature similar to the surface of the sun and as a result I still have a burnt tongue.  The main taste was that of the pastry – which was burnt.  2 out of 10.

After my disappointing pasty, I continued my exploration of the centre of Plymouth.

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Some things are new like this statue outside St Andrews Church, some are old like this place:

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This used to be the Drake Cinema and is the place where I saw Star Wars (the original one!).  Quite sad to see it this way.  But not quite as sad as when it becomes clear that Dave Ware has forgotten his promise from last night and I am left to fend for myself.  Which actually isn’t a huge problem.  I spend several hours wandering around Plymouth, taking in the Barbican, Sutton Harbour and the University campus.  It’s a really interesting day.  The Barbican is in the middle of Pirate Weekend which seems to be an excuse for children to hit each other with plastic swords and for people to play the Pirates of the Caribbean theme at high volume.  But the Barbican itself is still charming with its’ narrow cobbled streets.  Some things have been let go – the Plymouth Mural is now a sad remnant of what it used to be.

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Other places were always there, but I had never found them before now.  I walked past the strangely named “Drake’s Place” for years without knowing it was there but it has now been turned into a very attractive park.

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And some things are new.  The University campus is completely new and really well put together and there are signs of new builds that are appearing everywhere – and some buildings here are quite striking.

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Walking down the streets behind the Hoe, the whole place gives a feeling of shabbiness.  It looks exactly the same as it did when I lived here and doesn’t seem to deserve the sobriquet of “Britain’s Ocean City” that is on all the tourist signs.  But all the guest houses are full, so clearly something is working.  I want to get a photo looking down Armada Way as you used to be able to get a clear shot from the War Memorial right to the other end of the shopping centre – but the trees have now grown up and obscure it.  Annoying to photograph but actually is great for the town as it breaks up the buildings in a very pleasant way.  My feelings about coming back here were mixed but as I explore old stamping grounds I fall in love with Plymouth all over again.

And so on to the final event in a function room of Porters in Looe Street.  Twenty or so people in their 50’s all drinking (well most of us drinking).  What could possibly go wrong?  Luckily nothing does.  It is a really good evening renewing old friendships and hopefully making some new ones.  There is obviously a lot of nostalgia and a huge amount of laughter – and of course a final rendition of the school song (there is a video of it, but I won’t inflict that on you).  We end up at gone midnight eating a greasy burger on the Barbican and then go our separate ways.

It’s an odd feeling.  Do we wish we were all 18 again?  I’m sure we do but more than that what I got was a sense of accomplishment, of maturity and of people who had done some amazing things.  Some of the guys have traveled huge distances to get here – Australia, New Zealand, California.  One even had to get permission to leave Liverpool to attend.  On the previous night Paul Woods had asked me if I would change anything about my life.  On the whole, I have to say that I wouldn’t and that’s the sense I get from everyone here.  My only regret is that I didn’t get to see their stories as they developed rather than having such a huge gap in the middle.  We have all promised to keep in contact and meet up again – I hope we do.

Day Three

Blazing sunshine again and it actually feels warm today as well.  I have a lot of mixed feelings this morning which is a mixture of reaction to last night and the looming fear of a painful journey home.  I sit in Costa coffee drinking a remarkably bland cappuccino and posting on the reunion forum.  As I do, I can’t get “Prorsum Semper Honeste” out of my head and at one point I realise I’m humming it quite loudly.

Leaving before people complain, I head towards the Coach Station, pausing to snap a picture of the sundial…which is wrong by an hour.

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As Graham Prisk sets up a WhatsApp group for us I make a half-hearted attempt to get the coach driver to fake a breakdown on the M4 and thus shorten my journey by 3 hours.  He doesn’t go for it.  At least this time I’m alone in my double seat, so I have a pleasant journey back buoyed up by memories of a great weekend and by my current book: The Ring of Thoth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It’s a book of short stories and it gets finished before I get home.

So J is for Janners is done.  The “real” J awaits.

 

 

 

I is for the Isle of Wight

Once upon a time, there was a plan.  And the plan was looked at, checked for internal flaws and scrutinized mightily.  And, Lo, the plan was good.

Which was why I decided to abandon it completely in July and head for my 9th destination.  The original plan was simple.  The first 8 places had been visited and I had some leave booked for September.  In September, I would try and cover I – M and then have a break until May next year.  However, in July I had managed to accidentally take a week off work (yes, it was accidental and involved changing jobs after having booked 2 days leave to make sure I could go to my own leaving drinks).  In the spirit in which my journeys had started, I didn’t want to waste my leave so I checked the weather and booked my train ticket to the Isle Of Wight.

To say that my journey started badly was a bit of an understatement.  Having packed my faithful age appropriate hoody and baseball cap as well as a suitable book or two, I was clearly ready and strode out on the usual walk to the station.  My good mood was immediately foiled by the weather which was miserable with spotty rain and the sort of low, looming cloud that promises more rain to come.  On the way to the station, I stopped at the bank to top up the £80 in my pocket, only to have the machine refuse to give me any money.  I then got to the station to find that my train was delayed and I was going to miss my connection.

I then spent an entertaining 30 minutes on the platform at Slough on the phone arranging to have my overdraft extended.  You see, I’d booked my guest house online and was pretty sure that the £54 had to come out of the money on my pocket.  As a result, I was very keen to get the overdraft sorted.  I have to credit the lady I spoke to.  Despite the repeated interruptions of passing trains, it all got done and I put my phone away in a much better state of mind.  Though, of course, still a bit worried about the state of my finances.

Now I could try and sort out my journey.  My original train was still on its way, but it was so late that when it turned up it was better to ignore it and wait for the fast train in 10 minutes time.  This seemed completely counter-intuitive, but the surprisingly helpful staff suggested it – and were correct.  I was still going to miss my train at Reading.  I sit down on the platform and take out todays book – The Complete Stories of Saki.

Saki’s dry humour can do little to settle me down.  I hate being late.  As a result of which, I am usually at least 30 minutes early.  I decide that at my funeral, instructions will be given to bring the casket in 30 minutes late, just so the handful of people who bother to turn up can understand how I’ve felt for most of my life.

I am further unsettled by the gaggle of Japanese tourists waiting for the connecting train to Windsor.  While I watch them taking selfies (who on earth would want a selfie on Slough station?) I wonder what the collective name for Japanese tourists is.

Despite me willing the train to travel faster than normal, I miss the connection at Reading by 10 minutes and have to spend another 20 minutes at this delightful edifice.  My connection to Southampton is at platform 7b, though after my experience on the journey to Avebury I avoid the delight of the purgatorial waiting room.  Sitting down, I try to check the rest of the details of the journey and am so engrossed in it, that I completely fail to notice my train arriving.

Boarding the stealth train, I find that for some reason they have decided to refrigerate the carriage and somewhere between Basingstoke and Winchester I give up the fight and put the hoody on.  As I stare outside at the relatively warm English countryside I reflect that so far this journey has been a particularly poor one.

At Southampton I have a bus ride to get to Town Quay.  I’m actually at Southampton in time to get the original ferry — I’m just not at the right part of Southampton!  The way the whole journey is done is actually quite efficient.  The ticket I bought takes me from Slough to Cowes and covers 2 trains, 1 bus and 1 ferry.  I’m suitably impressed – though I can’t really concentrate on that as I’m still smarting at missing my original ferry.  The good thing is that the sky is clearing and things are much warmer – though that might just be the reaction from leaving the refrigerated train.

At Town Quay, I’ll be catching a Red Funnel Line ferry.  Although it’s very difficult to catch a glimpse of them, I spot a picture of one and immediately realise that they seem to have a mild misunderstanding as to the meaning of the word funnel.

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So I join the queue for the Red Keel Line ferry.  The queue works in the way all queues work.  People stand in line.  Those who arrive early (like myself) are near the front and everyone else queues up behind them.  I have gone to the effort of explaining this as clearly one person was unfamiliar with the concept.  Having heard some excited conversation behind me I looked up to see an old lady dragging a younger man behind her and forcing her way past people.  Several people complained, at which point she fixed them with a withering glare and pointed her wizened finger at a small child stood about 10 places ahead.  She was familiar with a system where you sent someone ahead to save you a place and then you swept past everyone when you could be bothered to turn up.  By the time she got to what she clearly considered Her Place, the man with her and the child were both beetroot red with embarrassment and I was chuckling quietly to myself.  I didn’t really care as she hadn’t tried to pass me.  If she had, I would have been on her like a ninja.  By which I mean, I would have tutted loudly and fixed her with my commuters stare in the hope that she didn’t turn me into a toad.

After the mild amusement in the queue, we eventually get onto the ferry.  I find, to my disappointment, that there is no open-air seating and I grab a seat as close to the front as I can.  The ferry is a catamaran and looking at the seat belts on all the seats, I wonder at how rough the crossing can get.  The ferry is rather excitingly named Red Jet 4 – but I suspect that the crossing will be tame.  As the engines start, the deep sound and reverberation throughout the ferry make it clear that they are quite powerful given the size of the vessel so I might be in for a surprise.

I’m not.   The whole feeling is of an engine desperate to be let free from its constraints.  It’s a shame, but the measured voyage down Southampton Water and into the Solent does give me the chance to have a good look around.  It’s a busy stretch of water with a huge contrast between the tiny romantic sailing vessels darting around and the huge, blocky container vessels that look as though they were designed by a particularly unimaginative Lego architect.  There’s too much salt on the side windows to get any decent photographs and the signs everywhere forbidding us from standing up prevent me from trying to get some out of the front windows.  The reason for the signs become clear as we emerge into the Solent and the catamaran lurches from side to side.  I don’t bother to hide a grin when this happens.  I love boats!

As we get off the boat, we walk up past the queue of people waiting to get on.  In the queue is a police officer heading back to the mainland.  I had heard that they had to travel to and fro rather than being based on the island, but had never really believed it.

For the first time today, timing has worked in my favour.  I had decided to head out to The Needles today and in order to do that I have to get a bus to Newport and another one the rest of the way.  The bus I want is stood waiting and I dart on board.  Things are looking up.

Or are they?  Halfway to Newport we hit a traffic jam.  From the increasing strident muttering on the bus, I gather that this is an unusual occurrence.  I initially think that this will be a short queue, but it goes on…and on….and on.  You can tell it’s bad when we catch up and overtake an earlier bus.  My chances of getting to the Needles seems to be getting slimmer.

Eventually we get to Newport.  To describe Newport as a two-horse town would invite the question “where do you stable the second horse?”  We approach down it’s only dual carriageway – which lasts nearly 200 yards.  Staggered from such a display of modern road building, I get off at the bus station and join the queue for the No 7 which will take me the rest of the way.  The weather by now is much better – warm and sunny though with a strong breeze.  I get on and head upstairs and sit as near the front as I can get.  As we pass an Iceland, I tag myself on Facebook — just for the people who had guessed it as my destination for I.

We head out of Newport a different way and the character is completely different.  The roads are smaller and the houses more cottage like.  As we get out of the town, the character of the island becomes apparent and I start to relax and enjoy myself.  The roads are narrow with farmland either side and the occasional small village.  The roads are also clearly not built with modern vehicles in mind and the bus is way too big for them.  On several occasions, I look at the potential roads the bus will go down and gape with disbelief as it somehow managed to fit itself into the tiniest gap possible.  For a moment I wonder if I have somehow got onto the Night Bus.

As we drive along the shrinking lanes, I can see lots of signs for foot and bike paths and I think it would be far better getting around like that rather than squeezing a bus along what is often a single track road.  As we progress, the Solent opens out to the right and I get some great views across to the mainland.

Arriving at Alum Bay is initially a disappointment.  The bus stops beside an area of shops which is the entrance to a fairground and has all the subtlety and tackiness of Disneyland.  I hope the rest of my visit won’t be like this and head uphill, walking through a coach park so large that it has a small oasis at the halfway point.  By now, I am a bit disheartened and I am convincing myself that the Needles are going to be a disappointment.  Past the coach park I follow the signs for the Needles up a steep road.  I’m happy that I can relatively easily outdistance the family that is heading up as well, and stride out as the road comes out of a little wooded area.  Ahead of me the road goes along the clifftop and the Solent is blue and attractive to my right.  As I head up, I can see down into Alum Bay and the fairground pales into insignificance in comparison to the cliffs.

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The wind is still bracing and as I head up the cliff top. I can see a kestrel using the wind to hover in place.  It’s amazing.  It’s not moving at all, just rock solid in position.  Until I raise my phone to take a picture and the damn thing flies off.  Typical.  But even the camera-shy kestrel can’t do anything to dampen my mood.  Walking up this hill has bouyed up my spirits.  The countryside and the views are fantastic and I feel enlivened.  I head on towards the Old Battery and the Needles.

I had worried that the Needles wouldn’t look good from the land, so I was ready for a bit of a disappointment.  I was very wrong.  Even if you don’t go into the Old Battery (a National Trust site) you can still get a great view of the Needles and the surrounding cliffs.  I loved it here.

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I have a great time wandering around here and then head up the southern cliff towards Tennyson Down.

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It really is remarkably beautiful here.  I love mountains and cliffs and this place really appeals to me.

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I head up past the old rocket testing area and onto the Tennyson Down.  It’s remarkably secluded here and as I walk along the top of the Down, I only see two other people.  The sense of seclusion is amazing.

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I’m tempted to walk all the way along the Down to the Tennyson Memorial, but good sense prevails and I head off the Down and back towards Disney.  As I’m heading down through the interminable coach park, I can see a bus parked up and have a terrible fear that it’s the bus I want.  I start rushing down towards it and get there before it leaves — and then find it’s not my bus anyway.  Mine is nowhere to be seen, so I head into one of Disneys souvenir shops to get myself a bookmark.  Typically, as I’m stood in the queue my bus arrives.  Now, as there is only one person in front of me this should not be a problem.  However I had not reckoned with the glacially slow performance of Sommer.  She seemed at one point to be deliberately taking as much time as humanly possible, and when she finally finished with the person in front of me I virtually threw my money at her.  Despite her, I managed to get to the bus on time and headed upstairs again only to find that a mother and her two delightful children had already taken the front seats.  I felt quite sorry for the mother as she was trying to be upbeat while her children were clearly not enjoying themselves.  Their main complaints were that they had been made to walk and look at “a load of rocks that will still be there in 1000 years”.  Little shits.

My journey back to Cowes is relatively uneventful.  The moaning children settle down and are engrossed on their phones throughout the journey.  After I change buses at Newport, I am mildly amused by two teenagers who are sat beside me discussing their workout routines and the fact that they are both getting “hench”.  It’s difficult not to laugh when they get off and have the same level of musculature as Jack Skellington.

It’s been a long day, and I have a pleasant surprise when I get to The Caledon Guest House.  One thing I should have mentioned already, is that their customer service is great.  I booked through a generic site, and was quite surprised when the GH emailed me the next day to make sure I had their phone number and to confirm my time of arrival.  I had told them that it was varying dependant on what I did.  During the day, they had texted me to confirm what time I would see them.  So by the time I got there, I felt welcomed already.  They aren’t cheap – I was paying £54 for a room without an en-suite bathroom (although I did get a free upgrade to an en-suite).  The coffee machine in the rooms was amazing!  Seriously.  The room overlooked a road, but was so comfortable that I didn’t care.  It was a great and relaxing end to the day.

Except, of course, I had to go out to get some dinner.  Given the parlous state of my finances, I wanted to find somewhere cheap – and that’s when I found out that the concept does not exist in Cowes.  After settling for a beer and a burger and chips I expected to pay a lot less than £18!  I headed back to the GH a bit worried about money again.  I now had £60 in my pocket, £54 of which was for the GH!.

The next day I got up and found that the Caledon does an excellent breakfast — a good job, as I wasn’t going to be able to afford lunch!  I then tried to pay my bill, and found out that they had already taken the money out of my account when I booked the room.  So, with more money in my pocket than I expected, I headed out to explore Cowes.

I started off by heading for Northwood House which sits in the centre of a very attractive little park.  The weather, which had turned sunny yesterday, has stayed the same and it warms up very quickly.

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I then head down and walk out of Cowes along Egypt Esplanade.  I have no idea what the connection to Egypt is, but it’s a very enjoyable walk with some great views across the Solent.

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After a couple of miles, I turn around and head back into Cowes.  The town reminds me of a lot of the working towns in Devon and Cornwall.  The streets are narrow and twisting and parallel the shore and you only get glimpses of the sea between them once you get back into the town itself.  This gets a bit frustrating and I’m glad that I’ve had such good views of it already today.

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Before I leave, I head down to the excitingly named “Floating Bridge”.  I am filled with expectation and excitement.  What will it be?  Is it a pontoon bridge?  Is it suspended from a giant dirigible?  No, it’s a car ferry.  With a mental noie to send a letter to the Torpoint Ferry about a new marketing opportunity, I head back for my Red Keel Line trip home.  I have really enjoyed my fleeting visit here and I will definitely return.  Next time, I shall seriously consider bringing my bike and seeing if I can circumnavigate the island.

The journey back is uneventful – except for another person who feels that the queueing system is beneath them.  It must be something in the water!

So, that’s it for the moment.  My next journeys will not be until May next year, so I hope you can control your excitement until then.

F is for Farnham Castle

..and also for Friday and the Final Day (for the moment).

I got up very early as the Election was yesterday and I wanted to see what state the country was in before I headed out.  Turns out it was far more interesting than anyone had imagined.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the early morning coverage with a variety of MPs and political commentators saying that this was exactly what they expected to happen – despite the fact they had been predicting an electoral disaster for Labour only days before.  I was confused that some found it odd that the UKIP voters seemed to have gone over to Labour.  Seeing as most of them came from Labour 2 years ago, isn’t it logical they would head back to the same place?

It was extremely funny watching a Conservative politician state that Theresa May needs to “consider her position” and then deny that she had said it or meant that Mrs May was in any way weakened.  Great what people will say when sleep-deprived at 04:30.  I’m still unsure what’s going to happen and what will happen with Brexit.  But well done Mr Corbyn.  (Of course, I now know that Mrs May has shown that some people will do absolutely anything to stay in power including spending £1.6 billion of public money to do so.  That tiny sound you can hear in the background is the remains of her credibility exiting stage left.)

But on to more light-hearted things and we return to me, sat on Slough station, early as ever and with the first cappuccino of the day.  I have no idea how much I’ve spent on coffee in the last two weeks, but I have been receiving letters from a small plantation in Colombia where I am apparently helping to divert children from gang culture.  Having assisted in the moral uplift of a Central American country I settle down with my coffee and my book because I am, surprise, surprise, early.

Todays book is still Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.  Apparently this is a comedy.  It’s a comedy in the same way Deadpool was a laugh out loud comedic extravaganza.  (Yes, I know lots of people liked it.  No, I am not one of them.)

I reflect on the last 2 weeks, the aching legs, the coffee highs, the chafing in somewhat intimate areas (solved by buying a pair of briefs from the delightfully named Runderwear), the frustrations of travelling and the drivel I am now foisting on the Internet.  So far only a couple of people have been told about the blog – and so far no-one has been rude about it.  So time to open it up to a wider audience.  I’ll update it with D-H over the next couple of weeks (which has turned into a couple of months) and I plan to complete I-M in September.  (That plan changed – I’ll explain more in I is for…)  I’ve already decided where I, J and K are – L and M are a little more elusive.

It’s very noticeable that there are a lot fewer people around today and people are noticeably subdued.  I can’t work out whether this is because they were up late watching the election or it’s just the usual Friday ennui.  This was clear even when I was walking to the station and 4 police cars belted past me all on blue lights – and each with a single police officer in.  Clearly the result of a new single-crewing policy which is excessively dumbarse and will result in someone getting killed.

Looking ahead, I have a complex journey today with changes at some odd sounding stations.  The first train is to Reading (the people there are very odd) and then I head to North Camp and Ash Vale.  For some reason the latter sound more like somewhere in Mordor.  So I nervously finger the ring in my pocket, wrap up my lembas (actually flapjack) and head off on my lonely journey.

When the train gets into North Camp, I am greeted by appropriate weather.  Or what would be appropriate if I were in India in monsoon season.  I nip into the shelter on the platform to be joined by 3 other people who, like me, are rummaging in bags to get out suitable attire.  Eschewing traditional weatherproof clothing, I slip on the age-appropriate hoodie in the knowledge that I have 25 minutes to walk the mile between the two stations.  I am confident this will be enough as the clouds are broken by a patch of bright blue which is getting both closer and larger and already is big enough to make a pair of sailors trousers.

One of my fellow passengers is not happy.  She, like me, booked her ticket through the Trainline.  She, unlike me, didn’t bother to look at the breakdown and did not realise there was a bit of a walk involved.  She is grumbling a lot and is not calmed when I inform her that the Trainline actually points out there is a walk between the two stations.  She is also not too savvy and ignoring the explanation about the sailors trousers, she heads off into the torrential rain.

I, more wise and considerably more smug, wait 5 minutes.  Then my natural impatience takes over and despite the fact that the rain hasn’t completely stopped I head off as well to traverse the Emyn Muil.  The way is clear and straight – and completely unsullied by the grumpy woman.  I am concerned that there are some deep puddles and half expect to hear a cry of “I’m melting! I’m melting!” from somewhere ahead.  I hear nothing so I head off and soon reach Ash Vale, and she turns up about about 5 minutes later.  I have no idea where she went, but clearly she managed to find a much longer route than the one I took.  She treats me with a withering stare and I feel the paint on the wall behind me peeling off.  I, of course, am immune as in my pocket is the One Ring, so I just smile & go back to Virginia Woolf.

The weather is timing things perfectly.  As the train to Farnham arrives, the sun comes out completely drenching the area in light.  Then as the train arrives at Farnham it buggers off and I just get drenched instead.  Farnham Station is on the unoriginally named Station Hill and as I shelter in the station, I watch two small rivers running down the road.  Luckily, it is just a heavy shower – but it’s not alone and as a result I spend much of my visit sheltering from the elements.

Farnham does not impress on a first viewing.  Nowhere looks good in torrential rain, and the scenic crossing of a dual carriageway to get into the town itself does not help.  But as I head into Farnham, I find myself liking the town.  There is very little of the modern glass and steel buildings that are seen virtually everywhere else.  Just walking down the main street there are some interesting buildings.

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The approach to the castle is up Castle Hill  (one thing Farnham clearly suffers from is a lack of imagination in the naming of thoroughfares).  This is really attractive – and would be even better if it weren’t for the cars parked on both sides of the road and the constant stream of traffic.  There are some buildings with a lot of character – notably the Almshouses and the Nelson Arms.

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Farnham Castle Keep and the associated Bishops Palace loom over the town, but as I walk up towards it I can only get occasional glimpses.  That’s because the roads are quite narrow and I only get the occasional look at the castle between them – and even then it’s not the Keep itself that is seen – it’s the Bishops Palace.  The final climb is a great reveal, and I come out by the Palace itself.

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The Palace has been built right beside the Keep which is considerably older and dates from Norman times.

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The Keep is free to get into – the Bishops Palace has guided tours — which I have missed.  So I head into the Keep and climb the stairs towards the main entrance.

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Inside, the Keep has been filled in with earth so it’s difficult to appreciate how tall it is.  There is an excavation in the middle of it which allows you to see right down to the bottom – and a pseudo -suspended staircase which guarantees jitters for anyone who is scared of heights (or depths).

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The view from the ramparts is spectacular and it is easy to see how this Keep dominated the landscape around it.

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It also gives a great view of the black storm clouds coming in for the next assault on the area.  I head back down before the next one hits.  I had planned to run down some Geocaches while I was here, but the weather is far too changeable and I have already run foul of numerous deep and exciting puddles.  On the way back, I head off the main road and find a number of really attractive houses and cottages.  All through Farnham are little examples of interesting architecture and statuary – this town may deserve a longer visit.

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As I head back to the station and navigate my way across the exciting dual carriageway, I notice something I had missed previously: the start point of the North Downs Way.

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Something to think about once A to Z is finished.

As I head back on the train, I am disturbed from Night and Day by the sound of two girls talking loudly further down the carriage.  Every sentence starts of ends with “Ok, yah” and I smile as I recollect hearing that everywhere in the 1980s.  It’s great to hear that some accents have not disappeared, even if it makes some things difficult to say.  My favourite line was “Oh, OK, no, I couldn’t do that…ok, yah?”

The journey back is an easy one, made more entertaining by a blind womans guide dog trying to convince everyone in the carriage that she was refusing to give him food.  A nice encounter for my journey home, which ended up with people talking and laughing — a highly unusual occurrence.

So, if you’re still with me, that’s the first 8 done and only 18 to go!  Thank you for your kind attention and your polite comments (and for refraining from giving me your nasty comments of there were any.)

In keeping with the artificial nature of this blog, I thought I would also put some stats together.  So, in the first 8 days I:

  • used 34 trains;
  • took 2 buses;
  • completed 9 tubes journeys;
  • walked 119.8 miles.

And with that final thought, adieu.  I is for… beckons and will be with you soon

 

 

 

H is for Hever

Before I start on todays travels, there is one important thing to do.  As a result at about 07:30 I wander into my local polling station and cast my vote.  This neatly allows me to ignore it for the rest of the day – with any luck.  Heading across to the station, I nip into the coffee shop for my first caffeine infusion of the day and my chances of ignoring the election are destroyed.  A stand of newspapers proudly displays what pass for headlines nowadays, and I feel my gorge rising at the streams of bile and invective that are being displayed.

I feel sorry for journalists – real journalists that is (there are surely a couple of them out there somewhere).  I’m sure that at one point they viewed their field as a noble one, somewhat like the lone crusader in a film noir fighting for justice and truth.  Instead, journalism seems to have descended to a level where it has no credibility whatsoever and where it has taken to pandering to the worst excesses of the public, with no moral compass and no thought about the results of their actions.

Can you imagine a parents pride when their eldest child comes home and proudly announce they wish to be a journalist?  Can you imagine their beaming faces as their pride and joy gleefully states that they wish to regurgitate bile, drivel and un-researched innuendo and serve it up under the heading of “news”.  What happiness they must feel as the fruit of their loins announces its intention to materially add to the reduction of intelligence and civility across the globe.

The only saving grace is that this is nothing new.  While the Internet and an increasing desire for things to be dealt with in 140 characters does not help the situation, complaints about the press have been going on for years.  I recently read something written at the end of the 19th Century making exactly the same complaints about the press.  So, scum have been with us for a long time and making a living encouraging all of us to act just like them.

So, people, RESIST!

Stepping down off my soapbox and storing it in my backpack for later use, I head onto the platform where I am greeted by the apathy of the Slough station staff.  Checking the board and listening to the announcements, it appears that their general ennui has affected the entire system and there are a slew of cancellations and delays.  It is of no matter to me and I settle down with my cappuccino and Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.  My brain is now dying for something trivial, light and airy to read after its recent deluge of weighty tomes.  And before you ask, yes there is an order to the books I read and, no, I won’t explain it.

Despite the station announcements threatening doom, destruction and delays my train arrives on time and I head towards London.  Today is a another complex journey involving the Tube and thetrainline has advised me to change at London Bridge.  I’m a little bit nervous about that given the terrorist attack there last weekend, and when I look at a map it seems clear that the line from Victoria runs to Hever.  So I decide to ignore thetrainline and head for Victoria (as clearly I know far better than they do).

Leaping on to a Spiral line train, I settle down on one of those flap-down seats that manage to provide support without any measurable degree of comfort.  My perusal of Night and Day is interrupted by a noise reminiscent of a medium sized cat attempting to spit out a hairball.  I look around but cannot locate the recalcitrant feline.  Going back to my book, the noise is repeated and again I cannot find the cat.  Wondering whether the Cheshire Cat has sneaked onto the train, I try to read while keeping an eye on my fellow passengers.  Sure enough, I spot a woman opposite who looks like she is going to cough, but just as she does so she holds it in and makes this bizarre noise instead.  She is now doing it more often and judging by the colour her face is going, she may actually have a hairball stuck in her throat.  Eventually she stops trying to hold it in and lets out a series of coughs which return the appropriate colour to her face.  Judging by the sigh around me, I was not the only person concerned by her antics.

Without any further incident apart from an American woman who was unwilling to sit by anyone wearing shorts, I get to Victoria.  This is a very familiar station and so I head down to the Departures Board and look for my train.

Which I cannot find.

I check the line Hever is on and can’t find any destinations down that line on the Departures Board.  Looking around for some assistance, I see an Information desk in the centre of the concourse and head over for advice.  There’s a man unfolding a map for someone else in need of directions and chatting away to them quite happily.  There is a second man, sat down with a lugubrious expression on his face which has clearly been caused by whatever trauma has put his wrist in a brace.  I explain that I want to know which train to catch for Hever and I get a look which makes it perfectly clear that the man has far better things to do than answer my questions.  So I repeat it.  Slowly.

This time he leaps into action.  By which I mean that he used one finger to stab at an iPad Mini without moving anything else, including the muscles of his face.  (I hesitate to make a joke about him watching porn here as clearly this was a work iPad.  Probably.)  Then, with a shudder of disgust at heaving to speak to a member of the public, the Delphic Oracle spake:

“Change at East Croydon.”

Feeling somewhat like Claudius, I haltingly stagger away from the Oracle and stammer my thanks as he turns his attention back to … well, whatever the hell it was that he was doing before I rudely interrupted him.  To be fair, his wrist injury may have been so traumatic that it caused him physical pain to speak.  Or else he was an idle bastard.  Only the Gods can tell.

At least I now know where I’m going.  Who would have thought that my journeying would take me to the Nirvana that is East Croydon?  My journey to the train is hampered as suddenly my feet stop walking forwards and drag me to the right.  By an effort of will I manage to walk past the International Cheese Shop – but if I come back this way, I fear for my wallets safety.

At East Croydon, my problem recurs and once again I cannot work out which train I need to get on.  I decide to head up to the ticket barrier and see if I can get a better idea from the Departures Board there.  And so I discover the joys of the “Station without Stairs”.  Instead of stairs heading up to the concourse, East Croydon station has ramps.  Long, long ramps.  Ramps so large they have developed a micro-climate and halfway along the one to platform 6 a small civilisation has developed that will be the subject of a 4 part series by David Attenborough.  So long that by the time I get to the top I have passed through 2 timezones.  So long that in the time it takes to climb them the Millenium Falcon could have made the Kessel Run.  So long….you get the idea.

Having got to the top of the ramp, the Departure Board is as much help as the one in Victoria.  I begin to appreciate why thetrainline sent me via London Bridge – but I refuse to admit that I am wrong.  This is clearly just a different kind of being right.  I spot a couple of employees talking by the barrier, so I walk over to ask directions.  Being a polite chap, I stand waiting for them to acknowledge my presence.  After a while I check that I am not invisible and try a discrete cough.  After another while I give up and interrupt and ask about trains for Hever.  They have clearly been trained in brevity by the same people who trained the man in Victoria as the reply I get is:

“Uckfield train.”

Clearly Customer Service is an optional extra for National Rail staff.  Not wishing to disturb the clearly excessively busy gentlemen further, I locate the relevant platform and head off down the ramp.  I don’t have to wait long for the train, which when it arrives is tiny – 2 carriages only – and we set off to the wilds of Surrey and Kent.  (I should point out here that this train is actually shorter than the ramp I walked down to get to the platform!)

I manage to get a seat at a table, which is always the preferred option.  I then go about trying to make sure no-one will sit beside me – backpack on the luggage rack with the straps hanging down, book on the table, coat on the seat beside me, surly look on the face.  That usually works.  But the man on the other side of the aisle has his strategy perfected.  He has plonked a sports bag onto the seats opposite him and his coat on the seat beside him.  He has his lunch (a tad early for that I feel!) liberally spread over the table and in between mouthfuls he is having a loud conversation on the phone.  Bizarrely enough, no-one wants to sit near him – and I reap the benefits of that as it means I also remain the sole occupant of my table.

At Hever I get off and follow a small group of walkers out of the station.  I assume they’re walkers as they’re all terribly jolly and have sturdy boots on.  As opposed to ramblers, who also wear sturdy boots but are generally miserable and walk around in groups of at least 20 accompanied by spaniels and the smell of tweed.  We start to head off down the road and I get my first look around.  It’s an attractive area – very green, mostly farmland with houses and cottages scattered about.  It reminds me a lot of Surrey and is extremely relaxing.

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For some reason I assume the walkers are heading for Hever Castle as well so I follow them down the road, where we all find that the direct route is currently closed.  They head off and I check on Google Maps which sure enough sends me down the road after them.  They quickly turn off down a nettle-infested path.  I check the map which directs me to follow the road but the path clearly cuts about a mile off the journey.  Given that I’m wearing shorts, for the moment I decided to trust Google and I stubbornly head off down the road.  Five minutes later I find another footpath which again Google Maps ignores.  This time common sense prevails and I head down a narrow footpath between fields – both more attractive and much safer than the road.  Sure enough, the path meets the one taken by the other group and by the time the pathway rejoins the road I have caught up with them (primarily because they are a subgroup of walkers that I think of as “amblers”).

I tramp along the road, passing first the amblers and then the Village Hall which today is doubling as a polling station and head up to the gatehouse of Hever Castle.

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Having parted with the requisite entrance fee and bought a guidebook which will undoubtedly sit on my table until my next clear-out, I head down into the grounds of the castle.  It’s a really excellent place to visit.  The grounds are huge and vary from walks through quiet woodland paths, to the extensive lawns leading down to the castle.

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There are some great views and a lot to do – though I decide not to go into the Water Maze as I suspect my hand towel will prove insufficient afterwards.  The castle itself was the residence of the Boleyn family but by the start of the 19th century it was largely disused.  It was bought by the Astor family who completely renovated it and added some bits of their own – like the mock-Tudor style “village” that they built so that their friends had somewhere to stay.

The grounds are well worth exploring.  The castle wasn’t open when I arrived, so to fill some time I wandered through the extremely claustrophobic Yew Maze and then around the Tudor Rose garden.  Turns out the Tudors used herbs for all sorts of things.

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It’s weird, but when I go shopping I always forget about the herbs for strewing.  Silly me.

Inside, the Castle has been well restored and maintained.  You can walk around a lot of it, though some rooms have areas roped off to stop the endless stream of bored toddlers from walking on everything.  (Really, why would you bother to take toddlers around somewhere like this?).  There’s a good audio guide you can purchase which has a “rub-away” feature on its’ screen which allows you to see what the rooms looked like before the Astors restored them.  Gives you a really good idea of just how much work was done here.

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It is a really interesting place to wander around, and I have a very happy hour in here.  It is an odd mix of Tudor and early 20th century style.

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Astor shamelessly stole from other stately homes and put in things that he had seen elsewhere and liked.  He must have been a nightmare to work for as he insisted that the work was done using only tools that would have been available in Tudor times.  Work like this must have taken ages:

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I enjoyed spending an hour or so going around the castle and then headed out to walk around the grounds some more.  Astors sense of style is apparent everywhere.  The Italian garden is odd – a sequence of lawns and arbours, studded with Romanesque statuary and occasional busts and sculptures peeking out of bushes.  It gives the overall impression of someone trying to copy Italy without having ever actually been there.

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It is a really nice walk, however and finishes by the lake where they have cunningly placed a kiosk selling ice cream.  There are a lot of people walking around, though some are considerably less enamoured by the gardens than I am.  Walking into the Rose Garden, I heard one woman exclaim:

“But there’s nothing here but roses!”

Clearly she is the level that the modern press is aiming at.

Suitable cheered by the castle and gardens I head back to Hever station.  I brave the nettles on the way back and get there quite quickly – which is good as the weather has started to turn.  When I arrived I hadn’t really looked at the platforms.  Now I get a look and see that they have been designed on the same scale as the ramps at East Croydon.  I peer into the distance and try and make sense of the electronic sign which is as far from shelter (and the only seat) as is possible.  There are large friendly signs up pointing out that the station is un-staffed, but that the timetable is on display.  If the timetable is on display, it looks remarkably like the minutes of the local village council because there is sod all else up anywhere!  I make the trek to see what the electronic sign says, which naturally is exactly the time that the train turns up.  Grumbling mildly (grumble? me? how unusual!) I get in and grab a seat.

This train actually goes all the way to London Bridge, and so I find myself in a quandary.  Do I stay on it, or so I stubbornly stick to the original plan?  Clearly it would be stupid to change trains at East Croydon when I can just stay where I am.  Clearly only a fool would break their journey just to go to the International Cheese Shop.  Clearly by the time I get back to Slough, I have some nice Cheddar, Manchego and Vacherin as well as a box of crackers.

H is done, F tomorrow and I’m back on track!

 

 

 

G is for Gravesend

The discerning, aware and mentally astute amongst you will recognize that something is missing.  “What the F can it be?” I hear you cry.  Clearly it is the missing F that has drawn such turbulence into the calm of your usual mental state.  Before I explain, it has occurred to me that I really don’t need to for the following reasons:

1) Anyone reading this probably isn’t terribly mentally astute;

2) It’s so long since the last update that no-one would notice anyway;

3) The Alphabet is an artificial construct, so I can do it it any order I like.

Given that (3) removes what little excuse there is for this blog, I’d better ignore that one and press onwards.  In explanation, I got up ready to go and visit F, only to find that the weather was similar to that which cause Noah to start building a really big boat (with, as Eddie Izzard has mentioned, a really big room for poo).  I know that  all of my loyal fans  both my loyal fans will be disappointed but seeing as I made up the rules for this little odyssey, I also get to decide how much misery I will endure to keep it going.  I waited until 11am on the day in question and there was no let up in the weather – so F was deferred and will appear somewhere between H and I.

G Day dawns bright and sunny and with  a very strong wind.  Not strong enough to require the age-appropriate hoodie, so that gets stuffed in the backpack with everything else and I head off to Slough station.  I am now quite bored of Slough station – though nowhere near as bored as the staff appear to be.

There is some nervousness on this journey as this is only a couple of days after the terrorist incident on London Bridge.  However, I’m determined not to let it change anything that I do, so I head off occasionally glancing furtively at my fellow passengers over East of Eden.  I also have some trepidation about today’s destination – Gravesend isn’t exactly known as a tourist spot so I’m not sure this will be a fantastic day.

My journey through London does little to change this feeling.  On the Underground I get to watch a seriously stupid commuter trying to force his way onto the tube train while large numbers of people are trying to get off.  I resist the temptation to scream “IF YOU LET THEM GET OFF, THERE WILL BE ENOUGH ROOM, YOU COCKWOMBLE” as I’m not sure whether or not “cockwomble” is a word allowed to be uttered on the London Underground.  Such direct commentary is clearly a violation of the Commuter Code so I restrict myself to glaring and grumbling like everyone else around me.

But how can my journey be anything but enhanced by my second visit to St Pancras INTERNATIONAL?  In every way, apparently.  Once again I have to trek through the sterile passageways of the INTERNATIONAL station to find my platform.  On the way I pass those shops that frequent every station across the country: Fortnum and Masons, Hamleys, John Lewis, Le Pain Quotidien.  (If the last sentence sits somewhat strangely upon my gentle readers’ ear, try reading in Stephen Fry’s accent and with as much sarcasm as you can muster).  I also reach my breaking point with people who drag their suitcases around behind them on leashes, sticks or handles.  Apparently, once your suitcase is behind you you don’t have to pay any attention to it and you can let it swing wildly to and fro behind you so that it barks viciously against the shins of other people.  Also don’t forget to leave it in the middle of the path when you stop to look at something – especially when that something is your own damn mobile phone.  These people do offer some amusement though.  Because they are dragging them they overfill them and then stand plaintively at the bottom of staircases hoping that some kind passer-by will help them.  This passer-by does not and instead continues the trek to the platform.

Poor Gravesend.  After a set of INTERNATIONAL stations, it is sadly and plainly just “Gravesend”.  This clearly affects the people alighting here as we all shuffle off quietly and apologetically and head out of the station, averting our eyes so as not to embarrass it.

Gravesend itself meets my every expectation.  It has all the attractiveness of Swindon as well as the charm and grace of Slough, together with a soupcon of the delicacy of Hull.  Hoping that things will be better down by the river, I head in that direction.  As I get close to the Thames, things start to perk up.  Gravesend, like so many other places along the banks of the Thames, has had a great deal of regeneration work done.  So, old warehouses have been converted into luxury flats and there are several attractive new builds that look over the river.  Though as much as I love the river, I’m not sure that is a selling point.  The Thames is tidal here and that, combined with the detritus washed down from the rain yesterday, has left the water an unattractive shade of brown.  The view across the river isn’t much better either, with lovely views of a working dock and a power station.  The most interesting thing to see is the cruise liner moored opposite which dwarfs the tourist boat nearby.

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However, it’s still pleasant to walk along the river and so I follow the signposts for the Saxon Shore Way.  The SSW (as those in the walking fraternity refer to it) is 163 miles in length and runs from Gravesend to Hastings.  I only plan on following it for a few miles – I’ve decided to try and get out to Shornemead Fort which was built in the 1860’s.

Initially the SSW is pretty standard fare, following roads and footpaths alongside the Thames.  Greater familiarity with the Thames does not make it look any more attractive, though as I head on I spot the occasional building that shows the age and history of Gravesend.

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There is also the occasional statue, including one that I think is particularly apposite given the current trend towards considering the Indian community to be “newcomers”.

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Mohinder Singh Pujji was one of the first Sikh pilots to volunteer with the RAF during the Second World War and among many other medals was awarded the DFC.

As I continued through Gravesend I kept seeing signs of the links the town has with the armed forced.  Walking down a residential street, I suddenly came upon the Riverside Leisure Area  (unlike the naming conventions in Evesham, this is actually beside the river).  I entered the Leisure Area (which is what we call a “park” in Slough) and immediately found myself in New Tavern Fort.

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The fort is an 18th & 19th century fort that still has emplaced weapons that you can just wander around, take photographs with, sit on and (as is usual) dump your rubbish in.  It’s an odd feel as it is overlooked by blocks of flats and it is extremely incongruous – but a delight to walk around.  Once I finish with the fort, I head out into the rest of the park   Leisure Area, and find a very attractive green area with a small lake and fountain.  The photo gives an idea of how windy it was.

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Something occurred to me at this point.  The wind meant that I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it was blazing sunshine.  Stopping to get the sun tan lotion out, I also checked the map and then, suitably armoured against the evils of UV, I followed the SSW to the East.  The next section is one of those sections of a footpath that is more endured than enjoyed.  It passes a series of industrial complexes varying from small garages to large concrete works.  The path runs along alleys and along the back of a series of buildings, hiding the country away between walls on either side and I start to think about turning back.

Eventually, I come out – still nowhere near the Thames, but at least I now have a view.  By now I am right on the outskirts of Gravesend and the SSW runs alongside the Thames and Medway Canal.

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The canal is ruler straight, as is the road and footpath beside it.  To the left are industrial buildings and the mysteriously sign-posted MPSTC.  When I pass the MPSTC there are no signs outside to say what it is and I am glared at by the G4S employee who appears to have got into his security hut with the judicious use of several shoe-horns and a tub of lard.  Of course, the police vehicles parked inside gives things away and the fact that Google clearly labels the site as the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre also spoils their attempts at stealth.  I wave cheerfully at the happily rotund security guard and carry on.  (At this point, I will admit there is an element of “pot calling the kettle black” here, but he really was not the sort of person you would call on in a crisis).

The reason for enjoying this part of the walk is to the right.  Across the canal is nothing but fields and I can see small villages in the distance.  It’s a really attractive view, spoiled only occasionally by trains thundering towards Gravesend along the track that also paralleled the canal.

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Past the *shhh* MPSTC I stop at a crossing that gives me a fantastic view over the canal and railway line.  I can see that the path and canal continue ahead out of sight and make absolutely no attempt to get back to the Thames.  At this point, the Milton Rifle Range stands between me and the river and I will clearly have to go several miles before I have the chance to get to Shornemead Fort.  Deciding to give up I turn and head back towards Gravesend.

Walking back, one thing is immediately visible – the golden roof of the Guru Nanak Dabar Gurdwara.  The Gurdwara was built in 2010 and is one of the biggest in the country and apparently one of the biggest outside India.  It is certainly obvious from outside Gravesend, but as I get closer it disappears behind other buildings.  I spend quite some time working my way towards it, but close up it does not disappoint.

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Having seen it, only one thing remains to be seen – the grave-site of Pocohontas.  I head back into the town centre and there I find it in the grounds of a small church.

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Suitably satisfied, I can now grab something to eat and then I head back to Gravesend station for my return to Slough.  On the way back, East of Eden gets finished just in time for my arrival at Slough station.

 

 

E is for Evesham

Week two begins.  After some very achy legs last week, a couple of days off have given them chance to recover and I’ve posted the first two installments of the blog.  So far, no-one has flamed me.  This may well change if anyone ever reads it.

I am now a seasoned traveler, so elegantly clad as before in T-shirt and shorts I stride off towards the train station.  As I head towards the station I feel somewhat smug as I look at the schoolchildren and commuters as I am still on holiday while they are back to their humdrum lives.  This enables me to ignore the fact that the weather has returned to its previous cloudy and breezy self and by the time I have arrived at Slough train station I am feeling decidedly chilled.  At which point the seasoned traveler realises he has left behind both his trusty baseball cap and his cheap Primark top.

With a sigh the seasoned traveler heads for the platform.  Slough station is becoming like an old friend.  To be more accurate, Slough station is like that slightly strange uncle who gets invited to family events and sits in a corner muttering to himself and worrying the aspidistra.  My journey today is simple – a through train to Evesham.  What could possibly go wrong?

Much to the disappointment of anyone reading this, nothing.  Except for the weather.  Rather than brightening up, by the time I reach Evesham the wind has picked up and it’s decidedly chilly.  It’s not raining yet, but the clouds banking up above me make it extremely likely.  Deciding to ignore them, I shoulder my backpack and head into the centre of town.

My initial impressions are quite positive.  The houses are made of a red brick that is quite attractive.  I’ve been to Evesham briefly when on a canal boat holiday and I know that the main part of the town is sited within a long bend of the river.  Ignoring the flecks of rain that are starting to fall, I head on.  As I do, it becomes clear that Evesham’s architecture is quite eclectic.  Tudor (or mock Tudor) buildings sit beside modern constructions and the more traditional red brick buildings.  In some towns this is done in such a way that seem to work.  Unfortunately, in Evesham it looks like a bit of a shambles.  The town has a huge amount of history — so much that it doesn’t seem to know what it is.

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This isn’t helped by the weather which is making me decidedly uncomfortable.  I need to get some kind of jacket and the strange stares I am getting from the Evesham locals are making me even more uncomfortable.  Clearly they have never seen knees before.  Judging by the way they are all walking around in sensible clothing, with thick jackets and sensible hats they clearly only reveal their knees (and possibly their elbows) in the privacy of their own homes and probably after warning their spouses lest they be shocked.  It doesn’t help that the majority of the population appears to be geriatric.

I decide that I need to get myself a jacket – and it does occur to me that maybe I too need to go for something more sensible.  Maybe 53 is the age at which T-shirt and shorts is no longer sensible.  I head for the Riverside Shopping Centre (which I should point out is about 100 yards from the river.  This daring interpretation of the word ‘side’ turns out to be the most interesting thing about it.)  As I try to get into the building I have to leap to one side to avoid the mobility scooter that races out through the door.  This is followed by two more and as I watch open-mouthed as they drive off, scarves and hair-nets flapping in the breeze I wonder if this is some kind of Evesham Rally or whether this is a geriatric team of shoplifters making good their escape.

Nervously peering through the door of the Riverside and seeing that the way is clear (for the moment), I head inside.  And find myself transported back several decades.  I am a good twenty years younger than everyone else in the shopping (including the somewhat shaky woman cleaning the toilets) and the whole place has an air of desuetude.  The feeling of being transported back in time is helped by the music.  Constant Craving by KD Lang is a mere 25 years old but is recent compared to what follows it:  Money, Money, Money by ABBA.  I then wonder if they might be part of a subtle program of suggestion designed to get the customers to buy more.  I dismiss this and head off to find an age-appropriate jacket.  Ten minutes later I leave Sports Direct with a sleeveless hoodie – clearly suitable for the 53 year old man.

Putting the hoodie on and immediately feeling better, I head out the back of the Riverside and find myself at the edge of a small park which at one end has the ruins of Evesham Abbey.

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The tower is pretty much the only part of the Abbey that has survived and the other side of it are the 2 Evesham parish churches which have been built right beside each other.  I wonder if there was any rivalry between the two congregations – if there was, they had no way to avoid each other.  By now, the wind has risen and the rain is starting to come down in light showers so I head into the alleys behind the church.

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I walk around randomly and find myself at a little museum in the old Almonry that was attached to the Abbey.

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The museum is quite small, and for someone of my height has many excitingly low beams and ceilings which, added to the irregular flooring, make exploring a hazardous enterprise.  That, unfortunately, is the most interesting thing about the Almonry.  They have collected a lot of items from the old Abbey, but rather than sticking to one period they have included everything they could find.  As a result a corridor containing artifacts from the old Evesham jail shares room with a display of historical veterinary tools.  Upstairs a recreation of an old schoolroom (I wouldn’t care to hazard the period) is off a room with a diorama of the battle of Evesham (1265).  The next room contains materials brought back from people who fought in the second world war.

There is nothing essentially wrong with the Almonry.  It just doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole.  But they do sell bookmarks, so at least one objective is achieved.  As I leave the Almonry, the rain that has been teasing me with showers has decided to throw all subtlety aside and is pissing down.  I am tempted to go and get something warm to eat and drink (the cafe called The Valkyrie tempts me as I want to know how it got the name).  However, I’ve come a long way for a rather disappointing cup of coffee so I decide to laugh in the face of the weather and continue to explore.  One thing mentioned in the Almonry several times is the Hampton Ferry.  I haven’t caught even a glimpse of the river yet, so I head down the road towards it ignoring the rain.

The Hampton Ferry is operated by a complicated engineering system knows as “a man pulling on a rope”.  As I approach a woman is huddling in the Ferry and I see the Ferryman about to wait for me as clearly no-one would come down this long lane without wanting to cross.  With a wave, I confirm with Charon that I do not want his services and then enjoy watching them struggling across in the rain.

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I spot a sign for a walk along the river and as the pathway goes under a convenient avenue of trees, I decide to take this longer walk back.  I then find out that the people of Evesham are proud of the strangest things.

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If nothing else, the Award Winning Toilets are going to be something to see.  The walk along the river is really pleasant.  I only pass a handful of people (including one girl who is clearly playing hookie from school).  The rain stops and the air has that marvellous smell of wet grass.  That combined with the sounds of the river and the sights of swans floating serenely around makes the walk very pleasant.  Evesham has actually got quite a lot going for it – some interesting architecture, decent history and a nice riverside.  All they have to do is make sure they don’t screw it up by making sure that anyone building here makes sure that they fit in to the overall look.

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Oh dear.

As I head around the riverside walk (which is far better defined than the shopping centre is) it becomes clear that someone in Evesham has a sense of humour:
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I never actually check out the Award Winning Toilets but I do pass this place:

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Somewhere I have clearly missed the less inclusive play areas and I have to wonder on what grounds children are barred from playing.

I also note that the local constabulary are, like many areas, fighting a battle against rural crime.  As usual, they are running an operation and the one around Evesham is focusing on fishing.  Also as usual, the police have named the operation with suitability and care.

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Just how big are these fish?

I head back into Evesham and have a very nice lunch and a pint of Razorback at the Royal Oak.  I had planned to do some more walking around the area, but the weather is just not good enough so I head back to the station.  As I walk up to the closed ticket office, I reflect that you know you’re in the sticks when the station closes for lunch.  Despite that, I’m soon on the train and heading back to Slough with East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

D is for Dover

After an emotional C, time to return to being resolutely and stalwartly British – and where better to do that than Dover.

The journey to Dover is going to require three trains and a tube journey, so having convinced the ticket machine to vomit forth about 8 bits of paper, I stride confidently forward to the barrier.  And immediately try to get on using my seat reservation ticket.  Clearly having learned nothing from 3 days of travelling by train, I endure the pitying looks of the station staff as they point out which ticket I should use and I get on to the platform.  (As an aside, why do they issue a seat reservation ticket, when no seat has actually been reserved?)

I mull this over as I wait for the train.  Today is more leisurely than the last couple of days – at the start at least – so I’ve had the chance to relax a bit at home.  I still end up at the station far too early for my assigned train, so have my first cappuccino of the day.  While waiting I start my next book: Pierre et Jean by de Maupassant.  Which I am not reading in the original French.

The train arrives and the usual scrum forms to get on board.  I settle myself in, looking forward to a swift journey to Paddington as this is the express service.  It turns out that “express” means “train that travels at a snail’s pace through the first 5 stations”.  At one point I’m convinced that I could have got out and walked faster.  My irritation is soothed by the fact that the man diagonally opposite me is seething at the delay and his explosive huffs and constant checking of his watch keeps me highly entertained.

At Paddington, it’s a transfer to the Tube to St Pancras.  And this is when I discover that the Circle line is no longer circular.  Yesterday, I transferred to the Circle line without difficulties – we went a different way to the one that I used to take and the Tube platform was not the one I was used to using.  Today, I was at the front of the train, so headed straight to the Tube platform I have been using on and off for 35 years.  I jumped on the first clockwise train (easier than trying to describe it using eastbound/westbound) and got as far as Edgware Road where the train stopped.  The Circle Line is in fact now the Spiral Line.  It seems to start at Hammersmith, sweeps majestically past Paddington and then goes all the way around Central London until it passes Paddington again and terminates at Edgware Road – a station that no-one ever seems to want to use anyway.

Having huffed to myself about Trades Descriptions, I get back on the Spiral Line and head for St Pancras.  Sorry, St Pancras INTERNATIONAL.  When you enter St Pancras INTERNATIONAL you might be mistaken for thinking you have accidentally walked into the kind of soulless concourse that you find in any airport around the world.  Because you have.  The vast, dramatic arched roof of St Pancras still exists, but if you don’t raise your eyes you miss it and instead see nothing but steel and glass.  Having long been a fan of Kevin McCloud I can tell you he would not be impressed as nothing has been done to integrate the new and old architecture.  The new reminds me of Prince Charles’ quote about the extension to the National Gallery:

 like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

The train schedules are clearly displayed — if you are travelling internationally.  If, like me, you are staying in this country it’s a deal more difficult to find out where your platform is.

So, I start to fight my way through the people waiting for their INTERNATIONAL arrival and glare at them as they hold up signs with peoples names on them.  I head past the boutiques and coffee shops and still have no idea which platform my train is on.  And after a lengthy walk there it is.  The equivalent of being on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’  (as Douglas Adams might have put it).  As I finally get to the platform, I see there is another entrance with what looks like a shortcut to the Tube station – this was, naturally, not signposted from the Tube as why would anyone possibly wish to go anywhere other than an INTERNATIONAL platform?

Despite all of the barriers to my finding the platform, I get to the train in plenty of time and get myself a decent seat.  I have noticed that every train station now has large friendly signs telling people using the trains that the doors will be locked 40 seconds before the train leaves.  Clearly everyone will pay attention to this and not do anything stupid – or would they?  Today clearly not.  Just before the train is about to pull away, there is some banging on a door further down the carriage.  A woman inside the carriage starts yelling “DENNIS!” at the top of her voice and is soon joined by a child screaming and crying.  It was clearly loud as people were completely abandoning their attempts to pretend not to be listening, but were standing up to see what was going on (I’m sure it’ll be on Youtube somewhere by now).  As the time for the train to leave got closer, she got louder and shriller until one of the railway staff took pity on them and opened the doors again.  As Dennis (presumably that was his name) got on, the child attached himself to his leg like an over-affectionate Jack Russell and we all returned to our seats, secretly sad that the railway staff had caved from their strict position regarding door closure.

I have to change at Ashford INTERNATIONAL and so the train proceeds through Stratford INTERNATIONAL and Ebbsfleet INTERNATIONAL.  Without wanting to cast aspersions on anyone who lives in these delightful areas, they really seem to have nothing going for them whatsoever apart from the word INTERNATIONAL added to their station name.  The stations themselves have little to be proud off – steel, glass, no character.  Now let’s be clear, I’m not railing against modern architecture.  Some of it quite attractive.  This is not.  It’s bland, boring, soulless and reminds me of a McDonalds Happy Meal  (mass-marketed and not at all happy).

The change of trains at Ashford INTERNATIONAL gives me the chance to observe a group of chavettes in their natural habitat.  Tottering around on ridiculously high heels, and shrieking with apparent glee at nothing whatsoever they made the choice of carriage an easy one — any carriage that they weren’t in was clearly the good choice.  Having made my tactical choice, the train thundered on.

I always like the sea, so the approach to Dover by train is a treat.  Starting off high up above the sea, the track descends close to sea level before heading into Dover itself.  On a windy day it must be truly spectacular.  Today the sea is millpond flat with a haze in the distance through which France can be dimly glimpsed.  Pierre et Jean gets abandoned so I can stare out the window.

So I’m all keyed up when I get to Dover.  Which almost immediately is a bit of a disappointment.  I’ve forgotten that it’s a working port and a town.  But at least I can see the castle across the town, so I head across and soon find myself at the bottom of the hill.  It’s at this point that I should mention that it was a very hot today – clearly the right sort of day to climb a hill up to a castle.  This of course is nothing and so I trudge on up, quite glad that the road switchbacks on the way and a convenient gatehouse gives me a good excuse to stop and take a picture.

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I then headed on up to the castle and towards the ticket kiosk.  As I hiked towards it, the two women inside give me the sort of look that Livingstone gave Stanley.  I was clearly not looking my best as when I asked for an adult ticket she very carefully asked me if I was eligible for any concessions.  Resisting the temptation to say “I am only 53 years old, madam!” I carried on — to find that the climb was not yet over.

Dover Castle itself is absolutely excellent.  I had not realised how long there had been fortifications here and it’s a rare place that has seen use from Roman times right through to the Second World War.

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It’s varied and interesting with a ton of exhibits to walk around and some excellent views across the channel and up to the White Cliffs.

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Now, I have to freely admit that this week has definitely started to take its’ toll on my legs.  My calves were aching at the start of the day and by the time I got up to the castle, they were killing me.  I had originally planned to hike across to the White Cliffs but threw that out very quickly.  Once I got up there I thought I would have an easier time of it, but the castle is on a variety of levels, so I maintained a constant level of discomfort.  Which I then topped off by going to the top of the Great Keep.  The Great Keep has 115 steps and by the time I got to the top my legs were complaining and clearly considering filing for a divorce from the rest of my body.  The top of the Keep was crowded, but just after I got there it started to spit with rain and most people disappeared.  Personally I welcomed it.  The views from the top of the Keep are quite amazing.

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It’s at this point that I became aware of a bit of a problem.  Ladies, children and gentlemen of a delicate disposition may wish to skip the next couple of paragraphs and head down to where I start talking about scones.  I have always been pretty hot.  By which I do not mean that I am a magnet for either sex, no I mean that I am usually fairly warm.  My hands are hot (which makes making pastry a nightmare) and I’m the sort of person that happily wanders around in shorts in winter.  It also means that when I exercise I sweat a lot.  The Victorians claimed that:

Horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow”

In which case, I am about 80% horse.  (And before some bright spark decides to make the obvious comment, don’t go there.)  As time has passed, something in the atmosphere has made me sweat more.  It’s clearly that rather than the fact that I am old, fat and unfit.  Whatever this mysterious thing is, by the time I got to the top of the Great Keep I was sweating like a Shire Horse that has just completed the St Leger Stakes.  My t-shirt was sodden, my baseball cap was wet and my backpack was horribly wet as well.  Then, of course, I made the mistake of taking the pack off to get to my water bottle and then had to put it back on.  It’s difficult to describe the feeling of putting a wet pack on over a wet t-shirt without shuddering.  Naturally I didn’t have anything useful like a towel with me.  Luckily I had packed a spare t-shirt and I mentally added a towel to my list of things to pack for next week.

Suitably disgusted with myself (and relieved I was wearing a black T-shirt) I headed back down through the keep.  Inside several rooms have been set up as they would looked in the time of Henry II and it’s really worth a good look around – unless you’re wringing wet, that is.  I wandered down and then out and into the cafe.  I decided to go for their cream tea so after a couple of minutes headed over to a table with a cup of coffee and a scone, jam and cream which were elegantly and traditionally served in a moulded plastic tray.  No plates were provided, so I ended up putting the scone in the lid of the tray while I negotiated my way into the jam.  Managing to get a decent amount of jam on the elegant plastic knife, I jogged the moulded plastic tray and nearly knocked everything over the floor.  I managed to stop it, but let go of the pot of jam which, of course, disappeared under the table.  Now, being a bit embarrassed about my sweatiness I’d managed to sit away from anyone else and the last thing I wanted to do was draw any attention to myself.  So I furtively peered under the table for my pot of jam.  Couldn’t see it anywhere.  I thought at this point of giving up and doing with what I had in front of me, but as I looked at the sad amount of jam on my scone, I decided to keep looking.  Not under the table, not under my chair, not under the other chairs…..how the hell did it get over there?  I finally spotted over the other side of the room the jam jar on its’ side right beside a table full of american tourists.  Trying to look as casual as possible, I ambled across the room and (trying not to whistle nonchalantly) I collected the jam and headed back to my table.  The fact that their entire table went silent as I approached and then conversation started as soon as I got back to my table leads me to believe that I may not have been as subtle as I would have liked.  Ignoring them all, I tucked into the cream tea.  Which wasn’t bad.  Completely inappropriate of course – real cream teas, as we all know, come from Devon or Cornwall.  But it filled a void.

After some more wandering around, I headed back down the hill across Dover and back up towards the train station.  At the station I changed into a dry T-shirt with a great deal of relief and started the long journey home.  On the way back Pierre et Jean got finished.  Interesting book about familial rivalry and the effects of the revelation of old secrets.  If it was a long book, it would have been turgid and angst-ridden but as it was it moved along very nicely.  I then turn to something lighter – East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

As I head home, my first week is complete and I’m looking forward to next week.  This has been quite a success, with some surprises and been far more enjoyable than I anticipated.  The tickets are all booked for next week, and I’m looking forward to F – H.

 

 

 

C is for Cambridge

I forgot to mention that I posted photos from Avebury and Bath on Facebook with the titles that I’ve been using on this blog.  As a result I had a storm of guesses as to the location of C.  Well, three guesses actually – so quite a small storm.  Anyway, no-one got it right.  I also sat and booked my train tickets for E -H, so my activities are now locked in for the next week.

I’m really looking forward to going back to Cambridge.  I went to university there (1981 – 1984) and had a fantastic time.  I haven’t been back there for about 30 years, so a visit is long overdue.  The day dawns with suitable fantastic weather – though even a gloriously sunny day does little to raise Slough above its usual standard of “grim”.

I hit the train with no issues and as we head towards London I finish off A Disaffection.  I put the completed book back in my bag with no reluctance at all and a sense of relief that I’ve ploughed my way through it.  My next book is White Peak by Martin Smith.  A book of 35 circular walks (some of which are not circular).  While I don’t anticipate great plot or character development, it will probably be more engaging than A Disaffection.

Changing from train to underground at Paddington and the whole atmosphere changes as well.  Walking between the platforms is fast and loud with a hubbub of activity and noise.   Old instincts come to the for and I enter “commuter mode” – elbows out, head down, pace slightly faster than normal.  If you see a space, stride to get into it.  If someone pauses, leave them behind as they are too weak to commute!  Normal rules of courtesy get thrown out the window as if you politely wait for people, you’ll never get on the tube.

Once you get on the train, silence reigns – except for the woman jabbering excitedly into her phone.  I yearn for the days when mobiles wouldn’t work on the tube and look around to see that she is being glared at by at least three other people.  As the required glaring has been done by someone, I return to my book.  My tube journey is short and I head back to the surface at Kings Cross.

As I’d been to and from college several times, I expected Kings Cross to be more familiar – but it isn’t.  Only then did I recall that most of my journeys were done by coach to save money and I only took the train when I was lugging my cello with me.  I manage to locate my platform and head in the right direction only to come to a halt as I view a massive queue in front of me – clearly I am going to have to wait to get on.  I then realise this is the queue for platform 9 3/4 and I walk past and straight onto my train.

Which then sits there for 15 minutes.

The passengers are as subdued as ever, with the exception of the person loudly arranging a business meeting on his phone.  He’s doing it so loudly that at one point I think he’s yelling to a friend on another train, but when I check I can see him sat there with his phone pressed to his ear.  Clearly he has the only phone in existence that does not amplify his voice as he is having to virtually shout down it to be heard.  By now there are several of us trying to ignore him.  Clearly we are not on the underground as no-one is glaring at him.  Mercifully he terminates the call, though not before using the word “addendum” more times than is allowed in most conversations.

When I get to Cambridge, again I don’t see anything that is familiar.  The station (which I didn’t visit much anyway) has clearly been rebuilt and without pause I head out and start to walk into the centre of Cambridge.

To my surprise, the closer I get to my college, the more emotional I start to feel.  I had expected excitement, nervousness and almost disappointment.  Instead, I begin to feel overwhelmed by sadness.  I turn into Trumpington Street and finally start to see landmarks that are familiar to me – the Fitzwillliam Museum, Peterhouse, Pembroke.  The more familiar the street becomes the more emotional I feel.  It’s weird.  It’s like a pressure behind my eyes and in my stomach.  I find myself walking slower, and also rubbing at my eyes trying to convince myself that the water in them is due to me getting suntan lotion in them.

I head past Eve & Ravenscroft and finally the frontage of Corpus Christi is in front of me.

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I find myself stood there for a while, not sure whether or not I’m going to go in.  I’m not good at this emotional thing and this is very foreign territory for me.  I’m very close to turning around and heading home, but I realise how ridiculous that would be, so I set my jaw and head up the steps into the entrance.

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And it’s closed.

On my way it had occurred to me that Cambridge is in the middle of exam season and the colleges usually stop tourist access so that the students can revise in peace.  And so it transpired.  So I stood with the other tourists (including the woman bravely ignoring the “No Dogs” sign) and peered into New Court.  Just looking around brought memories flooding back of my time here.  I could have stood there all day – but sense prevailed. Before leaving, I thought I’d check with the porter just in case the college would be open later in the day.  He patiently confirmed my worst fears, cheerfully explaining that the college wouldn’t be open to the public until July.

At this point, I was pretty close to crying – so to avoid the total embarrassment of doing such an un-English thing in a public place made a jokey comment about “leaving it for 30 years and then coming back at just the wrong time”.  The porter politely asked (and he was excessively polite) if I’d been a student at Corpus and when I confirmed it, asked for my details.  He then checked an impressively thick binder and when he found my name, welcomed me back and handed me a card to give me access to the rest of the college.

Five minutes later, I was the other side of the barrier and wandering around.  Corpus is arranged around 2 courts – New Court (see above) and Old Court.

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I was particularly happy to get into Old Court as the rooms in my First and Third year both looked onto it.  (First year – top floor, the windows above the gateway; third year, ground floor the two windows in the bottom left of the picture).  To my amazement Old Court looked completely unchanged.  As I walked past the door to my Third Year rooms, I swear it was exactly the same door as was there 30 years ago.  As I walked past I could see the resident inside, the desk exactly where mine had been illuminated by a small lamp as even on the sunniest days, the room was quite dark.  I was very tempted to tap on the door and introduce myself, but realised just how much of an imposition I would have considered someone who had done that to me, so I wandered on.

I spent a very happy hour here, exploring my old stamping grounds.  Some things had changed – a new bar and a new library – but some things looked identical to my memories.  Still feeling a bit emotional, I headed out and thanked the porter for giving me access.

As I headed back onto the street, I was brought back to modern life with a thump as I saw two police officers walking towards me.  A second look made it clear one was a PCSO, but the other was wearing a harness and cap that made me think he was an armed officer.  I then noted he wasn’t carrying a gun or any handcuffs.  As they walked past I looked on his back to see he was an “Environmental Crime Officer”.  What the heck is that?

The rest of my trip around Cambridge was full of mixed emotions.  I received a huge lift when I saw this shop still existed:

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Heffers is almost a holy place for me.  When I went up to Cambridge for my interview in 1980, my English teacher told me that I had to go to Heffers as it was the best book shop in the country.  I did (I bought a book called The Finer Tone) and during my time at Cambridge I went there a lot.  I love book shops and Heffers is one of the best.  Was I disappointed when I went inside?  Hell, no.  While it may have bent its’ knee to the modern requirements for book shops to stock drivel by Dan Brown and E.L. James, it still stocks a bewildering array of literature and reference material.  It is a book-lovers paradise.  Going in while being a bit upset was clearly unwise – I left with my pack weighed down with nearly £100 worth of books.  Retail therapy works in many ways!

I felt the opposite when I realised that the cinema has gone to be replaced by an M&S Food Hall.  The place where I first saw Time Bandits and the Rocky Horror Picture Show has disappeared.  More than anything else, that makes me feel bloody old and bloody awful.  I hoist my backpack slightly higher and head back to the train station.  I spent a lot less time here than originally intended – maybe I’ll come back soon at a time when the colleges are open.  Though that might break down my determination and I will end up weeping on street corner.

The journey home is strangely befitting such an oddly emotional day.  For the first time, my train is delayed and when it finally arrives keeps giving out a series of bone-crunching crashed and lurches that make me feel we’ll never get back to London.  On the journey back I finish White Peak and rather than start another book, I just stare out the window.