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.

 

 

 

 

B is for Bath

Day 2 followed an overnight at the Arnos Manor Hotel in Bristol.  Great looking place (check out its’ web-site: https://www.arnosmanorhotel.co.uk/) but what it fails to mention is that it’s right on the extremely busy A4.  Also they have a chef who is seriously trying too hard.  I had the Venison Lasagne for dinner.  While it was tasty, I can’t honestly say it was any better than a lasagne made with beef.  They also decided to provide garlic bread – not unusual but the bread they provided was flat bread.  Now as we all know, flat bread is not known for it’s ability to absorb things.  As a result, the garlic butter lurked like a ninja inside the bread only to spring forth and run over the table, floor and my left leg as soon as I picked the bread up.

Having said all that, the room was huge (and cheap – £35 via Tripadvisor) and I slept extremely well.

Started off with a hike to the train station.  As I left the hotel a light rain was falling, but light enough that I ignored the bus stop taunting me with its’ allure of dryness and walked anyway.  Turns out that this was the kind of rain that seems light but persists – persists until you are thoroughly moist and cursing the warm and dry people in the bus that skimmed past 10 minutes later.

Bristol Temple Meads station has two queues when you arrive – the short one for the cashier windows and the long one for the self service tickets.  The latter moves ridiculously slowly and so I, like the more incisive commuters, joined the cashier queue and swept forward towards the platforms while the people in the self service line could only shuffle forward slightly faster than the glaciers are melting.  My strategy worked perfectly and I jumped onto the train with 2 minutes to spare.  (Once again, this was clearly the result of excellent planning rather than sheer blind luck).  My planning didn’t extend to a seat however, so I was forced to stand and spent the journey half hunched over as I tried to see anything of the scenery rushing past.

My book is still A Disaffection.  I am wavering between indifference and active dislike of the book.  The style follows the internal thoughts of the main character and copies the way someone thinks.  As a result he often stops before the end of a

Annoying isn’t it?

By the time I got to Bath, the rain had stopped and I started to hike around the town centre.  The town centre, although full of the standard shops you’ll find anywhere, is still really attractive as the majority of the buildings are built of a cream coloured limestone.  The result is quite soothing and, even more soothing, I didn’t see anywhere disfigured by a set of golden arches.  The people of Bath do have an odd taste in modern art, however – what is the obsession with umbrellas?

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While in Bath, I had a few things that I absolutely had to visit – the Royal Crescent, the Circus and the Roman Baths.  Apart from that, there was one place I definitely was not going to visit – the Jane Austen Centre.  While I understand that many people get a lot of pleasure from reading Jane Austen I read all of her works while I was at university.  And I read them in a week.  Like anything, you can have too much of a good thing (except for cheesecake).  In Ms Austens case “too much” arrived far earlier than anticipated – well before the end of the first book in fact.  To say that I am underwhelmed by her brand of wittily mannered literature is like saying Donald Trump is only slightly orange.  I also imagine the Centre will be filled with “actors” pretending to be her characters and giggling behind their hands while simpering “Oh, Mr Darcy” in affected tones.  And that will be just the men.  The thought of wandering around in the rain has more going for it — and luckily the rain has stopped.

I’ve managed to get here before most of Bath is awake, so I walk through the town past largely closed shops.  The day is mercifully warmer than yesterday so my cheap hoodie can get stowed away and probably never used again.  (This is extremely likely as it transpires that Primark thinks it’s a good idea to put a Large hoodie on a 2XL hanger, because let’s face it who will ever notice?  I will).

Bath is full of attractive buildings and little sights tucked just out of view.  Just off the Royal Avenue I see a sign for the Georgian Garden and I explore to find a well laid out little garden that I happily wander around.

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But then it’s off to the main attraction – The Royal Crescent.  Approaching this from the Royal Avenue is definitely the right way to do it as you get a fantastic view of the whole crescent as you walk up the hill towards it.  There is a broad lawn in front of it and the place to take the best photographs from is marked by the gaggle of Japanese tourists.  Bizarrely, half of them are looking the other way and excitedly taking photographs of something else.  When I get closer, I find out what has grabbed their attention – a squirrel.

Ignoring the local rodents, I turn my attention to the Crescent itself.  It’s a truly spectacular range of buildings – and, for once, larger than I thought.  I manage to get a good video of it on my phone, spoiled only by the coach parked in front of No 1.  Did they not understand they were in my way?  Surely they would have known of my visit and cleared out the parked cars as well.  Shrugging at the repeated realisation that the world does not revolve around me, I carry on.

I learned that there are rules for taking pictures around groups of tourists.  When I see someone trying to take a picture, I stop and wait and then move on when they have finished.  The same people then turn and just as I am about to take a photo walk right in front of me, ruin the photo and then walk off completely oblivious.  Luckily I am about a foot taller than most of them so it makes very little practical difference.

I head up to walk around the Crescent itself and immediately it gets calmer and quieter.  Mainly because no other tourists seem to bother to do this.  Also with no roads in front of the Crescent, the car noise fades away and the view across the valley below makes it clear why this was built here.  My reverie is disturbed by a Chinese lady who asks me if I am a tourist and then acts in a most bizarre way.  First, she wants to talk to someone she doesn’t know.  Second, she has an extremely poor sense of direction and as I’ve unwisely admitted to being here all day wants to walk around with me so she doesn’t get lost.  So, basically, I think she’s bizarre because she’s being friendly.  It’s a sad indictment on our culture that this is unusual, and a sadder indictment on myself that I spend some time trying to think of an excuse before agreeing.

So we head off, visit the Circus and Pulteney Bridge and then head off towards the Roman Baths.  IMG_0380

On the way we have a long chat about many things – including the fact that she is concerned that English people think they are better than everyone else.  When I ask why she thinks this, she says it’s because when she was in London and travelling on the Tube, no-one would talk to her.  I find myself apologising for my country and trying to explain “commuting” to her.  We head off to the Roman Baths – after clarifying that I wasn’t suggesting we take a spa, but instead that this is a tourist attraction.

The Roman Baths make the visit to Bath worthwhile on their own.  The tour is well structured with an audio guide that can be fast-forwarded, paused and generally ignored when you feel like it.  They have constructed the tour so that there are several displays and it takes you through the whole place quite seamlessly.  Or it would do were it not for the 2 coachloads of French school children.  It turns out that there is nothing that a group of gibbering children cannot screw up.

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I move ahead to get past the damn kids, and so manage to lose my companion.  I waited for her once I left, but didn’t see her again – so she probably thinks I was very rude.  Either that or she had been trying to get away from me and took the opportunity to do so.  It’s only then that I realise that despite walking around Bath for a couple of hours at no point had we asked each other our names!  Feeling somewhat chastened, I head off for lunch and I choose an emporium where I can be assured of the finest of foods and wines – Smashburger.  As I go in I notice that the lurking presence of McDonalds has installed itself opposite and I mentally spit in their direction.

Smashburger is interesting.  Not unpleasant but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to eat there again.  Following lunch, some more ambling around before getting the train back home.  On the way back, I afford some amusement to a group who watch me falling asleep as I continue to plow my way through A Disaffection.  What they don’t realise is that I’m awake enough to hear one of them patiently trying to explain to his airhead friend what the attraction of the book Shogun is.  She clearly doesn’t get it, but he continues trying to explain what the book is about which speaks of either extreme patience on his behalf, or a desire to get in her pants.  I smile to myself and put Shogun on the list to re-read.

I get back to Slough with a mingled sense of relief and disappointment.  Relief that I have started this project and got the first two places complete, disappointment that I live in Slough.

 

 

 

 

 

A is for Avebury

I started off today with a good weather report and confidence that everything would go smoothly.  My tickets for the next 4 days have been booked via Thetrainline.com and so I head off to the station elegantly attired in shorts and T-shirt.  First disappointment of the day was delivered by the weather which was not the baking sunshine predicted but instead was bloody cold.  Secondly, the ticket machine at Slough refused to believe I was pressing buttons when I was and so an increasingly irritated line of people swelled behind me as I tried to use this “simple method” of retrieving my tickets.  Having finally got them, I strode onto the platform and then checked them noting for the first time that I had a seat booked from Reading to Swindon, but that ticket wasn’t for an hour and a half.

I made the decision to head for Reading as I could nip out of the station there and get myself a jacket as I had managed to pack poorly as usual.  I had, however, got the most important thing with me – a book (actually, I had two).  The trip from Slough to Reading was quite strange.  The train was almost completely silent, with various people sprawled across seats asleep.  It felt more like the last train of the night rather than the 09:00 that it was.  It was good to see a couple of people with books – I thought they had almost died out!

At Reading, I blagged my way out of the station and headed into town to buy myself a jacket.  I found myself torn between M&S (pricey but good quality) and Primark (cheap and definitely poor quality).  Finance won the day, so after grabbing a cheap hoodie I headed back to the station for the first coffee of the week.  Back there I made the mistake of heading into the waiting room to use the toilets.  The toilets themselves had that delightful smell of stale urine usually reserved for the landings of multi-story car-parks, while the waiting room itself reminded me of the one in Beetlejuice – only with less cigarette smoke.  When whatever Supreme Being decides where I go after this life, I suspect I’ll be spending some time in the purgatory of a room just like this.  With that cheerful thought, I decided to leave the glumly staring and largely silent people behind me and concentrated on my book.

The book referred to is Drawing Blood by Poppy Z Brite.  If you like drug use, casual homosexual sex and a story that flirts with the supernatural much in the way McDonalds flirts with the concept of fine dining, this book is for you.  Personally, it was a book I endured rather than enjoyed.  I finished it with a sense of relief.

The train on to Swindon was far more crowded than my first train and I wonder why people claim to enjoy train travel.  As I watched a harassed mother being bullied by her 3 year old child, and got to experience the piercing shrieks with which he indicated his displeasure I appreciated even more the pleasures of driving or motor-biking.  Though both those options would have made it a lot harder to read my book.  By now, I have moved on to the second book: A Disaffection by James Kelman.  The story of a Scottish school teacher who is increasingly unhappy with his lot and who seeks solace in drink.  To describe this book as “grim” would be the sort of under-statement that is used when describing Alan Carr as “mildly annoying.”

Before I started this holiday, someone asked me if I enjoyed travelling by train.  I have to say, that I do not.  The train is merely a device for moving from A to B and doesn’t seem to have the mystery and majesty that people used to ascribe to it.  That may be something to do with the current trains, or possibly a savage indictment on modern society.  But it’s way too early to do start with a savage indictment – especially with an election looming.  My lack of excitement about travelling by train is not helped by my arrival at Swindon.  I am greeted by drizzle and a town centre that is grey and grim.  The upside is that I arrive at the bus stop with seconds to spare and settle myself into my seat congratulating myself on my excellent timing.  This was, of course, in no way complete luck.  The bus itself was a double-decker and so I sat upstairs with a sense of excited nostalgia – only to find the the roofs are considerably lower than they used to be.  Some may claim that I may be taller than when I used to ride regularly on double-decker buses, but I poo-poo such comments as fake news.

The bus headed out south and it wasn’t until we crossed the M4 and got into the countryside that I felt that my holiday had properly started.  For the first time I got to look out at green fields and hills and the prospect from the top floor of the bus gave me a good view.  Of course, the view was somewhat marred by the rain on the windows of the bus, but that would clearly stop before we got to Avebury…wouldn’t it?

As it happens, it didn’t, so I decided to look around before tramping around the stones.  Avebury itself is an odd little place.  The centre of the village comprises a handful of cottages and a pub (The Red Lion) all of which are sited within the stone circle.  The remainder of Avebury lies to the south the of the circle.  The insistent drizzle led me to take shelter inside The Henge Shop.  This sells an array of typical tourist souvenirs (including bookmarks which I made a beeline for).  There were no henges to my disappointment.  Probably just as well as I am a renowned impulse buyer and I don’t think my backpack would have been up to the challenge of carrying a henge.  I also suspect my landlady would object to the installation of a henge in the spare room.  The shop had a large selection of books on witchcraft, dowsing, crystals and the sort of topics that a friend of mine would describe as “New Age Crap”.  Bizarrely, it also included the Harry Potter books.  I also spotted a DVD of Children of the Stones.  I remember this TV series from the late 1970’s when it scared the crap out of me.  I have a copy at home, though I’ve never watched it as I suspect I will be disappointed.

Having indulged in some retail therapy, the rain had stopped so I was able to head out for the main event in my visit – the stones themselves.  While this isn’t a Karnak, the stones are certainly impressive.  I’d like to say that walking around them was a deeply spiritual experience, but the presence of a busy road going through the middle of them tends to distract you from their contemplation.  There’s also a variety of other things to distract you.   A woman in a long green robe, with a walking stick topped with a carved goat head was explaining to some bemused tourists that they had to speak to the staff in its’ own language or it wouldn’t understand them.  Another woman thought it was a good idea to let her delightfully rambunctious children climb all over the stones.  But apart from the distractions, it’s a nice walk around the stones.

Once you’ve done that, a walk into the village to the south reveals a very pretty little village and a fairly attractive church.  There is also an avenue of stones that heads out about 1 km to the east of the main ring.  The road they parallel is far quieter than that through the centre of Avebury and for the first time I could hear birdsong and get some idea of being in the countryside.

I actually really liked it here – not least because The Red Lion serves good food and a fine cider.  (I’ve been here once before many years ago for a ghost hunt at the pub.  A frustrating night as one of our group was a confirmed sceptic and spent most of the night making silly jokes.  The best moment of the night was at the end when we were all sat downstairs for our final chat and could quite clearly hear footsteps above us in what were completely empty rooms.)

So there is it, A is done and I’m heading off to Bristol to get myself in the right place for B.

I hope this was slightly more than an inconvenience.  If not, blame R – contact me and I’ll send you her email address so you can forward the hate mail.

Introduction

A.K.A Why I’m writing and why you’re reading this.

Last week I was discussing my plans for my holiday with a friend of mine (as she is largely to blame for me writing this, her identity will be hidden and she will be known only as R.  This is to prevent the hate mail she will undoubtedly receive for unleashing this nonsense upon the unsuspecting internet).  Over the last few years my holidays have all gone much the same way – I go home, I waste time for several days and I go back to work having done nothing, gone nowhere and feeling faintly cheated.  So this year I had decided to do something – the only problem then being what I should do.  I had come across the idea of visiting places in England that I had either never been to, or had not been to for a very long time.

The issue I had with this was deciding where to go and in what order – and that is where the title “Artificial Constructs” comes in.  I like things to be organised – my DVDs are in alphabetical order, my books are organised by writer, my graphic novels are organised by title.  So I needed some way to organise my holiday.  I had come across the idea of doing things alphabetically – and having casually mentioned this to a friend, the idea had developed until I had decided that was exactly what I was going to do.

I had two weeks holiday.  I had decided to travel to 4 places per week, so by the end of next week I will have covered A-H.  I liked the idea of posting photos on Facebook each day and R suggested that I should also write a blog.  (It should be pointed out at this stage that R is a strange lady with many odd ideas.  She may live to regret this one).  At the time of writing, I have completed A-D and on each day I made some notes which will form the basis of the blog.  I will also post some of the photos that I took.

If you are expecting a well researched and erudite description of the places that I am visiting, you are going to be sadly disappointed.  My research has been sketchy and I have no intention of trying to supplant the large number of well-written and researched guides that already exist.  Instead, I will probably fill this with a series of snarky comments and pictures.

I anticipate that I will look back on this in a years time and wonder why I bothered.

Anyway, that is what we’re doing here.  If it sounds interesting, read on.  If sanity has grabbed you by the throat and shaken you, then I bid you farewell.