Posted in Travel on Tuesday 5th January 2016 at 11:01pm
The British Road Trip is a failed conceit - there's something about the maximum stretch of around 800 miles or perhaps the winding, hedge-bound roads which isn't given to epic journeys. While our edgelands have an intriguing character of their own, they're not littered with the Americana necessary to romanticise the road. Britain is best seen from a train window - framed and fleeting, glimpses of back gardens and sullen canal chasms. Brick and stone blurring at speed. I've tried the road trip before - an early nineties odyssey from the South West to Newcastle via North Wales, Liverpool and the lakes. It is a distant memory now, and not an easy one in some ways. But it set some important axioms: make the curve from West to East, break the journey on each leg and never ever consider Blackpool a stopping-off place. With these in mind, we contemplated our own winter journey - our first long-haul road trip and the first return to Scotland since 2013.
The first day was a long stretch, with a later than planned start due to some difficulties with the facilities at home. Once underway though, we made good progress and paused only briefly at the splendid, recently opened Gloucester Services. The cruise along the M5 was calm and surprisingly swift and we were soon entering the twisting viaduct section which winds around the suburbs of Birmingham and contemplating the switch to the M6 which stretches its legs into Staffordshire once free of the city. On an earlier trip this part had been a bottleneck, but not today - a New Year's day start had been an excellent choice it seems and we were soon cruising north into Cheshire. The scale of our challenge hit us at Knutsford Services - realising we still had some miles to cover to reach Cumbria, and trying to guess at how long the truncated winter light would last. We ploughed on, into dusk and then dark, navigating the gentle bulge of the Preston Bypass - the prototypical British motorway. The lights of tiny lakeland villages blurred in the rain spots on my window, and we flirted with the idea of a detour into Westmoreland Services, the senior sister venue to Gloucester and scene of a welcome breakfast on a previous visit. Instead we headed on, finally arriving in a wet but welcoming Penrith in time to check-in at our fantastic B&B before heading into town to eat at The George, reconnecting with my last stay here.
Day two saw us head out to Penrith Castle to walk in the damp misty morning, before setting off again for points north. The M6 became the A74(M) and we entered Scotland - a curiously emotional experience in some ways. Our last trip here had been challenging, fraught with adjustment challenges and difficult arrangements. This time, we were back and we were in charge of the itinerary. At Abington we branched off the motorway and enjoyed welcome coffee before taking the A702 along the floor of the Clyde Valley with the nascent river which had figured so largely in my past winding and carving through the soft ground. At Biggar, we left the river and headed into the rising ground and tiny villages of the Pentland Hills. It was a tortuous route, and surprisingly unreconstructed considering it's the logical choice for traffic from the south and west heading for the capital. Finally, around mid-afternoon after a testing drive, we started a descent towards Edinburgh. The dark stones of the city spread along the Firth of Forth, a distant cobalt streak with curious rock formations puncturing the horizon. Even I, sometimes dispassionate about this city, was forced to concede it's beauty as we snaked through the proud city buildings towards our hotel in the Grassmarket.
This proved to be a wonderful base - close to the old town and just a bridge away from the station and the grand squares and boulevards of the new town. Early on in the trip we realised that this might not be the optimum time to visit in some ways: Scotland takes it's double Bank Holiday at Hogmanay incredibly seriously! Once the rush of the holidays had abated, shops closed for an annual clean. The incredibly short days were swiftly drawn into darkness. This made for a strange and rather unreal feel. We'd wake on grey, misty mornings and sometimes barely see the sun. However in other ways the timing was perfect: the city shone in this pale winter sun - the grey stone of the buildings reflected the sheen of light, and the twinkling lights of the old town staggered crazily up the hill to the castle. It was beautiful if unnerving. I felt a little overwhelmed to be so oddly infatuated with Edinburgh after a taking such a definite position. This didn't lessen with the sudden, jarring impact of a trip to Glasgow after all these years. I felt like a support had been kicked away - but I was still standing, surprisingly finding solace in a late arrival back at Waverley.
Our time in Edinburgh was magical and too short - we ate a lot, and spent a lot of time inside pubs and restaurants given the weather and the short days. There was so much more to see - so much that would have benefited from a dry morning or one which didn't whip freezing winds along Leith Walk. We finally departed a little later than we'd planned via the old road - the A1, taking a sweep out east to the coast, then plotting a lonely course south through the barely inhabited border country. It was remarkably quiet out here - with few other cars troubling us, and occasional glimpses through the rocky scenery to the crashing waves of the North Sea around Oxwellmains. Again, darkness overtook us on Tyneside and we found ourselves in the carpark of a generic retail complex, resting and refreshing ourselves before we ploughed on towards York - and the beautiful old Great Northern Railway building which was our hotel for the evening. The holiday off-season had provided us with a remarkably good rate for accommodation we'd never normally afford, so we celebrated with excellent food - possibly the best I've ever eaten. It felt like a celebration of a tough year survived, of a long trip conquered. I felt properly relaxed, ready to face the new year but reluctant to return home.
The long run home through the East Midlands, curving across the southern edge of Birmingham and close to my home town seemed easy after the challenge of the A1 - and we seemed to be home sooner than expected. It was good to be back - but this felt like an important landmark - almost exactly 800 miles of travel on the routes I'd always wanted to cover when I thought of driving a car myself. Perhaps the great British road trip is possible after all?
Posted in Travel on Monday 4th January 2016 at 10:01pm
I realised as we settled into the train at Waverley that I was nervous. It made absolutely no sense. I'd been looking forward to this part of the trip since we'd booked, and I'd been mulling over how it would pan out. We'd originally planned to drive over, but it didn't seem fair after the long haul up from home to impose more urban driving. Besides, I'd always arrived in Glasgow by train. As we crossed the ever-bleak landscape I've always loved between the two cities, I thought about previous arrivals and departures. It was fair to say that I'd normally done this in reverse, but on a few notable occasions I'd arrived at Queen Street to begin a trip. I found myself excitedly babbling about things seen from the windows, making odd connections, giving my apprehensive account of the city again. Soon we were dropping down, beside the barrel mound which surrounded the huge distillery, into the tunnel which would emerge in the city. I had a dry mouth, my heart was racing. This was absurd. It's Glasgow after all...
I suppose we adopt places at different times of our life, for different reasons. We cross paths with places at just the right moment for a redemption, a sense of home, just a place that's safe even? And often a place can evolve with us too, as London has always managed for me - and indeed, as Glasgow did for a few notable years. I'd invested a lot in the city - I'd ended up spending well over a month of each year here, seeing bands, exploring the city, trying to understand how it all fitted together. It couldn't be entirely coincidental that waves of the best music had tumbled out of this proud but ramshackle city that I also found oddly fitted me well? Later in my visits I'd started to explore Glasgow rather like I had London - striking out to find the source of things, visiting the often unvisited corners, walking further and more purposefully. Wanting to know and see, and maybe to understand. Then footsore and tired, I'd come back to the city for music and, as time wore on, friends of a sort. Of course, all this changed dramatically and excitingly for me a few years back, and since then there had been just one - not entirely successful - visit. I could chalk that up to culture shock, pushing too far and too fast, or maybe to the more sinister truth that I'd never found anyone who saw Glasgow quite how I did, let alone been able to explain my own feelings for the place or to convince anyone to see it quite how I did. I always worried what people thought of my affection for this often least-loveable of all cities, and I remember the crude assumptions people made about why I came here so often too. Sometimes though it's simple. It's the right place at the time it's most needed.
We stepped onto the concourse at the soon-to-be updated Queen Street station and like a giddy child I whirled around a bit for a moment, taking in the sweep of the roof. For want of what to do I suggested we visit an old haunt - Love Music, formerly Avalanche Records on Dundas Street. It all felt the same, smelt the same - the same fixtures and fittings. Alarmingly though, some of the same records were still here. Bands I'd championed back in 2011 languished in the 'local bands' section. There were a handful of new names, but few I recognised. Had I wasted my time entirely on all this, or had everything now retreated online completely? Where was the vibrant tumble of new sounds and mysterious discs I used to find on arrival? The fact was it took a great deal of energy to be nearly as up to date I'd managed to stay, and to expect to know without putting in the time was folly. For a while, it's fair to say, that my intense interest in the music here meant I usually had the good stuff before I arrived - but there was usually a gem or too lurking. I left empty handed and feeling thoughtful and we headed into George Square where a huge New Year's event was being dismantled - a far cry from the Thatcher Death Party we'd stumbled into on our last visit. From here, we grabbed a drink and then headed to Buchanan Street, passing the Yeeha Internet Cafe we'd had to lug our bags upstairs to use on a visit a few years back. Also, passing the coffee shop I'd so often frequented, especially when I'd just arrived and needed a bolt-hole until checking in time. Today there was no need to call in, no need to mark time watching the city. None of this made much sense really, so far out of context. We called into a couple of stores, shopped a little, wandered some more. The ground was wet, reflecting the silver sky back at us in the peculiar Glasgow way, and to the south the absence of buildings signified the river. It looked the same - but it just wasn't right somehow. I hadn't prepared for this - practically in terms of deciding what we should do, or emotionally - I was after all meeting an old friend having changed an awful lot in the interim. This needed thought. I felt exposed and clumsy, This had stopped being fun.
By Argyle Street I was finished. I'd no desire to go to The 13th Note despite it's place in my own history, I didn't want Glasgow to have changed, and I didn't want to admit I'd changed so much that I'd outgrown Glasgow either - even if that change was undeniably for the better in my case! For eighteen years I'd stalked this pattern of streets, watched the sun rise over Central Station or sink over the spires of the West End. I'd marvelled how you could buy a record from Stephen Pastel, get your hand stamped at a gig by Gerald Love or stumble into any number of musicians wherever you went. For a portion of that time I'd even lazily countenanced a future here - some way of restarting things 400 miles north when the opportunity came. Ultimately of course I'd changed my life in a far more radical sense, but I was aware that I'd somewhat closed the door on Glasgow too. It all became too much in M&S of all places... In a store which could have been anywhere in the UK, looking at generic menswear - I just knew that this wasn't going to work for Glasgow and I. It was time to leave.
I was persuaded to stick around for the train from Central back to Waverley - and it felt fitting to leave over the Clyde for old times' sake. To kill time we stopped into the Alston Bar & Beef under the station, in the catacombs which stand on the flagstones of old Grahamston. As soon as I saw the map of the long deleted district printed on their napkins I knew I'd be fine here, and that someone at least connected with things how I did. Good food, quiet and sanctuary while the rush hour clattered and swore above. We stuck it out until it was time to get the train, leaving under familiar signal gantries and over the dark river - recalling my desperate attempts to make a call to Seattle from a moving Pendolino three years before. Leaving the suburbs and plunging into the dark I settled back and reflected on the day, briefly surfacing at Carstairs to see the lights of the State Hospital. This had been a strange trip - an inversion of my usual loyalties - but a great one too. I guess I'd just changed more than I thought.
I'm not sure Glasgow belongs to me anymore, but a bit of me still belongs there. I don't know when or why I'll visit again - but I hope I get to, and I hope I get past this strange blockage in the process.
Posted in Travel on Wednesday 31st December 2014 at 11:03pm
Breakfast is by far my favourite meal. There are a number of reasons for this: firstly, it's usually accompanied by copious amounts of coffee. I love coffee. Don't misread this as "Mike likes coffee" - I appreciate it's subtleties and variations, I love the flavour and the ritual of making it, and I drink a ridiculous amount of it. I really like it a lot. Secondly, I'm an early riser - and by the time breakfast comes around, I'm really hungry. So, I don't suffer from the "hmm, I just woke up and I can't face food" thing which many people do. At breakfast time, I'm ready to eat! Finally, and rather simply, breakfast gets all the best foods. While you're probably inserting your own favourite breakfast food here - maybe a glistening link of Cumberland Sausage, a gloriously sticky waffle, a flaky croissant, a crisp edged sliver of back bacon or even a fluffy golden pancake - there's one food that I grew to love and which I feel the need to speak up for - and that is Black Pudding.
I grew up in a Midlands household where three generations of the family were living close together. My great-grandparents had come from farming stock and were certainly not squeamish or sentimental about livestock. My grandparents had survived the hardships of the Second World War too, and didn't believe in wasting food. As a child, I was more than comfortable with the idea that kidneys, pigs feet or chitterlings were being cooked in the kitchen when I arrived home from school. Some of them even smelled pretty good - but I never really tried them. They were 'grown up food' which I imagined I'd discover one day in some greasy-fingered right of passage. Black pudding fell squarely into this category, and stayed there for many years.
Travel broadens the mind in many ways, but for me one of the things it opened up was the joy of breakfast away from home. Perhaps in some lurid, plastic-tableclothed B&B or better yet on a train scudding north - it's hard to beat the travel breakfast. It's here I found myself experimenting with Orange Marmalade for the first time - something we rarely found at home - and it's here too I first tentatively tried black pudding. By turns smoothly unctuous and rather grainy in texture, the rich pork flavours lured me in. It was like the most bacon tasting bacon ever, essence of fried pig. In short, I was hooked. A lot of my travels took me to points north, and I found it easily enough. I remember strolling through Bury Market and seeing a stall entirely devoted to it. It even formed the basis, along with haggis, of one of the best hangover cures I've ever had one fuzzy-headed morning in Anstruther. Suddenly TV chefs were using it too - sliding it under seared scallops as a sort of middle class middle finger to 'poor food'. I could have found some woolly-headed Liberal offence to take here, but I was happy. More black pudding is a good, good thing.
But it's not always that simple. Black pudding has a pretty poor reputation in many quarters - which might be down to that complex class-related issue, or might just be because people don't enjoy the thought of fried pig's blood? Certainly, living as part of a joint UK/US household I've had my own acceptance challenged of what we delicately call 'offal', but what across the pond is known plainly and anti-euphemistically as 'organ meat'. But my position remains that if people taste the stuff, they'll at least decide on rational grounds - and sure enough, this household now has TWO pudding eaters! However, this ambivalence to the stuff causes some very strange things to happen. Firstly, its sudden vogue means it can be found on the menu everywhere - but the generally lack of enthusiasm means it's equally often the first thing to become unavailable. I'll often find my lips smacking at the thought of a slice of glistening, dark savoury pudding only to be told the chef is out of it. Or more strangely still, it appears to be listed as a standard breakfast item but simply doesn't appear. Is the assumption that it's OK to leave the pudding off because people don't like it? Or is it something more sinister? I've noted this and pointed it out as we travel around the country - and I think at first it sounded like I was being over-dramatic or pudding-paranoid, but after yet another non-appearance today I think my conspiracy theory is gaining more general acceptance here. Today's excuse? They are changing the menu but hadn't updated the card yet. But of course because it was 'only the black pudding' it didn't matter at all.
I realise that this is an awfully long tirade about something very, very unimportant. The very definition of the first world problem perhaps. But there is something slightly serious hiding here. The whole North/South divide thing hasn't gone away at all - it lurks in these strange culinary, linguistic and class prejudices which are riven through British life. But please, breakfast chefs of Britain, don't deprive me of this wondrous food on the basis of an amateur semiotic analysis. It tastes good, it's traditionally British and it's pretty darn cheap.
Give me back my Black Pudding!
Posted in Travel on Wednesday 31st December 2014 at 10:11pm
It's been a long-standing tradition here to escape between Christmas and New Year. There's something about getting back out into the world after a period of staying indoors, eating and drinking which is both refreshing and cathartic. We'd thought about various trips, but as it had been a pretty hectic run up to Christmas, and with the changes around jobs and finances here it wasn't really clear if we'd manage to get away as we'd hoped. Eventually, things resolved themselves and I found a reasonably priced night at a hotel in Plymouth which I'd stayed at once for a First Great Western Customer Panel meeting. It's quite a while since I'd been to Plymouth - aside, that is from passing through on route to Cornwall or very occasionally changing trains here on jaunts around the South West. Since my last visit I'd read a lot more about the Abercrombie planned City Centre and I was keen to visit again. Also, with a tourist's eye I realised that I'd never quite made it to Plymouth Hoe or The Barbican. So, we set off around mid-day on a series of surprisingly quiet trains and in remarkably good weather. A swift change at Taunton, then a dash along the sea wall at Dawlish before cresting the South Devon Banks. It was very good to be back on the rails again.
We arrived and headed straight for the hotel to check-in and deposit our bags. At the head of the long boulevard of Armada Way, our hotel was a strange, concrete-clad example of the strangely dated architecture of the new city centre here. I'd recalled it as a drab, grey corner of the city - but once inside it was warm and clean, if a little dated. Armada Way too was looking a little better - a mixture of some very smart landscaping and some very effective Christmas decorations actually had it looking very bright and welcoming, so we headed out into the city as dusk fell. The long stretches of modernist blocks seemed softened by the silver-grey evening light and it was difficult not to feel comfortable here. Something of a contrast to previous visits. We pressed on through the impromptu fairground, still whirling and blasting ill-advised pop hits, and into the Civic Zone. The towering and ill-fitting Civic Centre, topped by a breathtaking roof sat across from the almost caricatured period-piece law courts and granite-blasted Guildhall. It is an uneasy mix - and not how the plan was meant to turn out of course, but it remains an interesting footnote in British architectural history - and despite being seen often as "how not to do things" all three buildings remain in use today.
After a leisurely dinner and a comfortable night, we set out to explore further. This time we crossed onto the Hoe, ascending to view the vast War Memorial which faces down the city defiantly, aligned on the long axis of Armada Way and elevated. Beyond this, the relocated Eddystone Lighthouse is a reminder of the naval pedigree of the city. As we crested the rise here, the vast sweep of the natural harbour at the mouth of the Tamar was evident. A silvery sky reflected on the water, the near-distance shrouded in rainclouds. It was an atmospheric and stirring view which somehow made complete sense of the city and it's curious alignment. We lingered for awhile before moving off towards the Royal Citadel, skirting it's forbidding stone walls along the waterfront to find our way back to The Barbican.
We set off home in the dark, a cosy train ride north to close our year. The train was quiet and warm, and I reflected on our travels. We hadn't managed to cover nearly the ground we'd hoped this year - but it looked like we could perhaps redress that a little now. As it was though, this trip was a good indication of how things should be - with places seen afresh and explored anew. It was a fitting way to end a tough but rewarding year, and a statement of intent for the next one.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.