Posted in Travel on Tuesday 21st February 2017 at 11:02pm
It felt good to be on the move again. Despite my committed trainspotter status, I've begun to relax into our road trips and to appreciate the opportunity to see familiar places from a new angle. This time was a little special, and I was childishly excited to be setting off having spent a night in the curious hotel I'd walked by just last month. Our night on the fringe of Essex was surprisingly quiet and relaxing - waking to a misty view over Epping Forest and taking an early train journey into the yawning and stretching city, the fog slowly lifting to reveal a weak, wintery sunshine. We'd set off early and grabbed a coffee in the rather quaint surroundings of Buckhurst Hill - a little village centre in the midst of the suburbs. People came and went, their Sunday morning ritual observed. We lingered before setting off along the High Road and intersecting with another of my recent walking routes. It felt strange to be driving the route I'd walked, joining the North Circular at Waterworks Corner near the spot where my route had come to a slithering, muddy halt just short weeks ago. On a Sunday morning the A406 was still a river of traffic, but it flowed steadily and easily. I'd crossed and recrossed the route so often in this quadrant that unlikely landmarks suggested themselves: footbridges, sliproads and underpasses that had figured in my wanderings were oddly familiar - but striking seen from another angle. The road curved south, dropping into the Roding Valley and stalking the line of electricity pylons which had shadowed my walk through Ilford into an unexpected monsoon. The flyover buckled over the road into town, striding ahead on stilts to meet the A13 at Barking Creek while Tate and Lyle's works at Silvertown glinted in a patch of distant sunlight. As we cruised down the ramp onto this road of which I'd made a particular study and had walked beside for miles, the dust and accumulated detritus whipped against the railings: "there's so much trash!". The A13 was a rollercoaster to the sea - bridges leaping and twisting between the edges of industry and the broad marshes. Over the Roding, over the strangely makeshift construction at Lodge Avenue, turning south and east to amble over Rainham Marsh. Still so much drifting plastic rubbish, so much dust and burned earth. The aroma of the waste reclamation site hung heavy over the brooding marshland.
From some miles away we'd seen the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge arcing over the estuary, with speck-like vehicles hurrying over it's bowstrung deck. As we closed in, sliding effortlessly over the marshes which I'd walked with sore feet counting each step, the bridge felt unreal and fragile. Joining the lines of traffic climbing to its apex, all I could see ahead were the towers set against the pale estuarine skies. Beside us, the brown churn of the Thames was still and waveless. Lights winked from the tops of towering cranes at London Gateway, and to the west there was a smudge of silver-grey where the towers of Docklands stood. The nose of the car was down now, pointing at the green earth of Kent. We turned east again, the river visible here and there as Dartford slipped into Gravesend, before we disappeared into a chalk gorge with the High Speed railway line beside us. Suddenly we burst into an open vista of rolling, green woodland. The road marched ahead on a broad viaduct, with the sprawling Medway valley beneath us. There was surprisingly little trash to be found lining this route. South of the river is a different world, even out here it seems.
At Medway Services, a relic from the early 1960s which bridges the road offering a view back west as traffic crests the hill and zooms underneath M&S and Costa, we paused for coffee. We were nearing our destination for the remainder of our weekend, and needed to review the complex instructions for accessing the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. The experience was pitched somewhere between a red carpet celebrity arrival and an East Berlin checkpoint: after navigating the ring road around the city walls, we entered an otherwise restricted road and turned a sharp right to a gated entrance. Our name was enough to lift the barrier. Permitted to enter only long enough to deposit our bags and collect a parking permit, we were soon to learn that rules and regulations were the engine of this place. Waking on our first morning I took my customary stroll. The sky was a dull pink-grey, the sun just beginning it's ascent. I gazed up at the butter-yellow stone of the Cathedral as I walked towards the gate, so impressively close to our lodgings. I was brought up sharply by a voice asking me to stop. The uniformed Catherdral Constables protected the precinct outside public hours with a grim determination: "How did you get in here?". I showed the pass card the hotel had issued - but that wasn't enough. ID was required - but I had none. Not being a driver, and not customarily carrying a passport in my home country, I wasn't able to support my pass with the correct credentials. "What are we going to do now?" the Constable asked sarcastically. My suggestion didn't help at all - "Find a real policeman?". Eventually they decided that a fistful of bank cards and suchlike bearing the same name would do, and let me out into the streets of the city. It felt oddly liberating to be among the tumbling old buildings and hidden alleyways of this ancient place. I headed for the River Stour and sat for a while in the quiet of Abbot's Mill Garden, the water cascading through a tangle of channels which once fed the wheels.
Despite the regime at the hotel which felt equally oppressive and challenging inside the building as out, we managed to relax and enjoy the city. Because of the atmosphere of a religious retreat inside, escaping the gates felt like an exhalation - and elsewhere in Canterbury we found friendly service, excellent food and very little of the bleak Protestant disapproval which the Lodge seemed to be founded on. Oddly, inside the Cathedral building too, the atmosphere was immediately different - charged with significance and history, the sheer burden of time crushed the fusty rules and deferred all to a higher authority. The vast nave stretched into the distance, rising to form Trinity Chapel where St. Thomas Becket's bones lay until disturbed by Henry VIII. He didn't prevail entirely here - this by far the most colourful, most Catholic of Anglican churches - right here at the heart of the diluted, English faith. Much of British history wound back to this place but it was far from an inert shrine for display purposes only: as we shuffled along the wall of remarkable monuments a funeral was beginning in the Quire. All too soon it was time to begin the trip home, but there was a further stop to make first. After a winding journey along country roads, tailgated by white vans and nearly side-swiped by throbbing BMWs, we turned a corner to witness the stark towers of the ruins at Reculver. I'd seen this uncanny, sublime view from the train window many times but close at hand, on it's clifftop roost, the scale of the proud, surviving towers was impressive. We walked the path to the towers, the flat field beside them covering the remains of a roman fortress. This spot had defended the coast for centuries - and the towers had served as a waymark for boats using the long disappeared Wantsum Channel and a navigation aid for the treacherous Thames estuary. Looking out across the water I could see distant ranks of wind turbines, and between them the eerily animate shadows of the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands. Beyond lay distant Essex, where this journey had started - and where I had further ground to cover, more business with this estuary. Lately, I'd been reading and thinking much about Charles Olson, and his words suddenly fell perfectly into step with the view across the water:
It is undone business I speak of, this morning, with the sea stretching out from my feet
Charles Olson, Maximus To Himself, 1960
We headed back to the car to make the long drive west. Once again, Kent had surprised me with it's ability to ensnare me in it's history and to make me want to return. The haunting views at Reculver needed to be considered further, their stories unravelled in detail. We followed the taillights back towards London, and home.
There is a small gallery of pictures from the trip here.
Posted in Travel on Tuesday 3rd January 2017 at 6:01pm
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote my goodbye letter to Glasgow here. It had been a difficult day where my hitherto reliably steadfast dependence on the places I knew best had let me down. I'd found the city which had usually given me a rare sense of home, wanting. Over the past year I've thought a lot about that day - not least because it worked as a microcosm of the bigger changes my life has passed through these past few years: realising that things were changing outside my control, at a pace I couldn't dictate. I've had to learn to understand that - and I'm still working on coming to terms with it in some ways. So when I found myself suggesting that we spent a night in Glasgow on our approaching new year tour of the north, I was a little surprised. The idea of spending a night - waking up early and pacing the city, watching passers by from familiar coffee shop windows - was oddly comforting. Perhaps it was worth another try - and it would at least be just one night...
As we navigated the convoluted off-ramps of the urban M8 down to street level, I watched the cliff-face of tall buildings which cluster around the north bank of the Clyde at Anderston with growing excitement. Arriving in Glasgow this way - by road from the south - was a new experience, with all the exhilaration of soaring motorways cutting through the incomplete regeneration schemes while the sun reflects from red sandstone tenements stacked up the hills of the city. Arriving at our hotel for the evening was equally interesting - I'd stayed here a decade back when it was the decaying Quality Hotel Glasgow Central - a once proud railway hotel falling into disrepair as its owning company slowly went out of business. However, restored to it's former grandeur as the Grand Central Hotel it's now a comfortable and luxurious stop-over in the city centre. We don't stray far for the evening, enjoying the same restaurant that saved the day a year ago.
This morning I set out early, onto the slick pavements which I'd so often pounded early. I retraced an old route around the city centre, to Queen Street station for a glance at the trains. In the midst of refurbishment and electrification it was quiet and a bit battered looking, but the thrill of trains to far-flung points at the end of the network was still present. As I headed for a familiar coffee stop and used the quiet morning to write and catch up on correspondence, I watched the city waking outside - the darkness turning into the silver-grey of a typical Glasgow morning. The stores began to open, and the commuters hustled along Buchanan Street to work. I recalled the feeling of being relaxed and content I used to get here when I'd escaped for a visit, and realised I felt pretty similar. Perhaps Glasgow hadn't changed so much - or perhaps more surprisingly I hadn't either?
Later we headed west to the Botanic Gardens. There was a little weak sunshine above, and the park was surprisingly busy for a chilly January afternoon. On our way to exit, we stopped to look at the remains of Botanic Gardens station, green and damp beneath the earth of the park. I'd visited these before, in very different times - and like Glasgow itself, they remained solid and weatherbeaten - but, they remained. Getting back here and staying for a night had given me a chance to recalibrate to the rhythm of this unique city, and getting out into the dark morning had allowed to feel part of its story again. We both admitted that, despite the next leg of our trip being ahead, we didn't want to leave. What a difference a year makes...
Posted in Travel on Wednesday 31st August 2016 at 5:08pm
It was good to be back on the road. The lead in to this long weekend away had been painful and sad, and there was a point where I feared we wouldn't get away. But as we made progress on the now-familiar stretch of motorway through Somerset and Gloucestershire, it felt surprisingly right to be heading away from home for a few days. This break had been planned for a while, and given how intense my work routine had become lately it felt absolutely necessary to be taking a proper holiday during the summer - something I've rarely ever done. After a now traditional pause at the impressive Gloucester Services we headed north and east, skirting Birmingham and heading for the M1 - the reverse of a journey we'd made at the start of the year. The traffic was heavier southbound than in the direction we were heading - the holidays were coming to an end as we set off for ours and people were heading for one final fling in the South West before normality returned. So the timing, in some senses at least, was good. The journey flew by surprisingly quickly and with less sadness than perhaps we'd expected - once again showing the power of travel and movement to quiet the mind - and after another brief break we were crossing into Yorkshire and passing the huge cooling towers of Ferrybridge. It's fair to say I didn't take many pictures during this trip - but I managed to capture the majesty of these now dormant monoliths on the skyline. We were soon in York, heading in from the A64 along a well-remembered route. Once we had checked into a curiously haphazard Premier Inn, we dashed out into the summer rain to a fine little restaurant where we lingered over great food and enjoyed genuinely friendly service. For a few days we could escape the sadness and enjoy being away from home in a city we both loved.
Being away for a longer while than usual, our mornings followed a familiar pattern - I'd rise early and potter around the city walls to the station where I'd get coffee and watch the world go by. York is one of the locations on the network which were early targets when I began exploring by rail. I recall my first trip to the city in the early 1990s - a quick dash around the railway museum and lots of time spent marvelling at the huge curve of the roof before heading homeward on what seemed like an impossibly long odyssey back then! So, to start each day here was a privilege - I'd only stayed in York twice before, despite many visits over the years. Our first morning though was rather unusual - as we strolled into the City to revisit Brew and Brownie - a breakfast spot we'd enjoyed on our last visit, we stumbled on the Micklegate Soapbox Run - a drag-race down the steep, cobbled city street in makeshift go-karts. We watched a team of local Fire and Rescue staff hurtling by in a surprisingly well-appointed craft while crowds cheered them on. The previous evening's rain formed a water hazard in the middle of the track, and the hyperventilating local radio DJs providing running commentary whooped loudly as the cart thundered into it. It was, in fairness, remarkably good fun - and the turn-out of locals and visitors was fantastic. As we squeezed into a busy breakfast venue, we ruminated on how people up here were more open, friendly - maybe far more likely to do that kind of thing?
On our last visit, the pre-Christmas flooding had swollen the River Ouse to the point that many pleasure craft were marooned between the two bridges in the city centre, and we'd noted that there was a river-borne tour company operating in the city - though not during that deluge. Given somewhat calmer conditions we sought out Kings Landing later in the afternoon, and enjoyed a pleasant beer while we cruised through the city, seeing evidence of the former port and the lesser River Fosse along the way. My interest in minor waterways was piqued by the sight of the confluence, and I made notes to trace it's route on the map later. We saw it again when we tackled the City Bus tour too - curving in it's channel around the historic city, the walls of the city using it as a defensive ditch. In the pleasant sunshine the Bus Tour was a delight too - a chance to review the lie of the city and to find new corners to visit. We disembarked in the centre of the old city and navigated the narrow, overhung streets to another spot we'd wanted to visit for food: the medieval drinking hall above the beer shop at The House of Trembling Madness. After eating far too much, surrounded by ageing taxidermy in a very atmospheric room, we stumbled out to rest beside the great front of the Minster before a quick visit to the Railway Museum just before it closed. The railway interest didn't end there - as I'd booked onto a Branch Line Society tour on Bank Holiday Monday. It felt odd to be waiting with a crowd of enthusiasts on a platform again - but it was a fine trip along lines I'd not visited for years.
Because it felt like a temporary relief to be away we decided to stay for another night. We'd been mildly disappointed with the somewhat clumsy Premier Inn here, and as they were now charging premium prices for late bookings we ended up at the rather more upmarket Royal York Hotel. I'd always wanted to stay here. It's entrance directly onto the station made it one of that group of Railway Hotels which have always intrigued and delighted me. Indeed, it transported us back to the golden age of rail travel - classically good service in a modern reception, which led into a grand square of staircases winding up into the building. While we waited for our room to be readied, we sipped tea and coffee in the Garden Room. This felt like a special treat indeed - as did the meal in the hotel's excellent restaurant later. We had ticked another York hotel I've always been keen to visit off my list.
Heading home, later in the week than we'd planned and having had a memorable and relaxing trip, I felt almost guilty for enjoying myself. We were coming back to difficult times and sad tasks - but we were certain we'd be heading back to York again. There are few places which could have diverted us from how we were both feeling these past days, and few places which could have felt so friendly and strangely homelike when the sadness did break through. For now though, it was good to see that first glimpse of the Severn as we descended from the hills near Clevedon. Coming home won't be quite the same, but it's still home.
Posted in Travel on Thursday 21st July 2016 at 12:07pm
It felt like a long time since I'd faced the challenge of getting a seat on a CrossCountry Voyager. Oddly, I was feeling really tense about the process. I'd taken all the usual precautions - booked the seats I wanted, located the point the train would stop at, everything short of booking a ridiculously early train which would be empty as per my usual tactics but somewhat unpopular in other quarters! As the unit rolled in, I noted someone in our seats and felt my anger rise. Boy did I need this break. It had been a long, complicated summer so far at work, and I'd been struggling to maintain a balanced view as things had whirled around me. In the event, whether it was my respectful pointing out that the seats were reserved or the fact that my knitted brows betrayed my anger, they moved. A few minutes later we were scudding north with the aircon working hard and I was feeling very happy to be back on the rails. It's moments like this that I realise that travel is essential to keeping me on track - in every sense. This trip, hastily planned but much looked-forward to, would take in Liverpool and Manchester - somewhere we'd liked on a previous visit along with a brief glimpse of a new city. For me it was a chance to revisit old haunts, ring the changes on the rails and to relax.
The first remarkable change I had to deal with was Birmingham New Street. A quick scan of posts on this site over the years will see that I visited often. Often enough to confidently plan ludicrously swift changes of train with time to collect coffee and breakfast on route. On trips where I needed to break a homeward journey I'd schedule in a break to drink coffee and watch the world go by while I waited for the always mysteriously quiet 18:42 home. I knew New Street well - and while it was drab, over-complicated and unfriendly in so many ways, I rather liked it. The redevelopment of the station and the retail complex above it began just as I drifted away from the rails and was completed last year, and I'd heard a lot about how different it was now. On arrival it didn't look too different at all - the stairs and escalators up to the concourse had received some attention and there were now helpful lifts at both ends of the platform - but otherwise it was still the gloomy dungeon it had always been. Then we stepped out of the lift into another world! I calculated, after getting my bearings, that we were on the site of the concourse which bridged the platforms in the old station. Passing through what would have been the site of the ticket gates we wandered into a lofty, bright atrium surrounded by retail units and restaurants. Sunlight streamed in from above, drawing the eye up two floors to the flagship John Lewis store. At ground level, a huge range of food options circled the atrium, with more stairs, lifts and escalators to access the other end of the platforms ahead of us. Everything was bright, clean and efficient. I was bewildered. Waiting in perhaps the rudest Starbucks I've ever visited while a quick John Lewis visit took place, I reflected on the change. I needed to come back and explore - to just walk the place, understand it. Replace old routes with new. Right now it was novel and strange, but unsettling. I couldn't navigate with the confidence which I'd always had here.
Back down on the much more familiar territory of platform 4C we boarded the Class 350 unit bound for Liverpool and enjoyed an M&S picnic as we set off for Wolverhampton. The train filled and emptied as we stopped at the smaller stations on the route, before navigating the recently opened junctions at Norton Bridge. The course of the new railway passed gracefully overhead, slightly disorienting me. But soon the terrain was more familiar - we were passing Basford Hall Yard, then calling at Crewe, and finally heading west at Weaver Junction and into the stretch of urban and industrial sprawl which runs along the north bank of the Mersey as it broadens into its estuary. Making good time, the scenery was a delight. Seeing the changing shape of Britain was such an everyday experience once - but now it genuinely feels like a privilege again. To do this on a warm summer afternoon in good company was even better. For the first time in a while I was feeling relaxed about this trip and it's potential for complications.
Arrival in Liverpool was, as ever, an impressive experience. Plunging into the deeply carved cuttings at Edge Hill we snaked into the lofty terminus at Lime Street and wandered onto the concourse. First stop was the taxi rank, then a swift spin around the city to our hotel which was near the waterfront and Moorfields station. The gentle slope down to the Mersey made for a fantastic view, with the ever-watchful Liver Birds visible over the rooftops. We spent a little time in the evening sitting outside the hotel, watching the sun slip low over the Wirral as the last few ferries plied their trade on the broad river. It was good to be back here, and good to be staying for a few days. On our first morning we took a tour bus to orient ourselves - my early walk across the city to find coffee had taken a similar route up to St. George's Hall and the station, but then the bus swung east to make the link between the two superb cathedrals - the beautiful modernist pinnacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral designed by Frederick Gibberd, and then Gilbert Scott's massive red stone hulk on St. James' Mount. We made a mental note to return here, but the lure of the river was strong and when the heat became almost too much we decided to take the ferry on its lazy looping route - north to the docks, west to Seacombe, south to Birkenhead and then back to the Port of Liverpool's angular but attractive new terminus. The deceptive breeze lured us into feeling pleasantly cool, and neither of us noticed the pink tint to our faces as we watched the water slip by from the deck.
We combined the trip out to the cathedrals with a visit to Moose and Moonshine - a restaurant based on Moose the local brunch and coffee shop in town, which was unfortunately closed for refurbishment for much of our trip. It was probably too hot for breakfast foods - but as I contemplated a morning in the presence of two holy places, I needed earthly sustenance. Breakfast shouldn't be hard to come by, but in the cities of England it somehow seems to be now. It's a meal best found on the classless edgelands and suburbs - in grease-caffs and at roadside vans - but not in the self-conscious city. This then, was a real treat. Good, hearty, beautifully cooked breakfast! Afterwards, feeling sluggish but happy, we braved the roasting heat of the middle of the hottest day of the year to ascend the steps to the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. The awe-inspiring effect of the disconnected belltower and the circle of irregular blocks which seem to form a whole circle from a distance was remarkable. The lighting inside was equally impressive, with natural sunlight through subtle blocks of stained glass lighting the building like tubes of bright neon. We sat for a while, then circled the building. It was cool and calm inside, far preferable to the Graduation Day tumult of people sweating outside in gowns and ermine. Eventually we decided to leave and headed for the Philharmonic - a Liverpool institution - for a pint before heading back to the air-conditioned hotel room. The Anglicans could wait until next visit - a whole new cathedral for us to explore, perhaps after another breakfast?
Our plan was to leave Liverpool and spend a night in Manchester - it would be a first visit for one of us, a chance to orient to the city, and something that's worked well before. After a brief stopover in York for instance we knew we needed to revisit soon. The train was rather warm but pleasantly quiet and as we trundled over the canals and viaducts of Manchester, we were looking forward to getting to the hotel. I'd chosen one I'd frequented a number of previous times, which I hoped would provide for some good views. However, on arrival we realised that the promised refurbished rooms didn't have air-conditioning. The room had been baking in 32Âº heat all day, and even the provided fans weren't cooling us down. It was incredibly hot outside too, but thankfully we managed to get a seat outside a fine restaurant for dinner. Then it was back to the greenhouse of a hotel room for an uncomfortable night. When we checked out I invoked the 'good night guarantee' for the first time ever. The receptionist didn't seem surprised. I later discovered that some floors of the hotel do have air-conditioning as I'd thought - but the upper floors do not due to a dispute with the landlord of the building. I'm sure there were several refunds made that morning, indeed the gent who left before us seemed to have the same issues.
Our train home was a treat for me - a chance to travel again on the direct service from Manchester to Bristol which had once been a staple of my repertoire. I'd noticed some perturbation on the lines south to Birmingham all morning and I felt the return of the queasy uncertainty I'd had at the outset. Crosscountry haven't ever been the most reliable operator for me, but fending for two of us now felt different. As it happened, our train ran perfectly, and we soon slipped into our chosen seats and relaxed our way south towards home. Taking the new link at Norton Bridge confused me at first - the layout a mystery despite having read endless articles about it prior to its building. Not changing at New Street meant missing a chance to explore the station again - but given the heat and what seemed to be an even larger load of luggage, I wasn't sorry to be able to sit comfortably in our seats while the hordes battled over reservations in the time-honoured fashion. A departure via Proof House Junction and the Camp Hill line was a bonus reminder of the reasons I used to pick these trains home on a fairly regular basis - and I was a little nostalgic for my old evening ritual. A vacation on the rails had been a welcome change to our recent road trips - and Liverpool was just about the perfect city to visit by train. Already our next visit was shaping up - for starters we'd done virtually none of the Beatles-related sightseeing. In hindsight, the heat had probably meant we'd done far less of everything - except perhaps relaxing. For me, it was good to be back on the rails too, and exploring some of the changes to the network I once knew perhaps better than the back of my own hand. I've been away for far too long.
You can see more pictures from the trip here.
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.