Posted in Travel on Saturday 27th April 2013 at 12:00am
As we set out this morning I tried to mentally calculate when I'd last been to Exeter. That's to say - actually wandered outside St. David's Station and into the city centre. Certainly there had been plenty of passing visits - not least during the summer of 2004 when almost every weekend saw me flying up and down on the locomotive hauled special trains which Virgin put on. There had also been a few FGW Customer Panel meetings which had necessitated a train up the bank to Central Station and a dash across the street to the hotel. But, I was a little shocked when I realised that the last proper visit - and the one on which I base most of my memories of the city - was back in 2002!
This was a bit of a 'getting back on the horse' trip. Whilst the Scottish excursion had been fun, it had been a little dogged by illness and discomfort - and it felt important to get out and travel again. I was a little concerned about getting wedged onto a steaming Voyager full of angry people at Taunton, which is often the case later in the day - but in fact, after a quick run down on a local unit we were lucky enough to have one of CrossCountry's HST sets draw in. We found a spacious seat in a pleasantly cool carriage and watched the countryside slipping by. Springtime had finally descended on Somerset and Devon, and there were fields of lambs skipping around and plenty of greenery. After what seemed to be a long, tough winter here it was a relief to be out and about in relative warmth too. As we curved along the River Exe into our destination, I calculated the wait for a local unit up the hill into Central Station. It was only a few minutes, so we made the dash and after a screeching ascent of the bank, emerged into the City. It was shaping up to be a warm, dry afternoon as we picked our way through the crowds in the shopping area. Everyone seemed to be happy to be out in the sunshine, and the light stone buildings took on a warm glow. Our route zig-zagged around the streets, letting unusual stores or historical spots divert us. We'd considered a visit to a food festival in Northernhay Gardens but the queues were long and there was much to see. We settled for a wander around the Castle walls later instead.
Ducking down a little alleyway, we approached the Cathedral Close from the same angle as on my last visit. I knew this would slowly reveal the squat but solidly impressive building to its best advantage. It also showed the green sweep of the close with its range of historical buildings - a rank of ecclesiastical dwellings along one side, and fine victorian hotels and stores along the other. We ate outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and both people- and seagull-watching. As we explored the grounds further, the bells rang out for a wedding party - an elaborate, military affair in fact. Though we were struck how many of the party appeared to be dressed for the nightclub. One of the odd clashes here in Exeter seemed to be the grand, old and traditional and the oddly irreverent and new. A perfect example was tucked oddly into the recent Southernhay shopping redevelopment - St. Catherine's Chapel... A ruin, but an accessible and curiously peaceful spot, artifacts pressed between glass panels to capture it's history.
Nowhere typified the conundrum which is Exeter more than the spot we visited for a comfort break on the way out of town. A lounge turned sports bar, full of bawling children and negligent parents. At the rear, the entrance to a linked nightclub was roped off, the place filthy and dangerous. Cheap supermarket pop passed off as Coca Cola with a leering dare to challenge. We escaped as fast as we could and decided to walk back to St. Davids. Out into the curious old suburbs, over the grand Iron Bridge with it's views along the Longbrook Valley, then over the hill and down to more familiar territory as we approached the station. The square outside felt dilapidated and run down, the fine Great Western Inn still functioning, but in a rather less salubrious spot than before. If this had been our entrance to the city earlier, we may not have been so immediately charmed.
Reflecting on the trip on the way home - luckily enough on another CrossCountry HST - the strange mixture of old and new, retail and romance, and classy and downbeat which Exeter had presented seemed to typify many English cities. But the fine old buidlings and the relaxed, open feel of the place won the day. I don't want to leave it another ten years before I return.
Posted in Travel on Wednesday 10th April 2013 at 11:39pm
Way back in early January, around the time that Fence Records usually announce their annual event, things were moving pretty fast around here. As we perused the invite - as ever lacking much in the way of hard information on who might actually be playing - we decided we'd head for Scotland. It was something to aim for - something which stretched out beyond the immediate pangs of separation and the stress of dealing with immigration. I booked the usual spot at The Waterfront, and fired off my payment for two tickets. Then the whirlwind of February and March arrived, and I almost completely forgot about Gnomegame. It felt distant, a long way off, but every so often when things got a little tough or challenging I'd think about Anstruther harbour. It seemed like a noble and fitting way to end a difficult chapter.
So, we found ourselves setting out on a freezing March morning with a flurry of snow gracing our departure from Bristol Temple Meads. Our first leg was an easy introduction - a spin up to Birmingham to overnight, take in some of the significant places for us, and then press on refreshed in the morning for the long trek up to Fife. It wasn't an easy journey, dogged by illness and with a strange gloom over proceedings, we made it to the building site which is New Street Station and found somewhere to eat. Feeling better we made our way to the Premier Inn. Birmingham wasn't altogether different to the previous visit last October where I'd made some very significant phone calls. Realising I hadn't been back since was something of a shock - I'd passed through the city almost weekly at some points over the past five years. I felt oddly groundless, and rather unreal. We stalked the depressing chain restaurant landscape, finding surprisingly good views across the city. It was a strange night to be here.
Setting off early in better spirits and with renewed vigour, we took an early train which wound along the West Coast, taking in sights familiar to me, but excitingly new to others. From the industrial Midlands, through green Cheshire, dark Lancashire and to the open vistas of lakeland mountains, it all appeared to be basking in sunshine we'd not seen for weeks. As we slowed for Carlisle I sent my traditional check-in text home, and we marked the passing into Scotland with coffee. Bearing right at Carstairs, I watched the awestruck response to the bulk of Edinburgh Castle appearing above - and in the fresh sighting I managed to renew my own view of it too. Waverley was busy and chaotic as ever. We settled in for coffee and talked about the trip so far. There was no doubt it was a little overwhelming, maybe too much - but there was excitement and new sights ahead. So, we pressed on over the Forth and into the Kingdom of Fife.
We arrived at Anstruther in something of a traffic jam. The village gets pretty busy in the summer months I know, but this was unseasonal. Finally off the bus - and with another bus still squeezing by ours - we headed for The Waterfront where we'd been assigned a huge room at the top of The Old Bakehouse. Well worth the climb up stairs, and just as comfortable as I remembered it. After checking in at the Town Hall we headed out to the Harbour for ice cream and locally caught fish and chips. The sky was a typical tumble of clouds and patches of blue - it was, in short a perfect Anster evening. We reluctantly made our way back to the hotel - but only because it was time to head for Legends nightclub. Gnomegame was underway...
The weekend becomes a blur of activity here - that first hot, sweaty Legends evening of the mighty Book Group and Cancel The Astronauts, followed by a morning bus ride in wonderful weather out to Pittenweem for churchyard exploration, then to St.Andrews. Picking around the ruins of the Cathedral, eating bridies from Fisher and Donaldson, and exploring the little town all over again was just wonderful - and this long planned trip, although fraught with little worries and issues, was turning out to be pretty special indeed. As dusk began to creep through the tiny streets, we headed for the Town Hall for Saturday night's musical entertainment. The absolute highlights were Randolph's Leap in chaotic but wonderful full-band mode, followed by a shockingly fantastic set by Kid Canaveral. I hadn't seen them for quite a while, and the new material which had been edging around their set for some time has solidified into their new record - and into perfect live performances. We left a little early, a few songs into The Pictish Trail's set with The Massacre Cave backing him. It was a glorious night to walk along the harbour back to the comfort of the Waterfront.
Sunday dawned clear but blustery, and we managed breakfast and coffee before wandering down to the Waid Academy Rugby Club for a very special recruiting event courtesy of the Anstruther Improvements Association and the mysterious Alter-Ego Trading Company. The ulterior motive was to get to see Gummi Bako, Lidh and finally King Creosote in a tiny, intimate - and incredibly hot - venue. A little more of the strange story of his departure from his own label was revealed, along with a rambling, not even nearly true account of how he broke his ankle. We skipped a little music after this wonderful afternoon session, with me resurfacing for Malcolm Middleton at the Town Hall, and both of us making it right to the front for a spellbinding, energetic performance from James Yorkston. We shuffled out happy, cut price F&D fudgies in hand, it had been quite a weekend.
Leaving Anstruther is always tough for me, and I think it had made quite an impression on both of us. After another fantastic breakfast and a final coffee by the harbour, we packed up and hopped onto the bus back to Kirkcaldy, then the train to Edinburgh. During the trip we began to get inklings that Margaret Thatcher was either very unwell or had died - but the one place I thought might be first with the news wasn't updating! The destination was Glasgow - my first visit since last October's strange rediscovery mission, and an interesting experiment. I'd had some shockingly bad times when I'd advised or accompanied friends here before. My odd love for the place doesn't seem to translate well at all. First we had to undertake a little admin, which involved a visit to the Yeeha Internet Cafe. Up three floors in a tall, city centre tenement building, this wasn't an easy ask with a heavy suitcase - but they were helpful and we got our business done swiftly. Once checked in at the new Premier Inn and rested, we wandered out for a walk to George Square. Any doubts we might have had about Lady Thatcher evaporated - there was a George Square Thatcher Death Party in full swing - as predicted by Mogwai. It was odd to watch this rather empty, desperate attempt to celebrate stumbling from dodgy folk song to bagpipe serenade. Having lived through the Thatcher era, having suffered from the cuts and the social stratification it created, it was strangely unsatisfying to see this. A bunch of people - most young enough to have never seen the lady emerge from No.10 themselves - dancing because of the death of an old, sick woman. We lingered, watched the police arrive and intersperse themselves within the crowd, listened to a Liverpudlian folk singer destroying the Beatles' "Maggie Mae" in the name of Socialism, then we wandered off. It was an odd introduction to the city.
After a fine sleep in the new hotel, we headed out for breakfast, and then onto the City Tour Bus. It was a mild, bright morning - ideal for the spin around the sights - but the clear weather also had the odd effect of rendering the more open sites in Glasgow strangely bleak and empty. For me, this was the city I loved and one of it's quirks was on show, but it was interesting to note how it jarred with other sensibilities. We headed back for a decent Italian meal courtesy of Dino Ferrari.
Our last day in Glasgow culminated in something of a surprise - we'd managed to get last minute tickets to see King Creosote again at the Oran Mor. After a jaunty introductory set by Gummi Bako, Kenny took to the stage with Captain Geeko The Dead Aviator, and they played through a long, relaxed set which might just have been the finest I've ever seen him. Drawing on all eras of his output, including some new songs from the benefit CD he has produced for the Scottish Fisheries Museum Boat Club, he seemed happy and content to keep playing. The audience was warm and welcoming, and we were rewarded by another even more absurd take on how he broke his ankle and "sacked himself from his own record company". I realised during the set just what a privilege it had been to get to see this in such a tiny place last weekend.
With King Creosote's last notes still echoing in our ears, we headed back to the city on the bus. It had been a curious trip - with moments of absolute contentment, minor difficulties and lots of memorable moments. Having planned this back in January, while heading for a sad and difficult parting, it was interesting to compare how things were right now. This trip to Scotland was a reward for our persistence and doggedness - and it was a fitting one too.
Posted in Travel on Saturday 23rd March 2013 at 9:02pm
With a long-planned trip to Scotland looming, continuing the revisiting of local landmarks seemed like a sensible plan for today. I'd also become curious about the growing network of local services provided by WebberBus. They seem to want to challenge the local monopoly in a fairly positive way - decent services, good vehicles - even, and this seems almost too good to be true - friendly drivers! Having used their service to get to Wells, we decided on a trip to Glastonbury via Bridgwater today. The services linked up nearly seamlessly at Bridgwater Bus Station - something of a relief as it was very, very cold. Winter seems to have developed a second wind after it's deep cold snap earlier in the year, and wrapping up warm we were grateful for the heating in the vehicle as it crested the Polden Hills near Puriton. Running along the causeway, the misty freezing morning provided truly wonderful views across the Somerset Levels. Our distant goal was evident from the Tor, occasionally emerging from the mist as we progressed towards the ancient town.
We emerged from the bus in the centre of town, where a farmer's market was ranged around the stone cross. We lingered awhile, finding good bread among other produce, sold by people keen to talk about their wares. The town was largely as I recalled on a school trip many years ago - even some of the more established esoteric outlets for crystals and aromatherapy oils remained. In a vegan cafe fronting a courtyard of these places, we relaxed with coffee and watched the inhabitants of the town walk by - a strange mingling of the commonplace with the truly unusual. Robed monk-like men, women with layers of knitwear and stars on their cheeks, all rubbing shoulders with seemingly unruffled white-van drivers and families. It was pleasant to watch the odd parade as we sipped coffee and deferred our return to the cold.
Eventually though, the Abbey called. Once through the modern visitor centre, and having marvelled at the tiny St. Dunstan's Chapel, we explored the grounds. It was bitterly cold, and getting colder as the day progressed and the little weak sun began to disappear. The ruins were nearly deserted and we had the opportunity to range wherever we wished, largely without interruption - though one young woman appeared to be performing yoga and summoning energy at the top of the site - the ancient span of once truly magnificent ruins before her. As we explored the simple, earthly truth of the site emerged - the ruins are here because a King wanted to divorce his wife. All the sublime beauty we'd seen at Wells a little while back could be here too, but for greed and lust.
After feeding some grateful and frozen ducks, we headed back into town. The Chalice Well could wait for another visit - food beckoned in the Lazy Gecko - a surprise find which turned out to be the perfect spot for warming, hearty fare. As we waited for the bus we talked a little about the two sides of Glastonbury - the haven for oddballs and mystics, and the deeply religious and serious history. Whatever you make of ley lines or other mystical connections, there is no doubt that something special surfaces here.
Posted in Travel on Saturday 16th March 2013 at 10:22pm
I'm pretty sure I don't need to begin another post by ruminating on change, but suffice to say my travel patterns have dramatically altered recently. It's also pretty clear that over the next few months, surviving on a single income is going to be fairly testing. Travel, for me at least, isn't a luxury. The necessity of commuting is one aspect - the other is the need to escape, to see how the world works and how it all fits together. Geography and ethnography combined - and observed now by two pairs of eyes. But in straightened times a new approach is called for. So, we've taken to the buses in an attempt to rediscover - and in some senses reclaim - Somerset. My old home county has undergone a renewal of interest, and I'm looking again...
The journey was for starters, almost idyllic. The 670 bus wound through the villages and pastures of the levels, lazily charting the course of the River Brue. With the great shoulder of the Mendip Hills flung out to our left, and the distant Blackdowns hazy in a rainy middle-distance, the occasional glimpses of Glastonbury Tor were oddly exciting. Hills, indeed any high ground is scarce enough here to be interesting and mythologised. There were sheep everywhere - something I'd taken for granted for a long time, but I didn't easily tire of having their presence excitedly pointed out. As we edged into Wells, via the former railway lands around Tucker Street, I began to recognise things from a very long-ago trip. I can't even remember how or when - but it's perhaps decades.
We made our way up the High Street, stopping here or there to enjoy the views which suddenly occurred between tiny houses. The gulleys at the sides of the street ran with clean water rising in the springs which give the city it's name. A unique, strangely enlivening feature. I urged progress - not because of any time pressure, but because I wanted to reveal the secrets I knew lay at the top of the town. Firstly, the Bishop's Palace - a fortified zone, with moat and battlements, and a sward of grass which leads into the strange little patch of land dedicated to St.Andrew and called - strangely - Scotland. Swans glided, the first we'd seen - indeed the first ever for some of us. Again I urged a move onwards - and finally we took the sharp left corner under Penniless Porch and the Cathedral was revealed in all its glorious stone beauty.
As a layman and an atheist, my appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture is perhaps surprising in some ways, but as temples to human endeavour and the power of moving ideas, these buildings are second to none. Their beauty and scale, taken in terms of their great age, is phenomenal - and perhaps no less than Wells. It's east front a riot of statuary, with disciples supporting their chosen one, and Kings of the realm holding them aloft. We made our way inside, moved immeasurably, and spent a happy few hours touring the building. The worn steps to the impressive Chapterhouse were a high point - history brought truly to life.
The day had cleared into a bright evening as we left. The slick wet cobbles of the marketplace gleamed back at us as we made our way downhill to the bus station via a fine little coffee place we made a note to revisit. Seeing the UK through the lens of a new migrant is strange, moving, often amusing but as oddly surprising as seeing some of these things were for me many years ago. I think I'm going to enjoy re-exploring my country.
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.