Posted in Updates on Thursday 22nd November 2012 at 11:26pm

It's fair to say that this site hasn't had much in the way of regular updates for a while. There are some valid, and happily very positive real life reasons for that - which are hinted at strongly in recent entries of course. But the simple truth is that a change in financial priorities has meant I've travelled far less in recent months. This leads me to consider why I've spent the last eight years on an obsessive mission to conquer the railways of the United Kingdom, and if this was really just diversionary activity? I'm thinking not - because, finding myself here on a surprisingly clear winters afternoon in the Pacific North West I'm almost childishly excited to be boarding Amtrak's Cascades service from Seattle to Portland. Again, it's also fair to say that there are lots of reasons aside from the rail trip to be enthusiastic about this journey. Not least its very impossibility just a few short weeks ago. Having crossed the Atlantic twice in quick succession, I find myself oddly, and almost disconcertingly comfortable here in Washington. The pace of city life in Seattle is a gentle ramping up from my norms rather than the dramatic shock which my early visits to the US entailed. Setting out yesterday morning on foot I didn't feel edged out of the city like non-vehicular traffic can so often be here, instead I took a tentative walk on the shining sidewalks of Pike Street, crossing the interstate and heading down into the city just emerging after a bout of rain. Puget Sound shimmered in the middle distance, beyond the landmark sign for the market. For a while I inhabited that wholly liminal position of being neither native nor tourist. I was here, unusually in my travels, with a purpose and an intent - but I was still exploring and discovering the city. On the corner near City Target, I encountered a yelling mob - which was no more than an over-enthusiastic conversation lifted direct from a Jerry Springer universe. But it demonstrated the tight zoning of the compact core of Seattle - this corner feels mildly menacing, a little edgier than the cross-streets which intersect. But it's at the heart of the retail area which bustles with European style energy. I press on to my target in the business district - the heights of an office tower which affords me unparalleled views over the cityscape. It's hard not to love this place for many reasons - and it's hard to leave for many more.

Seattle Skyline
Seattle Skyline

The train to Portland is a new experience - fusing the frustration of air travel with the familiarity of railways. We check in and get assigned a seat, then wait in the booking hall which only hints at the grand opulence of the under-reconstruction King Street Station. When called we shuffle out to the train - a strikingly modern Talgo set hauled by an EMD locomotive which yings just like their products do here in the UK. It's a comforting sound in some ways, and reminds me I'm about to hit the rails for the first time in this vast continent. Sure, I've done light rail systems all over the place, but this is my first intercity journey. It's a strange sensation at first to be travelling on the 'wrong' side of the formation - but I'm soon distracted by the novelty of double-height containers in stockyards, endlessly long trains of soy bean hoppers, and more immediately the luxury of settling into my seat in company - something which has almost never been a feature of my travels. Certainly, it's never been like this - and I don't want the journey to end. The route turns west to call at Tacoma, then hugs the coastline of the Sound under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - veteran of science documentaries about harmonics, the iconic image of it swinging and bucking now replaced with a sense of awe at its fragile grace in the half-light. As we approach Olympia we retire to the Dining Car to sip beer and look at the water shimmering under the silver sky. Rakes of evergreens march up the hillsides away from the tracks, as we turn south again and head inland.

Inside Union Station, PDX
Inside Union Station, PDX

Between here and the Columbia river is something of a haze of warm, comfortable travel in rare company. It seems all too soon that we're clattering over the gridirons and bridges which dominate the northern flank of Portland, passing into previously uncharted Oregon in the process. It's early evening - a little before six - but it's dark and the city twinkles invitingly beyond the illuminated tower of Union Station. Crossing the tracks to enter the building, we're the last passengers to leave because we've been taking photographs. The grand hall of the station is a surprise - a marbled palace of generous proportions, with remarkable similarities to some of the stations back at home. We head out into the chilly, dark evening and line up for a cab to the almost painfully hip but cleverly decorated Ace Hotel - and what will be my first ever Thanksgiving. I can't help but think our way of celebrating, a long way from everything which is usually associated with this resolutely un-British occasion, will be far from traditional. As we shudder our stop-start progress through the traffic lights of Burnside and Stark, and catch the first sight of the exterior of the old hotel I recall reading that it was once The Clyde. I'm never far from Glasgow, even when I'm truly a long way off. I can't help but hope that we get to cross the other Clyde very, very soon indeed.

Movebook Link


Posted in Updates on Tuesday 23rd October 2012 at 3:10pm

Lots of things have been changing over the past few weeks. Subtle at first, then strange and rapid - I've found myself plunged into a very different world. At first it felt tenuous, unlikely and fragile - but now, after a 10,000 mile round trip and a magical weekend, it's all making a reassuring but still incredible kind of sense to me. Lazy, hot walks along Olympic waterways have solidified thinking which seemed hazy and indistinct at first, and a damp morning pacing the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral cast the die. Things have changed beyond belief.

Somewhere during the last twenty-four hours, between leaving SeaTac and departing from Schipol, I realised that life was suddenly moving much faster. After a long period of treading water in a comfortably pleasant way - maybe even years of it - I was being challenged. There's every likelihood that up to now, I'd have let the opportunity pass by like many others. But this time, I know I can't. This is far, far too important...

Movebook Link


Posted in Updates on Friday 13th August 2010 at 8:29pm

I consider myself fairly well travelled, at least as far as Britain is considered. I've spent the last couple of decades zig-zagging across the country, discovering the spots which I was embarrassed to admit to American friends that I'd never visited. Regular readers will know that I'm not much taken with the tourist hot-spots, and that I'm probably happiest following some trail discovered in literature or music - whatever squalid alley or dejected backstreet it might take me along. It's perhaps unsurprising that none of these romantic notions have ever resulted in a visit to Milton Keynes. I've even managed to avoid it for work purposes, and can recall only one brief visit early in 2006 in order to cover a sliver of track at Hanslope Junction. On that occasion, I'd briefly stepped outside the station only to be cowed by the icy winds whipping around the huge open square outside the station.

I arrived at the very same square today, under skies just as leaden despite the season. Recalling that I was travelling light and didn't have a coat, I set off for my hotel with the chill wind seeping through my clothes and speeding up my pace. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a horizon here. Wherever the pedestrian in Milton Keynes stands, there is only the view of a straight path ahead, undulating via underpasses to avoid at-grade crossings. This makes it impossibly tricky to judge distance, and not really having any sense of how far I needed to walk I set off along Midsummer Boulevard, part of a complex of streets named after Avebury, Silbury - an attempt to link the geometry of the street to an ancient tradition perhaps? This main road sets the pattern for similar thoroughfares here - a wide dual carriageway, with brick-surfaced service roads and patches of parking alongside. A generous but badly maintained pedestrian and cycle way runs alongside, with occasional covered walkways leading onto the road. There is, however, no safe means of crossing at these points. Some bear the stark message "Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority" in black on yellow. I pressed on, cresting a subway and seeing my hotel's sign - deceptively close as it was much taller than surrounding buildings. When MK was planned - with no building "taller than the tallest tree" a series of glass and concrete blocks lined this road. Many of them survive, extended - often with inexplicable canopies covering nothing at all. Does it rain more here than elsewhere? It certainly did today, and despite the proximity of the hotel, I was forced to shelter under one of the purposeless canopies for a while.

After checking in to a comfortably faceless chain hotel, I wandered up to the shopping area. MK is zoned aggressively, and boasts the longest 'covered High Street in Europe'. I can understand why, because this concept of shopping is bizarre. Once inside the listed shopping building, via a new glass atrium filled with food chains, one is drawn endlessly along a high-ceilinged greenhouse with shops lining one or both sides. Occasionally portals open onto the street, and nearby shops over the seemingly impassable road can be glimpsed. What you want is always 'over there' and the signs point hopefully towards the destination, with no disclaimer based on the high-speed traffic between you and your goal. Among the usual high street names, rather poignantly, small independent retailers remain. Their shopfronts harking back to the 1960s when this zone was built - oddly out of place in the modernist enclosure of the shopping building. It's uncomfortable, and they seem lost and decaying here. A sports shop, crammed with goods, sits off the main line of shops with a wooden shopfront and a joyfully retro plastic sign. I'd have taken a picture, but I was already beginning to attract the attention of the bored security guards, particularly when I snapped the infamous Concrete Cows, temporarily at home in the shopping area. I realised I was browsing - the rest of the visitors, a small stream at this time of day, were trudging by without looking. I must seem like I was casing the joint! Dodged out through a strange, grubby marketplace. The alley between the stalls a dark, menacing and stinking slot. Opted instead for an ill-advised road crossing to get to a supermarket. Even this felt odd, and I was chastised for walking around the aisles the wrong way. Around now I realised I was being followed. Not by security, but by a small group of teenagers. They laughed and pointed - and this I'm used to, as I am of somewhat novel appearance I suppose. But the continued to do so, over the road, into the supermarket. I felt more disturbed than threatened. Was this the most interesting thing to do here?

Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority
Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority

What appears a uniform - or even simply possible - walk from the air is different from the ground - the long straight boulevards are just as disturbingly linear as they appear, but the undulations as the path snakes under bridges and around parking zones makes walking Milton Keynes difficult. For that reason, as a confirmed pedestrian, I could only skirt the fringe of some parts of the place. There was a bus service - seemingly frequent and connecting all the aspirationally named suburbs to the hub - but even this was a little tired. No modern, rapid vehicles to suit a modern town here - lots of tiny operators running clapped out minibuses alongside some ageing single deckers. The whole service seemingly designed to be be frequent enough to make crossing the road impossible.

Back at the hotel, I looked out over the wet vista. The dome of Christ the Cornerstone - even the church wilfully earthbound in its allusion to the building process - dominated the skyline. Beyond, lines of trees announced the border of the housing zones - tiny communities defined by a grid and self-contained. The roof of the leisure building also zoomed high above the offices. I hadn't got that far, and didn't intend to. I'd seen enough of Milton Keynes for now. Contemplated a very early morning departure, but realised a check out would be difficult. I was condemned to a full night here, aching from my walk and sleepless from my over active mind.

I should have liked Milton Keynes. I like the thrill of modernism, and the regularity of planned spaces. I've deliberately sought out the model suburbs elsewhere, and this planned community on a grand scale should have been the ultimate in the line. However, it has aged poorly. An old building left to decay has stately dilapidation to look forward to, whilst a modern building has none of the glamour. The buildings here are tired, often pointless, usually poorly accessible. The car was king when MK was planned, and now it is emperor - rendering the place as unfriendly to pedestrians as many US cities, despite it's efforts to provide for the foot passenger. The lack of scale, of distance and of horizon is uncomfortable, cloying and ultimately disorienting. I don't think it's possible to be truly at ease here.

Movebook Link

Posted in Updates on Thursday 29th October 2009 at 2:11pm

I've written in an only half mocking way about my "Octoberfear" here on many occasions. This all came about from the strange coincidence that bad stuff seemed to happen in my birth month. Not catastrophic stuff - nothing which affected other people unduly in fact - but things which just made me throw my hands up in despair and wonder what on earth would be thrown my way next. It's all a bit comic really, and to be honest it's generated it's own little routine which makes me come back with extra positivity to try to cheat the trend. Not something you'll find me doing often, but a useful exercise nonetheless.

This year, I thought I had it licked. A busy month of pre-planned and pre-booked events which would take me all over the place. A mixture of solitary trundles up obscure byways and more sociable trips in company. I genuinely thought I was in for a decent month - even the weather forecast seemed fairly benign. Then things began to unravel... As usual, not in a disastrous way - firstly a cancelled Pathfinder trip to Donnington and the Oldham Loop on it's last day. With another tour due to do Donnington soon, and with the loop covered in some style back in August, I let it slide. I came back with a trip to Glasgow and a curiously indecisive weekend - but I wasn't beaten. Then came the Severn Valley Gala - and just days before what promised to be the event of the year a steam engine spread the track at Highley. In the end it was a much smaller event with some frustrating aspects - but lots of Batham's Best and a philosophical approach made it feel better.

But then, things became really odd. During a very pleasant trip to York with Spitfire (which suffered it's own delays and curtailments sadly enough), I heard that the Western tour booked for 31st October was cancelled too! Western tours just don't get cancelled - bookings are always good, and D1015 is one of the most reliable machines out there. But sure enough, there was a letter waiting for me on the morning of my birthday telling me the new date next March. With a week off to avoid just the weltschmerz which was descending, I felt tired and stretched. Unable to do much except laze around the place, not bothered about getting all the useful jobs done I'd promised to use my week for.

And on the day I returned from the excellent Buffer Puffer tours, it all began to click into place. I felt a little weak and tired as I slogged over to Clapham Junction, and I found myself dreading the trek from the tube to the platform at Paddington. I had a little breakfast and soon settled into my comfortable seat for the usual snoozy trip back to Bristol. On arriving to my alarm I found walking painful and difficult, and it took me almost all the time I had to change trains. Another sleepy trip brought me home, and meeting someone to chat to took my mind off things. However, by 3pm it was confirmed - H1N1 was the source of my sore throat and sneezes over the weekend, and October had dealt me a cruel, painful and frustrating last trick.

And now? I feel weak, listless and frustrated. Staying indoors is the most tiresome bit, but I'm so aware of how at risk some of my family could be if they have contact with me. Tamiflu is a dreadful drug, which has given me the most vivid and disturbing dreams - but has, it seems put paid to the indescribable aches and pains in apparently random body parts which are perhaps the worst this nasty virus offers to those who suffer only the mildest symptoms. Oddly, as the flu departs I seem to be getting a cold - and strangest of all, I can't summon any interest in food at all. I can't recommend this to anyone - and I'll promise never to misuse the term 'flu' again. This ain't no common cold, that's for sure!

So, October passes once again and I'm almost amused at how a well-planned effort to stave off the 'fear' has ended up. Lets hope the decent weather lasts into November, even if the daylight won't.



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.

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