Posted in Travel on Sunday 30th June 2013 at 10:30pm

Having spent a week feeling under the weather, this weekend couldn't come soon enough for me. Over the past few months, weekends have taken on a new significance - and I find myself consciously trying to make sure they count. It wasn't easy this time - I was still feeling sick and fractious yesterday, but we'd managed a run down to Taunton on what turned out to be a rather warm afternoon. Today however was a little different - we were to meet some tourist friends here from the US, and travel with them around some West Country highlights. This began with a far-too-early start for a Sunday morning, and a pleasantly sleepy train ride to Bath Spa. Here we met our friends and wandered around the Georgian city. I'm not the best tourist in Bath - it's a little too overwrought and self-concious for me - but I have learned to like the place much more in recent times, and I think we gave good account of it. The Pump Rooms, the Abbey and Pulteney Bridge all managed to surprise and delight the assembled group at least. But we had other targets for the day too...

Salisbury Cathedral towers into a blue sky
Salisbury Cathedral towers into a blue sky

Hopping in to the hired car, we set off into deepest Wiltshire in search of history. The driving was, at best, pretty terrifying - but I guess switching from right to left is a fairly significant change. Nevertheless, despite the slightly erratic veering into the kerb, we soon began to make some progress. After a couple of wrong turns, we were on the Salisbury road, dipping into valleys and soaring out of them onto high ground. The Chalk Horse at Westbury helped to orient me, as did a passage under the railway line near the tiny Dilton Marsh station. I was on familiar turf here, but seeing it from a very different viewpoint. While the train cuts through the valley with grace, the road bucks and curves relentlessly along the floor.

We arrived in Salisbury in time for a lazy lunch. The sun was high and the city looked rather spectacular. I'd last come here many years back on one of my earlier escapes, and I'd enjoyed wandering around the High Street with it's haphazard, overhanging buildings and reek of history. It was perhaps a little more special to do so with new faces, and the realisation that some of these buildings significantly pre-dated their nation's founding was an interesting one to see. After eating, we gravitated towards the cathedral, it's almost absurdly tall spire shooting high above the rooftops and creating a somewhat dizzying prospect from down below. Inside a service was in progress, which limited access to some parts of the building, but created a heady atmosphere as the choir sang. I was finally beginning to feel better than I had for days, and couldn't wait to be on the road for our next destination...

Stonehenge - up close at last!
Stonehenge - up close at last!

I first saw Stonehenge on a family trip many years ago, and I recall significantly seeing it again on the drive to Gatwick Airport for my first flight to the USA in 1994. It has always been a distant, almost unreal thing. Suddenly appearing over the brow of a hill, set against a steely sky. It moves ominously across the windscreen - silent and impressive from a distance. It looks like a model, a tiny Spinal Tap style replica placed carefully onto Salisbury Plain. So, after a high speed drive to make it before closing time, we found ourselves shuffling along with a still surprisingly strong crowd, through a building site. The road which cuts close to the Henge is finally closing, the A303 still shudders and rumbles just across the fields, but at least things will be just a little quieter. Emerging from the subway under the now deleted road, we find ourselves just feet away from the ancient monument - and despite my earlier thoughts about how this might feel, I'm oddly moved. We work our way around the monument, and finally there is a gap where I can get a picture of the stones sitting against a perfect, blue summer sky. We're tired, and the week has taken it's toll on us - but now, here on the windswept plain it feels right to be in Britain, the history stretching and winding back from us. The future uncertain, but anticipated eagerly. But staring at the massive sarcens before us, the question remains.... "why?"

It's getting late and the sun is giving way to a slow, midsummer haze which will become dusk. We decide to stay neolithic and head back to civilisation via Avebury. I navigate us onto the curving road to Marlborough. Another white horse on the hillside, and then a sudden descent into the pretty town - it's another off-the-railway place nowadays which I'd normally never get to. I make a mental note to come back here. Suddenly, Silbury Hill looms over the road. A dark, conical mass. Sinister and remote from anything else, it looks uninviting and gloomy. It's impressive and unsettling in equal measure, as we turn and keep the barrow on our right. Almost just as unexpectedly, Avebury is upon us! The road zig-zags through the village, and on all sides of us there are monuments, avenues, stones standing jagged and precarious. The whole village is encircled by what must have been a vast stone ring, containing other smaller circlets. Our swift flypast doesn't quite do this justice, so it's another one added to the list.

Finally back on the motorway we make good progress to Bristol. Tired and sleepy, a little road weary and battered from the full-tilt rollecoaster ride around Wessex, but happy to have finally seen these sights for myself. There is so much left of this country to explore, and a new incentive to do just that...



Posted in London on Sunday 23rd June 2013 at 10:47pm

This trip had caught me somewhat unawares, coming at the end of a month which had been pretty eventful and as a result, fairly expensive. So, it was London on a shoestring - something I'd done plenty of times before. Indeed London is a city where it's very easy to do lots and spend little - and while its always easier to do the opposite, there is a kind of purity in keeping it simple. An added complication was the demise of my Oyster Card. I've had the card for years - and despite a few issues which have always been refunded, it's worked fine. But now, TFL have decided to take issue about a payment which was due during my debit card switch over period. I could just pay - but they've decided to cancel the entire account instead. So this felt like a very odd trip in some ways - London without the traditional means of getting around, and with very little planned. A blank canvas?

First stop once at Paddington was to get a new card and load on some credit. From here we made the eastward run to the place we were staying with friends once again. We arrived on a blustery but clear evening - the longest of the year - and relaxed. It was good to kick back after a fairly tough week or so, and the prospect of a day of exploration in areas I hadn't visited for a while was a fine one. With a fairly late start the next day, we set off on foot to Snaresbrook station. The terrain out here is always surprising. Once out of the Lea Valley and over the ridge into the Roding, the change in tone and situation is evident immediately. A little vestige of Epping Forest on the corner is testament to this being a much more salubrious neck of the woods. But just a stop or two down the line and we're in Leyton - closer to my usual wandering zones - comfortable with my discomfort. We press on to Mile End and make the cross-platform leap to the District Line and straight to South Kensington. Exit is by the Museum Tunnel - the second time I've used this - and it's still an impressively engineered, fiercely practical way of moving dry, happy people around this vast complex of knowledge.

The Albert Memorial glistens in the gloom
The Albert Memorial glistens in the gloom

After a pleasant morning coffee in the quadrant, surrounded by the fine buildings of the V&A, we perused the South Asian and Indian collections before regrouping in the stunningly tiled refreshment room. Our next plan was to wander up the grand Exhibition Road and find the Albert Memorial. I hadn't walked this way for a very long time, but the geography was quickly recovered - the long, straight planned sweep up to Hyde Park, the huge bulk of the Royal Albert Hall oddly hidden until up really close, the suddenly a flash of gold in the otherwise grey skies as the first glimpse of the memorial appears. We spent a while here, interpreting the text below the figures of great artists and examining the corner groupings which represent each continent - aside of course from examining the gleaming golden man himself, set in a starry-ceilinged booth. It was both spectacularly overdone and deeply touching in once. Seeing it thus, through new eyes after long years, it seemed both fresh and surprisingly real, standing against the wind. Return was a meandering trek - a top-deck bus ride along Oxford Street, a shopping trip on the Caledonian Road, then the Underground back to base.

Another lazy Sunday start led us onto the train, alighting at Stratford and heading to get coffee in Westfield. I remain intrigued by this place - it's odd mixture of public life and private function, and especially the rather zealous security guards who prowl, only an armband and a walkie-talkie between them and real trouble. We whiled away an hour or so, before heading out to press our noses against the fence of "London's most exciting new suburb". The site was quiet and empty, and felt odd. We made a run to John Lewis and headed for the bus back west along Whitechapel Road, switching near the Bell Foundry for the direct bus back to Paddington.

We packed quite a bit into a couple of short lazy days this visit, and a tired but happy run home confirmed this. London opens new doors each time I visit, and even more opportunities arise each time I visit in company. The contrast between the treasures and wonders we saw in South Kensington, and the skeletal pointlessness of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit couldn't be greater - but I still love the eastern fringes much better somehow...



Posted in London on Sunday 2nd June 2013 at 10:06pm

It's fair to say that life has changed quite a bit in recent times - and while my excursions to London are less frequent they have also become a little more important in terms of keeping me connected to the city. This weekend has been a purely tourist jaunt in many ways, though even a sightseeing trip can't avoid re-treading old paths. I found myself stalking the corridors of Windsor Castle around thirty years after I last visited - but also finally explored the tunnel between South Kensington station and the museums which I'd read about so often but never actually needed to use. But on a Sunday afternoon in surprisingly good weather I found myself with a little time for the kind of wandering which wouldn't work well on the tourist itinerary.

I began in the unlikely territory of Wanstead, hopping a bus in the High Street and heading into the suburbs. Curving around the wide, yellowing expanse of Wanstead Flats, we nudged through traffic and shadowed the railway through Maryland to Stratford. In more familiar territory I disembarked and changed for the DLR. It was odd to be unencumbered - no bag, not even a coat - and I felt almost inauthentic and exposed. The DLR took me to All Saints, where I ascended and crossed onto Chrisp Street. No market today, just baked pavements and cars sluggishly trawling, banging out dance music. I felt even more out of place, unwelcome - a rare feeling here and one I wasn't expecting.

Balfron Tower looms above the Brownfield Estate
Balfron Tower looms above the Brownfield Estate

My target was the Brownfield Estate. I'd read an article which had extolled the virtues of Balfron Tower - the eastern cousin of Trellick Tower which signalled my arrival at Paddington each time I found myself in London. Trellick is brutal but oddly graceful - tall, set away from other buildings and surrounded by a low-rise development of sister blocks. Balfron Tower soon made it's presence felt too - squatter somehow, the service tower seemingly more delicate against the bulk of the utilitarian residential block. It too was the tallest building for quite a distance, but it didn't seem so completely free of clutter and couldn't been seen clearly until up close. When it did loom up out of the ground, it was stark, shocking and unsympathetic. But, doubtlessly impressive. The ground level area was dirty, empty of people and subject to redevlopment. A few children yelped by after bursting from a nearby door. A student couple looked disdainfully at me as they left the tower, scornfully regarding me flicking my camera out to get a shot of the building. Otherwise, any sound was confined to the hum of the distant East India Dock Road and an occasional Heathrow bound jet scoring the otherwise blue skies.

The slender service tower looks out of scale with the bulky building
The slender service tower looks out of scale with the bulky building

I picked my way north, skirting Glenkerry House - another block with a Goldfinger style tower attached - but this one was less residential and looked like some sort of lookout tower policing the Blackwall badlands. The lazy summer sunday feeling returned a little as I progressed towards Langdon Park. A bus slowly plopped over the traffic calming measures, and I found myself beside Langdon Park DLR station, where a new youth centre is being built from gleaming pink plates of copper which beat the sun back at me pleasantly. Each platform was adorned with chunky, cast metal writing which looped the name of the station in friendly hand script.

My short excursion was done - and I considered how London and it's environs could still fascinate and draw me in. From the surprising interest of Windsor Castle to the odd, magnetic presence of Ernő Goldfinger's powerfully brutal blocks, the built environment and it's affect on the city and the people remains a strange attraction. As the anniversary of the grand spectacle of 2012 approaches, and I gain a year of perspective on the feverish, almost desperate walks I undertook at such a strangely liminal time of my life, I'm beginning to understand how important the city is to me too.



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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