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 32º 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.
Posted in Travel on Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 7:05pm
I try desperately hard not to let stereotypes govern my travels. It would be too easy to let an accent, a nationality or an attitude define the subtle shifts across locales as I walk around London for instance. It would be even easier to do the same on mainland Europe. I'm finally back here in Brussels - fourteen years after my last visit when I strolled without care around a city which I barely connected with. This time things feel very different indeed. Firstly, we are on the brink of a potentially momentous referendum which would see the link between the UK and this city changed irretrievably. Right now Brussels feels like a world city - people speak to me in perfect, polite English, they bustle around the city with just a hint of the gallic laissez faire. This truly is a crossroads - where latin and germanic Europe meets, and sometimes as history has shown - clashes with terrifying consequences. Brussels is a strange and potent place which is not nearly as inconsequential as it felt on my first visit.
Secondly, Brussels is now a fortress. The terrible attacks on democracy and western reason which brought terrorists to the rather beautiful heart of this curious place still echo in the streets. Soldiers patrol railway stations with their perky Jean-Claude Van Damme style berets and automatic weapons. The police skitter about from place to place, checking an impossibly endless number of key spots for signs of concern. This is either the safest or the most dangerous place in the world to be just now. Mostly though, seen through the eyes of someone who hasn't ever set foot in mainland Europe, Brussels is an exciting collision of the familiar and the alien. The impact of the gilded halls in Grand Place, the vast verdigreed dome of the Palace of Justice or the warm modernity of Gare Centrale are so very un-British. So different to the anglo-centric world which we left only two hours ago after stepping onto a train at St.Pancras.
I quickly found my morning routine here - a constitutional around the cobbled streets and alleys which surround our hotel, then into the station for coffee and a chance to watch people. The smell of warm waffles curled up from the concessions on the station concourse, and the friendly baristas learned my order. I felt welcome - at home even. I was beginning to fall for this complex, strange but oddly welcoming city. But it wasn't to be without its challenge. After a normal morning wandering and enjoying watching busy crowds commuting, we strolled a little before heading onto the Metro to get to Heysel. There appeared to be disruption - routes missing from screens, and the information system didn't seem to be coping well with translating it. We made our way to Brussels Midi and found the system in disarray. A strike had been called by MIVB workers this very morning, and very little was working. We decided to head back for the centre. As we entered the platform, crowds of demonstrating strikers appeared - with the Metro out of action they took full advantage of SNCB's services - travelling in packs, smoking and holding doors open to delay trains for their colleagues. There were three distinct teams: the Socialists, wearing red of course and by far the most tetchy of the bunch, the Christians who wore green and seemed to make a beeline for the bars and sex clubs in the seedier areas around Midi. Finally, the Liberals - blue jacketed and far fewer in number - we wondered in fact if it wasn't the same little pack of four or five we saw repeatedly touring the city.
Back at Central Station, we found more chaos. The unions had closed down most of the exits, with only the tunnel leading to Cantersteen open. We joined a long line of angry, bewildered commuters, pushing against a tide of union folks who didn't mind who they nudged aside in their rush into the station. Then the firecrackers began and people began to panic. It struck me as utterly insensitive that Metro workers, still reeling from the terrible attacks on the city and their stations just months ago, would think it fitting to contain folk inside a small area and then to set off firecrackers. I deployed my elbows and forced my way up the staircase and into the street. For the first time in a long time, I felt a surge of violent temper of my own. As we forced our way past the protests, the only reasonable route back to our hotel, a red-coated socialist threw a firecracker under a policecar. The dull thud sent us reeling. He laughed. I pursued him, fists clench and insults flying - but he had earplugs to defend his ears from his own explosions. We weren't sorry to get back to the quiet of the hotel. I felt my admiration for the city peeling away, the lustre tarnished by the tinge of the old European horror of strikes and obstructions. It was the strangest but perhaps most memorable wedding anniversary we've had yet.
In a little under a month, the UK will vote on its future in the political and economic union which centres on this city - this most functional and straightforward, but sometimes ridiculously quirky place. A city where an utterly rational European government co-exists with some of the most agitated workers, where the beer is wonderful and the food utterly confusing. As we set off in the early Brussels evening, the light glinting from the passing commuter trains starting to make their way through the bruised but not broken city, it's hard not to feel just as oddly optimistic for the place as I did when we first arrived. Whatever happens next month - and I fear it rests on a knife edge just now - I want us to remain connected to the continent, with Brussels as the point where we plug into it's confusing, bureaucratic but utterly logical heart.
Posted in Travel on Sunday 14th February 2016 at 11:02pm
I woke early this morning, despite trying not to. It's become my custom on our more urban breaks to use the golden morning hours wandering deserted city streets or staking out turgid waterways while my wife prefers to sleep in. We're agreed that each other's chosen way of spending those hours between the time that fools and decent-minded people rise isn't for us - another way in which we complement each other it seems. In fact, I'd worried a little that being out here in the countryside, out of easy range of civilisation would leave me pacing the room in frustration at the waste of these quiet early moments. Once I'd accustomed myself to being away from home I remembered the rather splendid location we were in, and padded over to the patio doors at the end of our huge room. We'd gone to bed on a wet, dark February evening with the lights of Worcestershire twinkling happily in the rain - but I woke to a wonderful vista - the Severn valley fell away from the Malvern Hills, a vast pool of mist capped by the distant, purple smudge of the Cotswolds. A patchwork of green and yellow could just be discerned through the cloud, and above it all a weak but persistent winter sun was rising. It was a beautiful scene, and I quickly dressed and slipped out onto the little balcony with a fairly horrible coffee for company.
I'd intended to read, or to write - but for the first time in a very long time I felt content to do virtually nothing but look. I watched the sun rise, the first time this year that I'd really felt it's warmth, and start to burn off the mist. I watched the first, intrepid birds braving the chill and diving for worms in the dewy grass. Slowly people began to stir and wander towards the breakfast at the main hotel building in pairs, holding hands. It was Valentines' Day and we were part of a band of people getting away for the weekend. For me though it was an anniversary - three years ago I was preparing to head for Seattle - a nervous, painful time of fear and uncertainty which seemed a world away here. Particularly here, because this place - these hills specifically - had fascinated me from an early age. From my school playground I could see across the flat plains of Northern Worcestershire towards the Malverns. They were a dark, ominous presence on the horizon, and I remember a game I instigated where we were tribesmen bowing down to the hills. I really don't know where I got the idea, probably some comic or history book - but little did I know how I'd be venerating the topography all those years later. I had relatives who lived on the other side of the hills, and travelling to see them was a delight - would we skirt the hills on the dull, flat road or take the exciting Wyche Cutting with it's switchbacks and hairpins, and it's curious amusement arcades and attractions lining parts of the route? I remembered too a journey with my father, when I insisted on dragging along a Tonka tipper lorry. I recall we walked up a dry, scree-covered slope and he paused to let me repeatedly fill the truck, run it a way along the track and dump it's contents. It felt like a rare moment of calm in my dad's life - a time when he wasn't rushing to work or snoozing over his dinner.
Later, we walked into the hills together from the southern edge at British Camp. The track runs along the ridge, rising gently at first then undulating as it climbs. From the first peak, the views were sublime. The sun had stayed high and surprisingly strong, and up here the wind was blustery and refreshing. I asked if we should turn back, but I was assured we could go a little further. Finally the views opened on both sides: to the west, the shadows of Welsh mountains adumbrated the rolling country of Herefordshire, and to the east Worcestershire's typically English blanket of farmland rolled towards the Severn and the Avon. We stayed up there for a while, letting the wind whip our hair in our faces and thinking about the journey we'd both been on to get here. I realised too, as I looked out over my home county that I missed my father terribly - more than perhaps I ever expected. I missed both of my parents more in fact than I'd dared to admit to myself over the past year. But I wasn't alone up here - and that is perhaps the most surprising thing of all.
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?
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.