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 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.
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.