Posted in Travel on Tuesday 7th January 2014 at 6:34pm


Throughout my adult life I've encountered fairly little serious prejudice, for which I'm absolutely grateful. However there are a couple of low-grade issues which seem, oddly enough, to exercise people - my hatred of cheese and my lack of a driving license. Somehow these matters, when first learned by a new acquaintance and - as we all naturally do - projected on themselves, seem to incur a shudder of distress. Imagining life without parmesan and parking fines is, it seems, almost too much to contemplate for most. However, some people just can't leave it there and assume that this is some sort of handicap. Hopefully, the travels I've recounted here will dispel that. With some forethought and planning - which are never bad things anyway - there are few places I can't get to. That said, some places are just not easy at all... Yeovil. Clinging to the southeastern boundary of Somerset, and probably not more than forty miles from home. This little corner of my home county doesn't offer much in terms of attraction, and hasn't ever been much of a draw despite its official website proclaiming that its attractions could "fill several days of a holiday". Its probably been the same for much of the rest of the population over the years too - the road network doesn't facilitate easy journeys to that area, and the railway from Taunton was erased in the sweeping closures of the 1960s. Now it's either a painfully long swing around via Bristol and Bath on the train, or a multiple bus trip. Today, we had to head for Yeovil and I wasn't optimistic. After three solid weeks of torrential rain, the Somerset Levels are a glassy sea of water. As we arrived at Weston station, a further lashing of rain was being hurled at the metal roof. It didn't feel like a good sign. The aim was to mode-shift - first to Taunton by rail for speed and convenience, then to switch to bus to get into town and pick up a No.54 out to Yeovil. A long convoluted turn through central Somerset would follow, and we'd arrive in Yeovil just before the appointed hour of 10am. As we sheltered at Taunton station, it all felt tenuous and unlikely, and I began to get why people shuddered at my carless lifestyle. That said, they'd have been up just as early given traffic onto the M5, and wouldn't probably be much ahead of us right now. But of course they'd be warm, basking in the illusion of control and listening to....

Well, listening to Billy Joel if the coffee shop we stopped into was any guide. We sipped oddly acidic, weak beverages before heading back to the bus station and onto the bus which would take us to Yeovil via Langport, Somerton and Ilchester. Some of these towns were just names on a map, or timing points on the railway which no longer had stations. Having spent my early life poring over maps of Somerset, this was something of an adventure for me. We set off, and once we'd escaped the urban sprawl of Taunton and the motorway hugging Blackbrook business area, the true scale of the flooding became evident. The bus hoved into the middle of the carriageway to plough through churning lakes of uncertain depth which lay on the road. The fields around us were a silvery mirror of water, with distant church towers rising like lighthouses. I'd seen the Sedgemoor part of the levels like this of course, the tiny roads like causeways - but the lower levels were a broader, emptier sweep of land, and thus were breathtakingly strange to see like this.

The little towns we passed through were interesting and merited mental notes to come back. Langport saw us meet the road from Bridgwater not far from where the swollen River Parrett passed under the road. It was also our first encounter with the London to Taunton railway line which really ought to have stations in these growing, prosperous spots. We met it again at pretty Somerton, an ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wessex, all sandstone buildings and market town charm. Turning south we trailed the wide floodplain of the River Cary, denied an exit to the sea by the canalised King Sedgemoor Drain, it wreaked havoc here on the valley floor instead, spilling crazily into fields and moorland. Despite the stormy start, the day was shaping up to be bright and cold. The views across waterlogged fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Finally we crossed the mighty A303, swinging beneath us and aiming directly for Stonehenge and London, before curving through tiny Ilchester and into the gravity of Yeovil.

Not much had changed from my hazy memories of twenty-odd years back. The town is still approached by a series of roundabouts and a ring road which carves unpleasantly into the town itself, betraying the forlorn backs of shops and businesses to the visitor. Beyond that I didn't remember much - a family visit and one evening for a gig on Heavenly's 'Crap Towns' tour - hadn't left me with much material to work with. So arrival at The Borough, in the middle of a fine little street of shops was a pleasant surprise. St. John's church loomed, squat and yellow in the winter sun, and was surrounded by pleasant small stores and restaurants. The place bustled in a way I hadn't remembered. In fact, my memory was of racial disharmony - attacks on take-away owners - and of anti-social behaviour. I remember us standing in a small knot at the edge of that Heavenly gig, while the local youth went wild. Not to the music. Just because they did that all the time. It was hard to settle that with the first impression today. I headed to a recently opened branch of my favourite local coffee chain and settled in to eat, drink and read - the place thrummed with a pleasant energy and was never empty. I saw out a brief rainstorm and headed onto the High Street under a rainbow. The top of the hill echoed the first impression - good old buildings, used wisely by decent stores, with the ancient street layout defining the townscape. As I slogged down hill though, things changed. Firstly The Quedam.... My father and I would joke about this - our former local radio station, Orchard FM, would advertise this shopping centre four or more times every half-hour, with an absurdly optimistic recession-defying jingle. It was looking a little tired and betraying it's late-1980s heritage. The descending curve of a street parallel to the High Street was lined with a jumble of heritage bungalow storefronts. The haphazardness was carefully planned to resemble the shopping street this may once have been, the name appropriated from the town's Roman history. The Quedam was a sham - the side of the street which abutted the High Street was mainly a series of back entrances to the stores which had their main windows looking onto the established shopping thoroughfare. There were a fair number of empty units, and few folks around on a January Tuesday. At the end of The Quedam, there was a fork in the path - a turn onto the High Street to face a despairingly ugly 1970s block, with an impossibly large discount store at its foot - or a turn into Glover's Walk. This was an earlier experiment in shopping, and linked the town to it's bus station via a brief, tiled precinct. A favourite flourish of developers thirty or so years back. Now it was a gloomy, empty walkway lined by sorry looking market stalls. A promising but beleaguered craft store solidered on, and near the Bus Station The Gorge cafe was prosperous despite it's dated red vinyl and gloomy dark wood interior.

I retraced my steps to The Borough, marvelling at how many strata of retail developments could co-exist in such a small town. Here, where the historic town market would have assembled, it was hard to envisage how a walk down the hill would become more and more depressing. I sipped coffee, relaxed and waited by the 'phone for my escape route from the town. The bus, as it left, took us a circuit of the ring road, the service lanes to the shopping centres carving off into the knot of the Town Centre, the sun glinting off the roof of the pretty church. Yeovil is a part-charming, part-horrifying mess of a town. In some ways my former conceptions were challenged, and in others confirmed. It's hard to imagine a reason to come back here for almost the same amount of time - despite the curiosity of bus routes deeper into the hinterland and the interest of it's railway heritage. Well over ten years ago, I restarted my long campaign to travel every possible railway line with an attempt to avoid Yeovil entirely, an opportunity which will be repeated soon when the lines locally are closed. It's strange how I've always felt this way about the place, despite the changes I saw today.

 


Posted in Travel on Sunday 15th September 2013 at 9:39pm


Wedged into a tiny train, far too small for the surprising amount of Sunday travellers, it's easy to be cynical about travelling around the UK by rail. Of course, I've spent a fair portion of my life doing so - but on the series of revisits in company which are now taking place, a little comfort seems far more important. I'm getting older, and wiser perhaps - and I'm very aware of the value of the little disposable income we have just now too. But that's not meant to detract in any way from an almost perfect weekend spent in my home county. Indeed the train up here yesterday was smooth, quick, relatively quiet and direct. Arrival at Foregate Street station recalled earlier visits for me - indeed one of my earliest trips in the 90s was a complicated set of connections to enable me to get here, then to head for Birmingham via the less travelled road to Snow Hill which had just re-opened. That set off a series of track collecting activities which brought together my love of geography and railways in very dangerous ways.

The West Window, Worcester Cathedral
The West Window, Worcester Cathedral

Alighting and heading down to the bustling streets is always a bit of a strange surprise. Railway stations are so often not in city centres, so to be plunged directly into one is both pleasant and strange. We soon met our friends and wandered the city. For me it was recalling how much or indeed, how little had changed since I was last here. For others it was a more novel experience. We stopped into a small pub with sloping timbers and erratic floors and found great food and even better beer. A rainstorm passed over, and we headed out into the city again, working our way towards the impressive Cathedral. It was a good while since I'd been here, and it was a delight to experience it again in newly appreciative company. We spent a good while examining the memorials, marvelling at the statuary and paying respects to Elgar, linked strongly here by music and history - a name introduced to me early at school not far away, but still not dimmed by over-familiarity like some early influences. We decided to walk out to the suburbs to our bed for the night. Out of the Cathedral precinct and down stairs, noting the historic record of flood levels as the stone walls developed a green coating of river weeds. We emerged on a broad lawn beside the Severn - the weather had brightened and the youngsters of Worcester were lounging happily. We set off along the river path - and I felt suddenly and strangely content to be beside water again. After a short walk, not entirely easy with a rolling case in tow, we arrived at the junction of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal with the River. A flight of wide-beam locks raised the water level to Diglis Basin - houseboats and barges moored alongside old industrial buildings, the sun shine now picking out the brass and bright painted designs. We slowed and entered a canalside pub, enjoying the fading evening in good company.

Elgar stands guard over the curiously haphazard City Centre
Elgar stands guard over the curiously haphazard City Centre

Today was a gloomier, overcast proposition but we set about finding Elgar's statue - and unexpectedly a plaque honouring his enthusiasm for cycling. Next we headed for good coffee and watched the world go by. Worcester is one of those cities which manages to stay resolutely bustling on a Sunday - not unlike Gloucester where I would often find myself heading in the winter. The city centre is blighted by unwise development and curiously bad modern buildings, but enough remains to make it a charming and resolutely English part of the world. Our travels just now are often swiftly arranged and based around limited resources but slowly we are working our way to the spots that I've loved - and some indeed that I've never visited. Long may our wandering continue...

 


Posted in Travel on Wednesday 7th August 2013 at 12:17pm


Given the competing demands of work, weddings and reorganising life here, it was inevitable that our travel schedule would get a little lighter over the course of this summer. At the end of what has seemed like a month-long heatwave too, motivation has been low and the temptation has been to mostly sit out the hot weather and the uncomfortable humidity which always accompanies it here. But this weekend was a little different because once again we had some visitors from the United States - and with three days set aside to help them explore the West of England, we to were going to get to wander a little more than usual too. Our trip started with an evening train to Bristol and a brief orientation walk, followed by dinner. We'd tried to get a table on the Glass Boat, but ended up further along Welsh Back at a strange, busy and rather disappointing eatery which was also a boat - but with a huge attached building in which we were seated. As it was Saturday evening, with the rail service curtailed comparatively early, we left the Americans to sleep off their trip and catch up on some hours in a real hotel bed having spent much of the trip so far in Youth Hostels.

Day two of our excursions began with a bus journey up to Clifton for Sunday morning coffee. It was evident that the rest of Bristol had decided to do the very same thing, and it was hard to get a seat in the tiny branch of Coffee #1. We finally managed it however, and it was as ever very good coffee. Suitably fortified we headed down through the village towards the Suspension Bridge, on the way picking up pictures with a couple of Grommits which littered the route. Obligatory pictures obtained - and despite some reluctance from our youngest visitor to set foot on Brunel's great project - we headed back into the village, and onto a bus bound for Temple Meads. The next destination was Bath - a bit of a tourist magnet perhaps, and a magnet for us too in recent times. The weather wasn't being kind, but with a few errands to run first off we managed to skip between the showers mostly. It was fun to let our newest British resident take the lead here - showing her growing knowledge of the city and its geography. We covered the usual territory - into the city, around the Abbey and to Pulteney Bridge. A lunch stop, then back to the Roman Baths. It's one of those strange omissions that only a local makes that means I'd never actually been inside before. We signed up for season tickets just in case we brought future visitors here, and descended into the building, well below street level. As we explored my childhood studies of the Roman's flooded back - hypocausts and bathing routines, temples and deities. I was really impressed with the way the baths were organised, and the journey which built up to the main event - the large hot bath. Glimpses of the bath could be seen, tantalisingly close, but then the trail would lead away again. For my money, into more interesting territory too - as the springs and underground watercourses again drew my attention much more strongly than the tourist attraction. Having surfaced, and braved tasting a little of the oddly warm, sulphurous and mineral rich water, I was convinced that perhaps the Local Authority was a suitable custodian here after all. We finished our day in the city somewhere we'd wanted to go for a while - Graze. Fine Bath Ales, good food, and "Oliver Cromwell" passing unexpectedly leading a steam special back to Bristol. A fine day.

Bath Abbey looms over the Roman Baths
Bath Abbey looms over the Roman Baths

Monday dawned with dramatic clouds, and we retraced our steps to Bristol to meet the travellers at Temple Meads. After much needed coffee we boarded a busy 376 bus heading out to Wells. After escaping the rather leafy southwestern suburbs of the city - an area I rarely travel through - we climbed into the Mendips. Little villages, evidence of former railways, turns, dips and climbs took the bus onwards. Suddenly, we were descending - the misty, wide plain of the Somerset Levels spread out before us with the isolated and omnious tump of Glastonbury Tor ahead. We arrived in the centre of Wells and turned a corner to face the cathedral - as impressive as ever, perhaps even more so with the vista appearing so suddenly. Our lodgings for the night were at The Swan nearby - a beautiful old hotel nestled in the very heart of the tiny city. Once checked in, we set out for good coffee and then a trip out to Glastonbury. Old haunts for us, but good to see them with new people in tow - the Abbey was a backdrop for a photo session, and then we spent way too long drinking cider and marvelling at the awful service in the Lazy Gecko - but as ever the food was wonderful. As the weather closed in for a summery shower, we headed back to Wells and explored a little more on the way back to the hotel. Later, we got to see the Cathedral illuminated - a rather special sight indeed.

Wells Cathedral remains a majestic sight
Wells Cathedral remains a majestic sight

After a good breakfast the next morning, we reversed our bus journey into Bristol. The plan had been to hire a car, but this was thrown into some doubt by the slapdash nature of the rental company. However, on arriving at Temple Meads things had been sorted out, and we headed into the bowels of St.Phillip's Marsh to find the depot. A complicated transaction later and we were heading out of town on the M32, with some refreshingly good driving going on! Again we were mostly repeating our steps, but with an excited group of Americans along for the ride it was good to be back out and travelling. Leaving the motorway we headed south across Salisbury plain, and towards Stonehenge once again. It's still a wonderful sight to see it rise from the rolling hills - and it was just as strange to be close to the stones again. This time we were a little earlier, so the site was busier overall, but that also meant time to head back via Avebury where the sheer size of the circles, and the way the village is nestled among them means it's much harder to prevent access to the monoliths.

And so our whistle stop tour of the South West ended in the restaurant we'd originally hoped to visit - The Glass Boat. Good food, good company and a successful visit overall. These visits over the past few months have reawakened a sense of belonging to this part of the world which I've not had since I was a very young boy - when a trip to Somerset seemed like an adventure, and when the curious names on roadsigns seemed impossible distant. I've travelled a lot since then, but the magic has never faded. We left our three happy guests heading for their room sleepily, thence to London for a final couple of days of exploring. It's been fantastic folks - we'll head your way next time!

 


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...

 


Lost::MikeGTN

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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