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.
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.
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.
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...
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...
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 Travel on Saturday 27th April 2013 at 12:00am
As we set out this morning I tried to mentally calculate when I'd last been to Exeter. That's to say - actually wandered outside St. David's Station and into the city centre. Certainly there had been plenty of passing visits - not least during the summer of 2004 when almost every weekend saw me flying up and down on the locomotive hauled special trains which Virgin put on. There had also been a few FGW Customer Panel meetings which had necessitated a train up the bank to Central Station and a dash across the street to the hotel. But, I was a little shocked when I realised that the last proper visit - and the one on which I base most of my memories of the city - was back in 2002!
This was a bit of a 'getting back on the horse' trip. Whilst the Scottish excursion had been fun, it had been a little dogged by illness and discomfort - and it felt important to get out and travel again. I was a little concerned about getting wedged onto a steaming Voyager full of angry people at Taunton, which is often the case later in the day - but in fact, after a quick run down on a local unit we were lucky enough to have one of CrossCountry's HST sets draw in. We found a spacious seat in a pleasantly cool carriage and watched the countryside slipping by. Springtime had finally descended on Somerset and Devon, and there were fields of lambs skipping around and plenty of greenery. After what seemed to be a long, tough winter here it was a relief to be out and about in relative warmth too. As we curved along the River Exe into our destination, I calculated the wait for a local unit up the hill into Central Station. It was only a few minutes, so we made the dash and after a screeching ascent of the bank, emerged into the City. It was shaping up to be a warm, dry afternoon as we picked our way through the crowds in the shopping area. Everyone seemed to be happy to be out in the sunshine, and the light stone buildings took on a warm glow. Our route zig-zagged around the streets, letting unusual stores or historical spots divert us. We'd considered a visit to a food festival in Northernhay Gardens but the queues were long and there was much to see. We settled for a wander around the Castle walls later instead.
Ducking down a little alleyway, we approached the Cathedral Close from the same angle as on my last visit. I knew this would slowly reveal the squat but solidly impressive building to its best advantage. It also showed the green sweep of the close with its range of historical buildings - a rank of ecclesiastical dwellings along one side, and fine victorian hotels and stores along the other. We ate outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and both people- and seagull-watching. As we explored the grounds further, the bells rang out for a wedding party - an elaborate, military affair in fact. Though we were struck how many of the party appeared to be dressed for the nightclub. One of the odd clashes here in Exeter seemed to be the grand, old and traditional and the oddly irreverent and new. A perfect example was tucked oddly into the recent Southernhay shopping redevelopment - St. Catherine's Chapel... A ruin, but an accessible and curiously peaceful spot, artifacts pressed between glass panels to capture it's history.
Nowhere typified the conundrum which is Exeter more than the spot we visited for a comfort break on the way out of town. A lounge turned sports bar, full of bawling children and negligent parents. At the rear, the entrance to a linked nightclub was roped off, the place filthy and dangerous. Cheap supermarket pop passed off as Coca Cola with a leering dare to challenge. We escaped as fast as we could and decided to walk back to St. Davids. Out into the curious old suburbs, over the grand Iron Bridge with it's views along the Longbrook Valley, then over the hill and down to more familiar territory as we approached the station. The square outside felt dilapidated and run down, the fine Great Western Inn still functioning, but in a rather less salubrious spot than before. If this had been our entrance to the city earlier, we may not have been so immediately charmed.
Reflecting on the trip on the way home - luckily enough on another CrossCountry HST - the strange mixture of old and new, retail and romance, and classy and downbeat which Exeter had presented seemed to typify many English cities. But the fine old buidlings and the relaxed, open feel of the place won the day. I don't want to leave it another ten years before I return.
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.