Great British journeys

As per usual around August and September I spent a decent amount of time in the south west of England. A place so dense and diverse in beauty that one blog post, one picture can barely do it justice. More than a place; a feeling so embedded in the depths of my soul that annual departure can feel like heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic, much like the windswept gorse and heather billowing gold and purple down towards a craggy shore bruised by the Atlantic. In which case, more melodrama will be written in coming weeks…

But what of the rest of the UK, or at least select parts of it? A journey connecting friends and family from Devon to Norfolk to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire and Dorset? Travel time in which to reflect on those little things about the UK that may have changed in a year, or remind you of what a blessedly peculiar place this is. I made a few observations as I went along. I don’t know if all of these are unique to England or more a result of exposure which is lacking in my life and surrounds in Australia. But let me just say…

British coffee is getting incrementally better. My first Costa latte was dire, but the flat whites improved and the discovery of a place called Boston Tea Party heralds promise. On the downside there are even more Costas springing up (or, in Norfolk, a Coasta), along with about twenty Greggs servicing every small town.

Someone at Heart Radio discovered Spanish and decided they would play two songs over and over again. In between Ed Sheeran, who is rapidly taking his place as an honorary member of the Bus of Doom.

Nineteen degrees Celsius is scientifically warmer in England than Australia. So much so that every beach in Cornwall takes on the appearance of a shanty town. Circular fortresses of windbreaks and folding chairs spring up, even when the only wind is the sound of Brummie accents moaning about the price of a pasty that was made in a warehouse in Solihull.

Stop with the speed bumps for goodness sake! I counted 25 on the two miles or so between my Mum’s and sister’s. It seems needless having bumps every ten metres, especially as the roads are so congested with parked cars and other clutter that you can’t even get above 20 mph. Bloody Tories! Or EU more likely, tsssk. Good job we won’t have to bother ourselves with their trade and human rights and security and status on the world stage for much longer.

British berries are the best. Period. I just had some strawberries in Australia this morning and tasted utter emptiness.

Nobody wants to hear what dreadful videos you are playing on your phone. Especially in the quiet coach. Please just put the phone down for a few minutes. Please!

Nowhere does countryside better. It is mystifying how there can be so much of it in a small jam-packed island. It is an asset greater than pork pies and almost as joyous as clotted cream. Almost. But then perhaps I’m being melodramatic.

Anyway, on with the tour…

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The tractor fanciers express from Devon to Norfolk

Who would have thought a flight on a Thursday from Exeter to Norwich would have been full? It almost had one spare seat due to malfunctioning cars and delayed trains, but a taxi from Exeter St Davids saved the day. I really must spend a few hours in Exeter some time; as much as it begrudges me to say, it looks pleasant and reasonably civilised. But not today, I need to get to the airport.

eng00Reminiscent of Canberra-Sydney flights it was a quick up, get tea trolley out for five minutes and plunge down into Norwich. Views along the south coast of Devon and Dorset disappeared under cloud, only opening up again over the north of London before we descended towards the wind farms of the North Sea. Thankfully we made a few turns and landed in Norwich, where Jill was waiting to pick me up and really excited about the prospect of driving from a new place and avoiding numerous road closures.

We stocked up on curry from the local Indian in Acle that evening, filling us for the next day of vigorous exercise in a kayak. Kayaking was one of those things we did in Australia a few times, achieving sporadic success in getting from A to B in a predominantly straight line. Today, we equipped ourselves well, navigating a section of the Norfolk Broads without crashing into any other barges, being attacked by swans, or falling into the water. Okay, a couple of times we got a bit friendly with the reeds, but surely the purpose of being in a kayak is to get close to nature, right?

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eng02It was a placid foray out onto the water; that is until turning and heading for home which took way longer than expected and I’m sure burnt enough energy to justify a pork pie from Roys. Roys of Wroxham is a bit of a thing it seems, possibly boasting a department store, food hall, toy store, hairdresser and funeral directors. Or something like that.

eng03On reflection – trying to occupy my mind while jetlag keeps me wide awake at three in the morning – this day was definitely in my top five 2017 holiday days. Following the morning’s kayaking adventure a little R&R in the very pleasant garden sunshine preceded a top deck bus ride to Norwich and a pint or three by the river. I should have added above that Britain does pubs and beer better than Australia too. So much so that we had dinner in another before retiring at a very age-appropriate hour.

eng07Having explored a little of the Broads (and I daresay the rest looks exactly the same), the next day was spent on the North Norfolk coast. With the tide out there was ample sand to stroll along before this gave way to a rockier shoreline apparently chock full of fossils. There are more fossils here than caravans. Arguably.

Successfully mounting a rare hill in East Anglia (the Beeston Bump), the reward included fine views of the picturesque town of Sheringham and – more pleasingly – a scrumptious and lovingly recreated version of a bird roll. This was another one of those things we did in Australia from time to time, and it tasted just as good in England. Kudos to Jill for this most excellent and evocative idea. Even Paul Hollywood’s buns were not enough to ruin the experience!

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Sheringham provided all the trappings of the English seaside: rows of people sat on concrete sea defences eating fish and chips, about ten ice cream parlours, gritty sand, colourful beach huts, cunning seagulls, and idiots actually swimming in the perishingly cold water. To round out its slightly dated holiday charm, a steam train terminated here and proved more regular and punctual than the actual proper train that should have taken us back to Cromer.

Cromer offered much of the same, though with a slightly more downmarket feel. Still, the pier is an elegant place for ambling and – for many – crabbing. Elsewhere, the pub beer garden is a good way to kill an hour or two experiencing more local ales before it is acceptable enough a time to grab some fish and chips for dinner. Fish and chips on the pier as the sun goes golden. It feels like the summer is never going to end.

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The Northern Snail to Edale

It ended the next day, something which may or may not correlate with the fact that I was heading definitively into the north. I even reached Yorkshire, changing at Sheffield for a smaller train into the Hope Valley and the station at Edale, Derbyshire. There is not a great deal to Edale – a few holiday homes, a church and, crucially, two pubs. But the station sits in the midst of a slice of delectable England salvaging the grimy post-industry and haphazard gentrification of several northern cities. Indeed, in theory, Manchester should be half an hour away.

You could spend days, weeks even, exploring the Peak District National Park but my time was limited to an overnight stopover en route to the west coast. Such are the restrictions of only a month in England! Still, it was three o’clock in the afternoon upon arrival at Edale International Railway Terminus and despite greying, occasionally drizzly skies, the tops of the hills could be sighted. I struck out, on a gentle country lane, over stiles and gradually upwards through the patchwork fields of sheep contained by crumbling dry stone walls. This can only be England, and it can never fail to induce utter content.

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The climbing got a little more intense up to Hollins Cross, where a view south was becoming increasingly obscured by low cloud and rain, and the wind was a constant companion on a ridge towards the prominence of Mam Tor. Reaching the summit, the summer of yesterday was well and truly finished, and – almost incredulously – I employed my waterproof coat for the first time in two weeks!

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eng10Mustn’t grumble…the weather could have been far worse and it offered the perfect conditions for an Edale pub crawl. Walking up to the Old Nags Head, the first ale flowed quickly down as I rested in a pleasingly darkened nook of creaking wood. And back down in the Rambler Inn, where I was staying for the night, a hefty Sunday roast was well-accompanied by a couple of the local brews. I went to bed slightly aggrieved I wasn’t staying longer.

The take what you can get to Ansdell and Fairhaven

Black pudding. Now there’s something I don’t rush back to England craving.  However, having opted for the Full English and being one of only two diners that morning and being in the north, I felt duty bound to pay it some attention. Beans and HP sauce can help.

Breakfast was made more stressful with the news that conductors were on strike and trains were not bothering to stop at Edale. Alternative options seemed complex and required significant walking and waiting. But the fact that there was very little in Edale was a blessing in disguise, the manager at the Rambler Inn having to make a trip down the hills to the ooh la la sounding Chapel-en-le-Frith to visit the closest post office. Here, apparently, hourly trains to Manchester were in operation.

Indeed that proved to be the case, and from Manchester I was able to connect with reasonable efficiency on to Preston, Lancashire. I never had the ambition to spend two hours in the city centre, but that was the only viable option to kill time until the next connection. It was pretty much like any other city centre in England but at least that was marginally better than what I was expecting. I think it has improved since I was last here, thanks to pedestrianisation and – largely – an absence of unoccupied stores. Still, no offence, but I don’t think Preston would make the ‘I could live here’ list.

eng11Could I live amongst the gentrified avenues and peering from behind net curtain populace of Ansdell and Fairhaven? Possibly. The promenade fringing the estuary is pleasant on rare days when gales don’t blow off the Irish Sea, the town centre of Lytham is tidy and amenable, there are pubs, and I could even go swinging at the golf club. But most of all there are old friends who are a pleasure to see and spend time with, plus new feline ones who would be quite welcome to stow away in my suitcase.

The thing with this area is I am unsure if there are days when it doesn’t actually rain. Maybe I have just been unfortunate lately (I have heard rumours of hot sunny summer days), but the predominance of dankness simply serves to exacerbate my grim up north prejudice. A thought that was on my mind as I headed out in the drizzle to the tiny one platform station once more.

The so over it to Pewsey

It could be worse. You could be stuck in Wolverhampton for an hour, missing a tight connecting train heading further south. Aghast at such a prospect I carried on to Birmingham New Street which, following a grand redevelopment, is all impressive sleekness and luminosity. Still, it remains Birmingham and I was pleased to see a train in half an hour heading to Reading.

At Reading there was more joy in store by waiting around half an hour for a train to Basingstoke where I could wait another half hour for a train to Salisbury where I could then sit in traffic for a while before reaching the final destination of Durrington. Or I could change plans and board that train destined for Pewsey in the next ten minutes. What would Michael Portillo do, I didn’t think?

eng12Wiltshire. A new place to stay with Dad and Sonia and some different parts of the countryside to explore. With names like the Vale of Pewsey, Netheravon, and Honey Street, it could be something straight out of the pages of Tolkien. The comfortable, idyllic bit, with thatched cottages, gardens prospering in shafts of sunlight, cosy pubs and weird looking hobbits. But lurking behind this, the prospect of dark times and conflict as tanks carry out manoeuvres and prepare for the threat of some dark lord thing with a big fiery eye and fondness for Twitter.

At peace, there was much walking to be had in Wiltshire, with a trip along the ridgelines of the Pewsey Downs and through the vale below. Commonplace around here, a white horse had been etched onto the hillside, looking elegant from afar but entirely distorted close up. And a bit less white, as if it could do with a top up of gravel from Bunnings. Anything for an awful sausage sizzle.

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eng14With cloud lifting and just a little sun emerging it was a pleasant walk, a pub beside the Kennet and Avon Canal offering some refreshment but little in the way of good cheer. Better refreshment and more cheer, however, at the Honeystreet Cafe in the form of cake and okay coffee. Alas, I have since heard this spot is going to be closing down, which is a shame since it offers delicious fuel for the trudge back up to the car parked up on the ridge.

The next day was less conducive to walking and so we headed down to Poole where at least the rain was mostly insipid. It’s hard to judge Poole on a grey, damp and cool day. I’m sure on sunny days it would be rather jaunty and the appeal of boat trips and sandy enclaves would emerge. Today, it was an outing, something to do that was better than staying at home.

Back into the Wiltshire countryside, the River Avon provides a ribbon of life and opulence upon which gated estates, woodlands and cosy villages intertwine. Nestled in the middle of southern England, it is a very middle middle England. On an amiable and diverse circular walk with Dad we saw one of Sting’s mansions (unlikely to be at home, busy banishing poverty), passed a very posh lady on a horse, encountered distant views of Stonehenge, walked through a verdant valley, and just about made it back in time before a rain shower.

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After the rain had fallen, we popped off to Salisbury, with its impressive cathedral, medieval buildings and pretty riverside parklands. There were the usual shops too, and the trappings of any English town (which now seem to include the ever-expanding Roly’s Fudge Pantries, hello).

eng17I was kind of surprised – given the general affluence of the area – to observe people milling about the town included an assorted jumble of yoofs, chavs, oddballs and eccentrics. But I suppose that is also reassuring and, in many ways, comforting to know that Salisbury is not much different to anywhere else (and you too can fit in!). England is still England, kind of functioning in its own little way, peculiar but familiar, simultaneously appalling and utterly incredible. And really blessed with the best berries grown in the best countryside in the world.

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Floody ‘ell

So it turns out ‘The North’ is more than just a fictional imagining in George R.R. Martin’s gargantuan head. There is a real place in which gruff folk with grizzled beards mumble about stone walls. The weather can be cold, but it is mostly just bone-chillingly wet; sombrely leaden. Expansive wilds present a bleak, gritty beauty, tamed only in picturesque patches of lowland. Sheep cling forlornly to the slopes, anticipating, finally, the coming of winter. Further North, an ancient wall struggles to keep out wildlings, armed with Tennants Super on the 0900 to Euston. We are in Cumbria.

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Cumbria before the floods, but only just. After a soggy few days on the Lancashire coast, it wasn’t much of a surprise to travel up the M6 in a medley of drizzle, dark cloud, and downpour. While a brief period where I didn’t have to use windscreen wipers offered hope, this was dashed with unending persistence once in the Lake District National Park. And so, from umbrella buying in Bowness to umbrella usage in Ambleside to umbrella drying off in a neat hotel in the middle of nowhere, there really wasn’t much to do in this greatest of outdoors.

As the dim skies faded black and the patter of rain continued apace upon the skylight I decided to make a break for it and check out the bright, Christmas lights of Keswick. I was hoping for a Dickensian scene of late night shopping, market stalls with hubbub and mulled wine, brass bands blaring out Once in Royal David’s City, and ribbons of light twinkling above curving cobbled alleyways. The reality offered some lights but little else, as the town appeared to be hunkering down for the night. With sodden shoes and a reduced-price pork pie from the Co-op, I retreated back to the car, umbrella decimated by a gust of wind, facing only the promise of driving through surface water in the dark. I made it, but Keswick did not. Two days later it was flooded.

Oh for a dry day and, for most of Friday, it happened. It wasn’t exactly bright or pleasant, but for a few hours the rain had paused before it was to come back in such vengeance. A few puddles dotted the road alongside Derwentwater on the way towards Honister Pass. Softened valley villages and stonewalled farms yielded to barren upland, coated a deep brown with the dying bracken. A steep decline worthy of the Tour De France returned things to something closer to the idyllic around the idyllic sounding Buttermere.

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This was my chance to revel in dreary dryness, to soak up bleak melancholy, to wander lonely as a big grey cloud. The lake could be circumnavigated and it came as something of a surprise that the path was still in good condition during the two hour loop. Only once was a rocky detour required due to a swollen lake edge. Oh, and a couple of steps through a rising brook. Hang on…I almost forgot…that falling ass over tit moment on a small stretch of grass linking the road back to the path. Muddy bottom, muddy camera, but thankfully no-one around to see my slippery fall from grace.

lk03The scenery was undeniably beautiful. One wonders whether it would be improved by sunlight and fluffy white clouds, buttercups and warmth. Probably. I remember it as such on a brief stop ten years past. Today, it was moody and, to be honest, me too. After a week without it, I just really really REALLY craved the sun. But at least it was dry…so mustn’t grumble.

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lk06With all the previous day’s rain it was no major surprise to encounter a series of stretched out cascades and falls plunging down the steep-sided fells towards the lake. I suppose this is some recompense for the deluge, but so frequent and incessant is the sound of water that it makes you want to pee really really badly. And there is not much in the way of foliage left to offer shelter and protection.

Still, relieved and closer to the end, an alien sliver of blue sky opened up to the northeast. A chink in the steel armour, it was something to cling to, something to chase. Briefly it illuminated some hills in the distance, but failed to deliver anything of solace on my face. There would be little chance for anything to air for long.

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lk09Completing the Buttermere circumnavigation, I jumped back into the car to venture over a narrow pass and down to the western edge of Derwentwater. That chink of blue sky was somewhere in this direction, and I may have bathed in it for all of twenty seconds. Unfortunately I was in the car at the time, but it was still a very special twenty seconds. A valley glowed. A farm building shimmered. The sheep murmured quiet contentment. And then the strong wind sent it away, off into the distance.

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Early afternoon in Keswick and things had actually dried out a little – perhaps it too had been briefly kissed by the sun? There were people on its streets and a hint of something Christmas-related in the air. There was no wafting smell of hot pork pie though, but then I began to question whether this ten year old recollection was actually in Kendall rather than Keswick? So, of all things, I ended up with a Cornish pasty in the cute town square.

Determined not to suffer a food disappointment to compound my rapidly redeveloping British glumness, I set out on a mission for afternoon tea. For what else is the Lake District if not the archetypal biscuit tin setting for afternoon tea? Grasmere sounds a likely spot, full of tea shoppes and crafty gifts to cater for poetic dreamers. A place where a pot of tea can – at a single moment – feel like the best thing in the world. Elation amplified by a gigantic slice of treacle tart, sickeningly delectable. A high on which to leave the lakes and to treasure a day of figurative sunshine amongst the December clouds.

 

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Trains, tubes, bikes, and a pony

Also known as ‘The Other Bits of England’ blog, in which I endeavour to catch up with special people not living in Devon and partake in the odd jolly jaunt with or, occasionally, without them. Faces and places familiar, with the occasional variation thrown in for good measure. A veritable criss-crossing of a country, conquering the bemusing cost savings to be had through split railway tickets and battling against the perennial issue of available luggage space. Virgin appear to have done something particularly mind-blowing in this regard, where overhead storage accepts nothing thicker than a laptop, resulting in a space largely devoid of content and most luggage littering any spare volume of carriage not taken up by cranky people. They do appear to serve a Rodda’s Cream Tea though, so all is forgiven.

Making these trips is a chance for my inner England to resurface (e.g. by grumbling quietly to oneself at the trains) and to get up to speed with the zeitgeist, mainly courtesy of eavesdropped conversations and leftover copies of the Metro. Scandal in the Great British Bake Off; returning X Factor judges; expensive football transfers; Scotland will they won’t they will they won’t cannae do it aye. And, more personalised, to witness changes to old haunts, to exchange news and share a drink once more with friends, to see if coffee has improved, and to tread the green, green grass of home.

ukB01London has a surprisingly decent amount of green, green grass, and I tread my fair share of it each year through the child-friendly parks which often intermingle throughout the northern suburbia around Finchley. Further in amongst the urban grime, parks and leafy squares crop up around random corners, such as Coram’s Fields just south of Kings Cross St Pancras. An undoubtedly charming green space should it be open…which it wasn’t today, due to some very worthy charity event being set up. And so, around another corner, a small bouncy castle appeared over a wall and the local community gardens family fun day was sensitively gatecrashed.

It felt a bit like something that may feature in Eastenders, though it was all much more enjoyable and pleasant, without numbskull deadbeats trying to shift some dodgy motors or a drummer waiting in the corner to signal the occurrence of a dramatic, decisive, cliff-hanging moment. It had a different feel to – say – the contented edamame-chomping family set sprawling across Friary Park in Barnet, a spot in which I recovered the next day from experiencing a decent flat white in North Finchley. They are slowly getting better in places. Slowly.

Back onto the train the next day, a Virgin train with its pitiless excuse for an overhead luggage rack, the green pockets of the capital were to be replaced with greener expanses of beautiful, classical, English landscapes. I am naturally a little biased towards Devon and Cornwall, but there are surely few places as idyllic as the Lake District in the far northwest of England. Rugged rounded ridges, sweeping glacial valleys, dry stone walls and postcard-pretty lakeside villages. The kind of place I end up every year and feel keen to stay longer some other time.

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ukB02In truth, I only had a few hours in the heart of the Lake District (i.e. inside the national park). Other days were spent within a hilltop forest which possessed its own magical air. Whinfell Forest sits atop a large, sprawling hill and amongst the pines are scattered quiet avenues and quaint timber lodges. There are people wholesomely cycling around and children, lots of children, like Faeries apparating out of the heather. From nowhere a glass dome emerges, filled with restaurant chains and a complex of swimming pools and whirly flumes and tubes. This is a Center Parcs site, an undoubtedly corporatised cash-cow, which somehow retains plenty of charm and attractiveness.

ukB03The setting rules here you see, with ample space to accommodate plenty of lodges and a giant glass dome and thousands of Faeries and still have room for quiet forest tracks, gentle glades and red squirrel hang outs. The appeal for me was the setting and I enjoyed nothing more than riding my bike along the car-free tracks, the sun and breeze and smell of pine in the air. That and cherishing time with friends who are more special than most and continue to do amazing things.

Center Parcs does not feel too claustrophobic but I did wonder whether you could escape the perimeter fence. Would the road out be closed? Would a giant thunderstorm crop up to block the way? Would a security alert be concocted to stop you leaving? Was this, in fact, The Truman Show? I could not be so close to the lakes and not give it a try, so I snuck out, hopped on a bus to Penrith, waited forever for another bus and ended up trundling alongside Ullswater before getting off at Glenridding. I didn’t have much idea what was at Glenridding, but as a place name to stop at in the Lake District it sounded about right. And indeed, it possessed all necessary quaintness and opportunity for a short enough walk taking in two valleys and a small hill.

ukB04The walk, hastily discovered through some wifi in a Penrith coffee shop, took me gradually upwards for valley and lakeside views, reaching the small, reflective Lanty’s Tarn. From here it was over and down into Grisedale, where sheep dotted the lower meadows, kept in by the dry stone walls and the course of the river. The river tumbled steadily down back towards Ullswater itself, setting the course for the return to Glenridding.

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ukB07Though fine and warm, it was a cloudy kind of day – what the BBC online weather forecast likes to call ‘white cloud’ as opposed to ‘grey cloud’ (it’s the worst cloud for landscape photos I find). The sun finally emerged into the afternoon only a little before my bus back was due, but this provided time enough for an ice cream and a quick scramble to see the lake for one last time in some sun. The bus came and I left thinking that one whole week here would do nicely thank you very much please.

Leaving the Lakes, the landmarks and landscapes become a little less poetic. For instance, I get to change trains at Wolverhampton. Wordsworth never wrote anything fancy about Wolverhampton. I doubt if he did for Basingstoke either, unsurprising given it never really existed back then. There could be some interesting poetry about Basingstoke (I wandered circuitously like a roundabout…) and he would generally approve of the countryside around the place. You do notice, though, how more built up the southeast is, particularly on a day spent for much of the time in nearby Surrey.

The M25 is nobody’s idea of fun, but it quickly took Dad and I to Box Hill. For those who remember such things, this is a small lump in the North Downs that Olympic cyclists managed to climb nine times (a few too many in my opinion). It remains a mecca for lycra lovers everywhere who enjoy nothing more than getting sweaty on a couple of hairpins. With MAMILs in profusion you would expect a decent coffee at the top, but that is not what you get. However, the area provides a diversity of hazy hilltop views, ancient forest, chalk downs and riverside meadows. On a circular walking route, down to the River Mole and over stepping stones, the climb back up to the top on foot makes you appreciate what the cyclists achieve.

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ukB09Amongst the procession of affluent commuter towns and fancy golf courses, we also eventually found ourselves at Runnymede. This is a spot on the banks of the Thames that has international historical significance as the signing spot of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. Being about democracy and all the yanks have attempted to infiltrate this spot with monuments and gifts to the Queen and what not (which, of course, they are free and entitled to do without prejudice or persecution). However, the green meadows and ancient oak trees are oh so English; a scene tempered only slightly by the parade of jets coming in to land at Heathrow and delivering thousands of yanks onto these shores.

ukB09aBlissfully quieter but also possessing historical royal links and requisite green pleasantness was the New Forest, visited on my last full day of this trip in England. The sun came out and all was well with the world amongst the many shades of green, rescinding in places as September emerges. The cute village of Burley remains somewhere in the sepia toned 1950s, with bunting and shoppes and ice cream and ponies meandering down the streets looking all sweetness and light in an attempt to curry favour and steal your ice cream. I don’t blame them, it was good ice cream. There was also good picnic lunch in a forest and good afternoon cake in Ashurst. And if all this Englishness was getting a bit much, there was good tartiflette (French) in the evening. Finished (yes, there is more) with Pavlova (Kiwi) finished (yes, more) with the last spoonful of clotted cream (Heaven). What a way to go!

It wasn’t quite the end and ruining the culinary picture slightly was a very poor coffee (from one of those chains – yes, Caffe Nero I will name and shame you) the next morning in London. With a couple of hours to spare before flying out of the city, I returned to the south bank with my bags, a scene reminiscent of a few weeks before. And despite the burning bitterness in my mouth, the scene, sat on a bench in the warm sun, was uplifting. St Pauls to my right, while various funky new buildings rise up beyond, trying to outdo the piercing pinnacle of The Shard. The river flows along in front of me, taking the view down to Parliament and the London Eye. If I wanted an iconic British image to depart Britain on then this was perhaps the one to go with.

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ukB11But there are many iconic, memorable images from a few weeks back home: herds of deer at Knebworth; the M25; Dartmoor cream teas; pasties in Cornwall and Plymouth Argyle; trampolines; sparkling Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe; tin mine relics on the North Cornwall coast; a train trundling through excessive leafiness to Looe; Kings Cross St Pancras; poetic Lakeland landscapes; magical forest bike rides; the Thames with a flight path soundtrack; New Forest ponies and cake, lots of cake. And many of these moments cherished more with family and friends who sometimes feel a little too far away. Departing from London City, out over the Thames estuary, over again where it all inauspiciously started – Safffffend – England, again, sadly disappeared from view.

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Hola amigos!

spn02Wary that I may just drift into the comforts of life again in Plymouth and conscious of impending Halloween-related mania, I took a couple of weeks out of this (only slightly) working holiday. The first part involved meeting up and hanging out with friends once more, following which a trip overseas provided some peace and quiet and strangely rare solo time.

A whistle-stop visit to London offered another chance to reacquaint myself with old hang outs and deep connections. Now with young ones to entertain this principally involves visits to the parks of North London, typically on a rota system. It was pleasing to add a different park to the list, within the tranquil leafiness of Highgate Wood. The extra bonus here was that once slides and nets and steps and bars had been exhausted, a little lodge served up fine food to eat al fresco in the sunshine. Similarly, while by no means a new addition, Golders Hill Park delivered gelato to cool down on an astonishingly warm and sheltered park bench the next day.

spn01London is quite a different place when you visit and are not subjected to a long daily commute for tedious work and returning home for a late dinner mired in tiredness. Indeed, I was quite happy to take an hour long bus journey, absorbing the sites on the top deck of the number 13 bus from Golders Green: Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, Lords Cricket Ground, Regents Park, Baker Street, Oxford Street and, my stop, Piccadilly Circus. I was equally content to mill around to Covent Garden and Embankment and cross over to the South Bank for a little, killing time until a get-together in Clapham. I know for sure now that I am officially at a different stage in life to when I was living in London:  waiting for a friend in a pub reading a paper and struggling to block my ears to the awful music that was far too loud. Confirmation of this comes through reminiscing on the tube home with two friends from university who I met half of my lifetime ago.  But this is nothing to despair at.

spn03More old friendships, albeit only for about one third of my lifetime, were enjoyed during a few days in Lytham up in the good old northwest of England near Blackpool. The weather for the first couple of days was better than when I visited in August, allowing opportunity to amble the prom and still try and figure out why so many people come here for their holidays. By midweek it was more typically grey with some rain and a few fleeting rays of sun. This coincided with my birthday, which was further official confirmation that I am of an older generation. Still, in Lytham such is the populace of wrinklies that I generally still feel quite young, and can do impetuous youthful things like play GTA V and watch the end of Breaking Bad like everyone else in the world during this period in history.

spn07It was a grey, drizzly day leaving Lytham and I am very conscious that I will be in England when the calendar turns to November (or Jungfrau). With this in mind, and another way in which I can make myself feel young, I boarded a plane to Spain. Costa Blanca, Quesada, Dona Pepa Pig and a home from home from home sadly less visited. This was an opportunity to wear shorts again, to think a bit more like I was in Australia, albeit with worse coffee and inferior beaches and not as much untainted open space. It was also rather nice to have some time to myself – the first in quite a long time really.

I probably would have gone a bit stir-crazy if it wasn’t for the company of a mouse in the house and a hire car to get around. And so, a few excursions (without the mouse) took in mountain towns and humid clouds, coastal resorts and big rocks, and lovely fragrant forests and views.

spn04The first trip out took me to a few Spanish mountain towns, all with higgledy piggledy streets and churches and squares. At Biar, a medieval castle looks out from the highest point perched upon a lump of rock. A fee of one Euro allows you entrance to the tower where you can get the slowest ever English commentary and walk three flights of stairs to the top. Overlooking the charming little town and fields and hills of rustic terraces, it’s one of the nicer spots in this area.

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Down the road from here, Bocairent did not feature prominently in any of the guide books I had to hand. Mind you, a lot of this material seems out-of-date as roads have changed names or gone missing altogether. Still, I vaguely recall reading something on an airplane in Australia about this place, so it was worth a stop out of curiosity if nothing else. I gather there are lots of little caves around and, while it took a little finding, the old town was very much in the classic Spanish hillside variety.

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From here I missed my intended turn off the main road but this was one of those fortunate mistakes. The next five kilometres or so, towards Ontinyent, thread through a wonderful limestone gorge, a great road to drive on and a worthwhile stop at some pools of blue called El Pou Clar. They would have sparkled like sapphires in the sun only the sun was getting less and less frequent. In fact, the remainder of the day was blighted by low cloud and a touch of rain on the drive back to Quesada, via Alcoy and Agost.

spn08It was a much sunnier start on the second day out, which infuriatingly darkened some 100 kilometres further north around Calpe. Calpe appears to be a typical Costa resort, with a few high rise hotels, a promenade, clusters of apartments and alright kind of beaches. What sets it apart is a huge lump of rock which juts out into the sea at its northern end. It’s called the Penon De Ifach and it turns out you can climb the thing.

The climb is actually a lot easier than you might think looking at the precipitous lump from the bottom. There’s a bit of a tunnel to go through and some fairly consistent scrambling near the top, but apart from that I have to say it made a nice change to find somewhere in this part of Spain where you could actually go for a decent walk in natural surroundings. The very top though is undoubtedly Spanish, with rocks being daubed in graffiti and feral cats pestering and lending a not-so-lovely aroma to the scene. The views of course though are what make it so worthwhile, especially when the sun makes an appearance.

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spn10Despite darkness clinging to the tops of the mountainous interior I left Calpe and headed inland along the Guadalest Valley for the afternoon. Guadalest itself, sheltered by the highest peaks of the Sierra Aitana, remained dry and warm and at times sunny. Certainly warm enough for an ice cream, the Crema Catalana being of particularly fine quality.

Beyond Guadalest the winding roads empty and there is a great deal of scenery lurking under the clouds. What I find infuriating about this though is that there is rarely a place to stop, a viewpoint, a path, a forest, a trail. A lot of the land looks untouched and empty, barren and wild. Who owns it and looks after it I do not know. It just seems to be there, an intangible expanse of rocky scrub and forest.

It was not until I was back closer to the coast near Villajoyosa that some of the scenery could be accessed, albeit a man-made manifestation at the Embalse de Amadorio. The water colour of these reservoirs is always something to behold. It seems they are of significant allure to locals too, who come here to get amorous and leave cans of energy drink, tissues and empty durex boxes scattered around the car park. Maybe I blame locals too quickly, given we’re not actually too far from Benidorm.

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spn12Pleasingly my final significant trip out managed to bring me to some rare Spanish coastal wilderness and a decent trail leading to a fine viewpoint. It’s the kind of set up you begin to take for granted in Australia or, with its amazing coast path, the southwest of England. Over the hills from the strip of concrete that is La Manga and between here and the port of Cartagena, a small pocket of rugged coastline and fragrant forest testifies to what this area once was like. This is known as Monte de las Cenizas and one of the best things about it is that the park authorities have closed the gravel road up to this lookout. This means it is little visited, little defaced and there is a good three kilometre trail with only a gentle gradient to overcome. And at the end, a reward of distant coastal views and deep blue sea.

This was the little taster of a kind of Australia that I had hoped for in Spain. This, and the ability to be wearing shorts in October. For, thanks to British TV and the Internet I know that things are a-changing. Heatwaves and bushfires are already inflicting Australia (yet this may or may not be climate change, let’s just pretend it isn’t and then it will go away). And, more immediately, winds from the north east are seeping into Britain. Having resisted thus far, I may need to buy (or beg, borrow or steal) a coat. Or perhaps just dress up as a pumpkin.

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Beery

As an Anglo-Australian male in his thirties it is inevitable that beer has accompanied me on many occasions on the road and at home. At such times when one needs to know, like a doctor’s interrogation or unethically intrusive job interview, I’d declare myself one of these ‘social drinker’ types. From what I can tell, a social drinker is someone who grabs a beer or two when the mood fancies – to celebrate, relax, or navigate slightly awkward moments – or just when it’s the only thing cold in the fridge and you just can’t be arsed to scrape ice out of the freezer. Very occasionally the charming delight that you become after such social drinking turns sour (usually thanks to the beer being ‘off’ or some such), and imbalance and language difficulties can ensue.

The sage philosopher, Homer [1], remarked of beer as a “temporary solution,” in easing the challenging realities of existence. This temporary solution is also uncannily permanent around the world in which we travel, providing a readily available, relatively cheap source of comfort and joy. Though naturally something of a haze, I can look back on my life and recall a number of places and experiences that have been enhanced by beer or, broadening the spectrum a little, a good glass of wine or a tangy local cider or a holiday water style G&T. Often the drink is the icing on the cake, the encapsulation of a special moment. At other times it’s invariably been an antiseptic, painkiller or narcotic.

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A proven value of beer when travelling is in how it can transform the first shy mumblings of disparate individuals on a tour group into one animated tribe. While the first day of such trips may have been spent quietly on the bus in little cliques of friendship pairs, the second day is typically dominated by shared tales of what scandal befell Jared and Janelle, and frequent hilarious stops for Lance to chunder like the man he is from down under. Meanwhile the tour guide acts like this has never happened before and this group is – based on the escapades of the previous night – simply the most awesome ever [2]. Multiply this all by several days and nights and you are left with a teary, hollow feeling that you will never be as one again when the trip is over and that Lance’s chunder is now but a trickle down some distant highway. This may sound like a young persons’ rite of passage, but I daresay the same happens on more senior and old at heart tours, just replace ‘beer’ with ‘wine’ and ‘chunder’ with ‘incontinence’.

Unless you happen to spend a large part of your time meandering in the Middle East, beer is an international language, demonstrated by the fact that almost every country has its own version. Within countries, different regions produce their own local brew and it can be a strong marker of local identity. Obviously one of the joys of travel is sampling local food and drink and I’ll always look to a local beer if I can, unless I have already discovered its similarity to the secretion of a small flying insect, or “gnat’s piss” as it is sometimes described. The trick for the traveller is to know the local beer sensitivities, so as not to order some nancy fruity lager with low carbohydrates in the North East of England or the culturally offensive XXXX from Queensland in anywhere but Queensland [3].

Moving from England to Australia in 2006 I have gradually come to learn the sensitivities of what must be two of the most rampant beer swilling nations. My biggest faux pas was when fresh off the boat and still subject to irritants like Shane Warne. Tasked with getting some beers in for Friday work drinks I grabbed a crate of stubbies from the local Bottle-O [4] only to be chided for their warmth. The stubbies felt pretty cold but that was in fact ambient air-conditioning temperature and not arctic freezer temperature, which was how the locals preferred it. And now, after six years or so, that’s how I like it, perhaps because it’s the only way to subvert the lack of taste.

Beer has been part of my cultural integration and a means to become accepted as a bona fide Australian. A barbecue with awful slimy sausages does not feel right without a beer in hand, cloaked in a tacky stubby holder. Mercifully, even those who were subject to my warm stubbies have become good friends, and I have since shared drinks with them fresh out of the chillers of a 7-11 in Hong Kong, wandering party streets with beer in hand, inevitable ending up in Maccers at night’s end. This was one of those experiences where the beer must have been ‘off’, since a malaise lingered for the rest of my stay there.

Australian beer consumption seems natural in the outdoors, huddled around a barbecue, the droning of cricket commentators in the background. It’s also a good accompaniment beside the sea, tasting even better after an active day of exploring and coasting. One such memory stands out when I was in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. Here, after a blissful drive south from Perth, the day’s end saw me at Prevelly, a low key settlement on the coast, popular for surfing or just hanging out like a surfer. The headland here is actually called Surfer’s Point, and this particular evening it was jam packed with people of a dreadlocked and slightly skanky looking nature, plus their groupies. Inexplicably, many were clambering over the rocks with what looked like ironing boards to bob up and down in the water at prime shark feeding time. Others were returning from the water, getting changed with very little discretion around their beat up vans. There wasn’t just the one full moon that night.

Positioned the other side of the headland was another cove where the Margaret River itself came to a halt against the sand. With a sandy beach, sun disappearing over the ocean, full moon rising over the river, ambient temperature and vibe and one beer lugged several kilometres in the pocket of my shorts, the scene was set. Twisting the bottle top of my beer and nirvana was within sight. Apart from the fact that the bottle top wouldn’t twist off. It was one of those fancy boutique beers requiring a bottle opener. I could have cried.

In such circumstances one finds oneself thinking what Bear Grylls would do? But given I neither had a film crew nor nearby hotel in which I was actually staying, I was forced to reassess and consider what would MacGyver do? The answer lay in the use of keys, a wooden stick from an ice lolly, a bit of rock and willpower. After ten minutes it finally opened, the first gassy hiss like the sound of 80,000 fans at the MCG cheering. It was now slightly warm but I obviously didn’t mind and the beer went down like the sun and the mood climbed like the moon.

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While offering spectacular outdoor beer moments like this, Australia has generally disappointed in its indoor drinking environment. Pubs are often bland behemoths with tacky decor and goddam awful pokies, an attached bistro offering an array of equally dull and not as cheap as it should be food. As a result, I love returning to the UK to duck into any one of its dark and dingy drinking holes and remember an archetypal rainy day in London a few years back where, killing time before meeting friends, the only answer was to pop into a random hostelry, drink a couple of warming ales and write postcards. Perversely, pubs in the UK tend to have better beer gardens too, perhaps a result of the local obsession with hanging baskets and, well, opportunities to drink away the misery on every street corner.

An English speciality is the country pub, often offering a roaring fireside, wooden tables and outdoor hanging baskets. Beers range from generic chemical concoctions to the occasional guest ale brewed in the local cowshed. It’ll be called something like Olde Spotted Dick or Malted Slipperypipe. To soak it up you can sample a menu ranging from cheesy garlic bread to cheesy lasagne to cheesy chips and perhaps even cheesy peas [5]. There will be an aroma of stale beer mixed with cow dung. And you’ll generally be made to feel welcome because everyone in there has been inebriated since 1972 and cannot be bothered anymore.

One very lovely country pub moment that I remember was in the equally lovely Lake District in northwest England. For a country as small and crammed as England it is remarkable how much of it has an alluring pastoral air and sense of light and space. In this regard, the Lake District is an absolute gem. On a surprisingly sunny and warm late summer’s day, with the farmers making hay and the sheep bleating contentedly, a small pub along the country lanes of Langdale offered up not a beer but a beautifully of-the-moment cider. Despite repeated attempts, that first cider on that first night could not be beaten. It was the official start of the holiday, the ‘we have arrived’ moment and perfectly set up a week of discovery and delight.

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Would such moments have been the same without alcohol? One would like to think so, purely to reassure oneself that they are not dependent on booze. But in reality I don’t think a glass of lemonade would have cut it. Good beers (and ciders) emerge at the end of good days; they are both rewards and tonics. They can lift a moment from average to good, good to exceptional. And they trigger associated memories of time and place. They are the beer goggles that help us to look back on moments with a rose-tinted air. Sure, let us not overdo it, but let us also not dismiss beer as just another vice. Remember kids, drink responsibly, and if you can’t, best to head off on a Contiki tour with Lance.


[1] J Simpson, not the ancient Greek dude

[2] To argue against this point, see https://gbpilgrim.com/2012/12/15/a/

[3] With the wonders of marketing however it is very acceptable to have the ‘Australian’ Fosters in England, but do not drink it (if you even find it) in Australia!

[4] Translated, for those of you who speak English, as ‘I purchased a 24 pack of beer bottles from the beer shop / off licence / liquor store’

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