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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Blazingstoke and beyond

In all honesty I wasn’t expecting the BBC weatherman to tell me it was going to be “a bit of a scorcher.” Sure, I had a little snigger when I noticed a forecast top of 23 degrees, but this was immediately more supreme than anything last August and thus way beyond expectation. Somehow my arrival in England had coincided with a few days of summer, as if the leafy countryside wanted to show off and reassure me that everything is still okay really, fingers crossed.

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IMG_6441The blue skies over Basingstoke proved ideal to escape Basingstoke and blow off the airline induced cobwebs gathered over the South China Sea and entire Russian landmass. Now, somewhere on the more compact Hampshire-Berkshire border I faced chalk downs, golden fields of wheat, abundant hedgerows, village greens, and the astonishing threat of sunburn. For once, the summer I entered was better than the winter I had left behind.

IMG_3269All this bucolic traipsing on foot is thirsty work and Dad was more than content to fulfil my request for an English country pub beer garden experience. Doom Bar on tap was an added bonus at The Vine in Hannington, suitable tonic to march on and out towards more panoramic views. It might be the beer, but I simply cannot fathom how there can be so much countryside in one of the most densely populated corners of a tiny island. Where do they hide them all?

IMG_6490While the following day was a little more cloud prone, the afternoon perked up and acclimatisation was in full force with the continued wearing of shorts. This does herald the risk of attack by rampant stinging nettle, but it’s a relatively benign one by Australian standards. And the risks bring more ample reward around Whitchurch and the meandering, translucent waters of the River Test. Such as pretty mills and meadows and cows and flowers and ice cream.

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IMG_3307If you’re getting bored with so much idyllically clichéd countryside (and, jeez, why would you?) let me take you to the coast. Obviously not (yet) the coast with the most, but a little island sitting off Hampshire. Reached by a placid ferry ride from Southampton, The Isle of Wight offers fine bays, meandering tidal estuaries, and hulking cliffs, all wrapping an interior of yet more idyllically clichéd countryside.

IMG_6500On a sunny Sunday in August it’s a popular spot, but some fortuitous ferry disembarkation took us briskly to the western end, where the hair-raising joy of an open top bus awaited. Clattering into branches, dipping and swerving round bends, threading through thatched villages, we survived to Freshwater Bay. Where everything was rather more sedate. Glisteningly, tranquilly, satisfyingly, balmily sedate.

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IMG_6513The big attraction in these parts is of course The Needles. The place even has its own theme park but mercifully it has not impinged the natural attraction of these iconic, dazzlingly white blades of rock. Visible from a viewing platform, sunglasses are very much needed, as are cunning tactics to jostle your way through dawdlers and selfie takers in order to snatch a glimpse.

Views are easier to come by from the chalky headland itself, sweeping across the island and over to huge swathes of southern English coast and country. From here you may see fields and cows, cottages sitting in valleys, chugging boats plying the blue horizon. Somewhere down there are cosy pubs and seagulls swooping on fish and chips, a queue or two and sweaty people muttering that it feels a bit too hot today. A gritty sandcastle is stomped in a childish tantrum while a couple of ramblers chomp on a cheese and pickle sandwich on a conveniently located bench, in memoriam to Bert Poppleton, who came here each morning for seventy years, apart from when he was serving in the RAF during World War II.

From here, it is as though a vision of England is laid out before you. If there was any doubt what with all this sunshine, confirmation comes in the form of the double decker open top bus, a trusty and thrillingly hazardous steed to take you back down, once again, into that land.

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The times, they are a changing

Okay, the southwest of England is driving me to distraction, what with its salty fishing villages, sweeping expanses of surf-hit sand, babbling rivers trundling though woodland, and rolling, empty moors. There is also only so much Cornationendersfarm City that one can take, so, come the end of October, a change of scenery proved timely.

To Basingstoke and a stopover en route to London. A stopover providing what must be the culmination of the autumn season, full of colour despite a grey day. Virginia Water conjures up Peter Alliss blather, Major Stockington-Breeches-Follybottom, faux-Greco-Roman palatial commuter estates and an endless array of Lycra and leggings jogging with pricey strollers in hand. It is Surrey leafiness typified, fringing the regal Great Windsor Park. A place that remains welcomingly open to all, Range Rover, Lycra, knighthood or no.

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norf2On what must have been one of our more sedate walks, Dad and I set off to circumnavigate the water in a higgledy-piggledy fashion thanks to the allure of various trees and shrubs and leafy avenues peppered with colour. I don’t know if it’s the extra pollution, the degree or two increased warmth, the absence of ocean or – simply – the exotic plantings pillaged from the colonies, but everything was a lot more colourful than back in the southwest. And just as distracting.

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norf05Eventually, we reached the end of the water, crossing the bridge and turning back for home, still some several kilometres though further leafiness, lakeside reflection, and ornamental falls. Despite the gentle pace, the walk became a little weary and there was a palpable sense of the faded glory that comes with descent into autumn and, then, the foreboding of winter. Jets occasionally screeching overhead from Heathrow, dankness in the air, it was evocative of an imminent departure back to Australia. But not this year, for I will taste (hopefully) just a touch of winter.

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An extra hour in bed. That is the pitiful recompense so heartily proclaimed in an attempt to offset the despair of the sun setting at half four. For me though, this meant an extra hour to spend in Norfolk, which – given I had never set foot in the county before – seemed only fair to do it justice.

norf06It could have been Australia – there was the company of Jill and Caroline, a very good coffee, some sunshine, sandy beaches, wildlife and lots of boatpeople. But it also obviously wasn’t. Drizzle, roast dinners, M&S and numerous buildings in Norwich dating back at least more than a hundred years signified what end of the world this particular Old at Heart tour was cosily embedded within.

Sunday morning in the village of Acle was just a tad brighter than usual, thanks to that shift in space and time that may or may not signal the start of winter. Watery sunshine evolved over the day, illuminating the Norfolk Broads into a swathe of silvery reflections and golden reeds. The closest resemblance I could (laughably) make was to the Florida Everglades, though with fewer alligators and slightly more bumpkins pushing wheelbarrows to the village shop to buy fork handles.

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norf09A delicious Sunday roast beside the water drifted into the dramatically shortened afternoon, leaving just an hour or so of soft, gorgeous light to explore the coast. Horsey Beach provided a remote seascape of gently rising dunes, collapsing into fine sand running like a protective ribbon along the perimeter of eastern England. A procession of groynes held it all together, occasional slippages and collapsed dunes testament to its precarious instability.

norf11Upon this spacious sanctuary, clusters of people stood in small arcs, as if participating in some kind of Sunday service towards the gods of the sea. Closer up and cameras and selfies and standing about in wellies talking about mating was more the order of the day. Seals – and a good many of them – were the attraction. Lounging about, agitated with the waves, occasional grumpiness spilling over into aggression, they were quite mesmerising to watch. Something pure and pristine in this regularly despoiled of isles. Carrying on doing their thing, as they fade into the shade of the towering dunes, lapped by a frigid sea as the sun flames red and darkness begins to fall. And all before five o’clock.

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Walking in an unknown wonderland

A few weeks back I ventured bravely into the unknown, leaving the comforting bosom of Devon and Cornwall and stepping east into Dorset. At first, there was nothing of great alarm, trundling through sunny places with names like Littleknockers Botherscombleyton and Purdleywetherall Nincompoop. The quite dully named Dorchester still had a Tesco and it also had my Dad, who had mastered this particular rendezvous and whizzed us briskly onwards to West Lulworth.

If anywhere was going to remind me of GCSE Geography – apart from a teacher attired in 70s Cornish tramp style – this was it. Limestones, clays, chalk and sands…a concordant coastline of multifarious erosion (thanks for the reminder Wikipedia). But you don’t need to know your geology to appreciate such sights, on this most glorious of September days.

dors01You may, however, need a decent pair of lungs and a sturdy set of hamstrings. Depending on distance, exploring this coastline is at best lumpy and at worst near vertical. I have an inkling this may be down to different rocks and things and their resistance to erosion and stuff. The current batch of Geography students at the top of the first hill might be able to tell me. But no time for stopping, for the first amazing sight is down the hill.

With a name like Durdle Door it could only be in Dorset. A headland (which has, again, multifariously resisted erosion) pokes out into the beautiful blue green water, which harbours shimmering sandy coves. It seems someone forgot to shut the door on this feature, because there is a big hole where it should be. Born in a barn, as they probably say here as well (to which the answer is, unequivocally, yes).

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It doesn’t jump out at me and say: “India”. I haven’t been to India but it’s not what I picture from the clichés and stereotypes milling about my brain. Still, someone decided it was a good spot for a Bollywood movie. From above the beach (which was closed for filming) it seems this particular movie was about a bunch of young lasses and fellas having a right hoot playing football on the sand (surely it should be cricket, no?). There was some music and perhaps there was some dancing, as we turned onwards and most definitely upwards.

dors03The good thing about this particular climb was the ever expanding backdrop, necessitating natural rest breaks for photos and selfies and simply having a breather and taking it all in. Occasional wafts of lively Bollywood music spurred you on to the top (arguably, to get away from it!) and you reached there and thought…well that wasn’t so bad after all.

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But still, the trail (which is, I hasten to add, the oft venerated South West Coast Path) undulates. Another climb, another gargantuan row of white chalk cliffs and shingle beach colouring the sea azure. A long stretch, less steep but grinding, gnawing, nagging, starting to get a little annoying. The air is warm, the fields bare, the reflection from the ocean blinding. It is amazing, but I am being English and naturally starting to complain. Not out loud, but in my legs and in my head. A tiger roll and slabs of cheddar help as does the astonishing view. Looking back from whence we came, the highs and lows, crevices and coves, the jumbled tangle of concordant coastline which plunges and slides into the English Channel.

Turn the other way, and you can see that it does all come to an end. The cultivated rolling pasture of a Hardy novel reclaims the land, and villages like Corlookatthat Honeytemple wallow in the valleys of rampant conservatism. The endless sands of Weymouth look welcoming and – at least from here – Portland appears as some magical, mystical isle rising up out of the sea (spoiler alert: it’s not).

dors07The route back from here departs from the cliff line and mercifully involves fewer lumps and bumps, skirting the edges of great bowl-shaped valleys and the occasional patch of gorse. It is infinitely less interesting, but does the job with a minimum of fuss. Occasional views north show hilltops and ridges many miles away, while patches of pastoral begin to return underfoot. It be no Devon but it aint a bad go.

In fact, despite similar voluptuousness, it seems drier than Devon and thus a little harsher on the eye. Perhaps top of year A Level Geography students would tell you it’s due to the geology of the place and the climate. Others will say it’s just a nice sunny day which is great for the harvest and even better for ice cream. Ah, an ice cream at Lulworth Cove. This may well have been something I was daydreaming about on a plastic chair back in an austere converted military hospital in Devonport in the 1990s. It took a long time coming, a spot of bravery, but it was worth the wait.

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Up Pompey

I must confess to an inexplicable, in-built prejudice towards the city of Portsmouth. While not quite as menacing as the Daily Mail’s fear-stoking crusade for an antiquated version of middle England, my prejudice stems from uninformed and socially constructed antipathy. Nurtured through supposed rivalry – the battle of the dockyards – between Plymouth and Portsmouth, I have naturally taken the side of Plymouth, envisioning Portsmouth as lacking anything of appeal.

This prejudice of course exists without ever having been there. And so, it seems obvious to say that the best way to make an informed decision about the city of Portsmouth is to actually base it on real experience and facts, a principle that seems out-of-reach of many a lazy newspaper editor and Facebook re-poster the world around.

bas01One (of many) positive things I can now say about Portsmouth is that it actually has a summer. Well, at least for one day at the start of August. This may score it points over Plymouth, whose current endless drizzle is slowly driving me mad. The summer skies (which now seem an age away) are penetrated by a rather large erection – the Spinnaker Tower – brought to you, almost inevitably, by emirates.com. This protuberance now dominates the skyline, suddenly popping up around various corners and appearing from distant vantages. It has a Sydney Harbour Bridge quality in this respect, and is almost as photographically alluring.

bas02Indeed, atop the tower you could kid yourself that you are staring out at that great harbour of the southern continent, ferries bustling, sails billowing, cruisers cruising, waters glimmering in the sun. Then you taste a coffee and are brought back down to earth, only one hundred metres up, and your feet are plonked precariously on a glass floor. Shortbread for millionaires and the far-reaching views sweeten the bitterness and steady the nerves.

bas04The First Fleet left this same harbour a smidge over 225 years ago, just one small trinket of history in what is, undeniably, a great naval city. Today, the Historic Dockyard aims to pack all of this in around one sprawling site. Such is its richness that you cannot hope to cover it all in one day, but a harbour tour offers a good overview and – again – sat out on the deck on a warming clear day, a slight pang of the Sydneyesque emerges.

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bas05Within the dockyard itself several old ships of worldly significance stand, a reminder of empire and industry and rambunctious naval warfare between derring-do admirals and rascally foreigners with finely groomed beards and bouts of Syphilis. The hipsters of their time, strutting the maze of stairs and low ceilings of HMS Victory or gliding the gleaming decks of HMS Warrior. Doing things that will later appear in vaguely recalled history lessons and espoused more memorably by Stephen Fry and co on TV.

The dockyard experience makes a sudden swell of patriotism hard to resist, and it is inevitable that Rule Britannia will start pounding through your head, interspersed with Sideshow Bob Sings Songs from HMS Pinafore. How patriotic then to have delicious fish and chips in a pub and drive back through Jane Austen countryside, satisfied that the city of Portsmouth is actually one of suitable constitution to befit inclusion in this Jerusalem.

bas06Now, if I had prejudice for the English countryside it would undeniably be overly-favourable and rose-tinted, photoshopping out little blips like power pylons, speed cameras, and fields of slurry. It would be a scene closely resembling a walk through the Wiltshire countryside, starting in the quiet, affluent high street of Amesbury and finishing atop an ancient hill fort with the needle spire of Salisbury Cathedral gleaming in the middle distance.

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bas09Along this serene, sun-filled walk, thatched cottages and glorious gardens scatter amongst sweeping fields of wheat and undulating grassy meadows. Shady wooded copses harbour tinkling streams and melodic songbirds. A village meanders along the banks of a crystal clear river, the pub garden its heart and soul. Country lanes melt away into the hedgerow landscape, and weathered stone bridges hint at a past industriousness.

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bas11This is all enjoyed on the second day of summer weather in a row, a rarity as scarce as the ability to wear shorts, which is also somehow happening. It is pleasantly warm rather than scorching, but conditions are adequate enough for cidery refreshment at the midpoint. While post-drink malaise now seems a little more conducive for a nap than a hike, we push on up onto a ridge and then to the summit culmination of Old Sarum.

With 360 degree views, Old Sarum obviously made sense for original Middle Englanders (and then various waves of migrants) to construct defences and forts and castles and cathedrals. Sat atop its slope eating lunch, it is quite easy to imagine pouring some scalding hot oil on a pesky interloper who has made it across the deep moat. However, life today is generally more sedate and the only oil to be found is something like cold pressed balsamic infused deluxe extra virgin organic Tuscan olive oil offered with semi-dried tomato and wild chevre slow-rise sourdough served up in nearby Salisbury. I would have settled for an ice cream, but then not everything can be perfect on this exemplary English day, on a consummate, enlightening British weekend.

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Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

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.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

The ice cream bucket list challenge

Laydeez and gentlemun, welkum to Landan Saaaaaaaaffend, where the temprator is nynedeen digreez innit and the cockles an whelks are fresh from the eshtry mud.

ukA00As gateways to Great Britain go, it is a bit different, but Essex is indeed British soil and there is comfort at seeing the red cross of St George adorning the council estates and in smelling the fish and chips on Southend seafront. Should Southend be a little too bedecked with commoners awaiting a summer carnival parade, Leigh-on-Sea is a tad more upmarket with white stiletto undertones. Home to several cosy pubs spilling out onto the mud and water, an ale and hearty burger brings me back to a Britain obsessed with pulled pork and bake offs.

Hertfordshire is the classier cousin to Essex, where inspiring place names like Potters Bar and Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City are linked by motorways and single file country lanes alike. Interspersed within this, offering views of giant pharmaceutical empires and a procession of easyjets bound for Luton, stands Knebworth House. Perhaps best known for Oasis and Robbie Williams mega-concerts it may come as a surprise to hear that Knebworth is rather refined. The archetypal crusty upper class country estate, complete with musty carpets, majestic libraries and derring-do tales of empire building. Gardens with fancy lawns and fancier sculptures, a copse littered with giant fibreglass dinosaurs serving as inspiration for damned colonial upstarts such as Clive Palmer. On an increasingly sunny summer afternoon, as deer graze the meadows and country pubs await, this is England, but not quite my England.

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The next day brings the homecoming within a homecoming as I depart London for Plymouth. That’s not before saying farewell to the iconic capital with two friends who I met in Australia and who I can continue to enjoy pizza with – whether on Bondi or near Bankside – to this day. It is a happy conclusion to the English prelude and the level of unhealthy eating signifies the start of many days enduring essential foodstuffs, the real super foods that are far away from a land of quinoa and hipster-nurtured compressed kale shavings.

ukA02Gargantuan fish and chips were a starter prior to a night at Home Park, watching a rather lame game of football thankfully enlivened by Guillaume the French nephew shouting ‘come on you greens’ in an adorable accent. It worked, for we managed to scramble a deep into injury time penalty equaliser. More sedate, slightly less greasy but perhaps as equally lardy as those fish and chips was the Devon cream tea; the Devon cream tea that takes place in the same spot on Dartmoor practically every year but is a tradition which never fails to be anything other than marvellous. That first bite of scone and jam and – mostly – rich, buttery, clotted cream is like the feeling from a first sip of morning coffee multiplied ten million times. The river valley setting and surrounding tors amplify it further.

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ukA04Indeed, becoming as traditional as the cream tea is the slightly guilt-driven walk up Sharpitor, which is still just a gentle and brief jaunt for hilltop views of half of Devon and Cornwall. Traipsing up with family could get a little repetitive if it wasn’t so rewarding, an annual canvas for Facebook photos and Snapchat selfies amongst the clitter and ponies of the high moor.

ukA05The Cream Tea on Dartmoor Experience is just one required escapade for the bucket list. The next one to tick off is the Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure. Today this requires a rather trundling and busy train journey all the way down towards the pointy end. St. Ives is not only a reputed haven for artists, but possesses one of the more accessible by public transport shopfronts for Pengenna Pasties, where artists create masterpieces of delicious shortcrust pastry stuffed full of meat and vegetables and seasoning. Eaten on the beach, of course.

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I should not neglect here to give a special commendation to Moomaids of Zennor. While their clotted cream vanilla (what else?!) was nothing remarkable, I was hoping that the Cornish sea salt caramel was never going to end. It may feature as a staple of the next Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure (with Bonus Local Ice Cream Discovery).

ukA07Away from food (for a little while), it is about time I mentioned the weather. For should I not write about food nor weather, what will I have left?! Temperatures were well below average as the shorts and sandals in my luggage remained largely untouched, while clean jumpers came at a premium. But there was plenty of dry and fine weather. This meant that, on occasion, clean jumpers would need to come off and then quickly returned once the sun disappeared behind the clouds scuttling across the sky on a chilling sea breeze. It was weather not so much for sunbathing but ideal for family fun in West Hoe Park, where nieces and nephews were able to relive one’s own youth by venturing on the iconic – yes, iconic – Gus Honeybun train and bouncy castle, and create their own memories in a pirate ship mini golf water boats gold panning extravaganza.

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ukA09It was all rather delightful, aided and abetted by bucket list ice cream and raspberries and clotted cream on the foreshore and then, a little later, waterfront dining on the Barbican courtesy of Cap’n Jaspers (so it’s back to the food then already…). A day to remind, as was mentioned several times, that Plymouth finds itself in a quite enviable position compared with – say – Wolverhampton or Corby or Blackburn or pretty much anywhere else not on the sea and in the midst of such coastal and pastoral splendour.

ukA10This undeniable splendour provides the context for one essential bucket list item for a perfect southwestern experience. The oft-quoted, oft-photographed, oft-walked South West Coast Path. I figure that maybe by the time I reach old age I may just have covered around 10% of this amazing trail. On a day that started with grey clouds and rain, the train trip to Truro and a tactical delaying coffee enabled the weather to perk up, and by time I reached St. Agnes on the bus, patches of blue sky were promising much. In fact, the sun very much came out when munching on the world’s best sausages rolls from St. Agnes bakery.

Up over St Agnes beacon, the north coast view stretches down to St. Ives and, heading in this direction, I found myself clocking up a new section of path leading towards Porthtowan. The main features along this typically wild and rugged stretch are the old tin workings and mine buildings of Wheal Coates. If North Cornwall can be summed up in one scene it is from here, which probably explains why it featured as the cover image for Ginster’s Pasties. And I had a sausage roll, tut tut!

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ukA12There was a point into this walk that something quite unexpected happened. I was feeling a little hot. Yes, the sun was well and truly out and I was able to covert my convertible trousers to shorts, roll down my black socks a little, and bare some leggy flesh. I applied sunscreen, wore a hat, and, by time I reached Porthtowan, felt long overdue an ice cream. However, no sufficiently suitable ice cream was readily available near the beach and I settled for a cold beer instead to happily wind down the time until a bus back to Truro.

ukA14The North Cornwall Walking Wondrousness Trip pretty much meant that the Westcountry bucket list had been amply satisfied. The final day down there offered a bonus with a family day out on the train to Looe. It’s not so far from Plymouth but the journey provides a reminder of the lovely countryside of southeast Cornwall and on the branch line to Looe it could still easily be the 1950s. Looe itself offered its reliable fill of narrow lanes, fish and chip smells, bucket and spades and, for me, one final and very commendable pasty! Again, there was something approaching heat, meaning that shorts – if I had them with me – would have been more than acceptable in the afternoon.

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ukA13The train ride back offered that final hurrah and farewell to Cornwall, resplendent and verdant in the late summer sunshine. For once, the same could not be said of Devon, as I departed the following day in a somewhat murky, drizzly air. I missed seeing the white fluffy clouds and whiter fluffier sheep, the glimmering Teign estuary and glass sea of Dawlish. Even so, it was again sad to leave, the murk reflecting a melancholy that drifts along to Exeter. The holiday is not over, the visits and sights await, and there are more cherished friends and family to see. But it does feel that a holiday within a holiday, a homecoming within a homecoming has drawn to a close once again. ‘Til next year.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking