A Travellerspoint blog

February 2009

Around Whitby

sunny 9 °C

Storm and heavy snow warnings are given for the end of the week in Yorkshire. Where is Barry going for the weekend? North East Yorkshire! Travelling on Black Friday. And to make matters worse, he's going to the beach. Should be nice in the snow. Whitby connects two of the dots of my prior travels - it features strongly in Bram Stoker's Dracula thanks to its 7th century Abbey remains, and is where one Captain James Cook did his apprenticeship and had all of his ships, including Endeavour built. Neither of these feature particularly strongly in my reason for going to Whitby, nor does the fact that it is an ancient port town. No, Whitby has been in my consciousness since the mid 1990's, when I was fairly heavily involved in usenet and used to hang out, virtually speaking, with an Australian based group of Goths. They used to rave about the twice annual pilgrimmage to Whitby.

Funnily enough, there has recently been a programme on TV over here, Britain's Best Drives, in which Richard Wilson (known to some as Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave) goes for what were claimed to be the best drives in the 1950's, complete with a 1950 motor. His first drive was in a Morris Minor Traveller, from Scarborough to Whitby, where he picks up four Goths to give him a tour of the town; he reports that 10,000 Goths come every April and September.

My weekend started early; since I had to catch a train from New Street to York at 8:30 in the morning, I decided to stay the night before in town, rather than run the risk of missing the train in from Lichfield. Even so, I just made it. The rail website made Whitby out to be extremely time consuming and/or expensive to get to by train from York (even though it is only about 40 miles) so I went on by train to Scarborough, England's first seaside resort, down the coast from Whitby. I liked the look of this place, walking down to the beach, I found several interesting looking places to eat, coffee shops, nooks and crannies to explore and the beach itself was pretty special:

(Notice the compete absence of any wintry signs.) Sitting up above it all, is the Brittannia Grand Hotel, advertising rooms for a mere 25 pound (I checked out what it might cost to stay here for a week in May - for full bed, breakfast, dinner and "live entertainment", a mere 273 pound (less, oddly enough, than B&B alone)).

From Scarborough, I caught the bus up through the corner of the Yorkshire Dales to Whitby, a trip taking about an hour, through tiny wee towns of stone-built buildings, a few wooded areas and, of course, dales. First sights of Whitby were extremely promising:

To get to where I was staying, I had to cross a wee bridge over the harbour entrance, walk through the old town, and then ascend the famous 199 steps. They afforded some nice views back over the town
My YHA hostel was unbelievable (although a bit hard to find, as it formed part of the National Trust Abbey grounds):

No, not the building out the back, that's the ruins of the Abbey, the front building, with its formal gardens and gracious looks is a Youth Hostel, offering bed and breakfast for less than 20 quid. I think I have a new favourite. I didn't even have anyone sharing the room with me (although around midnight, there was a group of very loud and very drunk Ramblers downstairs making their presence felt). I would have gladly stayed here the whole weekend but, sadly, I could only get one night when I booked.

I went back down into town for a good wander around and actually managed to find a decent cafe. I also found a place doing holiday lets in Whitby, and found I could rent a cottage for just over two hundred pound the week.

That last is Captain Cook, looking out to sea. Whitby is reputed to have the best fish and chips in the country, at a place called Magpies. So I was more than a little surprised to find another place flaunting signs that it was the regional winner for best fish and chips - since it was considerably cheaper than Magpies, I went there and was very happy. In the morning, I went through the Abbey House museum (a disappointment, as it only contained a few, very nicely presented, fragments from the Abbey itself in an effort to tell some of the archeological history. But then I could go out and explore the Abbey:
It has had a long history - built in the 7th century, rebuilt in the 13th, sacked by Henry VIII in his pogroms, shelled by the German Navy in World War One and now a tourist attraction, largely thanks to its Dracula connections. Nearby is St Mary's Church:

Since I hadn't really known what to expect, I hadn't made any effort to find more accomodation in Whitby, and had actually sorted out a place to stay back in York. I happened to wander in to the train station to see what it would cost to go to York and it turned out not bad, so off I went, up to Middlesburgh (a Teeside industrial city) and then back down through Thirsk (Heriot country) - with some very pleasant looking villages on the way. My first night in York was in a very traditional pub

Now, York is famous for things like its castle and its Minster
but this is as close as I got. My particular interest was the National Rail Museum, where I spent most of Sunday geeking out over all the trains and reading rail magazines. You can blame this museum for me not having any better photos of York; I tried out the movie feature on my camera (didn't have that on the Nikon) as they turned this huge train on a turntable and by the time it was done, my battery was flat. I do have LOTS of photos of trains!

Here's an early model bullet train from Japan:

In some ways, the most fascinating part of the collection was what they called the Warehouse, which was a room piled up with 2 million peices of rail memorabilia, a hoarder's dream!

One other thing I really liked about York was Bettys (they've lost the apostrophe since they started, in 1919), a cafe which first opened in Harrogate and then spread out to York in the 1930's. It was VERY traditional, where I could go and enjoy a proper pot of tea and a tea cake (which I did) or have a traditional English pie meal (which I did not, as they had run out) or traditional Swiss food (it was actually started by a Swiss baker). When I first saw it, there was a huge queue, but I went off wandering around bookshops and coffee places and by the time I came back, I had no trouble getting in for dinner.

One thing I did not like was York Public Library - it is the first one I have come to which seems to be against people with laptops - I was welcome to take mine in "but we can't let you plug it in". Well, even if they could have let me, there were no plugs. What it did have was a fairly large room of getting on for elderly gentlement, doing various sorts of research, all of whom seemed to be particularly noisy - either they had every single object wrapped up in obnoxiously noisy plastic, or they had the sniffles, or books they liked to thump, or people they had to talk to. I had work to do (my train back to Birmingham was an eveing one, so I had Monday in York), so I beat a retreat back to the National Railway Museuem, where they have a perfectly quiet library (sorry, "Search Engine") with power points and internet access, and a good cafe downstairs.

Posted by NZBarry 10:53 Archived in England Comments (2)

Around Lichfield

semi-overcast 6 °C

Another weekend without going very far. Since I didn't really fancy just going home and sitting on Friday night, I stopped off in Birmingham (there is no cinema in Lichfield) to see The Reader, the movie which got Kate Winslet her Oscar the other night. One day I'll read Bernard Schlink's book from which it was drawn - it is back home. I largely enjoyed it, going in with very little knowledge of what the movie was about, except that it had something to do with a prison guard in Auschwitz. That turned out to be Hannah Schmitz (Winslet). I largely enjoyed the movie, but had a couple of problems with it - the fact that when she is on trial, Michael goes to her and might have given her the moral support to confess that her confession was all a lie but walks away at the last minute, the fact that she'd rather go down for killing hundreds of people than confess to not being able to read, and the wierd way in which she makes her confession, sort of "yeah, I killed those people, its what you do". But I delighted in the fact that Michael made recordings of all his books and sent them to her.

Afterwards, I went and tried the other Malaysian cafe, the one next to the one I went to last week but hadn't visited because (a) it was empty, (b) every time I peeked in the window, the woman running it seemed to glare at me and (c) she probably thought I was some kind of wierdo. Anyway, they did a very nice curry, so I went away to Lichfield happy.

Something I have discovered over here is the tea-cake, something I hope to learn to make when I get home; it is spiced like a hot cross bun, but quite a bit paler and wider. They toast it, and it is very good with melting butter and jam. Since I was just spending my Saturday wandering around Lichfield, I had an opportunity to do some comparison shopping amongst the large number of cafes. What I have learnt is that there is no place that provides the magic combination of good coffee and good tea-cakes, in fact the one good coffee place does not even sell tea-cakes. So, if I want one, I have to drink tea with it. Terrible state of affairs. Towards the middle of the afternoon I ventured towards the Guildhall, for the Lichfield Real Ale beer festival. It was heaving with people, there was nowhere to sit and the best beers had sold out, so I forced down a couple of half pints and retired to a quiet pub, where I could read my paper (an all day project in the weekends) in peace.

In the evening, I went to a unique event at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre - a sort of musical play, They Call Me Natasha. This is about a woman called Natasha who is an Elvis Costello impersonator (as an aside, I have to say, that the number of "tribute" bands and bars devoted to them is enormous). But the thing is - she gets so caught up in her impersonation that she actually believes she is Elvis, and so a lot of the play is given to her performng a roster of Elvis Costello songs. She did them pretty well, although about three songs in, I tuned out for a while; she sang Alison and it made me wonder whatever happened to my friend Alison, who last time I saw her was headed off to do something I found quite fascinating; she was simply going to sit on her porch for "six months, and see what happens".

I'd spent some time doing research into finding a camera to replace the one I lost last week; the particular model I had was out of production and the price of a replacement of similar specs was just a little frightening. Besides, I'd never really taken advantage of having a DSLR and liked the idea of a longer zoom. So, when I found that dpreview rated the Fuji f100fd really highly and a local camera shop had one for under 70 quid, my decision was made. I've also, thanks to Amazon, found a replacement music player, a very nice Sony MWZ 6839 so things are looking up. Now all I have to do is persuade an insurance company that "left it on a train" is good reason for them to pay!

This took up nearly all my Sunday so, once again, it was pretty much dark by the time I made it up to Worcester to stay in my favourite bed and breakfast hotel. No matter, I had a nice meal at an Indian place and had a quiet night in.

Although I am supposedly sharing my office with not one but two other people, work is deathly quiet since neither of them turn up so I decided it was time to get me a wee office radio. On my way to Argos on Monday morning, I was wandering, not really paying a whole lot of attention to my feet, when I felt a bump and then a muffled thump. There was this poor wee girl, all of about four, in a pink puffer jacket with blond hair laid out flat on the ground in front of me, too surprised to even yell or cry. I was, of course, very apologetic but her mum thought it was completely her daughter's fault, so wouldn't hear a word of apology from me.

Tuesday evening, I summoned up the courage and actually went to the book club meeting, the same group I fled from last week. So glad I did, although I was thrown in the deep end a little. They start their meetings by voting for the next book - the person who nominates has to do a spiel. One nominaor didn't show - since she wanted Revolutionary Road to be the March book, I jumped in. Through some strange voting process, the book nominated by the group leader made the cut (hmmm - gives me some ideas for my own book club). They were discussing Barack Obama's first autobiography. About 30 of us broke into two groups and sat in circles and had a fairly intense discussion about the book, race politics, being a half breed...

Finally, on the Wednesday I popped out to Wolverhampton, to see Baz Luhrmann's Australia, a movie widely regarded as a flop. Certainly the first half hoour struck me as cartoonish, just giving a sequence of caricatures, but then it settled down and became a cracking yarn, with romance, danger, a wild race (to get 1500 cattle through the desert to ship them out of Darwin in a race against the local bigwig), war (the Japanese bombing of Darwin) and the heartbreaker - wee Nullah.

Still reading Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road (although I have a 45 minute commute, the newspapers here give so much to read, I don't actually have any of my commute time to read my book, which is why its taking me a long time).

Posted by NZBarry 09:32 Archived in England Comments (0)

Around Birmingham

snow -6 °C

Friday was yet another poor effort on my part. I’ve joined this book group, which meets a couple of times a month in Birmingham, once to talk about the monthly book but the other to just socialize. All a very good idea; unfortunately, I turned up to the Friday night social in a pub, found the group and immediately fled. Too many people, all crammed into a small space, plus it was noisy and dark. So, I instead went across the road to this Malaysian café I’d spotted and had the worst Malaysian chicken curry of my life (it was as if it was Watties Chicken tonight, not at all what it should have been) and made a beeline for my hotel in Wolverhampton.

No plans to go far this weekend – I had a few people lined up to see about places to stay – so I had a very pleasant Saturday morning, coffeeing and wandering through the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which was surprisingly nice, given Wolverhampton’s reputation. Someone said to me that just as most of the UK seems to look down on Birmingham as inferior (a rather harsh judgment), Birminghamites look down on Wolverhampton. It had quite a nicely balanced mixture of art, from the moral paintings of one FD Hardy (who has had a lot of his works collected by the gallery) through to the surrealism of Roland Penrose via a whole collection of Pop Art (and an interesting set up in which kids were invited to create their own). There was also a Georgian Gallery which collected various artefacts among the paintings, to give them context. For example, there was a painting of the famous actor David Garrick, alongside sheets of a play he’s said to have annotated and a wig he wore and so on. Bewilderingly, there was a huge collection of landscape paintings by a couple, who weren’t even local, whose work I found completely lacking in interest. Still, a very pleasant morning, followed by nice cake in the Gallery café.

Then it was time to head off to look at houses. I really thought I had one, the first place I went to; we talked for an hour, she was happy with me being short term, I was happy with her living in London. She had one group to see and would then call me – she never did. I did have a place that was seducing me, an apartment right in the centre of Birmingham, on what is the main pedestrianised street above a supermarket – but they wanted a LOT of money for it (just not quite enough to make me dismiss it completely!)

In the meantime, I had a room booked at the Best Western George Hotel in Lichfield, so I could get a feel for the place. On the way there, I had a bit of a disaster, not even sure quite where; all I know is that by dinner time, I realized I had no idea where my shoulder bag was, the one with my book in it (no problem), the same one that had my MP3 player in it (now, that’s a bit of a problem, I liked my purple Sony NW-3000 and most of the music on it) and which also had my camera in it (now, that’s a real problem). So, although I had taken some pictures of Wolverhampton’s finest – the Art Gallery, the library, the Barclays Bank that looks a little like a castle – they’re gone.

The George is a lovely old fashioned hotel, which helped me calm down, and had a good carvery restaurant, which helped a little more. About three in the morning I found out what Lichfield is like; a bit like central Birmingham with its screaming marauding drunks. Going back into town, I checked with the stations at each end and the train operator to see if (fat chance!) someone had handed my bag in. Interesting experience – each person I spoke to said “oh, you should talk to” someone else, until I came to a dead end.

Then it was off to the theatre, not the cinema, the theatre. One of the groups I’ve joined had organized a lunch at an all you can eat multi-national food place and then for us (all 24 of us) to see Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I was a little disturbed by the young age of some of the audience – the security guy reckoned there were kids of 8 – given the subject matter of the play and the way in which it ends. Even those of us who knew that were a little caught out by the gunshot which terminates the story. Good group of people – we went off to a pub afterwards, thereby putting an end to my plans to wander around the river at Worcester; I didn’t get to the Ye Old Talbot (great bed and breakfast for under twenty pound, on a Sunday night) until after 9:30. At that stage, I counted myself lucky to find dinner.

Monday may have hit the international press – this was the day that it snowed, and brought a lot of England to a halt. It was also the day I had booked tickets to go to London, a hostel and to see A Mid Summer Night’s Dream (I don't think that fact made it to the newspapers). Strangely enough, when I caught the train in from Worcester, I had no idea this was happening. I was talking to people at work, who were full of news about trains being cancelled all over the place, how the tube (i.e. the UNDERGROUND train system in London) was not working but nonetheless decided I’d go into New Street (if I could) to see how I’d get on. Sure enough, the slow train I had a reserved (cheap) seat on was cancelled – but (and this I don’t really understand) they were cancelling two out of every three trains, to give the third a shot at making it. So, I was put on a fast train but still feeling a little sick at the prospect of it all being a waste of time, and then feeling even more sick when my laptop just died on me, went to sleep and would not wake up or restart or allow itself to be shutdown – I had to let the battery discharge completely so it would go into an out of power shutdown. Everything I have done is on this laptop and, although I did back up, that was when I left Singapore. So – memo to self: be better about backing up!

Thanks to it being a fast train, we actually arrived in London before the train I was supposed to be on would have. I could catch a train up to where my hostel was, and by the time I got there, enough of the tube system was working to get me back to Covent Garden. All good.

Not so fast! I got to the theatre, only to find that too many of the cast and crew could not make it, so the show was cancelled. (“I hope you didn’t come all the way from New Zealand for it” was the cheery response.) So, they gave me a wine, and I chatted to the very nice woman from the RSC while I drank it, then went off to a restaurant she recommended – a proper French bistro, Côte Bistro, and it was amazing. The food (a cassoulet) was good, the ambience was good, and the waitress was a real charmer. To cap things off, they gave me a brimming glass of some sort of lemon-flavoured liqueur. Even my hostel contributed, by being quite special – it is a mansion in Swiss Cottage, formerly occupied by the Palmer family (of Huntley & Palmer’s fame). I picked it because it was the top-rated hostel in London on the hostelbookers website (and cheap!). So, out of the wreckage, I actually had quite a decent evening.

On the Tuesday, since I had an appointment with a real estate agent and a potential flatmate in Lichfield, I bunked work (I did do a couple of hours in the public library) and went straight from London to Lichfield. By about 8:00, I had a place to live – the owner of the property the real estate agent was going to show me took off on holiday so I couldn’t do anything there, but the fellow looking for a flatmate was OK with me moving in the very next day. So, it was back to Wolverhampton for one last night (in yet another hotel, the Britannia), buy some sheets’n’stuff, dig LOTS of cash out of the machine and I moved to Lichfield. It is going to be a fairly quite house – my flatmate says he tends to like to keep to himself, and has another house (in which his family lives but is too crowded and noisy for him) just a few miles away. No worries, with all the adventures I have planned, its not like I’ll be sitting at home very much. We did have a small adventure on my first night: he is an architect and designed the renovations, including the stairs, so only had himself to blame when he could not navigate the corners with the bed. His cover story was that everyone has flatpack stuff these days, so the thought of taking real furniture upstairs didn’t occur to him.

Reading this week: obviously, I had to abandon Quicksilver but I picked up a half price copy of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road where the Wheelers think that the mediocre life of work, two kids and a house in suburbia is not for them, because they’re special. No movies.

Posted by NZBarry 11:15 Archived in England Comments (0)

More London


For the very last of my pre-booked Travelodges, I had a three hotel extravaganza sorted out for London, in their City Road, Marylebone and Covent Garden hotels. I was feeling extra pleased with myself, because somewhere in Eastern Europe, I’d clicked on to the Megabus site and found free bus tickets from Birmingham to London and back. That’s right, FREE! Yes, there was a 50p booking fee, but still I was very proud of myself for getting free travel to London. Unfortunately, I had an awful feeling on Friday, when I was checking the bus departure time. D’oh! I’d booked for Thursday. So, a quick scan around the internet and I was able to get an early afternoon slow train down for ten quid – not bad.

I hadn’t done much to sort out what to do with myself in London for the weekend, just taken a quick look at Time Out and thought it would be nice to hit one of the major art galleries. So, on the Friday evening I found myself on a bus heading towards Dalston Road, and Stoke Newington – a pretty downtrodden East London suburb in my time there, but it is slowly being colonized by a fashionable young crowd (just my sort of place (not)). I was going because I’d heard there was a gig by a French singer called Francoiz Breut in a café there. Their website had warned me there were no more presales but I hoped for a doorsale – no go. That meant me stuck out in East London without a plan, but I found a very nice Turkish restaurant for dinner, then wandered the streets. I think it was after 11:00 before I caught the bus back, and yet there were at least half a dozen hairdressing shops still hard at work, fruit and vege shops still showing their wares, even flower shops, along with the inevitable kebab shops, chicken shops, taxi shops, pubs, bars, clubs and lots of activity.

I had a few hours to kill after leaving the City Road Travelodge before I could check into the Marylebone one (way across west of the West End), so I decided to walk. I didn’t get 50 yards and I’d already had two diversions! The Caffe Nero opposite was inevitable, but I also wandered into the cemetery, and was a little surprised by the notoriety of three of its inhabitants, and even that they were interred together: first I found John Bunyan
and then, not too far away and head to head, William Blake and Daniel Defoe.

Crossing through to the other end of the cemetery, I noticed a sign for the Barbican, a place which had really impressed me when I lived in London, mainly because I’d never seen a precinct which combined an art centre and apartments (as I recall, they were Council flats back then) nor one which was so comprehensively made of concrete. But before I got there, I came across the Sun café,
and it looked so cheery I had to go in for an early afternoon breakfast – a full English, with very nice bacon and a big mug of tea (I’ve practically given up on coffee here). The Barbican is looking better than ever:

More wandering saw me go back past my old house and in to Bloomsbury and up the Tottenham Court Road to Euston. Somehow, it was nearly dark by the time I finally made it to my hotel; no art gallery for me! The Marylebone Travelodge is the first I have seen that lacks the trademark blonde wood furniture, white tiled bathrooms and near colourless interior – it is still in the old style, but being refurbished. I had a pub that had been strongly recommended to me by CAMRA, but feeling restless, I wandered out Edgeware Road to find some dinner; somehow I wasn’t satisfied by anything I saw until I’d gone the length of Oxford Street and found quite a posh Indian restaurant. I have no idea what the couple at the next table were up to; I couldn’t help but hear the majority of their conversation, and it seemed to be an odd mixture of date and deep psycho-analysis.

Sunday was equally action-packed: I walked back up Oxford Street, stopping this time at all the major shops and having a good look round. I admired the goodwill of the guy behind the bar where I had lunch – a couple of Americans wanted to take a photo of him pulling a pint, and he was kind enough to let them do it themselves.

Covent Garden is, of course, theatre district and I was looking forward to seeing whether I could get a ticket to the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; their website was a bit vague as to the possibilities. Turned out they don’t do a show on Sundays, so it was off to Foyle’s for an extended wander – so many books I could have bought, but knowing I have to carry everything I buy gives a wonderful incentive to curb my spending. Dinner was very pleasant, in a wee (non-French) bistro opposite my hotel – since it was raining, I didn’t feel too inclined to go for a major wander. The only blight on the weekend was the fact that I left the power chord for my laptop somewhere – I had thought one of the hotels, but they had no trace of it.

Coming back on Monday morning was particularly dreary in my free bus – we got stopped for at least an hour on the motorway, so it was quite late by the time I got to work, and then the first thing I had to do was find a new power adapter for the lappie; luckily I wander around enough that I actually knew just the place to get one, and could get on with my work fairly quickly.

Since the Travelodge deals had run out, and my (rather limited) efforts had not produced somewhere to live (I enjoy living and even working in hotels), I booked into the Best Western at Wolverhampton for the whole week and took up my role as commuter boy, buying a weeklong season ticket. The hotel is a nice enough place, but a fair old walk from the train station.

On the Tuesday, something finally clicked in my head. Last year I spent some time studying Dr Johnson, and knew that he grew up in a place called Lichfield. Every night, I was catching a train into town that had Lichfield as its ultimate destination – so, yeah, after about two weeks of this, it finally occurred to me that this train was going to Dr Johnson’s birthplace, and I went along for the ride to see what it was like. Very nice, as it happens – quite a few Tudor buildings, some grand old pubs, a pleasant feel and a huge, triple-spired cathedral. It was dark by the time I saw it, but it was still obviously a splendid building, and made quite an impact.

I had a wonderful three course dinner for ten quid in the 1709 Bistro (so-called to commemorate Dr Johnson’s three hundred year anniversary, not because the building was that old) – a creamy mushroom crumble, sausages where the menu gave so much detail I felt I knew the cows personally and then a baked Bramley apple, all washed down by one of the nicest wines I’ve had (something from Argentina). Very good.

On Wednesday, two and a half weeks after arrival, I finally met the fellow who had invited me to Birmingham and got taken on a tour of the School, which included a pretty good talk with the fellow whose work had inspired me to come to Birmingham. Tired of the really crappy food on campus and the scruffiness of the nearest suburb (Selly Oak) I thought I’d wander up to Harborne, the suburb above the University, to see what it has to offer, in terms of places to have lunch. Quite a bit – I had a great pint in the Junction Pub, found good coffee, nice cafes, everything I could hope for except a way to get there in less than half an hour. Back in Birmingham central, I decided to try dinner at the Bella Café, an Italian chain restaurant – the service was hugely impressive, the food was to Italian food what McDonalds is to American.

Reading this week: finishing off Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay and starting on a rather more grand venture – Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, one part of his Baroque Trilogy. The timing is right for me to read this; after studying the 16th century last year, all of the political and religious figures and many of the scientific ones (such as a very young Isaac Newton) who show up in this alternate scientific history are familiar to me.

Posted by NZBarry 12:56 Archived in England Comments (0)


semi-overcast 6 °C

So, part of the forward planning I did way back in September was to book a Travelodge in Oxford for a weekend. This involved another tedius bus trip. National Express this time - we stopped for half an hour in Stratford, not to honour Shakespeare, but to let some woman who had a ticket to somewhere north of Birmingham argue her way onto our bus (heading SOUTH from Birmingham). This gave the bus driver and his offsider half an hour's worth of speculation as to what she was up to.

I had no idea where my hotel was in relation to Oxford - luckily I spotted it just after we came off the motorway, well out of the centre of town (4 miles, apparently). The drive in to the centre was so appealing that I decided to walk back, up the Woodstock Road, past various Colleges and fairly grand abodes. I wouldn't have been so keen to walk had I known how infrequent the buses back into town were - I just missed one, and the next wasn't for an hour, so I walked back, getting in just as the shops were shutting. Hordes of people about, pubs and restaurants thriving, streets massed with hurrying people. I wandered into a flash looking burger place, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and was a little puzzled to find Steinlager and Macs Gold on the menu but the waitress clarified - it is New Zealand owned (apparently Peter Gordon, a sleb chef from New Zealand, designed their burgers).

Slow start on Saturday, it was about lunchtime before I was back in town, on a mission to find Blackwells (the bookshop). Unfortunately, I was diverted - between the two entrances to the main shop is this quaint and very old little pub, not much bigger than my office, the White Horse (Inspector Morse favours it!). I had to go in for a pint, and maybe some lunch. Unfortunately, the food on offer didn't really appeal, so I enjoyed my pint and went wandering for lunch but got hit by a further diversion - a conducted tour of the Bodleian Library was about to start (isn't it just as well I travel by myself!). I have to say, it is one of the oddest conducted tours I've ever been taken on - we spent all but the last few minutes sat in the Divinity School being told about the history of the place. The way it was told, both Oxford and Cambridge were basically started by a food fight! When the King of France got tired of English scholars hanging about in France (I think at the Sorbonne) he banned them, and they congregated in Oxford, around a cleric. But they received poor treatment by local publicans and the like and, to show their displeasure, some students threw beer over a publican. This escalated to two students being hanged; then the powers that be (the King, I think) said that students should be treated better and thus the wheels started turning to start Oxford University. They took a while, and in the meantime, most of the students thought "fuck this, I'm off to Cambridge" and thus the university was established there.

So, yeah, after being told lots of tales like this, we were hoozled into the library, into its oldest part, but couldn't speak (it IS a library) or take photos, then the tour was over. Two photos I did take were in the Divinity School, which has an extremely intricate (and very difficult to make) ceiling:

All in all, by the time I finally got to Blackwells it was closed, so I wandered around the central city for a bit and out to a suburb called Jericho, where I'd heard there was a cool pub and an arthouse cinema. I found the latter, but got distracted by another pub while looking for the former. Back at the hotel, I couldn't resist; there's a TV programme on, "Big Chef takes on Little Chef" in which Heston Blumenthal (a bit of an avant garde sleb chef) was revitalising the menus at the infamous chain of motorway-side restaurants, and there was a Little Chef beside the hotel. As it happens, all I had was a very nice piece of apple pie and some turgid coffee.

I spent all of Sunday afternoon in the various arms of the Blackwells empire (they have a music and an art shop in addition to the central bookshop) where I was compelled to spend at least two hours, rifling through books and people watching. I think Powells in Portland might be bigger, it is certainly more chaotic in its layout, but Blackwells is plenty big enough. In between visits, I had afternoon tea at the Queens Lane Coffee House, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating coffee house in Europe. At some stage, I also went for a wander along the canals

Back "home", I had a further couple of nights booked in the Wolverhampton Travelodge before moving into the Birmingham Central one. This one is so badly reviewed on tripadvisor that I was actually scared by what I would find. Sure, the corridors were a bit grim, but my room was fine (apart from the lights that didn't work), bigger than any I've stayed in to date.

By the Tuesday night, there was still no sign of any of my new colleagues and my flat hunting was not bearing fruit, so I was pretty tempted by the cottage I found on the internet on the west coast of Ireland. All changed on the Wednesday, however; I discovered I had a room mate, and he had contacts. So I was taken to lunch and he and I chattered our way through our work. That night, I went out with a bunch of people I met on the internet to see a movie I wouldn't normally see - the Wrestler. I'm pretty sure the last time I saw Mickey Rourke was in Barfly, which came out in 1987, so it is little wonder I didn't recognise him. The whole notion of a wrestling movie does nothing for me (and it was fake wrestling at that) but I do think he did a tremendous job of acting, and liked the side stories involving Cassidy and his daughter, and got the sheer sadness of a fellow who knew nothing but wrestling.

Reading this week was Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, set in 1920's London. Insofar as there is a story line, it is about Theodore Gumbril's efforts to get his "pneumatic pants" manufactured - they have cushions you can blow up to make the tasks of kneeling and sitting in church more amenable - and to get himself a woman.

Posted by NZBarry 15:40 Archived in England Comments (0)

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