A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

Creeping up the Welsh Coast

all seasons in one day 15 °C

After leaving Tenby, the plan was to go up the Welsh coast in small hops, but the first such hop was ridiculous: a total of 4.5 miles. I could have walked! As it was, I had to leave my digs at 10:00 in the morning and couldn't get into the new place until late afternoon. Plus, it was threatening rain. So, castle time. There are lots on the Pembrokeshire Coast, every nook or cranny seems to have one, and I think I could spend a month driving about here, but there is only one that the bus from Tenby takes you to

After a hefty breakfast in an 80 year old cafe and sending yet another consignment home, it was time to go in. Pembroke Castle is a pretty big deal: it was a stronghold for quite some time, variously for or against the French and for or against the Welsh, and the birthplace of the first Tudor King, Henry VII - his Uncle Jasper, Earl of Pembroke, was the last proper one - Henry VIII was against baronial power, and actually had Ann Boleyn take the place over. Then he had her executed. For a couple of hundred years, after some deal was done, it was left in private ownership to moulder away but then in the 18th century, romantic poets and artists got all keen on it and it was back on the map. There's been a massive restoration project, and it is looking pretty good. This is inside the wall:
and various shots as I wandered around

I was curious at the concept of a dungeon tower

The building to the right is the Great Keep, one of the earliest towers with a domed roof, built around 1200

After a quiet pint, listening to a local and a couple of guys he struck up a conversation with solve all the problems of the world, it was time to hop on the bus, and head back. Yep, I said bus - trains aren't that good for travelling up the south west coast of Wales, and it means I had to abandon my bike in Tenby. I left it locked with the key in the lock in the railway station - probably means that some morally bankrupt lowlife will get the thrill of thinking he's stolen a bike, but I couldn't think of a better distribution system.

My destination for the night was a wee place called Manorbier, which had been a big defence base. I chose to stay there simply because the blurb in the YHA book about the hostel made it sound cool. It has a Norman church
and a pretty wild looking beach

It started to rain while I was at the beach, but the wind was so strong that I was being dried off quicker than the rain could wet me.

Of course, being a nook or maybe a cranny, it has a castle

What it didn't have was any place to eat. Yes, there was a pub which had some fine ales and a menu but no-one to do anything about food. So, for the first time since leaving home, I actually had to cook for myself. The horror. The horror.

The hostel was almost deserted - a group was finishing off their meal as i returned, talking about seeing someone called Harry Potter, apparently he's in films. I wanted to shout at them that they were in Wales, the site of some real history, the Last Invasion, and that was all they could find to interest them. Maybe they knew what was on my mind, as I never saw them again.

The hostel was certainly an unusuall styled building, had been part of the defence base

It is up the coast, about a mile from town, on the Coastal Path, so I took a wee walk

Posted by NZBarry 14:55 Archived in Wales Comments (1)

To Tenby

sunny 17 °C

Yes, this was another fit of indecision which captured me: I couldn’t decide between Whitby or Tenby, so decided upon both. I certainly made the right decision going back to Whitby for a few days, although it would have been a giggle to have been there the weekend before. Instead of steam trains, it was goth time – one of the two annual Gothic weekends, and the local paper was full of images. I feel a particular sense of loss for not seeing the Dracula Drop bungee jump or the football match in which Real Goth took on a local team. I wonder if any turned out wearing kit like this

But before Tenby, I had a wee bit of tripping about to do. First, I had a couple of nights back in York, where I was disgusted to find that among the hundreds of bikes at the station, mine had been picked upon to be stolen. It only cost £25 and was nothing special, so why it would be taken I have no idea. It would have been very helpful to me, as I had quite a trudge to the hostel, and I’d perfected the art of making the bike carry the heaviest bag. Since that was the end of that, I thought I might as well confuse someone by tying my helmet to their bike.

This time in York, I did get to see inside the Minster, but didn’t really do much else. The hostel was good to work in during the day and, in the evening, well another retired bloke had struck up a conversation with me within about a minute of getting into my room. He too had been to New Zealand, even bought a bike with big ideas about cycling the length of it, but didn’t get far – the bus was much less tiring. Poor fellow, he was made redundant, his age made it hard to get more work, then the recession cut in to make it impossible. We went off to a really nice cafe, Concerto, opposite the Minster – it had music scores in place of wallpaper and a really friendly vibe – and took a couple of pints before tackling the walk back. The next night, we didn’t even get to leave the hostel, just spent the evening in the hostel bar, with our young German room mate and a New Zealander, doing a bit of travelling before going back to her accountancy firm. I’m fairly sure she’s the first Kiwi I’ve talked to since I left home – the funny thing is, she didn’t recognise my accent. After my rant about teacakes, she probably wishes she’d stayed in her corner. Or maybe I converted another to the cause.

Now, the logical way to get from York to West Wales is to go back through Birmingham, not via the Scottish Borders. But I’d heard so much about the Settle to Carlisle railway as being the most spectacular rail journey in the UK that I had to try it out for myself. Of course, back in York railway station, I found that my bike hadn’t been stolen after all, so it could come for the ride.

We didn’t get far. After a change of trains in Leeds, a very interesting looking city, lots of very new flash buildings among the older, more sedate brick edifices, we got stopped at a station just south of Settle. A freight train had broken down ahead of us – normally that would not be a problem as there are two lines, but this one had chosen to break down on the Ribble Viaduct, where the railway was reduced to a single track, and there were problems extracting it.

So, I got to Heilliford Station before 11:00 and was there for a while. Luckily it was a nice station and had an alarmingly cheap cafe – after I’d loaded up with a quota of crisps and Mars Bars and homemade ginger cookies and a cup of tea, I had to question whether he had his pricing right.

They did put on a bus, but the only reason for going to Carlisle was to do the train trip, so I was determined to wait it out. I had a fellow to talk with, a local who turned out to be a retired Crown Court Judge (and to continue with the theme of retired gentlemen who went to New Zealand when he was young, he was another). He was just going “over the top” for a day trip, but by early afternoon he gave up. A train did come along, that would take me to Carlisle via Lancaster, and the staff on my stuck train were quite definite that I should take it. Nope, no way, I’m doing the Settle Carlisle. It was just before 4:00 that the line cleared and the next train came along which could take me.

The journey? Kind of nice but the bleak experience I’d been promised
was over pretty quickly.

Didn’t help that Carlisle was not that great. I think the best thing about it was my dinner – walking around, one place was much busier than anywhere else, so I went in despite it being a Chinese eat all you can Buffet (traditionally not very good food) and it was great. Swansea the next night wasn’t much better, lots of people there for stag and hen nights and generally getting drunk, but I’d had to stop there because of the wacky world of Waterstones. You can go into their shop and buy books, or you can order online, which saves you heaps. Then you can ask that they deliver to your local Waterstones, which they’ll do for free. Since Swansea was the only place I was passing through that had one, and I was curious to see if it is as dour a place as the guide book says (it is), and I found a cheap night in a Travelodge it all added up.

All in all, I was getting a little apprehensive, maybe I’m getting over this travel lark and won’t enjoy Tenby? I needn’t have worried – even the little train that bumbled its way between the bushes to get me from Swansea to Tenby cheered me, particularly the very proper speaking English fellow with a very long white philospher's beard who turned out to be the train driver.

And in Tenby, I had a great week. I had an apartment, which gives a bit of the view of the sea

Yep, these are all from the window of my apartment. From the outside, it was nothing, a grey concrete wall above a shop selling touristy kitsch, but inside it had all I needed, even a bath. Not having to work within the routines of a hostel or hotel or flatmates was wonderful – a week of getting up around 11:00, working through until 2:00, when I’d spend a couple of hours in a cafe for a sausage baguette (much better than it sounds) and apple pie, catch up on the internet and go for a bit of a wander.

It was nice for the fellow in the cafe to decide I was a writer, which I guess is what I am at the moment. Then it would be a few hours work in the afternoon, then dinner at a pub and another wander, before working through until about two. The changing mood of the sea was a constant entertainment

The TV mumbled away in the background, so I became heartily sick of the MP expenses row, but it was interesting to spend 10 minutes listening to what they’re debating in the House of Lords – the fact that the bacon in their restaurant is from Holland, not Britain – because British bacon is £6.59 a kilogram and the Dutch is £4.80 and “we like to give value for money”. They even tell jokes in the House of Lords” “I had this friend, he came back from Mexico, and I was worried because he didn’t seem very well, thought he might have swine flue. So, I rang the swine flu hotline but, instead of help, all I got was crackling.”

I may as well write it here – I had a particularly geekily spooky experience during this week. I got this thought in my head on the Sunday night, that if I was to buy land and build a caravan on it, like the static caravans they have here which have wheels but never go anywhere, then it wouldn’t be a building so I wouldn’t need a building permit. All sorts of images of what sort of thing I could build and it not be a building were in my mind. That kind of passed, but then a few days later I read something – at almost the precise time I was having visions of buildings that aren’t buildings, the High Court back in New Zealand was convicting a fellow for constructing non-mobile caravans in his caravan park without a building permit.

I think that I was right to be confused about whether Tenby or Whitby is better, because they both suit me so well. The town of Tenby might have a little less to enjoy than the town of Whitby, certainly has nowhere of the stature of Beckett’s, but the beach that circles around Tenby is definitely superior.

In between my doses of The Forsyte Saga, I have been reading a more contemporary novel. Over the course of nearly a fortnight, I only managed the one - Victor Pelevin's Babylon, set in Yeltsin's Russia, after a fashion. Another name for Babylon is Babel, which has certain connotations important to understanding this book. Its central character is a fellow often simply called Baby, who is an adertising copywriter who spends most of his money on drugs, and he takes some wild trips as a result, imagining himself in a ziggurat communing with its priest or having a long argument with his ex-boss, only to find it was a fence post. The middle class is somewhat different to Addison & Steel's, or even Galsworthy's - here, they're thugs in armour plated cars with heavy automatic weapons and have bodyguards.

Towards the centre of the book is this sort of funny episode, although it was incredibly dull to actually read, like a lot of critical theory. Baby has himself an ouija board, and wants the spirit of Che Guevara, which he gets. But Che gives him a multi page account of marketing theory, based on the premise that we don't watch TV, we are controlled by it. And TV certainly has a huge role in this novel. I'm tempted to say just how huge, because I did enjoy the premise, but I have been warned off by the Guardian review: Baby is "initiated into a huge politico-cultural conspiracy - but it is so delightfully realised that to reveal it would be an act of gibbering critical sabotage".

Posted by NZBarry 16:07 Archived in Wales Comments (0)

Side Trip to Scarborough

sunny 15 °C

Even though I booked months ago, space in the Whitby was a bit patchy – if I could have had a week or two clear to stay, I probably would have. As it was, I couldn’t even stay all of the long weekend, and had to take a night in Scarborough. I know, life really can be terrible at times.

The hostel is a couple of miles north of town, in a peaceful spot

I’d only been in my room a minute, maybe two, and I found myself in a fairly intense discussion with a retired school teacher, who had a lot to say about the state of the country, essentially that the Great has gone out of Great Britain. While I’d noticed some of the things he was talking about, at least I was able to reassure him that there were still, as Ian Dury might have said, reasons to be cheerful, by launching into some of the great things I’ve seen here. He was in New Zealand when he was young, even planned to move there but then met the lady that proved to be his wife, and that was it.

To go back to town for dinner, I decided to promenade along the North Beach Promenade

There’s not much left of Scarborough Castle

As I rounded the point, I had this weird experience, it sounded like there were about 50 8 year old kids chattering in front of me (having spent some time in hostels, I know exactly what that sounds like) but I couldn’t see how that would be, then spotted the culprits

I quite liked my wee wander along the waterfront

Behind me wasn’t so hot, classic English resort
but I still like the look of this hotel

Nice mural

Dinner was a great carvery, where I was once again struck with indecision: pork or turkey? Which is which? Have both, dammit. The man doing the carving was a bit of a grump (“Is that young bloke in the kitchen a foreigner?” “No.” “Well, he’s f*ng stupid anyway”) but generous with the food.

In the morning, I was saved from yet again having to walk into town to catch the bus, as my talkative friend dropped me off. Instead of going straight back to Whitby, I hopped off at Robin Hood Bay

This was a truly charming wee spot, as was its town, which basically had a single street

and then a bunch of alleys only accessible on foot

Posted by NZBarry 17:46 Archived in England Comments (0)

Back in Whitby

sunny 16 °C

As I write, it is my very last night in the UK, the end of the second phase of my trip, which has gone far too quickly for comfort.

When I left Birmingham at the beginning of May, I was a little torn about what I would do: in theory I was supposed to go to Galway, but there were places I wanted to see again and the cost of living in Ireland is a little frightening, even by comparison with the cost of living in England. So I put that aspect of the jaunt off for a little, and headed back to Whitby. It took me all day, but that was mainly because I had a three hour wait between trains in York – I might have made the earlier train which left about five minutes after I arrived, had I known about it or not had to struggle through the station with all my gear and take the time to stable my bike in York railway station. So, I found a quiet spot in the pub in the station, there was no way I was going to carry my bags about, and did some ale-powered work. Then it was up through Middlesburgh and across to Whitby.

Just seeing the place
again confirmed that it is my kind of place. Although the trudge up the 199 steps to the hostel
is not my kind of thing, by the time I had spent a long weekend there, I was really reluctant to leave. The hostel felt like home, helped by the really quite wonderful views from my room

Last time I was here, I found a good cafe but this time round, I found Beckett’s and once I did, the other place didn’t get a look in. I was in every day once I found it. Beckett’s is a cosy and very welcoming place which not only does good coffee, but has great cakes and has two walls devoted to books for sale. Breaking my rules about buying more stuff to carry, I bought two. One, I was reading the back cover and thought, hmmm that sounds a lot like Men Behaving Badly, who is copying whom? Then I saw it was actually David Nye’s Men Behaving Badly. Turned out to be pretty lame, as it happens, so I left it in the hostel book exchange.

On what was Bank Holiday Monday over here, I had a horrible attack of indecision: their cakes were good, their teacakes were good, how the hell was I to decide? I didn’t – I went for both. Somehow this same state of indecision found me paralysed outside another cafe on the way back to the hostel and in much the same state of mind, had to go in and indulge in more teacakes. My extensive research has revealed that the baker in Whitby makes a particularly yeasty and very addictive and fine form of teacake.

Another great find in Whitby was the Board Inn. I’d been for a really good meal of fish and chips and wasn’t quite ready to climb the 199 steps so thought a pint was in order. This led to me going back for another every night I was in Whitby. Watching the sun go down had a peculiar fascination

Captain Cook is on the horizon – here he is a bit closer

On the way through to Whitby, I’d noticed a wee town that looked kind of cool, Grosmont, then I found out that a steam train
was running from Whitby to a festival of steam at Grosmont. It was something I had to do.

Now, when you travel on the 17:55 to Lichfield Trent Valley, or even the 14:02 Virgin Pendolino to Euston, people tend not to be out waving, but put yourself in a steam hauled train and everyone wants to wave at you. A LOT of people seem to be interested in just seeing a steam train arrive

Mind you, some were quite spectacular

I wonder if people can work out what the special story is about this train

The Tornado is the first steam engine made in the UK in something like 50 years, and was commissioned in 2009, just a couple of months ago. Grosmont is not the biggest of towns,
and trains seem to be a big part of its life – I think there were three shops selling railway souvenirs. Going back, I decided to travel first class

Back at the station in Whitby, there was sword dancing

I've managed to knock off the second volume of the Forsyte Saga over the past couple of weeks, which I found to be quite strange because the Forsytes are decidedly thin on the ground. Yes, Soames Forsyte is there as a central figure, and his daughter is to the fore, but the rest drop into the background. Instead, the Mont family, into which Fleur married come in for a lot of attention. So, I came to like Soames in this volume, and was sad when he took the ferry in quite a dramatic way. Fleur is horrible, completely spoilt - her only saving grace is that she knows it. One of the more interesting features of the novel is that it sets up oppositions between the old ways and the new, including the modern use of language. Some of the phrases have stuck, but a lot were just a fad and long gone, to the point I hardly knew what was being said at times.

Posted by NZBarry 11:25 Archived in England Comments (1)

Bye bye Lichfield and Birmingham

sunny 15 °C

London had one final gesture for me. I was not arrested. Instead, I was “detained”. Under the anti Terrorism legislation. Seriously. I was moseying along near Kings Cross station, hoping I might find a decent coffee when a wee constable who had been lurking in an alley came out and “requested” that I join him. I expressed my displeasure but really, what can you do but submit. I even managed to make a joke, wondering why he could not arrest the folk running the nearby Starbucks as a crime against coffee. So he carefully searched me, we had a bit of a chat but by the time he got to my bag decided he could let me go. Funnily enough, when I read the copy of the report he had to give me, he had stopped me for walking in a “vulnerable area” i.e. near two major railway stations, carrying a “large bag” i.e. my laptop bag.

That reminds me of a wee story I read in Tartu about a large cupboard. Apparently the library was pretty keen to maintain discipline, so when people talked in the library or were late returning their books, they’d be locked in the cupboard. One person spent three days in such fashion. Go into a modern library, you’d soon need a HUGE cupboard to apply these measures to the users!

Back in Lichfield, it was my last couple of weeks. They were pretty full on, as I was making as much use of the library as I could during the day then spending my evenings in a pub, as it offered free internet and mine was cut off at work. I did take time out for a few photos of the University campus:
Great Hall
Law library:
Law Faculty:
Main Library:
Random statue outside my window (the source was named, but not the statue)
and my favourite, Michael Faraday
He’s an impressive man and an unusual one for an educational institute to feature at its front entrance as not only did he have no formal education, but according to the theorists of the time, his most famous invention, the electric motor, simply could not work. Yet it did – he was the great experimenter, possibly the greatest ever. He later went on to become a Professor but not at Birmingham University, I have no idea what connection he might have with Birmingham – certainly not a strong enough one to feature in his Wikipedia entry.

I spent my last weekend in the area holed up in a hotel in Lichfield,
since my house wasn’t really conducive to hanging about in and decided to go walkabout with the camera.

Lichfield Cathedral is quite remarkably hard to get a good photo of, because it is so big and the Close is rather, well, close.

Walking around it at night was a pretty special experience, because it tended to be a ghostly looming presence when it was really dark. I tried taking a photo – you’d get the experience of seeing it!

Lichfield library:

Scooter convention:

One of the reasons to stay in town was to go visiting. First up, it was the house of Erasmus Darwin,
grandfather of Charles.

He was a doctor, and quite a guy. Mary Shelley credits his experiments in which he tried to re-animate corpses in the basement (visitors can only go down there under very special arrangements) with inspiring her to write Frankenstein, and he influenced Coleridge and Wordsworth with his own poetical works. Patients would tell of his travels to see them, his carriage laden with a pile of books to one side and food to the other. He invented all sorts of things, including a talking machine, a horizontal windmill
and a system for independent turning of front carriage wheels (to stop carriages falling over) which still informs motor engineering today.

He also had a few thoughts along the lines of a theory of evolution, but ran into a little opposition from the neighbours

His house was an important focal point for 18th century Lichfield intellectual life, which made Dr Johnson
a frequent visitor. Johnson’s house is right in the centre of Lichfield,
where his father was a not very successful bookseller

I have no photos at all of Birmingham. I was initially reaonably impressed with it as a city, but after spending four months there, I actually had trouble picking out any specific thing that I had warmed to, unless you count my Asian greasy spoon under the railway station. I think I managed three visits there in my last couple of weeks. One regret I have is that I didn't get to go back and say a finale farewell to Wolverhampton, as it had provided me with a variety of homes for a month or so and there's a very nice curry shop I wanted to dine at.

But time run out. At around 7:00 on 1 May, I slung my bags over my shoulder, reunited myself with my bike at Lichfield station and I was off.

Posted by NZBarry 07:43 Archived in England Comments (0)

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