Hello, hello and welcome back again to my apparently endless bout of writing posts which is surprising even me. After such a period of complete apathy and inactivity on the writing front, I must admit that this new burst of enthusiasm has rather taken me by surprise but I’m not complaining, I always did enjoy this before and am doing so once again.
I have no doubt in my mind as to what has prompted this fit of creativity (if indeed you find my rambling discourses here in any way creative) and that is a trip which began on the 19th of May, 2022, scheduled for four days and which turned into about five weeks over a large swathe of Northern England and was hugely enjoyable, very rewarding and ultimately quite creatively stimulating as my latest flurry of entries here hopefully indicates so please allow me to tell you about it.
The story starts back in 2005, and I do promise you I shall try to be brief here. It was a time when I could barely use the internet (I still struggle!) and I came upon a website called Virtual Tourist which I instantly fell in love with, there was just something about it that appealed to me. There were genuine travellers from all over the world writing what were originally called tips and then reviews dispassionately and objectively, not like the disgraceful charade of today’s travel websites where you have to pay through the nose for a good review and I cite TripAdvisor here, an utterly immoral and disgusting agency who we shall return to shortly.
VT was a small operation and at the height of it’s powers had a total of 12 staff, based in a small office in California. I knew most of them to chat to online if there was a tech problem with the site and I have personally met two of the CEO’s (G and Kimberly) both of whom were delightful, proper travellers themselves and totally invested in what they were doing but, lovely as that was, it was not the main draw of the site. That was the sense of community, a much overused term these days but absolutely appropriate in the circumstances, we really were a tight group, not a clique in any sense but close.
As part of the group mentality of the site, various “meets” were organised by the members themselves all over the world. If you have read my previous website and my five month trip to the Philippines (originally planned as five weeks!) you will know what I mean.
The staff did not get actively involved, with such a small number of them they were far too busy keeping the nuts and bolts of the system together but they were hugely supportive and one or other of them used to turn up to the larger meets whenever possible. A large proportion of my close personal friends are comprised of old VT members so what went wrong? I can tell you in a word, a hated word loaded with deceit, criminal practices and sheer evil and that word is TripAdvisor. Yes, you read that right, the ubiquitous TA with a sticker in every shop, bar and restaurant window on the world, that TA.
TA is run (or was back then) by an terrible man called Steven Kaufer whose aim was very simple. He wanted TA to be the only travel advice website on the internet, a position he or his successors have damn nearly achieved now, giving them a dangerous monopoly to extort money from businesses worldwide. Extortion is what they excel at, a good review (as written mostly by their American based staff who have never set foot in the establishment), is determined by how much you pay. I know I have seen reviews of mine copied verbatim from VT, without attribution, on TA. That was in the days when I still looked at it, I will never give them the traffic any more. Why? I’ll tell you.
TA bought over a number of sites and I do not blame the three “originals” of VT, two of whom I have met, for selling out as they were having serious amounts of money thrown at them and I mean multi millions of $$$. Good for them, they had grafted so hard to create something so wonderful, they deserved some recompense for it.
The problem was with the duplicity of TA. They promised us the Earth, everything would be fine, all 12 jobs were secure, we could get on with our thing and they would not interfere. As usual, Kaufer lied (well, I believe he was trained as a lawyer so lying comes naturally to him). In early 2017 the staff turned up to the VT office in California to be met by security guards who told them to clear their desks (escorted by said thugs), go home and their employment was terminated forthwith. The news was passed to the members and I was actually online with Kimberly and a few others as they literally pulled the plugs on the computers and the lights went out on VT, or did they?
No. Kaufer could use his vast dishonestly acquired wealth to buy up and kill a website (as he did with Travelpod and several others and continues to do in his quest for world travel writing domination) but he had seriously underestimated the strength of the VT spirit. Members set up groups on various media platforms, notably Facebook although I do not subscribe to any of them as I find that style of communication but is not to my taste, just a personal opinion. VT, however, lives on as you will see later in this post if I can stop myself rambling! Incredibly, we are even attracting new members to a community born out of long dead website that has not existed for over five years. I think that says it all really.
One of the highlights of the VT calendar was the Euromeet, an annual event usually held in late May in a different town or city somewhere on that Continent. I have been to a few and they are always brilliant. They are completely organised on a voluntary basis by members and, whilst the VT staff did not get involved (too much else to do) they were very supportive, sent loads of promo gear to distribute and usually one of them would turn up as I mentioned above.
Picture the scene. I remember sitting on a ‘bus in Macedonia (I refuse to call it North Macedonia, that is another conceit of the Federal States of E aka the EU at the behest of the Greeks (bankrupted by the aforesaid Federal States!) with the CEO (Giampiero Ambrosi aka G) after a few very sociable beers outside what looked like a simple farmhouse in a village in the middle of who knows where but actually doubled as the local grocery store and off-licence and he was asking me what I liked about the site and what I didn’t. Can you do that with Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, I think not. VT really was something else.
Right, back to the story after that ramble. All those paragraphs with never a photo to lighten the load and, to be honest, there are only a very few to come. I had done the London – Newcastle trip so often I had loads of images of King’s Cross, videos of entering and leaving Peterborough and York stations etc. that I didn’t think I needed any more, nothing had changed.
Due to my mobility issues and the woeful lack of accessible platform access at my local station (as previously described here), I had ordered a cab to King’s Cross and he got me there in good time and good order. I managed to negotiate the station without disaster, bloody mess or fuss and see here if you need explanation of that) and settled in with a book for the very comfortable journey to the Northeast. It was a journey in so many senses of the word.
I did manage one quick image in King’s Cross, a statue of Sir Nigel Gresley, one of the finest railway locomotive engineers of this or any other age. Perhaps his finest hour was designing the Mallard which, to this day, holds the record as the fastest steam loco ever, a feat that is unlikely to be challenged in these days of electric and diesel.
I made the train in good time to my pre-booked seat (comfy, legroom at the table seat I had requested, back to travel as I prefer, aisle seat as I don’t like annoying people getting in and out, powerpoint for my computer, ideal).
I decided to take myself off to the buffet car for a can of breakfast, my usual pint of breakfast being merely an illusion on trains as there is no draught and ordered a cider from the choice of one i.e. Somersby as you can see above. I went to hand over a £10 note in payment (frankly, I was not expecting much change out of a fiver for a can that costs about a quid in the supermarket but they play on their monopoly position. The young lady behind the counter very apologetically said, “Sorry, we don’t take cash, card only”. What? Yet another instance of institutions hiding behind the general excuse of the Chinese virus to make life easier for themselves. Card payments mean no cash to count at the end of a trip, everything done by computer, far greater control by bosses etc. etc. it just suits the globalisation effort.
I still had the crisp new £10 note in my hand with Her Majesty’s face upwards and I decided to make a joke out of it although in broader terms it is no joking matter. I said, looking down, “So sorry Ma’am, it appears your face on a piece of paper is no longer acceptable as legal currency in the country you rule, you have been replaced by foreign bankers”, replaced it in my wallet and substituted it with a debit card from a foreign owned bank. What has my country become? If you read on (and don’t die of boredom first) you will find that this was not my only experience of this odious practice on this trip. How long until we are all forced into having cards which can be easily monitored and where the commission demanded by said overseas entities is added to the price of our purchases.
The young lady smiled, at least I think she did but it was difficult to tell behind the now not legally required face mask she was wearing. I have read that very small children form a lot of their views of the world from the facial expressions of adults around them, how will that be impacted in years to come when all they saw in infancy was a face mask?
Having landed in Newcastle (surprisingly right on time and without me ever leaving the ground) I felt strangely at home. I have never lived there nor spent any significant amounts of time in the city but, on my occasional visits I always feel very comfortable there and welcome. It is a very friendly city, much moreso than London, and this was a trait I was to find on this run in towns and cities all over the North. I don’t know what it is, and it is true in small villages up to major cities but it seems the further you get from the capital, the friendlier people get. There will be numerous examples of this in posts to come.
The very first thing to do was something of a ritual for me when I get the train into Newcastle. Directly across the road from the main entrance of the station is an excellent Nicholson’s pub called the Victoria Comet which sounds like it should be the name of some old steam locomotive but isn’t There were originally two adjacent pubs called the Victoria and the Comet and so, when they merged, the name was obvious.
As I walked across Neville Street to the pub I was following in famous cinematic footsteps and which is the major reason I always go here first. I was treading the same path as the famous actor Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr. (OK, Michael Caine to you and me) as he appears in one of the opening scenes of one of my favourite films ever. Caine plays a London hard man gangster who travels back to Newcastle to investigate the mysterious death of his brother. OK, after over 50 years it looks a bit dated now but then, so do I!
I had booked into stay at the Royal Station Hotel which, as the name suggests, was no more than about 200 yards from the railway station entrance so even with my very restricted mobility I could manage that OK. I suspect it was one of the many railway hotels owned and operated by the railway companies who were trying to provide a complete travelling experience way back before even my grandparents (all born in the 19th century) had uttered their first cry.
To be honest, at standard / walk-up rates it would have been way out of my budget but I got a last minute deal at a very decent price that I could afford. Yes, I am a happy man in a hostel in a room full of snoring, farting hairy males (even females in these days of mixed dorms) but it is nice to have a little luxury now and again.
The hotel was just what I was expecting, an impressive building with a typical Victorian facade which is now Grade 1 listed, and opened by the Queen who bears the name of the era in 1850. Were it not for our current monarch who has reigned for over seven decades (and long may she continue), Victoria was relatively young then and eventually this country’s longest-serving monarch overseeing an age, perhaps Britain’s glory days, when industry and entrepreneurship were King to her Queenly reign. Naturally the military played a huge part as well.
Having been checked in by a charming young lady who obviously didn’t have English as a first language, which is usual in tertiary industries in the UK these days, I was allocated a room on the first floor (105 as I recall) and thankfully there was a lift (elevator) so I didn’t have to negotiate the beautiful ornamental stairs to that level. I have included an image of the spectacular chandelier above the said stairway just to give you an idea of the opulence of the place.
The building is a gem and well deserving of it’s protected Grade 1 status but just ask for a room above the first floor for reasons I shall explain in a future post! It seems I was in good company as Jane Russell, Laurence Olivier, Laurel and Hardy, Dame Vera Lynn, Richard Burton and Muhammad Ali have all checked in here. Fine by me, I’d share a room with any of them for varying reasons.
There I was in “the Toon” as Geordies pronounce the word town in their quaint and fairly impenetrable accent and despite the fact that it has been a city incorporated since 1882 but I suppose folk memory goes back longer than that. I was a happy man as I lay down on my very comfy bed for a quick rest. I was happy because I had actually made it this far without bloody mishap and a hospital bed, I was glad I was at another VT Euromeet and going to meet some dear old friends that I hadn’t seen for far too long, glad that we were metaphorically throwing sand in the eyes of Kaufer and his evil empire who thought they had killed us off ut, if anything, had driven us closer together. Yes, it was a happy Fergy who lay on that bed and then got up to have a wander.
When I say a wander, it is a fairly loose term. I am now extremely conscious of my physical limitations and I knew I could not move far but I didn’t need to. I know the area near the station and hotel fairly well and I knew there was everything I needed within a distance that was achievable in my condition.
At this point I should explain how VT meets work, specifically the larger ones like Euromeets. The organiser(s) will arrange day drips and excursions to places of interest and then there is a communal meal every evening. The great thing about a VT meet is that it is totally non-prescriptive, you can sign up for as much or as little as you want and nobody will think the less of you if you decide to just go and explore by yourself and eat in some little back street joint you have discovered that day. It is not the concept of a coach trip or cruise (both my ideas of travel Hell) where it is, “breakfast at 0730, on the bus by 0800, Museum X at 0830, back on the ‘bus at 0930 etc. etc. That sort of trip appals me beyond belief although I would never decry those who regularly do them and enjoy them, it is just a matter of personal taste.
VT is a much different beast and I heard a very experienced member remarking once on another Euromeet that trying to organise VT members was like trying to herd cats, how very true. By their very nature, VT people tend to be fairly independent travellers and like to do their own thing, which is perfect for me. Also, I had not signed up for any of the meals, convivial as they would have been, but with my complete lack of appetite and gastric ability it would have been a waste of the chef’s talent, the waiting staff’s time and my money and I hate sending food back to the kitchen as it suggests it was not up to scratch. It would have been a waste of the chef’s talents, waiting staff’s time and my money, so why bother? I hate food waste with a passion and do everything in my power to avoid it. Meals with my friends really made no sense so I arranged to meet them for post-prandial drinks.
Actually, my first evening was not a problem as there was no meal and everyone was meeting in the City Tavern for registration which is nearly not as far as it may seem towards regimentation. It just gave Sarah a chance to work out who had turned up, who was going where, how much they had to pay (she was still out of pocket to ‘bus companies, tour guides etc.) and then we could just sit down and have a drink and a catch-up after what seemed like an absolute eternity due to the Chinese virus and what a catch-up it turned out to be.
People had come from literally all over the world and I think everyone had had more or less similar experiences, just to varying degrees dependent upon the attitude of their respective Governments, none of whom had a clue what they were doing. How could they have when the situation was unprecedented in world history? The virus was truly a pandemic affecting everyone and probably unparalleled since the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic at the end of and just after the First World War.
It is amazing to think that, despite the appalling death toll in that hideous conflict, more people probably died globally from the ‘flu shortly thereafter. It was actually nothing to do with Spain at all, the name was invented to avoid censorship laws. Because Spain was neutral in both World Wars, even if Hitler’s Condor Legion had practiced what was later to be called blitzkrieg during the appalling Civil War of the mid 1930’s in that country. There were massive reporting restrictions from the censors involving any nation involved in World War 1 and then concerning the pandemic but Spain was exempt because they had not been involved in the fighting. Thus do modern mis-Governments function.
I have already described how close the old VT crew are and even the one or two people who seem to have “discovered” us since the demise of the site and the several partners who were there seemed to be so happy, it seemed like we had waited so long for this. It was indeed a joyous evening which slipped by all too soon and I was so glad I had taken the time and made the effort to get here by working out my travel plans in detail to avoid walking, planned a hotel close by the station etc. etc. This is the complete antithesis of how I have travelled all my life which was pretty much by the seat of my pants. I swear I have flown into cities on other continents mid-afternoon without even knowing where I am going to stay that night. It always worked out OK but sadly is no longer an option. I suppose that is what getting old does for you.
I think this would be a suitable place to take a break as I collapse onto my comfy be for a quick chapter of my book and off to the land of nod. This latest adventure, which does take some twists and turns, has loads left in it yet so if you are vaguely interested then stay tuned.