Hello again and welcome once again one and all. I do hope you enjoyed my previous post about the gorgeous town of Alnwick which was really growing on me as you have probably guessed if you have read my previous entries. I realise that by my usually verbose standards it was fairly short which I am sure my regular readers were very glad about.
Having had to move out of my excellent B&B I had re-located to the equally comfortable (and considerably cheaper) Youth Hostel in the town. Even with my limited range of mobility I knew there was still much more to see and do about the town and I intended to do as much as my health allowed. If you care to read on, we’ll go for a walk although it did not happen this day which just quickly degenerated into a pub crawl but I have no problem with that and do not consider it at all wasted time. I met some lovely people and really got a feel for the place.
About the only constructive thing I did was take an image of the Bondgate which is also known as the Hotspur Tower or Hotspur Gateway and yes, we are back to our old friend Sir Henry Percy aka Harry Hotspur who has such an influence all over the County of Northumberland and beyond. There is even a Premiership football (soccer) club in North London, which is hundreds of miles away, called Tottenham Hotspur although the name probably owes more to Shakespeare’s character in Henry IV which was based on our Northumbrian friend so it is a definite link. This particular feature of the extensive town defences was completed c.1450.
The reason I took the image was because I was wondering if the van driver was going to make it, it was extremely tight. I was sure he probably would as he presumably does it frequently and indeed he sailed through it with no problem.
I took a bit of a slow amble round the town just taking images of random buildings, the architecture here really is rather impressive. You can see a couple of examples above.
One building I rather liked is nowhere near as old as many of the pretty ancient buildings in the town dating only to 1846 and was commissioned by Hugh, 3rd Duke of Northumberland, yet another Percy. It is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul and is in the Gothic style which I rather like and which was very much in vogue for ecclesiastical architecture in the Victorian era. It is to the design of Anthony Salvin. Sadly it was not open when I visited but I have researched it and, as always, if you look closely enough you will find something.
Salvin was a notable architect of his time and his other commissions included Moreby Hall in Yorkshire and Scotney Castle in Kent but he was perhaps best known as a restorer of old castles due to his encyclopaedic knowledge of old buildings. Amongst his many restorations he included Norwich Castle, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, several parts of the Tower of London including the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, Windsor Castle and the nearby Alnwick Castle. Despite suffering a stroke he continued working until he was 80, dying two years later.
Another interesting fact is that the building seems to have been quite ecumenical over the years as indeed the whole town seems to be, everyone seems to rub along quite nicely. Whilst the building was originally Anglican they moved out following a re-organisation of their Diocese and the Roman Catholics took over the building which was consecrated for worship according to their beliefs as recently as 1982. To this day there are many inter-denominational activities and I cannot help thinking that if there had been this level of tolerance when I was growing up in Belfast in the 70’s things might have been a whole lot better.
The sun was by now well over the yardarm and for me that means only one thing, time for a pint and there is certainly no lack of choice in Alnwick. I suppose this is why the standard is so high because if you are not good you just won’t survive. My choice today was the Market Tavern where I had been previously but inexplicably did not tell you about at the time, presumably because I had no images as reference and I really to rely on them to remember what I have done.
The website boasts that the Market Tavern is a steakhouse, cocktail bar and pub of which I only involved myself in the latter as I was eating very little and I really don’t do cocktails and it was excellent. The main steakhouse is upstairs and I did not go for a look but the bar itself, which I believe was recently refurbished, was very comfortable and certainly managed to retain a pub feel.
I have mentioned many times that any establishment, be it bar, restaurant, accommodation or whatever is only as good as the staff and the staff here are absolutely brilliant, they are a right bunch of jokers and I mean that nicely. They are extremely efficient but when they are not actually serving drinks they keep up a constant stream of friendly banter with the customers and it really does add to the atmosphere of the place.
Whilst I would happily have stayed there all afternoon there was something I wanted to do as it was my last day in Alnwick and I was in a mood to be productive so off I set again.
En route to my next stop I passed the main Gate of Alnwick Castle which is as far as I intended to go for two reasons. Firstly, because of the nature of the grounds and the ancient castle itself there is only limited access for the mobility impaired, a group I now very regrettably must include myself in. Secondly, the admission prices are frankly eye-watering with a single adult running at £19:50. I know that a place like this does cost a lot to keep up but the current Duke is currently estimated to be worth £425 million (2020 figures), having added £26 million in the previous year which makes him richer than the Queen! With admission prices like these I am not surprised. I contented myself with an image of the Castle walls and gate and headed the short distance to where I wanted to be.
Where I did want to be was the Bailiffgate Museum which I had heard was very good. If the exterior looks like a church that is because it was, in fact it was the church the Roman Catholic community used until the re-located to the current location as discussed above.
I went in and spoke to an extremely friendly and helpful lady regarding accessibility and she informed me the entire building was accessible with a lift to all floors and plenty of places to sit down, which sounded good to me and she even offered to look after my bag if I wanted, better still. At a very reasonable £5 admission I would be able to see everything so, as teachers used to set as essays, compare and contrast with the Castle. OK, I know they are incomparable in terms of scale and historical importance but I reckoned I had the best of the deal.
Before I saw a single exhibit I read a notice on the wall explaining about the museum and it made me even happier I had come here. The entire operation is a community project and run by volunteers, receiving no Government funding and relying on grants from charitable organisations, donations, admission prices and merchandise, I think it is a brilliant concept.
The more I travelled round the museum, the more I learned as they are not confined to keeping the museum going but also engage in all sorts of projects in the local area including an extensive oral history project. This involves them going around “in the field” and making audio recordings of people relating their stories for posterity, often in dialect which is at times incomprehensible to the outsider.
In these days of globalisation when our rich language is being eroded at a rate of knots it will be of great value to future generations. I will never understand why young people today want to talk like American urban street criminals! As a very quick example, when I learned to speak proper English the word sick meant being unwell and now I am told it means something that is really good. How? Why?
Of the museum itself I have nothing but praise. For a supposedly “amateur” operation everything was presented in a very professional way and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think my favourite exhibition was called “Summer by the Seaside” which traced the history of that quintessentially British pastime and bearing in mind Alnwick is less than five miles from one of the most stunning coastlines in the UK it was very appropriate. I spent so long enjoying the Bailiffgate that when I checked the time time so I thanked the staff profusely, collected my bag and headed off in search of another pint and it was there that I met my first pub disaster!
I saw a lovely old pub called the Black Swan and the door was open so I got as far as the doorstep and immediately something was wrong. There were dustsheets on the floor and a look in showed workmen busily engaged in their various trades. Oh dear. This was a bit of a shame as it is a Grade II listed building by Historic England and has some history attached to it notably concerning Robert Burns the “national poet of Scotland”. When he was not composing verse and bawdy songs his day job was as an Excise officer and when his duties brought him to Alnwick he used to stay here.
Another thing I found a little confusing was that although the pub was called the Black Swan the rather attractive stained glass windows depicted a white swan so what was all that about? Incidentally, there is also a White Swan establishment in town. I did ask about later and someone suggested it was one of the heraldic devices of the ubiquitous Percy family but I can find absolutely no evidence for this.
The Black Swan was a setback but by no means a disaster in a town like this and so I limped along slowly to the Blue Bell Inn which I mentioned in a previous post and promised to describe so here goes.
It is an excellent pub which has been recently refurbished, taking advantage of the pandemic hiatus in normal business and a very good job they have made of it. It retains a good old-fashioned feel when so often rfurbs are an excuse for needless modernisation, minimalist decor and a total loss of character although they have succumbed to the increasingly ubiquitous fairy lights but they are not intrusive.
There are bookshelves full of old books but perhaps my favourite feature is the pair of extremely comfortable wing-back chairs either side of the fireplace which was obviously not in use at this time of year. There is a very large room out the back which is used for various functions and the whole premises extends quite a way back which makes it a lot larger than it looks from the outside. A lovely place.
I shall return now to my earlier point about any establishment only being as good as the staff and, in a town (indeed region) with super-friendly bar-staff this place really excels. On previous visits I had been speaking to the landlady who was an absolute delight and whose name, with my awful memory, I shamefully cannot remember. I also had a great chat with one of the bar-staff who originated from Northern Ireland, the country of my birth, so we had much to discuss. On this evening the landlady was not serving and was observing her domain from the comfort of a chair so we had another great chat about this that, everything and nothing.
With my intake of liquid the inevitable happened so I excused myself and went to use the facilities. On the way back I paused for a quick look at one of the bookshelves as I just cannot resist books either old or new and one in particular caught my eye. It was a fairly slim hardback volume published in 1949 on the subject of how to run a restaurant so I picked it up for a quick look.
Looking back into the bar I could see that the landlady was not in her seat so I brought the book back with me. I certainly was not going to be rude and read in company but I had a quick skim through it and it was fascinating and a publication very much of it’s time in immediate post-war Britain. Having subsequently read it you certainly would not be able to write it nowadays. It lists the problems with foreign staff particularly targetting the Italians for some reason although I suppose we had been at war with them only four years before.
As for the suggested menus they are so dated and would make any of the many Michelin starred chefs we have in this country now throw up their hands in horror. Spicing was more or less restricted to pepper and perhaps a small grate of nutmeg in some of the desserts. The selection of spices available in even the most modest supermarkets today would have utterly baffled the 1949 chef although in those days there were not even supermarkets never mind spices.
Anyway, the landlady returned so I closed the book and told her of the small amount I had read and how interesting it was whereupon she did no more than tell me to take it with me. I asked her how much she wanted for it and she refused all payment explaining that they had bought a job lot from some charity shop of books they were never going to sell to be used purely as decoration. What a lovely lady.
Th last thing I should tell you about the wonderful Blue Bell is what you can see in the image above which will mean little to anyone not a cider drinker in the UK. It is Woodpecker which was arguably the most popular brand here before cider became so popular and largely adulterated with all kinds of fruit juices and the like. It is still available in cans and supermarket bottles but I have not seen it on draught for literally decades, I did not know they still did it, so that was the choice for the day.
I left relatively early for me as I had to get back to the hostel and sort something out, that something being where was I going to be sleeping the next night. I know it sounds ludicrous but that really is the way I travel. I reached a decision after a while, checked public transport times, booked a room and then headed off for an early night in my comfy bed.
I am not going to tell you what I decided on as you know the drill by now. If you want to find out or even if I made it there, you’ll just have to stay tuned!
Hello there folks and welcome back to my ramblings which at least this time I did warn you about and not just go AWOL like I did before. The reason for this you can see in the header image for this piece which has absolutely nothing to do with what I am going to write about here although hopefully it will be covered in the future. There is a long way to go (physically and in a literary sense if this can be termed literature) so I suppose I had better crack on.
I had left you in Alnwick, Northumberland after having inspected various licensed premises which was all done in the interest of research for this blog you understand but I was up relatively early, well early by my standards, as I was being kicked out of my rather pleasant B&B. I hasten to add that it was not due to any misbehaviour on my part but merely that it was fully booked for the next several days and I am not surprised as it is excellent.
I had fallen somewhat in love with Alnwick which is a thing I tend to do rather easily and wished to stay another night or two. Fortunately a quick internet check had provided the solution in the form of Alnwick Youth Hostel which suited me fine. The great thing about my mode of travel is that I don’t need all mod cons, room service etc. as I am equally happy with a dorm bed and communal facilities. After over 50 years of doing it I am fairly used to it. All I need is somewhere to lay my head and somewhere to sluice my old bones with anything else like cooking and recreational facilities being a bonus and this hostel seemed to meet my requirements perfectly.
I knew I couldn’t check into the hostel until later on so you probably don’t need me to tell you what happened next. It was a bit more difficult with the luggage but at least the journey was downhill and I had already marked the places for a rest which I took full advantage of. When I say marked I do not mean marked as a dog would mark his territory as I thought the local constabulary would have taken a dim view, it is just a surveillance term for noting things.
I was looking for somewhere relatively close to the hostel and the Queens Head Hotel seemed to fit the bill so I went there for a few hours of writing up this blog and vaguely watching whatever sport may have been on the various screens about the place.
I packed up and headed out for the last short leg of the walk and on the way I spotted this beauty of a Mini which I could not resist taking an image of. I should stress that I am in no way a “petrolhead” and have never even held a licence for four wheels as I always rode motorbikes but I have rather a soft spot for Minis, especially the older ones.
I was probably within a couple of hundred yards of my destination and regular readers will probably have guessed what happened next. I was in a road called Hotspur Place, yes it is that Henry Percy aka Harry Hotspur again of whom I have written before, and came upon another pub called the Tanners Arms. Well, research is research so in I went and wasn’t quite expecting what I saw which was a tree growing right in the middle of the pub. At first I thought it was a very clever bit of interior design but it isn’t, it is a proper living tree.
The bar is not big and only comprises one room but it is a beauty. Apparently it had been closed for a while but re-opened in July 2021 and it is certainly a credit to whoever did that especially as they specialise in real ales and ciders from the local area which is a concept I love. The bar itself is well stocked and I think my favourite feature was the beautiful stained glass above it. I noticed that they also had regular live music so the Tanners really was my kind of place so I stayed for a couple of hours (and pints) but I had to reluctantly leave as check-in at the hostel closes at 1900.
Before you even enter the door you cannot be impressed by the building itself which is a fine example of Victorian architecture as I hope the images indicate. It was built in 1856 on the site of an old dilapidated candle factory. It is actually in two connected parts and for many years served as Courthouse, Police Station and town jail and almost inevitably with me, it has a fascinating history which I simply had to research. If you visit and do not want to research yourself there are a series of very good information boards in the corridors.
For a relatively small town the Courthouse here played a small part in changing British legal history and it is to do with the Edlingham Burglary case and I have attached a rather well researched document here which is definitely worth a read. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, although I suggest you do as it is fascinating, I shall precis it here briefly.
In 1879 two well-known local poachers called out Richardson and Edgell were out plying their illegal activity, both armed with shotguns. Richardson was physically huge, described as being “like a bull” and terrified the local populace and police alike as he was not averse to violence having previously been found not guilty of the murder of a police officer who tried to apprehend him poaching. Having had limited success with the rabbits they decided to burgle a local vicarage which was inhabited by the 77 year old vicar and his middle aged spinster daughter. Things went wrong and both residents were shot, thankfully not seriously.
Earlier in the night the police had stopped two Irishmen living in the town who were also known poachers but had the sense to hide their ill-gotten gains outside the town for later retrieval. The Irishmen were duly banged up in the building I was going to sleep in that night whilst the police started to build their case or rather they started to construct one.
The victims both positively identified the Irishmen even though it was pitch black and the incident lasted seconds and miraculously a huge amount of evidence started to appear in sufficient quantity to have them committed to Newcastle Assizes where they were duly sentenced to penal servitude for life.
The actual criminals appeared to have got away with it and indeed they did for nine and a half years which is how long the Irishmen spent in prison. Eventually, for reasons you can read about in the document Edgell confessed and agreed to give evidence against Richardson who eventually confessed to his part in the affair.
The legal problem at the time was that re-trials where someone had been convicted were not permitted and it required several questions in the Houses of Parliament and a petition to the Home Secretary before the Irishmen could be pardoned and released and another trial ordered. In contrast to the life sentence of the Irishmen the actual criminal only received five years apiece. As for the policemen who had invented the evidence, six were charged but none convicted.
The upshot of all this was eventually a massive change in the criminal appeals system and eventually our Court of Appeal which exists to this day. That is my precis as short as I can make it but I do encourage you to read the document, it is a great read.
The pleasant yard out the back used to be the prisoners exercise yard and you can still see the cells, complete with barred windows. Fortunately today’s residents are free to come and go as they please although a lot of the 21st century British prison seems to be run along these lines!
The hostel was everything I needed and I was lucky enough to get a bottom bunk which was handy but not difficult as there only appeared to be one other bed occupied. I had a quick look round the place and even by the much improved standards of hostels since I first used them in the 1970’s this was a prime example of what many of them are now. I’ll give you a quick tour.
The entire premises were immaculate, clean and tidy, nicely decorated and prove that even budget accommodation can be relatively luxurious and very comfortable. I had a quick look at the facilities which were spotless as you can see.
The common room, as it is called in hostel parlance is as good as many a lounge I have been in at guest-houses, complete with large screen TV and a wide selection of books and games to while away the evening. There did not seem tp be many people there so I was rather hoping there were no ghosts lurking about the place.
The kitchen was spacious and very well-equipped and adjacent to an equally spacious dining area as you can see. I promise you I have seen many a pub and restaurant kitchen that was not a fraction of the size of this place.
Comfortable as it looked, it was far too early to go there so I took off out to research some more places of liquid refreshment purely so I could tell my dear readers all about them – honestly!
I did find an absolute gem of a place called the Blue Bell Inn but I visited several times so I shall leave a full description for another post. If you want to find out about this excellent establishment and what else I got up to in Alnwick, you’ll just have to stay tuned.
Welcome back folks to my little series about a trip I took to the North of England and I do hope you are enjoying it. I know there are a few hardy souls who read most of the nonsense I write and I thank them but if you have not begun this particular adventure from the start, you can do so here.
If you have been reading from the beginning you will know that the whole trip began with what is called a Euromeet, a concept that began with a now tragically shut down travel website called Virtual Tourist. This is an annual event which this year was held in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne and which was hugely enjoyable but I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. Having been deprived of travel, which is one of my greatest delights, for so long I was having a great time and being a single man with no dependents there was nothing I specifically had to go home to London for.
I had decided on Alnwick as a destination for completely idiotic reasons and had arrived there after a bit of a palaver, got myself billeted in a lovely B&B, had a slow hobble round a small part of the town as my health was playing me up, and visited a few decent pubs. All told it had been a brilliant day out and after an unusually early night for me I was up and about bright and early and all ready to go.
My charming host bumped into me and asked if I wanted breakfast but it is a meal I rarely take these days so I politely declined and headed out to face the day which was, if not as utterly foul as the previous afternoon had been, still was not exactly bright and sunny but I wasn’t going to let that deter me.
Heading back into town I stopped for a look at a monument I had seen the previous day but not investigated and I didn’t actually go near it this day either as it sits on a decent sized rise which is fine for a monument but not much good for me. Everything I am going to tell you about it was gleaned from subsequent research. It is called the Tenantry Column and is an impressive 83 feet high with four lions at the base and another “en passant” surveying the surrounding area with his stone eyes. Someone has worked out that it’s tail points North towards Scotland and it’s head South towards England but what, if any, significance this may or may not hold is unclear. It is a Grade 1 listed building which is the highest grade of protection available for historic structures.
The monument is the work of David Stephenson from Newcastle, the first architect from that city to study in London and at the Royal Academy no less. The fairly low-born son of a carpenter he showed enough aptitude for his chosen profession to be one of the foremost architects in this region and designed many buildings in Newcastle, some of which still survive.
Stephenson’s skill brought him to the attention of the Duke of Northumberland hence his commission to design this edifice presumably as I am not sure whether or not the common working man of Percy’s estate in the early 19th century would have had the contacts to arrange such a project but back now to the lion.
I knew en passant was a heraldic term and, had I known more about the subject I would have known that this is the badge of the Percy family, yes we are back to them again. It was raised by the tenantry of Hugh Percy, the 2nd Duke of Northumberland in 1816 in gratitude for him lowering their rents in the appalling depression after the post-Napoleonic Wars.
I am by no means a socialist, far from it, but I find it a little unsavoury that the lower classes who formed the huge majority of the Army in that long and bloody campaign, which was effectively waged to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, were so piteously grateful for a small reduction in rent whilst they were slaving away to make the Percy family even wealthier. It should be noted that the Duke had doubled or even tripled rents during the agricultural boom of the War.
There is a reminder of the military association actually in the very structure of this monument. Built into the base of it is the regimental roll of the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, one of a large number of militia units raised due to the fear of an imminent French invasion when Napoleon was rampaging about all over Europe.
Whilst they were never deployed on the Continent due to militias generally being ill-trained and equipped peasants who would have been more of a hindrance that a help against Napoleon’s once all-conquering army, the were deployed on anti-smuggling duties in Kent (390 miles away at the other end of the country and where I am writing this) and Ireland.
Right, enough of the politics etc. (I’ll be reading Marx and Engels next!) and back to the walk.
I didn’t have too far to go before I came upon another rather impressive column, again the result of war as it is the Alnwick War Memorial. Regular readers will know I have a great interest in military history, including graves and War Memorials so I had to take an image of this.
I had actually seen it the night before when the lamp on the top was actually lit but with my tiny camera the results were rubbish. I have to say that this is not at all a common design and I don’t think I have ever before seen such a memorial with a lamp although I am sure there must be some but the fact that it is actually still functioning pleased me when so many other memorials are decaying.
There are three figures around the base (soldier, sailor and airman), all kitted out in First World War gear which is hardly surprising as they were sculpted in 1921 by. R. Hedley and the memorial was dedicated by the Bishop of Newcastle on 11th November (Armistice Day) 1922. Sadly the war to end all wars actually wasn’t and less than 17 years later we were back at it again which sadly led to another group of names having to be added. Let’s walk a bit further.
I knew there were a shedload of other pubs to drink in but my natural route took me back past the Queens Head Hotel and I had found it pleasant enough before so why not? Whilst talking to some of the locals later I did find out that it can get quite “lively” on a weekend night. I had a few pints in there and set off for a further exploration.
I have to say that Alnwick is a relatively easy place to see as it is not to spread out so even an old crock like me could see a lot of what I wanted to and, although I had not specifically set out to find it (as usual I had no map, no guidebook and no clue how to use a mapping system on my ‘phone), I stumbled on the old Town Hall which is a fine building as you can see.
It was not constructed in the uniform beige stone I have been writing about so much but rather seems to have been but together from a variety of stone types. Whether this is by accident or design I could not say. It is, quite rightly in my opinion, another Grade 1 listed building as half the town seems to be.
The fine structure you see in the image dates from 1731 but the concept of a municipal building on this site is much older than that so let me tell you about it.
The first building on the site was a brewery and was constructed and owned by guess who. You got it, the earl of Northumberland, the Percy family seems to have a finger in every pie in this area. He sold it off to a private owner but in 1585 the burgesses (basically the forerunners of modern day councillors) bought it over. They originally continued the brewing but then converted it to use as a tollbooth which is not exactly what you might think when you hear the term. You might think of a hut beside a road with a barrier where you had to pay to use the road but this was a more multi-purpose affair although it’s primary function was the same i.e. to collect revenue for the privileged.
The building eventually decayed to an extent that the burgesses decided to tear it down and build a new custom-built Town Hall which is what you see today. Sadly it is not accessible to the general public as it is used as a function space / art gallery / etc. My advice to you if you want a look inside is to go the Alnwick when the annual Beer Festival is on as it is held there! Let’s move on.
I also took an image of this lovely old building although I cannot for the life of me discover what it is. I vaguely remember someone telling me it was an old Guildhall or Market Hall which would certainly fit with it’s position right next to the market square. I just though I would share another image of the beautiful architecture in Alnwick.
Rather unusually for me I was feeling a little peckish although I knew there was no way I could eat a full meal, I can’t remember the last time I had a three course lunch, but a snack was definitely in order. Luckily enough I happened to walk past Lilburns bar / restaurant and a quick look at the menu and daily specials board sorted my problem for me.
No matter how bad my appetite is I can usually manage soup, which I love in all it’s myriad forms, and if there is one thing I like better than eating soup it is making it. Some of the concoctions I have made over the years would make a proper chef roll their eyes to the heavens but they generally turn out OK. The offer of daily home-made soup of the day with a roll seemed a perfect choice to me and the price was ludicrously cheap for what looked like a smart place with a very good menu so that was the plan.
I went in was met with what was indeed a very tidy bar with only one problem – the only other person there was the barmaid, it was completely empty. I went to the bar and ordered a pint, again at prices considerably less than I would expect to pay in London and also the soup after enquiring what it was. It didn’t really matter as I will eat just about any soup going until somebody comes up with an aubergine, courgette and artichoke version which I would not be a fan of. I do wish I could tell you what it was but it was a while ago and my old memory is not what it once was but I recall that when served piping warm, it was absolutely delicious and exactly what was required.
I thought it was time for another walk as I had seen so many pubs I had not yet visited and that was a situation that needed rectified so I hobbled a massive distance to the Pig in Muck pub which had taken me back into the market square. It must have been all of 70 yards!
It looked more gastro than pub if you use the gastropub term and apparently specialises in tapas and brunches with a pretty eclectic menu, tending towards Mediterranean cuisine, lots of chorizo, halloumi, cassoulets, truffle oil etc. Also, a word of warning, it closes at 2200 every evening so definitely not a place for a leisurely late evening meal.
This place was obviously not designed as a “tavern” although it has done it’s best to look old with the distressed furniture so popular with designers these days. It is part of a registered company called Curious Taverns Limited. Whose registered office is in nearby Morpeth but how many outlets they have I could not possibly tell you.
I went in and ordered a pint of cider (I believe Aspall’s was the offering) and was waiting for it to be poured when I saw the utterly appalling sign you can see in the image above. They have cleverly not displayed it outside as people like me would not have set foot across the threshold as a matter of principle. I find the practice of refusing to accept coin of the realm utterly repugnant and and yet another step on our road downhill. Instead of perfectly legal currency we are now forced to rely on foreign banks to deal with our financial matters.
I shall give you a quote form the Bank of England website (I can think of no better authority than that) which states that, “Debit cards, cheques and contactless aren’t legal tender anywhere”. In the interest of fair reporting, the same website also states that, “A shop owner can choose what payment they accept” which I suppose is their get out of jail card although I still find the practice repulsive and extremely unpatriotic. Presumably it is just there to save the staff from the responsibilities of their job as they have been for centuries. Enough.
Leaving aside my thoughts on the state of the country and world finance in general, the pub itself was fine if a little “trendy” for my liking. A group of women came in and sat at a reserved table beside me which did prove to be a bit noisy (obviously a celebration of some sort in the early part of the week) and had ordered a load of tapas which, I must say, looked rather good.
Eventually the inevitable happened and I needed to use the “facilities” so I asked the barman and was told, “Go out the door, turn left and left again into the alley and it is at the end”. What? I don’t think I have been in a pub with an outside loo for well over 30 years where I knew a number of pubs in Northern Ireland which had them. A trip down memory lane, not to mention the alley, for me although I do wonder what the residents of the upstairs maisonettes must have thought of the constant coming and going outside their premises, which had obviously cost a few quid.
Eventually, and really not too late at all, I decided it was time to make a move and so I took off again in the general direction of my B&B but I reckoned there was time for at least one more pit-stop to be had. It came in the form of the Fleece Inn which, as you can see form the image is in a street named Bondgate Without and I know this term, much in use in England, does create some perplexity amongst some foreign visitors so let me explain. I had limped along Bondgate Within, passed through the Bondgate itself and this gives you your answer really.
In days past and before the advent of decent artillery, the city walls of any settlement were it’s effective means of defence against marauders which, in this part of the country might have been Scottish raiders or even armies in times of war. The gates were locked at a certain hour (I know it was 1800 in London in the 17th century) and if you were outside, you stayed outside and vice versa. They were manned by watchmen / guards so the alarm could be quickly sounded in case of attack. Enough of the medieaval history and back to the Fleece.
It certainly looked very tidy from the outside and proved to be equally so on the inside (it is yet another listed building). The only problem with it was that it was just about empty but it was a Tuesday evening so probably not too surprising. There was no problem with the pint or the service and even with my verbosity I am really running out of ways to tell the reader what a refreshing change the attitude of those in the tertiary industries is up there compared to London. However, it was a bit quiet for my taste so I thought I would move on as I still had that hill and those stairs to negotiate.
I was “girding my loins” for the slog home but, less than 100 yards away I ran into another hurdle in the form of the Ale Gate. Oh dear, but duty called and in I went.
As the name suggests, there is a strong emphasis on real ale, specifically from local breweries which is a concept I admire although I was able to get a pint of very decent cider. This is a relatively new addition to the Alnwick pub scene, having opened in Spring 2019 but it is none the worse for that and has been well kitted out with all sorts of knick-knacks and curios.
Right, that is definitely me done for the day as I was sure there was not another pub except the Plough across the road but I thought that would do me. I did manage to get home and into my comfy bed for a great night’s sleep which is such a joy for me given my sleep problems.
There is more of Alnwick to come but it shall not happen for at least a week. I know I just dropped off the radar the last time I vanished which was frankly very bad behaviour on my part and I feel bad about it but I am composing this on the first night of the Broadstairs Folk Week and I am going to be manically busy for the next seven days. I have three gigs to play tomorrow! There will, therefore, be no blogging for that period but if you want more about this beautiful town give it a week and stay tuned.
Hello again folks and welcome back again, never mind a huge thanks to everyone for reading, liking and commentating. I know I say this often but it really is appreciated.
After what had been a brilliant weekend which constituted the Euromeet, instituted by the sadly now departed Virtual Tourist website and which had culminated in an utterly brilliant day out on the stunning Northumbrian coast (see my previous entry for full details), my plans were literally completely fluid which is the way I like to travel.
On my previous trip to the Northeast I had decided to go to Berwick-upon-Tweed for no better reason than that I had been over the railway bridge so many times on the London – Edinburgh line, risked looking down from it’s great height (I have vertigo) to see the very pleasant looking town below and always thought I would like to go there one day and so I did. It turned out to be a great call which you can read about here.
On another occasion I was drifting around Europe and decided to go to Dijon for no better reason than I wanted to buy some Dijon mustard for a foodie friend of mine. Again it was a brilliant experience and here is the story if you are interested. Despite my utterly random travel style which some would say verges on the ridiculous it rarely plays me false and I have discovered some fantastic places that way. If you read on you’ll find out about another example which certainly did nothing to dissuade me from my particular brand of flaneuring.
In a little teaser at the end of the previous post I had said that on my last night in Newcastle my friend Sarah had asked me if I was returning to London the following morning, to which I replied I wasn’t sure and she said, “I’ll take that as a no then”. She knows me too well. When I go away supposedly for a long weekend I don’t even bother buying a return train ticket because a) I have no idea where I will end up and b) a standard return only lasts for a month which I frequently exceed so it is a waste of money.
I wanted to stay in the Northeast as I was enjoying the friendliness, the scenery, the history and, frankly, the prices which continued to amaze me compared to London. I narrowed the search down to two places, Hexham and Alnwick, as always for the most ludicrous of reasons. Hexham was chosen as one of my favourite ever bands, Fairport Convention, sang a song called the Hexhamshire Lass many years ago in the days when I did not even know where Hexhamshire was! Alnwick was chosen purely because I liked the name, how crazy is that?
I looked for accommodation in Hexham and it the little that was available was way out of my price range and mostly a distance out of town which was no use to me. I don’t know if there was a meeting at the local racecourse or if it is just a well-heeled sort of place to go but it was out of the running (no racing pun intended) so Alnwick it was going to be.
I managed to secure a room in what looked like a very pleasant B&B within walking distance of the town so I was all set but that will wait until later in the post as we are not even out of Newcastle yet and I have an absolutely wonderful place to tell you about before we go North.
The place in question is the Centurion Bar which is the station bar in Newcastle Station and, in truth, it is not the first time I have mentioned it in my posts. I am not going to re-rehearse previous statements here so please do look at my previous entry here for full details of the history but I have included a few images to give you an idea of how utterly stunning the place is.
I had a good chat with the typically friendly Geordie barman who filled me on some of the finer details of the history of the bar, most of which I knew but some of which I didn’t. Since my original piece the insurance valuation of the tiles alone has now risen to ￡3.8 million so who knows what the whole place is insured for with all it’s period fixtures and fittings, it must be a hefty sum.
I must say that the Centurion, named for it’s proximity to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall if you are interested, are amongst the more expensive in Newcastle coming in at just over ￡5 for a pint of cider but I always think it is worth it just to sit and look at the glorious surroundings. The fact that the staff are genuinely friendly rather than the usual surly bartenders you get in most station bars is a bonus.
I had already ascertained that trains to Alnwick were fairly frequent and only take about half an hour so that was no problem and I savoured my excellent pint in one of the most impressive bars I know in the UK. When I say trains to Alnwick that is not strictly speaking correct as trains don’t go there any more as it was cut out of the system many years ago although there is a fine station still extant which we shall come to later.
Instead, I was deposited in good order, not even a delay, at Alnmouth station which apparently serves the village of Alnmouth although I never even got to see it, it is quite a hike. Back to my pet subject of toponymy and obviously Almouth is the place where the river Aln empties into the North Sea whilst Alnwick, where I was trying to get to, derives from the river name and the old English “wic” which means, amongst other things a settlement. There is an alternative suggestion that “wic” is itself a corruption of the Latin word vicus which meant the settlement outside a Roman military camp. I did tell you I love this subject!
So let me now tell you about Alnmouth station which I was going to describe as being in the back end of nowhere but it is truly way beyond that. I looked all round and could not see a single human habitation in any direction and not a soul to be seen at the station. I know I was the only person to get off the train and nobody had boarded, nor was there a soul waiting to board a Southbound train (quick Crosby and Nash reference there), the image below gives an idea.
Whilst I saw absolutely nothing I did hear a rooster / cockerel crowing loud and insistently and whilst it was not unpleasant as I love the country I specifically remember thinking “You stupid bird, are you not meant to do that at daybreak as it was now well into the afternoon. The rural atmosphere was only added to by the presence of a charming little bird box on one of the poles. Whilst all this was very charming it was not going to get me where I needed to go so that had to be sorted.
I looked around and saw a sign for “bus” pointing up a hill so I slogged up there and after a bit of a search I found a bus stop which indicated that there would not be one for some time, this place really is not a major transport hub so I decided to go to the station even though it had looked worryingly closed from the other platform and which brings me back to a point I made earlier in this series. There was absolutely no provision made for the mobility impaired, no footbridge, certainly no lifts and the only way from one platform to the other was to hump your way up that hill, cross a road bridge on quite a busy road with a fairly narrow pavement (pavement which proved to be difficult with even a small pullalong suitcase. After that it was down another hill to arrive at the station proper which was indeed closed.
I have just had a look at the LNER website and here is a cut and paste from it.
Staff Help Available
Monday – Friday 06:40 – 18:15
Saturday 06:40 – 18:15
Sunday 10:20 – 21:00
This is a lie, nothing more and nothing less. The place was firmly locked up and not a member of staff to be seen (another blatant lie on the website). The information about accessibility is, to say the least, disingenuous. Another quote from the website.
“Level access to platform 1 from Station Car-park, access to platform 2 from council car-park also level. Lifts available 24 hrs”. What this really means is there is level access if you have a vehicle.
If there are lifts as the website claims, they must have been designed by snipers because I was damned if I could find them they were so well camouflaged and I certainly saw no signs.
The only vaguely redeeming feature of the station house was that it had a number of taxi numbers displayed on cards in the window. I tried one, no reply. I tried a second, similar result. This was getting a bit tedious now. The third call eventually produced a response and he said he was doing something but could be there in 30 – 40 minutes, that will do. I got the impression he was not a full time taxi driver and it was certainly not a proper firm. I suspect that he was a one man operation with the appropriate licence who did a bit of taxiing on the side.
In fairness to the guy he turned up when he said he would and after I had watched a train or two passing by and had a cigarette outside and I told him where I was going. No problem, he knew it and away we went. During the journey I appreciated why they needed a spur link to Alnwick, it is a fair old trek which I could have managed in my younger days carrying a heavy Bergen and a rifle but in 2022, not a chance. It had nearly slaughtered me getting across the bridge. How times change.
My driver was fine but I was told a day or two later that there were very few cabs in the Alnwick area and did he ever play on his relatively monopoly position. I have been speaking a lot in this series about how very inexpensive the Northeast is but taxis round Alnwick are most certainly not. I cannot remember exactly what he charged me but something in my hindbrain is saying £14. A journey of comparable distance in fairly central London would have cost me less and he wasn’t even negotiating traffic as it is not that busy there. Presumably I was not the first stranded traveller he had picked up due to the vagaries of the utterly broken rail system in the UK and I doubt I will be the last.
He did, however, deposit me safe and sound to my abode for the next leg of my already extended trip. The “ very pleasant B&B” I teased you with at the top of this post far exceeded the description externally at least. It is called Eveanna (why I have no idea and I very stupidly managed not to take an image of the exterior) but you can see it here on their website, it is stunning. Apparently it was built as a hotel for the very nearby Alnwick Station but was never actually utilised for that purpose. It was subsequently turned into three residences.
There were a few steps up leading to a charming garden where I was subsequently to sit a few times enjoying a smoke and generally feeling happy with the world. Beyond that was a door with no apparent signs of life but it was open so I went in, still puffing and panting a bit and called out a hello whereupon the owner, a delightful chap as it turned out, came down the stairs. He checked me in and showed me to my room which was another bit of a trek as it was a garret (attic room) and seemed to be up an interminable number of stairs.
The journey, however, was worth it as my single room was absolutely delightful as the images show and had everything I needed which isn’t actually a lot. I decided to have a quick lie down to recuperate and there were two reasons for this. Firstly, I needed the rest and secondly, the day which had been dull and overcast to start with, had degenerated into a full blown rainstorm as you can see in the image below of the rain running down the dormer window of my room.
When the rain subsided and I could breathe relatively easily again it was time for my first foray into Alnwick which was a bit of a wander but not insurmountable whilst unencumbered by kit. I also “marked” a few places where I could sit for a rest if required on future trips. This is sadly the way I have to operate these days and what should have been a ten minute walk turned into more like half an hour but that is just the way things are now. I am getting used to it mainly because I have no option or else I would never go out my front door!
Obviously I was searching for a pub and the first one I came upon was the Plough but, horror of horrors, it was shut. Then I happened on Hardy’s Bistro which looked way too posh for the likes of me so I pressed on. The reason I have included the two images above is not so much to illustrate the premises involved but rather to demonstrate the architecture. As I was to find out during my stay the majority of the old architecture in the town seems to be constructed of the same type of stone which is a lovely beige colour. My knowledge of geology is minimal and I do not know what it is so I am going to take a wild guess at sandstone. If any of my readers can enlighten me I would be most grateful and will amend this entry accordingly with due accreditation.
By this time I really did need a rest and I sat myself down on a public bench on what is one of the two “main” streets in town. I know I am often critical of local authorities, and with good reason I think, but I believe in credit where it is due and I really must commend whoever is responsible for the street furniture in Alnwick as there is certainly no shortage of benches for the weary to have a sit down.
As I was catching my breath my attention was drawn to something just across the pavement from me. It was an old-fashioned telephone kiosk but painted blue rather than the traditional pillar-box red. I had to investigate and you can see the results above. It was no longer being used solely for telecommunications but rather had been converted to a food larder by the good folk of Alnwick Mutual Aid, a charity formed in early 2020 in response to the pandemic.
Sadly, not everyone is as philanthropic as those of Mutual Aid and the larder had to be temporarily closed in early 2021 because some of the local yobs had stolen some produce from it and used it to criminally damage a nearby retail premises. I really don’t know how some people’s minds work, or more accurately why they don’t.
Whilst I was on my feet I took the opportunity of walking a bit further and soon taking an image of the Pottergate Tower, which you can see above. The Tower was originally part of the medieval defences of the town although the structure you see here only dates to 1786 and was built to the design of Henry Bell. It originally had a spire on it but this was removed in 1821. Believe it or not, you can actually stay in this lovely building as it is now a self-catering holiday let which looks gorgeous on the website although the steep, narrow stairs would prove a problem for me now.
I was enjoying my little hobble around Alnwick but I still had not had a pint so it was time to rectify that but before I did I had to take an image of this fine bronze of Sir Henry Percy aka “Harry Hotspur” who I mentioned in a previous post. It is an impressive 14 feet high and is the work of Northumberland sculptor Keith Maddison who was commissioned to produce it to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Percy family’s presence in Alnwick in 2009 and was unveiled by the current Earl of Northumberland the next year.
The sculptor had a slight problem as there are no pictorial representations of Harry when he does not have his visor down so nobody knows what he really looked like. Help was at hand however in the form of Earl George Percy, a direct descendant who offered to sit so it is actually his face you see here.
Come on Fergy, the afternoon is wearing on and still no pub, get it sorted. Fortunately there was such an establishment just across the road in the form of the Dirty Bottles, a fine old structure believed to have been built in the 17th century. I know this is an odd thing to call a pub because such establishments normally trumpet their cleanliness so here is the story.
The pub has been a licensed premises for over 200 years and, back in it’s early days there were some old bottles sitting in a particular window. The landlord decided he would clear them out and began to do so whereupon he promptly dropped dead on the spot. His new widow declared that the same fate would befall anyone else who tried to move them and so they were encased behind a second window where they have remained ever since.
Originally the place was called Ye Olde Cross but the natives soon started referring to it as the Dirty Bottles which it remains to this day. The old painted sign which I discovered when I went out to the yard for a smoke bears testament to the old name. There is a heavy emphasis on food here, as must pubs require to survive these days and it is certainly one of the more expensive places in town but I quite liked it in there.
I decided to go a bit further although I did not have to go far until I came upon the George in Bondgate and that turned out to be a great find and a place I was to return to several times. I have commentated here before about how I form fairly instant opinions of both people and places, which may be a fault although I do not think so, and as soon as I stepped in the door that this was going to be my sort of pub.
The George was absolutely no frills although clean and tidy and was fairly full of what appeared to be working men, a proper local. There was live sport on the large screen TV and what later transpired to be a very comprehensive jukebox. I went to the bar where I was greeted by a very friendly barmaid (landlady?) who promptly served me up a decent pint.
Despite the efficiency of the service, she had barely had time to set my pint down on the bar before I had been engaged in conversation by a couple of guys who, upon hearing my accent, had obviously correctly guessed that I was not from those parts. They were nothing if not sociable in the George.
I would have loved to have stood and chatted for longer but standing for any length of time is no longer an option for me and there were no free stools at the bar so I made my apologies and went and sat down.
After a couple of pints it was time to move yet again. Whilst I did not know it at the time I have subsequently discovered that there are 47 licensed establishments in this town of a shade over 8,000 people, my kind of place. It proves that I still had a long way to go!
En route to my next port of call I paused to take an image of some random buildings to demonstrate how prevalent this beige stone, which I have probably erroneously chosen to call sandstone, is in Alnwick. The whole town seems made of it which is fine as it presents a very harmonious effect which I find aesthetically pleasing although I am certainly no expert.
I do like taking images of quirky little things for no better reason than they just appeal to me and the image above is a perfect demonstration of that. It is an utterly lovely bench in what I believe is the market square and is a clear nod to the extensive Viking influence in the area. Despite the utterly massive amount of information available online and my best efforts I cannot discover who was responsible for the design. I wish I could find the answer as they certainly deserve a name-check and if any of my knowledgeable readers can assist I would be most grateful.
The next pub that hove into sight off the starboard bow was the Queen’s Head Hotel so I was straight in there. I hadn’t noticed the sign on the way in but the Queen’s Head is part of the rather large Craft Union chain who recently scooped the Best Community Pub operator 2022 in the prestigious Publican Awards. It claims to be the oldest pub in Alnwick even though it is quite big inside which is not the norm for very old drinking houses and is exactly what I would expect from a CU pub with live sport on various large screen TV’s, numerous drink offers and the like but that is not what initially caught my eye.
You can see what did draw my attention in one of the images above, it was a huge Ukrainian flag attached to the bar and facing the main door so you certainly would not miss it. I do not know if the bar has any particular affiliation with that poor beleaguered country like a member of staff from there or whatever or if it was just yet another display of solidarity from the British public who seem to be completely behind them and completely opposed to the illegal and barbarous invasion from “The Bear” next door. Still, we Brits have always had a sense of fair play.
I decided that rather than go any further that evening I would sit tight as I was pretty exhausted after my exertions of the day and the prospect of a reasonable trek back to my digs meant I would need all my energy, not to mention those stairs when I got there! With a few rest stops on the way I did eventually make it home in good order for a relatively early night by my standards.
I was not too worried about the early night as I knew I had another couple of days in the town which was a prospect that pleased me as I was rapidly becoming quite enamoured with it. If you want to know what happened the next day you’ll just have to stay tuned.
Hello folks and welcome back to my latest odyssey about my trip to Newcastle for a weekend meeting my friends from the excellent and now murdered Virtual Tourist website and I shall start this post not with my usual apology but with a bit of a spoiler. This supposed weekend away got slightly extended so there is plenty more to come! In my previous post, which I admit was very sparse, I did promise you that this one would hopefully be a lot more interesting and certainly have a lot more images and I intend to fulfill that promise.
After a relatively peaceful night following the cacophony of the disco downstairs the previous night, I was up and about bright and early (ridiculously early for me) as I had to because we had an early start for our bus trip along the absolutely beautiful Northumbrian coast. I had written that as I had visited the area nearly 40 years ago and fell in love with it. Again, a tip to those who may be visiting UK from overseas and it is go to the Northeast. It is not on the main tourist beat but it is stunningly beautiful and is so crucial to the history of England with many places of interest still there to visit as you shall see in this and subsequent posts.
The first thing I did was wander across the road, just beside the station, to take an image of my hotel for the purposes of this blog. I wanted to show just how grand the Victorian facade is and how it must have impressed the well-heeled Victorians as they exited the station from the London or Edinburgh train. Sadly, I could not get an angle that did not include the awning for the Hilton Hotel which, in stark contrast to the Royal Station, is modern and, frankly, ugly.
The meeting place was a bus stop in Bewick Street, a very short walk away thankfully and there was an interesting juxtaposition there. On one side of the road was St. Mary’s Cathedral and on the other side of the road was the Newcastle Chinese Christian Church (denomination unknown). This indicates how extensive that particular belief system is.
There was also a complete juxtaposition of architectural style. The Chinese Church was based in what appeared to have once been a commercial premises whilst the Cathedral, which I was admiring for it’s architecture, was apparently designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, a famous British architect and designer who is perhaps best known for designing the interior of the Houses of Parliament in London and, probably most notably, the Elizabeth Tower which is so iconic as it houses the bell known as Big Ben which was cast not a mile from where I live.
There was a brief delay as our guide had been held up somewhere but when he arrived, my word did he make an impression. He was dressed in full Viking kit and really looked the part, you’ll see an image shortly. We boarded the ‘bus with everyone greeted in typically cheery Geordie fashion and I have to say that both guide and driver were to prove to be excellent as the day unfolded.
Sarah, with her excellent organisational skills, had chosen very well again and at the risk of becoming repetitive I have to say that the people who undertake to arrange these large events really do deserve a huge amount of praise as it must take a massive amount of planning. I know Sarah had planned this meet for a couple of years previously but obviously the virus had put paid to all that. She had to keep tentatively re-booking venues not knowing if we would even be able to travel or not.
We eventually got out of Newcastle, which proved to be a lot larger than I had thought it to be and headed out North on the A1 towards Bamburgh and it’s magnificent castle. This is a place that is very dear to my heart, not only because I had been there before but also because it is central to a series of books by one of my favourite authors, Bernard Cornwell, the Uhtred of Bebbanburg series. Bebbanburg is the old name for Bamburgh.
Cornwell is so clever as he can write knowledgeably about virtually any period of history and I have read and enjoyed books by him ranging from his take on the raising of Stonehenge through the period of the Anglo Saxons fighting the Vikings (when the above-mentioned Uhtred series is set) and via the American Civil War to probably the culmination of his career which was the Sharpe series.
The Sharpe series ranges from the Battle of Serangipatam in India in 1798 (Sharpe’s Tiger) by way of the Peninsular wars to the battle of Waterloo which would have made a fitting conclusion to the series as his trusted sidekick, Sgt. Harper, retired thereafter but fan pressure prompted him to write one more story about an expedition the two undertook to Chile. Many of the books were turned into a hugely successful TV series with the excellent Sean Bean in the title role.
I thought I had read all Cornwell’s books but I recently discovered one I had not even heard of which was about William Shakespeare’s younger brother in the London theatre in Elizabethan times, it just shows you how versatile the man is. If you have not read him, I strongly recommend you do, you won’t regret it.
Back to our trip, you’ll probably be glad to know. With an excellent running commentary from our guide as to places of interest along the way we pretty soon arrived at the castle and it was every bit as impressive as I remembered it. As the images show, it sits on a large rocky mound (dolerite if you are interested in geology) and was, for centuries, deemed to be impregnable although this was only with the building of a substantial structure after the place had changed hands between the native Britons and immigrant Anglo Saxons three times.
It had originally been a Briton site, presumably picked for it’s obvious strategic values, and was originally called Din Guarie after the Romans departed and is believed to have been founded c.420AD. The Vikings, as we shall see later, were very fond of raiding this part of Britain and sacked the place in 993AD. They were rather good at that sort of thing and their first ever major raid on British soil was in 793 AD on the island of Lindisfarne, visible from here on a clear day and a place we shall be coming to shortly.
After a fairly turbulent time in the Middle Ages when it became the first castle to be defeated by artillery, thereby effectively spelling the end of old style castle building it eventually fell into the hands of the industrialist William Armstrong and, strangely, this brings us back to artillery. As I have said many times before, everything goes round in circles.
Armstrong was famous for very many things, not least having the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectric power. He had made much of his vast fortune by designing and building armaments, specifically artillery, some of which he perfected due to the exigencies of the Crimean war in the 1850’s. I had never heard of the man until I visited Malta a few years back and visited Fort Rinella where there is an absolutely gargantuan 100 ton gun built by the Armstrong Company. You can see the beast and read about it here.
More recently, just prior to virus house arrest I was lucky enough to have visited Newcastle to dep in my mate’s band and was lucky enough to stay in his lovely home which overlooks Jesmond Dene, a beautiful area on the Ouseburn River which is now a public park but was once Armstrong’s “back garden” as he had built a house further upstream and owned all the land. You can read about that particular excursion here. See what I mean about things going round in circles?
I was fine sitting down on the ‘bus but still feeling terribly weak and exhausted. The driver parked up in the coach / car park and we alighted for what was no more than about a 200 yard walk to a grassed area in front of the castle and by the time we got there I was totally exhausted. The guide who was obviously very knowledgable about the area gave an excellent talk on the history of the castle but it did go on a bit and I was getting more and more tired plus which my leg was hurting badly so when he finished I found a very pleasant bench to sit on looking up at the castle.
The rest of the group were all going to explore inside but that involved a fairly steep climb up the roadway to it which I knew was going to be a non-starter for me never mind climbing up and down all the stairs in the place. I just was not up to it and, more importantly, I did not want to be a hindrance to the rest of the group so I bade them a good trip and sat put, enjoying the magnificent view, breathing in good clean North Sea air and feeling very content if still pretty weak and washed out.
I hate feeling like this as I was extremely fit as a younger man and, even into my late fifties I was happily tramping up to 15 miles a day and loving it, everything just seems to have been drained out of me and I feel so damned useless. I later found out that they do have little golf buggy type things for mobility impaired visitors but a) I didn’t know about it, b) it needed to be booked in advance and c) and probably most importantly I refuse to use all the facilities that are now so helpfully provided for the mobility impaired which I now regrettably have to admit is a category I fall into.
Call it stupid pride or stubbornness, both of which I must admit to but I just won’t use a stick or wheelchairs on public transport etc. although I do admit I will now use the “disabled” toilet in a pub if it saves me a walk upstairs. Stairs and gradients are what really give me trouble and the way I hobble around these days nobody ever questions me. Hence the reason I couldn’t make it to the castle itself but I could at least console myself with the fact that I had seen it before.
Despite my good night’s sleep, I was feeling utterly drained so I limped my way back to the coach, hoping the driver was still there to let me in (although I do actually know how to open a coach door without damage and only if necessary I might add!).
Fortunately the driver was indeed in residence, stretched out over the front seat reading a newspaper and with the door open on what was a fairly decent day. I explained my situation and asked if it was OK if I sat down, a request that was granted with very good grace and a considerate enquiry as to whether I needed any assistance, water or anything else. I mentioned that Sarah had picked well and this guy was an absolute diamond. I headed to the back seat where I had been sitting earlier (old habits die hard), took off my trainers, stretched out full length and promptly went to sleep, not waking until my friends got back maybe two hours later. I felt so much better for it.
The others were all buzzing about how wonderful the castle was and I know this to be true so especially for my American friends whose country wasn’t even founded until over a millennium after this place was first a defensive installation (OK, the present building isn’t that old). I was so happy that they enjoyed it and they said the guide was great. He had told us in the initial talk that he actually knew one of the younger members of the Armstrong family who still own the castle and had stayed there a few times. Knowledge from a guide doesn’t get much more local than that.
Once we were all head-counted and accounted for we were off again for our next stop, Lindisfarne aka Holy Island which I mentioned above as the site of the first Viking raid on British soil. As I also mentioned, it is not far as I told you that you can see it on a good day from the castle.
We had had to pick our time well ahead of the crossing on the causeway as the island is only accessible by road at certain times of the day. The road is completely covered when the tide comes in and there are plenty of warnings, alongside images of totally submerged cars, one of which you can see above.
Lindisfarne is a massively holy place to followers of the Judeo-Christian belief system as I shall explain in a moment and, as we were traversing the causeway (thankfully completely dry at that point due to good planning) the guide pointed out a line of posts in the fairly sandy bottom of what is twice a day the North Sea. He explained that the ultra religious of that belief system feel it necessary to walk barefoot to the island from the mainland, which can take a couple of hours. I have never felt the need to do any such thing as I am an atheist but, even as a challenge when I was a fit young man, it would be a bit of a slog. Now, I would get about 100 yards, collapse and be drowned by the incoming tide!
Despite all the warnings approximately one vehicle per month gets marooned requiring rescue by the (volunteer) RNLI and the Coastguard. It never fails to amaze me how bloody stupid some people can be. If you want to see our (perfectly safe) crossing of the causeway, you can do so here. Apologies for the slightly jerky filming but it is not exactly the smoothest road in the world.
Again, I had been to Lindisfarne all those years before and, yes, I really am feeling my age now and paying for the excesses of my youth but I remembered it as a wonderfully beautiful place and it certainly has not changed appreciably in the intervening years, I doubt it has much for centuries, it is somehow timeless so let me tell you a little about it.
Lindisfarne is about three miles by 1.5 miles at it’s widest points which makes it broadly comparable to the equally brilliant Lundy Island, which I also thoroughly recommend, and which you can read about here.
The etymology of the place, which fascinates me with my love of toponymy, is completely unclear and still open to much debate. It was anciently called Lindisferana, which may or may not refer to “travellers from Lindsey” (in modern day Lincolnshire, it may be a reference to a pool or stream with “Farne” as in the Farne islands. The truth is that nobody really knows for sure.
The island is currently home to 180 people (2011 figure) and it must be a strange existence being cut off from the mainland for half the day. I can only guess that the inhabitants of working age either work here or from home as there is no way you could hold down a job with regular hours on the mainland bdcause obviously the tides are always changing and your access would similarly be constantly changing. The last store on the island was closed by 2020 (virus presumably) and people have to drive to Berwick-upon-Tweed for supplies now.
I don’t know if there are children on the island although I am guessing there must be at least one or two so they have to be staying with relatives on the mainland or boarding as it is clearly impractical under these circumstances.It is only when you visit here that you start to think about the practicalities of living on a tidal island, beautiful as it is.
The image above is a perfect example as it is, in fact, the Lindisfarne Fire Station. I was told that a number of islanders have been trained by the regular Northumbrian Fire Service as retained (volunteer) firefighters, good for them. I suppose an emergence medical situation would require the services of an air ambulance as there is no Doctor here. Despite the obvious practical difficulties the few islanders I spoke to there seemed very cheery with their lot.
The plan was that the guide was going to conduct a tour of the immediate environs of the main settlement with an optional add-on of a wander further afield for the more energetic members. Obviously any of that was way beyond the scope of my physical abilities so after listening to his very interesting introductory talk about the island I withdrew to the excellent Crown and Anchor pub, one of two I had spotted within about 50 yards of each other. It was to my complete chagrin that I later discovered there was a third pub which I missed, I must be slipping. The plan was that we were going to re-convene at the local winery for a mead tasting at 1430.
I shall now adjourn metaphorically to the very pleasant lounge bar in the Crown and Anchor, which seemed to be doing a roaring trade in food on this Sunday lunchtime, and tell you a little more about the history of Lindisfarne. I shall put in a few images of the island, mostly taken from the back garden of the pub purely to relieve the tedium of my historical discourse which promises to be a long one.
Although the Romans had a large military presence on Hadrian’s Wall nearby to repel the marauding Picts and Scots there were few Roman civilians this far North except thos directly involved in servicing the troops. It was completely unlike the South of England (even if it wasn’t even called England then) where Roman civilians arrived and established fine villas, farms, various manufacturing industries and so on.
After the Romans upped sticks and left in the early 5th century there was somewhat of a power vacuum which was eventually filled in this part of the world by an Anglian king named Ida who established a “kingdom” in 547 AD. The Angles, like the Saxons, Jutes, Danes and others had seen their chance and invaded from mainland Europe with the Angles establishing power base in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, some of which area is still called East Anglia and ultimately led to the name England which was originally Angleland.
There was some fairly token attempt at Briton resistance and some time in the 6th century a Brittonic Force under a warlord called Urien besieged the Angle Theodoric on the island for three days but, as usual, the Britons could not agree amongst themselves and the siege collapsed.
Around 634 AD an Irish monk called Aidan was sent from the monastery at Iona, an island off the West coast of Scotland. Iona was formed by St. Columba and 12 followers in 563 AD. I have long wondered if Columba had some form of Messianic complex as there was him and his 12 “disciples”, does that ring any bells? Whatever his thinking, the monastery at Iona was the origin of the Hiberno-Christian tradition and the monks there were credited with converting the Scots to their brand of Christianity.
When Aidan was dispatched to the Northeast of what is now England, it is not surprising that he picked Lindisfarne to set up his monastery and base of evangelical operations. It was a small island on a fairly rugged coast and relatively isolated, it must have reminded him a lot of Iona. I wonder did he take 12 followers with him.
Aidan must have been a very persuasive orator as he, as Columba had done before with the Scots, is credited with converting the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxons of Northumberland to the same brand of Hiberno-Christianity which had originated at his parent establishment. On his death in 651 he was succeeded as Bishop by a chap called Finan aka Finian and standby for another digression.
When I was a teenager growing up in Belfast in the 70’s we lived in a house with a church directly across the road called St. Finian’s Parish Church and I always wondered who he was and never quite got round to finding out and now I know. Every day is a schoolday writing this blog. Finan was abbot of Lindisfarne / Bishop for ten years until his death and you are probably wondering how a place as small as Lindisfarne became the bishopric. It actually held that position until 735 when it moved to York as it was the principal place of Judeo-Christianity in the area, it really was important.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the leaders on Lindisfarne was Cuthbert who entered monastic life after apparently having a vision on the night Aidan died. After periods in various monasteries he ended up in Lindisfarne as prior in 655 AD. By 684 AD he had been elevated to bishop but resigned to return to his hermitage where he lived in great austerity until he died on 20th March 687 but his story is in many ways just starting here.
Cuthbert was buried on the day of his death but the poor man certainly did not get to “rest in peace”. His remains were later exhumed due to the imminent threat of invading Danes and went on something of a “magical mystery tour” all over the North of England being carried reverentially by monks and finally ending up in Durham. Well, not quite finally as we shall see.
The presence of Cuthbert’s remains effectively led to the founding of the city of Durham and eventually the magnificent cathedral. I have been there and it is another reason why I so strongly recommend visitors to UK to consider the Northeast of England / Southeast of Scotland, it really is a hugely rewarding area.
Poor old Cuthbert still was not going to be left to his rest as he was again moved and re-interred on Lindisfarne. In 875 AD, the Danes took and held Lindisfarne and off he went again, being carried from pillar to post for an amazing seven years after which what was left of his remains again ended up in what was then called the White Church which was the foundation of what is now the Cathedral as I mentioned above.
After his death, many miracles were attributed to the late Cuthbert and even one of our greatest ever kings, Alfred the Great, was said to have been inspired in his massive campaign against the Danes by a vision of him. I should mention that, in the way of the early catholic church who seemed to throw sainthoods round like confetti, that all the monks I have mentioned above were sainted.
In the early 8th century one of the artefacts which is most associated with the island was produced by monks whose names are now lost to history. They are the Lindisfarne Gospels which are now held in the British Library. Although originally written in Latin a vernacular text was added almost three hundred years which gives us the earliest example of the gospels in Old English.
The monastery on the island was declining in influence due to one of the schisms so apparently popular in the Christian church had led to a split between the Hiberno Christians based in places like Iona and Lindisfarne and those favouring the Roman version of the belief system based in Canterbury. Looking now at the amazing Canterbury Cathedral and the ruins on the tiny island of Lindisfarne plus the fact that one sect of the catholic church is now called the Roman Catholic Church, I think you can guess who won that one!
Perhaps the defining moment in the history of the island came in 793 AD, possibly on the 8th June when a major Viking raiding force landed, killed or enslaved all the monks, stole anything of value and generally trashed the place, although they did not remain to establish themselves.
The island had a very minor part in the War of the Roses but the next significant event was the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 when it was shut down and turned into a naval storehouse and by 1613 it passed officially under control of the Crown during the reign of King James I.
After the reformation and it’s declining ecclesiastical importance, the remains of the religious community on Lindisfarne, like so many others, just degenerated slowly into decay and decrepitude. Shortly after Henry VIII closed the place down and it had begun to decay, the ever frugal Northerners decided to use the stone from it to construct a rather magnificent castle which exists to this day.
Although it is not large as castles go, it’s primary function was to guard against Scottish raids South, notably through the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 when there was fear of a Franco-Spanish fleet arriving somewhere in the Northeast to support the rebels further North.
In the late 19th century the castle was re-designed in the Arts and Crafts style, which was popular at the time, by Edwin Lutyens whose most famous work is probably the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.
Nowadays, the fishing on Lindisfarne is long gone along with the lime burning which was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, the local economy is fairly much solely driven by tourism and it is not hard to see why, the place really is a wonderland.
Enough history and back to the pub. By now I had been joined by Colin, Josephine and Henna. I have known Colin for a long time but I had never met either of the ladies before and they proved to be charming company. They had all decided they didn’t want to go on the longer walk and had retreated here, suits me! We had a drink and a bit of a chat and they decided to have another wander round the place which was my cue to finish my pint and head to the next pub which was no great hardship as it must have been 50 yards door to door!
My next watering hole was the Manor House Hotel and I was a little wary about going in as it looked a little bit posh and I was my usual scruffy self but I need not have worried. I was greeted warmly and parked myself in the corner to imbibe my very well-presented pint in very comfortable surroundings.
I knew I only had time for the one as we had the mead tasting booked and I was certainly not going to be late for anything on this day of all days. The concept of having to get an airlift (the nearest non-emergency chopper is miles away in Cumbria, another place we shall visit on this trip, and it costs and eye-watering amount of money so I was going to be where I was told when I was told.
Thankfully in the main settlement of Lindisfarne nowhere is terribly far from anywhere else and it was only probably 30 yards to the Lindisfarne Winery (more properly named St. Aidan’s Winery) which, apart from the mead for which it is most famous, also now produces beer, gin, spirit liqueurs and rum but we were there for the mead. I was slightly ahead of the game in that I had been here before, tasted mead and thoroughly disliked it whereas many of our group had never even heard of it.
Mead is basically a fermented mix of honey, water and yeast although you can flavour it with all sorts of things. Frankly, I find it obscenely sweet and fairly sickly. I thought that perhaps my palate might have changed over the decades but it hadn’t, I still found it repulsive although the others were tucking into it with apparent relish as the images show. There certainly wasn’t much left to put back in the fridge!
The monks on the island used to produce it in quantity and it is said that the recipe still used by the family who run the place now inherited the recipe which they closely guard. We were told there are less than a handful of people who actually know what it is.
After a relatively short interlude and a chance for some of the party to purchase souvenir items from the shop, it was time to get back on the ‘bus because as Chaucer, a far better writer than I shall ever be, once famously said, “Time and tide wait for no man. I know that round here the tides certainly don’t and I had seen enough pictorial evidence to prove it!
We got back to our start point in Newcastle in good order and all the rest of them headed off to their respective accommodations to freshen up for the evening’s farewell dinner which was usefully in my hotel.
I headed off on my own and hit the first bar I could find which happened to be the Forth which sits in the delightfully named Pink Lane although I have no idea why. The reason for this was not that my alcohol dependency has degenerated to the level where I have to keep drinking but rather, and I am trying not to be indelicate here, there had been no “facilities” on the otherwise wonderful coach.
The Forth is a strange place with lots of nooks and crannies and seems to place a strong emphasis on food. Whilst decorated in a terribly trendy “distressed” style it struck me as being a bit pretentious and with prices to match but it served my purpose.
I said that I had not signed up for the evening meal for reasons as previously stated but I was actually feeling a little peckish (a very good sign for me!) and so I took myself round the corner to the Wetherspoons pub, called the Mile Castle, so named because it was on Hadrian’s Wall which had a castle every mile along it’s length.
One of the meals I can usually manage to eat, in small quantities is breakfast, and I know Wetherspoons do an all day brunch including a small version which was fine by me. Basically the brunch is just their breakfast menu but substituting chips for hash browns after 1130 when they stop serving the breakfast menu. The result, which you can see above, I took to with a will and very tasty it was too, just enough for my sadly limited appetite. After this I headed back to the hotel to refresh myself and meet up with the rest of the gang.
I have included above an image of the corridor leading to the private dining room my friends were in just to give you an idea of how palatial the place was. I loved the Royal Station Hotel, particularly because it was not ultra-modern and felt like it had a bit of history to it, which I am sure it has, and also because of it’s strong railway connection. I promise you that I do not stay in fancy places like this often but I had got a great deal and it is nice occasionally.
It was a great evening if slightly tinged with sadness as it was the farewell and I had some great chats to old friends and some new ones. During the course of events an announcement was made as it always is at this time and is eagerly awaited, it is the venue of the next Euromeet in 2023 (dates to be confirmed) and is being organised by my good friend Jon in the city of Tromso in Northern Norway. I have to say that I doubt I’ll make it as I played a festival in Norway over 20 years ago and the prices then were crippling so I dread to think what they might be like now. I am not sure that even if I save my pennies I can justify the expense but I am so glad to see that the concept of Virtual Tourist and the Euromeets continues. I hope it never stops.
There were many quite emotional farewells that night which I suppose is hardly surprising after the length of time we had been forced to stay apart. It really did prove to me that the website may be gone but the spirit certainly hasn’t and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.
I retired to my room and there was only one final thing left to do. Lovely as the hotel was, it was my last night booked there so I had to make a plan for the next day. Sarah had asked me at the dinner if I was heading back to London the next morning and I made some sort of non-commmital answer which prompted her to say something along the lines of, “I suppose not then.” She knows me far too well. I was just enjoying my wander round the Northeast far too well and, as a single man with no children to worry about, I could more or less do what I pleased.
After a bit of rummaging about on the internet I came up with the beginnings of a plan, well, as much of a plan as I ever come up with. If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to stay tuned!
Hello again my friends and once again thanks for sticking with me so long, I keep getting notices from WordPress telling me the site is doing well, I am getting more followers etc. and frankly it still baffles me! Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining.
When I left you last time I had hooked up with my Virtual Tourist friends for the annual Euromeet in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and despite my very limited mobility I was still enjoying being away from home even if it was nowhere near as far as I usually travel but it was a whole lot better than the mind-numbing nothing I had experienced during the Government’s ridiculous and now increasingly discredited policy of house arrest. If you want evidence of this, look at the Swedish experience.
Back to the tale, and I do promise you it turned out to be quite a tale but everything in due course. I alluded in my previous post that very little happened the next day. My friends were going out to something quite energetic which I was never going to be able to do and I did not hold them up so I dipped out of that one.
I knew they were having a meal that evening and I knew where it was. Again, I must sing the praises of Sarah who had organised the whole thing and I make no apologies for doing so. Like Claus, Johnny Gayton, Valentina and others who had previously undertaken the task of the Euromeet I have the utmost respect for anyone with that level of organisational skill, something I certainly do not possess and it is a task I would never have undertaken even when I was in good health. It is a monumental task and I thank them all for doing it, unpaid, as it is just a delight for someone like me to turn up and have everything ready to go.
I mentioned before that my idea of travel Hell is an organised bus trip or a cruise but VT meets are not like that. You just tell the organisers in advance how much or how little you want to do so they can book things like transport and guided tours (often they guide the tours themselves as Euromeets are usually held in places they know well) and so on.
I hadn’t signed up for anything so I had the day to myself which was spent in a few decent pubs I know in Newcastle, and there is no shortage of those alongside some absolute horrors. In truth, I was still feeling quite weak and the lack of sleep the previous night due to the late night revelry hadn’t helped even if I am fairly insomniac anyway. Nothing really to bore my dear readers with.
I did go to the venue of the evening dinner where all my friends were and they informed me the meal had been excellent. I just wish I had the appetite to join them. I was glad to see that my dear old VT friend DAO was there and had displayed the VT flag as you can see above.
I should perhaps take a moment here to explain a few of the quirks ov Virtual Tourist for those who weren’t involved. I spoke of the immense sense of community there and I do not use that term lightly, it was for real as evidenced by the fact we are still going long after the site was murdered.
There were all sorts of strange little customs and one of them was the flags, of which I still have a couple of little ones which I always carried in my jeans pocket. The idea was to display the flag wherever you travelled and there were competitions for the best flag picture. I have some beauties but sadly not on this computer, I might add some when I get home.
DAO, who I have known for years took the whole thing to another level. He is an American, currently resident in UK, and has been to something ludicrous like 120+ countries. Along with Claus I think they are the best travelled men I have ever met. DAO submitted so many flag photos that the management sent him a really big flag (possibly more than one) and he was designated official VT Flag Bearer and I have to say he does a brilliant job of it. He always carries string, Sellotape, Blutack and Heaven knows what else so he can display the flag under any circumstances, the man is seriously organised and you would not believe some of the weird and wonderful places I have seen them. Again, photos of my flag escapades to come when I get home and dig out my flashcards, you want to see the one of the two young Buddhist monks sitting in a wheelbarrow holding it!
Another great feature of VT was the Barney Awards (named after a long dead New Zealand sheep, it’s a long story, don’t ask). Anyway, in one of the early “Barneys” I was thrilled, not to mention flabbergasted, by being named member of the year and the very professional plaque which they mailed me from California still has pride of place on the bookshelf (one of many) in my living room. I have been awarded four medals by Her Majesty the Queen which I cherish them absolutely and wear them very proudly on Remembrance Sunday but the VT plaque is right up there with them.
There is one of these semi-philosophical questions about if your house was on fire what would you save? Easy, my medals, my guitar (well, my favourite one out of many I have and the one that I gig all the time) and my VT plaque. I’d be sorry to lose my old record collection but I could live without just about everything except the three items mentioned.
Oh dear, it has happened again. I started off by telling you that the first part of this post was about a day where I said that little if nothing had happened and that was true but my regular readers will be used to it by now and anyone who has somehow randomly stumbled upon this will either have to bear with it or, and I say this quite openly, go to another travel blog. There are plenty of excellent ones here on WordPress and mostly written in a far less Kerouac style than I seem to adopt.
I just start writing and don’t know where to stop. As anyone who has met me will attest, I write like I talk i.e. far too much and at completely random tangents. I just get into a groove and follow it, sorry if it is not to your liking but at my time of life I really can’t change. I promise you tomorrow is much more interesting.
I was going to run this day into the next as I mentioned in my previous post but it is a long one and I don’t want this turning into a complete War and Peace so I shall leave it here with apologies for the paucity of images. I promise you I did get my camera out of my pocket “tomorrow” so, if you want a look at the stunning Northumbrian coast, stay tuned.
Hello again and welcome back, this writing thing is getting a bit addictive but I know how my moods can swing and I may go off it as quickly as I re-discovered it so I am, as they say, “making hay while the sun shines”. I do hope the sun continues to shine as it has been doing for the last few days as I am back off to my beloved Broadstairs in the next couple of days. OK, I know Folk Week doesn’t start until early August but I have no objection to making an early start and I have a few things to do down there anyway. Happy days.
I cannot believe nearly a year has passed since the last Folk Week although they do say that time goes quicker as you get older and that has certainly been my experience. Let’s see now if I can advance us a day (or maybe two) closer to the present by describing the first full day of the 2022 Euromeet.
I awoke in my very comfy bed, sluiced my old bones and dressed (rather scruffily as is my way) and headed out to face the day. Sarah had organised for the day a walking trip round Tynemouth which, as the toponymy (a favourite word and subject of mine) suggests is just about where the Tyne river empties into the North Sea. It is only eight miles from the centre of Newcastle and, whilst I had been to and played gigs in places like Jarrow and North Shields (both excellent I should add) I had never been to Tynemouth so it was time to remedy that.
It was an early start but I had been fairly circumspect with my imbibing the previous evening so it was not a problem, I have started much earlier and in far worse states many, many times before. I am never late on parade! The meet was back at the nearby railway station which doubles as the Metro Station which is the equivalent of London’s Tube but so, so much better. Allow me to tell you a little about it.
The Metro is so much better than the London Tube purely by virtue of being newer although much of it is equally ancient which I know sounds odd but here is the story.
The first section of the Metro did not open until 1980 and, like the London Overground (much of which is actually underground and has subsumed the old East London Line which I remember fondly as I lived about five minutes walk from Shadwell Station once and about three minutes from Wapping a little later. Both systems have cleverly re-used old disused branch lines to re-invent a modern urban transport system for the 21st century.
The Metro rolling stock is modern and comfy enough, the stations are clean and tidy and often patrolled by the company’s own security staff (I don’t fancy their job on a Friday or Saturday night). They usually run on schedule which you can certainly not say for the Underground where I live.
The biggest problem with the London Underground system is that it still runs on an infrastructure mostly built in the reign of Queen Victoria and it is naturally falling to pieces. It was never designed to carry the modern rolling stock and numbers of passengers it does, it is basically worn out. Perhaps the Metro will end up like that in decades to come but for now it is great and it is also extensive.
You can go South through Sunderland (the next large settlement and fierce rival of Newcastle in everything, especially football (soccer)), East and North on a loop going through the wonderful seaside town of Whitley Bay which I remember from a brilliant rugby tour about 30 years ago and Northwest to the airport. There is also a spur line going through Hebburn (where I also played a gig) up to South Shields. I do like that system but back now from my musings on the relative merits of British urban transport systems to the tale.
We all met up in good time and Sarah helped us through the intricacies of the ticket machine. OK, she helped me, everyone else seemed to manage it but I cannot deal with technology. We jumped on the train and headed off for Tynemouth, not a huge journey, spent in excellent company chatting and soon we alighted at our destination.
I have to say that Tynemouth station is absolutely stunning and regular readers will know my love for all things railway. The wrought iron alone deserves to be in a Museum were it not holding up the glassed and wonderfully lighted roof of this structure. Unsurprisingly, it is a Grade Two listed building, designed by a chap called William Bell, who was chief architect for the NER (North Eastern Railway, even before it added London to it’s name to become the more recognisable LNER) and was responsible for much work in that area). Honestly, had I not left the station I would not have thought my day wasted, I’ll bet there are people who travel here just to study it. A good start.
The plan for the day was that Sarah was going to lead a walking tour round the town visiting some apparently fascinating historical sites, notably the Priory and Castle. There was no way I could manage a walking tour especially as I did not want to be holding up the others. I had told Sarah that in advance but I have to say, and I know she reads my nonsense here so I am not trying to embarrass her, but she had said right from the start something along the lines of, “don’t worry, just come, it will be great to see you, do as much as you can or as little, it will be fine and we’ll look after you”.
That was some safety blanket I can tell you as I knew they would look after me. It was so much an evocation of the VT spirit, especially their meetings which are still as brilliant as they ever were when the website was going. My friends were going to watch out for me even if I was physically almost incapable of doing so myself. It was almost like being back in the Forces again and honestly, it was a nice, warm feeling.
I bade my friends bon voyage and a good day at the station, having been given the meet time for the return journey although in truth I could have returned easily enough any time I fancied. The day was mine to explore as much of Tynemouth as I could in perhaps a half mile radius of the station. Honestly, that was about the limit of my exploitation of any given location then although it is marginally better now so I headed off in search of what looked like the centre of town.
Naturally, my default situation in situations like this is to find the nearest open pub and I did not have too far to go until I came upon The Priory, which turned out to be an excellent little pub.
I should mention at this point that I am not in the habit of taking images in Gents toilets but I could not resist this one as it was so clever because they had turned empty beer casks into urinals. I have been in many pubs and have never seen anything like it.
I had a couple of pints and had been chatting to a couple of lovely barstaff which only served to remind me of how friendly the North of England was and which I mentioned in the previous post. I was slightly envious of my friends who were tramping round all those lovely old sights / sites as walking and visiting historic buildings were two of my greatest delights before my health took such a nosedive but I wasn’t overly despondent as I was just grateful for any sort of travel, it had been a while. I was in a lovely pub with a pint in front of me, expecting to hook up with my mates later on so it could not be all bad.
It was getting to about lunchtime and, most remarkably given my lack of appetite which I won’t bore you with again, I was getting a little peckish. There was a fairly extensive menu which you can see here if you like but I knew a main meal was just a non-starter, I genuinely cannot remember the last time I ate a decent sized feed, it just doesn’t happen. On a good day I manage to snack two or three times in exceptional circumstances but that is it but there was no shortage of tasty looking options so it was time to choose.
Whilst perusing the menu I noticed two things. Firstly was the size of the portions which seem to get larger the further North you go as I shall demonstrate shortly but as an example, in the Priory they only serve one breakfast on a plate (with a veggie version as is required these days) although they do breakfast rolls, beans on toast etc. It consists of two sausage, two bacon, two hash browns, black pudding, two fried eggs, tomato, beans and a side of toast, that would feed me for a week ! If you go further North into Scotland it becomes even crazier with a standard B&B breakfast probably amounting to the recommended adult daily calorie intake for an adult.
The other thing I noticed was the prices which were so markedly cheaper than in London and this was to be a feature of my whole trip in the North. That gargantuan breakfast I just mentioned cost £7:45 and by way of contrast I offer this. I was perusing a menu in a fairly ordinary café in Broadstairs where I am currently composing this and a standard breakfast of one egg, one bacon, one sausage and one hash brown runs to £7:50 and these are figures from less than three months apart.
In yet another of my numerous and undoubtedly well-known to my loyal regular readers (thanks again folks) digressions I have a piece of travel advice here for people who may read this and who may wish to visit my country as and when travel normalises itself as far as ever it is going to after the virus. I had intended this to be primarily a travel site after the sad demise of Virtual Tourist, with probably a bit of cooking thrown in. Think Tony Bourdain without the talent! Certainly, come to London, it is one of the major cities in the world with such a wealth of history and things to do and see it is untrue. I have loved there for 34 years now and only seen a fraction of it.
Yes, the rest of the tourist trail like York, the Lake District, Edinburgh and Durham are superb, I have visited them all and love them but they are expensive, touristed and usually very crowded. My advice would be to see all of these and the other sights / sites you really want to see there and then go and see some other places. As I found out not three months ago there are so many brilliant and less-well known places where there is also a wealth of history and places you probably have never heard of, that is the joy of travelling. Honestly, do it and you won’t regret it.
I am an absolute fan of everything vaguely pescatorial or relating to seafood generally (sorry, there is no adjective online!) and I also love retro food from my childhood and early adulthood so I ordered the prawn cocktail which I thought would be a fairly good option as I really cannot m. It would be a large wine glass with a couple of chopped lettuce leaves in it, perhaps a thin wedge of two of tomato, a few prawns and hopefully a decent Marie Rose sauce. Wrong.
The image above shows what was served to me, and it was not expensive AND was what could easily have done duty as a main course. I am quite sure the appalling concept of “nouvelle cuisine”, which I detest, never made it to Tyneside, the Geordies would not have stood for it. I had a full plate of mixed leaves and yellow peppers, an unbelievable portion of prawns for a starter, served with a very decent Marie Rose and I took one look at it and wondered how I was going to finish it. Strangely enough for me, it was so tasty I downed the lot.
Yet another digression here of the culinary nature, Marie Rose sauce which I have mentioned above and is one of my favourite cold sauces. Also known as seafood sauce, and many other things including burger sauce although I have never had Marie Rose on a burger, , it is utterly delicious but what exactly is it?
In essence, it is a mixture of mayonnaise and tomatoes of one sort or another with all sorts of things thrown in for good measure. It is widely credited to Fanny Craddock, the doyenne of British TV cooks and the first but, as with so many other recipes, there are all sorts of counter-claims such as the famed British writer Constance Fry as far back as 1956. In South America it is known as salsa (sauce) golf because it was allegedly created by a diner in a golf club bored with eating his prawns with straight mayo. Who knows and, frankly, who cares? It is utterly delicious, open to a myriad interpretations and, frankly, good with just about anything savoury.
Without going into the whole thing, I like to make mine with home-made mayo, a particular Polish tomato ketchup that I have discovered in my local supermarket (sign of the times in London), a good dash of Worcestershire sauce (which must be Lea and Perrins obviously), some form of chilli as I like my food spicy.
I quite like sriracha sauce as it is easy to blend but any chilli you have is good although I to not recommend even the finest chopped fresh ones, it should be a smooth, creamy sauce. A good crack of freshly ground pepper is always good on anything and you are good to go and after that just let your mind go free. A small amount of horseradish is great, mustard (I would use perhaps a lighter one as English will overpower the sauce), just have a field day and find your best combination, there is no “proper” way, it is all good. Let’s be honest, most cooking is as long as you don’t pour custard over the roast beef!
Right, enough digression but I do like talking about cooking and I was “chowing down”, as I believe the Americans say, on my monstrous prawn cocktail and enjoying every mouthful but when I happily finished, I reckoned I should probably see a little more of Tynemouth on my first visit even though I was never going to go far.
As I had no map, no local knowledge and definitely no ability to use the mapping system on my mobile (cell) ‘phone, it was always going to be a fairly random wander which is absolutely my preferred mode of foot travel anyway. The experiences I have had getting totally lost in towns and cities on several continents and they have been some of the best moments of my trips anywhere. I really do recommend it but always with the proviso that you keep your wits about you and don’t be walking into obviously rough neighbourhoods unless you know what you are doing.
As always I was looking left, right, up and down and noticed a couple of interesting things on the way to my next “pit-stop”, the first of which you can see above. It is a simple street sign but it opens up the whole subject of toponymy generally and, in this case a hodonym i.e. street or road names. OK, I am showing off a bit and I had to look that one up but it is a subject that fascinates me.
Ask most young people in the UK what Hotspur refers to and they will probably say Tottenham Hotspur F.C., a football (soccer) club from North London but I happened to know that the word has a much longer history than that. It refers to a Northumbrian nobleman called Sir Henry Percy (20 May 1364 – 21 July 1403) who gained his nickname from the Scots who he was constantly fighting with as they attempted to move South and referred to his swiftness in attack. He was possibly born at Alnwick Castle and Alnwick is a place we shall be visiting eventually in this series if I ever get round to catching up with myself here. I don’t intend to bore you with a complete history of him here but Percy is a fascinating character and I do recommend you look him up. For example he was appointed a Knight of the Garter, which is the highest chivalric order in the UK, at the tender age of 24. He must have been some warrior.
The next thing of interest I came across was what looked like a fairly standard fish and chip shop, of which there are many in the greater Newcastle area and, in my experience of a uniformly excellent quality. My eye was drawn to a blue plaque in the window. For my non UK readers, blue plaques are put up on buildings with some historical significance, normally something along the lines of X was born here or Y lived here. This obviously was not one of the official ones because they are always affixed to external walls but I could not resist a look and what a find.
The image above tells the entire story. Jimi Hendrix, an absolute guitar hero of mine, bought fish and chips here in 1967 and went to eat them on a bench beside the sea. I can fully appreciate the experience. There is something almost magical about eating a nice bit of haddock and chips watching the waves coming in and with the whiff of ozone in your nose, it is great and an experience which I recommend to any visitor to our shores. Well, if it is good enough for Jimi, it is good enough for me.
All this discovering had obviously made me thirsty so it was with great joy that I happened upon the Head of Steam pub which is apparently part of a chain which stretches South and even as far as Wales. The pub was quirky to say the least. It is obviously fairly modern and their website shows that the group has only been going since 1995 with this particular outlet opening in 2014.
It is decked out in fairly standard modern style but the quirk I refer to is that each bench table has a very modern looking toaster on it! Look at the images. They were not museum pieces placed for interest but rather they looked brand spanking new and I have no idea what they were for. I don’t know if they serve breakfasts but are you meant to toast your bread to your own liking? Very strange.
A quick and well-kept pint of cider later I thought it was time to move. I have a reasonably good sense of direction and am generally pretty well orientated, even in a strange place, so I knew I was no more than a few hundred yards from the Metro station which would get me back within 100 yards of my hotel so my mobility was not an issue. Although any sort of distance was not going to be feasible it was so much better than just a few months before where I had struggled to make the small supermarket right across the road from my home.
Again wandering fairly aimlessly but trying to stay within kicking distance of the station (I wasn’t going to push my luck) I set off to find another place of alcoholic refreshment and did not have too far to go. The next port of call was the Cumberland Arms, a fine looking old building which was built in 1898 on the site of an older establishment dating back to 1855. Inside it has obviously been refurbished in modern times but it retains an old-fashioned feel and look, I liked it. Another well-kept and served pint with the usual cheery bit of chat and I was on a mission now.
I sallied forth yet again and I did not have to go far until I saw a sign for the CIU club (I tend to look up as that is where pub signs tend to be!) which I initially discounted. The reason for this is that CIU clubs, like Conservative clubs, Liberal clubs, and many others were strictly for members only. I can only think of one CIU club in London (in Plaistow) and if you don’t have a membership card you won’t get over the door. On my previous trip to Newcastle in October 2019, which you can read about here, I had to be signed into clubs in Hebburn and Jarrow even though I was playing in the band booked as the entertainment for the evening! Strange but true.
Anyway, I happened to be walking past the place in search of a pub when I spotted a poster in the window which, as well as espousing the virtues of the place (they were to prove to be many) it stated quite clearly “non members welcome”. I was astounded but on the principle of nothing ventured nothing gained, I decided to give it a try and what a good decision that proved to be. I always seem to land on my feet when it comes to drinking establishments.
I hobbled my way up the stairs of what I believe was the old Co-op shop and entered one of the most pleasant lounge bars I have ever been in, it was quite palatial but not flashy, just right. I approached the bar and asked the young lady serving if it was indeed correct that I could get a drink there which she confirmed to be the case. Fine, a pint of cider for me. I asked her how much it was and when she told me I was amazed. Because of the vagaries of the almost unfathomable licensing laws in the UK, registered clubs like this pay less tax on alcohol than pubs, don’t ask me why. I have already discussed in previous posts in this series about how inexpensive it was this far North but this really flabbergasted me now. I cannot now remember the exact figure but I know I would not have bought a small borrle of water for it in a London pub.
I had a quick scan round (old situational awareness training as I have spoken of before) and took in a very fine establishment which was showing sport on the very large screen TV and a back room which had not one but two full size billiards tables which both turned out to be in superb condition on a quick inspection later. This suited me down to the ground, especially since there was a decent game of football (soccer) on the TV.
I knew by the time I left that I had missed the meet to get back to Newcastle but I knew the way and had my ticket which Sarah had so helpfully assisted me in getting. I spent a wonderful time there chatting to some locals, who are unfailingly sociable in this part of the world, and some of the bar staff (there were plenty of them on duty and service was quick) and then headed back to the station where I attempted to take an image of a bird flying overhead and failed miserably, as you can see above. I really should learn photography one day.
I got back to my hotel with no drama and I knew the guys were having a meal that night but I had not signed up for it due to my complete inability to eat (I do have to report that at time of writing in July 2022 I am actually managing to eat a little bit more, it must be the sea air!).
By the time I made my room I was feeling exhausted even though I had done absolutely nothing and walked perhaps no more than a mile all day but I think the combination of lack of food and my general debility (is that a proper word?) from my various hospitalisations etc. was taking a toll so I took myself down to the hotel bar. These are not places I normally frequent but the bar in the Royal Station Hotel is very pleasant, the staff are not sniffy towards a scruff like me complete with bandana, earring, long hair and a beard that looks like a sanctuary for small rodents so I didn’t mind paying the little extra. A couple of pints and I considered again the prospect of going to meet my friends as I knew where they were dining in a private room but I decided, in an unusual fit of sense, to just head to bed which I did, looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I should have been so lucky!
I mentioned in the previous post that visitors to this otherwise excellent hotle should ask for a room on an upper floor and here is the reason why. My room (105 I believe) was directly above the function room which doubles as the disco at weekends and Newcastle is very much a party town, much beloved of hen and stag parties, and the disco went on to 0300 with the sound hammering up through the Victorian and obviously not sound-proofed floors. That was bad enough but it got even worse after the DJ shut down. There was drunken shouting clearly audible in the hotel and, as if that was not bad enough, it sounded like there was rape (literally), battle, murder, riot and civil war going on outside. I maybe got to sleep at 0500for a few hours and that was my lot.
This is a very obvious place to break and I shall do so but I would like to make a point before I sign off. People may well read this and say, “What a waste of a day” but I see it differently. Primarily, after virus house arrest and much ill health I had managed to get out of my flat again, I had spent the day in the company of many old friends that I had been unable to meet for several years and I had visited a place I had never been before (albeit in a limited way) which always gives me a thrill. I had met some lovely people which seems to be the default position in the Northeast. I would have loved to have seen the Priory and the Castle etc. but circumstances did not allow and I now have to work round these sorts of occasions, I have to tailor my travelling to suit my much limited abilities.
I’ll be honest, the next day is pretty much of nothing so I shall run it into the day after in the next post which is an absolute beauty where we all went on a coach trip round the Northumberland coast which is such a brilliant place. As always, if you want to find out what happens, stay tuned.
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.
Well, well, would you believe it? I wrote honestly in my last entry here that I had awoken before 0400 with a will to write after so long an abstinence from it and I did. A piece which would probably have taken an average University undergraduate about two hours to compose has taken me over 14 hours. I have checked everything, linked, resized images etc. etc. and I do not regret a moment of it. I would rather have the thing done right than done badly. Sorry, that is just my mindset and that constitutes my apology which is par for the course on this site.
Actually I make no apology for it, I am firm believer in the principle that if a thing is doing, it is worth doing right. I fully understand that this concept is laughable to the 21st century “snowflakes” with their ignorant, arrogant attitude of “I am the most important thing in the world”, “everything exists to please me”. Forget it,children. Some of us have actually lived (and nearly died several times) so that we can pass this knowledge on to you.
I remember when I joined the Army and my first drill pig (sergeant) was a guy called Pete Roberts who was seconded from the Queen’s who are now sadly subsumed into the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (Queen’s and Royal Hampshires), known not so affectionately in Army terms as the “Squidgees” as that was Diana, Princess of Wales’ favourite nickname for her alleged lover, James Hewitt who was commissioned in the Regiment. Y es, sue me if you like but if you think that the appalling, money-centred (as if he was not rich enough) Prince Harry who should be stripped of all titles and honorary ranks immediately is the brother of Prince William just take a close look at them and look at Prince Charles and Hewitt. QED.
Back to Pete Roberts. I had been hanging around street corners in East Belfast and could easily have slipped into very bad ways. I could have quickly entered a world of paramilitaries who were always on the lookout for impressionable young men and then spent half my adult life in jail from a botched robbery or even killing someone who probably did not deserve to die but I joined The Forces instead and escaped it.
On one of my first days, Pete was parading us on what passed for a parade square in Ladas Drive (it doubled as the helipad) and I must have shot my mouth off, as I was prone to do in those days and probably still am.
The next thing I knew was that I was looking at the sky. I knew I was still conscious but horizontal rather than vertical. Pete had hit me square in the face, not enough to do any lasting damage but enough to floor me and that was probably the first Damascene moment in my life (they are few and far between). In a split second I realised I was not the toughest guy in town nor even close, Pete was. I wanted to be like him, talk about role models (a much overworked term but hugely applicable here). Actually, as my career progressed I learned that there were a lot tougher men than Pete and I had the privilege of working with some of them but, at 18 years old, Pete was more than tough enough for me. A top man who would now be in his 80’s if he is still with us so I can only wish him many more years of peaceful retirement, you earned it mate.
I have lived a charmed life, I have been instructed by some of the very best. Pete Roberts, Jimmy Dunbar, Jock Cooper, Jack McFarlane. Bob Ellison, the list goes on. I could name many others but I won’t as it may endanger them and, no, this is not me trying to make myself look big, it is a statement of fact.
The guys I have named are all either dead or very old (I really have no idea) and present no threat to anyone although if any of them are still with us and standing, I would not stand 300 yards from any of them if they had a decent rifle in their hands! Really, I learned from the best, the very best. To give you a clue, Jimmy was a drill sergeant in the Irish Guards, Jock the same rank in the Scots Guards, Jack, a weapons and close combat instructor in the Royal Marines (you should see the scar on his forearm from a bayonet training accident). Bob was also a Marine (no idea what rank) but he did covert work in my home country in the 70’s and 80’s. A hard station. I should say that there were a lot more, these are just the ones I have chosen to mention, all good guys. These men knew whereof they spoke. I don’t expect that many of you will appreciate the full significance of all this but I know at least one of my readers will get it immediately when his wife reads it to him. Hi mate, time to unload.
So where were we in my catching up exercise here on the blog. Ah yes, I had left you with my rather amateur attempt at a literary device I laughingly referred to as a cliffhanger although it was really no such thing, any novellist worth his salt would have done better. When I got back to the Wrotham one night, the lovely Jackie had left a note on my bedroom door which I have reproduced above, I kept it as a souvenir, I do soppy things like that. Right, this was a problem but it was late and no point in waking him up especially as I could not get a train until the morning so I tucked up in bed although I didn’t sleep much. Because of Jackie’s wording I was not sure of the exact problem. I was sure that it could not just have been a broken window as I hold the only set of keys and surely nobody passing could have detected a small amount of water on the floor despite the best efforts of the British weather. No, there was only one feasible answer which was a burst pipe above (I have three floors above me) and that is indeed what it turned out to be.
I got home next morning and, on the principle that a picture paints a thousand words I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusions about the state of the carnage, it was appalling. Half the tiles were smashed in yhe bath or on the carpet, which was sodden and evidently beyond salvage. Yes, my flat (apartment) was fitted out in the days when people still put carpets in bathrooms!
There was obvious water damage to the walls and ceiling and when I tried to turn on the light in the bedroom (yes, bedroom singular, I told you I live in a tiny bachelor pad) I nearly blew my hand off! It started fizzing and sparking so it was turned off using a convenient non-conductive item (a training shoe as I recall) and left to dry thoroughly. The light in the hallway just did not work, indeed half the lights on that side of the flat just kept tripping every time I reset them on the fusebox. What a bloody disaster, I could have wept but that was not going to solve anything.
First port of call was my mate Bob the Para, so called because he had served in the First Battalion of that elite Regiment and is now my plumber / tiler although due to house arrest etc. I had not seen him for some time. Bob wasn’t answering his ‘phone so whether he has got a new number or just wasn’t answering I don’t know. I then called the estate managers who do just about nothing for their £1200 or so a year. They used to wash the windows outside twice a year but don’t even do that any more, virus was the excuse as it is for just about everything these days. The vacuum clean the communal areas about once a month, occasionally tend to a couple of tiny and scruffy looking patches of plants outside and the rest goes straight into their over-stuffed pockets, it is a disgrace really.
They were aware of the problem and said they were sending industrial cleaners round to dry the place out for me, at least that was something. They appeared next day, a guy and a girl lugging two absolutely massive pieces of kit which they set up in the hall and bathroom and turned on. What a racket. Not ear-splitting as such but just a constant low level drone which I had to put up with for over a week. They told me to switch them off at night so as not to annoy the neighbours and that was good advice.
I could not start getting tilers and electricians in until that was all completed so I spent that period stumbling over the driers to the bathroom by torchlight. Nightmare. When the worst of the damp had been dealt with and they had retrieved their kit I set about the task of getting contractors which proved to be not as simple as it might appear.
With my own trusted guy incommunicado I set about finding tradesmen online. I have never had to do this before. My home is fitted out as I bought it 25 years ago, same carpets and paint job. OK, I change the curtains occasionally but that is it. I am not a material man and there is nothing wrong with the way the place looks now, it is homely and comfortable and I do not see the point in changing, if not a winning formula, at least one that isn’t losing. I am happy in my own little space as I have no-one else to please. I am not knocking people in relationships, most people are, it is inherent in the human condition but I spent decades doing it and it never ended well so now I am happy with my own company in my own little private space and who is to say I am wrong.
My biggest problem was that I was dealing with not one but two insurance companies (the primary purpose of both seeming to be attempting to dodge their responsibilities), the estate managers (useless except for sending out huge bills) and not only the tenant of the flat above, who obviously had little English but her landlady, a Frenchwoman who thankfully did. I should explain that most of the units in my block are buy to let which is why I never get to know any of my neighbours, they come and go with such regularity it is difficult to form a relationship but it sort of suits my “lone wolf” lifestyle, I am not complaining.
My problem with the insurance companies was that they wanted more than one quote for every job and they would then tell you to go for the lowest tender. That saves their shareholders a few £££ and sticks more in the pockets of their fat cat bosses but it did not do much for me. I am not going to bore you with the whole sad story but the whole process took literally months and left me with the biggest botch job of a tiled bathroom floor you have ever seen, judge for yourself above. To be honest, I just wanted rid of them at the end as my health was playing up and I could barely get up to even look at it. The electrician spent more time on the ‘phone to his boss saying things like “I have the red wire and the green wire, what do I do with them.
The upshot is that I have a disgrace of a bathroom floor, one less light swith than I had before and over £1500 out of pocket (insurance company still has not paid up), what a bloody performance. Enough of this, there must be something more cheerful I can tell you about and indeed there is. What a bloody mess which is probably going to take me as much money to fix as it did to do.
Fortunately, my kitchen was still in working order, or at least as much working order as it normally is. I still was eating minimal amounts but I have included here a few images of the occasional snack I knocked myself up purely to relieve the monotony of my writing. I was quite pleased with the way the cream of tomato soup worked out. Basically I made up a vaguely Italian tomato soup and just enlivened it with a good dose of cream.
There was a Welsh rarebit which wasn’t just cheese on toast (much as I love that) but a proper mix made and marinaded overnight. I grated some extra mature cheddar which I had in my fridge until it’s sell-by date was long gone, the best way to eat cheese. Supermarkets have sell by dates on everything which is merely their way to encourage food waste which suits them as you throw good food away and buy more from them.
Added to that was Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce, the original, best and only one I will use. Really, the supermarkets all make their own brands but they are just not the same. It is a similar story with the next ingredient, a good couple of teaspoons of Colman’s English mustard. Again the original and best even if their logo of “Colman’s of Norwich” is now a lie. Having been taken over by a foreign conglomerate they left their traditional home in the County city of Norfolk, with a serious loss of jobs but that is globalisation for you. The final ingredient is some form of drink, I had left the remnants of a bottle of bog standard cider to go flat and used that, it is not a tempura batter. I have had very decent rarebits made with ale or stout (something like Guinness for my overseas readers) or cider as it is my preferred tipple.
Some people would add seasoning at this point but I prefer not to, the snack really does not need salt as the cheese will be salty enough and adding pepper ( I always go for freshly ground black) seems to get lost in grilling, I prefer to crack it over just prior to serving. Obviously you can experiment for yourself as you wish, green peppercorns, pink or whatever, it is only a quick snack and not like you are going to ruin a whole dinner party.
Oh ,look at this, what has happened? I was just going to post a quick line or two to try ti help me clear my backlog and I end up giving detailed instructions on how to make possibly the simplest snack meal on the planet.
I also managed a bowl or two of pasta, the dear friend (along with rice) of the single bloke cook which I have been for many years. Don’t ask me what is in it as I have no clue now but I see I had the decency to finish it with shavings of hard Italian cheese (pecorino perhaps?). I even managed a slightly overcooked pizza at one point and of course a very cut down version of an Ulster fry as befits my currently restricted appetite. Why is it that Italian food is so easy and quick to make? Southern Asian grub takes hours!
When I determined myself to catch up on this site on getting home from my last adventure over a week ago, I was facing a very uphill task. I was almost a year behind, I had a shedload of images and I wasn’t sure how I would get through them all but, with my re-kindled writing muse upon me, thanks to whatever forces there may be, I have been hammering on albeit at what some would consider unusual hours of the day and night and I am a fair way through it. I just have my latest trip to go, the one featuring the canal boats, festivals and another hospitalisation which I alluded to a few posts ago.
Believe me, even for one in my utterly crocked state I managed to have one Hell of an adventure which, as so often, started off for four days and ended up at about five weeks. Such is the way I operate so if you want to know all about it then you know what to do by now if you are a regular reader, if not, I’ll give you a heads up and it is simple, follow the channel and stay tuned.
Hello again folks and welcome back to my slightly disordered ramblings (hence the name of the site) and regular readers are probably wondering exactly what is going on. I disappear for about eight months and then return to be knocking out a post here every day or two. Apart from a hospital appointment yesterday (no, I could not believe an appointment for a scan on a Saturday morning either but the hospital was half-deserted and I was in and out in no time) I have done nothing but write and do all the associated nonsense like compressing images, researching, linking etc. for about a week now and am really enjoying it again, perhaps I just needed a break.
I have made no secret over the course of my writings that I have certain mental issues, mostly depression and probably PTSD although I refuse to speak to some child with a nice shiny new diploma stating they are a qualified psychologist / therapist / psychiatrist or whatever. Their world experience probably amounts to a gap year, paid for by Mummy and Daddy, where they paid a fortune to “volunteer” in an elephant sanctuary somewhere so what do they know of the real world? Nothing. What can they tell me other than what they have learned from books written by similarly privileged and inexperienced idiots?
If they ever offer me a counsellor that has been anywhere near what I have been far too close to then I might consider it but I don’t see that happening any time soon as I cannot even get to see my GP face to face any more, never mind a qualified “head doctor” who knows what he is talking about (this is not sexist, it will be a he if we are talking about my generation and someone who can actually understand my difficulties, women were a rarity). I received a lovely message a couple of days ago from a regular correspondent of mine in a country half a world away from where I live who has been in much similar situations to myself and he made the very telling comment, “we have all still got to fight our demons”. How very true.
I woke up this morning (more properly the middle of the night), looked at the time and it was 0351 and all I wanted to do was get up and write this. I have read and heard about the term “bi-polar” in relation to mental illness and I suspect I am somewhere on that curve. How can I be so totally apathetic towards writing for two thirds of a year and am suddenly now almost obsessive about it? Damned if I know but I shall run with it. I did warn you way back that this blog was going to be honest, brutally honest,, and here is the proof.
You have not, however, come here to read about my issues but presumably my travel exploits so let’s get back back to that, I just needed to get the above out of my system.
So where did I leave you? Oh yes, I remember, I was still in my beloved Broadstairs and having an absolute ball. OK, mobility was still a bit of an issue but not an insurmountable one as the town is relatively compact and easily negotiated with excellent public transport (the Thanet Loop ‘bus which runs every 15 minutes in the day will take you to Ramsgate, Margate or even Westwood Shopping Centre (if that is your thing) and all points in between.
I do quite like a day-trip to Ramsgate when it is not dangerous, as it apparently is at night, and my favoured destination (other than the excellent charity shops) is the Wetherspoons pub, the Royal Victoria Pavilion, their largest outlet and, I believe the largest pub in the UK if not Europe. In the interest of fair reporting I should mention that there are some other great places in Ramsgate, from the Goose (much similar to Wetherspoons in pricing and business model) and also more traditional boozers so it is not a bad place to go on a pub crawI. I have mentioned the Pav here before in previous posts. Their breakfasts are seriously good and the curries aren’t bad either. I have included a couple of images here to save your eyes from my consistent rattling on, you must be going cross eyed with all this text or reliving your student days for those of you that went to Uni.
Above you can see Broadstairs when it is not hugely sunny and also my standard meal, taken about once every three days and obtained by the perennially good Seafarer chippy, literally across the road from the George.
Dave, the manager of the George is a superb cook and does great bar snacks at weekends and on special occasions but does not run a kitchen as such (which is a shame) but he is quite happy for customers to bring in takeaway food from elsewhere. I have seen some of the locals devouring full Indian / Chinese / Thai meals here with a pint and it is no problem. My favourite, as pictured, is a battered sausage and chips although it is rivalled closely by the Spam fritter, the only chippy I know in UK that still does them. As it is just across the road, I don’t even have to sit and wait, they bring it over to me and even know where I always sit, I really should not be that predictable, bd fieldcraft!
The “problem” I have with Broadstairs, although it is not really a problem, is that I get down there and somehow never seem to get out again. This was to be the case yet again. Time just drifted on and October just flew by in a very comfortable existence of bars, good company, sea air and generally feeling a lot better than I had for a long time. Certainly my respiration was not all it might have been and my longest walking trip was an occasional visit to Beano’s Café who I have mentioned here before and who do some of the finest breakfasts in the country. Believe me, I have sampled many. It is right up at the top of the hill past the railway station and a bit of a haul from where I was staying but I had worked out a number of strategic garden walls where I could stop for a breather. It is always worth the trip.
All too soon it was the end of October and Hallowe’en with all the attendant nonsense that attracts. The pubs were being bombarded by fancy dress props for customers and decorations like fake cobwebs, massive rubber spiders etc. etc. and I got caught up in the nonsense. On a quiet weekday in the George the girls were dressing the place up and your humble narrator as well. Well, it seemed churlish to refuse so I went with it and the rather idiotic results you can see above. I must say that I did quite like the early Rod Stewart look! I still have the eyepatch and I might as well put it over my right eye for all the NHS seem to be doing to give me a simple cataract operation.
With October out of the way I was confronted with another problem. I have a habit of going to central London on Remembrance Sunday for the Act of Remembrance and marchpast. It is the one day a year I actually wear a suit, shirt and tie and the one time I year I dust my medals off and wear them, they normally sit in their box on my bookshelf. I generally meet my mate J.J. afterwards in a little pub near the Houses of Parliament. He too is a vet and we sit amongst a lot of old servicemen, some with two or even three rows of medals on their Unit blazers, it is humbling.
I need to point out here that none of my gongs are gallantry awards, they are all just for being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time or whatever other permutation of that you care to construe. To sit and chat to these veterans of wars long past is an education and I love Remembrance Sunday. Thankfully, at least a proportion of the British population as it still survives thinks the same and I know of bars where, if you go in wearing medals on that day, your first drink is on the house.
My problem was simple. With my respiratory problems and general weakness, I was never going to be able to stand up for about two hours in my usual spot to watch the march past. Several friends of mine had suggested I parade at Broadstairs instead of heading back to London and it seemed to make sense.
It was an interesting day. My breathing was playing up and it seemed to take me an age to get from my digs up the hill to the War Memorial and, notwithstanding the physical problems, I felt bad. Trainers, jeans, leather bike jacket, no gongs, I felt like a complete scruff and as if I was somehow dishonouring my fallen comrades and so many others who had gone before.
I tried to rationalise the issue and came to the conclusion that I had spent a large proportion of my service life looking like this (I didn’t wear uniform a lot) and they would understand, at least I hope they did. By the time I got up to the War Memorial I was wheezing like a wind-broken horse, I was totally shot. Fortunately, there is a bus shelter just by the War Memorial so I took shelter there (no pun intended).
I bumped into my mate Steve (who I once played alongside as a couple of pirates for a kid’s show at Folk Week but that is another story) who was doing the P.A. for the whole thing. He managed to tune into the radio to transmit the chimes of Big Ben in London at exactly 1100 so we could all observe the silence at the proper time. OK, he is a BBC trained engineer who once ran a news station in Afghanistan so he knows the game and knows about combat even as a civvy.
I also ran into my mate Pete who I have mentioned many times in this series who was wearing a medal I have never seen before or since and I know he was never in the Forces. It was a Vietnam medal, not even issued in UK, it was an Australian / NZ award but he got it for visiting ports in that country in the late 60’s on a merchant ship which I suppose must have been registered in either of the countries mentioned. He wore it proudly and well he might.
My mate Ross, who I mentioned as the barman in the George was there in his regimental blazer and tie, the smartest I have ever seen him in 30 years! I felt so shabby but nobody said a word, I suppose the expression on my face probably said how seriously I took all this. OK, a lot of people knew me and had a vague idea of my backstory but it was nice to just sit in the bus shelter and listen to the service conducted by a female vicar who spoke beautifully without descending into pathos. I did manage to stand up for the Silence in a biting wind under a hugely overcast sky and let my mind drift to my relatives of only one generation back as well as my own mates.
I thought of my Uncle Tommy, murdered by the Japanese, having been worked half to death on the Burma Railway and then starved, tortured and mistreated without medical facilities. I thought about my late Uncle Johnny, an original “Desert Rat” of the 8th Army who fought in North Africa and then up through Sicily and Italy. I thought of my Aunties, Maisie and Peggy who, whilst never under fire (such was the gender divide in those days) both served in the WAAF helping to co-ordinate our country’s response to the Blitz. I had several other uncles who served but I don’t know the details, such thing get sadly lost.
When the service finished I took myself back off down the hill (a lot easier than slogging up it) to the Crown for a little Remembrance Sunday ritual of mine which starts back when I was still “doing the thing”. Regrettably, as a younger and less controlled man, I developed a liking for spirits (hard liquor) to the point of complete excess and it was not a good road to be on. Nowadays, if I am in a posh restaurant (yes, I get taken to one now and again!) I may have a gin and tonic as an aperitif and and when I was in Rome I might have an occasional Aperol spritz (now becoming hugely popular in UK) at teteime (when in Rome…) but that is it, it is cider for me all the way or beer in countries where cider is not available.
I did take myself out to the back bar of the Crown (where nobody usually frequents unless the place is really busy) and spent a while looking at the excellent painting (seen above) from a local artist whose name I do not even know or I would credit him. Whilst it is completely anachronistic, i.e. a Second World War bomber flying over an obviously First World War “Tommy” is totally irrelevant but was hugely relevant to that day and all that it stood for. I think it is a superb piece of work.
The ritual I mentioned consists of a large bumper (i.e. a double) of whisky, in my case Jameson’s for choice although I suppose I should choose Bushmills as it is Northern Irish. I apologise now to whisky afficionados but I just don’t like the taste of it but a sacrifice should be made to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice so I ordered a double which Crissi looked slightly bemused by, I drained it, took a good swill of cider to wash the taste out and told her not to give me any more.
I thought about Mark Evans (a boyhood friend), Gordy Wilson (a great leader), Rosie McGookin (always a smile and a laugh) and so many others, then I moved on and resumed my place as resident drunk at the bar which is probably where I belong anyway. They are all long gone, I grieved for them, still do in a vague sort of way but probably best to just carry on. My word, how heavy has this become? I promise you it wasn’t meant to be but I am back to the concept of brutally honest again. This is what you get when you read my nonsense.
Remember, I am primarily writing this as my epitaph for long after I am not here. After a life of necessary deceit I am finally “getting it all off my chest”. Well, some of it anyway. It is time to be true to myself and to anyone who is daft enough to read this drivel but back to the story.
No, Broadstairs was not the pomp and ceremony of the London commemoration but it was intimate and I was thinking that there were service personnel all over the world doing the same thing, although many of them would not have been able to have a dram as I did due to the constraints of where they were. Such is the continuum of life serving your country and I suppose it will always be the same even if the technology, weapons and equipment all move on. I’ll bet there were a few half bottles stowed in kitbags!
I was glad I had made the effort to go as I had missed the commemoration in London a couple of years prior due to ill-health and I was beating myself up about it for the next year. We were always told, “there is no such thing as can’t”. A little unrealistic perhaps but a good mindset. Can’t go to Remembrance Sunday just because you can barely walk? Forget it. Remember one of the “originals” (look it up) who trudged 120 miles over the North African desert in 1943 or thereabouts with a tiny amount of water and drank his own urine to survive (you can actually drink your own urine three times before it becomes toxic!) to reach an LRDG base. Main Street in Broadstairs was nothing. I owed it to them and so many others.
So here we were in November, winter definitely setting in so thankfully I had some warm clothes packed and there are several brilliant charity shops in Broadstairs where most of my wardrobe and all of my library comes from. I cannot remember the last time I bought new clothes apart from underwear, sock and jeans (I am an awkward shape) and I make no apology for it. If you don’t use charity shops you are a fool and just throwing money at global firms exploiting child workers all over the world.
No problems, Jackie said the room was mine for as long as I wanted, I had my little routine of daily living, the occasional gig and I was frankly feeling as good as I had for ages. Broadstairs does that to me although I suspect it is more psychological than physical, there is only so much fresh air can do for you even if it is infinitely better than the fume-ridden rubbish I breathe in London when I do venture out the door. I was in a good place.
November went on and I celebrated yet another birthday towards the end of the month, or more accurately I didn’t celebrate it, it was just another day and I have never seen the point in celebrating getting another year closer to death as Pink Floyd once so wonderfully observed. So what was next? Well, we had slipped into December, my 30 day return train ticket had long since expired so that wasn’t an issue, I was just going to have to give more money to foreign shareholders who now hold our national infrastruncture (like water, electricity and who knows what else) in their greedy, grasping fists thanks to previous misGovernments of this country.
So December it was and I must note one thing from the early part of the month. I have told you about the bi-weekly jams in the Magnet and they really do throw up some of the most wonderful moments. I have a very dear friend called Rachel, who I have known since she was a child (yes, I really am getting old), her Mother is a dear friend. As a single Mother of two herself now she has little chance to show off her considerable musical talents which is a loss to the musical community.
On this particular day, when I was at the bar getting “revved up” enough to play (they always put me on last, not because I am a headliner but because they know I need to get half stewed). She asked to borrow my guitar, no problem there as she cannot damage it any more than I have done over 30 years, and she sang one of my favourite Christy Moore songs, “Ride on”. She dragged my mate Mikee up to accompany her on melodeon. Mikee and I have played together many times. You can have a look here.
As if that was not enough she then dragged a young lad (maybe 11 or 12 years old and still in his school uniform to do a version of Wellerman. It was great and you can see it here. I wish I had had his confidence at that age, I was still throwing up from nerves when I was 21!
What an afternoon and the last time I played with the late Jeff who I mentioned before. It was a special day in many respects, both in the doing of it and the looking back on it. Here is a short and not very good clip (the light was right in my lens) but I include it here as a remembrance of a dear friend, it seems like this entire post is predicated towards remembering the dead but it is really not intended to be thus, it is just what happens when you get old.
December brings Christmas, and with it’s passing, New Year. Neither means a thing to me as it just, like my birthday, reminds me I am getting older although at this point my body was certainly sending me enough messages of that sort. The “holiday season” might as well be spent amongst good company in Broadstairs as opposed to my usual solitary existence in London.
When I first moved to London in 1988 there were still plenty of proper East End pubs, all of which opened on Xmas Day, usually about 1200 – 1500. Everybody would congregate to swap seasonal greetings and then go home for their festive meal whilst the landlord and his family did the same upstairs. That tradition, like most British traditions, has died out and I do not know a pub within three or four miles of my home that even opens on Xmas Day.
There is no public transport and taxis cost double time on that day (even though 95% of the drivers are Muslim and do not even celebrate Xmas) so it is a usual Xmas Day for me to either just sit at home or possibly pop across the road to my local “Indian” (actually Bangladeshi) takeaway, which is open as it is just another day for them. I have had several excellent Xmas meals of lamb dhansak and a few chapatis washed down with a few pints. Not traditional I know but it suits me.
Whilst I do not subscribe to Muslim philosophy at all, I agree with the sentiment that it is just another Tuesday or Thursday or whatever when the buses don’t run and the pubs are shut. OK, they have Eid and fair play to them, everyone deserves a party after a eriod of fasting, just got to an Orthodox Christian country at Easter if you don’t believe me.
Christmas is a right pain so I decided to stay put. I had already established there were several places in town still adhering to the old traditions of opening for a few hours so it was better than nothing and I knew I had my computer and a good wi-fi connection so I could watch all sorts of documentaries and work my way through my pre-bought supply of drink (not to mention my huge supply of medications) and Boxing Day would be a lively day with lots of sport on TV and everyone in festive mood, so that is what I did and it worked perfectly well.
Things were looking good for a couple of weeks, I was feeling good, as good as I had for ages despite my obvious health issues. Really, what more could a man ask for? Lovely digs with a super comfy bed, daily contact with good friends, an excellent selection of takeaways on the odd occasion I decided to eat, it was absolutely perfect and then the bombshell dropped and what a bombshell it proved to be. The image above is just included to show you some of the lovely things I saw daily. I thought those contrails were beautiful.
In the manner of Lee Child, Bernard Cornwell and other great thriller writers (not that I would equate my meagre scratchings here with either of them, two of my most favourite authors and who I follow slavishly, Jack Reacher and Dick Sharpe are my heroes) I am going to leave you with what I believe is called a cliff-hanger. This post has gone on long enough and longer than I had planned so you know the drill. If you want to read about the bombshell, stay tuned!