Bearing North to Berwick.

Up on the Monday morning and it was time to pack as I was back on the road again. More properly speaking I was back on the rails which made a pleasant change from being off the rails as I so frequently am. Paul’s time-critical project was becoming less time and more critical by the day and I thought I’d get out of the way and not overstay my welcome as he and Sue had been so lovely to me.

I was off to Berwick-upon-Tweed as I had already booked my ticket and I’ll explain the rationale for both of these things now. I had booked my ticket online the night before as buying a walk-up ticket on the British railway system is merely asking to be robbed. I could start yet another rant here about how appalling rail fares are in UK but I’ll spare you.

Why Berwick-upon-Tweed? Well, it was one of several options. I had considered popping up to Edinburgh and possibly meeting up with my friend as I had not seen her for a while but I have been to Edinburgh many times and, much as I love it, I thought I’d give it a miss this time round. I had considered Hexham for the utterly ludicrous reason that one of my favourite bands, Fairport Convention,have a great song called the Hexhamshire Lass and I had never been there. Honestly, I decide to go to places for such idiotic reasons. Carlisle was also in the frame as there is a direct cross-country train and I had only ever spent one night in that quite important county town decades ago but in the end I plumped for Berwick for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I have been up and down the East Coast rail line more times than I can remember and a highlight of it is always going over the wonderful railway bridge which spans the Tweed. I had often looked down at the peaceful looking town so far below and thought I would like to go there one day and this seemed like a good opportunity as it is only about 45 minutes on the train.  Another good reason and the one that probably swung it was that there is a military museum there, the Regimental Museum of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, or the Kosbies as they are known in the mob. There turns out to be a bit of a story attached to the Museum as you shall see.

My train was at about 1400 and Paul happened to be going into town and so gave me lift to the Station so after collecting my ticket from the self-service machine I had a bit of time to kill so I thought of going for a bit of a wander but it was never going to be anything major as I had the suitcase and the weather was pretty unpleasant and getting worse by the minute. At least I didn’t have to lug the guitar as well as Paul had very kindly let me plank it in his place with the arrangement that we would meet up for a drink when I came back through Newcastle and he would bring it for me. Nice one, mate.

I managed a few images, shown above, but the weather was just evil so I ducked into the nearby Wetherspoons for a bite to eat as I was getting a bit peckish. I really cannot believe, even now, how my appetite came back after my surgery. For non-regular readers, Wetherspoons is a large chain (1,000+ and counting) which utilises the economies of scale and provides inexpensive food and beverages and whilst it attracts criticism in some quarters, I like them and use them a lot, especially when I am travelling.

Wetherspoons very rarely buy over existing pubs but rather they go for old banks, cinemas, theatres and just about any other large building they can convert. I have even been in one that was formerly a postal sorting office! The outlet close to Newcastle station is called the Mile Castle and is in the lovely old building you can see in the image which was formerly a Savings Bank dating to 1861.

‘Spoons, as they are often called, always take their name from a local person, event or landmark and they always have old photographs, posters, paintings etc. on display with accompanying text. I always have a good look round in any new ‘Spoons I visit as is amazing what you can learn about the local area and you know how obsessed I am with that.

As for the name, it refers to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall which built by the Romans to keep the “barbarian” Scots at bay. There was a castle built every mile along it’s length to house the sentries and one of them stood near here, hence the name. I have to say that on a day like this I wouldn’t have fancied “stagging” (Army slang for sentry duty) in a draughty turret. Trust me, sentry duty is no fun at all!

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Just right for lunch.

Another thing about Wetherspoons that I like is the reasonably recent introduction of small pizzas. I like a pizza now and again but often struggle with a whole one, especially if it is regular crust as the dough just bloats me. Deep pan pizzas are a complete non-starter for me. The Wetherspoons ones are, I believe, 8″ and just the right size for a lunch for me. I usually go for the Hawaiian and I apologise to pizza purists for that but I love them and the little beauty you see here was just enough to keep me going. I was working on the principle that I would be eating out that night and it would probably be something fairly substantial so I didn’t want to overdo it early on.

Lunch over, I walked back to the station at a fairly brisk pace as I didn’t want to be out in that any longer than I had to be. I had a few minutes to look round what is one of my favourite railway stations in UK, many of which seem to be on the Northeast line like York and Edinburgh Waverley, along with this place. As they have often been described, Victorian railway stations were cathedrals to the god of steam and they always speak to me of a bygone age.

I’ll deal fully with John Dobson’s masterpiece here in a future post but for now let’s get back on the train which I thought was surprisingly busy for an early November afternoon. Perhaps it was because it was the “cheap train” which was certainly the reason I had picked it and I’ll explain that to you briefly here.

Once again apologies to those who have read it before but this quick tip is for those who may be visiting UK and travelling by rail. It really does pay to shop around when you book tickets online as I had done as the savings can be considerable thereby making your holiday £ / $ / € / Ұ go a lot further. For example, if I get the equivalent train tomorrow at 1352 (03/02/2020) it will be £12:70 advance single. The preceding train at 1335 is £29:80 as is the succeeding one at 1455. The trains are exactly the same and it is not as if you are paying for a quicker service as the “cheap train” in this instance is marginally the quickest of the three. Don’t ask me why, it is yet another mystery of the modern day Great Train Robbery.

The journey was quick and uneventful, indeed it would take me much longer to get from my home to, say, Twickenham for a rugby match and both of them are in London. However, the change was much more marked than my notional journey in the capital. I know there is some pleasant scenery on this stretch although it was impossible to appreciate in this murk but when I alighted at Berwick-upon-Tweed I was in very different environment to the bustle of Newcastle city centre.


Stepping down onto the platform at the fairly quiet station I could not help feeling a little like Michael Portillo and, again for the benefit of non-UK readers, a quick explanation follows. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, or Miguel Portillo y Blyth as he is named on his Spanish passport (his father was a refugee from Franco’s Spain) was formerly a British politician, achieving Cabinet rank in the Conservative Government.

He incredibly managed to lose his very safe seat in a Labour landslide election in 1997 but was parachuted into another one shortly thereafter. He described his finest achievement in politics as “saving the Settle to Carlisle railway” and I would echo that sentiment as it is arguably the most attractive line in the UK which was threatened with closure.

After leaving politics in 2005 and carved out a career as a broadcaster with his signature TV series involving him travelling by train in various parts of the world, often accompanied by a Bradshaw’s antique railway guide, and I simple love them. Coincidentally I was watching some earlier today on the BBC iPlayer. I shall not post any links here as I know they are not available in all parts of the world but I do recommend you try to find them if you can.

I often find myself mentally scripting “pieces to camera” as I am in railway stations or on trains and I was “doing a Portillo” as I took off into the drizzle for my short walk to the hotel. Many of these mental telejournalism exercises end up here in my blog entries so now you know. Yes, I did warn you I was odd.

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Castle Hotel, Berwick-upon-Tweed.

With Mr. / Senor Portillo having the resources and budget of the BBC licence payer’s fees behind him he habitually stays in the finest hotels and one of the episodes I watched today had him holed up in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, having been transferred there in one of their fleet of 14 Rolls Royce Phantoms. Your humble narrator does not have access to such resources and so walked the couple of hundred yards to the Castle Hotel where I was greeted by a very friendly lady. This was to be feature as all the staff were lovely. I told her I had a reservation and this appeared to cause a bit of consternation. I had booked a single room with shared facilities as that does not bother me at all and it saves a few £££ but for some reason which I wasn’t actually told, my room was not available. After a bit of muttering and jiggery pokery on the computer I was informed that I had been upgraded to a double en-suite room for the same price. Happy days.

I cannot remember how much I paid but it was a last minute deal and, if memory serves, was only about £40 or £45 a night. I wasn’t expecting the George V at that price but I am a man of simple tastes and all I require is a comfy bed, preferably long enough for my lanky frame, not too much noise and some hot water for a shower. The Castle certainly had all that and rather than describe it in detail I’ll let the images speak for themselves. I still have this habit of taking loads of images when I go into a hotel room which is a throwback to the days when I wrote tips / reviews for Virtual Tourist. I had to include the image of the toilet roll holder as there was no way I was going to run out, even had I stayed there a month, I thought it was very practical but slightly amusing. Perhaps it is just my odd sense of humour again.

I had booked room only as, even with my newly re-acquired appetite I still rarely eat breakfast, at least not at conventional breakfast time but the lady had told me breakfast was included, so another bonus. I think you’ll agree that I had scored a right bargain and I was well satisfied.

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Lest we forget.

Having dumped my kit I headed back out quickly as I reckoned that in the conditions I had probably about an hour of semi-daylight left and I wanted to make the most of it. Almost immediately I found the local war memorial which I took images of for the War Memorials Online project that I contribute to although it was difficult to get any sort of an image in that light.

 

In what appeared to be a private dwelling just beside the War Memorial I spotted the display you can see above in the front window, commemorating a Private William Edward Currins of the 1st / 7th Battalion, Northumberla

nd Fusiliers who died in Flanders in 1916 and is buried there. He was 23. I don’t know if there was a family connection there or if he was just one of the fallen chosen at random.
I should explain that the time of year is relevant here as it was the 4th of November which made it exactly one week before Armistice Day and six days before the National Act of Remembrance which is always held on the Sunday nearest to it. I attended in central London as I do if I am not travelling at the time and shall report on that here in due course.

I am glad to see that Remembrance Day, poppy selling et, seems to be important as ever but I was particularly struck by the extent of the observance in Berwick. Perhaps it is because this is historically a military town and homeplace to the Kings Own Scottish Borders Regiment, which was one of the main reasons I was here, but it was noticeable.

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Former St. Mary’s church, Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Overlooking the Memorial was the church you can see and I thought I might take a look because churches fascinate me as regular readers will know. I could see that th front door was not open so I thought I would go round the side, which I did and something just wasn’t right. It clearly wasn’t a Church. A quick internet search reveals it was formerly the Church of St. Mary, Castlegate, was built in 1857 – 8 and once had the distinction of being the most Northerly Church in England. It is Grade II listed with Historic England, was de-consecrated in 1989 and now serves as an adult training centre. I do like to know these things.

So, no Church to see and frankly I wasn’t too bothered about seeing much else of anything as the weather was steadily deteriorating if such a thing was possible. Nothing else for it but to hit the pub and purely at random I picked the Brewers Arms which turned out to be a good choice and a place I was to return to during my stay. The Brewers had an extensive menu with inexpensive daily specials and the food is good as I was to find out later on but I had set my heart on having a curry that night for no particular reason other than I had not had one for a while.

The pub was not too busy and I sat myself down at a table beside a fireplace which I was desperately trying to date. I had taken a wild stab at about 1930’s and this may or may not be correct as the building dates to 1905 and was previously called the Heavy Battery. Although there is not much online about the pub, it is described on one website as being art deco style which is a favourite of mine when I manage to recognise it. This is beautifully illustrated by the funnel shaped entrance which I have never seen before and really is attractive so I am going to stick to my 1930’s guess for the fireplace and surmise that it was a refurbishment at that time!

Whilst I was in there Paul texted me to find out if I had arrived safely and enquired where I was. When I told him he recommended that I take myself off to the Barrels pub down by the river. He knows Berwick pretty well and has played there so I was definitely going to take his tip. Come to think of it, Paul has played just about everywhere one time or another. I finished my drink and took off in the direction he had told me heading for the Barrels. On the way I marked a decent looking Indian restaurant for later use but, in the event, I never got there.

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You know I love bridges!

I found the Barrels easily enough, pausing only briefly to take a night shot of the bridge.  Well, you know by now what I am like about bridges.  I walked into a very small bar but I found out later that it is only one of several bars on the premises including the basement which is home to the town’s major live music venue  It is still a live venue despite the attempts of a litigious neighbour to have it shut down a few years back. I explained my “drinking problem” to the cheerful barman who dispensed my odd cider concoction sympathetically and I took a seat at one of only a few tables in there.

I should have stayed at the bar which is my normal practice as the adjacent table was occupied by two men, one of whom was obviously slightly the worse for wear and he had shortly managed to upend my pint as he tried to stand up. Fortunately I was quick enough to dodge most of it and at least he had the decency to buy me another albeit he could not quite believe it when I told him what I was drinking.

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Sorry about the quality.

I didn’t take any images in the pub as I really did not want my “friend” starting asking awkward questions about what I was doing so the pretty poor external image above will have to suffice along with the poster of forthcoming events which was in the gents. If you look at it you will see that there was an open mic night the next evening which I might have even considered had I not very helpfully left my guitar behind in Newcastle! It would have been nice to tell Paul that I had played there as well but such is life.

Once again, I did not retrace my steps but rather continued along Bridge Street, knowing that I could loop round and find my way back to the Indian restaurant I had on mind but not too far along I spied the Magna Tandoori which looked OK from the outside and the menu posted outside looked fine so in I went. I have included an image taken in daylight the next day from which you can see that the windows are fairly high up and partially over by some attractive window boxes so I couldn’t actually see inside.

It was a dismally wet Monday night in November and I wasn’t expecting many people to be out but having negotiated the desk and been shown into one of the two huge dining rooms I hadn’t expected to be the only person in the whole place. The dining room you can see is only one half of the restaurant which is massive. The building was apparently formerly a Georgian townhouse and it must have been some dwelling in it’s day. I am sure the Magna is very pleasant with a few people in it but it was a bit like eating in an aircraft hanger with just me there. However, I just wanted a decent feed and there was certainly plenty of choice.

Apart from the “usual suspects” the chef’s specials included venison and duck dishes as well as regional specialities from Bengal, Goa and Bombay. Trapped in the indecision of another fine menu (go on, Google that phrase!) I inexplicbly played very safe and ordered the mixed pakora followed by the lamb dansak. As is my way, I did not order rice which always seems to amaze waiters but it just bloats me and opted instead for some chapatis. I do so love Indian breads. I also treated myself to a Cobra beer as I reckoned it would not tip me over my self-imposed daily limit and it’s not really a curry without beer, is it?

The meal was fine with just a couple of things worthy of mention. The first was the sauce accompanying the pakora which was mango but much thinner than the usual chutney and served warm which I had never encountered before. The second little oddity was that there was pineapple in the dansak which was another first for me but it was very good and I am particularly fond of that fruit. Normally pineapple is associated with the milder curries and I like a bit of oomph so that worked well. I am sure the staff wanted rid of me so they could close up but they didn’t rush me in any way which is to their credit.

Having settled the pretty painless bill I zipped up my leather bike jacket and stepped out into a night that had somehow managed to get even more unpleasant if that was possible. I was glad that jacket was well-padded. If you’ll pardon the indelicacy, it was a case of head down, arse up and go like Hell which I did until I reached the sanctuary of the hotel and my nice cosy bed.

In the next entry I brave appalling weather, have an utter disaster of a day sightseeing and still manage to thoroughly enjoy myself so stay tuned and spread the word.

Not coals but a guitar to Newcastle.

Hello again to one and all and the beginning of yet another trip which I was hoping would be less eventful than the last one which had only finished the night before. If you have been reading my posts sequentially then you will know that I had arrived back from a somewhat extended visit to Thanet which had deposited me at home just before midnight the previous evening after about two and a half months in Thanet which itself had come after a quick turnaround from a jaunt back to Northern Ireland. I had virtually forgotten what my own flat (apartment) looked like and, if you are interested, it was still as untidy as I remembered it and with the customary heap of mail piled up behind the door.

I was up and about good and early and disposed of the mail which I had walked over the night before. That took about five minutes as a good proportion of it was junk and the rest merely bank statements and the like which were duly filed i.e. thrown on the precariously high pile on my coffee table. I swear that if it ever topples and hits the floor it is liable to register on the Richter scale. I really must get round to sorting it one of these years (I am not joking about that) but not just yet.

With the office work out of the way it was time to pack for my little expedition which consisted of removing the bag of dirty laundry and replacing it with a few clean T-shirts, socks and underwear all of which took another two minutes. I can honestly say that my little rollalong suitcase has not been fully unpacked since the day I bought and first packed it a couple of years ago which probably says something about my lifestyle. A quick shower and I was back out the door a little under 12 hours since I had walked through it. At least I know my home had not burned down, been burgled or flooded which are my major concerns when I am away.

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Yet another chariot awaits.

I wandered to the Tube and wrestled my way onto it. Unless I am flying I use a soft guitar case with straps that you wear like a rucksack which is very convenient but I am 6’5″ and it sits well above my head so I have to do a passable Quasimodo impersonation to get on and off a Tube because of the low doors. It must look quite comical. I arrived at Kings Cross in good time for a change as I usually end up rushing like mad and got my pre-booked seat on a lunchtime departure to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The reserved seat is free and is even required on certain services especially round the mas period but I suppose that is the least they can do at the obscene prices the franchises are allowed to charge on the British rail network although this franchise is unusual as I shall explain below.

An off peak return booked in advance cost me £118 and in the interest of research I have just looked up what an off peak fare for this afternoon. £165 single. Yes, you read that correctly, it is appalling and to make it even more ridiculous the fare to Edinburgh, a further 120 miles is £166. I will never understand the ticketing policy on British railways.

The East Coast service is now operated by the London and Northeastern Railway (LNER) operation which is unusual in that it is Government controlled with all other routes having been franchised out to mostly foreign owned companies with the end of nationalised railways in 1996. It was operated by several different operators, latterly Virgin Trains East Coast who, despite the name, were 90% owned by the Stagecoach group but they handed it back in 2018 amidst huge financial losses. I have to say that it is very unusual for anything bearing Richard Branson’s name not to profit and with the sharp business practices of Stagecoach I was surprised they could not make a go of it.

I would not count myself as a trainspotter nor an “anorak” and you certainly will not find me on a windswept platform somewhere dutifully noting down loco numbers but I do love trains and train travel and take every opportunity to use that mode of transport. I never fly home to Northern Ireland now or to destinations in the nearer parts of continental Europe as I much prefer the vastly more civilised train / ferry options available which I discovered through the fantastic Man in Seat 61 website which I recommend thoroughly for anyone planning rail travel anywhere in the world. I often browse it just for fun when I should really be keeping this blog up to date!

The new franchise has “borrowed” the LNER name from the company that operated the line in the heyday of rail travel from 1923 virtue of the Railways Act 1921 until nationalisation in 1948 and even the name conjures up evocative images of the great days of steam. Just about everyone has heard of the Flying Scotsman which fairly flew between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh but it was the Mallard which also ran the route that has the distinction of holding the world record for the fastest steam powered speed at an incredible 126 mph. I wonder what Robert Stephenson would have made of that.

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It is comfy but it should be at that price!

Today the rolling stock is electric and pretty comfortable and I spent the majority of the journey just looking out the window eventhough I had taken the usual precaution of bringing a book. For good portion of the start of the journey the track follows the route of the canal system which the rilways eventually killed off and which is another great love of mine. I love canals and narrowboats and have crewed for friends who own their own as well as having had several excellent leisure trips, one of which XXXX you can see here if you would like a flavour of life “on the Cut”. It is actually quite logical that the two networks run parallel as both dislike gradients and will take the line of least resistance through the topography.

Three hours later I alighted at the lovely Newcastle station having crossed the River Tyne on one of the several bridges that are going to feature heavily in the imagery in this section of posts and for which I make no apology. At the risk of sounding like some old spaced out hippy, bridges are another thing I love, along with trains, canals, military history, places of worship and places of liquid refreshment and they shall all feature heavily on this trip. I love a lot of things really.

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I arrived safe and sound.

I can actually date the last time I was in Newcastle Station although I have passed through it more times than I can count. It was in 1977 when my parents still harboured notions of me going to University and, along with Queen’s in my home city of Belfast, I had applied to Newcastle and Sheffield and went to both cities to be shown round by students already there. In truth, I already knew there was no way I was going to pass my A levels but it seemed like a good excuse for a jaunt and I recall leaving there on a tortuous train journey to Liverpool to get the boat back to Northern Ireland whilst nursing the hangover from Hell which had been caused by the very sociable nature of my student hosts. I have never drunk Vaux beer since!

As promised, Paul met me at the gate and insisted on taking my case which wasn’t really necessary as I had managed this far but much appreciated. He is a lovely bloke, very considerate and a great friend but he really did seem to be taking rather a lot of care of me and it was only later in the trip that he admitted he thought I was still quite ill and that he was surprised how well I was looking. Again I was a bit surprised at the way people were reacting to me as I felt great. A little weak perhaps but that was all.

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We went down into the adjacent Metro system and Paul gave me a quick rundown on the intricacies of the ticket machine which was simple enough. We were to spend a lot of time on the Metro which is handy but seems to be prone to about as many delays as the London Underground as shall be described in future posts. The image above was taken later as you can see by the fact it is dark, but it will serve to liven up the page as I have very few images for this day.

Paul lives in the lovely (and pretty posh) suburb of Jesmond about which I was to lean much during my stay and he is about equidistant from Jesmond and West Jesmond stations. We alighted at the latter and on exiting I was greatly heartened to see the Lonsdale Hotel bang opposite the station not that pubs were of the same use to me as they had been three months previously but I still have a habit of noting them. We made it to his house in good order and I got settled in which took about two minutes. Guitar case left in the hallway for imminent use, suitcase in the bedroom and I was sorted.

Paul’s wife Sue is a great cook and I should point out here that I do not pick my friends solely on their culinary abilities as I have friends that cannot boil an egg but many of my friends are excellent in the kitchen and so we had a lovely meal and then it was back on the road, well the Metro, and off to Hebburn where we had a gig that night with his band Shamrock Street. I should explain that I have been promising for literally years to come up to visit and play a few sessions or whatever and for various reasons it had never happened. Paul’s regular guitarist was away on holidays and he had asked me if I could come up and sit in for a few engagements. No problem, it would be another few venues and a new city to add to my CV.

The venue in question was the Hebburn Iona Social Club which is typical of Northern “working men’s clubs”. It is huge, very comfortable and the drink is cheap! I really do wonder how pubs compete and, indeed, this may be one of the reasons so many pubs are closing in these days when every penny counts.  Again, the images were taken later as I didn’t stop to take one then.

 

I had not bothered to ask what sort of gig it was but one look at the large function room where we were to play made it obvious that it wasn’t going to be a sit in the corner and play acoustic session. Paul had told me to make sure I brought a lead for my guitar, which I always carry anyway and there was a decent sized PA in the process of being set up by Ged the fiddle and whistle player / vocalist and Martin the logistics guy / percussionist. A quick introduction where I was made most welcome and a quick pint procured, it was time to get set up. In my case the pint was that awful “ciderwater” which is half and half cider and soda water and was necessitated by my continuing medication. Remember that I had never played with these guys but I have done that many times before and it is no problem. By the time it came to starting time we had been joined by a couple of accordianists and so we were a decent sized outfit.

It had been explained to me that it was effectively a singers night and that I would have to be on my toes finding keys as people just took off in whatever key they fancied or, worse still, announced they would be singing in one key and then sang in a completely different one. No problem. As I always say, have capo, will travel! I am not being unkind but I felt like a youngster in there and I am most certainly not a spring chicken any more. Without exaggeration I would suggest the average age of the audience was about 70. I was sitting extreme stage right and was quickly engaged in a wonderful conversation by a trio of “golden age” Geordies who could not have been friendlier and seemed quite amazed that I had travelled all the way from London to play here. With me being the way I am I was flirting outrageously with the two old dears and joking with the man, all of which seemed to cause general hilarity.

Ged had very kindly introduced me as their “special guest” so no pressure then. It turned out to be a great night with an excellent standard of singers and certainly plenty of them, most of whom I even found the keys for eventually. Maybe it is a Northeastern thing but the key of F seemed very popular and the capo stood me in good stead. I really enjoyed myself and it seemed like only minutes until it was time to finish and for Paul and I to get the Metro home. Ged and Martin live nearby and were walking.

A quick coffee and I was off to bed, more than ready for it. I had really hit the ground running and I knew I had a lot more playing to do not to mention a bit of sightseeing no matter what the weather was going to throw at me. In the next post I do some local exploration, eat haggis and play an impromptu gig with a bona fide pop star in the audience. To find out who it was, and as always, stay tuned and spread the word.