Saturday, 7 October 2017

Best Coffee - Worst Cheese

Best Coffee

I've never really liked coffee all that much. I can remember needing it on many occasions - staying up all night before a dissertation deadline, or working a Saturday at Music and Video Exchange on Berwick Street, I might have swigged it down like a thirsty man drinks from a canteen of water. The flavour and mouthfeel of a good cup of coffee is very enjoyable of course, but the specialist market that has developed around the crop fascinates me more because of how many not-particularly-nice cups it seems possible to buy, rather than the myriad opportunities to over-indulge thrown up by what might as well be called Craft Beer. During this trip, I've drunk about a hundred quid's worth of no-great-shakes, nothing-to-write-home-about coffee. Shops that had come highly recommended in Bristol and Lancaster have served unpleasant Americanos or long blacks with milk on the side that remind me in many ways of a mean old lady's hands - thin and bitter, almost translucent in the wrong light, yet covered in ugly dark liver spots.

Maybe I should move on from the Americano as it is certainly not the coffee style-choice of the connoisseur. An enormous, particularly rank effort from one of those Costa machines in a petrol station in Deal was enough to show me as much, two months ago now. I watched in captivated revulsion while a tiny espresso was drowned in a gallon of hot water before gushing cow juice turned it all a whiter shade of beige.

I would like to do some coffee in my record shop one day, but I am absolutely nothing like an expert. It seems to me that it can't be that difficult to consistently do a simple, good, coffee well, but I'm told by friends who have worked with it that it's not that easy. Why? Why is proper coffee so difficult to do well? And is this really why there are so many small independents that seem to be trying so hard, yet failing to deliver? In Carnforth my first cup of instant coffee of the whole journey so far probably ranked in the top half of those I've had, served strong and hot, while we were made to feel welcome by a lovely man I've never known all that well, his poorly mum (nevertheless radiant in her dressing gown), and his whippet (who flew around the room as if he was on his ninth cup). Meanwhile, the St*rb*cks in Skipton made a fantastic flat white when the right barista was on - the strong-looking woman with tattoos on her arms.

The best coffee I have had, ever, I think, was yesterday in a place called Mr Duffin's near the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley. Not only was this specific single variety cup - a Peruvian - pure gold, it was one of about six they roasted right there, in a big solid piece of impressive engineering, in addition to a few different blends (one of which was a key ingredient in Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a powerful half-pint that had sent me looking for the coffee shop in the first place).

Worst Cheese

Here's another foodstuff that has been elevated to a position where buying and consuming huge amounts of it can be mistaken for some sort of specialist interest, rather than just being a bit greedy. The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, in the Yorkshire Dales, offers gargantuan piles of dozens of varieties for the tasting of. Many of these were exquisite in their single-cubic-centimetre taster portions, but were never savoured nearly so well in the massive slabs I cut and jammed into my hairy gob after spending about thirty quid.

All cheese is good. Once again, my ill-educated palette is exposed. I enjoy pungent French soft cheeses, big blue mouldy stuff, dry-as-dust parmesans and even those yellow slices of processed fat that go well in cheeseburgers, and my whole family refers to as "'sgusty cheese". Sweating yellow rubbery Best-In blocks that look and taste like Semtex can serve a purpose if no other cheese is available.

So the worst cheese on this trip has, and I apologise in advance for this, been self-produced. You do not need to spend very much time with me (or any at all, thanks to this blog) to know that there are a range of things about me that are quite unpleasant. But smelly feet have never really counted among these demerits. Until Thursday morning in Skipton - gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and a whole new kingdom of self-loathing for me. The day before, we had been at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, paying handsomely to be drenched with water by Valhalla and shitted right up by the octogenarian woodwork project rollercoaster Grand National. The night before this, we'd been rained on most thoroughly during an abortive attempt to admire the illuminations, which appear to be the greatest rebuttal of humankind's supposed recent technological advances, as they are less sophisticated than they were thirty-five years ago.

My shoes were so wet that I broke out my gore-tex oversocks, stalwarts of very many happy days' mountain biking and very few washing machine cycles. The combination of new and old, moist and desiccated footcheeses, had a simply overpowering aroma which I attempted to ignore by drinking so heavily that I fell right out of the overcab bed on my return, thankfully avoiding knocking a BLUES NIGHT - shaped hole through the floor of the van. Two industrial washing machines later, this perfume is losing its bite, thankfully for anybody who has shared a room with me recently, let alone a compact motorhome.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Return Visit to Merseyside

It was, he supposed, inevitable that they would return to Liverpool, the city where the course of their lives had been set some twenty years before. They were not alone now, of course, sharing their carriage by day and at night with two bright-eyed young boys - living, breathing evidence that what he had done in the faded glamour of the Adelphi Hotel last century had not, thankfully, forced her away.

The place was different now, of course. Bright lights shone from new steel buildings and converted warehouses that had stood in silence two decades before. The docks provided a peaceful place to park and rest where once the van's wheels might not have lasted the night. Fine food from all over the world and beer of which they once could not have dreamt stood in the way of a visit to Chinatown just for old times' sake, and the faces of the city's favourite sons were everywhere, but EVERYWHERE, instead of peering modestly from just one shop window or two, and a plastic statue by The Cavern made to look like bronze.

However, this great love was forbidden to them - the red-haired child was small but strong and he laid down the law from the start. "I CHALLENGE YOU," he declared in a voice that, though reedy and nasal, demanded attention, "NOT TO MENTION THE BEATLES, OR ANY MEMBER OF THE BEATLES, OR ANY OF THE NAMES OF THEIR SONGS, OR ANYTHING ABOUT THEM, THE WHOLE TIME THAT WE'RE HERE." This was a relief, in fact, and the man enjoyed infuriating his son for 48 hours by finding it easy to do.

And so it was that as they approached Matthew Street, the ever-competitive young scamp pointed up at a life-size silver figure leaning down from a building with drumsticks in hand, and enquired innocently, "Dad, who is that?" Luckily, this most unlikely of likenesses bore precious little resemblance to the usually-easy-to-recognise Richard Starkey, so the man was able to be honest and still not fail to meet his challenge, "it's actually really difficult to tell." As they moved along the side of the building, other unrecognisable musicians came into view, holding Rickenbacker guitars or a Hofner bass, so he was unable to hold in the loud afterthought, "but I assume that they're the famous Liverpool band Gerry and the Pacemakers."

"NOOOOchkOOOOOchkkOOO," groaned a homeless scouser from the doorway behind them, shaking his head miserably while inserting even more guttural sounds into a word in which they did not belong. The situation of desperate homeless people, virtually everywhere they had been on their tour, had affected the man of the family a great deal, and so he flashed this one a knowing smile in order not to make him sad. It went unseen. "Yer cahrn't seh daht," he wailed, still tossing his sunburned face left and right in apparent agony, eyes screwed shut against the sight of this Southern Dichkh who didn't even know the Beatles when he saw them.

The slow lane, M6, 1998: the only time in his life that the young man had travelled by coach some distance alone, and all of the way he became sicker and sicker. His nose was running, he coughed and he sneezed, and his guts were churning within him as he attempted to digest a moist sandwich of thin ham and tasteless tomatoes. The toilet on this coach offered little refuge, but he was determined to make it to Liverpool to meet M more or less in one piece.

In the pub that evening there were many other young men too, skinny, big-nosed scousers with the carefree manners and dark hair he knew she liked so much. A guitar was passed around the pub and everybody who knew how to play a song did. "Diwyew know enny Beatles songs, mate?" As he drank, he began to forget that he was ill, a new vigour coursing through his veins, so he struck up a version of I've Got A Feeling worthy of the beard he did not quite yet have. But these were the semi-old days, and nostalgia for the Beatles' canon had not yet completed its tour of duty, and not one of these young Liverpudlians recognised his song.

Liverpool in 2017 is a fine city, perhaps even a nice place to live, that might yet have need for a record shop where the good stuff isn't buried in tons of crap, where you can sit down and relax, listen and peruse, rather than stand on tiptoes forcing the racks apart for long enough to catch a glimpse of each sleeve as you flick through... as those who never gave up on the format have cheerfully done for decades. 

Other attractions lay further up the coast - a hundred six-foot iron men less than half his age whose penises were already rusting off, and their equally-rusty-coloured neighbours further north in Formby. Though they are smaller, quicker and nimbler than the lumbering oafs who have almost completely replaced them, it seems that the latest initiative to save the endangered red squirrel is a return to the culling of the grey. Making sense of the need for slaughter as part of conservation was one of the more complex lessons so far in the home education of the man's children - one of whom bears a remarkable resemblance to a red squirrel. And the other, therefore, the grey. This made the man think of himself as a hungry pine marten.

The landscape at Formby reminds him of his native Suffolk's coastline - specifically at Thorpeness where the tour began. Scrubby grass projecting in defiant tufts from dunes of the softest sand at the edges of evergreen woodland, it differs only in its hilliness. A sign declares it to be 'some of the most rapidly changing coastline in Britain' and seems unconcerned by the fact that 'the dunes roll back across the land by as much as four  metres a year' so he made a mental note to visit the place again before all of its excellent facilities are buried and unusable. This lifestyle, he then declared, shall surely defeat any ambition I have had, as the sense of achievement gained from simply emptying the toilet cassette is enough to satisfy me for two days, or about as long as it takes to fill it up and start all over again. There must, of course, be more to life than finding an appropriate place to put the shit for which you are responsible.

And then he saw it again, or didn't - the inky blackness of a perfectly unlit room in the Adelphi Hotel in 1998. Half drunk yet and his insides burning, he had awoken in the middle of the night and felt his way around the invisible walls, hoping for the bathroom door, or lightswitch, and not finding either. The pain inside him ever growing worse, in the end he had given up, and when she turned on the bedside lamp and bathed the room in colour and detail, there he was, squatting in the corner, crapping wetly on the carpet. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Notes on The North

Leeds - great city centre, lots of pleasant quieter neighbourhoods and towns (none seemed very exciting tho) dotted around it. Lots of places we didn't see - seemed to swerve most of the Northern Grit stuff, albeit unintentionally. Still want that curry in Bradford and to visit Magic Rock in Huddersfield.

Harrogate - great town in own right, lots of good places to go, would be a good place for my business if I got it right. Didn't get the 'loads of rich twats' thing I've heard so much about. Might be blind to this after quarter-century in London. Or maybe I just don't have a problem with rich twats.

Saltaire - was okay. Too busy with street Food Fair - last thing I need in my Post-Peckham Period. Impressive Industrial stuff. Average Artworks. Still haven't forgiven Hockney for being rude to my dad in late eighties.

Hebden Bridge - Vocation and Co one of nicest, friendliest bars we've visited so far. Most duck-filled body of water too. Water wheel in mill cafe quite impressed kids but not as much as cheese toasties. Failed to track down friend who works as life coach by river. Nice town, but I'd need more than counselling and good beer to live there.

Manchester - parked in Chorlton, part of town Mancs and near-Mancs we've known said would suit us best. Seems they're right. Discovered mum and dad lived here in mid-late sixties, so advisors can't be quite right when they say it's always been hip.

H smuggled his 3DS on 'educational' trip to Museum of Science and Industry, promptly left it on tram. Cue worst look of distress and misery I've ever seen on his cute little freckled face. E devastated too. Neither kid interested in my philosophising that if this is the worst thing that has ever happened to them, they're very lucky boys.

But this IS the end of the world in a way - a world they've created and inhabited merrily whenever they've needed to escape the confines of van life. I realised that the complexity and subtleties of their interactions and communications in and around Tomodachi Life or Miitopia take them miles further in developing their minds and characters than the English or Maths activities I sling them as a token bit of School. Their relationship is the most powerful social glue in this family on wheels, and deserves all the support we can give it.

Visit to Cloudwater Brewery taproom cheered me no end - it's like somebody lent that guy the Half Blood Prince's potions book. Did little for the boys as they had to stand outside and didn't even have any proper crisps. Got them each a new (secondhand - God bless CEX) 3DS on way back through town so they can play together. Their gratitude knows no bounds.

Stopped in on M in Chorlton library, where my dad used to work. Took her next door into the 'Spoons for a late lunch. As M says, this is always a good way of sneaking a peek at the underbelly of a town, but this one was a joy. A grand old Temperance Society Billiard Hall, it proudly displayed a black and white print of George Best, cue in hand. If he'd paced himself a little better, he might have enjoyed a few pints with some of his contemporaries who were enjoying the place in its new guise. 

Really like Manchester but strangely we're all craving a more peaceful, more rural setting. Maybe, as we pass the eight-week mark, we are starting to adapt and adjust our requirements a little. I'll be sure to let you know.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A conversation that didn't happen in Otley.

Well, half of it happened. A woman in her thirties did say the exact words I have recorded as her lines below. But I did not respond in anything like the detail that I am suggesting, as there wasn't time and I couldn't be bothered. Instead I responded by sighing gently (I had not yet brushed my teeth that morning and so this was probably quite unpleasant for her) and waiting for her to go away. I was also rather hungover, so I allowed my eyes to close very gradually as she spoke. I find that this often infuriates people who are trying to tell me off, with its coded message that they are sending me to sleep. It is important to remain calm during the process of parking large vehicles in busy car parks, and if passive aggressive behaviour is the only means of doing so, that is how it must be. 

If you and a friend are reading this script out loud, it is important that the character of the WOMAN has a Yorkshire accent and a tone of belligerent sarcasm. The character of ME should be voiced with friendly good humour in received pronunciation. Think Stephen Fry.

WOMAN: Can I just point something out? Why are you trying to park a massive great car in a tiny little space when there are two big spaces just over there?

ME: Thank you for your valued contribution. While I'm a little disappointed that you did not await my consent for you to point something out, and you then, in fact, went on to ask a second question rather than make an observation, as you had requested permission to do, you have successfully brought me to reconsider my choice of a parking space.

This is not, however, a 'massive great car,' it is a compact motorhome. It fits fairly easily in a space designed for a conventional motorcar, so long as it is able to overhang a verge or other similar unused space at the back. This has previously caused us small problems in itself - first in Norfolk, where the rear end of the van blocked a pavement running around the edge of a much larger and emptier Waitrose car park than the one in which we now converse, that I simply could not have anticipated anybody wanting to use, until a sour-faced elderly man made a point of walking right up to the van and taking a U-shaped detour around it while shaking his head slowly before returning to the pavement and heading toward even more completely empty space. 

A few weeks later, in Teignmouth, Devon, we parked in a car park just as busy as this one today. There was a 'festival' at The Ship Inn that seemed to consist of a band dragging their sorry musical arses through some poorly-remembered Clash covers while scores of pissed-up Brummies made a good seaside town look crap. This was still the summer holidays, of course, and there were several motorhomes in the car park, most of which were considerably larger than ours, some of them parked sideways across three or even four car spaces. Without the opportunity to overhang a verge, we had found a central space with a small car parked in the one behind it, in such a way as to leave lots of room for us to park our van. When the already unhappy-looking family returned, they made a point of bending down closely to look at the six-inch gap between the rears of our respective vehicles as if they thought they might see some evidence of damage there, or they were concerned that they could not open their boot. Most of the family then got into the car (they didn't have anything to put in the boot) while the Dad (whom I suspect may have been serving a driving ban at the time) seemed intent on standing at the rear of the vehicle to give his partner hand signals for how to drive forwards, directly away from our van. Once he had got back in, the mother of the family drove around to the front of the van and stopped to glare at me for a moment or two before finally driving away, her son grinning out of the back window as if he had particularly enjoyed something his mother had had to say about me - 'stupid beardy bastard' or 'smelly fucking hippie,' perhaps.

It was at this moment that I began to think of the busy car park as the perfect analogy for an overpopulated island. Broken Britain in microcosm, with people demonstrating a territorial obsessiveness over rectangular spaces of asphalt on which they have paid a couple of pounds' rent. I've parked in another one almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day, since, never once hitting anything, never once protruding from the marked bay, and never once failing to observe that England is a lot like one big shitty car park.

But I digress. The 'tiny little space' to which you are referring is no larger or smaller than either one of the 'two big spaces' you have indicated 'over there,' but it would be greedy and unnecessary for me to take up more than one space, and the man might give me a ticket. Also, there is a large and dense-looking shrub very close to the back of those two spaces, and if I try and squeeze up against it I may damage it, or even worse, my back window. I shall not go into the details of how much these parts cost to replace. The 'tiny little space' which happens to be directly next to your car has no such shrub, and, in short, would be much better for me to park my vehicle in.

WOMAN: I mean, should you not be looking for a better place to park a great big thing like this? D'you know you nearly took the front end off my car just then, and I've got somebody coming in a minute and they're not going to be able to get in.

ME: I did not 'nearly take the front end off your car,' because I did not touch your car. If it were possible that I could remove a substantial but ill-defined part of your car by driving very close to it, this would have to mean that your car was extremely unsafe. I would advise you to leave it where it is and walk home. 

Further, I have to say I doubt that you are really worried that I might damage your car, as you would clearly have a whale of a time if I did. You're just unhappy that I am intruding upon the borders of your personal space. You'd be exactly the same if I were five stone heavier and attempted to sit next to you on the tube, my love handles wedged up on top of the arm rests.

WOMAN: You should park somewhere else. It's blatantly obvious, really.

ME: What is blatantly obvious is that you are accustomed to telling people what to do. Perhaps you are a primary school teacher (you certainly look like one) but I don't think you would be sat in your car in a Waitrose car park at eleven-fifteen on a Friday morning in term time if you were. It is also blatantly obvious that if you are waiting for somebody to come and join you in your car, it would be possible for you to pull out of the space and stop for a moment in order for them to be able to open your passenger door easily. But you're not prepared to do that, and you haven't been listening to my reasoning because I haven't really said any of these things to you, have I?

(Starwipe back into reality. ME shrugs, sighs, mutters something about 'thanks for pointing that out,' and sets about the murder of  a shrub with 3.5 tons of van.)

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Bristol v Leeds

It has rained a lot, these seven weeks that we have been on the road - I don't know whether you would've noticed. The sound of it falling on the roof of the van varies from 'child trying to readjust the velcro on their shoes in assembly with impossible patience and care, in the vain hope that the headteacher will not notice' to 'those drummers from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,' and it was very much this latter that we heard on Clifton Down on Thursday night.

With one side's wheels in the gutter, the angle is always an extra degree of challenge, but this was one of those ancient roads where several loads of tarmac have been poured on top of cobbles, and either they didn't bother to resurface the gutter or it's all just worn away at the edges. Either way, the sideways slope was sufficient for M to spend the whole night on the point of falling out of bed and for rainwater to be running sideways across the roof and down past the dodgy seal of the bathroom skylight, against the inside of the door and from there directly onto the floor of the van itself. When it rains on the roof of a level van, the worst we get is a few drips on the wet room floor, but with the lean, the effect is much worse. If I need a piss in the middle of the night, it lands squarely in the middle of my bald patch. The rain, not the piss.

An even-worse consequence of parking with a nasty sideways gradient comes when opening an overfilled overhead cupboard. A very nice copy of Terry Reid's River I'd found in the Centre For Better Grooves descended in a tandem jump with an ancient and hefty iPad, which knocked a hole in the laminate of the table and propelled a whole cup of coffee over the crotch of Britain's Favourite Walking Trouser. My self-annoyance in this moment was far too large to accommodate in a compact motorhome, so we went for a walk.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was just five minutes away and I was able to relax and quietly shit myself while my kids swung on an ancient iron railing that moved as freely as the waters of the Avon, hundreds of feet below on the floor of the gorge. Looking at the bridge from this elevated perspective, I vowed to never drive across - a vow I broke less than an hour later when M's navigation arrowed in on it. Having paid a pound for the privelege, I resolutely stared straight ahead, as I'd seen those churning brown waters in quite enough detail already.

In the Tobacco Factory in Southville, another very smiley young man was serving me beer. I talked to him about my enthusiasm for Bristol for a while before discovering that he was not in fact a local, but from Leeds, a city he liked just as much. 

Bristol and Leeds have a certain amount in common in my mind. Both are said (by all I know who know them well) to be great places, and are homes to excellent breweries and bars that have sprung up in recent years, and good and varied record shops, and a huge range of places to eat. They are also both cities I've only been to once, in 1990, for interviews for dental school. I bought myself Exile On Main St on cassette the first time I came to one or the other. While this certainly changed my life for the better, I doubt whether it was as important a development as my failure to embark upon a career in dentistry.

Bristol, I think, is probably the better city, but this is probably just that it reminds me of London in miniature. Stokes Croft and Gloucester Road might be Brixton or Dalston, whereas Clifton could be Kensington or Hampstead  Sure, Leeds has a great city centre, but doesn't appear to have inner-city neighbourhoods with their own character and identity in quite the same way as Bristol does - in that way that reminds me so much of London. Leeds does seem very clean and tidy, has TWO, count 'em, TWO Brewdog bars, and has the Victoria Quarter and surrounding grand old markets forming 'The Knightsbridge of the North' - but I always hated Knightsbridge anyway.

"I'll be honest with you, seventy-five percent of the predicament I find myself in today is a direct consequence of poor decision-making on my part," said a handsome and articulate young homeless man with homemade tattoos on his face, just outside the Bell Inn in Bath. M had stopped for a chat with him, which is more than I did. I stood at a distance, cherrypicking soundbites. Bath is a beautiful, historic, boring city very close to Bristol, and I can't see why anybody between the income brackets of zero and stinking rich would live here instead of there, but this guy seemed to have made one of his occasional decent decisions - he had far less competition here, just as a record shop would have. Bath does have the best beer shop we've visited so far, however - Independent Spirit.

Meanwhile, in Leeds it seems that anybody with some money and sense lives in a neighbouring town or quiet suburb with good public transport links to the city centre. I'm sitting in the van outside a friend's house in Ilkley while my family take advantage of the facilities - M in the bath and both boys on the Wii U. This is a lovely town with some good cafes, good beers and not a single record shop in sight. I doubt whether Leeds University students venture out here looking for John Fahey albums very often though.

Bradford on Avon is a gorgeous little town in a comparable position for Bristol, and where my closest friend moved, from London earlier this year. We spent last weekend there, walking the canal, paddling in the river and even making politely interested noises about the aqueduct while observing that, as with all of the other Friends Outside London we have visited, we can see why they moved there.

But the question remains, can we see where we would move?

Monday, 4 September 2017

Devon - Somerset

'Have you ever heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?' asked an intelligent and sensible friend (of a friend), briefly spoiling the Glastonbury Festival of about 2004 or 2005.

'Oh ye- no,' I replied. I was drunk, and I hadn't. All of my needs were being met at that moment in time, as I had a two-litre bottle of Brothers Bar cider under each arm. His observation - that Maslow's coincidentally-pyramidical model fitted with the day-to-day business of festival attendance for most mature adults - didn't really apply to me. I did not spend much time thinking, preparing, researching or planning for where I was going to get some food or water, or find a slightly-less-revolting portaloo to shit in, or a person who can lend me some sunscreen, or join the queue for the cash machine, or get into my tent without spreading mud across my sleeping bag - because I had skipped straight to the self-actualisation level via cheap hallucinogenic cider.

My first visit to Glastonbury (the town itself) has been a rather more sober affair, not least because I couldn't seem to find a decent pub. We had a much-less-effective pint of cider in what looked for all the world to be a pub, but turned out to be a restaurant, and experienced, if not enjoyed, an open mic night in an almost-empty characterless locals' local that had glitter glued to the flat surfaces in the toilets to deter cocaine use (a remarkably unglamorous effect) and a strong disinfectant aroma throughout. 

Glastonbury, I concluded, was a bit like Stowmarket with hippies. Absolutely loads of hippies. And hippies, I noticed, looking at some of the ones in Glastonbury, are not necessarily just middle-class, well-educated people who have embraced spirituality while turning their backs on personal grooming. Some of them are real lost souls at the very margins of society with the same money and drug problems as the rest of us, amped up to deafen Dreadzone. A stroll up Glastonbury Tor provided us with a wonderful panoramic view of Somerset, but did little to cater for my spiritual needs. It did give us the chance to further explore the idea that 'going for a walk with your family is really quite a normal and nice thing to do,' but this will have to be an ongoing project.

A restorative few days in North Devon followed our near-disaster on Dartmoor. All of the van's needs were met by my friend's garden tap, septic tank and recommendation of a local Fiat garage that gave our tyres and clutch a thorough going-over. We were in great company, ate very well and were able to access real 240v electricity and broadband for a few days. The kids got even more out of it than we did, thanks to our friends' younger son and his new dog. He is as happy a ten-year-old boy as I think I have ever met, and enjoys all of the same things that our boys do, despite having lived his whole life on a lane with grass growing down the middle. To spend so much quality time with a boy they've never met, but with whom they have so much in common, who is growing up in a place so different to all they have ever known, can only help them adjust to life outside the big city.

North Devon is staggeringly beautiful in places, but much of it feels very remote indeed. I tried to contribute by picking up some fish and chips one evening, but got so lost on the way back (with a dead phone battery) it had all gone quite cold. We managed to navigate visits to two beautiful places on the coast to which we had previously taken E when he was a baby. As we say to H, this was 'when he was still dead' so it was new ground for both of them. Clovelly, like Abbotsbury before it, is a village that makes you say, 'Wow! How have they managed to preserve these ancient buildings so perfectly, and keep the place so unspoiled by ugly modern constructions? Oh, of course, it's because it has all been owned by the same aristocratic family for generations, and they will never need to consider selling any of it, especially since they started charging for admission to the bloody village.' Feudalism is alive and well and living in the English Countryside. And probably in the cities too, but just a little less noticeably.  Nearby, Hartland Point is a beautiful beach framed by cliffs and rocks that would give a geologist geekgasms. And it's free.

At the weekend we spent a couple of days in Frome, which is a wonderful town, (despite only having a handful of decent pubs - The Three Swans by far the best). 'It wasn't this good when I was a kid,' said the young woman in a new bottle shop who sold me some delicious and powerful beers from Northern Monk and Cloudwater. 'Just eight years ago, all those shops around the corner were boarded up.' On Sunday we woke up in the midst of traders setting up for the Frome Independent, which sees pretty much the whole of the town centre turned into a street market for the day. If we had known about it, and carefully thought, prepared, researched or planned for where  we were going to park, we could not have found ourselves a better space. That first nervy night in the car park in Walberswick seems an awfully long time ago, and now I can relax in the van, watching old episodes of Father Ted and flouting the rules about camping in car parks without a trace of self-consciousness, it seems. Especially if I am pissed.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Best Cream Tea - Worst Action Scene

Best Cream Tea

This is another case of the words 'best' and 'only' being interchangeable, as I'm keen to live a little more healthily on this trip. I think I have been moderately successful so far.

Primrose Tea Rooms in Lustleigh, Dartmoor, is a beautiful little place, owned and staffed by friendly and funny women. The tea was Cornish Tregothnan and served in the loveliest teapot I've seen since the 1970s. The scones were warm and freshly baked, the jam sweet and tart and delicious, and the clotted cream was totally and utterly exquisite.

As I ate and drank, my heart rate gradually dropped from about 450 bpm to my normal resting 200 or so. I would stand up, or adjust my position on the sweet little lilac seat cushion from time to time, to ensure that I did not impregnate it with any arse crack sweat which was still accumulating from the valley of my spine after the…

Worst Action Scene

T, M, E and H are a family travelling across Dartmoor in a compact motorhome. They have no idea what horrors await them…

M: So this is Lustleigh. And you reckon the Torygraph said it was the nicest village on Dartmoor?

T: Yeah, but I didn't really bother to read the article. Let's just have a look.

M: Oh God, they've got a village fair on.

E & H:
(together) Can we go to the fair?

M & T:
(together) NO.

H: Why not?

M: Because there'll be loads of traffic, and these lanes are really narrow, and we don't want to get stuck.

(There is a long, ominous and meaningful silence while the van winds its way into the village, merging with the queue of vehicles already leaving the fair because it's really hot and they've run out of soft drinks by mid-afternoon.)

M: Oh, that looks like a nice tea room. I really want a Devon Cream Tea.

T: There's nowhere to park because of the bloody fair.
So unfair. I'll give you a nice cream pie if you want?

(Another uncomfortable silence.)

T: It looks like this road just goes up out of the village…

M: It does. That sign says UNSUITABLE FOR HGVs, though?

T: It'll be fine.

(Enter a fabulously glamorous woman in her twenties, driving a tiny sporty car in the opposite direction and pulling into the mouth of a driveway to allow the van to pass. She leans out of her window, piles of golden curls tumbling into the small space between the vehicles as T draws the van up alongside.)

WOMAN: Hello.

T: (In a small voice, desperately trying not to sound like a creepy middle-aged sex pest) Hello. Do you think we will get this van through, up there?

(He does not add that the Hymer only has a 1.9 litre TDi engine, not because he does not expect her to understand that this is rather a low power to weight ratio for such a vehicle, but because he is trying, for once in his life, not to be boring.)

WOMAN: Hmm. Well, you would be very brave to try...

(INCIDENTAL MUSIC: A James Brown scream. Perhaps the beginning of 'I Got You (I Feel Good)', launching into the riff and the verse as T's chest puffs out, he shifts the van into first, and releases the handbrake.)

(EXTREME CLOSE-UP: T's already-slitty-little eyes narrow even further.) Thanks. That's what I will do. (The van moves forward purposefully.)

M: Oh God. You're going to have to keep your speed up - this is really steep.

(T says nothing. It's not just really steep, but really narrow, really bendy, and
really gravelly. He is already losing speed and the tyres are beginning to slip. After a few more bends, the vehicle is stationary and the tyres are spinning. Smoke is rapidly filling the leafy tunnel. Sweat is pouring down T's face, arms and back.)

(really hoping that the young woman will have gone by now) Shit. We'll have to roll back down.

(sighs, gets out of the van, squeezes between the flank of it and the trees, around to the back) LEFT A BIT, RIGHT A BIT, STRAIGHTEN UP... STRAIGHTEN! UP!

(Internal monologue, VO) I'm not really listening to what you are saying, but even if I was, I wouldn't know whether you mean left as you see it, or left as I would see it if I was looking backwards along the sides of the van from the perspective of each of the wing mirrors, which are perfectly adequate for me to do what I am doing, as long as I keep a roughly equal-sized sliver of light visible in each. Fuck. Why have we stopped?



(He tries, though, of course. SFX: the screams, growls, and cries of machinery being punished.)

E: What’s that smell?

T: Are you really asking me what that smell is RIGHT NOW?

E: Um, yes?

T: The van is stuck. I do not have the time to discuss any of the details at the moment.

(T does not know what the smell is. It might be burning rubber, or tortured clutch. He can now just about recognise part of M's forearm in his mirror.)

T: Stop trying to push it. It weighs three and a half tons - you won't be able to. And if I roll back I AM GOING TO KILL YOU.

(The sweat from T's upper body begins to collect in his hairy arse crack, threatening to permeate the fabric of Britain’s Favourite Walking Trouser.)
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK AND FIND OUT IF actually, dont bother.
It was fine in the end.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Best Record Shop - Worst Tip for a Stop-Off

Best Record Shop

Rooster Records in Exeter had a bewilderingly huge range of stock, including loads and loads of really good records. For 'bewilderingly huge', read 'lots, like most record shops used to have, but very few new ones have, as to acquire that much stock requires massive investment which is not very sensible when you're starting out in any kind of retail, let alone a branch that most people think is a retrogressive fad'. Yes, they had loads and loads of great records - so many, in fact, that I got bored. Because for the first time in my adulthood I'm pretty certain I won't be buying any of them, so what's the point in wanting them? And it's the wanting them that makes seeing them in a shop interesting, isn't it? But it is an excellent record shop.

Smugglers Records in Deal has some good quality stock too, as well as some great beers, but is much more on the new record shop side of things when it comes to quantity. It also, on my visit, hosted more than one of those crushing 'Bloody 'ell, is that album really worth that much nowadays? I used to 'ave that. I 'ad all their stuff on original pressings with the gatefolds and everything' bores that will be banned from the Blues Night store for their first offence. But it appears the guy there has higher standards of customer service/tolerance than yours truly.  

'If I could live anywhere else in England outside London, it would have to be Totnes, in Devon,' said a cool and well-travelled youngish teacher I was talking to instead of doing some marking about a year ago. We were back at school after the summer holidays, (which I won't be the week after next, ha-ha) and she was already wanderlusting. 'There's a real comfy Lordship-Lane middle-classness to it, they've got their own currency like Brixton, but there's a great mad old hippy thing there, too.'

'Sounds awful,' I said, but I was actually intrigued enough to quiz my geogra-knowledgeable friend about it.

'You're right, it is awful. And it's way past its best,' he said. 'But it's probably better than it was when my father-in-law lived there in a wigwam about twenty-five years ago.'

So I expected Totnes's record shops to be a capitalistic inspiration of badly-categorised, optimistically-graded, blim-burned discs of peripheral interest to any more conventional enthusiast. But I was massively wrong. Totnes is a brilliant town, and there are several places with some really good records for sale, but the very best I've visited so far, Drift, is wonderfully organised and uncluttered, full of really interesting new vinyl, and does excellent coffee. I take my purple and black jester's hat off to them.

Worst Tip for a Stop-Off

'I've just got back from Torquay, and they have loads of places like this there,' said an Italian man who had just started a 'Vinyl Cafe' (for want of a briefer phrase) in London.

'Really?' I was doubtful. 'It's like, er, a thing there?'

'Oh yeah. Those guys really love it. Really expensive sound systems, a very simple drink menu, great music.'

I probably looked impressed and annoyed simultaneously - this was MY business plan. But I made a very definite mental note to visit Torquay at some point on our family travels. It was only much later that I realised he had probably said Tokyo.

Nevertheless, we did stop in Torquay on Saturday morning, having struggled with some similarly inaccurate insider info. The new Devon resident of the last blog had shown me a phone pic of beautiful Maidencombe beach, its cliffs of the deep red sandstone, the water looking tropical. No Filter, he told me.

He didn't tell me that, at the end of a long and winding singletrack lane down from the main road, the car park he had promised had a totally unnecessary 6ft height restriction arch. After performing a 217-point turn in my 9ft vehicle, I didn't get out of first gear on the way back up. I could have watched the fuel needle dropping, but would surely have hit the bank.

His photo mightn't've had a filter, but the car park certainly did.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Best Pub - Worst Swannery

Best Pub

Today I bumped into another former resident of sunny Surrey Road, SE15. He's a very friendly guy that I've met several times in pubs around Peckham. I didn't know he was selling his house, or that he often goes to stay in Lyme Regis, which is where I met him today. I did know that those things both apply to the parents of a nice young bloke who lived locally and worked with M in the pub, but I hadn't made the link - this man who came out of a beach hut and shouted my name is, in fact, the very same father of the young man who looks remarkably similar to him. It makes one feel rather daft to finally make such a very simple connection, but it was also further evidence that I was living a life of serious social ineptitude when I was a slave to my mortgage and the gods of binge drinking.

Anyway, I'm off in an hour or so to meet him in the pub. I've already ducked into the place, a cellar bar that acts as a brewery tap for the Dorset brewery Gyle 59, and it looks like one of the best I've been to on this tour so far. But I have in fact been to surprisingly few. 

There was a youngsters' specialist beer bar in Southsea, providing a wonderful contrast over twenty something years as it was just around the corner from my best mate's college hovel (where ten art students failed to clean or take out the rubbish for so long that the next door neighbours called the environmental health inspectorate). This had good beer, but was seriously lacking cosiness and charm.

We have sought decent wifi in a number of places, many providing it but offering only those grassy beers fit for a Greene King. A special mention should be given to the Ilchester Arms in Abbotsbury, with the best web access we've found, and which made up for beery shortcomings with some great ciders - we are well into the west now, it appears.

The best pub we have been to so far didn't have any wifi on offering at all. The Pub With No Name is something of a misnomer, as it is also known as the White Horse, because that is its name. It doesn't have a sign, we noticed, but it can be easily found on the Internet or electronic map things by either signifier, somewhere between Alton and Petersfield in Hampshire. 

M and I went there without the boys first, to attend the wedding party of some wonderful people, and get a chance to show off Mrs Ploppy Clickbait, as our uninvited children like to call the van. Without wanting to drag too many people away from the main proceedings for long, we Van Partied successfully with seven other guests at one point, which is surely the greatest accolade that could be paid to Hymer's designers of about fifteen years ago, especially when combined with the proud boast that we have managed to park it in a normal-size car space every single time for a whole month now.

Yes, the pub and its camping area were good enough to make us want to show our kids, but we probably wouldn't have found a reason to return there so soon if it were not for the total excellence of Reliance Motorhome Services just outside Chichester, who were the only people who seemed happy to replace our lost window. As it was, we could go back to this pub that has all of the magic of an inn from a Tolkien journey, despite not seeming to be on the road to anywhere much.

Edward Thomas's poem Up In The Wind, written about this same pub over a hundred years ago, seems to be mostly about the fact that it is in the middle of bloody nowhere. I loved it, and I can't wait to find more like it.

Worst Swannery

Alright, so it is also the best Swannery we have been to. Okay, so it is probably, in fact, the best Swannery in the world, because, well, it's the only one. And with good reason, because, after all, what in the name of Gideon the Long-Necked Duck is the point of a swannery? To raise swans, I hear you honk, but why?

I Googled 'is it illegal to eat swan' and got the usual levels of bullshit expertise - quite a few people seem to want to tell the world that 'you can't eat a swan because they all belong to the queen and eating them is still a treasonable offence and you can still be hanged for it' and so on. And then the next-level Swan Law geeks come in and say 'actually the queen doesn't own all swans it's just the mute swans in the upper reaches of the Thames between Berkshire and Twatshire blah blah blah'. And about halfway down the page some chap said his dad ran a swan over once and he thought 'waste not, want not' and 'the queen's not going to want this one anymore' so he plucked it and gutted it and roasted it... and it tasted like shit.

So if they are not for eating, are they any good to look at? We paid our money and we went in. The boys had some fun with the pedal go-karts and the maze (that you only really appreciate the swan-shaped-ness of when you cheat and use the satellite pic on your maps app to find your way out) but were interested in the swans themselves for a couple of minutes at the most. Each swan is very similar indeed to the previous and the following swan, you see. 

But it is the use to which this enormous tract of land on the Jurassic Coast has been put for a great many years, and who am I to question it? Just because the man who cleans the toilets (which were excellent) alongside the car park (which was the nicest we've spent the night in so far) was good enough to tell us that we shouldn't really sleep overnight on this land (that belongs to one of the richest landowners in Britain)? Or because I read a bit of Marx at college when I absolutely had to? Or because I took some acid in the Lake District when I was a teenager and totally lost all understanding of the concept of private property for several hours? Or because I've got some money to do this thing we are doing because I've just sold our house?

It was the best of swanneries. It was the worst of swanneries.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Where Are You?

Hi Big H.

> Hi. Where are you?
I'm currently in a climbing and parkour (look it up) centre in Poole, Dorset. Actually that sounds like I'm implying that I am being physically active, but of course I am not. I'm sitting in the cafe taking advantage of the free wifi while the boys jump off walls and try not to snap their little collarbones.

This is an odd town. There's some sort of gated community that's recognised as the most expensive real estate location in the country outside London, but the only middle class people I have seen are either in here hanging from oddly-shaped plastic holds by their fingertips, or on holiday in neighbouring Bournemouth. I suppose it's possible that the resident middle classes are all away on holiday themselves. Perhaps Provence, which is, I understand, very nice at this time of year.

Most of the people I have seen today have been as common as muck, drunk, old and decrepit, or possibly all three. Not that I have any problem at all with people who fit into one or more of these groups, as most of my friends do. It is just an observation. It is probably not a fair reflection on Poole itself, either. Maybe I caught it on a bad day.

I have enjoyed conversations with two friendly, quick-witted young women who both happened to be beautiful and both happened to be Scots a long, long way from home. This has further skewed my perception of the indigenous population. One of these women sold me a pair of Birkenstocks that are playing merry hell with the tops of my feet as I attempt to break them in. She worked in a shoe shop, of course. I do not buy my sandals in the street, that would not be proper.

> Do you know the song "I've Been Everywhere, man"? You could learn it and all sing it in the car. 
This song?
That, I believe, is the first time I've heard it. It was very good. I've always wanted to go to New Zealand. Maybe when I've created my own UK version of this, I will.

> I'll try and think of some more travel songs.
Both "On the Road Again" and "Goin' Up the Country" have popped into my head a lot. But I seem to remember that you don't rate Canned Heat that highly? You've missed out. They're great.

> Hope "The Long and Winding Road" will lead to your door!
Well, I think we are settling in for as long a road as possible. We are really enjoying a simple life of few possessions which are all used frequently, and a big van that other road users give a very wide berth. But you will be less-than-surprised to hear that I now think it unlikely that the money will last a whole year. 

Remember, you can always keep up with developments on the blog. You might want to give the newest update a miss, though, as I think I'm just going to copy and paste this email. Free wifi is, after all, our rarest and most precious commodity.

> Love from Big "Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner" H XX
Smashing to hear from you. Much love, T, M, E and Little H. Xxx

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Best Pier - Worst Park-Up

I've found a nice enough pub in Alton, Hampshire, to sit down and write this, while the rest of the family has gone to the cinema. There are plenty of pubs in this town, but this one - The George - seems to be the only one other than the 'Spoons (the intimidatingly huge, and amusingly-named Ivy House) that serves any beers suited to my discerning palate. This pub came with a recommendation from the man in the outdoor shop, which was also excellent, while I bought myself the most Dad pair of shorts I have ever owned, or probably ever will.  

We've been in The Downs a few nights waiting for our new overcab window to arrive from Germany, and after tomorrow I hope to be able to write a glowing review of the work carried out by a motorhome repairs business not far from here. Why have we come so far from where it happened to get it done? He is literally the only man who appeared to want the job. The part itself, a piece of plastic about three foot wide and two foot tall, is costing about a grand.

This blog, like the travels that are its subject, is not turning out much like I had expected. It doesn't seem to be realistic to drive to a town, see what we think of it, and report back to you, because so many aspects of so many towns are so much like their counterparts elsewhere. And also because what we are looking for in each town is rarely the stuff of excellent subject matter. I could probably sum up most of the journey so far by telling you that there are an awful lot more branches of Waitrose in the South and East of England than a quarter-century of living in London had led me to believe. So instead, I shall attempt a new approach, where here, and occasionally hereafter, I shall tell you about the best of something and the worst of something else that we have experienced so far. 

BEST PIER: Southwold was our first. Here the 'Under the Pier Show' (which was on, not under) amused the boys for a while, despite mocking the authentic seaside amusement arcade experience with some arty pretensions and wry social commentary on the gentrification ship that sailed into this bay to stay some years ago. Next was Cromer's beautiful Alpha Papa denouement location, followed by Eastbourne's grand home to a Whack-a-Penguin game (bizarrely named 'Punku Tricks') and a Zoltar machine that had totally lost its shit.

A hairy but semi-aquatic friend of Blues Night then kindly donated a Paddle Around The Pier (Brighton, I think?) sticker to cover an unsightly burn-blemish in the van. So we didn't even bother to visit the world's longest at Southend when in neighbouring Leigh, as we  decided there had been quite enough pier pressure.

My favourite was the fit-for-purpose cold war construction at Deal that was absolutely heaving with fishermen on a hot and sunny afternoon, but the next day cut a brutalist line through pure turquoise sky and sea in a fine and mist-like rain, in such a way as to make me feel as if I were briefly visiting another planet. Admittedly I was off my tits on Sinutab at the time, but I think even the straightest square would've sensed something otherworldly. If they had been there too.

WORST PARK-UP: I think it is fair to say that we are not even considering making our new home in any of the counties that dissolve into Greater London along one edge. We've spent more time in these counties than others so far, perhaps to eliminate them from our enquiries, or maybe for fear of nosebleeds if we stray too far from the mother's milk of polluted London air. Essex is one of those counties, no more and no less.

Okay, so it has an old-fashioned reputation for badly-behaved, even vaguely menacing younger people with unsubtle tastes and educational shortcomings, but I've rarely seen examples of these people myself. This is probably because I have spent more times in Essex's beautiful open spaces and rolling countryside, unaffected by the sights, sounds and smells of those who have given their county a bad name. Until last Thursday night. 

A good old friend of Blues Night, himself a smart and sophisticated product of Essex (as is his partner) recommended Two Tree Island, way out in the raging waters of the Thames Estuary, for our overnight stay.  On our arrival, wind and rain was hammering at the walls and roof of the van, and our very brief excursion out into the long grey wetness revealed only a few other vehicles, whose occupants were presumably either quietly dogging or contemplating suicide. This remained the case until about eleven that evening, when the rain let up enough to encourage several carloads of people born around the turn of the century to blast music out while running about shouting, driving their cars around in circles, hitting their horns to the beat, and generally having a lovely time without any apparent concern for the feelings or sleep patterns of the family in the motorhome about fifty feet away. This was the only vaguely menacing aspect of their behaviour - their total disregard for what we, in this lone Other Vehicle, would make of it.

Nevertheless, I had still decided to leave after about half an hour of twitching the curtain between cab and bed, as the shenanigans was impossible to ignore, and I was a little concerned that it might get worse, or one of these kids would get bored and decide to let our tyres down or something. I mean, I've seen friends of mine do that sort of thing. About 25 years ago.

Then, all of a sudden, they left. I couldn't decide whether to be relieved or disappointed, as I had my clothes back on and the keys in my hand ready to go. I'd also sent a text to my Local Friend describing the situation on his much-loved nature reserve and he had already suggested we park up outside his house instead. So I drove off, relieved to not be making a spectacle of myself (or my family's van at least) while doing so, and almost pleased to have to pull in before crossing the bridge back to the mainland, assuming this was one of the groups of lads coming back for more. But it wasn't - it was the cops, and it had obviously been the sight of them passing Leigh-on-Sea railway station that led to a local lad calling his mate down on the island and all these asbomobiles driving off without delay.

The last vehicle to cross the water was a motorhome with two children travelling (illegally) asleep in the overcab bed, a woman in the banquette-bed admonishing the driver for being such a wimp, and a driver whose nerves were frayed down to their last threads, despite being well over the legal limit after a large bottle of an Imperial Stout. Thankfully the police didn't bother stopping this vehicle either, and its occupants were able to get an excellent night's sleep just a mile up the cliff from Two Tree Island. The lesson here was that residential streets are much more comfortable and inconspicuous places to park up for some stealth camping. You don't want to be on your own, away from modern civilisation, because you won't be for very long.