Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Friendly Street to (Highw)A61 Revisited

"You hear it all the time - 'People are Friendlier Up North.' I reckon it's a myth. People aren't any friendlier here, it's just that they talk to you." The most Southern bloke I know (in the North) shared this observation in his Ilkley kitchen back in September. Within a week, I would be the audience for one of Yorkshire's foremost parking experts. This alone didn't seem much of a coincidence, let alone resemble the beginnings of an emerging pattern, but our weekend visit to Chapel Allerton, a gentrifying North-Leeds suburb, made my Useful Soundbite Gland start oozing again. All three incidences occurred within an eight-mile radius of Otley, it emerged, as I drew a big red circle on a map in the police station of my mind.

The woman in question on this occasion was neither a police officer nor a parking enforcement non-officer, but felt that she was entitled to an opinion on our very presence next to the park across the road from her house. We are still really careful not to sit our big ugly machine right outside somebody's front door unless we absolutely have to, but it appeared that this was an individual whose personal space straddled the highway. To be fair, she had probably noticed we'd been there all night, it was now late into the next morning, I had always expected our van to be on the receiving end of negative public opinion quite frequently, and this was literally the first occasion of it. I should also make it clear that I dithered on my way to the door to answer her knock, and that once again it was M who actually dealt with the Enemy of the Van. 

Earlier I had stared at a particularly interesting droplet - among millions - in a protective veil of condensation inside the windscreen. Meanwhile she squawked at her silent husband about us, as he carried the cat basket to her little yellow car.

'I would usually park it here, where THIS BIG VAN IS,' she told him. He gave no audible response. I would imagine that he knows where she usually parks her car, or perhaps he was thinking that she can only park it there when there isn't another vehicle parked there already. Or maybe the cat was just really heavy. He put the cat basket in the car, which he could almost certainly have done without her company for the long diagonal trek to a geographical point about thirty feet in front of us. They walked back to their house, which looked really nice. Then she strode purposefully to her yellow car again, this time without the husband, who had presumably gone to hide in the shed. 

She stood and glared at Vanny, probably able to make out a rotund silhouette in the front seat, and waiting for it to move. Waiting for me to move when I don't absolutely have to is a losing game for anybody of less-than-otherworldly patience. Eventually she gave up and walked off to her house again, so I went in the back to the toilet. As I came back, there was an impolitely-loud knock at the door.

'Hello.'
'Are you visiting someone? I've got a broken foot.'
That's all I really remember of the conversation, but it is all I really need. This utterly perfect non-sequitur told us a great deal - that she suspected we had no real reason to be there at all, but that if we did know somebody in the neighbourhood she wanted to know who they were and why we couldn't park our big ugly van outside their house, and that whether or not we actually had the right to be parked in the unrestricted parking on the street where she lived, taking up her preferred parking space not immediately outside, but across the road from, her house, and forcing her to walk a little further to her car, we were proving ourselves shit-arse inconsiderate by doing so, because we should have been able to infer that she was carrying a debilitating injury, perhaps from the way that she made the same journey two additional times in order to glare at, and eventually, talk to, the people who were making her life so much more difficult. But she wasn't being friendly.

Nevertheless, M was superbly polite and sweet with her, which impressed me as much this time as it did with the parking bloke at Durdle Door and the toilet man in Abbotsbury. But she wasn't looking to make a new friend here either. The problem was not the woman's unfriendliness in itself, so much as the fact that this was the morning after M's third successive sleepless night. We had been to see a house, also for the third time, and made an offer that was accepted, and now it looked like the Tour was in its final stages. More importantly, it was dawning on us - long before dawn - that we were soon going to be living in a town where we didn't know anybody, at the far end of a massive county where we only know half a dozen people, hundreds of miles from most of our friends and family. 

It's when you're lying there alone with your ill-marshalled thoughts at night, unable to sleep but not really awake either, that the thin, brittle enamel of what you're doing with your life can give way and open up a festering cavity of loneliness. I'd had it myself on the first night - up to this point it has all been imagination, projection and fantasy. But just as it becomes real it suddenly seems so much less desirable, and so much more scary. Don't get me wrong, the place looks amazing, I can't wait to get started on the shop, and the boys will probably get straight into their new life, but the shadowy forms of one's doubts and fears do tend to congregate when you should be asleep, don't they? 

After Christmas in Suffolk, we had spent a very enjoyable few days back among friends in London. The highlight, for me and my stomach, was a visit to Everest Curry King, which I'd never called on in a quarter century in the capital, but which I could not commend more completely. Not only is the food amazing and the cheapest we've found anywhere in the country, but the people are so damn friendly. M recalled the occasion at the end of the nineties when we'd walked a group of drunk Geordies from the Blue Posts on Berwick Street to Leicester Square tube. 'Tha's fookin greet ovya man. I orlaz thought Cockneys was a reet buncha unfrenly coonts,' their translator offered as he groped for his Travelcard. We didn't tell him that he'd said that six times already, and that we were only doing it to prove him wrong.

After return visits to York and Richmond, Leeds revealed a lot of what we'd missed the first time, an inner city residential district with lots going for it, the waterways and industrial buildings, and in particular the breweries based in them. Northern Monk's Refectory was everything that the Magic Rock Tap wasn't, with the added bonus of a sign saying they'd spent £1872 replacing stolen glassware in the last year, and that they were "as tight as anyone else from Yorkshire," so if you liked their glasses so much, why didn't you just buy one? Durham, meanwhile, seems to be a city that is absolutely dependent on its university and its cathedral for the entirety of its identity. Take those institutions away, and the Jack Wills would go out of business, leaving little but the building works of desperate-looking redevelopment around the river on which my brother had shouted at teams of eight strong women at a time so long ago.

The boys set an excellent example of getting on board with this house thing, despite the fact that it couldn't be much further away from Worthing, which was their preference. They were cheered enough by the discovery of a decent sweetshop in the town that they turned from flat refusal to a kind of acceptance on a sixpence. This says much about the fickleness of kids but also their supportive relationship - having each other, and a place they can go for sugar, will be enough.

There are friendly faces everywhere you go, I'd told them as we were setting out in July, and we've seen dozens of them since, but now it looks like we will be living in the one town that is furthest away from any of them. The boys will make friends easily, I think (and hope), but what about their parents? And if Northern Monk are right about Yorkshire, to hell with friends, what about customers?

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Motorsport Can Be Dangerous (Devon and Cornwall, Part 2)

We were headed for Lands End. Not the place itself, which, despite being the setting for one of the great unsung classics of children’s literature is, according to M, “really boring,” but Penzance and St Ives. I was interested to visit both towns, and they’re as close to the Southernmost and Westernmost points of England as we could be bothered to go. I did have a look at how much it would cost to get to the Isles of Scilly, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ll go there when I’ve made my fortune selling secondhand records and I’m trying to decide what to do with my yacht.

Penzance is a great town. Sure, it has plenty of tell-tale signs of people living in poverty and heroin, but it has lots going for it. It has atmosphere, dramatic landscape, architectural interest and more miles between it and London SE15 than the Tyne Bridge. We met up with some other ex-regulars from the Ivy House who moved out of London at about the same time as us. They’ve both got jobs down there, and their young son is starting nursery school. 

What they make (so far) of their drastic change of circumstances is given interesting perspective by the fact that they’ve both taken the time and trouble to be American.I don’t know them particularly well, only chatting to them on a few occasions prior to this, and I tend to assume that Americans experiencing The Great British Countryside can only possibly be enjoying a quaint oldy-worldiness. People hailing from a continent where the scale of everything dwarfs what is possible on these islands surely can’t actually be thrilled by the best that our natural and built environments have to offer, can they? 

As we walked down the hill away from the Admiral Benbow Inn (where I was moved to tell the barman that my two pints of Proper Job were the best cask ales I’d drunk in the last six months, the length and breadth of the country), one of our new friends leapt into an involuntary star-jump at the view. “LOOK at this place.” She almost snarled. “I FUCKING LOVE IT.” And, for the umpteenth time on this journey, I had to agree.

Not just because I’m a little scared of her (because the first time I ‘met’ her, she was heavily pregnant and just standing in the doorway of the Ivy House, firing ice-laser-beams out of her eyes at her partner, who had already fielded two ‘come home’ phone calls while sitting at the bar nattering about record shops in Brooklyn), but also because the view across harbour to water was impressive. She is, I realise now, one of the most talented pubgoers I’ve met, effortlessly striking up conversations with locals everywhere we went (The Lamp and Whistle was very good too), although Being American might be cheating.

He, for his part, has already got himself a regular spot playing records in some late-night bar, and gained unrestricted access to one of those stupidly huge archive-type collections you see YouTube videos about. The thought occurred to me that Penzance was all the more inspiring a place for us to visit because it had this family happily living in it. They took us to the lido café for breakfast, which was amazing – the food, the elegant lines of the building, but, more than anything, the light.

Also, one member of staff (still) wore a Save the Lido T-shirt, and I felt a little Londonsick for the first time. People would ask me why, a year after the pub reopened, the Twitter account I was running was still called Save the Ivy House, although we would always both know that if nobody spent any money there, it would close again, forever, and soon. Being a customer for small businesses is like Mr Incredible says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again… sometimes I just want it to STAY SAVED, y’know?”

Near St Michael’s Mount (or a good view of it from Marazion) there’s a great spot to park up (we have found it much easier since M found this website), away from the road but open to the elements. We were battered by the wind and rain more relentlessly than on any night since Rothbury, and although we never quite got to the bottom of whether Plymouth is truly “Britain’s Ocean City”, I’m not having anybody try to tell me that what was blowing around and through Vanny that night was a breeze from the English Channel or Irish Sea. That’s the Atlantic Ocean right there, and you can’t tell me any different.

Two of M’s least favourite things (on this tour, at least, after me) are steep, winding roads on which I might end up running her over, and towns where most of the buildings are Londoners’ second homes. But, like the Bio-Electronic Navigator BEN-GUNN in Disney’s version, she arrowed in on St Ives Rugby Club, which is a good overnight stop (if you’re prepared to ignore a few signs) and saves you from having to take your van down the slope into the narrow lanes of town.

Big H had told us to beware of ‘low-flying seagulls and Barbara Hepworth sculptures’ and we were soon victims of both. In something of a Cornish Cliché, M had the last bit of pasty stolen from her by a gang of gulls. A gull gang, or rather, one adult seagull and a bunch of teenage gulls flying around him, trying to look hard. Despite the armour of the brown paper bag it was barely protruding from, M, showing me her angry-red fingers, said she could feel that the seagull’s beak was serrated at its edge. I call BULLSHIT. (Remember to Google that before putting it in the blog.)

It’s interesting how Dame Babs has left great slabs of stone and metal lying next to our route throughout, from the dreadful sculpture above John Lewis on Oxford Street, where I spent the vouchers my colleagues collected for on my departure exactly a year ago, through Big H’s retirement japes with a cardboard replica of Two Forms (which had been a well-loved landmark in the best lesson I ever planned (rendered unreusable when the Divided Circle was recombined in a backstreet scrapyard’s furnace six years ago)), past reading about what Leeds is famous for, and ending up peering into her garden.

There were some nice ones of hers in the Tate, though. Big H’s younger namesake must have received an irreverent message psychically, as his behaviour in Tate St Ives was the worst I’ve seen from either boy on the whole tour. (To give credit where it is due, this wouldn’t even place him in the 30th percentile of the Boys’ Bad Behaviour Bell Curve I didn’t draw when I was teaching.)

H just wandered about looking grumpy and bored and saying sarcastic-sounding things that his vocabulary didn’t quite stretch to. I didn’t exactly help, delving into myTired and Bored Teacher’s Mental Book of Wind-Ups as we sat in front of Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi.

“I just don’t like it. It’s not very good. It doesn’t even look like a person.” He opined.

“Ah, but you’re still responding to it. Well Done. You are appreciating it for what it is, whether you like it or not.”

This made him really cross, marching off to one of the two stations in the gallery that asked for feedback to be written on little paper circles which could then be hung on little round pegs. There were lots of little pencils with which to write something heartfelt. H was the second most-motivated (after his Christmas list) I’ve ever seen him when writing, “I didn’t like any of it. And I’m keeping the pencil.”

It was, as my brother has suggested, a good time to visit the town, and be able to enjoy its pubs and bars and beaches without all the bloody part-timer tourists getting in the way. Beer and Bird, the Firehouse, John’s bottle shop and more took plenty of money from us in return for great food and beer and incredibly friendly, professional service. It was, in fact, one of those phases of the tour when it felt like we are just on a really long, greedy holiday, breaking off chunks of Property Pie and stuffing it into our fat mouths, getting all bits of filling stuck in our beards.

Or maybe it was just me.

So for the first step of the journey back East, we thought we’d do something more educational. E had been insistent upon trying either quad biking or paintballing. It was a school day and I felt that driving a motor vehicle would hopefully be a more useful transferable skill for his future than shooting people, so we visited Blackwater’s ATV centre. Like the shit and boring Dad I sometimes have to be, I made a point of standing them for a meaningful moment in front of the sign that says MOTORSPORT CAN BE DANGEROUS in big letters.

It wasn’t really that important a lesson for these two first-time drivers. The sign would probably be better-deployed next to the A30 near Ottery St Mary. The boys were given full safety gear and excellent tuition, and the quad bikes themselves had little throttle limiters that the young bloke adjusted carefully, according to their respective ages and body weights. These, I feel, should be fitted to ALL vehicles driven by anybody under the age of 45. As they pootled around a well-designed course, they looked like they had a lot of fun, even if H did shout “I HATE THIS,” each time he passed me in the pits.

I consider this to be a healthy attitude to motor vehicles. Although I’ve never particularly enjoyed driving, this van is the most comfortable and least stressful ride I’ve ever had. Part of it is the position, up nice and high so you can see everything. Part of it is never having to stop because somebody needs the toilet. But the biggest part is that it doesn’t go very fast, so I don’t feel obliged to keep my speed up. The fact that I can’t see out of the back, so I don’t feel the pressure of a great long line of Audi drivers shaking their well-groomed fists at me, probably helps too.

M had just come back from the loo. This is illegal, of course, but I would like to see any of you try and stop her, even if you weren’t driving. The fact that you can’t see what’s behind you came as a blessing yet again, as I was only aware of these two cars, bumper-to-bumper at about seventy-five, as they appeared in the right-hand corner of my vision. As the second car, a little sporty-hairdresser’s thing, was passing me on my right, it was looking to accelerate across in front of me and undertake the first car in one very short diagonal line.

“Undertakers. Friends only to the Undertaker,” I decided to write in a blog several days later.

He lost control with his car a few feet in front of Vanny’s brave little snub nose, immediately going into a spin and bumping skywards off the central reservation, spinning mid-air, broadsiding the crash barrier with an enormous, well, crash, bouncing up in the air again and doing a lot of quick backwards swervy stuff before gradually slowing to a stop. All the time this was happening, I was just looking at the slow-lane gap, leaning forward over the wheel like Dougal in Pat’s milk float.

M said she felt she was looking at his face all the way through. Both boys were watching too, and all of us reported something different – M didn’t hear a crash, E was just mesmerized by how many “bits of mud and other stuff were flying up in the air,” H’s keen sense of drama reported that he was sure he’d heard the car knock some bits off the van. We were all in shock, and resolved, then and there, to stop off in Frome again and get drunk. On our previous visit, Brewed Boy was closed. This time, thankfully, it was not. And it is excellent.

Like Chris Rea, we felt we had been driving home for Christmas for about thirty years, but we made it to my Mum and Dad’s in Suffolk in the end. Where will we go next? Um, dunno yet. But we hope that you all have a very enjoyable few days off from whatever awful things you have to do the rest of the time, and do take care and look after each other. 


Merry Christmas, if that’s your sort of thing.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best Pasty Filling - Worst Festival (Devon and Cornwall, Part 1)

The West Country has always been associated with four things in my mind: pasties, cider, festivals and dangerous driving on inadequate roads. As this pair of pre-Chrimbo posts will reveal, nothing has changed. We’re approaching the final stages of our adventure (at least the part that involves driving around in a van every day), and this leg, out to the far reaches of Cornwall and back to Suffolk in time for Christmas, means we have been just about everywhere we need to go before deciding where home and shop will be. That said, this travel thing is damn good fun and we are keeping the van (I might even sell some records out of it one day) with lots of the British Isles still to explore.

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"Okay. Get the pasty if you must, but just
DON'T LOOK INSIDE IT." The year is 1992 and I am visiting Seale-Hayne agricultural college in Newton Abbot, Devon. We've just walked through the union bar, where preparations are being made for tonight's Christmas meeting of the college's Drinking Society - bins have been moved to the middle of the room and the floor is covered in plastic sheeting. My friend, who is over six and a half feet tall and, folded carefully, drives a Peugeot 205 at consistently dangerous speeds, has warned me that either the drinking culture or the isolated location of the college (or perhaps a function of both) has made it possible for the canteen to prepare and sell the worst food that he has ever had the misfortune to eat. Intrigued, I have picked out what appears to be a perfectly appetising (and quaintly local) meal and, sitting down, have just been shown a metaphorical Big Red Button with the words DO NOT PRESS stencilled above it. 

I take my fork and lever the armour-plated top sheet of pastry away from What Lies Beneath - a mangled, twisted mass of gelatinous grey material, it resembles edible food in no way whatsoever. In fact, in line with popular Urban Myths of the time, it looks very much like the mutilated carcass of a rat. Anybody who has ever known me will understand just how unpleasant this food looked when I say that I could not eat any of it.

This experience of South-Western cuisine stayed with me to the extent that I have rarely been drawn to the pasties one sees on sale everywhere else, and it was with gastronomic expectations very much in check that I drove Vanny into
Devon for the second time on this tour. M had set the controls for the heart of Newton Abbot because there was a house I liked the look of there.

I’m sure pasties are okay. Even M likes them. I’ve eaten enough in the last fortnight to exorcise the ghosts of the Worst of All Possible-Rats and Seale-Hayne College (which closed down just a few years later, although it’s still not clear whether the food had anything to do with it.) But I’d still say the best pasty is the one you're eating right now, if you are hungry enough. It helps if it is still warm, and if you can penetrate the pastry casing with a normal set of teeth. There should be chunks of steak in the filling, not minced beef, and it should be abundantly peppery. Yes, there should be some vegetables in there too, but frankly I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what they are. I’ve had some very nice ones from a chain called The Cornish Bakery in Bude and Tintagel. Pasties, not rat’s asses.

I wasn’t, however, expecting to be blown away by the very first place we visited in Newton Abbot at the beginning of December 2017. Teign Cellars is the kind of pub most localities (including cool areas of
South London) can only dream of - a proper pub with all sorts of (all right, local) people drinking in it, that sells some incredible beers at excellent prices. Okay, it smelled a little funny and the music was awful, but both these factors could be integral parts of being a proper local instead of a poncey beer bar. We drank pints of Deya's Steady Rolling Man at £5.20 a go (still can’t quite believe that) and asked the nice man if the town got much tourist trade nowadays. He shook his head and shrugged.

Teign Cellars deserves some kind of award for its brilliance, and its cheesy chilli chips that were probably better than those of the much-vaunted Red's True Barbecue in Sheffield and Leeds. “Just in case you're worried, that is chilli on there, just with chunks of steak, not mince” said the nice young man, presumably accustomed to people complaining if it doesn’t look like a tin of Old El Paso Chilli con Carne. So I'm going to say their chilli was the best pasty filling. Because it's my blog, so there.

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If there were ever two reasons to believe in a place, it's what Newton Abbot has right now - a great place to drink beer (another bar showed up on my standard iOS Maps search – “craft beer [name of town],” but we didn’t feel the need to go there) and a great place to buy records. In a music shop called Phoenix Sound M told me I had to stop spending money on myself, as she was not able to. This, I felt, was unfair. She can spend money (up to a certain amount) on herself any time she wants to (up to a maximum of about, erm, twice), because we are not Santander’s pigs any more, and the records are really nice.

We stopped in at
Plymouth, where the boys and I traded knowledge of Sir Francis Drake, his game of bowls and his Golden Behinde, before eating lunch in McDonalds, losing patience with a Limbo Dancer and picking up the next instalment of Super Diaper Baby for H's edumacation and headification. We also discussed whether the sea splashing around at Plymouth Hoe was, in fact, the Atlantic Ocean, after noting the smart new signs declaring PlymouthBritain’s Ocean City.” I then discovered that these signs have cost the city council seventeen thousand pounds each, and am still trying to work out how.

Okehampton suffers from a shoddy reputation, but deserves better. It's on the edge of
Dartmoor, near the middle of Devon, and some of its cashpoints still work. Why it has three supermarkets on the same narrow spur off the Main Street is beyond me, but the car park at the other end of town provided us with a quiet spot by a noisy river to pass another night, en route to visiting the beautiful people in Langtree again. I can recommend eating in The Black Horse in Great Torrington, especially if you are skint, or greedy, or it is Christmas, or all of the above. The town car park actually makes proper provision for motorhomes to stay overnight, too.

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Things are different over the border in Bude. The technicalities and semanticsof the rules that hope to forbid it elsewhere aren't strong enough for
England's campervanishest county, so they have their own rule to prevent them from being overrun - campervans and motorhomes are simply not allowed in council car parks between eleven o'clock at night and six in the morning. (I expect they only pay a little ticket man to work nights in peak season though.) A quick bit of research from Undaunted M (she's better at it than I am) found that the King Arthur's Arms (great pub) car park in Tintagel allows motorhomes overnight for a very reasonable four quid, so we went there, had a look around the castle (as far as we could when the island was closed) and I did a little internet-finding-out of my own.

As unconventional as our curriculum and angle of approach has been through our Van Ed so far, the boys are very quick to hang a subject label off of everything we do. E says he doesn't like history, for which I blame Michael Gove, colonialism and class teachers' tendencies to ask their cover teacher to do the history when they're on PPA, in roughly that order. But when we begin a session with the question "What can we find out about King Arthur?" and quickly establish that the most important fact about him is that he did not necessarily exist, all the retrospective planning or curricular fluidity in the world is not going to help us – once again, NOBODY KNOWS.

In fairness, we were mildly interested in whether it could possibly be true that he once slew, personally, almost a thousand men in a battle somewhere. We like a story about a place, but we're not that arsed about a place about a story, so the tide being too far in for us to enter Merlin's Cave was no real (or even legendary) disappointment. In conclusion, we quite enjoyed the walk around an interesting bit of coast, but it seems King Arthur's greatest contribution to the world we were exploring was having a reasonably priced car park that allows motorhomes overnight named after him.

The Lanivet Inn is a really good, busy local that does excellent food. I had the monkfish and several pints of a sweet but sneakily strong cider called Rattler that seems hugely popular down here. It reminded me of the effects of the Glastonbury Festival Brothers Bar cider, back before it started to appear in cans in your local Londis. Even when ordering my fifth pint, I still couldn’t drop the double T central to pronouncing it as the locals do.

The following night, we economized by staying at the very friendly DoubletreesFarm caravan site in Parr. At twenty-five quid it was cheaper than parking for free behind a pub and provided us with the facilities we don’t absolutely need to hand, but definitely appreciate from time to time. It was only a mile from the Eden Project, another of the top five things to do in
Britain checked off our list, and almost worth the money.

I say almost because the Rainforest Biome is tremendous, while the rest of it is predictably low-key in December. Also, tickets allow free entry for a year, so we were able to return the next evening for their winter Festival of Sound and Light. This was seemingly as atmospheric for the boys as the Blackpool Illuminations were for me, back when they weregood. However, it would have taken eight pints of Rattler and some peyote buttons harvested in the dark for me to get into this festival. The lasers weren’t moving and neither was the music. Still… like I say, the kids enjoyed it.

The next day I took them to a trampoline park, which is the sort of thing I was promising them while explaining that they were going to have to leave all they had ever known behind. Bodmin is home to iBounce, which is a good one as far as I can tell. As they bounced, I checked my emails. And found I had to pay a £500 FINE for entering something called the fucking
LOW EMISSION ZONE, which is basically the whole of Greater London inside the M25. I had absolutely no idea this was in effect already, even though I’d been driving a small petrol vehicle past a sign that said something about it on the A12 for years.

Unfortunately, ignorance is no excuse when it comes to this kind of thing.

Fortunately, the fine is halved if you can pay it quickly.

Unfortunately, even though I’m aware that I have to pay a charge to drive Vanny in London now, that charge is A HUNDRED POUNDS. EVERY DAY

Fortunately, there only seem to be cameras recording when you go in and when you go out, and they can’t charge you for going out, or assume that you spent the In Between Days driving around, poisoning the millions of children who get driven half a mile to school every day.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that for sure. I was wondering why London wasn’t full of people living in motorhomes, smirking at the system. But now I know.


Eventually EVEN I get bored of the LEZ and start talking to the bloke. Turns out he used to be the manager of Peckham Pulse for a while. We discuss our respective muggings at the ends of our South East London working lives in good humour, as if being victims of crimes and dangerous behaviour were all in our pasts. I’m not suspecting for a moment that within a week I will be watching M get mugged (okay, by a seagull) and get so close to a Hollywood-worthy high-speed car crash, I will be delighted not to shit my trousers. For once.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Arch Theory



Yes, I've managed to cheer up since last time, thank God. It was just a blip. Not a brief blip, but a slow descent to a nadir of ridiculous self-pity and back up again. Part of the process. Part of any process for me, I sometimes think.

I have been saved by archways. Specifically ones I've still not passed through but would really like to. From Southampton we went to look at Stonehenge. It was bloody freezing that day and there are few things that interest my two sons less than lumps of ancient stone that raise questions with the answer "NOBODY KNOWS," but M had some work to do in the van and so we walked to the new visitor centre and handed them almost fifty quid. There weren't any new answers in there either.

Once Upon a Time, I told the boys, it was possible to just walk up to this most ancient of monuments and sit among the stones, contemplating the achievements of one's species over thousands of years, or watching the sun rise or something. Hell, it was possible for Chevy Chase to reverse his Austin Maxi into one of them, wasn't it? The boys looked nonplussed, so I made a mental note to look this up on YouTube later.

Moving those great rocks all that way though? Aligning them with the position of the sun in the sky at different times of day throughout the year, lifting some on top of others and balancing them? It's all absolutely staggering
I've always been a tad intimidated by feats of engineering, from the construction of the dome on St Paul's Cathedral to the process by which the gas operation of the refrigerator in a compact motorhome can use heat itself to facilitate the removal of heat. Awestruck, I ask myself (or the kids, or whoever is listening,) 'However did they manage that?' as if somebody is going to give me some answer other than, 'By an enormous amount of careful planning and hard work, probably involving a huge number of people who devoted or even sacrificed their lives to the project,' although it's hard to imagine scores of men living and dying that Vanny might have a fridge that doesn't cane the battery.

I've done my share of (mostly) careful planning and hard (if not always smart) work over the last twenty years, and I'm quite prepared to do some more when I know where to do it, but a character-building chat in a record shop in Wincanton (that I actually can't find on the web) did make me wonder if the direction I have been trying to point myself in is even worth the first few tentative steps. He knew a bloke who started out with an enormous collection and turned it into a shop, didn't want to have to work there all the time, and ended up swapping lots of lovely records for rent and wage payments before giving up. I shall have to own my premises and staff them all the time they're open. I reckon I might do well to ask punters to make informal appointments outside of some manageably brief core hours. Would that work?

Meanwhile, my travels have taught me the true value of a good pair of sunglasses at last. En route to Shaftesbury, this pair of Aviators somebody bartered for burgers at Borough Market many years ago were on and off my face with frightening frequency. I considered asking for bits of burger back when they shed a screw with removal on arrival, revealing an earlier shoddy repair with one that wasn't quite long enough. I'm indebted to S H Harrold Opticians, who fixed it on the spot for free, with a proper Ray-Ban screw. So I felt rather ashamed that E had done a Chevy Chase with the carefully-balanced Christmas presents in the window display while we waited.

Durdle Door, another archway I couldn't pass through (without a kayak or similar small vessel) was a sun-drenched winter setting where the last of my dark mood finally lifted. The s
usurrus of the tiny round stones moving in the water, the unreal plopping of handfuls as they dropped into the shallows made deep by the ridges of millions more, the total absence of fingernails-on-blackboard seagull screams gave the beach an audible beauty that matched the view. We lingered there as long as we could, had a pint in the pub and parked up for the night. In the morning, a friendly but diligent parking marshal approached the van and told M that overnight camping was not allowed. "Oh, we wouldn't do that," she replied with a smile. I had to admire this answer, as the use of the future tense was both a technical avoidance of the lie and an assurance that we hadn't decided we lived there now.


I don't suppose there are a great many people who read this blog looking for wild camping tips, yet I can't recommend the Top o' the Town Car Park in Dorchester highly enough to motorhomos like ourselves. Here are my reasons.

Number 1. There are oversized parking spaces solely for the use of commercial vehicles and motorhomes. Although I take particular pride in being able to squeeze Vanny into a normal space in almost any car park, biggies are often available when the normal spaces are full. This was the case here, as it was in Ord St, Newcastle Upon Tyne. It also means you have plenty of room to access your toilet cassette for Number 2.

Number 2. There is an excellent public convenience. One of the main advantages here is that it has three cubicles - two more than a great many of the relatively few facilities that are still open elsewhere in the country. This helps one avoid that awkward moment when one emerges, smelling like a drain, Ghostbusters Backpack in hand, to find a queue of people waiting to use the only trap.

Number 3. There is a café that would have been used as a location for a scene in a Coen Brothers film if it were anywhere in the United States. It is not only an Aladdin's Cave of weird cuddly toys and twenty-year-old business cards advertising polyphonic ringtones, but is also a great place to buy big floppy bacon sarnies and catch up on the local goss, by earwigging on the enormous man holding court in the corner.

Fortified by the sandwiches and in thoroughly good cheer, we headed off to Devon (again) and (this time) beyond.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Border This Now



Last week was the worst of the trip so far. No difficulties, no challenges, no unpleasantness from anybody or anything outside of my head. Just my mood. 

Pathetic, isn't it? As Philip Norman said of Jagger's persona, it is the insufferable ennui of being handed everything. I have no work to do, no bills to pay, no deadlines to meet. I have all I want and need right with me and can choose where I want to buy a house at my leisure. And last week it was really getting on my tits. 

My birthday was probably the low point, perhaps because I'd expected something to have materialised in the property search by this landmark date, or 'cos I'd always assumed there would be some record-shaped celebration when I reached Halfway To Ninety. We've visited lovely towns, crossed our first national border into a breathtaking landscape, and all I've been able to do is moan that we're not getting anywhere, every town is starting to look like the last, and I'm not getting my own way.

M says she has been feeling the pressure that she knew sharing one small room with her family for most of every day was sure to bring, but we don't actually argue. We don't even quietly seethe. We just seem to start feeling unhappy, and are probably blaming each other subconsciously even if we don't articulate it. The boys start picking up on the frustration and ask infuriating questions about what is going to happen and when, and we get more and more exasperated with them asking for answers we really don't have.

I found a house I wanted. M seemed to quite like it too, but wasn't as confident she'd be happy living there as I was. The vendor was good enough to spell out exactly how little she would accept, and M licensed me to offer her fifteen grand less. This was rejected, of course, and after a while I became convinced that it wasn't about freeing up cash for paint and plant pots, but about making an intentionally inadequate offer because she didn't really want to buy the house but didn't want to be honest with me either. So I spent the next few days visiting towns and thinking 'Yeah this place is great but what is the point of liking it? If I decide I want to live here, M will just decide she doesn't.' This, of course, is my problem and only existed briefly in a small space on the inside of my skull. I am over it now and would be better off not sharing it with anybody. Whoops.

Shropshire and the Brecon Beacons have been very pleasant places to visit, like everywhere else we have been. The tour has been a success in terms of teaching us there are a great many places to enjoy outside of London, but a total failure (so far) in terms of narrowing things down. In Ludlow, a man running a micropub and bottle shop (that seemed to exist in complete isolation from the big changes in the beer market of the last decade) told us of a number of advantages of living on the other side of the border, principally the free prescriptions and support with tuition fees. He also spoke knowledgeably about the beauty of the Welsh landscape and the cheaper property prices, before saying that the only drawback is that there are a lot of people with very nationalistic views. 'What, like in England?' I wondered-out-loud, but his point was that it is the English that a Welsh nationalist is most likely to despise. 'It makes no difference to me though really,' he continued, 'I'm a Brummie, so I'm used to being hated by everyone.'

Armed with this wisdom, I crossed the border ready to keep my Englishness in check. The first person I met who wanted to speak about this divide was an English chef with that commonplace angry-bitter-controversial chef's sense of humour, who was talking about having a red dragon tattooed on his arse.

Both E and H are dyslexic and are only beginning to recognise reading and writing as useful forms of communication, rather than the stuff of day-to-day slog and chore that is schoolwork. And that's in English. I don't think that returning to school to find there is another, much more difficult, language to read and write in, would go down too well. If we were to set up home on the other side of a border, it might work better for it to be In Scotland, but that's a long way away and one thing we are not struggling with is a lack of options. We need to narrow things down really, before the money runs out or the weather turns too cold to make this viable.

Hay on Wye was a great little town, once the chef stopped trying to talk to me. We enjoyed some tremendous beers at Beer Revolution and some pretty damn good Chinese food ('we just call it "food",' a Chinese bloke said to me once) and revelled in the town's more understanding approach to car park signage - the text above says something like "no caravan or motorhome may stay for more than one night in seven," which seemed very civilised to me, but wasn't accommodating enough for the man who had obviously been there with his car and caravan for a while, feet down, TV aerial up and noisy little genny chugging away into the night.

There was no such crafty beer place in Abergavenny - a huge hotel called The Angel dominates, but within, the traveller discovers a handsome bar with a disastrously poor beer offering. It occurred to me once again that there are still opportunities in the beer market in certain towns. I'd really like to be able to offer the sort of beer that M and I like to drink in a town where there aren't any other places to drink it. There was a great food festival on in the town hall though, with all sorts of options and excellent atmosphere, but H wasn't really able to enjoy his burger.

He had toothache every time he ate for a few days back there, so we needed to get him to the tooth doctor, as well as getting Vanny to the van doctor (the skylight leak is fixed - hurrah - but we had to wait for them to order the tap, so they'll fit that after Christmas. It's not exactly a long walk to the bathroom tap though.) We couldn't just take him to the dentist like you do when you're living at your home address. Finding a dentist who would give him an appointment took several days - in fact it's difficult enough just to find a practice that will take on new NHS patients even if they do live locally. So we went back to M's mum's place to sort this out. H 
now has a very nice young dentist who cares enough about him to tell his mum he should never have any sugar. Since then, he's managed to lay off for the most part, even during a visit to see his very bestest friends on the South coast. We've stopped off in Southampton and checked my penultimate English Brewdog bar off the list (very nice it was too) and narrowly avoided paying TWENTY-FIVE QUID to drive Vanny across a toll bridge. Now it's time to head for Cornwall, which we missed on our first journey to the Southwest for reasons I can no longer remember. 

When we have been there to our Satisfaction, we will have driven through every county in England, and I think we should be ready to make a serious move on a place that has caught our collective eye. The boys have been amazing together, and so positive about the whole thing, but they probably need to start spending more time in the company of other children their own age. They're not bumping into kids in playgrounds and places as often as they did when the weather was 
warmer.

While watching Blue Planet II, E expressed genuine concern that we were not recycling enough. It's very difficult to organise recycling when you are in a small space and have no bins of your own, so we do it when we can, but have thrown away a hillock of glass and plastic on this trip. We would all much prefer to put this guilt behind us as soon as possible. In stark contrast to how we lived, skint and time-starved in London, we've been huge consumers too, as much so as the muscly
 bulging young men we saw in Worcester, nearly bursting out of the ripped skinny jeans that go so badly with their Fred Astaire hairdos. Eating out virtually every day is expensive, fattening (when you hoover-up everybody else's lefties) and does something to my soul. Every oversize, open-top refrigerator and freezer exhaling dry-ice fog into the air, every bright red lamp heating an empty outdoors causes me insane amounts of worry. I need to get somewhere to live so I can hide away from all these smoking guns at the scenes of our suicide. I hate feeling like I am being bought and sold in the marketplace, and I hate being the trader too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

A Capital Idea

Rocket Man, it transpires, actually did manage to get out of the car before it went off the cliff and exploded. It's just that we didn't see him doing so last week. Misery Chastain was allergic to bee stings and in some kind of a coma, not dead, when they buried her, so she was able to come back and save Paul Sheldon's life. And motorhomes reflect light off their rear end in a way that bamboozles speed cameras with surprising regularity. 

It's somebody's job in the police station to look at the photo, and bin incidents where large vehicles have been clocked at ridiculous speeds, but occasionally one slips through. If you get a letter, all you need to do is call up and they'll re-examine the photo and quickly put the matter to bed. Whether this means you could soup-up your motorhome's engine and drive everywhere at insane speeds like a total arsehole without ever getting in trouble remains unclear.

I tried to blame my dad's easy submission to authoritarian language for our 500-mile round trip to the South, but in the end I was glad for the break. Sorting out the speeding business took about five minutes, and also gave me the chance to play a guitar I'd won at auction, by telephone from the top of Loughrigg Fell. It's likely I'll be playing it if and when you ever walk into my record shop, but I promise I'll put it down when I see I actually have a customer for once, and stick some John Renbourn on instead. 

Having made an emergency return to the South, and with Halloween looming spookily, we realised this was the right time to return to Sunny Nunny, SE15. I'm frankly disgusted by what my kids have come to expect of what was only a very minor date in 1981, but it was clear that they would resent having to spend it anywhere else, so this visit was an opportunity to catch up with some friends and see if we could stomach a taste of the life we've left behind. The boys duly managed to acquire and consume a half-bin-liner of confectionery each, M spent some quality time with former colleagues, and I achieved one of my great ambitions for this trip, parking the van with the door immediately opposite that of the Ivy House. For a while I contemplated winding the awning out.

E also bumped into the nice lady who bought our house, and she very kindly showed him around. He came back to the van a little tearful, but saying ridiculously grown-up stuff like 'They've made some very interesting changes.' In truth, neither of his parents would have handled it so well. I had an opportunity to play some records to a reassuringly empty room at the UK's first tank room bar, and the crowded tube journey gave me a chance to reflect on how little I'd seen of 'London' London in the last decade or so, as well as to wrack my brains for when I'd last had a wash.

We've realised that what we were living by Peckham Rye was not an Urban Existence. Despite how little respect I've shown for Estate Agents and their work elsewhere in this blog, I'd now agree that we were effectively living in a village on the outskirts of London. When I was first sent (as a supply teacher, from my Bermondsey flat) to East Dulwich fifteen years ago, 
I would ask myself Why would anybody want to live all the way out here? You might as well live in Kent. And this is what we always do - perceive a place to be remote and uninviting until we have made several visits. We are all cutting new tracks in the part of our brain that stores our personal geography, and having done this in London over a quarter of a century, we are finally extending it to the rest of the country. A nice place to visit, like a good film or book, needs a second or third rinse for the subject to see beneath the surface.

Indeed, the first time we park up somewhere for the night, we are still sometimes a little insecure, whereas our old neighbourhood felt perfectly comfortable - we didn't even feel we were treading on the toes of the people whose house we parked outside on our final night there (the sideways slope right outside the pub having rather spoiled our enjoyment of the exclusive location), despite sitting up late into the night with half a dozen beer drinkers in the van.

But the striking thing about this Wild Camping (if that term means what I think it does) is how easy it is. When we set out to do this, we didn't really find anything to encourage us, so I would like to contribute this wisdom to the web: if you have a campervan or motorhome, nobody is going to stop you from parking up and sleeping wherever the hell you want, unless you're on private property. Parking up by the roadside? Well, how many times have you approached a vehicle near your house to ask them what they think they're doing there? Town council car parks? Sure, the sign says No Camping or Overnight Sleeping, but how many people do you think are employed in the UK to enforce this? My guess is fewer than one. 

Even if somebody did knock on the window of my van at three in the morning, I expect I'd ignore it and leave them with little evidence that there was anyone in the vehicle at all, what with all the blinds down and the curtains behind the cab closed. And if I did, irrationally, stick my head through these curtains to see what they wanted, would I really accept their charges of overnight camping? No, I'm just sitting in my vehicle in my pants waiting for daylight because my lights aren't that great. I'm not sleeping, as you can see, because I'm talking to you at three in the bloody morning.

Of course, any Sherlock-Holmes-types could tell at a glance whether there are people in the van now the weather has turned colder. A thick layer of condensation clings to every window, obscuring any parking ticket we might have bought as a token gesture of having kept our ends up, and gradually feeding and watering those little spots of black mould that are so hard to shift if you don't wipe them away the moment they appear. Now we are using the heating, there's sometimes a cute little wisp of vapour curling out of the chimney at the back, too. But who is going to knock you up, even if they do know you're in there? 

When the weather is this cold and you're spending the bare minimum amount of time outside, paying for a campsite is an even bigger waste of money. Unless it's a tenner to park in the grounds of a good pub, of course. But if it gets much colder than this, we might have to shelve the project for a while, so we've been zipping around checking off places as quick as we can.

Norwich is, as the sign says, A Fine City, with my equal-favourite (with Liverpool) Brewdog bar of the fourteen I've visited, but I fear that it may be just a tad too familiar and close to my roots that are still unpoisoned in the fertile East Anglian earth. I feel inclined to break new ground, to plow a new furrow in a field far from home, to cut new tracks in the topography of my cerebellum.

Holt (Norfolk) isn't a place that will allow this either. A nice little town filled with old people, I would struggle to get comfortable there. My previous visit was one of exactly two occasions that I've found myself telling a stranger to fuck off. E was about eighteen months old and screaming blue murder as I strapped him into the buggy and put the rain cover on. Each time I looked in there, the screaming intensified exponentially, so I decided to ignore him at about the same moment a well-to-do older woman began watching me. I'd been pushing him along for one very noisy minute when she approached me and said, meaning well I'm sure, "You should talk to your children, you know." But I've already ruined the punchline.

Almost completely out of character with the rest of the town, but seemingly happy and successful within it, is Holt Vinyl Vault, a well-stocked and interesting record shop that does more than just open the doors and hope somebody will come in. When I was there last Wednesday, an enthusiastic man even older than me was actually DJing - not just spinning discs but weaving a musical tapestry, or at least sewing together some really lovely bits and pieces to make a smashing patchwork quilt. I was sold my records in a big plastic Recorded Delivery mailer, left over from the shop's recent past doubling as a Post Office. M's local friend says it was a curious scene to watch not long ago - senior citizens queueing up for their pension cheques with a soundtrack from the Velvet Underground.

From Holt we rolled all the way back up North to look at Richmond again, beautiful in sunshine and cold air; Darlington, which is a much nicer town than I'd always assumed, and has a fabulous pub in Number 22; Heaton Moor in Greater Manchester, a pleasant and diverse suburb not dissimilar to Dulwich; and the ever-lovely Shrewsbury, via a freezing night in the Peak District near a village called Tintwhistle. 

We are working our way South-East again as we have an appointment with the van doctor. In addition to the little leak above the shower room, the electric switch in the kitchen tap has given up and the leisure battery lost all of its charge in one evening in London (although it hasn't been a problem since.) Our teenaged van passed forty thousand miles in North Yorkshire, ten percent of which have been added to the clock in the three-and-a-half months we've been living in her. So actually she's been incredibly durable, I think, and I shall repeat here what I've said in person to anybody who will listen: wherever we end up living, whatever form the shop eventually takes, you will have to pry my cold, dead fingers from the wheel before you take this van away from me.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

I Wish I... I Wish I Was In...

Richmond is the most replicated English place name. There are fifty-something (sorry, I couldn't be bothered to Google it again) examples worldwide, but the original (English) Richmond (in North Yorkshire, at the North Eastern corner of the Dales) isn't very well-known. This is an awful shame, as it is a super town, with a huge cobbled market place, an imposing castle, beautiful houses and a military museum that claims to house Hitler's Carpet. It also has sure signs of a real community - the railway station, in the absence of any trains, has been developed for small businesses and includes a little cinema, and the George and Dragon pub (which is admittedly in the neighbouring village of Hudswell – geographically the Richmond upon Thames of Richmond, North Yorks) was saved by its customers in much the same way as the Ivy House, and is a tremendous place for a pie and a pint, with a real-life record player spinning liquorice pizzas behind the bar.

Throw in a few decent shops, a swimming pool, a secondary school that the kids didn't look too unhappy to be walking to in the morning and a tiny hospital that once sewed up my knee halfway through a Coast-to-Coast bike ride (and then gave me an anti-tetanus shot that I got drunk in defiance of, but nobody wants this blog to end up being known as Places Where Tim Has Shat Himself) and you have a town that fits all of my own personal criteria as a Good Place To Live. 

I don’t think I want a city, or even a big and busy town any more. But then I grew up in a village with a population of larger mammals that was more porcine than human. Neither M or the boys enjoy the benefit of such humble beginnings, and so they're unsure of whether Richmond is a bit too sleepy, or a bit too In The Middle Of Nowhere and Nearly In Scotland.

Exercises like this tour sometimes force you to ask yourself difficult questions, such as Am I Just A Selfish Greedy Bastard and Why Does My Life Partner Seem To Hate Me So Much? But nobody said this was going to be easy, and as we pass the three-month mark, Nobody has been proven wrong. On our way from Rothbury to
Richmond, the van was clocked at 80 mph in a 30-zone during what was left of the hurricane. The letter that arrived at my folks' house in Suffolk says I could get a thousand-pound fine and 6 points on my licence, but I reckon that's peanuts for driving a huge ugly truck through a built-up area at almost three times the speed limit during a former tropical storm or whatever it was. Makes me almost wish I had. 

It is obviously a computer error, caused, I would guess, by the gusting hurricane-force winds. This van has only once gone over sixty with me at the wheel, and that was on a mile-long steep downhill stretch of motorway. In
Devon, if I remember correctly. But will I have to go to court to prove it? Will a magistrate agree to ride shotgun with me while I put the pedal to the metal and show him just what a lot Vanny's not got? Stay tuned to find out.

In order to open this letter and answer these charges, we've had to return to
Suffolk, 300 miles from where the crime wasn't committed. After Richmond, we visited...

Ripon - a big cathedral in a little city,

York - a big cathedral that for some reason isn't called a cathedral in a great city, full of pubs and at least one good record shop and animatronic Vikings who are quite impressive the first time around,

Harrogate (again) - where some friends made their home available for a few days in their absence which was very kind,

Knaresborough - where some strangers did their best to make Mother Shipton's home seem even more inhospitable in their presence, which was great fun, 

Huddersfield -  where my pilgrimage to the Magic Rock Brewery Tap left me a little disappointed, but Vinyl Tap made up for it,

Sheffield – where I snapped off part of the awning by driving too close to a telegraph pole. It was just the cover of the hooky bit, but this may have now compromised the aerodynamics such that we will never break the sound barrier. I realised I'm doing what my dad always accused me of with cars - taking the vehicle to the scrapyard, bit by bit.

In the newly-exposed, tuppence-sized hole that I briefly thought may go as deep as the width of the awning, there was some mouldy-looking, fluffy white stuff. I poked it. A lethargic wasp crawled out. I made an alarmed burbling noise. It fell on my face. I screamed like a 1970s Mid-Suffolk piglet. It landed on the ground. I stamped on it. Another came out. I swore at it. It flew away drunkenly. I thought of that book called The Wasp Factory that I haven’t read. I thought that the author was probably Scottish. I thought, again, about how the Scots’ strong and admirable sense of National Identity was inextricably linked to religion, despite the fact that religion is the cause of so much division and unpleasantness within the Scottish people. I thought about the huge and grand cathedrals in English cities and watched the wasp just about stay airborne as it departed. I wondered about whether American cities had to have cathedrals and whether the decline of Christian culture in England has had any effect on my feelings about where I want to live.

Sheffield is a great city, and I would be perfectly happy living there and selling records and coffee and beer. It seems that I have only ever tried to go to Record Collector on a Wednesday before, which is pretty stupid, because that is when it is closed. But this time it was open and it was fabulous. Also the wonderful Wizard Guitars sold me a little amp that made me feel much better about how far technology has come in the last few decades, after the crushing disappointment of the Blackpool Illuminations.


I stopped worrying about sleepy wasps and started worrying about my speeding ticket again.