Lost::MikeGTN < Lost
It's a beautiful way to get lost, all you need is a bottle and a few nagging thoughts...
London - The Unnatural and The Commonplace - A City Weekend...
Saturday 29/11/2014 23:42
Aside from a brief walk across the eastern fringe, it's been a while since I wandered in the City. Thinking back, once I'd overcome my earliest misconceptions about London, my first great interest was this odd city-within-a-city, with its unusual traditions, archaic governance and strong sense of tradition. It always seemed particularly odd that this layer of the exposed medieval City existed as a backdrop to the intrigue and misdeeds of ultramodern high finance. The strange stories of Livery Companies, giants and royal subservience found homes in those few buildings which survived the great fire, and the evidence which that - and successive more planned conflagrations - has revealed. So, we'd hastily planned our first trip here in some time to be based around the 'square mile'. Yesterday we'd arrived and made a slow bus journey east through the Black Friday crowds. The unwelcome tradition imported from the US was filling Oxford Street with teeming crowds. Finally we alighted at Blackfriars and navigated a clutch of tight little streets skirting the still-noticeable dip of the Fleet Valley to find our hotel for the night. It was good to be back within the city walls.

Our excursion last evening had taken us along the embankment, west towards Parliament. Rising from the underground at Westminster, we skirted the House at dusk. Lights were beginning to twinkle across the river, the bulging oddity of St.George's Wharf now evident on the skyline. We moved along Millbank, passing the weirdly tired looking Millbank Tower which still symbolises the Blair-era machinery of Spin, with its Rapid Rebuttal Unit. Suddenly, the vista opened out and the startling white hulk of Tate Britain appeared. Nestled between the modern extensions and neighbouring buildings, the gleaming building both figuratively and financially appeared to be made of sugar. Still impressive if looking strangely overdone in this setting, the building continues to play a vital part in the artistic life of the capital. Ascending the steps we found the cafe and waited our turn at the Turner exhibition. Deep inside the building, the halls stretched out into blank eternity, the ethereal canvases swimming into view. It was mildly dizzying at times, the blasts of light and tumbles of salt water leaping from the paintings. In a corner was "Rain Steam and Speed" - our first encounter in the flesh, so to speak. As oddly moving as ever it looked on a page, the turbulence of speed, the rush of landscape and memory, and the indistinct and temporary nature of the train crossing a viaduct all seemed less real and more otherworldy in person. It's hard to imagine how this would have struck an early Victorian, experiencing high speed travel for the first time. We left utterly impressed, and on the way out spotted what appeared to be comedic genius Chris Morris collecting his bags as the gallery closed for the evening. We were late leavers too, hailing a cab back to busy Blackfriars along the stop-start tumble of vehicles heading east along the Thames.

The Museum of London, with the Barbican in the background
The Museum of London, with the Barbican in the background

Today was planned at least to be a little less hectic. Setting out moderately early we headed to Bishopsgate by bus, breakfasting in a favourite spot from a while back, but alas finding no black pudding on offer. A leisurely start - followed by a much-earned walk through the City streets. Once we left the gravity of Liverpool Street, it fell immediately quiet. Workmen's hammers could be individually heard in the side-streets, the City as ever a continual churn of renewal and remaking. Streets closed for Crossrail were making our progress crazy and complicated. We zigzagged through Courts and Alleys, delighting in the fact they'd been there for centuries, before entering the Guildhall courtyard. The pale stone building gleamed across the amphitheatre, its modern extensions seeming to fall away from the main event. There was no getting inside today - but a moment in this quiet yard was enough, sandwiched between Guildhall and austere St.Lawrence Jewry with his sinister grid-iron weathercock. This was the centre of the city - and had been for many hundreds of years. It was hard to move on from this spot, but eventually we broke off west along the line of the ancient City Wall. At Wood Street, that edifice surfaces - beneath the victorian bricks, Roman stones mark the outline of a tower and the run of the wall along Aldersgate. We followed, ascending concrete stairs into the Barbican complex and the Museum of London. An overpriced coffee from the new concession, then down to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition. Entering through a bookcase, we were plunged into a gloomy corridor. Flickering excerpts from the Consulting Detective's manifold screen outings played on the walls, drawing us in. The exhibition managed to provide something for every kind of Holmes aficionado... For the literary purists there were manuscript pages and artefacts from Conan Doyle's life - his remarkably tidy handwritten notes set alongside the printed versions, indicating that he barely needed to alter a word! For fans of the filmed appearances there were endless clips and props, not least the overcoat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the detective's current masterful outing. Finally, for the topographer there was a wealth of material. Several adventures had been mapped across London, with time-lapse filmed runs through Holmes and Watson's routes through the modern-day city. There were also endless paintings and early photographs of the City as it would have appeared to Conan Doyle while he was writing about Holmes. Of particular note were the remarkable prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn - mysterious, only slightly focused cityscapes with brooding mists. His subjects were often not those which merited most attention either - canal scenes, wet pavements in Leicester Square, unusual views along Fleet Street. I was captivated.

St. Pauls Cathedral. South Door
St. Pauls Cathedral. South Door

We spent far longer than I'd imagined in the exhibit, and after a brief refreshment stop, decided to look around the Modern London galleries. It was very special to revisit this old haunt in company, and good to see the Lord Mayor's Coach again, shining in the last sun of the day leaking lazily into the museum. We headed out on foot, enjoying the Barbican skyline in the wintery glow before heading south towards St. Paul's Cathedral. It's a great omission, and a source of some embarrassment that I've never set foot in this place despite many hundreds of passings by. Today wasn't to be the exception, as a service had curtailed sightseeing for the day - but we resolved to return. We edged around to the southern face of the building to regard the phoenix carved above the doors with it's 'RESVRGAM' motto. It was time to head back west, on a bus headed through the main shopping areas which was unexpectedly and thankfully diverted around the bulk of the traffic, delivering us early enough to relax and reflect on our trip over a drink at another favourite spot. This had been a hastily planned, purposeful visit which had at last returned me to the very city streets where my true obsession with London had begun. I think it may have won the City a new devotee too.

(link to this article)
News - Question Time
Thursday 30/10/2014 23:35
BBC Question TimeNowadays, there really aren't too many mysteries left in the media. When every DVD comes with an extra 'making of...' documentary, and reality TV exposes the inner workings of the industry - albeit mediated through a sheen of entertainment - everyone is an armchair expert on how things are done. But one show, more than any other perhaps, has always fascinated me. The BBC's "Question Time" has had an unbroken run since 1979, and despite the flagship BBC1 channel broadcasting little in the way of political commentary nowadays, manages to cling to a prime late-evening spot each week, pulling in just under three million viewers as a result. The format, where the audience questions a panel of politicians and gets to respond directly - and often vociferously - to their answers never gets tired, and the way that the show moves around the country ensures at least a little local colour and diminishes the sense of London calling the shots - just for a while at least. After years of yelling at the TV, I was persuaded a couple of weeks back to submit an application to be in the audience. I'd never have done this on my own - and perhaps this reveals another huge advantage of being married - I have someone who will always test my boundaries and push me, gently and supportively of course, forward. So I found myself waiting with a coffee on a pleasant Taunton evening, watching the bustle of the town closing up for the night and pondering, perhaps a little nervously, the journey behind the screen which was about to begin...

I couldn't resist reading up a little on the show before we headed for Taunton tonight. There were, unsurprisingly, a number of blogs about the experience of being on the show. They broadly followed the same arc - and comfortingly all echoed our experience of being picked to be in the audience. Everyone who has seen the show has, at some point, wondered about this - especially if there appears to be a particularly weighted audience sometimes. But they are extremely careful to avoid accusations of bias and ensure a fair balance. This involved a call earlier in the week from the Producer who wanted a question on the spot, along with details of our work, voting intentions and political allegiances. One selected we were issued with an email to bring along with photographic ID. They are very careful that only the people who have applied and been selected show up - and an incursion of Badger Cull protestors on the site meant even more stringent measures tonight too! Once security checked we were ushered into a sports hall with large TVs showing the day's news and drinks on hand. Here we were asked to write out a second question, as topical as possible. A sheet of A4 also provided the credentials of the panelists tonight. Seeing Baroness Kramer on the list, I couldn't resist a question about railway franchising, but doubted it would get chosen as there were far more pressing events just now. As we chatted to neighbouring tables about questions a hush descended and suddenly I looked up to see David Dimbleby beside me. A little shorter than I expected, remarkably dapper and much jollier than his on screen persona, he talked us through the way the show worked. More than anything he stressed that this was our show - and our reactions and responses would be what made it happen and drove it forward. He was keen to ensure that we felt able to contribute and didn't let the politicians off the hook. Afterwards he also took a few questions from the audience, and managed to spin a few humours anecdotes from his twenty-year tenure on the show.

Finally we were led - in small groups due to the badger people still being on site - over to the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre. A fantastic new building which seems to have incredible facilities on hand, perfect for the show too with steeply raked seating and a generous stage area. Immediately I was struck by the set - that familiar backdrop and sweep of desks with the host town name curving around the front. Close up, it is much more clearly a kit of parts, TAUNTON spelled out letraset style and carefully placed on the stage front. The whole thing is reassuringly low tech - and as a bunch of audience members took the panel's seats for a practice debate, led by the dry witted and sharp Stage Manager, Stan, the camera men ducked and weaved to get the sweeping shots we see at the start of the show, their helped scurrying behind unravelling cable. The practice debate was surprisingly good fun, but seemed to go on for a while before things were ready. During this, all of the writers of the questions which the production team had selected were called forward and given a card with the question printed on it. They were also located in the audience for the sake of the camera crew, and returned to their seats looking not a little nervous! Rather suddenly, with Dimbleby back on stage and the panel queued along the stairs, we were ready! The recording is, rather amazingly, done in a single 59 minute long take. This perhaps explains the immediacy and the edge the show manages to maintain, and it also attests to the skills of the chairman! The first question is asked off camera to get everyone warmed up, and we were encouraged to get involved early. Then, once the link to BBC Glasgow - where the show is now based - was established, we were off. Dimbleby uttered his familar welcome, the camera men did their swoop around the set, and the theme music played. Straight into the first question about today's report on harsh penalties for drug possession, and already Owen Patterson is on the ropes. He admits he hasn't read the report at all and Dimbleby gently plays him on this. Suddenly I see a hand up next to me, and I realise my wife is about to speak. Dimbleby winks and nods that he's seen her. Time slows down. I'm suddenly aware of three million people out there later tonight. Patterson dodges her point about personal choice and relative harm, but not until he's fixed a steely glare on her for a moment for daring to question his Conservative principles. He dismisses it with a glib point about "dangerous drugs" but Dimbleby pushes it home "What about alcohol she said?" Patterson squirms into a point about it being OK for well-off middle class people to take drugs because they have the resources to deal with the issues. It sounds bizarre as delivered - and I think he meant to speak about the disproportionate burden on disadvantaged communities, but this opens up a frankly odd debate on things. It's left to two unlikely champions to bring things back on track - Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who talks eminent sense on policy, and author Anthony Horowitz who presses the point on this being a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.

With our brief moment in the spotlight complete, I relax into the debate. While Owen Patterson manages to shift each response from a reasonable start into a weird, ill-informed finish, Tristram Hunt fares little better. He simply cannot resist the urge to make party political points from even the most unlikely material, and when challenged he faces the audience with knitted brows and a strange disbelieving gurn which turns him into a rather pompous public schoolboy figure. This is all played out particularly on a question about the EU's demand for 1.7bn - which Baroness Kramer dismisses as something which won't be paid and will blow over. Hunt decides to try to blame the Government for not knowing it was coming up. Almost everyone points out that it was the last Labour government who signed the terms. Hunt persists, claims that the deal is secret and only the government can know the details. It's bizarre and almost uncomfortable to watch in person. The stars of the night clearly remain Lucas and Horowitz, who stay on track, don't stray into ill-informed speculation and manage to mostly avoid party lines. Baroness Kramer comes in a close second - smart, well-read and reasonable. The two boys from the big parties come across as hired help - dull-witted and easily led into foolish speculation. It's not a good night for the mainstream perhaps.

All too soon the hour is up and we're filing out into the darkness, badger protesters still yelling. In an hour, the show will be beamed across the country, streamed across the globe and just for an hour, we'll be part of that again. The team that does this, almost every single week of the year, manages to keep it fresh and interesting, balanced - mostly - and representative. It's a pretty amazing feat. The logistics owe more to a touring rock band than a TV show, and that this happens again and again, almost always without hitch is testament to the behind-the-scenes crew too. I left thrilled to have been involved despite my question not being asked, and if possible even fonder of this British TV institution.

(link to this article)
London - After the Storm Breaks: Inside The Fence
Saturday 28/06/2014 22:52
It's been a while since I got to travel to London - and certainly it's a long time since I found myself alone there. In fact, it's become so usual to be part of a pair, visiting and revisiting haunts, that I'd forgotten some of the associations which Paddington has accumulated in recent years. As well as being the launchpad for many a wander and the welcome first sight of the way home, it's become associated with separation and loss - and I chewed this over a little on my journey east. Today would unravel some of that in a sense - I was here alone, but I'd be travelling back to my wife and my new home later. It was a remarkably cheering - and still weirdly novel - prospect, and after an unexpectedly bright journey up I greeted the vaulted roof of the station with the warm familiarity gained only by enduring both happy and melancholy moments together - Paddington is an old friend who I don't see nearly as often as I'd like.

Taking advantage of the early arrival I hopped directly onto a 205 bus. The city was busy - as ever I'd utterly failed to predict events, and there were various goings-on which were adding to the traffic - not least Wimbledon. We made slow but steady progress around the arc of the Euston Road. It was good to see the familiar, solid sights as we edged forward. I'd repeated this trip so many times, eastward with hope and expectation and westward with satisfaction, tired feet and a checklist of new prospects to investigate - the city slowly revealing itself by being walked. The Crossrail works were still affecting the ever-excavated Moorgate, so we zigzagged into Shoreditch, approaching Liverpool Street from the east and north. A few confused passengers scrambled off in surprise and we pressed on, the bus almost empty now. It still hadn't started to rain, despite an ominous cloud, so I bailed early, finding myself on the dry pavement near Whitechapel Road Market. I had a loose itinerary, as ever fanning out eastwards from the city edge - and this time based on a reading of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. This tangled, dense web of prose had provided much food for thought, but most immediately it had opened my thoughts to the array of tiny Jewish burial grounds scattered through the eastern edges of London. I had worked out a very rough route which led to several of them - including initially the Ashkenazi burial ground on Alderney Road which had initially sparked this walk. Opened in 1697, the site is enclosed by the houses fronting Mile End Road and a high wall facing a tired but interesting square of homes. It was quiet and rather humid, voices carried from a nearby playground and a large St.George flag flapped from an upstairs window. The door in the wall was closed, and a chink of light through a letterbox jammed with circulars unwanted by the dead revealed little. I skirted the site which connects to the Velho - the oldest of these sites, and entirely enclosed by the properties. No amount of trespass was going to get me a view inside, so I set off across the quiet square towards Bancroft Road. Here, almost in the precincts of the weird ziggurat of Mile End Hospital, there is more to see. The cemetary is now a quiet green space, most of the stones lying flat on the ground. Beyond, a shallow viaduct carries the line from Liverpool Street, little hope of eternal peace with trains to Chingford and Cambridge shaking the graves. After following my instincts into a dead end near the hospital grounds, I retraced my steps. The old men sitting outside a polish cafe seemed amused to see me re-emerging from the little network of streets. I wandered back to the main road, a little footsore given how long it had been since I walked.

Bancroft Street Burial Ground
Bancroft Street Burial Ground

Having been mostly thwarted in my primary purpose I needed to decide how to proceed. The answer of course lay eastwards - it had been too long since I'd walked this way, and I needed to feel familiar pavement underfoot. I set out along the endless corridor of Mile End Road as it turned into a valley between cliffs of new-built student dwellings, occasionally punctuated by heritage buildings now featuring gourmet burger joints. The traffic was incessant, hypnotic even. The clouds rolled forward - already there was a haze towards the river, and rain threatened. As I reached the Green Bridge near the Regent's Canal, it began. A heavy downpour of the type which cannot ever sustain itself long. I dived into the cafe I'd often spotted under the bridge. A young, smiling woman broke off her cleaning to make my latte. A sole other customer sat nearby, staring at us as we conducted the transaction. I sat near the window, pulled out a map, regrouped and watched the rain slow to a trickle. The cafe owner arrived with friends, dripping gold and sarcasm. He clasped his friends necks like a cartoon Mafiosi and chortled unpleasantly, leering at the cafe girl. "Your boyfriend here?" he glared at the other customer, whilst addressing her. She coloured up, looked away and he pointed out the purple stain of a bite on her neck to his friends who snorted and gurgled. The boy scrambled for the exit in shame and horror. The girl's smile faded. I left too - the vague sense of despair hanging over the place was too much to bear. It was still raining a little but the pavement was preferable. I pressed on east, and let the rain soak into my sweater - it began to feel a little too wet as I approached Bow Road station so I sheltered at a bus stop, exchanged messages home, and waited...

Finally I decided I needed to move on. There was nothing to lose by getting wet, and I had plenty of time to dry off later. I edged carefully around Bow Roundabout and descended the steps to the towpath. A favourite spot - even drenched and still feeling oddly dispirited by the cafe, this was somewhere I felt at ease. As the canal surface sparkled with rainfall, I trudged the wet grit of the path, bumping into only the very occasional cyclist coming towards me. To my right, the heft of the Olympic Stadium bulked out the view. It was in the process of being dismantled and reinvented for its next incarnation. After passing the junction with the Hertford Union Canal I had a choice to make. I'd meant to head for White Post Lane, but the slope up to the Greenway was tempting . In the end I let instinct win and I found myself once again topping the Northern Outfall Sewer, striking out towards the View Tube where I knew coffee and shelter were available. Soon I was seated, steaming in the warm cafe and sipping an excellent coffee. As the mist evaporated from the windows, I found myself looking out at the Olympic Park and realised that it was now possible for me to walk in unmolested. Years of being excluded from the site were over at last, and here I was idly passing my precious day of walking in this makeshift cafeteria on the edge of the park. Finishing my coffee and packing away my notebook, I set out to break new ground...

Copper Bridges, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Copper Bridges, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

I thought first of Tellytubbies. That strange, hyper-real green sward which the odd humanoids danced and capered on was before me. The park undulated, bursts of colourful flora floated above it. Ranks of lighting columns marked the footpaths, and they led down - to the City Mill River. To that stretch of river which had been an impossible goal until now. I scrambled down the steps two and three at a time, and at the foot I found a junction. Southwards lay a fenced off path under the railway, not yet ready for me. Northwards, the river curved around the foot of the stadium. I followed the curve, a vast green bank to my right as the river edged the huge bowl. I had been close to the stadium before, but never this close. The bridges arced overhead, approaching the entrances - and I calculated with a look at careful notes I'd made exactly where the stockpile of low-level waste was stashed. I touched the aggregate pile which turned the horrible cargo into a simple bridge abutment and felt connected back to years of reading and writing about the Olympics. It had passed, things had moved on, but here was tangible evidence of all that had been expressed. I moved on, finding myself almost emotional at the thought of being inside the fence at last. So much change seemed to hinge on that period, personally, nationally even. It was a moment to take stock and move forward... and I did, towards the monolithic Orbit - less a sculpture and more a watchtower close-up. I wander around it, gazing up, trying to capture in a photograph the dizzying sense of queasy instability that it's odd curves elicit. It's still a very silly, unpleasant structure, a balancing lump of concrete sitting atop a twisted tower of steel. Without meaning or merit, neither beautiful nor sublime. The pathways radiating out from it took me towards another waterway, and I traced this to it's junction with the River Lea under a rather pleasant copper faced bridge, which reflected the water and it's pathways. It was hot and humid again, with dark clouds tumbling towards us from the south. I skirted the river, crossed it and emerged on the eastern side. Small concession stands selling overpriced snacks lined this route. Families and park employees wandered around yet I still felt like a trespasser. The pathway ended at a road crossing - across the street the park continued, and a stream of young people dressed in white t-shirts with coloured facepaint were streaming towards a makeshift stage. Wardens directed them as they trollied their cargo of lager towards the site. The Holi Festival of Colours sounded like a spiritual event, but appears to be a heavily marketed appropriation of an authentic Indian festival. People turn up colourless and leave scattered with paint dust and optimism. I turned aside and wandered along Loop Road which leads to White Post Lane. Territory became familiar. The rooftops and graffiti of Hackney Wick appeared overhead. It was odd and rather disorienting to see them from this angle. I wasn't ready for this conclusion so I turned back towards the stadium and edged along the River Lea, descending briefly into a wonderful nursery garden behind tiny wicket gates. It felt unreal and strange, under this ominous sky beside the sweep of the stadium. Unseen from this angle, the cranes removing the top layer of the stands hummed and clanked. I found myself following a makeshift pathway which wound towards the Navigation and deposited me on the towpath again, not too far from where I'd entered the park. The heavens opened. I sheltered under a bridge for what seemed like an age.

White Post Lane, The former frontier
White Post Lane, The former frontier

The break allowed me to gather my thoughts a little. I realised I'd been wandering aimlessly and letting the strange emotional twist of finally entering this site of exclusion and alienation getting the better of me. I needed to regain control of my walk, and I did so by following the towpath to White Post Lane, and ascending to the street. This was the sentry post - even a year ago blocked and caged still. But now it was simply a road between the forlorn edge of the Wick and the weird sheen of the park. Still a gateway, but unmanned and unacknowledged by officialdom now. I explored the bridge, walking back and forth over it, half expecting to be hindered by a passing security guard. It didn't happen so I renetered the park, and turned left onto a curving road called Clarnico Lane - a nod to the past which took me up to Waterden Road. The Lea continued into the North Park, but would have to wait for a day when it wasn't busy with revellers. I walked back to Stratford, battling against the tide of youngsters, bright eyed, expectant. More girls than boys, the odd strange older woman yelping and whooping among them. A strange mix. An odd idea. Such is the future of this biggest of public parks. I found coffee and electricity in the whirl of Westfield and made notes.

My route back east took my back along the same route by bus - looping into an as yet unused bus station near the press centre, soon to be a new media outpost at the east of the city. Then I was onto the familiar roads around Victoria Park. This had been the edge, but now it was just a stop along the way. I had new paths to tread, the possibility of completing my navigation by river in the area - and oddly I found I didn't entirely dislike what had become of the Olympic Zone. I missed it's oddness, its ragged rurality, the strange emptiness of the wilderness that used to be here - but the sweeps of green, the views that opened, the sense of being in a valley between swathes of the city was new and intriguing. I allowed myself to dry off as I headed homewards, unsure when I'd be heading back this way. The storm had broken, and my old ideas about this part of the city had been washed away. But there were new layers of exposed earth to sift...

(link to this article)
Travel - Presidential Spires
Saturday 10/05/2014 21:45
There's no doubt that the last few weeks have been some of the most difficult and strange of my life, but also that strangely I've never felt more grateful for the people around me. It struck me too that, had things taken such a strange turn before I settled into this new way of life, I'd have been facing a time of change and sadness alone. It's almost certain that I'd have reacted by travelling - using movement as a refuge. Today, we decided to do just that.

We set our early in surprisingly bright sunshine. There was an uninspiring forecast, but for now at least the day appeared clear and bright - one of those days when clouds can suddenly obscure the sun turning the air cool for a moment. Last minute travel arrangements meant a seat in what was going to be a busy standard class coach, and when we boarded it became clear that First Great Western had decided not to include any seat reservations. Chaos followed, but somehow we managed to avoid any problems. Settled into our seats we watched Wiltshire and Oxfordshire slip by, soon arriving into Didcot Parkway. Didcot fares poorly in the national psyche somehow. It's station seems to be a byword for "neglected and beleagured" in comedic patter - and it's easy to see why. The cooling towers of the power station loom overhead, and the former yard - now a Great Western Society preservation site - stretches away from the platforms. Locomotives sit idling between trips. A lone trainspotter waits on the platforms, all his colleagues having probably gone to see the Western passing at Foxhall Junction instead. I've spent time here, enjoying a quiet morning with breakfast and trains, before heading into London - a split ticket here used to be the best value. Today though, it's quiet and we're heading around the curve into Oxford soon.

The Radcliffe Camera
The Sheldonian Theatre

Given the dubious weather our strategy is to get the measure of the place first via the City Tour Bus. Boarding at the station, the first part of the journey is curiously bleak - edging past the stark, funereal Thatcher wing of the Said Business School and into the southern fringe of the city. This area was comprehensively redeveloped in the 1960s, when heritage wasn't a byword. Thus it's a mess of carparks, poorly built offices and shopping complexes. Passing the stumpy hillock which was Oxford Castle, the commentary on the bus urges us to picture scenes from medieval times - something we don't manage to conjure until the bus has turned north again and into the City Centre. At Carfax Tower we turn east and speed out to Magdalen College before skirting the centre again and heading north to St.Hugh's Collge and then south again among the university-owned villas and private houses to the city. With the weather determinedly grey but not yet wet, we hop out and start to explore on foot.

Our walk takes us first to Turl Street to find coffee, and then via the Bodleian Library and the vast Blackwell's book store. The rather unassuming, if attractive frontage fails to betray just how huge and meandering this shop is - and this isn't entirely obvious until The Norrington Room opens before us. As we head out, its clear that there is an event underway at the Sheldonian Theatre, as smartly attired parents shuffle into the building. We skirt the theatre, heading for the Radcliffe Camera and the courtyard of the Bodleian - both of which are captivating and rather other-wordly. Through the gates we glimpse the end of a graduation ceremony, with robed students milling and a rather larger than expected contingent of photographers pressed against the railing. Edging around Radcliffe Square we come upon All Souls' with Hawksmoor's handiwork more than evident. A glimpse through the gates shows the Wren sundial on the Codrington Library. As we push our cameras against the gate we're disturbed by a hubbub in the street. A photographer, trotting backwards and toting his huge lens, breathlessly says "turn around now and you'll get the shot of your life".

The next few moments are a blur. I spin and see graduates walking slowly from the Sheldonian, a line of photographers ahead of them snapping vigorously. A line of people pass flanking a graduate in her robes who flicks a glance back over her shoulder. It's newly graduated Dr. Chelsea Clinton. Suddenly the scene fits - the guys walking beside the party with earpieces are Secret Service. The tall, slim, tanned looking gent beside Chelsea is President Clinton, and on her other arm the shorter blue suited woman in a hat is Secretary of State Clinton. For both of us, it's our first near encounter with a living US President, and it's a strange mixture of excitement, confusion and disappointment that we weren't smart enough to see what was happening sooner and point our cameras.

The Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College
The Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College

Eventually we follow the Clinton party out of the square, and find ourselves close to The Grand Cafe. My research before our trip had marked this out as a spot to visit, and sure enough it was an impressive interior with wonderful inter-war decoration. The service was a little haphazard, and the food pretty ordinary, but it felt like a fine place to reflect on the day so far. From her our walk took us into the quieter backstreets around Merton College and the wonderfully named Logic Lane before heading back to the station via a quick pint. With the sun now a little brighter and the day a touch warmer, we hopped on the tour bus to get us back to the station and thence homeward. It had been good to get out, and even better to explore a city which I'd hardly done justice to in the past. I can only hope the Clinton's had just as fine a time in Oxford today!

(link to this article)
Travel - A Tourist On The Marsh Trail
Sunday 06/04/2014 20:15
Having been in Seattle for a few days now, I was beginning to readjust to its unique rhythm. Our initial stay downtown had plunged me into the cosmopolitan, urban feel of the city which had begun, a long time back, to feel like a home away from home. This time I didn't feel like a stranger - more a returning ex-pat perhaps? It was interesting to prowl the streets early with Iain Sinclair's less than ringing endorsements from American Smoke in mind: tired, stressed and with a sick wife back at the hotel, he'd paced the city streets and seen only the gray reflections of clouds. Here for very different reasons, the silvery sheen of Elliot Bay reflected in tall glass blocks was like a visual sigh of relief. We'd made it. We were back.

But today, the pace changed again. With an extended visit to Montlake necessary, I had some time to cut loose and wander. A rare luxury in a trip with a packed itinerary and little scope for drift. With a Fuel coffee in hand I set off towards the Arboretum. I didn't intend to stray far - maybe to a quiet spot to read or write, while drinking? The edge of the park was abrupt, Lynn Street taking a ninety degree curve and the path heading into the trees. There were a few walkers dotted around, a bored woman scrolling listlessly at an iPad while her child clambered on the play equipment at the park entrance. I plunged into the trees feeling foreign and conspicuous, and far less acclimatised than I'd felt downtown. The tall evergreens closed around the path, and the unexpectedly clear sky all but disappeared as I pushed on. Turning a corner, a narrow but ornate bridge carried the path over the rush of Lake Washington Boulevard and into deeper wilderness. I was alone and comfortable at last. The path crested and turned north, with the rooftops of the Visitor Center below. A cursory glance at a pathside map had shown water up ahead, and my urge to walk near waterways was kindled. I edged through the drifting pedestrians and crossed the street near the Park entrance, plunging across to a viewpoint and a new path alongside an inlet of Union Bay. I sat for a moment and drained my coffee cup. It seemed wrong to have it along for this part of the walk somehow. Refreshed, I set off at a renewed pace - the slight edge of being in an entirely unknown place speeding my walk. The path meandered through dense trees and curved towards a road - the acoustic footprint of Highway 520 was near, but I had no sense of quite how near until the path dipped under a forbidding looking underpass. I was encouraged to see others passing through the concrete tunnel under the footings of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. Traffic pounded and echoed through the dingy gap, and only the sight of water on the other side of the span urged me to continue. I really had no sense of where I was headed. As it turned out, the scene quickly opened out into a busy, spacious picnic area on Foster Island. The lake surrounded three sides of the promontory, with a beachlike feel to the northern shore, where sailing boats scudded past at speed. The sun was high, and students from the nearby university lounged and occupied the picnic tables. I headed for the water's edge, before looking for the path off the island marked as the Marsh Trail.

Footbridge, Washington Park Arboretum
Footbridge, Washington Park Arboretum

As I dived between two tall patches of rushes and scuffed along the bark trail, I realised that I was surrounded by water. This pathway floated on the scrubby marshlands at the edge of Lake Washinton. Indeed in some spots it was nearly submerged in the lake. Again, I was perturbed and considered a retreat, but the site of others coming towards me, apparently unscathed and not drenched spurred me on. The path zig-zagged out into the lake, a spur taking in a raised observation platform. Occasionally, an unguarded ramp would raise the path to wooden bridges which carried me out into clear water, descending onto further patches of marshy ground. Soon I was alone, a touch of concern arising as I really didn't know where the pathway led. A couple with a lolloping dog pursued me a distance back, and I decided to assume they knew where they were heading. They occasionally caught up as I paused to take pictures, their mutt shaking off lake water as he passed me, eliciting an apology as they overtook. The pathway descended another ramp onto Marsh Island, a boggy, half-formed mess of bark and reeds which gave a superb view across the lake to the Montlake Bridge. I resolved to get there if I could. Meanwhile the causeway and off-ramps of 520 soared above, the constant white-noise of tyres on concrete hissing ominously. From here, the scale of the tangled junction for Montlake was clear, including the 'ramps to nowhere' which it seems are a feature of road systems all over the world. Beneath the pillars, scrubby edgelands waited for reclamation. This was a zone which nature might just win back someday.

At a junction where the bark trail touched land I had a choice - continue on the shoreline, or ascend to the carpark of the former MOHAI museum site. The latter seemed a more likely way of getting to the bridge, so I turned towards the building. The empty gray hulk reflected the sounds of the highway back at me, deserted and ominous amongst the greenery of the park. Few cars were using the parking area, except for a Seattle Police vehicle which was criss-crossing the top of the ramp which led down to the lake. I didn't pause at the building - it's status wasn't clear to me, and I knew from previous experience how contrary the SPD could be. Instead I tried to look purposeful and followed the path towards the street. At the top, the cop was waiting for me: "Everything OK sir?". I replied in the affirmative and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was walking and he asked where I was heading. Perhaps here is where I should have thought faster, or been less honest because I simply said "I'm interested in the bridge at Montlake. How do I get there?". His demeanour changed and he replied by asking if I was a tourist. I agreed I was, and he brightened visibly, before suggesting that I go downtown. "There's shopping, and the Space Needle. Nothing to see up here". I tried to explain that I was a walker, interested in canals and bridges, but he became more insistent that I shouldn't be in Montlake. Tourists belonged Downtown where they could be managed around the grid of the city. I decided that his growing coldness, his look of dismay and the handgun at his side were all good reasons to disappear. I thanked him and moved away towards the street, and he called after me that there were "...plenty of buses over there". I waved a hand behind me and struck up a pace. My experiences a summer ago had told me that some games were lost from the outset.

Husky Stadium from Marsh Island
Husky Stadium from Marsh Island

Once over the highway I cut along side streets which led me back to Montlake Boulevard. Recognising businesses and landmarks I felt a little proud of my navigation skills, and a little embarrassed that I'd let the cop send me off course so easily. Perhaps if he'd not found me inspecting an abandoned civic building he'd have been less concerned? Perhaps if I'd simply had a purpose to my walk? Even just getting from A to B seems better than "walking, just walking" as a descriptor to those people who find such things so terrifyingly inexact. I thought back to Iain Sinclair's miserable experience here, and despite my own brush with the gray edge of the city, still couldn't reconcile it.

You will shortly be able to see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route.


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London - Throwing A Dead Rat At The Curtains: A Prelude To Flight
Tuesday 01/04/2014 21:54
Today we headed east, in order to travel west. The trip to Heathrow has been a fraught one in the past - either a prelude to separation, or a nervous weather-beaten dash to meet up. In either case, it has been a strange and sometimes painful excursion. This time, we wanted to make sure it was going to feel different. It was the beginning of a new era of travel for us after all... It began, ominously though, with a call downstairs. One of our angelic and innocent kittens was petting at her first kill - a baby Water Rat which had strayed from one of the Rhynes nearby no doubt. With a surprising turn of violence, she lifted the bedraggled item and hurled it a the curtains. Our trip was blessed with a sacrifice it seemed.

We set out around noon, heading for the station in a burst of sunshine. Standing with our luggage at Worle Station, it seemed improbable that we could pull this off. The train to Bristol provided entertainment in the form of an attempted fare-dodger scuppered by travelling Revenue Protection Officers. He told them he was "a very busy man!" but it didn't wash. We grabbed a leisurely drink at Temple Meads before changing to our London train. Amazingly, given First Great Western's recent record, things went smoothly and we were soon creeping under the roof of Paddington station on a surprisingly springlike afternoon. Our first stop was souvenir hunting for people we'd be meeting overseas - Paddington Bear and London related items purchased, we headed for our hotel to integrate them into our luggage.

We'd thought about a trip to Harrods for some time, and the need to pick up some small but classy things as gifts gave us the perfect opportunity. Given the pleasant afternoon we decided to walk through Hyde Park, passing the Long Water and the Serpentine, with the Albert Memorial shimmering through the haze. Thus we echoed the hidden route of the Tyburn Brook - another lost river, and another entry point into the story for me. The park was busy with Londoners surprised by the sun. A girl clad in hipster velvet rolled up her skirt to get her pale knees tanned, and the Diana Memorial Fountain was busy with paddling children and lounging tourists. The haze was in part a product of the Saharan Dust Cloud, whipped up in North Africa and deposited on us by a warm current of air. It promised terrible issues for some in coming days, but for now though it leant an unreal shimmer to the park, blooming with the new Spring.

Albert Memorial, Hyde Park
Albert Memorial, Hyde Park

West Carriage Drive Bridge
West Carriage Drive Bridge

We walked along the edge of the park, diving in between some Mews to reach Knightsbridge. Harrods loomed suddenly between the buildings, inducing a gasp of surprise at its scale. Before we headed in, we stopped into a gushingly ornate Italian place for an early dinner. Watching the world go by outdoors, we contemplated our trip and its complexities. Just now, it was all possibility and potential. Things felt uncommonly good. Eventually, we headed across the street. As ever, Harrods didn't disappoint - the Food Hall heaved with ludicrous temptations, harassed businessmen picking up 'something special' competing with tourists for space. We trailed through endless departments, few of which declared their prices openly. House music thudded in the fashion quarter, while the kitchenware area was marked by calm, bucolic music. Meanwhile in Bedding, a head-scarfed Arabian woman bounced on a bed and receieved a quote of "Four thousand, seven hundred" - though it wasn't clear if this was for the whole ensemble, or just the linen. Our last stop was the foot of the Egyptian Escalator. In itself, this is a highlight of the building - a period piece which documents the craze for all things Ancient in the early 20th century - but the bizarre and gauche memorial to Diana and Dodi placed by Mohammed Al Fayed is like a magnet. It's impossible to ignore the terrible statue, while puzzling over the weirdly masonic 'pyramid and hourglass' device under the soft-focus icons of the tragic pair. We took surreptitious pictures before leaving it to the tourists.

A taxi ride back through the park in a hazy sunset completed our excursion for the day. The driver navigated us into Bayswater and the knotted streets of stucco-clad hotels, and we settled in for the evening. Tomorrow would be more hectic, but just for now London was strangely homely and comfortable territory.


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Content & Code © Mike Newman 1999-2014 Thu 18/12/2014 08:26:01
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