Lost::MikeGTN < Lost
It's a beautiful way to get lost, all you need is a bottle and a few nagging thoughts...
London - Vincula Fracta: A Return to the City...
Saturday 08/03/2014 22:36
It feels like a long time since I've done this...as the train edges into Paddington, with a defiantly strong sun burning off the misty morning cloud layer, I'm strangely nervous to be back here. It's impossible not to remember the first, tentative arrival all those years ago as the power car comes to rest a few feet from the buffer stops, and there is a mad rush for the ticket gate. Life has been busy lately - and travel plans have focused on a trip west in a few weeks time - so we've spent time at home, making a home in fact. This escape feels precious and rare, but at the same time the sense of familiarity is welcome. It seems impossible to tire of London, just like the saying goes. Our first destination though, is entirely indulgent... We start on a 205 arcing around the edge of the City. The sun is up in earnest now, and the yellow brick is springing into life. The glass facade of the new University College Hospital building reflects a view of the bus back at us as we creep along the Euston Road. The confusion of Crossrail work around Moorgate diverts the bus into unexpected territory - the grim fringe of Shoreditch along Great Eastern Road giving way to the more chic side of shabby as we emerge from Holywell Lane and head for Liverpool Street. From here a grimy windowed train takes us the short hop to Cambridge Heath station where we emerge into a sun-baked Mare Street, turning to head along the Regent's Canal towards Broadway Market. Why did we take this convoluted detour on a day dedicated to being tourists? Simple... Coffee.

Passive Planning Objection, Mare Street, Hackney
Passive Planning Objection, Mare Street, Hackney

We lingered in Broadway Market long enough to enjoy two superb coffees from Climpson & Sons, before wandering north to London Fields. The park was teeming with people, with plenty of the local types in evidence. Cyclist careened along the path, dinging bells in frustration as families and hipster covens wandered, four or five abreast. It was time to move on, via London Fields station back to Liverpool Street and out onto the baked pavements of the city. Once out of the gravity of the station, the streets quietened. We slipped through Great St. Helens and into the plaza around the ancient church. Once away from Bishopsgate, the weekend quiet of the city quickly descended. Aside from a few tourists point cameras up the bulging sides of 30 St.Mary Axe, we were alone to wander the precincts of the curious 12th century building. A wedding was taking place inside, which gave a rare weekend glimpse into the interior, but we had to move on. Around the curve of St. Mary Axe and to the presciently named St. Andrew Undershaft. With the Lloyd's Building filling the view southwards, we almost failed to notice the sparkling upturned icicle of the Leadenhall Building towering above us. A tapering triangle of glass and metal, it is surprisingly elegant for a brutal, straight-edged edifice. We compared the work of modern architects before moving on into the maze of city streets. Billiter Street and Mark Lane brought us to St. Olave Hart Street, it's squat tower and gruesome doorway an old haunt I'd stopped at many times - but exploring afresh with company has become a new novelty for me. Finally we turned onto Great Tower Street and saw our goal glinting in the afternoon sunlight - The Tower of London.

30 St. Mary Axe
30 St. Mary Axe
Leadenhall Building
Leadenhall Building

Anyone who has read this sorry screed of travel details will know this is not a new part of the world to me. But, I'm almost ashamed to say I've never been inside the precincts of the tower. Today we ventured in - undeterred by the rude security staff and the high prices for audio guides, we shuffled along the cobbbled streets to Traitor's Gate. The White Tower glittered beside us, as we turned into the courtyard around the Wakefield Tower and admired the view. An accretion of architectural styles and periods, a building extended and refortified with passing years and growing threats. It felt like the foundation of modern empire: a continual shoring up of tradition with more and more martial superiority. Having watched a guard-changing ceremony while Raven's picked at unsuspecting tourists' picnics, we joined a crowd heading for the Crown Jewels. At last I'd see some of the fundamental tools of monarchy for real. We worked our way around the rather cleverly staged display, watching projections of coronations, and marvelling at the perfectly preserved artefacts. Of course the really old things were gone - destroyed by Cromwell in the revolution - but here were tokens of Carolingean splendour, designed to shamelessly announce the reinstatement of monarchy. At the key moment, as we passed the state crowns, orbs and sceptres we stepped onto a conveyor which slowly edged us by at a reasonable speed. Like some sort of gameshow with impossible prizes, we guessed the value of the Cullinan II diamond, and found ourselves out by the order of hundreds of millions. Blinking in the sunshine again, we sat awhile and appraised the situation outside the tiny, sequestered church of St. Peter Ad Vincula. Overwhelmed by royalty and the sense of enclosure we decided to head for the river.

The sunshine had brought the crowds here too, and we queued for so long beside the pier it seemed we'd quite literally miss the boat - but we made it comfortable, the crowds still lining up to board the vessel while we found a seat among a group of disinterested Spanish tourists. We finally set off, curving out into the Thames, before turning and setting off upstream with Tower Bridge and the exterior of Traitor's Gate receding behind us. Under London Bridge, and then to Blackfriars, where the Fleet was concealed today - with a Thames Waterman providing commentary along the way. Edging around the bend in the stream we left the City of London and moved along the Embankment towards Westminter Pier. The journey was all too short - a quiet, relaxing interlude before emerging again into a press of tourists around the Palace of Westminster. We made our way carefully around the confusion of pedestrian crossings at Parliament Square, looking for a good angle on St. Stephen's Tower, but continually finding ourselves thwarted by the low, early spring sun. It was chilly now, but still bright and we decided to walk along Whitehall, past the Cenotaph and the fortress-like gates of Downing Street and to Trafalgar Square where we could board a bus back to Paddington.

As we sipped champagne in a spot which has become a bit of a landmark to us, we reflected on the trip ahead of our train home. It had been a long, tiring and fulfilling day - a return to London after a period of absence longer than I can remember for a good many years. Once again, as life changes, so does my relationship with the city. I never thought I'd be a tourist in the traditional sense again - and certainly never thought I'd enjoy it so much. The memory of the boat bringing us west via the curving silver arc of river sparked an urge to be back again soon. There is an entire new park to explore out east, and many more of these tourist adventures ahead...

View Hackney, City & Tower Walk in a larger map

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Travel - The Gloves are Off...
Tuesday 07/01/2014 18:34
Throughout my adult life I've encountered fairly little serious prejudice, for which I'm absolutely grateful. However there are a couple of low-grade issues which seem, oddly enough, to exercise people - my hatred of cheese and my lack of a driving license. Somehow these matters, when first learned by a new acquaintance and - as we all naturally do - projected on themselves, seem to incur a shudder of distress. Imagining life without parmesan and parking fines is, it seems, almost too much to contemplate for most. However, some people just can't leave it there and assume that this is some sort of handicap. Hopefully, the travels I've recounted here will dispel that. With some forethought and planning - which are never bad things anyway - there are few places I can't get to. That said, some places are just not easy at all... Yeovil. Clinging to the southeastern boundary of Somerset, and probably not more than forty miles from home. This little corner of my home county doesn't offer much in terms of attraction, and hasn't ever been much of a draw despite its official website proclaiming that its attractions could "fill several days of a holiday". Its probably been the same for much of the rest of the population over the years too - the road network doesn't facilitate easy journeys to that area, and the railway from Taunton was erased in the sweeping closures of the 1960s. Now it's either a painfully long swing around via Bristol and Bath on the train, or a multiple bus trip. Today, we had to head for Yeovil and I wasn't optimistic. After three solid weeks of torrential rain, the Somerset Levels are a glassy sea of water. As we arrived at Weston station, a further lashing of rain was being hurled at the metal roof. It didn't feel like a good sign. The aim was to mode-shift - first to Taunton by rail for speed and convenience, then to switch to bus to get into town and pick up a No.54 out to Yeovil. A long convoluted turn through central Somerset would follow, and we'd arrive in Yeovil just before the appointed hour of 10am. As we sheltered at Taunton station, it all felt tenuous and unlikely, and I began to get why people shuddered at my carless lifestyle. That said, they'd have been up just as early given traffic onto the M5, and wouldn't probably be much ahead of us right now. But of course they'd be warm, basking in the illusion of control and listening to....

Well, listening to Billy Joel if the coffee shop we stopped into was any guide. We sipped oddly acidic, weak beverages before heading back to the bus station and onto the bus which would take us to Yeovil via Langport, Somerton and Ilchester. Some of these towns were just names on a map, or timing points on the railway which no longer had stations. Having spent my early life poring over maps of Somerset, this was something of an adventure for me. We set off, and once we'd escaped the urban sprawl of Taunton and the motorway hugging Blackbrook business area, the true scale of the flooding became evident. The bus hoved into the middle of the carriageway to plough through churning lakes of uncertain depth which lay on the road. The fields around us were a silvery mirror of water, with distant church towers rising like lighthouses. I'd seen the Sedgemoor part of the levels like this of course, the tiny roads like causeways - but the lower levels were a broader, emptier sweep of land, and thus were breathtakingly strange to see like this.

The little towns we passed through were interesting and merited mental notes to come back. Langport saw us meet the road from Bridgwater not far from where the swollen River Parrett passed under the road. It was also our first encounter with the London to Taunton railway line which really ought to have stations in these growing, prosperous spots. We met it again at pretty Somerton, an ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wessex, all sandstone buildings and market town charm. Turning south we trailed the wide floodplain of the River Cary, denied an exit to the sea by the canalised King Sedgemoor Drain, it wreaked havoc here on the valley floor instead, spilling crazily into fields and moorland. Despite the stormy start, the day was shaping up to be bright and cold. The views across waterlogged fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Finally we crossed the mighty A303, swinging beneath us and aiming directly for Stonehenge and London, before curving through tiny Ilchester and into the gravity of Yeovil.

Not much had changed from my hazy memories of twenty-odd years back. The town is still approached by a series of roundabouts and a ring road which carves unpleasantly into the town itself, betraying the forlorn backs of shops and businesses to the visitor. Beyond that I didn't remember much - a family visit and one evening for a gig on Heavenly's 'Crap Towns' tour - hadn't left me with much material to work with. So arrival at The Borough, in the middle of a fine little street of shops was a pleasant surprise. St. John's church loomed, squat and yellow in the winter sun, and was surrounded by pleasant small stores and restaurants. The place bustled in a way I hadn't remembered. In fact, my memory was of racial disharmony - attacks on take-away owners - and of anti-social behaviour. I remember us standing in a small knot at the edge of that Heavenly gig, while the local youth went wild. Not to the music. Just because they did that all the time. It was hard to settle that with the first impression today. I headed to a recently opened branch of my favourite local coffee chain and settled in to eat, drink and read - the place thrummed with a pleasant energy and was never empty. I saw out a brief rainstorm and headed onto the High Street under a rainbow. The top of the hill echoed the first impression - good old buildings, used wisely by decent stores, with the ancient street layout defining the townscape. As I slogged down hill though, things changed. Firstly The Quedam.... My father and I would joke about this - our former local radio station, Orchard FM, would advertise this shopping centre four or more times every half-hour, with an absurdly optimistic recession-defying jingle. It was looking a little tired and betraying it's late-1980s heritage. The descending curve of a street parallel to the High Street was lined with a jumble of heritage bungalow storefronts. The haphazardness was carefully planned to resemble the shopping street this may once have been, the name appropriated from the town's Roman history. The Quedam was a sham - the side of the street which abutted the High Street was mainly a series of back entrances to the stores which had their main windows looking onto the established shopping thoroughfare. There were a fair number of empty units, and few folks around on a January Tuesday. At the end of The Quedam, there was a fork in the path - a turn onto the High Street to face a despairingly ugly 1970s block, with an impossibly large discount store at its foot - or a turn into Glover's Walk. This was an earlier experiment in shopping, and linked the town to it's bus station via a brief, tiled precinct. A favourite flourish of developers thirty or so years back. Now it was a gloomy, empty walkway lined by sorry looking market stalls. A promising but beleaguered craft store solidered on, and near the Bus Station The Gorge cafe was prosperous despite it's dated red vinyl and gloomy dark wood interior.

I retraced my steps to The Borough, marvelling at how many strata of retail developments could co-exist in such a small town. Here, where the historic town market would have assembled, it was hard to envisage how a walk down the hill would become more and more depressing. I sipped coffee, relaxed and waited by the 'phone for my escape route from the town. The bus, as it left, took us a circuit of the ring road, the service lanes to the shopping centres carving off into the knot of the Town Centre, the sun glinting off the roof of the pretty church. Yeovil is a part-charming, part-horrifying mess of a town. In some ways my former conceptions were challenged, and in others confirmed. It's hard to imagine a reason to come back here for almost the same amount of time - despite the curiosity of bus routes deeper into the hinterland and the interest of it's railway heritage. Well over ten years ago, I restarted my long campaign to travel every possible railway line with an attempt to avoid Yeovil entirely, an opportunity which will be repeated soon when the lines locally are closed. It's strange how I've always felt this way about the place, despite the changes I saw today.

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HPA - Leaving Highbridge...
Thursday 31/10/2013 08:11
South Bank of River Brue, HighbridgeIt’s possible on a brisk autumn evening, when the car headlamps sparkle in the dusk, to feel uncharitable about writing a piece on my current, but soon-to-be former hometown. There’s a bustle of evening traffic, and a steady run of people trudging home from the railway station – bringing a little life to the place which isn’t always evident here at all. But reflecting on eight years of living here, which have been for me relatively calm and stable, is a tale of depressing inevitability which won’t betray many surprises. I’ve wanted for a long time to write a ‘state of the town’ speech – a single summation of how a place full of character and potential has been ground down into a dusty insignificance over time. It’s never seemed right to do this from within, and I’ve never felt entitled to speak for such a disparate population, who can rarely speak with a single voice. But now, perhaps it’s a little easier. A parting shot, with one hand on the door already, might seem cowardly – but it’s long overdue.

I moved to Highbridge just little over eight years ago. It made sense for lots of reasons – I was living in a pretty unsatisfactory property elsewhere, and the family were all assembling here after a few difficult illnesses and a newly born child. We were coming together via an unspoken gravity which focused on my parents who lived away to the edge of the town in a quiet close near the Radio Station. My sister and her growing family overshot the southern boundary and ended up in the fringe hamlet of Alstone – a neat little family home with space to grow. But with my less pressing need for space and greater need for economy, I ended up here in the centre of things. Well, perhaps formerly the centre – because there are few businesses left on Church Street, save for hairdressers and take away food stores. My flat was perfect – a short walk to the station for my frequent escapes, a stone’s throw from good beer at The Coopers Arms – it was just the bolthole I needed. In reality I’d spend little time here – edging around a triangle centred on home, supermarket and railway station on the whole, and making regular escapes to what many here would consider ‘foreign parts’ elsewhere in the country. But it wasn’t possible to remain on the edge of the debates about the future of the town. Like always, I just had to get involved.

It’s easy to be critical of Highbridge – alongside many hundreds of places across the country which haven’t made an easy transition from their mid-twentieth century golden age to these more prosaic, straitened times. But in the case of Highbridge, its easy target status has set in train a descending spiral which feels almost impossible to stop. Industrial decline is a tough one to tackle in itself, but here successive waves of ill-planned development have bolted new problems onto the town while simultaneously stripping away its public infrastructure. Traditional industries – bricks, bacon, railway vehicles – have gone completely. Light industry is being pushed out of town by more lucrative housing plots, and the motorway hugging strip of vast aluminium distribution centres is big on space, but light on people. Where do people here go for work? Increasingly, they just don’t. Highbridge tops the table in terms of unemployment and deprivation – serious statistics which are easily ignored in a world of numbers, but which here on the ground are self-evident in the faces of people sitting outside their homes in the middle of the day, watching the traffic thunder by. I’ve often asked myself why it ended up this way.

It’s all too easy to be fatalistic too – and to suggest that the decline of towns like this is inevitable, and none of this can be remedied. However, there is a more self-evident reason in the case of Highbridge – and, while I know this will be controversial in some quarters, this has a lot to do with Burnham-on-Sea. Burnham is on the face of it a genteel, benign neighbour - a fading Victorian seaside spa which spans a stretch of muddy estuary but delights in big western skies and the views of a broad sweep of beautiful coastline from its windy esplanade. The secret here though, is that Burnham is dying too – just a lot slower than Highbridge. The Town Centre is seeing its retail core crumble away – not precipitated by de-industrialisation like Highbridge, but by apathy and inaction. Independent retailers turn into charity shops, which eventually close. The few national chains who are here offer a downgraded, second-string service. At 5pm each day, the shutters come down abruptly – and for some shops they never come up again. Business-folk spit inexplicable vitriol in the local press – blaming the internet, or the townsfolk for not caring – never looking to the economic reality or their own refusal to move from ancient business models. But as Burnham declines steadily and the Town and District Councils struggle to manage its retreat, they use Highbridge as a defence mechanism – an urban buffer zone which can absorb the mandated social housing and the necessary evils of badly planned supermarkets. There has always been a grim-faced bitterness about this here in the Town: “Highbridge is a dumping ground for people they don’t want”. It’s not entirely untrue – it used to be an expression of hugely exaggerated class prejudice, but now it’s just chillingly accurate demography. Interestingly, voicing this particular gripe – even when it perhaps wasn’t entirely the case – opened the door for policy and practice to completely make it so. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the policymakers must have cocked a surprised eyebrow at just how easy it was in the end. It’s almost like some people here in Highbridge wanted this to be the case perhaps?

Urban Planning is an arcane art, and its exponents go largely without thanks for what appears on the surface at least, to be a boring, clerical function. Done well of course, planning shouldn’t feel obvious – but here it has become a weirdly public activity that excites unhealthy interest. In short, Highbridge is in thrall to two or three major developer/land-owners who vie for a finite amount of public funding. They do so by buying cheap brownfield land and proposing schemes which offer tenuous and untestable benefits in the future. They put planners in the impossible position of trying to anticipate future moves – a game of chess for which the prize is jam tomorrow. Of course these schemes are always just beyond the electoral horizon too – so approving them holds no immediate fear for the politicians in most cases either. So, if you believe any one of these visions, we’re due a marina, a cultural zone, a rejuvenated retail area. But the truth is that any crumbs that our largely indifferent District and County Councils might drop here have been theoretically spent over and over again. The Councils are complicit in these games too, buying ransom strips of land on silted riverbanks, knowing that if the grand schemes materialise their tiny investments will sit squarely where someone else needs to build. But just like chess players, no-one needs to make their move hastily. It can wait. Highbridge will still be there, and will be a little more desperate the longer the horizon is pushed out. This stalemate is played out behind Olympic-blue fences, in burned out hotel plots and in strips of scrubby land in otherwise developed parts of the town. Planning here isn’t a distant and administrative process at all - you can see and feel it slowly eating away at the place.

Of course, the only defence is to object – and some in Highbridge do, often very loudly and with the support of some dedicated, informed local voices. But resistance in Highbridge is tribal and patchy – not nearly as slick and well-managed as the middle-class retirees of Burnham pull off again and again. Groups form here, and swiftly crash as a few dominant and depressingly resigned personalities bring them down. Associations form around bids and funding grabs, and swiftly retreat into their own little territory. There is no coherence, no sense of a town wanting to work together to get out of the doldrums. There was, many years ago, a bid to separate the Town Council into two. It fell, among dire warnings that Burnham was propping up Highbridge, and that we couldn’t live without the guiding hands of our betters. These patriarchal, conservative (in its truest sense) attitudes from the Burnham centred Town and District Councillors are bucked by a few voices of reason here in Highbridge – but they’re barely heard over the roar of organised, directed anger when similar issues crop up in Burnham. Take a tale of two formal applications – planning for a petrol station on a crowded, ill-planned supermarket site in Highbridge, and licensing for a Convenience Store in Burnham Town Centre. Both raise serious traffic and environmental issues, both will impact on other businesses in the area. The first is supported – it’ll increase competition for fuel prices and the noise and traffic won’t hurt too much. The other is contested vehemently – it’ll increase competition on local businesses and the traffic will be unbearable. I’m fairly sure I know how this will pan out – and recent decisions about the Tucker’s Garage site, which isn’t so different to the Highbridge Hotel in some ways, go further to prove how skewed the decision-making is across the two towns.

I can’t leave this rant without at least some glimmer of hope, can I? There’s always a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, surely? Well – as it stands, no there simply isn’t. While national policy turns the screws ever tighter on many of the people who make up the town’s population, and while regional and local policy fails to recognise that it has taken all it can from the town, things are spinning out of control here on the ground. So what can be done?

  • Well, firstly you need to choose your battles – there’s almost no mileage in playing these issues out on a local website which is fast developing the journalistic morals of the Daily Mail and which has such an ill-governed and poisonous forum that it gets used to victimise people in real life, outside the online world of councillors with alter-egos and multiple personalities. It can’t end well, drains the life out of those who indulge, and doesn’t persuade anyone away from their strongly held opinions. I know it seems odd for me to suggest turning away from the internet, having been an early adopter and a regular exponent in the past. But there are many, far better ways of using social media to make a case for change than tussling with these people – who are never who they seem, and represent such a tiny sliver of the people who are affected by these issues.

  • Secondly, organise yourselves – and stay organised. Let the people who are able and skilled take the helm rather than the same old suspects with their loud, miserable voices and their defeatist from the outset stance. Get younger people involved – find out their aspirations for the town – put them forward to counter the image of Highbridge which persists. Don’t use organisations solely to chase funds from the very bodies who are ruining the town. Raise your own money, achieve some independence from the broken political structure here. Keep organised by tackling positive things as well as fighting negative ones - even though the latter garners more support, it’s momentarily hot and fast-burning. Play the longer game. The Dreamscheme is a fantastic example of this.

  • Thirdly, you need to take your tactics to the next level. Find a public spirited law firm who will work pro bono and tackle some of these wrong-headed decisions where they belong - with a higher authority. It’s because councillors and developers alike know very well that Highbridge can’t get organised or respond coherently that they continue to ride rough-shod over the wishes of the population. They’re banking on no-one ever challenging beyond a moan at a meeting or a post on an internet forum. Sadly, that is about as far as they go. It can be messy and expensive to go to court, and it’s a ton of work – but it can and does work well. There are firms who want to be known for doing this kind of work, and bright, fresh-minded lawyers who want to challenge this activity. Find them and work with them!

  • Finally, use your votes very wisely. Voting on party lines is something I’ve never advocated at local level – but somehow, Highbridge needs to get representation on the ruling group at Town and District level. Failing that, strong independent voices are needed. But the traditional politics of Highbridge just perpetuate the issues. The greater enemy though is apathy. Chatting to the bored poll clerks over a series of elections, I’ve watched them move from a position of “Easy money, this!” to “Why did I bother turning up?” This is a national problem, but it’s far, far worse here.

None of this is easy – and perhaps writing it down in this way is a little glib and self-serving? Maybe so. But I can’t leave this place without hoping that somehow people will find their voices, form their opposition and fight their battles. I tried for my part, and didn’t get very far – but there are brighter and more dedicated people than me in Highbridge for sure. Good luck everyone, and don’t let the developers win!

(link to this article)
London - Escaping London - An Accidental Epilogue?
Monday 07/10/2013 22:12
How do you know when a journey is over?

The weekend has been long, strange and unexpectedly surreal. We set out rather later than usual on Saturday, having spent the morning at a tiny village hall in Somerset. The contrast was both curious and a little disorienting, as we arrived at Paddington and plunged headlong into a tube journey eastwards. Our regular visits to the city in recent months have fallen into a pattern - we meet with friends, enjoy company and include some of our wanderings. It's a settled, easy way of enjoying the city - it tempers the more overwhelming qualities which can surface, and it satisfies my need to wander. We've made a few plans for the weekend, and as I have an extra day off work we're in no hurry to be anywhere - the plan is for a fairly relaxing weekend before we both plunge into complicated work-related weeks. However it's pretty clear on our arrival that all is not well. We don't want to intrude on private life, and it feels like the only thing we can reasonably do is find somewhere else to be - so we make plans for a hotel stay the next night and quietly retire. It's not an easy decision for a number of reasons, but it feels right.

Approaching the Hackney Pearl
Approaching the Hackney Pearl

Sunday starts earlier than usual. We've a couple of targets in mind, and we take our leave swiftly and head for the tube to Stratford. A quick change to the Overground and we arrive at Hackney Wick. The morning has turned out improbably bright and we walk under clear blue skies towards The Hackney Pearl. It's just opening up, and the friendly Texan barista is happy to chat while she makes us fantastic coffee. We sit and discuss the events of the trip so far in the quiet morning, watching the Wick wake up. Hipsters emerge, pale and red-eyed for their coffee fix, while families with cute little soon-to-be-hipster kids totter and wheel about the place, heading for the station and perhaps somewhat guiltily to the magnetic retail mecca of Westfield? It's quiet, an occasional car passes and the Overground trains screech as they negotiate the curve of the line towards Stratford. The sun is high and bright when we reach the meeting point for the walk. Simon, our guide appears on his bike and suddenly our group begins to assemble. We're a truly cosmopolitan bunch - USA, Germany, Italy, Canada and of course the UK all represented. We meander around Hackney Wick and Fish Island, exploring a world of changing priorities and shifting politics. Genuine innovation - petrol, plastic, oxygen - sits alongside artifice and artistry. Street art, legal and otherwise, is significant here. Not just territorial markings but statements of purpose. The ideas of living space and industrial space are conflated - much to the local council's chagrin - and the Wick is home as much as it is work nowadays, a new role for this island of industry in some senses. Over all of this, the shadow of the Olympics lurks. I guess if you'd done this tour in 2006 it would have been very different. A tale of resistance and objection which never really disappeared, but was somehow edged out of the mainstream and into the churn and bluster of the British Left. Simon calls the issues "complex", and with a year of clear hindsight he's right - there's good stuff to be found... New bridges link Fish Island with the park, infrastructure will improve, arts funding is at a counter-economic peak here. Meanwhile, the same artists face a pricing-out of the housing and workspace market. As leases mature on these hulking, previously largely worthless industrial shells, they will be re-let at post-Olympic prices. There's already talk of Poplar and Canning Town as the new edgelands.

As we cross the Hertford Union Canal and enter Fish Island, the sun is high and inescapable. Headaches descend and we blink into the stark white of another new art space. This one is determined to survive, using the Localism Act to delay sale long enough to potentially raise the absurd amount of cash required. In some ways, it's faintly depressing - worthy, if a little textbook perhaps - but ultimately doomed to collapse into a round of squatting and frantic money-raising. It will be a news story, briefly and locally, then a sale. We pass the multi-story stable block and cross the narrow walkway over the gates of Old Ford Lock. In the distance, the old Big Breakfast TV studio cottage is dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium. I took some pictures here before the games, but never turned back to see this view once I'd crossed the Cut. It didn't seem right. Surely I was the one being watched back then? We edge along the water, finally ascending to the Greenway. At last this stretch is open again and I can complete a bit of undone business, but the sun beats even harder on the flat open expanse of pathway above the sewer. Finally we arrive at The View Tube. The Orbit towers pointlessly over us, and occasionally vehicles flit about the park. It's busy here, a little chaotic even as the barista and cashier skitters between transactions, pausing mid-sentence to weave into the cafe with plates and cups. We settle in to recover from the walk, chatting briefly to Simon before he disappears for his next assignment in Stoke Newington. I feel like I've closed a book - or at least ended a chapter. My more scattered wanders condensed into a single walk. Simon has achieved what I failed repeatedly to do - focus on the place. Eventually we head off - to Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, enclosed within the same sinister blue fencing which used to mark out the borders of the Olympic Project, now bequeathed to the ponderously slow but largely hidden Crossrail project. Briefly on our journey we pass through Westfield - busy, oddly populated by young women dressed to be out for a night rather than perched on traffic bollards outside a retail complex. We buy provisions and disappear into a taxi which takes us to Baker's Arms, and our strange, idiosyncratic hotel for the night. I still have a journey to make - into the Roding Valley via Epping Forest on a tiny bus to collect our belongings. Lea Valley Road pulses with life even this late, but the suburbs are dark and a little uninviting - strangely more sinister than the babble of foreign voices and bustle of unfamiliarity on the main streets. The bus curls around Whipps Cross Hospital, a massive site almost entirely obscured by trees - inside Victorian asylum buildings vie with horrible modern utility blocks. There's little sense or order. Signs point to various departments based on body parts, but they're all out of place - the Chest Department sitting weirdly close to Podiatry. I'm not sorry to find myself in the anodyne, faceless suburbia once again.

The Orbit looms over The Greenway
The Orbit looms over The Greenway

I wake early, my back aching from a night on a hard bed. The change of plans feels like it has cursed us. This extra day here was meant to be an extended adventure, but now it feels like an imposition. We set out on the No.55 towards Hackney. Progress is slow, the sun radiates in, headaches are re-calibrated and start to pulse in concert with the bus engine. We pass over Lea Bridge and the brief stripe of green which separates the bleak, collapsing kebab shops of Walthamstow from the organic vendors of Clapton. The urge to walk the valley south towards the city is strong, but there is coffee at stake here. Once free of the snarl-up of Hackney Central we're swiftly onto Mare Street and soon walking towards Broadway Market again. At Climpson and Sons we find wonderful coffee as ever, and spend some time people-watching - not least observing the seemingly endless train of employees disappearing into the basement, each a little more hipster than the last. We linger over coffee and food, the tiny store fills and empties over and again. Business seems good - no surprise with coffee this well done. We finally head out into the cool of London Fields to regroup. There's no plan and too much time - almost the worst possible situation. We're tired, tired of London almost, and disappointment is brewing into anger. In the midst of this I decide to do something which I'd never normally countenance. I head west...

A rare western sortie in St. James's Park
A rare western sortie in St. James's Park

We end the day at dusk in St. James's Park. The gliding Pelicans looking sinister against the backdrop of greenery, Buckingham Palace floating through the slight evening mist. It's a beautiful, crisp afternoon. The sun is almost gone as we head for Bressenden Place, realising an entire street of buildings has disappeared leaving us disoriented. We arrive back at Paddington in darkness, thankful to be back and contemplating a cosy, restful journey. The last stragglers of the evening peak scan the board and dash for trains. We collapse onto ours and settle in for the ride - the tension and threat of London left behind as we speed west towards home. I never thought I'd feel quite so relieved, so thankful to be leaving - and I wonder about what this might mean for my future engagement with a city which has absorbed hours of my time and occupied much of my imagination. Again I sense a book closing, a work complete - but I have nothing much to show for years of trudging concrete, absorbing facts and developing allegiances.

For now, at least, my focus needs to lie to the west - and for the first time in years I find myself wondering when, and in what context I'll return here?

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Travel - Return Of The Native
Sunday 15/09/2013 21:39
Wedged into a tiny train, far too small for the surprising amount of Sunday travellers, it's easy to be cynical about travelling around the UK by rail. Of course, I've spent a fair portion of my life doing so - but on the series of revisits in company which are now taking place, a little comfort seems far more important. I'm getting older, and wiser perhaps - and I'm very aware of the value of the little disposable income we have just now too. But that's not meant to detract in any way from an almost perfect weekend spent in my home county. Indeed the train up here yesterday was smooth, quick, relatively quiet and direct. Arrival at Foregate Street station recalled earlier visits for me - indeed one of my earliest trips in the 90s was a complicated set of connections to enable me to get here, then to head for Birmingham via the less travelled road to Snow Hill which had just re-opened. That set off a series of track collecting activities which brought together my love of geography and railways in very dangerous ways.

The West Window, Worcester Cathedral
The West Window, Worcester Cathedral

Alighting and heading down to the bustling streets is always a bit of a strange surprise. Railway stations are so often not in city centres, so to be plunged directly into one is both pleasant and strange. We soon met our friends and wandered the city. For me it was recalling how much or indeed, how little had changed since I was last here. For others it was a more novel experience. We stopped into a small pub with sloping timbers and erratic floors and found great food and even better beer. A rainstorm passed over, and we headed out into the city again, working our way towards the impressive Cathedral. It was a good while since I'd been here, and it was a delight to experience it again in newly appreciative company. We spent a good while examining the memorials, marvelling at the statuary and paying respects to Elgar, linked strongly here by music and history - a name introduced to me early at school not far away, but still not dimmed by over-familiarity like some early influences. We decided to walk out to the suburbs to our bed for the night. Out of the Cathedral precinct and down stairs, noting the historic record of flood levels as the stone walls developed a green coating of river weeds. We emerged on a broad lawn beside the Severn - the weather had brightened and the youngsters of Worcester were lounging happily. We set off along the river path - and I felt suddenly and strangely content to be beside water again. After a short walk, not entirely easy with a rolling case in tow, we arrived at the junction of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal with the River. A flight of wide-beam locks raised the water level to Diglis Basin - houseboats and barges moored alongside old industrial buildings, the sun shine now picking out the brass and bright painted designs. We slowed and entered a canalside pub, enjoying the fading evening in good company.

Elgar stands guard over the curiously haphazard City Centre
Elgar stands guard over the curiously haphazard City Centre

Today was a gloomier, overcast proposition but we set about finding Elgar's statue - and unexpectedly a plaque honouring his enthusiasm for cycling. Next we headed for good coffee and watched the world go by. Worcester is one of those cities which manages to stay resolutely bustling on a Sunday - not unlike Gloucester where I would often find myself heading in the winter. The city centre is blighted by unwise development and curiously bad modern buildings, but enough remains to make it a charming and resolutely English part of the world. Our travels just now are often swiftly arranged and based around limited resources but slowly we are working our way to the spots that I've loved - and some indeed that I've never visited. Long may our wandering continue...

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London - Canals and Coffee
Sunday 08/09/2013 22:55
It has been a little while since we were in London. The fairly regular pattern of monthly visits was broken last month by some special visitors, which whisked us off around the West Country at this time of the month. So, feeling a little restless of foot, I was looking forward to being back in the city. In particular, as the summer has worn on I'm approaching a number of significant anniversaries - many of which centre on, or relate to London trips. There has barely been an entry here in the rather sparsely documented last twelve months which hasn't remarked rather incredulously at how much things have changed - but there is something interesting - if a little inevitable - about reviewing things mentally as the cycles complete and restart. A summer ago, the Olympic Games occupied my mind, the walks were almost frenzied, dogged by security and restriction. I was walking despite the city, rather than because of it. I'll say it again, how different things seem now...

We arrived via a sleepily pleasant trip to Paddington. We didn't have too much in the way of time restrictions, so we hopped on a bus to Liverpool Street which took in the West End. It was a little quieter and cooler than our last bus trip along Oxford Street, so we enjoyed sightseeing, and winced at the chances people took in dashing across the street between buses. Trafalgar Square was busy - as ever - but had a rather lazy weekend feel to it's bustle. Things felt optimistic and open, a world away from the locked-down city through which I was recalling walks. We dipped into the Fleet Valley at Ludgate Circus and climbed towards the white flank of St.Paul's, resolving to stop in soon as we skirted it and headed deeper into the City and our last stop. Liverpool Street station has become a joint favourite spot - busy and open, full of possibility, signifying a place to head out into the unknown but equally a marker on our way home. Today, we headed directly for a suburban train out of there, soon passing under Brick Lane and scurrying across the rooftops of Bethnal Green with the sun bursting irregularly from between ominous clouds. It felt good to be back.

As we descended the stairs into the rather noisome tunnel at Cambridge Heath I could detect disquiet. Why had I brought us to this strange, semi-derelict corner of the city? This didn't ease once we turned onto Mare Street with its mix of kebab shops, overstuffed convenience stores and tumbled together housing. We crossed the canal and turned west into Andrews Road - one of my earliest Hackney Walks took this route, the proud gasholders dominating the skyline while the modernist roofline of Ash Grove Bus Depot sneaks into view between blocks. Neither of these architectural highlights were doing much to ease the sense of being somewhere less than pleasant, but the first hints of hipster Hackney saved me - as a pop-up shop outside an industrial unit yielded treasures... 1950s 'atomic' themed curtain fabric, heritage boardgames - we chatted a little before heading on beside the canal and turning into the bustle of Broadway Market. I was of course instantly forgiven, the low brick shops flanked a busy street market, several live musicians competed for audience, the smells of bread, coffee, meet and painfully-hip moustache wax filled the Hackney morning air. We dived in...

Broadway Market under threatening skies...
Broadway Market under threatening skies...

After visiting a fascinating store where a local trader was selling her fabric crafts, we wandered into the market. Almost right away we found ourselves, almost involuntarily, in the line for a coffee stall. The small crew of guys running it weren't hurrying, but the long queue said it all. The facial hair quotient too, spoke volumes - and as the neighbouring music stall played Pink Floyd we shuffled towards our brew. And when we finally got it, it was wonderful. I was transported the 4700 miles or so to Stumptown Coffee and happy mornings watching the Seattle traffic. This was good coffee, perhaps the best I've had in the UK. We pressed on - bread, meet, knitwear, books - the stalls were all just a little better thought-out than the usual fare at markets. The crowds meandered between them, sampling, purchasing, gossiping. Clouds rolled overhead and I though of my picnic plans, already beginning to feel inadequate in picturing my home-baked, rather flat bread in comparison to the shiny, dark crusts on display. Eventually we found our way to London Fields, with a sudden shower passing swiftly enough to let us sit and eat while a toddler with stabilisers, pursued some impossibly cool BMX kids around a cycle track at amazing pace and with a look of serious dedication! Out on the path where we sat, the only cycles were of the vintage, home decorated kind - and we listened to them clattering by while we drank Ginger Beer. The sun edged out - it was time to press on.

After a walk back through the market and a second visit to the coffee stall, we descended to the canal tow path. The sun seemed a little more likely to stay out now, so we started our walk east along the waterside. I recalled my last trek along here, and little had changed on the canal. Barges still doubled for cafes and market stalls, bicycles still careered stupidly along the edge of the path. The crowds seemed a little thinner - perhaps people really had resorted to this easier way of getting around last summer when it was busy? But the path remained well used as we curved south towards Old Ford Lock and crossed into Victoria Park. We found a spot beside the lake and watched the birds scudding into the water to land, routinely shaking their tail-feathers dry. Dogs hesitantly sniffed at the edge of the water, scared of the stately and surprisingly large swans. A brave little lad chased pigeons and occasionally bigger birds around, pursued by an amused parent. It was oddly idyllic - this strange corner of East London a near perfect spot this afternoon.

Our ride arrived and we headed off into Bow, sadly not heading for even more coffee at the Wick this visit. As we headed east to visit with our friends, the remnants of the Olympic Park loomed over the road. It seems strange how much time and effort I've spent walking in this patch of the city, and how there still seems so much uncharted territory. There will be future visits, more coffee, longer stays I hope. But I will always find myself comparing these jaunts to a hot, edgy summer which changed the city and certainly changed me beyond belief.

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