Travel

The Discreet Charm of the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

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Knowing that what we really, really needed this year was to hang out with lots of overweight old people keen to tell us how much they love Donald Trump, we booked a cruise in April from Dubai to Venice.

The flight out to Dubai was memorable only for the chap in the seat in front lecturing a young mum on the need for her toddler to show respect for other passengers. (He had, as it happens, complained about the wi-fi before taking his seat, occupied one entire luggage bin with various bags and rebuked a steward loudly for bringing him the same wine as he’d had previously and not a different one – but, hey, he knew how toddlers should behave.)

Our trip from the airport to our hotel was enlivened by the taxi driver showing me photos on his phone of his family and the countryside in his native Nepal while the car in front braked hard and my subsequent scream may have saved him a significant repair bill. Indeed taxi drivers throughout our few days in Dubai seemed to hail from a wide range of nations, and it seems reassuringly “equal opps” that a complete lack of knowledge of the road network, traffic regulations or visitor attractions was no barrier to employment.

Dubai, a definite first for Family Blog, proved fascinating. We learned from a video that the Maktoum family – the ruling dynasty – isn’t interested in money but in creating a Vision for Dubai in which all may share. And that many innovators are attracted from all over the world to help build this Vision (and not to make money. Though I think our Nepalese taxi driver may have been OK with making some money, as that may be easier to send home.) Mrs Blog, working on the assumption that the MacToums were of Scottish origin, has in mind setting Blogdaughter up with one of them if we can work an introduction.

….and nae’ for the money, Jimmy

Dubai has shopping malls in much the same way as a hedgehog has fleas – all over the place. At the end of the day, while the one that Mrs Blog took me to (presumably by way of retribution for some failing on my part) did boast its own ice rink, huge aquarium (the largest crocodile in the world, allegedly) and, no doubt, full-size replicas of the Great Wall of China and the solar system, it’s still a bl**dy shopping mall and therefore guaranteed to ensure that one’s will to live drains rapidly into the desert sands.

Mrs B, you will be unsurprised to read, felt differently. The discovery of several branches of Marks and Spencer put a real spring into her stride and she was observed texting to her clanswoman in Scotland “You’d love the shops here. Gorgeous. Nothing you can afford at all.” And Subway did us a nice butty.

Burqa clad women sporting fetching eye make-up and Samsung 6 phones seemed well in control of their menfolk and were clearly setting themselves for a long stint of retail experience.

Mrs B made a pit stop at the “usual facilities” but had not, some 20 minutes later, reappeared. It took a while longer, and a series of text messages and a phone call via the nearest satellite, to locate her, having emerged via an alternative exit seemingly located in a different emirate.

It’s my belief that the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is a much maligned, guilty pleasure – and rightly so, I hear you cry. Not afforded much coverage in the Lonely Planet guides, the lack of a flexible open top bus trip for city orientation purposes won’t, in my opinion, do anything to help places like Sana’a, Aleppo or Gaza build a sustainable tourist economy. I’ve grappled with faulty headphones, wandering language channels and noisy passengers who have clearly boarded the bus, not to see or be informed, but to shout continually to each other, but I’m still a fan – and have amassed a significant collection of route maps and little red and yellow earphones which I’m prepared to donate to a reputable museum. (On the Dubai tour I assumed there was only a brief introductory commentary rather than a full narrative, until I noticed that Mrs Blog had disconnected me while rooting around in her handbag.)

After three days’ sightseeing in Dubai (only partly on the bus – we also took in the top of the Burj Khalifa, the older parts of the city, the souk and the river) we joined our cruise ship. The ship’s departure was delayed until Mrs B pronounced herself satisfied with the new ID photo taken at check-in, but eventually we found our cabin (outside, with balcony), Mrs B rapidly annexed 90% of the cupboard space and, after a few false attempts, we were soon able to find our way back to our cabin from most parts of the ship.

As Brits we were naturally appalled to find there was no kettle in our cabin but, on urgent request, one was soon supplied and an international incident was avoided. Mrs B shouldn’t be expected to start the day without a nice cup of Twinings. You can take globe-trotting only so far.

An addition to the lengthening list of “Things you only do once”: Mrs B, in sensible cost-saving mode, packed into my suitcase a large plastic bottle of stuff for washing clothes. On unpacking in the cabin, all of the liquid was undoubtedly still in the suitcase but only part of it was still in the bottle. This had an interesting, and in one or two cases terminal, effect on the contents of the case.

Before departure we were all invited to muster on deck with our life jackets, standing in searing heat while we waited for those passengers who had found more interesting things to do. At least it was an opportunity to check out the other people you were intended to share a lifeboat with if things turned turtle. It wasn’t encouraging.

…and you won’t catch me saying “Women and children first”

Later, in our cabins, we were given further instruction on how to respond to anything that might arise involving pilates off the Somali coast. This made more sense once Mrs B, whose hearing may be better than mine, clarified this to “pirates”. On the basis that this was effectively an American ship, I assumed that at least half of the passengers were armed and we should be ok. The thrust of our briefing was that access to the open decks would be prohibited for three nights and all lights dimmed with the intention that we might be mistaken for a cargo ship rather than a cruise liner. My subsequent research (very expensive wi-fi) revealed that, while no cruise liner had ever been approached by pirates in this area, cargo ships were a fairly regular target. I thought it important to bring this point to the attention of the captain but was unable to do so.

Extract from our briefing video

Our first night’s cruising brought us to Muscat, capital and major port of Oman. And the opportunity for another Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour followed by a spot of retailing in the Muttrah Souk. A chap doesn’t like to wander too far from life’s essentials, like wi-fi, but the internet café boasted a line of frustrated users looking for a “fix” like the sort of queue I recall from university outside the only working phone kiosk.

Entertainment that evening was “Musicals from Broadway and the West End”, or more accurately “Musicals from Broadway”, though some were familiar. This was also characteristic of the food on offer (no reference to the part of the world we were passing through; a wide choice each day but essentially the LCD of what, one assumes, an unimaginative American family might wish to take with them.)  Many of these passengers do not look as though what they really need is unlimited free food 24 hours a day, or more elevators, come to that. TRY THE STAIRS FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE!  Just because there’s hot dogs and cheesecake and grits and eggs and chocolate pie and rib-eye and syrup on the counter doesn’t mean they have to go together on your plate.

 

I have come to the realisation that most bodies look better covered up, and that those which don’t are not on this ship. Mrs B tried on a dress she’d brought for the formal evenings onboard. She wondered if it might be too big but I was able to reassure her that, on this ship, it soon wouldn’t be: for some reason this seemed not to be the right answer. I suppose one could prepare in advance for this kind of trip, not by honing one’s “bikini ready figure” but by building steadily for months towards a “cruise ready body” to make it easier to blend in.

A North American flavour also arose with some of the onboard quizzes: they were much easier if you were au fait with US soaps and crime series. Perhaps they should operate a handicapping system to give foreigners like us a sniff.

Longstanding readers of this blog may know that it takes itself way too seriously when it comes to quizzes and that robust debate with the question setter is never far away. I did try to pretend to myself that it didn’t matter but I put it to you, members of the jury, “What is an appropriate response to the following?”

Questionmaster (bearing, presumably following bouts of cosmetic tweaking, an uncanny likeness to Kryten in Red Dwarf): In which country are the Victoria Falls?

Blog, whispering to Mrs Blog: They’re on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe so what shall I put? Both? Which is he more likely to have down, Zambia?

Questionmaster: The answer is Rhodesia. No, I’m not taking any other answers.

Questionmaster: Which capital city is on the River Danube?

Blog, whispering: Shall I put down all four of them? Or should we go and get a coffee?

 

“and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is still…”

It is with some satisfaction that I can report that the team of Blog and Mrs Blog romped home in the quiz that was purely on geography, though joy was short-lived when Mrs B GAVE AWAY our prize – a yellow highlighter pen bearing the name of the ship – to the first person she met afterwards….

There followed no fewer than five successive days “at sea”, scanning the horizon for any signs of piratical activity, made doubly necessary by the captain’s clearly misguided tactics of subterfuge. Undertaking this task had the benefit of taking Mrs B’s mind off the absence of affordable wi-fi. Lacking this basic ingredient for life we were obliged to talk to one another more than seemed reasonable for a married couple and Mrs B was reduced to checking out the world clock repeatedly on her mobile as the only function that was still operating – and you don’t want to see anybody reduced to that. She was also obliged to put on her make-up in the dark which had an effect similar to seeing Bridget Jones applying her lippy in a fast-moving taxi.

Intriguingly, fellow passengers were prepared to complain about delays in being served at the bar despite having b*gg*r *ll to do for five days.

Mrs B wasn’t keen for me to enter either the “World’s Sexiest Man” or “International Belly Flop” competitions by the pool, which seemed a shame, but I guess she wouldn’t want people ogling.

We eventually succumbed to the need to renew contact with the outside world and invested in a day’s wi-fi, not least to check via Wikipedia our recollection of old news broadcasts about Aden (Mad Mitch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) and my favourite all-time country name, the Territory of Afars and the Issas (now Djibouti, if you’re bothered.)

Happily we made it safely through the Red Sea to landfall at Aqaba in Jordan and this was the starting point for our excursion to the wonders of Petra – “rose-red city, half as old as time” and all that. The coach trip was enlivened by a comment from our tour guide:

“One more question before I go for a motion.”

I glanced down the coach, wondering where he might have in mind, and saw one or two puzzled expressions.

“OK, here’s my motion: shall we have 30 minutes’ quiet before I start up again?”

 

I’m sure you can read about Petra elsewhere. It is of course fabulous, and will be even nicer when it’s finished, but after a couple of hours in the coach through the arid heart of “rural Jordan” I decided that my next solo coast to coast walk wouldn’t be across the Arabian peninsula.

From Aqaba through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. I was so keen not to miss this that, when we entered the canal at 4 a.m., I took myself up onto the open deck to watch. Not too many Mister Universes by the pool at that time, I can tell you…

By this time our list of “passengers to avoid” was lengthening steadily: the elderly male American with the pigtail and his purple haired partner sporting “I Voted Trump” T-shirts; the very loud Australian man (it’s mainly men) recounting what he’d paid for a cup of coffee in every port he’d ever visited; the Brit who wanted us to know how much he’d saved on the cruise and the excursions by booking through some kiosk in Harwich; the Australian couple who’d left the UK 30 years ago and wouldn’t consider returning as the place had gone downhill ever since – I replied “Yes, they weren’t able to replace you” but received a kick under the table from Mrs Blog.

To Ashdod in Israel and another coach trip to a place we’d never been, Jerusalem. Impossible of course not to be fascinated by the Holy City, which was especially busy, being Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday in the Christian calendar, and Passover in the Jewish calendar. We toured on foot many of the locations familiar from the Bible (or Life of Brian) including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western or Wailing Wall, with literally thousands of armed police in attendance, and followed up with a visit to the highly moving Holocaust Museum. We were treated to a heartfelt running commentary from our Israeli guide throughout the day and wondered how a Palestinian perspective might differ.

We docked the next day at Haifa and opted to potter round the town rather than take another coach trip. Possibly a mistake. An attractive and interesting place but effectively closed, being Good Friday.

At sea again on the Saturday and I’m going through my books at a fair old rate. I’m not fond of Kindle, so bring the real things with me. Heavy, I know, but I don’t really bring much else. To date on this trip:

Michael Frayn: Travels with a Typewriter: one of my favourite writers and he’s been knocking out great stuff for decades

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck: Ferguson’s Gang: “the remarkable story of the National Trust gangsters”

Olivia Laing: To the River

HG Wells: The History of Mr Polly

James Runcie: The Grantchester Mysteries

Fraser McAlpine: Stuff Brits Like

Maria Trapp: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers: I’d run out of books and “borrowed” this from the ship’s library. It’s interesting to compare this original account with the film – and I reckon both the family and the songs were a lot duller…

…plus sundry travel guides…

….well, I’ve never had literary pretensions.

Easter Sunday was spent in Athens, with public buildings again closed but plenty of eating places and shops open. We could see the Acropolis and the Parthenon from below (we’d both been before) and tucked into great moussaka (with retsina for nostalgic purposes) in Plaka. Oh, and two hop-on hop-off bus tours – have I mentioned those?

Two more days at sea approaching the final cruise destination, Venice. The cruise “entertainment” comprised a load of stuff you wouldn’t want to see or do (Family Helicopter Origami, Finish that Lyric Game Show, Walking in Comfort sponsored by Goodfeet, “Thriller” Dance Class) but we had enjoyed two classical/”crossover” concerts by a (British) pianist and young violinist, another two by a (British) electric violinist with small backing orchestra, and two by a Beatles tribute band. Now, these were good, and generated plenty of noise and atmosphere, but I’m not prepared these days to stand, wave my arms in the air and jig about on demand. If I’m going to do “fun” I like to choose my moments…

And so to Venice, the third time for both of us. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise but, even though you know what to expect, it’s still mindboggling. You could look at those views for ever and still have to be dragged away. To do something new, we took in the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art. For a change I recognised almost all of the names and some of the works, though at one point I had worked my way through the explanatory panel accompanying one of the exhibits and was attempting to share this with Mrs Blog when it was pointed out to me that the panel referred to the rather different picture on the other side.

 

Our hotel on the Grand Canal. There are worse places to have breakfast.

IKEA now do a nice flat-pack Bridge of Sighs

Having run out of Colgate I picked up a tube of toothpaste at a small shop in a quiet back street. Our “turning in for the night” routine in our hotel on the Grand Canal took a surprisingly tense turn when Mrs B squeezed an unexpectedly brown substance from the tube onto her toothbrush, applied it in the standard way and let out the most fearsome stream of oaths and spitting noises followed by what I feel was an unwarranted degree of abuse. Subsequent investigation of the offending tube has failed to identify quite what we bought in that shop; it may of course have been an Italian response to Brexit.

Not quite ready yet to return to the world of work, we travelled by train next day through the Tyrol to Vienna. Other European nations seem to run better train services than us.

Vienna was a first for both of us, but by no means our first hop-on hop-off bus tour of the holiday. I was pleased to see they had taken a leaf out of Hull’s book and branded part of the city centre Museums Quarter. Buildings like the opera house, Hofburg Palace, St Stephans Cathedral and the upmarket coffee houses (yum) dominate the typical images of the city but we successfully sought out the Hundertwasserhaus (check it out, amazing) and the Secession building, and half of us took a ride on the ancient wooden Ferris wheel (The Third Man, and all that.) The other half of us fancied a go on one of the Lippizaner horses at the Spanish Riding School but my blagging powers are clearly waning.

The wonderful Hundertwasser building and the cafe

If you’re going to go round in a 212 foot tall Ferris wheel in extremely strong winds, make sure it’s made of wood and 120 years old…

…and for those who remember, welcome to 1979…

And so to home to catch up with all our recorded episodes of Line of Duty (no, don’t tell us!), Broadchurch and Homeland, and managing to pick up two lousy colds en route.

Talk to you again soon.

 

 

 

 

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The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions

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“Where are you up to?” I hear you ask.

Coast to coast walk – New Brighton (like Brighton but without the refinement, and sun) to Spurn Head (a mobile, transient kind of shoreline for our times) via Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield and Hull – 200 miles duly walked. Booker Prize winning narrative, first and second drafts completed. J K Rowling style publishing contract still a work in progress. Filming rights under negotiation; George Clooney in frame to play the part of “me” but content of Oscar acceptance speech may prove stumbling block.

I travelled on the Mersey ferry, on a ghost train and by narrow boat through the Pennines. I attended a liquorice festival in Pontefract, a Super League game in Castleford, a gathering of brass bands in Saddleworth (sadly Tara Fitzgerald no longer plays solo flugelhorn with Grimley Colliery band)….

… a whole assortment of museums and theatres, Edwardian swimming baths and a wildflower centre (in Liverpool!) I was made welcome at the finest cat hotel in Dewsbury or anywhere else, at a bingo night in Hull and a pub quiz in Liverpool. I stayed in splendid old railway hotels, hostels, welcoming B&Bs and some distinctly ordinary pubs. I ate more curries, scouse, spam fritters, home-made ice cream, Hull potato patties and full English than you can shake a black pudding at. There was snow and torrential rain on Merseyside and heatstroke on the Humber. I hung out with the Pankhursts, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wilberforce and Philip Larkin. And Kay Kendall.

Yorkshire folk, they’re not like other folk…

And I was privileged to visit some of the most exciting conservation schemes and heart-warming community and social projects you’ll encounter anywhere, meeting volunteers and staff making huge efforts to preserve and enhance the social and environmental soul of the country – with little reward beyond the knowledge that their contributions are greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. While public services continue to be sacrificed to the false gods of austerity and tax cutting, the nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who unflinchingly put their fingers in the dyke and strive to stem the tide.

All I need now is the book.

I’m grateful for your suggested alternative titles.

“John”, sensing the value of wordplay, gave me “To Hull and Back”, adding the proviso that it would only work if I turned round on reaching the North Sea and did the whole walk in reverse. We haven’t spoken since…

“Keith”, seeking a musical link between my start and end points of Merseyside and Humberside, posited “Hull hath no Fury, but it does hath Ronnie Hilton and David Whitfield”. Mm.

I think I’ve got the dedication sorted, along these lines:

To the taxi drivers of Yorkshire for your unequivocal advice, thank you. I wouldn’t have grasped the subtleties of Brexit or Hull, City of Culture without your help.

Well, it’s a work in progress…

I am very pleased to have help from Jennifer Barclay, a real travel writer with a website and everything, in honing my magnum opus, accepting the excessive grumblings of a knackered cross country walker and reminding me that I don’t have permission to use song lyrics or quote extensively from eminently quotable sources.

As it happens, I have now been given permission by Alison McGovern MP to quote from the lyrics of her grandfather, Pete McGovern’s In My Liverpool Home:

 “We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,

   meet under a statue exceedingly bare,

   if you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare

   in my Liverpool home….”

… which is cool.

I still need the nod from Gerry Marsden, Philip Larkin, Anthony Gormley and the authors of Crap Towns but it’s surely only a matter of time.

To create an illusion of narrative merit I’m also delighted to say that Polly Toynbee (nowadays mainly The Guardian), Dr Helen Pankhurst (very much a Pankhurst and as helpful as one could possibly imagine) and Fiona Reynolds (National Trust, CPRE, writer and much besides) have all kindly supplied words of endorsement for the cover. Which may give you a flavour of how it will read…

Even before it comes off the presses The Road to Hull has had the benefit of press coverage. Back in the spring of last year this blog was approached by a student journalist from Sussex University asking for an interview about the Great Trek for a piece to be offered to local papers. A meeting was arranged to fit in, for the sake of convenience, after an appointment I had made with the local foot doctor to examine some seriously walk-battered toenails. A quick examination revealed that these couldn’t all be saved and, after a swift toenailectomy while I bit down on my newspaper, I crossed the road to a café for our meeting.

My interviewer asked why I was doing the walk, how many miles I hoped to do each day, how it had gone so far, what was still to come. It was gratifying to share my thoughts and experiences with someone who was interested. I gave it my best shot, threw in plenty of anecdotes and told him where I’d been immediately before our meeting.

I picked up a copy of the local paper later in the week to see if I was in there. There was a big article with a photo under a bold headline:

66 Year Old Chiropodist Patient Plans Coast to Coast Walk

To help me in my endeavours Mrs Blog has bought me a fine writer’s hat.

That at least is how she described it when persuading me to buy one at the Bruges Christmas market. It may have been what she thought I needed to keep my head warm and dry but I prefer to believe in its special creative qualities. Without his hat Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been just a short fat bloke from Portsmouth stood in front of a pile of chains. Without his hat Indiana Jones would have been some supply teacher of archaeology with a frown and a bullwhip fixation. Without a writer’s hat this blog would be just some bloke with a cold; but don his new, size 7 literary headgear and he is transformed into a bloke with both a cold and a hat. And with those anything is possible.

…but, even with a hat, some people are beyond help

Mrs Blog and I will be taking a break in April with a cruise line owned and frequented by Americans. She has instructed me not to mention, or respond to, or think about, the T word. I promise nothing…

But before that this blog has an appointment in London on Saturday 25 March with tens of thousands of others, the ones who’ve looked into the chasm that is Brexit and are sore afraid. I attended a “What happens next?” panel event last week featuring our MP and spokespersons for the other parties. The MP’s position can reasonably be represented as:

  1. She voted Leave in the referendum
  2. She saw the chief benefits as being able to trade with the US to take advantage of their lower standards of food safety and environmental protection, and with China so we can improve their human rights record, and ensuring that Filipino nurses should have the same opportunities to seek work here as French nurses. (She’d had, presumably, nine months to come up with those.)
  3. While a 52/48% split for Leave was highly significant in the national vote, a 52/48 % split in favour of Remain in her own constituency on the other hand meant we were split down the middle.
  4. However obvious and appalling the economic and other implications of Brexit were now becoming, she would – now that parliament had, against the wishes of the government, been given a say — support “Article 50”.

And we used to think we had a sophisticated democracy…

Join me in London on the 25th!

 

 

 

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To Spurn: transitive verb: tread sharply or heavily upon

 

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Webster’s dictionary has it about right. By the time I reached Spurn Head at the end of my 200 mile plus coast to coast walk I guess I was treading pretty heavily. But I made it and have some arty pics to prove it.

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The final stage of my walk began in Hull – a place I had never visited before this summer but where I have now had three brief stays and am keen to revisit to sample the joys of the City of Culture programme next year. I took the view that my accommodation in Hull would be at the Royal Station Hotel on the basis that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and five royal children back in 1853, it’s likely to be quite old and worn now so probably affordable. And, although Hull megastar and beat poet Philip Larkin described “Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel” as:

Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

……even that’s ok as they’ve emptied the ashtrays now.

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Hull commemorates one of its most famous residents; Larkin in Paragon Station outside the Royal Hotel

Faced with a free evening on arrival in Hull I did the only thing a global traveller like myself could do and headed straight for the Mecca Bingo hall opposite the hotel for an intensive, eyes down session of housey-housey. I had prepared thoroughly for the occasion and made full use of the helpful Mecca website:

“Bingo is like theatre: it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“Shelley deserves to go higher in the bingo world.”

And I noted that Kirsty, with no less than 39% of the poll, had emerged as Online Chat Moderator of the Month.

I was particularly taken with a part of the website devoted to “Lost Bingo Halls”. These, it transpires, tended to have been cinemas before they became bingo halls in the 1960s but were sadly no longer viable and had been lost to “the beautiful game”. Memories and photographs of these treasured venues were invited. It’s funny, I always thought of them as much loved cinemas lost to bingo; not any more.

I now know that the period from 2005 to 2010 was “particularly savage” (Mecca website again) for club closures owing to the 2007 smoking ban and changes in the laws limiting prize payouts and number of gaming machines.

I can confirm that they no longer call “clickety click” or “two fat ladies”, if indeed they ever did. And, on the basis that I won not a brass farthing all night, I’m happy to convince myself that skill is not an essential criterion for success, an outcome which seems to correlate quite closely with waist size.

Four days of walking took me from Hull through Holderness to Spurn Head via 19th century Fort Paull, the faded seaside resort (is there another kind, and if there were, would I be going there?) of Withernsea and the attractive village of Patrington.

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Having, for lack of choice, booked a room (“shared facilities”) in a Withernsea pub, I have concluded that I’m getting too old for that kind of intimacy. Shared bathroom ok, shared towel less so. Fag end outside my door, no thanks. But excellent spam fritters for tea at the Golden Haddock nearby.

Withernsea’s Lighthouse Museum – probably the only museum in the UK (only the UK?) devoted to the memory of actress Kay Kendall, a native and former resident of the town – is a joy. (I feel confident that KK would have referred to herself as an actress rather than an actor, though I have nothing to back that up.) Known to many primarily as a star of light comedy films like Genevieve (reviewed by the Catholic Times as “unsavoury … smut”) and Doctor in the House, she was described as having “more allure in her eyes than Marilyn Monroe has from top to toe” (Picturegoer, 1954.) Kay Kendall died from leukaemia at the age of 32.

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In carrying out the vital background research for my walk, I acquired, and read, her biography. To prove this I will relate that the four stars of Genevieve — Kenneth More, John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan and KK — each earned two thousand pounds from the film. If you are riveted by this nugget of information, you must feel free to make me an offer for The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall without delay. Seriously, the sooner the better.

At Patrington’s Station Hotel I was generously treated to an excellent dinner on account of my tales of derring-do. While awaiting my meal I took the opportunity to catch up with the local headlines in the Holderness Gazette – visitor numbers at the Withernsea Lighthouse Museum, news of the 2017 City of Culture programme and a controversy over plans for a new visitor centre on Spurn Head. Nothing however rivalled the item headed:

“Council to replace bent post”

Now I was truly hooked. Referring to a damaged sign in Queen Street, Withernsea – good heavens, the very road where my zero rated accommodation had been the previous night –  the story ran, “mystery surrounds …. believed the pole was inadvertently bent by a van making a delivery to a shop”. So, at least terrorism had been ruled out. Happily it appeared that moves were afoot to restore order as an East Riding spokesperson had announced that the council was aware of the problem and would be removing the bent post in due course and replacing with a new post and sign. It wasn’t made clear whether the authorities were still seeking anyone in connection with the incident, or that anybody was receiving counselling.

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A post

 

Having reached the end of the known world, or at least Spurn Head, with nowhere else to go, I was picked up by Mrs. Blog – arriving just a brief three and a half hours after me – in a hire car. There followed several days’ enjoyable R&R in Hull (where else?), Beverley and York with Mrs. B plus her fellow clan member and two good chums and former colleagues intent on me celebrating in style and sampling the best fish supper in the East Riding, on condition that I didn’t show them my toenails.

I wasn’t entirely off duty while still on the Humber, fitting in a meeting with Goole Civic Society, a private tour of the splendidly Edwardian Beverley Road baths, a visit to William Wilberforce’s House (“There was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms”) and a failed meeting with the Hull City of Culture 2017 team. Unfortunately their Head of Communications hadn’t told anyone I was coming – which doesn’t augur well for next year.  (It’s ok, we’ve kissed and made up since.)

The meeting-that-wasn’t did mean there was time for a second visit to the Deep which is a truly ace (sorry, I must brush up on my travel writing technique) attraction. It’s an aquarium in the same way as the Shard is an office block and it’s full of excellent information panels:

Amphioxus “prefers to spend its time buried in the sand in tropical lagoons”.  That’s you and me both, Amphi baby…

“If attacked the Sea Cucumber can shoot out its stomach and leave it behind”.  Come on, what wouldn’t you give to have that as your superpower?

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 Denizens of the Deep?

From Hull via Beverley to York in case Hull were to prove too earthy for Mrs. B and some TLC  was needed in the form of Bettys tearooms (three times, and we were only there for two days). This brief stop also embraced a river trip, a wander round the walls, evensong at the Minster (religious beliefs not required), the Shambles (it is) and the National Railway Museum (Mrs. B thought Mallard was nice and shiny.)

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Thanks so much for all the moral support and generous sponsorship on behalf of the British Heart Foundation during this walk. Over £1300 raised so far – and there’s still time!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

Now I just have about 60,000 words to write before I forget where I’ve been – a not uncommon problem, I find.

 

One separate, non-coast-walk visit to report amongst a handful of Heritage Open Day treats: a guided tour of Lewes prison. This sits almost next door to Blog Mansions in Sussex and our neighbours are always popping round to borrow things, like crowbars, and stuff to put in a cake.  We like to point it out to tourists and tell them it’s Lewes’s Norman castle.

The tour was a sobering experience, whatever view one takes of forms of punishment and standards of treatment. We were shown the bomb disposal pit outside the front gate. This is where, on discovering a suspect package, you should run and get rid – a role, I understand, generally delegated to new recruits.

We toured the library – just like any other library, we were told. But presumably without the same imminent closure.

We were informed that a new inmate was permitted to wear his own gear until sentenced, and I suddenly remembered that, personally, I’d always favoured black trousers, a white shirt, black tie and epaulettes, and the word “warder” in large letters.

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Recently arrived prisoner in “civvy” gear…

They showed us where the hangings used to take place, both public and private, and we heard about some of the more noted “guests” – Reggie Kray, Eamon de Valera, Sion Jenkins — and Mick Jagger (just a one night gig, we understand, for “possession”.) Sadly there are no blue plaques on the cells of the famous, no Loyd Grossman asking “Who lives here?” as the cameras pan round, no prospect of newly convicted prisoners putting in a special request for a celebrity pad.

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Mick, probably not what you want to be wearing inside, even if it is your own kit…

But perhaps, amongst all the other discouragements to a continuing life of crime, the most chilling became apparent towards the end of our tour: no wi-fi but unending repeats of Eastenders.

 

And a thought this week for Terry Jones. Python, Ripping Yarns, Labyrinth. Actor, comedian, film and opera director, poet, writer. Historian – his “Barbarians” is an excellent read. Recipient this month of a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Welsh Baftas. And approachable. I contacted Terry two or three years ago, having attended the same Oxford college, asking if he would be kind enough to take a look at a light hearted book I’d written on the joys of living with a vet with a view to a few words of endorsement for the cover. Terry obliged swiftly and generously, for which I remain extremely grateful.

He is now apparently suffering from an illness which will progressively impede his ability to communicate. It’s desperately sad that he won’t be finding new ways to entertain and inform us, but that’s one hell of a portfolio, Terry. Very best wishes.

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Travel

Rubbish, Sobriety and Not-so-Crap-Towns

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Mrs. Blog is still suffering from existential post-Brexit shock.

Until June, bless her, she had steadfastly believed in the innate sanity of the world and its capacity to accommodate and eventually overcome its rotten parts. This despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary – the absence of wi-fi in our ancient Renault Clio, the existence of wasps and Margaret Thatcher.

But the Brexit vote has required an altogether mightier suspension of disbelief, and, as a sensitive soul, I can tell that it’s taken its toll of her. I decided last weekend to give her a break from her routine, get her out of the house — to raise the spell, as it were. I took her with me to the Lewes household waste site. She had been led to believe by Blogneighbour that, among society’s droppings, there were untold nuggets in the form of haute couture outfits, Ming vases and Chippendales (the furniture, I presume rather than the pectoral displays, but who knows?) just waiting to be discovered and snapped up for a trifle.

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As this was to be her first visit she rightly took her time choosing her outfit, asked what others might be wearing (no embarrassing clashes, thank you!), checked the local weather forecast, did whatever it is she does with her hair, asked my opinion on an appropriate amount of make-up, selected from a range of footwear, rechecked her hair, and popped a second pair of shoes and gloves in the car, just in case.

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Mrs. Blog gears up for her day out…

Bubbly with anticipation en route, I think it would be fair to say that Mrs. B went rather quiet on arrival. If surprised – perhaps disappointed even – she tried to conceal the fact, knowing as she does just what a high point this is in my social calendar.  But it was when she realised that I’d been lying to her about there being a teashop that she turned what I can only describe as “chilly” and declined to get out of the car. It would be best to draw a veil over the journey home.

They say that you should strive to introduce new things to your relationship, to show that you’re in tune with their feelings. But women, eh, what are they like? I’ll never understand ’em.

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Last year’s wedding anniversary treat

 

I’m also not certain that I fully understand the Olympics.

I can easily be raised to excitement when “our” boys and girls beat “their” drug-fuelled cheats and bring home the medals, and I was an enthusiastic snapper up of tickets for the London games, as well as the Commonwealths in both Manchester and Glasgow. And, while we’re on that, if Liverpool does bid for those, as has been rumoured, I’ll book in for the duration.

But I’m not sure that I get all that stuff with the flags and anthems, and, as this blog has indicated before, I fear that some of our national symbols have been co-opted by the darker side of the community – and you don’t get much darker than “Leave EU” and its attempts to claim credit for Team GB’s medallists. Exactly what kind of superiority are we asserting here?  Mrs. Blog says I over-think these things.

Once I’d got over the fact that Jason Kenny and Laura Trott had upstaged Mrs. B and me as “Golden Couple” (I’ve never taken Posh and Becks as serious rivals for our crown), I could marvel at the synchronised, free-style bear-wrestling with the best of them and relish the fact that our equestrian dressage team had once more defeated the very best that Madagascar and Tuvalu could throw at us.

The Games highlight for me? The table that came up on the screen listing all-time top Olympic gold medal winners:

Michael Phelps: 13

Leonidas of Rhodes: 12

Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, Paavo Nurmi and some Russian gymnast whom we won’t count for obvious reasons: 9

Leonidas the sprintmeister, as absolutely nobody called him, was unbeatable from 164 BC to 152 BC in the stadion, the diaulos and the hoplitodromos – the first of those in the nude (and no doubt while reciting a poem of his own creation and strumming on his lyre, which could have been dangerous), the last while wearing full armour for which I’m sure he would have had his own cult following. Try that, Usain, before claiming immortality!

Olympic runners depicted on an ancient Greek vase given as a prize in the Panathenaea, circa 525 BC. Original Publication : Picture Post - 5953 - Where the Olympic Games Started - pub. 1952 (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Presumably the marathon — you wouldn’t want to be caught short while running 26 miles…

So far as is known, Leonidas never uttered the words, when a microphone was pushed in front of him at the finishing line, “Clare, I just don’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I’m just so… I can’t believe it.” Admittedly, his achievements have to be considered against a backdrop of a ban on athletes from Sparta owing to a city-state sponsored retsina doping programme. That, and the fact that no other countries had yet been invented. It made playing the national anthem for the winners so much easier…

Mens Sana In Corpore Sano (Healthy Mind in an Healthy Body)

Excessive use of  anabolic steroids may have unexpected side effects…

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…especially in the equestrian events

 

Which takes me back to Goole.

I obviously can’t get enough of “England’s furthest inland port” (assuming you’ve not heard of London) and, having reached Goole at the end of stage 4 of my coast to coast walk, I was back there in mid-August to commence my penultimate, stage 5, to Hull.

I spent a highly rewarding afternoon at Goole’s Yorkshire Waterways Museum with the Director of the Sobriety Project, named after a canal boat (the project, not the Director, who was no doubt named after his parents.)

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Back in 1973 a local businessman bought and refurbished Sobriety, a “Humber Keel” built in 1910, in order to give young people a chance to learn life skills in an outdoor environment. By 1980 a charitable foundation had been established to carry on the work and more boats had been acquired. In 1990 the Waterways Museum where we met, within Goole’s docks, was built to provide a base and the project expanded, using its vessels, nature trail, community gardens, allotments and healthy eating café to provide opportunities for disadvantaged people in a deprived community – adults with learning difficulties, youngsters excluded from school, adults seeking new skills or deploying old ones while serving custodial sentences, and low income families.

Recent economic recession has hit the project hard, with user groups increasingly strapped for cash, but the staff and more than 100 volunteers (some of whom are former beneficiaries of the project) battle on. Not for the first time on this walk I find myself humbled by the commitment of individuals and organisations to mending the holes in the fabric of society.

http://www.sobrietyproject.org.uk/

 

Not having left myself sufficient time on this visit I arranged to meet up with the chair of the Goole Civic Society when I’m next in the area to continue the walk. Somehow it seems relatively straightforward to run a civic society if you live somewhere like York or Beverley, less so if your town carries less obvious kudos – I’m conscious that Hull, my next port of call, was voted number one in the 2003 compilation Crap Towns: the 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK.

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Me, I thoroughly enjoyed my few days in Hull (once I’d recovered from heatstroke brought on by a nine hour walk – and over 40,000 steps on my smart, new pedometer — on a hot day along a shade-free Humber estuary). The Luftwaffe did a huge amount of damage to the city and its rebuilding wasn’t an unmitigated success, but much of its lovely old town survives, and you can’t go far wrong when you have street names like Land of Green Ginger.

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The city is working hard at rebranding itself. Its magnificent “The Deep” super-aquarium, its novel swing bridge over the River Hull, the museum quarter and the William Wilberforce House are a must-see.

Having begun my coast to coast journey in Liverpool, former European Capital of Culture, I’ve been keen to see how Hull, UK City of Culture in 2017, is responding to the challenge and opportunity. As well as fixing to meet with the official organising team, I decided to try out the locals:

Me: So, is everybody in Hull looking forward to next year, with the City of Culture thing?

My taxi driver: No.

Me: I imagine there’s lots of publicity and planning going on?

Taxi driver: No idea.

Me: Well, I assume it’ll bring lots of visitors to the city, more custom for the taxis?

Taxi driver: Shouldn’t think so.

Me: Perhaps repeat visits even?

Taxi driver: Not once they’ve seen it.

Me: Ah, is that my hotel?

 

Anyway, I’ll be back in Goole and Hull later this month, raring to reach my finish line at Spurn Head, via Fort Paull and what I assume to be the nation’s only museum dedicated to the memory of Kay Kendall. Then all I have to do is write it up.

Please keep those generous sponsorship contributions coming in for the British Heart Foundation – you’ve passed £1,200!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

 

 

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Theatre, Travel

Small is Beautiful, but not Little England

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Drive down the M40 past Beaconsfield approaching the junction with the M25 (apologies already to my readers in Kazakhstan) and you will pass a brown and white tourist sign to a “Model Village”. Neither a collective of photographers’ muses nor the kind of settlement where residents are contracted to live to the highest standards, complete with neighbourhood watch, sugar borrowing and shared garden fence repairs, this sign points to Bekonscot.

Last seen – in my case – on children’s TV nearly 60 years ago, Bekonscot has a fair claim to being the original and still the best miniature village in the world. It’s probably also the biggest, but that just seems confusing.

I like to show Mrs. Blog a good time, provided it doesn’t cost much and she can save it out of the housekeeping. (It’s ok, she won’t see that bit.) The last time I saw Bekonscot it was in black and white and two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were enjoying a private viewing. Neither of those things applied when we went this week. I suppose, if that’s how QE2 has always seen the world – empty of other humans and made up of tiny, tiny houses – it must give her some strange perspectives on the issues facing her subjects.

Give or take one or two concessions to the changes taking place in Britain over the past decades in the form of a handful of non-white figures, Bekonscot is essentially England in the 1930s. Or UKIP land as it is sometimes known. Or, as I suppose we should now learn to say, Brexitland.  It’s certainly popular in the sense that attendances average around 600 a day through the year – or over 15 million since the village opened in 1929.

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Bekonscot is in fact in very good heart, which is where any similarity with Brexitland ends. Rather than trying to reflect the changing world, a decision was taken in 1992 to restore the village to the 1930s (feel free to add your own comment about the referendum). The airport (and what village in the 1930s didn’t possess its own airport?) has been reconstructed in art deco style and there is a zoo (precisely what village is this?) with a chimps’ tea party and exotic animals like lions kept in compounds which would be regarded nowadays as horribly small —  and not just because they’re in miniature. The travelling circus is heavily animal focused – how things have changed – with the “dancing elephants” a particular favourite, and not one acrobat supporting four others dangling from bolts through his tongue…

The village has proper shops bearing typical Anglo names like Chris P. Lettis, the greengrocer, and Ivan Acks, the timber merchant, and not a Lidl or Aldi in sight. The impressive model railway has trains every few minutes, stopping at even the smallest halts, with a refreshing absence of “wrong sort of leaves on the track” explanations through the P.A. system for interminable delays. If we can’t have our mainline railways renationalised, then at least the government could invite Bekonscot to submit a tender.

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The hundreds of little ones at Bekonscot were clearly enjoying the whole thing nearly as much as Mrs. Blog and me, and there is (just occasionally, though Mrs. B disagrees with me on this) something rather sweet about kids at this age before they switch to iPads, video games and rioting. But I do think there is something of a lost opportunity here, a chance to flag up some of the aspects of modern life which the wee ones will soon enough encounter. Things like a protest against a planning application for fracking below the village green, or a windfarm in the churchyard, or a parking offender being tasered.

It suddenly occurs to me just why Bekonscot looks familiar. When a would-be house builder submits a “visual impact assessment” to accompany a planning application for a new housing estate, this is how they manage to give the impression that their new development would be largely invisible from local vantage points and public footpaths – it’s Bekonscot that they photograph…

http://www.bekonscot.co.uk/

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Bekonscot was also handily located en route to our second destination of the day, a performance by Mikron Theatre Company at a marina and waterside café just south of Oxford.

Mikron have received deserved plaudits from this blog before. Based in the former Mechanics Institute in Marsden, West Yorkshire, where I was able to visit them on my coast to coast walk when I was more or less passing the door, they tour bright new plays every year, full of songs, humour and slightly (?) lefty sentiments, round the waterways of England with a gorgeous 80 year old narrow boat. My first experience of Mikron dates back to the 1970s when I hugely enjoyed a performance in a pub beer garden (what other sort of beer garden is there?) and it’s brilliant that they’re still prospering and bringing their own particular flavour to the English summer.

I suppose, over the intervening four decades, they may be running low on canal based themes but newly penned plays are commissioned each year. To give a flavour, we saw “Pure”, all about chocolate and, you know, how its story of course encapsulates love, death (or pretend death), a melodeon, alcoholism and the evils as well as opportunities of capitalism. I complained in my last blog post about a musical I had just seen on my trek where the mini-orchestra played so loudly that the singers had to shout throughout and you still couldn’t hear the words. Well, Mikron’s four excellent young performers are presumably conditioned to compete with the background hubbub of food and drink orders being placed and consumed, and every single word, spoken or sung, was clear as a bell. Now, call me old-fashioned but I do like to hear what’s going on, and losing those great lyrics would have been a crime. Authenticity, or mumbling as I prefer to think of it, may have its place but that place is preferably somewhere that I’m not.

Catch Mikron when you can – one of the true joys of summer.

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http://www.mikron.org.uk/

 

Entertainment of a different kind two days later in the form of Lewes’s “Proms in the Paddock”, our annual mini-Glastonbury. Only without the mud, wellies, disposable tents and Kate Moss, and we finish at ten o’clock so as not to disturb the neighbours and so we can all be home and in bed with our cocoa at a reasonable hour. Held each year by Commercial Square Bonfire Society, to which Mrs. Blog, Blogdaughter and I all belong, this year’s event, blessed with glorious sunshine, featured the Evacuettes (“a 1940s close harmony trio”), the Lewes, Glynde and Beddingham Band, and Die Dorf Fest Kapelle Oompah Band who did what it says on the tin. The fact that the Evacuettes and a German band can perform together shows we’ve come a long way…

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Not Mrs. Blog’s cup of tea

 

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Festival, Sussex style. Rio, eat your heart out…

I love the occasion, the music, the fireworks, the craic, but I worry nowadays about the flagwaving while we’re singing about our spears, chariots and setting our bounds wider. In recent years it seems to me that the Union Jack, and particularly the St George’s one, have been largely taken over by people and organisations that I suspect I wouldn’t like very much. Seeing them draped out of car windows during the run-up to the EU referendum certainly didn’t fill me with pride. I suspect there may have been fewer flags than usual being waved at our Proms in the Paddock this year, a fair number of which were upside down. With the town of Lewes producing one of the larger Remain votes in the country you could probably have sold plenty of EU flags on the way into the Paddock to be waved — perhaps with a Union Jack in the other hand. When did life get so complicated?

Mrs. Blog has never been a member of the W.I. and doesn’t know the words to Jerusalem. Being unwaveringly Scottish she’s never been enthusiastic about the verse in God Save the Queen about rebellious Scots being crushed and their sedition hushed. In fact, Mrs. B is not above a spot of sedition herself when circumstances are propitious. But, if there’s one anthem she’s happy to give voice to (I hesitate to use the term “sing”) it would be Sussex by the Sea. Her opportunities during the year to give forth are limited by noise abatement legislation and good taste. (She found the recent film about Florence Foster Jenkins truly inspirational,) She had set her heart on giving it a bash during the closing stages of Proms in the Paddock, the words were set down in fuzzy black and white in the programme — and the band didn’t play it.

Perhaps the programme was overrunning. Perhaps the band got wind of the fact that Mrs. B was present and decided not to risk it. Whatever, she was a broken woman. Words were said. Worryingly she is now practising hard for when it comes up on bonfire night.

Here, for Mrs. B to practise, and so that those far away will learn a little about what Sussex folk are made of, are the words. I just hope there isn’t a flag to go with them.

 

 Now is the time for marching,
        Now let your hearts be gay,
    Hark to the merry bugles
        Sounding along our way.
    So let your voices ring, my boys,
        And take the time from me,
    And I’ll sing you a song as we march along,
        Of Sussex by the Sea!

Chorus
            For we’re the men from Sussex, Sussex by the Sea.
            We plough and sow and reap and mow,
            And useful men are we;
            And when you go to Sussex, whoever you may be,
            You may tell them all that we stand or fall
            For Sussex by the Sea!

Refrain
    Oh Sussex, Sussex by the Sea!
    Good old Sussex by the Sea!
    You may tell them all we stand or fall,
    For Sussex by the Sea.

 

 

I’m heading back to Goole later this week to start the next stage of my coast to coast journey.

And, in case you’ve not spotted it before, here’s a link to my sponsorship site on behalf of British Heart Foundation. We’ve reached nearly £1200!

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

 

 

 

 

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Travel

Cats, bats, liquorice and early baths

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Back to Dewsbury for the next stage of my coast to coast walk and straight to the finest accommodation I have ever visited in Britain or elsewhere.

What a shame it’s for cats only. The Ings Luxury Cat Hotel is simply a knockout. Set up, owned and managed by a lovely Yorkshire couple who were reluctant to leave their own pets in catteries or kennels when they went on holiday, the Ings now provides 5 star (10 star if they go up that far) luxury. With 12 suites (yes, suites) in the spa building and 6 more in the lodge (for “activity holidays”) and 100% occupancy throughout the year, Jo and Phil have developed a very distinctive model which the Ritz can only dream about.

A welcome tray, with Pussy’s own name on it, bearing shrimp delights and other tasty nibbles – tick.

Large flat screen TVs showing alluring visions of denizens of the deep – tick.

Afternoon tea served in the comfort of your own suite – tick.

Bedtime stories and birthday celebrations – tick.

Weekly disco with disco lights and prizes – tick.

Personalised (felicised?) party bag on departure – tick.

Check out the website!  I promise it’s all true.

http://www.theingsluxurycathotel.co.uk/

 

for the ultimate felinennWESTLODGE BOARDING CATTERYnnluxury cat boarding cattery in cambridgeshirennWestlodge is a very special cattery with a relaxed, friendly and informal atmosphere where the care and welfare of our cat guests is of prime importance.nnWe are very proud to announce the opening of a brand new luxury cattery, consisting of 13 exclusive cat suites, includingnn3 exclusive luxury V.I.C Suites (Very Important Cat!)n3 exclusive Ocean Suitesn7 luxury Themed Suites including a large family suitenand Traditional pensnNot only are our cat suites filled with daylight, beautiful views and the most comfortable, luxury cat beds, they are naturally built with the highest welfare, hygiene and construction standards.nnAs you would expect, every cat is brushed and cared for individually throughout the day by a dedicated member of staff who, we promise, will cater to your cat's every whim.nnWe believe that all cats are truly amazing creatures, with personalities and characteristics as individual as distinctive as their beautiful coats.

 

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Did I mention, Phil is also a former winner of the World Coal Carrying Championships, held just along the road in Gawthorpe? It’s reassuring to know that the closure of the actual coalmines hasn’t prevented the Brits remaining competitive – I didn’t like to ask but I hope the coal hasn’t been imported…

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From Dewsbury the next day to Wakefield via field footpaths, disused railway lines and river bank. In a sidings I walked past by far the longest train I have ever seen (other than some Mauretanian iron ore train, I think it was, on a Michael Palin travel programme which was, I recall, visible from outer space, or from the Great Wall of China, or somewhere. That is, the iron ore train was visible….rather than the Michael Palin programme, for which you probably needed a dish.)  But I digress. “My” train was attractively liveried in blue and bearing the label “Drax: Powering Tomorrow: Carrying Sustainable Biomass for Cost Effective Renewable Power”. So that’s all good then.

As Wakefield town centre appears to have leaked away into a number of “retail parks” on the edge of town, I wandered off in search of fast “food” in lieu of an evening meal, then spent the evening at the Theatre Royal enjoying “Bat Boy the Musical” from a privileged position in my own box. All great fun. A musical about inter species intimate “relationships”, uxoricide, filicide, a lynch mob triggered by a Christian revivalist meeting – what’s not to enjoy? Certainly, all the children in the audience seemed to be having a good time. But the loudness of much of the music meant that singers were obliged to shout their words throughout the songs, with a variety of dubious American accents, so some of the subtlety may have passed me by.

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From Wakefield to the National Trust’s fine property at Nostell Priory and a tour of the house led by devoted Trust volunteers (I am one myself, though happily not in a way that might lead to serious damage either to me or the property). Having gazed at a score of family portraits in the house, I asked why people in general, and children in particular, seem to have been so strangely unattractive back in the day. Our guide offered the suggestion that poor lighting and the lack of a local branch of Specsavers may have led to more breeding than was strictly wise, but it was just a thought.

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From Wakefield to Castleford and a Sunday morning contentedly spent at the annual Pontefract liquorice festival, taking in a talk from a retired liquorice maker (yes, I did) and sampling the “Big L” (as nobody calls it) in ice cream, beer, cakes, jams and – my own favourite – pork pies (I ate three). If you have never danced in the street with a lady dressed as one of those round blue jobs from Bassetts with little bits of something on the outside, well then, you haven’t.

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But all good things must come to an end and I made my apologies and set off for the Super League (13 a side rugby league) fixture at Castleford to watch the Tigers playing at home to the Catalan Dragons from Perpignan – which wouldn’t have happened in Eddie Waring’s day. As my room at the very welcoming Wheldale Hotel faced the Tigers’ stadium across the road, it was hard to miss – and at £14 with my bus pass, excellent value. Unlike football, scoring points is a regular occurrence in rugby league but you do miss the theatrical diving and rolling that plays such a key part of the former. If he were on the receiving end of a tackle from a rugby league forward, Ronaldo wouldn’t stop crying for a week.

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The Wheldale Hotel, Castleford — ideally placed for the rugby league ground

Sadly, a good number of Castleford’s pubs are now closed and boarded up, including one just down the road from the Wheldale. Named the Early Bath, as in “you’re red carded, take an early bath”, it was until recently the home of one of the local amateur rugby league clubs.

The Tigers’ stadium currently goes by the name of the Mend a Hose Jungle (the Jungle being the home of tigers, of course, while Mend a Hose, in the words of its website:

“…services, stocks and markets the widest range of fluid connector products available such as pneumatic and hydraulic fittings, quick couplings, rubber and thermoplastic hoses, and all associated requirements”

… which, sadly, can’t quite be accommodated on the rugby shirt.

Local rivals Wakefield (now, I believe, thankfully restored to “the Trinity” rather than the Trinity Wildcats) play at Rapid Solicitors Stadium, Featherstone Rovers are based at Bigfellas Stadium (the eponymous pizza firm also having naming rights to “Pontefract’s Leading Nightclub” so they’ve got the social life of this part of West Yorkshire pretty well sorted) and Batley play hosts at Fox’s Biscuits Stadium. But, in sponsorship terms, this season’s big news has been the arrival on the rugby league scene of food giant Batchelors Peas. To quote the press launch:

Star players from each team went head-to-head at the Super League launch earlier this week in the ‘Leaning Tower of Peas-a’ challenge… As well as building towers of cans, the players enjoyed a portion of fish, chips and mushy peas, and took a trip down memory lane to relive their childhood experiences of eating one of the country’s best loved meals. The great and good of the sport will be working with Batchelors Peas on a host of exciting activities over the course of the season.  

We’ve started as we mean to go on! The season launch was a huge success and it was great to see the players getting involved and sampling Batchelors peas – the perfect matchday must-have to accompany fish and chips. We’re looking forward to involving players and fans in more mushy pea fun as the season progresses.” 

 

From Castleford along the Aire and Calder Navigation and the River Aire to Snaith and thence to Goole, and the end of stage four of my walk. I plan to be back in Goole in August for stage five.

 

Many thanks again for your sponsorship in aid of the British Heart Foundation, now approaching £1200. Here’s the link:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

 

Just in case you thought I was going soft this week on those who voted “Leave” in the EU referendum – what with them already coping with the awful realisation that everything that the Remain camp said turned out to be true (and then some), while leaders of the Leave faction queued up to claim that they hadn’t intended to give the impression that immigration was actually likely to reduce…   If we’re all going to have to live in our freshly created, homemade economic, social and environmental mess, you’re not going to get off that lightly.

How about this for the fourteen most chilling words in the English language spoken since the referendum, from Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and paid climate change denier:

Leaving the EU is an ‘historic opportunity’ to finish the job Margaret Thatcher started”

Now, if we’d only known that the day before the vote…

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Travel

Earning one’s corns and appreciating the shoddy

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The good news in May was that the local paper here in Sussex ran a nearly full page piece about my coast to coast walk and included a link to my BHF sponsorship site as well as a rather fine photo of my rugged Bear Grylls like visage. The slightly less heartwarming news was that the article opened with the words, “66 year old chiropodist patient Steve ….”

Now, how would you normally describe yourself to a stranger or in a lonely hearts advert? “First and foremost I have always seen myself as a motorist”, or “an out of work poet…” “Moderate drinker and mild dandruff sufferer Mr. Blog said today…”  “Madman Boris Johnson opened the debate…”   Sets the tone doesn’t it?

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“90 year old hat wearer faces difficult choice”

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“52 year old urinary tract infection patient Nigel ponders next racial slur”

My mood wasn’t helped by my heroic journey – from the Mersey to the Humber, remember – being headlined “East to west trek”.  (This may not mean much to a Satnav generation but it didn’t go down well here in Blog Towers.)

So, stage 3 of the trek began in Saddleworth on Whit Friday for the annual gathering of brass bands – nearly a hundred of them. Sometimes I think I’m turning into my father, who truly loved band music. Indeed, while some people’s dads whistled, mine used to wander round the house and garden making a kind of cornet sound which involved puffing out his cheeks. Like bagpipe music it may be better heard outdoors. The loss of old bandstands in the local park is to be regretted – I’m surprised that Brexit has not yet, as far as I’m aware, laid this decline at the door of the EU, along with the demise of the groat and the Jubbly and the spread of “simulation” (diving) in football.

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Two more British icons that Brexit says we could preserve by leaving the EU

Those who have seen the film Brassed Off starring Tara Fitzgerald, and probably featuring some other people – but mainly, as far as I’m concerned, Tara Fitzgerald – may recall a scene where Grimley Colliery Band, with the eponymous (that’s a word I’ve always fancied using so I hope it’s the right one) colliery about to be closed and its members put out of work, drink more than is strictly appropriate for an outfit competing at Saddleworth. SPOILER ALERT: the band recovers from this low point to achieve national fame at the Albert Hall, where band conductor Pete Postlethwaite gets to utter the immortal line, “I used to think that music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter”. (A line borrowed, as fans of Chumbawamba will recognise, for the intro to their hit Tubthumping – “I get knocked down, But I get up again, You’re never gonna keep me down” — which you may wish to note down for quiz purposes.)  And, did I mention, Tara Fitzgerald is really good in the film…

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What a player…

With the sound of brass in my ears, and with a visit to the National Coalmining Museum near Huddersfield due a few days later, my research threw up a stage version of said Brassed Off which seemed to chime with the Zeitgeist (another word on the Brexit “to be abolished” list) of my trip. Unfortunately the timings of various performances of the play around the coalfields of the north didn’t fit well with my itinerary. However I was delighted to discover that the hotbed of industrial strife, social unrest and anti-Thatcherism that is East Grinstead in West Sussex was due to host a performance by local strolling players effecting indeterminate provincial accents on a day when this Blog was but a short clog’s stride away – and I wasn’t about to pass up on that. The evening proved highly enjoyable, especially when cast members passed among the arriving patrons in the bar before the performance and invited us to join in with the placard waving and slogan shouting – I think it fair to point out that this Blog made a better fist of that than most.

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End of the working day, East Grinstead High Street

Other highlights of this stage of the walk included a two hour trip along the Huddersfield Canal through the Standedge tunnel beneath the Pennines (the only bit of the entire coast to coast journey which won’t be undertaken on foot, though I did keep walking up and down the narrow boat for the sake of appearances); Huddersfield’s wonderful railway station; and the outside (sadly, it’s currently boarded up) of the Grade 2 listed George Hotel in Huddersfield where the sport of rugby league was invented – specifically, where 20 northern rugby clubs decided one day in 1895 to break from the posh southern clubs over the issue of professionalism, which in those days wasn’t necessarily viewed as a positive concept.

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“HP sauce fan and Gannex wearing former prime minister outside Huddersfield station”

Stage 3 of the walk ended in Dewsbury, famed, as per my school geography text book, for its manufacture of shoddy and mungo, comprising the recycling of woollen waste. Inferior to the original wool, it isn’t difficult to see how the word shoddy has come over the years to take on a wider meaning. And Dewsbury turned out to be yet one more northern industrial city whose surviving architecture so clearly reflects the civic pride that the Victorians felt and which is so rarely seen today when “keeping the rates down” appears to be almost the sole requirement of a local authority.

Only a few short days passed before I took Mrs. Blog for her summer holiday, in Liverpool. (She’s not always so easily palmed off but she does have Barbados to follow soon after.) It seemed only right to share with the head of the household some of the highlights of my coast to coast journey – and clearly, walking wasn’t going to be one of them.

There does seem to be a definite buzz about Liverpool these days and, with five days of continuous warm sunshine, the city was looking its best. We took the ferry journey across the Mersey and were not altogether surprised to be accompanied on our journey by the strains of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ second most famous hit. We met up with an old university chum of mine who, having worked for several years in a corner office of the Royal Liver Building overlooking the river, queried the delight of hearing on the hour, every hour, the immortal lyrics:

 

So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
’cause this land’s the place I love
and here I’ll stay
and here I’ll stay
Here I’ll stay

 

We visited both cathedrals – to be balanced, you understand. Here’s some more geographically informative lyrics for you to chew on:

 

In my Liverpool Home, In my Liverpool Home 
We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare[1],
And if you want a Cathedral, we’ve got one to spare[2]
In my Liverpool Home

 

Now I don’t claim much knowledge of cathedral architecture, and I have had no religious belief since my fervent prayers relating to Elizabeth Shufflebotham and being picked to play for Liverpool FC went sadly unanswered, but I would say this – and Mrs. Blog is in agreement: Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral is awesomely huge; the interior of its RC cathedral is simply awesome.  If I had any plans to acquire a faith, which I don’t, I’d be more likely to see the light in, well, a light, airy, colourful modern building than a dark, austere one seemingly devised to intimidate. But that’s just me.

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The Anglican cathedral is really really big…

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                                                                                                                           Awesome interior

We also took in the magnificent, renovated Albert Dock complex, its Slavery exhibition and Beatles Story; the Titanic hotel in another vast converted rum warehouse (why is everything so big in this blog); Anthony Gormley’s hundred mega (there you go again) reproductions of the male form on Crosby beach; the gorgeous Philharmonic pub and to my embarrassment, as a pseudo native, an open top bus tour.  (Mrs. B felt she’d undertaken the latter under false pretenses once she discovered it had no free wi-fi.)

We also took the opportunity to return to the Florrie (Florence Institute) in Toxteth, one of the undoubted treasures of my journey so far and the birthplace inter alia of the musical career of the aforementioned Gerry (of “and the P” fame), without whom who knows what we would have been singing at Anfield for the past five decades – your suggestions are welcome. A great building (and yes, a huge one), a history of great philanthropy, committed and lovely people restoring it to life and making it work again today for the local community. Here’s their website:

http://www.theflorrie.org/

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No Florrie, no Gerry Marsden — Anfield’s Kop Choir tackle a Handel oratorio

Mrs. B, who has previously restricted her appearances in the city to the occasional football match, says she now “gets Liverpool”. And that’s fine by me. Wonderful what five days of sun can do….

While in the north west we also popped across to the Manchester area for repeat visits to the Lowry arts centre at the Salford Quays (another highly successful waterside regeneration project) and the Imperial War Museum North which faces the Lowry and the BBC studios across the Ship Canal. The latter is currently running an exhibition and programme of events called Fashion on the Ration which features inventive make-do-and mend from the 1940s, like how to make a nice jumper out of dried egg and old bits of shrapnel. I particularly enjoyed the matching bra and pants made from maps of Occupied Europe printed on parachute silk.

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Just a week earlier these outfits formed the gun turret of a Sherman tank

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The Lowry

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Imperial War Museum North

 

Next stage on the coast to coast walk will be back in Yorkshire, from Dewsbury to Goole. Can’t wait.

Thanks to people like you my sponsorship fund for the British Heart Foundation has reached £800!  Please help to keep it growing:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lewis’s department store (not to be confused with the posher John Lewis chain) is adorned with a very well-endowed nude male sculpture on its main street frontage. So well-endowed that “under the man at Lewis’s” has long been a traditional meeting place even on rainy days.

[2] Agnostic or atheist singers may prefer the use of “two to spare” at this point.

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