Tuesday, 15 April 2008


I know what you're thinking. Bournemouth isn't traveling. Heading off up the Zambezi is traveling. Tracing the source of the Nile is traveling. Trekking to Goa and getting stoned on a beach while being sold "authentic" trinkets by the locals is traveling. Bournemouth is where old people go to die.

To be fair a trip to the south coast is hardly in the same league as the expeditions by Victorian explorers across deepest, darkest Africa. My excuse is that they had impressive mutton chop facial hair to protect themselves and the best I could manage would be a pathetic goatie. Anyway I had a reason for wanting to take this trip. Every time I go to the station a train comes through heading for Bournemouth. Every single time. Since I'd never been there this seemed to be a sign that I should one day get on one of these trains and see if there was a wall of dead geriatrics along the edge of the English channel. Maybe the famous quote, "close up the walls with our English dead" had been taken a bit too literally ?

Whatever, there must be something good at the end of the line or why all the trains ?

With time to spare this seemed like a good starter travel. I booked some tickets (plural, it's cheaper to book two singles than a return – and when they turn up you get no less than 6 bits of card which makes for some shuffling at ticket check time) a couple of weeks in advance and on the day loaded up my rucksack with a big camera, little camera and Eee PC. Basically the same kit I plan to drag around with me later in the year on longer journeys.

The train was slightly late but otherwise an excellent journey. My reserved seat was already occupied and being properly British I didn't want to complain. That and it was window seat and I prefer an aisle. The carriage was pretty full but there were seats. In fact there were seats for all who wanted them but plenty still chose to stand and moan about the crowded conditions rather than sit next to another person.

Stars of this journey were a couple of girls who I reckon were about 15 and going on holiday somewhere. One had a rucksack the same size as herself and looked like she planned to wear it while standing despite it blocking the aisle. That lasted about 5 minutes and then she realised it was heavy. The other, dressed in shocking pink, had a large soft bag. I think I could have climbed inside it such was the size. This wasn't going anywhere as the racks were full so she tried putting it in seats, and then the owners of the seat would turn up and ask for it to be removed, or in the vestibule where it couldn't be watched so that didn't work either. I only hope they were off for a fortnight 'cos if that's a weekend then one day they will need a separate carriage for the wardrobe.

The great pleasure train travel affords is the chance to look out of the window between attempts at the crossword or pages in whatever book you are reading. You glimpse things you'd never see from a car, at least without swerving into oncoming traffic. Sometimes you wonder if you really saw something though. Is there really a giant mud hut somewhere in the back garden of a farm in the south of England ? I think I saw it but not clearly. It was certainly round with a pointed straw roof – like a recreation of an iron age dwelling perhaps as it looked pretty large.

Passing Southampton was more fun. The guard announced that if we looked out of the left hand window we'd see the largest cruise liner currently afloat. We looked and there it was – a tower block with a hull. Not pretty in anyway to my eye but if you are an octogenarian American then I suppose you have different standards.

Finally you get to marvel at station names. Who thought Pokesdown was a good idea ?

Bournemouth station is a fine piece of architecture with a loft roof albeit flat rather than a grand arch. Outside is an appealing design in brick too which looked lovely in the mid day sunlight. The town planners had done their job well too as directly beside the exit is a bus station and taxi rank. Sadly these are dominated by one of the ugliest Asda stores I've seen (I may be wrong – I've not made a study you understand) from the "Put together by the work experience lad while the proper architects went to the pub" school I think. The taxis and buses are a sunny yellow which helps a bit but sometimes you want the council to drag the architects in and point at the edifice shouting, "This is what greats the visitors to our town !".

My first stop was to be Westbourne Models (model shops figure large in my choice of destination, as do indoor markets so get used to it) which Google told me was a couple of miles away. I looked at the buses and headed to the information office to discover that I could stroll for half an hour or I pay £1.50 and see the sights from the top of a double decker. 10 minutes later I was fighting the ticket machine on board as the tear off mechanism didn't work properly. Still if it's good enough for the Andrex puppy...

No matter how often you see it, your first glimpse of the see on holiday is always special. Mine came through a bus window as we crested a hill and was worth the price of the ticket on it's own. Walking down the same road the view would have crept up on me – on the bus, wham, it was there. And being higher up it was earlier than it might otherwise have been.

Westbourne is nice. It's not rally on the edge of Bournemouth, more on the edge of the main shopping area. I'll leave the description of the shop to another blog but the other shops and even little arcade were charming. A bit run down but certainly unusual. Who needs a Flying V ukulele ? If you know then get them to Westbourne where the guitar shop has several. I wonder how they survive though. The gallery I looked in had some nice pictures but I can't see they were going to get much passing trade picking up A4 sized paintings at just under a grand. Most of the others seemed untroubled by customers yet appeared to be prospering. I guess the rents are cheap. I felt sorry for the Grand Cinema which had obviously been very grand in it's day and was now a bingo hall.

The stroll back into town was shorter and more interesting than it looked on the Google map, no mention of the Bournemouth Eye – a giant tethered balloon offering 15 minutes of panoramic views for a tenner – for example, or the lovely gardens. I navigated to the beach by deducing that the water would probably be at the bottom of the hill. It was and so was the pier.

Piers are and even greater draw to me than indoor markets and I can't pass one by. Both belong to a gentler time when we hadn't learned to fly abroad for holiday or drive to an out of town megastore. This particular pier isn't especially exciting. As the law (The Piers and content act 1806) there is an amusement arcade and a theater. You won't have heard of many of the acts at this time of year but they are familiar to the managers of provincial theaters around the country as there is a special circuit unknown to most us us where random groups sing wartime songs or hits from the musicals. I suspect in "The Home of the Geriatric (TM)" they might do some very respectable business with a crowd who respects a professional show that doesn't revolve around being on the telly. Certainly it's enough to keep the house open.

The arcade is small but it has penny falls machines which are the only ones I know how to operate. These took 2p pieces which is even better news as I'm the worlds least lucky gambler and so if I'm to lose money I want to do it slowly. For the sake of the experience I did try a pricier one arm bandit but lost interest after 20p. You put your money in the slot and press a button. Some wheels whirl and stop – that's it. I know I'm not going to win so this seems pointless. I like the lights and noises but is there more to it than that ?

The theater was shut and the wildcard restaurant at the end overlooking the kiddies

funfair was too pretentious for its location so I headed toward the only obvious source of the seaside staple – fish'n'chips . Much play has been made of the Harry Ramsdens restaurant on the front. Quite why a chain chippy is better than a proper one beats me but it was the only place (pun intended) available. To be fair the portion was OK and McDonalds style cardboard tray was probably easier to eat out of than the traditional paper when balance on the knee. I of course eshewed the greasy spoon style tables inside prefering to sit on the beach fending off seagulls. It's a very British thing to go somewhere nice and then sit in the car or at a tacky plastic table rather than on a bench outdoors. We can't bear to leave our comfort zone even when we make an effort to get to the edge of it. Of course I wouldn't have been so daring if the weather hadn't been nice !

Actually I spent quite a lot of time on the front simply staring out to sea and listening to the waves lapping on the shore. It's a lovely sound. Mind you, a decent gale would have seen me back in the town double-quick.

Anyway further along the prom there was the final magic seaside ingredient – a cliff railway. Now this is a technology ahead of its time. How did the Victorians know we'd all become too fat an lazy to climb the stairs or hill back into town ? This one even had clever differential pricing. 80p gets you a ticket down to the shore but it costs £1.10 to go back up. What you go up to is debatable, a couple of hotels basically and a sloped road that takes you back to the pier and then into town. I wasn't missing out on this ride though even if I did have the car to myself.

Back in town Bournemouth is very like every other mid sized town in the country. You see the same shops in different orders. There are a greater number of small local establishments, presumably the population is a bit more affluent and likes variety. They also like churches of all denominations. Every street had at least one and often more than one. Obviously there were C of E and Catholic establishments but also spiritualist and off shoots of the main Christian religions. With church going in decline I wonder how they all survive. None looked particularly neglected from the outside. The design of a few said late 60's/early 70's but even these survived much better than contemporary buildings, quite an achievement on the coast where storms and salty air conspire against them.

Red telephone boxes (K6 model for anoraks) also proliferated. I think i saw only a couple of the 80s BT silver versions. The shear number was impressive as the public callbox is all but extinct elsewhere thanks to the rise of the mobile.

If you feel the need to travel out of Bournemouth on the train, I can recommend the 7:45 as it was nearly empty out of the station. My booked seat was an aisle but I grabbed a table for easier typing. I shared with an arts student who was unimpressed with the lack of interweb and then proceeded to struggle with a book on Bahaus – heavy going for anyone at that time I would think. Flicking though the 50 Greatest Designs of all time (says who ?) indicated that her mind wasn't really on the studying. But then working on the train isn't always all it's cracked up to be.

So, Bournemouth is nice. I'd certainly go again but only if the weather is good. I suspect it's pretty wretched when the rain and wind are doing their worst. There are no obvious piles of aged dead, in fact I would have said the demographic of the local population isn't any different to other towns. The local university probably helps with this but even so, that reputation isn't really deserved.

More pictures on Flickr

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My mate has a flying v ukelele