Saturday 28 June 2008

Cartoon Museum

Cartoon MuseumLondon is full of odd-ball attractions. If you fancy museums of fans, tea or spectacles you're in luck. While I love a good cuppa and have worn glasses for years, I tried the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street instead. It's just around the corner from the slightly better know British Museum but as I'm not as big a fan of stolen marble as I am of speech bubbles, cartoons it was.

The building is unprepossessing tucked in amongst the special London mix of posh eateries and tacky gift shops. A street sign outside announces its presence and to be honest I stumbled it this by accident. Entry is a reasonable £4 which gives you access to whatever is on as the special exhibition plus the usual fare covering the history of cartoons and many original copies of classic British strips.

The special was an exhibition of the cartoonist Pont. No, I'd never heard of him either but that's not always a bad thing. Pont (real name, Graham Laidler) wryly observed the British character and committed these to paper. Mainly published in Punch before, and just into WW2 his drawings are still amusing today. Well they made me laugh anyway. It's difficult to describe the cartoons but one that sticks in my mind is titled the – The British, Like to fit in when traveling abroad – with a picture of a couple of tents in a jungle and the intrepid explorers sitting around the table in full evening dress.

Not having heard of Pont before I wasa tad worried how heavy this would be. This history section of the main gallery covers people like Hogarth who may have been devastating in their day, now mean nothing to anyone other than cartoon officiaonardos. One snippet I picked up from this part of the display that appealed was that in the early days of print, books were so expensive that publishers would hire out a folio for “an evenings entertainment”. I can imagine the volume being brought home with the same sort of excitement a new DVD is now, The whole family would settle down for a good read and laugh about the failings of the great and good.

Upstairs the visitor is treated to a display of original cartoons from many famous cartoonists and comics. These tend to date from pre-computer days and I was fascinated to see how many parts of the page are stuck in place using copied parts. I suppose it makes sense that the artist doing the cover of 2000AD doesn't have to draw the title every time. Quite a lot of Tippex and general tidying up showed too. I suppose this all disappeared at the printers and it's interesting to see. I'll be honest – seeing the words “digital print” against a item made me think they'd simply photocopied a page. I want ink and paper and watercolour paint not inkjet printers !

My visit lasted a couple of hours at most and much of this time was spent chortling and enjoying the subject matter. If I have a complaint it would be the souvenir shop. I wanted copies of some of the Pont cartoons, ideally as postcards. Sadly all that was available were prints at £28 a throw or the £11 programme. The later was good value being a fat volume with life history and lots of illustration but you can't really post bits to people who would appreciate them.

Visit the Cartoon Museum Website

Thursday 26 June 2008

Laxey Mines

Preparing AntLaxey isn't home to just one giant waterwheel, it actually has two. In the gardens at the centre of the town a smaller wheel has been erected. Smaller is a relative term as it's still around 30 feet in the diameter so pretty impressive. When I first saw this under construction a couple of years ago I thought it was an odd move - surely they didn't need this miniature impostor when the real thing was a few minutes walk away ?

As it turns out the "small" wheel has history. It started life at the top of the valley powering stone crushing equipment. When this was no longer required the wheel moved around, ending up in a museum in Wales where it was discovered half-buried and repatriated. Now restored it forms the centrepiece of the gardens that great visitors to Laxey.

Of course one new attraction is fine, but two is better. Joining the two wheels is the Laxey Mines Railway. This is a completely new line built over the last 5 years. Two identical locomotives run it with a couple of coaches and demonstration train of iron tub wagons. The locos are replicas of Lewin built, Ant and Bee, which used to pull the ore trains into the mine workings. Nowadays they provide a fun ride a quarter of a mile up the valley to the main wheel.

When I arrived it was raining yet the volunteers running the line were cheery and friendly. Considering the weather forecast for the rest of the day this was good going and probably the sort of thing you can only sustain while wearing a bright orange pair of overalls. New for this year is a station around a sharp curve from the tunnel entrance but in the rain trains were leaving from outside the engine shed so the passengers could shelter.

The ride takes a few minutes and thanks to the rain, not many got off to continue on foot to Lady Isabella. There was a slight delay on the return as the driver had to remove his waterproof overtrousers - they might keep the weather off but at the price of roasting his legs in the tunnel !

Back at the start I managed to get a quick guided tour of Bee which was in bits for boiler testing. Apparently even though the locomotives are new, the construction wasn't of the highest quality. Ant has already been rebuilt and Bee is due for the same expensive treatment soon. We chatted technical for a while and I now know far more about these odd little engines, and have some unusual photos as a result.

This isn't a serious ride but what makes it is the sense of fun you get from the people running things - they really care about their little line. It's not just a railway enthusiast thing either. They care about entertaining the punters. On fathers day, Dads and Grandads get a free ride. Halloween sees the tunnel turned into a ghost train. Yes it's a railway which represents some important history in the Laxey valley but it's far more fun than that.

Loom weaving Manx tartanIf you don't fancy steam heritage then a five minute walk away there is a the Laxey Woolen Mill. There real Manx wool products are made in a semi-traditional way. To me a jumper is a jumper but the loom was something else. It was set up to weave a traditional Manx tartan and uses a Jacquard style paper tape to set the threads for each pass of the shuttle. Power comes from a set of bicycle pedals so it's very "green" !

See a video of the loom here.

More photos on Flickr

Laxey Mines Railway website

Wednesday 25 June 2008


Peel high street.Quote from the Ward Lock Red Guide - Isle of Man - 1970(ish)

Peel, the "Sunset City" as it is sometimes called by its admirers, has managed to combine many of the attractions of a modern holiday resort - good bathing, boating, golf and fishing etc. - with the romantic ruins of an ancient castle and cathedral, and to add to them the sights and sounds of a fishing port - always of interest to people unaccustomed to such a mode of life as that led by the fisherman.

Sunset city is a pretty good description of Peel. It's a town that makes me sad.

Of all the places on the Isle of Man, Peel is the one I have visited most often. Some days I used to go several times. Not in person but virtually through the medium of it's excellent webcam ( which shows the harbour with the aforementioned fishing boats. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes the rain comes down but from the perspective of my desk it was always a view I wanted to be part of.

The fishing boats, castle and cathedral have all survived from that 1970s guide as have the bathing, boating and golf. For the sun worshipers the beach is excellent and sheltered. It's not Costa-del-Peel hot but in the good weather you'll be happy on it's sands. There is excellent ice cream for sale a few feet away too, watch the gulls though as they begrudge you every bite ! If sand isn't your thing, a quick walk around the harbour will bring you to a beach made up entirely of broken shells. Pretty as long as you have something on your feet.

The harbour itself is reasonably busy. I suspect the number of working trawlers has dropped slightly but other boats have taken their place. If you fancy going to see basking sharks, several boats can oblige. Likewise the aspiring sea fisherman can find something small and plastic to sit on while dangling his rod. Yachts take shelter in the inner harbour and if your visit is timed well there is a traditional boat festival for the lover of all things wooden and floaty. At the time I was there a couple of RNLI tractordredgers were working away clearing the bottom. The kind of investment shows that this isn't just a tourist attraction but a proper working quayside. The RNLI has a a boathouse for it's Mersey class boat, an all weather craft capable to rescues in deep water. With nothing between Peel and Ireland if you are out on the water you are glad that don't just have a dingy ! With no slipway a couple of huge tractors are positioned to pull the boat in and out of the sea on its carriage.

Should smelly fish turn you on, tours of kipper smokeries can be arranged, although why anyone wants to see herring hanging in a chimney is beyond me much less eat the results. You can get even more history from the museum if you want it or you need to shelter from the rain.

With all this going on, what is there to be sad about. Why is it that as I sat on the harbour in the warm early evening sunshine, eating bonnag from the excellent food hut you can see on the webcam, did I feel that that the sunset city was a fitting description ?

Well Peel is lovely. But it's dieing. Wander down the lovely atmospheric narrow windy streets and what greets you are closed shops. Some have no occupant, some (mostly antique/gift emporia) are fitted and stocked but simply haven't bothered to open or don't feel it's worth the effort. The two adjacent supermarkets seem to do reasonable business so there is local trade but with the bright lights of Douglas a short drive or bus ride away even that isn't much. You can buy furniture from Paradise & Gell's grand and beautiful store that has pride of place in the middle of the street. The frontage is so good it makes the rest of the town look even shabbier by comparison. It's not that there aren't business's or shoppers, it's just that the town appears to have lost heart and simply given up.

Nearer the water things are improving. Regeneration is setting in with new paving and apartments. An effort is being made to brighten up and modernise the area. In some places it works too with a couple of fantastic art and craft shops with very reasonably priced and tempting locally produced items. Just the sort of thing the better off holiday maker wants to take away as a souvenir.

Peel is lovely. If you've never been it would make a pleasant day trip but I suspect you'll come away wanting more. Maybe, one day, you will get it.

More photos in Flickr including the evil seagull.

Monday 23 June 2008

Rest Home for Old Horses

Rest Home for Old Horses plaqueWhat do you think happens to the horses that pull the trams along Douglas sea front when they are too old to do the job ?

Did I hear someone say glue or dogfood ? Happily you are wrong. For the last fifty years they have ended their days at the Rest Home for Old Horses just outside Douglas. The centre was set up by the daughter of a man who watched horses being shipped off the island for slaughter abroad. These animals would be dragged onto ships where they would be tossed around while sailing to their fate. All he could do initially was buy straw to make it less uncomfortable for them.

Now no Douglas tram horse can be sold off the island. Animals are offered first to the home, and they never turn one down. In addition they take in other horses and donkeys for the 92 acre site.

MuzzleVisitors get to meet the animals and for a quid can buy bags of horse nuts to feed to them. Obviously this is great fun and no one passes up the chance. Really this is genius, the horses need feeding anyway and the punters will be pleased to pay to do it. On top of this you can sponsor a beast for a tenner a year.

The cafe is serves excellent chocolate cake too but you don't want to know about this, you want to look at the photos on Flickr and go ahhhhhhhhh

Check out the official web site

Sunday 22 June 2008

Groudle Glen

Groudle Glen sign and mapThe highlight of any trip to the Isle of Man must be a visit to the Groudle Glen. It is officially the most beautiful place on the planet and worth a few hours of anybodies time.

The weather wasn't kind, with drizzle and high winds (60 mph+, the radio was full of ferry sailing postponements) . The tram I caught had only a single car as the open sided trailer was felt unnecessary. The run was noisy with the windows rattling away as we ran along the cliff edge watching the sea hurling itself at rocks and cliffs. Most of the passengers had the same plan as me and hopped off at Groudle station where a ranch style sign announces the entrance.

It's worth explaining a little history at this point. Groudle Glen hasn't always been a scenic feature. In Victorian times it was more akin to today's theme parks. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor would be entertained by fortune tellers, fairy lights powered by the amazing innovation of electricity, bands playing by the dance floor and finally a small zoo with ferocious animals. There was the largest crevasse in the world and other amazing sights depending on the time of year. All this and the bracing coastal air thus combining entertainment with health outdoor pursuits. Most of this is now long gone but there are still attractions, and no entry fee either !

This isn't a trip to do in high heels. The path down into the Glen is reasonably steep - not difficult but you want shoes or trainers on and if the weather has been inclement (inclement: a day of driving rain) recently they better not be your best shoes or trainers either. This drops you underneath a tall, stone, curving viaduct that carries the Manx Electric railway over the drop. A rushing stream runs under this and down the valley. You can follow this in either direction but most people head toward the sea.
Several things strike you here. First, the colours. Groudle Glen is, in my experience, always green. Ferns and moss cling to the cliff sides. Flowers and shrubs fill the space. It's not garden pretty with lots of showy colours but has more of a jungle pallet.
Next you hears the sounds, or rather the lack of sound. That stream, which runs over numerous small waterfalls is the loudest noise followed by birdsong. If you fancied a bit of meditation I'm sure all that rushing water would be just the thing to help you centre. There isn't a toilet in the glen though so if that's the effect it has you better no listen too hard !
To be honest the pictures give a better impression than words and even they can't give fully convey the wonderful, peaceful atmosphere that comes over you.
Half way along Waterwheel in the Groudle Glenthe path is one of the few remnants of the Victorian theme park past - a small building with a bright red waterwheel. Apparently this used to power the fairy lights once upon a time. Nowadays it's the think everyone takes a picture of. Quite how this was moved into position isn't clear as there is no road access. Still, when labour is cheap I suppose anything is possible.
Passing past the bandstand and over a little bridge the path splits. Down takes you to the sea - not a friendly place when I visited. Go up and you reach another Victorian triumph and the jewel of the Glen - the Groudle Glen Railway.
The GGR has a great slogan - the railway that runs uphill to the sea. While accurate a better phrase might be "the railway that runs from the edge of nowhere to the back of beyond.". It is a line that is utterly and beautifully pointless.
The main station is Lhen Coan, a Swiss style structure covering two tracks. As I arrive the coaches are waiting and the locomotives being Sea Lion & Polar Bear on the Groudle Glen Railwayprepared. One of these, Sealion, is the railways original loco and is over 100 years old. Next to it is Polar Bear a replica of one of the battery electric locos built to the replace the steam engines. As it was these wore out and steam took over again !
Polar Bear is sent off to check the track is clear from the previous days storms. I chatted to the guard and was given a brief tour of the engine and carriage sheds. This isn't a privilege normally accorded to visitors as some are stupid and hurt themselves or don't realise that standing in front of a moving train isn't clever. Others are light fingered and will help themselves to anything not nailed down. The Manx people are very friendly and showing interest usually gets volunteers on attractions like this to open up and enjoy showing off what they do.
Inside the engine shed is a new locmotive for the line - a steam engine shaped diesel that is famously shown running on a Butlins railway in the opening credits of the BBC TV show "Hi-De-Hi". Currently under restoration it will give the GGR some quick motive power for quiet days along with another attraction to bring high-spending railway enthusiasts back time and time again.
As train rides go this isn't bad. You start off in forest and climb (yes climb) towards the sea. Greasy wet track and a full train, not bad for 11am on a Sunday morning, gave Sealion problems but one of the team hopped off and spread sand along the rails so we could continue. For a little engine (Most people tower over the trains) it certainly pulls well although we were treated to a good show of smoke and cinders from the chimney.
At Lime Kiln Halt the line curves along the cliff edge and finishes before it runs out of land. This is Sealion rocks, so called because the next stop for the intrepid Victorian would be a stroll down to the Sealion and Polar Bear pools. Some blockwork and part of a bridge still remain from these although the animals left many years ago. For me, the cafe was a more appealing prospect. Hot tea and special cake made from biscuits, marshmallows and choccie goo fortified the inner man for some sea watching. With no mains electricity out on the cliffs, power comes from a very eco-friendly wind turbine which was going great guns and could probably run most of the island at the time.
The train back was much more relaxed if slightly wetter until we reached tree cover. You can watch a short video of the cliff section here. Back at the start there is the obligatory souvenir shop, soon to be replaced with a more impressive emporium. With the line at full length and as much rolling stock as they need, the small team who look after this line and have saved it from vanishing, are concentrating on improving the infrastructure. Good luck to them.
More photos on Flickr
Visit the official Groudle Glen Railway Website

Saturday 21 June 2008

Lady Isabella

Laxey wheelThe Laxey Wheel is one of those iconic tourist attractions that can turn out to be a bit rubbish when you finally visit them. I'll admit to not being that bothered about it on any previous trips to the Isle of Man. On my first time on the island I'd wandered in and taken a look, even going so far as to climb to the axle level before bottling out. From a distance the wheel is very impressive – at 77 feet in diameter and painted red to stand out from the white brickwork it could hardly fail to be. Perhaps the slightly “twee” painting didn't do anything for me, I like my industrial plant to be grubby and used, not chocolate box pretty.

It was a nice day and I was in Laxey so I fancied another go. The memory of stopping half way up the climb niggled me and I felt there was unfinished business. It was the same with the Eiffel Tower – reached the second level on a school trip at 12 but for the next 15 years wanted to go back and make it to the top.

To reach the wheel you have to climb up the valley from the station. This makes a large structure even more imposing and it certainly looks bigger than you expect having viewed it from a distance. It's original purpose was to power the pumps keeping the lead mines dry. Man has no coal deposits but an abundance of water (quite an abundance as I write...) so hyro-power makes good economic sense and explains why the Manx kept on developing it when the mainland had moved overs to Mr Newcomons invention. The mines were up to 2000 feet deep at one point so needed a lot of pumping.

The pumps are driven by a long crank rod that moved around 10 feet every time the wheel revolves. This, more than the wheel, fascinated me when I first saw it. The huge square wooden rod is carried on a long viaduct and terminates on a T-rocker where it would have been attached to the pump.

Looking through the spokes of the Lady IsabellaAll journeys start with a single step and heading up the wheel is the same. The first steps are reasonably easy and straight. They take you to a balcony level with the central axle. This is where I made my mistake on the first visit, I watched the wheel. It is mesmerising as it rotates at around 3 rpm but it also fills your field of vision. I can't claim to be good with heights but buildings aren't usually too bad for me. When most of the building is rotating – then I get the willies. This time I ignored the wheel.

The next steps are a spiral staircase around the tower carrying water to the top of the wheel. They aren't wide but there is a handrail to seperate you from death. This was fine for the first rotation but at the start of the second the designer ended up with the a beam bisecting the airspace you need for your head. Short people will be fine. Some of us have to read the sign and duck down to squeeze under. Many people stop at this point but sheer bloody-mindedness made me press on for another rotation up to the top.

The balcony at the top is lovely. Solid, not shaky and wide enough to walk down the centre without touching the handrails. I know you'd expect anyone with vertigo to hang on to the rails for grim death but that meant going near the edge and I preferred not to. I also preferred to ignore that bit of my brain that way telling me that I was walking on a wooden platform sticking out over the top of the huge wheel. I know there are struts to support this but it is an old building and you can never be too sure how good the maintainance has been.

Laxey wheel drive rod from the topThe view from the top is magnificent. Along the valley you see the course of the river that provides the power. Behind there is the crank rod transferring power to the pump. To the left and right, hard surfaces that my vertigious brain said meant death so I didn't look at them much. And below is the noise of rushing water and the wheel rotating. Nice.

You can watch a video of the wheel here.

Going down is harder than going up if you want to do it in a controlled way. That beam half way down the steps had obviously been lowered by some joker while I was up there, or at least that's what it felt like.

Back at the bottom I walked some of the mine trail, at least as far as the T-rocker. It's hard to believe that 100 years ago the verdant land of the valley was basically a factory floor. The plants have replaced dirt and grime from the mine and ore processing activities. The hundreds of men, women and children who worked there are no more. Reading the information boards it it hard for the modern visitor to understand what made people chose to crawl down dark and dangerous mine shafts every day. I might not like a 100 foot climb up the wheel but I'd like a series for 150 foot ladders going down into the dark.

The wheel has a fairly typical story behind it's survival. The Manx have never been that good with heritage despite relying on tourism as the mainstay of the islands economy for many decades. Despite being a major attraction the wheel was allowed to decay until a builder, Edwin Kneale, leased it while the rest of the mine equipment were being sold for scrap. He restored and offered it as a tourst attraction for nearly 30 year before the Manx Government bought it and took over responsibility. Without his actions Lady Isabella would have followed the Lady after whom it is named into the past. People would have said, "How wonderful if the wheel was still ther" but once gone these things don't come back. Amazingly the Government still allows attractions to fall into disrepair. This year most of the Manx Electric railway is out of action for repairs. The tourist board is considering dropping the production of the annual brochure that provides over 50% of the trade for the hotels and guest houses too...

Wikipedia information on the Laxey Wheel
Photos in Flickr

Friday 20 June 2008

2038 feet up

Douglas horse tramThere aren't many places on the Isle of Man that can't be reached by public transport. For me it's one of the joys of the place that you don't really need a car to get around. On the mainland you count yourself lucky if the bus can get you into the town centre or to work, here you take a tram to the top of the mountain !

Obviously this isn't a direct service from Douglas. That would be no fun at all. First up is a trip along the front. This might be a mere couple of miles of nice flat walk but why wear your boots out when there is a handy and regular horse tram service ? The beast pulling my tram is called Charles and he seemed happy (ears up) as he hauled us along in the sunshine. All the horses on the service are in excellent condition as you'd expect for animals on public show. Each horse only works 4 trips, walks on what appears to be special tarmac and is regularly checked over. The trams might look heavy but you can push them yourself and on a nice smooth steel rail one the vehicle is rolling it doesn't take much to keep it that way.

At the horse tram terminus while Charles enjoyed a drink, I transferred to a tram on the Manx Electric Railway. At over 100 years old this is one of the earliest electric railways in the world and still uses a couple of the original cars. These days we forget how revolutionary electricity is but for the Victorians it was akin to magic and as revolutionary as teh Interweb. They liked to show of technology too hence the overhead wires over a line that would normally have been built for steam engines. Travellers to the island would have treated the trip in the MER as a highlight of their holiday in the same way we'd think of a space shuttle launch.

While we waited to start off one woman “entertained” us by whinging about the horse trams as one of them hadn't been offered a bucket of water at the end of his trip. And the fact the driver had got himself and the ticket collector a coffee. She was going to get off and say something to them. But she didn't.

The repertoire expanded with new moans about the ride comfort, noise and a hundred other niggles but no-one else cared as the view along the line is fantastic. OK, so you aren't revelling in modern air conditioned comfort, although the trailer car was a side-free toastrack type for those who needed the cobwebs blowing away, but that's part of the charm. It's all about the journey and not just the destination. We were treated to a procession of Manx countryside and seashore with the water glinting in the sunshine. Finally though the tram arrived at Laxey.

Laxey station has always looked exotic to me. The station buildings themselves sit in a wooded hollow and a lot of the smaller trees are palms. Architecturally it owes a lot to desert island style shacks with it's wide verandah and a couple of “mud hut” style outbuildings. I've spent happy times just sitting here and watching the trams roll by in the sunshine, but not today - a few feet away were the trams that go up the mountain.

Snaefell car number 1 at the sumitFor the technically inclined there are important differences between a Manx electric tram and a Sanefell one. The later runs on track six inches wider for improved stability in the wind and also to incorporate an extra rail fitted in the middle on its side. This Fell Rail is an extra braking system in case the main brakes fail on the mountain. Special grippers are fitted under the car and a driver of a failed vehicle can use these to control its decent to return to the station. The mountain cars also use bow collectors rather than trolley poles to ensure a constant supply of electricity all the way, especially in high winds.

A handy hint for travellers is on the trip up, sit on the right hand side of the car. That way you are treated to the best view of the one of the islands best known landmarks, the Lady Isobella water wheel as the tram climbs out of the station and up the Laxey valley. If you don't, it looks like this. New this year is a running commentary from the driver pointing out some of the sights you might otherwise miss. With several of these being ruins that appear to the uninitiated to be little more than piles of rubble, it's a valuable service. Trams up the mountain run next to the edge so vertigo suffers might care to disregard my advice on seating position and hide as far from the drop as a 10 foot wide carriage allows.

At the top of the mountain passes through the Bungalow. Beloved of motorcycle enthusiasts it's the point where the tram tracks cross the mountain section of the course. During the race trams stop here and passengers have to cross by footbridge to another tram waiting to complete the journey. Apparently getting the riders to dodge the trams was considered a challenge too far !
Past Bungalow the line spirals up to the summit. At this point everyone sat on the “wrong” side has the best view. Ireland, Scotland and Wales hove into view at different stages along with the flatlands at the north of the island.

Finally after half an hours travelling the tram arrives at the top. If you are lucky you are able to see the café 5 feet away. The summit is at 2038 feet above sea level and disappearing into cloud is a regular occurance. At that point your options are to sit it out and eat some excellent cake or stay on the tram and head back down. Hoping for the best is usually worth it as the wind moves the cloud around and creates gaps so at least some of the view can be enjoyed.

As it happens I got lucky – the wind may have been gale force but that mean the view was present. Nothing is perfect of course – the kingdoms of England and Ireland were hidden from sight but the others promised, Wales, Scotland (just), Man, Heaven and Neptune were there to be seen if you squinted hard enough. Holding a camera was another matter and I'm not sure how good my pictures will be !

Thursday 19 June 2008

Jurby Junk & Peel Museum

Jurby Junk
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker

Oh well, might as well start the trip with a visit to one of the lesser attractions on the Isle of Man - Jurby Junk shop. As you would expect from the name, it's a shop and it sells junk. What you don't realise until you find it is the sheer scale of the operation.

Housed in a couple of industrial units on Jurby airfield the business has been run by Stella for at least 30 years. As well as providing all the old tat that anyone on a small island could want she also supplies props for film and television work. I suspect that this provides most of the money as I've never seen the junk sell in any quantity. This is stacked high, and I mean well over 10 feet high, on shelves with very little semblance of order. Some items are grouped into boxes under the racking but most simply exist on shelves.

Most people find that their homes acquire a level of detritus that appears to multiply of its own accord. The junk here seems to be doing the same thing. Much has been in stock for several years and the old place has a faint smell of "old stuff". How much will ever find a buyer is open to conjecture. It's certainly fun to root around it though.

The business has been expanded in the last 18 months to take in books in an adjacent unit. Imaging taking several thousand books of all genres and tipping them into a room - and you have a pretty good idea what the place looks like. You'll not find much in the way of categorisation or organisation on the shelves. Paperbacks fill baskets on the floor and the only way you find anything is by treating the store as a giant lucky dip. To be honest with airport books that's good enough but looking around there are going to be some real nuggets of gold to be pan handled from this lot - you better have plenty of time though !

Model of Manx Museum, PeelAs a counterpoint some culture was required. That, and the rain has arrived big time so the Manx Museum in Peel seems awfully attractive.

On arrival a school party was just leaving - great news as it's too good a place to waste on kids. The first area covered is the Pagan and Viking heritage of the island. Shown through a mix of reconstructions and audio visual displays. One minute you are in a Celtic house and next in its Viking replacement. Every step is illustrated by the actor T.P.McKenna pretending to be a mysterious Manx spirit. To be honest this was a bit duff with to much mysticism and not enough hard facts for me but at least I now have a better understanding of Paganism and the carved crosses that adorn many Manx churches. The transition to Christianity and the implications of this change is well covered though. Nice use of "Odins Raven", a cut down replica longboat built in the 70's, too.

Things improve as you move up stairs. The floor is transformed into a quayside chandlers with hundreds of objects decorating the "set". Looking through the windows you spy the boats and dockside characters. There is noise and smells and nothing mystical at all. No labels either which will make it harder for many to understand what they are seeing. More AV displays tell the stories of Manx characters from the man who invented lifeboats, a member of the Bounty's crew, a smuggler and the wife of a sea captains. This last character is particularly interesting as she and her family travelled the world in an era when most Manx barely travelled between their villages on this tiny isle.

The museum design was excellent - as long as hardly any people turned up. The displays worked fine for groups to 3 or 4 at a time - any more and you came to a presentation half way through and had to watch things out of order. Worse, some rooms simply couldn't accommodate many so on a busy day you'd have to wait around or simply miss chunks for the display which would be a great shame.

Following on the from the maritime characters we had displays of kippers and fishing followed by the history of the Steam Packet company.

Aside from the design issues, the biggest problem with this museum is that is is so good. After 3 hours we were being checked out as closing time approached. The Peel gallery received on the most cursory look, yet deserved much more. Maybe the designer modelled themselves on PT Barnum and wanted us to left wanting more !

More pictures of junk (and other stuff) on Flickr.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Ferry down the Mersey

Funky funnelAt what point is it reasonable to storm the bridge of a ferry and take control ?

I ask because I'm pretty certain that the captain of the good ship Viking that took me to the Isle of Man today, was a fake. When he made his first announcement to the passengers he said that there would be some swell as we approached the island, "hitting the left of the ship.". Now as any fule know, the correct term is "port side" and if he can't get this right, how could we trust him with the steering, mainbrace splicing and other nautical tasks ?

Sadly, none of the other people on board seemed up for a mutiny so I just make careful note of the location of lifeboats and hoped for the best. It seems that the choice of 2 cafes, a bar, shop and Mr Bean on continuous loop pacified them.

Half an hour of interesting Mersey and 2 and half hours of dull, grey Irish sea later we made land. As our main in the gold braid had promised, the trip got a bit lumpy in the last hour. Inside I felt a touch uneasy but a trip up on deck cleared this - and thanks to the wind, pretty much everything else !

With the on board shop out of Guardians I bought a local paper, The Isle of Man Examiner. The thing that struck me most was the numbers convicted of various levels Land Ahoyof drink driving. Not sure if this is a one-off post TT even or if I need to be careful on the roads about closing time. My favorite story though concerns a plan for more car parking in Peel. This will involve blasting away some of the cliffs and local residents have been interviewed by the reporter to garner their views. Most are happy with the idea but the best quote comes from Neil Richmond who is secretary of Peel Golf Club, "I go for walks around the back of the castle and I know there's a lot of late-night socialising that goes on around there, which would be encouraged by making this secluded car park bigger."

Back on dry land I'm booked in to the excellent Arrandale Hotel which provides comfy, reasonably priced rooms, a working radio and telly, and free WiFi - even a sea view if I crane my neck out of the window a bit. What more can I want ?

More pictures on Flickr

Sunday 15 June 2008

Battered Mars bar

Battered Mars Bar
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
Now this isn't strictly speaking a travel. But it does constitute a gastronomic journey. It also puts a big tick against the "Things I want to do" list, just like some of the trips I've written up here.

Deep fried Mars bars have acquired a mythical reputation. As unhealthy a food as you can imagine, many have suggested that they don't actually exist. Well, they do and I have eaten one.

Now I really expected this to be horrible.Really horrible. Not being a big fan of the Mars bar anyway, adding a crispy coating to the outside wasn't likely to be a good thing. I'd imagined that the result would be a sausage shaped lump of yuck where you couldn't tell where Mars stopped and batter began. Think of something as disgusting as a McDonald's fruit pie (they cook them in fat you know - and I shiver at that thought) and you'll get an idea how low the bar was set for this comestible.

So it came as a real shock to discover the truth. You can see the bar in the batter. And the taste isn't bad.

The batter provides a welcome savory counterpoint to the sickly sweet confectionery. It's not greasy or oily or fatty tasting. In fact I think this may be better than a Mars bar on it's own. In fact I quite enjoyed this for about 2/3rd of the bar. Then I'd had enough. I've done it, ticked the box, had the experience and that will do.

Friday 13 June 2008

Welsh trains

welsh map
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
I'm trying to book a trip around Wales. It's going to be a bit anoraky as I want to travel on several narrow gauge railways. The plan involves a round Wales train ticket - or at least that was the plan.

If you look at the map that I've stolen from the official Arriva trains leaflet. As you can see there is a black line between Porthmadog and Llandudno. According to the key, black lines mean railway lines.

Not according to any automated train timetable system it doesn't. Nor according to the National Rail Enquiries telephone helpline. There is no railway here. Which of course makes the concept of a round Wales rail ticket a bit pointless.

What worries me is, how did they get it so wrong ? Interestingly, if you look at this map (warning, whopper PDF), the line isn't mentioned.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Tramathon 2008

Entry signTramathon for the uninitiated is an annual event that takes place at the Crich Tramway museum, Derbyshire. During the day, an attempt is made to run every single working tramcar at some time. This year the plan was for 17 different trams to be available. I've not been for a few years so made a determined effort - which paid off with an excellent day.

The drive up wasn't exciting, other than when a family of ducks decided to cross the M1 on foot. The lorry bearing down on them had to take evasive action and fortunately none of the ducks was hurt although it gave them a shock. New time, wait for the family to learn to fly !

I'll spare you a description of the day in preference for a few bullet points. First the bad bits:

Getting in. They've never been good at this and on a hot day keeping everyone waiting in the sun is no fun at all. The problem was that the people on the gate had to get Gift Aid forms completed by everyone paying to go in. This helps the finances but doesn't do anything for the first impressions. A pragmatic car park official let those with members tickets or who had paid in advance through a side gate. What made it worse was the constant moaning of the old women behind us in the queue. Judging by her make-up she'd been up early and probably needed a snooze...

Now the good stuff:

The tea rooms are fantastic. Clean, quick and reasonably priced. And they do fantastic chocolate cake. Decent sized slices too. I could have spent the day there.

Despite the large numbers in the museum, most had vanished onto trams to enjoy their rides. Since this is free all day it keeps most of the family happy.

Riding on trams is great fun even when you've done it before. Every single one is restored to the highest standard and each is different.

The volunteers who run the place really care about it. And it shows.
Feltham from balcony
The gallery over the workshops is fascinating. Obviously I like to see things being made but everyone up there seemed to be enjoying themselves. There are some clever displays which explain to non-enthusiasts what all the bits are.

One of the trams I've not ridden on before was Oporto 273. Unusually for Crich this isn't a UK tram which means it has unusual features required for a warm climate. I loved the high domed ceiling, delicate wooden detail and rattan seats. All of this must have made restoration a challenge but the result is fabulous.

At one end of the line is Glory Mine. The site is part quarry and this museum shows some of the old mining equipment. In the corner there is a little wooden hut which, when open, sells rocks and stones. The lady in there is a real gem (pun intended) as she not only knows here geology, she explains it to everyone with the zeal of a true enthusiast. When you show an interest in a piece she'll explain where it came from and what the rock formations are. Prices are stupidly low - I bought a chunk of Barite for £3.50 simply because it looked lovely. Best of all, I know about it, something you don't get in shops. If you like rocks and crystals, this bit is worth the trip on it's own.

The tearooms does a delicious orange cake. And you can sit and watch the trains go by from the window. Yum.

More pictures on Flickr
Video on YouTube

Saturday 7 June 2008

Hereford & Worcester

The weatherman said it was going to be wet. Very wet. Very, very wet, all down the centre of the country. So I decided to head west to Hereford. It's a nice journey with plenty of time to read a book and that's what I was in the mood for.

Conveniently the trip can be broken up so there is the chance to mooch around three different places in a day. First up is Birmingham where the shopper is presented with the chance to stock their wardrobe with the products of a hundred sweat shops - not ethical, but cheap. To be fair if the first train had arrived five minutes earlier I wouldn't have had the time to kill. As it was after asking the helpful Virgin Trains employee on the concourse, tried the travel centre (too busy but with only 4 customers) and then the Customer Reception I realised that my next train ran in about 2 hours. Fortunately as a service to Worcester left in 45 minutes there wasn't too long to wait.

The train leaves the city following one of the many canals (more than Venice TM) and past the university with it's bizarre central clock spire. I'd have been interested to go to the meeting that discussed that, "We need to put a pointy tower in the middle of the campus with a clock on it in case the students can't remember to wear a watch.". Canals used to be seen as liabilities with adjoining buildings facing away from the water. This has changed, now the houses along this stretch had all built their gardens down to the back with various decking arrangements so the occupants can sip their drinks watching the boats sail by.

On arrival at the station I managed to remember (for a change) to check the time of my next connection. I'm not sure who is running the Travel Centre there but I assume they won't be remaining in post for much longer. For some reason they seem to think that their job is to encourage rail travel. The place is stacked out with leaflets that I'd not seen before - Cornish rail based real ale trails, wildlife watching by train, touring Wales - what is going on ? How come none of this stuff is stocked in the much larger Birmingham centre ?

Worcester is a lovely city with loads of little side roads to explore. The small shop hasn't been banished, even if they aren't found on the main shopping drag. Fans of the indoor market will be please to find a small one with 2 floors. Downstairs you buy cheese and large electrical items, upstairs second hand books, records, juggling equipment and clothes for Goths (What, nothing in pastel shades ?) - nice mix. I tripped over a couple of model shops and a really excellent old fashioned sweet shop. Why is it that buying sweets from jars is fun ? And how come these places didn't all die off when they had to start selling 100g instead of "a quarter" as the anti-metric brigade told us they would ?

My packet of mis-shapes stayed firmly shut for nearly an hour. Then on the train for the next leg I realised that on a hot day the unwrapped chocolates needed to regularly sampled for quality purposes. My initial experiments were satisfactory but you can't be too careful and the experiment was repeated as required. It's this sort of commitment that has made British science what it is today.

Hereford arrived after more lush green rolling hills. The size of the station gives a good indication of the cities importance locally. Once there, was a very imposing goods shed, which has now been turned into a ten pin bowling centre. At least this means that have to look after the fabric of the building which is in reasonable condition.

The station is on the edge of the city and you have to cut through a supermarket car park and walk for five minutes to get there. I'll be honest and say this isn't my first visit but after paying a visit to the excellent model shop and a brief wander in the shopping centre I've usually headed back. This time I had the luxury of proper exploring time which was handy as it's a bit of a maze.

Ticking the second box on my list of things that make towns great we get a proper indoor market. The entrance to the Buttermarket is impressive but leads on to a bit of a corridor. This opens out to a proper halls stalls that get extra points for looking like that have been open since the 50's. OK so there is a mobile phone seller but its mainly people whose stand can be best described as "indeterminate" with a few electrical bits, some haberdashery, gifts, bit of stationery etc. All good stuff to the connoisseur. The cafe wasn't properly greasy spoon perhaps but not bad.

More by luck than judgement I found myself at the Cathedral - and realised why its famous. Back in the 1980's the people in charge decided that to raise funds (don't say publicity stunt) they would sell the Mappa Mundi. Of course there was an outcry as Johnny Foreigner might get his filthy hands on one of the country's greatest treasures apparently. Cash was found and the map was "saved". I'd taken little notice of this at the time but since I was there it seemed churlish not to go and see the thing. To be honest had it not been combined with the chained library the £4.50 admission charge might have put me off...

Having parted with my cash I read every bit of the display that covers the two attractions. To be fair there has been a lot of effort put in with translations of the map and explanations of why it matters and how it was created. The library gets similar treatment and you even see a couple of book cases with the contents chained up. All of this means that once you get to the end of the museum and see the real thing, it's a bit of an anticlimax.

When I saw the map the first thing it brought to mid was the Mona Lisa. Both are a lot more brown than you would expect, the later because it's displayed behind the lens from a pair of sunglasses to stop the Americans photographing it, the former because goats skin is not the best material for maps. The room the map is housed in is dark for obvious reasons and the map only dimly lit but you can tell it is old well away from sparkling condition. Without the previous explanations the document would make no sense at all. Even with them I can't help feeling that it's main claim to fame is not having been thrown away rather than the content. I'd stick to Ordinance Survey if I wanted to navigate.

The library is worse though. Having seen a couple of shelves all you get is a few rows of the same. The room they are housed in is made of stone but modern stone. Crucially, for me at least, any atmosphere and context has been wrenched away by the decision to move them from the room they were intended to be in.

The cathedral itself is very impressive. Like most is is overly ornate and the stained glass is fabulous. Even the floor is worth a look and uses early swastikas in some places - a reminder that the symbol was appropriated rather than designed. In fact I think the floor was more interesting that the vaulted ceiling, a reversal of the norm for religious buildings. Perhaps the good people of Hereford spent more time looking down than up ?

Back outside I found the best thing about Hereford Cathedral - the ice cream stand. The 99 is large and comes with the best raspberry sauce I've ever had. It's so tangy and flavoursome that there have clearly been no raspberries involved in the production. And while I chomped and slurped the was entertainment watching the stone masons carving. I'm assuming that they are a permanent team on the job as the rate you can carve stone must be slower than the weather can erode it. I was also pleased to see a modern Type 2 van. The radiator for the evil water-cooled engine doesn't do the looks any favours but I suppose that is progress for you. Nice van otherwise, I wouldn't mind the drivers seats for mine.

More pictures on Flickr

Sunday 1 June 2008

Stoner Park 2008

OK, so it's not really travelling, but I did drop into the VW show at Stomer Park this year.

Details and pictures over at my other blog.