Wednesday 30 July 2008


welsh sign
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
Before heading out to Wales along with most English people I'd always assumed the Welsh language to be an anachronism. At best it would be spoken by half a dozen old people, at worst those fluent used it only when they wanted to talk and not be understood by tourists. OK, so I knew all the official signs and documents were translated but surely this was just because of pressure on the Assembly from the Welsh nationalists who were desperate to pretend that the country next door didn't exist.

I was wrong. Welsh is everywhere, not just on official signs but on shops and billboards.

And people actually speak it. Real people. Checkout staff in supermarkets converse in Welsh as though it's the most natural thing in the world. They simply flit between English and Welsh at will. What's more the local tongue is the preferred option a lot of the time. I don't think this was just because I am English, it certainly didn't seem to be used with any "side".

I'm envious really. Being bi-lingual must be great. Watching children speak fluently is amazing. Definitely something to be proud of. While I don't think there are may who speak no English but I now understand the translation policies.

If you want to speak Welsh the BBC can help.

As an aside, this proves that with the right teaching, British people can be as fluent at Europeans are in more than one language. I wonder why we aren't ?

Sunday 27 July 2008


Fairbourne Railway & Nature CentreWith another cracking day beckoning and my train home leaving after lunch I had two choices, wander around Porthmadoc again or get a ticket to one of the towns further down the line and have a mooch. The trouble was, which town ? Not Tywyn as that is home to the Talyllyn railway and I wouldn't be able to resit a ride - not a god idea with a big rucksack ! Harlech was tempting but in the end I decided I wanted proper seaside. The sort of place you remember going on holiday to as a child. That meant (I thought) Fairbourne.

Cynics might say this was just an excuse to find another little railway and they would have a point. The first thing you see from the station and biggest attraction on the town is the Fairbourne Railway. The beach isn't far away though so I perhaps I could go and build a sandcastle.

The train was crowded with holidaymakers and their luggage. Despite being made up of 4 coaches, only 2 were in use as for many of the Cambrian CoastCambrian line station platforms are too short for more than this. Because people are stupid and litigious everyone has to get cosy since you can't trust anyone to actually check there is a platform before stepping out can you ? According to one of the youths travelling if you look at some of the scenery near Barmouth and didn't know where you were, you could be in Florida. I could see his point, the beeches were golden in the sunshine as the curved around the bay. Florida isn't known for it's mountains or grey buildings but the sentiment was nice.

I don't think the local council will be chasing me if I say that Fairbourne isn't a big town. Pretty much everything is available within 100 feet of the station. As far as shopping goes there is a corner arcade with a (good) chippie, butchers, newsagent, Spa store, Post office and Indian takeaway. Thanks to all the goodies outside these all blend into one which could be costly if you need cash - the Spa has a cashpoint which will charge a fee whereas the Post Office will let you have money free if you can find the counter (it's at the back of the shop around a corner).

YeoThe railway is appropriately enough a miniature tourist line. Born in 1916 (ignoring the 2ft horse tramway that preceded it) and originally 15 inch gauge it still fulfills its original purpose of taking holidaymakers to Penrhyn Point where a ferry will carry them on to Barmouth. Not many lines can claim to be doing the same thing all of their life, and presumably doing it well as it's still there.

For more history, visit the Fairbourne Railway Website

In 1986 after a chequered history financially the railway was sold and re-gauged by its new owner. I suspect this is unique among railway lines - are there any others that have been completely re-laid just to bring the rails closer together ? Of course this means the original locomotives have long since been sold or scrapped but the new(ish) ones are a great selection of scaled down replicas based on other lines motive power.

I struck lucky as it was a special "Little to Large" event - which has nothing to do with the unfunny 1970's comedians - but is all about different sized steam engines running. So we had 12 1/4 on the main line, 5 inch on a secondary line along the platform and 45mm on the garden railway I'll come to later. Every steam engine the line owns was running and pulling reasonably full trains as well. An added attraction on the platform were displays of model engineering with little static engines and a second hand bookseller. Finally a miniature traction engine offered rides to the front.

All the usual preserved railway features are found - a gift shop, museum showing the history of the line and cafe. For some reason the later smelt funny (to me anyway) so I didn't bother trying it out. However in the next building is a nature centre, not something Nature Centreusually associated with railways. Originally built as a butterfly farm this proved uneconomic so it now houses a very small collection of animals - ferrets (smelly), chipmunks (cute and lively), tropical fish (wet), lobster (hiding under a rock) a gecko(asleep) and chameleon (posing). Down the centre is a long pond with coi carp (I think, not good on fish) surrounded by an extensive G scale railway. A couple of steam engines were getting a workout on its 40ft run and a small but appreciative group were chatting to the modellers running the trains. At the far end of the building is housing for owls although there were no sign of these while I was there.

Now the rucksack issues worked against any chance I had of a ride here - those coaches aren't exactly big you know. The front wasn't a long walk away though and you can follow the line - or just point at the sea and stop when you get wet feet. The beech isn't sandcastle friendly being all pebbly. Maybe there is sand under the sea but the tide was in so I missed it. A single seaside emporium lives next to it and serves hot food (hmmm), ice cream (too much ice in the Mr Whippy), souvenirs, arcade machines, trampolines, kids self drive forklift trucks and crazy golf. The view is nice though.

Back at the railway I chatted to the guy in the ticket office during a lull in trade. Apparently the line is popular with staff from other local preserved railways who enjoy coming for a drive. Apparently the Ffestiniog staff enjoy the rest compared to shoveling coal into their own engines. Mind you they do go further and faster. Which brought up an interesting new problem - preserved railways usually operate with a speed limit of 25mph. Until recently this wasn't often checked unless the locomotive was fitted with a speedometer, not always the case with steam engines. Nowadays the passengers often know how fast they are going thanks to portable GPS units and those in the know will check. Apparently several drivers on different lines have been told to be careful...

Fairbourne was everything I expected - it's the sort of place every child should be brought for a holiday. There's not a whole lot to do except have a ride on the train and mess around on the beech but that's the point. You can't spend the day shelling out for entertainment and rides. It's not a shopping experience. Perhaps it's all a bit old fashioned but what's wrong with that ?

More pictures on Flickr

Friday 25 July 2008

Blaenau Ffestiniog via the Ffestiniog Railway

Princess in the pubWhile in Wales I've spent quite a lot of time at the Ffestiniog Railway station in the south of Portmadog. It's got an excellent pub which serves a nice pint. You can drink outside in the evening sun, even on the platform if the fancy takes you, or sit inside in the best decorated bar in the country. While others have farm implements nailed to the wall, this one has a steam engine in the corner. The lines original locomotive, Princess, takes pride of place where you'd normally find an old guy nursing half a pint for the evening. Elsewhere other railway memorabilia is fixed to the walls. There's quite a bit of money up there but luckily the line doesn't need to raise any at present.

I picked the coach next the the engine for the first leg of my trip. It was the one without windows and very little in the way of walls. This isn't a great place to take photos of the engine, as proper enthusiasts would want to do, but if you just like listening the to the sound and enjoying the smell like me, it's a great spot. Worryingly the FR guard locks the trains doors before setting off. Presumably they consider the chances of passengers falling out greater than that of an accident. Mind you with no walls if there was a problem, getting out wouldn't tax anyone.

The Ffestiniog railway is big business, at least in preserved railway terms. For example Portmadog station is huge. The works at Boston Lodge are huge. At Minifford you pass a large goods yard originally used for transshipment of slate to the "proper" railways. Part of the way along the line there is even a big permanent way yard. Most lines make do with a couple of sidings but the FR have a yard and at least one special train.

Llyn Ystradau ReservoirThe train rattles along at a fair pace too. None of this meandering here we fairly belt through the countryside. While the guard locked the doors he warned us that the coach had no lights. I assumed this was a joke but no, the line has tunnels and once you're in them it's dark, very dark. Being next to the engine, it filled up with sweet smelling steam too. Nice for a short time but if the tunnels were longer it would be a different story.

Another unusual feature, for the UK at least, is a spiral. Thanks to a reservoir the route of the line had to be altered a few years ago. To gain height the railway crosses over itself at Ddualt. The new alignment runs higher up the mountain and skirts the hydro-electric scheme providing attractive views over the water.

Blaenau station canopy

Arrival at Blaenau took a while as the guard unlocking doors kept being waylaid by passengers for the next trip. The occupants of our coach were getting restless as we wathed his slow progress up the train. The sides were low enough to climb over with care but being British we politely waited our turn. Compared to the facilities at the other end of the track the converted shipping container looks a bit basic but it houses a jolly team selling tickets and souvenirs.

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a town that has suffered from transport being too available unfortunately. Most of the shops in the high street are closed and available for rent. Sadly people can travel out of the town to buy stuff and they do. What is left are a few cafes, a couple of tourist shops including the slate shop, some newsagents and and excellent second hand bookshop that only opens on Fridays. This is sad, but I wonder if a renaissance is in order.

Think about it, the town has a reasonable population and the transport links aren't bad. Every .;">Looking out of the carriage windowyear tourists will end up there simply between trains on the steam railway and looking for something to do. With the joys of teh interweb I wonder if the empty (and presumably cheap as there are so many of them) shops would make good homes for businesses looking for homes. Most of the trade will need to be mail order but passing business exists and if you are a specialist people will seek you out, especially if you are in a holiday area

Of course the town didn't appear just for the sake of it. The economy used to be slate based. You can see this everywhere, spoil tips dominate the landscape and the overall colour of the scenery is grey. It's unusual scenery though and looks well worth exploring. Locally walking, cycling and heritage are big business. The tourist information office is under a bike hire centre. The staff have masses of information to help the visitor who is staying in the area.

WaterfallFor the return trip the skies are as grey as the spoil heaps. In the open coach I had to dodge from side to side to avoid the rain. Luckily much of the trip is in woodland which provides shelter as well as glimpses of bucolic streams and footpaths. However there are several small towns en-route to add variety and provide passenger. In one we pass a lady in her back garden wearing a bright pink t-shirt. She is staring into space and doesn't look up at the train. How long do you have to live somewhere that has steam trains puffing past the back of your garden to be so used to them that they don't even warrant a glance ?

More pictures on Flickr

Thursday 24 July 2008


PortmeironWarning: If you are expecting a tirade of "Prisoner" puns then go elsewhere. This is serious blogging, not some bit of fluff. Anyway, I never understood the series so I refuse to conform to your expectaions as I am a free man...

Everyone has heard of Portmeirion. It's a world renowned tourist attraction, a make of pottery and the location for a TV series. I had half a day spare and thought it would be daft to pass up the chance to see what the fuss was about.

Getting there sans car meant a trip on the smallest bus I've every been on. Actually it's a fat van rather than a bus but the effect is the same. Turn up at the stop, pay the driver and get on board. I was the only passenger and apparently this is often the case. People prefer to visit by car, presumably hoping to take away mountains of that lovely pottery. The driver was chatty and we talked about holidays and difficulties trying to book hotel rooms. I related trying to get into Edinburgh at the same time as the marathon, he topped that by trying to get into Dublin when the 3 Nations Rugby was on.

Overall viewFor the history, try Wikipedia. In a nutshell though, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, wanted to try his hand at town planning and created this village from his own ideas moulded around old buildings that would otherwise have been lost. They were imported to the estate and eventually incorporated into his structures. The idea was to turn people on to architecture and allow them to experience the fun side. The village is a real place though, not a film set. Several of the buildings are lived in as evidenced by the bins and recycling boxes outside.

The Village is reached at the end of a windy wooded road. It's really tucked away in the trees on the side of a hill so you don't see anything at all until you are there. First negotiate the ticket barrier (£7 per adult) which isn't anew feature - to stop overcrowding from visitors a 5 shilling charge was levied many years ago.

You then walk through a gate and into the village proper at the top of the hill. Two things strike you immediately - first how bright and colourful everything is. I had an excellent sunny day for my trip and have never seen such a collection of coloured buildings. The second thing is the size - the centre would fit on a decent sized playing field. Portmeirion reminds me of a model village despite everything being full sized. It's obvious that the plan was to bring lots of elements that wouldn't have naturally been found together in a settlement to one place.

Grand houseIn the centre are fountains, around the edges, clinging to the hillside you find buildings and a few steep paths. Tucked away on one side is a house with a film show explaining a bit of the history as told by the man himself. While not the greatest film (too many stills to music, also too many bored kids) you start to understand the reality of what you are seeing. For example, there is a fantastic purple mansion that is only the size of a bungalow inside - it's all front and build into a steep hill restricting the space behind. Other pieces of old buildings, such as columns, have been included in new structures. Many serve no purpose whatsoever or have had to find a use. The domed building is currently a gallery but only exists to counterpoint the spire on a nearby tower.

Portmeirion little bayA short, if steep, stroll gets you down to the water which is wonderful. One building has a small inlet to house a boat (apparently used in the TV show I'll not be mentioning). Not special in itself but the noise the lapping water makes bouncing off the stone walls is so wonderful I could have sat and listened to it all day.

Sadly, tourism has ruined the place. While the eye has a feast, so can the tummy since the are at least half a dozen different cafes on site. If a building isn't a cafe, it must be a shop. And all of these seem to sell a very similar range of high priced tourist tat. Sells isn't an appropriate word from what I saw either as there was plenty of looking and many bored underemployed shop assistants. The stuff was OK but there was so little variety. Only one did anything in the way of TV memorabilia, the others just retailed goods that could have been sold in any tourist town in the country.

Oh, and there wasn't a mini moke to be seen. Or big white balloons. Pity really as I'd have liked to see some of the visitors escape from them.

Portmeirion IS a nice place. I loved the buildings, I loved the quirkiness. I'd love to stay there out of season to appreciate it properly. Better still, I'd love to build my own - and I guess that is what William-Ellis would have wanted.

Official web site for the village

More of my pictures on Flickr

Russell Tearoom, Porthmadoc

Cake !I've already given the West Highland Railway based in Porthmadoc a glowing review but what about the catering facilities ?

Well, the first good sign when I arrived was a flock of fluorescent jacketed workmen around a table outside tucking into some grub.

After my train ride it was nearly lunchtime so I ordered a jacket potato with chili and couldn't resist some Victoria sponge to follow with tea. It arrived and looked very nice. The potato was invisible under a mound if chilli with a colourful salad on the side. I suspect a microwave had played a bit of a part in the cooking but the inside of the spud was light and fluffy. The topping a nice temperature and taste.

The cake was good. The cream wasn't really necessary as it was good enough on it's own but there was a strawberry in it so I ate it anyway.

All in all, lovely. Reasonably priced, well presented and tasty grub. No wonder the workmen, always the best judge of cafe quality, flock there.

Good grief they have thier own web site !

Welsh Highland (Porthmadog) Railway

Porthmadog (WHR)It's confusing having two welsh Highland Railways to choose from. To make it easier to differentiate between them, image the organisations in terms of supermarkets. The WHR I travelled on yesterday - WHR(Caenarfon) is Tesco. You get a big store with lots of stuff but it's all a bit impersonal. On the other hand you have the WHR(Porthmadog) which is like your local corner shop. They don't have a huge choice but there is enough and at least the shopkeeper knows your name and you get to have a chat so you forgive any deficiencies.

You enter the station via the shop. It's one of the better shops I've seen for both the casual tourist and the keen enthusiast. The former finds lots of souvenirs, mostly but not all with a railway bent, the later gets one of the best bookshops in the country. The guys behind the counter are chatty and keen to tell you about both the current state and the future plans for the railway. As volunteers they bring an almost childlike enthusiasm to the job - something no amount of money or bullying can get for a commercial operation.

Hunslet locomotiveOn the platform the train awaits. The big surprise is that there is a locomotive steaming away on each end. Three wooden coaches of different designs make up the train. With the weather holding I went for the one with least glass. If you are looking forward to some upholstery then you'll be disappointed - wooden benches are the order of the day.

The ride doesn't last very long. Even at the walking pace the train travels at it's hardly 15 minutes. At the end we can see where the extension is to be. Two diggers are burying what looks like a big pipe for a tunnel. What you get though is nice scenery, not spectacular but pretty and a travel experience that might be described as "lo-fi". A bit ramshackle, perhaps even amateurish but in a good way. Think Titfield Thunderbolt and you have the right idea.

The two locos are needed as there is no way for one to run around the train and since pushing passengers isn't allowed, the second steam engine takes the strain on the return leg. This makes a stop at the engine sheds where everyone disembarks for a stroll around. Various rolling stock is on display including items under restoration. Some nice displays such as a sectioned boiler help to explain what is going on. The giant lathe in the middle of the shed shows this isn't just men playing with big toys either. For the kids there is even an extensive miniature railway in case they haven't had enough train travel.

Herse vanAmongst loads of good stuff, the highlight for me was the hearse van. A Ffestiniog railway carriage which had been converted to carry coffins. Apparently it still sees use transporting the ashes of those who want to make their last trip by train...

Back on the train and everyone is returned to Porthmadog station. The whole thing takes just over the hour depending on how quickly people can be herded back out of the sheds. One parent in my coach was explaining how nice this was - the children's attention span is streatched on longer journeys, something other lines might like to note. When the full 40 mile line is ready for use, how many people really want to sit on a wooden seat for the whole trip at 15mph ?

This needs another few minutes...Back on the station, both drivers were happy to chat about their engines. One even took the time to demonstrate his cooking abilities on the footplate, although Gordon Ramsey needn't worry just yet.

I'll look forward to the day next year (hopefully) when the line is complete. It's going to form a nice aside to the serious transport system being built. Best of all it won
't be subsumed into the larger whole but retain an atmosphere all of it's own.

Visit the website for more details

More photos on Flickr

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Caernarfon and the Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railwat GarrattTime for an admission. My trip to Wales is all about train spotting. Well spotting a particular locomotive anyway. That locomotive is one designed by Garratt and hardly used in this country. I won't bore the casual reader any more than normal by explaining what is so special about this design, suffice to say I've always been fascinated by them. A few years ago the Welsh Highland Railway decided to re-import some Manchester made examples from South Africa to run the new (OK, reinstated) railway from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. This runs through the Snowdonia National Park, an area known for being hilly. Garratts are designed to haul heavy trains over steep and windy tracks - just what we have here.

For technical details, go to Wikipedia

Of course the first thing to do is get the right Welsh Highland Railway. On arrival at Porthmadog station you see the Welsh Highland Railway just over the road. However for Garratt spotting you need the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) - a company set up by the Ffestiniog Railway which the line will eventually join. The other WHR will form a branch line to this. I think there was some argument when the scheme was first proposed but by the time all the lines are finished the area will have both a major tourist attraction and useful extra transport infrastructure.

Looking at the map I had two options, get to the main station at Caenarfon or the nearer option of Rhyd Ddu. The later needed two buses. Both little ones. And both to places I couldn't pronounce. On that basis I went for the easy but longer option - at least I can say Caenarfon even if I have to look every time I type it to get the right spelling !

According to the helpful tourist information people the bus left from Tesco at 9.15. Not being sure which side of the road I needed I was examining the stops half an hour early when a lady in the shelter tried to help. "THE BUS COMES AT QUARTER TO NINE" she told me in the manner of someone who needs to turn the sound down on their headphones. "The one to Caenarfon ?" I asked. She replied something about the Pwllhei bus going there. "Caenarfon, the one with the castle ?" I checked since I'd not understood what she said and was beginning to think she was more than a little mad. This was confirmed when it became apparent she didn't know of the castle or believe it existed looking at me like I had fallen out of the sky.

View from the busThe bus driver said I needed the other side of the road and at 9.15 a double decker turned up to take me. £4.50 return. Compared to fares around Leamington, this is a bargain. It's a hell of a ride too. The top deck of a bus has always been a fabulous place to see the world from but when the scenery is as impressively lumpy as this. The driver has a real challenge to navigate around the narrow and twisty roads.

The station is more than a little basic and when I arrived - empty of trains. A short stroll and an ice cream later the carriages had arrived, complete with the much anticipated Garrett locomotive. Tickets for the trip are a whopping £17.50 return or a rover covering both WHR's and the Ffestiniog comes in at £34. That's a saving but not as impressive as it sounds - the standard ticket allows you to ride all day, the rover only covers a single return trip on each line. For most people this is fine but an enthusiast is likely to want to travel behind both the engines in use yet are just the market the "rover" is aimed at.

Gricers may wish to watch the loco taking on water on YouTube.

While on the subject of ticket prices, for an extra small fee you get to travel first class. Nice if you want bigger seats and posh tables in the fax-Pullman coach. Everyone else sits in perfectly normal coaches except those hardy souls like me who pick the open sided vehicle. Well it's behind the loco and the weather is lovely so why be shut away ?

For the first half of the trip I wondered if for anyone who just wanted to enjoy the scenery , the bus would be a much better bet. Then we made it into the mountains. Even our powerful locomotive struggled a bit only able to maintain a walking pace for some sections. The American couple behind me started rushing from side to side grabbing photographs. Streams, fields, heather covered glowering mountains and hills rolled by. With no glass between us and the outside world you really feel part of the view and not just a mere spectator.

View from the train on the Welsh HighlandRhyd Ddu is the current southern terminus of the line. For those who don't speak Welsh, the name means "Arse end of nowhere". It's a temporary end point and there isn't anything to do other than take photos and wait to get back on for the ride back. You can see Snowdon so it's not all bad. There are defintly worse places to be stuck for half an hour, at least when the sun is shining.

Entertainment on the return leg was provided by a family group who delighted in a couple of their number who were chasing the train in the car. Every couple of miles they would be waving from the lineside and received a great cheer for their efforts. It was the only consolation though - this was a seriously prepared party with enough food to keep a small army going. Granddad seemed to be concerned that the youngsters were going to fade away during the trip judging by the number of sandwiches he plied them with.

And there was Frankie the dog. A lovely friendly animal. I spent plenty of time trying to guess his breed only based on his funny little legs only to discover he was the result of a liaison between a beagle and a retriever.

Caenarfon is a lovely little port. It has still got an enormous castle whatever woman at bus stop may think. The square is currently dominated by a giant Ferris wheel and has been joined by a mobile PA system. Lunch was enlivened by a band doing covers - from Chris Rea (Road to Hell, interesting choice for an opening number) to some 60's and 70's stuff. They weren't bad but a bright sunny afternoon with a crowd isn't that conducive to a great performance. You want a seething mass of fans jumping around, not a motley collection of bored kids, tired tourists and grannies.

Caernarfon squareYet again the chains had made little impact on the high street which, for a change, is a nuisance. Thanks to a drippy ice cream I was in the market for a new polo shirt. But could I buy one ? Where do the Welsh buy clothes ?

No double decker for the ride back - this time a truncated single deck bus followed by a normal sized version that was so new the smell of unsquashed upholstery was overpowering. The mountains were starting to disappear behind wisps of cloud that only served to make them look even more appealing. At the end of the day I can't decide which is the best way to see the view - but then if you are on holiday, why decide when you can have both ?

More pictures on Flickr

Tuesday 22 July 2008


PorthmadogYou gotta love brummies. As I swung my rucksack into the seat on my train to Birmingham, an old dear had helped herself to my newspaper which had just dropped on the table. Her reactions were those of a ninja - up from her seat, along to mine and whipping away the news in the time it took my luggage to travel from my shoulder to a seat. "Help yourself" I said with as much irony as my voice could muster. "Oh, was it yours ?" she asked while returning my property. OK so it was a free paper and I firmly believe in these being read as widely as possible but generally snatching them away from a reader is considered bad form. Happily the table also supported an unwanted copy of the Sun which was soon being consumed - comments such as "Not that Amy Winehouse AGAIN" indicated the entertainment section had been reached...

However, paper stealing midlanders aside, the journey to Porthmadog was fantastic. This trip all came about after my visit to Aberystwyth a few months ago. At Dovey junction I realised that I really needed to take the other branch on the line up the Cambrian Coast Railway. This is often described as one of the most scenic railway lines in the UK. I might dispute that after my recent experiences in Scotland, but it'[s a close run thing.

Making the journey is fiddly. My 10 pound ticket from Brum just said to catch the 10:33 and it will do the job. Neither the light up board at the station or printed timetable mention the change at Machynlleth. The train was very crowded so the soft voiced announcer wasn't going to be heard as we travelled either. Fortunately the ticket collector made sure everyone knew what to do and where to go.

Dovey JuntionThe scenery IS fantastic. The line follows the coast as it weaves around. The train passes remote beaches and inlets. We often traveled over long, low viaducts bridging wide rivers or inlets. I'd love to be able to show you some beautiful photographs but the windows were mucky (Note to Arriva - if you want to sell this as a tourist experience then do some cleaning so we can see out properly) and a camera pointing out from a moving vehicle really can't do the sights justice. On the land side we had mountains with the tops poking into the low cloud. The land is lush and green with forests everywhere.

However, aside from the hills and valleys and crinkly coast, there is one feature that stands out more than any other - the static caravan. You don't see the odd one, or even the odd site. There are thousands of them. Many sites cover acres of the countryside. Entire hills swarm with tin boxes for holidaymakers. Admittedly they are normally painted a tastefull shade of green, the contrast with all the traditional stone built houses is huge.

For the visitor who wants to see Wales, a travelcard for the Cambrian Coast line would be a boon. Every few minutes we passed through a small fishing port now making it's living through tourism. Barmouth, Tywyn and Fairbourne to list just a few tempting destinations. Sadly the service runs in frequently, every 2 hours during the day so You'll want to get plenty out of each stop.

Porthmadog is one of these modest but interesting towns. The traveller has a choice of three West Highland enginestations to chose from. First there is the mainline railway one you arrive at. The station building is now a pub which does nice beer but inexplicably no food. On the other side of the road is the Welsh Highland Railway which greeted me with a steam engine and some very friendly staff who are happy for the casual visitor to wander on to the platform for a quick look. At the other end of the town is the southern terminus of the Ffestiniog railway which will occupy this blog in a few days.

Walking through the town doesn't take long. Apart from Woolworths there are no serious chain shops. Not too many tacky gift shops either for a place that obviously benefits from the tourist trade in a big way. Mind you, quite a lot of them will sell you a bucket and spade...

I'm staying in the Tudor Lodge Hotel. It's central, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced. The breakfast is continental which is good for my waistline at least.

Friday 18 July 2008


Stourbridge TownStourbridge has never made on to any list of places to see before you die to my knowledge. It's not glamorous, exciting or picturesque. It's just another midlands town. To be honest, I only went there to deliver a model I'd built.

Perhaps there is an appeal for the transport enthusiast. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) the town sits at the end of the shortest branch line in Europe. With the journey only taking 3 minutes I can well believe this is true. Add to that the easiest and most boring train driving job in the world and it's a real find.

This would be to denigrate an rather nice little town. The shopping centre isn't huge but it is largely free of the larger chain stores. They all live in nearby Merry Hill shopping centre leaving High Street free for the local shops. Quite a mix of them too - how often do you find a Post Office that also sells Indian food ? Sadly this modern innovation leaves the original attractive building one of the few boarded up in the road but I suspect this won't last long.

Stourbridge LionIndoor Market spotters will be pleased to find a 60's version on the edge of town, just past the entrance to the town hall and library which jut out from the back of the building into a shopping precinct. Sadly there are only 2 business operating in the market - a busy baker and quiet cosmetic shop. The signs are that this is to be renovated, it deserves it.

In the middle of the precinct there is a tall automaton - a clock which on the hour has a rotating display of statues. The "Stourbridge Lion", the first steam engine to be operating in the USA and manufactured locally, is followed by three fey fellows who spin around carrying glasses and flowers. Not sure what they represent buy the Lion is a very fine representation. It's a pity that the audience is limited to a couple of OAPs who are just sitting there waiting for nothing in particular.

Mmmmmmmmmm, come on, you know you want one...Back on the high street and feeling hungry, a local chain baker (Firkins) supplied a contender for the most disgusting (in a good way) cake ever. Imagine the bun from an iced bun, generously covered with yellow icing and filled with lemon curd and cream. "That looks disgusting", I said to the lady behind the counter, "I'll have one". "I know, but they are lovely", she replied with the air of someone letting me in on a secret. She wasn't wrong either. The slightly savoury (OK, not sweet) dough of the bun provides a welcome counterpoint to the sickliness of the topping while the cream softens the tartness of the curd. I think one a day is plenty through...

More pics on Flickr

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Oxford and Headington - In search of Lord Elton

“Take your jacket off”, hissed the lady to her husband as we all sat on the top deck of the bus, “it's warm”.

Lord Elton's BookShe was right too. The weather gods finally remembered that it was summer and produced a cracking day with blue sky, fluffy clouds and no rain. Mind you, I suspect that it might have been a sight of a workman wandering around wearing his hi-vis jacket as a belt that made her realise that perhaps winter clothes could be dispensed with as much as the sunshine blazing through the glass.

My trip to Oxford came about because of a book bought in Douglas indoor market. “It Occurs to me” is a compilation of three series of broadcast talks made by Lord Elton in the late 1930's on the radio. I have a thing for books of essays and these are particularly good and very readable. Like all good writers he dwells on the minutiae of life but often refers to his time in the World War 1 where he spent years as a guest of the Turkish army as a prisoner of war. Read today there is a strong, unintended, poignancy to the words as we all know what happened a couple of years after publication.

Born Godfrey Elton, the historian was elevated to become Lord Elton of Headington in 1934 (see his Wikipedia entry for a little more information). Having enjoyed the book I felt the need to have a mooch around Headington itself. Once a separate town to the north of Oxford, the two have largely joined but a thriving centre still exists and I've been through it many times on my way to a rather good model shop just outside the main shopping area.

My objective was to try and track down some more books by Elton, especially his autobiography “Among Others”. A trawl of second hand bookshops would surely turn something up ? Well no - there are no bookshops in Headington. In fact around a third of the shops are run by charities. Still, I'm told by experts in the field charity shops in posh areas are often worth a browse thanks to a better quality of donations. Oxfam seemed to have cornered the market in anything other than trashy paperback and unsurprisingly they didn't have anything – I suppose I need to resort to Amazon's famous long tail after all.

Headington BarclaysThe shopping centre looks to have been largely rebuilt in the 1930's with what must have been some quite attractive buildings. Years of terrible planning and modern alterations haven't done them any favours but the echoes are still there. A modern development for “key workers” (those who work in locksmiths ?) stands out but not in a bad way. Presumably someone had made the architect put some effort in rather than lob up another grey box. The 1960's underpass is probably the brightest thing on the high street, decorated by kids (or painters with very limited artistic skill) showing a dream high street on the pebble-dashed walls. I assume getting “da kiz” to paint the walls officially persuades them no to do it under their own steam at night. How well this will work is debatable. At least one family are doing their best to raise the next generation of delinquents – challenged in a charity shop as to why one of the kids wasn't at school (and running around the shop) they replied, “Well, we er, got started a bit behind this morning”. The Daily Mail (no you don't get a web link, do you think I really want to sully my blog with one) would have had a field day and for once I'm not sure I'd blame them. At one point I thought they were following me as the tribe (2 parents, 1 spawn, 1 in-line double buggy) seemed appear about 20 seconds after I entered any shop.

Oxford will always be home to Inspector Morse for me. It's one of the few TV shows I can actually watch repeatedly, in fact it's the only TV series box-set I own. As an aside, is there a major ecological crisis looming with box sets of Friends and Ali McBeal on VHS ? Every second hand store has at least one and in desperation it usually has a price ticket of 50p on it. And dust. Will processing plants have to be built to deal with this menace ? Perhaps they could be brought together in one place so astronauts have something other than the Great Wall of China to look at...

Anyway, the Oxford to Headington road seemed to be one of the favoured locations in Morse. It's straight, not too busy and green. Ideal conditions for a vintage Jaguar obviously. Just into the city another location pops up and seemed worth a visit – Waterfields Booksellers. The sort of proper shop that sells antiquarian books rather than second hand ones. I'm too scared to go in these sort of place most of the time. My reading tastes tend not to suit their stock nor their prices. This time though my hunt was for a real author. The owner started with a check in Debrets (every home should have a copy) to get Lord Eltons details (I had forgotten his first name) and then checked the history section. Two volumes appeared, both heavy scholarly works which seemed suspiciously late to me as they covered history up to 1968. A quick flick through revealed them to be deadly dull pieces of academe rather than a text for the casual reader so I passed.

Oxford puntsFrom my vantage point on the top deck as we passed into the city I'd spotted a photograph that cried out to be taken of some punts tied up on the river. It was only a couple of minutes stroll back from the shop. The shot was grabbed before some oiks (nice word, sadly out of use) in a posh pedalo entered the frame. From there though a short stroll would bring me to an old model shop that I'd passed on the bus but hadn't intended to visit. There were a couple of interesting things in the window and I could grab a picture to feature on my other blog, and the weather was still nice, and on the way back there would be a chance of an ice cream by the river.

Oxford Models is what I call a proper model shop - open for 35 year and it shows. The window is full of goodies to tempt the passer by. Entering the shop aeroplanes and helicopters hung from the ceiling. Stock sat higgledy piggledy on the shelves. Little sign of organisation was apparent so rooting around like a pig for a truffle was the only option. Magic.

When I entered the shop the owner was chatting to a sales rep. I dug through boxes and shelves for a while then remembered something I needed for a model (don't worry, no technical stuff here, don your anorak and go to the other blog for that) so once they finished I asked since my exploration hadn't unearthed anything useful. Sadly the shop specialised in aircraft rather than boat parts and I was unlucky. Still we got talking.

And talking.

The phone went and after he'd finished we carried on talking.

Oxford model centreA French student and his American girlfriend came in carrying tennis equipment. He was interested in building plastic kits of aircraft and the conversation meandered through subjects as diverse as Lockerbie, metal fatigue in Comet airliners and local sports landmarks – the first 4 minute mile was run close by. The French guy, who is learning to fly, tried to buy an altimeter sat on the shelf behind the counter but discovered £15 wasn't a good starting point for negotiations on a WW2 flight instrument. However I learned why you have two of them in a plane so I suppose it was useful. They left without buying anything but this didn't seem to matter.

We chatted more.

Another customer came in for balsa cement and left satisfied having been persuaded that the foreign version is better than that sold in the UK. The later has had all the cellulose removed for safety and consequently doesn't stick or smell properly.

Yet more chat. The shops oldest customer joined us for a while. He wasn't looking for anything, it's the sort of place you can just drop in for a chinwag as I was discovering.
Finally two more guys wandered in looking for serious model helicopters. Rather then push on with the hard sell the conversation started on motorbikes as, unless they both had a leather and helmets fetish, that's how they had arrived. A motorcyclist and owner of several vintage machines our host happily chatted about them. After 20 minutes of this I wandered out again, nearly three hours after I went in. Oh and a steamboat kit better off or over a hundred quid worse off depending on how you view it.

With little of the afternoon left I wandered back into town, eschewing the ice cream I'd planned on, and headed for the covered market. Once upon a time this would have been a real indoor market selling food to the local population. Nowadays the food tends toward the delicatessen, although at Christmas it is the place to go for your giant turkey, goose, deer or ostrich. Most of the shops are aimed fairly and squarely at the tourist market of high class shoppers. As such the whole thing has become a bit too gentrified and is better viewed as a shopping centre with bags of atmosphere. Oh, and it has appeared in a Morse or two as well TV fans.

No sign of Lord Elton though.

More pics in Flickr

Sunday 6 July 2008

Canal Museum

Canal Museum, LondonA few moments stroll from Kings Cross Station, just past the McDonalds, there is a sign for the Caledonian Canal. For the student of geography or waterways this will come as a surprise as the canal runs from Inverness to Fort William. In Scotland. And the sign is intended for walkers.

You'd have to be a keen walker - it's 561 miles away.

Of course this is silly. Follow the sign and you'll find roads with nautical names - Crinan Street, The Caledonian Road, Warfdale Road and most importantly, New Warf Road, home of the London Canal Museum.

The museum is housed in a small warehouse. Not a conventional one, but an ice warehouse. It dates from the days when ice was dug out of the Thames when it froze, and stored. Later a more reliable supply was found by importing the stuff from Norway. Below the museum are huge vats where the ice would have been stored and then transported on to the London gentry. Eventually methods to manufacture ice were developed but these were on an industrial scale so the warehouse continued to house the domestically produced product. In an era when ice production is within the capabilities of even the poorest equipped kitchen (although the recipe seems to elude people judging by the amount of ice for sale in supermarkets...) it's difficult to image a world when it wasn't available or so valuable you'd haul it across the sea.

Anyway, I pitched up just before opening time and had to hang a round a few minutes while the attendant opened up. He apologised profusely even though I was the entire queue and we were talking less than five minutes delay. I had to wait longer for the ticket seller on the Eiffel Tower to stop chatting on the phone to her boyfriend a few years ago - and I and the rest of those waiting were merely granted a sneer for our trouble.

So, what do you get for your 3 quid entry fee ?

View from the boat.The ground floor is home to half a barge. It's a proper working, coal carrier type and visitors can explore the living area with it's clever woodwork and amazing use of space. This makes you wonder about the absolutely tiny area a family would exist in. I've read about the cramped conditions but only really understood how cramped by standing in the space. My VW Camper isn't exactly luxurious and it's only intended for short breaks but the volume isn't that much smaller than that available to a family for life.

There are displays covering the history of the building and the ice trade. Also old tools and machines for handling goods are displayed. Of course there is also a souvenir shop. Rather than being full of tat this is really good - a wide range of books on canals including history and navigation. Stuff for kids and stuff for grown-ups. Sensible prices too.

Upstairs there is plenty of reading to do. Lots of boards with canal histories. Each covers a different topic and overall the studious visitor would get a real grounding in waterway history. In one corner a series of films are running. These vary from ancient to modern - many date from the 1950's as far as I could tell and were film makers attempts to document a way of life that was dieing out rapidly.

There are a few cases of models showing the different boats used around the country. It's not often appreciated that canals were not the same everywhere. Midlanders will be familiar with narrowboats intended for a 7ft wide lock but on Norfolk and the North much wider navigation's made for wider boats allowed larger loads to be carried, more like the current European examples.

Bantam TugOut the back there is a wharf with boat moorings. I'll admit to looking at these with a degree of envy. It's a quiet spot considering the central London location, almost tranquil. OK you are overlooked on all sides by warehouses that have been converted to flats but living on a boat I expect you get used to be an object of interest. The museum owns a small Bantam tug which interested me a lot as a potential subject for a model. It's tiny and brightly coloured so appeals to the inner child and is pug ugly which appeal to the industrial artist.

If you know little about the waterways world but want to learn then the Canal Museum is a great place to visit. I reckon most people could go round in a couple of hours and enjoy the trip. Obviously if there is a special event taking place, there are several through the year, then all bets are off and you might be there all day !

Visit the website - full of info but terrible to navigate.

More of my pictures on Flickr.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Borough Market

Borough MarketProper travellers roam the great cities of the world and always seem to pitch up at just the right time to take part in the local festival. I'm no good at this - the posters are either telling me something great is about to happen, or their remains tell me it was a week ago.

London is full of markets. Many of you reading this will be familiar with them and probably regularly drop into Portobello to pick up some ancient nik-naks or similar. When I go to Portebello all I see is empty stalls and litter - smoked salmon and pommes frites wrappers, that sort of thing.

Anyway, for a change I bumped into Borough Market when it was open. And it is amazing. At first I thought this was a quaint local thing under the railway near the Thames. A few minutes later I realised my mistake - it's bloody enormous. Still takes place under the railway though...

London is a global city and this is it's global fruit and veg market. If you can eat it, then it's probably here. Many of the traders have travelled serious distances to sell organic mushrooms and weird cheese. I suppose the locals are workers in the centre of London and are either minted, or are looking at foods from home. Whatever, they aren't likely to look at the products and ask for directions to the nearest branch of Farm Foods.

Borough MarketActually, the mix of stalls is odd. Most are selling delli items but a few do the proper piles of veg. Now I can see the point of picking up a few soupcons of cheese or mushroom, maybe a French style bread or Portuguese poncycake but 5 pounds of King Edwards ? There aren't that many people for whom this is the local market are there ?

My money stayed firmly in my pocket as the moment I started spending I knew a backpack full of posh cakes would be the result. Then I'd walk around transferring the weight from my back to my middle. What I did do was try every free sample offered to me, which staved off the hunger pangs for a while. I was a good boy and didn't go round for a second go at the chocolate brownies even though it was tempting.

Borough Market Website.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

The Riverside

The Riverside, St Katherines DockGood grub in London ? You want some of those jellied eels guv'nor.

No I don't. No really. The day I feel like eating a pot full of iced slime will be many days since I will last had solids. How hungry do you have to be to eat those ? I know eels are cheap and nutritious but I'm thinking roast rat might be tastier.

Fortunatly, neither roast rat or icy slime were on the menu at the Riverside on St Katherines Dock. Instead I plumped for the fish'n'chips. Plumped turned out to be a good description for the feast served up. Not just the fish, and chips but a generous salad as well. Good grief, that makes it a healthy meal !

Normally you can tell how good a London eatery is by the number of fluorescent jackets inside (more=better) but there were none to be seen. A good number of suits were eating with me though so despite the location right in the heart of tourist land, a few minutes walk from Tower Bridge, this was a proper cafe doing real food for real people. I hesitate to go on an "eat where the locals eat" riff but it's not a bad idea sometimes.

Fish'n'chips - YummyThe guys on the next table were engaged in an earnest and loud discussion about computer networking. The merits of different types of security protocols and the idiots who decide what is appropriate were considered at length. One also decided he wanted to whinge about the tea (white floaty milk bits) and chips (to many. Not "right" - he was an idiot, they were lovely). If it hadn't been raining I'd have left as soon as I'd eaten rather than listen to the ins and outs of connection speeds.

The rain was coming down - there was more water in the sky than in the dock - so I felt forced to stop for desert. My waiter said the chocolate fudge cake could be made to come with cream at my request and it did. The art created with a squirty cream can rivalled that seen in the better galleries. It tasted good too.

All this (fish, chips, salad, tea, can of coke, pudding) for 11 quid. In London, according to Lonely Planet, that is as budget as you get. Bargain.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Foyles food

Foyles food
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
There I was, innocently wandering along a London thoroughfare when an A-board offers the tempting prospect of a cafe with free jazz. A moments weakness and I climbed the stairs of the worlds biggest bookshop to get some refreshment.

The cafes not huge and has excessively olde worlde seating more suited to a country barn (a smart one mind) and CD racks. We are in the corner of the music department.

The drink selection will be familiar to anyone who's been in a modern coffee house. I went for the hot chocolate. It's served in a proper mug not some fancy shaped cup, beaker or chalice. It tasted nice too and was just the right temperature.

Cakes are as right -on as you can get. Nothing containing dead animal is available so I settled for vegan (yes vegan) ginger cake. All I can say is that vegans either aren't as fey as they are made out to be, or the strength of the flavour will blow their heads off. I'm a proper red-blooded carnivore and I found it strong. Nice though.

And the jazz ? Well it was experimental. Or crap depending on how accurate you want to be. Blowing randomly on a flute does not count as music. If it's no better than I can do then shut up 'cos I'm rubbish at tuney things and if you don't, I have a ukulele and don't know how to use it...

Tower Bridge

Tower BridgeIf ever there was a landmark to represent the south of England, this is it. An iconic image, known around the world, and a bit fake 'cos it's covered with stone cladding.

Let me explain. Tower bridge exists in its current form for a simple reason. At the time it was built, any river crossing on the Thames needed to provide for sailing ships to access wharfs upstream. Hence, the bridge either had to be very tall or open to clear the masts.

The way it does this is very clever. A pair of steam engines pressurise a pair of accumulators (a water reservoir with heavy weights sitting on top). When the bridge has to open, the accumulators power engines that open the road way (bascules for techies). The complicated system is needed because the steam engines couldn't open the bridge fast enough on their own but they can store enough energy to do the job. The building is really a big machine - a bit like the Laxey wheel - with decoration. It's internal structure is steel and to make it look prettier the who thing is covered with stone embellishments, much like many houses around the country...

Anyway, all this stuff is explained if you visit the exhibition in the tower, it just takes a bit of time to get there. The entrance is at the base of one tower where a badly designed foyer slows you down. 6 quid gets you in once you've been frisked and had your bags x-rayed. Then a photographer takes your photo, "just for fun" - he wasn't impressed that I refused. Once the lift is full, visitors are conveyed to the top of the tower.

A short film with (surprisingly) some of the cream acting talent in covers a bit of history and most people sat through this politely. The real reason most make the trip is the view from the walkways. Originally conceived as a way for foot passengers to cross the river when the bridge was open they are now glazed (hooray, it was raining when I went) and have a slight duff display explaining what the Victorians did for us. Why anyone cares when farm laborers got the vote when they are in a great example of the engineering of the age I don't know but the British way is to pretend that the technical stuff is too difficult. There were some nice pictures of the construction but the multi-lingual captions were never more than 2 lines long.

Bozza Johnson lives here !The view is worth the trip though. From one side you can see the City - if the clouds aren't blotting it out. From the other, city hall, HMS Belfast etc. A nice touch are the sliding hatches for cameras to be poked out of - there are even ramps to help the shorter tourist up to some of these.

Less clever is the stand from the photographer who took the pictures in the entrance. Your image is superimposed on a background of the bridge - and you can buy a copy ! Woo and Hoo I say. It's not like anyone visiting London owns a camera and couldn't just take a picture themselves by, ermmm, standing in front of the bridge and pressing the shutter.

Once you've been down the send tower, a further delight awaits. Included in the admission prices is a visit to "The Engine Room" - just follow the blue line painted on the pavement down under the approach road and you get some proper engineering. One of the steam Accumulator weightengines is on show with numbers to explain what the various bits are (good) the other is rotated by a motor and lit by infuriating flashing coloured lights for no good reason (bad). Further on the accumulators and various other bits are displayed for marvelling at by the tourist. I liked this stuff but then I love heavy mechanical things and seeing how machines work. The explanations were pretty good with excellent diagrams to cover a fairly complex system.

At the end, obviously, there is a souvenir shop. It's not very good although you can buy two "Make your own Tower Bridge" kits and no end of books explaining what the Victorians did. To be honest though, the tat was the same stuff available anywhere in London. Am I alone in wanting nice location specific junk ? At least that way you have to actually visit the place rather than just raiding the shop in the duty-free on the way through the airport.

The pavements of London are hard. I mention this only because I decided to sit down and read the paper for a while after leaving the Tower exhibition. A few clues into the crossword there were some boats horns blaring - I looked up and the bridge was opening to allow a replica Las Vegas showboat to pass which finished the visit very nicely.

My London pictures on Flickr

Tower Bridge on Wikipedia