Tuesday 11 December 2012

Festive London

Marmitey ChristmasChristmas is nearly here. The halls are decked with Holly and the streets lit up with festive cheer and electric lights.

Finding myself in London two days in succession and being too stingy careful with my money to buy a ticket that would see me on a train home before quarter to seven in the evening, I've had the chance to see for myself exactly what it is the capital does to mark the season.

Last time I visited, the place was full of Olympics, would this continue? Could I expect to see a giant, illuminated Jessica Ennis or Mo Farra?

No I can't.

Oxford Street rejoices to the joy of Marmite. I'm pretty certain that this isn't the staple food of a Brownlee brother although it certainly helps me get going in the morning if I feel a bit dopey. I know that stringing lights costs money but I'm not sure about advertising displays masquerading as decoration. Fortunately they seem few and far between and pretty boxes, stars and umbrellas are the norm. Not sure what is festive about a brolly but that's my problem I suppose.

Around the corner, Hyde Park has been turned into a winter wonderland. Just like every major city in the country (well, Birmingham at least), the place is full of open fronted wooden sheds selling stuff. Festive stuff mostly but to be honest, the sort of stuff that you give other people as presents. Stuff that they then stuff into a cupboard and forget about. Nice, but let's be honest, you could live without it.

The thing is, walking around, I couldn't argue that it was Chrismassy. Crimbo is the time to give presents and since very few people need anything useful, they get stuff that they wouldn't ever think to buy for themselves. Mostly, because they have cupboards full of stuff like that already and if they really wanted it, they would buy it themselves. Never mind. It's the thought that counts. And the fun of buying things.

WIce Maidenhat sets Winter Wonderland apart from other markets is the funfair. Huge rides such as a chair-o-plane that flies a couple of hundred feet up in the air. Ideal for those who fancy whirling around the London sky attached to a machine by a couple of lengths of chain.

The "fun house" type rides looked more entertaining. You walk through the building over rolling pathways, through mirror mazes and other entertainments suitable for wimps like me. I've not seen one of these in the UK before and there were at least 4 here.

I even found a little railway. Quite how it worked, I wasn't sure as the track was covered over to allow entrance to Santa's Kingdom but I'm sure there was a plan. No one seemed to wish to take the train while I was there which is a pity. If I'd been a kid, I'd have been straight on. I recall making may circuits of the toy railway in a local park and that was in the summer. Imagine the delight of doing this in the beautifully lit nighttime?

So, did you go on any rides? I hear you ask. No I didn't. Not because I am a wuss, although that would have kept me off the zip-wire, falling ride thing and roller coasters, but because I wasn't spending that sort of money. No cash is taken on the rises but tokens cost a pound each and several rides wanted 6 of these for entry.

How much?!

Yes, basically, if you took a family for the evening and the kids wanted to go any anything, recon on spending more than the national debt of Brazil. Despite this, plenty seemed up for a go. Maybe they were all city traders flaunting the money we bailed them out with a few years ago.

None of this matters of course. I spent a happy hour wandering and didn't spend a bean. There were huge and not so huge tableau to enjoy. Lights and the smell of outdoor food. It seems that Christmas equals Bavaria so there is a big bar serving German beer, even though the proper British stuff is much nicer.

Earlier in the day, my route had taken me through Covent Garden. It's home to biggest baubles ever seen (although the glitter ball in the Solihull Wetherspoons runs them pretty close) a giant reindeer, Christmas trees (of course) and best of all, a Lego advent calendar. Each day another door is opened to show a new brick-built model.

How much does it cost to enjoy all of this? Well, apart from the train ticket, nothing. A happy day wandering around just looking at nice things. In this age of austerity, can you ask for more than that?

Merry Christmas.

Covent Garden Baubles

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Olympic London

Olympic GingerbreadOlympic tickets ? Didn't apply for any.

This is partly because I'm not interested in sport but mostly thanks to the constant warnings of transport meltdown. Travelling to Stratford is easy enough, even when I realised that it's the fake one near Albert Square and not the real one a few miles away on the banks of the river Avon. Getting back seemed to be a whole lot harder. The London games would be fine for Londoners with access to the underground system, for the rest of us it appeared to be a TV experience.

That's annoying as you don't get the Olympics set up camp in your country very often. Worse, it seemed pretty quickly that the transport hadn't descended into chaos. To cap it all, people I know kept posting photos on Facebook and flaunting their close proximity to the even as much as if they were wearing pearly King and Queen costumes.

All was not lost - not every event took place inside the Olympic park. You can't run a Marathon in there and neither it seems, can you hold a Triathlon. This event has to take place in Hyde Park where there is water and roads. Best off all, the men's event started at a sensible to time of day for those wanting to use a cheap train ticket.

Leamington Waiting RoomMy plan involved catching a train that arrived in Marylebone station at exactly the same time the race started, For the first 20 minutes or so the athletes would be splashing around in the middle of a cold lake - a bit rubbish for the spectators. By the time they made it on to dry land, I reckoned I could have crossed the capital to reach the park. I've walked this way before so had a pretty good idea of the timings.

At the station the platform was fuller than normal and with plenty of people who obviously didn't catch many trains. They were there too early and looked at everything and everyone with the air of someone who has just landed from Jupiter. When the train arrived, they all stood in the wrong place whereas us seasoned travellers know better.

Unsurprisingly, it was busy. I had knew the chances of a seat were slim but reckoned I could live with this. My drink was in a bottle, my paperback small enough to read while vertical in a crowd. The other passengers surged on and things were looking grim. I had spotted that there was another train in five minutes time so decided that the one in front of me could mop up the mob and I'd have a more comfortable ride in a few minutes.

This was a mistake.

The second train was very short - two coaches long - and busy. Being the sort who, unlike most people, will sit beside someone else I did get to perch and look back at the crowds in the entrances.

Our train gradually filled up at each station it stopped at and I realised what I'd done was swap a busy service that arrived in just over an hour for one that was just as busy but took 90 minutes. By the time I arrived, they would be out of the water and on to the bikes.

The passengers exited the train when it arrived in London in much the same way toothpaste exists a tube. Dodging through the crowds I headed in the rough direction of Hyde Park. Hitting Oxford street I knew I was close. I could even see the crowds.

Not knowing London particularly well and Hyde park even less it was handy that the Olympics was big there. Signs directed visitors to the free viewing area. You couldn't miss it to be honest, ringed with a 15 foot height green steel wall, a huge chunk of the area was more prison camp than green and pleasant land. Thinking I could walk around it, I started against the flow of the crowd but quickly changed my mind and found myself near the entrance.

THE WallAccess to Stalagluft Olympic are involved joining one of many queues, being searched and not taking in any food and drink, at least that's what the sign above the checkpoint said. Outside, Londoners were picnicking to dispose of thier contraband before heading in. I didn't fancy this so carried on walking, assuming that my Olympic (viewing) dream was over.

Yet again, I was wrong. rounding the barrier I could see the lake. Heading toward this thinking that I could at least get some photos of the floating things I noticed the crowds. Reaching the edge, I found myself around 15 rows back from the track and just in time to see the cycling section finish its last lap. Result !

It seems that if I had endured the searches all I'd have been able to do was watch the events on a giant telly and buy the "approved" food and drink from the vendors. Quite frankly, I can do this at home by sitting in the corner of the room under the screen and refusing to consume Pepsi.

Triathalon Cycling

Being tall, I saw the top half of Lycra clad men on bikes (as far down as I wish to see thank you) and then all the laps they did of the lake. Well, the bit in front of me and some on the other side of the water.

Every time the runners came around, a sea of arms waving cameras went up. Clapping and cheering started and boy it was loud. One clever move was having the two British competitors at the front and both with the same, easily chantable name. "Brown-Lee" bellowed the crowd as the leader passed. Then some cheering for second place and then "Brown-Lee"all over again.

A commentary over speakers kept us up to date on progress although it was difficult to hear over the roar of three circling helicopters. I only realised the race had been won when the cheer went up.

Gradually the crowd disbursed. Focusing on the race, I hadn't spotted that the bank behind was also full of people. Nipping out during lunchtime to catch some Olympic action seemed popular judging by some of the clothes - and why not, you only get to do it once.

Following the sea of people, I headed in the direction I though Mayfair was. It's not a part of London I've wandered before and that was my plan for the rest of the day. Reaching the edge of the greenery there was a more poignant sight.

July 7th Memorial52 silver-grey pillars commemorate the lives of those murdered in the attacks that took place on the London Underground in 2005 - the day after it was announced that the city had won the right to hold the Olympics.

A group of 4 men decided that in their perverted view, God would be better celebrated by killing people than by his creations striving to achieve the best they possibly could. That and they felt it would allow them to jump the queue to a glorious afterlife which on its own seems a bit selfish.
On a sunny day, having seen tens of thousands of people celebrating the efforts of others, it makes you wonder why.

My Olympic photos on Flickr

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Whitlocks End

Whitlocks EndEvery time I go to Birmingham on the train, there seems to be a service leaving another platform running to Whitlocks End. This has been going on for months and made me wonder exactly what is so special about the place. After all, if every train seems to be going there, maybe I'm missing something if I don't follow suit !

A quick squiz on Google maps shows it to be a bit isolated. The nearest conurbation is 20 minutes walk away and on the boundaries of Solihull. Not a obvious choice as a desirable destination, but the name has a certain appeal.

The first choice the traveller faces is at the ticket machine. Leamington to Birmingham return costs a substantial £12.50. Leamington to Whitlocks End is £6.30. Same train, same route. Both trips involve going into Brum, it's just the cheaper trip requires you to change trains to reach your destination. If you were minded to do so, you could visit the second city by taking a train to Birmingham New Street and then not bothering with the second stage of the journey thus saving you 6 quid - swivel on that John "I'm going the smash the railways" Major !

Of course, I was a good boy and changed trains at Moor Street station like I was supposed to and found myself returning back down the line the way I had come from ten minutes before heading out along the "Shakespeare Line". The bucolic name hides some grim bits of city although these are quickly replaced by fields largely populated by horses.

Arriving at Whitlocks End station still doesn't explain why trains terminate there. It's a parkway style place. There's lots of space to leave a car, minimal covered facilities, a broken ticket machine and very little else. Certainly nothing to delay the traveller unless he has a skateboard and fancies trying his skills out on the zig-zag ramps provided for wheelchair access.

Shirley Town Football ClubI had taken the precaution of bringing  a map so decided that the nearby town of Dicken's Heath would be worth a stroll. Heading out from the station, the first thing I noticed is that while there aren't many buildings, the area is home to most of the UK's budding football stars. Shirley Town Football club (Founded 1926) have their ground opposite the station entrance and for the weary traveller offer cafe facilities. Around the corner there are Highgate United FC, Monkspath Pumas, Leafield Athletic Football club and Wychall Wanderers Junior FC. Can there be a greater concentration of dribbling talent anywhere in the UK ? More than in the current England team I suspect.

My visit was on a frosty Tuesday so the footballers were at work or school I assume, certainly the fields were empty. Once past them though, I came across the greatest surprise of the day - an elephant.

Tin elephant

Pachyderms aren't native to this part of the West Midlands. Neither are gorillas, gazelle or crocodiles, but that were all found on the country lane. Specifically at a garden centre called Akamba which specialises in hardy tropical plants (good to -12 degrees C) and full-sized metal animals sculpted in metal. The elephant was around 8 feet high - slightly difficult to load into the car but a bit different from the more common garden gnomes other people have.

Another 5 minutes stroll brought me to the edge of Dicken's Heath. The first few buildings look to have some age but only the first few. Almost instantly you are in to modern housing estate territory. The whole place appears to have been built in the last 5 years but in the manner of a modern take on the traditional village. Someone even thought to construct a barn conversion that I doubt ever saw any hay. A village green abuts the village hall, library and health centre. There is a reasonable shopping arcade. Food comes courtesy of Tesco Metro.

Apart from there there are two cosmetic dentists, one promoting a "Winter whitening" offer because gleaming gnashers are so important over the festive period. You can also get your hair styled by one of at least three hairdressers, buy a property from one of several estate agents and then drown your sorrow at the bill with one of the two wine importers. Don't think we are talking off-licence, one made a great play of the quality of the champagne they stocked. At least it won't stain your newly gleaming teeth.

Frozen waterfallThere is a waterfront area complete with a customs house. The water turns out to be a sculpture in a square pool that looked ideal for sailing model boats. This flows down a stepped waterfall about 15 feet to the canal. Around all this were the sort of loft style apartments that have taken over any traditional warehouse found near real quaysides.

The customs officers, by the way, now seem to specialise in selling art.

Sitting in the Cloud Cafe, I pondered the place. For the life of me I can't work out whether I like it or not. On one hand it is a very practical "village". There is a lot of living space nicely arranged near to the shops and with a decent play area for kids too young to head off to the many footie clubs. All the basic facilities are there: library (afternoons only), parish council office, supermarket, plastic pub, or at least a bar and village hall. A limited bus service runs to Solihull and as I discovered, the station isn't too far to walk.

But there was something about it that unnerved me and finally I worked out what it was. Inspiration came from the special of the day - Chorizo Red Pepper, Butter Bean and Spinach Salad. That's not real food, it's the sort of perfect lunch that you think you would like to eat but instead opt for a turkey sandwich, a bag of crisps and bottle of fizzy drink. I'm sure it would be lovely, my carrot cake certainly was, but it's like real life is somewhere else, outside the bubble that the village exists in.

It put me in mind of Portmeirion, the village in Wales where they filmed "The Prisoner". Someone has collected a lot of random architecture together and put it in one place. The buildings are "nice" and certainly far more varied than any similar modern built place I've been in, but it's all so new and, well, plastic. Give it 10 years and I wonder if they will look as pretty. I hope so. It would be lovely to think that community spirit keeps the streets clean and safe, that the recession ends and all the shop units fill up with useful places to buy stuff rather than gift shops and those selling decorating items like Walnut and Weave.

Boulevade and TescoI'm not hopeful. On leaving the cafe I wandered off without the soundtrack provided by my iPod. Suddenly I realised that there was no noise. None at all. This was due to the complete absence of people on the streets. In fact the largest group I'd seen all morning were some young mums in the coffee shop, and they looked like they were devoting a serious chunk of day to this. Apart from those running the shops, the place was deserted.

All the occupants were either abducted by aliens, or had taken the family 4X4 to the station and parked it in the generous parking. At least by the time I got back there, someone was fixing the ticket machine.

More photos on Flickr