news, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London – what you won't read in Greenwich Time

Archive for August 2009

King of the road

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White River Junction
“Fuck off!”
“Fuck you!”
“Fuck off!”
“Fuck you!”
Half past seven on Sunday morning, and my North American jaunt had taken another weird turn. I was at Boston’s bus terminal, picking up a Greyhound service to Montreal, but finding myself delayed by a row between the driver and a youth who’d taken his elderly grandmother to the terminal. The old lady had almost certainly seen some real injustices in her long life, but as she tottered onto the coach, her grandson – young, twitchy and black – was exploding at some imagined slight from the Greyhound staff. The driver wasn’t having any of it. The comeback from the baggy-tracksuited one?

“Get a college education!”

“You should use your college education!”
, the driver wearily muttered. And he was right, for no angry youth was going to be a match for the King of the Road.

Somewhere in New Hampshire

I promised myself last year I’d return to the US east coast- lots of people and places I wanted to see – but having weaned myself off flying around Europe, I wasn’t pleased at the thought of spewing a load of pollution into the sky in my haste to cross the Atlantic.

The not-entirely satisfactory solution I came up with was to book a long trip, and go touring by road and rail and see as much as I could to get as much value as I could out of my travels. I got greedy, crammed in a couple of Canadian destinations, and so Sunday was Greyhound day, because it’s the only way to get from Boston to Montreal.

White River Junction

I’d heard the scare stories about travelling by long-distance bus – and my decision to break my 7-hour journey in Burlington, Vermont, cost me because Greyhound’s antiquated ticket system can’t cope with non-US citizens booking in advance from most stops.

(Strangely, though, Greyhound is now owned by the UK’s FirstGroup, which is bringing the name over here.)

So it was up early on Sunday morning, cursing my decision to wallow in Boston’s great bars only a few hours before. But the scenery soon put thoughts of a hangover out of my mind – the interstate highways were quickly surrounded by thick forest, and the thick forest was quickly surrounded by low cloud. On Sunday I’d been drenched by the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny and the last of it was still hanging around.

I was surprised to find that the Greyhound was a terrific way to travel – not exactly fast, but my seat was comfortable (fitting snugly into a seat designed for American backsides) with the kind of soft headrest which seems to have been outlawed in the UK several decades ago. With the driver’s easy-going drawl on the PA, this was a relaxing ride.

Spotting different states’ registration plates was also fun – New Hampshire’s carry the slogan “live free or die”. Well, now you suggest it…

White River Junction

Some of the interstate highways weren’t exactly smooth going – imagine travelling down a Bexley borough side street with its concrete surface at 50mph and you’ll understand what I mean. But it was cosy enough for me to doze off until just inside Vermont, where we stopped at White River Junction – the kind of place that’s a reminder that where much of Britain was built around the railways, the Americans built their nation around their highways.

A change of coach and we were off again – blue skies appearing, signs warning of bears and moose. It was easy to imagine the pioneers blasting their way through the forest to build these roads.

Vermont scenery

Four and a half hours later, I stopped off in the lakeside town of Burlington to call in on a pal and take in the views over Lake Champlain. The sun was now shining, the water was a deep, glistening blue. It looked idyllic.

Burlington, Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Burlington, Vermont

Back on the Greyhound a couple of hours later – my early coach had been quiet, this was full of backpackers’ chatter, while next to me a middle-aged Frenchwoman told me how she’d been touring Canada and the US by water and road.

US/Canada border

The border choreography was fairly simple – everything and everyone off the bus, speak to the guards, wait around, everything and everyone back on the bus, wait around some more. The young Australian behind me who fretted about not knowing what to do at the border was singled out for a lengthier quizzing. “And all I can show is this stamp,” she complained. Once she was done, we were off again.

Within half an hour, the forests of Vermont felt like a distant memory as we ploughed along sedate single-carriageway roads surrounded by cornfields, with vineyards close by. The cheery “Bonjour!” welcoming us to Quebec was a gentle introduction to the fresh culture shock of being in Francophone territory.

Montreal from the coach

Finally, after traffic jams and another splash of rain, we arrived in Montreal. I’m staying 11 floors above the city, and I’ve a day and a half to explore. I’d best get out and do it…

Montreal from the 11th floor

Written by Darryl

31 August, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Smiles for Edward Kennedy

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Thank you Teddy
Boston, Massachusetts: The last thing I expected when I decided to head to America to see pals and sights was that I’d be thrown into a city in mourning. The death of US political icon Senator Edward Kennedy on Wednesday hadn’t meant a great deal to me, not knowing much about US politics.

Across the road from where I’m writing, the flags on the Boston Public Library are at half-mast. The first thing I saw when I turned on my hotel TV last night was Katie Couric live from Boston. The second thing was an hour of live programming from where Senator Kennedy was lying-in-state, at the JFK Library a few miles from here.

It was a genuinely moving broadcast – he was Massachusetts’ senator, and a father figure for the liberal politics that many here hold close to their hearts. A report from Washington told how he helped out at a children’s reading group. The presenters recounted tales of his work in the state, as huge queues formed outside the library.


This morning, I went to see it for myself. On the way there, a sign at a building site read “CARPENTERS UNION SALUTES SENATOR KENNEDY”. Free buses are took mourners from the transit stop to the library, where already hundreds of people were waiting in warm sunshine.

There were no tears, though – people were glad to be there, to pay their respects to a man who the people of Massachusetts were deeply proud of. “The line! You gotta come together! The cameraderie!,” joked one person. They were remembering their senator with smiles.

The union says thanks

I got chatting with Molly and Michael, whose parents had campaigned for John F Kennedy in the 1960 election. They’d returned the favour by campaigning for Obama last year, and Michael runs a non-profit group, Generation Progress. We chatted about healthcare reform and the difference between US and UK politics. All around us people chipped into the conversation. My NHS organ donor card suddenly became a item of personal pride.

People handed out bottles of water to the queue, while union members handed out stickers recalling JFK’s campaign and “THANK YOU TEDDY” posters.

Then there was ripple of excited whispers from the queue- members of the Kennedy family were walking down the line, pausing and chatting with people. They were genuinely touched by the turnout, and the people whose hands they shook were not starstruck – this was citizen thanking citizen. It’s often said that the Kennedy family are America’s royalty. But they struck me as anything but.

Remembering Senator Kennedy

Inside the JFK Library, the line shuffled past the senator’s closed casket. An honour guard stood upright around his flag-draped coffin. As we approached, so did a new guard of soldiers – it was precisely 11am- an we got to see the changing of the guard, with the coffin saluted and bayonets raised. I’ll remember this the next time an American praises us Brits for our pagentary – it was a stirring sight.

Outside, Massachusetts state politicians filed in to pay their respects in a ceremonial procession. Outside broadcast vans and reporters milled around, a dramatically-haired woman from Fox looking out of place. Scores queued to sign books of condolence.

Thank you Senator Kennedy

On the bus back, the atmosphere was easygoing, and the driver joked with passengers getting off early. Tomorrow will see Barack Obama in town for a memorial Mass. But for now, people in Boston are happy to remember Edward Kennedy with smiles – which seems to me to be the best tribute anyone can have.

Written by Darryl

28 August, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Another day, another journey

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By the time you read this, I’ll be heading somewhere else to do and see new things (and catch up with a couple of people as well). It’s going to be a big and daunting journey for me, something I’ve only done once before in my life, but I’m really excited about it too. And while I’m gone, I’m going to miss a load of things – Climate Camp and the Greenwich Comedy Festival for a start. I’m not going to regret being away for Thames Water digging up my road, though.

But there’s one thing I’m not going to be able to do any more. Earlier this summer, Boris Johnson started his plan to cock up London’s buses by getting rid of the bendies on… one of the routes which needed them the most, the 507. I can see an argument for bendies not working very well in the twisty streets of Stoke Newington, sure. But the Red Arrow pair of 507 and 521 became giants of the road with a bend in, helping people get to work and back again quickly, even if it was in a bit of an ungainly manner.

From Tuesday, the 521 will also become a shrunken memory of what it once was. And so, if you’re in London today, or on Friday, it’ll be your last chance to enjoy London’s best and cheapest fairground ride. Riding through the Strand Underpass on a bendy bus.

I think Ken cocked it up by not having conductors on board the buses, myself – it might have dented some of the painful snobbery shown against the bendies, and stopped them from being such a paradise for fare-dodgers.

But instead, because the Evening Standard and its dwindling band of readers threw their dummies out of their gold-edged prams, London’s commuters are going to suffer. If you’re a 521 passenger, good luck next week as you try to squeeze on board a normal-sized bus…

Written by Darryl

27 August, 2009 at 11:30 am

Greenwich Market redevelopment rejected by council

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Blimey. I’m really taken aback by news of Greenwich Council suddenly developing a backbone and rejecting the plans to redevelop Greenwich Market

The rejection comes despite Greenwich Council planning officers recommending acceptance of the plans.

The council leader, Cllr Chris Roberts, a member of the planning board, said at the meeting: “I simply don’t believe the design is good enough for the World Heritage Site. I am not convinced it would create a place I would want to spend time in.”

The council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Cllr Peter Brooks, also a board member, said he had “grave concerns” about the quality of the design and said: “I’ve not been convinced by anything I’ve heard” from the developers and landowners, Greenwich Hospital.

Tory councillor Dermot Poston said the scheme could be anywhere: “Those shops might be in Brazil, or Canada, or Manchester – not Greenwich.”

Election coming soon, do you reckon? I’d expected the council to roll over for the developers, as they’ve done in countless circumstances in recent years – and the planning officers seemed to think it was business as usual too, recommending a flawed scheme get the green light. I remember when Greenwich Hospital, the charity which runs the market, first unveiled its plans, and its representatives seemed completely oblivious to the fact that anyone might think they were wrong. I wonder if the recent spate of roadworks which have blighted the centre of SE10 with traffic queues helped concentrate the councillors’ minds – central Greenwich is arguably becoming overdeveloped, and has definitely lost some of its character in the past years.

Finally, finally, action has been taken to halt this. The world of the local amenity societies has always been a mystery to me, but it’s staggering that Greenwich Council can now paint itself as a more doughty defender of the town centre’s heritage than the Greenwich Society, which backed the scheme. As for local MP Nick Raynsford, who allowed his face to appear in Greenwich Hospital’s leaflets plugging the proposals, it’s a serious blow to his credibility, with time running out ahead of the general election.

With planning proposals for the Olympics in Greenwich Park waiting to be submitted, many people will hope the council applies its new-found level of scrutiny to those proposals – already, too much of the Olympics “consultation” has taken place behind closed doors. As for the market… it’s anyone’s guess what happens next, but the shadow of redevelopment has been seen off for now, and for that, Greenwich Council deserves our thanks.

Blimey – climate camp on the heath, Greenwich Council doing the right thing… strange day!

Written by Darryl

27 August, 2009 at 12:55 am

Climate Camp comes to Blackheath

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Nice view up here....

The day before I go away on a very long trip, the Climate Camp only goes and pitches up on my doorstep, doesn’t it? Blackheath’s going to have two attractions this bank holiday weekend – but did nobody tell the campers that whenever the fair comes to town, heavy rain is sure to follow?

I took a peek at what was going on late this afternoon, as about 300 campers gathered around to hear speeches reminding them why they’re on the heath – because it’s got a prime place in the history of English popular protest, starting with Wat Tyler’s Peasants Revolt of 1381. They were keenly watched by about 70 media types and a circling police meat wagon (not to forget the helicopter hovering “discreetly” over Kidbrooke).

The camp is launched

I hope it all goes well – I really wish I was going to be around to check in on them. Curious? Go up and say hello, they’re a friendly crowd. I also hope the police don’t indulge in the oafish tactics their Kent counterparts used last year against last year’s camp (never mind the uniformed thuggery seen at the G20 protests). I have a feeling it will be alright – nobody can get away with acting like an idiot on Blackheath, because it’s one of the most public places in London.

The camp is just on the Lewisham side on the heath – the Hare and Billet pub is no doubt rubbing its hands at the extra income – but Mayor Sir Steve Bullock wasn’t laying out the welcome mat


Er… right, Steve. Have you thought about going up to the camp and saying hello to the protesters? You might even find they’re normal people, just like yourself! Or maybe it’s easier to sit on your backside and judge them straight away? Perhaps he should be disassociating Lewisham Council from Millwall Football Club on the same principle. In a recent speech, he said young people were the future and must not be failed – but only when they do as his generation says, I suppose. Considering his own Labour party was founded off the back of popular protest, it’s a staggeringly idiotic thing for a politician to to say. Still, it’s more votes for the Greens in that borough, I suppose.

On this side, Greenwich Council has issued a statement to “confirm that the main focus of the event is taking place on the Lewisham side of the heath”. Well, thanks for that. (Greenwich Greens have welcomed the camp.)

Climate Camp = good for business

It’ll be an interesting week ahead. I hope the campers aren’t expecting to get too much sleep – they’ve managed to pick the noisest bit of Blackheath, although it is near the tea hut, the pub, and Lewisham and Greenwich are just a skip down each hill. I hope, though, that they prove to be good neighbours. And that the police and media don’t get on everybody’s nerves. And hey – as the ice cream van above shows, climate camp can be good for your business…

Written by Darryl

26 August, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Want a chat about the foot tunnel?

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Funny how this comes out via someone on Lewisham Council, but hey – that’s democracy in Greenwich for you. File under “campaigns you won’t read about in Greenwich Time” – from Lee Green councillor Brian Robson’s blog

1,500-2,000 cyclists use the Greenwich foot tunnel every day to cross the River Thames, and I know some of them are commuters from Lee Green who do the ride across Blackheath and down through Greenwich Park each day. The tunnel is due for refurbishment, and part of this will involve replacement of the lifts and then closure of the tunnel completely for a period. Obviously this is going to cause some problems for regular users, particularly cyclists.

My Lib Dem colleague Caroline Pidgeon AM has arranged a meeting with representatives of Lewisham and Greenwich cyclists tomorrow night. Caroline will be at the Greenwich end of the tunnel from 6pm until 7pm tomorrow night (Tues 25th August) and will be joined by Cllr Chris Maines (Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Lewisham Council) and Greenwich Councillor Paul Webbewood (from our neighbouring ward of Middle Park & Sutcliffe).

Caroline wants to discuss cyclists concerns about the closure and possible alternatives measures Greenwich Council should take during the closure. Caroline’s the Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, so is well-placed to stand up for cyclists on this issue. Please do feel free to pop along if you’d like to discuss this issue with Caroline.

The cynic in me would just like to add that the Lib Dems aren’t totally doing this out of the goodness of their own heart – they’ll be targeting the Greenwich West ward where the south side of the foot tunnel is at next May’s council election.

But fair play to them for taking the issue seriously, and Caroline Pidgeon’s got a good track record of highlighting transport issues in London, so it’s good to see at least some local politicians taking an interest in the foot tunnel, and recognising it’s an issue that isn’t just restricted to a small area of Greenwich.

Written by Darryl

25 August, 2009 at 2:26 am

Is this the worst job in Greenwich?

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It’s good to see Greenwich’s position as a tourist destination enabling south-east London’s young people to get interesting and fulfilling employment opportunities, isn’t it? Oh….

Written by Darryl

25 August, 2009 at 1:54 am

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The London Paper’s purple reign

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I’m a bit late with this news, but then it reflects one of the weaknesses of The London Paper, which is closing next month after three years of, er, littering the capital’s streets.

Actually, I’m moved to write because I’m genuinely sad to see it go. Yes, it did feel a bit heavy on celebrity nonsense, and its news coverage was weak, but as a product I thought it was brilliant – crisply-produced with some imaginative features that really did reflect Londoners’ lives, unlike the minor royalty who got to appear in the Standard then, and still appear in it now despite its takeover by Alexander Lebedev. What’s more relevant to your life – Pet of the Day, or the madness of making your children mini Mozarts? Its attitude to London took its cue from Time Out rather than the Standard, and it was a refreshing read because of it. And, on the whole, it’s been pretty impartial, and made a good fist of the London mayoral election while the Standard (and by extension, London Lite) decended into ranting madness.

If the news coverage could have been beefed up then The London Paper might have been onto a winner, but lightweight front of the paper dragged down the rest of it, even when it did try to tackle meatier topics. Add in the poisonous spoiler paper put out by then-Standard publisher Associated Newspapers, London Lite, together with the ubiquitous hawkers, just added to the feeling of bullshit overload. If, as I hope, Lite curls up and dies, Londoners’ collective evening stress levels will take a reassuring dive. Hey, we’ll all be smiling at each other and cracking jokes each evening. Or maybe not.

But The London Paper does leave a legacy – Lovestruck (sent up by a mate – “You had dark hair and were on the top deck of the 171 on Friday night, picking your scabs. Drink?”), a modern take on Time Out’s old “I saw you” column, has snuck into London culture. It helped force Associated to sell a majority stake in the Standard, although the current paper is as bad it was under its past owners, and I’d always maintain that when the Standard finally dies, the first knife in its back will have come from the internet.

A few elements of its design were lifted by other papers – the “your club today” bit where journalists copy stuff from football clubs’ websites to fill a news in brief column has been widely imitated. And a certain kind of paparazzi and clebrity PR will be panicking at the thought of losing the London freesheets – there’ll be a sudden drop in demand for pictures of Big Brother contestants leaving clubs at 4am. I’d go so far as to maintain that some celebrities were created by the frees – model Agyness Deyn‘s face was peering up from the floors of Tube trains long before the national press became obsessed with her.

Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff? No. But I think The London Paper was valued by more people than its critics – particularly the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade – gave it credit for. When London Lite goes, no-one will miss its hastily-thrown-together design and “why-oh-why-it’s-not-fair” outlook on life, because you can get that everywhere else. Whereas The London Paper did, at least, try to see the capital from a fresh angle. And for that, the team behind it deserve credit.

The yawning great gaps in London’s news coverage go on, however. Spending time in Edinburgh reminded me of the millions thrown at journalism in Scotland – lavishly-funded BBC coverage, a distinctive and valued media scene, all for a population of 5.2 million, and right and proper for a proud and distinctive nation.

But the 7.6 million of us in London have one out-of-touch evening newspaper, pedestrian BBC output which is too often influenced by what’s in that paper, an ITV local news service which is becoming a celebrity bulletin, and LBC. Time Out – whose original news section helped inspire me to become a journalist – recently closed its London-centric Big Smoke section, exiling it online. The media is obsessed with talking about London, to the irritation of the rest of the country, but isn’t so keen on scrutinising it properly – especially when it comes to the mayor and the 32 little fiefdoms that govern our lives. Many of London’s issues simply don’t apply outside the M25 – but don’t get covered properly. Take coverage of public transport – it can moan about the Tube until the cows come home. But when are any solutions to its problems seriously discussed?

Of course, the London Paper wasn’t ever going to break the capital equivalent of Watergate any time soon. But it offered a truly London-centric take on life that few bother to do now, because they don’t know the city well enough or simply pander to people’s prejudices.

It may have sparked the depressing sight of Tube trains being covered in free papers, and having to swerve around countless hawkers on the commute home (I used to have to dodge seven of them). But London’s too important to be left to the Standard, which can’t be trusted to cover it properly. With almost every other media outlet in the capital failing it badly, it’s a terrible shame to see a fresh voice silenced.

(See also Time Out’s Peter Watts’ take on it“my predominant emotion is anger at the executives who squandered time, money and resources pursuing a strategy that was not only clearly doomed to failure, but also offered nothing of substance to the city it served.”)

Written by Darryl

24 August, 2009 at 1:00 pm

On the Fringe

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Thespy types
Look! It’s some thespy types! Yup, I spent most of last week swanning about Edinburgh taking in shows at the Fringe. When it was time to go home, I didn’t want to leave – the sun had come out, I’d just accepted a free hug from a performer on the Royal Mile and I was feeling content after running around seeing a varied bunch of shows.

Here’s the shows as I saw them through Twitter, with a few directors’ cut extras thrown in.

- First show! John Robins‘ Skinny Love at Tron- stand-up based on a break-up which is both bleak and warm. Good stuff.

- Alexis Dubus‘s Ruddy Brief History Of Swearing at The Tron: Fucking funny, really inventive, made me laugh alone at “quim”.
- I also now know the Australian sign language for “slag”, and a grevious Bosnian insult.

- Richard Herring Hitler Moustache- Underbelly: Brian Logan couldn’t have been more wrong, @herring1967 was passionate and positive.
By a long way, the highlight of the festival for me – a terrible Guardian feature on “offensive comedy” the other week implied the theme of Herring’s show was that “maybe racists have a point”. Writer Brian Logan hadn’t seen Hitler Moustache when he wrote it, and he turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Herring’s grown a toothbrush moustache for the show, where on the surface he says he wants to “reclaim it for comedy” – after all, Charlie Chaplin had one. But beneath the surface is a comprehensive tearing-to-shreds of racism, racists, and those who couldn’t be bothered to get off their arses to vote in the European election. It was brilliant – and it wasn’t the last time I was to see Richard Herring…

- Ben Dover at Underbelly: Like an inverted Ben Elton doing a stag do crowd. “I’m just a fucking show-off.” A bit queasy.
This was straight after Richard Herring in the same venue – laziness prompted me to see this more than anything. Lindsay Honey’s an engaging stage presence, but there’s not much more he can say other than he likes shagging women on camera. He doesn’t seem to have much time for any of his co-stars – male or female – either, professing bewilderment at certain sexual practices or weaknesses. He’s crude and rude, but so’s a lot of the stuff you’ll find on the Fringe. A strange show that both amused and bemused.


Collings and Herrin podcast

- Collings and Herrin at Underbelly: Bumming & whimsy from @herring1967 and @CollingsA, strange to have seen gags build on Twitter!
For those who aren’t regular listeners, the ongoing possibility that Richard Herring and Andrew Collins may consummate their relationship is a running gag throughout their podcasts. I’ve followed them both on and off on Twitter for a while now, and the podcast’s enabled listeners to follow the development of Herring’s HItler Moustache, while their Twitter feeds put further flesh on the podcast bones. For the Fringe, the pair performed five live podcasts, and I went to see two of them.

- And Bosnich Is Off His Line at Globe: Cambridge Footlights free show. Compere Liam something only one to stand out.
That’s Liam Williams, incidentally.

- Jake Yapp at Madogs: feline scatology and Khia’s My Neck My Back on the ukelele. Brilliant and free. (Morecambe was sold out)

- Bridget Christie‘s My Daily Mail Hell at Guilded Balloon Teviot: Hugely likeable show inspired by “making tea for young racists”
Christie used to work as an admin assistant on the Mail’s gossip section. There’s a story about the arrogance of a well-known bitchy female columnist that’ll have you open-mouthed with horror.
- Amsterdam Underground Comedy Collective at Underbelly: Had me crying with laughter at joke about Dutch govt ads. Ace

- Michael Jackson at the Gates of Heaven and Hell, Underbelly: Terrific comic play, bit of a hidden gem.
The Telegraph hated it.

- Finishing at Spank!, midnight stand-up showcase with the filthiest puppet you’ve seen since that Rainbow spoof


- The Lunchtime Club at the Tron: Scarily young comics hone their acts. Joe Lycett and David Morgan great, Ivo Graham has potential

- AudioBoo: On the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

- Goldrunner at Guilded Balloon Teviot: 35-year-old makes sense of life through ’91 appearance on Blockbusters. Laboured but rewards

- Jake Yapp‘s Hallo Music Lovers! at Caves: worth seeing for his impression of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s guitarist
I saw Jake Yapp again because I was in company and had some free tickets – courtesy of his parents, who have been flyering for him (and passing the bucket around at his free show). Turns out Yapp lives in Grove Park – he performs a song about the 00.48 last train from Charing Cross as part of his set.

- Marcel LuCont at Underbelly: Good fun, but he did his best jokes last night at Spank! in front of a bigger/better crowd.
LuCont is a creation of Alexis Dubus, whose swearing show I’d seen earlier. Definitely worked better with a full crowd full of booze.

- Girls with Guns, Guilded Balloon: All-female+token male (“only jokes about beer & willies”). Low on bellylaughs, high on smiles.
That seemed to be a big theme for the final shows I saw – I didn’t split my sides laughing, but still walked out with a smile on my face. That’s got to a good thing, hasn’t it?


- “Brand new comedy from a Channel 4 writer” isn’t the selling point it used to be, is it?

Free hug
- Just had free hug to promote show (So, How Was Your Day? at the Grape) and feel content. And rotten because I can’t go and see it.

- Good to meet @CollingsA and @Herring1967 after their live podcast – now rocketing through Northumbria on train home, where the wi-fi works!

Working wi-fi, eh? Will wonders ever cease?

Written by Darryl

24 August, 2009 at 3:08 am

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Rails to joy and frustration

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(Read this already? Er, I sent an unfinished version of this live by accident in the early hours of Tuesday…)

Settle-Carlisle line

Just as the Online Journalism Blog asks around for local blogs, this local-ish blog is forgetting its roots for the next few weeks. I’m in Edinburgh this week to revel in the Fringe, and next week I embark on a big, big adventure which I’m really excited about. And last week, I marked the start of the new football season by using two Charlton away games to bookend a trip around Great Britain by train, seeing bands and mates. It was only on the way back, lolloping around the Durham coast on a train from Hartlepool to London, that I realised how much of the experience was actually about the journeys I’d undertaken.

Not counting the trips within London, I’d taken nine train journeys in four days, none of which could be described as a short hop. Earlier this year, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, did a five-day tour to find out what people thought of the railways, journalist Matthew Engel did something similar. Both did it on a little-known ticket called an all-line rover – shortly after Adonis’s trip was publicised, the train companies hiked the cost, the seven-day ticket going up by nearly 15% to £430. Bored? Got a week off? You can buy one at your local station tomorrow, and get almost every UK train free for a week. My trip was a jumble of discount tickets (with reservations – seat by the window, please) and ordinary tickets, and cost a whole lot less. And while the journeys were, on the whole, fun, it was also a reminder of what a long way we have to go in this country to catch up with the standards of service I’ve found across Europe earlier this year.

11 August: 1545 Paddington to Newport, First Great Western. Not much to report here, apart from discovering that the packed train was full of berks jabbering into their mobile phones. Sweat broke out at Bristol Parkway as I thought I’d forgotten to bring my iPod headphones – while I could listen to my neighbour’s lilting Welsh tones for ages, I wasn’t so interested in her sales conference, nor the woman two seats ahead deciding to continue a row with someone despite her signal failing several times. A Network Rail sign at the end of the Severn Tunnel welcomed us to Wales, and Newport came as a relief. At least I got a seat by the window.

11 August: 1734 Newport to Hereford, Arriva Trains Wales.
The ride up from Newport shows off wonderful scenery as you head through the valleys leading into the Forest of Dean. Two hours out of Paddington and London feels light years away. This is real border country here – Herefordshire on one side, looking towards the Midlands; Gloucestershire on the other, looking towards Bristol and the south west. And Wales, a looming presence over them both. Later, I was able to wander around Hereford listening to accents – no two sounded the same, even though many of the locals are all from the same part of the world. I was sat by the window, surrounded by friendly middle-aged women, and had my ticket checked by an enormous, but jolly man.

From here, it was delicious beer in Hereford, followed by watching Charlton slip meekly out of the League Cup. Then post-match scrumpy at a mate’s place in the Forest of Dean. If it wasn’t the small hours hush of the village of Lydbrook, or the sight of the stars up above, it was his baby daughter’s infectious smile later that reminded me that there might just be something in this “clear off out of London and enjoy the good life” business.

Where it all began

On Wednesday morning, my trek began with smiles. My host had kindly consulted the timetables, his wife and daughter made sure I got to the bus stop on time. Stagecoach Wye Valley bus 35 to Ross-on-Wye? That’s the one. And for half-past-nine in the morning, it’s a pleasure to travel – not the fastest route to Ross, but a leisurely trawl through valleys and villages, negotiating switchbacks as it fills with shoppers chatting and laughing. In Ruardean, we stopped to allow a farmer take his hay down the road, while half the bus waved and cooed at toddlers in a nearby window. Dogs in a yard came out to bark at us. And the oddest sight- a pub, the Malt Shovel, packed with London Underground memorabilia.

Ross came too soon, and it was only a brief stopover in the market town. The local Rotary Club had arranged for Daily Mail misery Quentin Letts to speak there next month. Perhaps I’ll return with some old fruit. Next up was a queue (yes) for the 38 to Hereford, but the impression of civility on board the double-decker was shattered by some half-wits blasting out children’s R&B on their cruddy phones as it cantered up the A49 to Hereford. Back to reality.

Next to Hereford United’s ground is a sight, sound and smell that every idiot Londoner like me should visit – the cattle market. Some of the sheep looked a bit too hemmed in for comfort, but the auctioneer was a compelling sight, striding across the pens, banging his crook to end the sales above a sea of flat caps and farmhands. Just in front of me, a little girl played in one of the pens. Next door, another salesman took charge of a broader crowd to sell poultry. Some of those roosters looked none too pleased.

12 August: 1255 Hereford to Manchester Piccadilly, Arriva Trains Wales. Then the real travelling began- through the Marches up to Shrewsbury, up to Crewe, across to Manchester Piccadilly, and the first in a run of crap luck with the seat reservations system – plonked by the aisle, on the edge of a 50-something couple who seemed none too pleased to have company. I ended changing seats three times, finding at the end of the ride that the best seats were the ones which went unreserved. Fact learned on board the train: the Welsh for Manchester is “Manceinion”. At the end of the ride, a bizarre stealth ticket check at Piccadilly – staff milling around 10 feet up the platform, no obvious signs they wanted to see your ticket until they spoke to you.

12 August: 1527 Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds, First Transpennine Express. Across the Pennines, again given an aisle seat instead of a window seat. Wherever I sat, there was no escaping a toddler wailing in my ear. He waved me goodbye as I got off at Leeds. Only one toilet on the train was working (either that, or someone was hiding in there) – so I had to do battle with the drinks trolley to have a wee.

One thing that struck me after more than about a day of travelling around the British railway system is just how bleedin’ bossy it is. Dire warnings about bags being blown up by “the security services”- what, MI5? Insincere recorded apologies for delays, warnings about buying exactly the right ticket to prop up their rotten monopolies. That female recorded announcer who is everywhere across the network. And the same old scripts from train staff from different companies. The colours of the trains may change, the names of the operators may be different. But they all share a lack of warmth and friendliness.

I’d only been to Leeds twice before – once for football, once for a night out with a mate that was actually spent in a nearby village. So this was still uncharted territory for me – staying in a hotel in the freshly-scrubbed Brewery Wharf, a hop over a fence from where Tetley beer comes from. I went to see The Bluetones, touring the UK and performing their 1996 Expecting To Fly album at the Brudenell Social Club, one of the best venues I’ve ever been to – a members’ club in the down-to-earth Hyde Park district which serves Kronenbourg with a smile at £2.35/pint. A men-only club until 1978, it now combines its work as a social club with being one of the city’s most vibrant venues. Why go to Yorkshire to see a band from Hounslow? Heaven knows. I never got around to seeing them live at their peak. But The Bluetones were great – a mixture of self-deprecating humour and timeless tunes. A terrific gig I’ll remember for a long time. I thought about having a drink in the hotel bar after the show – but with Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting oozing out of the Jurys Inn speakers, I took myself off to bed.

13 August: 0947 Leeds to Carlisle, Northern Rail. If you were booking a train from Leeds to Glasgow, you’d book a ticket on the line specially built for that journey, wouldn’t you? You can’t. You can only buy a ticket via Edinburgh or via Preston. But the route designed for the trip is the famous Settle-Carlisle line. Going that way makes the trip into a four-hour schlep – but what a schlep. The train from Leeds to Carlisle costs a stonking £23.60 for a single, with no early-booking cheap seats.
Settle-Carlisle line
By Settle, the two-coach train was full and uncomfortably hot (until someone managed to open the windows, flooding the carriages with the scent of “animal smells”.) The views, however, are stunning, through the Yorkshire Dales and the Ribble Valley. At Settle, packs of walkers were setting out for the day, while all along the line sheep scattered as the train approached. The Settle-Carlisle Partnership provides the trolley service, a volunteer sold line guides and told us facts about the line. The trip to Carlisle from Leeds was two-and-a-half hours, but the time flew by. One to come back to and explore again.

13 August: 1247 Carlisle to Glasgow Central, Virgin Trains. I’d never come to Scotland this way before – but the Borders countryside was worth looking at on this quiet train.

I’d read a bit about The Maple Leaves via blogs, liked the sound of them, and decided that was the excuse I needed to spend a night in Glasgow. Thanks to Twitter, I had a bit of company in the brother of a mate of mine, so we pitched up at Oran Mor, a beautiful former church by the Botanic Gardens, for their free show. The price for this free show? Only one beer on sale at The Mill – bottles of Miller. Served in a plastic glass with “Miller” on the front. Just when we were considering escaping for a proper drink, along came support band Panda Su, whose singer could sing me the Yellow Pages and I’d still be listening. Meanwhile, The Maple Leaves will be your next favourite indie pop band – without a doubt. Flat and rubbish beer aside, it was a wonderful gig and we retired to a place in Ashton Lane to drink Belgian beer and talk Scottish politics. On the way back, I popped into famous late night bar Nice n’ Sleazy’s, and didn’t want to leave. On Friday morning, the heavens opened, and I took my hungover self to Corporate Coffee to watch Glaswegians scurry around in the rain.

14 August, 1345 Glasgow Central to Newcastle, National Express.
“Oh, but it was stupid of them to place a couple travelling together in diagonal seats,” whined some thin-lipped old tutter who was sat IN MY SEAT. In bloody first class as well. I took a seat in front of them, hoping I hadn’t completely ruined the train’s seating arrangement and that I could ignore this grim couple moaning about reserved seats. Despite a huge crowd boarding at Edinburgh Waverley, I got away with it. Phew.

Take me to your leader

I managed to swing a cheap bed in Newcastle’s luxurious Grey Street Hotel, and had a mate of mine and her boyfriend to take me on a brilliant bar crawl of the city, where I met a former boyfriend of Cheryl Cole and heard talesof a man living in the studio where iconic music show The Tube was made (the former Tyne Tees studio, now being used by artists).

15 August, 1330 Newcastle to Hartlepool, Northern Rail. Uh-oh – having to take one of those ubiquituous bus/train hybrids that the north of England is lumbered with. Once we’d shook, rattled and rolled past Sunderland, though, the rugged Durham coast opened up to our left as the skies began to clear.

My final stop-off – to see Charlton beat Hartlepool 2-0. We had a genuinely friendly welcome at Victoria Park, but the bonhomie wasn’t to continue….

15 August, 1755 Hartlepool to King’s Cross, Grand Central.
A big old High Speed Train pulled into Hartlepool’s dilapated station for the final journey. Imaginatively done out inside, with board games on the tables, and reliable free wi-fi, this looked to be a decent ride home – despite the presence of plenty of boozed-up football fans. All went well until about three miles outside King’s Cross, when I started to move down the train to make a quick getaway (and to distance myself in case the police made themselves felt – an occupational hazard if you travel away to football matches.) I took two steps inside the end, first class compartment to gather my thoughts, only to get a filthy look from the attendant. Apparently I wasn’t even to set foot inside the entrance to first class. “You can use that exit there,” this patronising, marshmallow-faced jobsworth announced, ushering me back a few steps and closing a door for the three remaining minutes of the journey. Grand Central‘s a different sort of company- it doesn’t exist on government handouts and funds its train services itself. Private companies providing a better service? Oh no…

And therein lies the nub of this – travelling by train is still by far and away the best way to get around Great Britain. But the inconsistencies between private companies, the barely-disguised contempt for passengers, and a refusal to do much above the bare minimum can sully the experience. Unless someone bangs heads together, it isn’t going to improve any time soon.

A little postscript to this – when I published this post by accident early on Tuesday, I hoped to be able to use the free wi-fi on the train to Edinburgh to finish this off. Guess what? It was broken… good old National Express.


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