Lazy Luddite Log

31.10.17

Long Barrows And Longer Flights

A few months ago I went on an eight night visit to the United Kingdom and now I'm writing about it while the memory is reasonably fresh. I'm presenting things more-or-less chronologically but may scatter some thematic elements into the mix.

Friday

My flight from Melbourne was on a Friday night and I had dinner in the City with Belinda before making my way to Melbourne Airport via Skybus. I was taking the contents of just my backpack and what I was wearing. Things went smoothly in getting onto my plane but there was one problem - I cannot sleep sitting. Therefore I just had to cope with staying awake for in excess of 36 hours (once factoring in the day of wakefulness preceding my flight). I killed time by watching movies but was too tired to truly concentrate on them. Meals and visits to the loo punctuated the purgatory of the long haul flight. There was also a change of planes in the seeming oasis of civilization that is Abu Dhabi. It was interesting to note the differences in security processes. Only there did I have to remove my belt. Is it because they are more thorough or because their technology is less sophisticated? Such musings filled my long journey to the other side of the planet.

Saturday

It was a relief to get to Heathrow Airport but my journey had to continue a few hours more. I had chosen to start my holiday in Cardiff and so travelled overland via train from England to Wales. However I was very awake as I was once more moving and daylight let me take in the sights of British farms and towns speeding past my window. We went through a very long tunnel that I later discovered was the Severn Tunnel cut deep under the Severn Estuary separating England from Wales. Following this, station signs bore both English and Welsh names.

It was a Saturday night in Summer as I walked from Cardiff Station to the Holiday Inn via an array of pedestrian malls and the youth of Cardiff were gathering to play in pubs and clubs. I reckon I heard more English than Welsh accents but I saw lots of flags depicting the Red Dragon of Wales. On getting to my accommodation, within sight of the River Taff and Bute Park, I noticed a restaurant on the ground floor and decided that my journey was over. I settled stuff into my room and then had a tasty dinner. There were net-connected computers in the foyer at which I had a quick login to tell friends I had safely arrived. Just like at home, I confined my net use only to local computers while in the UK. I had a lovely hot bath and slept solidly from something like 8pm to 8am.

Sunday

The following morning and for the next several days I felt fantastic. I was early to bed and early to rise. I had big breakfasts and moderate snacks later in the day. I had much less coffee and much more tea. I walked way more than even I usually do. It was fortunate as travel is a good time to feel alive. I have barely maintained this back in Australia since. Breakfast at the Holiday Inn was complimentary and was a smorgasbord of hot and cold fare which I sampled liberally. I even willingly ate egg (scrambled). Following this I prepared for the adventure of the day and the key attraction for me visiting Cardiff.

I walked from the city-centre to Cardiff Bay, guided only by a small printed map I'd prepared at home, and pretty soon saw something that puts Docklands in Melbourne to shame. The Welsh have developed an old harbour into a fantastic recreational precinct and I walked all the way to the barrage separating it from the Bristol Channel (called the Severn Sea in days past and the closest I got to seeing the Atlantic). I then turned back to attend my booked visit at the BBC Doctor Who Experience.

The Doctor Who Experience was something I was familiar with as a setting in the mockumentary The Five-ish Doctors Special. It has closed by now (the lease having ended and the Cardiff Council wanting to use it for some other development) so I'm very lucky it was still open at the time I got to the UK. My tour started with a marvelous simulated interactive adventure across a number of rooms which was targetted at children but worked well for a fan like me. Following that we entered into the exhibition proper and I saw so many artifacts from the history of possibly my favourite TV show. It was well worth the moderate ticket price I had spent online back home.

I cannot say for sure whether many other prices I accepted in the UK were value for money. I blithely spent money as if British pounds were Australian dollars. Likewise I walked around as if miles were kilometers and so I happily marched back to the city. But while still in Cardiff Bay I had a small lunch in the cafe of the Welsh National Assembly. Then back in the city I entered the grounds of Cardiff Castle to observe everything from the fragments of Roman foundation walls to an opulent Victorian mansion. My favourite bit was a Norman shell-keep and my first toleration of steep-stepped climbs. An ivy-laced alcove sporting a well prompted my imagining of medieval wenches and swains gathering for a bit of gossip.

That night I had a small shop-purchased dinner of assorted snacks in my room.

Monday

In Cardiff and beyond I had also done some wandering of back-streets and shops. There were all sorts of small differences I noticed. Of the few that had an impact on my life was some odd lighted pedestrian crossings at which one has to look sideways to see the lights change (rather than across the road). In most other ways the societal similarity between Australia and the UK (from speaking English to keeping to the left) made my solo journey an easy one.

And so my travels continued with a train ride back under the Severn Estuary and onto Bristol. I got to this vibrant English provincial city on the River Avon and had hours till my check-in time at the Bristol Youth Hostel, so I decided to get my big tourist objective done. It involved walking along streets of the harbour (more a canal) and then climbing the rather diagonal Clifton neighbourhood. I was definitely lost in that maze of steep back-switching streets except in the sense that I knew I had to get to the top of the hill. And once I did I saw my destination - the impressive Clifton Suspension Bridge. This engineering landmark of the Industrial Revolution also afforded excellent views of the lush and rugged Avon Gorge.

Later on I checked into the youth hostel in the hip harbour area and had a rest. But there were still many hours of wakefulness and so next I wandered the city asking for directions. One of my objectives was a public library (for Internet) and on the way I saw cathedrals and university halls. Later I found an Odeon (a small cinema complex of the 70s-80s kind) and watched Atomic Blonde. This action spy movie has some nudity and I later joked that this was how I got to see some 'bristols' while in Bristol.

Tuesday

I left Bristol on another train for the heart of rural England. I got off in Swindon and sat for a few minutes on the platform studying one of my maps. As I did so I noticed a pigeon tamely sitting on the window sill just behind my bench and drew the attention of a station attendant to it. This then gave me the chance to ask her to clarify directions for me within her township. I visited the post office (to dispatch some postcards home) and library. It seems to me that if you truly want to see a town then look for everyday things like that. I went to the bus station and it was while riding that bus I finally felt I was in the UK.

You see everything is a bit like every other thing and so in some ways visiting the UK was only different by degrees from visiting another Australian state. We are of the same basic culture and the gentle British Summer was very like the Spring or Autumn of my childhood. And yes Doctor Who is quintessentially British but it is also an international linchpin of nerd culture. But as my bus rushed along rural roads and stopped at rustic villages it sunk in that this was another land.

My bus took me to the township of Faringdon with its surprisingly compact market square and its tiny box-like town hall. Here I ate lunch in a pub that was a coach house back in the days of highway robbery. At the information centre someone lamented to me that the town had once been much bigger but had shrunk since freeways by-passed Faringdon (a familiar story also for towns in Australia). I had to cross one of those freeways on foot on the next and most intrepid part of my journey, as I walked to the village of Uffington.

I had been advised to walk on the right of small rural roads so that I could see on-coming cars and get out of the way. I discovered however that this was a challenge. In some long stretches of my walk there was zero space between the road and a wall of thorns. On other parts of my walk the road curved in such a way that I could only hear and not see traffic. And then in one such instance an over-flying plane made even listening difficult! Nonetheless I eventually got to the village of Uffington in White Horse Vale and my two nights of accommodation at the Fox And Hounds public house. I had a modern cabin to myself and a tasty dinner (chased with cider) in the beer garden. I also had time to wander the small community and note its village green, its store, its community hall, its church, and its town museum (only open weekends). I spent some of my evening watching UK TV then slept the slumber of the well-walked.

Wednesday

This day had always been dedicated to one long intermittent walk to some ancient British sites. I set off following complimentary breakfast and a visit to the store. Once more I had to walk along roads but, given my trepidation of the previous day, I soon decided to follow a sign inviting me onto one of the many 'footpaths' in England that cut across both public and private land and preserve ancient 'rights of way' existing since Saxon times. This removed the danger of traffic but presented a new challenge - hidden pathways. I was sure I was following the correct way in that it was of the same width and turned towards my intended destination. However it took me right into the centre of a horse farm and the farmer kindly gave me a ride in his tractor back to the correct path. That pathway was nothing more than a narrow gap in the trees. I followed it along the border between crops and eventually back onto a road. On this walk I got to see rabbits and pheasants among the coppice.

I traversed more fields and climbed Dragon Hill. From there I saw the 3000 year old Uffington White Horse, the stylized chalk hill figure of a quadruped. I next climbed the larger hill to the chalk horse itself and got as close as fencing would allow me. I took in the vistas afforded from this elevation. Since returning I have made a bit of artwork inspired by this experience.

From there I walked along The Ridgeway, a chalk road between farms and national parkland. It was a fine day, which was fortunate, as there was scant shelter on this hike. Eventually I came to a grove in which lies a 5000 year old long barrow that in much more recent Saxon times was dubbed Wayland's Smithy. I sat on a log while taking in the setting and had a ploughman's cheese sandwich and elderflower mineral water. I experienced nothing numinous at this time but visiting this neolithic tomb was still an emotionally satisfying experience. I moreorless reversed my walk back to Uffington and spent another slow evening in the village, reviewing my experiences to date.

Thursday

On this misty morning I stood outside the Fox And Hounds waiting for a taxi to take me back to Faringdon. The taxi driver was whining to me that that township was getting too big with too many migrants and I found this comment contrasted markedly with what I had been told at the information centre two days previously. You cannot make everyone happy it seems.

I feel that my UK holiday had a goodly balance of structure and flexibility. For instance, rather than return to Swindon I decided on a whim to get the bus onward to Oxford so as to cover new ground. In that university town I witnessed more tourists per capita than I think I did at any time in the UK. I wandered around admiring canals and buying postcards in a domed library. Following lunch I took a train to London. On the way I saw more of rural and urban England and wondered at oddments like the now obsolete gas holders or 'gasometers'.

By the time I got to Paddington Station it was a lovely sunny day. I walked into the streets of London and it just went on and on. I recognized many landmarks but never till then had a sense of the huge space in which they are arrayed along the Thames. Melbourne has massive suburban sprawl but the city centre of London itself seemed never-ending. I walked passed a diversity of Londoners enjoying the day in Hyde Park. I barely acknowledged Buckingham Palace. I continued briskly because I was late to meet my hosts Steve & Nieves. Eventually we met and took the tube back to their neighbourhood of Roehampton. In that area I saw squirrels frolicking in the same way one does possums in Melbourne suburbia.

It was good to stay with friends and have company. And yet it also made things a bit tense for me in that suddenly I had to make compromises and plans with others. I had grown accustomed to making all my decisions solely for me. Still I was more than compensated by home cooked dinners and watching action movies in the living room with friends.

Friday in London

It was a workday for my hosts so I went on a lone exploration back into the city. I walked along both sides of the Thames and saw Big Ben, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Saint Paul's Cathedral and Australia House. My objective for the day was the British Museum. During this holiday I was frugal with some things and fancy-free with others. So for instance I deliberately saw only those parts of the museum that were free. On the other hand I had whatever food I felt like and purchased public transport tickets one at a time as whim dictated. In the British Museum I concentrated on classical Greek, Etruscan and Roman relics, including the Rosetta Stone. It is surprisingly tiring to browse all that history and so I enjoyed a relaxed night with my hosts once I got back to Roehampton.

Weekend in London

On the weekend Steve & Nieves shouted me to a ferry ride from Westminster to Greenwich. There we lunched at some fantastic markets and then walked to the famous observatory. One has to pay to get into the yard in which the International Date Line is marked on the pavement. However we had walked around the compound so I remarked we had already crossed the imaginary line twice!

Back in London proper we wandered around seeing more public spaces and this experience prompted me to start singing things like "feed the birds tuppence a bag..." Then we returned to the Roehampton area and had a pub dinner nestled in a neighbourhood surrounded by Wimbledon Common (but I never saw any Wombles).

The next day we walked to the massive Richmond Park and had a good wander around. It is so massive it supports its own herd of deer. Following lunch I made my way back to Heathrow and started my long journey home.

Monday And Tuesday Return

Another purgatory of plane flights followed and I coped pretty well. I was relieved to be home partly because I missed friends and familiar settings. However it was also a relief because I had been aware of the additional dangers I faced by travelling. Yes statistics were on my side but it is also true that I did many things I only do sporadically. Fears of plane crashes, terrorist incidents and falling asleep on an ancient hillside to be whisked away to Fairyland all crossed my mind. I had even made preparations back home for my demise to make life simpler for those left behind. I think this is wise but I also was bugged by a vague sense of guilt instilled in me by that old and stupid superstition of 'jinxing' things by thinking or talking of them. Well I tempted fate and survived.

The ride back into the City on Skybus in the wee small hours was cool and dark and prepared me for a good sleep-in once I finally got home. I'm left with a sense of having had a short yet enriching holiday and think I will do more in future. For now however there is plenty of fun to be had back home.

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