We went to Middlesbrough recently, for a trip on its famous transporter bridge. There are only three transporter bridges like this in the UK (the only other public one is in Newport), and only twelve left in the world.
It works by moving a suspended platform or 'gondola' across the river from one side of the bridge to the other. The bridge provides a valuable shortcut for cars and passengers who want to cross the Tees.
It runs every fifteen minutes or so, or on demand. There's no ceremony when you step on. Everyone stands around on the deck as the platform starts to move. For such a big beast it moves very gracefully and only takes a couple of minutes to reach the other side.
It's probably not everyone's idea of a grand day out but there was something very calming about watching it rumble from one side to the other. More photos in this Flickr set.
Further down the river there's a huge artwork by Anish Kapoor called Temenos. This was the UK's largest public sculpture when it was installed in 2010.
Here's Tommy standing at one end of it, for scale. The whole area is a mish mash of decline and regeneration so these brash newcomers mingle with the old industrial inhabitants to make a very atmospheric place. Nice one Middlesbrough.
I'm not sure how 4 months have passed without a single update, but I haven't felt like blogging. Sometimes that happens, I guess. For a while it felt like Twitter and Instagram had kind of taken its place but recently I've felt like there's a gap for where I'd like to put things, and I think this is where it is.
It's nothing exciting really, just some holiday snaps of a trip to North Yorkshire and Tyneside. Familiar ground but it always has something new to discover. So without further ado, here's Harrogate:
Betty's famous tea room was in full swing for the Jubilee.
Their speciality is the Fat Rascal - a fruity scone/rock cake hybrid. Really delicious.
Might have to give this Fat Rascal recipe a go.
That's it for now. Going to post this before I change my mind.
Oh dear, it hasn't been a good summer for blogging, but it was a good one for photos. Here it is briefly, via Instagram.
Staithes in North Yorkshire is very steep. You need to park at the top of the cliff and walk down, which is an adventure.
It was very quiet and old-fashioned with lots of narrow alleyways, a picturesque harbour and plenty of old shopfronts.
And A Ship Called Dig-ni-ty.
Whitby was wet. Really wet.
But still, it rocked.
So when it's wet, go to the amusements. That's the rule, isn't it? In all honesty, amusements do my head in. Too much noise and distraction. But these were great because there were so many 2p puggies and they looked so great.
Plus a ride on a Steam Bus. Not many of them around.
Wool, it's great stuff, as the National Wool Museum in Wales shows. I visited it on the way to the Do Lectures (with thanks to Russell for the lift). What a lovely place. Set up in one of the few remaining Welsh woollen mills in the Teifi valley it's a nice mixture of the historical and technical with the modern and the beautiful.
The photo at the top shows a temporary exhibition of contemporary woollen designs, including Donna Wilson's lovely little creatures. There's a lot of great stuff around, particularly as it's National Wool Week.
There are some great displays of vintage woollen fashions (the 60s stuff is particularly fine) and great cabinets full of Welsh tapestry blankets from the National Flat Textile Collection - how grand.
In a building across the way the looms still clatter away with an enormous racket, weaving the most fantastic geometric fabrics.
Highly recommended if you're down that way.
Unexpected tourist attraction #347: The Scottish Owl Centre in Campbeltown.
We were very lucky to find this by accident, lurking outside Campbeltown on the B842 to Machrahanish. The Scottish Owl Centre is the only Scottish centre devoted to owls (clearly) and one of only two owl centres in the UK. The other is in Cumbria, but you all knew that, right? I bet you're up there all the time.
So yeah, owls. They're amazing. Big ones, small ones, white ones, brown ones, all the Harry Potter ones. It really is an excellent place because if you arrive about 2.30ish you get a free owl show, from a trained owl handler, armed with owl facts with all the special party owls.
If you've never been stared at quizzically by a pair of great grey owls, you haven't lived.
Well... we made it to Kintyre at the weekend, not far from Glasgow as the crow flies but a long way by road so we'd never been before. Wow, it was pretty. Beautiful weather, lovely autumn colours everywhere and amazing views to Arran and the mainland on the west and Islay and Jura on the east.
Plus a new personal best for proximity of motorhome to beach at Carradale Bay Caravan Park.
Had an amazing time in Wales at the Do Lectures. Three and a half days of amazing speakers, nice company, great food and beautiful surroundings in the fforest campsite. There's so much to say that I don't know where to start. I'm still mulling it all over and will post more when the films of the talks are available on the website. It'll make a bit more sense then.
In the meantime, here are some more snaps from Cardigan and around.
This little detail confirmed the feeling that Stromness, and Orkney in general, is worlds away from the rest of the country. None of your sappy "A Famous Artist Lived Here" stuff. Mrs Humphreys! Whales! Scurvy! Brilliant.
This is the airport on Papa Westray, one of Orkney's most northerly isles. The flight from Papa Westray (known locally as Papay) to its neighbouring island of Westray is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's shortest, clocking in at well under two minutes. I counted it as 1 min 38 seconds, and apparently it's under a minute on a good day.
As we haven't been on a plane in a long time, and Danny (now 4) has only ever flown once we thought we'd take the trip while we were in Orkney. Loganair run different inter-island routes, so the trip varies on different days. We went from Kirkwall (Orkney's largest town) to North Ronaldsay - Papa Westray - Westray - Kirkwall with a 4-hour stop on Papa Westray. Orkney from the air looked amazing.
There's very little on Papa Westray (in a good way) and we didn't have any means of transport. I was very glad I'd packed sandwiches as there was no shop for miles around. There's an RSPB bird sanctuary within walking distance though, so we set off for that and had a very pleasant few hours in amongst the amazing birdlife on Orkney. I went a bit mad with the birdwatching on Orkney. It was awesome.
There's a walking trail which takes you to a quiet beach teeming with seals, and a cliff walk with a memorial to one of the world's last great auks, killed here in 1813.
All in all it was an amazing day, none of it was anything we'd do normally and it was all a bit out of kilter, in a lovely way. You even get a certificate at the end of the to say you've been on the world's shortest flight and a miniature bottle of whisky. Result! More photos on Flickr.
We've been to Orkney, a fantastic trip. One of the many highlights was The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, made by Italian prisoners of war while they built the Churchill Barriers (causeways that link some of Orkney's small islands) nearby. It's an ordinary Nissen hut, intricately painted and decorated with the most basic materials to become an immaculate little church.
More Italian Chapel photos on Flickr.
While in Comrie, we also visited Cultybraggan Camp, the most complete remaining POW camp in the UK (according to this source). It was built in 1939 and covers 8 acres in a remote spot of Perthshire countryside, containing over 100 Nissen huts in varying states of repair.
The whole site has been bought by Comrie Development Trust, who are in the process of turning it into a community resource. It's a large site and the area towards the back is now hired out to businesses and used for allotments. The enormous firing range that sits behind them is kind of incongruous, but it's great to see the land being put to good use.
Quite a few of the huts have been renewed and repaired ready for tenants.
Other are left exactly as they were when the MoD left - mattresses on the floor, forgotten furniture, tattered posters and remnants of military life.
They do scrub up nicely. This hut (close to a ginormous nuclear bunker, just in case) is now someone's office.
The site is open from morning until dusk so anyone can go in and have a look around. I'm still reading up on it all hence the lack of background in this post, but there's some good info on Secret Scotland. More photos on Flickr.
So, we bought a second-hand motorhome and took it on its inaugural trip to Perthshire at the weekend. In the evening we took a trip to Earthquake House in Comrie (pictured above). Comrie was particularly prone to earthquakes and is still known as "the Shaky Toun" because of all the seismic activity in the area. This little hut was built in 1874 to house experimental instruments developed by local men to measure the earth's movement.
Inside, the Comrie Pioneers built a seismoscope - a wooden cross holding different sizes of skittles. The stronger the earthquake the larger the peg it displaced, and the direction of fall gave some idea to the pattern of movement. This was superceded by the inverted pendulum seismometers which became used more widely.
The building now contains a modern seismograph, which records the earth's movement in a more conventional manner (by tracking movements on a roll of paper). Thanks to the kind guidance of Chris, Earthquake House's curator, we found out that if you jump up and down at the back of the hut you can make a little earth tremor. This squiggly line above was us. There were no reports of building damage or tsunamis in the local area, so no harm done.
The building is on public land but it isn't usually open to the public. We were lucky to get a guided tour and to see it on such a beautiful night.
Today, a visit to Carfin Grotto, Scotland's mini-Lourdes. I love it here, it's incredibly beautiful whether you believe or not. Built in the 1920s it's an amazing collection of statues and shrines to the Virgin Mary and associated saints.
I've been before in winter when it was quiet but today it was in full swing. There was a procession snaking its way round the grotto and Hail Marys blasting out over the PA system. We had a little chat about religion as a family (we are not religious). Danny (4) is too small to care about God but he liked it because it was like Doctor Who, full of weeping angels.
I visited the reliquary for the first time - a collection of saints' relics. One of the largest collections around, it is extraordinary. Whatever you believe, it's a beautiful, striking place. Makes you think. I'm always knocked out by the design - things that are not 'good taste' look great together (silver and gold together?). The old signs are so grand and the ironwork throughout the grotto is just beautiful.
It doesn't feel part of the modern world at all. More photos here.
I'm just getting round to blogging about our lovely trip to Derbyshire. We went to a number of theme parks. Well, two. Two is a number.
Firstly, Gullivers in Matlock Bath. We pulled into the car park by mistake and there was no going back. It was occasionally rubbish in an astounding way, like the animatronic bears that sang country and western classics. They were old and slightly broken, which made them super creepy. The whole park is an odd mix of Gulliver's Travels, (the original theme, now mostly gone), country and western (flashes of Westworld), pirates and new 'character' rides like Dora the Explorer. It felt like they get a job lot of new rides once every ten years.
It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. It was however, our first introduction to tourism the Derbyshire way, which was like being in Royston Vasey but real - the world of the hostile tourist attraction, an astounding (and hilarious) mix of eccentricity and mild outrage at one's paying customers.
Then, a few days later we went to Drayton Manor (warning: musical website), home of Thomasland - a must for all engine-obsessed youngsters. It's quite small but very well done. The kids loved it and after we'd been there I got to sniff round the old bits of Drayton Manor looking for nice signage. Of which there was some right up the back.
More holiday delights to come.
We had a day out at Whitelee Windfarm today, Europe's largest onshore windfarm. It's 20 minutes or so outside Glasgow on Fenwick Moor, a bleak foreboding place now transformed into an extraordinary visitor attraction. The moor was a mix of farm land, blanket bog and commercial forest but now it's home to 140 wind turbines with paths winding through them. It's a really striking landscape - awe-inspiring to be up close and personal with these gentle giants.
Since opening in September it has been completely mobbed, and today (beautifully sunny) it was full of walkers, runners and cyclists, shattering some myths about Scots and exercise. There's a visitor centre run by Glasgow Science Centre which tells you all about windpower and renewable energy. You can even build your own windfarm and plant toy turbines in a model landscape. It gave me a lot to think about and will end up on Nothing To See Here when I've got more time to write.
The visitor centre closes at the end of November and opens again in Spring. More photos on Flickr.
Last weekend involved an interesting trail around Dundee and Angus. I'd like to pretend that it was all cultural, but a lot of it was searching for a fudge doughnut from Fisher & Donaldson, the local bakers.
To cut a long story short, we quickly learned that Fisher & Donaldson, which has bakeries in Dundee and St Andrews, is closed on a Sunday. Happily, as we drove home dejected and fudge doughnutless we passed their new cafe/chocolate factory in Cupar which is open on Sundays. Yay! I recommend the Dr Floyd loaves, oatcakes and their great line of Halloween cakes.
We were in the vicinity to visit Scotland's Secret Bunker which closes for the season on 2 November. It was very good. Can't tell you anything else because it was secret...
It has been a busy week haring round different places before they close up for the winter. On Thursday the destination was Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, to visit its fantastic Victorian toilets. Lucinda Lambton, Britain's foremost toilet enthusiast described the urinals as "the world's finest". Full story on Nothing To See Here.
The idea was suggested by Lord Glasgow's son and daughter, as the render on the castle needs to be removed sometime soon. The murals were only supposed to stay up for a couple of years but have been extended (for another 18 months I think?) due to popularity.
It has been controversial (the owner hates it apparently) but I thought it looked great and the kids loved it. It's a pretty brave thing to do, especially going for someone (1) international and (2) graffiti-based. There are some interesting comments on David Airey's blog about the pros and cons. If you want to judge for yourself the grounds are open all year round.
Been away in the south-west doing lots of things. Went up a lighthouse, the second this year. This one is at Mull of Galloway, Scotland's most southerly point. It has great views over to Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Visited some small museums. Dalbeattie Museum, which contains everything everyone in Dalbeattie has ever owned, was very good.
Other finds: Britain's oldest camera obscura in Dumfries and an 87 year old cafe with a 90 year old owner.
I am out of time at the moment. Hope to get back to blogging at some point.
We had the pleasure of visiting Easdale Island for the World Stone Skimming Championships on Sunday. Easdale is Scotland's smallest permanently-inhabited island in the Inner Hebrides, sitting just off the west coast 16 miles south of Oban. There are no cars on the island and access is by a short trip on a 12-seater ferry. This is a lot of fun, as you have to call the ferry by pushing two buttons in the waiting room. You might have a wait around noon as there's only one ferryman and he needs to get his lunch.
The Stone Skimming Championships are here because Easdale is one of the Slate Islands. Slate-mining was the main industry here, and now that it's diminished, the perfectly flat stones and disused quarries that cover the island make a perfect venue for stone skimming.
We didn't see much of the competition because the weather was foul. Wobbling about on the edge of a quarry in a gale wasn't a very attractive prospect. So we went for a walk round the island instead, which was amazing. There are huge piles of slate everywhere and very little else. The Atlantic ocean pounds off the coast and it feels a bit like another planet. Very still and wild at the same time. I took loads of photos, being Flickrd here.
We went to Pennan the other week, to pay homage to Local Hero. It was shot here (although not literally) and in various locations around Scotland. A steady stream of pilgrims make their way down the short and winding road to find a very famous phone box, a closed pub (to reopen at last) and not much else. But the little that's there is very sweet. Even the beach has a cinematic feel to it. That driftwood is so perfectly imperfect that it might be a prop, carefully placed to impress visitors. I thought calling this 'the most famous phone box in Britain' was uncontroversial but as Steviet points out, there is another contender.
This one from Ash Road in Cumbernauld, used as a changing room in Gregory's Girl. This photo is from a great set by Route9autos showing Gregory's Girl locations then and now. Boy, Bill Forsyth really loved those phone boxes. And while the first one is more photogenic, I will always be Gregory's girl.
Our north-east trip, going along the coast from Elgin to Fraserburgh was a great success (thanks for the tips). I'd forgotten what a big deal Britain in Bloom is up here. Granite is the local stone, so the towns and villages can be grey wee places, but they're full of civic pride and there are baskets of brightly coloured flowers everywhere.
Nowhere more so than Forres, which has this amazing display in Grant Park, all documented on the Forres in Bloom website.
Even the little places, like Portknockie, get some flowers in somewhere. Yes, this sign does say "Welcome K'nockers". "Aye afloat" is the village's motto.
We were in and out of loads of these wee fishing villages. All similar but different. Most with their streets built at right angles to the sea to protect again the harsh north wind. Photos trickling onto Flickr. More to come throughout the week.
We're going up north again at the weekend. This time, going in a sort of triangle from Glasgow to Nairn, along the coast to Fraserburgh then down, through the interior and home again.
We've been to all of these places before and they're lovely, but I just wondered if any of you have any tips for things to do/see, particularly with a Nothing To See Here bent? I've got a few things on the list but am keeping them quiet after getting some stuff nicked from NTSH recently. It's made me a bit paranoid. Anyway, suggestions gratefully received. All will be revealed sometime soon.
On our big Scottish road trip we took a special detour to visit The Giant Angus MacAskill Museum in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. It was amazing. At 7'9" he was Scotland's tallest giant, and recorded in 1981 as the world's tallest true giant. You can't really mess with that, can you? By all account he was a lovely man and the museum was very sweet. The full story is on Nothing To See Here.
On the way out I got talking to the owner and got an insight into the tough world of idiosyncratic museums. It must be pretty hard at the best of times, but a tiny giant museum on the Isle of Skye? To cut a long story short, business is not good. The changes required to even qualify for funding from Historic Scotland or other funding bodies are nigh impossible to deliver on the pennies generated by visitors. I didn't know what to say.
So, anyway, I told the owner I had a website and wrote about unusual tourist attractions, hoping somehow this could bring hordes of pilgrims through the door. At mention of the word 'website' he said his son was on YouTube - Danny MacAskill. Danny MacAskill! I said. The cyclist? We had watched the videos of him performing his amazing bike tricks all over Edinburgh. He's a phenomenon and I asked him to pass on our general awe.
So, on Saturday we went to the Glasgow Show on Glasgow Green (which is very good) and it turned out Danny MacAskill was performing with The Clan, Scotland's Cycle Stunt Team. We took the opportunity to meet him, and Tommy got his autograph (he's still going on about it). He was a really nice bloke. Very level-headed for someone who rides his bike along the top of railings and up trees etc. We told him we'd met his dad at the museum. It was pretty funny, and lovely to complete the loop like that and make a connection between so many generations of a remarkable family.
My new favourite website is Slow Coast, written by Nick Hand, a designer who is cycling round the coast of Britain. This must be an interesting (and tough) journey however you do it, but the great thing about Nick's approach is that he's going out of his way to meet and interview artisans who work around the coast.
He's blogging, Twittering, logging it all online (the website is really nicely put together with photos and route maps) and creating these great soundslides of the people he meets along the way. As he's a designer (for Howies) he's also taking great photos - lots of typography like the ones above.
He's trying to raise money for The Parkinson's Disease Society and you can sponsor him on the website. So far he's made it from Bristol to Skye and still has a long way to go, aiming to be back in Bristol for his annual cycling holiday (oy!) in October. I can't wait to see what else he finds. It's amazing seeing familiar places through someone else's eyes.
Well, that was a lovely week off. We hired a motor home (adventure!) and drove up north, from Glasgow to John O'Groats, then down again, across to the west coast and over the sea to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. As usual we tried to pack a bit too much in but the motor home made it easy to drift about wherever the wind took us.
We saw lots of islands and lochs and mountains, incredible beaches, and plenty of wildlife like seals, puffins and deer. Plus lots of RAF Tornados roaring up the glens.
I didn't write that, but Scotland does indeed rule big time.
Londoners take note, a new plaque "in the memory of Heroic Self-Sacrifice" will be unveiled in Postman's Park on 3 June 09, Wednesday, between 12-4pm. It's organised by The Watts Gallery and there are more details on their excellent website.
I wrote about Postman's Park on Nothing To See Here when I visited last year (it's very writeable about) so won't go into details again. Suffice to say it has been the most popular NTSH article of all time - it catches a lot of people's imagination. It sounds like a really interesting afternoon so if any of you are going do tell all.
I’m in Newcastle and Gateshead for the Thinking Digital conference which starts tomorrow. It’s been pretty much a perfect day. The weather was fantastic, the city is beautiful and I can’t remember being anywhere else where the people are so friendly.
Some of today's photos:
If you're at the conference do come and say hello.
ScenicOrNot is a clever new game from mysociety. Random photos of England, Scotland and Wales are presented for rating on a scale of 1 to 10 according to their attractiveness. The photos, from geograph (itself, pretty compelling), cover 95% of the British Isles. Going by the ones I saw it's mostly shrubbery and a knacker's yard (above). It's all feeding into a secret project which will be revealed as soon as they have enough ratings - so get in there.
At first I found it difficult to judge the place, not the photograph. It quickly throws up all kinds of questions about what is 'scenic'. It's easy to judge what is conventionally beautiful (rolling hills, cute cottages) but harder to take a step back and rate something on whether or not it tickles your fancy. I find this whole thing fascinating - the way there's an accepted version of what's attractive. Our holidays often feel like hacking through the tourist board's view of what's important, to find the reality underneath.
Coincidentally, I was looking at a nice new Boring postcards blog (found in the excellent Boring Postcards Flickr group). It starts with this wonderful postcard of the Lyttleton Road Tunnel in New Zealand. I love this sort of thing - a reminder that these places were remarkable once and beautiful in their own way. You don't get curves like that in the countryside now, do you?
Recommended on iplayer Time Shift: The North/South Divide which was on BBC4 last night. John Harris travels around England looking at the differences between the north and south and trying to pinpoint the mythical Watford Gap (not the real Watford Gap, which he finds quite easily).
It was like a cross between Stuart Maconie's In Search of the High Teas and Touring Britain, another BBC4 series where David Heathcote travels round the UK using old guidebooks as references. I've been soaking of all these up, and will be looking out for the north-south divide myself as we head to the centre of England tomorrow. Anyway, it was one of the more interesting programmes I've seen for a while, so I thought I'd flag it up.
Service will be intermittent for the next week or so. Thanks for all the travel tips. Happy Easter everyone.
Here's another piece from Nothing To See Here, this time about the ghost village of Tyneham in Dorset. In the 1940s the War Office commandeered it for firing practice, and never gave it back. We visited in October on the way back from Corfe Castle. I wasn't sure what to expect from a ghost village but found it peaceful and thought-provoking.
Making an unexpected cameo appearance at one point are various members of the Archigram group who set architecture student projects there when teaching at the AA in the 1970’s. Coming across like an only slightly less absurd version of Withnail and I, David Greene and Warren Chalk buzz around the place with their long haired prodigies (including young Will Alsop) in clapped out vehicles and stride into local boozers ordering quadruple whiskies.
I'm currently reading Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England by Stuart Maconie, which covers his wanders round er, the middle of England. It's a follow-up to Pies and Prejudice: in Search of the North which I enjoyed very much. This is more of the same really, but a bit further south and with more music anecdotes (it's Nick Drake and Pink Floyd territory). It takes a wee while to tune into his writing style (it's very like listening to him, so as long as you're okay with that, it's fine) but it's good - like a more garrulous Bill Bryson.
Strangely enough it starts in Meriden - the Centre of England - which is where we're going in a couple of weeks on the way to Camber Sands. Any recommendations for the south coast? We've been there before, almost 10 years to the day for the Bowlie Weekender and loved it. I can't wait to go to Dungeness again and am greatly looking forward to exploring the area a bit more. I'm hoping we can get right along the coast, from Bognor to Margate. Anything we shouldn't miss?
We're just back from a very special weekend at The Midland Hotel in Morecambe (for 10 years of happily non-married bliss). It was smashing, The restoration by Urban Splash with help from Friends of the Midland has come up lovely.
The building, designed by Oliver Hill, is just extraordinary. It looks great from every angle, inside and out. The way it's designed to curve along the bay gives everything a beautiful line. The artwork, by Eric Gill and Marion Dorn adds a bit of colour and the rest is mostly left to breathe.
The rooms, which had been gutted years ago, are modern and really comfortable. It's nice that they have some references to the original, like the seahorse motif in the shower.
Being Midland superfans, we bought the book (The Midland Hotel: Morecambe's White Hope) and sat comparing old and new. After befriending the manager, she gave us a tour of the Eric Gill room which has a huge hand-carved map of the north west of England on one wall. This used to be on the other wall of this room and was moved lock, stock and barrel. Yikes.
The building was closed for 12 years, went through a series of different owners and frankly it's a miracle that any of this has survived. It's a complete triumph. More photos in this Flickr set and in The Midland Hotel Flickr pool. They've got an offer on at the moment, two nights for the price of one so get yourself down (or up) there for a seaside treat.
More from Morecambe later in the week.
I was thinking about having a Miniature Week as I've got a pile of things that are smaller than actual size to write about. But I don't know if I can string it out for a week, so here's one of them - Corfe Castle Model Village, which we visited on our recent trip to Dorset.
I am mildly obsessed with model villages. I don't think there are any in Scotland (are there?) so I remember a childhood trip to Bekonscot as incredibly exotic. On our road trips over the last few years I always look out for model villages but we've missed more than we've found. They always seem to be really badly signposted. So I've vowed to write up every one I can find for Nothing To See Here. So far there's only Blackpool and Corfe Castle, but hopefully the next trip south will yield a couple more.
If anyone else wants to join in and write one up, please do. It's interesting that the wikipedia entry for model villages concentrates on the other kind, the ideal community sort. Instead there's a fairly comprehensive list under miniature parks. The Model Villages Flickr pool also has some gems, national and international. See the International Association of Miniature Parks for the industry view. I bet their conferences are FUN.
I (finally) wrote up a visit to Fitzpatrick's Temperance Bar in Rawtenstall for Nothing To See Here. It's Britain's oldest original surviving temperance (non-alcoholic) bar. We went there earlier this year on the way back from Somerset and it was really interesting. I can still taste the glass of Blood Tonic I had, in a good way. I really enjoyed researching this and finding out all about the Temperance Movement. It's a fascinating piece of social history.
So with all that in mind, the most exciting thing to happen on holiday was unexpectedly finding ourselves in Poundbury, Prince Charles's (in)famous model village. I've read so much about it but had no idea where it actually was. And it turned out it's at one end of Dorchester which we were nosying through on the way to Bridport. Even though I've thought about it a lot I'm still not sure what I thought about it. Some of it is good, some of it is bad and overall it's strange in a way that's quite mesmerising. I didn't like it, but I loved being there. I've written it all up for Nothing To See Here anyway, photos on Flickr. There are also some great photos by Paul Russell that capture the strange emptiness about the place.
I was really excited to be there because I've had a thing about planned communities and new towns since visiting Canberra 11 years ago. I'd never been anywhere quite so odd. A capital city built on a huge scale but with next to no one in it. Like a model village blown up to actual size. The scale was all wrong. I liked Canberra though. I loved the way that the major roads and landmarks lined up perfectly. Tidy. Its lack of atmosphere gave it a sort of character I'd never seen anywhere else. Washington felt similar, everything too big and too spaced out with nothing to fill the gaps. A capital city with no buzz about it. I find these sorts of places absolutely fascinating, where there's something not quite right.
I did a bit of thinking on holiday. All about places. No more than usual really but I thought I'd write it down this time. I feel like I've said it before but not in so many words. However, it's behind so much of what's coming next that it bears repeating. And there's a lot of talk about noticing at the moment, like it's a new thing (see Bionic noticing on Irving Street and beyond). Maybe it is for some. Anyway this is what I was thinking as we arrived in Bournemouth.
Arriving in a new place, the streets are overlaid with all the destinations I've arrived at in the last few years. I feel like the Terminator - scanning road junctions, tree-lined streets, stations, proms and fast food outlets, breaking them down into outlines and shapes and comparing them against similar views in my extensive memory banks. Sometimes there's a match but usually, as soon as I've almost figured out where this place reminds me of we're round the corner with a whole new view to take in. Still, I like the thrill of the chase, the flood of so many memories and the puzzle of putting them into order.
Arriving somewhere new there's so much to take in - signs, architecture, people, nature. And going abroad is even worse/better because there's all that and unfamiliar sounds and smells too. There's a short story that sticks in my mind - Funes the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges, about a man who notices everything and forgets nothing. Sometimes I feel like that, except I'm better at forgetting.
What I love is adding up these details to form a conclusion about a new place, putting it on a scale of interesting/non-interesting/repellent in a way that is difficult to quantify, like Malcolm Gladwell's notion of thin-slicing. Some places set my spider senses tingling for no apparent reason, others have all the right ingredients but the whole doesn't equal the sum of the parts.
I love the way that in these times where everything is planned and managed there are things you just can't control. Places have atmospheres all of their own - made from strange mixtures of architecture, climate, location, population and industry, changing through the present and the past to make a place what it is. What makes travel so exciting is the serendipity of how these factors come together. I've been in shabby towns that warmed the very cockles of my heart, and beautiful places that left me cold. What I love is matching the patterns between places, sometimes miles or even continents apart and finding strange similarities when you least expect them.
New on Nothing to See Here, the fruits of our labours at The Bubble Car Museum near Cranwell in Lincolnshire. This is one of those places that NTSH was made for - badly advertised, difficult to get to but utterly delightful.
I'm going to Brighton later in the week, for dConstruct - the "affordable one day conference for people designing and building the latest generation of social web applications". Well, I'll do my best. Should be a good trip. Despite having almost no free time, is there anything to do/see/nice to eat in Brighton apart from this lovely bookshop, (photo by Dave Knapik)? I've been there a few times but not for ages so all tips gratefully received.
More London photos (almost done), this time from the The Museum of Brands and Packaging, Robert Opie's wonderful collection of familiar household items through the years. It's inconveniently situated in Notting Hill but as we'd had a long morning traipsing round big museums that were too busy to see anything in, it was nice to be in a wee museum where you could see everything. It's a jolly wee place, crammed full of stuff. There's no real commentary apart from the objects themselves, themed into date, subject or product order at various stages. I took about a million photos as there was something good in pretty much every case. Full selection here.
It's funny how the merest glimpse of a product can take you back decades. For me it was the sight of Mackintosh's Toffee Cup which I used to love. Seeing it through the glass I was instantly transported back to childhood, going to the paper shop to buy one, unwrapping the thin foil and biting into it. The toffee was really light and thin and would make giant toffee deathslides when you took a bite. It was more delicate than a Cadbury's Caramel so I used to kid myself that I was quite refined eating one, probably with a can of Top Deck to wash it down. Similarly the sight of Mackintosh's Week-End evoked a rollercoaster of emotion. The joy that someone had brought your mum chocolates, and the disappointment of them turning out to be Week-Ends. They were a strange assortment with too many non-chocolates - weird nougaty things and dodgy toffees. It's like they were booby-trapped.
Anyway, there's some really wonderful stuff in there, just ripe for ripping off.
Well worth a visit.
We made it to the Horniman Museum, a pleasant bus-ride from central London. It's as good as everyone says. Old-fashioned and wonderfully charming in parts, beautifully modern in others. Of course, my favourite bit was the natural world - full of weird skeletons...
odd stuffed (and oddly-stuffed) animals...
... and wonderful infographics ranging from beautifully elegant
... to rather outre.
And they don't dumb it down.
I was surprised how many Londoners I met who haven't been. It's free and set in a lovely big park with a great cafe. We'd been to the Natural History Museum the day before and couldn't get looking at anything because it was so busy. This was so much better. I took a lot more photos, none of which really do it justice.
We visited Postman's Park yesterday. It's in the City of London, near St Paul's Cathedral. In a corner of the park there are lots of plaques like this one, created by the painter George Frederick Watts to commemorate people who died saving others.
After the second wall (there are 4 in all) it becomes quite heartbreaking. I couldn't find out too much about it, just that Watts didn't like the upper classes much and wanted to celebrate ordinary lives. Lovely idea, beautifully done. More plaques in my Flickr set and the Postman's Park Flickr group.
This was our first day in London. We walked for miles and miles and saw what felt like everything there is to see - Oxford St, Regent's Park, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and so it goes on. Even better than that, Tommy bumped into his idol, George Sampson who won Britain's Got Talent with his David Elsewhere-esque dance routine. I can't overstate the magnitude of that. Imagine being 7, going to London and meeting your hero on the first day. No matter what we do from now on, nothing's going to live up to that.
A short piece on The Robot Building in Bangkok. One of the best buildings in the world. Ever.
After the great fish and chips we sampled more of Biggar's delights. For a small place there's an awful lot going on. There are six museums, so we tried Gladstone Court first. It's a lovely little place - a recreation of a Victorian shopping street made from bits and pieces reclaimed from Biggar's actual high street. It's educational (great for schools) and full of local interest but also lovely to wander round no matter how old you are or where you're from. There's an old photographic studio, a bank, library, print shop, school, a bootmakers and lots more - see pictures. The nice thing about it is Biggar's modern-day high street is very well-preserved. It pretty much has one of every sort of shop you need and they're all family businesses handed down from generation to generation, so it feels like the right place to have a little treasure like this.
We're off to that London in a few weeks for a big family holiday. Considering we'll have two kids (aged 2 and 7) and a car (not that we're planning to use it much) what should we do? Where should we go? What should we eat? There are a few things on the list already - The Horniman Museum, The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef and possibly Psycho Buildings if that's good for kids. I've got a couple of things to check out for Nothing To See Here but would really love to know about anything fantastic/good value/weird and/or wonderful. All wisdom gratefully received as always.
Today's word is "under". We walked under the sea at Deep Sea World in North Queensferry. It's got a really long underwater tunnel where sharks and other fish swim overhead. The best were the rays because they have such human-looking mouths. They kept gliding past, watching over us.
Deep Sea World is under the Forth Rail Bridge which is beside the Forth Road Bridge. Double bridge action - very cool. I like being under bridges, must have some troll heritage. We spent a bit of time kicking about between them. This is what the underside of the Forth Road Bridge looks like. Mmm, bridgey.
I've got a lot on this week and haven't got round to writing half of what I meant to, so here's a picture of our Saturday afternoon watching the planes at Prestwick Airport. The road to Monkton runs parallel to the runway and there's a little worn out verge where people stop and watch the planes. Ayrshire is the land of people sitting in cars staring at the horizon so it's in heavy demand but we were lucky enough to get a space. Even when planes are so common it's pretty mind-blowing seeing one taking off right beside you. Free entertainment for all the family.
Signposted on Nothing To See Here, the old bathing pool in Cellardyke. We end up there a lot at the end of a day-trip to the East Neuk of Fife, without ever setting out to go there. The pool was all the rage in the 1930s with a diving board and rows of changing huts, now it's still there, but only just. There are more tidal salt-water pools on the lidos website and the Guardian guide to the best places to swim outside. If you have somewhere similar, that you're inexplicably drawn to please send it in.
Well, we had a smashing time in Somerset despite a bit of bother at the start. The car broke down in Carlisle and we had to get towed back to Glasgow. After scrambling about for a hire car on a Saturday (harder than you think in this day and age) we were off back down the road. Everything else went swimmingly. The weather was great most days and we went to lots of lovely places. I was trying to find one picture that sums it up so here's Danny on the enormous beach at Weston-super-Mare with its impressive pier in the background. I've added what seems like loads of photos onto Flickr with more to come throughout the week. Until then, commiserations to everyone else going back to work tomorrow.
We've been in Dumfries & Galloway this weekend, visiting family. We go there a lot and it's not the most interesting part of the world at the best of times. The whole place closes from September to March so we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel, entertainment-wise. Still, we saw:
The world's oldest post office in Sanquhar.
A memorial to Kirkpatrick Macmillan who invented the bicycle in Keir Mill. He's not exactly a household name which seems a bit unfair. Imagine a world without bikes.
And Anwoth Old Church from The Wicker Man. It was all shot around here so you can't move without tripping over one of the locations.
Apart from that there were cows, sheep, lambs, deer, pheasants, ponies, my first red squirrel and lots and lots of snowdrops. The weather was beautiful so it was lovely to wander about even if it was freezing at times.
How tickled I am to be guest editor on Coudal Partner's excellent Fresh Signals. I'm a long-time admirer of their work so it's a real honour to get the keys to the door. I've been trawling through the I like archives looking for forgotten gems. The first is Aerolot, a fansite for LOT Polish Airlines which is full of beautifully designed vintage airline ephemera. More to come at Coudal throughout the month.
Another plug for Nothing To See Here, this time the Radar Museum in Norfolk which may be of interest to military historians/Cold War enthusiasts/Dr. Strangelove fans.
Nothing To See Here's latest feature is about the Ukranian Prisoner of War Chapel in Hallmuir (near Lockerbie in the Scottish Borders). It's a truly amazing place, built in 1947 by POWs who were shipped to Scotland from Rimini because it wasn't safe for them to go home. The chapel is a little shrine of handmade treasures - the chandelier is made from tinsel and coathangers; the candlesticks from shell-casings. It's still in use as so many of the men married into the local community. Open all year round, it's well worth a visit.
I've written up a recent trip to Storybook Glen for Nothing To See Here. Situated just outside Aberdeen, it's a fairytale garden, which is a common enough concept worldwide but rare in Scotland (and the rest of the UK). On one level, it's a brilliant day out. Serious good fun, we all loved it. On another it's a shrine to folk art, or naive art or whatever. I never know where the lines are drawn when it comes to all that. Check out the Storybook Glen Flickr set for more details or visit if you can. It's well worth it.
This is a short taster film for a series on anti-tourism by Daniel Kalder. I read, and loved his book The Lost Cosmonaut which is a sort of alternative travel book. It's based on the belief that "As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing amazing about the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Egypt. They are as banal as the face of a Cornflakes packet". I agree with that. Not that they're not amazing, but they're too familiar to be really remarkable, whereas some places are so mundane people actually stop noticing them to the point that they can come into view again in a surprising way. This is certainly what Nothing To See Here is all about.
Daniel Kalder was born in Fife but lives and works in Russia so most of his exploring is around the spectacular bleakness of the Soviet Union. There are some interesting snippets in the film, like Peter the Great's Kunstkammer which houses his collection of mutants. It would make a great series so here's hoping someone picks it up.
We had a little jaunt to Aberdeen for the holiday weekend. I lived there for a while in the early 90s and am immensely fond of the place. I like the greyness of the granite and the steely blue skies. There are lots of really stunning buildings that no one seems to bother about. It's colder than Glasgow but drier so I remember lots of sunny days wandering about when I should have been studying. I could happily retrace my steps for days there but that isn't much fun for the kids. So we went to the beach, which is the perfect place to be on a cool autumnal morning and walked about the fun fair before heading down to Footdee for a look at the little houses and big ships. Then we went to Storybook Glen, of which more later, once I can find words to sufficiently describe it. Pictured is one of Aberdeen's seaside shelters. I took loads of pictures of these over the summer. I like the way that Aberdeen's are rock hard but also kind of graceful. It made me think of Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, an unlikely comparison.
I'm looking forward to The Secret Life of the Motorway, which starts on BBC Four on Tuesday. I've been reading up on the British road system for a while but have been too ashamed to admit it for fear of reaching a new level of geekdom. It was for research on my favourite road, the B7076/7078 for Nothing To See Here. It used to be the main route from Glasgow down to the border and now it's a strange ghost road - a B-class dual carriageway. Driving along it evokes an era of big open roads and fewer cars. A step back in time.
Out and about it's easy to spot relics of the short period when motorways were the glamour boys of transportation. The famous Pennine Tower at Forton Services emulates air travel, not road travel. In 1965, the M6 was that exotic. The best seats in the restaurant give you a great view of the motorway, whereas services today are designed to shield you from the road and make you think you're in the country. Forton is a relic of a time when motorways were really exciting and new, an emotion also captured in numerous "boring" postcards of the period like the one from LA above.
Roads are another brilliant everyday thing that everyone seems to take for granted. How I love them. For me hearing the traffic news about the Hanger Lane Gyratory System or the A939 from Cockbridge to Tomintoul holds more romance than the shipping forecast.
Fellow enthusiasts may enjoy:
I've put up my first Norfolk entry on Nothing To See Here - Docwras Rock Factory, the World's Biggest (Seaside) Rock Shop. It follows hot on the heels of another Great Yarmouth entry, the legendary Louis Tussaud's House of Wax. If Ben hadn't sent this in just before we went away I wouldn't have gone in but now I'm eternally grateful to him. It really is spectacular - hard to do it justice in words. Like a time capsule of 70s and 80s entertainment. The first display which starts off with Starsky and Hutch flanked by Max Boyce pretty much sets the tone. The amusement arcade at the back really deserves its own post so more of that later.
This picture pretty much sums up our trip to Norfolk. Moments of classic seaside fun in between downpours. In that respect it was fantastically British. We all bought wellies on the first day and were sorted after that. Everyone who recommended Norfolk was right - a strange and interesting part of the world, with a charming way about it. It's funny how whole counties have their own atmosphere. We ventured south to Suffolk one day and it seemed all uppity by comparison. I was relieved to head back to the technicolour tack of Great Yarmouth.
I bought a new camera and took hundreds of photos. The best are making their way onto Flickr. More dispatches to come as time allows.
We're going to Norfolk next week. Any recommendations? So far the ziggurats of UAE, Louis Tussaud's craptacular House of Wax (coming soon to Nothing To See Here) and the Dad's Army Museum at Bressingham are all on the list. Hunstanton and Cromer come recommended for old-style seaside fun. Any others?
I took this picture in Ulverston because it sums up something that I'm interested in but can't quite describe. A sort of localness. What I love about Britain is that places can be so close together but so different, and that there's an interesting mix of commonness and localness (these aren't the right words but I can't think of a good alternative). In this case it's mealtimes. We all eat meals, right? But in the north (and north is a movable feast) the words are familiar but they mean different things. And it sounds trivial but it's really, really important because these differences sum up who you are.
I won't embarrass myself by trying to explain the difference between dinner and tea (feel free to interject) but in Cumbria, lunch (or is it dinner?) starts very early. When we went to the Laurel & Hardy Museum the owner was nipping out for fish and chips at 11am. As Scots are always lambasted for having the worst diet in Europe this was comforting. I felt commonness in fried food and localness in timing. And I wondered what the impact of this is on the rest of the day. Is it a sort of breakfast like a king/dine like a pauper sort of thing, or is it chips again for tea (or dinner depending on your location)?
Lately, there have been more things about distinctiveness + geography like Coast and Comedy Map of Great Britain or the Culture Show's alternative plaques. It runs through Nothing To See Here. And as the web is very good for supporting specialisation it's a seam of interestingness worth mining. In this vein I've just finished reading Pies and Prejudice: in search of the north by Stuart Maconie - a sort of overview of localness in the north of England. It tries to define where "the north" is for a start (ironically south from here) and delves into the various parts investigating their rivalries and differences. It's a fascinating, entertaining read, and I wish there was an equivalent for the rest of the country. This Guardian review seems to prove Maconie's point (he's a Lancastrian) that Yorkshiremen are pretty humourless.
We've had a few days away in the Lake District. Prior knowledge helped to avoid most of the touristy bits and hover round the edges instead, visiting Ulverston (home of Stan Laurel and one of the nicest places on earth), Barrow-in-Furness, and up the coast to Whitehaven and beyond. This is a fab part of England. It only takes a few hours to get there from Glasgow but it feels far away and different.
We saw the World's Largest Coloured Pencil at the Pencil Museum in Keswick.
And lots of Hartley's pubs that have this lovely lettering. This is my favourite as Golden Ball is also an excellent Stereolab song.
And the beach at St Bees which has beautiful big pebbles.
There was so much to do it's going to take a while to read it all up (I always come home full of curiosity), get photos onto Flickr and write some entries for Nothing To See Here, so this is just a little taster. Plus it's back to work tomorrow. Have any of you been anywhere nice?
I was working in Pretoria last week, which was an odd one. It's the first time I've been somewhere and not really seen the place. We were told not to wander about on our own so all I saw was the hotel, the office, the road in between and the mall round the corner. All of which could have been anywhere. I struggled to find something South African and by the end of the week had managed some brinjal and peppadews (nice veg), a pudding that I've forgotten the name of and some biltong which I had to hand into customs. As cultural exchanges go it wasn't one of the best.
I've got a penchant for planned cities and administrative capitals (Canberra has a reputation for being boring but I loved it, and Washington has a similar overgrown model village sort of feel) but there wasn't much to recommend Pretoria. There were some nice modernist apartment blocks with great names and lovely signs but beyond that... nothing. It reminded me of Australia more than anything else - same sort of weather, lots of space, similar architecture. I lived in Adelaide for a while and it reminded me of happy times there. It was work so I can't complain really. I've just never had that experience of not being able to get out and get the feel of a place. I was surprised how unsettling it was, feeling sort of trapped and cheated. It was strange to go all the way to Africa and not really find anything different.
It's a slow news week here at I like. Work is busy, so I'm steering clear of the computer out of hours. This means more time to enjoy the seaside. This is a photo taken on Sunday morning at a beach on the south-west coast of Scotland. I've never seen so many seashells in one place. Added to this, a trip to the local museum (of which more later) proved invaluable for seashell identification. Even the common ones have interesting names - periwinkle, warty venus, rayed and smooth artemis, not forgetting our dear friend the wentletrap. More on UK Seashells and seashells.org.
I'm going to be away for most of the week so will point you in the direction of Nothing To See Here which continues to document the nether reaches of the British Isles and beyond. I've recently added a tribute to one of Glasgow's oldest shops Tam Shepherd's - an old-fashioned joke shop, as well as our first Asian entry on Bangkok's penis shrine. We always need contributions so please get in touch if you can suggest somewhere new.
Many, many thanks to everyone who has posted New York tips. Now I'm raring to go. It's at times like this that blogging really pays off - it's better than any guide book. I got a few by email and word of mouth too so will stick them all up when I'm back. There hasn't been much time to write lately so I'm hoping to either catch up or chill out when I'm away. Do people still say chill out? Anyway, back in a week or so.
[Continuing from Day 1]. Today we're up early and into Gateshead/Newcastle. I understand there is a difference now. The Get Carter car park is still in action but we park at the Sage and have a wander round. It's very nice inside, like an inside out Guggenheim. It takes ages to find somewhere to eat and we breakfast under the Tyne Bridge like common trolls. I'm hoping to see the Civic Centre, a modernist delight with seahorses round the top but we run out of time and go to the Baltic instead for the Spank The Monkey ("urban and suburban art") exhibition. There's a giant space invader in the window and a Takashi Murakami video thing. Tommy likes the man with his trousers down (by Os Gemeos). As art goes, it's surprising family fun.
Then it's on to the north-east's two largest pieces of public art - a photo opportunity at Antony Gormley's Angel of the North on the road out and then on to Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham. One for the new town collection. It’s only supposed to be a quick stop but it gets even quicker when we park up. Peterlee is not one of England’s beauty spots. Bizarrely, the Pavilion is well-signposted but utterly derelict. I’ve read a few things saying how big it is so it’s a lot smaller than I expected. The point is not that it's too big, but that it's completely out of proportion to everything else around it. As a card-carrying member of the Twentieth Century Society I feel like I should like it, but I really don’t. It’s hard to know how this ever seemed like a good idea. Let’s cheer up a dingy council estate with some brutalist public art. It’s filthy and crumbling, straddling a stagnant pond. I feel a bit guilty for dragging everyone here, but Neil is studying town planning and this is a good example of what not to do.
We have lunch in Thirsk which is like its name suggests - bustling and brisk. Like breakfast, lunch in a Baker's Oven takes ages through incompetence and misunderstandings. Every interaction is like the “No need to be rude, dear” sketch from The League of Gentlemen. It feels like we'll never get fed. The plan was to stop in Hull but we’re running a bit late so it’s through the outskirts (bagging one cream phone box) and over the Humber Bridge. It costs £2.70 so it had better be good. We whizz through Grimsby and down the coast into Lincolnshire. The scenery is flat and featureless and we can't see the sea. We get to Mablethorpe and Golden Sands, our chosen destination just as it's getting dark. Our caravan is right at the back - a punishment for getitng it cheap, I'm sure. The place is deserted so we go out to explore. Mablethorpe is more commercialised than I expected (that's not saying much) and almost completely closed. I wonder if we've done the right thing. Make mental note not to come on holiday out of season again. Anyway, the chippie is open so we get some dinner and retire to explore our caravan. It's massive - three bedrooms so we've got a spare. It's not pretty but it's functional and comfy so we spend a night in watching telly, not quite sure where we've landed up.
We’re taking it easy today, breaking the journey on the way down to Lincolnshire. Aiming for Newcastle without any concrete plans except to see the Millennium Bridge opening up. The journey is quick and uneventful. The M74 is familiar now. Probably my favourite stretch of motorway with all the hills around it. Crossing the border, we think about stopping to see Hadrian's Wall but decide it sounds too boring. Heading towards Newcastle I phone and find out we’ve missed the bridge, so we head towards Tynemouth. The journey, through industrial North Shields is fascinating. It's a bit like the road into Liverpool on our summer holiday. One of those long straight deserted roads, like Clyde St in Glasgow, that runs through a city's industrial heartland. There are lots of industrial relics on the way - huge cranes, ginormous sheds, tunnels and funnels. On a Sunday afternoon it's really peaceful and grand. Glasgow used to look like this, but most of the shipyards have been ripped out and turned into luxury flats. We walked along the Clyde the other week and it felt a bit featureless without the Meadowside Granary, a much-loved (and equally despised) brick building which dominated the skyline. But it’s far from redeveloped here. Driving along we accidentally find one of the things I'd read about in England: a guide to post-war listed buildings – the Tyne cycle & pedestrian tunnels. The little rotunda is deserted but we take a look. Inside they are the most beautiful things – green tiled tunnels stretching under the river. Functional but somehow calm and peaceful. We spend a while there wandering about taking pictures and playing on the longest wooden escalators in the world. Tommy likes the echoes.
Next stop Tynemouth. Neil and I have been there once before, when he was working his way up the coast. Going by the names I thought Whitley Bay would be nice and seasidey (it was grotty) and Tynemouth would be grim and industrial but it's not like that at all. There are some nice houses in the town centre and a spacious beachfront with a ruined castle and a little boating pond. I'd heard about the Childhood Memories Toy Museum, which doesn't disappoint. More of a collection than a museum it’s got toys of every kind (see photos). It has Nothing To See Here written all over it. Perfect.
Unable to resist a bridge or tunnel we go through the Tyne Tunnel and end up in Jarrow. Not one of England’s beauty spots, we head on to South Shields. It’s starting to get dark now but we get out to have a look. There are some odd sculptures here that I’ve seen on Flickr. They're like big green Weebles. A bit creepy. But there’s a great thing – the "Red Robot" or Groyne Lighthouse that I've seen in one of the seaside books. It's solid but looks a bit hand-knitted with corrugated iron patched all over it. It’s lovely and we wander about here for a while while another lighthouse lows away in the distance. We come to rest in an Alan Partridge-style travel tavern beside the Metro Centre. It's been an interesting first day.
We get all our hoidays from The Sun now. Ones where you save up tokens and choose your holiday park for £9.50 or whatever. It worked for the first Great British holiday at Pontins so we tried it again, choosing Nairn or Dornoch for the September weekend, with a wild card of Mablethorpe in the October week. And as the north of Scotland proved suprisingly popular Mablethorpe it was. I'd never heard of it, along with almost everyone else in the UK it seems, but it nestles on the Lincolnshire coast between two seaside big-hitters of Skegness and Cleethorpes in what seems like a mysterious part of the country. When I told people we were going there the response was usually "Where?" and then "Why?" which made me wonder if it was going to be a disaster. But it wasn't.
Before reporting back in more detail I wanted to mention 3 books that helped to get more out of the trip:
These were all instrumental in sending us to places we wouldn't have found otherwise. I'll report back later as we saw lots on the way. No epiphanies like last time but lots of great places and fodder for Nothing To See Here. Sadly, back to work first.
Thanks for all the recommendations. Off to sample them now. I've switched comments off so there's no funny business. Back in a week.
We're off on holiday again next week, working our way down the east coast of England. We got as far as Bridlington last time so are doing the next bit - Humberside/Lincolnshire kind of way. I'm still not sure what's there. It seems like quite a mysterious part of the country so I'm hoping for lots of interesting things and old-time seaside action. Any recommendations?
We went to a power station a couple of weeks ago. A lovely 1930s art deco one in south-west Scotland. The dial in the middle was one of the best things about it - it only goes Slow or Fast. Nothing more exact than that. In a power station when you'd think things need to be quite precise. The whole place was great and then we got to walk over a dam. I've written it all up on Nothing To See Here.
Well, I hope it's clear we all had a ball. I'm now looking forward to other British holidays, instead of feeling like they're second best. When I told people where we were going there was a note of pity in their voices. They would say "That's nice" but their tone said "Oh, how awful for you" (some people just said that openly). So I wanted to write it all up to show how much fun it can be. Here are some notes and conclusions, all jumbled up:
And this is the bit that comes up at the end of the story while the credits are rolling:
Thus ended the Great British Holiday. If you've just come in and are wondering what's going on start here.
We're going home today, and no matter how much I've enjoyed my holiday I'm always quite excited about that. The best thing is that it's only going to take a few hours, and we can go at our own pace - no hanging about in waiting rooms or airport lounges. So we pack up and Tommy has one last photocall (which happens every morning), this time with Dennis the Menace. He's been so great these past few days, really well-behaved and good fun to be with. Neil says it's because he's getting everything he wants but I don't know. I thought that usually made kids worse. Anyway, eventually we're off and Tommy is a wee bit sad but not too bad. I'm not sure he realises that we're really going home this time.
We've done enough and seen enough to not really want to fart about too much on the way home. We stop at the services a few times and I'm starting to feel like I could compile my own guide to facilities on the M6. I hate going on the motorway, it stresses me out (even though I'm not driving) and Tommy gets more restless so we aim for lunch in Morecambe as one last fling. On the way in Tommy says "Not another beach!". We're so bad to him. I can see him telling his pals in years to come how he had to go to the seaside all the time and it was so boring.
We've been to Morecambe fairly recently, but this time the sun is shining. The Midland Hotel is covered in scaffolding. It's going to be exciting when it's done up. There are new bits and pieces but still a lot of things in disrepair. However some things have weathered well, like Brucciani's. The interior is closed (although the door is open tantalisingly) so we just get ice cream, from the grumpiest man alive. It's worth the sass though, it's delicious. Tommy has a play in the park and we all get our photos taken with Eric. That's Morecambe done and we're off again.
A couple of days ago at Pontins I'd found myself worrying about my environmental footprint. I know we should all be worried about the environment but usually I'm far too busy worrying about everyday stuff - money, time, kids, work - to think about anything big. I realised that I wasn't sweating the small stuff any more and felt totally calm (my conscience is fairly clear on the environmental footprint front). I'm pretty contented most days, but what I discovered on this holiday were moments of real happiness. It felt like we did something so simple that it was genius. Didn't go far, didn't spend a fortune or plan anything complicated, didn't really aim high in any respect, so there were no let downs. Brian Eno uses a great phrase - idiot glee (explained more fully here) to describe the feeling of "sheer, mad joy at the world". Who would have thought I'd find it in a holiday camp in Prestatyn.
We get out early when it's cool and make for Portmeirion, hoping the car is going to hold out. It seems fine once we're on our way. First stop Betws-y-Coed, a nice wee place but very touristy. There are lots of towns like this in Scotland - half settlement, half coach park. But at least there's something to do here - a motor museum and a tiny train and old railway carriage turned into a cafe. We don't spot this until we're well inside the Alpine Cafe, a sort of wholefood, or at least, good food kind of place. It's only 11 o'clock but I have a big plate of lentils. It's great to eat some decent food at last.
Next we drive through Snowdonia National Park, slightly confused about which one is Mt Snowdon. The fact that it has a railway going up suggests to me that it's a glorified hill, not a proper mountain like what we have in Scotland *sniff*. I wonder if we should be going to see it because it seems like a big deal, but most scenery bores me to tears unless it's something dramatic or unusual. I get my wish and soon we're driving through huge mountains of slate. It's great - really striking. And it's proper Welsh!
Next Blaenau Ffestiniog, home of Glyn from Big Brother and the Ffestiniog railway. I get Glyn now, and all that stuff about being from the middle of nowhere, although it doesn't explain why he can't make toast. I thought there would be bunting or something but no. Onwards to Portmeirion.
It's odd arriving somewhere that you really, really want to go to. (Alain de Botton covers this very well in The Art of Travel). I thought I could only be disappointed but it's great, even better than I could have imagined because the story of Clough Williams-Ellis and how he put it all together is so lovely. His motto was "Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future" and that's what he did, putting together this amazingly charming and idiosyncratic collection of buildings and found objects. It's a lovely place to wander through, noticing all the details (photos here). Tommy and Neil play on the beach (where Rover chases Patrick McGoohan) for ages.
We all come away happy and take the long way home through Caernarfon and Conwy. We try to get dinner in Conwy but it's 10 to 6 and everywhere is closing. I can't believe how hard it is to get fed in this country. We have a look for Britain's Smallest House, but couldn't find it. You can make your own joke there.
So it's back to Pontins and I feel excited and sad to be going to the show for the last time. It's such a great set-up having everying on your doorstep, all geared towards the kids but yet painless for adults. The Bluecoats have been great all along - you've got to admire their enthusiasm and their stamina. Everything is just at the right level - they didn't take the piss out of anyone or try to make in-jokes for adults, and it's sort of cheesy without being naff if that makes sense. After 3 nights of it I'm starting to hope someone will drag me up for the Cha Cha Slide but that's really Tommy's domain and joining in would only cramp his style. He says he wants to be a Junior Bluecoat. Truly, he has found his people and I wonder if anywhere else can live up to this.
I realise that retelling this journey is taking longer than the actual trip itself and is a lot less interesting but while I was at Pontins my head was very clear and it felt very important because I had some points I wanted to make. And I knew what the points were but I didn't write them down, so I'm warning you now, this is going nowhere. I'm sick of listening to myself. But I've started so I'll finish. Day 6 coming right up.
It's exciting to wake up in our little flat on another scorching hot day. Tommy gets to do Pontins stuff all morning. There's a photocall with Captain Croc, then it's Megamix Mick’s workout. You could quite easily stay here all the time and not get bored. If you're a kid. I get out of it by feeding Danny and making sandwiches. Today we're off to Portmeirion, with much excitement on my part. But we get stuck in traffic just past Rhyl, and the car overheats much like the rest of us. We're on the other side of Abergele when it makes a noise and gives up. It's clear we’re not going anywhere so we sit and wait for the car to cool down. Tommy and I watch a woman grooming her horse and Danny watches the trees. I don't know anything about cars so I'm crapping it, wondering how we're going to get back to Glasgow. Neil has his head under the bonnet and I'm trying to keep calm and carry on. But we can both see the humour because how many times did this happen when we were kids? We had to buy a new car once, a bright orange Volkswagen Variant that would be cool now, but was really embarassing at the time. Anyway, to cut a long story short we go to a garage, get it looked at and go back to Pontins for the rest of the day. Maybe if it's taken me this long to get to Portmeirion I'm destined never to get there.
The good news for Tommy is that we're back in time to see Barney live on stage. I hate Barney. He's probably my least favourite children’s character apart from Dora the Explorer. If we'd been a month later it would have been Sooty, which is quite cool. Anyway, it's really awful. Some poor sod in a Barney suit pratting about to some rotten songs. And they can barely get the songs in for making announcements about how you can't take pictures due to international copyright law. This is the kind of thing that makes me hate modern life. I go back to the chalet and it's beautifully quiet. The longer I'm here the more I like it. It reminds me of living in a tenement. It's nice to be surrounded by people who are in the same position as you, but not having to interact with them. A sort of alone in a crowd thing.
Afterwards we go to Ffrith beach along the road. There is a derelict pavilion, not derelict in a good way. Scary and shabby, but the beach is beautiful and empty. Tommy runs into the sea shouting "I'm David Hasselhoff", then flies a kite and makes sandcastles. It’s like essence of seaside. Danny falls asleep so I read Brian Eno and realise I'm perfectly happy for once. Not a care in the world.
Back to Pontins for dinner then out to Lunars Bar for Captain Croc’s fun time. Tommy seems much calmer today. He is off like a shot to join in the games and we hardly see him again. He is out on the floor doing John Travolta-style dance moves with one of the Bluecoats. So Neil & I get another quiet night. Danny is no bother, and lots of people come over to say hello to him. It really is nice, just the right level of sociability. There should be a word for the way we have become - Pontinised, or something. It takes us two minutes to walk home in the twilight and we all go to bed happy.
It's day 4 of the holiday but day 1 of Pontin's. Nice to be somewhere we're going to stay for a while and it's another beautiful day. Neil, Tommy and Danny go off to hunt for Safari Sam (Captain Croc's nemesis) while I go to the laundrette. In the daylight I'm hugely impressed by the whole holiday camp set-up. l like the way that all the chalets are identical to the point that it's pretty hard to find your way home. There's lots of symmetry and clean lines. And all the chalets are arranged in U’s or triangles so everyone is looking onto some communal ground where the kids can play. It’s also very quiet, although it must be mayhem at high season.
In the afternoon we take a drive along the coast. We go through Rhyl, 3 miles up the road, which looks like it’s seen better days. I like seeing all these seaside places in various stages of decline/stagnation and regeneration. Most places are being regenerated now so it's always a surprise to find somewhere that is still a bit of a dump. Or am I being too hard on Rhyl? We pass through some other wee towns. Rhos-on-Sea is a nice surprise. I catch sight of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre – immediately my NTSH senses are tingling. It’s a marionette theatre pretty much unchanged since it opened in 1958. It doesn’t open til July and I press my nose up against the glass hoping that Mr Bim Bam Boozle is working away Geppeto-style in the back. No luck. Debate with myself: can I write about somewhere I haven’t been?
Head on to Llandudno. Initial impressions are good - solid Victorian hotels like Brighton or Eastbourne and a prom awash with pensioners. As Father Dougal says, like a big tide of jam, but jam made out of old women. We go for a drive around Great Orme and stop at the Rest and be Thankful Café for toasties. I’m still struggling to find anything Welsh.
The view round the bay is stunning and the weather really makes it. It’s like a tourist board advert. We go back to the town, park up, get an ice cream from Cadwallader’s and go to explore the seafront. Tommy collects huge stones from the beach; we admire the old Punch and Judy booth then head for the pier. It’s a nice old Victorian one with a kink in it. Tommy suggests that Neil & I go and do some “adulty funless stuff” while he goes on the slide. On the way back down he tells us how he’s going to be a fireman when he grows up - it's all very elaborate about what he's going to do, with a role for each of his friends and Danny working the computer. I'm a wee sister, so I can't imagine what it's like having a younger sibling, but I'm delighted that Tommy sees their future together.
We spend so long on the pier that we can’t really face going on the cable car (much as I’d love to) or visiting Happy Valley gardens. It’s boiling hot and neither of us can face pushing a buggy up a hill. I feel a bit sad as I’d been looking forward to it but there has been so much to do that I can hardly complain. And we've had a lovely day not doing very much. We try to find a restaurant on the way home as we've eaten nothing but rubbish since we left Glasgow. There doesn't seem to be anything that is both decent and open. So we get fish and chips in Prestatyn and get back to the camp exhausted.
We hardly have to go any distance today so everyone is relaxed. We mooch about Liverpool and spend ages in The Beatles Shop, which is great. It's like an indie record shop. Come away with some badges, two mugs, a Paul McCartney figurine (we have the other 3 already) and for Tommy, a fab Blue Meanie t-shirt. Then we're off through the Birkenhead Tunnel to look for New Brighton. Every road seems to lead us in the other direction so we give in and go Port Sunlight, a model village of the ideal community type, built by Sir William Hesketh Lever (of Unilever) for his workers. Also the birthplace of Pete Burns. It's nice enough but I'm not really in the mood and the boys definitely aren't interested so I take a few pictures, buy some Sunlight soap and move on. We double back to New Brighton.
Part of the success of this trip is down to complete ignorance about whole swathes of the country. I sit with the map in my lap, and we pick a few places we've heard of or like the name of and off we go. I assume that almost everywhere is grim and industrial so so far I've been pleasantly surprised by the beautiful beaches and the lovely houses around Liverpool. And we're in The Wirral now, which I know is posh. From Brookside. So anyway, all I know about New Brighton is that Martin Parr takes photos there and the funny thing is that the light is amazing. Everything looks like one of his photos – supersaturated colour. But apart from that it's really, really, not nice at all. Just shabby and sort of threatening. Bad vibes, man. And I'm sad but also relieved because sometimes I wonder if I'm just a total sap that likes any old rubbish. To dislike somewhere means I still have some critical faculties. Hooray.
The drive round the rest of the coast is great. I can't get over the beaches down here, they go out for miles and miles and miles. Wallasey Beach is has some lovely art deco beach structures, including an art deco Brewsters, and West Kirby beach is the biggest yet. A couple sitting on deckchairs look like the last people on earth. This is really nice, wandering through other people's suburban life.
Soon we're in Wales and we cheer as we cross the border. Nothing seems very Welsh. As everyone from Wales seems to bang on constantly about being Welsh I was expecting something more. Dragons or something. Anyway, we get to Pontins Prestatyn Sands just in time to check in. I'm feeling quite nervous about how (or if) this is going to work out. Our chalet is basic to the point of spartan and with an old 60s bathroom. Rising Damp is on telly, which adds to the whole time warp feel, but it's nice and clean and quiet. After settling in we head out for dinner and get to the canteen as they're shutting up. Realise we're not on the Continent now and we have to fit in with good old British hospitality which means lunch from 12-2 and dinner from 6-7.
We find some action in Lunars Bar. In a strange recessive gene thing Tommy, the child of two fairly quiet people is a complete livewire. He heads straight for the stage and Neil and I get a drink in peace. Within an hour he has made the finals of the 5-7 year olds' dancing competition. I feel very proud, and very guilty for trying to turn him into this vanilla uber-child that sits quietly and eats his vegetables. It's the Boden dream all over. Because it's great that he can do all this stuff without batting an eyelid. He is beaten in the final by a 5-year old from Liverpool who can break dance, but he takes it well.
For the rest of the night The Bluecoats do their stuff. They play games and sing The Court of King Caractacus, an old Rolf Harris favourite. Everything is geared around the kids, parental involvement not required. Then the star of the show, Captain Croc comes out and everyone learns his dance. I can see tears before bedtime if we try to get Tommy home but the Bluecoats know what they're doing and the evening ends with a "goodnight children" song and a crocodile march so Tommy leaves without a fuss. It's a promising start.
We spend the night at Forton Services and have breakfast overlooking the M6. It’s the first time we’ve stayed at a Travelodge and not mentioned Alan Partridge. Head back to Blackpool because we spotted signs for a model village on the way out last night. Gotta love a model village. Tommy isn’t too impressed but Neil and I like it. It’s a beautiful day so we buy Tommy a kite and roam around Stanley Park for hours. I’ve never heard of this place but it’s lovely – huge, with an athletics track, boating pond, bandstand, Italian gardens and the usual parky stuff. It also has a big art deco café (real art deco with some cod art deco over the top) so we fill up on coffee and cakes.
Next stop Southport where we’d been before but on a miserable gusty day. Today it is gorgeous. We stop at Rotten Row on the way in to see what’s happening. There's a tiny train – big enough to ride, but so small you have to straddle it like a horse. Neil and Tommy go to see some radio-controlled car races while I feed Danny and read Brian Eno's A Year With Swollen Appendices. I never get time to read usually, so this is great, and Brian Eno is such a good person to have on the journey - a sort of sensible genius. We head for the pier, past another model village then we get on the Lakeside Miniature Railway which is the sort where four (smallish) people can get into each carriage. I am rapidly losing all sense of scale. We ride from Funland to Pleasureland, which is nice.
It’s evening now and we head for Crosby for Antony Gormley’s Another Place. It's one of the loveliest things I've ever seen. That’s enough for one day so we carry on to Liverpool. I love the drive through the outskirts and in along Stanley Dock. It's full of huge industrial structures that are quite grand. While Neil is out looking for the hotel Tommy & I talk about the Beatles. We all love The Beatles.
We spend the night in the city centre and attempt a family meal in Ask but Danny is restless and Tommy is jumping about like a chimp so we get pizza and take it back to the hotel. I feel vaguely defeated, seeing other families in there with kids (older than ours, admittedly) who can behave themselves. Lately I've been having a quiet mid-30s crisis, trying to reconcile what I am with what I want and what I have to accept I'll never be. It's peppered with depressing epiphanies and the day ends with another when I realise that I am not a hip young gunslinger, I am a sitting in a Travelodge drinking wine out of a toothmug.
This holiday is an experiment in compromise. The goal is to keep us all happy, particularly Tommy, within the confines of a low budget, sustainable parenting (i.e. not giving him everything he wants or it will be a nightmare when we get home) and having a baby in tow. Realising that journeys are frequent flashpoints (a constant harping of "How many minutes now?" before we've even left Glasgow) we're going to Wales slowly, with the aim of stopping at lots of places on the way. So first we stop at Moffat for a picnic and a play in the park then on to Blackpool.
Blackpool makes all other seaside resorts looks like amateurs. I think Tommy will love it but I worry that (1) it will overstimulate him to the point of madness, and (2) we'll have shot our bolt for the rest of the holiday. We head straight for the Pleasure Beach and try to get the hang of the ticketing system. It appears to cost £29 (each) to get in, but we check and it's free entry, you can buy a wristband to get on everything but otherwise it's pay as you go with "tickets" to ride. As I don't do anything scary, Neil doesn't do heights, Tommy is too wee to get on a lot of stuff and someone needs to mind Danny we're not going to be spending a fortune. Tommy immediately wants to go on everything but we just wander for a while which is entertainment enough. I've wanted a go on the Mary Blair-era Alice in Wonderland ride since I saw it first time I was in Blackpool about 15 years ago. Sometimes having kids is a great excuse for doing something that would otherwise make you look like a nutter or a perv. We try to buy tickets and the machine eats our money. There is a long wait until someone comes to fix it but so far everyone remains good-humoured. We're not in any hurry. I go and feed Danny and by the time I get back Neil and Tommy are eating chips from a bucket with a spade in place of a fork. Now that's holiday. Eventually we get into our Cheshire Cat and ride through Wonderland. It takes off with a rickety jolt that gives me and T the giggles. I realise we're actually having fun together. After that we wander around some more. Neil and Tommy have a few shots on things in the children's bit - I max out the picture card on my camera. There are so many beautiful old rides around like the Grand National and the Big Dipper. Tommy has his first shot on a rollercoaster and on one of those things that shoots you up a pole. He looks really happy. It's great to see him enjoying himself.
We've been here for hours and are getting hungry so we get ice cream and head for the pier. Tommy and I go on the Big Wheel which is fab. Great to be spinning so high up out at sea and it's a beautiful evening. As we head back to the car all the stag parties and hen nights are starting out and there are some truly hideous sights - 40-year old housewives dressed as bunny girls ripped to the tits before it's even 8 o'clock. But that's what I like about Blackpool - it's like your wildest dreams and your worst nightmares all in one. As we leave I feel very hopeful for what's ahead. This is only Day 1 and we've all had a good time. I think smugly how much Tommy must love us for this, and how we are great parents. Then on the way home Tommy says to Neil “Dad, why haven’t you got what cool guys have got?” Like what? “Like an earring and a necklace and a tattoo”, and I realise however hard we try we are never going to be cool.
There seems to be a lot of debate about British holidays at the moment. Already today I've read this ridiculous Guardian article about camping (in a £1000 tipi) and seen something on BBC Breakfast that had lots of people complaining about how expensive and dismal it is to holiday here. Up til now we've gone abroad, but this year we couldn't afford it and I got the feeling that we'd be better off at home anyway. Although we've had some great foreign holidays it feels like we all enjoy different bits for different reasons and it's a struggle trying to find something that we all want to do. And Tommy shouts loudest so keeping him entertained is the priority. Now we've got two kids it feels like we're on a sliding scale of discomfort, that runs from hotels through self-catering apartments, holiday camps, caravans and camper vans until it hits the ground with camping. I'm not slagging any of these options, I'm just aware that none of them feel natural yet but I've a feeling they're going to be our lot for the next few years. So as an experiment, we booked a week at Pontin's. I realise that I often champion things here where the reality might not match up to my romantic idea of it and that maybe it was time to put my money where my mouth was. So to cut a long story short it was the best family holiday we've ever had. It was cheap, easy to arrange, not much travelling, lots of things to do and see and we all enjoyed it equally. I worry constantly about everything most of the time, but in this week away everything felt right. I've been trying to make sense of it for a week (because I did a lot of thinking while I was there) but so much happened I thought I'd report back in bits. It seems a bit fragmented but it's that or nothing and I'm interested in hearing about how it compares to other people's experiences, so stay tuned for a day by day account of our travels.
Well, we had a smashing holiday. A week of sun and sand. We were by the coast pretty much the whole time and went to a new beach every day. It was like distilled essence of holiday - picnics, kite flying, sandcastles, paddling, chips and ice cream. It looked very much like Innocent's summer bingo card (via Russell Davies). I've got so much to write about I don't know where to start so in the meantime here are some ambient seaside photos because I like the way everything revolves around fun and pleasure there.
Well, it's finally here. The new site on going places that I was talking about. It's called Nothing To See Here and with a little help it should turn into the most interesting travel guide around.
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