It had been almost 14 years since I last stayed in London. Well not strictly true I had spent a few nights in London since then but part of a medivac journey doesnt really count
London is one of those places I love to visit but would hate to live there. 16 years ago I spent about 4 months working in the west end of London. It involved working there 5 days a week and returning home to weekends which really meant getting in late on a Friday night, doing the washing and drying clothes on the Saturday and then packing for a Sunday night flight to be at my desk for 9am on the Monday. Not much of a life really and sounded a lot more glamourous than it actually was. After a month or so I tried to work 12 hour days monday to weds so I could get home earlier and when the offer of a permanent job came, I was never so glad to turn a job down in my life. Yes I spent time in some great hotels and got the opportunity to eat in some great restaurants but after a while all you want to do is go back to your hotel room and get room service and watch tv.
So I spent some time away from London but would always get over sometime during December, if for nothing else than to take a wander round Harrods and splash out a little.
Id organised this trip to go over and do some quick coffee meetings with some of my London clients. Its odd but I worked for a client in London for over 4 years and it was a good relationship with the client but we never met once in that period and I realised that this was the norm with my current clients so thought Id make an effort to press the flesh. I know I was probably asking too much to get the chance to go round and do some stock photos as it would be totally weather dependent and booked a month in advance it was pretty much a see how it is when you get there trip. If all else failed I’d go to a few exhibitions and I might even do some tourist stuff.
The way the flights worked out Id arrive after dark in London and had pretty much the first evening to myself. The question was then do I take in a show, go for a wander, go to the cinema, veg out in the hotel or… …well to cut a long story short I ended up at Chelsea for a champions league game. A great chance to get some quick street food which looking back on it I wish I’d missed. Not long after returning from Hong Kong where the street food there had sort of spoiled me So when I couldnt decide if the bap had more bread than the sausage I knew Id made the wrong choice!
Still the game was a good result for Chelsea and when the great Fernando Torres was introduced at 80 odd minutes it was time for me to leave and get a quick train home. Turned out to be a great move on my part, with delays, breakdowns and so on it took over an hour to get across London. How on earth are they going to hold the Olympics?
When I worked in London one of my bosses was one of those typical London bosses, when he invites you out for Lunch, it is of the liquid variety. I learned this to my cost one Friday afternoon when I went out with him and a load of the senior managers. After 4 pints I couldnt remember what my name was but I do remember the whole pub laughing when I kept saying ‘no seriously lads, what are we having to eat’. I have no idea how I ended up back in Belfast that evening. The guys had always said that if I was ever in London looking a pint at 6am that I should get myself down to Smithfield Market. Under the market theres a pub called the cock and as long as you order breakfast you can get drink as well. Now as a light drinker the pint didnt really interest me but rather the opportunity to get a fryup that would choke a horse and be made up of every meat under the sun. I waited 14 years for that fry and can I say it was worth the wait. I would thoroughly recommend it and get yourself down to the Smithfield Meat Market (London City Markets) if you ever get a chance. If you are a social networking afficionado (I occasionally use twitter and use facebook for family and friends) then please dont send a message to everyone you know saying that you are enjoying a breakfast at the cock. Innocent enough until some so called friends leave the ‘breakfast at’ part out of their requoting. Sigh!
Seeing as it was such a ridiculous time in the am and the sun was just coming up I headed down over the river for some early morning city views. Going past St Pauls I got a first glimpse of the Occupy London protest and the ‘ring of steel’ around the London Stock Exchange. Lets be honest I remember some of the rings of steel thrown up here in Northern Ireland,so a few crash barriers and fat lads in dayglo jackets doesnt constitute a ring of steel London.
I do have to say it was an absolutely beautiful morning and whilst cold was probably one of the best Ive ever seen there. I would have mostly stayed there in the summer when at times the heat is oppressive, I remember coming out of an air conditioned office one day for lunch only to stay in the revolving door and go and get crisps and cola from the vending machine.
I spent most of the morning wandering in and around the City hoping to set upon some bankers and give them what for but they must have all been sitting in their office, banking, or something like that.
I had a fair idea of the types of photos I wanted so took a wander up around Westminster and in and around Whitehall. It was a good opportunity to try out some of the travel technology Id first tried at my path to enlightenment in Hong Kong. I had downloaded a london transport app, a tube map, walking and guided tour apps and was using google maps to navigate. Despite having an engineering degree and a masters in electronics this felt very weird. Id always travelled everywhere with a map and found it strange to be standing in Trafalgar Square and then finding the nearest highest ranked pub lunch within 100 yards. Sure enough my facebook and tripadvisor friends didnt let me down and I ended up in the excellent porter house just off covent garden. Of course only after Id sat down and ordered did I realise it was an Irish pub and just across the street from Rules where Id unsuccessfully tried to book a lunch.
I then made almost a fatal mistake, I decided to go for wander up round Regent Street and then Oxford Street in late evening a couple of weeks before Christmas. Only the previous weekend the police had closed Oxford Street because there were just too many people in it for safety.
Im sure it was nowhere near that now but John Lewis is an odd place to sit and have your dinner, like a bad comedy sketch Id tried to get in somewhere to sit down and made the mistake of trying to navigate through shops when I found myself outside the John Lewis Cafe. With the glories of trip planners, sat nav, tube maps I worked out that it would be a hundred yard dash to Regent Street tube station and then only one change to my hotel.
Ok so I’ll admit it Im chicken and I bottled out and went back to the hotel to watch the football on tv. Theres only so many shopping crowds you can brave before it takes its toll and if its this bad now, whats it going to be like come the 2012 Olympics?
I really like Liverpool, I always have. I have family there and its always sad leaving. It has some of the friendliest people in England.
Having said that after spending a Saturday night photographing my nephews band practice I had to drive round a burning car, a burning van, police across the main road, helicopter in the sky with searchlight shining down etc etc. It was slightly nostalgic, looking like Belfast during the troubles without the actual troubles bit.
Now with a good bright day spare before heading home I decided Id drive up the Lancashire coast and see Blackpool. Down the years I’ve given Blackpool a bum rap. It all stems from stories as a kid of people going to Blackpool on holidays and sort of describing it something short of Las Vegas and Disneyland all rolled into one. Now given my cynical views I thought this might be slightly over exaggerating.
It was further added to by an ex-girlfriend who kept suggesting it as a holiday destination when I was suggesting the likes of Hong Kong, Florida, Mexico, Carribean etc. I knew then it was never going to last.
So I thought Id be fair and although it was a bright almost summery day it was bloody cold and it was April in a no fly zone. The only other no fly zone Id heard of was southern Iraq. I didnt want to draw comparisons.
On the way to blackpool I heading into Southport, a lovely Victorian town which has seen better days and is aging as much as its residents. Gods waiting room really wouldnt be in it.
I stopped off at Southport Pier for some fish and chips and stupidly decided to walk the length of the pier, rather than waiting on the tram. Take it from me, wait on the tram!
After lunch which was hideously expensive (and why do people in England not give receipts?) it was off to Blackpool. I parked up on the seafront, got my parking ticket and headed off for a coffee. I looked back at the car and there was already a traffic warden checking my parking ticket and tax disc. Being a Northern Ireland registered car he spent a bit of time looking at it. Now he was wearing a bright red uniform and maybe Im slipping but I didnt see him the length of the seafront, so I can only conclude he was a stealth traffic warden. Maybe a cloak of invisibility or maybe they come up from the ground but it did make me set a reminder on my phone. I didnt see me getting a seconds leeway or being able to talk my way out of a ticket here.
Walking round Blackpool it really did make me realise that in Northern Ireland we have still no idea what this credit crunch/financial crisis is all about. We are going to be in for a big shock with this new government and when ultimately the axe will fall.
Im sure that Blackpool is a lot of things to a lot of people and Im blowing my chance of ever working for their tourist board but its not for me, Id say it would be a holiday hell for me although not packed it is full of interesting characters and a lot of them seemed to want to talk. Not really talk to me, more talk at me. Interesting.
I definitely got the ‘not a lot to see here, move along’ impression and after Id spent a fiver on a cup of scalding nescafe and 4 microwaved donuts I realised it was time to leave.
Blackpool, been there done that, didnt buy the kiss me quick hat or t-shirt.
The journey home was reasonably uneventful apart from a 3 hour delay on the ferry then an ‘incident’ breaking out on board. Alarm bells going, crew running up to the passenger area, walking through hurriedly, sweating, then going into the restaurant/galley area. Nothing to be alarmed about apparently, just a minor incident they were hoping to get under control.
Half an hour later the incident was ‘under control’ but there would be no afternoon tea.
That will be the scones that set the kitchen on fire then.
Meanwhile back at the ranch we’ve had 24 hour coverage of the ‘hung parliament’.
Thats democracy for you, still it kept the discussion on how shite England are going to be in the World Cup out of the headlines for another week.
Ive been travelling this week and as Id booked the ferry to Liverpool I didnt think Id be affected by the biblical cloud of volcanic ash that has brought chaos and pestilence (well maybe not pestilence) to the whole of europe.
To be honest the only thing Id noticed was that it got quieter at home at night as there were no evening or tourism night flights flying lower than they should be over my house on the way to the international airport.
Id never seen the amount of foot passengers on that ferry before in my life. I dont think the ferry companies had either, loads of bags with air baggage tickets on them indicating a lot of one way journeys.
Now if Id have been one of those people stranded this would be a more interesting blog but lets be honest, for the vast majority of us the only hassle would have been not getting fresh strawberries from Spain.
After an evening based in Liverpool it was across to the peak district, an area Id never visited before despite driving past many a time. Id planned two days there, a couple of days back at Liverpool and if the weather was right a few days back up in the lake district (again somewhere I’d never been).
Driving across northern England it reminded me a lot of Jeremy Clarksons rants. Every couple of miles was a speed camera, speed bumps and all sorts of warning signs. Now this leads me to two conclusions, people in England cant drive properly or there truly is a nanny state. Funny thing is theres an election on and there are very few election posters. Areas of Northern Ireland are plastered in them, maybe we have less TVs so people dont know theres an election on or as a people we enjoy the false smiling faces of people we never see for 4 years at a time. Maybe in England the posters may just end up as visual clutter in amongst the speed warning signs and the slow down and the signs for housing estates (like what?).
The other odd thing is that driving through North Manchester you then hit country, then 20 miles or so of country then Sheffield. Theres no real suburbs, its city then country then city again. Its odd, as I said to one of the tourists in last nights B+B, in Ireland you drive through wilderness for an hour to get to the wilderness. Its like someone in the UK decided they were going to have countryside here and here and here and then just build like mad around it.
Its also the first time Ive been through England on St Georges Day. At first I thought theyd just got the flags out early for the World Cup so then started asking around for events. Well, err, umm, errr, thats about it really.
I also find the reaction of tourism places quite mixed here. I turned up at one castle entrance run by english heritage a half an hour before the opening times (10am) and was told to come back by the staff. Hmmm. Not impressed. Ive never come across this at home or most other places, usually people have a bit of leeway and after all I could have just climbed over the wall and got in without paying.
Id to queue for about 20 mins in the tourist office in Buxton to get information on B+Bs. I wasnt interested in paying them 3 quid to get them to ring on my behalf, after all I do have a phone and do speak English (of sorts). I just wanted a brochure with details of B+Bs in it, which of course wasnt on display. Very odd. I did feel like not bothering to spend my hard earned crisp bank of england notes in their coffee shop but did need to sit down and plan out the route.
I spent the night in a wee town called Castleton and again the reactions were mixed. I rang round a few B+Bs who although they had vacancies at 6pm on a thursday night, they wanted me to pay for a full double room for two people instead of single occupancy. Im sorry but 55 quid for a b+b is tearing the hole out of it. 30 mins drive was a hotel chain with rooms for 29 quid a night and I wanted to go to local businesses. One did say that 50 quid for a B+B for the night with no parking spaces did include a great british breakfast so I enquired if it was cooked by Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver. They didnt see the sarcasm.
I eventually found a great B+B the causeway house in Castleton where the owner Janet couldnt have been more helpful. She sorted me out with a driving route the following day (which the tourist office wouldnt recommend because they wanted to promote walking and cycling which is fair enough until you point out you have a damaged leg and cant walk or cycle), advised me on where in town had the best food (the rabbit pie in The George was excellent) and generally made my stay very comfortable indeed. Comfortable room, reasonable price, great filling breakfast and hosts who couldnt do enough for you. Big thumbs up.
The tourist office in Castleton was equally helpful, tracing out details on maps, telling me where to skip if I didnt have time and advising the best times for certain points given the light if I was interested in photography.
Which brings me to the title of the blog. One of the tourist attractions near Castleton is a cave called the Devils Arsehole. No honestly! After a pint or two of the local guest ale in The George with my dinner I did try to avoid being 16 again by asking everyone I met if they could give me directions to the Devils Arsehole.
‘Can you tell me where the Arsehole is?’
‘Is there a good route up the Arsehole?’
‘I hear the Devils Arsehole attraction is a bit shitty, what do you think?’
Id love to say I tried all this but it was thursday night in the peak district in April and I was the only sinner walking the streets. Bummer.
So I went back to the B+B to try and find either the Liverpool game on the TV or the prime ministerial debates. Because of the valley theres no Sky TV or channel 5, radio reception is poor and theres no 3G. So for the first time in a long time I was left with a choice of only 4 channels.
I got back just in time to watch Have I Got News for You and Jeremy Clarkson was presenting and ranting about speed cameras. I feel your pain mate, I really do.
More England photos here
Ok I’ve never been on a ferry across the Mersey (yet) but I have been on a ferry going up the Mersey. Not good enough I know.
On my way to Liverpool today for the weekend, so what has this got to do with Ireland?
Well I always feel a connection when I go to Liverpool, it was the first stopping off point for a lot of Irish migrants, many stayed there, many used it as the first stop on a long journey to other places in the world. Its a city that has a lot of parallels with Belfast, both formerly big with shipbuilding with a rich maritime background, both cities famous for working class humour and both cities have had tough and turbulent times. Belfast is coming to terms with the troubles as now part of its history and in Liverpool the last time I was over I went to the slavery museum.
Most of Liverpools beautiful waterfront buildings were built with money generated from the slave trade, its not alone in this, I seem to recall when Obama was elected how the White House in Washington had been built by slaves.
Theres an inherent sadness in cities like Liverpool, troubled peoples, troubled times have left their mark but the cities carry on and are full of life and humour. Like Belfast Liverpool has some of the finest new waterfront developments only a few miles from some of the worst troubled areas in Western Europe.
Of course unlike Belfast, Liverpool is home to one of the greatest football clubs in the World, as well as Tranmere and Everton. Ive supported Liverpool since I was a boy, probably a mixture of the all red strip and they were top of the league when I was a kid. But lets not linger on their current fortunes for too long
Im not a big drinker but one of the worst nights in my life on the drink was in Liverpool, Its a very long story, very long story indeed but the night ended/morning started with me being woken up in a hotel room with all the lights on, the bathroom tap running, the tv on, the radio on, all the bedclothes on the floor and me lying on the bed wearing nothing but a facecloth. It wasnt my alarm that woke me but rather the sound of the maid leaving the room. Unlike my travelling companion, the sense of shame was overwhelmed by the sense of hunger and I braved all the dirty looks to have breakfast in the silver service dining room. I wondered why my mate was so keen to just use the key drop box rather than face the hotel staff as he had only been woken in a similar state by the maid finding him rolled up in the floor in a pile of bedclothes. It wasnt until she started vacuuming around the pile of clothes on the floor that she realised there was a person in there.
Still, Ive never touched southern comfort since and even now the smell of it makes me wretch. So let that be a lesson to you boys and girls.
None of that on this trip as Im doing the pre christmas visit to my brother, sister and nephews, just part of being an irish family, it seems a lot of us have families scattered around the globe, something I’ll touch on in later blogs. Im not able to get over over Christmas so its a mini christmas and mini birthday weekend rolled into one (did I mention its my birthday next week).
Right back to Liverpool, during the summer I did a series of various photos in and around Liverpool, for one of the days I had a local guide show me round some of the more interesting or quirky or off the tourist trail spots. One of the more interesting stories was this photo below.
Its somewhere the guide told me the story about, its a pyramid grave which is in danger of being knocked down and either relocated or the body in it being buried which there is a minor uproar about due to the story associated with it.
Its the tomb of a guy called Mackenzie . He was a gambler who is said to have lost his soul to the devil in a game of cards. The agreement was the devil would take his soul when he was put in the ground so MacKenzie was placed in the pyramid tomb above ground sitting on a chair holding a winning hand of cards. So the devil has never got a hold of his soul, but if he is reburied then the game is over.
Now the photo itself is probably never a seller but it is an interesting story and sets the backdrop for the demolition or restoration of the nearby church which is the centre of the controversy. Something I’d never have come across without a local guide.
OK Id better get packing, photos of Liverpool below.