Bring Me Sunshine: Morecambe & Lancaster

I FREQUENTLY travel Up North on a weekend, visiting friends on one side of the pennines or another. It’s nice to get out of London, it’s refreshing to have conversations with strangers, and it makes me smile to see people queue for the bus, rather than launch themselves on – perhaps leaving a fingernail embedded in one of the unfortunates not quick or able enough to climb aboard (Up North aggression is instead left until 2am on a Sunday morning outside Wetherspoons, inside Chicken Cottage, or whilst waiting for a taxi. As we all know, these moments of violence are principally caused by inadequate queueing systems).

So I was looking forward to the journey, and the opportunity to blog about this historic yet often-passed-by-city. Nothing could dampen my spirits.

God measures His love for a place in raindrops rather than sunbeams, right?

On average London receives 52mm of rain in August; Lancaster receives 128mm. So obviously I was happy that I would be getting an Authentic Travel Experience for my first non-Olympics related post. I wasn’t disappointed.

That’s real Northern rain, right there. None of this southern sunshine guff.

Virgin Trains announced last week that they were unsuccessful in their bid to renew their 15 year contract running the West Coast mainline. Strangely, I found myself feeling a little sad at this fact. So many hours of my life have been spent stuck in the middle of nowhere on their red seats. Also, they were the first train company to give us those toilets with the slowly revolving doors that someone inevitably forgets to lock: you push the button to open the door, and then must watch in horror and embarrassment as someone enthroned upon the toilet is slowly revealed. Your eyes meet, fleetingly, for a moment, and you know that you’ve just shared something that should never be shared. You jab ineffectually at the door close button, but the moment lasts forever and the door keeps on opening. Then, eventually, mercifully, it slowly revolves closed, and you’re left alone, with just the sound of the train, and perhaps a stifled laugh. And the worst bit? You have to find another toilet – because you can’t stay there, waiting outside for the other person to finish. You must never meet them again. Goodbye, Virgin Trains.

Fortunately, the residents of Lancaster are used to wiling away the hours indoors whilst the rain falls outside.

There really are rules to this game.

It rained all night, but Saturday dawned… grey. Not a great prospect when we were intending a BBQ for the evening. There was little time to muse on the weather, though, as we were soon hightailing to Morecambe, just north of Lancaster. Our shopping list: leather chaps, chains, a native american costume, a bow and arrow, a handlebar moustache. (The closure of the Lancaster fancy dress shop is bitterly regretted by the city’s inhabitants, but is good for Morecambe as on Saturday it boosted its tourism by approximately 300%. It would have been more, but we couldn’t all fit in the car).

Morecambe Bay. Tragically British.

Bring Me Sunshine…

Still, I thought, the advantage to being a rundown seaside resort is that there will always be space on the beach, and low demand keeps down the price of deckchair hire.

Reservations not required.

I was tempted…

Not to mention the price of lunch.

Things really are cheaper Up North.

My time in Morecambe was brief – so instead, I leave you with this video put together by the hard working and well meaning Friends of Morecambe Winter Garden, about their efforts to restore the Victorian Theatre to its former glory. It’s possible that it wasn’t meant to be funny… but it is authentically Northern, in every way. Find it here.

We drew a blank on the leather chaps and the chains, so that was one member of YMCA that wouldn’t be making an appearance that evening at the fancy dress party. To complete the remaining costumes, I was despatched into the centre of Lancaster with one goal: to purchase a bow and arrow.

Lancaster is a strange mix of old victorian architecture, budget shopping and hip studentville. It’s a small city – you could walk from one end to the other in an hour – but it’s got some great buildings and it even feels kinda hippy in places.

This is probably what Lancaster would look like if you were on LSD.

People of Lancaster: I think that you’re better than this. A brief covert survey of customers attending this bakery and a well known high street rival, positioned across the street, told me otherwise, however. Poundbakery: 4 . G****s: 2.

Until recently (last year in fact), the castle was a prison. Its use was discontinued due to the escape of notorious convict R. Punzel, via unconventional means.

We set our sights on Lancaster’s three pound shops as likely venues in which to find a bow and arrow.

There really is no good reason for me to use this photograph except to use the line: in poundland, things were a bit on the…

Exhausted from our experience in three different poundlands, distressed that we had found no bow and arrow, we retired to the Storey Institute for lunch and some covert intelligence gathering.

The Storey Institute. A wonderful building that is home to the Lancaster LitFest and various creative businesses. Also, coincidentally, where our wedding reception will be held. Last week the company which owns the venue went into liquidation, and the council has withdrawn funding for the building. Our intelligence gathering was compromised by Beckie loudly talking in front of the bar staff about how we were going to get married there. She was not very forthcoming with intelligence, beyond “we might not be here in a month.” Great. Do you know how many hours of my life I spent going around wedding venues? Do you? I travelled the country to find this place…. Then Beckie gently peeled my fingers off of the bar maid’s collar and made me put her down. Afterwards, I sat in a darkened room to calm down.

Do you know how difficult it is to find a venue to fit a literature themed wedding? DO YOU?!

This dress is made entirely of books. Apparently “it’s a fire hazard” to get married in it, so Beckie tells me. Consequently I’m not allowed to wear it.

We’re getting married in the strange, green nipple shaped thing on the horizon.

Sitting in the Storey Institute cafe, I stared into the dregs of my Americano. “Perhaps someone will save the place?” I wondered aloud. “But if they don’t… what if…” Fortunately, at that moment, we were saved from a close encounter with reality by the interruption of friends who had also chosen to eat lunch at the cafe. Friendly banter staved off The Conversation. The sun came out. And we did gain important intelligence, after all: Lancaster has a FOURTH pound shop. Yes, Pound Fever was going to be our saviour. With an optimistic bounce in our step, we set off to find a bow and arrow.

Sunshine really does make everything better.

It cost three quid, not £1, but we forgave Pound Fever because it was sunny, and because we were desperate.

The BBQ was a success. There’s probably a beautiful metaphor here about the delicate nature of spider webs, their transient beauty and our wedding venue. Unfortunately, moments later the bin which this web was attached to was moved, and the spider despatched as a potential hazard to party goers.

And we still don’t know whether we’ll have a venue for our wedding reception. But if my journey to Lancaster reminded me of anything, it was that it’s always the people that make a place. And surely the same must be true of a wedding, right? (street party…?)

The sailor is Lenny, the birthday boy of multiple Village People costumes fame. I didn’t see him use that bow and arrow all bloody night…

A strange love: Or, how we learned to stop moaning and love the Olympics – Part 2

I bloody love the Olympics.

FIRST THINGS first. The Olympics may be over, but I’m a convert, ok? Let’s just get that out in the open. Ok, maybe I wasn’t as sceptical as I initially claimed to be. But I don’t just mean that I’ve stopped moaning and I think that it’s bearable. I LOVED the Olympics. Seriously. And Coca-Cola. I love that too. Especially when I get to buy it with my Visa card.

Love it.

It’s been a week of firsts. I have never, ever watched as much sport as I have over the past seven days. Not just over the week, but in one sitting. I’ve watched hours and hours without moving. On the telly. Live, on a pitch. On a giant screen. In the sun. In the rain. I’ve watched sport. This may not seem like a big deal to many people, but it is to me. I’m not a football fan. I don’t really understand rugby, even though I pretend that I do. Cricket is a complete mystery to me. Tennis I like, but I always thought that it’d be better if you could just skip to the match point. When Wimbledon’s on I pretend to watch it whilst really reading a book. But last night something strange happened. One minute I was watching Mo Farah running in the men’s final 5000m, then my memory goes a bit hazy, then the first thing I know I’m on my feet, jumping up and down and shouting like a lunatic. “Come on Mo! Come on Mo! Yes! YESSS! YESSSSSS! Mo FAAAAAAAAARRRRAAAAAAAH!”

I honestly have no idea what I’m cheering about here. And is that a sweatband that I’m wearing? What’s happened to me?

If you could see inside me last night, this is probably what you would have seen. This kid was actually over the moon that I took a picture of his poster. Less so when I stole it off him.

There are lots of reasons why I’ve come to love the Olympics and properly enjoyed watching sports for perhaps the first time in my life. Most obviously, I think that it’s that I’ve been forced to watch sports. As I’ve previously mentioned, London 2012 is a Once In A Lifetime Experience, and watching is compulsory. I never used to like olives, until I realised that they could make even the most excruciating dinner party a little more bearable. So I ate them until I liked them. Now I can’t stop eating them. So perhaps liking sport is like liking olives.

Using a bent wooden stick to hit a giant fluorescent ball around a bright blue pitch bordered with garish pink. That’s hockey. I’ve learnt a lot about sport this week.

Sometimes the people on the pitch put the fluorescent ball into things called “goals.” This rule only applies to teams whose country code is not GB. It’s a rule I’m familiar with from having watched England play football on a few occasions.

I tried to get into football at university, having never watched it as a kid and finding myself in a house of five football fans. On Saturdays, there was nowhere in the house where I couldn’t either see/hear/feel through the floor a) football on telly, b)  football on Five Live radio or c) football being played on the Playstation. It didn’t work out. Frankly, I found it a little intimidating when people were able to tell me how many goals a certain person had scored this year, or how many times a team that they didn’t even follow had or hadn’t won something. It felt like I was constantly trying to play catch up, like I had to absorb sixty years of sporting history before I could even hope to understand a Premiership match. Also, I didn’t really identify with the footballers, or the machismo that seemed to go with them. Neither did it help that I couldn’t play football myself. I tried playing a bit of five-a-side a few years ago, but people kept shouting at me. Apparently I’m f$%£ing sh$£%. I know this, because a lot of people told me so. Usually from the other side of the pitch. Or the sidelines. Or sometimes just whispered in my ear. Needless to say, it didn’t do much for my self esteem.

But at the Olympics, it’s not just about football. It’s about loads of sports. No one knows the rules, and some of them are just bonkers, like handball:

It’s hard not to love handball.

And they tell you how to behave whilst watching the sport, thus minimising the chances of me embarrassing myself by cheering and/or clapping at the wrong point:

One of many not-so-subliminal messages that they feed you whilst watching sport at the Olympics. If there’s ever a dull moment, then they play the opening to “We Will Rock You.” En masse, like some pavlovian mass-cult suicide at the appearance of a comet, the entire audience starts clapping in time and Having Fun.

But maybe it’s also being in London, going to the Olympic Park. Maybe it’s because everyone’s involved – both in spectating and participating. There are hurdlers who went to Eton, sailors in their fifties and boxers from Hull. And a man who came to the UK when he was 8 from a city called Mogadishu and wasn’t that good at school but who is one of the greatest British Olympians. Plus there’s no one telling me that I’m f$£^ing s$%£!, which is nice.

Everyone loves the Olympics. Except maybe Mastercard.

Enforcing fun. “No high five, no entry.”

Ok, maybe it is a little inspiring. But some people got a little carried away.

Oh, and having cold, tasty coca-cola to drink probably also helped me to enjoy it. Because coca-cola is fun. Oh, and sporty too. Coke is fun and sporty. Don’t forget it.

You could be having this much fun in a swimming cap if only you were drinking coca-cola right now.

BUT LET me tell you a little about the Olympic Park.

It’s funny how something so new can already be so iconic.

It’s big. And there was definitely a party atmosphere, and it wasn’t just because of the Coca-Cola people. This week’s Economist noted that “the long trudge from Stratford station to the Olympic Park is lined with grinning volunteers, many shouting cheery messages reminding people that this is a once-in-a-lifetime-event… It sounds cheesy, particularly for Britain. Yet it works.” It’s a measure of how successful this policy is that I hadn’t even noticed that it was a long walk from the tube. Evidently the Olympics has taken the edge off my cynicism. The volunteers are an important part of the experience, however.

This woman is singing a sea shanty. I’m not even joking.

There were lifeguards with megaphones, just in case you forgot to be happy.

But it wasn’t just the volunteers. It was the people actually at the Olympics. Everyone was friendly. People talked. This is not the London I know and love! I spoke to some people to find out why they were being so friendly. It turned out that they weren’t from London. Suddenly it all made sense! My faith in London was restored, however, when on the 108 bus home from Stratford a man refused to get off the bus when the bus driver told him to, and we all had to wait until the police arrived. Thank you, London, Thank you (and thanks to you, man on the 108 bus who made children cry and an entire bus of people wait around for half an hour). For the Olympics, though, I tolerated the smiles and generosity of the tourists and my fellow sports enthusiasts.

Who are these people? I have no idea, but they gave us our flags because they bought too many flags from poundland, and I love them for it (“too many flags.” I know, right? As if it would ever be possible.)

A touching moment of cross-nation unity, or a cynical exercise in hedging your bets?

Unfortunately I left my national dress at home.

These guys didn’t though. My biggest disappointment of the games was not finding someone in a Beefeater costume.

And if you weren’t watching sport live, drinking Coca-Cola, or eating in the world’s largest McDonald’s then there were plenty of other things to do as well.

There was some telly to watch. And I didn’t even want to fast forward to the match point.

Like all good sporting events, there were cheerleaders. Apparently wearing half a garden on their heads.

Those crazy coca cola people take a break from both fun and sun.

All of the sponsors of the event had big installations where you could have a look around and get free stuff. Most of them had huge queues all of the time. But it turns out if you choose not to watch the Men’s 100m Final then anywhere that isn’t the stadium or near a big screen is fairly deserted.

Outside the stadium at the time of the 100m final. It sounded pretty noisy in there.

So it was that we ended up in the Coca Cola Beat Box, a crazy hall of mirrors where everything is fun fun fun.

I remember arriving at the Coca Cola Beat Box. I remember that the staff were A Lot Of Fun. Then it all goes a bit blurry.

The good people of Coca Cola showed us how we could be Having Fun All The Time, if only we drank more Coca Cola. Here Beckie has her moment of Realisation.

This is our initiation into the Coca Cola Fraternity. Obviously I can’t tell you what’s happening here, because you’re not at Level 3 Coca Cola Consumption.

And this is the pay off. It’s like the Olympics, only in a bottle.

So. That was the Olympics. Sport, people being friendly and some fairly slick organisation – from event organisers and advertisers alike.

As I write this I am watching the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. Part of me is happy that now I won’t be obliged to watch sport All Of The Time. It’ll be nice to have my evenings back. But a larger part of me thinks that London might just be a little bit better if there were pink shirted volunteers with giant foam fingers on every street more of the time.

Seb Coe’s final words at the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony: “Britain, when the time came, we did it right.”

A strange love: or how we learned to stop moaning and love the Olympics – Part 1

THE DATE – Tuesday, Olympics Day 4 (on Britain’s new calendar, which will evermore count from the start of London 2012. Get with it, world – GMT is over). The place: Olympic epicentre +1, Greenwich. Returning to work from leave is always a massive downer. Having to think about my travel arrangements the night before disrupted my customary state of denial, making it all the worse. But Boris Johnson’s disembodied voice had been telling me for weeks that I needed to “get ahead of the Games” – at stations, on buses, on trains, in my sleep. So I duly checked.

Changed timetable. Only two direct services the whole morning from the station near my house. A hazy memory of a headline from my free local community newspaper surfaced. Yes, the Westcombe Park News had been up in arms with this change to this status quo. Yes, I had blithely dismissed their rampant nimbyism. But now this was affecting ME. Maybe they were right to be angry? No, I thought, that way lies madness. But my train is going to be chocka tomorrow. Great.

Olympics Day 4 dawned. I duly headed to the station, strategically positioning myself on the platform where I knew the train doors would stop, standing well away from anyone with pushchairs, small children, or anyone who might be pregnant and/or injured (it’s more difficult to push them out of the way without attracting disapproving glances from fellow commuters – This Is London). The train arrived. Everybody got on, no one was sardined.

A commuter train, sometime last week. Remember to turn off your flash and the shutter noise on your phone when taking pictures of strangers on deathly silent commuter trains at 7.30am. People will give you funny looks otherwise.

Careful manoeuvring even resulted in me getting a seat after a couple of stops. I had a good book (The Hunger Games, in case you were wondering – compulsive reading that also has something to say about  the role of big sporting events in society, in an oblique kind of way). I was looking forward to clocking up a few chapters as we sat in a queue of other trains outside London Bridge station. But no. My journey was swift and untroubled. Quicker, even, than normal.

Arriving in London I found myself wishing for a few more precious moments with my book. Where was this guilt-free travel time I’d be promised (“The Olympics made me late for work”)?

Waterloo station had been transformed. The past few months it’s been a building site. But now? Where before there were workmen and cement mixers, now there are Volunteers and coffee shops.

Sickeningly helpful. Don’t stand on the right, though, or you’ll make them angry.

I swear that this wasn’t here two weeks ago. Is it a cruel joke, just popping up to make all the Olympics visitors think that Londoners spend their days sipping lattes in hip coffee shops? In protest, I bitterly resolved never to drink here.

Reaching work at an entirely reasonable time, I compared notes with my colleagues. “I couldn’t believe it,” said one, “there were no problems at all on my line. It’s been fine, for two days running now.” “Yeah, me too,” I agreed. “Shocker isn’t it?” We both paused for a moment, before my colleague added: “The athletics start next week. It’ll probably be awful then.” I nodded in agreement.

My journey home was a different story. All trains were delayed coming out of Waterloo East and London Bridge. There were no direct trains. I missed my connection. “I knew it would be like this,” I told myself as I lost all track of time standing on the platform and reading my thoroughly engrossing book.

You’ll be lucky.

So the next day I decided to experiment by taking a bus to the nearest tube station (which happens to be North Greenwich, where – surprise surprise – the North Greenwich arena is: AKA the millenium dome, AKA the O2) and travel in using the Jubilee Line.

What the year 2000 gave us.

New cable cars over the river from North Greenwich to the ExCel Centre. Because how else would you get across the Thames?

Needless to say, my journey was remarkable only for its swiftness. This efficiency was starting to shake my travel convictions. And then, on the way home, I got on the tube at Westminster, the home of tourists taking pictures and standing in my way. And I started to get a funny feeling.

Nothing is above Olympic branding.

A giant wooden structure made up of the flags of all the countries competing in the Olympics had been set up in Parliament Square. It’s actually quite cool. I found myself standing side by side with tourists, taking pictures of it.

At least one tourist from South Korea has this exact same shot. I know, because a) I queued behind him for the position to take the shot and b) apparently the Olympics means that everyone is now required by law to identify their nationality with their flag somewhere about their person AT ALL TIMES.

Obviously the disadvantage of wooden flags is that they don’t ripple in the wind, which, as a seasoned flag photographer, I take as a bit of a blow. But you can’t have everything.

As I stood alongside others taking the exact same picture as me, I began to think – maybe the Olympics being here is cooler than I thought? I mean, I always knew it was going to be exciting it being in London – but maybe it’s even worth my train back from work getting disrupted?

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience.” Most overused phrase when the Olympics is in town. Often used in conjunction with either a) a minor travel inconvenience that probably has no real bearing on your life or b) something that you didn’t want to do anyway which the Olympics now gives you an excuse for not doing. For example, not wanting to work past 4.30 in the afternoon. “I’ve got tickets for the [insert sport here that you’ve never watched in your life]. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, so I’m leaving work early.”

Olympics Day 6 dawned and with it came a strange sense of exuberance. The Olympics was in town! I decided to push my investigative travel journalism even further and this time cycle into central London.

Licence to ignore all red lights, terrify pedestrians and have righteous anger about all other road users. Also the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do in London.

Yes, there were crazy diversions around Greenwich. Yes, I risked my life several times by passing into an Olympic lane (watch out: there are snipers on the buildings). But I wasn’t just cycling – I was doing my bit for the Olympics by keeping public transport free for others; others who were making a much more important journey, to the Olympic Park. I was cycling for the Olympics! It’s bit like I was Bradley Wiggins.

This is our Olympic mascot. No one knows why.

They even painted the Olympic colours in the sky.

And throughout Olympic Day 6, I had a wonderful warm sense inside me – because I knew that at home I had the equivalent of a Willy Wonka golden ticket, and I was actually excited about the prospect:

The population of the UK divides nearly in two: those with tickets, and those who applied for tickets and didn’t get any. One half of the population is even more cynical than the other.

At work that day, my colleague and I kept checking the text updates on the BBC website about how Team GB were performing. As the results were coming in, we were getting more and more excited, until in the afternoon he wandered over the my desk. “We’ve got two golds!” He announced, “shooting and cycling!” “Fantastic,” I said, “that’s great news. So where are we in the medals table? We must be pretty high now.” “Yes, we’re in sixth place.” “Sixth? That’s great. We were in twentieth place only yesterday.” His face darkened. “What? What’s wrong?” I asked. He shook his head. “France are still above us.” “Ah,” I said, glumly.

NEXT TIME: My Olympic fever reaches new heights as I visit the Olympic Park.