Saturday Snapshot: Outside the George & Vulture, City of London

In a new and ENTIRELY ORIGINAL feature I arbitrarily choose a day of the week and a suitable alliteration to bring you vignettes of travel past and present. Today it’s the SATURDAY SNAPSHOT and we’re outside the George and Vulture pub in the City of London.

Something witty

The George and Vulture is one of those old London boozers that you find hidden away in backstreets. Allegedly there’s been an inn here since 1268 (thank you Wikipedia) but the current establishment was built in 1748. It’s heavily featured in Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers and still retains a strong link to the Dickens family. 

Something equally witty

Being in the City of London  of course this place hosts archaic and utterly ludicrous groups for dinner. For those not up on their London Boroughs, the City of London isn’t one. Administratively it’s an entirely separate city and authority which, confusingly, sits in the middle of the Greater London Authority. You may also know it as The Square Mile, or simply “the city.” Anyway, whilst the GLA worries about things like transport, poverty, crime and other urban things, the City of London Corporation – serving the 7,000 inhabitants of the city and the 350,000 people who work there – is composed of such groups as the The Worshipful Company of Bowyers, whose website tells us that: “the Worshipful Company of Bowyers can trace its detailed history back to 1363 when the craft of making longbows first appeared on the list of taxation for the City of London.” As I’m sure we can all agree, making longbows is pretty important. The City also has something to do with finance and helping people to make money, but since 2008 we don’t talk about that.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest - a dragon with a St George's Cross - and it's everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest – a dragon with a St George’s Cross – and it’s everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

Something even wittier

London is full of these little gems of history that you often stumble upon quite by accident. I remember at one of my old places of work, on Fleet Street, there was a fire alarm and we had to leave the building by a door I’d never gone through before. It exited us into a little courtyard and there, on the wall in front of me, was a little blue plaque telling me that James Boswell,  18th century author of the London Journal and the Life of Johnson, had lived there. Amazed at this litte  slice of history I’d uncovered, I pointed it out to one of my colleagues. He stared in silence at the plaque for a moment, obviously as moved as I was, before saying: “that’s amazing. Now can we go back inside? It’s bloody freezing.”

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The WalkFast Philosophy: Commuting in London (Travels in 2012, Part 4 of 4)

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

What has a 1960s camera made in the USSR got to do with commuting in London? Absolutely nothing. Except for the fact that it actually made me take a closer look at my everyday travels. And take some really dodgy photos of London. Let’s call them vintage.*

Some would call it scraping the barrel, I would call it being innovative. Whatever your views on blogging about the daily commute, the journey to work is one we all have to make. (Unless you’re one of those people who make a living by writing witty and/or informed and/or misleading articles about the next best travel destination whilst sipping margaritas next to a beautiful white sand beach; if that sounds like you, then please stop reading now. This really isn’t for you). Even if you work at home, we all have some regular journey of drudgery. Perhaps yours is to the gym or the supermarket. Mine is the daily commute into Central London.

One of the Fed4 photos....

Sometimes I take do take the underground, but mostly I take the train. It’s like the underground, but better.

Picture the scene: it’s the 07:42 into London Waterloo. The carriage is full, but not uncomfortably so. People are standing in the aisle between the seats but people can still step onto the train without having to plant their face into someone’s armpit. People either read, fiddle with their smartphones or stare out the window. As ever, no one talks. The only permissible human interaction is to ask for a window to be opened. But it’s not silent, because a man is listening to his music at an unconscionably loud volume. He’s listening to Jay-Z. It’s offensively loud. I am standing right next to where he is sitting, pretending to read a magazine whilst internally raging against this stranger and his music. He writes a text to someone. I read it over his shoulder. This is what it says:

Don’t think that the stuck up fuckers on this train are enjoying me playing my Jay-Z at full volume. Oh well!

I am a cauldron of hatred and resentment. I stare blankly at my magazine, fantasising about how I might say something to the man and how the rest of the carriage would join in to support me, moved by my stirring words and my willingness to stand up against the tyranny and oppression of loud music. Twenty minutes pass like this; then we reach London Bridge, my nemesis gets off and I have said nothing. Instead I update my facebook status to share my frustration. Three people like it almost immediately. I still can’t help but feel that I lost.

Fed11

PERHAPS THREE weeks later I am standing on the 507 bus from Waterloo, also on my daily commute. A girl with ipod-white earbuds is standing in front of me, sharing her R&B music with the rest of the bus. I ignore her. A woman seated nearby taps Ipod-girl on her arm and, in an Aussie accent, asks her to turn down her music.

“Is it bothering you?” asks Ipod-girl.

“As a matter of fact it is,” replies the woman, “and it’s bothering everyone else on the bus as well, it’s just that they’re all British and so they’re too polite to say anything. But I’m Australian, and I am not too polite.”

Ipod girls turns her music down.

In my mind I am cheering for this Australian woman, this commuters’ champion. It’s victory for all that is good and just in the world. But I say nothing, give nothing away. Perhaps because I’m British, this is London and she’s a stranger.

Officially, the only time that you're permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually in this instance, it's to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

Officially, the only time that you’re permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

something

I sometimes forget the thick skin that you develop in London. Recently, family from out of town came to visit. When we met them at our local station they looked shellshocked. “We’ve been up and down I don’t know how many escalators,” they said, “and there are so many people, everywhere, walking so fast and all going to different directions.” Yup, I thought, ThisIsLondon: I do this everyday.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it's hard to ignore someone when they're throwing a snowball at you.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it’s hard to ignore someone when they’re throwing a snowball at you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there's not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there’s not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

LONDON LIVING makes you rush everywhere. I don’t know why, it just does. Walk fast, weave through crowds, dodge tourists. Always ignore the world-class history and architecture around you – that’s for the tourists. And they walk SLOW. You don’t want to be like them, do you? You might miss your train.

There are two incidents that have made me question this WalkFast philosophy. The first cost me a suit. The second cost me my dignity.

I was late to a meeting. I can’t even remember what it was about, but it was terribly important. So I was running, running past the Houses of Parliament to my meeting.

BigBenByNight

Unlike in this photo, it was the middle of the day. There were tourists everywhere, gawking at Parliament and Big Ben. As I dodged inbetween them, I slipped – unsurprising considering that I was running in a pair of leather soled shoes with as much grip as an air hockey puck. Tourists flashed before my eyes as I fell headlong to the floor, skidding on the writing pad I was carrying and sending my papers flying. “Great dive dude!” someone shouted in an American accent. My suit was ripped in three places. I had lost some buttons. A crowd formed around me and a German man helped me up, telling me in impecable English how his 11 year old son did something similar last week whilst ice skating. There wasn’t any ice here, though, he added. I thanked him, collected my papers, and scurried off. I was the first person to arrive at the meeting.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don't comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don’t comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

The second incident happened equally as quickly. I was at Waterloo station, on my way home, rushing for a train (are you detecting a theme here?). My train was at the platform, I was not. There was another one soon, but that was seven minutes away. I ran for the train; I was nearly there, then the doors started to beep to warn that they were closing, but I was going to get on that train; the doors started to close; I jumped on, got trapped in the doors as they were closing, and forced them apart again. I stepped into the carriage, out of breath but triumphant. Everyone was staring at me. The train doors tried to close again to allow it to depart but one of them got stuck because some idiot had forced them apart when they were trying to close. I felt the eyes of everyone in the carriage boring into me. I leaned over, gave the doors a shove, and they closed. And suddenly it hit me: I WAS THAT GUY. I was that guy who was too impatient to wait, so self-important that I delayed an entire trainload of people from departing and forced myself onto the carriage. I might as well have been listening to my music at full volume.

I got off at the next station. No one said anything to me, but I knew what they were thinking while they pretended to read their magazines. Because I’d thought it myself a million times about others.

So now on my commute I try and walk a little slower, look at my surroundings a little more and speak to strangers where I can without looking like a lunatic. All in all, I’m trying to be a bit more of a tourist. I find that a camera helps with that.

Red phonebox

*In case anyone’s interested: the Fed4 pictures featured on this post were developed in matt with a white border and then simply scanned in. For the most part I haven’t applied any filters or tweaked them in any way, as I normally do. I haven’t totally figured out how to use the camera yet. That’s why the images are so… 1980s family holiday.

The End of Autumn in Cumbria: Or, How I Am Not A Country Boy

Sheep Sign

“I THINK that it’s going now,” I said, staring at the wood burner. Behind the glass sat a stack of kindling, gently smoking. There were no flames. “Yup,” I nodded, more hopeful than believable, “definitely going.”

I was in a small self catering cottage in the tiny village of Maulds Meaburn, East Cumbria, in the North West of England. In a manner completely unfitting of someone who attempts to maintain a travel blog, this was the third time that my fiancée and I had stayed there. How did that happen? I blame London. We’d both been working crazy hours, and as the long-booked week-off crept closer, everything seemed too much hassle. It wasn’t that we wanted to do something easy, it was that we wanted something edifying for the soul; some peace and solitude away from walking up escalators on the left hand side; some peace and solitude away from the hiss of bendy buses’ doors, endlessly swallowing commuters; some peace and solitude away from the six inches of dirty grey seat where, if I’m lucky on my train journey into work, I might attempt to place my backside inbetween two impossibly large people seated either side, one of whom is inevitably listening to One Direction on their ipod at 600 decibels.

And what could be more edifying than this view from your window every morning?

The funny thing about this photo is that moments later the seven year old girl who was herding these cows (apparently they start them early in the farming world) walked past and looked straight at me, the lunatic London man up for the week and taking pictures of cows out of his window. I can only imagine what she thought. When she and her cow walked past on other mornings, I was altogether more furtive in taking pictures. This probably did little to help her impression of me when she caught me a second time. Somewhere in East Cumbria, a small child thinks that a bad private detective is on her tail. Either that or she thinks that all Londoners are morons.

The funny thing about this photo is that moments later the seven year old girl who was herding these cows (apparently they start them early in the farming world) walked past and looked straight at me, the lunatic London man up for the week and taking pictures of cows out of his window. I can only imagine what she thought. When she and her cow walked past on other mornings, I was altogether more furtive in taking pictures. This probably did little to help her impression of me when she caught me a second time. Somewhere in East Cumbria, a small child thinks that a bad private detective is on her tail. Either that or she thinks that all Londoners are morons.

The first day of our stay in ruralville was a bright, cold day with clear skies and not a single bendy bus in sight. We resolved to make the most of the fine weather, the country air and the peaceful tranquility. So we went to the pub.

Yes some people might see this as a missed opportunity to hike up a mountain, but we saw it as an important opportunity to visit the heart of this small community. And drink some beer.

We didn’t waste the short walk to the nearest (and only) drinking establishment, either. It was about a mile. It took us an hour and a half, on account of the fact that I had my camera  and Beckie had her foraging book. Our journey was therefore punctuated by me doing a passable impression of paparazzi to the countryside, and Beckie failing to identify the various fauna we passed on our way (“Is it fat hen? I think it might be fat hen.” “Great, what can you use it for?” “The book says it’s good in salads, but some types are poisonous.”).

This is what we saw:

The deepening shadows of shortening days.

The deepening shadows of shortening days.

The way autumn leaves gather together in rushing water.

The way autumn leaves gather together in rushing water.

The contrast of metal and petal.

The contrast of metal and petal.

A cemetery coloured by dead and dying leaves. Actually, I really had to resist the urge to inspect the graves here: as longer term readers of this blog will know, I have developed a habit of photographing old headstones. I'd already convinced one local seven year old that I was A Bit Weird. No need to make the good people of Maulds Meaburn think that I was also A Lot Creepy.

A cemetery coloured by dead and dying leaves. Actually, I really had to resist the urge to inspect the graves here: as longer term readers of this blog will know, I have developed a habit of photographing old headstones. I’d already convinced one local seven year old that I was A Bit Weird. No need to make the good people of Maulds Meaburn think that I was also A Lot Creepy.

Eventually, we reached the pub.

The Butchers Arms is a community pub in the tiny village of Crosby Ravensworth. When the oub closed down several years ago, the local community grouped together, bought the pub and refurbished the place.

The Butchers Arms is a community pub in the tiny village of Crosby Ravensworth. When the pub closed down several years ago, the local community grouped together to buy and refurbish it. On the walls there are pictures of the Prime Minister in front of the pub, from when he came to open it as a shining example of Big Society in action. We arrived just after the kitchen had closed, so we lunched on roast chicken flavoured crisps and a local ale. Whilst we were there, lots of locals in funny socks and funnier hats arrived for what appeared to be a post-hunting knees up. Or it could have been that they had been Morris Dancing. Or maybe they always dress like that on a Saturday? Who knows: it was a mystery. We hunkered down in the corner and tried to look casual. I decided not to tell them that they’d missed an apostrophe off the name of their pub.

All in all, going to stay in a tiny village in East Cumbria made me feel overwhelmingly urban. It’s strange the feeling of otherness that you can experience in your own country sometimes; I find this especially so considering that I live in a cosmopolitan city which has most nations on earth represented in its inhabitants.

A FEW weeks later I found myself in Borough Market – one of London’s busiest and best known food markets. People jostled me, I jostled people. I joined the crowds wandering from stall to stall, searching for the ultimate, most satisfying, most outrageous lunch. Elk burgers?  Exquisite sushi? Slow cooked rabbit? Caribbean curry? Scallops the size of my hand? This is what Borough Market is about: the choice, the quality and, of course, joining the biggest queue possible because that’s surely where the best food must be, right? ThisIsLondon. This couldn’t be more different than Cumbria.

Something witty

Enormously busy, discerning and important foodies charge around Borough Market, tutting at idiots with cameras who get in their way and opining on the best place to buy organic veg. Through a popular process known as ‘queueing’, they then assemble in lines to work themselves into a feeding frenzy.

So that's what I'd been queueing for! It's always a relief to get to the front of a queue and discover that it's all been worthwhile.

So that’s what I’d been queueing for! It’s always a relief to get to the front of a queue and discover that it’s all been worthwhile.

Something witty

The sign tells you that the prices are eyewatering, but it’s too late now you’re at the front of the queue. You’re not going to quit now, are you?

Wit

Seating is few and far between in Borough Market. Those victorious sit and laugh at the standing. It’s cut throat.

By contrast country life is, I feel, of a slower pace, with different concerns. There were a few signs, in particular, that I came across in Cumbria which made me feel alien to this land.

I didn't see any horses in the town centre, but evidently this has been enough of a problem in the past that the local authority felt the need for a sign.

I didn’t see any horses in the town centre, but evidently this has been enough of a problem in the past that the local authority felt the need for a sign.

What does the Red Squirrel Ranger do to any grey squirrels that he finds? And does he ride a horse?

What does the Red Squirrel Ranger do to any grey squirrels that he finds? And does he ride a horse?

Slow day on the local paper, or big news? I had no way of telling.

Slow day on the local paper, or big news? I had no way of telling.

It’s easy for me to mock to these signs; perhaps people who live in East Cumbria do too. Taken together they give the impression that not a lot happens there, that in some way East Cumbria is a fragment of the past in the modern day. That’s not true, of course, but it’s easier to mock something for its strangeness than it is to understand difference. And my week away in the beautiful village of Maulds Meaburn has convinced me that there’s lot I don’t understand about rural life. I am not a country boy. I probably knew this deep down, but travelling to this place where I’ve been before, in my own country, and yet experiencing otherness has caused me to re-evaluate how urban I am. It turns out that I like the city.

Home. I guess.

Home. I guess.

But I also dream of living in a place like this:

brew16

So how do I square these two desires? Am I a cityboy who wants to live in the country? Is it possible to have one foot in both? I’m not sure, but if I hadn’t visited Maulds Meaburn I wouldn’t have been thinking these thoughts. I suppose that the message to take away is that travel, even to somewhere you supposedly know, makes you think, makes you look at the way you live your own life.

But it turns out that I may not be alone in my city/country divided self: we like staying in East Cumbria because it’s less crowded than the rest of Cumbria, i.e. the Lake District. And the problem with the Lake District? It’s full of people from London.

I am, however, one step closer to becoming a country boy: I lit the fire! It only took four days of trying.

I am, however, one step closer to becoming a country boy: I lit the fire! It only took four days of trying.

Goodbye To All That: After the Olympics and the Paralympics

It’s called the O2 again.

TRY NOT to look for too much meaning in it all, those of us watching the Paralympics Closing Ceremony in the UK were told by the Channel Four commentators. That’s what the  director of the Closing Ceremony had reportedly been telling people. Try not to look for too much meaning in it all.

It’s got to be tough, coming fourth amongst all the ceremonies. I mean, the central London cityscape has been done to death. It’s in London, Big Ben’s there. We get it. There’s some music that Britain has made, and a bunch of other stuff (no real mention of Empire though, I noticed, or our imperial past – no Rudyard Kipling riding an elephant behind a group of redcoats massacring the natives, the survivors herded to a concentration camp from the country that invented them).

Instead the Paralympics Closing Ceremony seemed to focus on a vision of what London might look like after the apocalypse, if it had been turned into a giant Mad Max film set:

After over a month of Olympic and Paralympics, meaning had been spun out of the Games by countless column inches and broadcast hours – sporting, cultural, economic, historic. It had all been pored over. In London, even if you weren’t watching any of the events, it would be hard not to have seen the headlines and impossible not to have been in at least one conversation about Mo Farah.

Even the Westcombe News (“Free to 3800 homes, and in libraries & some shops”) my local community newspaper and the home of rampant nimbyism, picked up the prevailing wind and realised that to come out openly against the Games would have resulted in their offices (if they had any) being stormed and the editorial staff (volunteers) being lynched in Greenwich Park. Still, as headlines go about the greatest sporting event that this nation has ever seen, “Was it worth it?” is hardly the unambiguous headline of unwavering support one might have expected.

The WN hedges its bets by first quoting random people saying how amazing the Games had been (including one from Sandra Barnes “writing from Philadelphia in the US” – you ran out of people in the area to say positive things and you had to go across the Atlantic to find someone else?). It then moves on to talk about the impact on local businesses (bad), the stationing of Rapier surface to air missiles near Greenwich Park (unforgivable, but “at least locals did not have them placed on their roofs”) and then transport: “the surges of passenger numbers on the tube and the railways were better managed than predicted [i.e. we thought we’d all be plunged back into the dark ages]: but many drivers, defeated by traffic jams, simply gave up any attempt to get to where they needed to be [i.e. I couldn’t drive to Sainsbury’s because of the one way system, so I gave up and came home]. They end with the standard disclaimer which now by law must be added when criticising any aspect of the Olympics: “Overall, most people agree that the games were a spectacular success.” This is journalistic gold.

This is my photo and I was there. We’d been to the Olympic Park, of course, but hadn’t got tickets for the Stadium and utterly failed to get any tickets for the Paralympics. So receiving a phonecall from friends offering us two unwanted tickets to see athletics in the Stadium on a Saturday morning is in the same category as seeing people you know on the tube: impossible until it happens to you.

This is Richard Whitehead coming off the blocks in the men’s 200m final, just before he won gold for GB. Beckie, my partner, screamed herself hoarse during the race. I was slightly distracted because after taking this photo my memory card filled up, I couldn’t take any more photos, and I panicked. How will people know that I was here? I thought to myself. I can’t just see it with my own eyes! I hurriedly tried to delete photos. As it turns out, this takes longer than it takes Richard Whitehead to run 200m. Consequently, I actually missed him crossing the finish line. But I understand that it was very impressive.

This is how I know it was impressive. From the crowd’s reaction. That’s the wonderful thing about being in a crowd of 80,000 people. You really don’t need to do any thinking for yourself.

This kid was all about the flags, less about the sport. It would be wonderful if his name was Jack.

Some were more interested in the running than others.

During the Paralympics, there was a sense in London that the Olympics had been normalised. It was heralded as the biggest, most disruptive event since WW2 to hit the city, and yet everything had kept going. It felt like the city had absorbed the Games and moved on. There were still the pink shirted people at stations (not the same ever-cheerful volunteer Games Makers as at the Olympic venues, but dour, humourless people employed by the train companies just for the duration of the Games), still telling people to keep to the left. But, every morning, as the commuter crowd surged off my train and herded itself down the corridor to the barriers and the station exit, the calls of “guys, keep to the left,” fell on deaf ears. These were the same business-suited people who’d been walking on the right since before the Olympics, and would be doing it long after the pink shirts had disappeared. At North Greenwich station, the people handing out walking maps of the area (“why not walk? public transport is going to be very busy”) looked bored next to their human-sized piles of maps (I now have ten walking maps of Greenwich and Woolwich, all identical. I felt sorry for them every time I passed). And on the day after the Paralympics finished there was a ‘Victory Parade’ in Central London, and the Red Arrows flew past my sixth floor office window, spewing out patriotic clouds of red, white and blue. I was on the phone at the time, and I didn’t even mention it to the person on the other end.

It’s just a building site now.

The Westcombe News will be happy.

Yes, London had reasserted itself. That brief, wonderful time when you could talk to strangers and they wouldn’t blank you was drawing to a close. It’s like when the snow melts every winter and people wake up to the fact that those people they’ve been joking with about slipping and sliding are actually just people-in-the-way.

And with the closing of the Paralympics, the weather turned. After one last gasp of summer, the leaves began to fall from the trees, and conkers were trodden underfoot by the boots of the workmen dismantling the equestrian stadium in Greenwich Park.

Don’t be fooled by that sunshine. It’s autumn. Only downhill from here…

Sweet Chestnuts. In a few weeks’ time, when they’re at their best, Greenwich Park will be full of people sweeping these up into carrier bags. Don’t worry, though, you’ll see them again – when you pay £5 for a bag of them roasted, at a Christmas market.

So where is the meaning in all of this? Was it all, like the director of the Paralympic closing ceremony would have us believe, all spectacle to be consumed – like a bag of roast chestnuts bought at a Christmas market, a rare treat that we forget about until the next time? I will refrain from answering that question directly, and instead offer you what I’ll take away from the Games:

Omar Hassan of Djibouti. He was lapped twice by all the other competitors in the men’s T46 1500m race, and finished in 11m 23s – nearly seven minutes slower than his nearest competitor. At the end, he was the only man left running – or doing any kind of sport – in the Olympic arena, as 80,000 people got to their feet and cheered him on. At times it felt like he’d pack it all in (he was suffering from a foot injury, as it turns out), but he was there to the bitter end. “I thought of stopping,” he said afterwards. “But I kept going because I wanted to finish.” By far and away my best experience of either the Olympics or the Paralympics: a man who came last and registered one of the worst times in any major international championship, ever.

Grave Intentions: Or, How I Didn’t Meet the Pope in Twickenham

I WAS the kid who always wanted to put his lucky dip back and choose something else until he got something that he liked. So perhaps experimental travel isn’t for me. It’s a method of travel that invites you to experience a place you know in a new way, or a place you don’t know in a different way. It means setting yourself strict preconditions to a journey, and sticking to them. The idea is that these arbitrary – and quite frequently bonkers – rules force you to see it in a different light. Some examples include “Backpacking at Home” – being a backpacker in a cheap hostel in your own city – or “Monopoly Travel” – find a Monopoly board for your chosen city and use it to navigate your way around the city, using dice to dictate your position on the board and, hence, in the city. I read about all this last week in the excellent  Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. But you can read about all of the ideas in the book, from the author, here.

Anyway, I had a Saturday to myself, solo, and I was at a loose end. So I decided to give it a go. The first method that I decided on was A-Z travel – find the first place in the index of the A-Z of where you live and then walk from there to the last place in the index. I’m not sure when you last looked in the index of the London A-Z, but let me refresh your memory: A is for Aaron Hill, E5, Beckton – just next to Beckton Sewage Treatment works and London City Airport. And, coincidentally, a mere 12.1 miles from Zoffany Street, N19, in Holloway. Yeah, maybe not.

So next was travel to K2. All you have to do is open a map of a place at random, and then travel to grid square K2 on the map. So I opened the A-Z of London. I got an industrial estate in Thamesmead. I closed the A-Z.

But I don’t want to go there… can I pick again?

Instead, I decided to make up my own experimental travel. I decided to visit the grave of a dead poet. It’s not a usual tourist destination and it will force me to go somewhere new. Thus, I decided, the criteria of experimental travel (such as they are) would be met.

A quick check of poetsgraves.co.uk (you mean you don’t have it bookmarked?  Now’s your chance…) and I had my target: the resting place of Alexander Pope, Twickenham. Pope, writing in the early 1700s, was a great satirist: he wrote about hypocrisy, greed and high society. He was a contemporary and friend of Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame). He was also ostracised as a Catholic, stunted from ill health as a child (he had a hunchback and grew to be only 4ft 6in) and wrote bitter, angry, funny poetry. In short, there’s a lot to like about Pope. So why not visit his grave?

I packed for my journey: London 2012 water canteen (surgeons have tried to separate it from me, but no success so far), camera, and a copy of James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762 – 1763. Boswell’s not quite a contemporary of Pope’s, but he was the best guide to eighteenth century London that I had. His map wasn’t much use, though.

Obviously I am massively pretentious for taking the Boswell. I only took it to look good, I thought it would be boring. I opened it randomly when I was on the train into London, and started reading. This is what I read: “I was really unhappy for want of women. I thought it hard to be in such a place without them. I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” I closed the book. Great, just great. I’d packed the eighteenth century equivalent to Shades of Grey. Now how am I meant to look down derisively at people reading it on the tube? I suppose that I won’t have to look over their shoulders anymore to read it, though.

I made a detour on my way to Twickenham, to Marylebone High Street. I walked past an hour long queue for Madame Tussauds. Who would queue for an hour to go an see some wax models? I shook my head, walked past and checked that I was on time for my trip to a graveyard on the other side of London.

Marylebone High Street was an attempt to acclimatise myself to West London ways. It’s like making a gradual ascent of a mountain so you don’t get altitude sickness. Remember, I live in South East London. It’s the cultural equivalent of sea level (sorry South East London, but you know it’s true. And anyway, who wants to live on top of a mountain, right?).

I ate lunch here. I had thought that bringing Boswell’s journal made me pretentious, but sitting here, with my crab spinach wrap in hand, I felt strangely welcome. Also the disposable cutlery wasn’t made of plastic, nor wood. It was made of reconstituted potato starch. That’s right, cutlery made of POTATO STARCH. It’s bleeding edge organico-eco-green living. I also saw a woman doing her weekly grocery shop at this place. I mean, it was about £5 for a carrot. Who buys their carrots at a place like this? I suddenly felt very out of place in Marylebone. I looked for an Argos instead. That would restore my smug pretentiousness. Strangely, there isn’t an Argos on Marylebone High Street. I did manage to steal a potato starch knife, though. Take that, West London!

Actually, my real reason for the Marylebone stop was to visit Daunt books, a fantastic travel book shop. I had a book token burning a hole in my pocket.

Like Narnia.

Happily having just spent twice as much as I would I have paid on Amazon, I left the bookstore with a smart new book on travel photography. Next stop: Pope’s grave.

‘Pathetic fallacy’ refers to when a poet ascribes human feelings to the inanimate, such as “uncaring rain fell from the sky, and I began to regret my choice of experimental travel. ‘Can I choose again? I silently asked the raindrops as they snaked down the window. But they just kept on falling.”

Twickenham is as far away west by train from Waterloo as Greenwich, my home, is east: 20 minutes. It seemed like an age travelling in the wrong direction. I arrived to overcast skies, but at least the rain had stopped. I expected Twickenham to be full of posh gastropubs, with yummy-mummys pushing their bugaboo strollers down the street and men wearing driving gloves at the wheel of their sports cars. In fact, I was ejected from the station onto a main road. Everything was the colour of the sky: grey. And then I saw this:

I took this picture in August. AUGUST! This really depresses me. Our lives really are no more than endless steps along the Christmas hamsterwheel. It just keeps coming round again and again,  sooner each time.

I passed a few kebab shops, some chain pubs, a bit of graffiti. A Waitrose. That’s all that West London is, I realised: it’s just like south east London, but with a Waitrose. It started to drizzle.

Actually, then I found the nice part of Twickenham, next to the Thames. In South East London, the Thames is big enough to sail an aircraft carrier down. I’ve seen cruise ships moored off Greenwich. In Twickenham, the Thames is a pleasant river to stroll along, possibly stopping at a pub for some Eel Pie and a real ale, before taking out the rowboat for a bit of a paddle.

The Church! The Church where Pope is buried! I’d found it. But more importantly, I’d also found somewhere to shelter from the rain. Not that it was open, of course. I sheltered under the trees.

The cemetery was small, but old. I walked amongst and, frequently, over the graves. This is not a cemetery where people still get buried.

One of the more discernable headstones from 1799.

This cemetery is calling out for a Time Team episode. Where is Tony Robinson when you need him?

I really can’t think of anything funny to write about this headstone. Tragedy spans centuries.

I’d done a few orbits of the churchyard, checking headstones and taking pictures. Many were faded beyond readability, others were made unreadable by the glossy sheen of rainwater that covered everything.

Was one of these Pope? I had no idea.

Is that the sky reflected in the rainwater, or my own growing sense of futility?

A cracking, rumbling peal of thunder that shook the sky roused me from my headstone enquiries. I stood, alone, in the cemetery. And did I feel perhaps a little bit odd, a little tragic, that I had chosen to spend my saturday coming to this place on the other side of London? Maybe a little, but that moment when the thunder rolled around the cemetery was delicious in its atmosphere – what better, what more appropriate place, could I be during a thunderstorm, I thought to myself. I felt like a character in a novel. And then it started to rain. I mean, properly rain.

As I sheltered under the eaves of the church, I realised that actually, yes, I could think of several better places to be during a thunderstorm. Sod this, I thought, and pulled out my phone to let the internet tell me where in the graveyard Pope was buried. A swift google search later gave me the answer: inside the church. Pope isn’t even in the cemetery, he’s in the sodding church which was LOCKED!

My shoes filled with water. My jeans gained several pounds in weight and the denim began to stick to my legs. My coat wasn’t waterproof. My umbrella was inadequate. I stood under the eaves of the church taking pictures of the rain, until it was too wet to do even that. So instead I just stood and cursed the world.

After a while, the rain slackened off. There was still clearly water falling from the sky, but it was more like water from a hosepipe, not a pressure hose. As I stepped from under the eaves of the church, I saw a group of about five people across the street from the cemetery, sheltering under a doorway. They had quite clearly been watching me as I took photos of the place. They probably thought that I wanted to steal the lead from the roof. It was time to flee from this site of my failure. But then, just as I was leaving the graveyard, I saw it, high up on one wall of the church:

It’s not his grave, but it’s the grave of his servant and nurse. And he put it there himself. I count this as a victory.

My mood lifted immediately. None of it had been in vain! I’d found, sort of, what I came to see – evidence that Pope had been here. I gave a cheery wave to the people still sheltering in a doorway on the other side of the road, and squelched my way back to the station. I felt pretty good. I’d set myself some arbitrary rules, I’d been to a part of London I’d never been before, I’d had an experimental travel experience. My reward to myself? I went and bought my dinner at Waitrose.

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.

Living with the Olympics: Days 1 – 3

WE ARRIVED into London Heathrow on Friday, returning from Berlin (more about that later). I was fully expecting to queue for a long time, whilst tracksuited athletes whisked through. In fact, I queued longer to enter Berlin (a city which is surely the last word in efficient transport). The Immigration Officer even smiled when I wished him a Happy Olympics. Didn’t say anything, just smiled. Presumably he was too overcome with joy to get the words out.

 

Sports Day.

Two tube journeys later, we were home in Greenwich. I counted fifteen Olympics volunteers on our journey. They’re everywhere in London – encouraged to wear their uniforms as much as possible.

Here to Help.

Notice London 2012 Games

As if you wouldn’t

Like 22 million others across the UK, we watched the opening ceremony that same evening. Yes I’d seen the volunteers. Yes I’d seen the erection of a vast stadium in Greenwich park. Yes I knew it was all happening here. But it still felt like I was watching a show millions of miles away, happening somewhere in TV land. Until the fireworks started. Stratford is across the river from us, maybe 5 or 6 miles away. We couldn’t see the fireworks, but we could hear them. And we could feel their reverberations coming through the floor. There goes the neighbourhood, I thought.

Welcome to the Games.

Greenwich is where the equestrian events are.

But it was the Beach Volleyball that won me over. I was watching it whilst chopping onions to make a bolognese sauce. Suddenly I found myself whooping and fist pumping the air as team GB staged a comeback to beat the Canadians. I know nothing  about beach volleyball but it’s being played at Horseguard’s Parade and I Iove it. What other sports have been kept from me my whole life? Perhaps I will discover a passion for archery? There were tears in my eyes when Dampney and Mullin scored the winning point (it was the onions).

So, today we went out onto the heath which sits on our doorstep, side by side with Greenwich park.

As I say, equestrian events. On the Heath.

But the Heath is mainly for queueing. The real events are in the park.

The sun was shining, for once it wasn’t raining and even the people queueing looked happy (and, let’s be honest, this is the real British Olympic Sport – queueing. We’d sweep the board in it). Police were everywhere, which was comforting. There were surface to air missiles. The addition of a radar site was comforting, I thought – at least they’ll know what to shoot at. And there was generally a bit of a carnival atmosphere.

Britain’s guaranteed gold: queueing.

This man thought he’d won a medal in the queueing.

We even saw Charles and Camilla drive by, accompanied by four police motorcycle outriders.. Unfortunately I was too slow with the camera, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

If you’ve ever been to London before, you’ll know that all the pedestrian crossings have big words painted on the road saying <—– LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT —–> This is so all the foreign tourists don’t get run over because they look the wrong way crossing the road. But this is the Olympics and the world is watching so we don’t want any tourists getting run over. So now there are lollypop ladies (and men) to help you cross the road.

This does make it difficult to taunt tourists from the other side of the road. They’re less likely to get run over when they run after you. Instead I’ll have to settle for tutting at them when they stand on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ESCALATOR (a heinous crime in London – the left is for walking up or down the escalator, the right is for non-Londoners).

The police were out to enforce the rules, though.

Point and Shoot.

There’s a funfair and a big screen showing the Olympics at the end of the heath next to Blackheath village. Over the weekend people were sitting out with picnics, watching sports  and making the most of the sunshine.

All in all it’s very sedate and civilised – or at least it is in Greenwich. Families, orderly queues, plenty of flags. What’s not to like about having the Olympics in town?

Flags on the heath. All very civilsed. Actually there were flags everywhere, which is a problem for me, as I can’t help myself taking pictures of them (“but look at it ripple in the wind! I need a picture of that!”). At least it was windy. If it’s not I’ve been known to insist that we wait until a gust of wind unfurls the entire flag. I get the impression that this can be a little tiresome for anyone travelling with me (“It’ll be dark soon, we have to go now.”)

See what I mean?

So, satisfied with the Olympics being on our doorstep, we headed home. Then I saw this, and it hit me:

Even the post is disrupted by the Olympics.

Getting to work tomorrow is going to be a bugger.

Olympic route (n). 1. A route specifically for members of the Olympic family (athletes, coaches, etc). 2. The contorted route to work via zone 6, 2 and 4 that you take in order to avoid the Olympic crowds (everyone else).