Sunday, 24 December 2017

Motorsport Can Be Dangerous (Devon and Cornwall, Part 2)

We were headed for Lands End. Not the place itself, which, despite being the setting for one of the great unsung classics of children’s literature is, according to M, “really boring,” but Penzance and St Ives. I was interested to visit both towns, and they’re as close to the Southernmost and Westernmost points of England as we could be bothered to go. I did have a look at how much it would cost to get to the Isles of Scilly, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ll go there when I’ve made my fortune selling secondhand records and I’m trying to decide what to do with my yacht.

Penzance is a great town. Sure, it has plenty of tell-tale signs of people living in poverty and heroin, but it has lots going for it. It has atmosphere, dramatic landscape, architectural interest and more miles between it and London SE15 than the Tyne Bridge. We met up with some other ex-regulars from the Ivy House who moved out of London at about the same time as us. They’ve both got jobs down there, and their young son is starting nursery school. 

What they make (so far) of their drastic change of circumstances is given interesting perspective by the fact that they’ve both taken the time and trouble to be American.I don’t know them particularly well, only chatting to them on a few occasions prior to this, and I tend to assume that Americans experiencing The Great British Countryside can only possibly be enjoying a quaint oldy-worldiness. People hailing from a continent where the scale of everything dwarfs what is possible on these islands surely can’t actually be thrilled by the best that our natural and built environments have to offer, can they? 

As we walked down the hill away from the Admiral Benbow Inn (where I was moved to tell the barman that my two pints of Proper Job were the best cask ales I’d drunk in the last six months, the length and breadth of the country), one of our new friends leapt into an involuntary star-jump at the view. “LOOK at this place.” She almost snarled. “I FUCKING LOVE IT.” And, for the umpteenth time on this journey, I had to agree.

Not just because I’m a little scared of her (because the first time I ‘met’ her, she was heavily pregnant and just standing in the doorway of the Ivy House, firing ice-laser-beams out of her eyes at her partner, who had already fielded two ‘come home’ phone calls while sitting at the bar nattering about record shops in Brooklyn), but also because the view across harbour to water was impressive. She is, I realise now, one of the most talented pubgoers I’ve met, effortlessly striking up conversations with locals everywhere we went (The Lamp and Whistle was very good too), although Being American might be cheating.

He, for his part, has already got himself a regular spot playing records in some late-night bar, and gained unrestricted access to one of those stupidly huge archive-type collections you see YouTube videos about. The thought occurred to me that Penzance was all the more inspiring a place for us to visit because it had this family happily living in it. They took us to the lido café for breakfast, which was amazing – the food, the elegant lines of the building, but, more than anything, the light.

Also, one member of staff (still) wore a Save the Lido T-shirt, and I felt a little Londonsick for the first time. People would ask me why, a year after the pub reopened, the Twitter account I was running was still called Save the Ivy House, although we would always both know that if nobody spent any money there, it would close again, forever, and soon. Being a customer for small businesses is like Mr Incredible says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again… sometimes I just want it to STAY SAVED, y’know?”

Near St Michael’s Mount (or a good view of it from Marazion) there’s a great spot to park up (we have found it much easier since M found this website), away from the road but open to the elements. We were battered by the wind and rain more relentlessly than on any night since Rothbury, and although we never quite got to the bottom of whether Plymouth is truly “Britain’s Ocean City”, I’m not having anybody try to tell me that what was blowing around and through Vanny that night was a breeze from the English Channel or Irish Sea. That’s the Atlantic Ocean right there, and you can’t tell me any different.

Two of M’s least favourite things (on this tour, at least, after me) are steep, winding roads on which I might end up running her over, and towns where most of the buildings are Londoners’ second homes. But, like the Bio-Electronic Navigator BEN-GUNN in Disney’s version, she arrowed in on St Ives Rugby Club, which is a good overnight stop (if you’re prepared to ignore a few signs) and saves you from having to take your van down the slope into the narrow lanes of town.

Big H had told us to beware of ‘low-flying seagulls and Barbara Hepworth sculptures’ and we were soon victims of both. In something of a Cornish Cliché, M had the last bit of pasty stolen from her by a gang of gulls. A gull gang, or rather, one adult seagull and a bunch of teenage gulls flying around him, trying to look hard. Despite the armour of the brown paper bag it was barely protruding from, M, showing me her angry-red fingers, said she could feel that the seagull’s beak was serrated at its edge. I call BULLSHIT. (Remember to Google that before putting it in the blog.)

It’s interesting how Dame Babs has left great slabs of stone and metal lying next to our route throughout, from the dreadful sculpture above John Lewis on Oxford Street, where I spent the vouchers my colleagues collected for on my departure exactly a year ago, through Big H’s retirement japes with a cardboard replica of Two Forms (which had been a well-loved landmark in the best lesson I ever planned (rendered unreusable when the Divided Circle was recombined in a backstreet scrapyard’s furnace six years ago)), past reading about what Leeds is famous for, and ending up peering into her garden.

There were some nice ones of hers in the Tate, though. Big H’s younger namesake must have received an irreverent message psychically, as his behaviour in Tate St Ives was the worst I’ve seen from either boy on the whole tour. (To give credit where it is due, this wouldn’t even place him in the 30th percentile of the Boys’ Bad Behaviour Bell Curve I didn’t draw when I was teaching.)

H just wandered about looking grumpy and bored and saying sarcastic-sounding things that his vocabulary didn’t quite stretch to. I didn’t exactly help, delving into myTired and Bored Teacher’s Mental Book of Wind-Ups as we sat in front of Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi.

“I just don’t like it. It’s not very good. It doesn’t even look like a person.” He opined.

“Ah, but you’re still responding to it. Well Done. You are appreciating it for what it is, whether you like it or not.”

This made him really cross, marching off to one of the two stations in the gallery that asked for feedback to be written on little paper circles which could then be hung on little round pegs. There were lots of little pencils with which to write something heartfelt. H was the second most-motivated (after his Christmas list) I’ve ever seen him when writing, “I didn’t like any of it. And I’m keeping the pencil.”

It was, as my brother has suggested, a good time to visit the town, and be able to enjoy its pubs and bars and beaches without all the bloody part-timer tourists getting in the way. Beer and Bird, the Firehouse, John’s bottle shop and more took plenty of money from us in return for great food and beer and incredibly friendly, professional service. It was, in fact, one of those phases of the tour when it felt like we are just on a really long, greedy holiday, breaking off chunks of Property Pie and stuffing it into our fat mouths, getting all bits of filling stuck in our beards.

Or maybe it was just me.

So for the first step of the journey back East, we thought we’d do something more educational. E had been insistent upon trying either quad biking or paintballing. It was a school day and I felt that driving a motor vehicle would hopefully be a more useful transferable skill for his future than shooting people, so we visited Blackwater’s ATV centre. Like the shit and boring Dad I sometimes have to be, I made a point of standing them for a meaningful moment in front of the sign that says MOTORSPORT CAN BE DANGEROUS in big letters.

It wasn’t really that important a lesson for these two first-time drivers. The sign would probably be better-deployed next to the A30 near Ottery St Mary. The boys were given full safety gear and excellent tuition, and the quad bikes themselves had little throttle limiters that the young bloke adjusted carefully, according to their respective ages and body weights. These, I feel, should be fitted to ALL vehicles driven by anybody under the age of 45. As they pootled around a well-designed course, they looked like they had a lot of fun, even if H did shout “I HATE THIS,” each time he passed me in the pits.

I consider this to be a healthy attitude to motor vehicles. Although I’ve never particularly enjoyed driving, this van is the most comfortable and least stressful ride I’ve ever had. Part of it is the position, up nice and high so you can see everything. Part of it is never having to stop because somebody needs the toilet. But the biggest part is that it doesn’t go very fast, so I don’t feel obliged to keep my speed up. The fact that I can’t see out of the back, so I don’t feel the pressure of a great long line of Audi drivers shaking their well-groomed fists at me, probably helps too.

M had just come back from the loo. This is illegal, of course, but I would like to see any of you try and stop her, even if you weren’t driving. The fact that you can’t see what’s behind you came as a blessing yet again, as I was only aware of these two cars, bumper-to-bumper at about seventy-five, as they appeared in the right-hand corner of my vision. As the second car, a little sporty-hairdresser’s thing, was passing me on my right, it was looking to accelerate across in front of me and undertake the first car in one very short diagonal line.

“Undertakers. Friends only to the Undertaker,” I decided to write in a blog several days later.

He lost control with his car a few feet in front of Vanny’s brave little snub nose, immediately going into a spin and bumping skywards off the central reservation, spinning mid-air, broadsiding the crash barrier with an enormous, well, crash, bouncing up in the air again and doing a lot of quick backwards swervy stuff before gradually slowing to a stop. All the time this was happening, I was just looking at the slow-lane gap, leaning forward over the wheel like Dougal in Pat’s milk float.

M said she felt she was looking at his face all the way through. Both boys were watching too, and all of us reported something different – M didn’t hear a crash, E was just mesmerized by how many “bits of mud and other stuff were flying up in the air,” H’s keen sense of drama reported that he was sure he’d heard the car knock some bits off the van. We were all in shock, and resolved, then and there, to stop off in Frome again and get drunk. On our previous visit, Brewed Boy was closed. This time, thankfully, it was not. And it is excellent.

Like Chris Rea, we felt we had been driving home for Christmas for about thirty years, but we made it to my Mum and Dad’s in Suffolk in the end. Where will we go next? Um, dunno yet. But we hope that you all have a very enjoyable few days off from whatever awful things you have to do the rest of the time, and do take care and look after each other. 

Merry Christmas, if that’s your sort of thing.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best Pasty Filling - Worst Festival (Devon and Cornwall, Part 1)

The West Country has always been associated with four things in my mind: pasties, cider, festivals and dangerous driving on inadequate roads. As this pair of pre-Chrimbo posts will reveal, nothing has changed. We’re approaching the final stages of our adventure (at least the part that involves driving around in a van every day), and this leg, out to the far reaches of Cornwall and back to Suffolk in time for Christmas, means we have been just about everywhere we need to go before deciding where home and shop will be. That said, this travel thing is damn good fun and we are keeping the van (I might even sell some records out of it one day) with lots of the British Isles still to explore.


"Okay. Get the pasty if you must, but just
DON'T LOOK INSIDE IT." The year is 1992 and I am visiting Seale-Hayne agricultural college in Newton Abbot, Devon. We've just walked through the union bar, where preparations are being made for tonight's Christmas meeting of the college's Drinking Society - bins have been moved to the middle of the room and the floor is covered in plastic sheeting. My friend, who is over six and a half feet tall and, folded carefully, drives a Peugeot 205 at consistently dangerous speeds, has warned me that either the drinking culture or the isolated location of the college (or perhaps a function of both) has made it possible for the canteen to prepare and sell the worst food that he has ever had the misfortune to eat. Intrigued, I have picked out what appears to be a perfectly appetising (and quaintly local) meal and, sitting down, have just been shown a metaphorical Big Red Button with the words DO NOT PRESS stencilled above it. 

I take my fork and lever the armour-plated top sheet of pastry away from What Lies Beneath - a mangled, twisted mass of gelatinous grey material, it resembles edible food in no way whatsoever. In fact, in line with popular Urban Myths of the time, it looks very much like the mutilated carcass of a rat. Anybody who has ever known me will understand just how unpleasant this food looked when I say that I could not eat any of it.

This experience of South-Western cuisine stayed with me to the extent that I have rarely been drawn to the pasties one sees on sale everywhere else, and it was with gastronomic expectations very much in check that I drove Vanny into
Devon for the second time on this tour. M had set the controls for the heart of Newton Abbot because there was a house I liked the look of there.

I’m sure pasties are okay. Even M likes them. I’ve eaten enough in the last fortnight to exorcise the ghosts of the Worst of All Possible-Rats and Seale-Hayne College (which closed down just a few years later, although it’s still not clear whether the food had anything to do with it.) But I’d still say the best pasty is the one you're eating right now, if you are hungry enough. It helps if it is still warm, and if you can penetrate the pastry casing with a normal set of teeth. There should be chunks of steak in the filling, not minced beef, and it should be abundantly peppery. Yes, there should be some vegetables in there too, but frankly I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what they are. I’ve had some very nice ones from a chain called The Cornish Bakery in Bude and Tintagel. Pasties, not rat’s asses.

I wasn’t, however, expecting to be blown away by the very first place we visited in Newton Abbot at the beginning of December 2017. Teign Cellars is the kind of pub most localities (including cool areas of
South London) can only dream of - a proper pub with all sorts of (all right, local) people drinking in it, that sells some incredible beers at excellent prices. Okay, it smelled a little funny and the music was awful, but both these factors could be integral parts of being a proper local instead of a poncey beer bar. We drank pints of Deya's Steady Rolling Man at £5.20 a go (still can’t quite believe that) and asked the nice man if the town got much tourist trade nowadays. He shook his head and shrugged.

Teign Cellars deserves some kind of award for its brilliance, and its cheesy chilli chips that were probably better than those of the much-vaunted Red's True Barbecue in Sheffield and Leeds. “Just in case you're worried, that is chilli on there, just with chunks of steak, not mince” said the nice young man, presumably accustomed to people complaining if it doesn’t look like a tin of Old El Paso Chilli con Carne. So I'm going to say their chilli was the best pasty filling. Because it's my blog, so there.


If there were ever two reasons to believe in a place, it's what Newton Abbot has right now - a great place to drink beer (another bar showed up on my standard iOS Maps search – “craft beer [name of town],” but we didn’t feel the need to go there) and a great place to buy records. In a music shop called Phoenix Sound M told me I had to stop spending money on myself, as she was not able to. This, I felt, was unfair. She can spend money (up to a certain amount) on herself any time she wants to (up to a maximum of about, erm, twice), because we are not Santander’s pigs any more, and the records are really nice.

We stopped in at
Plymouth, where the boys and I traded knowledge of Sir Francis Drake, his game of bowls and his Golden Behinde, before eating lunch in McDonalds, losing patience with a Limbo Dancer and picking up the next instalment of Super Diaper Baby for H's edumacation and headification. We also discussed whether the sea splashing around at Plymouth Hoe was, in fact, the Atlantic Ocean, after noting the smart new signs declaring PlymouthBritain’s Ocean City.” I then discovered that these signs have cost the city council seventeen thousand pounds each, and am still trying to work out how.

Okehampton suffers from a shoddy reputation, but deserves better. It's on the edge of
Dartmoor, near the middle of Devon, and some of its cashpoints still work. Why it has three supermarkets on the same narrow spur off the Main Street is beyond me, but the car park at the other end of town provided us with a quiet spot by a noisy river to pass another night, en route to visiting the beautiful people in Langtree again. I can recommend eating in The Black Horse in Great Torrington, especially if you are skint, or greedy, or it is Christmas, or all of the above. The town car park actually makes proper provision for motorhomes to stay overnight, too.


Things are different over the border in Bude. The technicalities and semanticsof the rules that hope to forbid it elsewhere aren't strong enough for
England's campervanishest county, so they have their own rule to prevent them from being overrun - campervans and motorhomes are simply not allowed in council car parks between eleven o'clock at night and six in the morning. (I expect they only pay a little ticket man to work nights in peak season though.) A quick bit of research from Undaunted M (she's better at it than I am) found that the King Arthur's Arms (great pub) car park in Tintagel allows motorhomes overnight for a very reasonable four quid, so we went there, had a look around the castle (as far as we could when the island was closed) and I did a little internet-finding-out of my own.

As unconventional as our curriculum and angle of approach has been through our Van Ed so far, the boys are very quick to hang a subject label off of everything we do. E says he doesn't like history, for which I blame Michael Gove, colonialism and class teachers' tendencies to ask their cover teacher to do the history when they're on PPA, in roughly that order. But when we begin a session with the question "What can we find out about King Arthur?" and quickly establish that the most important fact about him is that he did not necessarily exist, all the retrospective planning or curricular fluidity in the world is not going to help us – once again, NOBODY KNOWS.

In fairness, we were mildly interested in whether it could possibly be true that he once slew, personally, almost a thousand men in a battle somewhere. We like a story about a place, but we're not that arsed about a place about a story, so the tide being too far in for us to enter Merlin's Cave was no real (or even legendary) disappointment. In conclusion, we quite enjoyed the walk around an interesting bit of coast, but it seems King Arthur's greatest contribution to the world we were exploring was having a reasonably priced car park that allows motorhomes overnight named after him.

The Lanivet Inn is a really good, busy local that does excellent food. I had the monkfish and several pints of a sweet but sneakily strong cider called Rattler that seems hugely popular down here. It reminded me of the effects of the Glastonbury Festival Brothers Bar cider, back before it started to appear in cans in your local Londis. Even when ordering my fifth pint, I still couldn’t drop the double T central to pronouncing it as the locals do.

The following night, we economized by staying at the very friendly DoubletreesFarm caravan site in Parr. At twenty-five quid it was cheaper than parking for free behind a pub and provided us with the facilities we don’t absolutely need to hand, but definitely appreciate from time to time. It was only a mile from the Eden Project, another of the top five things to do in
Britain checked off our list, and almost worth the money.

I say almost because the Rainforest Biome is tremendous, while the rest of it is predictably low-key in December. Also, tickets allow free entry for a year, so we were able to return the next evening for their winter Festival of Sound and Light. This was seemingly as atmospheric for the boys as the Blackpool Illuminations were for me, back when they weregood. However, it would have taken eight pints of Rattler and some peyote buttons harvested in the dark for me to get into this festival. The lasers weren’t moving and neither was the music. Still… like I say, the kids enjoyed it.

The next day I took them to a trampoline park, which is the sort of thing I was promising them while explaining that they were going to have to leave all they had ever known behind. Bodmin is home to iBounce, which is a good one as far as I can tell. As they bounced, I checked my emails. And found I had to pay a £500 FINE for entering something called the fucking
LOW EMISSION ZONE, which is basically the whole of Greater London inside the M25. I had absolutely no idea this was in effect already, even though I’d been driving a small petrol vehicle past a sign that said something about it on the A12 for years.

Unfortunately, ignorance is no excuse when it comes to this kind of thing.

Fortunately, the fine is halved if you can pay it quickly.

Unfortunately, even though I’m aware that I have to pay a charge to drive Vanny in London now, that charge is A HUNDRED POUNDS. EVERY DAY

Fortunately, there only seem to be cameras recording when you go in and when you go out, and they can’t charge you for going out, or assume that you spent the In Between Days driving around, poisoning the millions of children who get driven half a mile to school every day.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that for sure. I was wondering why London wasn’t full of people living in motorhomes, smirking at the system. But now I know.

Eventually EVEN I get bored of the LEZ and start talking to the bloke. Turns out he used to be the manager of Peckham Pulse for a while. We discuss our respective muggings at the ends of our South East London working lives in good humour, as if being victims of crimes and dangerous behaviour were all in our pasts. I’m not suspecting for a moment that within a week I will be watching M get mugged (okay, by a seagull) and get so close to a Hollywood-worthy high-speed car crash, I will be delighted not to shit my trousers. For once.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Arch Theory

Yes, I've managed to cheer up since last time, thank God. It was just a blip. Not a brief blip, but a slow descent to a nadir of ridiculous self-pity and back up again. Part of the process. Part of any process for me, I sometimes think.

I have been saved by archways. Specifically ones I've still not passed through but would really like to. From Southampton we went to look at Stonehenge. It was bloody freezing that day and there are few things that interest my two sons less than lumps of ancient stone that raise questions with the answer "NOBODY KNOWS," but M had some work to do in the van and so we walked to the new visitor centre and handed them almost fifty quid. There weren't any new answers in there either.

Once Upon a Time, I told the boys, it was possible to just walk up to this most ancient of monuments and sit among the stones, contemplating the achievements of one's species over thousands of years, or watching the sun rise or something. Hell, it was possible for Chevy Chase to reverse his Austin Maxi into one of them, wasn't it? The boys looked nonplussed, so I made a mental note to look this up on YouTube later.

Moving those great rocks all that way though? Aligning them with the position of the sun in the sky at different times of day throughout the year, lifting some on top of others and balancing them? It's all absolutely staggering
I've always been a tad intimidated by feats of engineering, from the construction of the dome on St Paul's Cathedral to the process by which the gas operation of the refrigerator in a compact motorhome can use heat itself to facilitate the removal of heat. Awestruck, I ask myself (or the kids, or whoever is listening,) 'However did they manage that?' as if somebody is going to give me some answer other than, 'By an enormous amount of careful planning and hard work, probably involving a huge number of people who devoted or even sacrificed their lives to the project,' although it's hard to imagine scores of men living and dying that Vanny might have a fridge that doesn't cane the battery.

I've done my share of (mostly) careful planning and hard (if not always smart) work over the last twenty years, and I'm quite prepared to do some more when I know where to do it, but a character-building chat in a record shop in Wincanton (that I actually can't find on the web) did make me wonder if the direction I have been trying to point myself in is even worth the first few tentative steps. He knew a bloke who started out with an enormous collection and turned it into a shop, didn't want to have to work there all the time, and ended up swapping lots of lovely records for rent and wage payments before giving up. I shall have to own my premises and staff them all the time they're open. I reckon I might do well to ask punters to make informal appointments outside of some manageably brief core hours. Would that work?

Meanwhile, my travels have taught me the true value of a good pair of sunglasses at last. En route to Shaftesbury, this pair of Aviators somebody bartered for burgers at Borough Market many years ago were on and off my face with frightening frequency. I considered asking for bits of burger back when they shed a screw with removal on arrival, revealing an earlier shoddy repair with one that wasn't quite long enough. I'm indebted to S H Harrold Opticians, who fixed it on the spot for free, with a proper Ray-Ban screw. So I felt rather ashamed that E had done a Chevy Chase with the carefully-balanced Christmas presents in the window display while we waited.

Durdle Door, another archway I couldn't pass through (without a kayak or similar small vessel) was a sun-drenched winter setting where the last of my dark mood finally lifted. The s
usurrus of the tiny round stones moving in the water, the unreal plopping of handfuls as they dropped into the shallows made deep by the ridges of millions more, the total absence of fingernails-on-blackboard seagull screams gave the beach an audible beauty that matched the view. We lingered there as long as we could, had a pint in the pub and parked up for the night. In the morning, a friendly but diligent parking marshal approached the van and told M that overnight camping was not allowed. "Oh, we wouldn't do that," she replied with a smile. I had to admire this answer, as the use of the future tense was both a technical avoidance of the lie and an assurance that we hadn't decided we lived there now.

I don't suppose there are a great many people who read this blog looking for wild camping tips, yet I can't recommend the Top o' the Town Car Park in Dorchester highly enough to motorhomos like ourselves. Here are my reasons.

Number 1. There are oversized parking spaces solely for the use of commercial vehicles and motorhomes. Although I take particular pride in being able to squeeze Vanny into a normal space in almost any car park, biggies are often available when the normal spaces are full. This was the case here, as it was in Ord St, Newcastle Upon Tyne. It also means you have plenty of room to access your toilet cassette for Number 2.

Number 2. There is an excellent public convenience. One of the main advantages here is that it has three cubicles - two more than a great many of the relatively few facilities that are still open elsewhere in the country. This helps one avoid that awkward moment when one emerges, smelling like a drain, Ghostbusters Backpack in hand, to find a queue of people waiting to use the only trap.

Number 3. There is a café that would have been used as a location for a scene in a Coen Brothers film if it were anywhere in the United States. It is not only an Aladdin's Cave of weird cuddly toys and twenty-year-old business cards advertising polyphonic ringtones, but is also a great place to buy big floppy bacon sarnies and catch up on the local goss, by earwigging on the enormous man holding court in the corner.

Fortified by the sandwiches and in thoroughly good cheer, we headed off to Devon (again) and (this time) beyond.