Monday, 12 October 2009

London Oyster Magic Savings

Self-service Oyster card machine, photograph copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

There's nothing I hate more than wasting money unnecessarily. Like when you discover you've paid twice as much as you needed to for something, not because it was greener, or better made, or anything like that. And if you travel on public transport in London without an Oyster card, you'll be doing exactly that.

But not to worry! The solution? An Oyster card. Nothing to do with shellfish, it's just a bit of plastic. Everyone visiting London should really get themselves an Oyster card, to save a fortune on the Tube, buses and Docklands Light Railway. What is an Oyster card? I hear you ask. In a nutshell, it's a pay-as-you-go top uppable swipe card for refundable £3 deposit, just add coins or even money with your credit card at all tube stations and many newsagents and small shops near tube stations - and it allows you to travel on all of the above transport, just by swiping the card as you get on, and also as you get off (Tube only).

For the visitor to London, this may seem alarming or confusing, but the good news is that it's not that hard. All you need to do is make sure that you get off the plane or train with some UK currency in cash (I suppose you could pay with a credit card, but for a small amount of money this seems unnecessary), and either find the small self-service machines that sell Oyster cards for £3 (you might need coins, and these are not wheelchair-friendly), or (simpler) queue for the ticket window and buy an Oyster card from an actual human being. They will ask you how much you want to put on the card - if you are only making one journey through London, on your way to another train station, then ask them how much that journey would be and just pay for that amount. If you're making two or more journeys in London, I would put on at least £5 or £10 - any money you don't use will be refunded when you hand in your Oyster card and get back the £3 deposit.

Once you've got your Oyster card, and you have some credit on it, then all you have to do is place the card flat against the yellow circle on the turnstiles as you enter the Tube station, or by the driver or rear doors on a bus. (I haven't taken the Docklands Light Railway in a while, but I assume it's equally self-evident what to do - you can always ask a dark-blue uniformed member of staff for help.) The screen will say how much you have left on the card, that is if you can read really quickly while striding along at a London pace... Don't forget to swipe your card again when you go to leave the Tube, and don't swipe it when you leave a bus or you'll be paying for two tickets.

Your Oyster card is good indefinitely and you can loan it to / borrow one from someone else (assuming you are both adults, or both under-16s, etc.) If you want to put more than about £15 or £20 on it at a time, I might consider registering it (ask at the counter or do this online - I haven't bothered as I never have more than £6 on mine). You can return it at any time and get the £3 deposit back plus any unused credit. And if you want to add more credit, you can do it at self-service machines at any Tube station, or at loads of shops (usually small newsagents or corner shops) all over London, where you see the Oyster sign and the yellow swipe circle at the counter.

One tip: if you have other magnetic cards, e.g. debit cards, electronic hotel/hostel keys, etc., don't keep them in the handy little plastic wallet they give you to keep your Oyster card in - or if you do, take the Oyster card out before you swipe it. The swipe readers can't deal with more than one magnetic strip at a time, and quite frankly I wouldn't risk Transport For London having access to your bank details lost in the turnstiles...

Now: here is the magic of Oyster - how much money you save. At the moment, a single tube journey in Zone 1 (central London) costs £1.60 with Oyster, or a whopping £4 without! Bus journeys? £1 in zone 1 with Oyster, £2 without! Yeah, but what about travelcards for one day or three days - wouldn't that be simpler and cheaper? No, because Oyster automatically caps the amount you can spend in a single day, and it will always be less than a one-day travel card (peak or off peak, i.e. first journey before or after 9:30 am). There may be exceptions if you are under 18 and going to school in London, or buying a season ticket, but for the short-term visitor to London, and for most of London's residents, the Oyster card is the only way to keep public transport costs in London under control. Besides, it's kind of fun, especially if you're used to fumbling for change on a lurching bus.

Two final tips:

Oyster card may be ordered online, if you really must have everything organised long before you leave home. Leave enough time for postage. I really think it's easier to buy once you're in London, though, unless you have a tight connection on arrival.

Oyster card is generally no good on commuter trains (irritatingly, there are a few exceptions), where you have to buy an actual orange-striped train ticket. For example, if you want to go to Deptford or other places in South London where they're still building the Tube line that will take people to the 2012 Olympics, you'll have to take a commuter train (tickets can be bought from self-service machines or at the counter from actual human beings).

More info about Oyster from Transport for London, including how to buy online, and journey planner

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Cycling near Newcastle: Slow and steady does the job

Picnic a la Courbet, beach between Seaton Sluice and Blyth, photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009
One of the biggest surprises of my explorations of the Newcastle area is that it has a fantastic coast. Sandy beaches stretch for miles to the north, comparatively uncrowded even in summer, and lit by the Baltic blue sky. Wonderful for walking, paddling, though swimming seems too adventurous for me (but not for the Panama Swimming Club of Whitley Bay, whose members dash from their modernist beach hut straight into the surf, even in midwinter). And, perhaps surprisingly, a fabulous place to cycle. Sustrans Route 1 takes the explorer from the Newcastle central rail station up right along the coast as far as Blyth before cutting inland on its route to Edinburgh.

I determined to cycle north from Whitley Bay (conveniently reached by Metro from the centre) as far as Seaton Sluice, but decided to continue as far as the south beach at Blyth, a total distance of about five miles (and another five back) from Whitley Bay's free car park, a bit north on the coastal A road from the white onion dome of Spanish City. After crossing the four lane road I was in the park area near the skateboarding / stunt cycling area packed with earnest boys, and found myself entirely off road, either looking down on the beach or on the promenade, as far as the par 3 golf course (£4 adults plus rental of ball, putter, and iron - no drivers allowed) from which a pleasant diversion can be made to visit the tidal St Mary's Island. Like Holy Island, St Mary's Island is connected to the mainland by a paved causeway. Unlike Holy Island, St Mary's Island is tiny, dominated entirely by a lighthouse. And unlike Holy Island, there are more hours of the day when the island is cut off from the mainland, so it is best to check the tide times before setting off. The surrounding beach is a pleasant place for poking around rock pools if the causeway isn't quite clear when you arrive, and the car park (pay and display) boasts a nice little van that will do the usual greasy fare. The woman was very nice to me, apologising that they didn't have proper espresso cups, and offering to hit the button on the multinational dispenser twice, thus offering me a styrofoam cup completely full of espresso for £1 with all the milk and sugar I could add - far superior to instant, and kept me going all day long.

But back to St Mary's Island.

to be continued...

London: Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel

The Smart NHS hostel is near the British Museum, with its fab new rotunda! Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

You're looking for somewhere cheap to stay in London. You want it to be central, and easy to get to. You want a bit of privacy, but you don't mind going down the corridor to the loo. You want clean, and well-organised. You want 24 hour access.

What you don't want is a 24 hour party.

Roll up to the Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel. For the older traveller, or qualified health professionals looking for work in London, it's a dream come true. Just around the corner from Russell Square, it means you can get the tube from Heathrow without changing lines, and take advantage of the lift at the tube station (there are a small number of stairs to negotiate with luggage).

You will be sleeping in bunks, but they are hospital-clean (you have to do your own hospital corners, but they provide the sheets), and best of all, have curtains, so you can sleep, read and change in privacy.

All the showers are together in the basement (gents' & ladies' separate), saving water and annoyance ('Who's STILL in the bathroom?!'), and although you have to keep pushing the button to keep the water flowing, it is HOT HOT HOT in a very nice way. And in the ladies', there is a locker room outside with free use of hair dryers. There's even a diffuser (for the hair inept, this is an add on gizmo that distributes warm air over a larger surface area, to what effect I know not, being one of the hair inept myself).

In the morning, there is free tea and coffee (instant), and the inevitable toast conveyor belt experience - place two slices on the ramp at one end, and wait for them to trundle slowly through, and pop out on the slide at the other end. The conveyor belt isn't actually inevitable - I've stayed at some hostels where they have normal home toasters, and after the French girl ahead of you has popped the maximum four (or two!) slices down, you have no choice but to stand and wait... not great when fifty plus people are trying to breakfast simultaneously. So at Smart NHS I was extremely grateful. And nobody else wanted the crusts, so it was pretty easy to tell which toast was mine.

Another great feature of this hostel is the sense of security. You need a £10 cash deposit for your key card, which you need to get past the 24 hour reception room, and into your own room (from 4 to 24 beds, depending on price). Furthermore, for around £1.50 per day, you can pay to have your card activate your own security drawer below your bunk, where you can safely store your goodies. For extra large items, or to have a look round the day you leave without trailing your wheelie luggage everywhere, you can leave them in the storage room for £1.50 per item per day. However, unlike other hostels that leave you to fetch your items yourself, giving you a key attached to something improbable like a cricket bat (a veritable passport to theft), the Smart NHS staff accompany you to the room, to make sure that you only take your own ticketed items. Brilliant! Why doesn't everyone do this?

Best of all, there are no unaccompanied under 16s allowed, and aside from the odd school group booked into their own room, there are very few under-18s here. The large number of job-seeking nurses, medical technicians, etc. means that you are far more likely to see people spending their evenings glued to the free wifi access on their laptops (you can pay 50p per 15 minutes to use their computers, too) than wanting to have a singsong in the common room. And there are always a number of mature backpackers lurking about, on the Ikea sofas in front of the two televisions.

In fact, the only drawback of the place is that you just might end up on the top bunk... of three! But the ceilings are high enough that I didn't bash my head when sitting up, and I kind of got used to it - thank heavens for the secure bars on the exit side, or I would have spent the nights in a state of vertigo.

N.b.: 10% deposit payable online at time of booking. To pay the balance on arrival, it's best to have cash, as they don't take UK debit cards, and credit cards have a 5% processing fee. You also need £10 refundable key deposit. Laundry: £4 wash, £2 dry (ouch!)

HSBC cash machine is down the street from Russell Square tube station, and 24 hour Tesco Express across the street from the station. To reach Smart NHS, turn left out of the station, left again at the corner by the newsagents, and left again on the next proper street, opposite the President Hotel. Smart NHS is on your left, not tremendously signposted but with signs asking you to be quiet and considerate, a good omen...

Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel

Address: 70-72 Guilford St, United Kingdom, London, WC1N 1DF

Phone # : +44(0) 20 7833 8818

Fax # : +44(0) 20 7221 9444

Information correct as of 8 September 2009.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Holy Island: Northumberland’s Sacred Spaces / Tourist Honeypots

Holy Island could have been one of those places that promises much and inevitably disappoints. After all, I was visiting in July. Usually islands guarantee some limitation on the number of tourists, but Holy Island is a tidal island, linked to the mainland by a causeway that is flooded for only a few hours a day. As a result, imagine my wearied astonishment at discovering a main thoroughfare clogged with people heading back to the main car park, towing children and licking ice creams, mostly in the kind of shorts and sandals-with-socks that pass as holiday gear in Britain, a solitary saffron-robed monk accompanied by a little clutch of dreadlocked purple-weave hippies for visual relief. But I am getting ahead of myself, for the buildup to this singularly disappointing moment (not seeing the monk, I hasten to add, but experiencing the press of the crowd) was considerably more dramatic - and things rapidly improved after the pedestrian nadir.

I am of two minds as to whether to continue, having written the phrase ‘pedestrian nadir’. But I shall press on...

I was really impressed with the friendliness of the people of Northumberland. I had been told that complete strangers could strike up a conversation as if they had known you your entire life, and indeed this proved to be true. Only a slight conversational opener with the lady at the petrol station in Wooler, and I found myself hearing all about how she needed a holiday to recover from her week’s holiday, including the visits from the children and how her daughter had rung that she had just missed the bus but luckily her husband was just heading in that direction in the truck. From there it was only an easy jump to selling me the Ordnance Survey map, and advising me in the strongest possible terms to check the tide times before setting off for Holy Island. ‘People get caught by the tide all the time,’ she said. ‘We tell them, and tell them, but they just don’t listen. Last month someone got caught on the causeway, and you’re supposed to go wait in the hut and let the car flood, but the woman’s husband was disabled and he couldn’t walk to the hut, so they had to bring in the helicopter to airlift them out. It’s ridiculous, last year the council spent £11,000 on helicopters to lift people off the causeway because they were careless, and we have to pay for it.’ I absolutely promised her that I would be well careful of the tide times, which I promptly recited, for the next 24 hours. Two days later she checked on me when I called in again. ‘Did you get caught out?’ she asked anxiously, despite the fact that I was standing in front of her, having arrived in a functional car. It was nice to be the object of concern, though. ‘No, I was parked back on the mainland an hour before the tide came in.’ ‘Good, good,’ she said, and then continued the exchange she was having with what appeared to be a nephew, son, or possibly friend of the family. It was hard to tell. There was the adorable baby nephew, captured imitating his dad in all things, including attempts at auto repair, tyre-kicking, and axe-wielding. How much time she spent on Facebook disseminating pictures of these things. ‘Oh, you’re from Wales, where? I went down last year, and put a thousand miles on the car, following the rally all around the south Wales valleys and Pembrokeshire.’ This the nephew/son/friend of family. ‘I got all the way back and the car died on the hill above D-, so I just put it in neutral and coasted down the hill home. That was lucky,’ he added. ‘The car was scrap after that.’

It can be difficult to get away from such entertainment, but I could feel the tide coming in even as he was speaking and was becoming reluctantly restless to get away and go back again. For indeed such was the pull of the island, tourists or no tourists, that I went for three separate visits during my stay in Northumberland.

The lady at the bunkhouse, having duly advised me also about the tide times and the dangers of being stranded, was more than willing to provide information about parking. ‘I bet they make you pay through the nose to park on the island,’ I said as she stood chatting with me, coffee mug in hand. Indeed, she was most willing to tell me about the free parking, which meant only a slightly longer walk. At last I headed off, taking a cross country route that led me over a big rise some eight miles inland, from which I had an unexpected and breathtaking view of the island and the entire coast below me. The island continued to tease me as I followed National Cycle Route 1 north of B-, and found it lurking down below my right elbow, in a view that would have been impossible from the lower A1. Past the petrol station & friendly services (open til 8 every night), over the rail tracks, over which a surprisingly frequent service sprints between Newcastle and Edinburgh, up over a final rise, round the bend and suddenly, the causeway, before which something looking oddly like a city centre bus station - three identical signs so people could pull over in their cars and check those all important tide times before crossing.

The road - two lanes of tarmac, raised a few inches above the sand, narrowing to a single lane on the bridge over the river that wends its way through the endless beach, above which a wooden sentry box on stilts sits surveying the seabirds and the endless line of wooden posts that mark the pilgrim’s route to the island over the sands, the way of St Cuthbert. The way of Margaret remained along the tarmac, dunes and reed grasses spooling by as I hurtled along at surprising speed along one of Britain’s most scenic three-mile stretches of road. From the line of seaweed it seemed that the road would flood way past the causeway. Eventually I spotted what I thought must be the free carpark (‘No overnight camping on island’ warned the sign) and pulled in, to accompany three other cars dotted about, including one with a man sitting with the passenger door open, smoking a pipe as he contemplated the bay past the dunes. I realised I was still at the far north of the island, well away from the abbey and castle, but decided to have a bit of a walk anyway. The track led to an isolated farmhouse and what had once been a traditional windmill, but now sported a tiny modern eco-model spinning gaily. I turned into the dunes, seeing a man out working by the barn, and emerged onto yet another endless beach, populated only by a distant couple walking a dog. This is what islands are all about, I thought, looking down at my feet and discovering and compulsively photographing a flattened handbag washed up by the tide. (There is no accounting for the effect of watching the six-DVD series of The Genius of Photography.)

Upon my return to the car, the man was still smoking his pipe and contemplating the horizon.

Colour Chart at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool. Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

(Continued from long ramblings about trying to find the Tate...)

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about Tate Liverpool, and the Colour Chart exhibition. Indeed I am. I didn't know what to expect from this Tate, or this particular collection of what I suspected would be mainly colour field paintings, a style of uniform application of colour without representation that I had found derisory as a child roaming free range in the Albright Knox (I could do that! As in, I'm still learning to draw but I could paint a solid block of blue next to a solid block of yellow just as well, but no one would put me in the Albright Knox). In later years (I won't presume to say maturity) I found them tedious compared to other modern styles, such as my beloved abstract expressionism. And yet, a few years after attending a course exploring some of the symbolic and spiritual applications of colour, I had embarked on a project that effectively transformed my flat into a walk-in colour field painting, through the magic of Dulux custom mixed strong pigments, a different jewel tone for each room.

So I didn't have any particular expectations of this exhibition, except to make further good use of my Tate membership. After jete'ing neatly into the lift, and not so neatly having the doors nearly close on my shoulders, to the alarm of the two girls inside, I found myself breathless on the fourth floor, ready to flash my membership card. 'You have twenty minutes to see the exhibition,' smiled the woman at the desk. 'That's all right,' I said. 'Better late than never.' And so, through the doors...

In the initial room the visitor is confronted with Marcel Duchamp's wonderful valise containing miniature reproductions of his oevre to that point. I have no idea what the link was to colour, but I've wanted to see this valise for years (knowing Duchamp, he probably made more than one). Truth be told, I'd love to make one myself, or to have one containing works by all my favourite artists. To the left, a smaller room contains the Ellsworth Kellys, including the one featured on the museum promotional materials. These do amazing things to one's eyes, when standing at a certain distance. All the squares appear to be leaping about on the retina. Remarkable, for such an apparently simple composition. I was also impressed with Kelly's entrepreneurial lateral thinking: young, poor, and working in Greece, he was unable to afford to ship an 8 foot square canvas (and didn't have room in his studio to work on one). The solution? Sixty-four 1 foot square canvases, to be assembled in a precise order at the receiving end. Brilliant!

There were many other points of interest, including displays of historical books on colour theory, and annual volumes belonging to Japanese artist On Kawara, who had meticulously documented swatches of each colour that he used on a daily basis. Having enjoyed Robert Rauschenberg's numbers painting in the Albright Knox as a child, I was delighted to see his series of ten lithographs of the digits 0 to 9, each in a different specially mixed but apparently straight-from-the-tin colour. On a wall backed with the Dan Flavin neon piece (and hence having a slightly jarring pink light spilling over the partition into the adjoining room) was a real treasure: Jan Dibbets' 'Colour Studies' from the 1970's, printed in large square format in 2007. These abstracts (or nearly abstracts) of details of cars had a colour cast typical of Kodachrome 64 or similar slide films of that era. But their primary interest for me was how well they worked as abstracts, and how well they were hung with contrasting colours next to each other. A sure sign that I like a piece is if it is the sort of thing I would like to make myself. (Countering this selfish approach to art appreciation, I hasten to add that I also enjoy work employing techniques, subjects or media that I would never use myself.)

After that, there just wasn't enough time to see the rest of the exhibition properly. I had assumed I was near the end, but in fact the Dibbets pieces were about halfway through. Still, I would highly recommend this exhibition, even to people who are reluctant to confront minimalist modern art. Oh, and look out for the exhibition staff. A chair in one of the first rooms proclaims that their attractive waistcoats were specially designed, making them living, breathing performance pieces. 'You have five minutes left, if that's okay!' said one brightly, popping his head round the partition as I contemplated Dibbets. Excellent work.

Finding Tate Liverpool

Liver building and Albert Docks. Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

Coming into Liverpool was supposed to be straightforward, an easy stop between points north and south. I had the whole route written down on a card: M6 exit 26, M58 to the end, then pick up an A road into Bootle, one left turn and a straight run down to the Albert Dock and Tateland. No, no, no, no! I hear a chorus of Liverpudlian drivers exclaim. But how was I to know that there was a bizarre slip road feed just before the roundabout at the exit, and unable to see past a big white van full of big men who obviously realised that I hadn't a clue where I was going, I found myself instead on the A49, Liverpool's answer to the suburban shopping hinterland, non-expressway route into so many North American cities, plagued by endless unsynchronised red lights. (Residents of Hamilton, Ontario may now swell with justifiable pride at their perfectly synchronous traffic flow system.) At any rate, after my somewhat delayed departure from Lakeland, I began to despair of arriving at Tate anything before the heartrending moment after the doors were locked. As it happened, I eventually found first the Albert Dock, and then, after driving past and returning on the other side of the central road barrier, the pay and display parking. £2 for one hour, £4 for two, and £5 for three hours. 5:07 pm, read the meter. I slipped a two pound coin into the machine, yanked my ticket out almost before it had printed, popped it into the car on the dashboard (North American visitors take note: without completing this step, you are subject to a fine and the dreaded clamping!), and legged it towards the water.

While 'Central Tourist Attractions' are notably well waymarked, Tate Liverpool itself is not. On the other hand, I had no idea it was competing with so many other attractions. Granada Studios and the inevitable Beatlemania I knew about; what I didn't realise was that the waterfront had been completely (re)developed with arenas, cafes, Bug Experiences (I kid ye not), and an endless range of boutiques and tourist tat shops occupying every square inch of the former warehouses. Naively, I had thought that the Albert Dock was a working dock, that just happened to have an art gallery attached to the northeast corner. I can hear Liverpudlian laughter echoing like the studio outtakes attached to the tail end of so many of the later Beatles tracks.



Lincolnshire: It all comes out in The Wash

I suppose that pun is completely overused if you live in Lincolnshire. The Wash, for those who don’t know, is much more than an inlet. On the map, it is a square chunk taken out of the east of England, above the rumpy bulge of Norfolk and Suffolk. On the road atlas, it seems quite far from Boston on the west to King’s Lynn at the southeast corner, up to Hunstanton at the northeast corner. But on the ground, when you actually see it, the Wash is vast. You think you are seeing across it, and then realise that you are just seeing one small corner of it. It is big sky, over a big, big, big inland sea. Giant tankers loaded with stacks of cargo boxes disappear into it like gnats into the night sky / a football stadium.

Oddly enough, going to the Wash was the one thing I definitely wanted to do when I was in Lincolnshire. ‘You must go to the cathedral,’ said my friend from Lincolnshire, meaning of course the one in Lincoln, where I never set foot. No, for me, as usual, it was the tiny village, the road to nowhere, the non-event, the empty stretch of beach that drew me. Lincolnshire is not exactly busting with attractions, not ones that you might have heard of if you happen to live outside of Lincolnshire, anyway. And I avoided them all. The cathedral, the galleries, the industrial heritage museums, Scarborough, and a country park lake that all signs and brochures seemed to point to, promising walks, cycle paths, canoeing and a limitless variety of other water sports, teahouses, ice cream, parking, and of course, endless crowds. No, I was to be found in a hostel that has barely survived, in a village that didn’t stock any Ordnance Survey maps in the local shop but was staffed by an owner who wondered why I had the temerity, or indeed the need, to ask for one, in a region so flat as to be ideal for cycling but boasting no cycle rentals for a good twenty five miles. Having found an excellent cycle shop and purchased their cheapest folding cycle, I set off down dead end lanes passing between endless rows of electric yellow rape, the sweet scent drifting on the wind, and ended up hearing the cuckoo call from amidst a thicket of trees at the base of the raised dam flanking a canal, now the MacMillan Cancer Walk heading off to the horizon.

It was nice to be under such an open sky.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Northumberland: England's Wyoming

Let's be honest, I had wanted to go to Holy Island for about four years. So when I had the opportunity to stay with friends near Newcastle for a week, it seemed the perfect opportunity to add on a few days exploring northern Northumbria.

I stayed at Chatton Park Bunkhouse, on Chatton Park Farm near Wooler. Having forgotten to pack my sleeping bag meant £3 extra per night, so £18 per night in total (price on the website is not current). However, I had the place to myself, and it is brand new as of conversion in 2007, very clean, and Jane and Duncan are very friendly and caring. Generally the place is booked by groups, so do phone ahead especially if planning to visit at the weekend. I think it would be pretty difficult to visit here if you didn't have your own transport, either two or four wheeled. The setting is lovely, the cat and dogs friendly, and the kitchen has a lovely woodburning stove that would be extremely cosy in winter. (No microwave, though, so it's a good time to go back to making real porridge and real pasta instead of ping! meals. Got delicious Northumberland sausage from the butcher in Wooler...)

For those who prefer the YHA, the hostel at Wooler has an interesting history as a bunkhouse for land girls during World War II. It was chockablock for the dates I wanted, but then I am usually a very last minute planner (read: spontaneous!) and it seemed nice enough, bursting with tourist brochures. Speaking of which, the Cheviot Centre in Wooler contains not just an excellent tourist info centre but is a community centre with endless activities, groups and meetings, as well as being the best place for the visitor to Wooler to use the internet. For £1.50 you can use up to the minute computers for as long as they're open (10-4:30 seven days a week), versus the public library, open erratic hours (closed Tuesdays, and was it Thursdays?) and although very friendly, costing £1 per half hour for non-Northumberland residents, and 20p per sheet to print versus 10p per sheet at the Cheviot Centre.

Enough of the practicalities - what of the place? The landscape has a spacious feeling generally absent in small-scale Wales (except for inland Pembrokeshire), plus the wonderful northern Baltic light that has a more blue quality than the grey-green light of Wales. Don't get me wrong, I love Wales, but I was open to appreciating the differences. I began to think of Northumberland as England's Wyoming, a big sky country but also with a great coast (obviously there are no endless sandy beaches in landlocked Wyoming!)

What I was after was my usual range of apparently doing nothing, in the landscape, interspersed with mooching lazily around the hostel, and lurking in cafes. I found a good one in Wooler...

The surprise discovery was that Northumberland, like other places I enjoy (including areas of Scotland such as the drive through Kilmartin), is rich in prehistoric rock art, in particular the so-called ring and cup marked rocks. These are large boulders, usually exposed level with the earth, glacial probably but I am no geologist, that have been carved with indentations, usually around an inch or two in diameter, that collect the rain ('cups'), and/or Celtic-looking designs of concentric circles. They date (without me checking references) between 1500 to 3000 years ago, and as usual archaeologists can only speculate as to their purpose. It is always a big thrill for me to locate these, as they tend not to be very well signposted. In Kilmartin there is a fairly well, if understatedly, marked chain of these. In Northumberland, there can be no marking whatsoever... an Ordnance Survey map is essential. I found them at two locations... and then there was Holy Island, best left for another article.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Apologies for silence...

Apologies for my silence on this blog. I'm in the process of sorting out my computer access and will resume posting shortly.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Lincolnshire: cycling for softies

Lincolnshire road. Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

Sometimes you just need a change of scene. I live among the constantly altering hills and mountains of Wales, where every road bends and every turn reveals a new pattern of green hills, hedgerows, sea and sky, houses and farms in pale pastels and sombre stone. I grew up in a place that was relentlessly flat, endless suburban strip malls and tarmac, eight lanes of traffic slowed to a crawl by traffic lights on a four-minute cycle. So I treasure my mountains. But just sometimes, I need a change.

So that was why I decided to take my post-Easter break in Lincolnshire. I craved big sky country. Not the big sky country of Montana, where a hundred miles or more takes you to the next sleepy town, but a British version. The closest thing Wales has to big sky country is Pembrokeshire, but even here the terrain is challenging for a long-dormant and easily exhausted former cyclist whose bike rusted beyond repair and was then stolen. So I chose Lincolnshire deliberately, because it is flat, and I haven't been there, and I wanted to start cycling again. Also, I had previously enjoyed Norfolk, but Lincolnshire was that little bit closer...

As usual I was looking for the cheapest, most out of the way hostel, and I found it. YHA Thurlby is tucked away in a part of Lincolnshire so little visited that they haven't cottoned on to the idea of bicycle rental as a tourist service. Very pleasant back garden, immaculate kitchen, friendly and helpful wardens, and I met some great people there. Oh, and because it was after the Easter holiday rush, I had a room to myself.

The main purpose of my trip was to get a folding bicycle, and use it to cycle to nowhere in particular, preferably across the fens. Now I used to have an amazing folding mountain bicycle, a Dahon, but as my car is quite small it was a bit of a squeeze to get it into the boot (hatchback). I settled on the cheapest folding townie bike, unfortunately steel not aluminium frame so kind of heavy, but very well made, folds like a dream and fits easily in the car. (Yes, I will check the make and post it here!) Also the cycle shop tuned it up for me, while I waited amongst the titanium greyhounds that I could lift with one finger and cost more than three times the price of my car. They were ever so nice and it is really worth going to talk to professionals about what you want. For the handlebar bag I copped out and went to the cheap chain shop where they knew very little about bicycles but were willing to sell me a child's rucksack that fit perfectly over the handlebars, for only £8.50.

So I was off! Too cheap to buy the local Ordnance Survey map (well, I did try but the local shop in Thurlby didn't stock them, again highlighting its non-touristy credentials) I just followed my nose, down farm lanes, discovering woodland/wetland walks, passing canals and distant wind farms, and a surprising number of recycling plants. Eventually I realised that my second unspoken goal was to visit the Wash, the huge square bite taken out of southeast England, that represents a vast inland sea between Boston and Hunstanton.

The Wash is immense. It is hard to realise just how big until you are actually there. Looking across from the downriver-from-King's Lynn corner, I thought I was seeing Norfolk in the distance. I was, but not the north coast, as I imagined - only the bit as far as Heacham, and certainly not around the corner to the north coast where I stayed a few years ago. Big sky, big wetland, and an enormous grassy dyke to push the bike along, never seeming to get any closer to the point in the distance where the sea wall bent to the right. It was tempting to go on and on, but it would be dusk, so I turned round, and stared across the rivermouth at the opposite of a pair of twin lighthouses before starting the car for a late night drive back to Wales.

Monday, 1 June 2009

A guide to slow travel, remote places, good food and culture in the United Kingdom

Hello, and welcome to my blog about travel in the United Kingdom. I've lived here in Britain for many years, and I'm still exploring. I hope this guide will help you explore wonderful places, too - places in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. (And some in the Republic of Ireland, too, but I didn't want the title to get too unwieldy.)