I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Using public transport in London

St Helier station
Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman
Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner, but I love London so. And I've been a regular user of public transport in London for as long as I can remember.

When I was a very small nipper I was regularly hauled up the Northern Line from Morden to Oval (I think) to get my eyes seen to. Once I came back with an eye-patch, and not long after that I started wearing glasses.

A few years later I was getting buses from Raynes Park to Wimbledon, and then Morden, on the way home from double games on a Wednesday afternoon. At least a couple of times my bro' and I fare-dodged our way down to Ash Vale -- we started at Morden Road as it was an unmanned station, unlike St Helier which, at the time, had a ticket office and everything. These days St Helier has fuck all, just a huge exposed staircase. It is still right next door to a huge estate for disabled ex-servicemen and their families, however.

I remember when bus tickets cost 15p or 20p depending on how far you were going, and when the Capitalcard existed. That one meant you could use trains, unlike the Travelcard which only allowed tubes and buses. I think the latter was 70p. I also remember getting the 88 bus from Mitcham to Acton Green just because it was a huge, massively long bus journey which started locally to us. I was about 12, and pretty sad even then. Though not as sad as whoever wrote that Wikipedia page about it, fucking hell.

Early technique for visiting central London was another route learned from Kevin: bus to Wimbledon, tube to Earls Court, change for another tube to Leicester Square and hey presto, the West End. Why didn't we start at Morden? I don't recall, though the Northern Line was pretty shitty.

Once I became flush enough to use the Capitalcard, or perhaps when they abolished it and added trains to Travelcards, I started starting at St Helier, and my days out would include the odd fast train from London Waterloo to Surbiton (and back), for 2 reasons: it was the longest non-stop journey in my quarter of London, and Surbiton station had great bannisters you could slide down. I was about 15, and still pretty sad.

Since then I've gone into the centre shitloads of times. Before university it was to go to gigs -- I went to more than 70 in 1991, at the Marquee, the Dome, the Astoria, etc. During university it was to get to Victoria for the coach, or Euston for the train. And since university it has been to drink, to go to gigs, or to work: I've worked in (or beyond) central London since October 1997.

That's a whole lot of travelling on public transport in London. Here are some of the lessons I've learned.

  1. "Seek assistance" is London slang for "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again, and again, and again, and again"
  2. When you get on a train or tube, there is no-one behind you. Stay near the door, surveying the whole carriage for a suitable place to sit or stand. You are not blocking anyone.
  3. If the tube driver is standing on the platform having a smoke and a chat, they're going to leave imminently, so run and barge people to get to your favourite carriage. Hurry!
  4. The words on the front of buses are lies. You should always get on the bus and ask the driver where they're going.
  5. "No exit" means "exit", especially when written on the steps at a busy station. People getting off trains are more important than people getting on them, so ignore anyone trying to battle past you to get on the train you just left.
  6. It takes, ooh, a good 5 minutes, surely, to walk the length of an 8 carriage train, so you really need to run along the platform if it's less than that 'til departure. Hurry!
  7. Waiting 10 minutes for "the fast train" is an efficient use of your time. The timetable which says that one arrives just after the slow train you're not getting on is a lie.
  8. The "please don't use your mobiles here" posters and announcements were drawn/made with a little wink. Just keep your calls down to 15 minutes or so, no-one'll mind.
  9. On crowded station concourses, do not under any circumstances face the direction in which you are travelling.
  10. A queue of 50-odd people at a bus stop will only take around 2 seconds to board, so if you're over 50 yards away you must run for it. Hurry!
  11. The buttons at pedestrian crossings do not make the lights change. No-one knows what they do do, and it might be bad, so don't use them.
  12. Bicycle lanes are for pedestrians.
I might look for a job I can walk to.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Parkway: latin for 'is quite a way away'

Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.
If the dice says M, and the list asks for 'excuses for being late', I don't think I will ever hear a better answer than 'masturbation'.

Scattergories over and a couple of Guinnesses to the good, I went to bed perpendicular to Ruth. Actually I'm getting ahead of myself here -- before that we watched a couple of episodes of Moving Wallpaper, an ITV sitcom neither Ruth or I had heard of before. It has Jim-from-Neighbours in it, and therefore wins. ITV seem to think it's a contemporary drama. They are wrong.

The perpendicular sleeping arrangements were two single beds in a small room. Ruth was going to put her feet next to my head until I complained. I found it pretty amazing that there was a spare room at all in the house, but there it was. Oh, and we had internet access (having put the laptop onto the wireless earlier when Ruth was showing off some Pakistan and Grand Canyon photos) which meant we could fall akip listening to the world service. I love the world service. Such a humbling radio station.

Sunday morning meant bacon. Yum. It also meant a game of Monopoly (Europe edition) which only lasted long enough for everyone to pass Go just the once. I was very much in last place and was glad it was interrupted. Soon after breakfast most of the house went off to church, with just Simon hanging back to give me and Ruth a lift to Bodmin Parkway.

This was our first Parkway of the day. Simon had picked us up from it the day before, but I hadn't really taken much notice of how long the drive was given the newness of everything and the football+relatives diversion. This time was different, and the truth became apparent: Bodmin Parkway is fucking miles from Bodmin. Nowhere near it. You would be a fool if you decided, perhaps if you were in possession of a rail rover ticket, to just get off and explore Bodmin. Also, though I admit this may be unrelated to the distance from the town, the weather was fucking appalling. Tipping it down, blowing a freezing gale, we at first went into the small coffee shop (diet coke; coffee; bakewell tart; lemon cake) and then shuffled from foot to foot on the bridge over the lines for a while.

For more than a while, in fact. We'd arrived in plenty of time for the train, but it was late, and the bridge provided respite only from the wet, not the cold. BRRRR.

The train was about, I dunno, 15 minutes or so late. So we'd already missed our connection at Plymouth, onto a rail replacement service due to engineering works between there and Exeter. I don't really mind about having journeys somewhat disrupted by engineering works at the weekends -- I understand that far fewer people use trains then than do on weekdays, and that most weekend journeys are optional (rather than commutes), so no problem there. But having been sold such a tight connection, and then having a train running late on a line with a reduced service, well that's just a pain in the arse.

So we missed our bus. And the next bus didn't fit us on. The 3rd bus was OK, but full, and slow, because the route to Tiverton Parkway had roadworks on it. And the weather was still shit pretty much all the way (for 90 minutes!) until we arrived in glorious sunshine.

So, then, Tiverton Parkway. 8 fucking miles from Tiverton (though google says it's 4). No signs of life anywhere near. I mean, the surroundings are nice, if you ignore the motorway, but there's nowhere to just pop out and have a wander around other than a fishing lake (private property) and a conservation walk through fields. No shops beyond the one in the station, no pubs, no nowt. Useless if you've got the best part of an hour to kill, which we did.

Originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.
Our ticket was for the 1pm. Actually no, our ticket was for Tiverton Parkway to London Paddington, but our seat reservation was for the 1pm service, and the two were only valid with each other. That said we were planning on paying the tenner each to upgrade again -- having spent precisely no money in Bodmin or Perranporth apart from the provisions mentioned above -- so it didn't matter too much. What mattered most was the hugely crowded station, lack of anything much to do, and 50 minute wait 'til the next service.

That's what mattered to us. What mattered to the woman sitting near us was the fact that First Great Western hadn't held the train for her when it was obvious the bus would be late. Oh no! Hadn't they, and indeed everyone, realised who she was? Never mind that this is rail-based transport which doesn't exactly lend itself to having other services overtake the ones being held up. For fucks sake.

Ruth got the laptop out and did a bit of studying. I went off for a walk. The fishing lake was quite pretty, the graffiti in the tunnel under the motorway was interesting, but the wind was cold. Back to the station, bought a drink, train came along, got seats in First Class, etc etc. Another nondescript journey.

At Waterloo, on our ascent from the Bakerloo line, yet another very very important passenger thought it appropriate to use his suitcase as a means of carving out space in the crowd. Space behind him, mind, since he was pulling it on wheels. He and his luggage barged into Ruth and didn't even look round, let alone say sorry. I got fairly close to him and tried to shove my toe under a wheel to make it bounce and spin but just about missed. He carried on his way, ending up about 4 people ahead of us.

At the top of the escalator, he hurried a bit more, heading round the edge of the otherwise orderly mass of passengers, cutting in to a barrier a good 5 or 6 seconds earlier than he may otherwise have done. Then he put his ticket in the slot, the machine beeped, and up came Seek assistance. As is normal in London, he didn't seek any assistance, but just put the ticket straight back in. Thing is, he was next to a member of staff who was providing assistance anyway, and in this instance said employee took the ticket out and had a look at it. As we passed through the barrier next to him, we heard the words 'This ticket isn't valid on the underground, sir. You need to buy a ticket.'. Glorious. Fuck you, you fuck.

At home, my rehabilitation from Wednesday night was completed. I had a medium Domino's pizza, covered in grease and vaguely hot stuff (peppers etc). My stomach thanked me. I was glad to be back, in both senses.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In the bleak mid, err, spring

Well, come on, what else were they going to feed us?

My pasty was cheese and onion. I could instead have chosen steak, but cheese is the cheese. I was over the moon at having been fed the perfect "welcome to Cornwall" nosh. In fact, I figure eating a pasty counts as tourism. But I guess the main part of our tourism for the weekend started after the two girls got back from their Saturday jobs. Time for the beach!

I love English beaches, but not so much in hot and sunny weather. Yes, I'm a bit odd, but I find something really intriguing and attractive about a bleak and miserable seaside town with few souls out. An unseasonably shitty day in the middle of the school holidays doesn't count because there are still loads of people about, hiding from the weather and taking up all the space in the boozers/arcades/etc. That's bollocks. I've been on holiday to the Isle of Wight in November -- I like towns where it's hard to find accomodation because most of the B&Bs aren't operating, when the locals are in the majority and the wind and clouds give the sea a foreboding look.

Last Saturday was just like that. The weather was bloody awful. It was blowing a gale and freezing cold. Nonetheless the 8 of us headed to the beach, even taking a football, and walked up to the sea. We were at Perranporth, on the North Cornish coast, and it has a huge expansive beach -- especially so with the tide out. It also has a seawater swimming pool, similar to those I've seen in the beach suburbs of Sydney, only annexed to a big fuck off rock with the Cornish flag flying from it rather than a bit of a cliff as in Oz.

Christ it was windy. And cold. I could barely feel my hands as I was taking photos. Perhaps I should have been a bit more active, taken a few kicks of the ball, though that was soon given over to a couple of dogs anyway. While we were at the rock Jack had kicked the ball into the path of the mutts, who decided it was their favourite toy ever. Delivering it to their owner (rather than the ball's), they dropped it and waited for a hoof, purely so they could peg after it, play, and run back to start it again. Much like this.

Dogs are great like that. Every day's their favourite day ever and every game's the best game they've ever played. These two fucking loved that ball, so much so that the owner eventually bought the ball from Jack for whatever change he had in his pocket. Win!

Game over, and with the weather starting to piss me off let alone the teenagers, we all repaired to the pub. It's called The Watering Hole, and is directly on the beach. Not opening out to the beach but with a road behind or aside it, but entirely and fully on the beach. The only way to get to it is over the sand. Again, win. We picked our seats (there was a lot of choice, even for an 8-strong party) and got some drinks in. I had an Erdinger, my first alcohol since the stomach incident. By 'eck it were lovely -- so much so that I had a second while we ate. Kate and Simon treated us to dinner which was awesome of them. I picked fish and chips -- pollock, because they're concerned about cod stocks, apparently.

Actually, I'll dwell on this for a tiny bit. Can most people really tell the difference in taste between types of fish? I'm not going to include scampi or anchovy in this, but yer other common types: cod, haddock, plaice, pollock. They all taste pretty much the same to me. Am I strange?

Fish, chips, and beer over, we headed back across the by now dark beach and to the car. The journey back to Bodmin was filled with a cheerful conversation about Nazi race theories and eugenics. The young 'uns didn't join in too much with that one.

Back at the house and out came Scattergories. What a game that is! And how distressingly difficult I found it :-(

Monday, March 09, 2009

Go West

The weekend was on! Staying in on Friday evening and still eating plain food, albeit a proper meal (chicken and new potatoes) meant I woke up on Saturday feeling way better than most Saturdays, let alone the previous two days. I was still harbouring the psychological effects of having partaken poison pie, but the food -- and a bottle of Diet Coke -- having stayed down gave me enough confidence to venture out. A long way out, actually. We'd booked, several weeks previously, rail tickets to Bodmin in Cornwall, where one of Ruth's brothers lives; quite apart from a long overdue visit (although we'd seen him and a couple of the kids just before Christmas), it was another item on Ruth's "right, I'm off for a year" social calendar.

The journey out was pretty nondescript really. We left a bit earlier than TfL had told us to, changed onto the tube at Waterloo thinking we were pushed for time, only to arrive in Paddington with plenty to spare. Got out some sterlings, bought some caffeine, and plonked ourselves directly into First Class.

It's addictive, see. It's "only" a train, but we're used to high-falutin' means of transport now. More legitimately, it's only £10 per person to upgrade at the weekends and for 4hrs on the train we thought it was worth it (having spent the initial ticket money weeks ago). Given that being in First Class confers rights to free tea, coffee, Mini Cheddars, biscuits, and Diet Coke, we even got a bit of the spend back in scran. But best of all was the all important feeling of superiority and aloofness that travelling in a very-marginally better class of travel brings. Ahem. I spent most of it reading my book about death in the Grand Canyon anyway.
Shitty weather in Devon
Shitty weather in Devon

Quick aside: Ruth's playing PathWords on Facebook as I type this, and she just joyfully told me that it has accepted the word "shat". Awesome.

Ahem again. Anyway. The weather got progressively worse as we went, starting to really tip it down when we crossed the Tamar into Cornwall. I love crossing the Tamar, though I'd only done it a mere twice beforehand. Actually no, 4 times: by ferry at Torpoint and by train, one return trip each. Nonetheless it has a real feel to it, caused by the knowledge that you're transferring from one county to another and, westbound, to the edge of England. Most counties (IME at least) don't have such stark and obvious boundaries, fully formed by something in the geography.

It also helps that the crossings are ace. The ferry isn't a proper ferry, but is on a chain; and the bridge is a huge epic picturesque Isambard Kingdom Brunel piece of awesomeness. I just learnt that it's called the Royal Albert Bridge, having looked it up just so I can link to it. I thought it was the Tamar Bridge, which makes a bit more sense and sounds better, but it turns out that's the road bridge which runs parallel. Oh well.

At Bodmin we were met by Ruth's brother Simon, his wife Kate, and Jack, one of their four kids. Our lift to their house was via Kate's sister's house while Simon picked up the other son, Matthew, from his football game. The poor lad had just been on the wrong side, in the pissing rain, of an 8-1 defeat. Failsome. Onwards to Kate and Simon's via a quick guided tour of Bodmin, as soon as we arrived we were given food.


Fucking have that, son.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Casualty of British Pie Week

I type this while sitting at home with a headache, having eaten 4 slices of toast and a few crackers today. Yesterday all I had was a bowl of rice and 2 crackers. In fact, yesterday more food came out than went in. And it's (probably) all because of pie.

This week has been, and still is, British Pie Week. I love pie. Even the not-really-pie-IMO casserole-with-a-lid types, such as the first pie I had this week: Monday lunch, Porters in Covent Garden, a bedevilled chicken and mushroom "pie".

My second pie this week was Monday evening. I got home and Ruth had a pie in the oven. When I told her what I'd had for lunch she was a little panicky, wondering if I really would want a second pie that day. Apparently my reaction of shouting "FUCKING EPIC WIN" when she said pie was on the cards was not clear enough. Pfft.

On Tuesday I went for lunch in a pub local to the office with a colleague, and had pie. Game and mushroom this time. Still not proper. This had to change, so on Wednesday I bought a pork pie from the corner shop, plus a packet of "Apple Pie Cookies". They bore no relation to anything pie-like except in name.

Still on Wednesday, I went for (literally) a pint after work, and then home. Prior to having eaten -- in fact, I was unlikely to bother making owt for meself -- Ruth texted me asking if I wanted anything from the chippy. I ordered minced beef and onion pie with chips. It was awesome.

As it happens, the last time I remember throwing up I don't remember throwing up. That's because it was in my sleep. I was at uni, 1993/94. Way way WAY too much to drink one evening, followed by a garlic pizza bread, I woke up the following morning feeling surprisingly fine. Great, even. No signs of a hangover at all. But I also felt wet, and that's because I'd been sick all over the bed and my hair (this was during my ponytail-down-to-my-arse era) and just EURGH HORRIBLE NASTY. I put all the clothes, bedclothes, etc in a black sack ready to take to the laundrette, and had a shower. Walked to uni and ran into a couple of the people I'd been out with, who were both hungover to fuck and angry at how good I was feeling. Granted I could have fucking died, Bon Scott style, but hey.

Anyway, that's no longer the last time. The last time I threw up was yesterday morning. I woke up feeling hungover, which a single pint should never do. And then when I sat and stood up, my guts had a word with me and my head was pounding. Fuck that, I thought. Went and got a pint of squash and logged on to email in sick. Then the loo called. Back to the laptop, and then the bathroom again: that squash did not want to stay in my stomach. :-(

I still felt awful, so I had some more water. Half an hour later that came back out 'n all. So now I was in a bit of a state. I consider myself to have an iron constitution. I suffer from hangovers, but I pretty much never get dodgy stomachs or anything like that. I once went to India (albeit for only 50 hours or so) and had curry for 7 meals running without getting the shits. So this was a bit worrying and I was considering phoning my GP's surgery to get an appointment -- but before that I tried NHS Direct.

NHS Direct's self-help system is great, like the books I had as a kid where at the end of each page I had to choose what I wanted my character to do, and my decision determined the page I had to turn to next. And just like those books, when the first series of answers I gave came back with a large, bold GO TO A&E message I thought I'd start over and see if I could get a better answer. Mercifully the second attempt gave me some "it's safe to treat this yourself at home" advice that mostly involved drinking very little, eating fuck all, or very bland food, and getting some stuff from a pharmacist.

I went to the pharmacist, slowly, feeling wobbly, just generally not coping with feeling that bad at all. I bought 2 types of medicine, some tablets and some super-rehydrating soluble stuff. They told me to avoid milky stuff, avoid acidic and sugary stuff, in fact just to sip the soluble stuff and take a tablet after each time I went to the loo.

Got home, went to the kitchen ready to make a sachet up when the bathroom called, and that's when I properly threw up. God damn it that's one fucking rank experience. It having been so long I'd pretty much forgotten how it felt and was not that well prepared. Eurgh. After cleaning up I had a shower, made some Dioralyte, and sat on the sofa. That was pretty much it for the rest of the day. I had the laptop open and the TV on but neither were doing wonders for my headache. I dozed a lot. I supped water. I felt really ill. Gah.

In the evening Ruth made me a bowl of plain rice, which stayed down. Then I ate a couple of crackers, which did likewise. But my headache got worse, the paracetamol I took didn't seem to do much good, and Paris Hilton's British Best Friend came on TV so I went to bed. Didn't wake up properly 'til about 11 hours later, which is a huge amount of sleep for me. Didn't feel much better though. Well, I felt/feel less sick, but still dehydrated, a bit weak, and hungry but without much of an appetite. Worst of all my head still hurt.

It got a bit better this morning and, as I opened with, I felt well enough to try some toast at lunch time. Eating it seemed to make things worse -- thankfully not my guts, but my head for sure.

I wish I'd never had that beef and onion pie.