09 +00002015-03-30T09:02:28+00:0031 2012 § 4 Comments
I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.
The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.
If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)
However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!
And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).
So what’s not to like? Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…
09 +00002015-03-22T20:54:39+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
I’d like to celebrate this, the first weekend of spring, by offering homage to my local pub. It’s been there all winter (and, I guess, for several centuries of winters, as it’s a former inn on an old drovers’ road), a perennial stalwart, dispensing warmth, hospitality and good cheer on the coldest and most miserable of evenings. It boasts an open fire and its own generator, which means that when there’s a power cut or the water supply fizzles out (not infrequent events in this village) we and all our neighbours can rely on the pub to produce heart-warming soup and sustenance in our hour of need. There are no other buildings in the village except houses and a deconsecrated church – we don’t even have a shop – so the pub also does sterling service as a polling station for both local and general elections. Not surprisingly, this village always achieves a high turn-out. Most of us vote in the evening, which gives us a chance to catch up with each other and sample the beverages on offer at the same time.
Yesterday evening was light and clear. The trees across the valley had just begun to bud and were glowing with promise in the hazy sunshine of the early evening. The local sheep have now had their lambs, which were bleating softly. The towns across the valley were also tinged with the glow of the setting sun. As on many first days of spring, however, there was a fierce wind and some of winter’s chills still lingered in the air. My husband and I, out with the dog on his evening perambulation, decided to call in at the pub.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that all human life was there. A group of four beer-bellied blokes occupying a corner table hilariously trooped out together every half hour or so for a cigarette break, and then trooped back in. A large family, complete with granddad (who seemed to be footing the bill) had just finished an early supper. Also eating supper was a morose middle-aged couple who appeared not to be speaking to each other. A largish hen party came in, evidently consisting of the bride and her mates plus her mother and several of hers. She was wearing a sash proclaiming her a bride to be, a crown of tinsel and, somewhat incongruously, some red ‘Rudolph’ felt antlers left over from Christmas. A little later, an extremely thin, elderly woman arrived, the advance reconnoitring party for another group of ladies, these somewhat older. She left the pub briefly before returning to usher them all in, so it must have passed her selection criteria for acceptable hostelries. The usual old cronies were seated on high stools at the end of the bar, putting the world to rights. More young men braved the trestle tables outside, clearly finding the cold preferable to the prospect of losing seats inside whilst out for fag breaks. And there were several ‘casuals’ in for a swift pint before departing, all of whom stooped to stroke the dog. The landlord, a dog-lover, brought him a handful of chews.
And, of course, included in the number, a pair of wellie-wearing eccentrics with an amiable hound, all three a little miry around the edges.
City pubs have an aura of their own, a suave immaculateness inspired by fierce competition and, for the most part, a shifting clientele that harbours no sentiments of loyalty. There is something quite different, timeless as well as uplifting, about a country pub and its dynamic. Dressed in mediaeval clothes, the patrons of my local yesterday evening might have been encountered by Chaucer and his pilgrims, in an inn en route to Canterbury. And I’m sure they’d all have had a tale to tell…
09 +00002015-03-14T11:45:33+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments
09 +00002015-03-01T16:28:13+00:0031 2012 § 12 Comments
Last Saturday, I helped my husband to prepare his allotment, for sowing with a new cycle of plants and seeds. He needed some assistance, because during the long winter months the shelter that he and his partner-in-grime had built over it last year to foil the pigeons (it succeeded) had collapsed under the weight of an unexpectedly heavy fall of snow. Carefully, we untied some dozens of pieces of binder twine and rolled up long lengths of chicken wire to ready them for the grand rebuilding. Improved design, he says, will help to prevent the same happening again; we shall see!
Partly because they were pretty difficult to reach amongst the debris of broken timbers and chicken wire, and partly because we’d had some over-supply, leftovers of last year’s crop remained, a brassica graveyard. Eight or so stalks of blackening Brussels sprouts tilted in a broken rank towards the boundary fence, a row of wounded soldiers at their last gasp. Several misshapen kohl rabi poked from the earth like a giantess’s bunions.
Some heads of red cabbage, severed from their stalks, lay on the ground, broken and rotting, their outer layers turned into slimy winding sheets. Their lone companion, still growing, had grown a new rosette of small heads after the original cabbage had been cut, twisting itself into three dark petalled shapes, a macabre bouquet paying last respects at the funeral. Dried sticks of weed poked through the soil, which glistened unhealthily with a scattering of glossy green clumps of over-wintered willowherb and expanding whorls of nipplewort.
Overhead, the sun shone with real warmth. New purple buds were swelling on the tangle of hawthorn twigs in the gateway. The bees in the adjoining apiary were flying, great tits were two-toning in the hedge and a lone hare loped away over the meadow. Spring was on its way, but I don’t recollect having ever been so vividly aware of the round of decay that must precede renewal.
Oddly, I found it comforting: it was as it should be. And somehow it made me feel more philosophical about death. Each plant and creature has its time. Then comes the Grim Reaper. It is only seemly. And there is something wonderful about the soil which is both grave and nursery; now it is manured and turned, I am reminded of the beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘shining-shot furls’ of ploughed land, from which will spring new life.