Friday, September 21, 2012

Middle Britain - a Middle Aged Road Trip

                The starting point is Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire.  It takes place on a Saturday afternoon, before five.  Not bad.  We have a shifting schedule, two, three, four; and we are off, touring Middle Britain in a middle-aged car.

                That is one of the delights, a psychological comfort.  At fifty and ageing, the car will always be my senior; and I, by implication, will maintain a comparative youth.  There are other advantages as well.  I may lose my hair, grow lines where there was once a seamless face; but I will never need a bare-metal re-spray, nor will I continue to rust as part of my emerging character.

                The necessaries for addressing such rust are stored in the boot, rust-primer and wet and dry sandpaper.  We might have completed these before the drive, well-meaning plans and casually agreed preparations.  We did not, however, a product of Irish patience, or that version of patience that my family bequeathed to me.  We prefer the philosophical approach then, everything will be grand; and we complete only those jobs that are necessary, air, oil, water and petrol.

                We also fix the handbrake, a necessity of hill-parking, change the surprisingly bald tyre, I am not sure I trust that mechanic anymore; and make plans for the future.  We will do this and that we casually agree.  Then we memorise a few landmark towns for our anti-motorway route and we’re off.

                My wife, loyal and loving, offered useful advice as the prospect approached; the house in Sharnbrook is on a bend, the end of the High Street; and other cars, newer and faster, have a habit of speeding there.

                “Mind that gate,” she says.  I make a joke of this, thinking of the other four hundred miles.  Our first stop will be Chipping Norton.

                We travel through Odell and Harold.  The fields roll with gentle hills, an abundance of green beneath an autumn sun.  I struggle to train my pen to ignore the bumps and bends, whilst Peter, worryingly, talks of sliding ends and sports cars.  He has the first shift and he loves to drive.

                I love to drive too.  The car has been in the family for twelve years.  I bought it as a first significant investment shortly after I met my wife.  One of its charms is the roof, a sort of tent structure, a metal frame over which the soft-top is stretched.  We go topless today, exposed to approaching evening, high wisps of cloud and a cooling breeze.

                The landscape hasn’t changed by the time we reach Oxfordshire, heading for Banbury; though it’s colder, dimmer.  I begin to long for the stop, dressing into all my clothes to withstand the pleasure of open-top driving.  The talk is business, politics, and our uncertain direction.  We head to Middleton Stoney, Audley.  As one of the pleasures of British driving, Banbury has suddenly disappeared from the signs.

                Middleton Stoney passed; still no Banbury.  The clouds are gathering; and there’s an earthy smell of gathering rain.  The question is: how long will it take us to build the roof.

                Gloucester is a fine town, a trading point for the midlands.  Its pride, apart from the churches, might be allowed to the docks; these have been developed throughout the centuries, with a recent splendid showing in Victorian Britain.

                The docks are in the old town, as is the New Inn, a 14th Century building, boasting links to Shakespeare and Lady Jane Grey.  The architecture does not disappoint; there are lots of blackened oak beams, bowed, white-washed walls, and the best of the lot, a flag-stone courtyard.  This leads to several bars, secreted sections and a restaurant.  It is surrounded by a balcony.

                There the plaudits end.  I felt more like an inconvenience than a guest; and I was reminded of a Lincolnshire welcome my wife and I once had.  There we arrived, as old an inn as we could find, and were left to wait as off-stage our young hostess complained.

                “What do these people want, arriving at this hour?”

                We wanted to check in, it was 3.30 in the afternoon; and that is what I wanted last night as well, though it was nearly 9.

                As part-time intrepid, abandoning the spirit of Scott and Mr Livingston, we had turned to the tom-tom when we lost both Chipping Norton and Witney.  This careless act meant that we were late, though still Irish patient, as we circled through the pedestrian streets of Gloucester.

                These, I am sorry if we broke the law, led to the New Inn, a hotel without a car-park; and after a further diversion, finding one, we entered the courtyard to Gloucester best, Saturday night karaoke.

                Karaoke is not to my taste, old favourites blasted out with drunken occasionality; Sinatra, Queen and Bowie, hoisted from the same petard.  I also dislike being called mate, left waiting, or having a request for a 12 o’clock beer refused because they don’t have a night-porter.  It seemed to me that the duty-manager just wanted to have his own fun.

                Fair enough; and though we failed to live up to another Irish stereotype, the clear head that resulted is always appreciated in the morning.  We also had fun, as two brothers might; easing our way through conversations.  The politics and business seem most apt.

                My politics, when I still bothered to suffer from ideals, was somewhat to the left of Kropotkin.  I see anarchy as a statement of individuality; we wouldn’t need rules if people showed a little awareness of, and respect for each other.  I have long ceased to bore people with such speculations, however; and last night we were on business, or the death of it in many British towns.

                This seems incredible; too many towns have been emptied of purpose as business imagines a global economy and forgets communities.  The result is town-shells, a type that Gloucester shares, though it is not the finest example.  Bedford, bleak and decaying, is better.

                Quality is another itch.  I’ve already done the New Inn, so I’ll leave them to it; but it seems that too many businesses take satisfactory as their ambition.  We have a nation then where a good service means that it is not as bad as it might have been; and where efforts to do better are treated with cynicism.

                I was reminded of this as we ate an Indian, the Aroma.  Sadly, and I hope I am wrong, I cannot see the restaurant surviving.  The food is excellent, or as good as an Indian gets.  We were greeted with welcome and warmth; and the decor has an expensive feel.  I felt too attended to, however, my every pleasure desired; when what I really wanted was a quiet conversation and a slow meal.

                I wish them the very best nonetheless; and if they relax in their pursuit of perfection they might deliver it.

                Today is Buxton.  Intrepid once more, and avoiding the comfort of electronics, I jot the names of towns and roads onto a scrap of paper.  We will avoid the motorway, Hereford, Ross-on-Wye and Shrewsbury; and I write with a quality classic, a Waterman, that leaks globules of quality ink onto my fingers.

                This serves as a reminder that the past, however idyllic, only passed because it wasn’t perfect.  The present also has something to offer.  In Hereford this is difficult to see.  Its beauty is its history and its landscape; and we pass these, wizened with experience.  We are heading for Nat’s Kitchen.

                Nat’s Kitchen is a step up, I hope; it boasts fine food and period furniture.  It’s also twice the price.  The New Inn was £48 for the night.  What it says on the tin, though it might look for better; but once more I move on, casting off that hotel like the skin of a snake.

                At Ross-on-Wye, I boast that we are ahead of schedule.  We’re quickly lost, a victim of road-signs; and end up in a remote Malvern Hotel.  Very promising.  Peter loses his glasses and they arte returned with humour.

                “If these were Raybans you’d never get them back.”

                The accent is broad and slow, like the sky and the atmosphere.

                “We could stay here if we come back,” I say, though how we get here is another question.  We sit to cheese sandwiches and I ask directions to the A5.

                “I’m not sure.  Enjoy.”

                Buxton is a market town in Derbyshire.  With Roman roots its most recent development came in the late 19th Century, with the arrival of trains.  This change can be seen in the architecture.  The style and colour of the stone remains constant; but the older houses use stones of different sizes, and they bulge and bend.  The newer ones have processed blocks, straight and plain; they stand as sentinels of constance and endurance.

                We succumbed to the ton-tom to get the tom-tom to get there, wandering about the dales.  It is a beautiful countryside, expansive rolling hills; but the noted feature, distinguishing it from Staffordshire and Shropshire, is the arrival of stone walls in the fields.  These are military straight, making long, narrow fields.

                We stay in the Palace Hotel, 1870 I guess, tripling our previous expense.  At £75 per person it affords a comfortable, if decaying stay.  The breakfast is buffet, mostly fresh; and suited to a variety of tastes.

                Buxton was chose for the surprise of the journey, a visit from the third brother.  He beat us to it.  Whilst we were wandering backwards and forwards across the dales, he was checking into Nat’s Kitchen.  It was closed.  No fine food or period furniture.  This fate was shared with the Grove Hotel, his second choice; and so Vincent opted for the hotel with top-billing in the town, The Palace.  It is reminiscent of sea-side splendour, neon lights, a broad facade and conservatories of metal and glass.

                We ate Thai, fresh, friendly, healthy and cheap.  I like Thai food; it never sits too heavy, nor lingers too long.  Instead, like a fresh breeze, it stimulates.  The talk was of sport, business and politics.  Leeds lost again, Man United won; but that second United was floated, and the talk is that they bought a Chinese player to attract a Chinese audience.  Leeds would never succumb to such shameful commercialism; and so I take hope, suggesting that Man U start a table tennis team.  This put-down does not last; my team has lost and so the conversation passes on.

                The Eldest, the Man United supporter, talks of elders and the need for wise counsel in government.  Like Vince Cable as he should have been, Peter suggests.  I think of Socrates, offer a few digressing stories, but keep this digression to myself; and the meal ends.  It has been an example of good business practice; we got what we ordered with the bonus of good quality and a fair price.

                This was also the case in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn.  They serve the finest Cheshire cheese on brown, apple chutney for flavour; and the ceiling is low, the walls thick and the service friendly.  The inn is in Castleton; and as I leave I confirm that they do have accommodation; I would certainly return.

                Castleton is below Peverill Castle, worth a visit, though expensive.  The town is in the peak district; and it abounds in walkers, so it is clearly popular.  Though not one for formal rambling, I made it to the cubs, not the boy scouts; like the inn I would gladly stay, spend a week.  I even imagine swapping my holiday to Austria, Burg Oberanna.

                Then we’re off again, Matlock, Bakewell; and the roads soon crowd with cars, the towns grown larger.  We’re travelling to Stamford on the Lincolnshire border.  The route takes us towards Derby and on to Nottingham.  As we lose the signs for one and follow the other we are on Brian Clough Way.  I glance; it says M1, 16 miles, Nottingham 18 miles.  By the time we reach the M1, however, the distances have changed, stretched; and it is still 9 miles to Nottingham.  I wonder if this is a joke at Clough’s expense, a road that goes on and on.

                By Leicestershire the landscape has changed once more.  It is barren of houses, a lightly rolling flat.  These rolls become more pronounced by the A1; and then the sky lowers its bank of dark grey, and there is the threat of rain.

                 Stamford is an attractive and well-preserved town.  It has early medieval and anglo-saxon roots; but its key figure seems to have been a Lord Burghley, Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth 1.  It reminds me of Oxford, lanes, a river, sandstone buildings; but it is smaller and better maintained.  Of particular note are the shop-signs; Peter gets credit for this.  These have been toned down, blending in with their surroundings, rather than screaming their presence at the streets.

                It was disappointing then that we could find no quaint pubs.  What we did find served good local ales; yet the King’s Head, billed for its history, has gone open plan and pastel brown.  We enjoy our beer and move on, The Fleece.  There we enjoy another beer, and are distracted by the music and the big-screen tvs, one on either end.

                The conversation, having revolved around politics, takes on a more practical dimension.  The news is GCSEs, to be replaced by the EBACC.  The idea is welcomed by me, the promise of standardization and standards generally.  It is a concern for Peter, his son will be affected.

                I do not share this worry, Thomas is academic; and here is the problem with the EBACC.  Whilst we accept that some people are better at sports, crafts, music and self-presentation, we seem unwilling to accept that some people make excellent academics; others are less able or less interested.  We need then a horses for courses approach, one that challenges, extends and provides progression; not a system that seeks to squeeze all our young people through the same hole.

                Perhaps, we suggest, it is such squeezing and the corresponding inability to be squeezed, that contributes to the disaffection in evidence in many people.  If my self-knowledge is distorted by my continued failure, I am more likely to resent than contribute to my society.

                This disaffection is not in evidence in Stamford, however.  There the town is clean and proud; it deserves sentiments like ‘I’d love to live here’, or ‘I’d love to come back’.

                Such pride abounded on the face of a round, Italian chef as we detoured from the main drag in search of a restaurant.  Usually this attention would send me running; I prefer to browse and reflect, not be coerced into ‘eat and enjoy’ mode.

                The chef is so delighted and proud, however, that I relent; and we opt for his challenge, the best vegetarian pizza ever.

                What we get is good, very good even; and over a bottle of wine I eat slowly, proud of my find.  The only disadvantage is that we are alone; the restaurant is waiting to close.  I do not rush, I am the customer; but there is a hint of unease.

                Much greater disadvantages are to be found at The George.  It is a beautiful hotel, we should have stayed here, Peter says; and we have a third beer, fractionally more expensive than we have paid before.  Again we drink slowly.  The conversation is easy, the confidence of three days; and when the beer is gone a final night-cap.

                The price of this, Jamesons, is extortionate.  I sense that someone has secretly written mug on my forehead; but when I challenge, I have drunk Jameson in better hotels, I am told that it is hotel prices.  I’ll not return there.

                Extortionate also, or unjust, is the Candlesticks Hotel.  This is more expensive than the New Inn, £70 for a twin; but the room is smaller, the bar and restaurant are closed, and breakfast is to be found in the fridge.  We are to make it ourselves.

                We do not do so, Truly Scrumptious is worth a try; you get what is on the tin for a fair price.  Then we’re off again, we have visited the churches, guessing at their age from the shape and the stone.  We head for the A1, Higher Ferrer, Rushden and Sharnbrook.

                We have done no repairs on our travels, it didn’t suit; so in the hour before I leave for the train, I wet-sand the rust whilst Peter paints.  The car is looking more set up now.  We will do our drive again; maybe visit Stamford, if we can find a hotel.  We might possibly try Goodrich, and almost certainly head for Castleton.

                I head home making notes.  I have learned a lot about Britain, architecture, landscape, business and quality of service.  Next time my choices will be better informed.