travel

Steel Rails

I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains lately. A lot. Might-as-well-just-install-a-bed level time. And I can work on trains a bit, but it’s admittedly a touch difficult to concentrate when the four-year old in the seat behind you is playing some kind of piano simulator on a tablet at high volume, and their dad is catching up on the football on his phone at equally high volume. So mostly I look out of the window when I can.

(Don’t judge me: that particular journey started at 6.30am with 4 hours sleep, 3 changes and the joy of paying £3.50 for a cup of tea when I finally cracked and decided that if I didn’t have one Something Bad was likely to happen. I was a joy that morning.)

But – noise and, you know, humans, aside – I quite like trains. I like being able to watch the world slide past the windows; because it always feels like it’s the world passing by rather than you passing through. Maybe it’s something to do with the size and the shape of the windows, which make everything outside feel like a projection simply being wheeled past you. I always get the feeling that if you were to open the window and pick up the corner of the view, you’d find an old-style cinema projectionist back there, turning a handle and watching for the cigarette burns to mark the reel switch.

Trees. Forests. Fields. Hills. Rivers. Tunnels.

Houses, back gardens. Kitchen windows.

Someone, years ago – it might have been Billy Connolly, it might have been someone else – said in an interview that they loved taking the train: people shield their lives from the road with blinds or net curtains in the windows… but they don’t bother to hide it from the railway. And ever since then, I’ve looked.

Football goals. Paddling pools. Terraces festooned with bunting and fairy lights.

Sidings with elaborate swags of carved greenery, half-buried in renegade ivy and Japanese knotweed. So many blackberries on tangles of brambles that the leaves have turned purple from the juice. Butterflies dancing around a bush.

Mist and swathes of drifting drizzle. Slices of sunlight across the fields so thick you could pick them up in your fist and watch the light pour out between your fingers. Sheep: little clouds fallen to earth. Cows like… well, like cows, really.

People running. People walking dogs, riding horses. Children. Dads playing football with their kids; mums scooping babies out of pushchairs… and dads scooping babies out of pushchairs and mums playing football with their kids.

Life. Sunsets and sunrises and everything that falls between the two. Moons and mist and dusk and dawn. Houses and mountains, cities and forests and farms.

There for the blink of an eye and then gone. All those lives. All those individual little worlds within one big wide world.

All sliding by on the steel rails.

And when we get to my stop and I shuffle out, down along the platform, the train pulls out alongside me… and as it does, a man in the window of one of the carriages catches my eye. Because he’s doing the same thing: watching all those worlds slip by.

And then he’s gone. And so is the train.

What a thing.

Still. £3.50 for a cup of tea. Pffft.

Angels and Alligators

I had a holiday. An actual, honest-to-goodness holiday. It did, admittedly, only last five days and I managed to rack up several injuries while doing very little (including an ant bite and possibly the most ludicrous first-world wound ever: splinters of shells stuck in my finger and the tip of my thumb. Ouch, by the way) but it was a holiday.

I read books – not many, given the timeframe, but 2’s respectable: Dan Brown’s “Inferno” and Julia Wurz’s “SuperEgo” (the latter I enjoyed immensely; set in the world of F1, it’s a sort of Devil Wears Prada, but with wheels instead of heels. Marvellous.) and I went and looked at Stuff.

There was Mont St Michel (which I’ll save for another time, because I have SO many photos. Seriously. All the photos in the world. I don’t think there was a single stone of that place I didn’t point a camera at) which is one of my favourite places in the world. It’s extraordinary, looming up out of the water. Even when it’s packed with tourists (like me) which it inevitably is, it’s an incredible place.

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Like I say: ALL the photos… so, another time.

As well as Mont St Michel, I went to the Scriptorial in nearby Avranches – which is a museum dedicated to the medieval manuscripts made by the monks of Mont St Michel. The French Revolution had a not-dissimilar effect to the English Reformation when it came to medieval libraries, but the Scriptorial is a new purpose-built home for the collection.

Only a few of the books – and what books – are on display at any one time, but they’re regularly rotated to ensure their continued survival. There’s something magical about the “Tresor” room where they’re kept: it’s circular, with the cases set around the walls and one in the centre – and almost entirely dark to protect the books, which have their own lighting. It’s also surprisingly noisy: a side-effect of the temperature & humidity control systems for the display cases. I was lucky enough to get in there by myself: just me and a bunch of 800 year old books… (and the fans, obviously). I had a “moment”. I really did.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to both the history of Mont St Michel itself, and the development of the art of manuscripts. There was a huge amount of information on calligraphy, on the materials used and what went into the different inks… everything connected to the creation of a medieval book. It’s an excellent museum, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

Not a million miles away is Dol de Bretagne, with its cathedral and Mont Dol (where the Archangel Michael is said to have defeated the devil, leaving claw marks across the top of the hill. This whole region is very much Michael’s manor) and Medievalys. Another museum: this one dedicated to the construction of cathedrals, taking the one right next door as its reference point.

One of the best things about this place was its layout: it was designed to follow the “idea” of a cathedral from foundation (the architect’s studio on the lowest level) through to construction (an exhibition on the design and the actual craftsmen involved on the middle floors) through to the symbolism of cathedrals on the top floor, which had frankly terrifyingly detailed descriptions of how to read a stained glass window, and absolutely amazing projections of art onto raked sand. You kind of had to see it. Again, if you’re ever in the region – go. It’s beautifully thought out and put together.

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The cathedral of Dol de Bretagne itself is a massive, hulking thing: unusual in that it has a double well (one shaft outside the walls, and one inside, opening in the floor of one of the chapels). It also has a big, big chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael – as you might expect on his stomping ground.

And – just for a change – there was Alligator Bay. I have no idea why or how this ended up right at the foot of Mont St Michel, but there you go. It houses a lot of snakes and lizards (I discovered, climbing down a ladder between two glass cases of ENORMOUS snakes, that I’m not massively fond of them. Wish I’d known that at the top of the ladder…) and, yes, alligators. Lots of them. Including three albino alligators – of whom there are thought to be only 40 in the world. And who didn’t scare me anywhere near as much as the Mississippi alligators did.

 

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Very big, and not at all like this…

Not even slightly.

Which does kind of make you wonder: are they absolutely sure it was the devil Michael fought on that rock – and not just Louis here out for a stroll…?

Postcards from the Edge

My friend Will Hill went off on a big American road trip last year, and while this still leaves me gnawing my knuckles in envy, he’s written an amazing blog post on one part of his trip, over on his blog: his visit to (or as close to it as he could get!) Area 51.

So if you’ve ever wondered just what Dreamland really looks like, head over and have a read…

The Long/Short Weekend

I’m still jetlagged – although slightly less so. I may continue to use this as an excuse for general non-specific but recurrent crapness for the next few weeks: while people immediately nod sagely when you mention “jetlag”, they tend to look less kindly on you when you shrug and say you’re just flat-out incompetent.

I promised a slightly more interesting version of the weekend – so.

(more…)

The Rules

I’ve not been neglecting you, honest.

I’ve been in New York, on that birthday-trip I mentioned – and because I flew out very early Friday morning and back again very early this morning, I’ve worked out that in the last 24 hours alone, I’ve been to the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, taken a transatlantic flight and had a driving lesson.

I am also, by the way, grotesquely jetlagged.

Aaaaaghhhpffzzznghplft.

New York was wonderful. You’ll get the obligatory What I Did On My Holidays post and I’ll put a few pictures up once I’ve figured out how to get them off the newfangled camera thing (which will no doubt refuse to talk to my Macbook. Most things do), but in the meantime, here’s a couple of rules we discovered while we were out there:

1. There is no such thing as a bad pizza in New York.

2. If you pass a group of middle-aged men smoking on a street corner near a parking racket, and think, “Huh, they look just like wiseguys”, chances are they are wiseguys.

3. You do not need a clock to tell the time in the Meatpacking district. If the cabs are no longer honking each other, it’s 3.30am.

4. It’s apparently normal to find crowds of Santas, elves and assorted Christmas-types conga-ing from Fifth Avenue into Central Park. (Presumably this rule only goes for this time of year).

5. New Yorkers are fiercely, intensely proud of their city – in a way which we Londoners just can’t quite manage. And you know what? They have every right to be.

6. I am intensely predictable.

Now. Sleep.

Blessed, blessed sleep………

Cafe au Chat

c/o Gearfuse.com

Sometimes, I’m impressed by my inner self-editor. The temptation to call this post “Cat-purr-cino” (or something along those lines) was very nearly overwhelming. But it really is the most rubbish pun ever, isn’t it?

Anyway. I’ve only recently discovered the phenomenon of the Tokyo cat cafes, and I’m equal parts fascinated and bemused.

Yes, of course I can see the appeal of hanging out in a cafe full of cats, making a fuss of the residents–particularly in a city which is known for its hardworking attitude and often draconian tenancy agreements, both of which leave little time and space for pets.

But on the other hand, as someone who is regularly ignored, insulted and–occasionally–out & out manipulated by her very own feline, I’m not sure I’d want to pay for the experience of getting that special look that only a cat can give you. (It goes up, then down, then up again, followed by an expression that clearly means, “What?”, before the cat in question turns tail, stalks off and falls asleep on top of your laptop.)

Still, at least in these places there’s a variety of cats available to slight you. You know, just in case one doing it wasn’t quite enough….