Friday, November 16, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 10: Waterloo and New Brighton

[Originally posted on]

Yes, I'm back with a new installment of "longest and most boring trip report ever"!

Today we visit not Abba's Waterloo, or Napoleon's. The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" will not be visible from here.

This Waterloo is Liverpool's first beach town. I don't think it's ever been a proper resort, but it's the closest place to the city with a proper beach, just north of Bootle and Seaforth and the dock system, far enough out into the mouth of the Mersey that it has a sandy strand which appears to go on forever. The shoreline is lined with the sort of pastel Victorian row that is familiar to anyone who has visited an English seaside, though these are lined up a LONG ways from the sea. Inland, Waterloo is a pleasant middle-class village gone slightly to seed.

You get there on Merseyrail, passing under the slums of North Liverpool, past the docks, past the excitement of Bootle with its standard-issue Soviet-style sixties towers in the center.

We came to see the Gormleys. Antony Gormley installed his artwork "Another Place" here in July 2005, and since then the 100 iron figures, each one nearly 1,500 pounds, modeled on the sculptor and looking out to sea, have received over a million visitors, plus dogs. Plans by the local Sefton council to remove them last year were scuppered and the statues apparently will be staying.

They were worth the visit. Spread out over two miles of the broad, hard-packed sand, some up to their chest in the water, with the new turbines of the Burbo Bank Wind Farm in the distance, and the Seaforth Container Terminal to the south, they are beautiful. Evocative of emigration, perhaps, from what was once the Empire's biggest emigration port, and of man's relation to the sea, they
cast long shadows in the setting sun, and have a fantastic patina of rust. People respond to them in a way that modern sculpture rarely achieves. I loved them, and we stayed out here for hours.

I couldn't tell you where "Waterloo Beach" ends and "Crosby Beach" starts, if indeed there is any difference at all, but we're definitely down at the Waterloo end, close enough to see the control tower for the port. There's a popular beach park with miles of paved paths, a couple of lakes and scrub grass between the strand and the road, with dog walkers and joggers, and a slamming wind. The lakes are sporting signs warning that allowing the water within them to come into contact with your skin will cause you to dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West, or possibly just get an itch. But it's a lovely park.

Heading into the town, we went straight to the Volunteer Canteen, a small traditional pub. Despite the many and various glories of central Liverpool drinking establishments, this is my favorite pub in Merseyside and thus in Britain, and I was glad to see it again. It's nothing special as far as pubs go, which is precisely what makes it special. It's what you might call an "old man's pub", with NO MUSIC, pleasantly old-fashioned decor, and excellent beer. I could sit and read in the saloon bar all night if we didn't have places to go, while the public bar is a more boisterous room for people seeking loud cheery conversation.

We are here in Watlerloo this late for a reason. On the seedy but neighborly shopping street of St Johns Road lies a bit of a surprise for North Liverpool: one of the best Indian restaurants in the world. I don't know, maybe it's the best. The only one I've ever been in that comes close is Vij's, in Vancouver, BC.

Unlike almost all curry shops in Britain, this one is South Indian and Sri Lankan instead of Pakistani or Bangladeshi. That means Hindu, not Muslim, and instead of halal, they serve pork. And not just any pork; I had a Sri Lankan "black pork", which is cooked in spices roasted a dark coffee brown -- one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The lamb and chicken dishes going around our table were outstanding as well -- not just "spicy" as in hot, but delightfully aromatic and electric with bright, fresh flavors, not buried in an ocean of the usual glob (I say that as a great aficianado of glop). I can recommend the dhai bhalla dumplings and masala dosa starters as well; so much more interesting than the usual samosas. The prices are quite modest, too, for Britain. In a country where my US dollars turn a street kebab or curry takeaway into a meal costing more than a moderate sit-down restaurant in Seattle, this place was perhaps twice as much as that kebab, and considerably less than any number of mediocre "fancy" places in the center of Liverpool. It was comparable to most of the other Indian restaurants we visited in price, but the food was just outstanding.

I honestly doubt there's an Indian restaurant in London that can match it -- I KNOW there isn't one in New York. And it's tucked away in such a difficult-to-get-to place, a considerable walk from the rail station. Really, if I lived in England, even far from here, I'd be making special trips just for this, but then, I really love Indian food!

The owner or partner who greeted us, Neil Brown, turned out to have spent a great deal of time in an even harder-to-get-to part of our part of the world, Omak, Washington, in the Okanogan Valley, where he had something to do with something technical that I've forgotten. What a lovely, unexpected place this was!

On the way home we stopped at our friend's house in Seaforth -- a modest terraced house with a sweet garden out back -- and watched enough of the new Liverpool Football Channel on his giant TV to suit me for a lifetime. This was I believe their second day of broadcasting, and to fill the hours between replays of their thrilling 2005 European win they were already resorting to the sort of call-in chat show hosted by a fat fellow who once scored quite an impressive goal back in 1978 or some such thing, which was mostly entertaining for the accents of the callers. I can do a mediocre general Liverpool accent, based at least in half on John and Paul and George and Ringo, but our friend John's accent is softer and drawlier and has almost a Gaelic click to it -- great to listen to. I can't identify the variations but I can hear them. Liverpudlian is lovely speech most of the time.

The next day we went to New Brighton.

New Brighton is Liverpool's Blackpool, the closest place with all the traditional seaside amusements -- arcades, rides, rock, soft ice cream, sandy beaches, overflowing rubbish bins. It's very small, and very declined from its heyday, but to me that just makes it all the more attractive. It's at the very top of the Wirral, the San Francisco-shaped peninsula across the Mersey from the Liverpool mainland. We took the train to Birkenhead first.

We didn't see much of Birkenhead, but we wandered around the center a little bit. The fine Georgian terraces of Hamilton Square -- one of the nicest and most overlooked in the country -- were of less interest to us than the old industrial zone down towards the water, along Shore Road. The outstanding monument there is the huge Art Deco ventilation tower for the Queensway Tunnel under the river, by Herbert Rowse. There are a few nice old warehouse buildings as well. Most of the dock system has been disused so long that even the ghosts of the working port are gone; there's an odd submarine up on plinths, and some informational boards, but not that much to see, really. Maybe we missed the good bits.

Back on the train, we went up through Wallasey Village to New Brighton. On the main shopping street, Victoria Road, leading down the hill to the sea, we ate in a spectacularly grotty but very friendly cafe, with horrible carpet, mismatched furniture, and weeping windows. The sun was burning off the morning fog. I had a sandwich called a "dustbin lid", for its size, which was about as good as it sounds. It was big, I'll give it that credit; big as a dustbin lid, but drier. The street looked like it had seen better days, indeed it looked as though those better days were beyond the living memory of any of the inhabitants.

Down at the sea, though, things brightened up considerably. From what I had been told, I was expecting total dereliction, but the place was jammed with people, mostly families with small ones. There was a great deal of construction going on, as well, which surprised me; I don't know if City of Culture money gets this far out, but someone is paying to fix up the gazebo and the promenade. We walked out the causeway to old Fort Perch Rock, but the fort didn't look worth the admission. The view was great, though, and so was the buttery ice cream back on the prom.

Up from the fort is the amusement center, with all the usual suspects -- a bowling alley, an arcade, a row of seaside shops where I purchased a few packages of "Booze Flavoured Rock" for my more discriminating friends, and a funfair with rides. For all the horror stories and Martin Parr photographs of the place, showing morbidly obese people swimming in floating piles of discarded chips and cigarette butts, I didn't think it was bad at all. On a beautiful sunny day like this, with the shouts of children in my ears and a Cadbury's 99 Flake in my hand, and a rundown row of Art Deco classics to look at, I was as happy as could be. I wasn't much tempted by the water, though.

From New Brighton the Promenade runs several miles all the way down the coast of the Wirral back to the ferry, and that's what we did. By this time in our trip my feet were misbehaving, so my progress was slower than it could have been, which is probably a good thing. You get a miraculous view of the Liverpool skyline across the water, from the brooding presence of Salisbury Dock with its great gates and Stanley Dock behind, all the way to the Pier Head, the shifting angle as you walk down the prom always changing. The coast here is interesting too -- not just boring sand but rocks and pools and sealife.

South of New Brighton along the water, enjoying this tremendous view, the neighborhood quickly moves upscale; this appears to be some of the choicest real estate in Merseyside, with some grand houses along Magazine Promenade. Wallasey Town Hall is the most dramatic building here, but my favorite is, surprise, surprise, the Magazine Hotel -- a charming pub in an even more charming village setting, with white cottages clustered around curving streets, almost like the countryside. It WAS the countryside once, when these houses were first built, some in the 1600s. The pub's not that old, but it's old-fashioned, a warren of little snugs and rooms. The room we were in was marred by a hideous fruit machine the size of an industrial refrigerator, and smelled very faintly of carpet cleaner, but I didn't mind, and we had a fine pint and a view of the sea.

Of course, the pint of beer on a walking tour is always a mistake with me, and within seconds of setting out down the promenade again I had to pee. This is not a new or unusual sensation for me, so I carried on, but by the time we got to the jetty which is all that remains of the old Egremont ferry dock, I was forced to do something which will shock the conscience of all decent persons: I went into a pub and used their toilet without buying anything, while wife and friend waited outside. Fortunately, everyone in the packed house was watching the start of Man Utd v Chelsea, so I don't think anyone noticed.

Further down we went, to the ferry home, at Seacombe. One of the dubious joys of this famous ride, if you take one of the tourist boats like this one on the weekend, rather than the commuter boat during the work week, is that you get some of the same commentary we had before at the end of the Manchester Ship Canal cruise, extolling the wonders of the etc. etc. And at the end you are treated to Gerry and the Pacemakers' hit "Ferry, Cross the Mersey", which is a nice enough tune, but surely must have every ferry employee wanting to strangle Mr. Marsden after hearing it so many times. Or maybe they don't hear it at all anymore.

And that's pretty much it for Liverpool this trip.


[Note: I never got around to Belfast and Dublin; this is the end of it.]

Monday, October 29, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Interlude: Liverpool Odds and Ends

[Originally posted on, in reply to comments there.]

Funny you should mention it, Flanner, because we did all of those things, including the Huskisson memorial, which is an absurd monument, as it was designed to hold a statue of him inside, but that statue is now buried somewhere in the warehouse at the National Railway Museum in York, where you can see it on one of the racks. The memorial is now just an empty room you can see faintly through the iron bars meant to keep the scallies out (with mixed success).

You are also right about the cemetery -- it is the Gothest place imaginable. I'm surprised that it's not full of kids in white makeup, black eyeliner, and pineapple hair. It was in the eighties, when the black eyeliner was applied to my darling wife. We were able to recreate some of her gloomy photos in the tunnel (minus the extra-moody snow).

The arch in Chinatown, which is, like every other Chinatown arch I've ever seen, labeled "the largest Chinatown arch in the world", is entirely wrapped in plastic and scaffolding like Christo piece. It's being repaired. But the area is one of my favorite in Liverpool, one of the places that hasn't been restored to death yet.

Stupidly, we did not eat here, but in Lark Lane, a supposedly up-and-coming trendy area well to the south of the city center, near Sefton Park. I have to say that Manchester does "up-and-coming trendy" better than Liverpool if this is anything to go by. One decent pub (the Albert), sadly full of shouters, and a string of restaurants ranging from half-decent to abysmal, does not quite match up to Canal Street or the Northern Quarter. Maybe there aren't enough gays.

Our restaurant choice was, unforgiveably, The Worst Chinese Restaurant In The World, the kind of old-school place where you can get chips with your Chinese instead of rice, and where every plate has a gallon of sauce thick with corn starch. I haven't had a worse Chinese since I actually ordered food at the late, unlamented Jade Pagoda in Seattle, former holder of the WCRITW title.

Back in Chinatown, you definitely should see the huge Banksy graffito on the boarded-up Whitehouse pub on Berry Street. It's giant rat holding a pen (or rather, formerly holding a pen, the pen has been stolen by scallies), looking up in mid-apprehension after having marked a big red line all over the side of the building. Quite witty, and enough of a landmark now to maintain the abandoned building in its falling-down condition for quite some time -- the graffito is worth considerably more than the building is!

This brief interlude is not a proper Liverpool chapter, the next of which will be appearing shortly.

Not Grim Up North, Part 9: Liverpool, continued (Edward Hardman)

[Originally posted on]

Before we get out to the suburbs I have to mention an unheralded attraction in Liverpool. The home and studio of Liverpool photographer Edward Chambre Hardman has been opened by the National Trust, and it is absolutely fascinating.

Liverpool has the best, and best-preserved, Georgian terraces outside of London. The most famous of these streets is Rodney Street, which was laid out in the 1780s and built up between then and 1820. There are over 60 listed buildings in the street, which is known as Liverpool's Harley Street, for the number of doctors who practiced here.

Most of the fine three-story brick buildings have beautiful doors set in columns, with fan lights overhead, reminiscent of the famous Georgian squares of Dublin.

A few doors from the house William Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister in the latter part of the 19th century, was the house where Edward Hardman and his wife, Margaret, lived for forty years, until his death in 1988. The house is now owned by the National Trust, and is open to guided tours, starting every few hours from the back garden office.

What makes the Hardman house interesting not just to photographers but to anyone interested in British life in this century is the level of preservation. The Hardmans lived and worked here, and they quite literally never threw anything out.

After Margaret died in 1970, Edward declined over a number of years, and social services was on the point of putting him into a home and throwing everything away when another photographer and friend of the Hardmans, who recognized how special the collection was, successfully intervened and saved the contents.

When I say they never threw anything out, I mean NOT ANYTHING. When the house was restored, they were able to exactly match the paint and wall coverings because all of the correspondence and samples from the painters were there. In the kitchen cupboards were wartime-era cans of vegetables and fruits -- one exploded in a conservationist's hands as he removed it! Everything was there -- sauce bottles from before WWII, unopened fifty-year-old beer and liquor bottles, hundreds of empty egg cartons, thousands of magazines, millions of receipts and notes and scraps of junk mail. All of Margaret's clothes and hats and perfumes were there, untouched. The living quarters were filled to the ceiling with the detritus of forty years of living.

The Hardmans lived very simply, despite his position as Liverpool's top society photographer, and their very modest furniture and kitchen fittings today look exactly as they did in 1948 when they moved in. There are almost no concessions to modernity.

When the National Trust came in, every item in the house was photographed, cataloged, and removed so that the house could be cleaned, repaired, repainted and restored, and then it was all put back in, laid out as if the Hardmans had just stepped out. Their bicycles are in the hall, and his glasses are on the sideboard. As a museum of life and its artifacts from the 1950s, it is fantastic to see, even if you don't care about the pictures.

But the pictures are fantastic as well. There are a HUNDRED AND FORTY THOUSAND of them! The cataloging job, which has been going on since his death, is not yet complete, but it is one of the finest archives ever discovered. And to think it was all barely rescued from the landfill!

In addition to his portrait photography, which paid the bills, Hardman and his wife both were outstanding and prolific landscape photographers. Seeing them cycling around Lancashire with a large-format Graflex was a common occurrence, and they also went further afield in their car, to all parts of England, Scotland and Wales. His most famous pictures, though, are of Liverpool: the docks, the harbor, the city streets, showing the power and devastation of war, and then the long, slow decline of his once-great city. Perhaps his most famous image is "The Birth of the Ark Royal", showing a stark white navy ship being built at Cammell Laird shipyards in Birkenhead in the background, as a small boy trundles down the steep hillside of Holt Hill in front. You can see the picture here:, and a wider selection of his work at -- the site is difficult to navigate, but click on "Hardman's Work" on the left, and then dig down under "Find out More" on the right. Another famous picture, "Museum Steps" is at .

His entire business and personal operation was contained within the house. The portrait studio is still laid out with his cameras and his lighting setup, mostly homemade and rather dangerous-looking. The work darkroom, where an assistant developed the glass plates in a room next to, dare I say it, the bathtub under the coal scuttle -- yes, they kept their coal in the bath! Another darkroom upstairs was where the developed plates where made into prints, and where Hardman and his wife did their own personal work after hours. They appear to have spent almost their entire waking life pursuing this mixed career and hobby. This latter darkroom is still laid out with Mr. H's personal effects. Another room is the office, still filled to the brim with order books, wrapping paper, cartons of photographic paper and chemicals, and the usual detritus of the not-very-modern office. Anyone who has worked in an office before the computers took over the desks will no doubt gasp hundreds of time in recognition.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the house is the large and devoted staff. There's a separate person for each room, eight of them in total I think, and they are all (I think) volunteers, and most wear the blue badge of the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides, and on the day of our visit they were without exception impeccably knowledgable and pleasant.

I honestly can't think of any tourist site I've ever enjoyed more, and if you find yourself in Liverpool with a couple of hours to spare, go. Booking ahead is recommended, though we were able to get on a tour -- the only ones -- simply by turning up and booking for the next one starting in 20 minutes. The place is not crowded, but it should be.

Next: Waterloo and New Brighton (this time I promise)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 8: Liverpool, continued

[Originally posted on]

This is not really a good guide to Liverpool for first-time visitors, because we had already seen a lot of what the city has to offer in our previous visit. We didn't really see much of the famous dock system, for instance, and didn't go near Albert Dock.

I will briefly mention that the Liverpool dock system is one of the greatest engineering projects in the history of the world. Beginning with Old Dock in 1715 (the world's first enclosed dock, replacing the silted-up tidal "pool" that gave the city its name), Liverpool lined its entire Mersey waterfront with dozens of these stone, brick and iron behemoths, thousands of acres of them. London has nothing comparable to these miles of artificial basins.

Old Dock and many of the other earlier ones have long since been filled in, and few of the ones that are left serve any useful commercial purpose anymore. The site of Old Dock, like seemingly half the central city, is currently buried underneath the rubble of a massive construction project. The docks belong to an era of goods packed in sacks and crates and barrels, and swung off the small ships of the day with simple cranes, moved by men with barrows or strong backs, and hoisted into the massive warehouses at dockside.

Today, all the action is in containers, which are handled in terrific volume but with vastly reduced manpower at Royal Seaforth Dock, the most recent and most northerly in the system (to avoid the treacherous Mersey). There are also large terminals for oil, timber, and grain.

The greatest of the docks, the ones that express not just commercial intent but the explosive wave of Victorian power, were built in the mid-nineteenth century by Jesse Hartley, who belongs in the front rank of the world's engineering superstars. Albert Dock is his greatest achievement -- not merely the big hole with water in it, but the massive, gorgeous warehouses that ring it, with some of the finest columns erected outside of ancient Greece. It's all museums and hotel now, with much of its power buffed out, glassed in and emasculated, but you can still get a feeling of how booming a port this must have been.

Hartley's other work is nearly as good. From 1830 to 1859, he built Clarence Dock, Brunswick Dock, Waterloo Dock, Victoria Dock, Trafalgar Dock, Albert Dock, Canning Half-Tide Dock, Salisbury Dock, Collingwood Dock, Stanley Dock, Nelson Dock, Bramley Moore Dock, Wellington Dock, Wellington Half-Tide Dock, Sandon Dock, Huskisson Dock, and Canada Dock, as well as numerous dock buildings, mostly warehouses. My favorite parts are the incredible bulging seawall stairs that extend out over the Mersey at the Albert River Wall, visible from the ferry; if you look closely you can see how surprisingly graceful the massive stone blocks are.

If filled-in and glossily restored docks don't do it for you, the moody masterpiece that is Stanley Dock, to the north, which connects the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to the Mersey via Collingwood Dock and Salisbury Dock (with its massive gates), might satisfy. The bulk of the Tobacco Warehouse hangs over it, vast and unrestored. It is the largest brick warehouse in the world. When it was built in 1901, tobacco was shipped and stored in heavy barrels, which could not easily be stacked very high, so the ceilings are only two meters high, which makes renovating into apartments difficult. The luxury apartment hunter's loss is the urban archaeologist's gain, as the building is still redolent of its active past, not its sanitized retro future.

Another thing Liverpool is famous for is its great football teams. I'm a Tottenham fan, not a Reds man, but I can respect Liverpool's trophy case and the atmosphere of Anfield, and the famous Kop. Mrs. Fnarf got to know the place back when the terraces were still standing-only; I only know it from rather terrifying video, watching the mass of people swaying back and forth ten feet or more, all the while singing. She's made of tougher stuff than me, I guess.

The terraces are all seating now, thanks to the horror of Hillsborough, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death against the steel fences in Sheffield Wednesday's stadium of that name on April 15, 1989. Few fans of English football will ever forget the sight of the disaster, whether on live TV reports or pictures afterwards, or the memorials covered with notes and flowers and the scarves of hundreds of other football clubs, hated rivals Everton and Manchester United among them. On that day the whole world were Liverpool fans.

I had to see a match in person. Birmingham City were coming to Anfield during our stay. Tickets to Liverpool matches are hard to come by, even for Birmingham (forget Everton or Man U), thanks both to their scarcity and the impossible-to-comprehend (but classically Liverpudlian)
distribution system, involving randomly-awarded phone calls and dead-end internet lotteries. But there is a way. After dozens of comical spy-vs.spy emails of the "the bishop's scorpion has touched down in the park" variety between the head of the United States Liverpool Supporters Club, myself, and a few shady Irish contacts (Liverpool has a large Irish support contingent), arrangements were made. We met our contact in his hotel, handed over our cash, and bought our tickets, face value.

On match day, we were under the mistaken impression that the bus that goes past the stadium, Arriva Bus 26 (the Shield Road Circular) would be a timely option. We were failing to reckon that this is Liverpool, the city where nothing works. We reached a stop with more than two hours to spare, and then sat and watched as hundreds of other buses passed by. Just as we had given up and decided to grab a taxi, the 26 finally arrived. It was slow going, of course, because of the congestion near the stadium, but we wisely got off as soon as we got near and walked the rest of it.

Every pub was packed, with dozens standing outside each one, and hundreds of cans and glasses on the sidewalks. The streets were packed full. The terraces around the stadium are in appalling condition, many of them boarded up and ready for the wrecking ball. I wouldn't want to be here on a dark night with no game crowd -- it looked much grimmer than Toxteth -- but on a home Saturday it was a carnival. We bought a program and found our gate.

English stadiums are not like American ones: there's no free movement from section to section. At Safeco Field, you can walk entirely around the stadium with an excellent view of the field the whole way. Here, if you go in Gate N you stay in Gate N.

Our tickets were on the Anfield Road end, right behind the goal, but "obstructed view", in the very last row, row 35 under the upper deck, with our backs against the metal wall. With the overhang, and the 34 rows of fans in front of us jumping up every time something happened, it was like watching the match through a letter slot. But I was happy; we could stand without blocking anyone's view.

And another difference between American stadiums and English ones, Anfield at least, is that there is no running track; the seating comes right up nearly to the edge of the pitch; I believe that our 35th row was closer to the action than the very FIRST row at, say, Qwest Field, where the American football Seahawks (and sometimes soccer teams) play. If I had thought of anything witty to accuse the Birmingham keeper of, he would have heard me.

Or he would have, if even my foghorn voice could have penetrated the noise. As we took our seats they were singing "You'll Never Walk Alone", and it actually brought a lump to my throat to hear it booming out at such a volume. Later in the match, which was frankly a rather insipid one, it was quiet enough to hear the same song sung with the intended-to-be-cutting lyrics "You'll Never Work Again; Sign on, Si-ign on" (meaning the dole), which has by now lost most of the power it had back in the fearful unemployment days of the 1980s. But still, the
response of the Kop at the other end, and around me, was as tepid as the match.

(A couple of weeks later, after we were home in Seattle, my boys Tottenham visited this place and sang "Anfield is a library" when they were up 2-1, and it was that quiet. The Spurs singers were of course hushed themselves when the Reds equalized in the "Inevitable Spurs Death Zone", i.e. added time; don't get me started).

This game ended 0-0, both sides having one pulled back for offsides. A disappointing result for most of the people here.

But remember I'm not a Liverpool fan. Honestly, if I had to take sides in Liverpool I think I'd pick Everton, just to be ornery. Having said that, I'm sleeping in the storage shed outside tonight! I'm don't give a damn about Birmingham, but a single point for the home side didn't bother me. I was just happy to see the game. For entertainment value I give it a 10 (if I ever get to White Hart Lane before they knock it down I expect it will go to 11).

On the way home we stupidly got back on the bus and then stood stock still in traffic for two hours. When we finally made it back to the center, we had been beaten there by 20,000 walkers. But I did get to see a fellow, standing outside an Anfield pub, who filled my mod-loving heart with joy: a light-skinned black man, slight of build, in impeccable jeans, outstanding shoes, and a canary-yellow Fred Perry polo shirt, with a beautifully coordinated yellow sweater, and a crisp haircut that looked like he had it touched up every two hours. There wasn't a wrinkle or a pulled thread or sweater pill on him, let alone anything so gauche as a stain; he looked like an absolute god. I know, he was probably some sort of nasty bad criminal drug dealer or something, and I am not a gay man, but I appreciate a nice cut of clothes, and this dude was sharp enough to cut through steel.

On the Monday we attempted to take the circular bus the opposite direction. Stupidly, we thought that because the booklet at the bus information center showed a circular route, that that's what it would do. We should have known not to trust the info center, because info is the one thing that they seemed to be most reluctant to give out.

Route map, showing where all the buses go? Oh, no, they don't have anything like that; you have to ask the man at the window. There's a route map in some of the timetable booklets (but not all of them), but if you don't know which bus you want, you have to ask. And God help you if you don't know the precise name of the street you're trying to get to.

And if you want to know the fare, they can't help you; the bus companies are all private, you see, and there are seemingly dozens of them, and, well, we're just the INFO center. Do they make change on the bus? No idea, sorry. Apparently visitors should just carry several pounds' worth of 10p pieces and hope for the best. Or buy a Saveaway card, which is what we did.

The worrisome thing was, especially in light of the supposed influx of thousands of "City of Culture 2008" visitors coming next year, was the fact that the fellow at the desk was completely flummoxed by these arcane requests -- is there a map of where all the buses go, how much does
it cost -- as if he'd never even thought of it before.

Our trial was only beginning. The route map showed the bus going down Dale Street, so we headed to Dale Street. No bus, no bus sign. There were lots of other buses, and lots of other bus signs, but not for the 27. So we carried on down the route, following all the turns on the map, looking for a 27 sign. This quickly became impossible because of the construction. All of the streets in the center have been rerouted; one ways now go the opposite direction, two-ways are now one way, turns are prohibited, many of the streets are blocked off entirely.

Not only could we not find any 27 signs, we couldn't even follow the supposed route, or find our way back to any part of it.

We had picked up another pamphlet, from the thousands of useless ones on offer, most of which had cute pictures of ducks or glass buildings on them, and some very expensive-looking ad copy about how terrific a place to visit the Museum of Scuff Marks will be when it's finished. This pamphlet, entitled "Bus Service Disruptions", informed us that "whatever bus you intend on taking is going to follow mysterious and ever-changing detour routes instead which we have no intention of revealing to you, and will be picking up passengers solely at unmarked spots in the middle of the block and the middle of road, so it sucks being you, doesn't it?" It didn't mention the 27, but we knew it was meant for us.

After being blocked by the umpteenth closed off street, and by now miles from Dale Street, and finally being passed by a 27 which indeed picked up several wide ladies in raincoats and rain-bonnets with bags of shopping in the middle of the road two blocks away, we ended up all the way down at the magical Paradise Street Bus Interchange, where in the midst of dozens of unopening glass doors unattached to anything we finally found a sign saying "27".

And then miraculously, a bus! Which whizzed past us at speed, roared out of view around a corner, and came to a halt. The driver got out and lit a smoke; end of the line, mate, I'm on break; you should be standing over there. So we stood over there, behind another glass door not attached to anything, and marveled at how a major bus transfer point in a major city with hundreds of buses could be so devoid of people in the middle of the day.

There were people about, but they were all a hundred feet off the ground, in the dozens of steel building frames all around us.

But finally our bus came, and all was well again. You haven't been to Liverpool unless you've spend a certain amount of time walking around in circles wondering what the hell is going on. It's just part of life. If you had any sense you'd be in the pub, drinking Mild.

It's a bit like Mexico; if you get irritated at the way things don't move with the same pace and smoothness they do back home, you'll never be happy; you have to adjust to the pace and resignation of the natives. Once you do, you'll start to enjoy yourself. Don't get me wrong: Liverpool is a wonderful, wonderful city. But it's not exactly clockwork.

Next: Waterloo, Crosby and New Brighton

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Interlude: Preservation

[Originally posted on in response to some comments there.]

Most of Toxteth appears to be about to fall under the wrecking ball -- the rows we saw tended to have metal grates on all but a few windows. I can't say what it was like back in the bad old days, but frankly the boarded-up streets are really creepy and dangerous-looking.

I believe firmly that most of this housing, if fixed up (at much less cost than demolishing and building shoddy new stuff) would be attractive and gentrifiable. The new stuff they are building in its place is for the most part horrible.

Not as bad as the grim towers they built in the sixties in places like Everton, which are also coming down, but the new stuff just looks bad. Worse than the new stuff here, which is saying something.

I know I'm not an expert, and the argument rages on between the preservationists and the "modern-standardists", and both sides have their points, but I'm firmly with the former. I've seen what those rows can be made to look like with some TLC. Of course, some are too far gone; the brick is crumbling. And Toxteth has a long way to go before it's a desireable neighborhood in estate-agent terms. But it's really close to the center.

PatrickLondon, I think you will find that I have already mentioned the Preston Bus Station above, and Mrs. Fnarf is probably even sorrier than I am that we weren't able to fit it in. We were talking with a native Prestonian who was rather taken aback that someone from as far away as we were had ever heard of the thing. It's been deeply unloved for most of its lifetime; I hope they recognize its increased appreciation in time.

I hadn't known about that fantastic Roundabouts of Great Britain website, thank you! I think a lovely "Roundabouts of Grimsby" or "Gateshead Car Park" calendar sounds like just the thing for my office cubicle.

Caroline, Scotland is for a future trip. We've been to Glasgow for a minute, and several days on the Cowal peninsula, but haven't really seen the country at all. We will!

Audere (I know it's you), it's no grimmer than parts of East or South London were not that long ago. Really, I think you'd enjoy some of these pubs!

Not Grim Up North, Part 7: Liverpool

[Originally posted on]

The train to Liverpool from York passes through some of the earliest and most dramatic railway works anywhere: the Edge Hill cutting. The cutting has been widened, so the marks on the high sandstone walls are not for the most part the 1830 originals, and much of the way has been covered over and turned into a tunnel under the city, but it's still a glorious entry into the city.

The original terminus, Crown Street, as well as the fantastic Moorish arches of the original Edge Hill station (not the current one of that name) have both been closed for decades (Crown Street was closed to passenger traffic in 1836), and unfortunately little remains, and even less is accessible to the public. For a fascinating look at the history (and what is left) of the original Edge Hill tunnels, see the Subterranean Britannica site at .

Liverpool Lime Street is one of the great train stations in the world. It's not on the way to anything; Liverpool is a terminus, so it's not as visited as some of the main line stations, but its magnificent iron and glass roof, built in 1867, is still breathtaking.

Outside the station, what's breathtaking is the number of construction cranes and torn-up sites. Liverpool is the European Union's "Capital of Culture 2008", and a couple of months prior someone noticed, "hey, we'd better get started on this, here's a billion pounds".

My interest is of course not in the new towers that are going up but in the old ones that are coming down. Among the unstarted plans is a whole new front for Lime Street Station, demolishing what is admittedly one of the ugliest facades west of Omsk (but including one of the few remaining charming old bookshops in Britain, which has been asked to vamoose). Next to it is Concourse Tower, one of the iconic "bad sixties buildings", so hated by the experts today, so badly missed by the experts of twenty years from now. Or so I believe; I love these buildings, with their concrete, their aluminum windows, their colored panels. It's as good as Manchester House in Manchester, just not as well kept up. Not kept up at all, actually; it looks like it's going to fall down at any minute.

As connoisseurs of gridlike sixties buildings, we have chosen to stay in the Holiday Inn, right across the street from the station, in the much-reviled St. Johns Shopping Centre. There's talk of tearing it down, but we wanted to see it. This is Liverpool, so there were the usual problems -- this supposedly fancy hotel had a bathroom door that didn't come close to fitting in its frame, a toilet seat the wrong size and shape for the bowl, and a broken toilet paper roll. Instead of one of those big padded vinyl books detailing all the wonderful services the hotel offers, like you get in most places, they have an impossible-to-navigate menu system from 1981 on the TV.

But you know, I don't care. The room is clean, the hotel is central, the view over the roof of the car park is great, and the view from the bar across Liverpool's great Victorian sweep of monumental buildings is even better. And one of the advantages of a city where nothing works as it should is the occasional double Scotch that never makes it onto the final bill. The free wireless in the bar was nice, too -- shame they don't tell you about it! We had to ask, after seeing another computer user.

This report, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, is not like most. I'm not like most travelers. Those monumental buildings I mentioned are nice, but I really don't care; and those things that don't fit or don't work, well, I don't care about them either. The people in the Holiday Inn were great, and actually seemed to carry over a little of the famous Liverpool joie de vivre into their work life, which in this city is unheard of. We enjoyed it very much.

We've also been here before -- Mrs. Fnarf went to university here in the mid-eighties, and we have the best of local guides: John, who knows everything there is to know about Liverpool's most important institutions, her pubs.

Liverpool has the greatest pubs in the world. I haven't been everywhere, but I can't imagine that this statement is untrue. Possibly the single best pub in the world isn't here, but half of the top 100 are. Nowhere in Britain has the density of educated drinkers as this city. And some of the pubs are magnificent works of art.

The beer's pretty good too.

My personal favorite British ale is Cain's Mild. Mild is a style of beer with more malt and less bitter hop flavor, and lower alcohol content. It's similar to porter or stout, but not as dense; many mild drinkers will drink Guinness if no mild is available. You won't find mild in London or the south, or even in most places outside of Lancashire. Its closest cousin elsewhere is Newcastle Brown Ale (newkie broon), but nothing beats the real stuff from a cask right in the brewery. And the Brewery Tap, in the red-brick castle of the Cain's Brewery, is only the fifteenth-best pub in the center city!

Liverpool is an Irish city, and their Guinness is the best outside of Ireland. We had a fantastic pint in Ma Boyle's Oyster Bar in Tower Gardens by the Pier Head, and another in the Lion Tavern in Moorfields. Thomas Rigby's on Dale Street has great beer and surprisingly excellent food (especially after Blackpool). Even southern beer tastes better in the north; a pint of Shepherds Neame Spitfire, from Kent, is a wonderful thing. So is Old Speckled Hen, from Morland Brewery in Suffolk. Brains in Wales makes a lovely thing called Bread of Heaven. But really, I think the center of the ale universe is Yorkshire; in addition to John Smiths and Samuel Smiths, already mentioned, the Black Sheep bitter is a wonderful drink.

Also on Dale Street is the Ship and Mitre, which though less than charming in decor is possibly the country's top real ale Mecca. The Roscoe Head. The White Star. The Poste House. The adorable Hole in ye Wall. The Grapes, in Mathews Street. The Globe in Cases Street, with its famous sloping floor. Ye Cracke off of Hope Street. The Baltic Fleet, down by the docks. The list goes on and on.

Most famous are the Vines and the Philharmonic, pinnacles of the Victorian beer-palace achievement. Unfortunately the beer doesn't quite live up to the insanely ornate interior, which can only be topped by the Philharmonic, where even the gent's toilets are spectacular. These are probably the two loveliest pub interiors in Britain, and should not be missed. Shame about the piped-in music, and the beer, though.

I could go on at length about these wonderful pubs -- oh wait, I already have. Well, there will be more later.

You will no doubt have noticed that I have not even mentioned Liverpool's most famous product. One thing that my native country doesn't understand anymore is pop music; we've made a lot of it, that's pretty good, but we don't respect it; we think it's shabby and shallow and made for teenage girls. But one of the things I've learned since I was a teenage boy is that the teenage girls were RIGHT. And they were listening to great pop music while I and my fellow hopeless males were rotting our brains with horrible prog nonsense, noodley guitar solos and so on. And one thing Liverpool has always gotten right is pop music. I don't know what it is; most people say it's the Irish influence. But Liverpool has always known how to sing. And of course, the greatest pop music phenomenon of all came from here.

I am referring, of course, to Ian Broudie.

Oh, you thought I was going to say "Rory Storm and the Hurricanes", didn't you! Sadly, most people don't know who Ian Broudie is, but he was great stuff back in the eighties. He produced all kinds of records, including Echo and the Bunnymen and the Icicle Works, and his own band, The Lightning Seeds, had some sweet synthy hits late in that decade. Seriously, check out Cloudcuckooland, it's brilliant. And completely Liverpool, in that it's tough and hard but sounds almost impossibly sweet and lovely, with gorgeous melodies. Remember "There She Goes", by the La's? They were from Liverpool too.

Apparently there were some big groups from Liverpool back in the sixties. The biggest of them all was The Rutles. Gerry and the Pacemakers were pretty big for a while, too, and you can still hear their big hit "Ferry, Cross the Mersey" playing through the loudspeakers on the ferry across the Mersey, which must drive the commuters bonkers. Gerry and the lads also did a stirring version of "You'll Never Walk Alone", about which more later. The best book about Merseyside music, beyond the obvious, is Paul du Noyer's Liverpool, Wondrous Place: Music From Cavern to Cream.

The Cavern is of course a reference to the famous underground (literally) venue in Mathew Street where Brian Epstein first saw the Beatles play. We didn't spend much time following the Beatles' trail this time, but if you go, you really should visit the National Trust tour of Paul's and John's childhood homes. They are incredibly evocative for anyone who grew up to the sound of the songs written in these rooms. Paul's house, while filled with unoriginal furniture and fittings, is of interest even to people who couldn't care less about the Beatles; it's the best example of a 1950s council house in existence.

We did walk down through Toxteth to see Ringo's birthplace, in Madryn Street. The "Welsh streets" are slated for demolition, and Ringo's house -- he was born here, the only Beatle not born in a hospital -- at number 9 is one of only two occupied houses in the entire street. The rest are boarded up, or rather metalled up, with vandal-proof grating and a myriad of warning notices. It's rather sad. Across the street, in Admiral Grove where Ringo grew up, is the Empress, the pub featured on the cover of Ringo's great first solo album, Sentimental Journey, which is all popular songs of the 1940s recorded for his mum. Rather more enjoyable than John and Yoko's Two Virgins, or George's dire Electronic Sound albums of the same time period! Ringo was the coolest Beatle, you know. I will brook no argument on that one.

Toxteth is impoverished and half-demolished, and probably not the safest neighborhood in the world. They famously rioted in 1981. But I enjoyed seeing the long rows of very plain terraces. Toxteth has a rich history and a great texture of life; if you want to see more, visit, an exhaustive street-by-street look at then and now, with many beautiful photographs.

For the benefit of more conventional travelers, who wouldn't dream of setting foot in a slum like Toxteth, I'll mention Liverpool's Victorian centerpiece. In the middle is St. George's Hall, next to the train station, which most Liverpudlians seem to erroneously "Great George's Hall" (there is a Great George Street, but not close to here). This is an immense neoclassical pile built in 1854. It was so huge, so grand, so magnificent, that it set off a round of town-hall building across England in all the jealous other cities (Liverpool's own Town Hall is a much earlier, and lovelier, building in Castle Street). St. George's Hall has a spectacular central hall, with an amazing tile floor (unfortunately kept covered while we were there). My wife saw Echo and the Bunnymen play there in 1984, which must have been something. It's one of the greatest buildings in Britain; not to my taste, but even I can recognize that it's something special.

Surrounding St. George's Hall is a curving row of cultural buildings on William Brown Street: the William Brown Museum and Library, the Picton Reading Room, the Walker Art Museum, and the County Sessions House. Together this is the finest row of Victorian institutions in the country; not even London has a grouping to compare. The Walker is probably the best traditional art museum outside London, with old masters and many, many British paintings up to the modern period, including an outstanding collection of the pre-Raphaelites. I'm very partial to modern (not contemporary) British painting, and they have many fine examples, including masterworks by LS Lowry, Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, and David Hockney. To be honest, we were in here just to get out of a diluvian downpour, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Next: Liverpool, Part Deux

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Interlude: Drinking Seawater

[Originally posted on, in answer to a question there.]

Yes, they really did drink the seawater.

My chronology is a bit off; it's closer to 400 years, since 1626, when a Mrs. Farrow started advertising her mineral spring on the beach to the fashionable set. It was a bit later that a Dr. Whittie from Hull got the idea to advertise the SEA water as well as the spa water. For drinking. As a cleansing tonic to, uh, empty out the system.

He also advertised sea swimming, probably the first time where members of the public did this in an organized fashion, not monks mortifying their flesh. People used to think that getting wet was the worst thing that could happen to you.

By the end of the 1600s Scarborough was a full-fledged resort. According to John Grundy in Northern Pride, "for the first 100 years or so, through the 18th century, it seems to have gone on in the nude".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 6: Scarborough

[Originally posted on]

I was crestfallen to find no parsley, no sage, no rosemary or thyme in this
seaside town, on the opposite side of England from Blackpool (in more ways than

However, I picked my crest up and soldiered on. This was just a day trip; I
know we didn't do York justice, or Scarborough, but I'm a ramblin' man. Actually
I think it was Nancy's idea to come here; I was plumping for Whitby, but it was
too far on the train.

Scarborough has a perfectly pleasant market street running down the center, as
do so many English cities. Is Scarborough a city? The word doesn't have any
official meaning in the United States, but here it does. Town, city, it doesn't
matter; they still have a High Street, with a Debenhams and a Bhs and a M & S
(who mysteriously seem to have dropped the arks and the pencer from their name),
instead of the huge gaping maw of Wal-Mart in 100,000 square feet out on the

I stopped in a quite good bookstore in the pedestrian center and loaded up my
day bag with heavy books. It's important to get this done early in the day, in
preparation for a long day trudging up and down cliffs. I was able to pick up
several interesting volumes of photographs of the coal mines of Yorkshire, which
will help with my wife's chronic insomnia.

We then headed towards the sea. The center of Scarborough is at the top of a
high cliff over the sea. The prospect at the top is stunning: the broad ocean,
the curving beach, the boats bobbing in the adorable inner harbor, the pretty
buildings along the promenade, the beautiful manicured gardens leading down the
face of the cliff, and the looming, preposterous hulk of the Grand Hotel,
perhaps the Victorian era's most impressive decorated cake, sitting at the top.

There's some sort of tram running down that the guidebook recommends, but we
walked down through the gardens, at each step getting closer to the seaside
action, which just got prettier as we went. What a chocolate box! Scarborough is
Great Britain's oldest seaside resort. 250 years ago, the gentry came here not
to swim in the water but to drink it. Supposed to be good for the digestion or
something. I've swallowed enough mouthfuls by accident in other oceans to know I
didn't want to here, but the beach was very tempting.

The tourist shops and restaurants along the front aren't necessarily better
quality than Blackpool's; it must be the people. We didn't see the trackies or
the "ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack" that you get on the other
coast. Don't get me wrong; I loved Blackpool. But Scarborough is just nicer.

We went straight to the chrome and formica glory that is Alonzi's Harbour Bar.
It was closed. They have an unfortunate newish sign that might have been
designed with a computer, but inside it's the original 1950s apotheosis of the
milk bar. We couldn't sit inside, but we were happy to discover that the
streetside window was open.

I had a vanilla cone. I'm not ashamed to admit it; I love vanilla ice cream. Someday if you are very unlucky you will get to hear my drunken rant on the way computer and telephony people (and sex radicals) use the word "vanilla" to mean "plain", "boring", "featureless". Vanilla isn't plain; it's a flavor, the best and most penetrating flavor (aside from chili peppers, which you probably don't want in your ice cream).

But I have to say this: your soft ice cream (as opposed to the hard stuff) in England is different. It's much less sweet. It tastes like, um, how can I put this without giving offense? It tastes like our whipped cream. A bit...buttery.
I'm sure there are lots of English people who have traveled in the US and had the reciprocal shock at our version. It's not bad; I grew to like it. It's just different.

We ate fish and chips (before the ice cream; we're not total philistines) upstairs at The Fish Pan. I can't verify whether it was fried in drippings in the traditional Yorkshire way, but it was delicious. And the view was spectacular. Apparently The Fish Pan is former Top of the Pops presenter Jimmy Savile's favorite --

Hang on. Jimmy Savile is a KNIGHT? Not just an OBE -- JIMMY SAVILE is a KNIGHT?

I will never fully understand the British.

Scarborough's harbor is so picturesque, and out in front is that British icon, the cluster of pensioners frowning in various attitudes in their nylon jackets on the concrete benches, reading the paper, going nowhere in particular. Don't think I'm making fun; I just like seeing them there, like pigeons, enjoying the last of the summer sun.

We walked around the headland to the North Bay. Scarborough is a funny kind of peninsula, carved out between two bays, with little besides a narrow road and a promenade between the castle ruins atop the knob in the middle and the sea. The views to the north are spectacular.

At North Bay we found a road leading up the cliffside, and walked up it past that other British icon, the pensioners sitting reading the paper in their car, parked on the side of the road by the sea. Brits sure like their newspapers; I might too, if mine featured the same pulchritudinous photography.

At the top of the hill, we walked a few of Scarborough's back streets, full of peeling Victorian terrace houses in various states of repair. Gentrification hasn't struck here yet, but there are enough building vans and ladders around to suggest that it's about to.

We passed by St. Mary's Church, site of Anne Brontë's grave. Anne, writing under the name "Acton Bell", was the prettiest but least-celebrated of the Brontë sisters. Not being a Romantic, I was not moved to slash at my wrists and perish under the light of the full moon; but if you were a Goth you couldn't find a better place for it, with the leaning tombstones and the sweeping view down to the harbor.

At Scarborough Castle we decided to spend the money and be tourists for a change. First stop, the gift shop, where I loaded up on toy catapults and cartoon Viking figurines for the cow-orkers back home. Just as I was settling in for a good two or three hour souvenir hunt, Nancy dragged me away and towards the ruins.

If you're considering a visit to Scarborough Castle, your best bet is to consult a guidebook, not me. I can say that they are very old, very ruined, and very beautifully situated up on the high bluff. The ancient stones and acres of green grass seem to disappear into the sea at the edge. The original castle keep is perhaps a bit too well preserved -- the spotlessly clean stones seem to have been stripped of their story, transferred to the readerboards. The wall is quite interesting, and the well is very, very deep -- I admit it, I dropped a coin, and heard it ruffle some vegetation a couple of seconds later, and plonk in water a couple of seconds after that. I hope that offense doesn't interfere with my visa next time I visit. We also enjoyed the tea shop.

While we were finishing our tea, the wind was rising and the sun was getting low. We had a train to catch. We hustled through the town, past the old deco theater and some rough-looking pubs, and made it, barely, and rode back to York.

[The first draft of this was better, dang it! Bizarrely, while it doesn't show up when viewing the thread, a brief portion of it does when you click "reply to this thread".]

Next: Liverpool

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Interlude: Closing Time

[Originally posted on]

Chris, you are right on one thing: shops shutting at the dot of five-thirty, with a dozen people inside and six more headed their way with a fistful of ten pound notes, is extremely perplexing. And annoying. As is the experience, on a balmy summer's evening, of standing in a major shopping precinct in broad daylight still, and seeing nothing but metal shutters where the shops you were hoping to spend money in were just moments before.

Ah, well, at least the pubs are open.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 5: York

[Originally posted on]

We said goodbye to Blackpool North Station, a charming edifice described by Stuart Maconie as looking "less like a railway station than a decontamination plant" or like "a disused naval base in the Bering Straits", in the usual way: queuing with drunks.

The shaven-headed boy in line ahead of me at the newsagents, where I was buying my usual armload of newspapers and he was buying two more cans of Carling Super to supplement the two that were bulging out of his trackie pockets and the two that were already inside his belly (at ten AM), turned to me and asked "nyaaah girt burn aragh tomma chimma daht nyahh wyet geh lee gah an? (hic)" Sorry? I have to say, Liverpudlian is a piece of cake, Mancunian is rough but understandable, Yorkshire is easy, just really really broad, but Lancashire is completely unintelligible to me. I had him repeat it three times and finally had to beg off with "I'm sorry, I'm an American, I don't understand". He finally just pointed at the line and said "the train". I don't know if that meant "that's a train over there" or "what time does it leave?" or "if you get on that train I'm going to disembowel you and fry your gizzards in a pan" or "doesn't that queue seem awfully long for a Sunday, old bean?" "Yes" I replied.

The woman at the counter was just as difficult to understand, but I did make out both a "love" and a "pet", and the amount I owed was displayed on a screen, so I knew I could handle the situation.

One of my newspapers was the heretofore unseen "Non League Football", which I was very excited to read, but somehow lost in the cramped quarters on board and never saw again. It's a shame, because I was getting tired of reading about Chelsea and Manchester United every day and looking forward to some news from Bedlington Terriers and Shepshed Dynamo for a change. Not to be.

The train was packed to the windows. My wife and I both got a seat, but far from each other, and the entire length of the aisle was packed full. Two carriages home from a holiday site on a summer Sunday? Oh dear. I was on the window, and miraculously didn't have to get up to pee once on the way to York.

Out the window of a train was Lancashire: the mostly hidden flats of the Fylde, followed by backdoor views of Preston and Blackburn. The excitement built within me as we approached the Pennines; if you want an idea of just how sad and dweeby an anorak I am, I was hugely sorry I could not stop and take in the majesty of the Preston Bus Station, a concrete neo-brutalist landmark from 1969 threatened with demolition. Blackburn is lovelier, with glimpses of some fine mills and terraces. I did not see any of the famous holes. Someday I hope to return and make this journey more slowly, along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

After Blackburn the charming town of Accrington, and more fine industrial glimpses, the landscape is changing. Burney is our last stop in Lancashire, and Hebden Bridge our first in Yorkshire. The stone-walled fields climbing up the convoluted hills of the Pennines are beautiful. Really, whipping through this country on a train is unfair to it, but we've booked a city trip this time. Unfortunately Leeds did not make the final cut, and the brief flashes we catch from the train window tell us nothing about this great city. We will return, hopefully by the time Leeds United return to the Premiership!

York Station is one of the prettiest in the world. When it was built in 1877 it was the world's largest, somewhat out of proportion to the importance of York as a city these days. From the outside, it's nice enough, somewhat confusing, and rather typical station architecture; but inside, on the platform where you arrive, you see one of the most remarkable curved platform train sheds in the world. This building is not like a cathedral; it is a cathedral of industrial might and the majesty of motive power.

York is very different than Blackpool, that's for sure! Our cabbie clued us in, with his wrinkled-nose incomprehension at our having come from there. You could see the difference immediately: no garbage in the streets! No boarded-up buildings! No half-naked drunks falling into the road! Just neat streets and well-kept, reserved Georgian fronts.

Our hotel was in the Bootham area, a mixed Georgian and Victorian area just north of Bootham Bar. Our hotel was lovely, and our room was enormous, and featured the longest bathtub I have ever seen -- a six-footer could lie at full length. I'm a hand short of six feet, so I was able to indulge my second-favorite pastime (after wine-drinking; OK, make that third-favorite), and soak with both my head and my knees submerged simultaneously for once. The hotel was called Alhambra Court, on a quiet cul-de-sac leading into the Museum Gardens, and I recommend it not only for the location and the rooms but for the utterly delightful Yorkshire brogue of the woman on the desk. I'm no connoisseur, so I can't tell you exactly which square foot of which Riding she was from, but to an American those long, long a's and e's sound like they're never going to end. I wanted to hand her a book and have her read me a few chapters, just for the sound of it, but my wife saved me the embarrassment and dragged me up the slowest elevator in the world.

I don't have a lot to say about York itself. It's very old. It's very beautiful. If you want details on which ancient half-timbered buildings are how old, exactly, or what ghosts supposedly live on in which pubs (actually, all talk of ghosts makes my blood boil and fists clench, but it's all in good cheesy commercial fun, then, isn't it?) It's a fascinating place, but not what this report is about.

We did spend five hours in the National Railway Museum, my suffering wife's greatest indulgence. Even she was impressed with the open warehouse facility, where the Museum has opened up some of its vast storehouse of items, from the spectacular to the mundane, for somewhat chaotic viewing. Old station doorknobs, railway signs from every company and every station, marble busts of Huskisson and Brunel, thousands and thousands of models in every scale imaginable, including some unique to that individual modeler; the conference table of the Great Western Railway next to a 1980s cash register and a 1940s ticket printer; hundreds of doors, light fixtures, signal bars, brass steam levers, sections of rail; models of proposed new stations built and unbuilt; racks and racks of paintings and prints; drawers full of 170 years' worth of ticket stubs, pamphlets, conductors' cap badges, keys; really anything you can imagine and more, all tagged and racked and cataloged in binders you can paw through.

In the Great Hall, where the working turntable is still used to move the collection, are the locomotives. There are two replicas of the Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials for George Stephenson, on his Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first, and there's a Shinkansen bullet train you can walk through and sit on the seats of. There's Mallard, the streamlined beauty Pacific class express engine that set the still-standing steam speed record of 126 mph, set in 1938 (though probably surpassed many times, illegally, by American trains who wished to avoid the publicity of a record).

There's at least a hundred other locomotives on the premises, mostly steam, including the Flying Scotsman, a work in progress in the restoration shed. Seeing the workshop with its tools and locomotive parts spread out is almost more interesting than the restored machines in the Great Hall, as this is where the continuing tradition of steam engineering is kept alive.

There's a ton of other good stuff to see at the museum, including some working stationary engines. Sadly these are not working in steam, but are powered "backwards" from electric rollers turning their great flywheels and working the pistons. We didn't get to see anything actually in steam. Fifteen years ago I watched the great Watt engine in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in London; nothing that exciting happened here. But I have no complaints. Five hours could very easily have been fifteen, or five hundred. I think it's better than the Louvre, or the British Museum, or the Met.

But then, I would.

We also visited York Minster, one of the the great cathedrals of Europe, easily in a class with Chartres or Notre Dame or Canterbury. It was built primarily in the 13th through the 16th centuries, in Early English, Perpendicular Gothic, and Decorated Gothic style. The best features are the many gorgeous windows, nearly as impressive a display of stained glass as Ste. Chappelle in Paris. The East Window is the largest medieval window in the world, but for me the real glory is the "Heart of Yorkshire", the 14th-century Great West Window with its delicate stone tracery around the upper part of the glass. It was fascinating to see the restoration work in progress, with several of the original window sections in glass cases at ground level so you could see the construction, the painting, leading, and restoration work, itself quite old in places. There's some technical reason the green pieces have largely been replaced that I didn't get; my copy of the Minster guidebook is in a box somewhere in the North Atlantic, alas.

As always, I found the evidences of the Minster as a living church as interesting as the old historical junk. I am not a believer, but I'm fascinated by memorials from the two World Wars and more recent decorative works, and the way this ancient building is still used by regular families with their names on the pews. The Minster is not a relic; it is a modern building too.

In the undercroft there's loads of old silver we barely glanced at and some fascinating Roman and Norman building remains. Every foot of this ground not only has a past but three or four pasts, and the multiple buildings that have stood on this site were all oriented differently and used for different purposes. There has been an important church here for almost 1400 years, though, and bits of stone from hundreds of years before that are visible.

In the central city I bought some books and some silly animal figurines made of Yorkshire coal, the sad last remnants of that once-great industry which powered the industrial might of Britain and blackened her walls and lungs. Now the blackened lungs are all in China, and the last British coal is carved into badgers.

We ate a surprisingly excellent meal in 50s throwback and tourist magnet Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms, behind a beautiful round picture window in the heart of St. Helens Square. A lot of English people have seemingly forgotten how to make a decent cup of tea, but not in Betty's. The food here is, uh, "Yorkshire-Swiss", and my rösti was outstanding. I was not expecting much, but I got it. Their chocolate, at least the 70% single-estate bar, is, according to the very picky expert I married, ace as well.

The gardens, the walls, the narrow streets, the shops, the cobblestones, the half-timbering: it's all good. It made for an extreme contrast with Blackpool, in almost every way imaginable; York has no neon, no animatronic amusements, no strip clubs with barkers outside, no rides, no garbage or distasteful displays of any kind. well, we didn't go in the Yorvik Centre; maybe all that stuff is in there.

By this time in our trip my feet were starting to bark pretty severely, but fortunately York has lots and lots of great pubs, where one can enjoy more of the spectacular Yorkshire drawl. Really, this makes Texans and Mississippians sound tight and clipped in comparison! We watched Liverpool stumble again to a lucky draw against Porto in the rather uncharismatic but very friendly Bootham Tavern just outside the Bar.

And the beer was excellent. "Get yourself a mate called Smith", they used to say, and I recommend that you do -- John (the one with the slogan) is great, Samuel's even better. Both have been brewed for centuries in Tadcaster, about halfway between Leeds and York. Partisans of American craft ales will disagree, but I don't think there's any American microbrew that comes within a mile of even middling English cask ale, and Yorkshire ales are among the very best.

The nice thing about Samuel Smiths is that all of their tied houses are music-free, which means no Amy Winehouse groaning at top volume out of the jukebox. Maybe there's a TV, but mostly you just hear yourself and your neighbors talking. Which is the way it should be. No other British institution is more desperately needed in America than the real public house, not as a place to get wasted in and vomit outside the door of, but as a quiet neighborhood place to enjoy a glass or two, some conversation, and a sit. We have fake varieties here, but the beer is terrible and the jukebox loud and smelly dogs are peeing on your shoe and fraternity boys are shouting and punching each other on the arm -- not the same thing at all. You don't see nice looking older people sitting and reading the paper of an evening in Seattle bars; bars here are exclusively for the young or the chronically alcoholic.

My favorite pubs are in Liverpool, as we shall see, but you could do worse than to spend an evening in the York Arms, a Samuel Smith house, with tiny rooms, comfortable furniture, and fantastic, cheap beer -- the bitter was I think £1.30, the cheapest I saw on our trip. They don't do mild much in Yorkshire, I guess, but I'll settle for this stuff any day.

Next: Scarborough

Friday, October 12, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Interlude: Fish and Chips

[Originally posted on, answering many outstanding comments regarding fish and chips by other posters there.]

I know I will instantly lose all credibility here, but I'm pretty indifferent to mushy peas, and the best ones I've ever had were in, uh, Australia, piled on top of a pie, with mashed potatoes, at Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Wooloomooloo.

I had some peas with my fish and chips here, and was, well, a bit bored. I had whole peas, too, in the Tower Cafe in Blackpool, which were completely awful. I ate every single one.

The best fish and chips we ate, in order: Lobster Pot, Liverpool (takeaway, eaten leaning on traffic cones in a construction site); The Fish Pan, Scarborough (upstairs, fabulous view); Coral Island, Blackpool (greasy and delicious); Leo Burdock's Dublin (disappointing -- lots of bones in -- but admittedly we were at the one on O'Connell Street, not the original).

I rate haddock as my favorite. We can get really good fish and chips here in Seattle (and some pretty crappy stuff too), but I don't think anyone uses drippings. If they do, they'd do everything in their power to hide that fact from the Food Nazis.

York coming up next. Big change of pace!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 4: Blackpool

[Originally posted on; references are made to comments by other users there, which I cannot reproduce here.]

Sorry, Alya! For some reason my employer has no interest at all in Blackpool, so I'm having trouble finding the time for this.

My Blackpool report may displease the more refined, sensitive sort of English person, much as Blackpool itself does. Please remember that no matter how many gauche or disgusting people, things and events are described here, I am well aware that they do not represent the whole of Britain, and also remember that at all times I was having a stupendous amount of fun.

We were warned by our hotelier, well up the North Promenade, to avoid the area south of the famous Tower, as that is where the tackier people went, not "quality" like ourselves. Like many of the nicer sort of hotel these days, he had a strict "no stag and hen" policy, and even directed our attention to an article about a nearby place that had been trashed by a group of young men, furniture destroyed, walls smeared with excrement, vomit in the hallways.... We didn't see anything like that. But we did of course immediately headed south.

I've read a lot about "faded" Blackpool, which had me expecting closed-down rides and boarded up pubs and just a few stumbling alcoholics pitching in and out of the gutters, but the first thing you notice about Blackpool is that it is absolutely heaving with people.

I've seen the photographs from the forties and fifties, and while the sand itself was relatively empty -- no hordes of men in suits with rolled-up trousers and knotted handkercheifs on their heads, no fat ladies in housedresses reading the newspaper under an umbrella jammed in the sand. There were a few kids riding the donkeys on the beach, and building complicated damworks with bucket and spade. But along the promenade, it was a very different scene. Wall to wall.

Most of these people were drunk. Many of them, the ladies especially, were wearing matching outfits of some sort -- groups of eight or ten pink miniskirts with high heels, or matching hi-visibility vests with "Beaver Patrol -- Big Beaver", "Bald Beaver", "Shaved Beaver" and so on. The archetypical modern British hen parties were out in force, with L plates and giant inflatable penises, tottering along on impossibly high heels, to go with the impossibly short skirts and impossibly skimpy tops, wholly inadequate for the heavy, uh, job they were being asked to perform.

The boys also traveled in packs, but less organized. We rode in a tram with one, all track-suited and spotty, successfully confusing the conductor about who was paying what for whom, and braying about the (unlikely) romantic conquests ahead of them. "I want that one", they would say, pointing at likelies in the throng below them. "Hey, Bluey" one yelled out the window at a girl in a blue tube top. She turned to look, and the boy and his mates erupted in laughs and high-fives. I don't know if they were even old enough to drink, but I suspect they finished up the night drunk and disorderly, the courage of beer proving insufficient once again to land one of the imaginary compliant birds. Perhaps I'm naive.

The same could not be said for some of the other gentlemen we saw. Some of them looked like the only thing that was going to keep them out of some lucky girl's hotel room was a prison cell. While standing outside Coral Island, a massive pirate-themed arcade, we saw a fellow shouting incoherently, wearing a grass hula skirt with (possibly) nothing underneath. I wasn't motivated to take a closer look. Half the people there seemed to be in costume, with "Kiss Me Quick" cowboy hats (yes, really), or giant neon pink or green wigs.

At one point we took a break in a grimy but friendly pub to watch the football. My wife's been a Liverpool supporter since the early 80s, and I pretend to go along for the sake of family harmony. The regulars in the bar, who appeared to be mostly bikers and their diminutive, snaggle-toothed girlfriends, would take big gulps out of their drinks and then head back out to the doorway to continue chain-smoking. Inside, those of us watching the match (against Portsmouth) included a lovely couple decked out head to toe in brand-new Liverpool kit, the full top and bottom tracksuit combo, with replica shirt and, in her case, jewelry. Hers was red, his was black, to match the tragic dye job she was sporting on her straw-like hair. They were both 25 and looked 45, but they were good company, and we all had a good time (I suspect I had a better time than anyone there, as Liverpool squeaked by with an extremely tepid and unconvincing nil-nil draw). As we stumbled out into the afternoon sunshine, we said goodbye to our new friends, who were settling into a serious bout of binge drinking.

Despite the persistent raunchiness it was still a family's day out, with hundreds of kids of all sizes, shapes and descriptions on every block. Blackpool surely has the highest concentration of ice cream and candy floss (cotton candy to us Americans) and ice lollies and licorice rope vendors per kilometer anywhere in the world. It seems that one is no longer expected to buy a piece of Blackpool Rock; every shopfront was selling it by the dozen, or the ton. Frankly that's a little too much rock for me, but there were thousands of sugar-smeared faces all down the strand.

Other items sold in the shops included every kind of tacky souvenirs imaginable. I love tacky souvenirs, and spend a good hour poring over the cheap football pins, thimbles, red phone box keychains, magnets, lopsided Blackpool Towers and Winter Gardens. Most of the other patrons were more interested in the vomitous perfumes and the big samurai-style swords, which was a little worrying. Mrs. Fnarf found the most adorable fudge and taffy shop in the world and was happy; her moods can be most simply expressed as "needs chocolate" and "has chocolate".

One thing that did not make us happy were the Jolly Gollies, little golliwog black dolls of a sort that had become offensive to sell anywhere in America by about 1959. They were everywhere (we even saw them in posh York), but here in Blackpool the many black faces we saw walking the promenade passed by them without comment.

I was however very happy to see another relic of a less sophisticated time, the dirty postcard, featuring a brightly-colored cartoon of some embarrassing situation involving a bursting bra, a bare bottom, and a red faced misunderstanding over a naughty, naughty double-entendre. I must have bought a hundred of them, and had my picture taken sticking through a life-sized version on a pier.

Blackpools three piers are my favorite part. North Pier isn't that interesting, but Central Pier is a delight. It's got the tacky tourist shops -- I picked up a Preston North End pin for a pound that turned out to be white with corrosion on the back -- and the colorful rides, including a large ferris wheel, dodgems (bumper cars to Americans), a waltzer, merry-go-round, etc. These are the more sedate rides compared to the terrifying ones down at South Pier. All the way around the pier are original Victorian white cast-iron benches, which sparkle in the setting sun. It's really beautiful, especially if you've been in the bar down at the end for a while. South Pier, in addition to the insane bungee-drops and other rides that fling you into the stratosphere at high speed, has more color and noise and music.

If you don't get enough rides on the piers, there's Pleasure Beach, a vast amusement park near South Pier. Add these amusements to the miles of arcades, and I don't think there's anything like this anywhere in the world. It's like Coney Island, but ten times as big, and ten times as alive.

If rides aren't your thing, and you've tired of dropping 10p coins into the coin-slider machines, you have many psychics and seers to choose from, all of whom post faded pictures of celebrities outside, to give you the impression that Harrison Ford or Pamela Lee Anderson has been here, which I doubt. Not mystical? Visit Louis Tussauds Wax Museum, or one of the celebrity impersonator shows, or go up the Blackpool Tower. We didn't go in the Tower because they wanted too much money, and we were getting burned out on attractions, as well as just plain burned; we had gorgeous bright warm sunshine the whole time we were there. We did sit for a while with the old people in the Winter Garden cafe, which was fun. Here we really did see old gents holidaying at the seaside with a necktie on, which was oddly comforting.

One thing I will never, ever forget about Blackpool: the food. While we had excellent fish and chips at the chippie attached to Coral Island, we ate a later meal at a cafe in one of the arcades. I had "beef curry" which was chunks of mystery meat in about a gallon of what appeared to be straight HP sauce, over rice. Absolutely vile; one of the most disgusting things I have ever put in my mouth. On our second night, we ate in the Tower cafe, and listened in embarrassment as the drunk woman at the next table hurled abuse at the poor Polish waitress -- "I can't f---ing understand you, b----, anybody got a f---ing Polish-English dictionary? Take this s--- away, these are Polish chips, I want f---ing English chips" -- all at maximum volume and vitriol. To be fair, the food wasn't great, but abusing immigrants, or waitresses, is simply not acceptable behavior in my circles. An interesting sociological experience, though!

At breakfast in the hotel one morning, I decided to have the smoked haddock. I didn't realize I was going to get an entire haddock filet, more than a foot long! Delicious, but I could feel my clothes starting to shrink around the middle.

The hotel was sweetly old-fashioned. As happens to us regularly in English hotels, water started to pour through the ceiling into the closet from upstairs. It's better than Liverpool in 2003, when the water was pouring out through the overhead light fixture! But it was clean and well-kept, and very friendly.

After walking around some of the less salubrious areas of Blackpool's back streets, taking pictures and hoping not to be robbed by some of the hard-looking fellows standing around, and me buying the world's stupidest-looking flat cap off a barrow in the Abingdon Street Market, we bought our tickets for tomorrow's trip to York. Blackpool was the one city in Britain where we never heard another American accent, and maybe most of our countrymen wouldn't be caught dead in such a tasteless, plebian place; but I absolutely loved it. It was like seeing Britain, or a part of it at least, when she's not putting on airs for tourists -- not overseas tourists, anyways. She's devoted to simple fun and good times, without pretension or put-on snooty heritage or "class". No bowler hats or brollies, no pearls, no stately homes, and no royalty except the ones painted lopsidedly on decorative plastic plates. Blackpool's not a museum, it's a party. I wish we had one where I lived.

Next: We take the train to York.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 3: Full English Breakfast

[Originally posted on; I refer to comments made there, which I cannot reproduce here]

I tried unsuccessfully to find any kestrel strangling going on. Unfortunately the closest I could get was a little pigeon-slapping at MOSI. The North has changed, Audere; as shown by the sad fact that the "Myth of the North" exhibition at Manchester's Lowry Museum (a later chapter) tried but was unsuccessful in finding a stuffed whippet to display. Flat caps and Vera Lynn 78s, sure, but no stuffed whippets anywhere in the north of England.

Thank you, Flanner, for untangling the hash I made of the Ship Canal history. In my defense, all of my reference material from the trip is still on a slow boat making its way around Cape Horn, unless a striking Royal Mail employee has just chucked it into the harbor.

The basic point to take away is that the Ship Canal was an attempt to avoid the Liverpool Docks.

I understand your antipathy towards your great commercial rival to the east, but I have to say I can't agree. I thought Manchester was terrific. The only thing I would have liked better would be if they had left the beautiful coat of grime on the buildings, both there and in Liverpool (the Liver Building is gleaming white, not brooding black, these days).

Flanner will not agree, but Manchester is clearly the Capital of the North these days. Their downtown revival is ten years further along. Liverpool is one of the great cities of the world, but it's at a bit of a dead end, a terminus; it's not really a gateway to anything anymore, not even Wales, while Manchester is the gateway to the entire north of England.

But the rivalry between the two makes for spectacular entertainment, and has for two hundred years. We will be returning to Liverpool.

As an example of the dispute between the two, we ended up not having enough time to visit the Lowry during our Manchester stay, and returned with our Liverpudlian friend (Mrs. Fnarf's old boyfriend from her time at University there several centuries ago). The amazing thing was, he had not been to Manchester FOR TWENTY FIVE YEARS, and even then only as an away supporter of Liverpool at Old Trafford.

He continually muttered that his mates would never believe where he'd been -- to MANCHESTER, clearly a less likely destination than the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. The Lowry is within sight of Old Trafford, which clearly upset him.

My wife has another old friend who lives in Wigan, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, who in her fifty years on this earth has NEVER VISITED LIVERPOOL, something like twelve miles from her home.

If you read an excellent little book called "Pies and Prejudice" by Stuart Maconie, who grew up near Wigan right on the border between "Scouse" and "Woolyback" (Lancastrian), you will find much more on this topic of northern town and city rivalry and insularity.

Unfortunately, you can't borrow my copy, because British Airways apparently dipped the suitcase in which it had been packed into a pond of standing water, soaking the entire contents. The book, now dried, is now larger and fluffier than Don King's head, and all the pages have fallen out -- it's more of a pile than a bound book. Thanks, BA!

Josser, I did not get a chance to see the Anderton Lift, nor Pontcyssylte Aqueduct, nor Ironbridge, nor any of a dozen other landmarks that were on my list. Bizarrely, my wife believes that she should have some sort of input into our itinerary, and even more bizarrely didn't want to see any old boat lifts. Unaccountable. My arguments, even though they prominently featured detailed statistical and historical references, all went for naught, defeated by a simple "do they have an H&M there?"

Sarge56, I AM a writer -- I wrote all this lot, didn't I? Not by profession, though.

Anyways, on the Full English Breakfast.

Our hotel was right next to one of Britain's most charming contributions to civilization, the chrome cafe. The Abergeldie Cafe, by name, it is essentially unchanged since it opened in something like 1970, and features a high counter and lots of booths done in well-used wood and orange leatherette. Not as glorious as the New Picadilly in London, but charming nonetheless. And they serve breakfast.

Now, the details of a Full English have even more partisan disputes than Liverpool v. Manchester, and every one I tried was slightly different. The biggest area of disagreement seems to be on the inclusion of fried hash-browns or fried bread. I believe the correct answer is "both", but here's what I had at the Abergeldie:

Four large slices of bacon, each as big as my hand -- meaty English back bacon, not American streaky bacon; four sausages, containing a guaranteed ten percent or more of actual meat; two black puddings (sausage made of pork fat and beef blood); two eggs; an ocean of baked beans, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms; a bit of hash browns; six slices of toast; and a pot of tea.

I believe staff were standing by with the engine running and a pair of jumper cables in case my heart stopped beating.

On the subject of black pudding, I have to say that I have previously in this forum maligned its deliciousness and authenticity, and been corrected by Flanner. I was wrong, extremely wrong, utterly dead wrong. Black pudding is unbelievable, and is now my favorite food, though it is unclear when I will ever be able to enjoy the one I have in the freezer, since Mrs. Fnarf objects to the smell of it being cooked, and she unaccountably has power in our household, which extends even to the cooking of foodstuffs. Seriously. If a man can't even fry a little something in his own house without being told off, just because he might "ruin my good pan" and "fill the house with stinky smoke" and "almost burn the house down again", well! Honestly!

But at least I was able to enjoy my full English at the Abergeldie. She liked the Abergeldie even more than I did, I think, even though she didn't have any meat products at all with her chaste eggs. I could seriously spend the rest of my life sitting in a cafe like that one, eating my black pud and reading about the Rugby World Cup in seven different newspapers.

Brits sure do like their newspapers. Aside from the seeming dozens of titty-full tabloids, whose articles take up less space than their headlines or their ads for weight loss and hangover cure, and the dozens of right-wing tabs that lack the naked ladies but have even tinier articles, all of which seem to be about sending the darkies back to wherever they came from, there are a variety of serious papers matched in the States as a whole but not in any single place. Even in relatively obscure places you can gather up the Times and the Independent and the Telegraph and the Gaurdian (Grauniad), and have more seriously thought-out and investigative reportage from all parts of the political spectrum, than you could get anywhere in the States unless you lived next to a specialty newsstand in a very large city. Most people in the US can't just walk into their local 7-11 and choose from the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, or Chicago Tribune in addition to their local papers.

The "quality" papers were full of long, multipage articles about this place called "Iraq", which I remember hearing something about a few years ago but has seemingly dropped out of American news more recently. It sounds like a dreadful place. I can't imagine why anyone would want to go there.

(Forgive me, I'm an American, and thus my sarcasm muscles are atrophied; this is the best I can do).

And of course there's still hundreds of pages of Britney Spears news in the next stack over if you should need it.

One problem with a Full English Breakfast is that it can rather deaden one's resolve to get up and get moving. It can in fact make it difficult for the untrained physique to pump one's blood all the way down to the lower extremities and back up again. So the answer to the question "so, what are we doing today?" becomes "um. I, uh. The uh, we could. Is there a train? I wanted to, uh. Look, this girl is naked, right here in the newspaper."

The passage of time in this report is a little chopped and compressed, so some things will be covered on the wrong day. For the sake of the story, we got on the train and went to Blackpool.

Next: Blackpool.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 2: Manchester Ship Canal

[Originally posted on]

The Manchester Ship Canal

After the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened for business in 1830, the cotton merchants of Manchester had an easy way to get the cotton to their mills from the ships that brought it from America, Egypt, and India. Before that, they had to send the loads on the long, slow canal journey up the treacherous Mersey to the Bridgewater Canal, on small narrowboats. But the railway had two problems: you had to pay the railway company, and you had to pay the docks. Liverpool's dock system was the first, and biggest, in the world, but Manchester didn't like paying them.

In 1894, they opened a solution: the Manchester Ship Canal, a wide, high-capacity direct waterway, 36 miles long, from Eastham Lock on the Wirral side of the Mersey, paralleling the dangerous, unpredictably silty Mersey, and avoiding the Liverpool docks altogether. The ocean-going vessels didn't need to be unloaded at all, until they got to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. A whole host of industry sprang up along the canal, including petroleum refining, chemical works, and automobile shipping.

Today, the cotton business is long gone, as are most of the other industrial uses, but Mersey Ferries runs a boat up and down the canal on one of the most interesting tours I've ever been on.

We started at Salford Quays in the morning. Salford is a separate municipal body from the Manchester, but the two cities are contiguous. The only difference you notice as you approach the Quays on the tram is the sudden appearance of loads of "Kill Gill" and "Glazer Out" graffiti put up by disaffected Manchester United fans who are unhappy that their precious football club is now owned by an American, Malcolm Glazer (Gill is the club's finance director). Soon we see the frightening hulk of Old Trafford, their glitzy stadium, on the far side of the quay, and queue up next to MV Royal Daffodil, one of the famous Ferries Cross the Mersey, pressed today into special duty on the canal here at Liverpool's great commercial rival.

The crowd here is quite different than we've seen elsewhere heretofore in England. They are older, mostly in their sixties, and I am not the only one clutching a fancy camera and pile of OS maps. Some are just out for a nice day on the water, but there are quite a few trainspottery types as well, nice, intelligent, attractive folks with a keen interest in industrial heritage, like me. The cruise is so popular they've had to put on extra sailings. I'm right at home here!

The canal is almost empty today, and most days. It is wholly owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, and is considered in its entirety to be an extension of Manchester docks. Special permission is required for entry, so you don't get many pleasure boats the way you do on the narrow canals operated by British Waterways. While the canal is not very important for shipping anymore, modern ships having long since outgrown it, it is still a working waterway and thus difficult for pleasure boats.

Almost immediately out of Salford, we begin passing major engineering landmarks. The Centenary Lift Bridge was built in 1995. After it is the famous pair of swing bridges at Barton: the Barton Swing Bridge, carrying the road, and the incredible Barton Swing Aqueduct, which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the MSC. This is a rotating trough that swings the water of the canal around a central pivot to allow ships to pass. It replaces an earlier fixed aqueduct by James Bridley that carried the Bridgewater over this stretch of the River Irwell. You can still see the remains of the earlier aqueduct's supports. The swinging trough carries 800 tons of water. Seeing this marvel was so exciting for Mrs. Fnarf that she was moved to say "yes, dear, that's nice" over her cup of tea. For my part, I was nearly hopping out of my shoes to finally see this beautiful work of Victorian ingenuity.

There are several other swing bridges along the route. It never ceases to amaze me how such a huge lump of metal can pivot so effortlessly around.

At Barton there is also the first of several locks on the canal, which drop us down towards sea level by the time we enter the Mersey at the far end. These are significantly larger and more complicated than the hand-operated ones you see on narrowboat canals.

In addition to industrial views, much of the canal passes through pleasant green English countryside. At first you can see remnants of the old brick and stone walls of Trafford Park, the estate of the original landowner here, whose holdings long predate the canal. Commentary was provided along the route, much of which was rather amusingly vague: "on your left you can see a great deal of greenery" and "as you can see the canal is very popular with a variety of birds; several kinds of birds are visible to your right". Still, I give the woman credit for being able to talk almost nonstop for six hours; that's an iron set of pipes for sure!

All along the canal you can see remnants of Britain's industrial past: docks and piers. At one point there is a huge metal recycling facility, with a mountain of rusting steel and iron being cut up and loaded into rail cars. Other spots feature vast tank farms holding petroleum or other chemicals. Ford had an early plant here. The American company Westinghouse had a huge plant here, making turbines and generators as Metropolitan Vickers. A large flour mill still operates on the north bank.

Many of the plant sites are closed or derelict now. There isn't nearly the intensity of heavy industry here as there once was; by the 1960s, the area was in steep decline. You can see some of these vast factory sites on Google Satellite.

See for instance, where the rash of red and blue dots at top center, just south of where the upper Mersey flows into the canal, is a zillion cars being shipped (zoom in to see them -- is your Nissan here?).

Or, where you can make out the church built in the middle of the Runcorn industrial estate, surrounded by miles of tarmac, for the use of the dockworkers.

At Runcorn is another engineering wonder: the Runcorn Railway Bridge, across the ship canal and the Mersey, built in 1868 by William Baker for the London and North Western Railway. Its beautiful wrought-iron box girder span was once the world's longest of its type. The road bridge next to it was built in 1961 and replaces a transporter bridge -- a movable section of roadway that was carried back and forth across the canal and river by cables. Sadly it is gone, but the light green arch of the newer bridge is impossibly graceful against the sky.

Widnes was once the center of Britain's chemical industry, and while that industry is mostly gone, its poisonous legacy remains. However, remediation of some of the sites of soap works, salt mines, and United Alkali has resulted in the reclamation of a surprisingly beautiful wildlife reserve area.

The Mersey at this point and beyond is a vast tidal mud flat, almost impossible to navigate, and separated from the ship canal by a simple wall. Locks at Runcorn are disused now. The River Weaver enters, and you pass scenes of sheep grazing on the grass of the tidal flats, and then you pass the mind-boggling works of Ellesmere Port. Most prominent are Shell Oil's Stanlow refinery, of 1,900 acres, a former ICI plant, and a large Vauxhall factory, still in operation though much reduced from its peak utilization. Stanlow seen from the canal is unlike anything visible from the roadway (or anyplace else): the tanks and color-coded pipelines seemingly go on forever.

At the end of the trip, coming up towards Birkenhead, we entered the Queen Elizabeth docks, having some company for a change -- a large merchant vessel coming the other way. Watching the captain put this craft into the lock, a few bare inches to spare on either side, was very impressive, especially if you're as poor a car parker as I am.

After we pass this last lock into the open Mersey, we circled past the booming construction site formerly known as "Liverpool". The view of the Anglican Cathedral, Britain's largest, has partly been wrecked by a vast new glass arena which looks like a pair of dragonfly wings. In the center of town there is a forest of cranes, and a number of new glass boxes have sprouted up just north of the Three Graces -- the famous trio of office buildings that have signaled the commercial power of this city for the past century or so: the Dock Offices, the Cunard Building, and the Royal Liver Insurance building with its brace of liver birds surveying the scene.

Liverpool is another chapter on another day; this afternoon we only had time to walk around the commercial center and grab a quick pint at Liverpool's oldest pub, Ye Hole in Ye Wall (and please don't pronounce "ye" as "yee" -- it's pronounced "the" -- that's not really a "y", it's a thorn, an old English letter no longer used except as here).

I did get to admire again my favorite Liverpool building, Oriel Chambers, built in 1864 by Peter Ellis. It is startlingly modern, looking more like a building from the 1920s in Chicago or New York, with a facade almost entirely of glass, with gorgeous oriel windows with the thinnest frames ever seen til then, of stone dressed to look like iron. It was hated at the time for its lack of Gothic or Classical ornamentation, and Ellis only ever received one other commission, but today it is strikingly beautiful in a completely modern way.

We took the bus back to Manchester, getting a fine view of the motorway, and ate a rather bizarre Indian (actually Pakistani or Bangladeshi, as most "Indian" restaurants in Britain are) meal, at a place with a wall-sized menu but only two dishes actually available -- chicken or lamb?

Next: Full English Breakfast