So, I'm finally back from three nights away. I've been in Bath in the West Country, staying in university accommodation. Away from London, away from television, away from home comforts, away from the internet, but not totally away from civilisation. Here's a few thoughts on life away:
Halls of Residence "Rooms the size of shoeboxes crammed together in ugly concrete buildings" It appears that all university architects specialise in designing bland concrete cuboids which they then divide up into as many tiny rooms as possible. I've just spent three nights in such a monstrosity, holed up in a room only marginally larger than a shoebox. There wasn't enough room to... well, if I'd had a cat and tried to swing it, the RSCPA would be trying to prosecute by now.
"Single beds that never felt comfortable" There certainly wasn't enough space in my room for anything larger than a single bed. It's always a shock to be confined into a narrow sleeping space half that of what I'm used to, but I still managed more than seven hours sleep for three nights in a row, which is unheard of. In bed before midnight? You can tell there wasn't much to do, can't you?
"Paper-thin walls" Not too bad, I thought, until 6:30am each morning when the vibrations from the alarm going off in the room nextdoor woke me up rather earlier than I was hoping. Cheers.
"Someone in a room three doors along who insisted on playing the latest Dire Straits album" Not much hope of that, because there was no music, no radios, no nothing. There were still students on campus, but maybe they can't afford music any more. Or maybe they were all out sunbathing instead. Beats Dire Straits any day, I think you'll agree.
"A shared bathroom that always seemed to be engaged" I think there was a shared bathroom somewhere, but there was no need to use it. Instead we all had a small 'pod' in our rooms (pod = tiny sink + toilet + shower). As with all newly-experienced showers, mine was a nightmare to operate first thing in the morning. I spent a minute trying to work out how to turn it on, a minute trying to get it to the right temperature, a minute trying to stand underneath and wash myself, a minute wondering why the water was getting unexpectedly cooler, and a minute trying to turn it off but instead freezing myself in the process. Glad to get home tonight to my non-shared bathroom.
"Communal kitchens where your milk always got nicked from the fridge" There was a communal kitchen, but all the cupboards were bare. Someone had left us a kettle, some teabags, some utility-teacups like you find in church halls and a few of those tiny pots of white liquid that look like they might be milk but taste like they're not. You can imagine how good the tea tasted. I only risked it the once.
"A single payphone at the end of a distant corridor" I saw four payphones, but I didn't see a single student using one. All students have mobile phones now, of course, so I'm surprised the university authorities haven't turned those four cubicles into additional student accommodation... yet.
Suddenly Summer It doesn't take long when you're cut off from the outside world to completely lose your grip on what's going on outside your immediate environment. And so it was that Wednesday's record-shattering April temperatures crept up on us unnoticed. I don't remember there being any hints of approaching heatwave when I packed my suitcase on Monday, so I was almost unprepared. Thankfully the university's students were more-than prepared, given that they all seem to live in hip surf gear and t-shirts all the time anyway, so there was a fair acreage of browning flesh visible sprawled out on the lawns around campus. Unfortunately the summer fashion sense among the conference delegates on site was less-than flattering. As the temperature rose, so did the incidence of sandal-wearing amongst men who really ought to be old enough to know better. I am convinced that there must be a 'brown-clothing' gene that affects men of a certain age or over. Afflicted males see nothing wrong in wearing brown jackets, brown slacks, brown sandals or even, in extreme cases, brown socks with brown sandals. Like the baldness gene, 'brownness' doesn't appear to affect everyone, although it seems to become far more widespread the older you get. It was frighteningly prevalent on Wednesday. If any of you ever start to feel that your own fashion sense could be starting to brown out, a look at this website should be enough to frighten you back to de-sandaled reality. Me, I'm sticking with trainers, blue ones.
Bath time I'm trying to work out why I'd managed never to visit Bath before. It's a gorgeous city, especially in mid-spring sunshine. Here's a few top travelling tips if you're ever down that way: • Bath is full of sweeping Georgian terraces, including the famous Royal Crescent. So, that's somewhere else I can't afford to live.
• Bath is usually full of American tourists, on their way from London and Stonehenge, and on their way to Stratford, Chester and Edinburgh. At the moment, however, American tourists are noticeable by their absence, no doubt frightened away by the regular terrorist attacks, a high incidence of SARS and herds of killer mad cows roaming the streets.
• The streets of Bath are still crowded with double-decker buses, each of at least three companies competing to attract the remaining tourists on sightseeing tours.
• Do visit the old Roman baths. They've been restored to their original glory, although it's not possible to take a sauna any more. If you want to taste the spa water in the Pump Room, remember to turn up before 5pm. If instead you want to protect your stomach from a mixture of 43 minerals in warm water, turn up after 5pm like I did.
• Rather frighteningly, for anyone used to London's 24-hour culture, shops in Bath shut at 5:30pm, or even earlier. Sorry, I'd forgotten that most of Britain is still like this.
• "A simple rule in Bath is that all clubs suck." So says the Knowhere guide, written by disaffected locals. Probably true then.
• If you're ever in Bath and need a meal, I can heartily recommend the Bathtub Bistro. Easily the best meal out I've had so far this year, with the possible exception of some creamy scalloped potatoes I adored in San Francisco at New Year.
• They've built a mystical maze down by the River Avon. It's not exactly difficult, but it'll keep the kids busy for ten minutes.
• Bath is only an hour and fifteen minutes away from London Paddington by train - this is excellent. Alas, this afternoon London Liverpool Street turned out to be one hour and fifteen minutes away from London Paddington by train - this was not in any way excellent.