diamond geezer

 Friday, December 31, 2010

Three places I visited in 2010, but never wrote about (until today)

January 2nd: Leith

There is, I reckon, just enough time before breakfast to walk down to the Forth. The temperature's well below freezing but I'm wrapped up warm, and it's only a mile down Leith Walk. And then the snow starts. It's only light, but it comes with a biting wind that grows stronger as I stride on. Past the sandstone tenements, and the betting shops, and the old church, to the Foot of The Walk. The road's in a mess, barriered off to one side, while the incompetent company building the tramway attempts to build the tramway. Local residents aren't won over by the chaos they're causing. I cross the Water of Leith over an unexpectedly broad bridge, upstream from the scenic quayside where they dine outside in summer. Not today, not even this month, not until the city thaws out. I'm hoping to reach the Forth but the docks get in the way, and they don't welcome pedestrians. One of the more accessible wharves has been replaced by a giant shopping mall, the monolithic Ocean Terminal. It's not a lovely building, more like someone took a cinema multiplex and stretched it lengthways. I'm told the interior's nicer, but only the early shift of workers are inside at the moment, setting up. Somewhere on the other side is the Royal Yacht Britannia, which is the main reason I walked all this way, but which I can't see because the building's perfectly proportioned to hide it. There's absolutely no view without walking past some shops, because this is a commercially-sensitive attraction, nor any access on board for an hour and a half. Frozen out, I abandon my journey and decide to bus it back into Edinburgh. Next tram's not for four years, apparently.

April 2nd: Hughenden Manor
At times of political upheaval, seek lessons from the past. From Benjamin Disraeli in this case - longer-lasting than Gordon, more experienced than David, and much beloved by dearest Queen Victoria. He was one of Britain's more unusual PMs (born Jewish, famous author, bit of a ladies man) who nevertheless rose to the highest office twice. As a consummate social climber he needed a pile in the country, and so settled in a redbrick manor house at Hughenden near High Wycombe. The National Trust own it these days, and it's accessible either by car or by walking across some very muddy fields. Wander through the great man's rooms, hear his story in an introductory video, and admire his wife's taste in home furnishings. Her Majesty came for a royal visit in 1877 and Ben had the legs on one of the dining room chairs cut short so her legs didn't dangle, that's the sort of man he was. The guides will point it out to you, don't worry. Once you're done upstairs try the cellar. Here there's a separate exhibition explaining how the house was used by the Air Ministry during WW2 for creating aerial maps for bombing missions. The garden's lovely too, so long as you go at the right time of year (which Good Friday isn't). I wasn't used to having an entire National Trust garden to myself on a bank holiday, but then it was drizzling, and the tearooms were warm and the house was dry. Benjamin's buried in the churchyard halfway down the hill, near the car park, where Victoria also left her own memorial to her favourite Parliamentarian. Reopens February 19th, if you're interested, sorry.

December 30th: Dartford
It's surprisingly difficult to buy a broadsheet newspaper in Dartford after 4pm. I only wanted one to make the train journey home more bearable, but there's no sign. WHSmith has sold out - there's just a stack of empty white racks where every newspaper with an IQ over 90 used to be. Further down the High Street there's News Box, but at this stage in the afternoon they're more Chocolate and Fags Box. Londis will have one surely, just across from the museum. I hold open the door to allow a middle-aged man on crutches to enter ahead of me. But even before he's shuffled through I've spotted that the shop only has a selection of thin-looking local papers, which will never do, so I close the door without ever passing inside. The skies are darkening fast, and the pavements are full of Kentish locals struggling home with bags of sale goodies. At the top of Lowfield Street a lone spectacled youth stands poised to hand out leaflets urging better welfare for turkeys at Christmas. But nobody approaches him, and he approaches nobody, and he's a week late anyway. Round the corner I stumble upon Kent News, which sounds promising, but the recession means all that's for sale here is the newsagents itself. It seems I'm too late for my broadsheet, no matter where I try, because Dartford's that sort of town. Beaten, I cross the ring road and head for the station empty-handed. And then, in the kiosk by the ticket office, I spot huge stacks of non-tabloid newspapers as not purchased by non-passengers earlier in the day. Dartford's commuters have stayed off work to go shopping, or whatever people do in that zombie week before New Year... and I get to read the latest world news and the letters page on the journey home.

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