Somerset, pt2: Tricky Trains, Rain . . . and the Child Prodigy

This was my second and last chance to explore Somerset. I set out with my usual hope that it would all work out, despite the weather forecast. But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Not having taken the bike to Taunton since 2009 it just hadn’t occurred to me I needed to reserve it for the last segment. One of the train staff at Westbury told me helpfully I could leave it at the station. As if…

Still I made it finally to Taunton via Bristol. With the campsite only 2 miles away mostly on a cycle path, and bike satnav, it was never really a problem getting there. I was surprised to see another cyclist had just arrived, who pointed out the owner was not around; just had to leave my name on a register. He suggested just pitching up. That other lone cyclist had somehow managed to compress a tent and whatever other travel equipment into neat little pannier cases around his bike, whereas my panniers hung bulkily on a rear 30yr old carrier frame, holding an air mattress+pillows, bike accessories and enough cereal bars to last a week. But also I had 65litre rucksack with my tent, sleeping bag and clothes on my back. I must have looked a worrying site to most motorists!

The campsite itself – in an orchard – was not too bad considering it was near the town centre. Empty except for other biker. So I carefully had to calculate how I’d pitch my tent a fair though not obvious avoidance distance away from his – not completely at the other end of the field and a trekking distance from the shower block. It took me a while to decide. But anyway most on bikes only stay one night, as it proved.

Before I’d unpacked my tent the owner arrived, got his payment for two nights – £14 less than the last Quantocks site! And not here the rigmarole of searching for my address on a database. I did get the impression the other cyclist knew the owner, asking him how he was. Or maybe that’s just some people’s more sociable demeanour than mine.

Finally I was pegging down the tent. But somehow I snagged my middle finger getting frustrated at the hard dry ground and bent pegs. The skin ripped off deeply; these accidents always seem so avoidable, wondering how I could have been so careless. Still I didn’t think much about it till the next day. Tiredness to took over. Even the incessant squawking of peacock/hens wasn’t enough to bother me.

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The next day started brightly. Sun shining. It filled me with something approaching optimism, a quixotic hope that the heavy rain forecast would not materialise, that in these hilly parts there are more unpredictable local weather systems. I didn’t think to take my rain jacket.

From the outset the sky darkened. An hour into the journey towards the Quantocks the rain became torrential. After sheltering under trees at a roadside for it to ease to merely heavy, I pressed on to a fire-road connecting the main hill. Stopped again; ate peanuts, a mini cheese and a cereal bar under a heavily dripping tree. Feeling cold, my optimism had ebbed away.

At least one section of the main route was sheltered. But then was faced with the open hills. Well, I couldn’t face them, so found another grouping of trees and listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Trump tirade on my pocket radio until that gave out. My phone at least should be ok, attached to the bike and wrapped in clear baggie. Checked forecast: showers but sunny spells in the next hour. An MTBr with a dog passed by. He returned ten minutes later. Maybe even the hardened locals were getting defeated by it.

Eventually it became light enough to be tolerable. Sky brightening, I headed off onto the hill. But now I was starting to notice my sore finger, pressed against the next on the bar grip. Had a tube of Germolene … left in my tent. Damn! Perhaps it wouldn’t make much difference anyway in these conditions, I reasoned.

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Reached the top of a ceremonial ground, then down a steep hill. Rain had stopped. Clouds cleared, the sun illuminated the spectacular view. Did an about-turn, climbed on foot. When back at the gate trying to empty a bit of grit from my shoe, a runner stopped by, wanting to know if that was good route. I gave my impression that it probably was. The number of possible routes can be overwhelming. I headed to West Quantockhead. Some decent trails and the views were stunning! I stopped to put tape and tissue round my finger. It helped. A bit.

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Mostly sunny, the long hilly journey back was a pleasure on the small roads. Satnav on handlebars really removed the anxiety I once had of getting lost.

Finally reaching the town after 40miles I stopped off at an Aldi. Depleted of energy I picked up way too much food – nuts, crisps, biscuits, chocolate. At the checkout I was guessing it would be a pound or 2 over £10. But the cashier I was sure told me £18.21, and seemed to be confirmed by the little display. Pulling out two tens I somehow dropped a pound coin. But what happened next seemed strange. Incomprehensible, even! A child – perhaps no older than 7yrs, with his dad – picked up the coin and handed it back to me. Then I thought I heard him say something to the cashier, who then re-quoted me the price as £10.21. The kid’s dad, full of pride, was praising him, saying ‘Yeah! You’re my Power Ranger!’ But I was left befuddle. Did that child really correct the cashier? Was he some mathematical genius, who knew the total price of all those items? Or maybe he understood that the scanning system can malfunction – that a zero wrongly displayed as an 8. In my fatigued state I wondered if I had only imagined it.

Back at the campsite all I could think about was eating, and resting. Not even worrying about that potentially tricky train journey the next day.

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Quantocks (Somerset UK)

It should have been so simple. I had it all worked out to a T. Not even my first journey to the campsite. Last time, eleven years ago, I remember navigating there with no problem. But this time I was going to try the recommended cycle route. Just one diversion and yet somehow I ended up going in the wrong direction. Trying to keep in mind a lot of left turns, but I took one too many and ended up in an industrial estate. Having doubtless been seen by some construction workers I felt too embarrassed to backtrack (with all my luggage) so hoped I could find a crossing over this river. It continued on from a cycle path so surely there had to be a way to loop round, thinking: just have to stay positive. Stopping to check phone, it told me there was a road but was way out. And this is where things began to get desperate. The weight of bike panniers plus rucksack (holding my tent) was starting to wear on my shoulders. And here’s where we get to the things you wished you’d thought of before or at the time: having a bike phone holder; not doggedly keeping to the river path instead of turning off at the nearest road. But I had gotten into a mindset of not giving up. Not cutting my losses.

Eventually reaching a road, I was more miles out than I even cared to check. Just focus, I thought, on getting to some road I can navigate back to Bridgwater. Had a moment of reassurance that I wasn’t the only one struggling with navigation, seeing a driver reach a dead end.

Then again for me a dead end back to the riverside and a faded sign that read: satnav wrong. But at least I could carry on along the path till eventually a road that took me across. Now some hope of getting back, except the journey was going to be arduous. But little did I know just how arduous.

To begin with the minor roads had few vehicles. In fact I encountered another cyclist – a young woman. She’d stopped and was having trouble with her chain. Despite not wanting to halt my momentum I was eager to help, partly to get something positive out my original navigation error. But she fixed it okay (it was only trapped between sprocket and frame) and reassured me so. So I carried on, only mentioning I’d had the same problem (which was more or less true when chain got stuck against a pannier screw). When these unlikely chance encounters happen I see some significance in what might only be randomness; though I hesitate to call it fate.

After I’d got my food and drink supplies I was faced with at least 6 miles to the campsite. Not only that but the dispiriting prospect of a variously rising gradient before the last killer hill. And I felt it nearly would.

Finally at the campsite I was in a poor state. Reception had closed, instead a message telling late arrivals to go to some building near the duck pond. Found someone who told me the right door, which turned out to be a pub, a noisy pub with jovial middle-age regular propped up at the bar. Right there the proprietor wanted to check my name and address on her PC. But since I’d left my luggage out the side I lost my patience and told her I’d have to pick it up. Not the cheapest campsite (or pub, buying a coke which I tried downing so fast I got gas burn), but it’s a prime location. She told me the pitch number – and it was near where I’d been eleven years before. But I still had trouble finding it. Memory is unreliable, and my memory of it was of a much more appealing site (and other pitches were), rather than next to the through road. Still, I wasn’t there for the campsite but the marvellous Quantocks.

No more than a few miles from the campsite to the Quantock hills. And the weather was fine. It was perfect, and that makes me suspicious that something will go wrong. But things seemed to be going okay. I was still knackered from yesterday’s debacle. But decided to be sensible and walk the steepest hills.

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Not familiar enough with them I made the odd navigation error, but no problem there – I had all day for getting lost, I factor it in, it’s just exploring without constantly checking GPS. What mattered is getting to the peak, which gave a stunning view. It’s a great area for mountain biking. I didn’t care that I might not be speaking to anyone that day. In fact, I had this perverse notion to avoid speaking a single word that day, it became an obsession as much as an objective. It meant not greeting a passing biker. And as I’d reached the outer bridleway descent it seemed like this would be achievable.

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I stopped at a gate, but as I was about to close it an MTBr seem to appear out of nowhere (which often happens). Now I was annoyed I was supposed to say something. I left the gate open and moved my bike to the side, just telling him: ‘Go on.’ I’d realised I’d been less than friendly if not curt, which I regretted. Once acknowledging I’d not achieve my no-speak objective I could have just spoken freely.

Anyway, with the Quantocks ride more or less over it was just a matter of using the roads to get to – well here’s where I made the wrong judgement – somewhere to buy the basics. I had in mind the only realistic option was to get back to Bridgwater. That was another 9 miles, before a further 6.5 back to the campsite. Without luggage I had worried about the distances, and still I pressed on heading for what I thought was the main town. But somewhere I had made a navigation error (or three). That seemed curious because I was sure I’d followed the sign; never mind stopping to check my phone map. But now the hills were taking their toll. I stopped at a gate, thinking here was somewhere I wouldn’t be in the path of any traffic. But within a minute a 4*4 pulled up beside me. And so I didn’t spend long checking the map. He asked me if I was lost; I said I wanted to get to Bridgwater, and he told me I’d taken the wrong road and pointed in the general direction. But I told him I didn’t want to back track. Only then came out at a main road which looked too narrow and, frankly, scary to cycle given the volume of traffic.

Eventually, though, I decided to head back to the campsite but through a network of small lanes, constantly stopping to check my phone nav.

I think if there are lessons to be learned from my travel experience it is not to even consider aiming for perfection – to not think of it as even a possibility. Because failure then has to be inevitable. And: know when to cut your losses.

Barcelona!

The gradual descent over the Pyrenees was something to behold. Still, even though I had a window seat, it turned out the other side had the best view (according to the pilot). Anyway the flight from Gatwick at just under £50 seemed like a bargain. Pressure-based earache, though, distracted me on the final descent – maybe too steep. Then the inevitable infant expressing its suffering. The kid had my sympathy!

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As often, at the airport my ears had that flu bunged-up feeling, and curious popping. Then my typical mild disorientation, having to really make an effort on focusing where I’m getting. Passport control has an automated option, but curiously a fingerprint sensor, which, on reflection, is slightly concerning. My fingerprints have never been stored anywhere except my phone, and now do the Spanish authorities possess it? It was taken again at near gate. Maybe this explained why so many people opted for a human checker.

Finding the train station wasn’t really a problem (certainly nothing like the questing journey in Madrid Barajas). A relatively short journey to Bar Sants. The city centre is reasonably easy to navigate but I’ve got so much in the habit of using my phone even to find a hotel that’s a 5 minute walk. Being near and at a budget will always feel like a comprise: small single room, in darkness until I found the slot for the key card (how they stop people wasting power). Hardly bothered with the invariably no-English TV. But free wifi felt like the saviour of my sanity. Even if you don’t have BBC Sounds there’s a world radio app (on android so not quite sure of its legality) that surely covers all your radio needs.

The first day often that feeling of trepidation – that if I make a plan it will go wrong. (Well, I always make a plan for the night, but more of that later.) Estacio de Franca: the obvious tourist destination. What could be simpler? I had my train map, so hardly needed to bother with the info at the station. Nicely numbered and colour-coded. Simple? No. Somehow I’d missed the display giving the platform number and instead went with corresponding R2, dark green. But none went there, and so I had a dilemma: do I risk exiting and losing my ticket or hope I can get off at a near station. Eventually I risked, and managed to get through the correct platform barrier. I often think there’s some logic that’s obvious to the locals and that somehow I’d missed. But actually I was make an even more grievous error the following morning.

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But this day I got to Estacio de Franca, and in the sun it’s a lovely district – a circuitous park, stunning architecture amid trees in blossom. Abundant art installations that don’t have to mean anything beyond their aesthetic appeal. And people soaking up the joys of spring, making me wish I could too.

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Barcelona is a city steeped in culture. Or maybe many. Not one I can fully grasp. Still, the night-time was sure to offer a different understanding.

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Despite the number of road crossings I was determined to get to the coast. Even in late March it seemed very tourist heavy. I began to feel self-conscious and slightly overdressed in trousers, casual, bordering on smart and long sleeve top even though the temp was no more than 18c, and most others were in long sleeves. I’m reluctant to reduce to T-shirt level unless it goes above 20c. But the sun made it feel more like UK summer. The beach was everything I could expect, soft sand bordered by palm trees and a gentle lapping white-frothed dark blue sea. But there was no way I was venturing onto it. Most of the people looked under thirty, one on his own taking a selfie; something i’d never do. (I wish the selfie camera was an optional extra rather than feeling that, because it’s there, I should use it.) Others, I guess locals, wearing clothes that seemed too warm for a Brit.

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Train back to Barcelona Sants; too early, really, for the hotel. But it turned out there was a problem with my ticket: the barrier machine rejected it. I only wanted to exit; I had a valid return ticket. A staff member told me I was supposed to stamp it at the destination! Stamp it where exactly – what machine? I was so irritated I didn’t even bother to ask, though she did seem surprised I was able to exit at de Franca. I’m sure there’s no puzzle at all for the regular traveller, but given this is a popular tourist area you shouldn’t have to figure out those quirks. UK stations only use ticket/barrier systems, the occasional inspector, and only one type of automated ticket vendor. So Britain’s system is not fare-dodge proof but at least it’s less likely to leave the foreign traveller irritated, and thus more likely to return.

Finally, she told me, “So you’ll remember to stamp it next time.”
Me: “There won’t be a next time!” Which I had meant at that moment. And it gave me a mild jolt of pleasure to see her dismay – whether or not it was genuine.

Shaking off my irritation, I had to think of the shopping mission, which involved a 2km walk to Lidl for something strong to drink. OK, mission sounds hyperbolic; it should be simple, but it wasn’t quite, not helped by a misleading offline map. It takes me a while to get used to crossing roads where motorists feel that stopping at a green crossing is not mandatory. I’d fear the driver with dark obsessive thoughts just as much as the distracted. The shop is far enough away from the tourist hub that staff are never going to bother speaking English – if they were able, but normally that isn’t a problem, until they are trying to tell you to do something (such as “can you move along so I can put the barrier across”). Spirits are so much cheaper than in the UK it seems like a no-brainer. We get to pay majority sin tax, which actually feels someway absolving. Never mind that it might one day kill me. My ideal checkout cashier is someone who’s disinterested enough in their job not to care that I’m a Brit alone wanting to get through a bottle of vodka.

Back in the hotel I contemplated the night ahead…

Read more… Sin Cities (Amazon UK)

Or Amazon.com:

Alternative Brussels

Brussels North (Brux Nord) is just far enough away from the city centre to escape the touristy trap, and business bustle. You can get a sense of life’s grittier side. The reality of poverty – just as anywhere else on its outskirts – is never far from sight. What you do have to watch out for is traffic, not always easy to negotiate through, and stopping at a green crossing is for them discretionary.

Generally the hotels are cheaper. Mine was part of a bar-restaurant. It felt strange having to walk through it to get to my room. There was no side door, so every time I went out I felt the need to say hello – or at least some kind of friendly acknowledgement – to the staff. Typically, as a Brit, I never bothered to mention the problems, such as the mismatched TV remote (no English speaking stations anyway so I wasn’t too bothered) or the likewise mismatched (reverse indicated) hot and cold shower taps. Surely someone else either had or would. At least I had free wifi, which meant UK radio – essential company when you’re on your own.

Next morning brought with it leaden skies that promised to last all day. Still, I had a plan for the day. Firstly, I just needed a drink to go with my lunch: bread, cheese and cereal bars – since I always take lots of those. And rarely eat out, not just because on my own it draws attention but i’m vegetarian and on a tight budget. Excuses, I know.

A vending machine at the station would suffice. The arrival day I had used the adjacent shop, staring at various types of cheese, and even asked a woman what she thought would be vegetarian (since none are marked with a V). She didn’t know but seemed amenable to my asking. I wondered afterwards if it seemed like I was just trying make conversation. In British supermarkets I’d never speak to young women customers (or any customers). At the time I fell into the lazy assumption that because she wore a headscarf there was no question of her being available – and that it wouldn’t occur to her i’d make a play. It is said though that supermarkets are a good place to meet single people. But I digress.

I get so dependent on my GPS map that I wonder if i’ve lost what little ability I had at navigation. But approaching the station I was sure I had to turn right, and thought for once not to use my phone map. Mistake: there was no way of walking round to the other side, so had to turn back. The south entrance has a rolling LED display. Odd – and that I missed it. Don’t know if my short-sightedness and typically male lack of peripheral vision accounted.

The first destination: the Atomium, was map-saved. Just needed to follow the least congested route, which involved getting as near to the park as possible. I have to admit to not feeling confident crossing many of the roads in Brux north. They seem less ordered than in the UK.

The Atomium in a central tourist hub, has a tempting set of stairwells to reach the lower atom. But I had to save my legs.

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The next destination was the Museum of the Far East (or: Musées d’Extrême-Orient). I wanted to get there via the park. But again, not checking my phone every minute I strayed down the wrong path. Turned back by still failed to take the correct route. I had realised the right path as soon as i’d got onto the wrong path, but stupidly was too embarrassed to make another about turn. Most likely no one cared but anyway there was no hurry to get there. Nevertheless, I had this notion of another me who made the better choices and was reaching the destination – with a spring in his/my step and a sense of accomplishment. As it turned out I reached the museum and was fortunate to happen to be crossing the roads towards it at the same time as a couple, whilst simultaneously they were in some discussion with a beggar woman, who probably seeks out tourists. Well, good luck to her, I thought. Begging is no worse there than in many parts of the UK.

The actual museum was closed for restoration but I could still explore the encompassing grounds. No formal entrance, or guard – or anyone collecting donations. Maybe the beggar woman had taken that role, unofficially. The Japanese Pavilion and Chinese architecture looked magnificent, even in the grey daylight!

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I got back to the hotel inappropriately early – about 15:45 local. A maid/cleaner called about half hour later. Could there have been any possibility of her cleaning while I was there? Does that ever happen? She was a good ten years my senior so unlikely to be worried about anything I might try with her. Anyway, I told her it didn’t need doing.

I needed to restore my energy and be well-prepared for the night ahead.

 

Read more of my travels: Sin Cities – An Alternative Exploration of Europe (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)

Portslade – Brussels (part1)

Ever been in the grip of an overwhelming craving? Well, mine was the most unusual. Maybe the intensity of cravings is something you forget, but this was more than anything I can ever remember.

On the journey to London Victoria I discovered I’d left a sandwich at home (vegetarian turkey&stuffing), thinking I’d packed it but only realising I’d hadn’t when starting my lunch on the train. Suddenly the taste of that sandwich would have been the most wonderful thing. I even considered finding a Tesco in London. This craving was becoming all-consuming, to the point it might cause me to make some stupid error for a lack of focus on the travel. Somehow I got through the oftentimes tricky tube system. Having some familiarity with it helps, but thought it was only a matter of time before I made a slip-up. But somehow made it ok to St Pancras. I had a vague hope there’d be a vegetarian shop (not just restaurant) at this massive international station. But no.

Once on the Eurostar my hope for a turkey-substitute sandwich was all but gone. But the craving hadn’t. It’s not that I consider myself to have an addictive personality – although giving up alcohol would be a challenge. I can usually go a week without it, without craving it. But what I was experiencing then went so much deeper than mere hunger.

The worst thing is knowing something you could have had is now unobtainable.

There was so much to look forward on the trip. I had to forget about this flipping sandwich!

Read more of my travels: Sin Cities (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)

Post-travel security…?

We all expect to have our luggage scanned before setting off abroad, even with Eurostar. But on arrival? This happened to me yesterday after exiting the platform at St Pancras! I was wondering what They thought I could have smuggled into my bag between Brussels terminal and London. Did They suspect there was a dodgy member of staff at Brussels Eurostar I was collaborating with in my sophisticated criminal operation?

Of course, that notion is absurd! So I’m trying to get answers, such as was I stopped at random, or targeted?

Thanks for indulging me in this rant.

I hope resume normal blogging soon.