Mrs A and I are quite getting in to the idea of sneaky weekend trips away without the rest of the fam. We’ve just booked another. Flushed with the success of last year’s wet and windy visit to Westport on the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland with The Johnsons, we then followed up with a more genteel destination. Bruges didn’t require the same extreme hiking mentality, nor square-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped resolve to enjoy-despite-the weather as Westport. Neither did the Belgian town have the cacophonous accompaniment of Storm Brian.
What both trips did have in common, however, was unquenchable thirsts and raging hungers. We ate and drank well. Bruges is spectacularly able to meet both these needs. Days (and nights) were spent ambling through the medieval city’s pretty streets; exploring the canals (this was the ‘Venice of the North’ after all, doffing a respectful cap to other claimants for this title that include Amsterdam and, well, Wigan); and visiting the many fine landmark buildings.
Refuelling fitted in with this pattern well. Coffee by the chocolate museum, cake in the shadow of the The Belfry, brewery tour by the Dijver Canal, beers in the Duvelorium overlooking the Markt, moules marinieres by the Skinners House…. Aperol Spritz in the karaoke bar at the end of our road at 2am in the morning. To be fair the last named was only attempted by Sue who claimed to have discovered a liking for this luminescent, sickly alcoholic cough medicine concoction. Something we all doubted when she spent the day after our return ill in bed with gastrospritz aperolitis. Or something.
|Duvelorium. Rude not to.
By that time of the night, the rest of us were invariably on ‘weak’ beers. That’s how the locals referred to anything below 6%. Earlier, we dropped in on a bar on the northern canals by the Bonne Chieremolen windmill for a spot of refreshment. To accompany a sharing platter of savoury-topped bread, deep-fried fish nibbles and posh chicken nuggets, the barman recommended to me a bottle of Triple de Garre Van Steenberg beer, which I accepted, until I learnt it weighed in at 12.4%! I bridled at the strength of a such a thing. Especially on a lunch time. Despite the barman’s insistence (“You can take it! You are English, no?”), I found the will to decline and settled for a mere 8% brew.
Fast forward to our next trip. We’ve just booked a weekend in Krakow in late January, when the average temperature appears to be around -4º centigrade. Westport may yet seem benign.
These breaks are not intended to replace family holidays. Far from it. Merely a welcome diversification spawned of life-cycle shifts. Indeed, the four of us spending a week away with Dad and Bruv is a regular and welcome fixture in the calendar.
But I have to ask. Who on earth takes a printer on holiday? I don’t mean one of those flash, palm-sized gadgets you attach to your phone. No, I refer to a traditional, clunky, early 21st century combined fax, printer and photocopier. The sort that if you managed to wedge it into the compact boot of a Hyundai i10, together with cables and cartridges, there might not be room for much other luggage.
Mrs A, myself and the girls had pitched up at our log cabin on the Norfolk coast to spend a few days with Dad and Bruv. After unloading our car of dog, food and holdalls, we helped Bruv lever out his printer and, with one of us at each corner, humped the beast into the cabin. It rested on the table, causing the legs to bulge slightly.
Between bouts of furious piss-taking and general hilarity, Bruv found the wherewithall to explain that the Wi-Fi was on the blink at home and that he was desperate to get his tax return completed, printed and posted so that he could bank his rebate tout-suite. Making space in the car for the printer was more important than packing, say, clothes, or anything else useful. Good job the barometer needle had swung firmly to ‘good’ with all immediate forecasts predicting a heatwave.
We explored the cabin that was to be our home for the next few days: hot-tub, check; en-suites, check; BBQ terrace, check. Just one hitch. We were nestled at the bottom of a steep valley, shaded by conifers and beeches. Wi-Fi: uncheck. Intermittent at best. (Who knew Norfolk had hills?)
The weather did not disappoint, even if the IT did. There were some glorious cliff top walks to Cromer and Mundesley; and plenty of lounging around in the sun at genteel locations like Felbrigg Hall and Overstrand. I like Norfolk.
The World Cup was underway. We saw a couple of games in the bar on site. But the real drama occurred not on football night, but on a club night when we ostentatiously smashed up the quiz and won the price of our meals. There’s nothing more satisfying than winning a quiz. Except possibly watching Daughter No 2 roasting the barman who tried to make a cheap sexist comment. One round had as its theme the meanings of symbols on clothing care labels. “One for the ladies only, I think!” he winked as he collected our empties. Daughter No 2 fixed him with her death stare and told him he was disgraceful. He wasn’t expecting that and muttered something about not meaning it. The swiftest backtracking seen since the last Brexit Secretary resigned.
Bruv had fought the wi-fi and managed to finalise his tax return by the end of the week. He printed it off with a flourish wholly undeserving of the mad exercise.
I keep telling Mrs A that we should sell off our gaff in Berko and cash in on its ridiculously inflated prices and move to the coast. However, I’m starting to feel like we may have missed the boat. We’ve had a couple of trips to the north Kent coast this year to see friends. Already the price differential seems to be narrowing. Whitstable would still be near the top of my list. Built around fishing, tourism and tarmacadum, the place is famous for oysters, sunsets and real ale. Lovely though it is, the lively, independent and slightly eccentric feel is proving attractive to retiring London-types moving in and ramping up the prices. Our hosts beat the rush and upped sticks from South Hampstead about 7 years ago. Smart move.
Herne Bay, just along the coast still has some juice left in the market and has much going for it. What it lacks is the tousled, faintly Bohemian appeal of its neighbour. I can’t knock the substantial breakfast served by friendly staff in the Cook House café by the pier. But is that a sufficiently compelling factor to relocate? Almost…
To be fair, neither town is ideal for commuting to the Big City more than a couple of days a week. The rail journeys are still painfully slow this far east despite HS1. These are very much semi-retirement destinations.
Folkestone, though, is starting to benefit from HS1 and the steady increase in bullet-shaped trains. I paid an overdue visit in August, although buying a train ticket wasn’t as straight forward as I expected. And not just because the ticket-lady couldn’t stop looking at the purple pimple nestled angrily on my chin. No, depending on when you travel, there are various options including or excluding the high speed option; and in or out of peak hours; or a promotional offer, or the reckless desire to travel just any bleedin’ time you wanted.
Having negotiated the purchase which afforded me the right to traverse those precious HS1 tracks, I settled into my Javelin train. ‘Britain’s Fastest’ it said on the cab. That one was named in honour of Paralympic sprinter Jonny Peacock.
Rushed into service prior to the 2012 London Olympics, the Javelins have split open commuting times (for those that can afford them). Stratford, Ashford and Ebbsfleet comprise the ‘International’ stations on the fast line out of St Pancras International. Stations beyond have seen journey times more than halved: Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Margate. But not to any significant degree, Whistable or Herne Bay.
Trouble is, Folkestone is a town of two halves. I jumped off the train and found the area close to the station and down to the front pretty grotty, rundown and not without an air of hostility. A girl in her early twenties with multi-piercings and long ginger hair, wearing skimpy animal-print clothing was shuffling along in front of me, incumbered by broken-backed slippers. She halted her phone conversation to bark “Whachoo lookin’ at, mug?”, as a bloke overtook her and couldn’t resist a peaking back over his shoulder at this vision. Busted.
Then I skittered out on to the cliff top path like a cork from a bottle and suddenly breathed deeply. It felt like a different world. Folkestone seems to have a structural shift between the town and the coast. Over a giant cup of coffee and the crumbliest cookie ever baked, I relaxed on the terrace outside the Leas Cliff Pavilion overlooking a stream of liners entering and exiting Dover Harbour on the horizon. And wondered (only briefly) if I should pop back in October to catch Joe Pasquali live at the venue.
The cliff path dropped down to a wide shingle beach and I wound my way back to town past some glorious houses, splashes of public art, beach huts and man-made sea bathing enclaves. The port area sums up Folkestone very neatly: gruesome, decrepit 70’s flats overlooking a tasteful and ambitious refurbishment of the town’s old harbour. If I was a betting man, or at least one with decent-sized cajones (ahem), I should be taking a property punt on the town. Get ahead of the curve, that’s what I say. Except this is just wishful thinking. I have to gird my loins for a long-range Cheltenham Festival punt, so finding the grit to gamble the retirement plan on a town’s potential resurgence seems remote. Back to the racing ante-post lists, then.
High Summer wound into a mild Autumn and we paid a visit to the homeland to catch up with Bruv for his birthday. Those brief 2½ days in Yorkshire echoed Westport in the intensity of weather. On the Castleton Road, the magnificent vistas of Farndale and Rosedale to left and right, we encountered snow and screaming winds, broken up by a vivid sunset streaming out from under a dramatic linear cloudbase. The moor beyond The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge resembled the fire and freeze of Iceland.
We were on our way to the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar, surely one of the most romantically perfect settings anywhere on the stunning coast. The building perches on a headland 200 foot above the broiling North Sea, purposefully setting its granite countenance against the sharp north-easterlies; and affording a view over the striking bay, scarified at the water’s edge from its days as an alum-mining port, towards the fishing village of Robin Hoods Bay tumbling down the opposite headland.
It's been estimated that 25m tons of shale and rock were hewn from the quarries along this coast to produce the alum that was used as a colour fixative in leather goods. Together with extensive ironstone mining further north, 19th century heavy industry has shaped the coast in these parts more than the thrilling, raw view from the Raven Hall Hotel might suggest.
A visit to Dalby Forest next day could not have been more different. Shimmering Autumn sunlight from crisp blue skies illuminated golden leaves, with barely a breath of wind to cajole them from the branches. The landscape here has been shaped by farming and forestry, rather than mineral extraction.
It was the first day of GMT. Daughter No 2 hadn’t come with us. She texted Mrs A who looked up from her phone and said “This is why you can’t leave children on their own…” The text said, ‘Mum, have the clocks gone back or forwards?’ The very phone on which she texted would have updated automatically.
And Bruv is still waiting for his tax rebate.