Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

bryson2The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson Cantankerous in the nicest possible way, Britain’s favourite grumpy old man shows us in all our eccentricity, boorishness and surliness.

It’s impossible to take offence at his wry observations because at heart he’s an admiring Anglophile who finds much to amuse in our foibles and foolishness.

Get him on pet topics of sullen service, dog shit on pavements and littering though, and he reveals an entirely different side to his character. He’s a grammar Nazi too, so watch your punctuation.

For the most part it’s a journey in which he finds much to like, an extended love letter to his adopted country.

There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, he declares, and suggests it might be Britain’s most glorious achievement.

Britain, he judges, is calm, measured and quite grown up, a nation that appreciates small pleasures and is made up of “the only people in the world who become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit”.

Under cover of advancing age, he does a nice line in bafflement at the world around him and incomprehension at living in a country full of celebrities whose “names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern”.

He’s an ideal travelling companion with a sharp eye, an inquisitive mind and an opinion on everything. He’s probably seen more of the British Isles than anyone who lives there – and still manages to like us.

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THEY’DSC_0093RE museum pieces now. Badged, chromed, finned, gas-guzzling monsters that had their heyday more than half a century ago.

Silky curves, streamlined tails and rocket motifs sold the notion of cars taking journeys to the future.

Symbols of speed, agility and aggression advertised what was under the hood. Sleek styling and ornamentation offered distinctive personality – and form always trumped function if it looked good.

There’s a n13552617634_1140f44a5b_mostalgic pull towards vehicles like these. The open road with the wind in your hair is all very well……but there are no airbags or power-steering and you can forget sat-nav and the million-and-one other improvements that come as standard on modern vehicle.

Not to mention their dire fuel economy. Think about it. Would you really like a gas guzzler that does only 6-7 mpg? You would? Me too, though in another half century these vehicles may come to symbolize a shallow, destructive culture – if they don’t already.

The LeMay muse13567411383_56369cfd8d_mum is a pistonhead’s dream and even if you don’t count yourself as one of those there’s plenty to absorb.

The history of the car is part of all our lives and with 350 examples on display the context of their evolution is brilliantly told.

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This moving war memorial to merchant seamen sits on the dockside in Cardiff Bay, south Wales.

Approach from one direction and you see the ribs of a ship resting on its hull. Seen from the other you see the face that represents all the mariners who lost their lives keeping Britain’s shipping lanes open.

The Bay area is now a place of plush apartments, swish hotels, yacht marinas, fancy restaurants and arts venues. But it wasn’t always so.

When Cardiff was a thriving port, booming on coal exports, the lure of plentiful work and good pay drew people from around the globe.

With them, too, came ladies of the night, enticed by the prospect of separating lonely sailors from enforced celibacy and fat pay packets.

The area then was known as Tiger Bay and was a notorious red-light district, but as the coal trade went into decline so did the port and dereliction and dole became the new realities.

Despite the regeneration effort that began in the late 1980s, the scheme continues to be controversial.

Cardiff-born planning specialist Adrian Jones recently called it a contender for the worst example of waterside regeneration in Britain.

That seems a bit harsh considering what was there before, but it does reinforce how hard it is to build communities and that the intricate web of everyday life requires more than simply money and shiny new architecture.

IMG_5613As a new immigrant to the US the opportunity to travel across the continent by rail – from sea to shining sea – was not to be missed. Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, three days out, three days back and in between a weekend in the stellar company of Nieman Fellows at their 75th anniversary at Harvard. What’s not to like?

Along the way we’d be traversing the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies, absorbing the vastness of Montana and its big skies, the wild immensity of North Dakota amid its fracking boom and the more manicured landscapes of New York State with its rolling hills, rich greenery and picture-book villages.

What followed revealed far more than the epic scenery in my newly chosen country, it showed the daunting determination of pioneers who put a railroad through tremendously harsh terrain, and a distinct lack of ambition by modern-day politicians to build on their legacy.

Our Amtrak adventure began badly. The scheduled departure from Seattle’s King Street Station was delayed due to the unexplained late arrival of the Empire Builder from Chicago.

With no digital displays on site, no wifi, and no useful information from Amtrak there was much confusion among passengers. An hour’s delay became two, then three, then four.

The evening meal we were supposed to be enjoying while skirting Puget Sound and climbing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains became a Subway snack box, a sandwich, a cookie and a bag of chips eaten in situ.

With time hanging heavy and excitement ebbing out the door I started to ponder: Why was there no sense of occasion when arriving at the station? Why wasn’t this route being promoted as a wonder of the rail network?

Where was the signage for Empire Builder travelers? Where was the lounge for those embarking on this 2,200-mile trip? And in a land of hype and hard sell where were the mugs, the T-shirts, the baseball caps and trinkets? Why did we feel forgotten instead of special?

Seahawks fans came and went, a raucous, painted tribe from across the way at Century Link Field where 67,000 of them had watched their team beat the Jaguars 45-17. They went home happy. We sat and watched and strained to hear wisps of information from the acoustically-challenged ticket hall PA system.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Twitter feed urged travelers: “RT if you’re ready to take your first X-country trip with us #enjoythejourney” My reply: “I’m ready, you’re four hours late!” failed to elicit an @Amtrak response.

It was left to one of the rail staff, standing on a bench and shouting into the echoing hall, to explain the details of what was unfolding. Notions of an American-style, Orient Express experience were rapidly diminishing.

IMG_5619We left in darkness at around 9pm, almost five hours late. We saw nothing of the marvels of the mountains in this disappointing beginning to a much–anticipated trip. Instead we tried to focus on trailblazers Lewis and Clark, in whose vicinity, if not footsteps, we were travelling for part of the way. They would surely have shrugged it off as a minor irritation and we tried to do the same.

The train staff were annoyingly, repetitively, apologetic as they tried to compensate for the shortcomings though they, too, were suffering the consequences.

We never did get an official explanation for the lateness. A landslide, mudslide, track fire, flooded rails, bison on the line, any of these would have salved the situation and even added to the enjoyment.

The more likely explanation was that the incoming train was forced to give way to freight, sidelined so the real business of the railroad could be conducted. Track repair was another excuse – heavy oil traffic means more maintenance, our car assistant said. The Empire Builder’s punctuality record for August 2013 shows it was on time on only a third of its journeys. For the previous 12 months it fared better, with a 61% time-keeping record – but that’s a long way short of acceptable efficiency.

Amtrak lays the blame firmly at the door of the freight companies on whose track it travels and in the case of the Empire Builder, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) is cited for the bulk of the problems.

Having someone to blame is all very well, but as a customer I just want something that works and that’s seemingly beyond Amtrak’s scope to guarantee. Their fares are expensive (we could have flown business class to Boston and back for less) their punctuality is poor and they lack the investment and the infrastructure to get out of the mess they are in. Truly, this is no way to run a railroad.

For anyone who has traveled in Europe where train travel is heavily subsidized the contrast could not be greater. High-speed, long-distance routes criss-cross the continent, trains are modern and luxurious, stations are well-appointed and businesslike, and the overall experience is one of effortless efficiency.

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Amtrak’s rolling stock is visibly ageing and tired. The polished metal exteriors of the two-storey Superliners have a certain nostalgic appeal, but that’s quickly extinguished by the dumpy interiors.

Our upper berth roomette was on the cramped side of cozy, with no room for suitcases which had to be left in rack alongside an aisle downstairs. Beneath the facing seats which flatten out into a single bed I found popcorn remnants dropped by the previous occupants and a Sudoku puzzle book. Clearly corners had been cut to get the train back into service leaving me to wonder what else had been skimped on.

We had only a single powerpoint, that’s standard. But the audio system didn’t work, the air-conditioning didn’t work, the heating controls didn’t work.  And sharing restrooms and showers was always going to be a challenge. (They weren’t cleaned during the trip). On the return leg a vacuum problem knocked out all the restrooms in the carriage, and the water heater failed meaning cold showers only. And so it went on.

Staff worked tirelessly to overcome the difficulties but the overall impression was one of worn-out kit being constantly resuscitated when it would have been kinder to put it out of its misery. Either that, or take the whole kit-and-kaboodle out of service for proper restoration.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Amtrak: It’s crucified for the subsidies it gets, pilloried over costs and reliability and then held up as an example of the failure and wastefulness of public monopolies. Congress’s Catch 22 requires the company to provide long distance routes as a public service and then denies it sufficient funds to fulfill the requirement.

Privatisation has no solutions either, unless the public is prepared to countenance the sale of profitable lines in the north-east and the closure of all others.

Why does it have to come down to all-or-nothing choices between unfettered capitalism and underfunded public monopolies? Europe’s high-speed rail network shows that there are alternatives, if you accept the notion of public service – and are prepared to fund it.

There’s value to keeping cars off the road, limiting CO2 emissions from trucks and planes and keeping far-flung communities linked by rail, but the ledger that balances costs per passenger mile doesn’t have a column for less tangible benefits.

Highways continue to suck up the bulk of transport subsidies in the US and because of powerful lobby interests they do so without the hue and cry surrounding the funding of railroads.

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I’m not anti-car, nor opposed to flying for that matter, but in a country of vast distances, choked roads and crowded skies a modern, high-speed, rail network should be part of the transport mix.

There were many things Amtrak could, and ought, to have done better on our trip. But travelling through the landscape, watching a canvas of epic proportions unfold, has no equal by road or from the air and in the end that was its saving grace.

The next step for the service has to be to build on the enterprise and imagination of the early railroad pioneers. Their blood, sweat and tears deserve a better legacy than mere memories of faded glory.

IMG_5277It’s 12-metres tall, it’s by Barcelona-based designer Jaume Piensa and its called “Wonderland”. It stands outside the new Bow building in Calgary, Canada, and I think it’s rather good.

It’s an odd thing to do, to spend your day off visiting a cemetery when you have no connection to anyone there. No connection, that is, beyond the universal fate that binds everyone in its final embrace.

As one of the e8489090410_b13863a6a9_zpitaphs succinctly puts it: “Do not grieve, we are all pilgrims on a journey to the same destination.”

Highgate Cemetery in north London has many pilgrims, more than 150,000 of them, from all stratas of society and all walks of life.

Their wealth, their importance, their vanities are submerged now beneath a sea of thick ivy, their status enveloped by a tide of roots and suckers.

The greenery flows over the headstones, obliterating the pious messages and the earnest promises that they will never be forgotten.

There’ll be no loved ones visiting many of these graves, only gawpers like myself, looking for clues to the personality of the person beneath the algae-encrusted stones and tangled undergrowth.

Obelisks, once so fashionable among the hoi polloi with their echoes of a mighty civilization, lurch at drunken angles, undone by London’s clay and poorly prepared foundations.The mighty family vaults that signpost merit and importance look overbearing and vulgar.

In places the heavy blocks have tilted and cracked, undermining the impression of precision and permanence. Worse still, some facades have slipped or broken away to reveal cheap brick linings; how very common, like a sewer tunnel route to the afterlife.

The cemetery’s best known and most visited resident is the political philosopher Karl Marx whose fat head sits atop a large memorial block that requires visitors to look up at him.

There were no more than a dozen people at his funeral in 1883 but as his ideas and influence spread more and more people came to see his grave.

Because he had originally been interred in a secluded area of the cemetery access was a problem so in 1956 he was dug up and moved to the current site – such is the price of fame.

A short walk away from him is the grave of George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans, author of Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. It’s big, if unremarkable given her celebrity, and she’s surrounded by friends and progressive thinkers of her time.

Far less imposi8487956923_e2eebb306e_zng is the grave of another author, Douglas Adams, who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide ToThe Galaxy, a simple grey slab in front of which, when I was there, was a beaker of pens and pencils.

Adams was the man who said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by”.

Less imposing still is the final resting place of legendary folk guitarist Bert Jansch who died in 2011 and seems to have been hurriedly squeezed into a predominantly Polish section near the entry gate where a small plaque and a muddle of plant pots on yellowing, withered grass marks the spot.

Just a few yards from Jansch is Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, the Grenada-born, black superstar of 20s and 30s Britain, whose talent for the piano was only exceeded by his talent with the ladies. It all endly badly for him and you can read more about it here.”

Of all the epitaphs, I liked two in particular: TV presenter Jeremy Beadle who exhorted readers to: “Ask my friends” and the inscription on the stone of Janet Lockyer that simply stated: “Been there done that”.

toozlaI’ve had only the briefest of acquaintances with Toozla, a Russian-based augmented reality outfit that is using location-triggered audio to pep up experiences for tourists, but I like the idea enough to flag it up here.

Unlike most AR apps that overlay text on a camera view, Toozla uses voiced information that is tethered to proximity to places of interest.

There are Wikipedia text entries in the mix too, along with weather from Wunderground and UGC voice notes that can be anchored to a place so others can hear about individual impressions and experiences.

Audio has many advantages over text in this kind of context, both in the amount of information it can convey and because it lets people concentrate on their surroundings rather than looking at a screen, though there’s also an overhead in file download size and the ability to skim content for relevance.

For commercial companies seeking to profit from the tourist trade there are opportunities to incorporate sales and promotion activity linked to location.

There are also sponsorships like that of the Wellcome Foundation’s for a Medical London tour, written and presented by historian Richard Barnett, last year for City Stories Walks

As Broadcastr, another player in this area, states:  “It’s like a museum tour of the entire world.”

The Beta-service, which has just followed up its iPhone release with an Android app, lets users record their own content, create playlists, follow their friends, and share on Facebook.

As ever, extracting value from the mix is the hard part; hearing voices is one thing, but a cacophony isn’t helpful. The winner here will be the service that makes best use of listener time while adding real value to the experience of place.

The BBC has a seam of authoritative, expertly produced, historical audio recordings but rights issues, commercial impact considerations and the enormity of digitizing, filtering, voicing and repackaging the material is likely to stymie progress any time soon and that’s a huge shame.

In a country like the UK, with such an extraordinary history, bringing the past to life is enriching for visitors and likely to be good business too.

governor's messageDear Governor Perry,
Perhaps cutting the proof-reading budget for official documents like your Welcome to Austin message wasn’t such a good idea.
Yours sincerely,
Bob Bullock

How is it possible that the Experience Music Project is even in King5’s nomination list for western Washington’s biggest public eyesore, never mind running second to the Alaskan Way Viaduct?

We know a thing or two about monstrous carbuncles here in London, just ask Prince Charles. In fact, it’s said that architects and planners inflicted more damage on the capital than was ever managed by the Luftwaffe.

Far from being an eyesore, Frank Gehry’s EMP is one of Seattle’s finest buildings – inside and out.

And Seattleites should put up a statue to Paul Allen for founding such a fabulous home for Jimi Hendrix’s memorabilia, right down to the purple haze on the building.

If you decide really don’t want it, I’m sure our Mayor Boris Johnson would be happy to take it off your hands.

For what it’s worth my nomination would be for the downtown stretch of I-5. Now if you were to dig it up, flood it and import some gondolas from Venice think how much better your morning commute might be.