Tuesday, 26 July 2016

High force. Low force. Medium force?

We went to a very special waterfall called High Force today. I'm not sure if it's in County Durham, Northumberland or Cumbria as we seem to be in an area which straddles all three counties.

The day started at Low Force, which is a slightly less impressive waterfall down stream from his similarly-named brother. There's a rather charming visitors' centre there which is funded by the European Union. It's got a very charming cafe, and a little art gallery selling prints and paintings by local artists. I bought a very beautiful print of an inviting-looking stile for £25, which felt like a bargain. The stiles in these parts often look like the entrances to Neolithic tombs. Two great slabs of stone which you have to squeeze yourself through. This particular painting made me want to find the stile, if for no other reason than to see what what behind it, which seemed so inviting in the picture. Imagine my excitement, therefore, when I left the visitors' centre and immediately found myself passing through said stile. The print hadn't lied: Beyond the stile was an ancient pedestrian suspension bridge, and from the bridge the views of Low Force were quite remarkable. It was a rickety old thing with wooden foot boards which seemed to bow and bend as we made our way across. Our minds weren't hugely put at rest by the sign post on the bridge which suggested we could only cross one at a time.

When we returned to the bridge later in the day we witnessed a family scattering the ashes of a loved one. The ashes billowed like a giant, beautiful cloud and disappeared into the wind. It made me feel a little sad.

The earth in these parts is incredibly peaty which means all the rivers round here are the colour of copper. The water frothing, foaming and bursting over the rocks at Low Force seemed to stripe. Fluffy white, then tea brown, then a bright orange which looked like a Tartrazine-infused Sodastream!

We walked along the winding river for two miles. Nathan and I fulfilled our Godfathery duties by creating a magical treasure hunt for the two little girls in our group. I had bought them both a little glass bottle with a number of tiny rubbers shaped like bees inside. As we walked along the river Nathan, Raily, Sam and I would periodically run ahead and chalk little clues on gates and large stones. The girls were brilliantly enthusiastic and entranced by the stories we concocted. I even managed to get complete strangers to deliver cryptic clues to them!

High Force itself is a hugely impressive waterfall which is actually 21 meters tall. It's certainly the highest waterfall I've visited in the UK (although, I'll be honest: I've not visited a great many!)

On our way back, we went wild swimming and paddling in a gentle stretch of the river. I paddled. Nathan swam. It was, he said, the coldest water he'd ever swum in. Drying himself with a towel afterwards was apparently like running sandpaper across his body.

We have identified the birds which we've seen en masse around our Youth Hostel. They're pheasants. I'm told that, at this time of year, they release scores of juvenile pheasants into the fields so that there's loads of them to kill when the hunting season begins. They're plainly bred to be stupid, or to have a mega death wish. The ones we saw plainly haven't yet understood that cars don't feel very good when they hit you. There are pheasant carcasses all the way along the road to the hostel. In fact, all the roads around here are road-kill heaven. Bunny massacres.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Sycamore Gap

The young people in our group have opened a massage parlour in one of the Youth Hostel dormitories! It costs 50p, and for that you get a ten-minute shoulder rub. It's a very professional concern, right down to the John Grant music they were playing in the parlour. I'm trying to encourage them to branch out into aromatherapy!

This morning we went to Vindolanda, a Roman fort very close to Hadrian's Wall and a site of enormous archeological importance probably best known for its "letters", a set of wooden tablets with all sorts of material handwritten in Latin on them. The letters were obviously thrown out and partially burned on a bonfire before a rainstorm put the fire out and no one bothered to light it again. They are particularly important because they're real letters which give us a genuine sense of what ordinary Roman people were saying and thinking. The most famous, and my personal favourite is a birthday invitation from a woman called Claudia Severa to a female friend: "I send you a warm invitation to come to us on September 11th." It's particularly important because it is the earliest example of a woman's handwriting in Roman history.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that a shoe belonging to the woman she was writing to has also been dug up, and it is almost perfectly preserved even down to the maker's stamp! More than that, it is incredibly pretty. The leather work is stunning, and would not have looked out of place on a modern woman's foot.

Going to Vindolanda gave me such a strong sense of how advanced the Roman civilisation actually was. These people weren't just surviving. They were aesthetes. They wore highly intricate items of jewellery. They painted glasses with extraordinarily colourful scenes. They were fastidiously clean. They even had birthday parties!

From Vindolanda we went to Sycamore Gap, that wonderful spot where Hadrian's Wall plummets down one hillside, and sharply ascends the next with the most perfectly shaped sycamore tree sitting in the ravine between the two. It's best known for having appeared in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and, as a result has taken on an almost mystical significance. We'd all been there before - together, in fact - but the walk along the crag from Steel Rigg is breathtaking and worth doing any number of times. You can see for miles from up there. Hadrian's Wall clings proudly to the landscape and, on the tops of the wall, thousands of wild flowers and grasses billow and rustle in the wind. It has to be one of the most magical places in the world.

I lined up the sound of random singing on my iPhone to encourage young Jeanie that the tree at Sycamore Gap had magical powers. If only I could rediscover that childhood sense of awe in the world. Watching her wide-eyed expression as she pressed her ear to the tree trunk and listened for the singing was infectious and highly moving. Everyone, in my view, should remain open to the possibility of magic in the world.

The crag also provides a rather special echo, which we spent some time exploring with whistles and shouts. We did the same the last time we visited. The experience never grows old!

This evening Tanya, Paul and their kids arrived at the Youth Hostel, and Sam cooked us all a wonderful stew for tea, followed by strawberries with cream and meringues.

And that was the end of the day, really. Meriel has made herself a little window seat from where she can look out over the valley opposite. The sun shone brightly this evening and the fields on the side of the hills started glowing golden yellow and lime green. We may well sleep well tonight!

North Pennines

It feels like we're a million miles away from civilisation right now. A group of us have hired a whole youth hostel in the North Pennines and it's literally in the middle of nowhere. It's been something of a revelation to discover that you can take over an entire youth hostel for a week, and it's more than half the cost of a cottage.

Our hostel has six rooms. Some are dormitories with bunk beds, which suit the families, and others, like ours, have double beds in them. The building was formally a set of cottages belonging to miners and it sits on the edge of a glorious hillside in what's known as a "dark sky region" which means the stars here are something else because there's absolutely no light pollution.

The day started in Essex with breakfast at my parents' kitchen table. We piled in the car at about 9, and sped off down the county lanes, marvelling at how colourful the verges look at this time of the year with thousands of glorious wild flowers strobing past the windows.

The journey up north was incredibly speedy. Straight up the A1: past the cool Art Deco building at Wanstead, past RAF Wittering with its harrier jump jet, and up into Nottinghamshire via the series of little road side "attractions" which make the A1 so much more entertaining than the major motorways.

Sadly, more and more of these special landmarks are disappearing, including the rickety mining chute on the hillside at Blyth which featured so prominently in my film about the A1. It was here where we filmed a choir of miners singing about the strike in the 1980s. It was on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire where so much of the fighting happened. Nottinghamshire miners didn't strike, so the Yorkshire chaps drove down the A1 to picket. I always felt the chute should be left as a monument to those troubled times. But today I learned that it has gone. It made me feel very sad, but somehow proud that I'd made the A1 film and captured the old mining equipment forever on celluloid.

We stopped off in Darlington where Nathan met a pair of fellow knitting podcasters for the first time. Dan and Kay Jones present the Bakery Bears podcast and, on many occasions, I have fallen asleep to their dulcet tones. We tend to watch/ listen to ten minutes of pod cast before going to sleep most nights, so meeting such a familiar pair of faces in the flesh was a little bit strange. They are so nice, however, and Kay had made us all sorts of fabulous cakes.

The people in Darlington are all incredibly friendly. Sam and I went shopping in the local Asda and got talking to a very charming woman behind the tills. We had a lovely chat about he grandmother who lives in Suffolk.

The journey from Darlington to the Northern Pennines was entirely cross country, and took us through some of the most beautiful scenery I think I've ever seen. The sky was heavy: dark, brooding, misty, but with the odd shard of sunlight bursting through the clouds and lighting little areas of field and moorland. We were accompanied on our journey by the sounds of ABBA: The Album. The soaring mysticism of Eagle seemed profoundly appropriate for some reason.

On a whim we stopped off to look at the Roman Bridge at Pierce Bridge. It's a fascinating spot. The river has moved since the bridge was built and all that remains are the foundations - a set of rather modern-looking square blocks - which sit in a little grassy dell next to the river. There was a beautiful tree-lined hollow way which led us from the main road along the side of the river.

As we pulled off the main road and started heading for Nine Banks, we were astounded by the sheer number of quails which were hanging out by the side of the road. I don't think I've ever seen a quail in the wild before. Now I've seen about eighty.

I made tea for everyone tonight. We had pasta with mushrooms, courgette, Halloumi, Parmesan and olive oil. My godson Will is currently limbering up to do his 11+, so he's in the midst of doing scores and scores of tests. The conversation over dinner turned to Oscar Wilde, for some reason, and Meriel mentioned The Little Match Girl, which we all decided was one of the saddest stories ever told. Will chipped in: "I liked the Little Match Girl. I thought it was sad, but I was in the middle of a test so I couldn't care too much!" The madness of modern education! In my day everything was judged on how much empathy we could pour into a subject!

We went for an twilight walk to see if we could find some bats. At 10pm it was still quite light. There's a huge difference at this time of the year between the level of light in the sky at 10pm in London and the level of light up here at the same time. We walked to the top of a hill, and stood in silence listening to a hundred thousand sheep baaing from miles away. We did see bats. Lots of them. It was amazing.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Call My Bluff

Sam, Nathan and I are sitting with my Dad watching excerpts from this year's Proms. We're currently watching a soprano singing Mozart with an early music ensemble. She's doing a lovely job with some brilliantly pure top notes and freakishly precise runs, but she's also doing "opera singer acting" which I find very embarrassing. There altogether too much coquettish pouting and flickering eyes for my liking. I'm also not that into early music ensembles. Playing cellos without spikes strikes me as affected rather than sonically interesting.

Our holiday has started and Sam and I piled into the car in Highgate in the late afternoon and headed north to Thaxted, after picking Nathan up at Tottenham Hale.

I'd spent the morning driving around London having woken up utterly deaf. I immediately realised I had the mother of all issues with wax and took myself to a clinic in Parson's Green where I know they do ear syringing. Naturally, I pretended I'd been putting olive oil in my ears for a week or so like a good boy and the nurse confirmed that I had huge quantities of wax stuffed up there. She also told me that I had very small ear canals. You learn something new every day. I've always known that the outside of my ears were little. It turns out I'm not a Tardis. And you know what they say about little ears? Big teeth.

Anyway, the syringing had a fabulous effect on both my balance, and my ability to hear high-pitched sounds.

And speaking of teeth, I had an appointment with the dental hygienist in the mid-afternoon. She scraped and scrubbed and tutted and told me I had mild acid erosion and that I needed to wear my gum guard more regularly. She also told me to drink water after eating anything vaguely acidic. I got very uncomfortable in the chair but my teeth now feel gloriously clean.

We reached Thaxted at about 7. Stuart, Sally and their girls were here, and we celebrated my Dad's birthday (2 days early) with presents, a fabulous buffet of food, and a night of brilliant games, including home-made versions of Call My Bluff and Pictionary and a board game called Scategories which made us laugh like lunatics. It was a brilliant night and a great prelude to our holiday which begins in earnest tomorrow with a journey up the A1.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Pissing into the wind

As I left the house today, I found a young lad pissing in our alleyway. A great, long stream of urine rolled its way down the incline towards me. I was horrified. That alleyway is effectively our garden. Nathan and I spent an hour sweeping up all the rubbish from it the other day, and this morning I picked up and removed a wet wipe covered in human excrement that some parent had plainly left there after ducking off the main road to sort out a little accident in her son's pants. I live opposite a pub. He could have popped in there for his wee. So I shouted at him: "that's right, mate, piss all over my alleyway." Instead of having the decency to be contrite or apologise, he took the earphones out of his ears and decided to take me on with his plummy, arrogant accent. "What do you want me to do about it? Retract it?" "No. I just want you not to do it again." He stood for a while gasping like a goldfish. "Go on!" I said, "say something erudite and witty as a come back... Go on, I dare you..." His response was as pathetic as it was rude, "why don't you lick it up?" What a twat. I hate young posh blokes who are plainly way too used to getting their way. I was half-tempted to grab piece of paper, soak up some of his pee, and launch it at the bastard's face. Actually what I should have done was follow him home and then pee through his mummy's letterbox.

On my way into central London I listened to Any Questions on Radio 4 and found myself agreeing with almost everything that was said regardless of whether it was said by a Tory or a Labour person (old or new.) I wondered why this was and then realised that we're in such a perilous situation at the moment that politicians are finally discussing what actually matters to people - and actually, if you sweep aside the extremism on the edges of the argument, what matters to us all is the same thing: we want our voices to be heard.

This evening I went into town to film two more sequences for the Pepys film. I've been filming a lot of girls lately and today it was the turn of two of the tenors: Anthony and Nigel. 

We shot Anthony on Piccadilly Circus and found him underneath the anus of Eros looking resplendent in a bow tie. We did one little sequence with the iconic Coca Cola lights bursting behind him (rather like fire we thought) and then took him to a dodgy alleyway behind the Piccadilly Theatre for a bit of grime and underbelly grit. I want the film to look very modern and very much show all the different aspects of London at night. Filming with what looks like a stills camera is brilliant because no one bothers you the way they bother you when you've got a giant film camera. No one comes and waves in the background. No security guards come up and ask if you have a permit to film. And no one beeps their blessed horns!!

We drove across London to London Wall car park near the Barbican where I wanted to film Nigel. It's one of my favourite locations in the world. It's absolutely massive, and all underground: an enormous concrete bunker with the most astounding echo. The sound of a car door slamming reverberates around the place for seconds. Otherwise, it's an incredibly still place. So quiet it's almost deafening. What is, however, most remarkable is the chunk of the old Roman city wall still preserved in the middle of the car park. It's the most eerie sight. The craziest architectural juxtaposition in London: AD60 meets AD1960!

Friday, 22 July 2016

Poor Northampton

I've been in Northampton all day today, feeling more depressed with every corner that I turned. Much as I was horrified that the good folk of my home county opted so brutally to leave Europe, when you see what used to be a bustling, thriving market town in such plain trouble, you begin to understand why there's so much anger out there and why people needed to use Brexit as a way of punishing the ruling elite. Many of the shops in the town centre are now boarded over. Even the shops like Oliver Adams, which, in my view, are part of the very essence of this place, are now closing down. I went into BHS to buy a T-shirt. As I entered, an old man explained to me that this particular branch was closing at the weekend, and the place looked like it had been hit by a bomb, or probably more accurately, cleared by locusts. Clothes were strewn everywhere. The only things left for sale were over-sized garments. I found a pair of trousers so voluminous I wondered if they'd be more useful as a pair of black out blinds!

I stood for some time on the market square, holding a Slush Puppy for old time's sake, looking around at the emptiness, hoping that, come Saturday, there would be scores of stalls and hundreds of shoppers milling around. It somehow doesn't seem likely.

Sadly, I also don't think it's likely that the fortunes of the town will perk up when we pull out of Europe. In fact, I'm quite convinced that the very opposite will happen. After Brexit, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and we'll spend any spare money we have making sure the baby boomers are treated even better than they've been treated all their cosseted lives. On that note Ben told me a rather lovely story last night. His grandfather apparently 'phoned up all of his grandchildren and asked them how they would like him to vote in the referendum. His reasoning was that he wouldn't be about for long enough to see how things panned out and that his grandchildren were the ones who'd need to deal with the fall out of the vote. I thought that was a rather lovely gesture.

The train station in Northampton has been done up, but its new shiny facade and floor to ceiling glass windows over-looking scrub land merely serve as a reminder that you can't polish a turd. I used to quite like the decaying, brutalist sixties vibe of the old station, but, as seems to be the want of modern architects, the place was ripped down just before it came into fashion again! The same thing routinely happens with service stations, which are regularly done up cheaply, with anything remotely cool, quirky, or original being coated with yet another layer of flimsy plastic. Imagine a service station with all of those original Formica booths and self-service dining halls? Now that would draw the crowds... If you're in any doubt about how iconic those original service stations were, take a look at the film Charlie Bubbles and the scene where Liza Minelli (why WAS she in that film?) and Albert Finney take a road trip up the M1.

So all in all, I felt a little sad in Northampton. This was the place I used to come to when I wanted to buy something special. It's where the bowling alley was. Where the music school was. And where we'd come to the theatre every few months and sit up on the benches in the Gods eating Malteesers whilst watching the latest play by Alan Aykbourn.

Speaking of trips to the theatres in Northampton, the purpose of today's trip wasn't actually to depress myself, but to say hello to James Dacre, who is the incredibly charming artistic director of the Derngate and Royal Theatres. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet a writer with such strong links to the town. I was simply pleased to sit in a cafe outside a theatre which had seemed so glamorous to me as a young lad. I got a little misty-eyed. I could have gone on for hours about the concerts I'd performed at the Derngate as a young lad.

James spoke about how well-respected the Northampton music school still is and puts its success down to the legacy of figures like composer Malcolm Arnold who very much put the town onto the cultural map. I think he was very surprised when I told him Malcolm Arnold had come into my school specifically to sit in a room with me and listen to a recording of the 'cello concerto I wrote for my A-level music. He was so gracious: "my dear boy. One day your star will shine more brightly than you will ever imagine..." Still waiting.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A trip to Hatfield for a coincidence

I realised this afternoon whilst walking through the streets of Northampton that I'd forgotten to blog last night. I blame the weather. And Little Michelle for being so engaging!

Last night I went to Hatfield. I'd never been to Hatfield before, but it's where Michelle and Ben have set up home. Their reason for leaving the Big Smoke was purely financial. For the same rent as a nasty little one-bed flat in the grimmest part of London, they can live in a charming 2-up 2-down ancient cottage on a country lane over looking the stunning St Etheldreda's church. King's Cross is a 22-minute train journey away. It's almost a no-brainer. As I parked up on their street I was instantly struck by the silence. The lane they live on is a cul-de-sac, so there are almost no passing cars. According to Michelle, the only noise pollution comes from the bells in the church!

It was really heartening to see that it's possible to live so close to London in a really decent house without paying stupid amounts in rent. One of my biggest fears is our landlord selling up and leaving us high and dry, unable to afford anything even remotely similar.

Anyway, I was in Hatfield filming Michelle singing her allotted lines in the little film we're making for the Pepys Motet. No flinging fire this time, but we did fill her garden with hundreds of candles. I appreciate the vision for the film is to shoot people in London locations but actually, Hatfield, on the Great North Road is almost certainly a place that Pepys would have visited on his way up to his father's house in Huntingdon, so it felt legitimate enough.

A quick check of his diaries reveals something even more exciting. On August 11th, 1667, Pepys visited the very church that Michelle and Ben live opposite:

"So to Hatfield, to the inne, next my Lord Salisbury's House, and there rested ourselves, and drank, and bespoke dinner; and so to church, it being just church-time, and there we find my Lord and my Lady Sands and several fine ladies of the family, and a great many handsome faces and genteel persons more in the church, and did hear a most excellent good sermon, which pleased me mightily... In this church lies the former Lord of Salisbury, Cecil, buried in a noble tomb. So the church being done, we to our inn, and there dined very well, and mighty merry; and as soon as we had dined we walked out into the Park through the fine walk of trees, and to the Vineyard, and there shewed them that, which is in good order, and indeed a place of great delight; which, together with our fine walk through the Park, was of as much pleasure as could be desired in the world for country pleasure and good ayre. Being come back, and weary with the walk, for as I made it, it was pretty long, being come back to our inne, there the women had pleasure in putting on some straw hats, which are much worn in this country, and did become them mightily, but especially my wife."