berkeley ft

Gloucestershire: Berkeley Castle and Britain’s Best Pub 2015

It’s a golden Tuesday in September and I’m the only person in my carriage on the 9:15 train from Paddington, going west. The inspector comes by after a quiet three-quarters of an hour, and I hand him my ticket. “You’ve been there before?” he says. It isn’t really a question; it’s to a tiny station in Gloucestershire, where there’s no good reason to go unless you know what you’re doing.

“Oh – no,” I say.

“Someone picking you up? It’s out in the sticks, mind.”

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Birthday with Dad

Who needs prosceniums

Another lovely thing happened at the Dover Castle ghost tour (post) that I’ve been turning around in my head.

Around forty-five minutes into it, we were all warmed up and really getting into being scared. Three nine-year-old boys had befriended each other and were goofing around near the front, and one of their mothers was giving me tips on Dover pubs for lunch. At the opening to the castle’s underground tunnels, the guide stopped us and we got ready to hear another ghost story.

“It was during the Napoleonic Wars that a big trunk of gold came in,” he started, “gold to pay the castle soldiers.” According to the story, the soldiers hadn’t been paid for months, so they knew the money pile would be a big one. Two scurrilous deserters (scurrilous is always an excellent word to get into a ghost story) found out when the trunk was going to be moved into the castle, and staked out the tunnel to the treasury that night.

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dover_ft

Dover Castle and the White Cliffs of Dover

I was in Dover last week as the Shakespeare setting for King Lear, where I found a crumbling postwar seaside town with Roman history and lots of confusing nationalism (many asylum-seekers and migrants from Europe enter the UK here). It’s actually a pretty good fit for the apocalyptic play, if maybe not a first pick for an off-season holiday. When my B&B host picked me up from the station, she asked if I were headed to Calais or Canterbury for a day trip, as “There’s not a lot to Dover, Kerry.”

Dover Castle

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flint castle sunrise

Richard II: Flint Castle, Wales

It’s either ironic or very appropriate that I’m writing this from Paris as the sun sets and the sky turns from blue to pink to gold; Wales was rocky grey and green and very dull. Not all of Wales, of course! Hay on Wye is rightly famous for books and Hereford for cider. But the north coast of Flintshire is neither inspiring nor interesting, especially in January, which is when I went. After a sunny Saturday afternoon lunch in London with friends and lots of fizzy wine, I got on the Tube and sat across from two women with no overnight bags who I realised were getting the same train I was. “It’s at four forty-six, do you think we’ll be all right for seats?” one said.

“Yeah,” the other said, with an undertone of obviously. “Not too many people going up to the coast this time of year, are they? All cold and wet and black?”

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citizenship ceremony form

I don’t believe in the British citizenship oath, but I have to swear it anyway

...which is kind of a problem because I don't believe in hereditary monarchy. Princeps Civitatis (er hang on)!

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victoriastreet_ft

Christmas in Edinburgh

I have loved Edinburgh since I first visited it as a pretentious backpacking student in 2006. It’s one of the more historical-feeling cities I’ve been to, as most of the buildings are UNESCO protected in both the Old Town (where the castle and Holyrood House are) and the New Town (which isn’t that new – 18th century). Edinburgh used to smell like malt and yeast, which always brought me back to the first time I stepped off the train at Waverley into a purple and gold whisky evening, until in 2010 the North British Distillery erected an “odour control tower” (oh yes) and the smell stopped. It is the least pleasant aroma I’ve ever genuinely missed, although you can still catch a little bit when the wind is right.

The scent of rich whisky being made had only just vanished last December when we arrived very late in the evening, having got the train up from London after work. After a deep sleep in a cosy bed and the above realisation, we woke up and realised we hadn’t brought up any presents for our hosts AT ALL, nor either of Ewan’s cousins (the Tory one and the good one) nor his nearly ninety-year-old grandmother.

What followed was a multi-day Inspector Clouseau-style dash around Edinburgh’s small city centre as we tried to buy presents for five family members, who were also out trying to buy last-minute presents for us. After a hairy near-miss with Ewan’s uncle in a whisky shop (hurrah! whisky! we privately exulted) we made it to the relative safety of my favourite shop in Edinburgh, Jenners department store.

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