Monday, 30 November 2015

Social studies in Swansea

My goodness, it's very nearly a month ago that I was in Swansea! It was a fine day for 1 November, so late in the year.

I rather like Swansea, or at least those parts of it that lie near the sea front. It must once have been a very industrial place - and therefore drab and dirty. But now it's a bright and breezy university city, with probably the best shopping centre outside Cardiff; a beautiful beach that stretches westwards past parkland, all the way to The Mumbles; and dockland that has been transformed since the 1980s into a very attractive Marina. Here's a selection of shots, to show what I'm referring to - beginning with myself, in front of a city-centre water cascade, with the old castle in the background:

Well, that was a pretty rapid tour of the city centre, Marina and sea front! But I hope you can see that this Welsh coastal city has much to offer as a place to visit, and indeed to live in. The Marina development began some thirty years ago, and by the late 1990s was mostly built up to the extent now seen. It's now in a constant refurbishment phase, to keep all the buildings nicely painted, and to limit the damage done by the salt air and the strong gales. Some of the stone materials used back in the 1980s have not lasted well, if they were placed in exposed positions. This plaque, for instance - created from a piece of sandstone I'm thinking. Back in 1999 its detail was still crisp:

But now look at it in 2015. It's almost unrecognisable. The surface, assaulted by wind and weather, and possibly blown sand, has disintegrated:

Here's another of those plaques, with my hand on it. I wonder what clever design has been eroded away?

On the other hand, if this kind of thing was in a sheltered spot, it survives intact:

The Marina - really large enough to be a little seafront suburb of Swansea - is full of whimsical plaques, sculptures and installations on a maritime theme. The ones made of metal have lasted the best. Such as this pastiche of nautical bits and pieces on a tall column:

It looks interesting, and is surprisingly little degraded from when I lasted photographed it in 1999, when it was like this:

Here's another typical installation - a sea captain leaning forward at a most unusual angle, carrying a ship's bell on an impossibly stiff length of rope!

The Dylan Thomas Theatre is one of the cultural buildings that cluster around the marina. In front of it is a rather unattractive statue of this great Welsh poet. Here I pose with the travesty, squinting into the autumn sunshine:

I personally think it makes him look like a vacant-minded teenager, and not the sensitive and insightful bard he really was. Compare that statue with this painting in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff:

I felt I couldn't miss a walk up Wind Street.

This is the street all of Young Swansea makes for on a Saturday Night. It's full of pubs and nightclubs and places to eat.

This was also, I think, the street where, in October 2009, CCTV caught two local lads attacking what they thought were two crossdressing men - but the 'easy victims' were in fact professional cage fighters on their way to a party in fancy dress, and they had no problem at all knocking the attackers to the ground - casually done too - then picking up their handbags, and strolling on as it nothing had happened. See the Daily Telegraph report at One hopes the two local lads learned a lesson - never pick on anyone who seems to be a man in a dress, because he may well have strength, technique and confidence, and be alert for trouble. But I've noted the prevailing attitude of young Welsh men elsewhere in these chronicles, and I doubt if they spotted the moral.

Emerging from Wind street, I found myself following a young couple quite closely. Both were dressed in their own versions of 'Sunday Best'.

He looked athletic. He walked on his toes, as if prowling, prepared to spring like a panther at any moment. Note the short, sharp haircut. Note his sports top, skinny jeans and new trainers. Note also the smartphone in his hand. He was ready for a call. In fact my intuition told me that he'd be very glad to have a call requesting his urgent presence at some pub where the previous night's Rugby World Cup match was going to be replayed and analysed over many, many drinks. The fact that he was trailing behind his girlfriend signalled reluctance to be wasting a Sunday afternoon following a baby buggy about. Unless I was much deceived, he wanted to be doing Something Else. Presumably they were on their way to visit her Mum - not his scene at all.

She was very stylishly turned out, in that dress with its bold Mondrian-inspired design. Note the close (nay, exact) colour-match of the tights to the dress. Note the brand new heeled shoes. Note the designer handbag. You can just make out the designer sunglasses perched up on her hair.

And she was merely pushing a pram through a city centre, man in tow.

Her body language said she was the boss - the buggy, and the trophy baby in it, bestowing unanswerable authority. But I think her young man had his own views on that!

One of the best bits of advice in street photography is if they look dangerous, shoot 'em in the back. As you know, I always heed good advice.

(Of course I do, every time)

A lesson learned

Tomorrow Fiona, my Volvo XC60 car, has her auto gearbox transplant surgery. She'll be in the workshop for two days. She'll have a transfusion of new gearbox fluid. The computerised transmission management software will be rebooted and checked, and she'll be test-driven. Then I can gently take her home.

I admit to great relief that this is going to happen. It was just a bit too nerve-racking, driving around in her and not knowing whether this would be the day that the gearbox failed entirely. And I do know what it's like to lose drive in a car that has an automatic gearbox.

It happened to me, for instance, in 1999, when overtaking a car at 70 mph on a country road - fortunately a straight road, and it was in daylight. I was driving an elderly (but still game) Nissan Micra. Scary! And embarrassing! It was the sudden end of the Micra, which instantly became scrap metal, far beyond economic repair.

It happened to me in late 2008, on the M11 motorway, in the dark, when driving a Honda CR-V (with the caravan in tow) back home from Norfolk. I had M--- with me. We had to huddle shivering on the grassy bank above car and caravan until rescued, expecting at any moment to see a juggernaut plough into the stricken Honda and our lovely caravan, left there on the hard shoulder. Fortunately the Honda recovered, and the local village garage fixed the problem. I rewarded them with my custom thenceforth.

These are memories that stay with you.

So I've been nursing Fiona along, avoiding any roads, or traffic conditions, that might put pressure on her dodgy gearbox. I've dreaded getting stuck on hills, or in stop-go traffic snarl-ups. And I've been driving her with a degree of TLC that goes beyond anything achieved before. But failure has loomed, and every journey made has been weighed up for possible difficulties, and possible consequences. You can't go on like this. And I need a fit and able Fiona for a series of long-distance trips during December, to see family and friends, in every week from next week in fact, and of course over Christmas and the New Year also.

Ideally I ought to have hawked Fiona around all the gearbox specialists within easy reach, but that would have taken time - two weeks, say - that I did not have. And in any case, I was left unimpressed by these firms' websites, whatever the recommendation. Really, the only way to assess whether someone is any good is to try them out on a small job and see how well they perform. But a gearbox replacement or rebuild is not a small job, and I felt very disinclined to place Fiona in a stranger's hands and hope for the best. I do at least have long acquaintance with the official Volvo dealer, who know my car well - and know me as a fussy customer who asks questions, and is persistent. I feel they won't mess me around, knowing that I will be back if all isn't well.

As to the price, £5,015, it's horrendous. I have no doubt at all that an independent specialist would charge less. I suspect that (a) everyone in the official Volvo supply chain is taking a nice cut; and (b) the high price covers any comeback on the work done, preserving a degree of profit regardless: in effect I'd be buying the guarantee on the work done, and not really getting it free. Nevertheless, I am happier dealing at arm's-length with a big outfit where cars are concerned, so that if the job isn't done right I have full scope to hound them. I can't do the same with a small firm, nor a one-man band - the relationship is too personal. (And yet I have a network of people just like this to keep my house in good order, all of them local, all of them on first-name terms with me)

I got my £5,000 bank loan with ridiculous ease, as if I had a Triple-A rating. It's there in my account right now, ready to cover the next credit card repayment, which will of course include that £5,015 dealer's bill. Then I have thirty months of loan repayments - although I may pay the balance off after twenty-four months, which I can do without penalty, to get the loan out of the way and save a little interest (about £58).

So in a few days time, Fiona will, hopefully, be restored and ready to convey me here and there in the way she used to.

If the job is a success, I will have a quieter car with a new heart. I intend to drive more gently in the future. Not that I ever thrashed Fiona in the past, but I can recall many a time when I pressed her hard on motorways and other fast roads, on my way north with the caravan in tow, sometimes against a headwind. I believed she could take the strain, whatever it might be; but she is but a machine - tireless, uncomplaining, but subject to gradual wear and tear that relentless driving will inevitably accelerate. Had I gone 10 mph less when towing, I might have put off that £5,015 bill for another 100,000 miles. Lesson learned!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

When I'm sixty-four - what about the Isle of Wight?

One of the tracks on The Beatles' rather druggy and psychedelic 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is called When I'm Sixty-four, and two of the lines in that go:

Every summer we can rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save...

Well, I'm sixty-four next year, and I'm thinking of a holiday on the Isle of Wight. If you are not too sure where it is, it's that diamond-shaped island in the middle of the south coast of England, roughly halfway between Devon and Kent. Although it's not very far off the shore of Hampshire, it's a proper island, uncompromised by tunnel or bridge access. You can't even fly there very easily. Visitors have to take a ferry. The good news there is that there is a choice of routes, and more than one type of ferry, all of them regular and pretty frequent. Boat, fast cat, hovercraft - take your pick; although if you want to take a vehicle, it'll have to be one of the boat services. The bad news is that (a) any ferry is an inconvenience; and (b) more especially, all these ferries are expensive!

Somebody once said that, considering the short distance involved, the Isle of Wight boat ferries were the most expensive in the world. Presumably they meant a convenient morning ferry at high season, booked on the spur of the moment. But even an afternoon off-season ticket, booked well in advance, will seem pricey. For instance, a return price of £47.50 was quoted at me online just now, to take Fiona (but not the caravan) on the Portsmouth-Fishbourne boat ferry, with anchors aweigh at 3.00pm on 9 March. Twice that in June, or in the morning, I suspect.

There will be, of course, a 'sweet spot' where the date, the route, the time, and the price, will all seem in reasonable balance. But one has to face it, there is no cheap way to get on and off the Island!

Despite this, I am quite keen to see the place once again. I've rather overlooked the Isle of Wight. Although it's not impossibly far from where I live, I haven't gone there much. I spent a full day there with former spouse and stepchild in 1984. I returned again in 1997 - twice - with M--- for company, staying in a chalet at Colwell Bay in the far west. And we went back for another week in 2000, this time staying in an apartment in Ventnor. Since then, no holidays - and only two day visits, in 2008 and 2009.

If it's to be a holiday, then I'd like to take the car and the caravan, although the cost might be alarming! I'm aware that the Caravan Club have a special summer site-and-ferry deal, but all the time I'd be thinking, 'I could have had a grand tour of Northern England for this money'. It might be better to confine myself to a day trip in the spring or early summer - avoiding Easter - with Fiona as my transport. Going out on an early ferry, and returning late in the evening. Then I can get around swiftly, and see the best of the Island inside eight hours or so, and even fit in a pub meal. It'll still cost me a lot, but it'll be a much nicer experience than a long day out in London would be - certainly much less tiring.

So what's there to see? Here are some images, mostly from that 2000 holiday. I have three favourite towns: Ryde, Ventnor and Yarmouth. All three have handsome buildings and quirky features (although to be fair, all of the Island has things you will not see on the mainland). Ryde first:

If you have sharp eyes, you'll notice the special 'HW' letters on cars registered in the Isle of Wight. Ryde is a very Victorian place. And it has no less than three railway stations, which is remarkable for a small town on a short railway line (this line runs from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin). The electrified Island Railway is noteworthy because it uses former London Underground trains. These look odd in a holiday-island setting! Here's one at Brading station:

And here's one looking even odder, waiting to go at Ryde Pier Head station. There were no piers - no sea even - on the Piccadilly Line in London, where it originally came from!

And yet these trains do go 'underground' on the Island. There is a significant tunnel between Ryde St John's Road station and Ryde Esplanade station. For half a minute, you can recapture that proper Tube feeling. Here a train arrives at Ryde Esplanade station, bursting forth from the tunnel:

If I were on foot, a train journey to Shanklin would be a must. But driving in Fiona, I'd take a more scenic road route via Bembridge and Culver Cliff. They are in the next shots.

Ventnor is built on a series of terraces above the seafront.

From Ventnor, I'd drive along the long lonely road between Niton and Freshwater Bay. The views would be wonderful. I could inspect the chines along this coast. A chine is a deep coastal ravine made by river erosion. Whale Chine is well worth a lunchtime stop. It's especially deep, and the cliffs at its mouth are especially impressive:

The entire south-western coastline of the Island is slipping into the sea, which mercilessly attacks the weak beds of clay and sand that the cliffs are composed of. Looking north-west from Whale Chine, you see this:

Further up the same stretch of coast, at Compton Bay, it's all too clear how soft and yielding the sedimentary 'rocks' are:

Freshwater Bay, where the Victorian poet Tennyson lived, is made of chalk - which still isn't terribly hard, but it stands up to the sea much better:

Just out of sight, at the very westernmost end of the Island, are the famous Needles - a series of chalk stacks with a lighthouse at their tip. Here's a shot I took from a Jersey-bound plane in 1974 - The Needles are far left in the shot. Those chalk cliffs in the foreground are really high. It would be nice to go there and stretch my legs a bit, if there's time.

Driving north, and then a bit east, I will arrive at Yarmouth, a very nautical and yachty place, where the boat ferry from Lymington comes in to dock, as here:

I've always liked Yarmouth. It's small but very atmospheric. An obvious place for afternoon tea, I'm thinking!

Next, Newtown. This is a remote-feeling little place with cottages, an old and picturesque town hall, and a long raised causeway that takes you out to its lonely quay. Here's M--- on that causeway in 2000, going out and returning:

Very likely there will be just me and the estuary birds. I don't expect to meet a single human being.

It'll be getting late in the afternoon by now. I'd avoid the north part of the Island - which hasn't much scenic appeal for me anyway - and in particular the island 'capital' Newport, which if I remember rightly gets gridlocked with rush-hour traffic. I will instead head south, making my way over the high ridge that runs across the centre of the Island. Then I'll drive east through Mottistone and Brighstone. It's very rural hereabouts, with wide views. For example, on Limerstone Down:

By now I'll be looking out for a pub or restaurant. Back in 2000, The Crown at Shorwell did good food, so maybe I'll eat there, if they are serving early enough.

Then I'd zig-zag north-eastwards towards Fishbourne and the ferry back to the mainland.

I won't have seen everything on a day trip like this, not by any means, but it'll be a taster for a proper holiday. Or for another day trip, more focussed, not so concerned with covering as much ground as possible.