The strange spell of the River Tweed

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Just another river the Tweed may be, but to me it has come to mean a few things. Regular visits to Northumberland mean I’ve been close to the Tweed on numerous occasions, and have even swum in it more than once. But this deep blue-green ribbon of water is enigmatic, and on each bi-annual trip I have tried to solve the puzzle only to end up more dazed by its evergreen banks, that are always close at hand, and always hard to reach.

On one day of our holiday we chased the Tweed for miles upstream, passing through Cornhill, Coldstream, Kelso and Melrose, criss-crossing from England into Scotland in the process. At Abbotsford Sir Walter Scott built his house overlooking the river, with a path leading to it. In a funk about something I couldn’t quite define, I took my children down onto the banks and skimmed some stones. Some of the stones were scaly and fishy, some flew creating growing circles an rainbows in the spray they kicked up. While driving back the Tweed kept appearing in the sunshine of a perfect afternoon, curving round shallow hills and behind trees, then disappearing.

Another day we stopped at Paxton House, another grand mansion facing the river. This one had much wilder and less perfect gardens, and a path which led down to the river’s edge which, with the top of the tide helping out, was deeper than our previous meeting. ‘No swimming’ signs were evident, and we had a glorious stroll alongside the water, an hour or so of complete perfection.

And from there we went on the the Chain Bridge, where a path leads down from the Scottish side o the bank, and then a small muddy beach offers a good way in. No anti-swimming signage here. After a few steps it made sense to flop in and swim a few strokes into midstream, quietly breast-stroking behind the backs of salmon fishers. Now in international waters, I retreated back to the bank, exhilarated by being back in fresh, cold water. Imogen swam next, and could have done more. We were both going carefully.

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Once in it, the Tweed feels more raw, soft and real. So why the mystery? The river guards the border for much of its length, hiding the subtle differences between nations in plain sight, and crossing it offers some visible change, but in some ways no change at all. It feels set apart from view unless you go out of your way to get close to it, and also seems in many places reserved for those who can afford to fish in it. But this is a beautiful ribbon of water right the way to the Berwick Amateur Rowing Club boathouse and Tweedmouth, and its meanders ask quiet questions of the visitor to north Northumberland and the Borders.

More exploration is needed.

Somewhere else

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This field is a little piece of somewhere else. The evening wind blows through grass warmed and dancing in the evening sun. Children run round, laughing. Later the stars come out as we warm up by the fire, fresh from sea-swimming earlier in the day.

The outside world is close, but not too close.

Kentish Downs, Saturday 6 August.

Building up a bike*

*This is about building a bike from the frame up, not the fine art of welding a frame into life. Sorry if you’ve come here under false pretences.

I didn’t know I wanted to build my own bike. Then I did.

That bit came later, First came a flash of a red, retro-looking frame being ridden on to Southwark Street. It had written on it in red HARRY HALL.

This caught my eye. My son is called Harry Hall, and fine chap he is. Being only six years old, a frame builder he is not. Further investigations revealed that Harry Hall was a Mancunian bike builder of some respite, a well as being Tom Simpson’s mechanic and by Simpson’s side when he passed away on Mount Ventoux. Hall’s branded Mini van was one of the icons of British cycling in the decades that followed.

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Harry Hall acts as a custom bike stand for his namesake

Though Harry Hall died in 2007 his shop still lives on in Manchester. It no longer builds frames.

Having spotted this, I started to look out for a frame and found one eBay. As sometimes happens, idly bidding on something results in you winning it, and here the trouble started.

The fellow I had bought the frame off, though very nice, seemed unwilling or unable to get it to me, and I spent a few fretful weeks going back and forth being unsure if I’d been ripped off. In the end the frame did arrive.

Now I had it, I had to do something with it. As lovely an item as it was, built from Reynolds 653 steel with embossed ‘H Hall’ forks it was a long way off being rideable. So, bit by bit, I started to accumulate the parts to do just that. Then I figured I’d put it together myself, or go as far as I could in the process and learn some more along the way about how bikes work.

This has been an interesting exercise, and by doing it I’ve picked up some new skills as well as making mistakes along the way. I thought Id share some of the things I found useful, and some things that were rabbit holes.

Parts list – things I didn’t have that I needed

Front & rear derailleur/mech

Bottom bracket

Stem

Handlebars

Shifters

Cable – brake cable and gear cable, inner and outer

Seatpost

Saddle

Tools list – some I had, some I had to buy

Grease

Standard multi-tool (Condor)

Allan key set

BB tool

Cassette tool

Chain whip

Pliers

Cable pliers

Cable cutters

Chain tool

A rag

Baby wipes

Electrical tape

Pedal wrench

Other interesting things

Bike stand

Dropout limiter screws

Torque wrench

Rough sequence of events

The thing that slowed me down and gave me pause for thought was not getting the parts and fitting them. Generally, with a few exception this was pretty straightforward and I did it over a couple of months, funded by selling some old Arsenal shirts on eBay. It was working out which tool to buy and then picking them up that was the slower exercise. I’d imagine like a lot of cyclists like me I’ve got a box full of tools and other bits so never invested in a toolkit, so I ended up augmenting what I had. While it was a little annoying to buy a cassette tool and only use it for one part of proceedings, I do now have it for the future.

Most of the parts I needed were picked up cheaply on eBay – a second hand SRAM Apex groupset which was complete except for the shifters was the key purchase, and inexpensive at £35. I needed to add the shifters, which I ended up having to buy new from Taiwan (more on fitting those later) and a new bottom bracket as the one that came with the groupset I got wasn’t compatible.

Bottom bracket

Bottom brackets – the central part of the axle that the pedals screw into – come threaded in a variety of ways, and I found by asking the guy I got the frame off which one he had – an English threaded Trumativ SRAM/GPX one – which one to get. It felt like quite an obscure bit of kit as I’d never seen one before, and was an oddly exciting purchase. Anyway it also was the first thing I fitted, once I’d got a bottom bracket tool. I fitted things without a torque wrench – one is on my christmas list – and it all rides fine. I’m not saying one isn’t a good investment, just that I didn’t have one. Once the BB was on the front cassette and cranks were easy to attach.

Headset

As the bike is a little old – but not Eroica old – I thought it could do with a more classic-looking headset than the one it came with, including the quill stem adapter that can be seen in the picture above. Having looked online, then at the tools needed to do that job and still having no idea how to do it I took the bike to the Vintage Bike Cave in Highgate and asked them to do this part of it. Takashi there was pretty helpful with the other stages, and once I’d done everything else I took it back there and asked him to check over what I’d done.

Stem

With a classic headset came the need for a stem. As I said above, I removed the stem adapter that came with the frame and  opted for a quill stem, the more retro-looking ones, and picked up one in Condor Bikes on Grays Inn Road. They were very helpful in choosing one based on the setup on my other bike, which is a Condor Fratello. It was nice to talk to people in the shop who were enthusiastic about what you were doing. This was one of a few times I felt liked I’d tapped into a different seam of bike nerdery, a far nicer one than the lycra/road bike crowd. My job is not a creative one, but this was a creative project, and that was unusual for me so it was good to get encouragement.

Bars and wheels

The stem and the vintage Saeko roadbars I picked up (£10, eBay again) were easy to fit, aided by plenty of grease. Grease and a cloth and/or baby wipes for my hands after were never far away.  By this point I’d picked up a pair of Bontrager wheels from a mate. Cheap wheels are a false economy and I got them from him for half price.

Fitting the cassette

The cassette was straightforward to fit once I had the cassette tool. I was nervous about getting the spacers right but it all slipped on fine and ran fine when I was setting the gears up. Putting the individual sprockets on was a little bit of a fingers crossed process, as with quite a bit of this I let me enthusiasm run away with me rather than being completely methodical. I figured if I made a mistake, which I expected to, I could go back and fix it and learn along the way. A couple of times (mainly with front shifter cabling) I had to go back a step, but mostly it was fine.

Cabling and shifters

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One shifter attached

With wheels, bars and cranks on Harry Hall was starting to look a lot like a bike. It was at this stage what I would say the more challenging part was started. The shifters and rear derailleur but went on easily with a hex wrench. The shifters came ready cabled with 1.1mm gear cable. If at all possible I’d suggest getting this right first time, as I didn’t and re-threading the cable through the shifters was a dog of a job. I did it three times in the end for various reasons and each time it took the best part of an hour and a lot of swearing and gentle patience. From reading online it seems SRAM shifters make pretty hard to fit the cable through the routing. I found it hard. That said, it wasn’t impossible, just fiddly and frustrating.

All of that meant that fitting the cabling felt a little stressful. In no particular order, I discovered that there are different cables for gears and brakes, and different cable housing for gears and brakes. Cables also come with various end buts (ferrules) that again are different based on what you’re fitting. Then there are the ones that go on the cable ends once you’ve cut them to stop the cable fraying. This is where your pliers come in. I asked for a few extra ones of each end bit when buying cable.

Also on cabling: if I was doing it again I’d resist cutting off slack cable too soon. On a couple of occasions I didn’t have the shifters in the right (neutral/fully clicked out) position and when I fixed that lost some length. Ditto for adjusting the tension. replacement cables weren’t expensive, but it all adds up and as soon as one came out you had to fit it again and the wailing and gnashing of that exercise came back, like Satan’s heir returning to earth.

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You also need a little more than you think, as the cable has to have enough give in it to not become tensed when the bars fully turn, and because they’ll be strapped up under the bar tape. However, as myriad bike mechanic videos online note, you don’t want too much either. I used my other bike as a rough reference point. I still got it wrong a couple of times. Not a big deal, but worth resisting final cuts until late in the process.

Adjusting the gears

Getting the chain and rear derailleur running together was fiddly, as I was expecting it to be. The main issue was splitting the chain – I found a couple of video online that showed how to remove a magic link using a section of cable that worked well as I was struggling to get it off, but it then snapped on quite straightforwardly and feeding it through the derailleur was easy with a picture of what it should look like. This was a nice moment as for chain was turning the wheel and for me that means you have at least a basically working bike.

Again following online tutorial videos it was pretty easy to get the rear shifter working pretty well, and get the tension right. This required some trial and error with the limiter screws and the cable tension. I didn’t know precisely what the limiter screws did on the RD before this, so it was useful to play around and find out.

Note comments above about not trimming off too much loose cable too soon.

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Electric tape to secure the outer cable housing before applying bar tape

 

(Not getting the) front shifter (right)

The front derailleur was another matter altogether. Firstly, feeding the cable into the SRAM shifter was beyond fiddly and produced an avalanche of curses. It’s been noted the shifters like 1.1mm cable more than 1.2mm. I fitted 1.2mm in the end so it can work. Once it was through – there wasn’t really a knack, more gentle and constant application of the greased cable to encourage it upwards through the hole – then it was easy to fit to the derailleur. Trial and error (again) on the limiter screws on the front got plenty of movement, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the derailleur to shift far enough over to move to the top ring. Online searches suggested I was not alone, but this was one task that defeated me and I returned to the Vintage Bike Cave. Takashi there couldn’t quite get it right, but suggested I was not attempting to start from the right position. Next time perhaps I’ll get it right.

Lacking a bike stand, I improvised with a couple of chairs in my kitchen at first, and then by purpose-chopping some branches off a study, short tree in my garden.

The first ride I did was before the bar tape went on, to check I wasn’t massively wrong in anything I’d done. I have put bar tape on in the past but this time I let Takashi do it as it was in the workshop anyway, but it’s pretty simple. A part of me liked the clean look without it, but as I had big shifters on the bars anyway I figured tape was the way to go.

With the front derailleur sorted – and I figured getting someone else to look the whole thing over before I put it into service – the bike was ready to ride. As you might expect it’s very lovely to ride something you’ve found the parts for and pretty much built yourself, and it rides very nicely.

Apologies if this jumbled collection of notes is incomplete. I wanted to put something down before I forget to do so. And should you have any further questions I will do my best to answer them.

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First nervous outing to Highgate Men’s Pond

Baby wipes

The very best thing for keeping your hands and the bike nice and clean. Keep some handy.

FA Cup Final 2014

Arsenal, as everyone had become very fond of saying, had gone a long time without a trophy. Nine years, it seemed, if every boring journalist was to be believed.

Had it really been that long? It didn’t seem it. Then again, I missed the 2005 FA Cup Final to attend a wedding, and listened to Patrick Vieira whacking home the winning penalty with his last kick as an Arsenal player down a phone line in the garden of the sort of Yorkshire country house many of Imogen’s friends got married. In the following decade we’d got married ourselves, had two children and had another on the way. Life had changed in dozens of other ways, some tiny, some vast in their significance.

In the foreground and the background throughout all this turbulence had been going to the football. Weekends and evenings through autumn, winter and spring roll round as they always have done with the rhythm of the season, some good, some bad. Always fun and always there. But for those years not much of significance: a couple of swings and misses at the title, an agonizing Champions League final, two League Cup Final defeats. The second of these, to Birmingham, was on a bleak and frigid February afternoon which felt wrong right from the outset and ended dismally.

So during the winter of 2014 I’d learnt to not have high expectations from Arsenal. We were so obviously inferior to Chelsea and Manchester City that when we met these teams we’d go out of whatever competition we were in. Despite this, disposing of Spurs and Liverpool in the third and fifth rounds was, as you might expect, very enjoyable. But once we’d beaten Everton in the quarter final we found that every other ‘big’ team was out, thanks to Wigan knocking out Manchester City at the Etihad. The field, it appeared, was clear for us. From being no hopers who couldn’t win anything the papers suddenly declared there was no way we could fail to win the Cup.

As ever, it was not that easy. Wigan’s stubbornness exposed the short tempers among Arsenal fans and the semi-final was an ugly affair. Groups of drunken men who’d turned up for a party got nasty with each other when we struggled. Mertescacker’s equalizer and subsequent penalties were greeted by relief, not unbridled delight. I remember feeling like losing that game would have brought about the end of Wenger’s time in charge. Perhaps it would have. Kim Kallstrom’s penalty was one of several strange cameos that have an unreal air to them now. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he there? And where did he go?

On then to the final. Dad and I were back behind the goal in the lower tier, this time with old friends, randomly, for company. At a game like this who you sit with is a lottery, but I was relieved we didn’t have the drunken groups of men who were nearby at the semi. That said, our pals were pretty trollied. Perhaps the scarcity of tickets weeded out the day-trippers, but the people around us were (mostly) a bit older, more mixed and able to hold it together, I thought, if things went wrong.

All season Arsenal had fallen apart in big games, going down 6-0 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-3 at Manchester City. Again, here, Arsenal started like a legless greyhound. Before we had time to blink, we were 2-0 down to a Hull City team that probably could scarcely believe their luck. It could have been 3-0 as the mood went from dark to black, with a goal-line clearance saving the day. But it was early in the game, and I said either out loud or to myself that we were going to have to do it the hard way. I thought of George and Harry at home and fretted. No-one said much.

With almost 20 minutes gone we were awarded a free kick, a long way out. In 1991 Paul Gascoigne scored an improbable free kick for Spurs against Arsenal. I can still recall the sinking feeling, the delirium in the Spurs end, the instant sense that we’d lost the game. This time things went our way. Santi Cazorla bent and thumped the ball high over the keeper and into the goal. GOAL.

In some ways, the game was won at that point. Hull were looking at 70 minutes of defending a lead they suddenly seemed unlikely to extend. Arsenal didn’t quite throw everything at them, but kept knocking at the door. In the crowd, the drunk among us veered from swaying to angry to optimistic. Though missed chances were greeted with howls, the crowd mostly stuck with the players.

After one chance, a man in front of me produced the memorable line ‘people these days want everything now’. His words have stuck with me since and become a mantra for understanding modern times. Was he a kind of shaman, appearing on this important day to deliver a life lesson? I believe, on the whole, that yes he was.

Still, the minutes ticked by and our colony of hopeful supporters watched the ball come closer and closer to the goal without actually going in. The ultimate enigma, Yaya Sanogo came on and had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, still managing to miss a few good if not quite clear-cut chances. Then, with 20 minutes left, Laurent Koscielny spun and poked home a half-chance. Another eruption of relief. After this goal I fell over and pulled a load of others with me. What had been a terrible day was suddenly producing larks galore.

There was a long time in extra time to get the winner but it didn’t seem to be coming. Giroud hit the bar with a flying header from miles out. Sanogo continued to miss. Extra time came along, and suddenly we were in the lead. Ramsey’s goal was a beauty, though it wasn’t clear how good until later. For now, we cheered and hoped and prayed it would be enough. Even then Arsenal tried to blow it, with a kamikaze piece of goalkeeping nearly adding to the long catalogue of self-destructs that make up the latter years of the Wenger Era.

But hold on we did, and it was wonderful. The players, ascending those very long stairs, hoisted the trophy into the air. I felt some validation for Arsene Wenger, who must have carried the trophyless years around with him like a heavy weight, even more than we all had, and looked especially pleased. I remember Tomas Rosicky, on as a sub, charging along with the cup, something to show for his time with us beyond loads of injuries.

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Wembley as ever took forever to leave, and it was 10pm by the time I got back to Finsbury Park for a drink. A  very drunk man cycling down Stroud Green Road fell off his bike and crashed. I ran to his aide. He didn’t seem able to speak. I got home after midnight to hear how the boys had stuck with Arsenal too, and been brave. Just an FA Cup? Don’t believe it for a minute.

There’s a million tiny moments in what survives as in video clips, getting older by the year.

After the glow

Iceland notes

Grundarfjordur, Saturday, 9pm, light

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Light, light, light. Iceland in June and there is no darkness. When you choose to stop and take a moment here there is no wind, no rain, and no noise either. The tapping of the keyboard and the background noise of another guest making a call is all there is.

This town is a sort of point of nothing further, and the end of the road after a frantic and spectacular 30 hours or so in Iceland. At numerous points on this quick-fire raid on the west of the country I have had cause to note how lucky I am, and how this is quite the most spectacular landscape of any place that I have ever visited.

Tonight, as the cloud wafts over Kirkjufell, standing sentinel over the north of the town, both those thoughts are coming into my head again.

I had meant to hit the ground running in Iceland, and take in Pingvellir on my way to my bed at Borgarnes, north of Rejkyavik . The road leading up to the Ping from Reykjavik, up through the Mosfell valley was an immediate thud to the senses, green hills and ribbons of river poking through the cloud and light, persistent rain.

Pingvellir was interesting and the first place I found a smattering of other tourists completing an afternoon golden circle. Two groups of divers kitted up for a plunge in the Silfra streams that fill in the rifts in the valley floor stood apart, the mooched off towards unseen depths.

It is very lovely. Even so, Magnus Magnusson makes it sound better than it is, playing up the huge historical significance of the site.

I drove straight on, north onto route 550, past a sign warning anyone with a rental car not to drive off the road. the road was gravel, but still a road. I drove on. And after ten rattly miles or so of gritted teeth I found myself in what looked like Tibet, or what I thought Tibet would look like. Land stripped of vegetation, blue rivers cutting over bleached rock, and glacial lakes. At one point I reached a junction and turned left. It felt like the remotest place on earth.

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There had been coaches of people at Pingvellir. I saw no-one for the best part of two hours. After what felt more like a lifetime, with Felt and Cocteau Twins, wild and strange on soundtrack I arrived, a little frazzled and elated, into Borgarnes, sweet in its own way, for a dip in the B&Bs hot-pot, a garage dinner and an attempt to sleep.

I was up early, early enough to have breakfast and sneak out before the Finnish couple I was sharing the B&B got up. As they were Finnish, I reckon they’d have cowered in their room until midday had I continued to clatter round. Either way I was on my way across the flat, Lewis-like scenery that led to Snaefellsnes what felt like early, early, early.

The first few miles slipped by in the excitement of the new day, and looking back at the map there is nothing until a waterfall that I scrambled up a steep track to get as close to as I could.

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That set the tone for the day, driving a little, seeing something interesting, strolling over to it, or up it, eat a jelly baby, repeat.

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Volcanic cones, odd rock outcrops, waves crashing on rocks. And then there was the turning to Ondvandarnes, and the strip of golden sand where the buried Viking was found, and a swim in the Greenland Sea. As I like annoying my father by telling him every time I swim somewhere cold or unusual or indeed any time I swim outdoors as he seems unable to do it I quickly told him I’d done that, too. ‘Most morbid swim’ he suggested on account of the cadaver who spent a few centuries under the sand.

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Given the intensely beautiful scenery all around me, I initially regretted taking a few hours out of it to go whale spotting. I shouldn’t have. Three hours gazing at the water ended up being nearly five in the company of so many orcas and sperm whales the crew were laughing. Top ocean predators. Top everything.

Sunday in brief

I woke up in Grundarfjordur, with Kirkjufell glowering behind cloud and hurried to use the shared bathroom before anyone slowed me down, then similarly gobbled breakfast, made up the last of my rolls and fled.

On the road by half past seven and at the Stikkisholmur turn-off at just after eight. I decided against heading here, Iceland’s towns not holding much allure. The ferry to the Westfjords would have to wait for another time.

After an hour of more incredible views I had driven back to Borgarnes, where I summoned the nerve to go for a swim in the local pool. First you must follow signs telling you which parts of your body to wash before getting in. Bollocks, armpits, ears. It makes sense really. Other people’s filth should not be a bathing companion.

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The pool was warm enough to feel welcoming, and after 20 lengths I headed for the hot pots where aged locals were swapping gossip. Never one to wallow for too long I was soon off again, resolving to see Reykjavik with the remainder of what remained. The only people up in the capital on Sunday mornings, however, were other tourists, and I was only really keen on seeing the Íslendingabók, the chronicle of the settlement of Iceland, and the spot where Ingólfur Arnarson had thrown his high seat pillars , deciding where to settle on being the first person to arrive in Iceland. The book was hugely understated, and the museum it was in underwhelming, while the statue was very fine, if a most unlikely place for some rods to have washed up on the shore, being as it is on top of a hill.

And that was all there was to the capital, I think. Possibly a bit harsh but I wouldn’t bother next time apart from to try a few of the swimming pools.

In fact i decided to spend my last hour looking round Reykjanes peninsula, which was flatter and more like Lewis (lots of Iceland looks like Lewis) than other bits, but interesting nonetheless. At one point I happened upon a family rushing to watch the local football team kick off and I wished I had longer, maybe forever, to be in Iceland.

Back in the real world and somehow still outside of it I flew on to Washington for the usual undignified schlepp through US immigration to catch my onward flight. I put having tried to leave my passport at immigration down to being mentally still on a road in rural Iceland. After what seemed like a dozen more hurdles I arrived in Franklin, Tennessee. I can’t think of a great contrast involving travel in the western hemisphere.

When I read these words back I have done a disservice to the excitement and wonder of those few hours in Iceland. Take these words and pump them up with breathtaking Icelandic air and views.

And wandered in Wales

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Is heaven, or the centre of the universe to be found in the near-lost corner of north Wales that forms a leg of lamb shape including the Llyn Peninsula, the coast running south as far as Harlech and encompasses Snowdonia National Park?

If not, how can I make sense of our outing to Braich y Pwll, at the end of a long road, where the land meets the sea to Bardsey Island? In this place, my family and I stood, then sat, on the grassy headland, as near to the temperamental sea as we could get, staring at the waves looking for seals and porpoises. I’d bought us here because it sounded interesting, the old launching point for pilgrimage boats to Bardsey, and I thought there was a chance that we might see something. Searching the waves while we ate our lunch had yielded nothing more than a pair of choughs, crow-like and underwhelming, and the boys, seeing wonder in the waves, had claimed a whale sighting or two. We stood to leave this beautiful place, which had been ours alone, when George shouted and pointed at the water. A grey-headed seal, 50 feet or so from us, close enough to make up his face and staring at the shoreline so intently he might as well have been asking us the time. It was magical. After a longish time he dived under the water, and we spent a happy half hour watching him, and another seal, bob about in the turbulent currents of these straits.

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Since then I have thought a lot about this thrilling meeting. The boys were desperate to see a seal, and had talked of nothing else. We had come to that place not in expectation, but to look, and see what we saw. Two peregrine falcons hovered overhead, at one point looking like they were going to swoop near us with their record-breaking velocity. But it was this curious seal, and why he picked there and then to give us such a moment, and why the land, and the sea, and the sky all combined to freeze everything in time, which has puzzled me since. A moment to make you forever look up, and keep you eyes peeled.

And if north Wales isn’t heaven, then how come it has steam trains rattling up and down hillsides, and turning Porthmadog into a kind of island of Sodor made real? On one day George, Winnie and I take the Welsh Highland Railway to Beddgelert, racing Harry and Imogen in the car (an honourable draw). We sit in the open carriage without windows, and on departing immediately cross the mainline on a kind of crossroads you’ve only seen in Brio railways but now made real, then run alongside another steam service called Emma. She belongs to near-namesake the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. Then we ride up through tunnels and past a mountain called Cnicht that looks like a medieval helmet, and past the Aberglaslyn River and by the time we get off I am in some kind of reverie.

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Completing the sense of something strange and special was the ascent of Snowdon. This had been discussed for weeks but due to my Dad’s schedule we only had one shot, on a day where rain was forecast. We headed up the Pyg Track in darkening cloud, but as we climbed higher things brightened up, even if we were in cloud for three hours or so of heroics from George (8) and Harry (6), who skipped up the bulk of Yr Wyddfa and claimed a notable top, their biggest yet. It looks like not much can hold them back. The summit was frigid, bitterly cold with the odd flake of snow and Imogen & I briefly worried, hurrying them back down. Such heights always have teeth. A maintenance train clanked up the cog railway at one point, an incredible delight growling out of the mist. Dad applauded its talismanic arrival. It chugged over the rails I had lay down on in mock submission a few minutes before. The lower slopes gave up trying to scare us, and offered us plenty of views of Glaslyn and the Miner’s Track. The boys skipped down, too.

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On our last night Imogen and I drove over to Lloyd George’s grave in Llanystumdwy. This very secular burial mound by the rushing river Dwyfor seemed alive with the spirits of the place. It seemed sunny, damp, warm and cold and infused with life everywhere in the late Spring evening we were there.

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And then going home, snow laced our passage out of Avalon and into mid-Wales, where our reluctant escape seemed to run dry in quicksand of towns with impenetrable names and valleys straight from my imagination I was now seeing in reality. So is it really all these things? You decide. I have decided.

Warsawa Centralna, and hostelling in Poland in the early noughties

In Krakow the hostel had been a chaotic, strange place. Dormitories were filled with long-term Australian residents who vetted a new arrival like me. They seemed unwilling or unable to move on. One especially odd individual had purchased some website domain names he was sure would make him his fortune with no effort on this part at all. The rooms were musty and the corridors echoed with noise day and night. Krakow was that kind of magic backpacker town. Like Prague a few years before, it was somewhere the world’s budget travelers came to drink and dance, as carefree as the thousand of students who had piled in at the same time I’d arrived. On my first day I sat in the huge main square and stared happily at this parade of youthful optimism laughing its way around the city. What a joyful place this was. At night it revved up a notch further, if my one night out with an awkward international group was anything to go by. It was made stranger that the day trip of choice here was to Auschwitz, arguably the one place you’re least likely to feel like going and and having fun after visiting. For those studying here, or remaining here for indeterminate period as their funds eked away of course, that didn’t apply.

Warsaw was a different proposition. On first arriving, late at night, I checked into a room which was part of a sports complex, utterly alone. I fled early the next morning, buying an astonishingly cheap week’s rail pass and boarding the first train to Gdansk. I was eager to begin traveling so didn’t linger in Warsaw, saving it for the end of the trip.

Then again, I had reckoned without my own plans taking me through Warsaw Central station twice more, once on the way south, to Krakow, Zakopane and the Tatras, and once on the way back to fly home. On each occasion I found the station as fearsome as when I’d first passed by. From outside, a concrete monolith planted by one of the vast boulevards I’d imagined were carved from the wreckage of WW2 that looked neither promising nor romantic. I love lingering at stations, from Barcelona Franca to Prague Hlavni, but all there was to do here was struggle to find a platform and flee the incessant smell of urine. Later, when writing for the Observer (yes, I once wrote once a week for the Observer, I did, and I shall not forget the odd mix of terror and excitement of my views and advice being published every seven days) I ventured forth my view that WC was not nice. I received several letters chiding me, and reminding me that Warsaw was raised to the ground and the station was all they could afford. I felt bad and never wrote another critical word. After all, stations are essentially functional and plenty of people love modernism and brutalism. Sorry Warsaw Central. I have recently learnt that this, too, was incorrect. In fact the station was designed to be something of a bold statement of intent for communist Poland, but a scheduled visit from Leonid Brezhnev has forced cutbacks that led to the station ending up in its current state. So I claim some deliverance from my earlier shame. 

The station has, I gather, been spruced up for the European Championships a few years ago. Some people call it a classic. So maybe it too has achieved salvation.

Either way, when exploring Warsaw I didn’t hang out at the station. I did after the oddities encountered in Krakow give the main hostel another go. Hostelling International places aren’t generally the party places. I pitched up during a rainy night either this century or at the end of the last. After one of the rubbish dinners my travels are famous – pace the city in increasing agony at being unable to settle for somewhere, then plump for something foul and unhealthy that doesn’t involve interacting with a waiter – I’d retreated to the kitchen area. The whole place was silent, and accessed by a staircase above some shops. There were no staff there and few guests, and I expected to have the place to myself. Slowly the room filled up. First with a small group of Aussies, who invited me to join their card game provided I brought along my transistor radio and stuck some much on, and a group of Russian young men who plonked themselves down next to us and proceeded to drink. They passed a bottle round and did shots from it, and occasionally offered everyone else some, which I politely declined. The evening wore on in this fashion, with an increasingly absorbing card game and easy patter punctuated by drunken shouts from the next table. At one stage the cheesy Polish pop on the radio (the phrase tickled my Australian companions, which I found flattering that they noticed) gave way to Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which sent our companions into a frenzy of almost Viking-style chanting and banging the table, roaring ‘Kylie! Kylie! Kylie!’. This also went on for some time. At some forgotten point I ambled off to bed, and the next morning flew home. Warsaw, too, was wonderful in its own way.