Monthly Archives: October 2010

Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango

Breathing the lonely word

Regular readers might know of my enthusiasm for Felt, one of the great lost bands. They’re a little less lost right now, thanks to Cherry Red’s reissue series and name-checking by the likes of Belle and Sebastian.

Another landmark in frontman Lawrence’s road to redemption and the legend status he always knew would come one day is the publication of Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango, a fanzine devoted to the band. The first edition sold out quickly, but a fresh print run has just become available. It is limited in numbers but is £10 very well spent.

Lawrence: (sur)name dropper

Fanzines were the predecessors of websites devoted to bands. Hacked together with little more than scissors, glue, a (possibly illegally) commandeered photocopier and bags of enthusiasm. I loved music and football zines, especially for their DIY can-do approach. Smiths Indeed typified them.

Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango is something else though. It’s as beautifully written and thoughtfully packaged as Felt’s albums, and as close to a miscellany about this most mysterious of bands as you’ll find. Reading it makes Felt’s place among bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Smiths and Cocteau Twins in the canon of 80s guitar music much clearer, and you’re sure to laugh, frown and read open-mouthed about the band’s near-misses with fame.

So big up Christian and Mike for shining a little more light on Felt. Read and listen on.

The back door to the Lakes

 

Distant Wasdale

The best way to reach the lakes? the snaking, traffic-trodden M6? Crammed up against a beer-bellied chap with a large bag on a west coast mainline train to Oxenholme or Penrith, then begging a lift? How about none of the above?

Lost in the world of modern railways is the Cumbria Coast Line, a two-coach throwback to another era, complete with request stops, signal-box attendants who double as gate-keepers for level crossings and an abundance of wonderful scenery. You’re probably not surprised by the looming, brooding fells – though Cumbrians are a no-nonsense bunch and you won’t see poets scribbling lines in awe of the hills on board – but the delicate wetlands, estuaries and tidal flats of the coast are less celebrated. Yet this is a journey to savour.

In fact, the Cumbria Coast line may save you time too. The south-western fells around Wasdale are notoriously time-consuming to get to from the motorway. If Langdale and Borrowdale are an hour from the big roads, Wasdale can be close to double that. Ravenglass, Drigg and Seascale are all ten miles or so from the western tip of Wasdale, and can be reached from London, with kind connections, in four and a half hours.

The lakes unfold slowly and deliberately. Just north of Lancaster station, where you’ll leave the main line unless bound to do so at Preston by a service running fewer options, you’ll get your first view if the mountains glowering at Morecambe Bay. Though this is the best known of the tidal flats n the Lancashire and Cumbria coasts it is by no means the only one. Carnforth, famous as the setting for Brief Encounter, is next, with rusting boilers from steam engines sitting alongside mighty diesels at Steamtown, an open-air museum dedicated to locos from the past. At Barrow-in-Furness, where the Royal Navy’s submarines are built you change from the zippy sprinters services to the Cumbria  Coast line proper.

There’s more for rail-buffs of all ages at Ravenglass, close to my one journeys end. Here L’al Ratty, a narrow-gauge railway, climbs up to eskdale on a very scenic journey. Muncaster Castle next door offers tamer appeal, with gardens alive with colour year round.

Request a stop at Drigg and have the station to yourself

The route crosses some of England’s most isolated spots, hiding amidst the folds of assorted Lakeland river estuaries, the North Sea and the cloud-covered Fells. The sun is intermittently blinding with the kind of fresh, sharp light that rain and breeze puts into sharpest focus.  Who needs to travel this beautiful stretch of the Cumbrian coast on a Thursday afternoon, bound for Ravenglass, Seascale and Carlisle? No-one except me it seems. So I have the train to myself until I get off at Drigg, a request stop. Requesting it seemed to surprise the Guard, whose tone of replying ‘really?’ to my request lends me to think that either no-one ever does or that it’s really not my kind if town. To my right, the bracken is a bright orangey-brown on steep, hummocky hills.

Burnmoor Tarn, reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

The highlights of this journey are many. On the first leg to Barrow in Furness, the crossings of the Kent and Leven viaducts are astonishing, ever-changing vistas. Water and mountains are everywhere yet the train appears suspended, almost floating above it all. It looks more like the north-west of Scotland than the Lakes. A golf course with links on rocky promontories looms into view, then quickly passes. Wading birds find safe havens in the oxbows and inlets, the seagrass and sands out the window.

 

Oliver's Gill: good scrambling

As I get off at Drigg, I wait while the train pulls away bound for distant Sellafield, Whitehaven and Carlisle. There’s much more to explore on the coast, but I’m headed inland via a wonderful road where the mountains reveal themselves through folds of foothills. And then there it is: Wastwater. Not the biggest, not the  sot spectacular of the lakes but for me, the one that takes the prize as the biggest classic. As I slowly cycle its length to journeys end, the calm of England’s greatest landscape is already working its magic. If I were to stay forever would anyone mind?

Wasdale sunset

Spotted on the Regents Canal East London Line crossing

This probably counts as slow graffiti. I wonder what daring type managed to do this, dangling over the shallow water of the Regent’s Canal while on the lookout for trains?

The Death of Richard I, Cœur de Lion

Richard I, Cœur de Lion, the Lionheart, is thought of as one of England’s finest rulers. Here’s his statue outside the Palace of Westminster, known to you and me as the Houses of Parliament.

Grr!

You don’t see too many other kings round there – after all, Parliament lopped one of their heads off once, and made life hard for plenty more. So he must be a pretty special chap in English history?

Well, sort of. When he finally got his hands on the throne of England, after years of plotting against his old man Henry II, having been egged on by his mum and Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, he didn’t exactly take England to his bosom. He only spent six months in the country during his reign, splitting his time between crusading the Holy Land – where he failed to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin on the Third Crusade – and squabbling with Philip Augustus of France over Normandy, Anjou and lands in between. He was also captive for over a year, the hostage of his enemies in the Holy Roman Empire.  Like noblemen of the time in England still breathing the fire of William the Conqueror he spoke French not English.

One thing that is indisputable is that he was a great warrior and general, and it is from this that he gets his reputation as something of a badass. Which makes the circumstances of his death almost comical. In March 1199 he was beseiging an unimpressive castle in Chalus, located in what is today the Limoges region and, feeling confident, was touring the perimeter without chainmail on. He was shot by one of history’s more obscure names, Bertrand de Gurdun, armed with a crossbow which hit its intended target in the arm, which became gangrenous.

In those days, it seems, one did not simply shoot someone like Richard, regardless of having the chance to. So, sensing the end was near, he called for the chap to be brought to him and asked why he had shot him. The archer replied that Richard had killed his father and two brothers and – not unreasonably – that he had intended to kill him. Richard magnanimously forgave his killer. Once the King had breathed his last the fellow was seized by Richard’s furious aides, who were less obliging. He was flayed alive and hanged.

Richard’s heir, John, lost all his French possessions and the Lionheart himself now only turns up to save the day in Robin Hood films.

Life could be cruel in the Middle Ages.

Whistle-stop Prague

Inside the old booking hall of Hlavni station

I’ve just got back from a flying visit to Prague, my fourth and shortest visit to the city. Somewhere along the line the Czech capital has become the biggestndraw in central Europe, behind only Paris and Barcelona in the European league table of most popular of city destinations. It’s not as cheap as it once was, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The stag groups who once mobbed the Irish bars of the Stare Mesto – Old Town – have packed their bags for unfortunate stops further east in search of pints which cost less than a pound. they’ve left the city in the clutches of tour groups in search of gothic bridges, classical music in Baroque halls and foaming glasses of Czech beer.

Prague, Mother of Cities

1995 seems a long way away now, and the city then may have already begun morphing into the propserous, if less distinctive city it has become. But when I stepped off the train from Vienna, which had sped across the shimmering central European plain in the scorching summer of that year Prague felt only just out of the clutches of communism. The big western brands were here, but not in the force that they are today, and there were mullets and 20p pints eve in the most perfect back-street old town bar. My then girlfriend and I stayed in a room in an apartment owned by an elderly Czech widow who spoke enough English to thrill us with her accounts of the Second World War and the slamming shut of the Iron Curtain. Outside the big windows of that apartment thunderstorms broke the stifling heat.

National Museum

So in the two hours I had free to explore I set out to revisit some of the half-memories of that stay. Most prominent was the National Museum (evocatively emblazoned with the inscription ‘Musei Regni Bohemiae’, standing sentinel over Wenceslas Square. As I stood on the steps of that building and looked north-east I spotted the twin arches of Hlavni station, dotted with statuary. A walk there revealed a real find. The station is a treasure trove if art nouveau, a gallery of mosaics, wrought iron and gabling with tracks running beneath it. The best part, shunned by the decision to build a six-lane motorway next to the former main entrance, is the original ticket hall. Stop by if you’re in town.

A great walk from Hlavni is to thread through back streets to the Charles Bridge, the Eiffel Tower of Prague, even if the reality is crowded with slightly underwhelmed day-trippers missing the point by taking pictures of themselves with the Vlatava – and no bridge – in the background. The highlights of this walk are too many to mention, just point yourself in the general direction and meander.

And that was that. Time to go, just a tiny taste of Prague. In 1995 I hopped on a train to Stuttgart, exiting via Hlavni’s hallowed tunnels, swapping to a service through Milan to Switzerland that is still the most beautiful rail journey of my life, and from there along the French Riviera to Cerbere – Port Bou, then finally an agonizingly slow and busy local service on to Barcelona. But Prague, well, it’s different.