In Budapest

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Back to the beautiful city on the Danube. Trams rattle over bridges and there are endless grand boulevards to pace up and down.

 

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Sent to me from heaven – St Hedwig by the Danube

 

Of the notable baths of Budapest you might have missed Kiraly. It’s not Széchenyi with its old men playing chess in vast steaming outdoor pools behind fine art nouveau towers. Nor Gellert, the textbook Central European indoor bath. Kiraly is older and more mysterious. From what I could tell its roots go back to the 16th century, when Ottoman rule swept in new influences like, well, bathing. It may be that baths like that date back further, to ancient Constantinople – the shape of the Kiraly baths brings to mind  Byzantine churches.

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The Kiraly furdo looks by some distance to be the oldest building around it at the foot of the hilly core of old Buda. Imagining the Danube in its pre-embanked state flowing through Budapest it would have been closer to the shoreline. The entrance and changing area are modern, with the slightly bewildering list of prices and options found at all of Budapest’s baths giving rise to mild panic, amplified by the oddness of being in something like a bathhouse, with pretty much no idea what you’re doing.

Anyway, in I went and after handing over several payments for a few different things (a cabin, a locker and a towel), one of which I did not have any need for, I found myself climbing the stairs to the changing area. The baths are very clean and very well set up, with electronic tags to close and lock the door of the cabin. There is therefore no need for a locker. There is, you filthy Anglo-Saxon, a need to wash thoroughly before entering the pools and steam rooms. Having done so, I made my way through each one in probably the wrong order.

The main pool appeared to be a social space, with couples old and young, groups of girls and lone males sticking to edges, only occasionally breaking out into the middle space. I like seeking the cooler pot for a spot of invigoration before returning to the warmth. Eventually I found my way into the steamiest of the steam rooms, with a thick fug of hot damp air covering everything including those breathing deeply inside. It was set in one of the pointed corners of the baths main building. Above it were thick glass tiles letting in the afternoon light, playing games with the steam and the darkness. I sat back and thought of the Ottoman Empire, of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short stay in Buda, and then wondered if I’d sat in there long enough to feel like I had done the whole bath thing. Concluding I had, I left and continued to stomp around the city until it was time to catch that evening’s sleeper train to Munich.

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The house in old Buda where Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in while walking to Constantinople

 

At Keleti Station, with its statues of James Watt and George Stephenson, the night train to Bucharest was just leaving. Shortly after a train to Kiev headed out, then another to Prague. This parade of mighty journeys was soon joined by ours, named after Hungarian composer Imre Kalman, heading first to Vienna, then splitting in Salzburg with one half bound for Zurich and the other for Munich. Each one left 20 minutes late.

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Mighty Keleti Palvaudvar

 

As ever when sharing a couchette with strangers there was no doubting the blind was going straight down and the heat straight up. No-one, for reasons I don’t understand, ever wants to look out the window of a night train. I twiddled the heat down and didn’t argue on the latter. It had been a long and cold day and I was very tired, so with earplugs was not troubled by the man and the woman below me who for complete strangers seemed to get on very well. How well exactly I am not sure, but they were still jabbering away at 4am when we pulled out of Salzburg. Plenty of additional passengers had boarded at Vienna, now the hub of Europe’s sleeper network.

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Night train to Munich

 

The whole slightly ramshackle night train thing suits being moved deeper into Europe. But people still believe. We trundled back west through the night across rivers and through cities I’d rather have stopped at but will settle for having passed for now.

 

No autumn, winter

Autumn has been harried away by the rain and gusts of fast-arriving winter. After the chills of earlier this week, best enjoyed on a wonderfully blowy Wednesday on the Heath, Saturday is milder, wetter and earlier.

Parking up it’s still very dark indeed, the only lights the bright lamps on the changing compound. In the still night there’s no signs of life, no heron, no kingfisher, no Egyptian geese. Soon there’s no other humans in the water either, just me trundling round. As I get out after a final dive a man walks out along he jetty, bids me good morning and laughs a slightly mad laugh, jumping straight in to the 6c water. It is still dark as I drive home. This is the time of magic on the Heath and in the water, early before dawn.

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Black Moss Pot

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Raasay

 

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A boat journey across the Sound of Raasay, to the island itself. The weather fronts scudded across the island, the sea and the sky, but dodged us as we made our way up Dun Caan. Autumn in season, but every season, over and over again, minute by minute.

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As we neared the top the wind drove us back, but not before we got to see back over to Skye.

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Rainbows were everywhere, all day.

The Hebridean sky is a constantly shifting canvas, impossible to take your eyes off. It is fearsome, inspires wonder and is quite unlike anywhere else in the world.

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Eyes unto the heavens.

Cropredy

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Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Perhaps our feet tramped over the bones of a woman and a man fifteen generations gone, who have rested in this quiet churchyard for 500 years listening to the wind rustling through the unkempt grass. From them, a line might just lead on to us. Or not. But it’s nice to think and believe that the deviations and detours that have got us this far could be followed back to a place like this.

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Perhaps a small part of us was here at St Mary the Virgin before we got here. These were good thoughts to digest over lunch, with the unmoved mulberry tree on the village green just behind.

I was sorry if my clumsy treads veered off course. It is proving nice to do so.

Buttermere at nightfall

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At summer’s end we walked along the lake and looked at the fast-darkening mountains, cloud and water.

Switzerland: like a dream (again)

This summer took the Halls back to the Alps riding trains, climbing mountains and swimming anywhere and everywhere.

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Regular, punctual, clean trains criss-crossing the country. What more could you want, FFS? This one’s resting at Geneva.

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Views from the First cable car

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The ridiculously scenic and accessible walk from the First cable car in Grindelwald to Bachalpsee. Want to leave the crowds behind? Have a dip in the see when you get there!

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On a cloudy, drizzly day we walked along the floor of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I was very happy.

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After blowing the budget on the Jungfraujoch it was initially dispiriting to find the view wasn’t there. Minutes, later, the above panorama was…

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Extremely Swiss and extremely bonny cow above Kleine Scheidegg

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Cog railway infrstructure somehow adding to the glories all around

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‘There is a mountain. There is another. There is…’ (son listens politely)

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Not a bad spot for a local pool. Grindelwald.

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The fast-flowing Aare in Bern. An alternative means of transport for locals.

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A signposted river for swimmers. How civilised!

Stereolab

 

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Vicar Street, Dublin, 25 June 2019

Tim Gane, guitarist and one half of the driving creatives forces behind Stereolab ambles across stage and mischievously plonks a key on one of the vintage keyboards around the stage. Returning for an encore minutes later, Laetitia Sadier, the other half, notices him repeating the move and harries him back over to ‘his’ half of the stage. She is the singer and the face of Stereolab, who have earlier been casually described by the support act Tomaga as ‘the best band in the world.’ Last night it did not seem like an outlandish claim.

This was my first Stereolab concert for at least 15 years. Since they suspended operations their reputation has grown and grown. Would-be listeners can struggle to find a way in; lucky for me I never had this problem. My brother came home from town one day with Peng!, their first album, and I was hooked from there. With him and friends they were a soundtrack to my teenage and university years. Surrealchemist late at night in student digs in Leeds, train trips over the Pennines to see them in Manchester and Liverpool and, best of all, ridiculously sweaty concerts in London. Always in the summer.

All that said, I wasn’t quite sure whether this concert was going to be up my street. The last few albums weren’t quite as krautrock-and-chord-x with thrillingly radical lyrics – often in French – as earlier efforts, and I suspected I’d find myself enjoying it but willing something unlikely off an earlier album to be played only for everyone else to cheer when French Disco gets a crowd-pleasing airing.

There was no need to worry. Laetitia walked on stage to a smattering of cheers, then shushed the crowd as she was tuning up. Around 800 Dubliners did as they were told. Then she came back on again and made a more fitting entrance with the rest of the band. From that moment on, she, Tim and everyone else had the show in their grip, and walked unpredictably through their back catalogue.

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The whole show was one long highlight. It felt like becoming reacquainted with something special that you’d forgotten you didn’t know in the first place why it was so. Anamorphose sounded like the soundtrack to a long dream. After Ping Pong Laetitia checks everyone knows the anthem to Marxist economic theory isn’t ‘just a jolly pop song’. French Disco did get an airing, but in the same ‘let’s get it out the way’ spirit it used to be. Crest, followed by Lo Boob Oscillator sounded so good it made me a bit sad for every other band that have come since them and have to try to be better.

In all of this there’s Tim, rocking out and driving what they called The In Sound From Way Out. Andy on drums pounding out motorik one minute and jazzy grooves the next, and the keyboards and bass adding up to a noise all their own. During the wig-out at the end of Lo Boob (some people in the crowd experiencing such a racket for the first time!) the bass appears to pick out the rhythm from We’re Not Adult Oriented, though I could have just been imagining it.

While in some ways this was noticeably a comeback – while Laetitia appears unaffected by time, Tim and the rest of the band have aged, and no new music was played – in others this was also a continuation of something Sadier herself struggled to describe: ‘a project…a partnership’, thanking the crowd for remembering. There never was anything so magnificent as Stereolab really going for it. It feels important for the future of humanity that they continue to for some time to come.

 

Two rivers in England

With some surprise we arrived on holiday deep in Roger Deakin’s territory. Suffolk, where the county butts against Norfolk, with the Waveney as the border, rural and silent and the place where Waterlog, his ‘aquatic songlines’ was born. I’ve never set out to swim in his strokes, but felt it fate to arrive in here for a family celebration without really looking at a map. This ‘secret river’, according to Deakin, was a short run through some fields from our base, and on the first morning I convinced Imogen was should do just that.
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It turned out the Waveney made us work a little, footpaths clogged with nettles, and then paths stretching always just a little further from where the water should be. The first swim then was short, as we had to be getting back, but the next evening, returning by bike, I had time for a longer visit. The Waveney was completely silent, and it was a lonely and slightly strange swim. To be honest having plotted all day a way to get in, once I was I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I pottered about a bit and scrambled back up the muddy banks.
In between we pay a visit to Beccles Lido, also on the riverbank, heated but outdoors and full of fun. There’s also a glimpse of the Broads jam-packed with day trippers, a world away from the quiet space of this county line.
A few weeks on and another family gathering I stumbled into through the rush of recent months. While I really should start doing my homework in advance I’m tempted to let others keep booking them if these are the places we end up. This time we were in the Test Valley for midsummer, a shallow, fast-flowing chalk stream beloved of anglers. The river appears as we approach where we’re staying here and there. You hear and smell the streams.
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The Ordnance Survey was not playing hide-and-seek this time – a bridge over the Test was five minutes walk through our village. The sun glints off the water as we first arrive, an advance party for several later stone-throwing trips and games of pooh sticks, but this morning was a chance for a just-possible swim in thigh-deep water. The game here is to head under the bridge through the shallower water upstream, then catch the chute rushing under the other side of the bridge, then repeat. The water is cold, the morning glorious.
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Like in Suffolk we have it to ourselves. Under the spell of the water, the long days blow gently in the breeze.

 

George Clark’s bad day

At the National Archives are treasures of every kind. At large tables people sit or stand, poring over physical relics of the UK’s past that possibly mean more to the people poring over them at that moment than anyone else since they were first compiled. Hands get dirty with centuries old dirt. Piles of parchment and ancient scrolls unroll for the first time in generations.

I found myself here a few weeks ago as part of some family history, which if you are bored or mad – unless indeed you are a member of my family – you can read more about below this article.

The archives are home to the North London Railway’s staff registers and board meeting minutes, which contain the records of some of my ancestors. In one case, their entire working life. In another, what is apparently their unfortunate passing.

Once I’d hyperventilated at the avalanche of historical detail that came tumbling out concerning fines levied for violent shunting, promotions and seemingly odd deviations in career I spent a while leafing aimlessly through these lovely books. Thousands of people, mostly men, with their working lives laid out in beautiful handwriting. You can imagine a clerk hunched over these volumes, day after day, building up a picture of Victorian London life, when railways were young and the capital was expanding at a fierce rate.

And here’s George Clark. A pointsman (initially) at Hackney Wick Junction, with his father in the company’s service. He joins the NLR in 1859.

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By 1893 George was a ticket collector, a change of role owing to failing health after 34 years on points duty. The NLR was a tight-knit community that evidence suggests looked after its own.

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But what’s this? January 1896 does not seem to be a happy 37th anniversary for Mr Clarke. As the record states, he was “severely reprimanded for throwing a piece of iron to frighten away some children from station entrance, and striking a man named Bowen who was passing along the street at the time, Clark paid the man 5/ (five shillings, right?) as compensation and was told if this kind of thing occurs again he will have to go about his business.”

You can picture the scene, briefly if vividly captured. Clark’s irritation, and his hurling of the iron. Bowen’s shock, then indignancy – real or contrived – that he is owed some kind of reparation. The NLR management discussing how to deal with this in a proportionate way. And the children, running off laughing, retelling the story to anyone who would listen.

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It worked out ok for George in the end. On retirement, after 47 years service he was granted a good conduct retiring allowance of 7 shillings and 8 pence per week. Of Bowen, the children and the piece of iron no more is heard.

My head had started to hurt and I had to go to Leighton Buzzard. The book was gently closed and everyone within settled back into their sleep, with all the slumbering stories of England for company. Until next time.