Europe 1998 ????????????????????

Travelling north

It was Sunday morning, and time to say goodbye to my grandparents. We did the customary photo-taking in the garden – it’s compulsory for everyone who visits to come home with a picture of themselves plus Grandad and Gran standing in front of the house. Then we drove to Bognor Regis station so I could catch the 0957 to London.

We lined up at whatever they call the booking office nowadays (it might have been “Service Point” or something like that) to validate my Britrail pass, which I’d bought in Australia before I left. It was part of my attempts to spread the costs of this trip over several credit card bills, rather than just one great hulking one when I got home.

On a train from Bognor to London, 6/9/1998
Admiring the beautiful Connex decor on the 0957 Bognor to London train

As the train rumbled its way through the countryside, I gazed at the window, marvelling, for probably the ten-millionth time this trip, how amazingly far from home I was. From time to time a ticket inspector or a bloke with a trolley of food would go past. People got on, people got off, the usual train behaviour.

Eventually we were zipping through the suburbs of South London, went over the Thames, and arrived at London’s Victoria station. I would be heading north from London, which necessitated a trip on the tube to King’s Cross, on the other side of central London.

Last century, when the railway companies were going crazy criss-crossing Britain with railways, they built huge terminal stations in London to serve their lines. No doubt they would have loved to have ploughed through central London destroying all in their path, presumably to meet somewhere in the middle, but for the most part they were forbidden to by whoever was in charge of things at the time (presumably the formidable Queen Victoria and/or her Prime Ministers).

Resisting the latest fad in transport seems to be a trend that London has continued to follow – no motorways penetrate the centre either, which is just as well, because they’d have made an awful mess of it. Presumably in a hundred years when solar-powered superjets and teleports are all the rage for travelling into London, you will still need to change onto the tube to get to Piccadilly Circus.

Before heading to Kings Cross, I did what I had been unable to do at my grandparents’ – something for which I could suppress the urge no longer. I went to a net cafe and read my e-mail. My grandparents might have hearts of gold, but when it comes to the Internet, they are probably so technologically challenged that they don’t even know they’re technologically challenged.

It was well past lunchtime by the time I got to Kings Cross. I checked the train times to York first, which were every half hour. My stomach knew it was well past lunchtime, and was making my brain aware of this, so I found the quickest reasonable meal I could find: Burger King, over the road from the station.

Then I went back and boarded the 1400 (they all seem to use 24 hour time in Europe) train for York (and Edinburgh, and eventually Aberdeen, if you wanted to go that far in one day). This train was very high tech, all glistening navy, red and yellow company colours, and with superbly luxurious seats (yes, even in Economy) and an in-flight, umm that is in-train magazine! It zipped along at a fair rate, too, reaching York, a distance of about 300 kilometres, in a tad under two hours.

From York Station I phoned ahead to the Youth Hostel for a bed, before slinging my pack onto my back and heading over there. As soon as you walk out of the station you see the city walls, which are a magnificent sight. I walked down to the river, taking my time because I was (a) in no particular hurry, (b) wanting to see some of the local scenery, and (c) weighed down by the pack, which had seemed pretty light and small when compared to other people’s bags on the carousel at Heathrow the week before, but after a few minutes on my back seemed as though it had an elephant sitting on the top of it.

Eventually I found the road going over the river which I presumed (thankfully correctly) would be Water End, the road for the Hostel, which I found a couple of minutes up the hill. I checked into the room, a dorm for four – a double bunk on each side of the room.

One bed, the upper right, was already taken, its occupant out somewhere enjoying the sights of York. I presumed that whoever had chosen it out of the four available knew what they were doing, and so chose the left upper, hoping to gain the same advantages of being on the upper bunk, whatever they might be.

Bootham Bar, York, 6/9/1998
Bootham Bar, which is not a bar, and doesn’t have a booth. But it’s mere METRES from York’s biggest fish’n’chips restaurant!!!

After a quick walk around the hostel to familiarise myself with where everything was, and to generally have a nose around, I went to go explore. The way back to the centre of the town was via a street which had a variety of names as it went along, something which I could just imagine my friend Brian – who detests such practices – ranting about if he’d been with me. Clifton becomes Bootham, which in turn becomes High Petergate, Low Petergate, Colliergate, Fossgate and Walmgate as it goes through the town. And all in the space of a couple of miles.

Gate in York actually means street. And Bar means gate – as in city gate, a spot in the wall where formerly no doubt there were fearsome looking guards who would stop, interrogate, frisk and quite possibly beat to a pulp anybody who wanted to come into the town. Nowadays the gates are physically still there, that’s where pedestrians and traffic make their way through into the old part of the town, with little or no risk of being beaten to a pulp by guards.

I was at Bootham Bar. Starting to feel hungry again, I decided that for the moment, the shops and restaurants along Gillygate looked more interesting than the old town, so that’s where my stomach led me. I followed the streets along the outside of the wall until I got to Monk Bar, which sounds like a place the monks would sneak off for a pint or two after a long afternoon’s chanting, but which is actually the north-eastern entrance into the city.

There (as well as at other points along the walls) you can climb up onto the walls and walk along them like some kind of medieval lookout, which is what I did, following the walls back the way I’d came. I got as far as Bootham Bar again, and was amused to find that on the right hand side of the old gate structure are public toilets built into the wall! Making use of these conveniences, I then made my way back along Gillygate to a fish’n’chips restaurant I’d spotted on my first time around.

I hadn’t had any fish’n’chips since I’d arrived in England, and this one billed itself as the biggest fish’n’chips restaurant in York. Probably not a huge achievement, but enough to warrant further investigation.

Surprisingly, they seemed to be starting to shut down for the night, even though it was only about 7pm. Maybe the background music was frightening people away; it was pretty awful – we’re talking “Lady In Red” Kenny G style. But the meal was nice. Not one of the all time great fish’n’chips I’ve had, but quite acceptable. At least my stomach stopped complaining. The usual fish part of fish’n’chips in England seems to be haddock – I wonder what English think of our flake (shark) back at home.

After the meal I went back through Bootham Bar, to the absolutely magnificent and completely enormous York Minster. No, enormous isn’t adequate. Massively enormous might be better. Let’s just say it’s big, in fact apparently it’s Europe’s largest medieval cathedral. So there you go, it’s not just me that thinks it’s big – it really is big. I walked through it in awe, gazing up at the ceiling and the intricate decorations, and just generally trying to take in a little of the atmosphere of the place.

Exploring York, 6/9/1998
Gazing around the amazing little streets of York.

Then I wandered around the town for a bit. Much of it is still how you might imagine a medieval town might have been – when it really was still medieval that is. But probably with less dirt. Tiny cobbled streets, lovely old buildings, and no cars. By this time it was getting dark, so not much was open except for the occasional shop full of tourist stuff. I bought some postcards, a chocolate bar (a Yorkie Bar, which at first I thought was a local thing, but which isn’t) and a newspaper and walked back to the hostel.

After watching a little TV and writing postcards, I headed back to the room. Grandad had warned me before I left to be wary of the people in the youth hostels. So as I was prepared for anything when I could hear voices as I opened the door. And what a rowdy bunch they turned out to be. A middle-aged management executive from the Canadian Wheat Board called Ed, a British Telecom technician from Ipswich in his 30s called Malcolm, and a middle-aged Dutch bloke who was riding his bike around the Yorkshire dales (whose name I didn’t catch – he turned up almost silently hours later).

We swapped travelling stories and jokes. It turned out that the BT bloke was carefully reading Bill Bryson’s “Notes From A Small Island” (a copy of which I’d left at Grandad’s because I didn’t think I’d get time to read it) and trying to figure out where Bryson had lived, which was somewhere in Yorkshire.

When bedtime finally came I drifted slowly off to sleep, the noise from the cars swooping by on Water End coming in through the window.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.