We're staying for the week in a village in the North of Yorkshlandshire. We've rented a minute (the whole footprint of the building is smaller than our kitchen) self-catering cottage built in the early part of the 18th century and recently refurbished in a style that can only be described as Early 21st Century Tat. MDF Fireplace, squarish plates, black wraughtish iron curtain poles, and some of the most amateur woodworking I have seen for a while; some of it has actually made me laugh. I would estimate that the rent we have paid on this place for the week has paid for most of the fixtures and fittings - and if the owners' have any sort of B&Q loyalty card I guess they must in profit. We're only here for the week. I think I can cope - unless many more things fall off the wall due to inadequate fixings. Maybe next year they could afford a toilet roll holder.
We passed a supermarket on the way into the village and shortly after we arrived I went there to buy some milk. Maybe it's a product of my gentle lifestyle and my living in an even tinyer tiny village in the middle of nowhere but I didn't realise they actually posted ASBO notices up in public. At the supermarket checkout there was a board with all the usual community notices pinned to it, including a full colour A3 poster (with photo) informing the world that: 'Stig (aka 'Stig') McMoron had been banned from the following streets (shaded area on map) and that between the hours of...' etc. etc.
Next to it, slightly to the right of Stig's Neanderthal mugshot, was another poster pointing out that having guns and shooting things is against the law. Oh Happy holidays.
Days was, when you packed up for the summer hols, you packed some clothes, a good thick book (usually with a swastika or the words 'Jilly Cooper' on the front cover), and your bucket and spade. Packing for this trip (or rather watching Merriol pack) I was struck by the vast amounts of electronics we seemed to need to take with us - to wit:
2 Mobile phones
1 MP3 Player
2 MP4 players
1 Little radio transmitter thing that plugs into the MP3 Player, the MP4 players, and one of the phones which allows you to play your music without the hassle of taking CDs out of their cases or rewiring the car.
1 Juicebox (Holly's weird little toy MP3 / video player)
3 Digital Cameras (Merriol's and the kids' - this not including the cameras on the phones.)
2 Gameboys (Merriol's and the kids')
1 Portable DVD player
All the cables, adapters, chargers, USB sticks etc. neeeded to plug all these slighty obsolete electronic devices into each other, the car, or ourselves*.
I also bought a good thick book No swastikas or hanky panky in the home counties but 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy' by Laurence Sterne, a book I have never finished starting several times over the years. This time I intend to get a good way into it before the inevitable charity shop purchases start whining for my attention.
I also brought a crappy SF novel and a frothy piece of chick lit called 'Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging' just in case I don't.
"I want to go to a museum, I'm not bothered what kind; I just want to go to a museum."
Port Mulgrove: A path down a sloping cliffside (I know what I mean) between high bracken, and gorse, and the usual mixture of wayside flowering British wild plants I should know the names of but don't. Half way down the sometimes steep decent, Holly found half a slow-worm in the middle of the path. The back half. It was still moving. We had obviously interupted something's lunch. The walk down to the beach was like every childhood summer holiday memory I have rolled up into one. I had deja-vu all the way down to sea level. The summer holidays I remember were taken in Cornwall and we're in North Yorks, diagonally the other side of England, but I guess clifftop paths are pretty much the same where ever you go. No midges. The beach when we got to it was initially a bit of a diappointment: a few tin shacks on a beach of industrial rubbish from an ancient ironstone mine - the bricked-up mouth of which, half overgrown with generic undergrowth, was still visible in the cliff face. An internet aquantance had recomended it as a place to take the kids fossil hunting. We wandered around - the kids were happy, it was a beach after all, even if it did have more that the usual number of bulldozers sitting on it - and after a while picking up interesting pebbles, and then discarding them a few minutes later when an even better looking pebble presented itself, I found a rock with some lumps sticking out of it. Fossils! Look kids! Vague lumps that could be fossils! A few moment later Merriol turned up half an ammonite in a freshly cracked rock that still shimmered with nacre. XtyX million year old Mother of Pearl. After that, we had our eye in and every pebble and piece of shale had flattened critters in them. It was great fun.
Whitby: It's ages since I've been to Whitby - 20 years maybe? I was warned the place would be full of Goths which makes me regret not having packed my black kilt but I was sadly disappointed - our fault for arriving on a hot Saturday afternoon - the place wasn't full of weird and wonderfully dressed blackhaired teens* but heaving with the usual fat, sweaty, tattooed, and doddering British daytrippers. Just like us. After a cafe lunch Holly announced she wanted to: "Go to a museum, I'm not bothered what kind; I just want to go to a museum." So we found her the Whitby Museum. And it's BRILIIANT. A small, privatly-owned treasure stuffed with glass cases stuffed with - things (many of them stuffed). All sorts of things. Fossils, Roman pottery, stuffed birds, unstuffed birds, eighteenth century shoes, Victorian school books, Georgian Dolls house... everything, all in one room and all wonderfully labled in a variety of styles and degrees of detail. Not 'interpreted' - labelled, names and dates, and then who presented whatever it is to the museum, in ancient handwiting, faded typing, and modern office printing. The labels themselves tell you more about the history of the museum than any carefully curated display could. It is a wonderful place. It's what museums should be: eclectic, interesting, varied, fascinating, and serendipidous. How can you not love a place that has a mummified human hand on display next to a 1970s Teddy Bear? - not because they were juxtaposed as some post-modernistic cultural commentary, but because the Whitby Hand of Glory (found in an attic) is displayed in a box next to the case with museum's latest aquisitions, which happen, this week, to include a 1970s givaway advertising sloganized Teddy. It's everything the Kelvin Hall used to be before it got fucked over and modernised. On the way out I praised the place to the staff at the entrance. Apparently most of the people who comment tell them not to touch a thing and mess it up. I am not alone.
Daisy and Holly loved it too. Darting from one case to the next, noses pressed against glass: "What's this, Daddy? What's that? Mummy, come and look at this? Oooooh! can we have one of them?" Museum curaters of the world take note, you don't need to fill your building with flashy gimmicks and interactivness. Just stuff them full of wonders and let us explore.
* Goths must be, to my mind, a vast improvement on the vast numbers of singing, hairy, Real Ale Drinkers and Morris Dancing teams that I remember from one of my previous visits. One of the scariest things I think I have ever heard happened in Whitby. It was during the Annual Folk Festival - I have no memory of why I was there, though drugs may well have played a part in the proceedings - I remember sitting having a fish and chip lunch when a whole procession of Northern English Morris Dancing teams went by, most of them seemingly made up of vast, rectangular women in huge, steel tipped clogs. As they reached the cafe, they all stopped in the middle of the road and started prancing about doing energetic folky stuff, leaping about in wooden shoes on narrow cobbled streets, whacking each other with sticks. It was deafening. I think there were accordians involved too.
Fewer fat people in Whitby today but by Christ, aren't there a lot of steps in East Yorkshire? Getting from anywhere to anywhere in a town around here seems to involve plodding up endless stone staircases built into hillsides. The most famous set of steps I would guess being the 199 that lead up to the Abbey - except they aren't the Abbey Steps at all, they are I found out today, the steps up to the wonderfully weird St. bMary's. The Abbey just happens to be behind it.
St Mary's is a working church and has been for a very long time. It's a building that looks like it has been partially rebuilt several times. It's had windows hacked into it, while other have been bricked up, it's had extensions added - and demolished, had extensions added to previous extensions (sometimes on top of them). The roof is nowhere near as tall as the original or, at least, a previous one was. (If the east gable end and the lines where the old roof used to sit against tower are anything to by.) It is a building that has, for several centuries at least, been used, abused, remade, attacked, demolished, restored, neglected and endlessly remodled with whatever came to hand by whoever was in charge in the prevailing style of the time. It is, in short, one of the most gloriously unplanned buildings I have seen for a long time, far more interesting than the Abbey. That's one of the things I appreciate about the places we have visited over the last few days. The old towns (ie the touristy bits) of places like Whitby, Staithes, and Robin Hood's Bay were all built in the days before Planners and Planning Laws and Building Regulations and Health and Safety conciderations. They were built by the people who lived and worked in them for their own particular needs. They weren't built to meet some national plan and didn't have to conform to any pan-European minimum requirements. They are very real human environments. Probably absolute Hell to live in at the time. I don't think I could have done it. For one thing I like having a sewage system that doesn't end at my property's boundry, and the thought of having 300 of my close reletives within spitting distance makes me feel positvly ill - but looking at these tightly packed, individualistic buildings all shoed-horned higgledy piggeldy, one on top of another and then, as we drive away, at the well-spaced, des res, and instantly boring monocultures of 'housing developments' around the outsides of these towns, I can't help thinking something has gone seriously wrong with the way we live these days, which is not an original thought, or, indeed, an uncommon one.
The morning was spent being the only four people on a guided tour of The Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum in the village of Skinningrove, which had the kids (and us) enthralled for an hour. The staff were great. Very friendly helpful and genuinely interesting. Holly was especially chuffed when she got to light the fuse for the explosive charge that blew a new section of rock (a neat piece of theatre which involved lighting the fuse, then retiring to the 'safety' of the Deputee's hut with the sound of a large explosion played over hidden speakers. The Guide then left us for a moment to 'make sure everything was safe' and, while out of our sight, whipped away a false wall to reveal a 'newly blasted' pile of ore. Smoke and convincing gunpowder smells came from somewhere too. Holly is convinced she 'exploded a mine' and has a wee certificate to prove it.
Lunch was had at the delightful Staithes Tea Shop. Which got our custom purely because it was the first place we came to with two hungry and slightly fractious kids on our hands. Like many things over the last few days it reminded me so much of places I remember from my childhood summers. It's a small, cosy little place with great (genuinely) homemade cakes, relays of locals popping in for tea and a chat and keeping up a never-ending conversation and friendly helpful people running it. The kids were incredibly impressed that the one toilet had flowery wallpaper and purple curtains.
Tristram Shandy is turning out to be a Good Read. I loose the thread from time to time. My classical education being somewhat non existant I don't get half of the allusions and references I notice, let alone all the ones I don't even see because I don't recognise them as being references or allusions, but there is enough slapstick and knob jokes to make me laugh out loud and keep turning the pages. I am, so far, managing to ignore the siren calls of all the books I have bought over the last few days. I don't know how I aquire so many books in so short a time. One of my few genuine talents is the ability to find second hands books for sale in the middle of nowhere*.
...as was proved by our visit to Saltburn today. We'd promised the kids a playing on the sand, buckets and spades, seaside day and, more by luck than any kind of concidered judgement, ended up at the huge sandy expance of Saltburn by the Sea while the tide was out. For the past few days we have been arriving at seaside places at full tide, leaving the kids disappointedl, staring at dead things bobbing about and sluggishly slopping against the bottom of cobbled slipways. Look kids - the sea!
Today we got it right: sun, sand, water all the way over there on the horizon, and a pier to boot. We did the whole British seaside thing but without any of the tons of kit (folding chairs, windbreaks, towels, Thermos flasks full of tepid tea etc. etc. that people usually take). The kids were soon covered in factor 60 sunblock - I think it works by being so tacky that a thick layer of sand sticks to them forming an opaque carapace - and spent the next couple of hours making a whole village for an imaginary ladybird called 'Tulip' (including both primary and secondary schools, and two swimming pools).
After a while I was dispatched/volenteered/ran away, up the usual hillside of a million and one stone steps, to buy some sandwhiches for lunch. The first shop I came to was... a second-hand bookshop, where I squandered a whole pound on a collection of Eric Frank Russell stories I had never heard of before. Merriol was not impressed - or suprised.
*In fishing villages, RNLI lifeboat stations are always a good bet.
Somewhere along the way over the last few years I, or (more likely) Merriol and the kids have developed some element of a Scotttish accent. Twice over the past few days people have identified us as coming from north of the border before asking us where exactly we come from. To be entirely accurate it's three, but the third person recognised our 'Save the Belford' car sticker whan we parked next to her in the middle of nowhere so doesn't count.
To be honest after only a week away I'm getting homesick. It's nice here, Merriol was right we did need a holiday, and she and the the kids seem to be having a good time but I'm getting fed up with the endless procession of shaven headed men wearing white Umbro England shirts and dark blue tracky botttoms with three stripes down the side. Everywhere you look. It's like a national costume. "For Harry, England, and Saint Chav!" - Maybe it's only this area but that's all men under the age of forty seem to wear. (Mind you we are a periliously close to Middlesborough, so that might explain it). To complete the picture most of them accesorise with white trainers, tattoos, and an asthmatic, short-legged, fighting dog on a lead.
Things not to do while on holiday, number 137:
Start to fill your car with unleaded petrol - when it's got a deisel engine.
This act of stupidity came at the end of a long, sticky, sweaty day which involved me doing a lot of driving, the kids getting hot, bored, but suprisingly unwhiney, and Merriol getting fed up with me for asking her directions at inconvenient moments. Immediately after putting a quarter of a tank of the wrong sort of fuel in the car, then filling it up to the top with the right sort of fuel (hoping I had dilluted the wrong sort enough for the engine not to blown up, seize up, or whatever five miles down the road) we drove out to rejoin the motorway only to find the recovery vehicles I had been dimly aware of as we came off the motorway were in fact recovering some sort of fallen over tanker and before we knwe it we were diverted back the way we had come. "Oh great!" I said, "We're on our way back to Hull!" Holly burst into tears. That's the sort of reaction I have about the place and I lived there for 10 years. She'd only been there for the afternoon.
Highlight of the day was The Deep, a huge multi-storey aquarium located in Hull. As I said, I used to live in Hull, it's not a place I ever really wanted to go back to, but it was half way between where we were and where we were going, and I thought the kids would enjoy looking at the fish. Just after we started our walk through what is indeed a spectacular place, Merriol's camera started rattling - and stopped taking pictures.
In the obligatory shop on the way out I spotted an expensive looking, lavishly illustrated book: A Portrait of Hull. I picked it up and flipped through it wondering what a photographic journey round what I remember being, for the most part, a godforsaken dump would look like. The third picture was of a car park.