Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Days 31 and 32: Amateur Dramatics

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" - Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four.

Amongst all the pasties and photography opportunities that a trip to Cornwall affords you, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Jo had secured, in keeping with her culture-vulture status, two tickets to an open-air performance of The Death of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of the county's Miracle Theatre company. As a former board-treader myself (my favourite role being that of the Reverend John Hale in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, probably the best play of the twentieth century) I was excited about how the troupe could utilise the beautiful setting of Pendennis Castle as the backdrop to a tale of Victorian mystery and intrigue.  With the circus at Eden a letdown, I felt this was Cornish culture's change to shine.

We arrived about thirty seconds before the performance took place, owing to tactical errors regarding choices of ice-cream at the Tesco Express on the way, and the fleece-covered woman manning the makeshift box-office certainly couldn't hide her inner tuts of irritation with her smile. No matter - in true outdoor theatre style we pulled out blankets and towels, readied our box of Cadbury's Giant Buttons and began work on our Soleros, just as the usual announcements about mobile phones and flash photography brought us back to earth. The stage was amateur dramatics personified - little more than a wall and a floor but with tricks and secrets enough to transport the audience from 221B Baker Street to the Horsham Spiritualist Society and back again.  The cast numbered merely five, with multiple roles for all except Holmes and the utterly brilliant Watson, who delivered an impeccable performance combining just the right amount of straight and slapstick. 

I don't intend to use this post as a formal review of such, but needless to say I was hugely surprised by the talent and professionalism on display.  The story was average-to-middling, a fairly liberal take on Conan Doyle's 'The Final Problem' combined with some frankly farcical meta-fictional elements (in one scene Conan Doyle talks to his own fictional creations and tells them how they will be written out to save him the pain of continually writing stories for his adoring public).  The acting, though, was top-notch all around, with some brilliant comic moments in the second half, including what appeared to be some truly inspired improvisation, and the canned music added depth without distraction.

At the interval, approaching the Castle on a clear, chilly Thursday night, the setting certainly looked spectacular.  Standing aloof on verdant hillocks of green, the building looks proud and detached from afar but more homely and modest up close, despite its original purpose of defending the Carrick Rhodes. At night, with the ever present ships floating like monoliths on the water, lights twinkling like earthbound stars in the black, the whole scene is imbued with a romantic intrigue, a world surrounded by history and mystery.  During the interval I wandered closer to the dark to fully drink in the faint outline of the Cornish coast, and felt an immense sense of belonging.  All appeared at peace, and it was impossible not to feel wrapped up in warmth despite the chill of the descending dark.  It was almost a shame to return to the play, with so much drama displayed all around me.

All in all, it seems bizarre that a small bunch of actors, albeit Arts Council-funded, were far more convincing and entertaining than a massively promoted circus at Eden.  I wish them all the best of luck in future tours, and I would urge you all to catch them if you can.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Days 29 and 30: Eden Project

Slapped wrists all around - the pace of my entries for this blog has predictably slackened of late. My trip to Cornwall has been something of a double-edged sword, as while it's been wonderfully relaxing and reinvigorating, I've unfortunately not been involved in anything so exciting or amazing that regular readers would really want to hear about them.  The half-way house I'm therefore adapting is just to pick up on a couple of highlights from my trip, sparing my readership my thoughts on the advantages of a chicken pasty over a steak, or Harbour Lights' fish 'n' chips over Rick Stein's.

Early on in the holiday, once Jo and I had packed our hire car and moved base from the gorgeous sea-side town of Falmouth to the more metropolitan county town to Truro, we had tickets for the Eden Project, the famous collection of golf-ball shaped 'biomes' nestled deep within a former clay mine near St. Austell.  

Our main motivation, however, was the evening's entertainment, the mysteriously named Labyrinth presented by the enthusiastic UK-based circus company NoFit State. The prospect of a Cirque du Soleil-style show in the exotic surroundings of the Rainforest Biome certainly sounded appealing, and who couldn't be excited at the prospect of the combination of scantily-clad acrobats and tropical vegetation?

The actual Project itself is unfortunately very much an attraction worth visiting exactly once.  It's acreage may be expansive but unfortunately there's not a great deal to see.  The biomes are huge but once you have seen one giant fern and another giant banana tree, you have pretty much seen them all.  It's certainly interesting to feel you are visiting a equatorial climate (complete with stifling heat and humidity) but you cannot escape the feeling that the whole biome is stage-managed to the extent that it's halfway between reality and fantasy.  You know that somewhere out there coffee plants, mango groves and eucalyptus bushes are growing in a climate far, far away, but in the context of a golf-ball in south-west Cornwall, such exhibits might as well be in the Natural History Museum.  Add the fact that there is precious little interaction in each biome, and I ended up leaving the exhibition with little more knowledge than I came in with.  That said, children will love the wondrous variety of fauna and from the expressions of infants and toddlers around me, I could see their enjoyment etched on their faces.

I was therefore quite looking forward to the distraction of the circus, as the sun became to set and the mercury began to lower.  Once the plebs had been ushered away at closing, the privileged few with the right colour armbands gathered at an innocuous hill high above the biomes, where scaffolding had been sneakily erected in the background.  After some preamble involving a monologue from a mad accordionist and some rather disappointingly perfunctory health and safety instructions from a steward (we would see much more of him later), four acrobats began some trapeze work, with some silly banter about having to get on to the real show.  I find it difficult to appreciate trapeze.  What the clowns were doing no doubt takes years of training, and nerves of steel, but there seemed to be so little variation in their act that I felt I was applauding the same thing over and again for twenty minutes.  All well and good for me to criticise of course, but I'm sure if I spent five minutes on a trapeze, I'd have more broken bones than I'd had hot dinners.

The second phase of the evening began with the crowd cattle-herded through narrow paths to the Mediterranean biome, with the promise of a more open-ended exhibition, where we could wander around and view various acts hidden amongst the olive and fir trees. The acts ranged from an incredibly boring monologue punctuated by a woman gyrating on a metal hoop suspended from the ceiling (with the joke being that she had to constantly cover herself with every spin and fall to protect her modesty, which was of course already adequately protected anyway) to a genuinely impressive man in a linen suit performing gravity-defying acts of athleticism on a Chinese pole. The concept sounds liberating in theory, giving the audience the freedom to experience the acts they want, but in practice the whole thing was shambolic.  The ever-present stewards marched the crowd from place to place, there was little or no signal that an act had finished and where another one had started, and the uneven nature of the structure of the biomes meant that it was far too easy to end up viewing the back of someone's head rather than the gymnastics.

The final act was a finale within a specially constructed big-top, complete with live music and what we thought would be a story.  The story, unsurprisingly, turned out to be nonsensical semi-poetic musings that functioned as little more than a frame for the continuing acrobats, and the live music crashed between post-rock riffing and Arcade Fire-style heavy pop that, whilst occasionally jarring, did contribute to the atmosphere.  But that atmosphere was constantly broken by those infuriating stewards, who insisted every five minutes on pushing, pulling, splitting, joining, fragmenting and uniting the crowds, to make way for the various acts.  I saw two poor wheelchair users who looked exhausted by the constant haranguing.  I could see the potential, but if a circus insists on a reverse-round style where the actions takes place around and above the audience, it must construct the show to make use of the space and not constantly change its mind about where it wants to take place.  

We left twenty minutes early feeling exhausted. It wasn't the inventive circus action that had taken our breath away - we'd seen pretty much everything before bar the linen-suited Chinese pole artist - but the constant shifting and craning our necks.  The Eden Project should be praised for championing UK-based shows, and for reviving a frankly dying art, but any kind of outdoor event will struggle with the Eden layout. A shame, really - this had so much potential.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Days 27 and 28: Falmouth

“You’re in Cornwall now, it will get done when it’s done” – Anonymous

How to describe Cornwall for those who haven’t been there, without recourse to stereotypes? I’d never even thought about visiting the county prior to meeting Jo (whose immediate family reside there) – the closest I’d ever come to the South West was three years in Portishead and even then I was dimly aware of Cornwall’s existence, in the same way that I was aware of Antarctica, or Alpha Centauri.  I’ve since visited three or four times and have gradually fallen in love with the place, not just because Falmouth is about as far away from London as you can be without either being in Scotland or in the sea, but mainly because of its attitude.

Time slows in Cornwall.  There’s no rush, no anxiety, no smog, no skyscrapers, no Tube, no pressure, and no desire to have to be in three places at once.  The biggest decision you might have to make on a particular day is whether your pasty will come from Rowe’s, Philps’, or Warren’s (but not obviously from Oggy Oggy), or whether that beach on the south coast is more attractive than the one on the North.  Falmouth itself is a beautiful seaside town packed with cobbled streets, and boutique galleries, and yet even on weekends and evenings the pace is palpably slackened, with people’s minds more on a peaceful picnic at Pendennis rather than which glamorous superclub they might want to be spotted in that night.  It’s impossible to feel anything other than relaxed – even the Cornish tongue, a tripping, sing-song brogue, slips out more slowly than any other English accent I can think of.

Having arrived late on Friday, I slept peacefully, the window open to let in the clear Cornish air, and woke early on Saturday.  The plan was to take a boat ride from Falmouth docks, across the Carrick Rhodes and along the River Fal to the county town of Truro, for lunch and a wander.  The comfortingly Cornish pilot chugged the boat slowly through the August morning, past gigantic cargo ships marooned in the water, and platforms of ropes mysteriously dangled silently in the water (I later learnt they were mussel farms).  Unlike the Hampton Court Palace river trip, we were the only tourist boat in sight, surrounded by endless water and trees and sky, bouncing from small coastal Cornish villages where small groups of tourists embarked and disembarked. 

At one point we passed the grandly named King Harry Ferry, a chain ferry that takes twenty minutes to haul its cargo of cars one mile across the River Fal, to cut out a twenty-seven mile journey around the coast.  More than a hundred years old, it is a traditional part of Cornish history and completely embodies travel in the county – slow, gentle and with affinity for the landscape.  In London, we’d have just plonked a steel bridge over the banks, no doubt sponsored by some corporate giant, and charged a tenner a journey.

And so as we wandered around the lovely town of Truro – I’ll write more about the town in a later post, but as a summary it’s kind of South-West version of York with more pasties and cider – I once again to feel at home in this strange county.  As far as Cornwall is from my home town, I feel its spirit and its attitude to life is far more in harmony with my own.  Sure, Cornwall can do excitement just like anywhere else, but right now I’d take a beach, a cider, and a Roskilly ice-cream any day of the week.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Days 25 and 26: Road Trip

"And this was really the way my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell." - Jack Kerouac, On The Road

**Author’s Note – As I am currently sunning myself in Cornwall I will be backdating a number of these posts as and when I get time to write – thanks for your patience and I hope you continue to enjoy my writing while I am away!**

Who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a road trip? I remember back in sixth form days, where my entire class were competing to become the first to turn their driving licences from green to pink, and those who were triumphant scrabbling down the backs of their sofas and buying as flashy a car as their £100 or so could muster.  Unsurprisingly the school car park was filled with old Escorts and Skodas, those you could find the odd shiny Ford Ka for those pupils whose parents were so proud of their little Sam or Samantha that they shelled out for a brand new model for their pride and joy to scratch and smash to oblivion within weeks.  One particularly wealthy father even thought plumping for a new Beamer for their seventeen-year-old son was completely sensible.
Unfortunately I was never able to join that prestigious club of car-owning teenagers. My grandparents very kindly provided me with funds enough for fifty or so hours with BSM, but I took to driving about as well as a duck takes to an oil slick.  Early on I let slip to my long-suffering instructor Martin that I was a pianist, and he seized on this admission to such an extent that he insisted on using pedalling and keying analogies for every gear-change, reverse-around-a-corner and parallel park I had to undertake, with a beguiling combination of genuine enthusiasm and appalling inaccuracy that led me to become utterly confused with the simplest of driving tasks.  I did claw my way to a stage where I took my test, where I had the pleasure of chauffeuring the examining equivalent of a stone golem who occasionally barked instructions that led me along the deepest, darkest stretches of tarmac in Wakefield.  I failed fairly spectacularly, despite perfect parking, and was so disconsolate I refused to take the test again, using my fast approaching transition to Durham for my Fresher year as an excuse.  Now I live in London, I have convinced myself that being able to drive is for the moment an exercise in futility, a money pit I can ill afford, but I know deep down that despite excuses about lack of funds or availability or public transport, I’m actually just terrified of sitting behind that wheel again.

My inability to drive myself, though, does not detract from my general enjoyment from being a passenger on long trips, and Jo and I were about to embark on a particularly lengthy journey – about 260 miles from Surbiton to the lovely Cornish town of Falmouth.  As the co-pilot, I was given a number of non-driving tasks – firstly navigator (though Jo had made the journey a number of times and so had no need of my admittedly limited map-reading skills), secondly provider of nutritional sustenance (which translated as Hula Hoops and Haribo) and thirdly the car’s personal disc jockey.  I particularly rose to the challenge of the last point, asked as I was to produce a decent mix of songs that “weren’t just indie rubbish”.  I eventually created three CDs’ worth but for the edited highlights, head over to this Spotify playlist to see what I eventually came up with.

I won’t bore you with the details of the trip itself, but I did want to settle on one half-hour of the journey, where we stopped at Exeter Services for refreshments and refuelling.  Service stations resonate deeply with me. My childhood is punctuated with frequent roadside stops, particularly scarfing down Olympic Breakfasts in deserted Little Chefs at eight in the morning, gentle sunlight glinting over the clouds and sparkling onto the tarmac of whatever motorway we were crawling along.  Nowadays, whenever we pull into a Welcome Break or Granada Services, I take in the crowds of weary travellers, often parents dragged by exuberant children in desperate need of their next sugar rush, and wonder idly where they are all headed.  For a few minutes, hundreds of humans have congregated at one location, united in their desire for food, coffee and perhaps a new tape/CD for the car, and then just as quickly the crowds disintegrate and splinter apart, individuals once again on their journeys along seemingly never-ending stretches of tarmac. Just briefly, I feel like Sal Paradise in On The Road (a novel I deliberately took with me) hitching from one gas station to another, with nothing on his mind but the next destination, the next segment on his great voyage across America. 

We had timed our pit stop, it seemed, with that of a coach-load of Sea Cadets from Poole, swarming over the facilities and inundating the staff of Burger King with confused, chaotic orders for various forms of grease and salt.  Black-shirted and arm-banded, standing jovially in loose clumps, the cadets jumped and smiled and hugged randomly across the station forecourt, and despite the fact that they were a not inconsiderable barrier between me and my burger, I couldn’t help but feel their infectious enthusiasm seep within my veins, reminding me that travelling, whether from New York to Denver or from London to Falmouth, is a time for feeling, as Kerouac himself called it, “the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being”.  As the evening started to chase us away from Devon and into the beautiful pastures of Cornwall, I felt more free than I had at any other point in my Forty Two days.  This was going to be a good holiday.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Day 24: Final Fantasy XIII

"How can there be any meaning in the memory of such a being? What I have shown you is reality.  What you remember - that is the illusion". - Sephiroth, Final Fantasy VII

**Author's note - I have refrained from revealing anything in this post that could be construed as spoilers. The opinions here are based on the first fifteen hours of gameplay**

A while or so ago I posted a quasi-diatribe on how video games are too often tarred with the brush of distrust and disdain, with commentators preferring to focus on the putative links between the increasing realism of certain titles and the inevitable rise of violent crime. I offered as a counter-example the excellent Portal 2, a game that offered an intoxicating blend of exploration and puzzle-solving with a top-class script, beautifully realised world, and characters you genuinely cared about. 

Since then, I have been slowly working my way through my (very small) library of existing games, given I made a solemn promise to my girlfriend, like a guilty ten-year old, that I would finish what I already owned before I bought any further titles. Whilst I'm afraid I've played nothing as absorbing and satisfying as Portal 2, I have singled out two I believe warrant further discussion - L.A. Noire, that I'll post about at a later date once I've finished it, and Final Fantasy XIII, a game that, in my opinion, almost single-handedly destroys the reputation the series has been trading on for over twenty years.

A quick word on the legacy of the sequence so far.  For those who believe that Final Fantasy is just the pseudonym for Owen Pallett (whose Heartland record is excellent, by the way), the Final Fantasy series is a collection of Japanese role-playing games, characterised by incomprehensible plots, characters with angular hair-cuts and nonsensical names like "Cloud" and "Quistis", and battles that are conducted via selecting various exotic options from detailed menus rather than performing attacks in real-time.  To the seasoned Call of Duty veteran such a protracted experience would seem ludicrous, but whilst on paper playing such a game sounds about as exciting as, say, grouting your bathroom, or re-alphabetising the DVDs, I haven't yet mentioned the rich worlds, the satisfying character development, the fantastic open exploration and the fact that for £40 or so you are buying a game that could easily last fifty hours or so, perhaps double if you are prepared to perform the side missions.

To place the series in context - thirteen years ago, the phenomenally successful Final Fantasy VII was released in Europe on the Playstation.  It has since become revered to the point of idolatry by legions of fans who were bowled over by its incredible story, terrific (for its times) graphics, and focus on exploration and discovery in a dystopian world in which you could easily lose yourself. It is still one of the finest games I have ever played and reminds me of a golden era where graphics were still rudimentary enough to require some absorbing action behind them.

Fast forward to March 2010 - Final Fantasy XIII is released on the Playstation 3 and, surprisingly, the Xbox 360.  With the extra processing power of the updated hardware, and thirteen years of building and refining, I expected an absolute tour de force, with film-quality graphics, a gigantic open world ripe for exploration, and an absorbing story with characters I wanted to understand and explore in great detail. Of that triumvirate of triple-AAA characteristics, I found one.  

In his terrific Zero Punctuation series of review, which are so entertaining I would argue you don't need to be interested in games to enjoy them, Yahtzee Croshaw describes the game as "a painting of a firework display", and I have yet to hear of a better description.  It looks beautiful, the lore is appealing, and it has explosions and SFX in all the right places, but look to either side and you realise that what's missing is depth.  It's not extraordinary to find that you don't take to one or two characters in a game, but to hate them all? To really care not a single jot about their motivation or their background? To sigh every time another blasted cut-scene plays (fortunately they are skippable) where two characters will chat about nothing in particular for hours? That's quite something.  One character, a "lovable rogue" called Snow, seems to have nothing in his dialogue beyond the word "Sarah"; the main character takes sullen animé angst to a new level, and the obligatory jailbait teenage girl, Vanille, seems to be on a completely different plane of reality to any of her companions, laughing and joking for no reason whatsoever.

As for the open world, I know for a fact that the final third of the game lives up to the expectation from previous series, where you can wander the world to your heart's content before tackling the main challenge.  It's a shame then, that the first fifteen hours is a series of narrow walkways, punctuated by repetitive fights, boring cut scenes and the occasionally gigantic boss that completely floors you first time around before thinking better of it the second time and offering itself up for slaughter. Though the argument that such an arrangement adds forward momentum to the plot and ensures the player is suitably prepared for the more challenging second half, the opening act needs a complete rehaul before it can bear the Final Fantasy badge with pride.

I'm fully prepared to revisit my opinions once I have completed the game, which will probably take me another year given my upcoming schedule, but for the moment, I am extremely disappointed.  Games are far more like films than any critic will credit - it's all very well throwing 3D and incredible big-budget effects at the viewer, but if ultimately you don't care about the what's going on, or the people involved, it just becomes a sequence of noises and colours.  Maybe this betrays my English Literature roots, but for me the character and the story reign supreme, and perhaps the sudden explosion in high-definition remakes of classic games is in part propelled by the discovery that the mod-cons of current generation gaming are not always all that they are cracked up to be.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Day 23: Westfield

"We used to build civilisations.  Now we build shopping malls." - Bill Bryson

When I was very young indeed, the concept of buying clothes was completely alien to me.  I used to wonder why a country-wide uniform hadn't been imposed on us from on high, We-style, that would have relieved us all of the stresses and strains of having to choose clothes that not only could we afford, but also looked vaguely stylish and, most importantly, actually fit me.  I've since realised two things - that we're not actually as far from the uniform idea as I thought (pick any commuter train and you'll see the same suits, shirts, tie, cufflinks, shoes, belts and iPads throughout the carriages), and that I'm not as averse to shopping as I thought I was.

At some point at the turn of the millennium, some bright spark decided that whilst London certainly boasted a good deal of historical monuments and cultural attractions and all that, what it definitely needed was a million square foot of places for people to buy things, presumably because the city could up till then only boast such pathetic shopping precincts as Oxford Street, Regent Street and Knightsbridge.  The opening of Westfield in 2008 passed me by somewhat - I'd already experienced the likes of Meadowhall and White Rose and wasn't particularly keen to visit a London version, believing it would simply be a hyper-inflated, ultra-expensive shopping Mecca that had far too many pilgrims already without me joining the queue. I relented last Christmas though, deciding to go on the proviso that I arrived early, in the middle of a working week. In a state of panic a month beforehand I had booked an entire week to do my Christmas shopping, a ridiculous decision in hindsight, but somehow I ended up completing the whole lot in three hours, a feat seemingly unthinkable on the train to Shepherd's Bush with a bulging wallet and a seemingly never-ending list of gift ideas.

Since then, Westfield has become a failsafe destination for me. Go in all guns blazing without a clue about what you want or need, and you'll be overwhelmed, if not by the layout then by the crowds that will inevitably gather around you, but with a couple of obvious tricks you can make a mockery of a potentially horrendous shopping experience.

To start with, travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday and avoid, for the most part, hordes of screaming teenagers or toddlers, and dithering couples wandering zombie-like through the arcades.  Then, arrive early - ideally at 9 o'clock - and head straight for Ca'ppucino. Whilst I don't enjoy coffee, I do enjoy comfortable chairs, excellent tea, granola with yoghurt and berries for breakfast, and, crucially, silence (the place is usually empty, even during lunchtime).  You've got time to spare - I wouldn't leave until ten at the earliest - so enjoy the quiet and prepare mentally. Perhaps you have a list of items you need to purchase. No? Then make one - borrow the waitress' biro and use a napkin if you need to. Otherwise, I just read - I'm particularly enjoying Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, all the more ironic for a pre-shopping experience given the author's fixation on money's incredible effects on society.

I fortunately only needed to purchase a pair of trousers, which I found relatively speedily and cost twice as much as I thought they would, and satisfied myself with a cursory glance in Foyles and HMV before realising I needed to cool my credit card before making any other purchases. It only remains for me to provide my final tip - get out of there before lunchtime.  Not only will the crowds rise and swell uncomfortably about you, but in general the food court is overpriced and generally average quality. After all, if you are celebrating a pain-free shopping experience, you may as well enjoy a decent meal back at home.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Days 20, 21 and 22: Yorkshire

"What do yer want to go to London for? It's nowt but twenty Doncasters end to end" - Derek Garrett

Any right-minded born-and-bred Yorkshireman, a leashed whippet in one hand and a pint of Tetley's in the other, would sooner swim the River Calder then pronounce me a bona fide son of the White Rose. I don't have the doughty demeanour, the taste for real ale, the fanatical interest in Rugby League, or the unmistakable (and occasionally impenetrable) accent.  Or, if you prefer stereotypes - my extended family don't live within five miles of the street I was born in, I've never eaten chips with gravy, I don't own a tweed jacket or cap and I've never been found comatose halfway along the Westgate Run.  Everything about me is the antithesis of an authentic (as opposed to a stereotypical) Yorkshireman, but the county is my home, and Wakefield, even if some commentators would consider it more a primordial soup than a city, is my home town.

I left London early on a Saturday morning. Once again I had to brave the never-ending tunnels and ever-present rabble of fellow escapees at King's Cross, but by eleven I was at Wakefield Westgate station. For all the flak that Wakefield has to take from seemingly more highly esteemed cities, the rail approach to Wakefield is still quite something, with a great view of the lovely cathedral as the ageing East Coast trains wheeze over the bridge. Plus, as the station boasts only two platforms, there's no confusion over whether you might have accidentally boarded the train to Edinburgh instead of Eastbourne.  Going to London? Platform 1. Leeds? Platform 2. Clearly laid out and easily understood - not characteristics you would normally associate with Yorkshire.

I'd actually travelled oop North to go walking my Dad, something I do frighteningly irregularly given how much time he spent trying to interest me in the great outdoors and in rambling in general.  I'd purchased some walking shoes (in the sale, mind) only 24 hours previous, much to the chagrin of the sales assistant who was extolling the virtues of weatherproofing and breaking in and other such outdoors-y things I had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with.  Fortunately, though, my Dad decreed that the walking would not commence until Sunday, as England were about to complete a thumping of the Indians at the Test Match, and gleefully we sat drinking tea (not coffee for us Yorkshiremen, you see) and waiting for the inevitable crushing victory. If sitting at home with your family, drinking tea and watching your country's cricket team top the world rankings isn't the best way to spend a Yorkshire Saturday, then I'd like to hear what is.

Our destination on Sunday was the village of Bradfield, a classically Northern parish outside Sheffield.  I imagine that if you were a fly on the wall on one of David Cameron's Big Society briefing meetings, you would see the greatest social pioneers in the country prostrated, in wonder and amazement, before a framed photograph of Bradfield in the summer. Village green? Check. Beautiful Gothic church? Try classic 15th century. Quiet but well-appointed pubs? More than you could shake your cap at.  And for bonus points, there were pensioners stood Last of the Summer Wine-style in groups, bridges over gently rippling streams, and cricket and bowls matches in progress. With the pictures of the devastating London riots still fresh in my mind, I must admit I thought of tearing my return ticket in two.

Dad and I walked about fifteen miles in all over six hours.  I'm certainly no Wordsworth - the peaty soil of the Peak District moorland did not appear to me "apparell'd in celestial light" - but to breath Northern air, to walk on open moorland and vault narrow stiles and intrude on fields of confused sheep, I felt half a world away from the rat race.  It didn't really matter that my feet were blistering with every step in those accursed boots, and that the last mile was a horrific ascent that worked the calves far harder than any resistance exercise in the Kingfisher Leisure Centre, I was truly grateful for the chance to break out of the M25 and explore on a far greater scale than I've tried in these past few weeks of freedom.

At King's Cross the next evening, tired and incredibly stiff, the barriers didn't accept my ticket, I hauled myself yet again through more ridiculous tunnels, and waited in vain for a train from Vauxhall that didn't turn up.  Much as I love London, and couldn't for the moment see myself anywhere else, sometimes I wish the South was just a little more like the North.