Solving the World's problems with common sense and a flamethrower.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Which Dungeekin is Bill Bryson...

As I believe I may have mentioned, The Darling G and I recently undertook the 'Where's My Passport? Tour 2009' in lieu of a beach holiday in Portugal.

Our trip took in pretty much the entire UK coastline, travelling anti-clockwise and totalling a shade over 3200 miles. And despite my insistence on keeping to a total of about 300 miles per day, we actually managed to see quite a lot.

Unfortunately, we didn't go all 'Ewan and Charley' (despite my hopes) so I wasn't able to come up with a bestselling book about how we had to float the car on a makeshift raft across the Firth of Forth due to the bridge being out, or rebuild the suspension using nothing but Highland gorse and sheep dung. However, I was able to build up some observations about various parts of our great nation, and it's my privilege to be able to share these with you.

I grew up in seaside towns, and as you may imagine we travelled through many of them. And they're almost all the same. Which town, which coast and which sea they connect to are all immaterial - be it Southend, Blackpool, Bognor Regis or Dawlish the majority of British seaside towns are simply gruesome testaments to amusement arcades, chip shops and tat-sellers. Even the nicer ones like Llandudno and Brighton are faded ghosts of a past glory. It's a shame.

If Kent is the Garden of England, then Dover is its compost heap.

Urgh. See above. It has the longest pier in the country, apparently - the only problem is it looks like the causeway to an oil rig.

Flat. Very flat. And the drivers are psychopaths. In just 30 minutes we were nearly wiped out twice by idiots in 4x4s carrying out suicidally dangerous overtaking maneouvres on the oncoming traffic. Lincolnshire also contains Skegness - see 'Seaside Towns' above. I can only assume they were driving that fast to get out of Lincolnshire.

The roads across the Moors made me want to bring a motorcycle here - and it seemed that half the bikers in the UK had done so. But that didn't stop Whitby from being extremely pretty - an example of what coastal places can achieve when they don't submit to the amusement arcade's neon charms. Cod and chips at Trenchers finally showed me the point of a dish that's so often a soggy, fat-soaked disappointment. Yummy.

The Humber and Forth Bridges are marvels of engineering, and you get a frisson just crossing them. But...

The Forth Bridge has an easily-accessed, landscaped viewing point in the grounds of a business hotel. The Humber Bridge viewing point is several miles through a deprived and decaying urban warzone and doesn't even have toilets. Discuss.

Especially north of Inverness. Beautiful, majestic, awesome, incredible, wonderful, staggering, and many other superlatives. Staying in Ullapool is well worthwhile, both for the loch views and the food. We're definitely going back for a proper, longer tour of the Highlands - we were left breathless by the views and the isolated beauty time after time. It's probably crap when it rains though. And the food wasn't fantastic, but given the scenery we just didn't care. The roads are wonderful too.

All that said, though, I'd suggest avoiding Dunoon.

I don't get the Lake District.

I'm sure that the Lake District is actually lovely, and I know that because of time constraints, we simply drove the 'tourist route' through Ambleside, Windermere and so on.

But I don't get it.

You end up joining a 3-mile train of coaches and campervans, inching along at walking pace dodging Rohan-clad ramblers until you reach the town, which is trying so hard to be 'a Lake District village' that it's no longer anything of the sort, merely a picturesque shopping centre.

Though I can absolutely recommend the Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite Lake.

I'd expected semi-Scousers, shell-suits and a possible stabbing. What I got was one of the most beautiful medieval city centres I've ever seen. The double-decker shops are archaic genius, the architecture fantastic and we found a restaurant (Upstairs @ The Grill) where the owners both worked at the Savoy, and it showed.

The countryside of North Wales is lovely. However, to reach it from Chester you need to travel through Prestatyn and Rhyl - two places that sound like skin disorders and are about as appealing. Our first notable sight in Rhyl, for example, was a fight between two drunk teenagers - at 0915. And why do the 'holiday camps' on the North Wales coast look like they were designed by the architect of Stalag Luft 14?

One interesting point was how intact the castles of North Wales seemed to be. However, given the number of teenagers we saw with pushchairs, the same can't be said of the local girls.

Lovely countryside. However, you can't see any of it (even though you're crawling along at 10mph behind a Belgian caravanner with no sense of direction and no ability to check his mirrors) because of ten-foot hedgerows along 90% of the roads.

Pretty - but stupid. A stupid one-way system, stupid car parking that wasn't signposted and cost £2 for an hour, and all topped off by a stupid Tapas bar that didn't serve Diet Coke and that managed to turn first-class ingredients into a tasteless mess. I looked in the dictionary when I got home, and under 'stupid' it actually said, "see Aberystwyth".

Beautiful, green, the remoteness of Exmoor counterpointed by the glorious surf of the Atlantic beaches, coast roads with views of the craggy shoreline. A great lunch at the Bay View Inn in Widemouth Bay, an even better dinner at Sally's Restaurant in St Agnes and the quirky, yet brilliant, Cleaderscroft Hotel. I love this part of the country, and to me it's only let down by:

See 'Seaside Towns'. But it's more than that. I went on holiday many times here as a child, to a pretty beach town. Now it's Ibiza-on-Sea. complete with gangs of drunken roving stag-partiers. We drove in planning to stay the night - and went straight through without stopping after the briefest glance at the town centre. Thanks for wrecking my childhood memories, Newquay.

I remember crab-fishing off the harbour wall as a kid. Rick Stein probably owns that too, now. The crawfish tanks where you could choose your fresh crustacean have been replaced by his cookery school (or something), he owns pretty much all the pubs and even The Chough pasty shop. Like the Lake District towns, Padstow has been turned into a facsimile of what it was. They should change its name to Pastiche.

John O'Groats has free parking, boat trips and a few shops that don't block the view much.

Land's End charges £4 just to park, then has a bloody shopping mall slapped on the headland with 'experiences' (at £4 each). You can't even see the sea from the car park, so you have to walk through the mall to get to it.


Lovely, especially Exmoor and the New Forest.

So there you go. Some initial observations gleaned from the Tour. No doubt more will appear as they spring to mind, and you'll be able to find restaurant and hotel reviews shortly on Dungeekin's Eatings.


Macheath said...

Thank you for the armchair tour!

Back in his youth, a relative of mine did a similar trip to yours, climbing cliffs around Britain and enjoying the natural unspoilt beauty of the coastline.

Years later, having reluctantly forked out to park at the monstrosity that is Land's End and appalled by the 'experiences', he entered the mall only to be confronted with a wall bearing the coup de grace - a life-size photo of himself climbing the Land's End cliff, with not a building in sight.

Welcome to Theme Park Britain!

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Padstiche? :o)

Catosays said...

Great reminiscences....but Lincolnshire isn't flat.. At least where I live it bloody isn't.

Hacked Off said...

The Lake District is best avoided during the Summer. And at Christmas.

When it is relatively empty it is wonderful - with several really good eateries and great pubs.

And the A55 from Chester along to Conwy and Caernarfon avoids Rhyl and Prestatyn, although it is not hugging the coast at that point.

The Penguin

banned said...

Great tour dungeekin, you should sell that piece to the Rough Guide people, at least you actually bothered to go there !
Most of your reflections coincide with my own, especially Newquay ( full of Ibiza wannabees but can't ), I would urge you to give The Lakes another try, October is a good time with few other visitors and variable weather, the Kirkstone Inn is ruggedly splendid ( Ambleside, Keswick still best avoided though ).

Interestingly your 3200 miles of global warming vehicle emmissions seem to have already contributed to the drowning of Lincolnshire ( no great loss ) going by your graphic.

Happy Motoring.

Falco said...

Next time give Lands End a miss and head for the Lizard. Not only does the southerly most point of England have the beautiful Kynance Cove but the cafe up the road, (that looks like a 1950s petrol station cafe), does the best pasties in the country.