The Compostual Existentialist

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The Age of the Swan

Deep in darkest Dorset is the delightful coastal town of Swanage where, like most British seaside towns, time has stood still. During my tour of seaside towns I’ve noticed this is common place. For example, Douglas and the Isle of Man are trapped in a Scarfolkesque late 50s early-60s time bubble, Scarborough in a weird pre/post-mining eighteen/nineteen eighties decay, Skegness screams nineties revival, while Margate and Torquay languish in a struggling time recession of post-industrial Britain 1986.

IMG_2944.JPGSwanage however sits in a semi forgotten hauntological time zone where grandparents who, having retired to the seaside, now live. Independent shops,  discrete amusement arcades and a well kept promenade with formal gardens show that Swanage is the Utopia of seaside towns. Even the pier, currently undergoing refurbishment, lacks the usual British Pier atmosphere of kiss-me-quick hats, the aroma of fresh doughnuts and the sound of wailing kids.

IMG_3016.JPGGetting to Swanage is probably best when approached from the east. Catching the chain ferry from the Sandbanks area of the conurbation of Poole-cum-Bournemouth, is like catching a ferry to some foreign country only without the need for border or passport checks. Indeed, once you arrive in Studland, even the landscape looks alien making you feel like you’ve gone abroad for the bargain price of £4.50. Then when the weirdly independent town of Swanage comes into view, the feeling of being in some weird off shore British island like Jersey, the Isle of Man or White is stronger. Moreover, possibly the biggest difference to other typical British seaside towns is the regularly audible and familiar toot and chuff of a steam engine for Swanage is home to the Swanage steam railway. Unlike Douglas in the Isle of Man, steam is not the main form of public transport to neighbouring areas in Swanage, it is, however, the easiest way to get to the eerie Corfe Castle.

IMG_2991.JPGThe crumbling edifice of Corfe Castle looms out of the sea mist and inspires thoughts of knights, kings, princes and dirty peasants. Some say it inspired Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Castle in her Famous Five books, but you really could say that about any of the castles in the area indeed, it is clear to see why the area attracts coach loads of tourists and often the tiny streets of Corfe Castle village are riven with ambling shufflers gawping at every nook and cranny, some unable to comprehend the age of the place when compared to their own country’s history.

IMG_2954.JPGFurther into Dorset one can also visit, by contrast, the town of Weymouth with its award winning beach. However, step beyond the hustle and bustle of the Blackpoolesque promenade and enter the ramshackle and tatty environs of the town, one can clearly see how lack of investment in seaside towns has become detrimental to the social community and infrastructure at large. Empty high street shops, lumbering shufflers and decaying buildings. Tattoo and massage parlours, the miasma of cooking takeaways and openly smoked cannabis, the sight of drugged up beggars and opportunist criminals highlights the betray and decay of a society through lack of investment promised by successive local government officials who no doubt only visit the area when official business requires their presence.

IMG_2947.JPGHowever all is not entirely gloomy. The Bill of Portland where Portland stone is still quarried is nearby, where it too attracts coaches of tourists with its lighthouse and scenery. As a young boy I would look longingly at my wall hung A0 map of the UK while listening to BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast and try to imagine how sweater wearing bearded seaworn gentlemen would be struggling against the elements while putting on their Sou’westers and galoshes. The reality is dramatic but features no stereotypical fishermen these days.

Another location worth a visit and one that also the young Stegzy would dream about visiting is Chesil Beach; a unique natural heritage site where one can observe for ones self the effects of coastal erosion on stones. As well as an expanse of stones stretching out towards West Bay and Exmoor, there is a fantastic visitors centre which hopefully will inspire other young people to enhance their knowledge about the natural coastal forces and nature.

Back at Swanage as the sea mist rolls inland and the occasional eerie toot of steam train is heard, the contrast of investment in coastal areas is plain to see. From the modernist style of the cinema/theatre the Mowlem, to the well kept promenade with discrete amusment arcades. It seems the regions tourist board relys heavily on the natural wonders of the Isle of Purbeck, and why not! A visit to the nearby Durlston Country Park and Anvil Head will no doubt summon thoughts of misplaced childhood adventures, perhaps exploring the long closed Tilly Whim Caves or scrambling over the rocks to Anvil Head Lighthouse.

In all Swanage is very genteel. A relaxing locale for those more interested in nature and natural beauty over rowdy bars and vomit soaked pavements. I’d definately go back.

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Harry Windsor and the Torp of Clee

In case you’ve been in an Argentinian coal mine for the past week or so, at the weekend bumbling ginger nut royal, Prince Harry, married someone he met a few years back and the entire UK  shut down.

Of course, it didn’t really. I’d say a good deal of people couldn’t give a flying fridge about some overprivileged bloke tying the knot and an even greater deal of people couldn’t care less about the football that coincided either. I’d also say that many people, Mrs Gnomepants v2.0 and myself included,  used the opportunity to sneak away and do something awesome instead.

Where did we go for this awesome adventure? Why! Cleethorpes of course!!

Situated just a few miles eastish of Grimsby, a town once famous as the landing area for most of Britain’s fishing fleet, now a monument for industrial decline, Cleethorpes sits on the southern tip of the Humber Estuary opposite Spurn Head. A stretch of glorious sands passing under an old pier is accompanied by a promenade with what remains of formal gardens before turning into a road and heading south towards a now cleared fairground and a large static caravan park. At Cleethorpes it is clear that the British Seaside is alive and well, the scant remains of Victoriana, although not on the same scale as Scarborough, can be seen by the observant from the town planning to the location of and facilities near the railway station.


A stub of a pier juts out over the sand in a feeble attempt to touch the distant sea with the tide being out. The pavillion on the pier, now owned by Papa’s,  claims to be the largest fish and chip restaurant in the country.  The interior is grand and bright, the staff dressed and trained well and the fish and chips? Well they’re just amazing. Possibly not quite up to the same standards as Magpie in Whitby or Mary Jane’s in Cromer, but definately a good competitor. See that’s the problem with fish and chips, it’s only as good as you remember and unless I was actually in some judging situation where I had samples from all three aforementioned places, I can only go on memory!

 

Fish and Chips

Fish and Chips

 

I suppose the thing I liked most about Cleethorpes is what remains of the formal gardens. Some councils in the UK have long cleared away any genteel public gardens as they are expensive to maintain and, in the conservatives eyes, impossible to make money from. So the best solution to tatty looking gardens in their eyes is often to blob a lump of concrete over them or just let local youths gather to express themselves by performing acts of vandalism and pissing all over the place. Fortunately it seems locals to Cleethorpes still have some civic pride and the gardens appear to be maintained by a mix of council, local charities and volunteers. Even the “millenial” sculptures along the promenade are pretty. A complete contrast to the modernisation of Bridlington and the classic yet rapidly decaying seafront terraced gardens of Scarborough.

 

Amusingly, regular readers will remember the last time I was at this part of the coast, back in 2008, I was coming to the end of a slightly disappointing weeks holiday along the coast at Skegness with Mrs Gnomepants V1.0. So it seemed only fitting that, while in the area, I showed Mrs Gnomepants V2.0 the delights of Saltfleet. That too hadn’t changed much except for it now appears that the car park had been built on and there has been a bit of shrinkage in the number of caravans. Still, it was just as austere so we didn’t stick around for long.

And it beat watching some posh kid get married.


Daydream

[Crossposted from Livejournal with some text alterations and whatnot]

All I want to do is escape to the seaside at the moment. Don’t know why.

I looked at Google maps today and worked out that it would take me 46 hours to walk the 141 miles from work to Cromer although I’m not sure entirely how much of that walk would be practical. Moreover, as Google Maps says it would take me just shy of 6 hours to walk home the 19.3 miles along the A361 and Jurassic Way, I don’t think I’ll be walking to Cromer in any hurry.
I could catch a plane for £180 return for a three hour flight to Norwich from Birmingham or catch a combination of buses and trains on a 6 hour journey via Central London for an unknown cost or I could drive 150 miles for 3 and half hours and ramp up the mileage on my leased car. Either way that would be costly.

Of co​urse, once there, what would I do?

fullsizeoutput_c71.jpegWell first off I’d have fish and chips at Mary Janes. It would be a large cod-like fish with a bread roll (buttered) and a pot of tea. Even though fish, chips and bread roll is quite filling for me these days, I’d probably have room for an ice cream. So after my meal I’d meander down Garden Street towards the Esplanade in search of ice cream.

While I’d prefer to eat a sundae seated indoors, ice cream parlours in Cromer (or at least my knowledge of such) are lacking so I’d settle for a cone, scoopy rather than whippy, with a Flake™ , nut topping and green or red syrup. I could then take it down to the sea front to sit and eat while the world passes me by. Elderly gentlemen on their bikes will greet ladies promenading, children will laugh and play in the distance in a non-irritating fashion and somewhere on the pier, a brass band will play “Tiddly Om-Pom-Pom”. Seagulls would swoop and dive, eating discarded chips and fighting over cigarette butts and the sea would lap the shore rhythmically but calm.

Ice cream eaten, I’d walk along the pier to the bar at its end, taking in the smells of freshly cooked doughnuts and candy floss along the way. I’d pass young dads teaching their eager to learn young lads how to fish or catch crabs using a crab ladder from the pier. The sounds from distant penny arcades and fair ground rides mixed with the clopping of shoes against pier boards.

Reaching the bar, I’d have a pint of whatever local ale was on offer and sit near the window to read and watch the distant wind turbines. Newspapers these days are trite and full of misinformation so instead I’d have a book with me. Probably something by Scott Meyer, Mark Billingham or James S. A. Corey. Or maybe a British seaside travelogue akin to Attention All Shipping or Pier Review. It would be relaxing, unrushed and no pressure.

An hour or so later I’d be sufficiently relaxed enough to move on and I’ve not really thought about where I’d stay. Ideally I’d have a flat above a shop in the town centre, or maybe access to a little cottage down one of the back streets on the outskirts of the town. Failing that extravagance, I’d settle for a room in a B&B.
The B&B would be run by a couple in their late sixties. A typical guest house with a bar and a dining room for breakfasts, that strange fusty smell one might also experience in old caravans in the communal areas. The room itself cosy with pictures by local artists hung on the walls, tea making facilities and a table and chair in a bay window to facilitate writing. The view would be of the street below stretching down towards the coast, a tease of blue sea taunting from the distance and the occasional squawk from a seagull to remind me I’m by the sea.

Relieved of my belongings and refreshed by a shower, a return to the town in search of an evening meal would be on the cards. Something light though as the weight of fish and chips for lunch would be lingering. I imagine light refreshment in the form of a high tea of crab sandwiches, tea and cake would be most fitting but as such dining is not fashionable these days, I’d probably have to settle for something more substantial.

Again, my geography and knowledge of Cromer’s nightlife is lacking. Places to eat of an evening may be diverse but they may also be limited. The safest bet would be to head to a chain pub for a steak or something, alternatively British towns nearly always guarantee a Chinese or Indian restaurant nearby. Either way I wouldn’t really starve. If I wasn’t staying in a B&B, I might even consider a take away pizza or perhaps just something basic like home cooked bacon sandwich with sausage and chips. The chips covered in salt served from a cellar with a white plastic top, and vinegar from a fluted bottle with a glass stopper.

Post evening meal, retiring to a room where there is a TV would be in order. Crap evening TV, classic Doctor Who, Juliet Bravo or a British film full of tense drama from the golden age of British movie making. Something like Ipcress File. Feet up on the sofa, cosy and reflective of the days adventures.

Next morning, following either a hearty B&B cooked breakfast or a substantial home compiled bowl of cereal and cup of tea, thoughts would turn to the journey back. But who really wants to go home? Nobody writes about going home with as much passion as going away. What would I need to sustain this existence of fish and chips, beer and evening strolls? Even on the most basic subsistence the costs would add up and the life of a vagrant is not one anyone in their right mind would choose to follow.
So what would be needed is a two prong plan of attack. A job that pays enough and a house to live in. What jobs in Cromer? Mrs Gnomepants V1.0 would suggest a career in reiki, my former careers advisor Mr Brophy probably doesn’t have any literature on the careers on offer in coastal towns of Norfolk. I could write, but every Tom, Dick and Harry is a fucking Jeffery Archer these days. Similarly with everyone channelling the spirit of Lord Snowdon and taking photos, photographer is also off the cards and nobody really makes money from Youtube except Google.

Shop work is tiring, poorly paid and retail is on its last legs anyway. Farm work and labouring is joyless. And with industry on its knees in the UK, there are no factories anymore. Teaching is for mugs so office work, although mundane, is the only option really left for me yet once again, nothing really worthwhile. Ideally, I’d hope for just a few days a week, four long days with Friday off perhaps. If I could paint, maybe I could sell watercolours on the pier. If I could entertain, perhaps I could ride up and down the prom doing magic tricks and being rude to tourists. Beyond that, apart from inheriting from a long lost relative, winning the lottery or finding the proceeds from a heist, the only realistic way to sustain a life like that is through regular work, especially as there are no high street banks to rob anymore.

In real life, realisation would hit and I would probably end up gloomy returning to my job and home. I’d also have to consider Mrs Gnomepants V2.0 who would also be joining me on this escape to the seaside. But this is a fantasy. A fantasy where I run away with my wife, away from work and the ties of occupational commitment. A fantasy of a better life with three kitties, a wife and where a daily diet of fish and chips and ice cream wouldn’t end in a tragic death by heart attack or diabetes. So I can fantasise about any job or occupation. Mrs Gnomepants V2.0 would probably want to run a book shop, opening every day except weekends, while making a tidy profit from not having any people come in to bother her with stupid questions like “Is this a bookshop?” or “Do you have that book, I think it’s got a green cover?”

Me? My fantasy job would be rural Post Office clerk in a village stores, or maybe a specialist pizza restaurant, opening evenings only with dining by sitting rather than “random off the street when you’re quite ready Mr Chef” dining. Two sittings. Fancy pizzas. Expensive because they’re worth it. I would come in for a couple of hours a night, make the pizzas then go home, leaving the other staff to wash up and marshal the diners. Of course I’d get someone in to make the pizzas at weekends because only mugs work weekends. And, because I owned the place, I could choose when I worked and take 90% of the profits to sustain my lifestyle.

 

So there I’d be. Living in a seaside town with my lovely wife and kitties, making pizzas, existing on a diet of crab sandwiches, fish and chips and ice cream. Drinking beer at the end of a pier, watching the world go by and a television that’s somehow stuck on broadcasts of early 1980s Saturday evening TV. Living in a flat above a shop or in a cosy little cottage. Having escaped from the East Midlands in a lease car containing nothing but my gym kit and a dash cam.​


Cromer

It is well known, perhaps written in ancient scripture, that a day out to the British seaside is something everyone must commit to at some point in their life. In that regard, I am blessed for I try to make regular trips to the seaside.

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Living in the centre of the UK, where nearly everything is three and a half hours away, means that I am the furthest away from the seaside as you can be at any point in the UK. Moreover, the selection of seaside destinations reachable within a reasonable time from this point is a little bit grim. Hunstanton is one such place, with its miles of coastal caravan parks; Skegness is another, again with miles of coastal caravan parks. And yet for just a half hour extra drive, one can reach beautiful Cromer, which is where Mrs Gnomepants V2.0 and I have just spent our bank holiday weekend.

Cromer Pier

Cromer Pier

Regular readers (if there are any left) will know that I have visited Cromer before – a small sleepy Norfolk coastal town famous for its crabs. Cromer’s tiny streets are littered with shops selling curios, knick-knacks and tat that most people will only use once, a place which once enjoyed a grander time of bathing machines, day trip ferries embarked via a pier and swanky hotels staffed by gentlemen in smart uniforms. A place as yet unspoilt by amusement arcades, kiss me quick hats and leery youths on drunken stag weekends.

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Cromer seafront, pier and approach

A trip to the British seaside comes with a checklist of things to do. Over the years I have pared down my list to three things:

  • Fish and chips
  • Ice cream
  • Walk along the prom

While I might also occasionally chuck in “a paddle”, “Cream tea in the afternoon” and “A play on the penny cascades”, the core holy trinity of food and a walk does me just fine these days, and this weekend I managed all three successfully. The waters around Cromer are Norfolk brown in colour and not the tropical azure that I am used to these days and the thought of dissolving my feet paddling in effluent still does not fill me with joy. Cream teas, while abundant at British seasides, are only really any good when in Devon or Cornwall (sorry, I’m a jam first kind of heathen) and the lack of (or inability to find) arcades in Cromer saw away any chance of chucking away half a tonne of copper coins in the hope of winning a bottle opener in the shape of a naked lady.

Fish and Chips

Fish and chips @ Mary Janes

Mary Janes, Cromer

Mary Janes, Cromer

None the less, our trip to Cromer was most enjoyable. The seaside ennui began with a late lunch of fish and chips in Mary Janes. Quality, no fuss large cod and chips and a roll and butter for me, with an unbattered haddock and chips for Zoe. I tell you, providing you do your research well, fish and chips at the seaside never fails to please. Unless you’re one of those strange people who doesn’t like fish and chips. Mary Jane’s is a favourite of mine, with Scarborough’s Golden Grid and Whitby’s Magpie Cafe also in the top five fish and chip shops in the UK. Naturally, as any Yorkshireman would testify, the best fish and chips in the world are from Yorkshire, but alas, when it’s a four-hour drive to the Weatherby Whaler, Mary Jane’s will have to suffice. Oh, and don’t let anyone tell you that Harry Ramsden’s is quality fish and chips either. If they do, slap them with a wet piece of huss and tell them to get hence to McDonald’s for a Fillet-o-fish.

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Further sights of Cromer

Next on the checklist was an ice cream. Now I’m a sucker for a whippy ice cream with a flake, but I’m also a sucker for locally produced ice creams as they tend to have unusual flavours. So we took a brisk walk along the pier and the prom (sadly, no brass bands tiddly-om-pom-poming) in hope of finding something worthwhile. Now, as the sun was out in all its glory in Norfolk this weekend, it seemed that every man and his wife, four kids and dog, were also out in force. As a result, the more ideally placed ice cream shops were rammed or had a line of queues outside. Indeed, the pier was quite busy, especially at the embarkation end (where the RNLI lifeboat station is) were middle-aged fathers tried to terrify their children into enjoying themselves by threatening them with freshly crab-laddered crabs. There were even a couple of armed policemen, but such a sight is the norm now that the British Police State is under martial law.

 

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Henry Bloggs, Bigger hero than you

Cromer was also home to the bravest man who ever lived, Henry Bloggs. Bloggs and his chums would fearlessly brave the elements, row a wooden boat far out to sea and rescue drowning townies from watery deaths while smoking a pipe and looking rather cool in a sou’wester. In force 10 gales. For free. With rain lashing his chops. Now you don’t see people doing much of that these days do you? No. You don’t. Now that’s bravery. And, when you’re that brave, you get medals, your own monument and a museum named after you. Not bad eh? Oh, and you also have lots of murals drawn around your town in your honour. Makes helping an old biddy with their shopping seem a bit limp.

 

 

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More Cromerian sights

 

Sadly parking is a premium in Cromer on popular days, so three hours is not enough to enjoy a sit and a watch of the world going by so we had to leave. Previous visits to this part of the coast, however, had involved a stay or visit to Sheringham and being a stickler for tradition, it was only fair that we popped in to see what the place looks like in season, even if it was only for half an hour.

 

Sheringham is the upmarket sister of Cromer. Middle classes, mostly with nearby holiday homes, price out the locals and swan about like they own the place. Mostly because they do. The stark difference between Cromer and Sheringham is evident from the upmarket theatre and selection of nearby restaurants in Sheringham. While Cromer’s fish and chips attract some diners, it is Sherringham’s mix of Nepalese, Thai and European restaurants that mark the contrast there. Indeed, short of organic, artesian gluten-free neo-paleo hypoallergenic ice creams, it is hard not to delight at the pomposity of some of the patrons. Children with names such as Pompidu, Sefton and Chanterey freely express themselves while aloof mums swig large glasses of Prosecco and dads pander to Parmesan and Chigley’s ever increasing demands in an attempt to be the best fathers ever.

 

Indeed, much like Cromer, there are rows and rows of chalets lining the prom. For non-Brits reading, a chalet or beach hut is basically a really expensive garden shed which you’re not allowed to live in. However, it is this quirk that makes this part of the coast so picturesque. The sight of painted wooden huts often with unusual names being cracked open for the first time in six months is a delight to behold and, much like the bathing machine houses in Scarborough and Cromer, is an important part of British seaside heritage.

With bellies full of noms and a distance to travel to our B&B, we left the Norfolk coast once more and headed inland for further bank holiday adventure.


Cockleshell Bay

I do like to be beside the seaside.

I do like to be beside the sea. When walking along the promenade freezing to death in the cold sea air deafend by the incessant BOM BOM BOM BOM of the dodgems in the dodgy gyppo travelling fairground, then avoiding the dive bombing seagulls while trying not to wretch at the stench of stale piss and fish and chips.

The seaside. It’s fantastic isn’t it? So what I like to do is pretend that it is the 1950’s and the golden age of British Seaside holidays. I roll up my trouserleg, don a knotted hanky and try to imagine the hard, vomit encrusted wall is a deckchair and that there are no such things as wasps or small children.