Taking the High Road…. (Day 1)

Wahey. Finally, something other to blog about other than streetlights and records. Both of my readers must be beside themselves with excitement, for you see, I’ve just came back from five days away in “sunny” Scotland. It was a trip that had been planned long in advance, but due to work commitments, I couldn’t go, but when those work commitments got delayed by a week, the opportunity arose for me to leave the sleepy shores of Hartlepool, and spend many hours on a coach.

A little background on how the trip came about. I belong to an organisation who meet on a Monday night, and every year, around this time, arrange a trip away. Sadly, the five years we’ve been together, there’s only been a handful of holidays I’ve been able to attend.

The majority of the organization were going, meaning there was a bus load of 22 from Hartlepool. I literally knew nothing about this trip. I knew we were going to Scotland, and that was it. I didn’t know where we were staying. I could have easily found out, but I thought where was the fun in that? There have been other trips where I’ve spent hours scouring Google Maps, and pretty much spoiling the surprise for myself. This time, I purposely avoided all known information about it.

So, after an hour of frantic packing, I left Mercuryvapour Towers early on Thursday morning. Chris was also going, so we picked him up along the way.

We got picked up at Christchurch at about 8:45. Now, the odd thing is, that this wasn’t going to be our coach for the full journey. We had to swap coaches at Otterburn, a village somewhere near the borders.Which is just as well, as we had a tour of the north east picking up other people. Sunderland, Whitley Bay and finally Newcastle. It had taken us about three hours to get out of the North-East. Not comfortable.

There was about an hours stay over in Otterburn, while the cases were swapped from one case to another. A few of the group I was with had made a similar trip, and knew that Otterburn had a nice little pub called, coincidentally enough, The Percy Arms. Sorted. Nowt like a pint, and maybe a bit of pub grub to make the rest of the journey go quicker. We arrived in Otterburn at 12PM. Four of us headed for the pub, only to find it was shut. Closed. Gone. “For Sale” signs as far as the eye could see. Bugger. There was only one other place. A posh, stately home hotel thing. This really didhave a gravel driveway. I was in my legendary “bus journey” trackies and Primani T-shirt. To say I felt underdressed was an understatement. We asked at reception, and thankfully, the bar was around the corner in what looked like a converted stable.

The only lager they had on was Stella 4%. Not my fovourite, but hell, it’s the first one of the holiday. Why not? Well, I’ll tell you why not, the bloody thing wasn’t actually working. Joy. Instead, I paid £3 for a bottle of Corona. Jasys. If this was how the holiday was going, I’d be skint before the first night. To pass the time, the only entertainment consisted of a jukebox. The barman kindly provided a shiny £1 coin to have three plays of whatever we wanted. Or rather, whatever I wanted. It goes without saying that it included “the Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby + the Range, as I’ve yet to find a jukebox with “Downtown” in it.

We drank up, headed back to the coach, but not before I’d pay £1 for a bag of crisps. Bloody hell, £4 down and I hadn’t even left England.

The next stop was to pick up a couple of people at Edinburgh airport. Bit of a strange pickup point I think you’ll agree, but I’ve never been so thankful for a stop in all of my life, as some way between the border and Edinburgh, the unload bay was full, if you know what I mean. By the time we’d reached Edinburgh, I was banging my head off the seat. The lady driver announced over the coach’s PA system “Aye, ye’s can all have a wee toilet break in the airport”. Trust me, love. It wasn’t a wee I needed. I broke land-speed records trying to get from the coach to the toilets, which seemed a mile through the arrivals lounge. Ironic, as I was about to make a jet-powered departure.

I must admit, I felt just that little twinge of guilt as I watched the coach driver load the parking meter full of pound coins as we’d gone over our five-minute allocated stop time, but then I realised she could probably claim that back off the tour company, so all was right with the world.

The next stop was Stirling services. This isn’t an amazing place. It’s a service station, but with even less charm than your average stopping point. I paid £2.49 for a “supersized” portion of chips from Burger King. Either I’m fat, or the portion really wouldn’t have filled a hole in a badger’s tooth. Not going well for money so far.

My impression on the service station wasn’t helped by the fact it was pissing down. It was 4PM at this point, we’d been on the road for several hours, my arse was numb, and I really could have put up with the hotel being around the corner. But no. Apparently the place we were going to was right in the highlands. As mich as the view got more picturesque, it got more obscured by low clouds, and my attempts of passive the time by photographing the scenery were in vain. YES, almost 1,000 words in, and it’s the first shit picture!

Yeah, so you’ll see what the camera on my phone had to put up with. Somewhere in the journey, it was revealed to us just how strict the hotel was. Doors close at 11:45, and there’s hand foam dispensers everywhere, and we’re expected to use them. Oh, well, that was it. Every foam / hand cleaning pun came out. I’m not sure if they made the journey seem longer. They probably did.

We arrived at the hotel around 6PM. Entry was through some type of greenhouse. No, I’m not kidding. The owner is a large fan of plants, and you enter the hotel through this greenhouse, complete with high-powered sodium lights which are on 24-7. Well, at least I think they were. The gloom never lifted enough to see if they were photocell driven or not. NOT THAT YOU EVEN CARE. There were the now infamous foam dispensers on the wall, which you were instructed to use when entering and leaving the building.

Dinner was at 7:30. After a journey like that, there was only one question… where was the bar? Me and Chris were sharing a room, and I don’t even think the castors on our suitcases had stopped spinning before I had a pint in my hand. And by this, I mean, by finding the bar I’d already found all of the facilities the hotel had to offer. As in, there weren’t any. It was a big place,but if you were to stay there during the day, all there was, entertainment wise, was the bar. I know, I always say, that from a hotel, all I expect is a bed, bath and bog, but that pushed it to the extreme. The room had a TV so small you’d need binoculars to see if it was on or not. It didn’t even have a bible. That, to me, is a sign of a good hotel. Well, except the one in Blackpool, where the bible was present, but included a rather alarming amount of pubic hair.

Anyway, before we knew it, it was dinnertime. the first thing that greeted you on your entrance to the dining room was a member of the staff, greeting you in an eastern European accent, whilst thrusting a large bottle of the afore-mentioned hand foam towards your grubby English mitts. And they wouldn’t allow you past until they accepted. No, really.

So, we picked our table, and this was to be our table for the week. This is standard practice in these large coach tours, where they’ll mass-feed 300 people at a time. I made the mistake of failing to do this on the afore-mentioned Blackpool trip, so I knew, that if I didn’t force the first meal down my neck, I pretty much wouldn’t have a place to sit for the rest of the week. Thankfully, the first meal was perfectly acceptable. I have never been a fan of set meals. I’m not the world’s most fussiest eater, and have certainly broadened by palate over the last few years, but still. There’s a few things I’ll happily die without trying. None of these crept up on the first night’s menu, and I enjoyed a rather lovely roast pork dinner. Choice of vegetables were potatoes, green beans and sweetcorn. I pouched rather a lot. Desert was eaten, and we made our way back to the bar for the night’s entertainment.

Oddly, when they came “on stage”, there was an announcement that we weren’t allowed to film, and photography was only allowed “discreetly”. Normally, I’d grab a few minutes of video to remind me who the acts were for when it comes to the blog, but I have nothing. Completely dry. Whis is a shame, as the two blokes were really, really good. I’ve never been a fan of hotel acts, but these were brilliant. One guy sang, while the other guy provided all of the entertainment through a synthesized accordion. They were genuinely a good turn, and I’m a bit saddened that I can’t give them more of a plug. They even performed a cover of “Working Man”, a song originally by Canadian artist Rita McNeil. That song alone was worthy of a blog entry, which I don’t think I finished writing.

Anyway, much beer was drunk, and upon returning to the room, we found that one of the light bulbs had given up the ghost. Just *look* at that blackened electrode…

Do they replace the light bulb? Stay tuned for Day 2…

Nottingham! It’s in Nottinghamshire! (Part 2)

So, I awoke on the 2nd day at about 8AM, after a perfectly acceptable nights’ sleep. This was surprising, as I’m not a fan of hotel beds. I seen to recall my sleep was disturbed by a passing police car. Despite being on the 7th floor, and quite a distance from the road, the building next to ours reflected the sound into the room, and by the time the car had headed along Maid Marian Way (no, seriously, that’s that the road was called), I was awake, bright as buttons. Gah.

Chris slept through it, so I amused myself by abusing my phone and uploading all sorts of garbage to Facebook. I gave it until 9PM before I decided to surface and risk waking Chris up. 19 minutes later, while in the middle of a shave, my phone started going nuts, it was Chris’s dad. Amusingly, Chris slept through approximately 20 seconds of my annoying shopping centre yet there were two charity shops in there, a particularly bad YMCA shop that had literally 10 CDs in there, and a much better shop, where I spent under £7 on CDs. I could have spent more, but I didn’t realise the singles were “Buy one Get one Free”…

By this time, Chris’s boredom threshold was being tested to its limits, so we went in search of the now removed railway, and found it entirely by chance…

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The closed tunnel entrance in the centre of the picture, the unmistakable blue brick to the right forming the entrance to what was once a railway tunnel, now a car park.

By this point, the effects of the Greggs Pasty were wearing off. I was hungry, and so was Chris. I had a bag of CDs to drop off at the hotel. It suddenly dawned on us. Where the fuck was the hotel? I knew one thing, we were near this building…

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In hindsight, this building was visible from the hotel window, but we were lost enough for me to break out “the technology” – bring up Google Maps on my phone and make sure we were heading in the right direction. We were! Eventually we returned at the hotel, I dropped my CDs off, and headed in the general direction for something to eat.

Three days consisting of nothing but curry would probably be a bit too much, so we gave the curry houses a miss and headed off back into the town, eventually resorting to going to the Wetherspoons we’d went to the previous night. I settled for the “simple” steak ‘n’ chips, while Chris had some type of Panini thing. I always thought they just made sticker annuals…

Food was consumed, and the day was still young. The only tourist attraction either of us could think of was the castle, as Nottingham, at one point, had a large fortification overlooking the city. It was £5.50 in. Unfortunately, there’s very little remaining of the castle itself, except the walls. Inside, is a large museum and art gallery. There’s also a fair amount of gardens to walk around and admire that thing where they make shapes out of plants… erm… can’t remember its name…

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The highlight, for me was the fact that the museum actually contains the very football shirt Maradonna wore during his infamous “Hand Of God” incident. Now that’s not something you see every day.

We left the grounds just as a horde of foreign students invaded the place. Perfect timing! They all seemed like proper twunts. We made or way to “Ye Olde Pube”. I can’t remember its proper name, but it’s set inside the cliffs that Nottingham Castle stood on. While me and Chris were enjoying a quiet pint in the “beer garden”, the hordes of students had apparently left the castle and headed to our quiet little inn. None of them were over the age to drink, so they just stood outside and took photos of the place. In pure “Jamie is a complete dick” style, I tried to photobomb as many as possible. There’ll be some kid, thousands of miles away, wondering why there’s a bearded guy with a pint glass on his head.

At this point, it started to get cold, and the time for food was fast approaching. We headed off back to the hotel. After remembering how bad the beer was in the free bar the previous night, we stopped off at the Tescos and picked up essential supplies…

Amusingly, there were signs on the hotel entrance that “No food or drink to be consumed in the room”. I’m sure they’d try and stop me.

No food or drink in the hotel....

After a quick change, we headed out of the hotel and, after a quick walk round, decided that our next meal would once again be consumed at “Chutney”. After all, their service and food was superb last time. It was even better. the staff were friendly, and even gave us another discount because we’d been there the day before. Ten, no, eleven points for service.

Once again, we headed back to the hotel and got ready for the night’s festivities. I say festivities, I really mean drinking some of the world’s most watered down lager known to man. It’s not even worthy of the “Making Love in a Canoe” joke…

We returned to the room early, pouched the cans, and I attempted to take some long exposure shots out of the hotel window. I’d show you them, except it would appear that Flickr has eaten them. Grrrr.

Nottingham! It’s in Nottinghamshire! (Part 1)

So, the world and his dog can’t have failed to notice I’ve been out of Hartlepoolland for a few days. I wasn’t meant to be going until a couple of weeks ago, as Daddykins was meant to be going, but he dropped out at the last moment. There was a group of us who attended, 15 in all – members of the club I attend on a Tuesday night (when I’m not at Employment Palace).

I got a taxi at 8AM, picking Chris up on the way (he’s also one of the 15 members), dropping us off at the bus stop outside of the college at about 8:10. The coach wasn’t due until 8:30.

At approximately 8:45, the coach finally turned up. We boarded, and headed off around the North East, picking up other eager tourists ready for the trip. As soon as the last one got one board, the driver finally introduced himself via the microphone. After the formalities were dealt with, he said something like “So, you’re off to Nottingham… may I ask… why?”

I can’t remember his name, but he shall, from now on, he known as “Happy Harry”. Considering we were only technically there for a night and a full day, it wasn’t exactly heartwarming to have a bus driven by a cynic…

He announced there would be a stop-off in Derby. I won’t bore you with the details of the journey there (or how Chris almost got charged £89 for a bottle of drink, two sausage rolls and a copy of Viz), as most of it was spent, drifting out of consciousness whilst chuckling at the articles in Chris’s afore-mentioned adult comic.

So, we approached Derby. Imagine the scene, as we head along the road, only to be faced with red traffic lights, and a bloke peering out of his flat, stark bollock naked. I don’t think he quite planned to be waved at by a group of “tourists” laughing their heads off. Of course, he backed away pretty sheepishly after this. Classy, Derby. Very classy.

Of course, Happy Harry then managed to take a wrong turning, meaning we got to see more of the centre of Derby than we needed to. He then dropped us off at what appeared to be a random bus stop, and said he would pick us up there. You want to know how random the bus stop was? Here you go… Linkage

Hardly suitable for buses, never mind coaches. It’s pointing at the Babington Arms, which is a pub, just in case you’re thick and didn’t realise it from that link. Either way, it would appear that not only did we have a cynic driving the bus, it was a cynic with no sense of direction. Joy.

It was a Wetherspoons, so you know what to expect. It was also the place where the first photo of me got taken, shamelessly stolen from Facebook…

After two hours we were all ready to go and get set up at the hotel. Happy Harry had other ideas, as we arrived in Nottingham, circled the hotel, and then went in completely the wrong direction to find the entrance. His apology once again, came over the coach tannoy system… “What a bloody stupid place to put a hotel”…

After what seemed like an eternity sorting out the keycards, we made our way up to the hotel room. Thanks to some name juggling, according to their system I was called Barry. It shall stay this way for the entire time I was there.

Upon first impression, the room was excellent. 7th floor, two double beds. It even had two bathrooms which means two toilets. Therefore, any outfall caused by excessive vindaloo consumption could be kept to a bare minimum. Bonus. I recorded another stupid “wish You Were Here” style video, but it needs editing badly. The view wasn’t the best. A call centre (complete with Aspect telephones) to the left, a car park to the centre, and other modern buildings to the right…

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After dumping the bags, and getting a bit of a cleanup, we headed off looking for a bite to eat. Close friends and relatives will know that I scoured Google Maps to see if there was an indian nearby. Not one, not two. Not even four. there were SIX within spitting distance of the hotel. Unfortunately, most were expensive, and were shut. We were inspecting the menu of one of the couple of open ones, a place called “Chutney”. One of the waiters came out and thrust a 20% voucher into my paw. This was looking tempting. Actually, I lie. With that little piece of paper in my hand, my mind was already made up…

We went there!

It was exceptional. Food was great, staff were friendly and yeah, the discount stuck. Happy days.

The same, however, can’t be said for the hotel bar. The Blackpool trip featured entertainment in a root big enough to be used as a conference centre. Fair enough, it wasn’t top notch entertainment, but it kept us sane, and the beer was acceptable for hotel standards.

That was Blackpool. This hotel’s night facilities consisted of a tiny room, Entertainment came in the form of (wait for it) 6 games of bingo, should you choose to pay for it. If you didn’t, you just had to sit there and drink your “free bar”. That is, if you like watered down beer. I had a bit of toothache, and was on a full stomach, so I thought it was just me who thought it was as weak as kittens. Thankfully it wasn’t.

Disappointed with the free bar, we headed out into the city, eventually settling in the Roebuck Inn. It seemed pretty quiet, and that name “Wetherspoons” cropped up again. I introduced Chris to Jaegerbombs, which he didn’t enjoy. He introduced me to something stunning. Don’t ask me what they call it. It was apple juice and some newly available cinnamon liqueur. I DID enjoy this. I have no idea how he found it, but he knows of my love for apple and cinnamon. Therefore, the two combined in some kind of alcoholic beverage was out of this world. Towards the end of the night I remember having a good crack on with the bar staff. It was this place that made me really begin to like Nottingham.

Day 2 was only a sleep away…

The Magical Mystery Tour

For those of you who couldn’t work it out, or don’t follow me on Twitter, I have spent the past few days in the lovely little fishing village known as Blackpool, on the north west coast ouf our fine land. There was actually a group of us going, around 20 or so, from the place I go to on a Tuesday night. This included Chris, who you shall remember from countless other trips, and posts on this blog.

After a brief 45-minute stop at Tebay services (Yes, I thought it sounded like a Yorkshire based auction site too), we arrived in Blackpool at 12:30. The weather all the way there was diabolically bad, so I was happy to see that it had brightened up by the time we’d got there.

We arrived at our room on the 4th floor. I say ours, because we were sharing a twin room. Turns out that was one of the reasons it was so cheap.

Oh, and the fact that the hotel itself is actually in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the wonderment of Google Streetview, I knew this wasn’t going to be a problem, as there was a tram station right outside. What anybody neglected to tell us is that the trams only run for certain times of the year. And the middle of January is slap-bang in the middle of their off-season. Buggeration. This means that trips outside of the hotel were going to be limited to how far we could walk.

The first impressions of the room left a lot to be desired. Fair enough, the bed and carpets were clean, but everything else seemed to have either a layer of grime on them, or were damaged in some way. The pubic hair on the edge of the bath really, really didn’t help matters.

After a few minutes, and a quick change into something less comfortable, I headed down to the bar area, to find that it was already in full swing – at least two thirds of the congregation had a pint down them. I had a couple too – it would be rude not to, but I didn’t want to get drunk. Instead, me and Chris went out to explore the area. One thing we both do when visiting anywhere is to find the closest shop, and a place to eat. Obviously, meals would be provided by the hotel, but neither of us are a fan of set meals. We’re also not a fan of out-of-date biscuits, meaning the ones the hotel provided weren’t exactly suitable…
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After a quick walk up the beach we arrived on Red Bank Road, in an area called Bispham. It appeared to have more shops than hotels on it, so we headed down it, and struck gold. There was a Sainsburys, but more importantly, there was an indian restaurant on there, namely the Sunam Tandoori. Gold struck.

I’d forgotten to bring a razor and toothbrush (the most obvious things that weren’t in my case), so after a scoot around the Sainsburys we headed back to the hotel. On the way back, I was startled by a pair of concrete doves who, I thought for a split second, were real. I’m an idiot sometimes.

We got back to the room, and not a moment too soon. Now, I don’t know if it was the beer that caused this, or some of the rubbish I’d eaten on the coach, but I ended up with an epic bout of the squits, which lead to another issue with the room… the bathroom didn’t exactly have any type of ventilation. Chris stepped foot in the bathroom shortly after one of my several explosive visits. His expression was like someone out of a movie, being thrown back from a doorway, following a bomb going off. We probably should have picked up some ‘Oust’ in Sainsburys…

Things eventually “dried up”, and I went out to photograph the sunset. Over the tram tracks are two sets of gates. As I walked through the second gate, I let it close behind me… two old biddies, who were miles away, thought I should have held it open for them, greeting the closure of the gate with a sarcastic “Oh, thank you, sir“.

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Yeah, I’m talking to you two.

Anyway, the sunset was amazing. I’ve taken lots of them over the years, but this was the first one on the west coast.

Unfortunately, little did I know this was the last time I’d actually see the sun on this weekend.

As the sun disappeared behind the clouds on the horizon, I headed back to the hotel, and watched a bit of snooker before getting ready for the night. The indian opened at 6PM and the free bar at the hotel was from 8PM until 11PM, so there was plenty of time to get the food knocked back and walk back. I went for the chicken madras. Normally, I’d go for the vindaloo, but following my colonic escapades earlier in the day, I thought it would be best to go for something a bit milder than my normal vindaloo.

It takes a lot for me to say this, but it was, quite honestly, one of the best indians I have ever been to in my entire life, and trust me, I’ve been to planty of them. The staff were friendly, the food was delicious, and I have no idea what they do with the naan bread, but it was beyond perfection. We had already made plans for the next nights meal, we were going back there.

We arrived back at the hotel with plenty of time before the free bar opened. there was a “pub” section tacked on to the end of the hotel, with the most important feature of any pub – namely a pool table. At 50p a game, it wasn’t cheap, but nothing is these days. They could have reduced the price of the game bay saving on the electricity costs of the lighting they used…

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Forgive the blurriness of the camera photo I’ve used here, but it shows the fact they’d used a full-strength studio light to (partially) light the table. It was like playing pool while staring into the heart of the sun. chere Chris was stood, you couldn’t actually see the other end of the table, it was too dark. the last match ended with Chris doing an absolutely spectacular pot on the red, sneaking it cheekily into the middle pocket. A wave of pride ran over his face, and he looked at me with one of those “What do you think of that?” faces.

“You’re yellows”, was my factually accurate reply. The black went down, and I won 2-0. Ho ho, and indeed, ho.

Off we went to enjoy the free bar, and enjoy we did. Now, we had a choice, go and see the “entertainment” in the main room, or just sit in the quiet bar area and have a good conversation with whoever didn’t want to be deafened by the music. The bar area was our place of choice, along with Colin and Lynne. According to all other reports, we made the right choice.

By far, the funniest part of the night, for me anyway, was while I was in the toilets, having a piss… some guy comes in, lets out an belter of a fart… without even thinking, I shouted “I’ll name that tune in one…” It’s not often I make myself laugh, but that was one of the moments I could have given myself a round of applause.

There was a moment of panic near the end when it emerged that because we didn’t show up for the dinner, we weren’t guaranteed a seat at breakfast. Oh, my GOD. Plans of going to bed, then getting up for a bowl of cornies and some hotel toast were thrown in to DISARRAY. What were we going to do? Well, we stayed up longer, I hammered the spiced rum and cokes, and Chris knocked back the…. *wretch*…. advocaat. Eventually, we crawled back to the hotel room, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. But… Would we be able to attend breakfast? Stay tuned for day two…