Archive for November 2008

Gateway to England.

November 25, 2008

The smallest places sometimes turn out to be the most interesting, Dover is one of those places.

A fairly small town known mainly for ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and the ferry which runs from there to France, Dover has a surprisingly deep history that when you really think about it, isn’t all that surprising at all. Dover has throughout history been seen as the gateway to England, a location of high strategic value because of it’s closeness to France and the mainland. Indeed throughout history there is evidence of Dover and the nearby lands being held by Normans and Romans alike, the Romans who established a post there evidence of which can still be seen today in the ancient Roman lighthouse (Now part of a small church in the Dover Castle courtyard being used as a bell-tower!) and painted house ruins. There is the mighty Castle of Dover, which withstood the might of France’s fury during the first Baron’s War, as well as a series of elaborate defences built during the Napoleonic era to stand guard from Napoleon himself. Even remains from the big ones, World War 1 and especially 2, where Dover earned the name Hellfire Corner from the constant artillery bombardments and for its strategic importance.

There can be no denying Dover has alot of history for such a small town, and indeed, it turned into one of the most interesting places I’d visit in the UK. High praise for a place my friend and I had only gone to as a way to get to France… I confess If you’d asked me about Dover before, I’d likely have replied something along the lines of ‘I think I’ve heard of it, somewhere in UK right?’. So see, travel *is* educational!

Being a smallish town Dover isn’t hard to navigate, and finding where you want to go is no real trouble. Travelling by foot I got to see most everything there was to see with ease. For starters if the weather is nice, there’s a shady little path next to an old graveyard that leads up towards the Napoleonic ruins. It’s an uneven but wide path of well worn concrete, strewn with leaves and twigs from the rich green bough overhead. On one side is an old moss-covered wall that separates you from the local graveyard, to the other side a similar wall but with gardens rather than mossy tombstones. Ascending the stairs itself is a bit of an ambient experience, and when you suddenly find yourself leaving that shady stairway and blinking in the bright sun as the pathway opens into the hilltops open field, I for one couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the experience. It’s always the little things I enjoy most. Following the now dirt path you’ll eventually come across the overgrown ruins of a part of the old Napoleonic fortifications, the Drop Reboubt, which is built deep into the hill itself. A vast trench built of brick and mortar, strewn with narrow slits to rain down death upon those who’d be foolish enough to try and take the position, now overgrown and left to fall to disuse and decay. There’s a certain mood to the place, a certain peaceful sort of melancholy. No flashy tour groups or fancy fixups here, just the remains as they were left so very long ago. You don’t see that much, not really. It’s clear however that at least a few people care however, as the path was cleared and the area tended, a quick good search brings up the Western Heights Preservation society, who I wish luck!

Another amazing sight is the Castle which sits of the opposite hill. Unlike the Napoleonic fort, the Castle is a well tended and staffed tourist sight which could be seen as either a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective on these things.

Con: It costs money and there are annoying tourists everywhere (Not really a fair statement considering I WAS a tourist as well, but hey, my journal!).

Pro: Everything is well maintained with information available to sate curiosity, as well as more areas open to you (Never saw inside the Napoleonic fort! Closed but for a few rare tours.) .

Personally I enjoyed Dover Castle a helluva lot, despite the miserable weather that swept in while visiting. But hell, misty grey rainy weather adds style to these old places. Sure, you’re wet and cold, but you’re wet and cold while staring up at massive stone walls that seem to all but gleam menacingly back at you, or wet and cold while walking slowly through the underground tunnels, the faint eery sound of drip, drip, dripping accompanying you as you walk unsteadily forward. Plus cold and wet keeps the other tourists to a minimum! The grounds are quite large and contain quite a few sights to see, Dover Castle itself has been more or less redone as a sort of semi-interactive light show meant to replay some of the castles history, namely the events leading up to and during the siege it survived. Surprisingly neat lightshow, but not the best I’d see during my trip. The real joy is just wandering the vast grounds that the castle admission fee gives you access to.

Also of note are the WW2 wartime tunnels you can also enjoy, although with a guide now as they don’t allow random wanderers for fear of people getting lost in the vast labyrinth tunnels. Not the same tunnels as the picture above I should also add, the hill is riddled with the tunnels from various era, some open to wander, some only with a guide, and many closed off entirely. It was an interesting tour and certainly worth the fee if you’re into military history and the like, but in truth I can’t think of much worth describing here. Although an interesting experience, nothing in particular springs to mind as amazing…

But ancient military ruins aside, there’s something else of fame in the Dover area. The white cliffs. And they are magnificent indeed. It was wet and rainy on the day when I saw the white cliffs, and honestly more than a little dangerous considering how slick the mud soaked ground was and how close many of the trails run along these vast falls, but it was worth it! The wind tugging at your clothes and that sharp sting of cold wet wind against your exposed skin, the sheer exhilaration as you walk triumphantly along the empty paths, your only companions the gentle swaying sound of grass and the lapping of distant water against the rocky shore. Beautiful. Cold, wet, and likely a bit dangerous, but beautiful all the same.

Dover was one of my favourite surprises. For a town I’d only meant to stop at for a night, the two days spent there were adventurous and fun. Whether it was learning the local tales of one-time conflict, or walking along famed paths or along forgotten ruins, it was all enjoyable. Defiantly a place I would like to visit again.


Loch Ness

November 12, 2008

I’m walking along a small paved path, to one side a lightly wooded hill where horses graze lazily on long, green grass. To the other side lay a green meadow sloping gentle downward with small groups of sheep wandering about baahing quietly. Further down the path I can see a vast expanse of crystaline blue water, sheets of white and grey mist rolling across its surface and drifting skyward. It is serene and beautiful, relaxing beyond words. Other than the occasional sound of a vehicle as it passes by, you’re left with the gentle rustle of the wind and grass, the baying of distant animals, and the beauty of the sight before you. I am of course talking about Loch Ness, Scotland, easily one of the most peaceful and serene places I’ve visited…

Which leads to what happened next. This is where the distant figure walking down the path in my direction became clear, and the experience of walking alongside the Loch of legend took a further turn towards the unreal. A man, clearly drunk, wobbling to and fro as he stumbles down the lonesome pathway wearing what could only be described as full stereotypical Highland regalia, complete with kilt, codpiece and silly green beret (With one of those red puffs on the top no less!). Nearly falling over, he asks (In a ridiculously thick highland accent I might add!) where the nearest pub is. I shrug and honestly can’t give any reply other than the town of Drumnadrochit further down the path, where I’d caught a bus from Inverness to in order to get to Loch Ness in the first place. His responce, and I’m only guessing here because the Highland accent is not one easily deciphered by those unnused to it, is something along the lines of “That pisshole ain’t worth a damn.” and with a further ‘thanks’ he wanders off down the lonely pathway towards an uncertain future, where I like to imagine he finally found a drink and someone to share it with because, despite his drunkeness, he seemed a nice enough guy.

Now I can only presume he was a member of a wandering band of bagpipe players that got seperated from his companions through a strange and undoubtedly hilarious series of events which ultimately lead to him getting drunk in a pub in Drumnadrochit and later getting kicked out (Thus the hostility you see?) and that my encounter with him was only a tiny milestone in an epic journey that would span the breath and width of Scotland as he searched for both the perfect brew and to reunite with his bagpipe playing allies. Or he could just been some confused drunk idiot dressed like that on a bet who got lost from a tour group, but that’s somehow less epic and I prefer my take on his story! Whatever the reason it turned into one of the most odd and, to hell with wordiness, damn cool experiences ever. I mean seriously, wandering along Loch Ness and encountering a drunken scot wearing the full outfit right down to the knee-socks and shoes who’s asking where the nearest pub is? Damn, that’s the stuff you expect in a movie or two but not to actually have happen. It couldn’t have been any more Scottish unless there’d also been fluffy sheep grazing nearby, oh wait, THERE WAS! cooooool!

Needless to say by this point I really enjoyed visiting the Loch Ness area of northern Scotland. To get there I took the train to the town of Inverness, a nice enough place itself although most my time was spent elsewhere or sleeping. And from Inverness took a bus to the town of Drumnadochit, which isn’t really a town so much a collection of Loch Ness related shops, restaurants and pubs from what I saw, and from there you can follow a paved path the rest of the way to the Loch itself. There’s a tourism center (Close when I was there.) and some castle ruins (Also closed to the public while I was there, go figure.) at the end of that pathway, but the real pleasure I found was the simple joy of walking there. The scenery is beautiful beyond words, the grass was green, the weather perfect, it was all very relaxing and peaceful.

For the most part after visiting Loch Ness the next few days would be spent mostly sitting in trains staring at the view passing by and talking to my friend about various gooblygork and whozamawuzits out of boredom. The view was fantastic to be sure and Scotland is extremely pleasant, but after staring at the thousandth line of trees and shrubs that obscure your view, it tends to grow a bit wearisome. In the next two days I’d also briefly visit both Glasgow and Nottingham, but neither to the degree that I’d feel comfortable writing much about them seeing as I did little more than sleep there. Seemed nice enough however and I wouldn’t mind exploring them more thoroughly in the future, Nottingham especially seemed quite nice. But that’s for later, my next real stop would be Dover allllll the way in southern England (Now you know why I spent so much time on the train, getting from northern Scotland to Dover.) which turned out to be surprisingly interesting but which I’ll write about later.

Where’s the fairness of it all, the justice or balance?

November 10, 2008

Sometimes you just have to believe, sometimes that’s all you can do. Believe. Believe that in the end there really is a balance to it all, that there is an ultimate fairness to the world, that everyone receives what they deserve. Sometimes we have to close our eyes, cover our ears and blot out the reality, because what else is there to do?

We live in a dark and cruel world full of beauty and wonder blended with the darkest intentions and most malicious will. A world that people joking say ‘is a dog eat dog world’ all while knowing, deep down, that it’s sadly true. That nice guys do finish last, and that unlike a Disney movie, the villains usually win in the end one way or another. Sure, there are stories and examples of nice things happening to nice people, but they’re memorable not because they’re such nice little tales, but because they’re the exceptions to the rules. Movies are made where everything ends happily ever after and we all sigh and smile and say ‘that was nice’ while secretly whispering to ourselves ‘now why can’t that happen to me?’ and we pretend to think that maybe, just maybe, it will. But it wont. You know it, I know it, we all know that life doesn’t get happily ever afters or neat tidy endings.

But then why continue, why bother? If I’m so cynical, why do I take it?

Because I choose to believe in an ideal. This sounds suspiciously religious, and perhaps in some ways it is, but not in the sense of grey bearded old men sitting in clouds who judge us for our deeds. I’m afraid I don’t really believe in that sort of religion, I try to stay rational and tinge my dreamy thoughts with a dose of logic. But I do choose believe that justice, that fairness and righteousness arn’t just silly words used to scare children into being good, and that in some small way they’re real. I’m not sure if it’s religion or not, but it’s what I follow.

I’ve led a good life so far and although I’ve done a few things I regret, had a few occasions where I wish I’d acted differently or done something when I could or should have, I think I’ve done as well as can be expected. I live a pleasant life, I have family that cares, friends I can rely on. I’ve seen more of the world already than many people ever will, and smiled while enjoying some of the most beautiful sights you will ever see. And perhaps, I think quietly to myself, that’s why it hurts so much sometimes. I saw an old man the other day, wheelchair bound wearing an old, musty jacket. To his right was a sign covered in clippings and writing about the conflict he’d participated in, and below that a small donation cup, empty but for a few pennies. My brain says ‘He’s some homeless bum out to leech off your money to get a stiff drink, piss in the flowers and spend the morning sobering up in the police drunk-tank.’ and my heart replies ‘Does it matter if he is? He’s old, and he looks so very tired and sad. Who am I to deny him?’. I gave him a dollar, and he said thank you, and I walked away quietly regretting that I hadn’t given more even though five dollars was all I had.

In Germany I saw a beggar with no legs and only one arm, and on that arm he only had three fingers. He was laying in a corner wearing a filthy jacket and clothing with a small plastic cup in his lap and the most glazed, hopeless expression I’ve ever seen. What did he do to deserve that? What could anyone do to deserve that? Once I saw an old man, very old, dressed in an undersized joke cowboy outfit complete with silly pseudo-western hat, playing badly at a bent banjo whose battered old case lay at the mans feet, nearly empty. It was a terribly sad sight, and the man himself wore an expression that looked on the verge of tears and complete despair. Another time a middle aged man with some sort of obvious mental disability being laughed at by a group of teenagers. The child who wears threadbare old clothing because their family can afford little else. The druggie in the streets, the beggars, the tales of massacre and butchery in foreign lands, robbery, murder, oppression….

There has to be SOME sense to it all, I have to believe that. And although again and again my mind tells me it’s futile and pointless, live by those dreams. At least that way, at the end of the day, I can look in the mirror and smile knowing that at the least I follow those ideals. I *can’t* change the world, not in the grand and dramatic way portrayed in books or movies, or in those stupid army commercials or charity adds. But I *can* make it a slightly nicer place, if only a little, for myself and the few who know me. I’ll try to help those who need it when I can, even if they only intend to take advantage of it. I’ll support my family and be there for them when they need it. Be friendly to strangers, try and be polite even when I’m in a foul mood. Hold the door open for someone, offer to help carry a heavy load, and give a little when I can to charities even if it’s only a bit. It wont change the world, but it will let me live with myself, and perhaps that’s enough really.

I’m not naive, although there are people who undoubtedly think I am. I read more than is probably healthy for me and have an eye for history, I’ve traveled, talked to people, most importantly I’ve listened. I’m far from the only person to think like this, nor will I be the last. It’s a phase I’m led to understand, youthful vigor and all that, and I’ll grow out of it with experience and time and learn to live with reality. Well you know what? Fuck reality, screw the world, and to hell with expectations. “Ooo, rebellion!” The world answers “That’s also to be expected.” to which I can’t think of any clever reply, all I know for sure is that at least I can live with myself and feel some pride. Maybe someday I will grow out of it, become a world wearied worker and live my little pedestrian life, but that’s later, and for now I choose to believe.