Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Italian Job

Of course we all know what Italians are like. Their tanks go fastest in reverse, their favorite after-dinner game is bunga-bunga and they (both men and women) are slim and sexy when young (and who cares when they are old?).

I have therefore found our current holiday to the Lake Como region of Italy very instructive.

First of all, their trains. Since Mussolini was resigned from his job they aren't quite as punctual. Nor are their steamers or buses. On Sunday, Colleen and I took the steamer down the lake. Being the last day of September, the steamers were doing their last runs of the season. Having spent the day at Bellagio and Varenna (please note the word “spent”; Bellagio has more designer label shops per square meter than Beverley Hills or Monaco), we took the last steamer up the lake, which has about a dozen stopping points. It set off a few minutes late yet somehow arrived early.

How did it achieve this, with all those scheduled stops en route? Easy. As it approached each berth, it sounded its horn. If someone on the ship or the shore didn't make their intentions known immediately, the engines revved up and it sailed on by.

Now, just imagine you are a tourist at Lake Como. You have had a lovely day, ending, say, at Dongo. You are early for your steamer so you cross the road to the local ristorante and have a glass of vino or a birro media. You are just taking the last, perfectly-timed sip when you hear the steamer’s horn. “Excellent”, you think, putting down your glass, collecting your hat and waiting for a break in the Sunday traffic so you can cross the road to the jetty. That's when you hear the engine revving up, notice the bow wave surging and see the last boat before spring 2013 disappearing into the beautiful evening distance.

Repeat that half a dozen times and - presto! - the once-late steamer arrives early so that Captain Giuseppe and First Officer Giovanni can be welcomed back to the bosom of their families to prepare for the long winter nights.

Colleen and I observed this from the steamer and made sure the captain, first officer, barman, scullery-maid and ship’s cat knew we needed to disembark at Domaso.  While the ship was tied up to the jetty.

Stepping on to terra firma, we made our way to the gelateria to buy a bus ticket. “No!” said the lady behind the counter. “Buy on bus!” Previous experience (another story) had taught us not to argue with her. We waited at the bus stop, foolishly early, which meant we were just in time to catch it.

Marco, the driver, refused to sell us a ticket. When we tried to explain, he just jerked his head to the rear of the bus. We could see his point. It was Sunday night and he was heading home, early if possible. The last thing he wanted to have to do was spend thirty minutes filling in a cash reconciliation for a measly €3.

The following day we took the train to Chiavenna. It is such a pleasure taking a train in Italy. You walk off the road, on to the platform and on to the train. In England there are electronic gates, which will let you or your bag through, but not both; security scans; full body pat-downs; passport control; and doors which close thirty seconds before departure meaning that if you are on time you miss the train. That's just at my rural station. Try any of the big London stations and you need to be there about two days before departure. Heaven knows how commuters manage.

In Italy, thirty seconds is ample. So there we were sitting on the train chugging from Colico to Chiavenna when the ticket inspector entered our carriage. I was struck by my usual panic. Where's my ticket? I thought it was in my inside pocket? Oh, hell, I am going to be arrested! I wonder what Italian jails are like? Oh, there it is. Whew.

I grasped it in my sweaty hand and prepared to present it.

And waited. 

After ten minutes or so I looked over my shoulder.  The ticket inspector had sat down and was chatting to an attractive lady. He sat and chatted while the train clickety-clicked along. The stop before Chiavenna, the lady got off and Giorgio resumed his duties.

And do you know what? It all seems very civilized. Do you really want to be driving a bus or boat at the end of the last weekend of summer? Of course not. If you meet someone attractive during the course of the working day, why shouldn't you take a few minutes to talk to them?

And when it comes to security, aren't we overdoing it just a tad? One day, every single one of us will pass into the Next Life. Between now and then, perhaps we should take ourselves a little less seriously and start enjoying life.

Here is where I think the Italians have got things just about right. Carpe diem, and if that means that bus times suffer or your tanks go fastest in reverse, so much the better.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Is it better to travel hopefully?

It's been said that “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive”. I don't know who said it and my Internet connection is intermittent so you, Dear Reader, will have to look it up. I would just comment that hopeful travel is a wonderful way to see the world.

We started by driving to our normal parking place near Heathrow, IBM. On arrival, we found that we were not allowed to park there anymore. Really - I have no idea why Colleen continues to work for Big Blue. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of empty IBM parking spaces but no room at the inn for one more.

“Never mind”, said the taxi driver, “I will show you where to park”. So we followed him to the spaces allocated to Lindt where he said we could park without worry. We have spent the holiday repaying Lindt for the parking by purchasing their chocolate. We got off lightly. We might have ended up paying IBM for using their parking by buying a mainframe.

The short taxi drive to the airport was largely taken up with a rant from the otherwise friendly driver. He had just pointed out the terminal set aside for Olympic athletes and I remarked “That must have been good business for you.”

Big mistake.

We then were treated to a fulmination about how a fleet of BMW cars had been imported for the Olympics to ferry around the VIPs. “Olympics being held in Britain but they couldn’t used British cars”, he fumed. “Nor do the police”.

I wondered about the police traveling about in Caterhams, or the Olympic dignitaries being squeezed into TVRs. (If you are not British, Dear Reader, look them up. As I wrote earlier, I have no Internet connection as I type this one handed beside an achingly gorgeous Italian mountain stream.)

In either a Caterham or TVR you would be traveling hopefully. You might not arrive, though.

As we debussed from the taxi, I noticed it was an Audi, made by that good old fashioned British company, Volkswagen.

The flight to Milan was nothing. Up, down, arrive late. I hoped not too late to catch our train to Colico. My case came out quickly. I hoped Colleen’s would, too. It didn't.

I hoped we would find the station and be able to buy the tickets quickly. We found the station, but the ticket office was closed and the ticket machine, having offered us the choice of English, kept reverting to incomprehensible Italian. (As an aside, may I point out that most Italian is extremely easy? As I write this, having moved on from the stream to the main piazza in Chiavenna, there is a sign in front of me saying “Banca Popolare di Sondrio. I guess - and I bet I am right - that's the People's Bank of Sondrio.)

I digress. Back to the station at Milan's Malpensa airport. At this point we noticed that the ticket office was, after all, open. We managed to buy the tickets just as the train left. It trundled off into the tunnel as the ink was still damp on the tickets.

I hoped the next train would come soon.

An hour later it arrived, gleaming, clean, modern and everything you would hope for but seldom find in a British train. For a moment I wondered if we had landed in Switzerland.

As we moved into open countryside, the rain came bucketing down. Over the years I have become used to British rain: rain which perhaps may begin falling hard as it leaves the cloud but, somewhere on the way down, becomes dispirited and by the time it reaches ground level has more or less given up. It makes you wet the same way that those little towels they hand out just after take off on intercontinental flights make you wet: there is the instantaneous sensation of something damp which is gone before you have a chance to really take it in.

This was Italian rain. It came down on you as if being chased by hordes of mafia under the orders of the local Don whose daughter you had ruined. It was torrential, exploding out of the black night and machine gunning the train windows.

I hoped it would finish before we arrived.

As the train pulled into Colico, the storm reached a new intensity. Machine gun rain was replaced by a fire hose.

I hoped the platform was covered.

The platform was open to the elements. Well, possibly not all the elements. I noticed an absence of fire and earth, but there was a goodly supply of air and any space left over was amply made up for by water. Those melting polar caps you keep hearing about? They were precipitating on Colico.

We sprinted for cover. There, wearing a shirt, shorts, sandals and a smile, was Giulio, co-owner of our B&B. His car was parked, illegally I suspect, a few metres from the platform. He was everything your prejudices lead you to expect of an Italian man: cheerful, voluble, good looking. 

Ten minutes later we pulled up at the B&B. The room was marvelous - a small lounge, bathroom, kitchenette and bedroom, all done out in wood.

Two glasses of wine were laid out on the lounge table.

I had travelled hopefully, but has been cruelly disappointed. I arrived with delight.

What was the rest of the week to bring?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The iPad generation

When new technology comes along, it's the younger generation that adopt it fastest, right? 

So I knew that when I took my iPad on holiday to our B&B in Lake Como, which would be full of old people, I would be a trendsetter. I imagined the other guests, with their steam-driven laptop computers, gathering around me with astonishment and awe, asking how it worked and being amazed as I stretched maps, took photographs and edited and emailed them on the fly and used the iPad as a satnav, voice-driven word processor and “checked in” with Facebook.

Nor was I disappointed, at least at first.  On the first morning as we arrived at breakfast there was a couple in their 50s or 60s using a Dell.  A Dell.  A laptop was bad enough, but a Dell.  Oh dear, oh dear.

Unostentatiously, I opened the cover of my iPad. In theory I was looking up the weather.  In practice I was putting them in their place. How very twentieth century you are, was the message I portrayed.

Without preening myself too much or being overtly smug, I folded back the iPad cover to make a stand so that I could type. Or press buttons. Or whatever.

Then, to my amazement, the couple at the next table opened their iPads.  One each.  Of the next four days, everyone who produced a computer produced an iPad. The youngest was in their late twenties. Most couple were ten years old than we are.  They probably still are, come to think of it. We are the iPad generation.

What will our children, or our children's children do? When your parents are leading the charge on new technology, what can cool kids do? Retro, I expect.

My prediction for the next big thing wih the younger generation is the abacus.

You read it here first ...

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

14 Things to Know About the Lake District

  1. The sheep are not toilet trained.  Nor are the cows.  
  2. But you are expected to be.  Bring a trowel and a roll of loo paper.
  3. You are welcome to pop into the Youth Hostels, even though you are no longer a youth.  Here you will find tea and coffee making facilities.  And a loo. 
  4. Everyone you meet is friendly.  Really friendly.  The other walkers, the B&B owners, the shopkeepers.  Except for one farmer.
  5. The word "boggy" in the guide book can mean anything from a bit of mud to a swamp.  Colleen and I each discovered one of the latter.
  6. Don't trust the weather forecast.  Unless it says "changeable".
  7. B&Bs are luxurious, mostly.  The best we found was Old Water View, in Patterdale, just south of Ullswater.
  8. The Lake District is the wettest part of England.  This summer was the wettest summer for 100 years.  Just as Eskimos have more than 100 words for snow, in the Lake District they have vast numbers of words for water: "beck", "tarn", "gill", "mere" and even, imaginatively, "water".
  9. You will sweat.  For the first time in her life, even Colleen sweated.
  10. Book a B&B with a bath.  Lying in a hot bath at the end of the day is exquisite.
  11. It shouldn't be called the Lake District.  The correct name should be the Bloody Great Mountains with Lots of Bogs District.  Or possibly the Bloody Great Mountains with Lots of Bogs and Some Pretty Streams and Waterfalls District.
  12. They have even more words for mountain: "crag", "dodd", "fell", "pike", "knott" and even "head".  Clearly they are trying to tell you something.
  13. Even when the rain is beating down, with drops dripping off your nose, your legs ankle deep in bog and your body sweating under the waterproofs, remember this: you will survive.  Like it or not.
  14. The mind is a strange thing.  You will look back on the hike with pleasure.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

I am in the wrong

I would like to emphasise that it was all my own fault. No-one else can be blamed. I knowingly did what was wrong and got caught out.

We've been so good all week. We've done our best to keep to the official paths, carefully consulting both the map and guide regularly. We scrupulously opened and closed every gate. We dutifully climbed every stile, helping  others if need be with walking poles or other bits and pieces.

And yet ... And yet ...

Today we had a wonderful walk. We set off about nine from The Old Store in Bampton.

As an aside, let me recommend the outstanding tea room at the Old Store House. It is decorated with deft finesse and you feel you are dining in a tiny palace. It is quite unostentatious from the outside and a serendipitous delight for the eye when you enter. We had a lovely breakfast and then headed off south west on our route through Shap to Orton.

Crossing fields in gently rolling countryside, we dodged killer sheep and a somnolent bull. Shap appeared just before midday. Well, it didn't appear, we walked there across five or so miles, but you get the gist.  We would have dropped into the coffee shop, but it had closed down two days earlier. We met Simon, the solo C2C walker and the Australian  group we had met at breakfast. The big activity of the day in Shap was at the bowling club.

Heading out of the village, we crossed the railway line and, not long after, the M6 motorway. With a little sadness Colleen noted that we hadn't seen any red squigs (squirrels), which have been reintroduced to the area after being displaced by grey ones. The countryside consisted of gentle hills and slopes, alternating between moor and farmland. For as far as one could see, there were miles and miles of drystone walls, constructed over decades by hand, consuming unimaginable effort.

It moved to the end of our walk.  We could see our destination ahead, nestling in a valley.  The guide book pointed us to the footpath down a steep hill of about half a mile through a farm and through to the village. We walked down the hill, lush with soft green grass. The farmer was herding his sheep using a quad bike.  At the bottom of the hill was a gate.  Surrounded by a pond of vile-looking mud.

Now I guess that quad bikes and livestock laugh at mud.  Perhaps sheep sneer; they have been saying "Bah" at me all week. But I looked at the quagmire and, especially after such a lovely day, my heart sank. There was no way around it. There was no stile over the wall.

And then I thought, entirely wrongly, "Perhaps we could just climb over the gate". It was a bad idea. I suggested it to Colleen, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, and she succumbed to temptation.

Or she would have.

However as she put her hands on the gate there was a voice the echoed across the valley "GET OFF THAT GATE!"

So she did, to the extent that she was on it.

We were baffled. We didn't want to end up ankle deep in mud so eventually we gave up. We walked half a mile back up the steep hill and walked the long way around by road, dodging articulated farm lorries.

In the pub this evening we ran into our Australian friends. They had walked through the mud to open the gate. The farmer had told them about catching us out.  The previous day he had caught out some other hikers who had been trying to lay some stones through the mud.

Now I know I was in the wrong. 

But I couldn't help wondering if the farmer preferred to spend his days shouting at walkers rather than building a stile  or laying a few stones across the mud.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Steamers, squirrels and sunshine

We stayed last night in a bothy beside a B&B. You don't know what a bothy is, do you? Well, look it up.

A few years ago a new friend invited us for dinner at her house, which was called a "cottage". If the weather at Reading Music Festival had been poor, the crowd could have decamped to this cottage and there would still have been room for the Olympic opening ceremony.

This bothy had the same resemblance to a normal bothy. The main bedroom was luxuriously laid out and had teddy bears to add a certain joie de vivre.  Then there was a mezzanine level and finally a luxurious bathroom.

The owner is a gentle-eyed fellow called Ian.  He has walked the Coast-to-Coast many times and so is a fund of information. Very thoughtful and nothing was too much trouble. This morning, when Colleen and I arrived ten minutes before the dining room opened he said "Never mind.  I am here and can cook."

Sadly, overnight my blister which covers the entire sole of my left foot had become very painful. After a short walk into the village I realized I could not do today's hike. We mentioned this to Ian and he said "Never mind. I can show you a much easier route - and it is actually the original C2C route. Just take a steamer up Ullswater to Pooley Bridge. It is a gentle six mile walk from there."

So we did. The steamer made good time along the eleven mile length of Ullswater and we landed at Pooley Bridge not long after midday.  Then began the walk, with beautiful views back to Ullswater.

Towards the end of our walk, we passed through the hamlet of Butterwick. You would like Butterwick. You can walk through it in about ninety seconds, including the time needed to read the sign inviting one to join the Penrith and District Squirrel Society. There is clearly a bit of a contretemps in the area, with one sign urging car drivers to watch out for red squirrels ("Tek care. Red squigs ont road") and another informing the general public to beware red squirrels. Perhaps they are a rare breed, designed to put fear even into the hearts of the notorious Lake District killer sheep.

At this point, Colleen's feet were about to fall off. We hobbled into Bampton. Unbelievable. Yet another luxurious bathroom en suite. Colleen had the longest bath of our marriage to date.

And the pub is just two minutes down the road.

Friday, August 31, 2012

I can't find words good enough

When we woke today it was sunny and about five degrees. Centigrade, fortunately.

We had enjoyed a lovely dinner in Grasmere the night before and had a marvellous suite (yes a suite, with a separate lounge and a blissful bath), had slept well and were ready for any challenge.  So the sunshine came as a welcome surprise.

The views were gorgeous, even before we left Grasmere. They just got better. We kept stopping on the stiff climb to turn and look back at the view - not, you understand because we were tired. The day continued like this with heart breakingly beautiful scenery every time you crested a use or rounded a bend.

We met up with several people we recognized from the previous days: the policeman, Ken, and his wife, Linda; the happy couple with a dog; a young and cheerful man doing the C2C on his own; the Australians. Everyone was happy and cheerful.

The descent into Patterdale gave us excellent views of Ullswater, where we could see small boats sailing in the breeze. A circuitous walk past a cream colored bull rounded out the day. (Our host says the bull wandered down the hill into town and into the reception area of the local hotel one morning.)

What a truly delightful day. A blister the size and shape of Ireland is a small price to pay.

Tomorrow: sixteen miles to Brampton. The last big hills of the walk.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"It were a bit wet ..."

I expect it would be boring to give you a detailed description of the pain I am in, so I won't, tempting though it is.

Instead I will talk about the weather, like any good Englishman of good upbringing.

I see from the BBC website that this year is the wettest on record.  By a curious coincidence, the Lake District is the wettest part of the UK.  Put the two together and what do you get?

Let the answer come from the wise lips of a local, retired shepherdess.  She now runs the Walkers Drop in Cafe in Moor Row, a must-visit if you are in the area.  She said she's never known as much rain.  When we described where we were going she said brightly "You'll have walking poles then?" and a significant "Oh" when we answered in the negative, followed by a falsely cheery "Never mind" which put dread in my heart.

(Just so you know how much pain I am not telling you about, I thought I would mention that I took a pair of Ibuprofen two hours ago and it's still painful.)

On our first evening we stayed at a lovely farm.  The farmer, a retired doctor, now keeps all kinds of animals, including bees.  He said he had eight hives.  "Do you know how much honey I've had this summer?" he asked.  "Eight pounds."

I clearly didn't look sufficiently taken aback.  In retrospect I realise I should have staggered and gasped "No! Never!" but I just looked blank so he said "I normally get 400 pounds.  It's all this wet weather."

All this is by way of introduction.  Shortly after leaving our hotel this morning, we turned into the path on our gentle climb on the route to Grasmere.  There was quite a big puddle which we skirted. And another. And another.  After a while the path just became a stream, with water cascading along it.  I would have written "cascading merrily" but it was cascading along the path I wanted to take, damn it.

For the next couple of hours all that happened was that my boots and gaiters got wet.

Then we got to a part where the guidebook explained we would have to ford a stream.  It didn't explain where we would get a 4x4.  I was dismayed to realise I would have to ford it on foot.  Well that wouldn't do so I walked around the fording point.  I then discovered why it is a good thing to ford the stream.  The alternative is to end up knee deep in the bog.  Which I did.

In the end, one becomes inured to a touch of dampness, to walking through streams and swamps.

On arrival at the wonderful Silver Lea B&B in Grasmere, we rang and when our hostess, Gill, came to the door we asked if we should take our boots off.  She looked at our feet and replied "I think that would be better."

I was shattered.  So was the retired policeman I told you about yesterday, who we met just after supper.

But ...

.. tomorrow the sun will shine and all will be good.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How the worst day turned out

It may have struck the avid reader of this journal that I might have been just the teensiest bit grumpy about having to walk the Coast to Coast with my DBW.

Well today changed all that. It came tipping down and when morning in the bowl of night flung the stone that put the stars to flight I opened the curtains at our delightful B&B (a farm just outside Ennerdale Bridge) to see not the bright summer sun, but gloomy grey clouds scudding across the sky.

I felt a sense of foreboding.

An hour or so later, I felt a sense of dampness. We had just left the farmhouse when a squall of rain descended at high speed. I pulled my hood, allegedly waterproof, over my Tilley hat and marched grimly on. The DBW chattered happily beside me. We spent the morning walking around Ennerdale Water, which I must admit was rather pretty and then gradually climbed the valley.

Within a minute of us entering a youth hostel to have a bite, there was thunder and then hail started falling at 45 degrees. My word, what a lucky escape.  I thought my fortunes must be changing. We set off a few minutes later and the scenery just got prettier and prettier. A steep climb of about 1,500 feet followed and the view changed from pretty to magnificent; gorgeous fells, delightful waterfalls, chocolate box meadows and a strange lack of killer sheep.

A long and gentle descent followed, with far views over Ennerdale Water and Buttermere, followed by the slate mines and a welcome drink and sit down in the cafe there. Bliss! We chatted to Americans from Las Vegas and a policeman and his partner from Scarborough.  Then we kept descending further and further, alongside a rushing river until we fetched up at Rossthwaite.

The hotel was somewhat suspect. Called the Royal Oak, it looked like a bit of a dump. I was feeling misgivings when the manager, Neil, came out and welcomed us.  It is, perhaps, a little tired and retains quaint customs from the mid-twentieth century; a dinner gong and after-dinner coffee in the lounge. Howeve, the service was excellent and friendly and the food (mushroom soup, gammon and vegetables, sticky toffee pudding) was delicious and welcome.

They lack mobile phone coverage, but do have WiFi. And plenty of hot water. And a room to dry wet clothes.  What more could one want?

A good night's sleep.  Which is where I am going now.

Tomorrow: two or three thousand feet up and down some peaks and then into the metropolis of Grasmere.

With rain.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So here I lie, my painful blisters and bunions stoicly ignored, made weak by time and fate but strong in will.

I tell you, reader, of an epic adventure among these barren crags.  My eye is fix'd upon a distant peak; my mind is fix'd on deeds heroic.

I woke this morning at four a.m., fully prepared for a day that would live in the annals of history.   But then I thought I would prefer a lie in.

It was later on the bus from Kirkby Stephen to St Bees that I began to have doubts.  The journey took almost two hours.  My word, one can cover an immense distance in that time.  Why would I want to walk it?  Well, of course, I didn't.

At St Bees it was blowing like billy-o.  There were legions of sea horses and the sea itself was so churned up that it was brown.  There had been a family in the bus with us whose daughter said she'd barely slept a wink all night with excitement at the prospect of walking the coast to coast.  I sympathised, except she had the wrong emotion.  The son was wearing shorts.

So while these benighted fools set off up St Bees Head, Colleen and I took a short cut up the valley.

Sheep were scattered like confetti across the fields.  One has to be careful of these brutes.  Overtly they are so mild but, given half a chance, they will sneak up behind one and bite one's bottom.  There have been 27 fatalaties this year in England alone.  I took a photograph of one while he was distracted by a svelte ewe but I haven't yet worked out how to upload photographs using Lakeland internet.

On the way up an enormous peak, we ran into some Americans.  They claimed to be from Vegas and felt the lake district was a bit damp.  I told them I thought Vegas was a bit dry.  These were the fit type of Americans, in their fifties and sixties, slim and with perfect teeth which they were prepared to demonstrate in bright smiles.

I put on my sunglasses.

On the way down Dent Hill, I became a little confused.  One guide book told us to go straight on.  The maps said to turn hard right.  At that stage one of the natives appeared, walking three dogs.  I asked which way was right and she said summat like 

"Arr eee ye be wharrkin t' cos tu cos?"  I would quote more from her but I think my iPad would run out of saliva.  She pointed off to her left and cackled something about a cliff.  Ten minutes later I found myself walking down a cliff.  To avoid undue worry, dear reader, I will let you know that I survived.  An RAF Tornado flew by, so low that we were looking down on it.

We arrived at our B&B farmhouse about 4.30.  The lady, a charming retired doctor, said it had rained 2" the day before.  I took off my boot and most of that rain tipped out.  I had a marvellous bath, a hot cup of coffee and recovered.  A day's walk across the fells with no rain.  Excellent.

Tomorrow the rain returns.  Could life be better?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The easy bit

It was a really good idea when I thought of it, six months ago.

"Sweetheart", I said, speaking to the gorgeous item with whom I have cohabited for the last thirty years "Why don't we have a staycation this year and walk the Coast to Coast path?"

"What a good idea!" she exclaimed, much to my surprise and consternation.  I know she doesn't like climbing hills.  I only did it to annoy because I know it teases.  "We'll need to start training."

I put my head in my hands.  She was meant to say "I thought we were going to Canada this summer." Instead with the enthusiasm that sent a chill through my heart she was talking of training.  Training?  That would take all the fun out of it.  I did training when I spent a year in the army in 1979.  In case of any doubt, I would like you to know that training is no fun at all.  My motto is "No pain,no pain" and training breaks my motto into tiny fragments before crushing them beneath the iron heel.

On the plus side, compared with the Lake District, through which the Coast to Coast path passes, Hampshire is like an ironing board.  So we trained by walking a circuitous route to the news agent every morning.  I practised carrying a backpack by carrying the Telegraph, which is a broadsheet and therefore very heavy.  All the way home.

And today we set off for the Lake District, having in the interim bought maps, boots, walking trousers, a compass, a transparent map pocket (which I left at home, together with my pyjamas), hiking socks and a book or two.

My heart quailed so, having got all the way to Bicester, I said "You need some clothes, dear.  Why don't we go shopping?"    I had in my mind that we would spend a few hours there, discover it was far too late to get up to the Lake District and abandon the exercise.

Instead, with unbecoming haste that set new records, the DBW found some clothes that fitted her perfectly within 43 minutes.

So, a few hours later, here we are at Kirkby Stephen.  It's not the worst small town I have been too.  Indeed I am compelled to admit that it has it's own water-logged charm.  Our host, Nick, admitted us to the B&B, which is actually quite delightful.  It's a Georgian house and from the miniature chaise longue in the entrance hall to the sashed curtains on the window, it feels lovely.

At the top of the stairs is a library of holiday reading - hundreds and hundreds of lovely books, from classics to thrillers.  You could easily spend a week reading them.    Let me repeat that: you could easily spend a week reading them.  I may just settle down and let the DBW have a refreshing walk and report back to me on how it went.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"I have a cunning plan"

There are many rewards to being a local councillor, not least (as I am sure most councillors would agree) the feeling of achievement when you've helped someone.  Having a chuckle is not normally a fringe benefit, but it was last night.

Last night was the annual budget debate.  The choreography here is simple: the ruling party lay out their proposed budget, the opposition try and pick holes in it, each defends their position as being in the best interests of the public and the ruling party use their majority to vote the budget through.

Last night in Hart was different.

The opposition came up with a cunning plan.  After years of careful management, Hart has a small surplus.  Once Ken Crookes, the affable and hugely competent Tory Leader of Hart District Council, had presented his budget Stuart Bailey, the ever-courteous and likeable LibDem spokesman for finance stood.  His speech went on for a few minutes but in essence said "Good budget.  Now, since you have a surplus, why not use some of that to eliminate Sunday parking charges and hence give a boost to Fleet business?"

I listened in admiration.  The LibDems had put up this proposal knowing that (a) the Conservative majority would vote down any amendment and (b) voting down this amendment would be tough to explain on the doorsteps when campaigning for the May elections.  It was delightfully clever and - in my view at least - a reasonable proposal.

Now, if the LibDems had proposed a lot of amendments, they could have overreached themselves.  If there's a long debate, the Chairman will call a break and the Tories could have had a huddle.  By having just one amendment, there was no chance for this.

Various speakers rose to have their say with the Tories roughly saying "Not a bad idea, but it needs some thought.  Might there be better ways to spend the money to boost Fleet?  Or should we save it to put our finances on a sounder footing?" and other councillors saying "Jolly good idea: no time like the present.  Let's do it."

Meanwhile, as a Tory councillor, I squirmed in my seat.  I thought it was a good idea on the whole.  In fact, it's a good Tory idea: cut taxes to boost the economy.  The Tory majority on the evening was just 1; a single Tory councillor voting against the grain would be enough for the LibDem amendment to win.  My neighbour, Stephen Gorys, was also inclined to support the motion.

So when it came to the vote, Stephen and I supported the amendment, as did the Tory chairman.  So far the enjoyment had all been on the LibDem side.  However, I am sure they had never anticipated winning the amendment - it was to be a Pyrrhic victory.  Having won, how would they vote on the budget?

Just as it Goes against the Grain for the ruling party to support an opposition amendment to the budget, it is a Fundamental Rule that the opposition vote against the budget.  But if the LibDems voted against the budget, it suddenly struck them that they would be voting against their own amendment, which was now in that Budget.  And since they had proposed just the one amendment, on what basis could they not support the Budget?

The vote was called.  Brian Burchfield, of very nimble mind, asked for a recorded vote where members vote in turn as their names are called.  Suddenly those squirming were on the Libdem benches.  Most abstained, one or two voted against, one or two were savvy enough to vote for the budget.

The result: a good budget for Hart; hopefully (there are negotiations to be held still with Fleet Town Council) some relief for people parking in Fleet; and the most amusing meeting I have attended in almost 10 years as a councillor.

As the Greek said "Be careful what you wish for: your wish may be granted".