August 30, 2013

Return to England

In a way it was a little like coming home. The familiar sights and chaotic sounds of the roads around St Pancreas reminded me of the year spent abroad a good two years prior. Without the luxury of my phone, I relied on memory to find my way on to Caledonian road, familiar from my last couple of weeks in London after term where I stayed in the area. Soon, I banged into Journey's hostel, my bed for the next 3 days. Besides it probably being the most densely packed hostel I'd ever been in (3 storey bunk beds), the services were pretty great and even included little curtains over the entries to each bunk bed. After about 2 hours sleep the previous night, it was time for a bit of shut eye.

The first matter of the day was to find a phone and I was already pretty certain of what I was going to get. The Google/LG Nexus 4 was what I wanted and for a couple of reasons. Of course it was a good smart phone but would also be assured to be unlocked as it can only be purchased in that condition (it would be hell to change network provider in the next country and be unknowingly stuck with a locked phone). I needed to find one on a Sunday or Monday so took to the internet and Gumtree as I knew it had a massive following in London. After one prospective seller fell through, I would head to Cavendish town later that day to pick up the rare handset.

In the meantime, I thought I'd pop into the British Library which had an exhibit on propaganda at the time. The art of perception and influence over the masses is an interesting thing for the library to portray. The many historical examples where people could not realise that they were being misdirected just reminded me of the constant need for impartiality and a hint of critical inquiry.

After I'd acquired the phone in a friendly residential exchange, I dropped back into the hostel for some mingling. The card games started in the muggy basement/kitchen later that the night, eventually dribbling out into the few still open and nearby pubs. I really wanted to dance so despite the dropping off of some of the Journeys' people, Tamarra and I pressed on to Koko, my favourite place from exchange. For once my navigation skills were trumped, Tamarra proving to be the Queen of the roads North of Kings Cross. The old converted theatre was all that I remembered from before with the dress circle and stalls all pumping, being presided over by the VIP bar on the upper circle. Tonight was hardcore dance and we all moved accordingly. More entertainment took to the stage with the crowd getting higher and higher. Expectations met and exceeded!

Waking up in time for hostel breakfast was a little hard but today was when I would finally visit St Paul's Cathedral as a tourist. Having been there with the Kings College London chapel choir for evensong and with Madde for the Ceremony of Carols close to Christmas, I'd never been able to go to the crypt or the cupola. With a pre-booking, I breezed in and took in the amazing building one more time. On the top of the dome, I met Giulia from Italy as we exchanged photo help in front of what I think is the best view of London. We became museum buddies as we crossed the river after a supermarket sandwich lunch in one of the tiny parks around St Paul's. After getting moved off by the curious wasps, I filled her in on the history of the Millennium bridge while she was the font of knowledge when we entered Tate Modern. Giulia was a doctor and art buff in her spare time so it was a pretty cool to get a little more time to explore the permanent collections with her. Maybe we'll catch up later in Verona.

We parted later as I returned to Journey's for another evening adventure. Tonight, it was Popcorn, the slightly more hetro night on the calendar at Heaven in Charging Cross. This club is pretty much a collection of vaulted cellars, reminiscent of Tube stations. The CO2 cannons were cooling down the hot rooms as high healed, leather clad drag queens danced in sync on the stage to the yells of the packed crowd. Tamarra and I ripped up the dance floor again, occasionally fending men off me or men off her in funny shows of dimly lit masculinity. Night busses made it another easy night to get back home with door to door service. Late night transport to be envious of...

I didn't really go out to the clubs when I was studying at UCL. Something about the studies or my chosen friends or singing so I felt as if I had caught up a little on what so many people remark on regarding London, albeit a couple of years after my exchange.

Since I had changed my plans quite late in the day, my tickets were not the cheapest since they were first class fixed time tickets. They ended up much cheaper than the coach class off peak ticket which I would have got without the advice of the sales attendant. I left for Kings Cross to board the train, relaxing as I hit my first class seat amongst the older couples who didn't have their laptops and phones all charging while connected to the free wifi. I was loving life as we cruised through the countryside. I caught up on some writing and was pleasantly surprised by the inclusive drinks and tasty lunch. I was showered with chips, cakes and apples by generous attendants. I felt a little compelled to consume for the three other empty, unbooked seats around my table. The one hour delay due to diversion didn't faze me at all as I plodded on with my inbox clearing so when we arrived in Manchester, I was convinced that this sort of train was easily the best way to get around a country. There wasn't too much to do in Manchester that night so I was pretty happy to have some pizza and a quiet couple of pints over a game of pool with two Finns and an American at the nearby bar.

Having caught up with some sleep after the long previous day, I got right into it. Manchester is a pretty quiet city when it's out of student season so without any real walking tours going on, I followed my mobile with Tripadvisor, past all of the sights which aren't all that numerous. The soccer museum, Chet's music school and their really old library. Then the city's old really old library: The John Roland's Library. That library was an early architectural marvel, also with a collection full of curious volumes. I dropped into the town hall too and after asking nicely, got let into the top floors of the hall where I joined a little guided tour, getting some background to the magnificently decorated halls. After that, there really wasn't much else to see. Or at least that's what I thought before I stumbled into the Manchester Tate. The Tate had a really fun mix of art from all ages (back to renaissance) all the way up to some recent works which were more like little games that you could play. One example: "Tip a bicycle seat so that the front tip points upwards. Use it to squeeze lemons. Exhibit the seat and squeezed lemons". I just loved the humour of so many of those works, spending ages checking each one out. On the way out, an usher suggested that I visit a funny little private library called the Portico. They had a temporary exhibit of these cool little wood carvings that I checked out while I rested my feet and charged my phone. It was a nice little sanctuary where I could read a big public infrastructure architecture book in peace, away from people and cars.

I joined a couple of gap year guys for a hearty pub dinner pie before we joined the hostel for a little pub crawl to a local favorite. It was really fun to get another little insight into the thoughts of those just leaving highschool, still finding 17 too early to decide on future studies. After some drinking games at the hostel, made slightly awkward by the frequent Spanish translations of the rules, we headed out. The Manchester dance scene was pretty subdued with only the Spaniards really taking to the floor. The Mancunians seemed to prefer to talk at this place. I got the impression that it would be very different during the university term.
With a relatively early flight in the afternoon, I tried to make the most of the day and got up early to check out the Manchester museum of science and industry. As I realised when I got there, it was a little more aimed at kids but still had some good stuff with a whole workshop full of evolutionary editions of steam and hydraulic powered engines through the years. It was cool to see some of the mechanisms that were used to automate steam flow and generally do things that we'd just use PID feedback for today. The exhibition highlighted Manchester's role as a powerhouse in the industrial revolution and the amazing growth in productivity that came with it. There really wasn't much time so I checked out the sanitation section then legged it back to the hostel, getting in to the station with just enough time to catch a fast train to the airport. Boarding my flight to Rome, I readied myself for the next leg of my trip.

With a little change in travel plans, I went to London and Manchester rather than Wales. It gave me a chance to see a backpacker's perspective of London, my home in 2010-11, and to spend a little more time in the North. Manchester (outside the 2011 Parklife experience) was a place with a more industrial history than I've been used to while I've been travelling. It's nice to be reminded that every place can be historically significant in so many different ways. Next stop: Rome and the start of my time travelling around central Europe with Busabout.

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