A work trip to Edinburgh

Tuesday 04 February 2020 – Edinburgh.

There is something magical about train journeys. I am not talking about those short and crowded bursts to or from the daily grind. Or, perish the thought, those that are primarily underground, like most everyone else, I hate those. I am talking about the out journey to ‘away’, or maybe even those back from ‘away’. Though those returns are sometimes less than magical, especially with the threat of having to get up the following morning for work.

Yesterday I made one of those magical out journeys, and while today’s back was not as good as most of it was in the darkness of evening, it was still better than being on the tube. This morning I had a meeting in Edinburgh with some open data people from the Scottish Government, and the train trip from London to Edinburgh is one of my favourite UK train journeys. I am the pedants can list dozens of far better UK rail routes; but I haven’t been on them, and I have done this one at least half a dozen times and loved every one.

I travelled up with one of my work colleagues, leaving London in the early afternoon. We tried to work on the way, but the wifi was not too reliable. This was my expectation (and to be honest, my hope) so I was less worried than my colleague. I had music and a book and was content to slump and stare out the window between chapters for most of the four half hour trip. It is a lovely journey, especially the coastal section north of Newcastle.

I had a few attempts to take photos out the window for my current, experimental ‘out the train window’ project. All were consigned to the virtual rubbish bin on my computer. I much prefer my photo taking to be made when I am not sitting next to anyone, particularly someone I work with. I need to relax, a glass of wine helps, but I was on water all the way to Edinburgh. I was not in any creative zone.

It was dark when we arrived in Edinburgh, and quite cold as we got off the train. I was surprised at the temperature drop. I know I shouldn’t have been, Edinburgh is much closer to the arctic than London and it is winter, but it did catch me by surprise. Our hotel was very close to the station, so we checked straight in and arranged to meet to go out for something to eat. I had a lie down, sitting down on the train is tiring.

I like Edinburgh, it is my sort of place, at least the part of it I am familiar with is; the nice and clean tourist bit. I have been here a few times, but I think this was my first Monday night. It was pretty quiet. We had pizza in a place just off Princes St and it was doing good trade, the pizza was really good, tasty and hot and a good sourdough base. We stayed and chatted over a drink for an hour after dinner, heading back to the hotel about 9. It was cold and damp, but not anything like cold and damp Newport, thankfully. I wasn’t ready for bed, so decided to go for a walk.

The hotel was sort of halfway between the station and the place we were going tomorrow; St Andrews House, opposite Calton Hill. I walked that way first, thinking I would go up the hill if it looked liked things were lit at that top. Though this did not seem to be the case.

The back of the hotel.

St Andrews House, where we meet tomorrow. In this civil service job I do get to visit some amazing buildings, and this a lovely looking building, though the photo does not show it.

The Balmoral Hotel.

I decided to walk up to the castle, with the thought that there maybe some life up at the castle end of the Royal Mile, it is a very touristy part of town. I was wrong, it was pretty dead everywhere, even the pubs were closing, and it was only just after 9. There were a few people about, it was cold but not freezing, there was a light drizzle falling at times, but nothing that suggested snow. I was a little surprised at how quiet it was, though glad as I was happy to not get lured into a happening bar.

The Witchery, one of El and my favourite restaurants is in Edinburgh, and one of the few places that was open, I imagine it is full most nights of the week. It is the sort of place that should never be empty, the food is very good.

I was pleased to see the castle was well lit, I wished I had brought up the lightweight tripod with me, the camera is good in low light, but not that good!

Walking back down to the Royal Mile towards the North Bridge I stopped to take photos down some of the ‘closes’, the small alley ways from the main road to the houses, squares and back alleys behind. I can imagine these were dark and dangerous places a hundred years back. Fleshmarket Close and St Marys Close both feature in the crime novels by Ian Rankin, an author I quite like.

I took the stairs down Fleshmarket Close, unfortunately just missing the opportunity to finally sample one of Scotland’s finest offerings to the culinary world as the cafe had just closed as I walked past.

I walked back to the hotel and had a pretty good night’s sleep, considering how close my room was to a main road. Looking out of the window of my room in the morning, I discovered I had one of Edinburgh’s least finest views.

The meeting that we went to Edinburgh for went well, using up all of the four hours we had allocated. I had an hour to kill before my train so stopped for a pint with a colleague who was up from Manchester, before heading off to the station and settling into my book and music for the five hours back to London.

I took some photos out of the window for my train window project, and was pretty happy with the result. It may not be the type of image that most people like, but the top one is approaching the type of thing I am trying to achieve.

I also drank a lot of red wine. Something I regretted the following morning…

Penelope Isles, Winter Garden, Hanya @ The Piper.

Saturday 01 February 2020 – St Leonards-on-Sea.

I was contacted earlier in the year by Mark who I met at a Walthamstow Rock n Roll book club event last year. One of his friends has been looking at flats in St Leonards and has made an offer on a place not too far from mine. He wanted to know what I thought of the town, so I gave him a run down on St Leonards and mentioned The Piper had recently opened and had some quite good gigs.  A couple of weeks back mark got in contact to see if I wanted to go and see the band Penelope Isles at The Piper. I said yes, so tonight we did.

I offered Mark the flat’s spare room for the night, our first overnight visitor since my sister stayed in May. We left for dinner soon after Mark arrived at the flat, choosing to eat at The Royal; a recently refurbished, re-opened, turned into a London priced gastro-pub near Warrior Square station. The food is very very good, worth the price, and it is an enjoyable place to eat in too.

We arrived at The Piper about 9:00, time enough to catch the last couple of songs of the first band Hanya, they were OK. I didn’t hear enough of them to form a proper opinion. The pub was packed and I heard one of the organisers say that the 145 capacity venue was sold out. El and I found a spot at that back, we could still see OK, but it was slightly less crowded and the sound at the venue has always been good no matter where you stand.

I went closer to the front for a couple of songs of the second band, Winter Garden. They weren’t really my cup of tea, nothing wrong with them, they had a very good guitarist, but the songs didn’t really set me on fire. I did like some of the guitar and looped synth noodling between songs, there was a great gothy noodle of the intro to Neil Young’s ‘Hey hey my my’ that would have been a good cover, though it was just an in between song thing sadly.

I have listened to Penelope Isles debut LP ‘Until the tide creeps in’ a few times in the past couple of days. It is OK, a gentle dream pop LP, something to listen to and enjoy, though it didn’t catch my attention as immediately as the Hey Colossus LP (the last band I saw at The Piper) did. Though after seeing them live, performing most of those songs, a grittier production would have suited that record better in my very non-expert, but very biased opnion.

They have some very good songs, but the LP is a little too shiny for my taste. The track ‘Gnarbone’ was so much punchier live, a highlight of their set. The recorded version does not capture the possibilities the song offers; noise, feedback, looped pedal generated squeals, all the things I like from a live band. I have no desire to see a band doing their studio thing!

Noisy squealy feedback things during Gnarbone.

I very much enjoyed their set; they are a great live band. What set them apart from the other bands that performed tonight, apart from the songs; was stage presence, they really know what they are doing, and how to work the crowd. There was nothing they did that was massively different to the support acts, but what they did do, they did so much better.

El and I both went to the front for their set, standing to one side, against the wall. I had the GX800 camera with a fast lens, so it was great for low light. The lens is not very wide and as the place was packed it would not have been any use if I stood in front of the band, so I stayed were I was and just took photos from there.

Unusually for The Piper the light was really good, thanks to some visuals from Brighton’s Innerstrings. I have been to shows with their light system before, most recently a gig in Dalston, and it does make a massive difference. I hope they come back to The Piper

I suspect Penelope Isles will be big one day, so go see them while you have the chance to see them in a small room. Small rooms are always best.

Newport, Wales

23 January 2020 – Newport, Wales.

Newport was an unusual place for me to visit. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) on, let alone high on, my ‘must go to’ list. However, it was good to get the opportunity to go there when the boss suggested we visit the data team at the ONS (Office of National Statistics), a government department we do some work with. They are ahead of us in a number of areas, so we wanted to see them in location and pick their brains. It was also a chance to spend some time out of the office together and for a bit of team bonding; i.e. sit in the pub over a glass of wine or two…

It was also a very good opportunity to take more photos out of the window as the train moved through the countryside. I have experimented with this in the past, and had recently decided to investigate this again as a possible photographic project.

This project was partly inspired by the recent purchase of the 1997 record by the Montreal based post-rock band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. There are different versions of the cover, and this one makes me think of long distance train travel, through somewhere sparse and empty. The accompanying music suits the image just fine, and sparseness in both image and music suits me just fine.

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I had the GX800 camera with a wide angle lens with me and took a number of photos out of the window as we traveled west towards Newport in South Wales in the early afternoon. This has been edited a bit in Lightroom, all of my photos are; but not by much, conversion to black and white, a bit of a crop and some tonal adjustments. I was pretty happy I managed to capture the spirit of the LP cover!

We arrived in Newport around 4:00, and after dumping bags and laptops at the Travelodge by the station we left for a walk to explore a little of the town, before an early dinner and couple of glasses of wine in the Wetherspoons over the road from the hotel. Newport is on the River Usk and we wandered down to the water front first. The river is not the most scenic, I am guessing it reasonably shallow and sand or mud based, and quite fast flowing. It was very brown. I can almost see why it has been cut off from the rest of the town by a busy, hard to cross road. More on those roads later.

The town is run down, it was a grey late afternoon, and it was not hard to feel a bit low and feel a bit for the people of Newport. We ate very early in an Indian restaurant at the far end of what I am guessing is the high street. We were the only people there.

Walking back to the pub next the hotel we passed too few people, too many closed shops and the pubs and restaurants that were open were pretty deserted. The pub was half full, mostly middle aged men drinking cheap pints. The three of us (metropolitan liberal elites from London) drank red wine. There was only three bottles on the shelf and we drank two of them, hopefully they had more hidden away else we depleted there stock. Not a lot of call for red wine in a Newport Wetherspoons?. It was not a joyous place, but neither was it a sad or miserable place. It was an early night.

We had arranged to meet at 8:30 for breakfast at the nearby McDonalds; no expense spared on a work trip! before grabbing a taxi for our day of meetings. I had had a poor sleep and had been awake since 4 or 5 am so got up at 6:45, had a shower and a coffee and wandered off out for a walk soon after it was light. It was grey, cold, dank, again.

I went back down to the river to have a look at the ruins of an old fort on the riverbank. The light seemed perfectly adequate for taking photos, especially at 1600 ISO, but it was difficult and a lot of the images I took were blurry. There was a lot of deletion.

I found a series of tunnels crossing under the busy main road between the town and the river, all meeting in a roundel in the middle, like a smaller version of the bear pit in Bristol; and not as well looked after. This little corner of Newport is just one big collection of roads.

There are some nice buildings in the centre, it was a wealthy river port town in its heyday and there was obviously some wealth here.

Crossing under another main road, this one separating the station from the town, I was soon walking up hill.

There is a tall tower looming over the station side of the town which I noticed when we arrived, I had 15 minutes left before meeting the guys so wanted to see what it was. I found it easily enough; there was nothing else that high!

It is part of the council buildings, and it is a pretty cool tower. It must have had some purpose, though I have no idea what it was, or is. Reading about it, I think it is just there to be a vanity tower, and it was certainly controversial when it was built with many residents not wanting it.

It was time to meet my work colleagues back at the hotel, looping around the other end of the central train station, and meeting another busy road.

I know Newport is not a tourist town, and it will unlikely ever be. It is very much a car town. Like Hastings there is a station and buses, maybe they don’t go where people want them to go so they drive. Everywhere. Leading to roads and roads, and more roads, and a pretty rubbish experience for walkers. Sad.

The work part of the day was pretty good, we had meetings with two different teams from the ONS, talking to them about data, data management and governance. It was far more interesting than it sounds here 🙂

I experimented with a few more photos out the train window on the way home, I think the monochrome look is much closer to the one I want, and I definitely want the focus to be on the window rather than the countryside. Weird as that sounds.

The top one is my favorite from the day as it has the unusual focus I want and some of the reflection from the lights inside the carriage to enhance the feel of rapid movement and a snap observation of the outside world.