live by the coal mine, die by the coal mine

We left the New Lanark youth hostel early on Sunday morning and followed the Clyde to Hamilton. First on the day’s list of entertainments was what remains of the country house Chatelherault. The various Dukes of Hamilton owned a truly absurd amount of land in Scotland, which when the Industrial Revolution rolled around turned out to contain extremely lucrative quantities of coal; some of the resulting funds were spent on a gigantic blinged-out country house, Chatelherault. In one of those Ironic Twists of Fate you don’t generally expect to happen in the real world, the ground beneath it then subsided due to coal mining, and much of the house had to be abandoned and demolished. All that remains today is the hunting lodge and kennels for the hounds.

That the kennels are a decent-sized, lavishly outfitted country-house-with-visitor-centre on their own (though at something of a slant) should say quite a lot about exactly how rich these people were.

(Are people actually reading these? I’m rather enjoying this travel-blogging lark, but it would be nice to know if anyone else is paying attention.)

Further along the Clyde (and the book) was Bothwell Castle, gorgeous, crumbling, red sandstone, and the Hamilton Mausoleum, of same family, to bury each other and commemorate their, I dunno, money? Apparently the land-underminin’, rent-chargin’, miner-exploitin’, coat-turnin’ (switched sides a couple of times in various failed attempts at Scots independence) Hamiltons weren’t all that popular among the locals. No idea why. Further doon the watter we explored the house Livingstone grew up in, a wonderful museum to intrepid exploring and missionary zeal littered with interesting artifacts and stories, and had a light but satisfying lunch at the visitor centre there. The fence around his garden was iron made in the shape of cowhide shields and assegai. The house was part of a tenement block attending another cotton mill, another New Lanark, that was torn down long ago; all that remains now is a scale model in the house, the house itself, and a weir a little upstream. The weir, with its more recent concrete salmon-leap stairs, was beginning to crumble beneath a cantilever bridge apparently made of big green pipes.

We dumped Oliver at the train station on a slow train that would eventually become a fast train to Bristol, at considerable expense. He has to be home to do Stage Crew stuff for a school production, which is going to be in a week or so at… the Edinburgh Fringe, when we’re in Edinburgh. Almost like we planned it that way. Then back on the road, heading north.

We stopped at part of the Antonine Wall, a walk which turned out to lead all the way to the Falkirk Wheel. The Antonine isn’t as much to look at as Hadrian’s Wall, just a shallow ditch and some oddly shaped bumps in the ground to the average eye. But when it comes to fortifications mine isn’t an average eye, and to me the place is still hellishly impressive a couple of millennia on. Roman defence strategy… Roman defence strategy is worth a post of its own. We didn’t venture all the way to the base of the Falkirk Wheel, or linger in the rain long enough for a boat to come and set it turning, but we saw the row of great hoops-on-sticks and the lifting apparatus clearly from the hill above. Back through the woods to the car, while express trains thundered by in both directions.

We headed for the Highlands, stopping briefly for tea at the Crieff Hydro, a huge, glorious booze-rehabilitation thing turned hotel, playing host to yet another wedding. People had been getting married at New Lanark and Chatelherault, and though Scots weddings are at least much more entertaining to look at than English weddings (all those kilts and highland bling) it was beginning to feel as though we were being stalked by a single sustained marriage party.

Finally, the Highlands proper. There seem to be two kinds. When in the valleys (or are they glens here?) it all seemed absolutely stereotypical postcard material; you couldn’t bloody move for picturesque woods and oh-so-whimsical Victorian hunting lodge holiday castles sitting by meandering, babbling streamlets in the shadow of crags, with deer among the trees and big birds of prey turning slow circles overhead in every valley. But as soon as the roads started gaining some height, the entire landscape changed.

I was expecting the place to get more like Snowdonia further north, but where in Wales the glaciers carved the valleys apart and left pyramidal peaks and crag-rimmed horseshoes, here the ice sheets covered the mountaintops themselves, leaving the peaks and glens uniformly smooth and gently sloped. Over this endlessly rumpled landscape areas of grass and heather alternate in seemingly random shapes, leaving a patchwork green and brown like a bacterium’s-eye-view of a camouflage jacket. There were hardly any crofts, or cows, or straggly sheep. Most of the buildings were abandoned, lying in various states of disrepair. Some were simply missing windows and roof slates, some without roofs or walls altogether, some fell so long ago or were destroyed so thoroughly that they were noticeable only as slightly bigger patches of rocks among the low, knobbly lines that were once their attendant dry-stone walls. People have been suffering here for a very long time.

(Events: July 31st 2010. Posted: August 2nd 2010, mobile internet.)


“…and I’ll take the high road.”

There’s two things I’ve noticed that characterise this place. To avoid National Stereotypes better occupied by sporrans, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and deep-fried things, “this place” is specifically southwestern Scotland at the baby end of the Clyde – Lanark and the pre-Lanark bits a soft southern pansy like myself would drive through to get there. Though I don’t really need to apologise for anything; I grew up in Glasgow, sod you.

One is the architecture. Buildings round here, even in the smallest towns – especially in the smallest towns – are something else. No-nonsense buildings, hard grey and off-red stone, and well-made; slate roofs, thick walls, all squared away with geometrical precision, taller, prouder and better made than the stone cottages in Snowdonia. In the parts of England I frequent, buildings made like this are either ancient rustic curiosities, great civic works or churches; not much middle ground. Here, they’re everything, with pleasing solidity, uniform professionalism and fortified dourness, and here, unlike the modern, flighty, plastic and basically ugly dwellings going up in immense numbers all over England, they’re still making them; some of the newer buildings we saw (easily distinguished by their lack of chimneys; the stoves they are a-changing) were the same style, if different in the details. Here, you get the feeling, a Scotsman’s house really is his castle. Building is no mere passion for venturing and scaffolding; no work of a free enthusiasm, it is a serious means for a serious object.

Two is the fussiness. Everywhere – again, especially in the small towns – safe, sensible warning signs sprout, and practically every warning is accompanied by a terse but detailed explanation as to why it exists. Just like the Wenlockhead lead museum attendants, who couldn’t point you up the hill without getting all up in your business; they want to know what you were doing, why, when, how, in order to tell you how you should instead be doing things down to the smallest detail. It’s a sort of micromanagement by proxy; where Ulster has flags of the Union and the bloody hand flying zip-tie ragged from every streetlight, Lanarkshire has “advised speed limit” signs telling you Twenty’s Plenty. There’s a common-sense smugness there, a superiority that belies a (probably well-founded) sense that people Don’t Know Better, and need to be told.

New Lanark is a town built on both of these principles.

Richard Arkwright, (in)famous pioneer of factory systems and industrial cotton-spinning, in partnership with the Scots banker David Dale, built the place in the late 18th century with the dream of it becoming “the Manchester of Scotland”. The Clyde was an ideal spot for water power, so ideal that this rocky valley in the armpit of nowhere was worth turning into the biggest cotton-spinning plant in the world. Water power and an abundance of cheap child labour, later to be supplemented by orphanages. (You think I’m joking, don’t you.) So they built massive factories here, in that dour, sensible grey stone style aimed to withstand the test of ages. They have done, and remain almost unchanged from two centuries ago; serious, industrial architecture, from a time when that didn’t automatically mean “ugly.”

(It must be stressed that this 18th-century industrial estate is New Lanark. Old Lanark is a perfectly normal [ie, well-built and fussy, by laid-back, slowly disintegrating southern English standards] town up the hill, with a big, imaginative statue of William Wallace and a great Indian restaurant. The town’s symbol is, for whatever reason, a double-headed eagle; I don’t know if its allegiance is to Byzantium, the Austrian Empire or the Imperium of Man, but it was cool to see.)

Later, New Lanark was acquired by the industrialist, philanthropist and proto-socialist Robert Owen. He introduced various forward-thinking, generally-seen-as-insane principles like providing plentiful good-quality housing (for 1820, that is; people still outnumbered rooms four to one), schooling and healthcare to his workforce, and a programme of relentless Improvement similar to that seen in the minds of the Wenlockhead librarians, where a schoolhouse purpose-built at great expense was used round the clock with a broad and interesting curriculum. The heritage centre gushes louder about him than the Clyde gushes outside, never really addressing the wisdom of raising and educating children to express themselves and know about the world, followed immediately by locking them in factories surrounded by murderous, deafening machines to work until they died. Nor does it paint the wage-slave locking-in tactic of paying workers in company store tokens as anything but a good thing (play me some Sixteen Tons.) But I suppose if he hadn’t turned a tidy profit along with the rigorously controlled Good Works, nobody would have taken him seriously, and nobody else in the world would have bothered to raise standards for their workers. Owen’s philosophy seemed to be that properly-educated, decently-fed, well-housed workers would be more efficient and obedient. It was his calling to raise these people from ignorance and suffering, by indoctrinating them in his way; they didn’t know better.

Taken in the context of its age, New Lanark was the fluffiest, friendliest, most liveable-in industrial hellhole in the world. Still, the overall philosophy you can see is not of woolly, good-natured philanthropy but an immense Soviet-esque feeling of “this is what’s good for you” handed down from on high; Owen Knows Best. Mostly glossed over is the man’s insane intellectual hippie commune in Indiana in which he and a bunch of other progressive 19th century intellectuals attempted to construct Utopia and then were reminded – forcefully – that they had no practical skills; that got a small exhibit in the basement of his house.

Owen moved on in 1825, to bigger and less successful things. New Lanark carried on operating until 1968 before going bust and being abandoned, and was only recently restored by the charitable New Lanark Association.

We stayed there two nights, and moved on.

(Evening of 29th to morning of 31st July 2010. Posted: Elgin, 1st August 2010, Orange mobile internet that hopefully won’t be as expensive as I suspect it will.)

take me out to the Penrith chippie, where the food is hot and the air is nippy

Up at something unreasonably early to dump the tortoise on lovely Havercrofts, then the long road north, with Oliver at the helm anticipating his next driving test. Leaving Bristol, we talked about a chap trying to exterminate grey squirrels in his area and replace them with red ones – someone determined to be on the wrong side of natural selection, I feel – then I florped over onto the bags and slept until we were at the northeastern bounds of the Lake District. For Americans and other heathen foreigners, Bristol to Penrith is about a third of the way across the United Kingdom; shut up, what we lack in size we make up for in history.

And it was very different terrain. Everywhere there were these hills. While Bristol is full of murderously steep hills it’s so urban you don’t really see them, and the surrounding countryside is pretty subdued. I am born and raised a stadtkind and am always amazed when I see naked countryside in decent quantity and a shape other than Flat; here it was, dirty great lumps in the surface of the earth, whole ranges of them, punctuated with woods and clusters of white spoil-heaps, bristling with conveyors and gantries. Wild terrain, but tamed land on top of it. Artificial looking mounds and a few collapsed houses lay among corrugated-roofed farms and fields irregularly delineated by dry-stone walls. People started building dry-stone walls here centuries ago and have carried on pretty much without stopping since. We passed a forest of wind turbines at the National Park boundary and wondered about Lake District nimbies; more idiots determined to be on the wrong side of history. One of the turbines had its blades feathered and wasn’t turning. It’s always a shame to see technology without hustle.

Lunch in Penrith at a chippie very proud of its awards, and possibly responsible for the generally rotund shape of the local Penrithers; had an “Angel Burger” (double cheeseburger with mayonnaise; the counterpart “Devil Burger” had sweet chili instead) and the meat was deep fried rather than grilled. We weren’t even in Scotland yet, and the OIL IT UP approach was evident; I love a place that takes its cholesterol seriously.

Near the source of the Clyde we found the hill Scoular Anderson had stood on writing Journey Down the Clyde, and took a photograph to match it; the bridge has been rebuilt, the trains that streak down the line are different, but the pylons, the river, the hills are the same. Up into those same hills we drove, to find the Wenlockhead lead mining museum, past a deep depression carved down the years by the slowly slipping meanders of a river (I wanted to take pictures, there was one amazing side of a meander which clearly showed all the stages of erosion and regeneration: bare rocks, bushes, scrub, soft even turf – but Mum said I’d get a chance when we drove back along that route; we didn’t) and under hilltops sprouting arrays of ominous-looking, half-hidden radio aerials. We found the museum, but the staff were absurdly fussy and nannylike, trying to plot our itinerary constantly, glancing at their watches, tutting; you got the impression they were desperately happy just to have someone to talk to, as well as a good idea of why they were so desperate. The museum itself was good, though, having shaken off an escort. It had a bunch of exhibits of Various Rocks, lead ingots and fire-marks and big old flanged bullets with their moulds, a scale model of the mine’s beam engine, a poem Robbie Burns had written to pay the blacksmith for shoeing his horse (cheapskate). There was surprisingly little silver. Up the hill there was an ancient miners’ subscription library full of relentlessly Improving books, all Victorian science and natural history, and more psalms than I would have thought existed, and down the hill past the ancient, rickety beam engine we were treated to a tour through the history of miners’ huts (given by the museum’s token non-overbearing staffer, who happened to be the token male one). At one point the landowner had granted the locals the right to build houses on any flat ground they could find, which given the scenery wasn’t the offer it sounds like. The mine was all in ruins, littered with the shattered, rusting detritus of various eras, and the cafe was closed when we returned, so back into the car, and another few leagues on to Lanark.

by the sharp lapel of your chequered coat

Oh! In the interests of supporting my dearest brother and his quest to… hell, I don’t even know what he does with those things, might I ask all of you with a Facebook to help him get a free phone for programmin’? It’s just three clicks: go to, “like” the page, then “like” the picture of the Swiss Army knife. MS are doing some promotion where people enter “small but useful” pics, and given that his penknife is up against a) a picture of a puppy b) just the word “espresso”, he has a moral right to win besides being my brother.

apres moi, le deluge

I have a new phone!

It’s an HTC Tytn II, aka HTC Kaiser, running a custom light ROM of Windows Mobile 6.1, none of which means anything to me. Olly SIM- and ROM-unlocked it for me, besides flashing the custom ROM onto it to replace the crappy 3 bloatware that was on it before (this makes marginally more sense). It’s like my previous HTC Alpine, smaller but chunkier, and without the volatile memory, mayfly battery life, dark screen, broken speaker, and incapable wireless.

Features include a radio transceiver that runs every form of wireless ever, a resistive screen (ie, uses a stylus and fingernail jabs, rather than the fingertip-smeared capacitive nonsense that everything uses now), micro SD card slot, and best of all a flip-out tactile response hardware keyboard. With the ROM Olly loaded for me, it runs wicked fast. I am very pleased with it. Now it just needs a name.

Thanks in part to playing a weird, very good Age of Empires knockoff called Fate of the Dragon, in part to then playing AoE3: The Weeaboo Dynasties, and in part to becoming aware of the South-Pointing Chariot, I’m getting more and more obsessed with ancient Chinese history, particularly the Three Kingdoms period. I rather want to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but it’s an intimidating 800,000 words long. (For those who aren’t sure what this means, a nice thick novel is 60-70k.)

Off to Scotland tomorrow, a week in Elgin and a week in Edinburgh; hopefully there’ll be internet at both, though no promises. Travelogues to follow.

Also, I reviewed Alien Swarm for The Solitary Bee. There’s plenty of good non-me stuff there, including pics of a weird, massive firing range up on Dartmoor, so give it a visit.

a room with a shoe

To do for tomorrow:

– Finish burning Clone Wars DVDs
– Buy permanent marker and apply times and dates
– Write and print letter to accompany DVDs
– Post to Dartmoor

– Print coach tickets to London and Oxford
– Pack bag for four days away

– Sort out cinema times with mum/bros

– Hack some shit up with an axe

Life is good.

swapping the turf for the sand and the surf and the sin

Geek Summer was magnificent as expected! Despite a few total fuck-ups (couldn’t find wallet; forgot to bring door keys; no family at home for hours) and a sadly reduced guest list (almost no London people managed to make it up), I think (and hope) the proud few had a good time. We ate Yoyo and mountains of bacon, slid down rockslides in the dark, gamed, watched The Incredibles and Bill playing through Dear Esther (which was better than I’d expected but worse than I’d hoped; it really does go better alone, at night, with the lights off and the island slipping into your head through the inescapable intimacy of headphones). I got to see people I’d missed and chill with a representative sample of The Best People In The World. Now I need to plan a trip to London, send another angry email to the university, write a letter and post a parcel of DVDs in thanks for a certain Mystery Package that arrived the same day I did…

“Jez, you have five refined metal! What the hell?”
“It’s only four…”
“I’m saving up for the Polycount pack.”
“…Do you actually want any of the hats in the polycount pack?”