Under Milk Wood

I recently spent a peaceful week in Lower Fishguard, staying in a cottage used in the film version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. This meant we had a steady stream of people peeping through the lounge windows as they followed the local heritage trail.

The Pembrokeshire Coast is absolutely littered with standing stones, burial chambers and stone circles, one local told me that most fields in the area had some kind of prehistoric stone artefact in them. An archaeologist I spoke to explained that Neolithic and Bronze Age people traveled from all over Europe following the setting sun till they reached the most westerly point to bury their dead, hence the location of the numerous stone burial chambers overlooking the sea.

Garn Wen burial chamber

 

We took a family walk up the steep hill to the Garn Wen burial chambers or ‘cromlechs’ overlooking Fishguard Harbour. They were absolutely magnificient – now looking onto the back gardens of a housing estate rather than gazing out westwards across the sea. It’s interesting to think that this ‘remote’ location was so connected to continental people who would have barely stepped foot on the land of ancient Britain but who came here to bury their dead, creating a deep bond between this coastline distant lands. It’s a magical, storied landscape.

Back to Birmingham – City of Surrealists

Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.

The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.

King Edward House Birmingham

The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.

Trocadero Birmingham

I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.

Emmy Bridgwater Night work is about to commence

Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is About to Commence (1943)

I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater  Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906,  was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.

The Victoria Birmingham

Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.

 

A Canterbury Peculiar – London Overground at the Full English Festival

Canterbury High Street

Canterbury High Street was heaving. I arrived on the midday train from Stratford International with about an hour-and-a-half before the screening of London Overground at The Gulbenkian Cinema on the University of Kent campus.

Third Eye Canterbury

A felt this Third Eye watching me as my baseball cap was blown off my head by a strong gust of wind. I went into the Oxfam bookshop a couple of doors down and a Third Eye was embossed in gold on the cover of a 1890’s book about poverty in London. Was this a message that I should be looking for some particular insight on my trip to Canterbury, or just a confluence of easy esoterica?

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The Cathedral spire poked above the rooftops of narrow medieval streets. In my mind I saw footsore pilgrims hobbling through the lanes weary from the road and for a brief period vowed to walk the Pilgrims Way from London.

count louis zborowski garage canterbury

I was quite disappointed that this interesting looking old building turned out to be the garage used by Count Louis Zborowski to build some dodgy early racing cars called ‘Chitty Bang Bang’.

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

The Path out of Canterbury City Centre to the University of Kent follows part of the Crab and Winkle Railway. Opened in 1830, the Whitstable to Canterbury Railway is one of the candidates for being the first railway line in Britain.

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The final stretch was across a field dominated by a large oak and then naviagting my way through the concrete cubes of the University of Kent Central Campus to the Gulbenkian Cinema.

 

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The screening of London Overground was part of the University’s Full English Festival. The festival marquee was deserted although a table covered with empty water bottles hinted at prior activity. One of my favourite films, The Wonder Boys, is set against the backdrop of University Literary Festival, there are parties and debaunchery, affairs, a stolen Marilyn Monroe jacket – Full English seemed a far more sedate affair.

London Overground Gulbenkian

I intended to leave the auditorium after introducing the film but ended up sitting in the front row and watching the first 20 minutes. It’s great to see something you’ve made projected on the big screen, memories of each shoot coming back vividly – standing on the Thames shore at Rotherhithe with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting, leaving Iain’s house on a cold January night for a walk to Hampstead – and at that time not being able to imagine a moment like this sitting in a large cinema in Canterbury on a boiling hot day with people who’d come in from the sunshine to watch my film. It was a really good feeling.

University of Kent CampusWhile the film played I got a surprisingly tasty cheeseburger from the University shop and sat on a grassy bank with great views over Canterbury. Students ambled about, lounged on the grass, it was a very different scene to my student days at City Poly.

There was a good Q&A after the film, the questions almost entirely focusing on the development of London and the bleak picture of where it appears to be heading. I always try and look for some optimism but in the end we discussed the weather (it rained on nearly every walk in the film) and the experience of walking with Iain Sinclair. I mentioned our recent walk along a portion of Watling Street and the footage I’d shot with plans to shoot more, what it’ll become I’ve no idea. The next film, The Zookeeper’s Wife was due to start soon followed by Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, so we moved out into the foyer.

I ambled back down into Canterbury with a friend for a couple pints before getting the High Speed back to Stratford.

Over the border to North Berwick

I sometimes think I don’t get out of London enough. Reflecting on the summer holiday on the train back into the Big Smoke I thought ‘I’ve been abroad 3 times – twice to England and once to Scotland’. Because leaving London is like traveling to a foreign country – the capital is a City State – an island. In Broadstairs I witnessed quaint folk traditions and swam in the sea. In Devon they almost speak a different language and everyone is old – the lady in the Nepalese restaurant spotted us as foreigners straight away although she thought we were Australian which I suppose is half right as my wife hails from Sydney.

North Berwick

But at least Scotland is a foreign country to all intents and purposes – with a proper border and a dramatically contrasting landscape to the chalk hills us southerners are accustomed to. North Berwick took us by surprise with its rugged beauty and crystal clear waters. A crab got hold of my toe and rendered me one-legged in agony for a few hours.

Tantallon Castle

We set off one day for Tantallon Castle. I’d warned the family they’d be unlikely to see the sun in Scotland (I hadn’t on 4 previous visits) but it belted down all week, especially on the day we set off along the coast with temperatures pushing 30. Bass Rock shimmered white out in the Firth of Forth – we assumed it was chalk catching the sun in the sea haze. Looking through a telescope in the castle grounds we saw that the whiteness came from a thick coating of roosting sea birds flapping their wings.

Gazing out across fields of shimmering wheat heading back into North Berwick I thought of the fields around the edge of Epping Forest – paths I’d yet to walk. I had physically left London but a part of me was still there. I picked up a copy of C.E.M Joad’s ‘A Charter for Ramblers’ and started planning future expeditions.

Morris Dancing by the sea at Broadstairs Folk Week

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

To Broadstairs for its famous Folk Week. The sense of anticipation built as we walked around the headland from Ramsgate – except amongst my kids who just wanted to go home after swimming in the sea.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

The Morris Dancers turned the cliff top amphitheatre of the bandstand into Strictly Folk Dancing as each side took to the concrete floor led on by an announcer who seemed overly keen on the sound of his voice through the PA – with the introduction to one side lasting longer than their actual dance.

 

The central streets of Broadstairs were closed to traffic and Hooden Horses wandered the cute thoroughfares alongside banjo slingers tucking into Ice Creams from Morelli’s Gelateria.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs 2016

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

I was sucked into a second-hand bookshop and was about to leave empty handed when I discovered the natural history shelf at floor level and bagged a 1907 edition of Richard Jefferies’ Field and Hedgerow for £2.

Looking for Gaudi (Barcelona)

Barcelona 1993

I last visited Barcelona in 1993. There I am in my Ride t-shirt on the hill just above Park Guell. It was a peculiar trip for reasons to banal for a blog but I was staying with a Historian who showed us around some of the Civil War sites. I’d recently studied Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia so that was the my main interest in the city – that and visiting the Nou Camp.

Park Guell

23 years later here’s my eldest son in more or less the same spot (the roof of the house just above the white van can be seen to my left in the photo from 1993). After the trip in ’93 I was due to start an MA at Birkbeck. Upon return to London I deferred my place on the course and in the end used the money I’d saved to pay for my fees to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. I met my wife in Sydney about 18 months later. Our first son was born about 10 years after that trip to Barcelona.

El Carmel

It was my son’s idea to go to Barcelona during the Easter holiday – I just needed to get out of the country somewhere and wanted to take one of the kids with me. He asked for a hotel by the beach with wifi in the room. I didn’t hold out great hopes for extensive sightseeing so was glad when he suggested going to look for the ‘Gaudi Park’ – Park Guell.

El Carmel Hill

We had to wait 6 hours to get into the Gaudi bit of the park so my son suggested climbing to the top of El Carmel Hill. As we got higher and higher with each view surpassing the previous one it occurred to me that I hadn’t been this high up when I’d visited all those years ago – I wonder why not. But back then you just strolled into Park Guell, no queues and very few people inside the park.

Park Guell

Despite his astonishing achievements as an architect it’s sad that Gaudi’s most prominent biographical note is that when he was run over and killed outside his great work of the Sagrada Familia none of the passers-by recognised the iconic shaper of their city. That’s a bit rough on Gaudi – how many architects today would get recognised lying dead in the street?

Bogatell Beach

Watching the surfers at Bogatell Beach reminded me of Sydney – a real urban beach where people step out from their daily life to catch a wave or two or lie and soak up some rays.

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Towards the end of our short stay I coaxed my son into a look at the Gothic Quarter – but he was knackered and wasn’t buying it. ‘This is just like London’, he said. I was stumped, this couldn’t be less like London I replied. We were sitting in a small square on a bench. ‘It’s buildings and people walking past, it’s basically the same’. Like Bloomsbury I asked. ‘Yes, just not as big’. And you could see his point. It wasn’t as distinct as the rocky trail up El Carmel Hill or the clear blue water at Bogatell Beach. We went back to the hotel and ordered room service.

Milton Keynes – City of the Future

I didn’t even bother to check my iCal when Andy from Video Strolls asked if I wanted to come to screen in their event at Milton Keynes Gallery – I just said YES! I’ve shown films in two Video Strolls events in Birmingham and had a great time, but here was the added appeal of an excuse for a wander round Milton Keynes at night.

I’d bought a GoPro on the Monday of the week of the screening for the Nightwalk I filmed with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting for the Overground film. I’d be leaving Iain and Andrew at Hampstead and the plan was that Andrew would wear the GoPro on his head to capture some of the remaining epic nocturnal schlepp (he did and it’s great).

milton keynes go pro

Arriving at Milton Keynes station 10 minutes before the event was due to start I strapped the GoPro on my head and set off across the Milton Keynes grid bound for the gallery on the FAR SIDE. And wow.

I visited Milton Keynes as a kid on a coach trip from High Wycombe with my Mum. Nominally in the same county as Wycombe but further away than London, Milton Keynes was the new town on the map – the concrete citadel of the future rising from the lower end of the Midland Plain. We felt like primitive people from the Amazonian jungle propelled into a Flash Gordon future on a Green Line Bus. I’d never been back since.

Milton Keynes

Although my hazy memory of MK matched what I was seeing 30+ years on – Milton Keynes still seemed futuristic. I think it’s the absence of any other older reference points – a blank architectural slate and the clinical nature of the urban planning. The imposition of paganistic street naming and alignments – Midsummer Avenue is apparently aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise – has an ‘Age of Aquarius’ tinge. I kept seeing Blake’s Seven super-imposed over the shopping halls – partly because that’s what I was obsessed with at the time I visited Milton Keynes in the 1980’s (Glynis Barber did so much to get me through those difficult early teenage years).

So I swept in late to the Video Strolls event with the red light on my GoPro flashing and introduced my River Roding film with the camera still rolling (don’t worry, the video above is intercut with my point-and-shoot camera). After the screening I walked back through Milton Keynes with Andy Howlett, one half of Video Strolls, and we attempted to process our reactions to this uncanny landscape and ponder on the future of films made purely from strapping a GoPro on your head when out for a wander as a perambulatory equivalent of the early cinematic ‘Phantom Rides‘.

I’ll need to get the camera set on my head straight for a start.