The Northumberland Coast. Border country. North of here, and you're dealing with rebellious Scots. It is a place where the air and light are pure, where the skies are a riot of stars at night. The people are warm and generous. The food has the tang of the sea air, and the richness of the fertile land from which it has been harvested. And the sights… well, I'll let you judge for yourselves.
We are in The North, and in this point in proceedings, I don't wanna go back.
Like all true Englishmen, I am delighted with the turn for the surreal that the weather has taken. As the safest of every true Englishman’s Default Conversational Openers/Small Talk Gambits (which include The Football, Immigrants, and Bins), the weather has been a tried and tested way to engage in conversation with people in bus queues or dull dinner parties. When it flips between record-breaking heat wave and snow, you know you can depend on all kinds of fascinating opinion.
Me, I just love the skies you get in the mornings when the weather’s all over the shop. Blue skies get dull after a while, and no-one likes the flat grey of a rainy day. The train into work is treating me to some stunning sunrises at the moment, and I’m particularly enamoured of the cloudscapes over Leicester Square as I emerge blinking from Piccadilly Circus tube. Take this beauty that I snagged last week. Enough just to give me a moment of pause before I start my day.
God, it’s cold. Cycling to the station this morning, a ten minute run, leaves me unable to feel my fingers even in thick leather gloves, and my face aches and stings on the train as it slowly warms up after the sub-zero shock. It feels like I’ve been slapped in the kisser. Hot coffee becomes a necessity, not just to wake me up, but to bump my core temperature back up to operating levels.
But thank the gods, at least it’s not dark when I travel in now. We’re past the pit of winter, out of the doldrums, and the vicious cold has a sweet spot–beautiful clear skies and stunning sunrises. I love the deep Wedgewood blues graduating down to a warm citrussy orange at the horizon line. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can catch a real stunner.
Getting up early on a Saturday does have its benefits.
An advantage of an early start to the work day is the chance to see London before it properly wakes up. It’s a bit bleary-eyed, needs a shave and a haircut and another coffee wouldn’t go amiss.
No. Wait, that’s me. But the principle holds, and just after sunup is a good time to change focus and look up rather than at the pavement. Things catch your eye.
The reflection of a street in a car hood, and the way the attention is drawn down a bleak alleyway to a white tower in the distance. Two office blocks, squat and menacing, guarding the way into Oxford Street. Or a jet trail, catching the light in just the right way, lancing into a department store by Leicester Square, sending out a plume of statues like surrealist flowers.
Looking at these three together, I suddenly realise how much sky there is in them. As I work in a dark room all day, I’m sure there’s a reason for that.
Yesterday saw Oxford light up, as their annual Night Light festival ushered in the Christmas season. The town was heaving as the colleges and museums opened their doors to the curious, and markets filled the labyrinthine corridors around Oxford Castle and filled St Giles’ wide boulevard.
It was great fun to wander about and catch unexpected moments and photo opportunities. Mummers wandered through the throng. A drum troupe set up on the Monument and shook the air. Belly dancers gyrated in the halls of the Ashmolean, the sinuous music a fitting soundtrack to the new Egyptian galleries. TLC and I sat in the great hall at the Bodleian Library, and felt 2 IQ points smarter just by osmosis from all the learning that had soaked into the narrow benches we sat upon.
I had been there earlier in the day, looking at an exhibition of some of the Library’s greatest treasures. I stood wonderingly in front of an original page of Mary Shelley’s manuscript for Frankenstein, complete with corrections and additions from Percy Bysshe. An edition of the Koran from the 15th century glowed in gold-leafed perfection, and I could see where Craig Thompson’s obsession with Arabic calligraphy came from. An illuminated Gutenberg Bible, one of less than 20 left in the world, came close to giving me the chills. The fact that these documents still exist is amazing enough. That they are such beautiful artifacts in their own right is nothing short of a miracle.
At its best, Oxford is a magical place, filled with history and wonder, with new delights down every narrow alleyway. Yesterday it shone, lit up like a beacon of civilisation and knowledge in the darkness.
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”
All sounds fair enough to me. This is the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library. One of the oldest in Europe, the main depository for the University Of Oxford, and one of those buildings that gives Oxford it’s Harry Potter vibe. The quote above is the formal declaration for new readers, which has to be recited out loud in a ceremony at Michelmas before they’ll let you near the books.
And people wonder why I get swoony about libraries. I’d happily swear an oath of fealty to mine!
Alright, it’s a big Chinese lantern, but damned if it doesn’t look like an alien jellyfish flying towards Trafalgar Square. The big blue Mothership in the distance is the W Hotel, which changes colour like a contented cuttlefish at night, gently pulsing around the colour wheel.
Sometimes the town I work in is still capable of surprising me.
The Regent Palace Hotel, just off London’s bustling Piccadilly Circus, was a place that was part of my early life in Soho. Sadly, three years ago it was discovered to be riddled with asbestos, and the venerable building was condemned.
The land is now part of the new Quadrant development that’s in the final stages of completion. The tangle of streets and shops that tuck in behind Regent Street and Piccadilly have always been something of a hidden treasure, so it’s nice to see a new attraction to draw people in. I’m also pleased to see that the old facade has survived, and it’s scrubbed up well, doncha think?
And yes, it has been cropped and framed to look as much like a Victorian spaceship firing up it’s main engine as possible. Couldn’t help myself.