A Travellerspoint blog

September 2008

White Cliffs Part II: Chalk Dust On My Jeans

Scrambling over the physical and emotional geography of Dover’s famous chalk cliff faces.

sunny 20 °C

Continued from White Cliffs Part I: A Kite On The Breeze.

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After leaving St. Margaret's Bay, I headed back up past the South Foreland Lighthouse. I passed the spot where the girl had been flying the kite, but as I expected she and her friend were gone, and I felt a tinge of regret for not going up and saying hello to her when I had the chance. Another lost opportunity.

Instead of heading back towards the White Cliffs Visitor Information Centre via the direct inland route, I kept close to the cliff edge, following a ridge that started heading down along the cliff face. The ridge was wide and flat, with the remnants of a fence on the edge of the cliff and machine chiselling on the cliff face rising up above us, leading me to think that it used to be a road. If it was a road, they had wisely converted it to a path, providing me with a leisurely stroll in the dying fall light with the sea breeze cooling me off.

The path along the ridge went from wide and flat to undulating and overgrown so gradually that at first I didn’t notice. There had been a couple paths branching off and up the cliff face, but I had always elected to stay on the ridge. As I continued down the ridge towards the shore, the cliff face above me grew higher and higher, providing no more opportunities to cut up to the top of the cliff, and of course that’s when the path in front of me started to disappear.

At first, it just became more overgrown with grasses, but then the grasses were replaced by stands of trees. The path wound its way through the trees, and I found myself ducking underneath branches and trying to slide nimbly past encroaching thorn bushes. Those that know me well know that I am not good and sliding nimbly past anything. Barging clumsily I can do well, sliding nimbly is outside of my repertoire.

I tried to gingerly make way through the thorny, dark path, but the bushes were soon clawing at my hands and arms, leaving them scratched. Sweat started to pour down my arms, getting into the freshly opened wounds and stinging. I ducked under one low tree branch, only to come up and hit the back of my head on another branch directly behind it.

While I was cursing the growing number of scratches on my arms from thorn bushes and rubbing my head after crashing into the low branch, I wasn’t too concerned about where the path was heading. After all, I have many times found myself off the beaten path, literally, and have most often found myself stumbling, dazed, sweaty and covered in scratches out onto the main path, scaring passerbys who think I am some sort of wild-man. I assumed this time would be similar.

I was wrong.

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The path ended against a steep wall of dirt. Looking up, I could see a small fence, indicating to me that a walking path was above me. I surveyed the situation. The hill was steep, looking near vertical for the last 10 feet for so. The vegetation to the side of the dirt was all thorn bushes, meaning that I couldn’t rely on that to grab onto and pull myself up. Finally, there was a large, rusty sewer pipe sticking out at the top, meaning that the last thrust would require me to pull myself away from the face of the hill and up and over that obstacle.

A smart man would have turned around a backtracked. In fact, for a second my brain turned on and convinced me to turn around and walk back to the last fork in the path, some 15 minutes back. Then, perhaps due to lack of hydration or still smarting from hitting my head on the tree, my brain turned back off again, save for the synapses responsible for stubbornness.

“There is no way I am turning around and walking back. This was a perfect valid path to follow, and this is just a small hill to climb. Are you man, or are you mouse?” the little devil on my shoulder said.

“Man!” I replied, and started climbing.

Sadly, neither man nor mouse was what I needed to be. Really, mountain goat probably would have been the best choice, or perhaps something that could fly. The first half of the hill was fine. I easily found toe and hand holds and pushed myself up the steep hill.

Then, on the second half, the hill turned into a vertical cliff, and the dirt became a slick track of shiny, dusty rock, hard to grip. Along the left side there was a partially crumbled concrete pillar sticking out from the face of the cliff, which provided me with hand holds that I could use while my feet found purchase.

I reached the bottom of the sewer pipe, and blindly reached over with my right hand, patting the ground above me. My hand landed on a root sticking out of the ground. I grabbed it and pulled. It held. I perched my left foot against the concrete pillar beside me, with my right perched with just the toes on a small rock jutting out from the hill. By simultaneously extending my legs to push me up and pulling my my right hand, I was able to get my head and torso up over the sewer pipe.

I surveyed the ground in front of me. Other than the root already in my right hand, there was nothing to grab on to until the chain link fence at the border of the path. I stretched out my arm, but my fingers were just short of the fence. I stood on my toes, giving myself another few inches, and my fingers just brushed the metal of the fence. Letting myself slide down a touch to get some more power from my legs, I thrust myself forward, my feet lifting off their holds as my left hand grabbed the fence securely. I pulled myself up and over the sewer pipe on arm strength alone, my feet dangling uselessly beneath me.

Leaning against the fence, I caught my breath, and then hopped over, landing just in front of a female passerby who appeared startled to see a dazed, sweaty and covered in scratches wild-man coming out of the bushes. She looked at me warily, and I thought for a moment she was going to raise her hiking pole and bash me with it.

“Um, I took the wrong path,” I said, by way of both an explanation and an apology.

Seeing that I was nothing more than a doughy Canadian and not some half-man, half-wolf crazy, she relaxed. “Yes, they really sure label the paths more diligently,” she said, and went on her way, leaving me to try and shake the dust and chalk off my jeans.

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That evening I went out to explore Dover’s nightlife. There wasn’t much to explore.

Early evening, the biggest crowd was at The Eight Bells, a Wetherspoons’ pub. For those that aren’t familiar with the pub landscape of England, Wetherspoons runs a number of pubs that are best known for cheap food and predictable atmosphere. The Eight Bells looked much like every other Wetherspoons I had been into, and had the same menu as them all. I got a steak with potato and salad and got a perfectly serviceable if somewhat forgettable meal.

I walked down the pedestrian high street of Dover, but it was still only nine o’clock on not too many people were out. I ended up heading into a place called the Funky Monkey, which turns out was another chain. It was empty when I arrived, but soon started filling up with college aged kids. Everyone was pretty and young and dressed up. The girls all had on short, tight fitting skirts and the boys all had on their cleanest jeans and funkiest collared shirts. Everyone’s hair was perfect.

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The music was loud and the dance floor was soon full, but I am old (probably a good 10 to 15 years older than anyone in the bar) and was tired so after a few more pints retired back to the Penny Farthing Guest House for my comfy bed.

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The next morning was another sunny day and after settling up my bill with the Penny Farthing, I was off. My plan was to go and see Dover Castle, but then logistics got in the way.

I had to check out of my hotel by 10 o’clock, and with no left luggage at the B&B, I was forced to take my bag with me.

“No problem, I’ll just go to the train station, which I need to do anyway to figure out when the trains run, and leave my bag there,” I thought to myself. “Train schedule, drop bag, get breakfast, see castle. Plan made!”

Arriving at the train station, I checked the schedule and saw that the trains left every hour at 32 minutes past. That done, I went to find lockers. There were none, nor a left luggage office.

I walked up to the ticket counter and asked, “excuse me, are there any lockers?”

The bored looking ticket agent shook his head. “Nope. No place to leave luggage anywhere in this town,” he replied, rather ominously.

I didn’t believe him though. How can a town which is a gateway, a place where trains, buses and ferries all converge, not have any place for those passing through to leave their luggage for a few hours?

I tried the bus station first, which turned out to not even be a building but rather just a certain place on the road where buses pick up passengers marked by a sign. Usually I have seen those things called “bus stops,” but I guess even bus stops can aim for something bigger. Anyway, no building meant no lockers.

Next I tried to leave it with the concierge at the Best Western Hotel. Hotels usually allow you to leave luggage. I’ve done it tons of times. Of course, usually I was staying at the hotel, but I figured they probably wouldn’t ask.

They did.

“Are you staying with us, sir?” the girl at the reception desk asked.

“Erm,” I replied.

Taking this to be a no, she frowned and tilted her head in a somewhat sympathetic way. “I’m sorry, sir. We can’t store bags for security reasons.”

“Any suggestions,” I asked.

“You could try the train station,” she said cheerfully. Fat chance, that.

Finally I made my way to the Tourist Information Centre.

“Hullo,” the blond girl behind the counter called out as I walked in, “can I help you?”

“Yes, I was wondering if you knew of any place where I could leave my bag for a few hours. Lockers, or perhaps a left luggage?”

“No, I’m afraid we don’t have any place to leave luggage. Kind of inconvenient, I’m afraid.” she replied.

I stood silently for a moment. Partly it was because I was contemplating if the chamber of commerce’s local tourist office would know that having no left luggage facilities was inconvenient, they didn’t do something to rectify it. Mostly though, I was hoping she would offer to hold the bag for me.

Once it was clear that no offer to hold my bag was coming, I thanked her and left. I looked up at the castle on the hill, gleaming in the sun, and thought about dragging my bag along with me, up the hill and through the castle and the “secret wartime tunnels.”

Ironically, I had almost came down with my backpack instead of my rollerbag, but decided at the last minute that the rollerbag would be much easier than the backpack. If I had the backpack, I probably would have walked up the hill with it strapped on tight. But the rollerbag was just too inconvenient to drag around for the rest of the day. So instead of heading up for the castle, I turned in the other direction and walked back to Dover Priory station, and caught the next train to London.

I’m sure I’ll be back to Dover at some point. I do want to go to Calais, and given that I in a totally non-anoraky way like boats, would like to take the ferry over to France. I’ll make sure when I do that I have a plan for my luggage and I’ll spare a couple hours for the castle.

I sat on the train in a seat facing backwards and watched the white cliffs recede into the distance. The defensive walls of the fortress that is the British isles, unconquered for a thousand years, and the symbol of coming home for the wary traveller, glowing in the midday sun. The train turned inland, and I lost sight of the cliffs.

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Don’t feel too bad though, I am still wiping away the chalk dust from my jeans.

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Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

White Cliffs Part I: A Kite On The Breeze

Scrambling over the physical and emotional geography of Dover’s famous chalk cliff faces

sunny 20 °C

In Dover, the cliffs are white. The cliffs, massive walls of chalk, rise up straight from the grey-blue waters of the English Channel. This massive wall stands at the closest point to continental Europe, just 22 miles from the coast of France, and has for the last millennium kept all invaders from English soil. More important than physical defence, though, is the emotional place that the white cliffs have in the geography of the English psyche. In the days before planes flew vacationers back and forth from Mallorca and trains sped under the Channel, an Englishman returning home in Europe would most likely get his first glimpse of his homeland on a ferry from Calais, and the first thing he would see was those white cliffs. For England, the white cliffs symbolize home.

I’d been wanting to see the white cliffs since arriving in London. A psychologist might suggest it is to fill an emotional need upon returning to the land of my ancestors, that I need to see this symbol of home to find my place here in my ancient and current home. I would probably counter that I just thought it was cool.

Either way, after a week of watching depressing reports on the BCC about how the Lehman Brother’s collapse, the take-over of the Halifax Bank of Scotland, the falling stock market and the general depression in the square mile was likely to cause ripple effects across the economy, I felt like getting away. While the job hunt seems to be picking up, with more and more job postings appearing and more calls from recruiters, all this talk of recession, record breaking stock-market machinations and comparisons to the depression of the 1930s had me a little gloomy.

So, on Thursday night I booked myself a B&B in Dover and downloaded the South-Eastern train schedule to figure out when the trains ran. I felt quite pleased with myself, but that didn’t last long. I mentioned my trip to one of my flatmates and the first words out of his mouth were, “I heard it sucks.”

Crestfallen, I asked, “have you been there?”

“No, but I heard from a coworker that it is kind of dirty and industrial.”

I retreated upstairs to my bedroom and got my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring down from the shelf. In a short and somewhat dismal entry, Dover was dismissed as a “gateway town” that “is an uninspiring melange of ferry port access routes.”

I decided not to let this rather bad news about the destination deter me from my visit. That, and it was too late to cancel my B&B reservation, so unless I wanted to write off £34, I was going to Dover.

Waking up on Saturday morning to a beautiful and sunny day, my spirit of adventure was restored. I checked my South-Eastern schedule one last time, and made my way to London Bridge station to catch the train to Dover.

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At London Bridge, I passed by the long line for tickets and bought mine from an automated ticket machine, feeling quite smug as I skipped by the suckers in line waiting to talk to a person, my tickets in hand. Looking up at the electronic departures board wiped the smug smile from my face.

“Dover - See Posters,” it said. Normally where the destination was followed by a platform number so you knew where the next train to your destination was going. Instead I got a message to look at a piece of paper.

I walked over to the posters listing all the departures, my roller bag trailing behind me. I tried to make sense of the long list of numbers and notations, but couldn’t quite make out what it was trying to tell me. Next I wandered over to the route map and stared blankly at that for a few minutes, hoping that it might hold some clues for me, but the more I looked at it the more it just became blurry blue, red and purple lines on a white background.

I consulted one of the station workers who announced rather definitively platform 5 without consulting anything. “Hmm, must be a smart guy to have memorized all the train schedules and platforms,” I thought to myself as I wandered over to platform 5.

The signs at platform 5 showing the next trains departing from there didn’t mention anything about Dover, however. Trains heading to Gravesend and Gillingham, but no Dover. I tried staring at the destination posters and route maps again, hoping that they might somehow make more sense now that I was at the other side of the station, but to no avail. After 10 minutes of trying to independently figure out where I was going, I swallowed my pride and consulted another station worker.

This one didn’t just answer, but instead pulled out a booklet listing all the South-Eastern departures across London. He looked through all the entries until he found a train to Dover. “Yup, here. 10:23, from Charing Cross.”

Just to make sure, I looked up at the name on the platform. London Bridge. “Right, does it stop here,” I asked.

“No, but you can get the next train to Charing Cross and then change at Waterloo East. The Dover train will arrive there at 10:26.”

So I found myself catching a train that travelled for 3 minutes closer to the centre London, just to catch a train back in other direction. Soon we cleared Waterloo East station and were chugging along to the south-eastern coast of England.

I felt immediately better as the train started moving. At first I thought it was just relief after the mix ups between me and train schedule, but then it sunk in that it was something more.

Partly it felt good to be doing something productive with an immediate pay off, even if that productivity is simply a small bit of tourism. Job hunting is hard work, and while I know all the surfing the internet job sites, updating and emailing CVs to recruiters and getting dressed up for interviews is all leading someplace (hopefully to a job), it can feel like a Sisyphean task. A lot of action and energy expended without any results. Going to Dover and seeing the cliffs was a small thing, but it was something I had wanted to do in the U.K., so it felt like I was accomplishing something.

More than just feeling productive though, it felt good to be on the move to somewhere new.

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I realized that I actually quite enjoyed the thought that I was going somewhere, that I was back on the road. Well, rails, but you get the point. As the train travelled across the English countryside, I read from Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues, where the author hitchhikes from the southern tip to the northern tip of Japan. A few quotes jumped out at me.

First, about a bunch of kids off travelling, they ”...set off in pursuit of experience and a never-ending present.”

Then, as he recounts travel stories to one of the people who picked him up, he realizes that those experiences are “just postcards, really, when all is said and done. And the though gnawed at my heart: everything I have done, a collection of postcards, like a zeotrope made to resemble motion...

It got me wondering if perhaps 10 years of consulting and travelling has taken me to a place where I can’t be happy with a home base, that I must constantly set off in pursuit of the never-ending present, and when all is said and done, is it nothing but a series of vignettes that resemble a coherent story, but really aren’t anything more than snapshots?

I mulled it over for a moment, but didn’t come up with any answer. All I knew was that I was happy to be in motion, that all the doom and gloom about the economy that I had watched, perhaps too intently, all week had fallen off me, leaving me smiling and happy. And that was a good thing.

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An hour and a half after leaving London, the train arrived at Dover Priory rail station. With a name like Dover Priory, I expected that the train would pull up into a chamber underneath a baroque cathedral, but the train station is just a regular looking train station, with 3 platforms and a small station house. No friars or nuns in sight.

In a small bit of advanced planning, I had memorized directions from the train station to the B&B I was staying at. Turn left out of the station, walk along the road until you get to Masion Dieu Road, and than turn right. Then, in a small bit of sabotage against my advanced planning, I didn’t follow those directions.

It was for a good cause, though. High up on the cliffs above Dover stands a castle, parts of which dates back to 1180. Arriving just after noon, the sun was high in the sky and casting its light on the castle walls, lighting it up. It was an impressive sight, and so I cut through a park to get a better look.

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After checking out the view, I continued to head towards Maison Dieu Road. Cutting through the park for the castle view had put me a couple streets further south than my memorized directions, so upon reaching Maison Dieu, I wasn’t sure if I should turn right or left. I choose right.

I choose wrong.

Luckily Dover isn’t too big a town, so once Masion Dieu turned into Woolcomber and appeared to dead end, I knew I had chosen incorrectly, and backtracked to find the Penny Farthing Guest House.

I was greeted at the door by co-proprietor Annette, who was impressed by my promptness. When booking the place on-line, I had put an arrival time of 12:30. I looked at my watch. 12:30 on the dot. Good thing I took that wrong turn, otherwise I would have showed up 3 minutes too early.

As Annette showed me up the stairs, she gave me a tour while continuing discussing people who show up at times other than when they said they would.

“That’s the dining room. So many people say they will be here at noon, but then show up at 3. That’s your bathroom. ‘Oh, we decided to grab lunch,’ they will say. This is your room. Here’s the key. Because I have to be here when they arrive, it can really throw off my schedule when they don’t show up. Here’s some clean towels, and your shower is right here. That’s the problem with the internet bookings, you never talk to the person on the phone to work out things. Breakfast, if you want it, is £4 and is served from seven until quarter to nine. No pressure, either way. Let me know later tonight if you want it,” and with that she was away, leaving me to examine my room.

It was a nice room, with a single, comfy bed, a sink, a museum piece of a TV set and a shower. The toilet was down the hall, though was my “private” toilet as all the other rooms had their own toilets, or so I think. The room had tall ceilings, and with that came a massive window looking out onto Maison Dieu road.

Room examined, I dumped my bag and headed out to see the White Cliffs. On the way out, I ran into Annette again.

“What brings you to Dover? Here to see the white cliffs?” she asked.

“Yes, I live in London and thought it would be...” I said, but didn’t finish my sentence as Annette started speaking again.

“As you are on foot, I think the best thing for you to do is go the long way to the cliffs. The main road just has a thing strip of pavement and the cars go along so fast. I really think its quite dangerous. What you want to do is walk out of the house and turn left, then when the road ends, turn left again. Keep to your left when the road forks, and you’ll come to a set of stairs. Once at the top of those, just start walking,” she said, finishing with a smile.

“Thanks,” I said. I walked out of the house, turned left and, for the second time that day, ignored the directions I had and turned right. Again it was for a good cause, this time it was to get some money, as I only had £3 on me, and to get some lunch.

I walked to the Market Square. The day was beautiful, sunny and warm, and many folks were sitting on the benches of the square, soaking up the sun.

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I took out some cash and surveyed the scene. A pedestrian mall ran north from the Square and seemed to have restaurants on it, but that was the opposite direction that I wanted to go, so instead I headed South towards the water, hoping that something would appear that looked like it was serving a good lunch. Unfortunately, my choices to the south were either KFC, Kababs or Pub Snacks, none of which appealed to me.

I came out on the waterfront and got my first really good look at the cliffs rising up above the town. The centre of Dover is in a valley in the cliffs, making it a natural port. To the East and the West though the cliffs tower up above the water.

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I found the stairs leading up that Annette had mentioned without finding any food, but decided to press ahead, hoping that perhaps there was a snack bar along the way. Failing that, I knew that the next town was only 5 miles away. I could probably make it that far without anything in my belly. Failing that, perhaps I could catch and eat a seagull. I was sure I’d figure something out.

Walking up the path I got my first close look at the cliffs. I ran my finger along the cliff face, and it came away covered with white chalk dust. “Just like back in school,” I thought.

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Nowadays, I am sure that kids in school use whiteboards and dry erase markers, or electronic presentation boards or maybe even some manner of technology where they text their answers to the front of the class, but back when I was in school we had black boards and white chalk. Chalk always seemed to break into pieces when you tried to write with it. It seemed so frail. I looked up at the cliff face rising above me, and wondered how often chunks of frail chalk came falling down.

Often, it turns out. The cliffs recede about 2 to 5 cm a year, and large fractures can cause up to a metre of cliff face to careen down into the ocean at a single time. In fact, visitors are warned to stay a few metres back from the cliff face just in case. Actually, visitors aren’t warned. Some visitors, those that read the correct brochure are warned. The rest of us only find out about these warning post trip when researching about the cliffs online for our blogs.

While chalk is frail, it is also very hard, which anyone who has been hit in the head by a flying piece of chalk can attest to. How a substance can crumble in one case and become rock hard in the other is a mystery to science, and if I recall correctly it is one of the main discoveries that scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are hoping to unravel.

Thinking of this dual property of chalk while reading the BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS sign, and decided that I didn’t want a big chunk of Dover chalk hitting me in the head. I imagine that it would probably hurt exponentially more than a small piece of blackboard chalk.

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I was on a ridge that climbed up towards the top of the cliff, with excellent views of the ferry port. From Dover, ferries from four different companies power off to Calais, Boulogne and Dunkerque, taking cars, trucks, buses and foot passengers.

I could see why my flatmate’s friend had said the Dover was industrial feeling. With all the lorries queuing on the massive blacktop, waiting to board a ferry, it certainly has a certain commercial and functional feel to it.

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I however, liked it for just that reason. I have always liked boats, much like I like trains, and enjoyed watching the ferries pull in and out of the port, loading and unloading endless streams of vehicles. I wasn’t alone, either. As I walked along a number of folks were set up along the ridge, binoculars in hand as they watched the coming and going of the big boats.

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Here in England they call people like that anoraks. An anorak is a type of parka with a hood, usually fur lined. The coat is favoured by trainspotters, those hardy types that stand outside in the rain and cold and watch trains go by. For most people, trainspotting seems a rather pointless activity, and listening to a trainspotter go on and on about it invokes a similar feeling to a root canal. Thus, the trainspotters wearing anoraks lead to the slang term being applied to anyone with a arcane, dull hobby like watching trains, playing with ham radios or parading around in old Austin Minis.

I, of course, am not an anorak because I don’t know arcane facts about trains and boats. I just like to watch them. See, I’m not a nerd. I just proved it. QED.

Reaching the top of the cliff, my stomach was grumbling unhappily, so I was pleased to see a visitor information centre with a cafe. I went in and ordered a egg salad sandwich. It was excellent, with tasty chunks of egg in mayonnaise and soft, fluffy white bread. For some reason though, the crusts were tough like leather. They, like the rest of the sandwich were very tasty, but it required some serious gnawing to get through the crust.

Sated and with a new found energy, I set off from the visitor centre and along the cliffs. There was a multitude of paths, but I tried to stick as best I could to the paths closet to the cliff face. Unfortunately, this meant a number of times I found myself at a dead end where ridges suddenly ended. I found myself more than a few times having to scramble up and down steep hills or performing some manner of parcour that would have been best left to a younger man.

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I noticed in my scrambles that it is much easier to climb up than it is to climb down. By this I mean that climbing seems to require nothing but physical effort, whereas climbing down requires a lot of mental and emotional effort. I would find myself at the top of a steep hill, looking down at a 45 degree angle and feel fear gripping at me. I would have to take a couple of deep breaths before starting my descent.

I have a theory why this is. Actually two theories, but I could see them working in concert.

First is one of focus. When climbing up, you are looking up. Looking up isn’t scary. No one has ever died from falling up. In fact, falling up would probably be flying, which would be cool. People dream happy dreams about flying.

When climbing down, you are looking down. People die from falling down. Falling down is painful. Throughout your downward climb, you are always looking down, towards a possible death. That’s scary.

The second theory is that gravity actually makes climbing up easier, or rather makes it more controlled. When climbing up, gravity is working in the opposite direction. You have to overcome it, which means your actions are all slow and deliberate. When climbing down, gravity is pulling you in the same direction you are travelling. It is easy to start moving too fast, to lose control and end up careening down a steep hill towards a cliff face. Climbing up is all about deliberate and slow movements to defeat gravity. Climbing down is all about trying to maintain control so you don’t die.

All that means that I am no longer impressed with people that climb up mountains and then repel down. They are skipping over the hard part. From now on, if you wish to impress me, you will repel up the mountain and climb down.

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The weather was warm and the sun was shining, but atop the cliff the wind was blowing strong. Taking advantage, two women were flying a kite. The girl controlling the strings was a thin brunette with a bright smile. I watched her for a moment, and she reminded me of a girl I had met while travelling in South America. Our routes had crossed for a few days, and soon I found myself smitten with her.

Like everyone else you meet on the road and travel with for a few moments, eventually your paths diverge. We exchanged email addresses and kept in touch for a bit, but eventually the emails stopped, and I added another person to the tally of people I met and lost touch with. The older I get, the more people seem to join that list.

I walked along, thinking of people I had met on the road who I had lost touch with. Especially the women, my crushes, infatuations and dates who I shared time with and who all I have now are fuzzy memories.

Seeing the girl with the kite brought the song “Kite,” by U2 into my head. The song played in my head, providing a soundtrack to the mental slideshow of the many girls who had come and gone in my life.

In summer I can taste the salt in the sea
There's a kite blowing out of control on a breeze
I wonder what's gonna happen to you
You wonder what has happened to me

I wonder if they do? I wonder if there are times when the girl from South America ever thinks, “I wonder how Greg is.” If the girl from San Antonio ever thinks to herself, “I wonder what Greg is doing right now.” If the girl from Denver ever says, “I wonder if Greg is okay.” If the Australian from the Navimag ferry ever looks up at the Southern Cross that she pointed out to me as we lay on the deck on that clear night and thinks, “I wonder what ever happened to that Canadian boy.”

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About 20 minutes later, with images of all the girls I’ve loved before, who’ve travelled in and out my door still rotating in my head, I came to the South Foreland Lighthouse.

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The lighthouse, built in the 1840s, warned ships of a nearby sand bank until it was taken out of service in 1988. Presumably there is still some warning of the sand bank and its not that people just stopped caring about shipwrecks.

The lighthouse has a place in both electrical and telecommunications history. The lighthouse was the first to have an electric light thanks to Michael Faraday, and it was the first place to receive a ship-to-shore transmission in 1899 when Guglielmo Marconi was working with radio waves.

Most people turn around at the Lighthouse and walk back to the parking lot of a the visitors centre, completing a 4 mile walk. I, however, knowing that I had an additional mile to get back to Dover on foot and feeling thirsty, decided to keep walking towards Saint Margaret’s Bay, which was only 1 mile away and offered the promise of food and drink.

Saint Margaret’s Bay is another place where cliffs dip down and provide access to the water. A rocky beach provides access to the chilly waters of the English Channel for those daring soles who dare enter the water. Not feeling daring, nor having a swimsuit, I settled for a pint and some peanuts at the Coastguard Pub and Restaurant.

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Settling onto the patio with my pint of Seasider Amber Ale, I looked out over the water towards France. The Coastguard claims to be the closest English pub to France. With only 22 miles of water between it and the coast of Calais, that is probably a true claim. In fact, I could see France. Looking at the horizon, between the hazy blue-green of the water and the hazy blue-grey of the sky there was a thin strip of hazy grey-brown with a few speckles of hazy grey-white. That thin strip was France.

I finished off my pint and bag of peanuts, and debated about another pint but decided against it. I had 4 miles to put behind me before I would be back at my hotel, and I was afraid another pint would just make me sleepy. So I set off again, buoyed by the calories of protein and carbs from the beer and peanuts.

I climbed out of St. Margaret’s Bay and back up atop the cliffs.

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Continued in White Cliffs Part II: Chalk Dust On My Jeans.

Posted by GregW 11:28 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Am I In The Right Place: The Post-Trip Doubt

Trips to Paris and Brussels make me question my move to London, but I am hoping that it is just post-trip blues and not a symptom of a real doubt.

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I have had a rough week. I have felt frustrated and angry all week, and have been filled with some doubt that I made the right move in coming here to London.

It’s not that I am thinking that I shouldn’t have moved, but rather that I should have moved somewhere else.

The weather has been bad and job hunting has been really frustrating me. I’ve been in London for a little over 3 months now, and if you include the month and a half that I was looking for work before I came over, that’s almost 5 months of looking. I have been getting interviews, and at one point almost had a job, but it was snatched away at the last moment due to a hiring freeze implemented because of the downturn in the world-wide economy and the credit-crunch.

Part of the reason for my foul mood though, I think is my recent trip to Brussels and returning to London. I experienced something similar on my return from Paris after seeing the Bastille Day celebrations.

As I wrote about in that entry, Paris is one of the prime reasons I moved to Europe, and when I was there in July, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself the question, “should I have moved here instead of London?”

I spent 45 days in Paris back in 2005, which added with three days in July means I have spent a total of 48 days in Paris. Coincidentally on July 19th, 2008, just after my return from Paris, I celebrated my 48th day in London. There’s nothing really special about the number 48, other than the fact that I had spent 48 days in both places. So I sat down and wrote about it, though never published it as a blog. Here's what I wrote at the time:

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On Saturday, July 19th, 2008, I have spent 48 days in both Paris and London. 48 days. An equal dose of both cities. After my trip to Paris, I have been wondering if I made the right choice or the wrong choice in moving to London. If Paris is what made me want to move to Europe, why London? Because it was easier hardly seems like a great reason.

As I wrote in my little notebook in bold letter when in Paris

Q: Did I move to the wrong city?

It’s a good question. Every time I wander around in Paris, I feel a sense of awe. Any sense of awe quickly faded about London.

I remind myself that I have never “lived” in Paris, never had to do the things I’ve had to do in London, like banking, job, place to live. As well, my experience with Paris has always been at the heart of it, within the city limits. If I lived in Paris, would I live in the city, or would you find me out in the suburbs.

Perhaps the charm I feel in Paris would not be so strong if I had to do these things?

Perhaps not, though. I have always been enchanted by Paris. I’ve never really been grabbed by London, even during my vacation time here in 2007.

London seems like a “functional” place to me. It is laid out to function as a city, a place of commerce, a place to meet. It is clinical, though not soulless. It is designed to be an efficient machine.

Paris, despite Haussman’s massive renewal and the creation of wide boulevards, strikes me as “ornate,” a city designed to be a work of art itself. A place to be admired and awed.

Paris is art to London’s machine.

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Eventually that feeling faded as more realistic thoughts settled in, and the new adventure of moving to the Docklands and living near Canary Wharf came along.

Then I headed to Brussels, and was enchanted by a new city, especially an experience on Saturday night at my hotel’s bar.

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It was Saturday night, and after returning from Bruges, I decided to have drink. As I was tired, I decided to have one close to my hotel, and nothing is closer to a hotel room than the lobby of that hotel.

I was sitting in the Schengen bar at the Renaissance Hotel. The hotel is a Marriott brand just a block from the European Parliament, so it gets a lot of folks from around the world who are doing business with EU. The bar was pretty busy, full of people speaking in different languages and accents. The TV played the Euronews channel, covering news from around the world with a European perspective.

It made me very happy to be part of something so international, even if it was just from the outskirts of the action, sitting alone at a bar while Europe’s and the world’s politics and business went on around me.

I will admit that one of the reasons I moved out of Canada was to be part of something larger. I wanted to be part of the international community, be part of something that was happening. Europe seemed to be that place.

As I left North America, Canada and the USA seem to be closing themselves off, fortifying themselves against the outside world and even dividing themselves into smaller bits internally - red vs. blue states, north vs. south, Quebec vs. the rest of Canada, east vs. west, Northern Ontario vs. Southern Ontario.

Europe is coming together. The European Union is growing, the coming together of nations to form a larger community, an international meeting place. Despite setback with the recent Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty to give the EU more powers, proponents of the EU want to continue to build the union, stronger and larger.

Sitting in that bar, I felt like I was somehow part of building that union, that I was taking part in the building of that international community.

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I left Brussels on Monday on the Eurostar. About an hour and 15 minutes into the journey, we passed into the tunnel under the English Channel, heading back to the island that is England.

“Here I am, trying to be part of a more international community, and I do it by moving to an island?” I thought to myself, and a funk settled in.

So that’s why have been feeling frustrated with my slow job hunt all week. I don’t think it is the job hunting. I think it is the fact that I am suffering from post-trip blues. Even a short stint away makes the place you live seem a little duller by comparison.

After all, this week I have cleaned my bathroom, called my landlord about a leaky kitchen sink, did a load of laundry, shopped for groceries, talked to 5 different recruiters about 5 different positions and dressed up and went on an interview for a job that I realized two minutes into the interview I didn’t want.

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How can that compare to sitting in a bar, listening to the world’s politicos discuss important things in many different languages and being awash with the feeling that you are part of Europe, that you are an international citizen?

If instead of the Isle of Dogs, I had found myself cleaning my bathroom, worrying about my leaky tap and doing loads of laundry while looking through the want ads in a Brussels flat, I wonder if I would have felt very much like an international citizen, or would have just felt like somebody without a job who had all day to do his chores?

Posted by GregW 09:17 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (8)

Everybody Hates Public Transit!

Not really, of course, but everyone who takes sure does like to complain about it.

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The email usually arrives mid-week, bringing the bad news for the weekend. The weekly Transport for London tube closures for the upcoming weekend.

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When last Wednesday's email arrived, I realized it looked like it was going to be a bad weekend for getting around on the Isle of Dogs. The Docklands Light Rail (DLR) was going to be shut down all weekend. The Jubilee line, the only London underground route serving the area wasn't running eastbound from North Greenwich towards Stratford.

Bad news a day later when the BBC reported that two of the unions who represent bus drivers in London were going to be striking from Friday night through to Sunday morning, affecting 3 of the 5 bus routes that run close to my house, impacting services even more.

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"Gonna be damn hard to get around this weekend," I said to one of my flatmates, giving him a rundown on the weekend's closure.

"Ah, that's going to make it bloody difficult to get to my golf game on Sunday," he said, ending with what has become a bit of a mantra for anyone living here. "Goddamn TFL!"

TFL, short for Transport of London, is the city agency responsible for all the transportation in London. If you move anywhere in London, whether it be by bicycle lanes, roads or rails, and whether the vehicle carrying you is a car, bike, taxi, bus, tube or train, TFL most likely has a big hand in making your ride what it is. When you pay your congestion charge, tap your Oyster card when getting on the train or watch the taxi metre count up, it's the TFL that set your rates.

Because of this control, they make a pretty easy punching bag for anyone trying to get around in London.

To be sure, there is a lot to complain about.

Firstly, the tube trains are incredibly hot. I come from a city with air conditioned subways, and so arriving in London in the height of summer and riding in the hot trains in the stiflingly still air of the deep tunnels, drenched in sweat and crushed against your fellow travellers was a bit of a surprise to me, and I soon found myself wishing for a cool train and a seat.

If that doesn't get your blood boiling, then no doubt the constant shut downs and delays will probably get you. Every weekend since I have arrived a number of lines, especially the Victoria, Jubilee and DLR have been partially or fully shut down. Beyond that, every day seems to find at least one line suffering "severe delays" due to signalling problems, which is especially distressing during rush hour, when hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get around using the underground, overground and national rail running through the city.

National Rail, which is in fact a collection of a number of companies running franchises serving the suburban commuter and intercity trains, has it's own problems, from stations needing to be completely rebuilt to track works shutting down lines to some destinations completely at times.

Having only been here a short time though, and coming from Toronto, I have a different perspective than the long time Londoners. Sure, you'll find me cursing TFL from time to time, like on Saturday when I had to backtrack 20 minutes upon learning that a bridge crossing the Millwall Dock was closed for construction on a DLR station, or this morning when I sat for 10 minutes outside of Bank station waiting for the DLR train to pull in, backed up due to the omnipresent "signalling problems."

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Despite my curses these past few days, I come from a city with four subway lines covering 68 kilometres of track. London, by contrast, has 400 kilometres of track.

Toronto's subways and buses are run by the TTC. Commuter rail in Toronto is run by GO Transit, and intercity trains by Via Rail. There is no integration between these three services, in either fares or scheduling, nor is there any integration between Toronto's transit and it's neighbouring cities.

London, on the other hand, is well integrated. Sure, it's expensive and you often have to pay additional charges when transferring between modes of transit (i.e. bus -> tube, tube -> DLR, tube -> train), but you can all do it with one card - the Oyster card, and the schedules seem to match up pretty well.

The biggest difference between Toronto and London though, has to do with what was closing those lines all weekend in London. Construction.

The last subway to be opened in 2002, a 5.5 kilometre stub running along the north of the city. Toronto has plans to build more subways and light rail projects, but right now they are just lines on a map, and Toronto's history has seen lots of lines on a map.

London, on the other hand, is growing. While there haven't been any tube extensions since 1999, the DLR expanded most recently in 2005, and an extension is currently under construction, and the London Overground, a commuter rail service run by TFL is expanding rapidly to expand from 4 to 5 rail lines.

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Other rail services are getting upgrades as well. Thameslink, the north-south train line through the centre of London, is getting an upgrade to allow longer trains.

The most ambitious scheme, though, is Crossrail. Crossrail is a £16 billion dollar plan to electrify the east-west railway from Maidenhead in the west to Shenfield in the east, and create a tunnel through the centre of London connecting Paddington station in the west end of London to the east-end of London, with one line heading north of the river to Stratford and on to the coast, and another line heading south of the rive to Abbey Wood.

The plan calls for a tunnel running under the centre of London with stations at Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel and my current home on the Isle of Dogs.

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I checked out the Crossrail information session today at Liverpool street station and picked up some literature on the project.

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The Isle of Dogs station is set to be built underwater in the West India Dock, right in the middle of the water in the picture below.

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The tunnelled section will be about 22 kilometres long, and will have to be tunnelled through the existing spider web of existing tunnels for trains, tube and cars already under the city.

When complete (projected for 2017), the line will provide up to 24 trains per hour through the centre of the city, and with a link down to Heathrow, provide much better transit to London's main airport from the east-end.

If things go according to plan, in less than 10 years London will have a completely new, high frequency service through the centre of town.

Toronto, via it's MoveOntario 2020 plan, is hoping to add similar cross-town services to Toronto by 2020, though with funding disagreements between the city, provincial and federal governments, who knows what will happen.

So to my London friends, don't complain too much. London really does have an excellent public transit system, and with constant upgrades and extensions going on, it is only getting better. When things get bad, try and grin and bear it. It could be a lot worse.

...now if they can just figure out how to put air conditioning on the tube lines.

Posted by GregW 05:52 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

The Mummies of London

Well I was well aware of people talking about British eccentricity, I was unprepared for the fact that one of their most famous philosophers and reformers would wind up on display in a glass box for all to see.

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University College London was founded in 1826. Prior to its founding, the only other two universities in England were Oxford and Cambridge, which only allowed men who were members of the Church of England. UCL was formed with a goal of being non-discriminatory and open to all. It was the first university in England to admit students of any race, class or religion, and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men. Even today, UCL is ranked 22nd in the world by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s annual Academic Ranking of World Universities.

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There main building, above, was designed by famed architect William Wilkins, who later went on to design the National Gallery here in London as well. As you can tell by the columns, it is not surprising to learn that he toured Greece as a young man and then later became one of the most important figures in the English Greek Revival of the early 1800s.

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Blah, blah, blah. Who cares? I am much too old to care about university rankings, a little old to be wandering aimless around University campuses with all the young co-eds and don't really care much for Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns.

No, there is only one reason I went to UCL, and that was to see the DEAD GUY IN A BOX!

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Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher and jurist (legal dude, in plain English) who lived from 1748 until 1832. He was a well known law reformer who helped fashion the law codes of a number of countries, and pushed all his life to create a code of laws that delivered on his philosophy of delivering "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

He is often credited with creating a design for the Panopticon, a prison which allowed the guards, positioned in the middle of the jail in an circular observation room, to see all the cells, which radiated out as spokes from the central hub, though it was an idea that he had seen when visiting his brother in Russia.

He is, however, the creator of the word international. It's hard for me to believe that no one had come up with a word to explain that concept previously, but in 1780 in his work "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation," he wrote of international jurisprudence. A footnote on the word international said the following:

The word international, it must be acknowledged, is a new one; though, it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible.

I must admit, that last night I was lying in bed trying to come up with new words myself by taking prefixes and sticking them with existing words. The best I could come up with is georecognition, which is the state of being globally recognizable. For example, "Sure, people in North America know Jessica Simpson, but Britney Spears, she's got georecognition. Even when she slinks away to the Philippines they still want to put pictures of her derriere in the magazines. They all want a piece of her." Go on, start using it. Just remember you read it here first.

Anyway, back to the DEAD GUY IN A BOX!

In Bentham's will, he requested that his friend Dr. Southwood Smith preserve his body as a mummy, which Bentham coined as being his "AUTO-ICON."

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Dr. Smith obliged, but messed up the preservation of the head, robbing it of any facial expression, and thus replaced it with a wax replica. The head was preserved and kept along with the Auto-icon for a time, but now is locked away in a secure location.

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Bentham was considered by many to be the spiritual father of UCL and as a proponent of women's rights and decriminalization of homosexuality, was in tune with the UCL's goal to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief. Therefore, in 1850 University College London acquired the Auto-icon and put it on display in the South Cloisters in the main building of the College.

The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head.

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Why Bentham did this is a question that no one knows the answer to, but some speculate that it was an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death, to make us look at the discarded corpse of a man and wonder why we venerate the bodies of those that have passed before us.

Frankly, I just thought it was both a little cool and icky at the same time. I wonder if they dress it up for Hallowe'en? They could put cobwebs around the box, and dress Bentham up as a zombie or a ghoul!

Given the veneration that the UCL website heaps upon Bentham, maybe not. Then again, given the stories of the pranks that were rained upon poor old Jeremy's head when it was in the box, including being locked in an Aberdeen train station locker and being used for game of football, perhaps they would.

Posted by GregW 05:22 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

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