Monday, September 06, 2004

leeds, amsterdam and the costa geriatrica

The first of a couple of trips away starts tomorrow; I'm going up to Leeds for a work conference. Am kind of looking forward to it, because last time I went I didn't have a particularly good time - spent lots of time fruitlessly walking around the city centre looking for a record shop, or a branch of waterstones, or a pub, or a restaurant. Not that Leeds doesn't have all those things, obviously, but I always seemed to find myself at the furthest geographical point from such a place whenever I needed it, or else instead managed to locate the most roundabout and misleading route. That thing of being in a new city and being compelled to pound the streets - it's a mentality I find hard to shake.

On Saturday myself and Vic jumped on the train and went to Eastbourne for the day. It's not really what I expected; smaller and grander along the seafront, and quieter - and somehow ghostlier. Not because it was a ghost town or anything, there were plenty of people about, but because it didn't seem to fit together in the way that Brighton does; walking down to the sea from the station I was reminded of pretty much any biggish-town outside of London; moderately pedestrianised streets lined with the kind of shops one can briskly stroll past without finding any reason to stop or slow down, a shopping centre which was filled with regulation, icy oxygen-starved air. The kids looked suburban and not much bothered with fashion. There was a notable lack of nightlife; clubs, theatres and cinemas hidden away or absent.

Then you turn down from the commercial area into a short road to the sea, and everything suddenly changes. Shops which minutes earlier were replicated exactly in high streets up and down the country were replaced with queer, old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, shops selling pensioner-ware and terrible trinkets and gifts (a china horse's head which seems to be bursting through the table top? Only eight quid) and the usual, open fronted shops where there were lines of sun visors, little beach-windmills and postcards of cats and dogs with somnolent expressions. Not a single shop betrayed the slightest sign of being built, fitted out and stocked later than the early 1960s.

Running parallel with the sea-front, and even stranger, was a wide road adorned with arty banners which read


Or something similar. And yet it only took moments to ascertain that the shops on this road were even odder. I wish I had taken more time to note what they were, but all evinced a somehow quaint, hallucinatory atmosphere, as if one could turn a corner and find oneself amidst a hall of mirrors at any moment. One shop was the 'World of Hair'. What a vision. Beautiful victorian B&Bs, connecting this street to the seafront, boasted of 'hot and cold water in every room'. One even had a 'Colour TV Lounge'.

The seafront is lovely, though. Old fashioned and picturesque - if you ignore the large numbers of very bored looking, very foul-mouthed teenagers crowded around the promenade - and, on this incredibly sunny day, a picture of summer. We sat on the beach for twenty minutes and watched an elderly woman swimming gracefully in the shallow, still water. Out on the pier, we saw that kids had paddled out over a hundred yards on lilos and inflatable rafts. There was a sense of peacefulness which one rarely detects in Brighton.

Having seen on this and tired ourselves out, we began to stroll back to the station. But here that predictable flaw crept back into our habits and we decided to find the Meads - the town's more arty and genteel district - despite having read that they were a considerable distance out of the centre. So we ended up drifting aimlessly westward, unable to find the area and becoming increasingly tired and irritable along the way. Just as when I was in Leeds and every logical instinct told me to do the city bit by bit and I ended up storming angrily around, we were unable to resist that extra ten minute walk which so predictably turns from ten minutes to twenty to half an hour and onwards. Never mind. Eastbourne is perhaps best explored at the pace of its residents (the youngsters mooch, the pensioners shuffle), but we had a nice day. Doubtless I shall return from Leeds with aching legs.

The second trip comes in two weeks - we've booked a weekend away in Amsterdam. Vic has been before but I've not, and I'm really looking forward to it. It took us about three days to decide on a hotel, but we did it in the end. And I'm relying on Vic's background knowledge to ensure that we don't end up walking, walking, walking....

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