Travel I went to Nottingham yesterday, my big city trip for this holiday). It was a learning experience. Here are ten things I learnt:

(1) It's important to have a clear focus on why you're going to a place.

I didn't really know why I was going to Nottingham. When I called to book the train ticket, I told the clerk on the telephone, who was in India I think, that I was going to do the 'Robin Hood' thing. He didn't seem to know what that meant (although his masking skills were fairly good) and as I soon as I said it, it occurred to me that I didn't actually know either. The reason for the visit wasn't because it was on my list of ten places to go before I become boring (six down, four to go); it was probably because I'd done 'Shakespeare country' and 'Braveheart country' and I live in 'Beatles country' (sort of) and it was one more heritage trail to cross off the list - the ability to say in some future conversation: 'I remember when I went to Nottingham . . .'

(2) I might think I'm Michael Palin with his love of train travel. But when you're stuck on a Central Train for two and a half hours you'll be wanting jump out of the window.

I dragged my bones out of bed at 7 in the morning and beyond going ape after reading reports online of the recreation of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Big Brother house (if I'd been the producers I would have kicked everyone out and started again. Apart from Ahmed who sensibly slept through it all) I managed to get bus to the station. True to form, the train was delayed by half an hour (so I could have had a lie in). I wasn't really prepared for the length of the train journey on this occasion. It's a matter of perception, but once I'd devoured my newspaper and set about working my way through William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade, time really began to drag. The navy-type opposite me had pulled out a portable dvd player and I was almost cheeky and asked if I could plug by headphones into the extra phone socket on the back. But when I realized he was watching the Hollywood remake of Ringu I decided against it. Time passed eventually and I was in Nottingham by midday.

(3) Nottingham is were remaindered books go to die

On the way to my first tourist attraction I stumbled upon a massive shop selling remaindered books. Although the ground floor carried the usual publications you'd find in something like The Works, the first floor is filled with items for 50p to £1, in some cases things which are still available at all good high street bookshops at the normal price. Picked up a pretty rare Virgin Doctor Who New Adventure and I probably could have found all kinds of gems if I hadn't been in such a hurry . . .

(4) Robin Hood is a myth

My first stop was at Nottingham Castle. It's fairly close to the station and up a hill (as most of these things are). On the way to the entrance stands a bronze statue of Robin Hood and some of his merry men. To the side is a faded information board which fails to mention who the sculptor was or why the upkeep of what are obviously important attractions is so poor what with Robin having a flypost stuck to his foot and only partially torn away. In Liverpool there would have been a major alert and it would have been gone in hours. Back to trudging up the hill and eventually the Castle entrance hoves into view.

Glad in the knowledge that entry into the castle is free on weekdays (suggesting an interest in visitor figures over revenue) I head into the shop to buy a visitor guide. The two clerks (someone's grannies) are discussing the merits of t-shirts with a gentleman who insists on buying one his size rather than the size above as they are recommending in the knowledge that its going to shrink. After fighting my way through the narrow display racks I ask one of the clerks which is the official guide book (something I buy at every attraction I visit if I can). She hesitates and says:
"The leaflet is cheaper..."
I press her on the point. She offers the guide I'm looking for at £3.50. I take both anyway. As I wait to pay she leans over the desk and says:
"A local historian friend of mine says that Robin Hood is a myth."
"Pardon?" I say.
"Oh yes. In the past when criminals couldn't write or wouldn't give their name so instead they wrote Robin Hood."
"like John Doe?"
Alright. So I've been in Nottingham for about half an hour and already someone has taken it upon themselves to tell me Robin Hood doesn't exist. Now I know how a Japanese tourist might feel had turned around to them and told them John Lennon wasn't a Scouser.

(5) Robin Hood was real

Tales of Robin Hood seems to be the main attraction of note for people to head to if they have stumbled into the Nottingham looking for places of interest connected with the Sherwood vagrant. Rather than showcasing artifacts from the time (there aren't many) it offers an interactive tour through a recreation of Sherwood Forrest in a Ghost Train style. Anyone who's been to the Yorvik Viking Centre in York will know the sort of thing I mean. It's actually very good - rather than trying to 'realistically' create waxwork people, instead there are quite stylized figures which have obviously had the hand of an artist and designer in somewhere. I'm reminded of the animated adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Truckers which was on television a few years ago. The place is staffed by people in period costume, which creates atmosphere, but I wondered if they traveled in on the bus like that or if they changed when they got to work.

Part of the attraction is a small cardboard arrow (given to the visitor on entry) with scratch off panels which corresponds to questions which are asked throughout the walking sections of the tour. The first question is inevitably: Was Robin Hood a myth? I confidently scratched off YES! Only to find it was the wrong answer. So I also scratched off the other panel and realized I'd ruined the card. The actor playing the guardian of the forest wasn't too happy with this, ripped it in two and giving me another one. I didn't argue - he was also the keeper of a very real, very angry looking falcon perched not far from the entrance. So now I didn't know what to believe. At the end of the main tour, a film (actually a well co-ordinated slide show) tells the story of a Raymond Chandler style Private Dick visiting a contemporary Nottingham trying to find out if Robin Hood was indeed real. His findings were inconclusive and that it's pretty much a matter of opinions. My opinion is that he's real. With that decided I could move on.

(6) Bargain water is not always a good thing

Short interlude. On my way up to the castle I stopped off at a newsagents to buy myself a bottle of water. In the fridge there are 500ml bottles and 2l. In front of both the price is listed as 99p. Deciding that it's a mistake I pick up the small bottle and take it to the counter. But because I'm wondering...
"How much?"
"99p" The shop keeper replied.
So how much are the 2 litre bottles?
"99p" I stop and look into his face for the hint of irony. Nothing. I think it over for a second.
"I'll go and get the other one."
Knowing I'll want water throughout the day I buy the larger bottle to bag the bargain and save myself buying more later. Then as I leave the shop and put the thing in my bag I realize that I've made a terrible mistake. It weighs a ton. I can hardly walk. Obviously it gets lighter the more I drink, but really all I'm doing is transferring weight. And I'm running to the toilet throughout the day. I wonder now if it might not have been easier just to progressively pour the water away, literally cutting out the middle man.

(7) Six hours in a place simply isn't long enough

I've visited a fair number of towns and cities in the United Kingdom, more recently they've all started to look the same. Other than Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds I haven't spent all that much time in any of them. The shortest was during a disasterous coach trip to Glasgow (an hour and half). What I have realized is that anything less than a fortnight is probably not long enough. And six hours in Nottingham certainly wasn't long enough. It feels like I'm rushing through everything. Once I'd been to the castle and seen Tales of Robin Hood I only had about three hours before I needed to be getting home. What to do? As much as seeing the tourist attractions I wanted to understand the vibe of the place - how it feels to be there. So I went to the shopping area and started walking. And walking. And got lost. It's massive and confusing. There seem to be three or four large shopping precincts some of which feature the same shops - I ended up walking through the same one twice because I hadn't realized I'd been through already. It all became vaguely oppressive as I ended up shops I could visit at home, like WH Smith or HMV because it was clear that wherever the independent retailers were, they weren't anywhere near the centre. Then suddenly, as the shops began to close, that precious half hour I'd lost at the start of the day began to weigh heavy.

(8) There is a never enough time in a record shop

Whenever I do visit a city I try to find the local record shop. Manchester has Vinyl Exchange, Liverpool has Hairy Records and that place in the basement of The Palace. Midway through the afternoon I thought I'd found it - a shop which was literally selling records, walls and boxes piled high with Vinyl. Digital technology had missed this place in its sweep across the world. When I walked in, the shop owner looked like he hadn't seen anyone in there since the eighties. I checked through some VHS and left, his eyes watching me the whole time I was there.

Then, as the day was drawing to an end and I was thinking about heading to the station I finally stumbled into somewhere with actually cds. It's massive and I don't have nearly enough time. And to make matters worse I get musical amnesia in that I can't remember the titles of any of the albums I've been looking for. Eventually I manage to strangle some names from the depths, like Patricia Kaas, but for some reason I forgot about Lisa Ekdahl and that I've been searching everywhere for something else by Peter Westerberg. I plumb for the soundtrack to the Steven Soderbergh film Out of Sight which turns out to be an utter joy. But that's just desperation - I want more time to dive into the place's riches and it's slipping away. Sure enough as I left there was another one a few metres down the road. 'Not enough time.' I grimaced as I passed by.

(9) Americans are lovely

Almost every pub in Nottingham was filled with people watching the England match and I was looking for something to eat. Then I remembered the oldest pub in England, Trip To Jerusalem which I'd seen on my way up to the castle. For some reason I didn't think it would be that busy on this night. It was empty so I ordered a soup and Pepsi and sat down. The only other people there were two students from Ontario (think Slayer Potentials) and an older couple over from just outside California. One of the girls was playing the bar game, trying to swing a ring on a chain over a rather fierce looking pointy hook on the wall. A conversation was already in swing about it and I was easily pulled in when the man of the couple said:
"Do you think this Englishman has any ideas on the right technique?"
Looking at the two girls I bit my tongue then said:
"Well odds say that if you through it enough times it should go over..."
Which was clumsy I suppose, but enough to get stop me being that quite one in the corner eating while everyone else is talking. Which brings me to the point. I've always felt at ease talking to American tourists. Possibly because of my overexposure to their film industry I always seem to be able to talk about something with them, and on Thursday I managed to work in Baseball, Starbucks, Walmart, Universities and New York. We chatted about soccer for a bit (and freak scorelines) and it turned out the students had played in a girls team. I told them about the big baseball story of the week which they'd missed flying over. They told me about how if you live in California you don't have to pay fees to go to a local University but everyone else does. All of which felt like the right was to end the day.

(10) If someone moves away from you on the train, don't take it personally

My booked seat on the train was opposite an attractive woman with tanned skin and long curly blonde hair. She'd obviously been there a while, since Norwich perhaps, her newspapers already slightly crumpled. She was drinking a plastic cup of wine. Happened to knock her feet as I sat down. I apologized. She smiled and said it was OK. I started getting myself settled. I asked if she knew what the score was - she didn't know, but her mobile phone rang; it was someone to tell her that England had scored and she told me that we were winning two - nil. I smiled and got comfy. We pulled out of the station and I began reading my book. I glanced up to her now and then because I had a nagging feeling of familiarity.

Then all the water I'd drunk during the day really began to kick in. Over the next hour and a half I think I must have gone to the loo about five times. On the next to last occasion I knocked the woman's legs waking her up from a doze. The last time, when I got back she'd moved to the seat behind. I didn't hold it against her - I've been sitting near someone with ants in their pants before and its no fun. But there was a nagging feeling of regret. Then I started to think about her face. Where had I seen before?

Primary school. We were in the same class. She used to bully me. Haven't seen her in twenty years and here we both are. Only then did I remember the look she'd given me the last time I'd gotten up. I thought it was irritation - but she'd recognized me. And rather than have me do the same, she'd moved. Now I didn't feel quite so bad. Made sense -- we'd hated each other at school and I although it had passed me by maybe she still had issues with it. As we were getting off the train, I glanced back and she was standing right behind me. In that moment we both knew and I realized that it had been for the best.

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