Thursday 26 May 2011

Day Three: Problems With Young People. And Old People.

Alright, I admit it: I was wrong. I may have waxed lyrical about anonymous Travelodges versus little B&Bs. I stand by that to a certain extent. But the Menai Hotel in Bangor was far better than the white cube I stayed in the night before. I was given a large comfy room, with a double bed and plenty of space. The TV had Freeview - proper Freeview, not the bizarre compromise the Travelodge had, where you got Russia Today but not BBC Three - and I had a view of the Menai Straits from my window:

My only complaint was the hotel bar and restaurant. Once I'd recovered the night before, I'd showered and headed downstairs to get some food in the bar. I discovered, to my horror, that it wasn't just a bar: it was a student bar. There were groups of young, happy, clever young people sipping their drinks, playing pool, having fun.

I hated them, the cheery, youthful bastards. They were just about young enough to be my children. They were noisy and boisterous, while I sat in the corner, lonely, fat and sipping a pint of lager. I may as well have had "SEX PERVERT" stamped on my forehead. I decided to skip having food there before they surrounded me and pulled me to pieces.

Bangor as a whole was very pretty, but absolutely dominated by students. I nipped to Morrisons for some cash and snacks, and all I saw was a mass of purple hair, pierced eyebrows and boots. Youth everywhere. I wondered, how does the town cope with this mass influx? How does it exist in the summer months, for example? And how do the students themselves cope with it?

I experienced something like this when I studied in Ormskirk. That's another small town with a big Uni. I remembered how you'd go to the pubs in town and see the same faces - one group in the Queens Head, one group in the Golden Lion, one group in the Buck i' 'th Vine. (We used to hang out in the Plough, which was off the beaten track and suited our sad loner personalities). The same people showed up at sporting events, at club events, and trips out. On one boring afternoon, my friends and I compiled a Saliva Trail map, a kind of Six Degrees of Snogging, and were disturbed to find that we were all a lot closer to one another than we'd hoped.

I know all universities are like this - communities within communities, tight knit worlds. But in Ormskirk, we had the option to leave. You could study in Ormskirk, but live in Liverpool or Southport or Preston or Wigan without any hassle. You didn't have to drink in town - one Merseyrail ride and you were in the city. Yes, there were loads of intermingling relationships, but there were also a lot of outsiders (in my entire time at Edge Hill, I only copped off with one fellow student. And that's quite a record given how slutty I was).

I thought about Bangor students and how they must spend three years bumping into exes. There's no escape. Where are you going to go that isn't Bangor? Llandudno? Colwyn Bay? Hit the hot nightspots of Rhyl? The nearest big city, accessible by public transport, is Chester, and that's an hour away. Imagine living in a world where your best hope of a good night out is Chester. I couldn't help but think that the students were missing out on something - missing out on the chance to mix with other people like them from outside their enclosed world.

And goodness only knows what it must be like to be gay there. No access to the big city pubs and clubs. Just the same faces at the Uni gay nights, in the LGBT Society. I got four propositions on Grindr that evening, which is four more than I've had on the Wirral in the past year - they must have been overjoyed to see a new face.

All this was swilling around in my head as I walked towards the Menai Bridge. Yes, it was a beautiful location, and a good place to study academically. That's not all university is about, though.

These thoughts were all because I was concerned about the good of the students, and not at all because I'm jealous of their youth and opportunity. It's not based on anger either, despite them riding their bikes on the pavement and constantly trilling their bells to get me out of the way. If you were on the road you wouldn't have this problem, cyclists.

I was actually feeling pretty content. The views over the Straits were truly beautiful. There was a kind of fragility to the human parts, the epic stretch of water and the rising hills overshadowing the tiny towns and boats.

Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the blue steelwork of the suspension bridge, until finally I was on the approach path. This was the original bridge, Thomas Telford's magnificent feat of engineering. The eddies and currents beneath the bridge are notoriously strong. The narrowing strait causes water from either side to gush through at a frightening rate, which caused all sorts of nightmares during construction - not helped by an edict that they couldn't use scaffolding as this would impede shipping. It's no longer the main route to Anglesey - that's been taken by the Britannia Bridge, further down - but it's still extremely busy, and struggling to cope with today's traffic.

There was a disturbing reminder of its second use as I got closer. On the side of the carriageway was an orange telephone box, like you'd see by the side of the motorway, with a sign above it:

Feeling desperate? Please ring the Samaritans. Free phone here.

It gave me a chill - a disturbing reminder of people's frailties as I stepped onto the walkway.

Regular readers (hello you!) will know that I have no head for heights, and that I'm regularly terrified by bridge crossings. Strangely, this didn't happen on the Menai Bridge. Unlike the Runcorn Bridge, for example, this felt strong and secure. I didn't feel as vulnerable as I did on that one, even though this bridge was 125 years older. At least, I didn't as a pedestrian: I wouldn't have fancied being on that bus.

Perhaps it was because I was so close to the naked steelwork and I could see how solid it was. When the bridge was closed for repairs a few years ago, it wasn't because Telford's brilliantly engineered metal works had failed: it was because the roadway had become weak and tired.

I stopped halfway to take a photo (which shows you how calm I was: normally I'd have my head down, practically running across). As I snapped the gorgeous view, I wondered which side of the bridge was more popular for suicides. There's always one, and it's generally the side with the prettiest view, which is a depressing fact in itself. I thought of the horror and torment and pain you suffer to want to die, and how even in those final moments you want one last glimpse of beauty.

On the one hand, you had the small town of Menai Bridge itself, and the hills of Bangor:

On the other side, the curve of the straits and Stephenson's Britannia Bridge:

I decided that if was going to throw myself off the side, I'd pick the second view, but that's because I have a fondness for bridges and big engineering projects. Handy to know for future reference, anyway.

There's a little exhibition space on the island side of the bridge, with informative boards and a couple of benches. There's also a column erected by the Institute of Civil Engineers to pay tribute to the genius of Thomas Telford. He really was a brilliant man, and I'd urge you to read up on him if you get the chance. Don't let the fact that the town of Telford is named after him put you off.

I dunked off to the side and into a public car park behind a Waitrose in search of a footpath. The Anglesey Coastal Path resurfaces here, and it took me through some woodland, which was a new experience for this trip. It was still early, about nine am, and so the only people I encountered on the path were dog walkers and schoolboys bunking off.

When the path finally reached the coast properly, it was beside a tiny spit of land, leading to an island with a church and graveyard on it. I loved it - it was like something out of Enid Blyton. I could just see the Famous Five discovering working class smugglers in the cemetery, and making sure they were sent back to the slums where they belonged.

From there I trekked up the hill and onto the A5. It's difficult to believe this was once one of the main roads in Britain. It's just another two-lane country road, high above the water, dug into the hillside. The A55 whizzes everything off to one side now, carrying the traffic to and from Chester without it ever having to see a single carriageway.

There was a lay-by at the side of the road, with a couple of benches, so I took the opportunity to pause and take in the view of both bridges - one to the left, one to the right. The second bridge, the Britannia, was built by Robert Stephenson to carry the railway line. I'd already seen the famous stone lions that guard the entrance, travelling back and forth on the trains across the bridge.

It's probably the only bridge in the world where being destroyed by fire did it a favour. Some schoolboys accidentally set light to the bridge in 1970: when it was rebuilt, a second deck was added, carrying a carriageway across the Menai Straits and taking the strain off the Telford Bridge.

Even so it's still not up to current standards, causing a real bottleneck, and the Welsh Assembly is looking into ideas to improve the crossing, including perhaps building a third bridge across the Straits. I'm guessing whatever's built won't have the grace and beauty of the existing bridges.

(I should say, in passing, that this lay-by was very busy considering the time of morning. It was full of people sat in their cars doing nothing. I have therefore assumed that this is a dogging spot. It's my automatic conclusion whenever I see an unlikely gathering of cars in one place: they're doggers. I've never actually seen a bare arse pounding away through the windscreen, but it's still where I go to.)

Continuing on a smutty theme, I walked past the Marquess of Anglesey's Column (erected 1816 - snerk) which sadly was hidden by trees. I do like a good tall erection (steady).

I was finally reaching the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I say town: it's more like a tourist centre with some houses attached. I'd been here once before, a couple of years ago, but that was by car so it doesn't count. As it was lunchtime, I decided to join the hordes in the visitor's centre before my train.

The experience was educational to say the least. I'm no stranger to tourist tat. I've done museums, galleries and so on the length and breadth of Europe. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the visitor's centre at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is one of the most miserable experiences on British soil.

Firstly, it's not a visitor's centre: it's a market for pointless tat. Do you have an urge to buy candles, fleeces, or comfortable slacks? Do you need a Gracie Fields CD? Do you want a tea tray with some flowers on it? Come on down! The price is almost certainly ridiculously high.

I went to the back of the centre, where there's a cafe. Sorry: a "restaurant", because microwaving lasagnes makes it a cut above a caff. Shuffling into line behind two old ladies who had no concept of what they wanted, I clutched my Coke Zero and sandwich for the best part of five minutes while each pensioner debated each item they saw. It was like the real life version of this:

- though that is, of course, one of the finest pieces of comedy ever.

At the end we presented our meagre offerings to the world's least pleased customer service representative, and she pronounced a clearly made up amount that we ungrumblingly paid because at least it meant we could stop queueing.

I settled in and opened my sandwich. Ham and coleslaw. Yes, in 2011, the most exciting sandwich they had was white bread ("Granary? With my molars?"), a slice of ham and some bog standard coleslaw. Pret a Manger has nothing to fear.

It was dry and meagre. I swilled the Coke around to try and stop it from sticking to my gums and considered better ways I could have spent £4.90.

All the while I was being watched. As a single male with all of his original teeth, I was clearly out of place in the restaurant, and I caught people just staring at me. I hadn't come in on a coach. Where was I from? Was I one of these "hoodies" they'd read about in the Express? Was it time for a citizen's arrest? Then a man with learning difficulties cried out, and their laser sharp judgement beams were turned on him and his carer instead.

Suddenly, as if an invisible order had been given, the eatery emptied. Everyone just got up and left, scattering their discarded food behind them ("Self-clear? You didn't have that at the Lyons Corner House."). The order had gone up that the coach would soon depart so they fled, to be replaced by another swarm of grey and polyester, like superannuated orcs flooding the battlements. I burped up a mouthful of nasty coleslaw and took it as my cue to leave as well.

I'd thought I'd be able to spend a half hour or so in the centre before my train arrived but that wasn't going to happen. I had a brief look at the Hornby shop. I've long thought about building a model railway layout, but I realised a while back that what I really want is someone else to do the layout for me and then let me play with it.

So, it was off to the train platform. The best thing about Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is that it's the only place in the world that I can take my picture in front of the station sign and not look like a twat. Well, no more of a twat than usual.

I sat on the platform and watched the old dears arrive. None of them even looked at the train station. The whole time I was there at most half-a-dozen people made their way over. What were the coaches visiting if it wasn't the train station with the longest name in the world? The sign? They all wanted their pic taken outside the visitor's centre. It was like going to the Tower of London and spending all your time in the gift shop.

It could be different. The station house is boarded up. Wouldn't that make a great little exhibition centre? A history of the station, the reason for the ridiculous name, a room devoted to other places with long names. Some stuff on Welsh railways, or Anglesey railways. Stick the Hornby store in there, to really cater for the gricers; it'll mean Ponden Mill would have more room. It's one of the most famous train stations in the world - it should be more than just a candle store with a coach park. It could be good.


diamond geezer said...

And there was me thinking that a trip to Llanfairetcetc might be fun. Thanks for putting me off, in style.

Ian Jones said...

Best entry so far. Touching, funny and very evocative, plus an ace Victoria Wood sketch. Nice one.

Robert said...

This blog has confirmed all my worst fears about Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It's a run down tourist trap? I'll cross that one off the "to visit" list, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I last went to Llanfair etc. in 1985, and it doesn't look like it's worth going to again. Sounds like OAP-ahead-of-you-in-queue hell. Maybe I'll try visiting the Todmorden Curve instead.

As far as I am concerned, all comedy sketches need to be measured against Alan Partridge and the chocolate mousse.

Anonymous said...

It's the Institution of Civil Engineers. My prof used to say "Institutes were for women"!

Mark Square Loops

Anonymous said...

Three whole days without an addition to your blog? You're killing us!

Scott Willison said...

Ask, and ye shall receive.... Sorry for the delay: I was lacking inspiration!

Thank you for the nice comments. Llanfair PG is worth going to just to say you've done it, I suppose...