Sunday 26 April 2020

A boy can dream, can't he?

Sometimes there’s nothing better than losing oneself in total randomness. Going off obliquely at a complete tangent and seeing where you end up, and when I say randomness, I mean randomness!
It was like that on Friday evening after the culmination of a busy week at work. I’d gone into the office for four days, which is something of a record since the lock-down started, and whilst I took a break midweek, in order to get my car serviced and its MOT renewed, I was feeling quite tired come the evening.

Mrs PBT’s treated us to a rather nice Indian meal, delivered to our door by a local curry house, so feeling rather stuffed after my lamb biryani I nearly dozed off, sitting in front of my computer screen. I clicked onto YouTube and selected a random mix that began with Queen of Dreams by the Strawbs – how many people remember that one?

A little later Glen Campbell’s country classic Wichita Lineman was emanating from the speakers, and it’s here that the randomness starts. “Wichita” the very name conjures up visions of vast sweeping plains, way out west, heading off into the distance, so with curiosity getting the better of me, I resorted to Wikipedia. 

Disappointment set in when I read that Wichita is the largest city in the state of Kansas – whatever happened to Kansas City? So, with my illusions of an outpost on the windswept Great Plains shattered, I turned instead to a railroad map of the USA, just to see where Wichita is, and if the city is reachable by train.

It isn’t, as whilst several important freight lines run through Wichita, passenger services ceased in 1979. No problem, as there are plenty of other places, with romantic sounding names nearby, which really set my imagination rolling. This map fixation also brought back into my mind a long cherished, bucket-list desire to travel, by rail, across the whole of the United States, from east coast to west.

Some of you might recall that back in the summer of 2018, I took the overnight train from Washington to Chicago, riding on one of Amtrak’s famous, named, long-distance passenger trains - the Capitol Limited. 

Arriving in the "Windy City" left me convinced that I’d now completed half of my planned trans-continental trip, but a glance at that railroad map indicated that Chicago was only one third of the distance between America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and there was still over 2,000 miles worth of travelling before arrival in San Francisco. 

Being in the midst of an unprecedented and unexpected lock-down means long-distance travel is off the cards for some time to come, but a boy can dream, but whether long-distance train services survive in the US, is open to question.

Several years ago, when I mentioned my planned coast to coast rail trip, a friend who has travelled extensively by rail in the United States, warned me to book it sooner, rather than later, because if Trump was elected President, he would shut the whole network down. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still a danger that a coalition of fanatical GOP supporters, and God-fearing, redneck US voters will give the “Orange One” a second term as POTUS. 

Amtrak isn’t reprieved yet, and two years ago the organisation was being forced into making a series of cutbacks, just to stay afloat. One example was the switch from proper table service in the dining car, to airline style, pre-prepared food. So instead of a properly cooked, and nicely served meal, passengers were presented with something vaguely edible that was just shoved in a microwave, and handed over, still in its plastic packaging!

Upon learning that I was from England, one fellow diner told me I should write and complain to the head of Amtrak about this drop in standards. She had a point, but as I was just a visitor, and the fact that the sub-standard meal never really impacted on my whole North American train experience, meant that I never put pen to paper. So how was that short (by American standards), train journey from the capital to Chicago? 

It was enjoyable, although I won’t go into too much detail as I wrote about my trip at the time, and if you want to look back on that, you can do so here. What the trip did allow was an opportunity to see a little of rural America with views and vistas you wouldn’t see from hurtling along the highway, or from 30,000 feet up in the air. 

So, after boarding the train at Washington’s Union station, the stretch out of DC along the valley of the Potomac river, was the most scenic section of the whole journey. The line follows the route of the historic Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, up towards West Virginia and gets itself into civil war territory. 

I was particularly interested to see the settlement of Harper's Ferry, where the raid on the federal armoury, by insurrectionist John Brown, was one of the contributory factors leading to the secession of the Southern States from the Union, at the  start of the American Civil War. I nearly missed this sight, as I was busy talking to a fellow passenger, and it wasn't until we crossed the River Potomac, at a point just upstream from where it is joined by Shenandoah River, that I realised we had reached Harpers Ferry. 

The line continues along the Potomac valley, climbing steadily with the hills slowly becoming steeper and more prominent, as it reaches the Allegheny Mountains. I was tucked up in bed long before then and slept right through as we travelled through Pennsylvania

I slept right through even missing our stop in Pittsburgh where the train changed crews. By sunrise the following morning, we were passing through the comparatively un-interesting flatland's of northern Ohio and Indiana.

As the train neared Chicago, we passed through what can only be described as the mid-west "rust-belt." With blast furnaces standing empty and silent, and massive gantries quietly rusting away, this was an eerie landscape, but it wasn't long before I could make out the "Windy City's" towering skyscrapers in the distance, glistening away on the horizon.

So, what next? If I am intent of completing my coast to coast journey, I need to do so within the next five years, before I reach the grand old age of 70. Travel insurance for a visit to the United States is already expensive, given the astronomical costs of access to the nation’s healthcare system. As an example, two years ago a single trip policy, covering my two week stay, cost the same amount as the multi-trip, annual policy which covers the whole family for travel anywhere in Europe.

My train of choice would be the legendary Californian Zephyr, which operates daily between Chicago and San Francisco. The 2,438-mile journey takes three days/two nights and a journey time of around 66 hours. It follows a route via Denver and Salt Lake City, along one of most scenic and historic of all Amtrak’s routes across the United States. 

Passengers are certainly treated to some superb scenery as the train journeys through the Rockies, across the arid country of Utah and Nevada, followed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in California, and on into the Bay Area of San Francisco.  

For my Washington-Chicago journey, I booked a "roomette," where daytime seating converts to beds at night. Electrical outlets, climate controls, reading lights, a small closet and fold-down table are all within easy reach. "Compact and bijou," as the saying goes, but if I’m honest there wasn’t really room to swing the proverbial cat! Toilet and shower facilities are also shared with other passengers travelling in the same coach. 

This doesn’t bother me, but is a definite no, no for the "lady of the house." A better option would be one of the "bedrooms," which are furnished with a large sofa and an easy chair next to a large window. At night, the sofa converts to a lower bed, and an upper bed folds down from above. They also feature a sink and a private, enclosed restroom with toilet and shower.
Despite this, I’m still not certain that Mrs PBT’s would be up to it, as there are steep stairways connecting the upper and lower decks of the train, and when the train is swaying from side to side, it’s difficult for a sure-footed person to keep their balance. 

I’ll see if I can talk her into it, but in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, it's all very much “pie in the sky” at the moment. Still, as I said earlier, a boy can dream, can’t he?

Thursday 23 April 2020

Beer in the news

There were two news stories that caught my eye in recent days – the first concerns the rather predictable cancellation of Munich’s Oktoberfest, whilst the second is much closer to home, and comes from the heart of Burton-on-Trent, Britain’s brewing capital.

First Oktoberfest. The 210-year-old festival, which attracts around 6 million visitors a year, is a major event in the German calendar, but fears that it could become a breeding ground for the corona-virus have led to its cancellation. I posted about this ten days ago, stating there were concerns that the world’s biggest and best-known beer festival would have to be cancelled.

The authorities had postponed making the final decision until June, but events have now overtaken them. This comes just as Germany has taken the first, tentative steps toward loosening its lock-down, allowing small nonessential shops to start opening again. It remains unclear when bars and restaurants will be able to start welcoming customers back, but with major events which attract large audiences remaining banned until at least the end of August, the Bavarian authorities have bowed to the inevitable.

In a joint declaration, Bavaria's Minister-President Markus Söder and Munich's Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter decided that the risk for the people is too high to let this year’s event take place. Bavaria has been one of the regions worst hit by the pandemic in Europe and allowing Oktoberfest to go ahead posed too big a public health risk. The risk to festival goers, who sit packed closely together in large beer tents, infecting each other was just too high.

Söder noted that the festival attracts visitors from around the world, raising concerns about bringing new infections to Bavaria. He went on to say that “Living with coronavirus means living carefully. Whilst there is no vaccination, we need to be very sensible. We are in mutual agreement that the risk is quite simply too high; compromises will not help.”

Munich’s Lord Mayor added, “It is an emotionally difficult moment and of course it is also an economically difficult moment for our city.” Revenue from last year’s Oktoberfest amounted to around €1bn (£870m), so the event is not exactly small beer! Instead, they are looking forward to 18th September 2021, when a “particularly beautiful and intensive celebration of Oktoberfest” will take place.

The second story concerns brewing giant Molson Coors, who have put part of their Burton-on-Trent brewing complex up for sale. The site, in Station Street, comprises a mix of two to four storey, red-brick buildings dating back to 1864. Two of the buildings are Grade II-listed due to their architectural or historic interest.

This historic brewery was previously connected to the still active Molson Coors site, across Station Street, by an overhead bridge until 2017, when the last brew took place. The buildings were decommissioned the following year. I’m suspecting these buildings may once have been part of the Ind Coope brewery, so it’s ironic, that just seven short weeks ago, I should have had my final pre-lockdown pint in the Roebuck Inn opposite.

According to the local press, the former brewery is part of the Borough Road Conservation Area and provides an ideal opportunity to create a unique development in a location which is already primed for regeneration. The local authority has stated it is looking for high-quality residential-led proposals, which will complement the heritage of the site. The above photos, which were taken just a few weeks ago, illustrate the new and the old sections of the current Molson Coors brewing set up.

Molson Coors added: “We are working closely with the local authority to ensure the right investment is secured to turn this historic site into a quality residential-led development. It is incredibly important to us that this site, which is an important part of ours and Burton’s heritage, is developed in an appropriately sympathetic way and adds real value to our local community in Burton.”

So, two unrelated news stories, both concerning beer, and both involving places I have visited, and drank in, during the past few years.

Monday 20 April 2020

Coping strategies

As I wrote in response to a recent comment on my latest blogpost, “It's hard to believe that just six short weeks ago, we were wandering round Burton-on-Trent, visiting all those smashing pubs, with total impunity and hardly a care in the world.” And it’s that infinitesimally small timescale that really brings home the changes that have been wrought to how we go about our daily lives, our economic outlook and society in general.

These changes haven’t just affected Britain and Europe, they’ve spread across the whole world, from the Antipodes, the Pacific Rim, Central and South-East Asia, Africa and over to the America’s. Freedoms we once took for granted, like popping out to the local, taking a drive to the coast, meeting up with friends, attending a gathering such as a rock concert, a football match or even a beer festival have been taken away from us, along with the ability to head off on holiday somewhere nice or unusual. 

The global pandemic that is Covid-19, seemingly came out of nowhere, catching us all unawares, and with a total lack of any form of immunity within the human population as a whole, individual governments have responded with measure designed to slow down the spread of this innocuous piece of RNA to prevent vital health resources from being over whelmed and prevent as many deaths as possible.

The strategy is clumsy and damaging both socially and economically, but it is designed to buy time for a vaccine to be developed, or to allow sufficient natural immunity to develop in populations at large. I don’t want to get into arguments here about health versus economic benefits, or how long it will take before we get some semblance of normality back in our lives, but strict lockdown and isolation measures do seemed to have worked in some countries and indeed some regions of the world.

What I want to do instead is to highlight how I am coping with the lockdown, whilst wondering how others are managing in potentially quite different circumstances.

The first thing that’s obviously of benefit is the lockdown has occurred during spring and at a time of mainly dry and largely warm weather. Just imagine if we’d been forced into this during February, that month of incessant rain.  I was thinking this as I sat out on the patio yesterday morning, enjoying a plate of scrambled eggs on toast that Mrs PBT’s had knocked up for breakfast.

There was blue sky aplenty and the sun was shining down as we sat looking out over the garden. “Isn’t it quiet?” remarked my wife. I agreed, the background roar of traffic on the A21 was absent, there wasn’t the usual regular whine of jet engines overhead, from planes bound for Gatwick. Instead there was nothing apart from birdsong and the sound of the odd fastidious gardener mowing the grass.

Our garden has been our salvation; our quiet oasis at the back of the house, our sanctuary, respite and escape from the madness occurring in the outside world. It might need a little tlc – and even that’s being dealt with at present, but we’re so lucky to have somewhere to enjoy the natural world, without setting foot outside of the house.

There are moments though when it is appropriate and necessary to leave the house. Son Matthew has been furloughed from his job in retail, so has been accompanying me on a series of circular walks which take us to the edge of suburban Tonbridge. I do find it sad, when it becomes necessary to cross the road or sidestep, just to avoid getting too close to people walking, or running in the opposite direction, however necessary to maintain social distancing.

For better or worse, us humans are social animals, and breaking with habits that have evolved over hundreds, if not thousands of years is extremely difficult. I wrote before about being isolated from the family whilst running our former off-license, back in the early 2000’s, and if anything, this mentally prepared me for what we are all going through now.

Mrs PBT's and I are more fortunate than many affected by this crisis. Our mortgage has been paid off and I’m still working – although if this crisis goes on for too long that could change, as demand for dental materials has fallen off a cliff. Still, due to being prudent, and careful saving, there should be enough to see me through until next April when I reach official state retirement age, even though these funds were designed to see me through into eventual retirement

It’s also important to get into a routine and not let standards slip. For example,  it’s very easy to not bother shaving, and then end up looking like the proverbial “Wild Man of Borneo ” -  a creature of legend to whom I was often compared with by my mother, especially whilst letting my hair grow long, back in the early 70’s. 

This self-discipline especially applies if you are working from home, as otherwise the temptation is to slob around the house all day in a state of undress and general idleness. You will find yourself glad of this advice, once the lockdown restrictions eventually start to be lifted. 

It helps if you’ve got a project or two to be working on, whether it’s de-cluttering that room, sorting out the garden shed or, like m, tidying up a shamefully neglected garden.  Over the weekend I dug our old vegetable patch over, with the aim of once again turning it into a wild-flower meadow. It looks very bare in the photos, but the one below shows last year’s floral effort in all its glory. 

One other thing, before finishing, and that is having this spare time gives you a chance to reflect and perhaps even re-evaluate your life. Certainly, being away from the nine to five treadmill allows you to ponder what’s important in your life. Is it the relentless pursuit of money and material wealth, or are things like health, happiness and general well-being of far greater value?

Remember, as Louis Armstrong sang, “We Have All the Time in the World,” or at least we do until lockdown ends and it’s back to picking up from where we left off six weeks ago.