Am I Didcot or not?
This week, WoSblog was presented with something rare – a reason to go to Didcot, a town whose claims to fame are many (it's the home of Britain's third-worst architectural eyesore!) and which I've passed through countless times on trains but never actually alighted in.
That's just not the kind of opportunity WoSblog passes up on.
The reason was that a beloved old friend and former bandmate who I hadn't seen for several years was passing through the area on an ecosystem-modelling troubleshooting mission of vital scientific importance, but happened to have the evening free. Geographically the handiest place to meet up for a few refreshing beverages was Didcot, and I gladly seized the chance to see the town outside the train station.
Initially, there didn't seem to be one. When you exit the sizeable Didcot Parkway encampment, you're faced with a road stretching off to the east and west, a large pub directly opposite the ticket hall, and very little else. I arrived half an hour before Pete's train was due in, so I had some time to kill.
(First I spent a few minutes securing my return journey. The three tickets I'd hurriedly picked up from the machine in Bath turned out NOT to be the outward and returns and my receipt, but the outward journey only and two other people's receipts for two different purchases entirely, and a very nice lady in the Didcot ticket office sorted me out with an "authority to travel" slip about a foot long to get me home.)
No signposts give you any sort of clue as to where the town centre might be and there were no people around, so I flipped a coin and set off to the west, which turned out to be the wrong way. By the time I encountered a couple of natives able to correct my error and walked back to the Prince Of Wales, it was time to meet the good Doctor, and after a couple of pints we decided to explore Didcot's delights, and set off into the descending evening.
The heart of town is quite well-concealed, but fortunately my associate had been through it the day before and after a five-minute stroll we arrived in the new Orchard Centre shopping area, which slightly resembles central Swindon and features a few strikingly modernist buildings that I completely forgot to take photographs of, engrossed as I was in catching up on exciting news from home. Fortunately the internet turned up this shot of one of them – the Cineworld cinema.
Shortly we found ourselves at the outer limit of the centre, and were slightly startled to notice what appeared to be a man parachuting in the vicinity of the train station, though there were no aeroplanes visible as far as the eye could see. On closer study, however, it turned out to be one of those frightening-looking setups where you strap a big fan onto your back and essentially somehow make anti-gravity out of wind.
It looked an incredibly blissful way to spend your time, although if I was going to view Britain from hundreds of feet in the air, I'm not sure I'd choose a location positioned over a rail mainline, a busy motorway, and the country's second-most-polluting power station.
(I remember being on a train once many years ago on a rather nice summer's day, and observing what seemed to be some pleasingly thick white fluffy clouds creating a bucolic scene. It was with some horror that I noticed, on reaching Didcot, that they were actually enormous smoke clouds belching out of the power station's towers, in such a way that it seemed as though the towers were eating the sky.)
Looking heavenwards also caused me to spot what appeared to be an odd little isolated fragment of a rainbow, barely visible in the centre of the shot below but much clearer to the naked eye:
Fortunately, having an environmental scientist with me I was able to discover that this was in fact almost certainly a phenomenon known as a "sundog", which I'd never heard of before and is probably as close to the Aurora Borealis as you're ever likely to see in Didcot. So if you ever spot one, make sure you enjoy it.
We turned around and headed back into town for something to eat. The first place we came to was a pub doing something I've never previously encountered in my years on Earth – advertising baby-changing facilities as a major attraction.
The thought of being near someone changing a baby didn't make us feel especially inclined to pop in for food, so we carried on, noting that if nothing else, Didcottians are fairly spoiled for choice when it comes to varied restaurants and takeaways. About halfway along the main road, we passed a Lebanese wine bar, whose proprietor lurked solicitously outside, cheerfully tempting passers-by with Lebanese treats.
We carried on up the street to ensure we fully appraised our options, and the next thing we encountered was what appeared to be the hub of the town's nightlife – the Didcot Arts Forum noticeboard. Thrillingly, this promised an evening with "TOM JONES LIVE!", which required fairly close inspection to reveal that it was actually a show by "one the World's Leading Tribute Performers", whose name (Ian Anthony) we were both inexplicably unfamiliar with, despite being well-travelled men of the World.
The poster was a very special piece of work. As well as missing out entire words, it boasted a headline quote – "This is the best Tom Jones tribute act we have ever seen" – notable both for the complete lack of attribution and the curious choice of the collective pronoun, and a handwritten bottom section misspelling the name of the venue.
The only other entertainment being offered by the Arts Forum to Didcot's thrillseekers was a very curious printed sheet that looked like a standard lost-cat notice but was in fact something rather odder. Rather than attempt to explain it, it's probably best if you read it for yourself.
Incidentally, it seemed that for the big action you had to venture outside the comforting environs of Didcot itself and venture out to the Railway Inn in Culham, East of Abingdon – which I presume relates in the same manner as Krakatoa, East of Java – which promised a truly splendid-sounding four-day Bank Holiday rock festival featuring an excellent-sounding lineup including the Vicars Of Twiddly, The Original RabbitFoot Spasm Band (have there been many imitators?), Half Naked, BabyGravy and The Colin Stark Quintet.
WoSblog very much intends to investigate public-transport provision between Bath and Culham with a view to filing a report on this awesome event.
The next thing to cross our path was perhaps Didcot's finest, and most disturbing, sight. We all know that, by law, ladies' hair salons have to have pun-based names like "Curl Up And Dye" or my personal favourite, "L'Hair Du Temps". But I have never, and never again expect to, encountered a pun-named monumental stone mason.
Loved one recently deceased? Want to commemorate their life with a tasteful headstone and cheer yourself up a bit at the same time with some amusing wordplay? Then you, my bereaved friend, need to visit Set In Stone.
Whatever your stone-carving needs, and whatever your budget, Set In Stone has the solution. From a £2000 slab of black granite hewn into the shape of a heart and decorated with two loving swans (not THAT kind of loving, you disgusting freak) or a more modest tribute to a special wife or daughter, all the way down to a rather smaller tablet engraved with "RIP In Memory of my Waistline" for £1.99, they've got the memorial stone for you.
(They also do static-caravan holiday home rentals. Pete speculated that this unusual sideline might be a Sweeney Todd sort of affair, where unfortunate holidaymakers fell victim to suspicious Calor-gas accidents in order to generate extra funeral business, but WoSblog would like to clearly and unambiguously disassociate itself from that suggestion. To the best of my knowledge, Set In Stone Ltd is NOT, repeat NOT, implicated in a series of financially-motivated murders.)
Anyway, while Middle-Eastern isn't normally my cuisine of choice (much too healthy), Pete turned out to be a big fan, so having found nothing more tempting at the far end of the street we turned round and soon arrived back at the Salinas, where between them Pete and the proprietor persuaded me inside. As it happened, it was very nice.
We had some starters (I cleverly avoided the "Foul Moukala" – no chump, me) and then the Shish Taouk and the Dawood Basha Lamb, which were both very tasty, with some lovely smooth Lebanese lager and a bowl of chips on the side because you can't take me anywhere. Pete opted for some sort of cloudy and powerfully-alcoholic aniseed drink instead of dessert while I had an excellent ice-cream sundae with whipped cream and a Flake, and the owner popped over to check that everything was fine approximately every 90 seconds, which it was.
Should you ever find yourself in Didcot, viewers, WoSblog feels able to recommend the Salinas Lebanese mezzeh wine bar cafe and its charming, friendly and funny proprietor (pictured below) gladly and unreservedly. You should, like, totally go there.
And that was about that. As the hours flew by, we returned to the Prince Of Wales for some more beers and a civilised glass or two of ruby port, with a handy view of the station platform to spot the approach of our late trains.
I had an exceptionally fine evening, but to be honest there was nothing particularly striking about Didcot that made me want to return. However, there was some interesting-looking stuff in the window of its pound shop, the excellently-named Value House. If you feel you may need a silver-painted garden gnome at any point in the near future, it's probably your best bet.