Friday, 26 December 2008

Now begin the Boxing Day Sales


So, Christmas is over, and now begin the Boxing Day sales.

But before we begin to contemplate the best sales to look out for, let me ask a question: when did the January sales become the Boxing Day sales? Both BBC and ITV news talked about 'the traditional Boxing Day sales'. Traditional? Since when? For most of my life the sales began after the January New Year holiday, and it is only in the last decade that it has crept forward slowly as people have had longer holidays that have joined up Christmas and New Year. I can remember the slightly sarcastic comments made by people about the building trade having two weeks off at Christmas, whereas for many it seems to have become the norm.

The norm, that is, unless you work in retail. Here, the trend has been reversed: longer hours and shorter holidays, to satisfy the public craving for shopping as a leisure activity. The final bastion of Sunday opening was breached in 1994, although Christmas Day and Easter Sunday Day remain excluded from the legislation. Indeed, yesterday, on the way home from church, the centre of Brighton was eerily quiet, with just a few people out and taking in the Christmas Day air.

Anyway, despite of - or perhaps because of - the current credit crunch, the retail sector has gone overboard with its 'traditional Boxing Day' sales, with the news reporting huge, excited but frustrated queues at Selfridges in Oxford Street in particular, and busy mornings at Manchester's Trafford Centre and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

As for me, well, I'm joining in a very different, but equally modern, post-Christmas rite: the escape to warmer climes, and the equally excitable but frustrating queues at Gatwick. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

How to warm yourself up in Winter


Well, the obvious answer is to sit by the fire, but a delicious and more convivial alternative is to find a pub that does a good selection of winter ales (preferably with a real fire, as well).

For the uninitiated, Winter Ales are slightly heavier ales, designed to warm the cockles of your heart. They are often brewed with additional ingredients such as raisins, ginger and cloves to give them a stronger, more seasonal taste: some even resemble Christmas Pudding. Another favourite method is to use dark, roasted malts to give rich, chocolatey flavours.

If a seasonal ale isn't your thing, you could always choose styles such as Porters and Stouts, which are naturally richer and heavier in flavour, and which are often not brewed during the summer months.

We recently went to the Charles Dickens pub in Southwark, and they had an excellent selection of winter ales: almost like a mini beer festival (see photo). Winter ales styles included Harvey’s Christmas Ale (8.1% ABV!), Okell’s St Nick (4.5%), and Rudolph’s Ruin (4.6%). As ever, these seasonal styles have great names.

Alternatively, head for the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester, from 21st until 24th January 2009, at the New Century Hall. With a selection of 200 beers, real ales in a bottle, as well as ciders and perrys, there's bound to be something there to lift the gloom of cold January nights!

Where have all the nut roasts gone?

With Christmas fast approaching, I spent part of my week-end in Brighton looking for Nut Roast mix for the veggies on Christmas Day. Now, I know it's cheating slightly to buy a ready-made mix, but with all the other things we have to do on Christmas Day, it does make for an easier life, and also the brand I normally buy is extremely reliable (having eaten more stodgy or gritty nut roasts than I care to admit).

Now, with Brighton being one of the UK's centres of alternative lifestyles (it has the highest number of Green Party Councillors in the UK), you'd have thought buying a nut roast would be a cinch, wouldn't you? Especially before Christmas, when it's a guaranteed winner.

Alas, no. It seems to the laws of supply and demand have gone completely awry. We went first to Holland & Barrett on London Road, but were told that no longer stock it, despite having been asked eight times that day for it. (Doh! Isn't that telling you something, then? Or is it a case of Stalinist centralised control deeming that only larger branches shall stock nut roast mix?)

Next stop was Infinity Foods, one of the country's largest health food shops and a Brighton stalwart of a business, and the UK's oldest food co-operative. Alas, a similar problem: no nut roast mix, they'd run out, supplies not due in until next week, etc.

So, along I went to Holland & Barrett's main branch in the centre of town, in North Road. Actually, for a main branch it doesn't look much bigger than the one in London Road, but it does stock nut roast mix. Alas, however, they've run out. So, in vain I trekked down to Waitrose, and then across the road to the large Taj international health food supermarket. But no. Nothing. Zilch.

Oh well, looks like my old recipe, then...

Friday, 19 December 2008

A pause for thought from Rowan Williams

I'm a regular listener to BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, which has been part of my morning ritual for over a decade. A lot of the time it's just straightforward news, and at other times the political argy-bargy does get a bit tedious, but occasionally something really does cause me to listen, to pause for thought.

Yesterday, was one such occasion: Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was speaking to John Humphries about the past year as part of his Christmas message. It was a calm and measured piece, and in marked contrast to some of the rather adversarial interviews in which Humphries is involved.

The most widely reported of the Archbishop's comments were those he made about the present economic crisis and culture of greed, which he described as "a sort of reality check which is always good for us, a reminder that what some people have been calling 'fairy gold' is just that".

Many papers reported with glee his questioning of the Government's current policy of encouraging people to spend again as "a little bit like the addict returning to the drug".

But most of the discourse was actually about re-orientating society, and changing our values:

"I'd like to think that in this sort of crisis, people would be reflecting more on how we develop a volunteer culture, where people are willing to put their services at the service of the needs of others so that there can be a more active and vital civil society.

"I think there's a good chance of that and I'd like to hear more from the Government about how a volunteer society can be encouraged."

Other subjects included knotty questions about Iraq, Zimbabwe and disestablishment. After the unfortunate episode earlier in the year when his comments - clever, but naively placed - on the place of Sharia Law were widely reported out of context, Williams appeared to handle himself much more assuredly than in many previous interviews. I hope that this marks the beginning of a trend: he is too important - as well as thoughtful and wise - not to be listened to.

If you haven't heard the interview, it can be found on the BBC website.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A quieter Hammersmith


I recently went to Hammersmith to stock up on a few things, and was shocked to see how quiet it was, especially as the Christmas shopping rush is supposed to be upon us.

Now, I know it's not the most exciting or upmarket shopping centre in West London, but it does have a decent branch of M&S, a large branch of W H Smiths, several discount sports retailers and quite a few independent shops.

A few retailers I spoke to said it was largely down to the effect of the Westfield shopping centre, up the road in Shepherd's Bush. Although the range of shops there is different, there's a lot of variety, and there is still a novelty effect as the centre is so new. Coupled with the fact that Oxford Street has seen a lot of heavy discounting as well, the overall effect for smaller centres such as Hammersmith was painful, exacerbating the effects of the credit crunch and economic downturn more generally. The King's Mall had at least one large empty shop unit; I hope this is not a portent of things to come.

Of course, Westfield is in the same borough as Hammersmith, and it must have been obvious that, being so close, the new development would compete pretty directly with Hammersmith town centre. So I hope the folks at Hammersmith & Fulham Borough Council did their sums before agreeing to the Westfield proposal...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

More on weather



Serves me right.

I write a blog about the average nature of November's weather, and then we have a day like yesterday.

I suppose that, compared with the typhoons and hurricanes that happen elsewhere, we get off incredibly lightly (not that I would have provided a sympathetic ear to such comments, as we struggled through rain and strong winds when house-hunting in Brighton). But it poured and poured, and we both got thoroughly soaked, the wind more than a match for our feeble umbrellas.

Is there anything more stressful than cold, wind-driven rain?

Friday, 12 December 2008

An almost average November


Despite the fact we have had some early frosts and some parts have had November snow, the last month's weather turns out to have been pretty average - except for slightly higher temperatures.

This is all according to the Met Office's website, which records monthly weather statistics against the average for years between 1961 and 1990. The statistics are impressive: overall, in November the UK had 92% of the average rainfall; 98% of average sun; and only the temperatures showed much variation, provisionally being the coldest November for maximum temperatures since 1998, but with minimum temperatures being about 1.0 °C higher than average - the month as a whole was 0.6 °C above the 1961-1990 mean. (Sorry if that takes several goes at reading it.)

Of course, as ever, such averages hide a lot of regional differences: Scotland had near-average figures, whereas England was a little warmer. And rainfall patterns were more variable: Wales had only 86% of its normal rain. But that's pretty good given the vagaries of our climate - even before allowing for any spice that may be added by Climate Change.

In all, it's a great website for those who (like me) like facts and information. As well as monthly, seasonal and annual averages, they show the data from 1914, so you can see how the climate has changed over that time. It's particularly reassuring to confirm that we really have had a very wet year: against the 1971-2000 average, Spring rainfall was up by 10%, and summer rainfall up a whopping 44%. Autumn (Sept-Nov) has continued the trend, up 9%, although it's been spot on the average for temperatures, and the coldest since 1993.

One trend that is definitely noticeable, though - even without sophisticated data analysis - is the slow and gradual rise in mean temperatures: OK they bounce up and down a bit, but almost always at or above the average over the longer period. From 1914 until the 1990s, the annual average temperatures tended to be between 7 °C and 9 °C, whereas it's now been above 9 °C every year since 1997, with 2006 the warmest year on record, at 9.74 °C.

If that seems a little cool, don't forget it includes temperatures at night, when most of us are tucked up in bed. The average this November was 6.2 °C - not bad when you consider that the coldest November recorded was 1919, when the average was a wintry 2.3 °C - more like February, and one of the factors which may have worsened the effects of that great influenza epidemic which swept Europe after the First World War.

Clearly, if you've a mind for statistics, this is one website that can provide hours of fun. If not, then just enjoy our currently dry and sunny December!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

No more Clangers


I seem to be writing a lot about obituaries, but I saw one yesterday that I could not let pass: the death of Oliver Postgate, aged 83, the creator of children's BBC TV favourites Bagpuss, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Pogle's Wood and Ivor the Engine.

Bagpuss
- the tales of a rather portly, pink, cuddly cat - recently won a TV poll for the best children''s character of all time. I don't recall that particularly, but I was a great fan of Noggin the Nog (and his arch-nemesis, Nogbad the Bad), Pogle's Wood and particularly The Clangers. One of my student turns (after a suitable quantity of liquid lubrication) was to do an impression of the Soup Dragon - despite her name, a friendly character who provided the nourishment needed by the Clangers on their quaint, little round planet.

The creations were brilliant for their simple inventiveness, as well as having a very British, comforting warmth to the story lines and eccentric but loveable characters. The Smallfilms company he set up with his business partner, artist and puppeteer Peter Firmin, made many of the productions in a studio converted from a disused cowshed in Kent, often using home-made equipment.

According to the BBC, Postgate stopped making films in 1987 when he said the children's TV commissioners no longer wanted what he had to offer. More fool them. An entire generation of British children - now middle-aged adults - begs to differ!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A new future for Warwick Road


One of my neighbours recently alerted me to the existence of an innocuous-sounding document entitled the "Warwick Road Planning Brief". Adopted by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea earlier this year, this is essentially a master plan for the redevelopment of what, in central London terms, is a huge site along the Warwick Road, between the Tesco on Cromwell Road and Kensington High Street, close to Kensington Olympia station.

It's quite interesting to read how the planners see the possible future of the site: although it is actually four separate parcels of land, the brief tries to foresee what it might look like if it was developed to a unified plan to create a sort of 'urban village' of over 600 homes.

The good news is that it is intended to be residential, with a few local shops, although quite what will happen now with the credit crunch in full swing is anybody's guess. One building which may or may not survive - and the plan says it would welcome its demolition and replacement - is the quirky Homebase store, opposite the Warwick Arms pub.

Of course, the southern end closest to Tesco has already been redeveloped; first came the new Tesco; then the huge bulk of the appropriately-named Warren House, adjacent to Homebase; and now the former petrol station between the two has been demolished, with a new building rising rapidly in its place. But from Warren House northwards, the west side of the road looks rather forlorn - though the faux-Eqyptian decoration on Homebase, which the brief rather generously describes as 'Post-modern', does provide a little light relief.

The brief envisages the demolition of all the buildings from Homebase northwards, from the huge Charles House on Kensington High Street to the derelict-looking old telephone exchange, and also Homebase itself. The only part I would be sad to see go is the Radnor Arms. Closed over two years ago, it is in a very forlorn condition now, but the adjacent lane is still cobbled, and it provides a small patch of historic interest along what otherwise feels a bit like an urban motorway.

Still, as I said, the current credit crunch and accompanying recession looks rather set to slow down the pace of new developments, which may be no bad thing: time for the brief to gain a wider audience, and for the locals to think about what they'd like to see along this site.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

An Icon of Architecture


Saturday was a sad day for world architecture with the death of the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House. The great sails were dimmed on Sunday as a tribute and mark of respect.

The Opera House remains one of the most iconic examples of architecture, and is perhaps the most internationally recognisable building of the 20th Century. At a time when modern architecture has acquired a very mixed reputation in the eyes of the public, from the problems of post-war system building to the 'carbuncle' accusations of the Prince of Wales, here is a building which has not just been admired, but taken to heart by many.

And yet its construction (which lasted nearly 15 years) was equally legendary for its technical problems, cost overruns and off-site rows, which ultimately led to Utzon's resignation. It's still not entirely clear who was to blame, although - with hindsight - it's probably fair to say that no-one realised at the time quite what a ground-breaking and complex design it was. But there can be no doubt that it graces its waterside location perfectly and, alongside the adjacent Harbour bridge, has become the very image of modern Sydney - as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Utzon never visited the finished structure, but was said not have held a grudge over the episode: perhaps the greatest tribute to his talent is that all three of his children have since become architects.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Boden at Olympia

Now this is a new one on me: I recently had a flyer through the door for a clothing sale - at Olympia.

Boden, the ethical clothing retailer which specialises in rugged outdoor and casual wear, is holding a two-day clearance sale on 6-7th December at Olympia. Founded in 1991, the company has only two shops, and is better known for retailing through its catalogues, although these days sells quite a lot through the internet as well.

A quick look at their website shows their stuff is probably not up my street, (it's a bit pricey and formal, in a smart-casual sort of way - the sort of stuff my Mum wished I would wear) but I was fascinated to read their description of themselves on their website:

After five burglaries, one office dog, nine Christmas quizzes, twelve nights spent in the warehouse, one consignment of refugees arriving with a clothes delivery, four office moves, quite a few sense of humour failures, a few sackings (but thankfully not many), 2 venture capitalists, 6 awards, about twenty fantastically annoying customers (mostly related to me), a couple of crooks, 520 Kings Pizza ("Continental" medium thin crust with extra anchovies for me), a great team spirit, one incredibly tolerant wife, bucket loads of sweat and even more laughs, we're still here!

I'm not quite sure what to make of this; it's admirably self-deprecating, but also slightly scary. Who normally admits to sackings, bucket loads of sweat and sense of humour failures? On the other hand, you also feel sorry for them if they've been caught out by crooks, burglaries and refugees stowing away in their deliveries. Still, it's definitely different.

Anyway, if Boden is on your radar, now may be the time to buy.

The Boden clearance sale is on at Olympia over 6-7th December, and entrance is free.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Three Lions Pub Crawl


Here's a great pub crawl to consider if you are in the Piccadilly area. The three pubs are all interesting both historically and architecturally, and have a great choice of real ales to boot. What more can you ask?

First off, start at the Red Lion in Crown Passage. Reputed by some to be one of the London's oldest pubs (300 odd years), it still has a slightly Dickensian feel, thanks to the narrow, atmospheric lane on which it is situated. Inside, it feels rather like a country pub, except for the rather more cosmopolitan range of customers. It's often busy with punters ranging from suited and booted types to local builders and foreign-accented tourists. There's another room upstairs if the bar is packed. Beers include Adnams Bitter and St Austell Tribute, so real-ale fans are well catered for, and they serve food, too.

Walking along Crown Passage, it's only a minute or two to the Golden Lion, our second venue. Built in 1897 on the site of a pub with the same name opened in 1762, this pub has a single narrow, downstairs bar, and a covered passage at the side. There's also a dining room upstairs, open at lunchtimes. The decor has a theatrical theme, incorporated into some stunning stained glass and wood panelling. The real ales include London Pride and guest ales, such as Hog’s Back Summer Ale and Sharp’s Doom Bar.

Finally, it's a five minute walk across St James's Square to another Red Lion, and here we really have left the best until last. Tucked away under the shadow of St James's Church, this small pub has what can only be described as a spectacular high Victorian interior (above). It is on both the London and the National Inventories of Pub Interiors of Outstanding Historic Interest. A quick look around, and you can see why: the walls are covered in mirrors decorated with elaborate etched and cut glass, and above is an elaborately embossed ceiling above a decorative frieze. Even the spiral staircase to the lavatories has impressive ironwork, and doors with stained glass.

It's well worth making a special visit, but be warned: it is packed at lunchtimes and with the after work crowd, so aim to get there in the afternoon or later evening to appreciate it at its best. Oh, and they serve real ales too: on my last visit, Fuller’s London Pride, Jennings Cumberland Ale and Deuchars IPA.

Seriously, what more could one ask for?

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Westfield Experience


A wonderful addition to West London shopping, or a temple to the opiate of mass consumerism? A fillip for Shepherd's Bush, or barometer of our divided society? Well, Europe's largest urban shopping mall, Westfield, has now been open for a month, so now is perhaps a good time to reflect a little.

Firstly, my own experience. It's very large, although being on two levels means it doesn't feel quite as huge as I'd expected. It's very shiny: not just new, but with shiny, high quality finishes, and a small army of cleaners to keep it that way. And it's very, very busy. I know it's in the run-up to Christmas, and lots of people are visiting because they're curious, but I was still surprised just how many people were there on a weekday afternoon. And it still feels a little out of place in Shepherd's Bush: the contrast between it and the scruffy Green is rather stark, made rather worse by the chaotic road works under way currently. (You'd have thought they would have realised that, wouldn't you? Maybe not.)

It's also become something of a phenomenon on the review site Qype, too: it's been reviewed 48 times since opening, which feels like a record for the fastest number of reviews in a month. Opinions of Qypers vary hugely: all commenting on its size and range of shops; lots of keen shoppers marvelling at the choice, and the high-end choices in particular; other, more cynical types, lamenting it as a symbol of rampant, soulless consumerism; and more pragmatic types, pleased at the level access and public transport, but critical of the cost of car parking, of traffic queues, and the fact that the route from the Shepherd's Bush railway stations involves getting wet if it's raining.

But there's absolutely no doubt that it has had an effect on the West End and Kensington High Street, both of which have reported a 25% decrease in footfall since its opening. This may have something to do with the novelty effect, but since it covers a similar range of shops, is all under cover and has good public transport and parking, I can foresee that many from West London will simply go there instead. Mind you, for Oxford Street this may be no bad thing - it's appallingly crowded at Christmas and during sales; they even have traffic wardens to direct the herds of people around Oxford Circus, which strikes me as barmy.

More interesting is whether those normally more used to Sloane Street and Bond Street will be prepared to do their designer shopping at "The Village", with its more mixed crowd than they might be used to. And Kensington High Street is hoping that people will be drawn there, to compensate for those they have lost. I'm a bit more sceptical about that: there's not much in Kensington that Westfield can't offer.

But for the moment, Westfield is certainly making an impact, and has excited the interest of huge numbers of people. Only time will tell what the long term effect on the rest of West London will be. In the meantime, we have a very shiny, very large and permanent new resident on our doorstep.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Where's the honey, Mummy?


Odd that I never liked honey as a child (I don't really have that sort of sticky, sweet tooth), but now I love the stuff.

At the moment I'm consuming absurd quantities of the golden nectar to keep my first winter cold at bay: I'm a great believer in honey and lemon to sooth sore throats and tickly coughs. I'm not alone in this: it's been used for years in folk medicine and by herbalists, and there is some scientific evidence to back this up: it is supposed to be as effective as some over-the-counter medicines. Recipes include mixing it with turmeric or ginger, but I always take it in hot water, a few teaspoons of honey with a tablespoon of lemon in a half-pint mug, just before bed.

I am particularly fond of Traidcraft's Wild Blossom honey, which has a lovely, floral fragrance underlying the sweetness, and a more delicate flavour. Not only is this part of my medicine cabinet, but I have inherited from my mother a peculiar liking for honey sandwiches (and one that had nothing to do with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories). Wonderful comfort food.

Now, who said I haven't got a sweet tooth?

Note: apparently, you shouldn't give honey to children under 2 years old: they may find it hard to digest, and it can harbour bacteria.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

John Sergeant leaves 'Strictly'...

It had to happen. John Sergeant has decided to quit Strictly Come Dancing.

After weeks of slightly snooty abuse from the judges, not to say his terrible dancing, he has decided to leave now so as not to risk winning - which, in his words - 'would have been "a joke too far"'.

The whole episode has become something of a cause célèbre: a reasonably well-known political journalist and reporter has achieved greater celebrity in ten weeks of Strictly than his whole previous career. It has been discussed on Newsnight. The Prime Minister has commented. And the public have taken to him to heart, voting him back week after week: whether to subvert the genre of reality television, to snub the self-importance of the judges, or simply to support the underdog in that the time-honoured tradition - who knows? But they have voted in their millions.

There's an irony here, however: the whole experience has made for fascinating television - it has even encouraged me to watch Strictly Come Dancing for the first time. And, whilst I could see the judges' point that it was unfair to the other contestants' hard work and ability, at the end of the day this is entertainment, and Sergeant's participation has made for great entertainment. It simply won't be the same after he has gone, and I for one shall not bother to tune in again.

After his final performance this week-end, I wonder what will happen to the show's ratings?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Cough, splutter

Yuck. Here comes my first cold of the winter. I woke up on Saturday on a week-end away in Brighton, feeling absolutely fine. But by 10.30 had a streaming cold and a sore, sore throat. So, off we went to those nice people at Watts & Co for some medication, leaving some time later with a small hamper full of pharmaceutical goodies.

Apart from feeling hopelessly sorry for myself (ah, a case of man 'flu, I hear you say...), I was pondering where I'd picked it up. I've been out for meals twice this week, and made a visit to the new Westfield Shopping Centre, so could have picked it up there, but I suspect it was more likely to be the packed tube and overground trains I caught on Thursday and Friday.

The sardine-like conditions we're expected to endure, travelling in the capital, really are the perfect place for exchanging germs: warm, stuffy carriages, with lots of close contact. When someone sneezes (without covering their mouth, naturally), you can almost hear the cries of glee from the little bugs as they are propelled on their way to infect a new victim.

Something I don't understand about my fellow travellers in these conditions is why no-one thinks of opening a window, to let some fresh air in and blow a few of the bugs out. So often the windows are all steamed up inside, and it's suffocatingly stuffy, yet every window remains resolutely and firmly shut. I often feel I'm a one-man window opening service: I force my way onto the carriage, and then hear myself say, 'could someone open a window, please?'. Invariably, someone obliges, but I don't know why it didn't occur to them to do it before.

Another of life's unfathomable mysteries, I suppose...

Friday, 14 November 2008

An occupational hazard

I don't often raise pet hates here, but here's one.

I was recently told that one of the major causes of accidents at London's termini (and Paddington in particular) was people tripping and falling when walking from an arriving train to the concourse: it seems the scrum to get to the barriers and get home as soon as possible results in people tripping and falling over each other. And the major culprit? Small wheeled suitcases with long handles.

Now, if you've a large case I can see it's perfectly reasonable to use one with wheels and a short handle. And if you have a long way to walk, then it's also quite useful, whatever the size. But it seems to me that the size of the cases with handles is ever decreasing, while the handles themselves are getting longer. As people weave in and out of crowds, they can be hard to spot and form a perfect trip hazard.

The worst offenders seem to specialise in weaving diagonally in and out of the crowd, maximising the chances of bringing someone else down. (I've often thought it would make a good comedy sketch to show ever smaller cases until someone effectively has a purse at the end of a four foot long handle.) It's only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured.

In the meantime, why can't people carry their cases for the fifty yards or so to the train? Or just buy a small back pack...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A very large creepy crawly in Kensington

No, this isn't another story about how climate change is helping cockroaches to flourish in West London, but a spectacular new addition to the insect collection of the Natural History Museum.

Officially the world's longest insect, the new species of stick insect Phobaeticus chani (or Chan's Megastick if you prefer the common name) measures in at an astonishing 56.7cm, or just over 22 inches. That's including the legs, but at 35.7cm, it also wins the insect world record for the longest body.

Amazingly, despite being nearly two feet long, the species is new to science, with just three specimens in the world, brought to light courtesy of Mr Datuk Chan. The fact that it is thought to live high in the rain forest tree canopy of its native Borneo helps to explain why it has not been found before - as well as underlining the importance of the rain forest for natural diversity. And it's not just its length which is impressive: its eggs are unique too, produced with wing-like extensions that allow them to drift in the wind, helping to spread the species further.

All this underlines the desperate importance of preserving these important habitats from destruction: 'It is a sad thought that many other spectacular insect species are disappearing as their habitats are destroyed, before we have even had the chance to find and name them,' said Dr George Beccaloni, the stick-insect expert at the Natural History Museum. Even sadder in my view is that they are being lost at all.

One other little fact I didn't know is that the UK now has three species of stick insect (there are 3,000 world-wide), naturalised in the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall from their native New Zealand. Thankfully, they are not quite so large...

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Catalan discovery


Those who travel a lot will know how nice it is to find somewhere interesting that isn't mentioned in most of the guidebooks. On a recent trip to Barcelona, we ventured half an hour north and discovered one such place: the large town of Terrassa. Mentioned only briefly in the Catalonia version of the Rough Guide, and even then described as 'dull and industrial', we went there to visit the only site mentioned in the guide, the unique grouping of three ancient Visigothic churches, commonly known as the Ensemble of Churches of Sant Pere.

To be fair, the 'Rough Guide' did rate this as worth visiting, but what we were pleasantly surprised to find was a town that, although it did have plenty of industry, and some sprawling, dull suburbs, nevertheless had an interesting and historic core, together with some other sights well worth a visit.

Best of these was a wonderful science and technology museum (lots of buttons to press), housed in a striking and beautiful Modernista (Art Nouveau) building dating back to 1909. In fact, Terrassa is full of such buildings, including a market, and the fabulous Masia Freixa, (built 1905-1910), a white wedding-cake of a building and one of Catalonia’s most stunning examples of Modernista architecture. There are several other museums to visit, including a Textile Museum and an old castle-turned-monastery, the Carthusian Castle of Vallparadis.

It really goes to show the value of doing a little bit more digging and researching before you travel.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

All change on Kensington High Street

Despite the fact that I'm a fairly regular visitor to Kensington High Street, it's taken me a while to realise that the former Safeway is now a large Tesco Metro. This has always been the main supermarket on Kensington High Street, as it occupies a high profile position just to the west of the entrance to the underground station.

With the acquisition of Safeway by Morrisons, I had thought we might have a bit more competition in the area: Waitrose have the former Budgens store at the top of Earl's Court Road, and the Whole Foods Market has opened up in the former Barker's building. But no, Morrisons have sold the store to Tesco, who already have the huge flagship Tesco Kensington store on Cromwell Road, about a mile away (and, confusingly, rather closer to Earl's Court). So Kensington now has two large branches of Tesco, but no Asda or Morrisons, and the nearest Sainsbury is over a mile away.

But perhaps the key word here is 'former'. There seems to be a steady merry-go-round of High Street names either moving in or out of Kensington High Street. As well as the supermarkets, Uniqlo have taken over the store that was 'Next', and I noticed today that the branch of H Samuel the jeweller has disappeared.

Now, I'm not a retail expert, so I'm not sure if this is a healthy sign or not? But there's no doubt that a major blow to the area was the departure of Barker's, the department store latterly owned by House of Fraser, which was situated in its wonderfully iconic modernist building (thankfully, still there).

Now I realise all this is driven by the markets, and that ultimately it depends on what customers want. But there's something very comforting about department stores, with their myriad of different sections conjuring up thoughts of old fashioned service, and offering the ability for Mum and Dad to browse separately and then meet up for coffee later, all in the same building. When I was a child, we often went to Bristol for the afternoon shopping, and I recall the main destination was always two of the large department stores, which stood side by side close to the University.

Of course, I always wanted to go to the toy department, or the book section, rather than have to sit and wait while my Mum tried on something in the Ladies' Wear section. (To this day, I can not abide going into women's wear sections in stores). And one of the real treats was going to see Father Christmas in his grotto every year. The reality was always a bit of a disappointment, of course - usually because the gift was uninspiring, and after all that queuing you only had a minute or so with him. But I don't recall any of the horror stories my friends had at the hands of an inept Santa with bad breath or clumsy hands. (Maybe it was because my Dad always stood guard?). Anyway, it was something I looked forward to.

Now, however, many places seem to have lost their department stores completely, and the departure of Barkers is just one more statistic in what seems to be an inevitable trend. But there's no doubt that I feel personally that its departure has taken away an intangible something - especially at Christmas. Where is Santa going to locate his grotto now?

Monday, 27 October 2008

Autumn to Winter

And there was I, looking out of the window and admiring the leaves in the Square turning an autumnal gold when we get news of an imminent cold snap, which will undoubtedly catapult us into feeling all wintry.

But at least at the moment it is cold and sunny, which is among my favourite weather: it's dry, so you can enjoy a brisk walk in the sunshine without getting all hot and sweaty in the process. And about time after after our drearily damp summer. Wonderful.

Which is more than can be said for the experience of those poor souls who went on the Original Mountain Marathon in the Lake District over the weekend. If you've not seen the news, this was a major mountain race with 2,500 competitors, which had to be called off for the first time in its 41-year history, because of appalling weather: over two inches of rain (nearly three in some parts) fell over the first day, along with fierce winds. Many streams became impassable, and hundreds spent the night in farms and other hastily improvised shelters, while others toughed it out, camping on the mountains.

Now, of course, there's lots of fuss about why it was allowed to go ahead with such a grim weather forecast looming. And yet, I'm not quite sure what all the noise is about. The competitors were all experienced and well equipped, and there are bound to be some casualties in an event on this scale in any case.

And besides, what do people expect in the Lake District in late October? Snow, sleet, hail, rain and wind strike me as par for the course, a comment echoed by some of the competitors. Just don't expect me to be entering any time soon...

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The British and their gardens


I was writing a review of the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley earlier today, which got me thinking about the relationship between the British and their gardens.

The RHS for many epitomises this relationship. Founded in 1804, it is dedicated to promoting and developing horticulture in all its forms and to encouraging gardening. And, on one measure, this seems to be as relevant as it ever was: Gardeners' World and Gardeners' Question Time remain very popular programmes, and the annual Chelsea Flower Show is always packed.

However, a stroll through any suburb these days will demonstrate the extent to which we're losing the tradition: gardens paved over for parking, some looking more like rubbish tips, and others simply neglected. And yet, garden centres have become popular destinations for a day out - with more people than ever wandering around the rows of plants and shelves groaning with gardening paraphernalia. But does this, and the popularity of the TV and radio programmes, show that we've become a nation of armchair gardeners instead?

Quite possibly.

I'm not quite sure why this has happened. I suspect a major reason is that we simply have more choice of what to do these days: in the past, people didn't have cars or necessarily the resources to go out regularly, so cultivating their little patch was itself an important leisure activity, as well as a source of pride. I know of many friends who simply can't find the time to spend in the garden, and simply pay for someone else to keep it all neat and tidy. And yet, when I had a garden, I used to find it incredibly cathartic to spend a few hours every weekend digging over the borders, weeding and generally getting my hands dirty.

Perhaps it's time to rediscover our love of gardening?

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Shop till you drop

It may be a case of unfortunate timing in the wake of news that we are now in a recession, but next Thursday sees the opening of the huge new Westfield shopping development in Shepherds Bush.

Built by the Westfield Group, this is - by any standards - a huge development. Situated on the former 1908 Exhibition Site near White City, this £1.6 billion development has been 10 years in the building. It covers 43 acres, with 265 shops and 40 restaurants set around a central atrium the size of a football pitch, under a vast undulating glass roof. The emphasis is on clothing outlets, with 16 brands new to the UK and a 'village' of smaller designer boutiques. On the south side is a traffic free 'boulevard', with 300 metres of restaurants. It's also been built with eco-credentials, such as a partial 'green roof', rainwater harvesting and facilities for waste separation and recycling. It will be Europe's largest in-town shopping centre, and the third largest in the UK, after the Gateshead Metro Centre and Bluewater in Kent.

And, as I reported in a previous blog, the developers have funded a huge investment in the local transport infrastructure to ensure that visitors can get to the site with ease: two new railway stations, one rebuilt underground station, a bus station, a new flyover from the A40 link road, and new pedestrian access. In preparation, London Transport have also diverted a number of bus routes to serve the area.

It'll be interesting to see what happens, on two counts: the first, and most obvious, is how it fares given we now seem to be in a full-blown recession. Recent news reports from the new shopping centre in Bristol have shown it to be busy with visitors, but a more careful look shows them not to be buying much: window shopping seems to be the order of the day.

The second is what it does to the rest of Shepherds Bush. Despite the asset of the green, Shepherds Bush has always had a rather mixed feel: lots of independent shops, as cosmopolitan as London gets, but decidedly down at heel, especially compared with the neighbouring parts of West London. The conundrum here - if there is indeed a ripple effect of prosperity - is whether the wider area can benefit without becoming another faceless High Street clone.

Certainly, the better public transport links should make a difference, especially tying the area into the rest of West London in what has been, until now, a decidedly hard-to-reach destination. (As recently as six months ago, there were no direct public transport links from Chelsea and Earl's Court to Shepherd's Bush). But will people simply walk straight through to the new centre? Will the two actually mix? Will someone buying a £1,500 Gucci bag really go on to sample the colourful chaos of Shepherd's Bush market?

It will also be interesting to see what impact the new development has on nearby High Street Kensington. In the last few years this has lost its major anchor store, Barkers, and some of the buses that used to come here have now been diverted to Shepherd's Bush. It already has some of the chains that are opening in Westfield, and until now has only had to compete with Hammersmith down the road - yet another area that could find itself undermined. Watch this space.

But for now, all eyes are focused on the opening event next week. The promotional video has already created waves with its images of 'human moths', shown fluttering in their thousands towards the bright, white light from that huge undulating roof. Only time will tell if a more appropriate analogy is that of moths flying too close to the flame...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

A local excursion from West London


You know how it is when you want to go somewhere for an afternoon, but don't want to organise a great trek? That's when you need to know what's in your own back yard.

It's funny how people often don't visit things on their doorstep. My mother lived in Cardiff for 26 years and has never visited the Castle - which is slap bang in the middle of the city centre, and which she passed on her way to work for several years. I've now lived in London for 14 years, and usually only go to places when I have visitors: I only got around to the a trip on the London Eye a few years ago, when my brother and family visited.

So it was a pleasant surprise to spend an afternoon along the Thames in Putney recently - or should that be Fulham? Now, I'd been to Putney High Street before, for shopping and to meet friends there for drinks, but I'd not seriously thought about it as a destination for a non-shopping afternoon. But what a revelation!

Firstly, there's the river banks around Putney Bridge. The river is actually quite interesting here - a greater variety of buildings, lots of boats moored around, and the odd canoeist too (something you don't get in the centre). On the north bank is the delightful and historic church of All Saints, Fulham. Although rebuilt in the 19th century, its tower dates to 1440 and it is full of interesting memorials and monuments from the Tudor period to the late 18th Century.

Next door is Bishop's Park - a large and really delightful space. Wrapped around the impressive grounds of Fulham Palace, it has both a Thameside walk and an historic Moat walk, areas of formal park, ponds, a skating area, tennis courts, bowling greens and lots of green space for kids to let off steam (and lots of benches for granny to sit down, too. And me, come to that). There's s small cafe at the Putney Bridge end for a cuppa afterwards.

And then there's Fulham Palace itself. Once a summer retreat for the Bishops of London, parts date back to 1495, although the Bishops used it from the 11th Century onwards. The grounds are very attractive in their own right, and the Palace is used for art exhibitions as well as conferences, corporate events and weddings. The grounds still contain allotments - a relic of efforts in World War II to grow more food domestically - as well as the remains of Britain's oldest botanical garden.

Crossing the bridge back into Putney, immediately on the left there's the tower of the church of St Mary. The tower is again late mediaeval, but the interior is largely the result of Victorian rebuilding and a major reconstruction after a disastrous arson attack in 1973. It now includes a cafe and community centre, as well as an exhibition on the 'Putney Debates'. These were discussions held in the church during the English Civil War when Cromwell's Army was stationed here. They revolved around the potential forms of Government that could be adopted to replace the Monarchy. Although they had limited impact at the time, in retrospect they probably influenced the development of modern parliamentary democracy and may have influenced the content of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States' Constitution.

After all that, you'll probably need some refreshment: apart from the cafe at St Mary's, Putney has several nice pubs.

Or - you could go shopping...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Putting the clocks forward..

As if to make up for our lousy summer - or maybe to taunt us - now the weather has turned cooler and more autumnal, we're having lots of sunshine. I suppose I shouldn't moan - I could do with some nice sunny days to brighten up the approach of winter.

As ever, I'm dreading the change back to GMT. I'm firmly one of those who would rather stick with Summer Time all year round, and have double summer time in the summer. Not only would we then be in the same time zone as our European cousins, but we'd also get the extra light in the evening: I thinks this makes a real difference in the winter evenings, and there's plenty of evidence that it would reduce road traffic accidents, as it is the evening when people are tired that the darker evenings take their toll.

I can recall when I was a child there was much discussion about the undesirability of children going to school in the dark, but this seems to disregard the fact that they have to come home at dusk under the present arrangements. And apparently, the longer summer evenings should help the economy by extending the length of time people can undertake outdoor activities (there's not much value in having sunshine at 4am in the morning for most people).

Of course there are always complaints by the Scots and farmers. I can understand the Scots' point to some extent, but now they have their own Parliament, surely they can weight up the pros and cons of holding on to the same time zone as the rest of the UK? (Plenty of other countries work perfectly fine with different time zones). And the Norwegians and other Scandinavians manage with even shorter hours of winter daylight.

The farming question I have never understood: surely they can simply order their day around when there is daylight, regardless of what the clock says? After all, that is exactly how the livestock will behave.

Anyway, don't forget that the clocks go back this Sunday. At least we'll get that extra hour in bed...

Friday, 17 October 2008

An autumnal bounty


After the washout summer we've had, it's quite a relief to get some cool, dry weather for autumn.

Autumn - or fall as our Transatlantic cousins call it - has been consistently voted America's favourite season for many years. If you've ever been to New England, you can understand why: nature's famous display of autumn colour there really is something to behold. But there's something equally captivating about autumn in Britain. We may not have quite the brilliant reds and golds, but it's still beautiful, and after the excesses of summer it can be quite nice to have some cooler, breezier weather, and begin to look forward to cosy winter evenings by the fire.

It's undoubtedly my favourite season. And I'm in good company - the poet John Donne famously wrote, "No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace, as I have seen in one autumnal face".

For children, a potent memory is kicking autumn leaves on the pavement or footpath, and for me the thrill has never entirely disappeared - I sometimes find myself, when there's no-one looking, kicking a big pile of fallen leaves just for the fun of it! However, a recent CBBC poll found an overwhelming majority of British children choosing summer as their favourite season, although the reasons given - no school and the prospect of summer holidays - provide a fairly predictable analysis!

But for me, autumn brings another added bounty: mushroom hunting. Now, this really is something we Brits are shy about. We seem to have a primeval fear of toadstools, being all too aware of the potentially deadly consequences of eating poisonous ones. Now, I have to confess here that I studied fungi as part of my PhD and am a member of the British Mycological Society. But even so, I'm not actually that great an expert when it comes to identifying wild fungi in the field - more a case of knowing when to admit that I can't identify it, and erring on the side of caution.

But some of the most poisonous fungi are easy to identify if you know what you are looking for, as are some of the best: the great Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), when young and fresh, are astonishing to look at and just as astonishing to eat: the size of a football, with a creamy interior resembling a fragrant, savoury marshmallow, they can be cut into slices and fried like steaks to great effect. Or some giant Parasol Mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) - again with caps the size of dinner plates - have been simply delicious.

My best ever experience - although some find it a indigestible - was a cache of the wonderfully named 'Chicken of the Woods', Laetiporus sulphureus (sometimes known as the Sulphur Polypore). This vivid, almost fluorescent yellow and golden bracket fungus, is found on living broadleaved trees, and the younger and fresher golden part has a wonderful, rich taste, not entirely unlike chicken, and perfect for casseroles. It's a delicacy in parts of central Europe, and Germany especially, where they are more accustomed to gathering fungi. Even in Catalonia, the part of Spain I know best, the markets are full of brightly coloured fungi, and frozen and tinned versions are available for those who prefer easy preparation.

For those thinking about going mushroom hunting and with no experience, the best place to start is the website of the Association of British Fungus Groups. There, you can find a local group and join a fungal foray with experts who know what they doing. They will also advise you on which field guides to buy, and learn the ropes of identifying some of the commoner fungi, as well as which to steer clear of. You can even go on a residential course to learn more. They will also advise on conservation: as with all aspects of nature on our islands, this is an increasingly important issue (the rule of thumb is always to leave a proportion of what you've found to provide the next generation).

Even if you don't care to eat them - and many are not edible anyway - it can greatly increase your enjoyment of autumn walks in parks and the countryside when you see a little clutch of fungi, and many are great to photograph!

With luck, you'll discover another dimension to one of our best seasons.

Note: Although the proportion of fungi which are poisonous is relatively small, some species are deadly poisonous in small quantities, and medical intervention is not always successful. Only pick and eat fungi if you have enough knowledge and experience to make a positive and safe identification. If in doubt, leave them alone. Better still, join a properly organised foray. If you feel unwell after eating fungi, seek medical help immediately (ideally, with some uncooked samples if you have them).

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Sacred Music by the Sea


Want to learn to whirl like a dervish? To chant with Japanese Buddhists? Or just search for some spiritual inspiration from major world religions?

All this and more can be found in Brighton this week, hosting its fifth Annual Festival of World Sacred Music, a programme which aims to contribute towards greater understanding between people of different cultures and belief systems, through five days of sacred music from around the globe.

As well as the aforementioned whirling and chanting workshops, there are also performances from a wide range of religions; including Buddhism, Sufism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity, to name just a few. There are concerts, workshops, musical art installations and musical dance dramas.

The festival started off with a specially-commissioned piece of bell ringing at the ancient parish church of Brighton, St Nicholas, one of the pieces to come from a Christian background: there are also some spiritually-inspired pieces by Haydn and Mendelssohn from the Solstice Quartet, as well as the and mezzo-soprano Alessia Mankovskaya and violist José Gandia performing early Christian music from Spain and Eastern Europe. This will include the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria, 16th-century Belarusian songs for family celebrations, and early Russian Orthodox Christian chants.

Last Sunday the London Bulgarian Choir (Winners of the BBC Radio 3 Open Choir of the Year 2006) performed an acclaimed repertoire of Bulgarian folk music and orthodox religious chants, in the wonderful setting of St Bartholomew's Church. A number of other churches and religious venues are hosting the programme, including the Chattri Memorial, high up on the windswept setting of the South Downs.

The memorial, which commemorates the Hindu and Sikh Commonwealth soldiers cremated there during World War I, hosts a daily performance organised by environmental arts group Red Earth. Each performance (by a different artist each day) will take place amidst sacred arts installations created specially for the festival.

So, broaden the mind and free the spirit - or just enjoy some live music that you might not otherwise get to hear...

The programme runs until Sunday 19th October. See website for details.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

New railway stations in West London


It's not often that new stations are an item of news - for years we've been more accustomed to station closures, but there's a whole raft of them currently appearing in West London - including one opening today.

The stimulus for all this work - at least around Shepherd's Bush - has been the development of the huge White City shopping development by Westfield. Included as part of a £200m package of transport improvements, financed by the developer, are two new stations and a refurbished one.

The first to open, on 29th September, was the brand new station on the West London Line at Shepherd's Bush, adjacent to the existing Central Line station. Part of the 'Overground' service and now operated by London Transport, the station features fully accessible platforms and a light and airy ticket office. There were teething troubles in its construction - a mistake on the platform width led to some expensive rebuilding, as well as delaying the opening - but it should now be a huge boon to the area. It will be served by the half-hourly Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction service.

Second was the re-opening of the Central Line station next door, which has been closed while the station was enlarged and refurbished. As well as the Westfield development, the station will also act as an interchange with the new Overground station 200 metres away. It has new escalators, a shiny new silver metal entrance block and lots of additional ticket gates, to help cope with the additional passengers anticipated once the shopping centre gets into full swing.

And today, a third station was opened in the area, this time a completely new one on the Hammersmith and City line at Wood Lane. Built on the western side of the Westfield development, this will be additional to the existing Shepherd's Bush Hammersmith & City station, which will be renamed Shepherd's Bush Market to avoid confusion with Shepherd's Bush Central line station. Wood Lane is again fully accessible, with four lifts, and a modern steel and glass structure enclosing the existing Victorian brick arches. Indeed, it claims to be the first new station on an existing tube line for 70 years.

Finally, a bit further south, another new station is beginning to take shape on the West London line at Chelsea Harbour, as part of new housing and hotel developments at Imperial Wharf. The station is not due to open until 2010, but will radically improve access to what has been a bit of a public transport dead end in West London for many years.

With all these new stations, the West London Line will move from being something of a Cinderella line to an integral part of West London's transport infrastructure. However, there are already questions about its capacity, given that peak-hour trains are already full. Plans are in place to help tackle this, with new air-conditioned trains on order, with four rather than three coaches, and a new timetable planned for 2011 which will see four trains an hour rather than the current two.

So - some good news for a change!

Damn!

Occasionally, I see something advertised that I would like to have gone to, but can't, and I curse myself for not being better organised.

One such event starts tomorrow at the Albert Hall: Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra. I'm something of a fan of Bill Bailey - maybe it's the West Country connection, or because he clearly doesn't worry about his looks. But I really like his oddball sense of humour and the streak of essential humanity beneath his humour (I find many contemporary comedians rather cruel when they are doing live performances). For me, he was an essential part of 'Never mind the Buzzcocks', and it's not quite the same without him.

What many may not know is that he is a classically trained musician in his own right, and this production is a collaboration with Anne Dudley, one of the UK’s most celebrated composers and arrangers. The theme is essentially an irreverent guide to the orchestra, including popular TV and film themes - all with Bill's unique take on life.

I suppose I'll just have to satisfy myself reading the reviews afterwards.

Damn!

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra is showing at the Royal Albert Hall on October 15th, 16th & 17th 2008.

Monday, 13 October 2008

A patch of green in West London


Kew green is a lovely spot that almost has the feel of a village green, with its elegant Georgian houses, pubs, pretty St Anne's Church and even a cricket pitch (home to the local Kew Cricket Club).

It was mentioned in a Parliamentary Survey of Richmond taken in 1649, described as 'a piece of common or uninclosed ground called Kew Green, lying within the Township of Kew, conteyning about 20 acres.' Cricket was first recorded being played on the Green in 1737, and the Green itself was enclosed by a private Act of Parliament in 1824, preserving it in its current form. The Green is beautifully maintained, with mature trees around the perimeter. In one corner of the Green is an old horse pond, which has a small island and planted pond edges, enabling a range of water birds to nest in peace and safety.

Alas, it would all be nicer still were it not bisected by the A205, better known as the South Circular. It's a hopelessly busy road, and entirely unsuitable for the amount of traffic that now uses it. (An apt comment I once heard is that, while the North Circular really is a road, the South Circular is just a collection of signposts). Crossing it in the area of the Green requires taking your life in your hands. (It also means that the park is only suitable for children who are fully aware of traffic.)

Still, the Kew Gardens end is a lovely enclave, the church of St Anne is worth a visit in its own right, and the sound of the traffic soon quietens down as you walk towards the entrance to Kew Gardens.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Up and down to York


Every year, my motorbike club has a final event of the year called the 'Birthday Bash', which commemorates and celebrates the founding of the club over 30 years ago. It's a chance to meet up with old (and new) friends, visit a part of the country you might not otherwise visit, go on a bike run with a different mix of people, and generally enjoy some good food, drink and company.

This year's event was in York, which meant quite a trek for me - I keep my bike in Brighton rather than West London, as I got fed up of it getting knocked over in the streets by ignorant motorrists here. (But that's for another blog).

Unfortunately for me, the week-end in question just happened to be unseasonably cold, with a grim forecast, so I decided to break the journey: a round trip of 600 miles on my own over three days in the cold and wet did not seem to so appealing (not that I'm a fair weather biker - more a case of making things a bit easier - after all, it's supposed to be fun!).

So I decided to break my journey at Peterborough, which is roughly half way on the route, and stayed with the very jolly people at the Sibson Inn on the Great North Road. It's a lovely old converted farmhouse, with many of the rooms arranged around a courtyard in former outbuildings. The food is excellent too - dinner was really good, and it's nice to have a cooked breakfast made to order rather than serve yourself from a hotplate.

Before setting off the next day, I headed to the lovely little village of Castor for a look at its famous church of St Kyneburgha. This is well worth a short detour if you are ever in the area, for its astonishing array of Norman carvings and the 15th century painted angels (over 60 of them) which adorn its roof.

And then to York, staying at the hostel at York Racecourse; this provides very decent budget accommodation for groups, with good traditional cooking; everyone was impressed by the evening meal of steak pie (or veggie lasagne) with plenty of fresh vegetables. It certainly lived up to the image of generous northern hospitality!

York itself, of course, needs no introduction, whether you like history, railways, churches or all three. The downer was that it was packed, with a particular emphasis, it seemed, on large organised tour groups. Still, both the National Railway Museum and York Minster live up to expectation - though, oddly, the former is free and you now have to pay to get into the latter!

The run back started with a quick visit to the legendary Squire's Cafe (well, legendary in biking circles): this former pub, taken over as a milk bar in the 1960s, is a biking mecca: literally thousands of bikes a week visit during the summer months. It was a great opportunity to say farewell to our friends before heading off back to the four corners of the UK.

And I even got home without getting wet!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Holy Trinity Church in York


OK, more old churches: this time, from a recent visit to York.

Phrases like 'atmospheric', 'hidden gem' and 'perfectly preserved' often get bandied about when talking about old buildings, but this church, tucked away from the busy, touristy streets of old York, fits them better than most.

For a start, it really is hidden: the churchyard lies quietly secluded from the busy streets of York, accessed by narrow alleyways. It would not look out of place in a remote village. And it is exceptionally well preserved: such restoration as was undertaken by the Victorians seems to have been extraordinarily sensitive. It is about as close as you can get to how a church would have looked after the Reformation: dark, quiet, homely, with uneven floors, high box pews and plain walls. With candle-light it must perfectly evoke the late 17th century. It is rightly a Grade I listed building.

The church actually dates back to the 12th century, although the current building owes rather more to the 13th-15th centuries. The box pews are recorded as being repaired in 1633, and new ones added in 1700-1725. The pulpit dates from 1695.

But the church's most notable feature - as is so often the case in York - is its mediaeval stained glass. The windows are Decorated and Perpendicular in style. The best is the late Perpendicular east window: this dates from 1470-71 and was presented by the then rector, John Walker. The glass depicts saints, including St George and St Christopher, as well as heraldic shields, around a central panel in which a representation of God as the Trinity holding the dead Christ, with the donors at his feet.

Other features include a simple 15th century font and wall plaques recalling Lord Mayors of York, including the infamous 'Railway King', George Hudson.

Whether you just want ten minutes' peace and quiet, or some spiritual solace from the touristy rush that is modern York, a visit is a must.

The church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Escape to the West


Now that our summer seems to have well and truly ended, thoughts turn to planning what to do next summer. (Well, you have to have something to look forward to, don't you, as the nights draw in?)

My other half's brother lives in Clevedon, in Somerset, and yesterday we were talking about a place that he'd like to visit close to his home: Steep Holm Island, in the Bristol Channel. So we've agreed top start planning a trip next year.

There's something about islands that stirs the imagination: the sense of escape and isolation; the sense of adventure and achievement in getting there; and something primeval about the sea, sky, and land ahoy!

But there's more to Steep Holm than it just being a small island: It's a nationally important nature reserve, with a colourful history of human occupation. As its name implies, this rocky outcrop of just under 50 acres (20 hectares) has high sea cliffs on all sides, and rises to just over 256ft (78m). Geologically, the island (formed of Carboniferous limestone) is a continuation of the Mendip Hills, lying just off the promontory of Brean Down in Somerset

Steep Holm has been inhabited since Roman times, with evidence of a Viking presence, too. (The name 'holm' is Norse and means 'island'.) In the 12th century, a small priory was established here, and a warren of rabbits was managed until modern times. In the late 1860s, the island was fortified as part of a plan by Prime Minister Palmerston to protect the Bristol Channel against foreign attack: barracks were built and two batteries of 7-ton guns installed (now scheduled ancient monuments). The island was similarly fortified in both subsequent World Wars.

Since 1974, the island has been owned by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust and maintained as a nature reserve: it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) thanks to its unique Mediterranean micro-climate (frosts are rare), relative lack of human disturbance, and because botanical records have been kept for 400 hundred years.

The island is covered with dense thickets of Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum), home to the only UK colonies of Wild Peony (Paeonia mascula), as well as important colonies of wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum), henbane (Hyoscyamun niger), Caper Spurge (Euphorbia lathyrus). A form of Buck's-horn plantain (Plantago coronupus) is unique to the island. Indeed, the 'Type specimen' (the definitive specimen which describes the species) for the leek plant was taken from the island and is now at the herbarium in Kew Gardens.

As well as the rabbits, there are also colonies of shy Muntjac Deer, as well as several species of gull, and it is a stopping point for many types of migrant birds. Its isolation has meant that many types of animals have diverged from their mainland counterparts and are studied for their genetic traits - especially apparent in the snail populations and those of the Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis.

Although no longer inhabited (except for wildlife wardens for part of the year), it can be visited. The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust organises boat trips during the summer months - for which advanced booking (by telephone) is essential. Part of an old barracks is used as an interpretation centre.

There is no landing pier on the island, so visitors must be fit enough (and suitably dressed!) to go ashore by gang-plank, and to ascend the steep paths on the island. Given the Channel's fickle weather, conditions are always changeable, windy and usually cooler than on the mainland. The Channel's strong tides mean that visits normally last about 8-10 hours.

Full details are on the Trust's websites - as above, and at: www.steepholm.freeserve.co.uk/trips.html.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Performance Cars at Earl's Court

One of the BBC's most popular programmes -and one of its most successful exports around the world - is 'Top Gear'.

It's come a long way from the days when it was a rather specialist but sober appraisal of the latest models in the world of motoring. The team - Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - are among the most well known of BBC's presenters, and their 'boys' toys' approach to motoring - focusing on high performance cars, daredevil (or just plain wacky) exploits, and all-round entertainment has become hugely popular. (There's a 5-year waiting list to appear in the audience).

The programme (and Clarkson, especially) trades on an irreverent political incorrectness, which makes the programme loathed and loved in equal measure - depending on where you stand on green issues and whether you think using 'girly' or 'gay' is an appropriate adjective in the 21st Century. Less controversially, and a good indication of the entertainment factor, is the long line-up of guests also waiting to appear, to test their skills driving a saloon car around a racing circuit at high speed - recording their performance against other guests in a league table.

Anyway, for those for whom a weekly fix is not enough, and who can't wait 5 years for a ticket, the Top Gear team will be appearing at the forthcoming 'MPH' (ie miles per hour) performance car event at Earl's Court between 30th October and 2nd November. The rest of the show - subtitled the Prestige and Performance Motor Show - concentrates on high performance cars, including rare one-off models . Think Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, Spyker and Aston Martin.

There are also sections featuring the lastest add-on gadgets, classic sports cars and 'Tuning and Styling', if you fancy yourself as a boy racer but can't quite afford a Maserati. (It'll be interesting to see if the credit crunch will impact on sales - but perhaps that'll just encourage more window shopping?)

But I'm not sure how Clarkson et al would view a household that doesn't even own a car...

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Who should take credit for the Credit Crunch?

With property sales in West London grinding to a standstill, and the news media filled with stories about the credit crunch, the turmoil in the markets and desperate action by Central Banks on both sides of the Atlantic, those of us watching helplessly from the sidelines can but wonder how we got here.

Of course, the greed of bankers, deregulation and loose fiscal regimes in the UK and USA have been blamed. It's all 'their' fault: the banks, the regulators, the government. But where, in all this, is the discussion about common sense, on the part of both lenders and borrowers? What happened to individual responsibility?

Over the past few years, on any discussion about money matters, I have always ended feeling terribly old-fashioned and conservative (with a small 'c'). I've lived through the roller-coaster of economic cycles from the 1960s onwards, and recall the strict financial limits imposed on me when I applied for my first mortgage: I could borrow only 2.5 times my own salary. Credit card and other debts were probed in the process.

I must admit that I was one of that lucky generation that didn't pile up huge student debts, thanks to the grant system and working through my holidays. Even so, I've paid off my credit card every month for 30 years, and only ever taken out one bank loan beyond a mortgage - and that was for my first - and very second-hand - car. (That Ford Fiesta was 11 years old before I sold it).

For everything else, I was taught to save first and take my time in deciding what to buy. That way, I got a certain sense of achievement out of buying an item: and still do. It takes me hours of research before buying a new camera; I try on dozens of suits before deciding which fits best.

Fast-forward to the the situation over the past few years: I listened with horror to younger colleagues at work, who had five-figure student debts ("but I don't have to pay that off yet"); five-figure credit card debts ("but I want a new (ie brand new) car, now"); and were taking out loans of 6 times their joint salaries for property ("we want a house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. We couldn't possibly start with a small flat. We need a separate dining room.").

And all this on salaries of £30,000. In London.

At the same time, some older colleagues were cheerfully extending their mortgages by tens of thousands to pay for exotic foreign holidays, designer label clothes, new cars. I could understand it if it was for their children's education, or a house extension - but it wasn't. Again, these things were classed as essentials. The scale of some of this additional debt - which, of course, all has to be paid off with interest - made me feel queasy.

When we talked about interest rates, the reply was "they are at an historic low". Well, yes. But won't that just increase the leverage? A rise from 4% to 5% is a rise of 25%. "But the Chancellor says there will no more boom and bust". Er, yes. But do you believe him? Others say the housing market is becoming a bubble. "Then let's hope they're wrong!"

But substituting hope for prudence isn't much of a policy. We seem to have become terribly child-like in our approach to money: "If they'll lend it to me, it must be OK". And child-like in our desire for things: "I must have this now". At the other end, of course, banks have colluded in all this. But then, with the security of someone's house as the back-stop, their risk - or so they thought - was controlled. But you can bet the bank managers won't be homeless (although some junior staff might get waved good-bye).

I realise I'm going to sound terribly smug in writing this, and terribly kill-joy. But I don't take pleasure in the misery the current situation is causing: I know too many people stuck in the mire, and desperately worried. And few of us are actually immune: I need to put my own property on the market before too long, and I'm self-employed, so I'm caught up in this as much as anyone else.

That said, I must confess there is a part of me that thinks a brake on at least some of the excesses of the past decade or so might not be a bad thing. We might find better ways of spending our leisure time than shopping. It might even take the shine off the vacuous celebrity culture we've come to worship. But it's a terrible price to pay.

So, perhaps it is time to be pay heed to Shakespeare, in Hamlet, when Polonius says:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Or maybe time to resurrect Micawber's law..?