Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Name the UK's five longest rivers...

Another week, another pub quiz.

Although we're not really great pub quiz aficionados, (at least not compared with some) we do go now and again, and on the Bank Holiday week-end escaped the appalling autumnal weather and went to one in the Prestonville Arms in Brighton. It was in aid of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the theme was, as you might expect, all to do with wildlife and the natural world.

We started off appallingly, as the first round was all about birds and fish. I'm no good on birds (I was trained as a botanist) and the fishy questions seemed terribly hard to us.

It gradually got better, but we played our joker (for double points) on completely the wrong round: our best round was entitled 'the Natural World' and was more about geography and geology than wildlife per se. Of course we played it on one of our weaker rounds, as it turned out, but that's the luck of the draw, and in any case it made no material difference to the final score. (We played it on a round including a section where you had to name a series of mammals from pictures of their footprints. Hopeless!)

The only question we got wrong on our best round was trying to name the UK's five longest rivers: we got four, and mentioned the fifth (actually the fourth longest) during our deliberations, but plumped for the wrong one. (*They are listed at the foot of the entry).

C'est la vie. But, unusually for us at the Prestonville (it claims to have Brighton's most difficult general knowledge quiz), we came a very respectable fourth out of sixteen teams. And it raised a very creditable £300 for the two charities concerned, which is the point, isn't it, really?

* Severn, Thames, Trent, Great Ouse, Wye.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Digging up the Family Tree...

Any keen genealogists out there?

There should be - the combination of 'Who do you think you are?' on BBC1 and the advent of the internet providing the possibility of instant searches, rather than the hours of slog on micro-film readers, has made tracing one's family a whole lot easier.

However, until now, tracing family records before the census of 1841 and the instigation of the centralised birth, marriage and death records (in 1838) was still hard: although the Parish Registers hold a wealth of information about baptisms, marriage and burials, relatively little of it was on-line, and little of that was searchable without a whole lot of slog (with the notable exception of Family Search, although the quality of those records is rather variable).

Well, now there's a new kid on the block, in the form of FreeREG. This is slowly building up the database of UK Parish register information, and already there are over 5 million entries. The data is being provided by a growing team of volunteers, and it promises to be a wonderful resource. Of course, there will still be plenty of room for good old fashioned traditional searches, but it should make the job of pin-pointing the options that much easier. It has already helped me push my Father's family line back at least one generation, and possibly two.

So - get digging!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

You can't go home again...

I think it was Thomas Wolfe who said, 'You can't go home again', meaning you can't revisit somewhere you've left, because it won't be the same again and it will spoil your memories.

That's happened to me on several occasions. Most recently, I visited a favourite old haunt in Brighton, called the Bedford Tavern. It used to be our favourite watering hole, a well managed, friendly place with a real country pub feel, (it even claimed to be haunted) and with excellent real ales and good food. It was always packed.

A change of management and a slight trendying up of the décor, saw the beginning of a slow decline a few years ago, but after a recent change of management we thought we'd give it another go. Unfortunately, Thomas Wolfe was right - you can read about the full disappointment here.

It's also happened to places I've visited longer ago: my first trip abroad, at the ripe old age of 19, was to France for a field trip from University. We were based at the Marine Research Station at Concarneau in Brittany, and I had a wonderful time there. I went back a few years ago and, while the town is still lovely, my companions (for obvious reasons, really) just didn't get the same buzz that I did, and it felt like a reunion spoiled. Perhaps I should have gone back on my own?

But back to pubs, which seem particularly vulnerable to the phenomenon because of changes in management. As a postgraduate student, I visited a place called the Crab Mill near Henley-in-Arden back in the mid 1980s. It was a truly authentic pub: fabulous real ale - one of the best pints I have ever had; gorgeous and interesting food - I tried a Gloucestershire Sausage, (a more interesting variant on the Cumberland); and the American (yes - really) owners had Tennessee Grasshopper Pie on the menu - a stunning, Crème de Menthe-flavoured cheesecake. There was no jukebox, no slot-machine, no piped music: just happy pub chatter.


A visit several years later therefore had a lot to live up to. At first, all seemed as before, although a large, plastic, garish children's 'play feature' had been plonked on the pub's lawn outside. Inside, there was the hum of piped music; table numbers had been stamped on the tables; and the menu was a watered down version of the one I had eaten from. You've guessed it: Gloucestershire Sausage replaced by the more standard Cumberland Suasage. And no sign of any Tennessee Grasshoppers...

Our worst fears were shortly confirmed: As we opened the menu, we read the dreaded words, 'Welcome to our Whitbread Happy Eater Pub'...

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Catch it while you can - Holy Trinity, Hove

The days may be numbered for this familiar landmark in Hove's Blatchington Road shopping area: formally declared redundant, this Victorian grade-II listed building is scheduled for demolition despite the pleas of the Victorian Society.

Built in 1863-68 to the design of a local architect, J Woodman, Holy Trinity came about as the result of Hove's early Victorian growth, which meant that the old church of St Andrew's could no longer cope with the bustling congregations. The erection of this new church was largely thanks to the energy and devotion of its first incumbent, the Rev. Fraser Taylor, who at the time was curate at old St Andrew's, Hove.

The design was in a rather bastardised form of Lombardic-Gothic style, of red brick, with a colourful mixture of black and yellow brick and Bath stone decoration externally. The windows are a mix of very narrow lancets and early Decorated Gothic forms, some with plate tracery. It has an attractive tower (the intended spire was never added), but the most notable feature, to the east, is a very rare external pulpit, erected in 1919, which has been scheduled for retention. The idea of this pulpit was to preach open-air sermons in the summer, which would make the church's presence more visible to local residents. Now, it is somewhat oddly located in the Vicarage Garden.

Internally, the church is rather less notable, although the elaborate capitals on the piers beneath the Gothic arcades are well done, and the sanctuary is a nicely proportioned space. There are a few memorials inside, most notably that of Fraser Taylor himself, and some attractive stained glass, mostly by Ward & Hughes of London. Also notable is the damage from incursions of damp, due largely to failing gutters: the major cause of such problems in churches.

The erection of the much larger and grander All Saints, Hove, a few minutes' walk to the east, was the church's undoing, however; this drew off much of the congregation, and the first attempt to close Holy Trinity came as early as 1931. It has soldiered on, largely thanks to a very loyal congregation, but has now been declared redundant.

There has been some local opposition to its closure, largely because it is a distinctive and attractive local landmark. It is not in the top rank of Victorian church architecture by any means, but I have a nasty feeling that any replacement building - whatever form it takes - will not be anything like as uplifting or interesting an addition to the urban landscape.

It is being opened to the public for a last look on Sunday afternoons (2-4pm) until September 2008. After that, the future timetable - and what happens next - is uncertain.

Addendum 2011

Reports in the local paper have implied the church may yet be saved through conversion into a health centre, depending on finance and planning permission. In the meantime, though, there's no question that the fabric is deteriorating. Fingers crossed...

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Little Venice Music Festival

Here's a date for the diary, West Londoners.

26th-28th September sees the sixth Little Venice Music Festival. It might be a short programme, running over just three days, but it is renowned as a high quality artistic addition to the London music scene. Organised by Sylvia Rhys-Thomas as artistic director, part of the takings will be in aid of local charities, including the St Mary's Hospital Stroke Unit, Paddington.

Concerts take place in St Mary's Church, Paddington Green and St Saviour's Church Warwick Avenue. Friday 26th September sees the Galamian Quartet open with an evening concert of Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Dvorak. Saturday follows with a late afternoon of the Young Artists Cello Recital (4pm) playing Boccherini, Brahms and the ever-popular Samuel Barber.

Saturday evening is the highlight of the programme, with an evening of Opera Music, including pieces by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten. Finally, on Sunday, the Young Artists Brass Recital play music by Allegri, Bach, Bruckner, Defaye and Serocki. The programme finishes in the evening with the Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir performing the Petite Messe Solennelle by Rossini.

Tickets are £10-£15 depending on the performance, some of which includes a drink as well.

So, get a dose of culture: tickets are available on the door, or in advance from The Winery, 4 Clifton Road, W9. Further details can be found on their website.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A mouse in the house... Part II

The little mousey adventure I blogged earlier in the week wasn't my first encounter with the little creatures.

Perhaps the most memorable was when I was a postgraduate student, sharing a house in South Birmingham with two friends. One evening, I found that a packet of biscuits had mysteriously been nibbled at one end. I thought nothing of it - perhaps I'd bought a damaged packet? But later that night, when doing some work lying on my bed (I was a student, don't forget...), I noticed out of the corner of my eye an object flash past on the floor. I lay down and looked into the grate under the gas fire, and there watched a little mouse, hopping in and out through an air-brick to nibble on a bit of biscuit.

The next day, we found a trail of destruction in the kitchen, with bread, biscuits and fruit all nibbled, with tell-tale signs of mouse droppings. We were infested.

That night, I put all my food in a large cardboard box on my table, and sealed it up. I was awoken early next morning by a scratching sound, and as I walked over to the table, half asleep, a mouse peered out from the hole it had made. I grabbed the nearest object - a large screwdriver (there's a theme here: what was I thinking?) - but the mouse leapt off the table and under the fire in two rapid bounds. On investigating the box, I found it had nibbled its way through a whole packet of chocolate hobnobs.

This was war.

First, I bought a huge airtight storage box for the hobnobs. (Student priorities, OK?) Then, off to the University's Zoology department, I picked up a dozen catch-and-release traps (think: ice-cream tub with a one-way door built in) as well as some good old-fashioned break-back traps. I was advised that mice liked products with flour in, and preferred their cheese toasted as they could smell it from further away. That evening, my flatmates prepared a veritable murine banquet for the traps, with toasted cheese, bits of pizza, cake, bread, biscuits and fruit. The mice were better fed than we were...

Needless to say, they managed to partake of this banquet without suffering any casualties. We, on the other hand, were nursing bruised fingers, broken nails (have you ever tried to set a modern mouse trap?) and felt constantly hungry, with all that food lying around. To add insult to injury, one of the mice started coming out from under the floorboards to watch Dallas with us: it would emerge right on cue when the theme music started, and take up a safe position in front of the telly, a short hop from its getaway hole. We were sort of getting fond of it, all the while conscious that they were breeding rapidly.

The crunch came when one went into the bathroom when one of my flatmates was in the bath. That was just too much. The Pest Control people were called in, and they laid little dishes of poison (blue poison in a red bowl, I recall) at key points. One of these was under the gas fire in my bedroom, and I watched fascinated one night as a mouse kept popping up to feed on it.

Within a week, they were no more.

We were relieved, of course: our hobnobs were once again safe. But the house seemed much quieter after that, and Dallas in particular was never the same again. I still think of mice whenever I hear the theme music...

Monday, 11 August 2008

A mouse in the house...

Continuing the wildlife theme reminds me of an occasion, just after I moved into my flat in Earl's Court, of an encounter of murine kind.

My partner and I had invited some friends to come over for dinner one evening, with the intention - apart from enjoying good company, food and wine - of getting some ideas for decorating the flat, as one of the guests was studying interior design at the time.

The meal went very well, the wine and conversation flowed freely. We were getting onto the desired topic of interior décor (appropriately enough, over the cheese course) when one of my guests suddenly announced, looking into the kitchen, 'Oh! I see you've got mice'.

Well, that was news to us. We peered gingerly into the kitchen, to find a mouse happily jumping gymnastically around the wine rack with such great panache, it would have put Olga Korbut to shame. Armed with knives and forks, all three males in the party lumbered drunkenly into the kitchen to try and catch the mouse. (I'm not quite sure why we took our cutlery with us, but that's what you do after several bottles of Sauvignon blanc and Rioja.)

Of course, we just weren't a match for it, and in the blink of an eye the mouse had disappeared under the washing machine and back into the communal pipe conduit to some safer and doubtless more sober lodging elsewhere in the building.

Needless to say, the conversation never returned to decorating, and I ended up painting everything magnolia.

Oh, and I never saw the mouse again. Perhaps it didn't approve of my cheese board?

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

On a more serious note...

Finding that you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with a long-term illness can be a bewildering experience. Suddenly, a disease that you were aware of, but not really knowledgeable about, invades your life, and challenges potentially every assumption, every plan, you'd made about the future.

When that happens, most people (and me, too) have an initial period of shock and confusion, to say nothing of emotions like fear and anger. But, as the haze starts to clear a little, you find yourself asking questions, wanting to know more, to understand more, and to have someone listen to your questions, hopes and fears.

And that's where a charity like the MS Society comes in.

The MS Society is the UK's largest charity for people affected by Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - over 85,000 people in the UK - making it the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults. The Society provides help for those with the disease and their friends and families, as well as supporting a wide-ranging research programme into new treatments, and understanding the disease better.

MS itself is caused when the body's own immune system attacks the protective covering of the nerves (known as the myelin sheath). This causes the nerves to malfunction, typically leading to loss of muscle control and sensation, but in more serious cases affecting things like memory and sight. Why it occurs in some people, but not in others, and what triggers it, are still the subjects of research. After an attack, the minute scars or scleroids on the nerves and in the brain can be identified (albeit with some difficulty) by certain types of scan: hence the name, multiple sclerosis.

However, diagnosis is a quite complicated process, as every case seems to be slightly different, and involves a number of different medical tests. There are also several different forms of MS - some involving periods of recovery with occasional relapses (relapsing-remitting MS) and others which involve a slow but continuous progression.

The Society publishes a wide range of very helpful leaflets about the condition, and how it may impact on someone's life: from problems with specific medical issues, to how it can affect travel insurance, the sorts of treatments available and what financial support the Government provides in what circumstances. These, and the telephone and e-mail helplines, are available to all, not just members.

For members, there are local MS Society groups around the country where they can meet others and find out about their experiences and get support. Membership also comes with a regular magazine with more information, news on latest research and articles on how it affects individual members; and an on-line 'Members Zone', with more information and advice.

All this help can be invaluable for people newly diagnosed with MS and their friends and family, as it can help to understand what can - from a purely medical standpoint - seem a baffling, complicated and - let's face it - a frightening - disease.

Membership is open to anyone who has an interest in the work of the society, and costs just £5 per year.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Great British Beer Festival

Well, it's here again: the Great British Beer Festival has returned to Earl's Court.

After last year's highly successful début, following many years at Olympia, the festival begins tomorrow (Tuesday 5 August) with the press day, and opens to the public at 17:00 in the evening, running from noon to 22:30 each day until Saturday.

Organised by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), the event is huge: over the week, the festival gets over 65,000 visitors, drawn by the prospect of over 450 real ales, and a growing selection of the very best ciders, and specialist lagers from Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, to name a few. New from last year are stands featuring ales for vegetarians, coeliacs and others with specialist dietary needs. Glasses are available in pint, half-pint and third-pint sizes, so you can sample several different beers without having to drink to excess. (In fact, it's an incredibly well behaved event overall).

There's plenty of food available, (with the emphasis on good-value pub-type grub, rather than gastronomy), and a selection of bands (mostly jazz, but including classical, too) for entertainment over the week. There are also stalls selling ale-related memorabilia - beer glasses, beer towels, books, t-shirts and the like.

The event draws a huge range of people, from all walks of life and all ages. It's not just a male, middle-aged event by any means - about a third of attendees are women, and there are also meetings for CAMRA's different groups, including LAGRAD (lesbians & gay men) and Apple (for real cider enthusiasts).

The whole thing is very good humoured and enjoyable, and the wide range of punters attending defies the stereotype of real ale fans as being male, middle-aged, with excess facial hair and sandals. (More typical are groups of office workers having an evening out).

Why not come and sample some beers for yourself?

For full details, see the CAMRA website.

Wildlife in West London

I was inspired by a story by fellow Qyper Amethyst in her blog, Life on the Edge, about a fox visiting her garden recently.

Now, you may not think that Earl's Court is a particular haven for wildlife, but you'd be wrong. For a start, the various garden squares are havens for birds and insects of all kinds, and I don't just mean pigeons: there are blackbirds, song-thrushes, blue-tits and coal-tits, sparrows, the odd magpie, and even nightingales. The pigeon family is well represented too, with wood-pigeons and collared doves as well as the ubiquitous common pigeon.

There are plenty of mammals, too, though some of these are less welcome. There is a resident rat population, which comes and goes depending on how well the sewers are baited with poison, some of whom took up residence for a while in the garden square I live on. That's not so nice, although I'm now quite so freaked out by them as others, so long as they stay outside!

The discarded take-aways of visitors and bread put down (misguidedly, in my view, by some residents for the birds means that the rats always look well fed, and quite sizeable. I used to see them running around at night at one end of the square, seemingly oblivious of my presence.

Rats attract cats, of course, and although most are pets, I suspect, you still see then prowling stealthily around at night as well. In the air, at the right time of year, you hear the rapid flapping and squeaks of bats, which I think are particularly welcome: they eat their own body-weight in mosquitoes and other irritating insects every few days. Much better than a spray!

But it is the foxes that make the biggest impression. In theory, they are supposed to be quite shy of humans, but I've seen one trotting along the opposite platform of West Brompton railway station in daylight and full view of dozens of passengers, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Another time, my other half and I were startled to see a fox racing along Warwick Gardens at full tilt, chased in hot pursuit by a small terrier, his owner valiantly bringing up the rear!

At night, of course, foxes can make the most dreadful wailing and screaming sounds, eerily human in voice. But I confess that, nuisance though they can be, I'd rather have that than live in a sterile environment.