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.