Thursday, 17 December 2009

Brighton Architecture II

The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Victoria Road, by Bodley and Burgess, contains notable pre-Raphaelite stained glass.

Brighton's other important architectural legacy is its stock of Victorian churches. Brighton had a frenzy of church building in the mid to late 19th Century. A significant number of these were the result of the efforts of the Wagners, father and son. They were keen exponents of the Tractarian tradition, which reintroduced traditional Catholic ritual to worship and liturgy, and they used their considerable wealth to build over half a dozen churches. The most important include St Paul's in West Street with its collection of stained glass by Pugin, and the astonishingly vast St Bartholomew's in Ann Street.

The city has an interesting range of earlier Victorian churches, reflecting the change in tastes from Classical to Neo-Gothic architecture, as well as a stock of very early (and often quaintly humble) mediaeval churches from villages it absorbed as it expanded. A good example is Ovingdean, below, founded during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Brighton Architecture - part I

One of the joys of Brighton is, of course, its architecture, from the famous terraces of Georgian houses to an impressive stock of Victorian churches. Some of the best set-pieces are, of course, in Hove (actually) rather than Brighton itself, but now that the former two towns are a joint city, I feel able to include them both!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

...and hello to the South Coast

Well, here I am in my first week as a Brightonian. Although I have spent a lot of time here, this is the first time that it has been my main home. The 60mph gales are a bit of a breezy welcome, but that's all part of the package of living by the sea. I was brought up less than half a mile of the Bristol Channel, however, so I'm used to it.

Anyway, attached is a photo from a slightly calmer day!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

And farewell!

So, after a few months of to-ing and fro-ing, yesterday saw us at last move out of the flat in Earl's Court that we have called home for the last 13 years. The stairs proved a challenge for our removers, especially with the large wardrobes, but they triumphed in the end and all went smoothly.

So, it's good-bye to London and hello to Brighton! Thanks for reading - and watch this space as it may transmogrify...!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

This may be the beginning of a goodbye...

...from West London.

I have just accepted an offer on my flat in West London and, whilst I know not to count my chickens until the deal is done, it could mean the end of life there - at least for a while. I'll be looking to buy a house in Brighton, and then the plan is for my partner to buy a small pied-a-terre back in town.

Of course, this is also the beginnig of what we are told is one of the most stressful possible life events, so also watch out for the odd frustrated blog!!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Train vs Plane

My partner and I recently went to Limoges (in France) for the wedding of some good friends of ours from London. When we got the invitation, one of the first questions was (of course) how to get there. We don't have a car, so driving was out: apart from the cost of car hire, the thought of driving 800-odd miles on a week-end - and the August Bank Holiday in the UK to boot - was just too much.

That left public transport. A quick bit of research showed that the options were to fly with either Ryanair from Stansted, bmi from Southampton, or take the train all the way.

A check on the dates proved that bmi was going to be too expensive, so that ruled them out. Ryanair started well enough with the low initial fare, but of course - as anyone who has used their website will know - the add-ons creep up pretty quickly. Because we would have to take check-in luggage (I suppose you could get a man's suit in hand luggage, but you really don't the French laughing at the sartorial faux pas of wearing anything so crumpled), we would have to pay the fees for checking in the luggage and, if you do that, no-one in the party can check in on-line, so adding the cost of boarding passes for each person for each leg of the flight. Add in taxes and the booking fee, and the whole thing rapidly soared over the £200 mark. And, of course, for us there's the cost of getting to Stansted to add in, not to mention the horrible thought of going anywhere near Stansted Airport on the Bank Holiday.

So we went for the rail option: £79 returns on Eurostar, and £40 return on the French leg from Paris to Limoges (astonishing value for a 600-mile round trip on SNCF). It worked out about the same as Ryanair on cost but, although although it was longer, the trains are pretty comfy and you get to watch the scenery flash by. And 7 hours actually compares favourably with air by the time you add in getting to the airport and allowing for check-in time.

And the result? Well, the journey there was bliss. We had an early start - checking in at St Pancras at 6.45am - but there were no queues, the new terminal seems to run very smoothly, and we slept all the way to Paris. The Gare du Nord is not my favourite corner of Paris, but we still reached Austerlitz station in less than half an hour on the metro. From there, the Corail Teoz service - TGVs don't operate this route - was a lesson in civilized travel. Bags of leg room, bags of luggage space, reclining seats in Second Class, and perfect conditions for yet more sleep. Arrival at the very impressive Gare de Benedictins (above) was the perfect end to the journey.

The return leg was pretty good as well, except Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal needs some pretty major expansion to cope with Bank Holiday crowds. Still, all in all it made for a very civilized week-end.

Oh, and the wedding went pretty well, too...

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

A close encounter with a seagull

Picture: courtesy of

Last week I was on my way to Brighton railway station, to catch a train to Newhaven, when I was attacked by a seagull.

Inevitably, everyone that I spoke to found this incredibly funny, but I was left rather shaken by the event. I was simply walking along a street of terraced houses in Brighton when I received a hard 'thud' to the back of my head, followed by much cawing from a specific seagull. When I put my hand up to rub the spot, my hand came back covered in blood, so I can only presume the gull's beak had dug in.

Apparently, this is not a particularly rare event. For a start, it's nesting season, so the gulls are particularly protective of the area around their nests. Secondly, Brighton has replaced kerbside collections of plastic bags and wheelie bins with large new communal bins. These, whilst controversial, have at least been effective in reducing the amount of food debris strewn around the place, which has dried up a major part of their food supply, so making the seagulls that bit more frantic.

And I for one shall certainly be wearing a hat when I walk along that street for the next few weeks...

Friday, 26 June 2009

A thought on celebrity...

With the news media dominated today by the news of Michael Jackson's death, it set me wondering about the modern appeal of celebrity.

Mr Jackson illustrated, perhaps more than most, the terrible price that fame can extract: a number of tributes have testified to his loneliness and how unhappy his childhood was. And all this hard on the heels of Susan Boyle's well-publicised strugles to cope with the surge of media attention after her appearance on "Britain's Got Talent".

Yet, still we seem obsessed with celebrity, whether deserved (as in Mr Jackson's case) or not (as in the case of the late Jade Goody). Perhaps now might be a time to ponder whether a focus on more important issues , more lasting pleasures, and hard-earned, real achievement would be a good thing for our society?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Barcelona's new airport terminal

Barcelona's shiny new airport terminal opened this week, and very impressive it is, too. Shaped like a futuristic plane (rather resembling something out of Star Wars, I recall), it is beautifully finished inside and out, and the Catalans are justly proud of the this new addition to their infrastructure.

The departures area is particularly spacious and airy, with an enormous shopping zone called the 'Sky Centre' - the complex overall boasts 73 shops and 43 bars and restaurants. The only downer for now is that the train and metro links will not be completed for a few years yet, necessitating a change onto a shuttle bus from the railway station at the old terminal.

But that may sound a little grudging, particularly as it succeeded in handling 35,000 passengers and 250 flights on its opening day without a hitch - in rather sharp contrast to the fiasco of Heathrow's T5 opening: an achievement which leaves me wondering why it is that major projects in the UK always seem to be beset with teething troubles...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


A visit to the churchyard where my partner's ancestors are buried brought home to me the lost art of writing epitaphs. Some time around the late 18th century we seem to have lost the art - or the confidence - to write interesting epitaphs which are not either hopelessly mawkish or sentimental. Two of my favourites - both from Sussex churches read thus:

The first is to one John Parson, dated 1633, in West Tarring churchyard. It carries a short, deftly informative but painfully evocative verse:

Young was his age
Virginity his state
Learning his love
Consumption his fate

A more philosophical one can be found in the porch of St Nicholas' church in Poling: It is dedicated to Alice, the wife of Robert Woolldridge, who died on 27th May 1740, aged 44 years. It has a wonderful rhyme, and one which is not entirely inappropriate for our own celebrity- and wealth-obsessed times:

The World is a round thing
And full of crooked streets
Death is a market place
Where all Men meets
If Life was a thing
That money could buy
The Rich would live
And the Poor would dye

I wonder if you could get away with saying that, now?

Ideal Home time again

The walkway I use to and from the underground station at Earl's Court is constantly thronged by people, so I surmise the Ideal Home show must have arrived at Earl's Court exhibition centre. (That also helps explain the puzzle of why Ikea posters have appeared all over the station like a rash).

This year the whole thing seems a little subdued, however. I suppose an event so inherently built on the idea of property ownership is bound to have lost some of its glow, given the slide in house prices and the fact that it was the housing bubble that helped get us into the current mess.

Still, there still seem to be plenty of stalwarts intent on a good day out. The publicity promises a very different event from the ones I was dragged around when I was a child. Although the show homes are still there, the emphasis is as much on the outside as the inside these days, with gardening makeovers as popular as new gadgets (noticeably fewer of those emerging with the crowds, this year). And the visitors make good fodder for the rounds of TV programmes filmed in the exhibition - is it me, or is there something faintly ironic about going to look at an exhibition and then being filmed yourself?

Most interestingly of all, however, are the posters that I have finally noticed, promoting the sponsors, EDF. They are bright pink, and make quite a big thing about CO2 emissions and climate change. Now that's an encouraging sign of the times.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

St Botolph's Church, Hardham

This tiny, whitewashed church is tucked away just a few miles south of Pulborough, is one of Sussex's oldest and most fascinating.

Dating from the 11th Century (claimed to be 1050 AD), this Saxon foundation contains Roman tiles in its walls, presumably re-used form the earlier Roman settlement sited in the area. The windows are, for the most part, of the Saxon or early Norman style, very narrow and with rounded heads.

But the real reason for a visit is that Hardham contains what may be England's earliest mediaeval wall paintings, and certainly one of the most complete decorative schemes to survive. Dating from shortly after 1100 AD, they are in amazing condition for their age, with vivid colours. They cover every wall.

The subjects include an oddly anatomical Adam and Eve (above), the Annunciation, scenes from the life of Christ, and St George (in classic 11th century armour, riding a fine white charger) killing the Dragon.

Hardham has a regular church service at 11am on Sundays, but it is often open in the daytime for visitors. (Hooray!).

To get there head south out of Pulborough on the A29 towards Arundle. Slow down and prepare to turn left as soon as you pass the sign telling you that you are entering Hardham: the turn is not signposted in advance, and appears like a track, although you can see some half-timbered houses in the distance. The church is half way along this lane, and will amply reward a half hour of anyone's time.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Six Bells in Penmark

It's often hard to find somewhere to go for a decent meal without breaking the bank in these days of economic uncertainty, so here's a suggestion following a recent visit to my folks in South Wales: located in the tiny village of Penmark in the Vale of Glamorgan, the Six Bells is a traditional pub with a small restaurant and function room.

Penmark itself is a small but delightful village, close to Cardiff Airport. It has a single main street, a church and the remains of a 12th century castle, once home to the Umfraville family (shades of 'Tess...'). The Pub itself has a traditional bar area with a low ceiling, wooden beams and a tiled floor and a large fireplace, which is home to a roaring fire in winter. There's a second bar on the other side of the servery leading to an airy, modern dining room, although I prefer the cosier side myself. They serve real ales (essential), which on my visit included Hancock's HB and Old Speckled Hen.

They also serve food with a decent menu of pub grub favourites and a slightly more upmarket menu for the evenings with the likes of steak and sea bass. They also have a daily selection of traditional desserts and a Welsh cheese board. On Sunday lunchtimes they do a traditional roast, for which it is advisable to book.

We had a family meal there recently, and the food was both well cooked and very good value indeed, with everything freshly prepared - be warned that some of the portions can be on the generous side, so if you want pudding, you may want to skip the starters! Although they weren't terribly busy with diners (it was a Saturday lunchtime), service was spot on, and all the staff were very friendly and helpful.

The pub has strong competition locally, as neighbouring villages feature the Blue Anchor (a genuine 'olde worlde' building with excellent real ales and a more upmarket restaurant) and the Fox & Hounds at Llancarfan (also well known for its food, but pricier). The Six Bells sensibly goes for something slightly different, and scores on fresh, good value food and the friendliness of its service.

Worth looking out for.

Practicalities: It has a large car park tucked behind the building, so parking is straightforward. It is accessed by a minor road (signposted to Penmark) off the B4265 Cardiff Airport - Llantwit Major Road.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

London Motorcycle Museum

Located in the slightly unpromising wilds of suburban West London, this is a small but fascinating museum for anyone interested in the history of British Motorcycles. The museum is housed in some rather anonymous former farm buildings just off The Broadway in Greenford, which give little hint of what’s inside.

The collection is the main event, and includes over 80 motorcycles dating from 1902 to the 1990s. The core of the display is the amazing collection of Triumphs belonging to museum founder Bill Crosby, with over 50 bikes loaned and donated from other sources.

Although the Triumphs dominate the selection, there are many other familiar names: Rudge-Whitworth, BSA, Brough, Ariel, Matchless, Norton and Royal Enfield, alongside a few foreign bikes. There are vintage, racing, road, police, sprint, custom and military bikes on display, as well as various items of motorcycling ephemera and memorabilia.

One of the most fascinating is a small 50cc Moto Minarelli sprint bike built for the successful record attempt by Des Heckle in 1973. It doesn’t even have a seat, and was built to his personal measurements. Other items of specific interest include a rare 1902 Ormonde, several Triumph prototypes, and - my favourites - an amazingly modern-looking 1930s Coventry Eagle 1000cc Flying 8 and a Rudge TT from 1911. (My grandfather owned a Rudge Multi).

The main building has a (very) small shop and eating area with seating and drinks machines, although there are plans to expand the museum by opening up one of the sheds behind, currently used as a store and workshop. The volunteer staff are friendly and helpful and, as well as the museum, they also put on displays at events elsewhere.

This museum is clearly a labour of love by dedicated enthusiasts, and doesn’t have the glitz of bigger museums, but its collection is both fascinating and absorbing for those interested in British motorcycle heritage.


The site has free car parking, and is a short walk down Oldfield Lane from The Broadway in Greenford. It’s a 15 minutes walk from Greenford underground station (turn right and just keep going, using the subway to cross under the A40), and there are buses both to Greenford and Ealing Broadway stations.

The museum has a short ramp to enter and a long sloping access ramp through the main building, suitable for wheelchairs, and there is a disabled toilet on the site.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

A view of the sea

Sometimes I take a photograph on the spur of the moment that I just like. This is one of them.

I know it's not technically very competent, but I liked the view of the ship moored out to sea and the couple walking on the edge of the shore.

It was taken from the seafront in Vilanova i la Geltru in Catalonia.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Fisherman's Friends

I'm not normally one for plugging a product, but this is one I feel needs comment - if only because it seems harder and harder to find stores that sell them.

By way of explanation, I'm one of those people for whom winters mean catarrh, an itchy throat, and either a blocked or runny nose. In those circumstances, the potent lozenges from Lofthouse's in Fleetwood are a real life saver: in particular, on the cough-incubator that is the London Underground, they really seem to help ward off infection.

Now I realise that, like Marmite, they are something you either love or hate: the intense combination of menthol and eucalyptus is unrelieved by the sugar you find in other cough sweets, and they are famed for being the strongest lozenges available. I don't exactly love the flavour, and admit that drinking a pint of beer afterwards makes for a weird sensation, but they don't half work: a clear nose and soothed throat are almost guaranteed.

And as far as I am concerned, the other brands of lozenges and sweets simply don't cut it - they might be nicer to suck or chew, but they are child's play in comparison (and those sticky, sugary concoctions can't be good for your teeth, either). Lofthouse have to be doing something right: their product has been going now since 1865.

My only gripe is that they seem to be harder and harder to find. I forget how many stores I have been into, to find they don't sell them - or, worse still, don't even know what I'm on about. (Part of the problem here is London's cosmopolitan workforce: asking for a 'Fisherman's Friend' from someone for whom English is a second language doesn't half get you some strange looks sometimes. By way of example, I discovered today that neither Sainsbury's nor Boots the Chemist in Holborn stock them.

Perhaps I ought to write a guide: 'Where to buy Fisherman's Friends in central London?'

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


One of the best known features of Spain is its passion for the fiesta, a tradition kept alive and well even in the face of modern communications and globalisation. Every town has its annual highlight – celebrating a saint’s day, or a political or historic event.

The highlight of Vilanova’s fiesta calendar is the Carnaval, held over a week in the run up to Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday – otherwise known as Mardi Gras.

Whilst its neighbour, Sitges, is internationally known for its camp parades of carnival kings, queens and drag queens, attracting an international tourist crowd, Vilanova’s is a much more homely (but still impressive) spectacle. Events over the week include a parade of floats, a children’s parade, a battle of the meringues (think: a street fight of all ages with wet meringue instead of custard pies), and a masqued ball. Everyone seems to get into the spirit of things, with whole families adopting a theme for their fancy dress.

The week finishes with a parade and ceremony of the ‘Burial of the Sardine’ on Ash Wednesday, when a large model sardine is buried on the beach. This is a healthy snub to the church authorities of yesteryear, when the sardine ceremony parodied the pre-Lenten ‘burying of the fat’ performed by the church.

But the highlight is the Sunday Celebration of the ‘Guerra de los Caramellos’, literally the ‘battle of the sweets’. For this, seemingly the whole town turns out, to watch the various carnival groups (of which there are dozens), each in their own distinctive costumes and with their own brass band, parade around the town. Every square in the centre is taken over, with the whole town in party mood.

But the most distinctive feature are the sweets, carried in huge shoulder bags and, at various stages, thrown into the air with great gusto. And we are talking lots and lots of sweets here: around 20 tons, to be precise; the pavements and squares become a colourful, not to say crunchy, mosaic of colourful sweet wrappers and boiled sweets. No-one seems to bother collecting any to eat; they just get trodden down, until the soles of your shoes become crackly and sticky.

It's all great fun, and immensely colourful. The pavements and drains are covered with the cellophane-wrapped debris and are sticky for days afterwards – a reminder of what you should have given up for Lent…

Friday, 6 February 2009

Lost property

I'm in mourning for a pair of lost gloves. It sounds pathetic, I know, but these were the best fitting, comfiest and nicest gloves I possessed, and like an idiot I left them on a train. (I'd just had a lousy journey thanks to tube disruption, and left them on an overground train while still nursing my grievance).

Of course, I've telephoned the lost property office, but past experience doesn't lead me to have much faith in the system. I lost a cap earlier in the year, and reported that, to no avail.

Now I might hear you saying that I can easily get another pair of gloves. Wrong. It took me ages to find these: they are black leather, but fit very closely, and have a button fastener. I recall them being hard to find when I bought them ten years ago: my main problem is that I have small hands for a man, somewhere between a size seven and seven-and-a-half. Ordinary 'medium' sized gloves end up having an irritating empty bit at the tips of the fingers, and that just won't do. I've visited John Lewis, Peter Jones, House of Fraser, Liberty - you name it - but to no avail.

Next time I'm putting nothing in the luggage rack above or behind the fold-up table in front...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

After the snow, I suspect every other blog will about the weather this week, either carping on about how a few inches brings everything in the UK to a standstill, or how wonderful it is to have a day off.

I'm firmly with the latter. We've had a good six inches here in West London, falling all in one night, and it's the worst single snowfall for as long as I have lived here. So we can't be expected to gear up for it: the cost of all those snowploughs sitting doing nothing for years on end would be something to grumble about in its own right. And one day off every ten years is hardly a disaster (especially when most of us do loads of unpaid overtime). Clearly, places like hospitals have a torrid time, with ambulances struggling through snow-bound side roads, and wards being short-staffed just as there's a surge of broken bones and twisted ankles from people slipping over, but for the most part we catch up pretty quickly.

Actually, not everything did grind to a standstill, despite what the news media would have you believe: I travelled yesterday morning from Barry in South Wales back to Kensington, and the journey was pretty smooth: OK, my train from Cardiff was cancelled, but another one (from Swansea) turned up around the same time, and made it to London Paddington, taking only five minutes longer than usual. There was no District Line south, but by a combination of the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines I was still home in half an hour. The worst bit was the last few hundreds yards from the Underground station, as the pavements were snowy. But, as you can see from the photo, it did look glorious, and a succession of charmingly eccentric snowmen have been built in the gardens over the last 24 hours.

There were a few surprises in what kept going and what did not: the Heathrow Express was suspended, despite the rest of the Great Western main line working normally, and despite the fact that the Piccadilly Line - with its vulnerable ground-level electric rails - was operating normally through to Heathrow. Apparently, trains cancellations were caused as much by the fact the staff couldn't get to work, as by snow on the line.

Still, things around here seem to be back pretty much to normal, so roll on spring!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The end of an Era...

...with the closure of The Coleherne pub in Earl's Court.

The Coleherne used to vie with the Queen's Head in Chelsea as London's oldest gay pub. Gay men started frequenting the venue in the 1950s, and by the 1970s it was well known as a centre of gay life in London. Earl's Court became one of the best-known 'gay ghettoes', formed partly as a result of the post-war changes in housing, which saw the larger houses around Earl's Court broken up into flats. More well-heeled than Paddington, but cheaper than Chelsea, a distinctive community grew up here which found its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s.

At this time a committee had to be set up to try and improve relations between the patrons of the Coleherne and residents in the surrounding area, fed up of the areas in front of their homes being used as a cruising ground for gay men. The pub - a traditional venue, smoky and atmospheric, and popular with the leather-and-denim crowd - was sufficiently well known to feature in Armistead Maupin's book 'Babycakes', but rather less happily it was also one of the stalking grounds of serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland.

Earl's Court attracted a number of other gay venues during the 1980s and early 1990s: Copacabana, the Boltons, Graffiti, Bromptons and the eerily-named Catacombs. But times have changed: greater liberation and toleration means that gay men now live across London's suburbs, the desire to live side by side in a 'gay ghetto' now no longer a necessity, and the centre of exclusively gay bars has moved to Soho. The Coleherne itself began to suffer: an expensive makeover in the 1990s wasn't entirely successful, and robbed it of much of its character, and the loss of real ale made it less attractive to those who wanted a decent pint.

All Earl's Court's gay bars have now closed, including the Philbeach Hotel. The Coleherne was the last, and now it is gone, reopened in its new guise as The Pembroke, a straightforward, if fairly unremarkable gastro-pub. Only the Clone Zone shop (its parent company now in administration) and Balans, the gay-run restaurant chain, survive to indicate that once this was once a unique and colourful part of London...

Monday, 26 January 2009

Cambridge Winter Ales Festival - Review

Organised by the Cambridge and District Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this is a well established winter ales festival, with the emphasis is on the heavier, and generally darker (and stronger!) seasonal ales and “winter warmers”. However, with around 120 beers on offer, the festival has plenty of other beer styles too, as well as ciders and foreign beers - enough for even the most discerning palate.

I attended for the first time this year, and had a very enjoyable evening - once I got in, that is. The qualification is important, as one of the main features of the venue (Cambridge's University Social Club on Mill Lane) is that, for a beer festival, it's relatively small. There are two downstairs bars, the very small 'Back Bar' and the slightly larger 'Front Bar', where food is also served, and the main bar area upstairs. Entry is free for CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) members.

We arrived on the Friday at 7pm and had to queue for nearly an hour (that's real dedication for you) in a biting cold wind, as the venue was already full, and they could only let people in on a one-out, one-in basis. Unless they try for a larger venue next year, it's worth therefore getting there early: a friend of ours who arrived an hour earlier had no trouble queueing.

Once we'd warmed up, though, and purchased our £4 commemorative glasses (this is refundable if you don't want to keep it at the end of the evening), the beer choice was very good. The emphasis - and I suppose about half the ales - are of the heavier winter seasonal variety, including stouts and porters.

Some of these are pretty strong stuff: Bartram's 'Soviet Stout' comes in at 6.9% ABV, Cambridge Moonshine's 'Chocolate Orange Stout' comes in at 7.2%, Harwich Town's 'Sint Niklaas' at 7.8%, and Elveden's 'Harwich Charter Ale' at a whopping 10% ABV. Those trying the foreign beers have plenty of choice in the 8-10% range, with the Belgian Bush de Noël from Brasserie Dubuisson Frères brewery taking the ribbon with its staggering 12% ABV. (And you would be staggering, too, after one too many of those...).

Unsurprisingly, they only provide you with half-pint glasses. That all said, as with most beer festivals, people drink steadily and sensibly and the atmosphere is warm and friendly and very well behaved. There are plenty of beers in the 3.5-5% ABV range if you want something less alcoholic.

Some of the beers have wonderful names: Bartram's 'Mother In Law's Tongue Tied', a rich tawny ale (9% ABV) must rate as one of the best, Elgood's 'Wenceslas Winter Warmer' (7.5% ABV) wins the prize for alliteration, Potbelly's 'Jingle Bellies' (5% ABV) for the most humorous, Son of Sid's 'Strapped Jock' (4% ABV) for the most ribald and Woodforde's 'Headcracker' (7% ABV) for honesty!

Food is served until 9pm, although they carried on after this on our visit. The menu is pretty basic but filling festival fare: most popular, and best value, were the hearty and very fresh chips at £1.50, but there were also veggie chilli, game stew, fish and chips, various filled rolls and soup on offer.

Apart from the queue, the other main downers are that it is very crowded, there's no cloakroom to leave coats etc, there's no level access and relatively little seating for the numbers present. These are all limitations of the venue, but worth knowing about before you go if they're important for you.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Tourist shopping

I've never been one to go on holiday with the express view of shopping. In fact, shopping strikes me as the last thing I'd want to do when I'm abroad, when the prospect of visiting churches or museums, beaches or hill-walking country, or just sitting in a cafe watching the world go by, are the alternatives.

OK, so we've picked up the odd bit of pottery at markets when looking for the local 'colour' - difficult to avoid in North Africa, for example - and when in the USA I did buy a pair of cowboy boots - the sort of thing it's hard to get here, and which are particular to the place we visited. But the thought of going shopping for clothes or other items you can just as easily buy at home I find rather bewildering.

Clearly, however, I'm in a minority, if Oxford Street on Saturday was anything to go by. There seemed to be crowds of Dollar- and Euro-zone tourists on the tubes, buses and on the pavements, all shopping frantically while the pound is in such a miserably sorry state. Primark seemed to be a particularly popular destination judging by the crowds streaming in and out, as the normally very competitive clothes store had a sale on (as if it's possible to discount a £7 pair of jeans? Well, to £4, I suppose. At that rate the contents will soon be cheaper than the carrier bag you carry them out in).

I suspect this could become an interesting phenomenon this year: with no prospect of the pound recovering for some months, it may well be that London's retail sector is buoyed by the influx of visitors spending their hard earned cash here instead, while the locals stay at home. Why, it might even be worth sitting in a cafe in the West End, literally watching the rest of the world go by...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Tony Hart

And so, another icon of my childhood has passed away.

Tony Hart died over the weekend, at the age of 83. A pioneer of children's broadcasting, how you remember him will depend on your age and the television programmes you watched: for me, this will always be Vision On, where his quick-draw skills and often huge, bright and imaginative paintings inspired a whole generation to enjoy making art.

After Vision On, he starred in his own show, Take Hart. With his delightfully animated side-kick, Morph, this was aimed more directly at encouraging young people in creating art of their own. Less well known was the fact that he designed the original Blue Peter badge - another icon. His was a warm, gentle and yet highly creative form of television which, alongside that of Oliver Postgate (creator of the Clangers and Bagpuss), helped to define 1970s childrens' television.

Although Hart won two Baftas and a lifetime achievement award, as with Postgate, his work provides the most fitting memorial and tribute to his abilities.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

More Winter Ales and drinking tales

One of the things to look forward to on January's dull winter days (apart from Spring, that is), is the extraordinary wealth of beer festivals early in the year. Many of these specifically celebrate Winter Ales which, to the uninitiated, are the heavier, richer and usually sweeter brews which were traditionally brewed to help fend off the cold. These include specific brews produced only in Winter, as well as styles such as Porters which are naturally heavier. As well as providing extra calories, they are also packed with vitamins and minerals to help keep body and soul together.

I've already mentioned the Winter Ale Festival in Manchester which starts next Wednesday, but for those in London, the Cambridge Winter Ales Festival - which has actually been running longer - takes place next week too, and may be more accessible.

Once you've got back into the swing of beer festivals, then they come thick and fast in 2009, as the list of a 'A Year of Beer Festivals' on the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) website shows. Two close to my neck of the woods include the Battersea Beer Festival beginning on the 11th February, the Sussex Beer Festival at Hove in Sussex, on 12 March and a week later the 25th London Drinker Beer Festival at the Camden Centre in Bidborough Street, opposite St Pancras station.

But there are plenty of others to choose from around the country if any of these is not convenient. In addition to the large festivals organised by local CAMRA groups, there are also any number of smaller, pub-based festivals, with anything from 20 to 120 beers over a weekend.

So, as if you need an excuse, there'll be one close to you!

Friday, 16 January 2009

Choirs and weddings

We met some friends of ours the other night and, among other things, they mentioned that a friend was getting married in a well-known church in the city of London. Built by Sir Christopher Wren, the church has a grand and beautifully restored interior and is a fine setting for a wedding.

One of the parts of the service they had planned included a performance by a choir in which one of the family sings: a nice touch you'd have thought. However, apparently this is not allowed: the church has its own choir, and if anyone is going to sing (and get paid for it), it has to be them.

Now, I can see that, generally speaking, the church's own choir would be the normal choice, and even have first refusal. But in this case there's a special reason for making an exception, and it seems a little mean to me to operate what is effectively a closed shop on someone's special day. Not entirely in the Christian spirit, methinks...

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The 1911 census is online

Today is the day that many amateur genealogists have been waiting for with bated breath: the release of the the 1911 census data for England (those for Wales, as well as a few English counties, will follow later).

The 1911 census is interesting for all sorts of reasons. For starters, it was the first Census where individual household returns were preserved: previously, the records were destroyed once the transcripts had been completed. This means that you can see the returns in your ancestor's own handwriting - complete with mistakes and alterations, together with any comments the enumerator may have added later.

It also asked a number of questions about the life of the household: questions included asking how long the householders had been married, and how many children had been born to that union - including those that had died. It was also notable for a boycott by many suffragettes, angered that they were still being denied the vote, with the slogan "No Vote, No census".

Finally, it was compiled before the 1920 Act which prevented the census details from being released for 100 years, and the Government has bowed to pressure to release it earlier than the customary period. The early release, coupled with longer life expectancy, means that there are several thousand people mentioned on the Census who are still alive today - and for many, it will provide an insight into the lives of their parents and grandparents.

However, those looking for details the 1911 Census in Scotland will be disappointed, as the Data Protection laws there mean that the 100 year rule will apply, so those with Scottish ancestors will have to wait until 2011. There are also some areas where the records have been lost, so there will still be some frustrated searchers even in England.

The information is being hosted by the site, which means that the public will have to pay for the details, either for a transcript or (more) for a copy of the original. Hopes are high that the site will not repeat the problems of the launch of the 1901 census, which crashed its site after a matter of hours, due to the huge volume of people searching.

Happy hunting!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Freezing on the South Coast

Brrr. You come down from London to Brighton and expect it to be warmer than London. Normally it is: the South Downs shelter it from the worst of the weather from the North and especially the North East winds, and the coastal climate generally makes for milder days and nights too.

But not on Friday. The band of warm air descending, ironically, from the North, that ended the freeze elsewhere in the country had been held up somewhere in the Weald, so by the time my train reached Hayward's Heath, there were ominous signs of frost still hanging around in the late afternoon. Getting out at Brighton, it was distinctly frosty, and a quick check on the Met Office website revealed that it wasn't my imagination: the temperature - measured just down the coast in Shoreham - hadn't risen above freezing all day, and on Friday night fell to a really chilly -7.3C.

Interestingly, no-one seemed to have told a busy little squirrel any of that, who was up and early on Saturday doing whatever squirrels do. I thought they were supposed to hibernate, but apparently this is a common misunderstanding: both grey and red squirrels remain active throughout the winter, especially first thing in the morning when they have finished digesting their last meal and go looking for the next.

This one was certainly active on our garage roof, though quite what sort of food it thought it might have found there is anyone's guess. Still, it made for a more interesting and uplifting start to the day than listening to the latest grim news on the Credit crunch and from Gaza, both of which seem incapable of resolution at the moment.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Motorcycles in bus lanes

Great news - London Transport has decided to allow motorcycles in bus lanes for a trial period.

From 5 January 2009, an 18-month trial will allow motorcycles, mopeds, scooters and tricycles - but not those with sidecars - to travel in most red route bus lanes.

The only quibble that I can see is that it excludes borough bus lanes - ie those lanes introduced by individual boroughs. I can see this causing a certain amount of confusion - how are you to know whether you are in a participating bus lane or not? The website has detailed maps showing which lanes are included, but this is hardly helpful out on the road.

Still, as a motorcyclist, I think it's a step forward. As it's a trial, I hope bikers behave responsibly in using this new facility. And let's hope it reduces the number of casualties from accidents.

Pasta and plaster

My other half currently has a minor skin complaint that requires a fresh dressing every day, after showering.

The conversation went something like this:

"Could you put the pasta on?"

"But won't it get wet if I do it before you go in the shower?"

"What are you on about? Of course I won't take it into the shower"

"But you will if I put it on beforehand"

"No, I won't. Why would I take the pasta into the shower?"

Listen out for the penny dropping:

"Did you say pasta or plaster?"

You probably had to be there...

Castell de Castellet

Sometimes you go to a place that's simply nice.

It's not got the most imaginative name: the Castell at Castellet is rather like saying Castleton Castle in English. But it's a nice spot, with great views, all the same. Inevitably, the houses are all roaringly expensive and it has a stunningly posh restaurant, but wandering the few streets is free.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Worried about Wii

Among the plethora of adverts on TV this Christmas have been ones for Wii. Apart from its odd pronunciation (who paid the marketing gurus to come up with something otherwise used to describe urine?), for those not in the know it’s a computer concept which essentially turns your TV into a giant game screen, and has hand-held controls which take the place of bats, racquets, guns and so on, in the virtual world it sets before you.

The adverts show people – usually in front of a huge flat screen – playing tennis, having boxing matches and shooting aliens. Alongside the fairly obvious games is a social networking programme, which creates on-screen a garish, child-like virtual world populated by playful, doll-like characters, which the participants activate and cntrol like ‘real’ characters. These meet up, drink coffee, sit by the pool, even have parties.

My point in mentioning all of this – as if you hadn’t guessed – is to question whether it is a good thing. What Wii seems to deliver is a world where playing real games and engaging in real social interaction is replaced by the virtual equivalent - carried out from the comfort of your sofa.

The people depicted in the adverts are – of course - healthy, happy, and, above all, slim and attractive. Quite how they stay in tip-top, well balanced condition from the couch-potato comfort of their sofas is not revealed. I can see the benefits of this technology for people who genuinely find difficulty in doing such things – for example, because they have a disability which makes engaging in real sport prohibitively difficult. But for most, it strikes me as yet another force towards taking less exercise and substituting for developing real social skills.

More bizarrely, I do not understand the attraction of such virtual socialising. What is the point of a virtual party? Proponents might argue that it enables you to meet ‘friends’ from across the world in a way which would otherwise be impossible in real life. But these cannot be real relationships in any meaningful sense of the word. It seems to pander instead to a fear of forming deeper, more tangible but inevitably more complex relationships.

In the end, the real attraction of such technology – like most technology – is that it is convenient and easy. Virtual boxing doesn’t involve a trip to the gym, the need to take a shower, and is considerably less likely to result in a broken nose or cauliflower ear. On-line ‘friends’ are made with considerably less effort - and concomitantly less commitment- than the real thing.

But it could also be the first step towards a society like that depicted in Pixar’s charming cartoon Wall-E – where humans are reduced to immobile blobs floating on hover-beds, talking only into their screens, seduced every few minutes by the latest marketing fads. It’s enough to make this screen-bound writer go out jogging. In fact, I think I will.

'See you' next week...

Christmas Decoration Etiquette

What is the correct etiquette for putting up and taking down Christmas decorations?

I ask this because every year, Brighton City Council erects a small compound on Montpelier Crescent for discarded Christmas trees. These it processes into compost and mulch for its municipal gardens, an admirable example of recycling on our behalf (not quite as admirable as not buying the trees in the first place, perhaps, but we’ll leave that debate for another day).

What interests me is that the compound is erected on Christmas Eve, ready for the first trees on Boxing Day. And, sure enough, on Boxing Day afternoon the first trees appeared. Now, I was brought up on the notion that there were twelve days of Christmas, and that decorations should not be taken down until Twelfth Night (the night of 5th January). Other traditions hold that they should not be taken down until after Twelfth Night (ie on the 6th January) and others that they must not stay up beyond 6th January.

What all these have in common is the ancient notion that Christmas begins on Christmas Day and finishes twelve days later. I realise that few people actually put up their decorations as late as Christmas Eve, although this year I did (more because I didn’t get around to it earlier than adherence to Advent, if I’m honest).

Some churches also abide by this, erecting only a crib scene (minus the baby Jesus, of course) during Advent – a time, like Lent, that is supposed to be a period of fasting, reflection and repentance. But the pressures to begin early are hard to resist.

The modern preparations for Christmas begin the process weeks, if not months, in advance. Advent has disappeared as a season outside the church (even Advent Calendars depict presents, chocolates and other Christmassy items), and at least one national newspaper laments the fact that Christmas cards are on sale in one shop or another, some time around August.

But that doesn’t explain the hurry to get the whole thing over and done with, with rather indecent haste. Why ditch the tree the day after? It’s still a holiday; there’s still a Christmassy feel around (plenty on the telly, certainly); and there’s another holiday just 7 days later. It’s as if they’ve got fed up with the thing and can’t wait to return to normal, and hoover up all the dropped pine needles. Perhaps we need a campaign to reinstate the twelve days of Christmas?

A Catalan New Year

So here we are, having swopped the dry and freezing New Year in the UK for a milder but damper one in Barcelona.

Coming to Catalonia, like most parts of Spain, always requires a bit more of an adjustment than most other European destinations, particularly when it comes to your body clock. The one hour time difference is more than compounded by the siesta and the habit of eating and drinking late - very, very late. Most establishments don’t open before 9pm, and remain eerily quiet until 10.30pm. But on New Year’s Eve, the bars stay resolutely closed until 1am, to allow the staff to see in the New Year at home before continuing their celebrations in a more public space.

The Spanish New Year seem to have two main aspects. The first of these is eating grapes: twelve grapes, to be exact. These are quaffed, one at a time, to the chimes of the clock in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, broadcast on every TV and radio channel. It’s quite a challenge: the chimes come quite quickly, and Spanish grapes have pips so, unless you have already de-seeded them, or bought the expensive little tins of pre-prepared grapes, you’re going to have to spit pretty quickly too. Inevitably, people end up giggling with mouths dribbling full of grapes they can’t quite stuff in fast enough.

The second element is Spanish television. In recent years, this has improved, in ways which any Brit over 40 can understand: the cheesy celebrities of yesteryear (think Val Doonican, only Spanish, and worse), have largely bitten the dust - some of them literally so, I suspect. Instead, there’s a more mixed entertainment of music, comedy and reviews of the past year. As you wend your way to a bar, you can hear a medley of different channels wafting from each balcony.

Feliz Año Neuvo!