Monday, December 18, 2006

Trees Company

It helps that here in West Berks we have Xmas tree plantations like other places have Tescos, but that has helped me bag a brand new experience: I have just felled my very own Xmas tree. Now this is like food miles but for other living things - well it was living right up to the point where the saw finally cut through the trunk.

Admittedly this wasn't the most strenous piece of lumberjackery, but its the action that counts and we got the freshest tree that we have ever had all from in our own back-yard. And before you ask we didn't just stroll into some unattended field at the dead of night; this was strictly legit and real hard earned cash changed hands between myself and the plantation owner. At least that's who I assumed he was...

Anyway the place was packed with like minded souls, and after only a few minutes searching out the right specimen and rather more minutes cursing as I struggled to get purchase on the slender trunk, in amongst the branches, it was down, paid for and being ferried back to Rod K mansions. After a big drink in the garage overnight: for the tree not me you understand, it was standing in pride of place in the living room, and the younger members of the family were decorating it in time-honoured fashion.

If only we could locally source all of our needs - a project for 2007, perhaps.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Router Nightmare finally over...

My home system has been plagued by a set of self inflicted configuration problems, which has resulted in not being able to post reliably to this blog or to read my favourite stories on other peoples'. I don't think I should beat myself up too much though, as the incorrect settings were applied using information from my errant ISP's own support pages.

If you need something doing, it is better to trust your own judgement and do a bit of digging under the covers in the murky world of router set-up. Needless to say I seem to have restored my home networking to happy harmony and service will be resumed shortly.

After that, tackling global warming or world peace should seem like a walk in the park.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Market Warfare

If you want to get really local food then you need to discover your nearest Farmers' Market, which is what we did last Sunday. If it's the first Sunday in the month then that's when you'll find the newly transformed Market Place in Newbury alive with foodies searching out tempting treats from West Berkshire and around. Thames Valley Farmer's Markets criteria are simple: if you produce your food in West Berks or up to 30 miles around then you're a candidate.

With the range on offer, it seems to make sense to make a quick pass around all the stalls to see what takes your fancy before launching in and buying, but impatient shoppers like ourselves can only wait so long. So, we use a sort of two pronged attack. Food that is outrageously high on the 'buy me' scale is shown no mercy on the outward sortie, followed by more thoughtful purchases on the return journey, when anything passed over is picked off with a marksman's aim. Reconnaissance missions always pay off in terms of intelligence gathering, which is rapidly deployed to the theatre of operations, or shopping street as we like to call it. This kind of stall to stall operation demands no special clothing, just a keen eye for delicious produce at a range of less than thirty paces.

Prisoners taken this week, included Focaccia, which is the staple of any hastily gathered battlefield lunch; a very sweet and caramelised Red Onion chutney from Gillys, which complemented the quiches (lorraine and a sun-dried tomato, brocolli and pine-nut) from Samantha Alexander, followed by wonderfully sticky chocolate fudge and mincemeat shortbread pieces from Crumbles all washed down by a drop of our local brew, the wonderfully hoppy but light enough for lunch, 'Good Old Boy' from the West Berks Brewery. The latter was a real find, since I had been seeking out a product that was truly representative of the best that West Berks can offer, and this was it, brewed behind Mike Robinson's Pot Kiln, reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and sold here in the centre of Newbury on a chill winter's morning.

All of this action though has the potential to empty your magazine, or wallet, so make sure that you get plenty of readies in before setting off.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

December Calling

Now that December is nearly upon us, there is a job that hangs around demanding your attention and steadfastly refusing to go away. It is nearly time to write the dreaded Round Robin, or summary of your existence on the Blue Planet for another 365 days.

Of course , being a blogger makes this easier every year, since your hopes, dreams and fears are laid out for all to see across the whole spectrum of seasons. For those who are untroubled by the internet though you have to go the trouble of typing in Word, printing out a myriad of copies and generally stuffing them into envelopes along with their Christmas Card.

Why bother though - it's easier to summarise it here and write the link down. After all who doesn't have access somewhere. Expect an explosion of similarly themed posts coming to a blogosphere near everyone real soon.

Media Centred

It was all the rage when I bought it, but now all I do is rage at it. It is broken again: the Toshiba Qosmio F10 Media Centre laptop that I picked up nearly two years ago. What's more it appears to be the same fault. This was supposed to be the future: the PC comes of age and we all cluster round it rather than the Cathode Ray Tube in the corner of the room.

The TV, as it is better known is still going strong, but the poor graphics card in the laptop doesn't really deserve the name, as it rarely displays anything now. So it will be another journey back to the repair centre, for the box not me, and the inevitable big bill. For it seems that Toshiba have a sneaking suspicion that their kit has built in obsolescence, the one feature that they don't make a song and dance about, when they set the warranty period for repairs at a measly three months.

The Moodier Centre as it will henceforth be called will be recalled to its maker where it may the latest and greatest graphics card added, as it was the last time. Only on this occasion, I hope that the manufacturer remembers what the humble customer bought it for in the first place, using it as a handy bedroom TV/DVD/CD player with wireless internet access. All of this takes time and you might expect that the display would take a hammering. It all makes me wonder how long this particular product spent in soak test. What do you mean, we're soak testing it for Toshiba?

As for the concept of the Media Centre itself, I think it's an idea whose time has passed. You do need somewere to store all of your media, but the method of accessing it needs to be more armchair friendly, something you would be happy to share your lounge with. Let's hope Steve Jobs has the answer this time, with his iTV, although he may want to think about the name if he doesn't want a call from Michael Grade. Don't Apple try the simple precaution of typing their product names into Google these days?

Anyway I feel a battle coming on: that of Clueless Consumer versus Titanic Corporation. Some day the little guy will win.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Better Bond

This was surely not like the Bond films of my youth. Where were the quips? Where were the put-downs? Where were the double entendres? No, this new Bond film with its new Bond, was a really fresh approach to the genre. It was gritty; it was mean; it was hard. Was all of this a backlash against the criticism of Daniel Craig?

Don't get me wrong, Casino Royale had a Full House of features from earlier in the franchise. After all there were the women, the locations, the stunts and the chases. In fact it looked fabulous, no doubt due to the cinematography of Phil Meheux, who performed that role on the similarly tough 'Long Good Friday', another Rod K favourite. The story cranked along at a fair pace, too, in a mad dash to visit as many exotic places as the budget would allow.

But it was Craig, as the latest incarnation of JB, who played the character as darkly as it is possible to get whilst remaining entertaining, and staying within the bounds of a 12A production. The grainy, black and white sequences at the beginning flashing back to his pre-00-licence days showed a ruthless and un-pretty side to his character. This was no gentleman pursuing the noble cause of fighting for Queen and Country, but a out and out thug, a hired hand who was working his way up the ranks.

I haven't read the original novel, but I understand that it was actually quite a short story. It seemed as if quite a lot of extra screenplay had been built up around the basic premise of the book: that of the fledgling agent on his first mission who is trying to beat his quarry at cards, in order to bankrupt the terrorists' banker. But it was all the better for it, showing the skill of the writers in transforming the written word to the projected image.

Not even the enforced evacuation of the cinema for a fire alarm, which meant a half-hour wait outside whilst the building was checked, could spoil our enjoyment.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Breaking and Entering

Sometimes the best things happen by accident, and due to a complete lack of planning, trying to fit too much into the day and a re-creation of Hugh-Fearnley Whitingstall's fish pie from 'The River Cottage Treatment', we were running far too late to catch the film we had intended. We arrived at the cinema without booking an alternative, only to find the next performances sold out.

This was beginning to look like the 'Comedy of Errors' as we finally had to book a late film which meant that we had a couple of hours to kill, but time spent in the company of a loved one passes all too quickly and we were soon snaffling popcorn in front of our hastily chosen substitute.

We had finally settled on Antony Mingella's latest film, Breaking and Entering, which the 'PreVue' magazine had described as 'understated'. Now this might put others off, but we actually like films where not much happens, not that this really applies to the work in question. In reality, the plot unfurls steadily, allowing for plenty of healthy introspection and discovery of the characters' motivations.

The main character, Will, played by a suitably moody Jude Law, is an architect who is transforming the area of King's Cross. We learn that his personal relationships have a close parallel with the architecture in the film - looks cannot hide the grim reality lurking underneath. His wife, Liv, is a beautiful Swede but suffers from Seasonal Affecting Disorder, and spends hours in front of a light box. They also have a daughter who is hyper-active and will never sleep at night. So despite the success of his work life, his home life is starting to crack.

Through the machinations of the plot, Will visits some iconic sixties concrete flats - you may have seen them - the ones that face each other across a walkway and step out gradually from the top so that each flat has a small outside terrace. These too look great on the outside, but during an inevitable chase sequence we get to see the dark spaces, beneath the flats, accessed via the service road, that were all too often were created in this era. These dank hell holes where no light reaches are an underworld of crime and seedy activity where the designer clothed architect seems totally out of place.

I worried that in forty years time, Will's transformation of King's Cross, with its canals, glass and steel might suffer the same fate. Like a lot of stunning architecture, has it really designed to be used? Has the creator thought about how the people who inhabit his world will interact with the spaces he is creating. For long after the critics have departed and the photographers have gone, it is the humble occupant who must judge the building, and they may not rate it so highly.

Still life does have a habit of being influenced by people's surroundings and if that is what the architect intended then it has been an outstanding success. Modern spaces have evolved a new art form: parcours - the art of using the built environment as, literally, a jumping off point. The free running sequences in the film continue the beauty within the cracked landscape theme further and act as a thread to join sections of the narrative flow together.

The crime of the title, is just a device to delve deeper into the relationships between people and their environs. To not go and see this - now that would be a crime.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Like Christmas but Donated

I couldn't sleep the other night. I felt that something wasn't right. Then it came to me: Christmas was just round the corner. I thought, do I really need more stuff? The answer was plain enough: no!

So there and then I took the decision that I needed to get people to donate money to the charity of my choice, instead of buying things for me. This blog was the perfect vehicle for doing so. As of yesterday, it now contains a link to my page on

I thought about the charities I could benefit and it didn't take long to decide to back Oxfam. After all they started locally in Oxford, which isn't far from West Berks. Their mission is simple:
  • Saving lives by responding swiftly to provide aid, support and protection during emergencies
  • Developing programmes and solutions that empower people to work their way out of poverty
  • Campaigning to achieve lasting change
They actively campaign to produce a fairer, more just world, where people can reach their potential on their own rather than exist on handouts. So, go on, please help by donating where you see the Justgiving logo, or follow the links in this post.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What's in the box?

In our quest to find the best organic food box scheme, we are now on our third, count 'em, supplier. Long gone are the days when you could simply head to your nearest supermarket and buy all of the produce you needed for the week. I mean there are so many rules to be adhered to these days.

It has to be organic doesn't it. We don't want to poison ourselves with all of those nasty chemicals that non-organic farmers spray onto their crops. It also has to be local. We don't want to ruin the planet by trucking the green-groceries half-way round the world, or even half way across the country if we can help it.

It has to be in season. Now this is a new one for city folk like myself. Apparently fruits and vegetables don't grow and ripen all year round. It has something to do with the sun, and the days getting shorter or longer. The supermarkets have been conning us naive food-buying folk for years by putting food from far off climes on their shelves for three quarters of the year, probably at huge expense to them and therefore to us. As a result they have convinced us, or is it just me, that Mango is in season from January to December. I have just been told that Mango doesn't grow in this country and is probably a pretty bad example, but you get my drift.

Well I thought I had it all sorted out until I watched the news the other night. Apparently there is another factor to add to the equation. Let's call this factor 'y' for the sake of argument. If you differentiate 'y' by time 't' then you might think that you had ended up back at school, and you would be right. So, we won't do that - what we now need to know is the total amount of CO2, 'y', that is generated by growing and transporting fruit 'x', and this is not at all obvious.

The Kiwis, the nation not the fruit, have been hitting back at the terrible slurs that the Kiwis, the fruit not the nation, are not green. Now I can see what you are thinking there, and you would be right: that what I really meant was that they are not Green. The Kiwis (nation) maintain that the Kiwis (fruit) are actually more green than a tomato. Now I can see what you are thinking there: that they don't seem to be saying very much, until you realise that the tomato is not just any tomato, but one grown in a heated greenhouse, on, say, the Isle of Wight.

The total amount of CO2, 'y', generated by producing and shipping us the decidedly green Kiwi, 'x', (fruit again), is apparently less than the CO2 used in producing and shipping the decidedly red tomato, 'z'. This apparent conundrum, sorry equation, can be solved when you add fact 'a': that the Kiwi is shipped using a ship, and the tomato is shipped using a truck, but has been grown out of season using lots of artificial heat. This has got everything to do with the fact that ships don't give out anywhere near the amount of CO2 that a plane does, and the fact that the days are much shorter in the Isle of Wight.

Is that clear?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Celebration of Truffles

When you get lost on the way to a restaurant, you know you are in the countryside. We didn't go far wrong, but in the dark the directions never seem to quite match up to reality. We were visiting The Harrow at Little Bedwyn to celebrate a recent birthday, mine not theirs, and we had been wanting to try out this up and coming place for some time.

When we finally arrived, the welcome we received was attentive, but not overly warm and we were quickly shown to our table. The restaurant appeared to be a large converted house with the two rooms now given over to seating diners at simple unfussy tables. The decor seemed a little dated, Sue and Roger Jones, the owners opting for bright wall colouring rather than the more modern muted palette. Still this place was more about the palate and this is where the Harrow was definitely headed in the right direction.

Once we had ploughed (pun intended) our way through the menu and extensive wine list and chosen our courses, we were brought a taster of butternut squash and truffle. This had a creamy consistency and was our first encounter with the ingredient that permeates most of the dishes on the menu, the humble English Truffle. They seem very proud of the fact that they forage for their own truffles at some secret location, and in enough quantity to use both in the restaurant and sell on. At the prices this ingredient can fetch, they must be making a fortune.

Another unique touch was the marrying of each dish on the menu with a recommended glass of wine, which made choosing easy for wine novices like ourselves. So we knew that our Meursault premier Cru and Chardonnay would go with with our mains at least.

My starter of Duck Terrine looked and tasted superb, with the pickled Chinese cabbage a useful foil to the robust flavour of the duck. My wife's Carpaccio of Venison, an unusual choice for her, had a strength of flavour that was complemented by fungi that would also be found in the deer's native woodland.

Moving on to the mains, we both opted for fish, as this was well represented on the menu. I chose the Dover Sole, a subtly flavoured fish that was lifted by the perfectly cooked scallops, the mash and the spinach that were layered beneath it. Across the table, my wife's truffle adorned Sea Bass was well cooked and balanced by the pak choi, potato rosti and chilli jam. Now at this point in the meal there is normally a dilemma about whether to carry on to the dessert, but thankfully due to the neatly judged portion sizes, there was never any doubt that we would. Before we received the menu though, another taster of fruit jelly and cream arrived which prepared us for the course to come.

My bread and butter pudding arrived with its components arranged in a row. On the left the small roundel of layered bread; in the centre the marinated prunes and on the right the coconut ice cream. The flavour of the main constituent was out of this world, and was like eating a mince pie, with the cinnamon and fruit very much to the fore, but tempered by the other parts of the dish. The chocolate terrine chosen by my wife was dark and rich and was accompanied by a chocolate and coffee shot with Baileys cream on top, with cappuccino ice cream to the side. The shot had almost too strong a coffee flavour, which overpowered the terrine, but this was only a mild criticism of what had been a very good meal.

We rounded off with coffee and chocolate truffles before we wended our way home, having had another great food experience in West Berkshire's (and eastern Wiltshire's as we were slightly over the border) impressive restaurant line up. Was it expensive? Well at just over £100 for the two of us, I think it was definitely worth it, as our combined rating was 9/10. It was only really let down by the lack of really local ingredients, save the ubiquitous truffle.

If you want a slice of modern British cooking at a reasonable price, you would do well to follow us there. We know the way now after all.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Couple In Conversation

Newbury's latest sculpture, part of the Town Trail and called 'Couple in Conversation', is aptly sited on the main roundabout in Newbury. I say aptly since I know what they are talking about, cars. Newbury has an unhealthy interest in that form of personal motorised transport: an obsession some might call it.

The main points being debated this week in the letters column of the Newbury Weekly News, the town's main newspaper, concern the daily traffic chaos brought about by the pedestrianisation and temporary closure of two of the main parts of the town: its central shopping area and the market place. There is also fervent discussion on the merits of a single or two way bridge over the Kennet, and plans for the Wharf, an historic area of the town which is bisected by the approach to said bridge.

In all of this debate there is a lot of support for the use of the car and the benefits of being able to drive through the heart of the town and park a few footsteps away from the shops. Newbury famously had its last battle over the provision of a bypass to take through traffic away from the centre, and having won that the car lobby is fighting to take back control of the centre. Surely this is an opportunity to be grasped to get people out of their cars and to make more environmentally friendly journeys within the town. Hasn't anyone heard of global warming here?

I am pretty sure that people don't visit Newbury to see the car parks, but from the tone of those letters in the local press, it seems that residents think that they are preferable to a canal boat basin which is planned for the Wharf area. This would complement the beautifully paved square that the Market Place is set to become, and would really provide a destination, somewhere worth visiting, and would bring increasing prosperity to the town.

It is ironic that the only people who will be able to get a good look at the new sculpture are drivers, as Newbury is fast becoming a place that people will just want to pass on through and not stop at. Has anyone rung Jeremy Clarkson? Perhaps he might like to bring back Top Gear with a special feature on Newbury: Car City.

Strange Nature

originally uploaded by rodkwithnasa.
There are some times when it pays to have your camera with you and this was one of them. Last Sunday, we were visiting friends, who had moved to a new house in the New Forest National Park. The weather had been atrocious for most of the day, but we managed to get out and about for a walk in the afternoon.

This was the depths of the English countryside and was most unspoilt and untouched by the onward march of civilisation. The flora and fauna of Hampshire were out in force as we saw roe deer, rabbits, Lesser Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, and this mycological treat. It was nearly a foot across and at a distance looked just like a beautiful, pristine white rock hidden amongst the grass. When we got nearer though we realised that this was alive, and is most probably an example of a Calvatia gigantea (Langermannia gigantea).

Isn't nature wonderful.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fog City Primer: Biking the Golden Gate

As landmarks go, this one's a real corker. This was another of those must see, must do attractions that brought us to San Francisco in the first place. The Golden Gate Bridge is surely the most attractive yet functional structure in the western hemisphere and friends had told us that there was only one way to see it in all its glory - to pedal over it on your very own bike.

Now we hadn't taken the trouble to fly our two wheeled transport over the Atlantic, but luckily this is a very popular pastime on the peninsula. Those helpful folk at Blazing Saddles, on production of the requisite plastic, furnished the whole family with bikes, routes and tickets for the Blue and Gold ferry for the return trip. This August Saturday was sunny but cool, with a stiffish breeze as is common on the coast - in short almost perfect conditions for the trip.

We set off from the Fisherman's Wharf and followed the edge of the bay round, passing the cable car turnaround at Mason and heading for the small incline up to the tree topped mound where Fort Mason lies. From this elevated position we got a good view of our goal, and so pressed on through the small park and down to Marina Blvd. Now we were on the flat again and made good progress as far as the Yacht Club, on its own small spit of land which protects the boats from the choppy waters of the bay. We took a small detour to see the less than impressive Wave Organ, a small sculpture located on the end of the finger of land.

We were impressed by the sheer number of locals jogging along this scenic bay-side stretch. Not for them the weekend chores of food shopping or cleaning, but Ipod Nanos fixed to arm and ear-buds to ear, with their best mate by their side for company and motivation. We saw others at the nearby Marina Green Park, where there was a volleyball competition in full swing, with rock music beating out over the PA. San Franciscans really know how to enjoy themselves.

We set off again, through the Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and a former military outpost of the Spanish. This is a beautiful area with a wide grassy margin crossed by paths, leading down to the beaches which line the bay. The main road was now far from us, having turned inland to start its journey up the bridge itself. We were able to enjoy the relative peace and tranquility, save for eddying groups of people that frequented the route, all taking part in their own journey.

A food stop was now necessary - a family marches on its stomach, and luckily the Crissy Field visitor centre hove into view just in time. The cafe here seemed to pride itself on great wholefood ingredients and the freshly prepared sandwiches were definitely worth the wait and the whole process of ordering bread, filling and dressing types separately for a family of four. Suitably re-fueled and with pictures of the now very near bridge safely in the camera, we went to view the small fort that sits beneath the approaches to the span.

It was now uphill and once we had purchased our souvenirs in the shop, it was out onto the deck of the bridge itself. The wind really picked up now as we headed out on the separate walking and cycling lane, conveniently one-way, on the Western flank of the bridge for our journey North. The youngest needed some help as we reached the towering supports and the wind stopped all forward movement, but after another photo opportunity we were on our way and eventually made it to the far side.

Needless to say, the views of the city from here were fabulous, and the topography from the shoreline to the highest hill were all laid out to see. We crossed under the main carriageways and headed for Vista Point which gave exactly what its name suggested. Unfortunately we left the relative safety of the off traffic cycle lanes, and the remainder of the switchback descent into Sausalito was on the road, which didn't please all of the members of our party. Nevertheless we made it back to Bay's edge and found our way to the ferry terminal.

Sausalito seemed to have its fair share of bigger property, a convenient bolt-hole from the pressures of city life perhaps? Surely in such a relaxed and fun loving place, who could possibly need such a thing? We didn't have long to ponder these questions before the process of loading a hundred or so bikes and a couple of hundred people onto a ferry began. It didn't look like it would be possible, but of course the operators were experts and had done this once or twice before. We set off back across the bay to our starting point on Fisherman's Wharf.

We had done it! And yes our friends were right - 'Biking the Bridge' was an experience not to be missed.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Whitstable Mess

I have to admit that at first I was sceptical. Travelling down to Kent from Newbury seemed a long way to go for a team building exercise, with all of the carbon emissions that it entailed. This also seemed like pure indulgence, after all we weren't helping the community but helping ourselves. But as the day drew nearer I became resigned to the fact that we were off to Whitstable for a day of fun. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

We arrived early, which ensured that we had time to look around the town, which was like stepping back in time to an age when your high street wasn't dominated by look-alike chain-stores, but had real independent shops. The only recognisable retailer was Woolworth's and even this store had managed to retain its shop front logo from circa 1970. Still, there was quite a buzz about the place - no urban backwater this, but a seaside town without a tacky prom.

As far as I could tell, there were two major attractions to Whitstable: the sea and oysters. The sea I knew of course, but I was much less familiar with oysters. Luckily for me, we got the opportunity to experience both.

Highlight one was a trip aboard the Thames sailing barge, Greta. This hundred year old vessel appeared to be home to a couple of keen seafaring types, and we had the pleasure of being taken out from Whitstable harbour for a couple of hour trip taking in views of the isle of Sheppey, and admiring from afar the large wind farm that has sprung up off the coast. The weather was pretty good for a quick cruise round the bay, the morning's rain having abated, but the winds were light and so no speed records were broken. All who wanted got a chance to try their hand at the tiller, and you quickly got used to the fact that steering produced motion long after you had moved your hand. This made for many corrections, but generally got us there in the end.

The second highlight was a visit to Birdies Bistro, and the chance to try those famous oysters. I can reveal that slurping them down in one is a skill, but one well worth acquiring, since eating them is like gagging on something that ought to be going the other way. The overall effect is that you are eating something that is good for you and despite a bit of sandy grit, and a slightly salty aftertaste, you are earning the respect of your peers for tackling something a bit tricky.

The main course was a much safer, but no less delicious Sea Bass, and for pudding their version of Eton Mess: Whitstable Mess. I didn't wash this down with quite as much alcohol as others, as I had my critical faculties to keep about me, but this was still an enjoyable stay in undiscovered corner of England.

In the morning I realised that there was one more treasure that this place had up its sleeve. Other places have beach huts but Whitstable goes for them in a big way, with several tiers of them, one behind the other for maximum density. They are a tradition that has died out in many a seaside town, but this place celebrated them as if all the tired and spare ones had gravitated here over a few years.

For a back to the Fifties experience, it cannot be beaten. Try it, you know you want to.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fog City Primer: Alcatraz

That scourge of modern society, international terrorism, had almost defeated us, but we were actually here in San Francisco, Fog City. Friends had recommended the major sights, and many hours of research in guides and on the internet had slimmed down the wealth of visitor attractions to those that the whole family could enjoy.

Our first destination was Alcatraz. What a better way to start a holiday than in jail, but what a location! That was the cruel irony of the place when it was a fully functioning hotel for felons: its proximity to the mainland. The inmates could sense the city and all of its charms, but it was tantalisingly out of reach across a narrow straight of water in San Francisco Bay.

We crossed that divide by Blue and Gold ferry, booked in advance thankfully to avoid the August queues. The terminal on Pier 39 was already thronged with people at 10am in the major tourist district of Fisherman's Wharf, with all of its souvenir shops and Clam Chowder stands. It was a bright morning although cool, as the trademark fog had yet to fully disappear. Alcatraz island appeared smaller than I expected, but its eerie mystery pervaded the air nevertheless as the boat neared the dock after the 20 minute ride.

With such a relatively small island and everyone arriving in batches, organising the vistors was key and you were marshalled up to an area where one of the national park rangers explained the rules and what there was to see. After this short introduction, we journeyed up the hill to an exhibition hall where we saw a film giving an insight into the history of the place, and some of its more famous residents. Then it was time to make the final ascent to the jailhouse perched on top of the rock.

The cells were claustrophobic and primitive - this was surely no luxury place. After all, what designer apartments have a 'gun gallery' at the end of the block? The security of the whole place rested on this separate area at the end of the main hall, where the armed guards patrolled with a full sight of the prisoners below. Consequently, when one of the inmates managed to use a home made bar spreader, he quickly overpowered one, grabbed his gun and then used the cell keys to lock up his former captors, with one of the more psychotic residents shooting them in cold blood for good measure.

These stories from the past, and the rows of stark, dank cells, brought a real chill to the spine. As it is such recent history, it felt very real, very tangible and the horror of the place felt ingrained in the fabric of the building.

If you like your history raw and relevant, go there.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Being proud of your area is a good thing, and the folks who live in Northern Mono County, home to Topaz, Coleville and Walker have a lot to be proud of. We had the privilege of travelling down US395, through the Walker valley en route from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite and happened upon a tiny microcosm of American life, high in the Sierra Nevada.

It was August this year, and the California sun was shining, as it had done constantly after we had left mostly fog-bound San Francisco. We had just crossed back from Nevada by the beautiful Topaz lake, and felt like stopping. We looked out for a likely place, but we had moved from the mostly urban travelling of our first days in the States, to more sparsely populated regions. Still, it seems that even the tiniest places, and Walker was certainly that, have their own set of facilities. No, it wasn't exactly a strip: a straight highway packed with neon and garish signs, but it did support a motel and its very own burger joint, the eponymous Walker Burger.

It looked like a small chalet, a simple building with an awning to shield the happy customers from the sun, and a couple of grilles located above a narrow counter. At the first grille, which dutifully slid open when you approached, you ordered your food and beverages, and the second was where it all appeared a few minutes later. To announce its arrival, the staff simply piped up "Order number 42" or whatever your receipt said over the PA system. It was a devilishly simple system, and ensured that there was no messing about taking names or getting orders muddled if they contained similar items.

When you got your refreshments there was a shady garden with tables off to the side in which to enjoy them away from the glare of the sun. We didn't eat there, simply slaking our thirst with Cokes and Iced Tea, but it was doing very good business from the passing trade, and with all the care that they put into the place, I am sure that the food would have been delicious.
Looking at the website for the area, it is the epicentre of some spectacular country and wildlife. Although we didn't stay, opposite was even the West Walker Motel, which would have formed a good base to explore the lakes, Topaz and Mono, the mountains and the river itself. As I said, even the smallest community puts its heart and soul into making you feel welcome and selling you the attractions of the place.

Perhaps it is time to start promoting West Berks as a destination. It is too easy to think that there isn't anything to attract visitors, but sometimes all it takes is some long hard looks at your natural resources and a bit of imagination. We were glad that the residents of Walker love their environment, and were prepared to share it. All for a few dollars, of course.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sheer Vertical Wonder

Yosemite. I had seen pictures of it before of course, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of seeing in the wild. If ever a piece of the Earth's meagre crust could be described as awesome, then surely this was it. This was the Being that created our planet, having fun with the biggest building blocks in his cupboard, before he got to create us mere mortals. The scale of the place is its greatest asset and this is what drives our view of it as one of the most spectacular pieces of scenery in the world.

It hides its wonder well, and we only get glimpses of what we are soon to see on the way down from Yosemite's high country, where we enter the park via the Tioga Pass. The rarified atmosphere of 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada range is only a starter compared with the main course of the Yosemite Valley. We arrive in the park in early afternoon, with the bright August sun tempered by the chill of the altitude. The pass itself is lush and green and lakes are plentiful as you first make your way down to Tuolumne Meadows. In winter, this part of the National Park would be impassable, but here in summer we are treated to views of mountain peaks fringed with snow, surrounded by forest and flower.

We stop at the Meadows visitor centre, now only a mere 8600 feet above sea level but still with the same feel to it as at the top of the pass. The log cabin has lots of information and souvenirs, but nothing can tempt us and we carry on along Highway 120, which crosses the park from East to West. Cloud's Rest, one of the highest peaks in the range, catches our eye and we stop for this photo opportunity. We simply have to capture our experiences, as this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that prove you are alive and you need to re-live.

Eventually we turn back eastward as we near the junction of Highway 140 and we can see the valley itself, but the main attractions are still invisible to us, hidden by the twists and turns of the glacier cut walls. It is late in the day, so we head for our hotel, the Yosemite View Lodge at El Portal, which turns out to be a complex of motel like rooms, stacked three storeys high with some central facilities, but in the most spectacular location, hunkered down, cheek by jowl with the rocky Merced River. Our elevation now is a mere 2000 feet, and boy is it warm, even at 6pm. The rooms are spacious, and feature a kitchenette and a small balcony overlooking the scenery. The place is packed, as you would expect in August, and we grab a pizza in their fast food restaurant, too tired from our travels to really explore that evening.

The food at the Yosemite View was one of the few negatives, along with the look of the place, which appeared to have been thrown together cheaply, in concrete and steel with no regard to the beauty of the valley in which it sat. The best you can say was that in its drab brown coloured render it didn't stand out, but neither did it enhance its location. The food was the same, either in the restaurant, or the pizza place, it wasn't a high point, but was reasonable fuel for the day. Breakfast was a bit of a lottery, as the dining room was small for the number of rooms, and the first morning we had to buy food at the shop and prepare it in the kitchenette, to avoid a lengthy wait, but we rose earlier the next couple of mornings to ensure that we could sample the full hotel experience.

The first full day, we explored the valley floor, and it wasn't long before we were face to face with El Capitan, a huge slab of sheer sided granite that forms part of the Northern wall of the valley. It made you feel totally insignificant as it towered over you. We captured it on camera and moved on to the centre of the park. There seemed to be plenty of room for visitors in this place. Although this was August, there weren't infinite queues of cars, like there might be in Britain. Instead the National Park Service have provided a set of eco friendly buses to ferry people to all of the major destinations. We set off for Yosemite Falls, the fifth largest in the world counting all three tiers and this was a short walk partly under trees, which kept us cool in the heat of the summer. The waterfalls are more impressive in the Spring melt, but were still a sight to behold as they fell from the hanging valley created by the glacier to where we stood.

After catching lunch at Degnan's Deli, we headed via the bus for the walk to Mirror Lake, where the children especially were delighted to find a sign warning that we were entering Mountain Lion territory. Admittedly there was only a small chance, but we were now officially dicing with death as we strolled out on the mile long trail to discover the bend in the Tenaya Creek, where you could see the bisected Half Dome reflected in the tranquil pool. It was our first view of the smooth granite peak that the glacier has robbed of half its mass. It was an iconic view, but we were to experience a different angle on it the next day. It was that sort of holiday, once you had seen something great, which you though you couldn't top, you saw something better.

Having avoided being a Mountain Lion's late lunch, we went back to the cafe, where even Yosemite has internet access, and grabbed a drink before returning to the hotel. We had been amazed at this singular landscape, quite unlike the scale of anything we had seen before, but the next day was set to reveal the valley in all its glory again, but this time viewed from above, at Glacier Point. This was accessible via road in summer, which was our chosen route as we had our children with us, who probably wouldn't have made the hike from the valley floor, 7,200 feet up to the point itself.

This time, a huge expanse of mountain-backed country was revealed, with views of the Vernal and Nevada falls on the Merced River in the foreground. Further to the North was Half Dome, and now we could see it in all its glory. It is possible to hike to the top a mere 8,800 feet up via the falls, and using a set of cables to traverse the smooth final ascent on the dome itself. This must be a truly unique experience, but outside our bounds of possibility with the family in tow. Still, we were soon to see something that we all though could not have been possible. Before this we overlooked the central part of the valley, with Yosemite Falls across the other side at a similar altitude. There in front of us was the overhanging rock that I had seen in my youth in photos in 'A Book of Marvels' by Richard Halliburton. Now I was seeing those same marvels with my own eyes and it was absolutely stunning.

When we emerged from the cafe, a man had taken up residence atop a small rocky outcrop and was summoning the spirits by playing an enormous digeridoo-like horn. This mystical experience was soon followed by the jaw dropping moment of the whole holiday. My wife spotted something moving in the undergrowth above the path back to the car park. She said "Is that a... ...bear?" and sure enough we saw a sub-adult black bear shoot across the path a hundred yards ahead, no doubt startled by the hordes of summer visitors that it had stumbled upon. It quickly sought refuge in the trees on the downhill side, but long enough for a small crowd of people to train their viewfinders on it and catch a shot of it in the shadows. We were knocked out by this - you simply don't expect to see a bear so close and our next thoughts were where was the mother? You don't come between mother bear and her precious offspring. We didn't find her, so we set off back down to the valley floor.

In the late afternoon we looked at the Indian Village, where you get an idea about how some of the native inhabitants used to live and then moved on the the Nature Centre at Happy Isles, where we reassuringly found out that the towering cliff had shed some of its massive bulk some years before and crushed the building we were now standing in. Now re-built, it provided some useful background information on the animals in the park, including our friends the Mountain Lion and the Black Bear. A short walk around the isles themselves and we were ready to conclude our visit.

The next morning we were due to head out to our next destination, but we sat on the balcony that night and stared at the clearest view of the Milky Way I have seen since a camping trip on Dartmoor, when I was 18. Now in my more advanced years, we looked up and occasionly managed to see the odd meteor, part of the Perseid shower, but it didn't really seem to be at its peak. We checked out after a night's sleep with the sound of the river as background music. We set off for the Southern exit to the park, as Highway 140 was shut after El Portal, due to a rock slide. We had decided to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. We didn't have a huge amount of time, but still managed to see the Giant Grizzly, a huge tree with scar in its side and the California Tunnel tree, which has had some licensed vandalism performed on it to cut a passageway in its base, so that you can walk through. This type of thing wouldn't be done these days, but it was one of those sights you had to see.

Overall the sequoia grove didn't live up the spectacular sights in the valley, but gave us a last none too lingering stop in the park, before we headed for the coastal portion of our stay.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Our lucky day

The 10th of August - that was the day our family holiday to the West Coast of the USA was due to begin. We had been looking forward to it for months. We were all packed and prepared. We woke on the said morning to find out that, due to the discovery of a terrorist plot, our day was not going to be quite as planned.

We turned on the news, after prompting by relatives, to see scenes of chaos at Heathrow. Spokespeople were saying that travellers shouldn't come to the airport, as it was basically full of people going nowhere - all of the incoming flights had been cancelled, apart from ones in the air, and consequently there were no planes to take them away.

We decided pretty early on that there was a fair chance that our flight would go - after all, the incoming one was already on its way, and couldn't be turned back. We checked the available sources but decided against ringing the airline as we thought we wouldn't get through. So the next thing to do was to get round the fact that all we were allowed to take on the plane itself was a clear plastic bag with travel documents - everything else had to be checked in.

Once we had done this we set off for the airport at about 10am, and found to our surprise that the roads around Heathrow were completely deserted. It seems all the warnings had paid off - people, apart from us, weren't travelling. We arrived at an equally deserted long term car park, where the staff were equally incredulous that we were going to be leaving the country. We carried on, and eventually reached Terminal One.

We tried to get inside the building, but we were met with a tide of humanity. The were queues of people snaking round the entire space. Every available inch of floorspace was covered with people. It didn't look good - we found a BAA person, who gave us a piece of paper with a number to call, and he told us to go home as there were no flights leaving until at least 3pm - ours was supposed to leave at around 2pm. We went outside and were about to call the number when we spotted a BA employee. We asked him, and he said to our relief that our flight to San Francisco was OK and that we should go to check in desks further along the terminal.

The rollercoaster of emotion was now back on its upswing, and we headed toward a queue of people, but were intercepted by another BA person, who saw that we had children with us, and asked us to follow him to a different desk. So we were fairly quickly checked in, and armed with our two small clear plastic bags we went through passport control and an understandably rigorous security check - shoes, belts, jackets and the clear wallets went through the scanner and we were all subjected to body searches.

We were through - and were met with an incredibly strange site. The departure lounge was almost empty - it was a complete contrast to the check in side. The information board held the key - nearly all flights were cancelled apart from one to Tokyo, and our one to San Francisco.

When the time came to board, which was delayed a bit, we were subjected to another search and were bussed to a remote stand where the aircraft was parked. Because of this it took about an hour to board everyone, but it soon became clear that the flight was half empty - a lot of people hadn't made it either because of the dire warnings or the lack of connecting flights. The next piece of news wasn't great - the pilot said that the usual passenger roster check with the USA immigration authorities had to take place before we took off, and that these checks usually took about a couple of hours.

He moved the plane off the stand and parked somewhere else. He started the inflight entertainment, and there we waited for about the time predicted. When we finally moved to take off, this was greeted with a round of applause. We were on our way with our eleven hour flight extended by the three hours sitting in the plane on the apron. All of this without the benefit of the Ipod and other entertainment that I had hoped to take with me. We had at least been able to buy more books in the departure lounge shops - the original ones had had to be packed.

So, finally we arrived in San Francisco, about three hours late, but the immigration procedure was dealt with swiftly and we were soon in the taxi to our hotel. We were tired, but we were there and we couldn't believe our luck. We went to bed, ready to start the adventure.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Super Structures

As a full moon rises over the Millennium Bridge, it is lit up from beneath by a purple glow, to enhance its gently curving form; taut wires suspending the smooth inclined walkway linking Gateshead to Newcastle. My eye is drawn, looking out from my Malmaison Hotel room, down the river to the imposing arch of the Tyne Bridge, its perfectly horizontal roadway carried above ship height by its graceful arch and stocky end columns. The way the span dominates the buildings it flys over it reminds me more of Brooklyn than North East England, but the whole vista lends this part of Britain a real sense of identity.

Further into the distance, at a less vertigo inducing altitude, the Swing Bridge pivots on its own little concrete island, which bisects the channel neatly forming two passages for the river traffic. Unfortunately, one of the most iconic structures, the double decked, dual car and train High Level Bridge is out of commission for motor vehicles and pedestrians alike, until May 2008, shrouded in plastic sheeting, hiding renovation work from the eyes of the world.

We had arrived in this city over the equally tall rail bridge, pulling into the Central Station on Friday evening, after the marathon journey from Reading. A walk around the metropolis this morning reveals that the land rises steeply on both the Gateshead and Newcastle sides, so that the centres sit on their respective hills, but with the iron arms of the bridges linked in friendship, or at least mutual respect, across the water. The city seems drawn to the river as a result, but years of decline in the traditional industries have left this artery devoid of life. As it establishes itself as a tourist centre, more traffic will use this oasis, but at present it is like a motorway with no cars.

In a dominant position in Gateshead, sits the Owen Luder Partnership's 'Get Carter' car park in all of its Sixies brutalist glory. I hadn't realised just how prominently it is visible on the skyline until I saw it for myself. But just as Portsmouth with its OLP Tricorn Centre, now demolished, is re-inventing itself, so too is Gateshead transforming itself into the cultural capital of the region.

After tasty tapas at La Tasca, a restaurant near our hotel, we headed over the Millennium Bridge to the Baltic Centre, a former flour mill that had had its brick clad form punched through with six huge stories containing the best contemporary art that the region could muster. On the ground and in the level two galleries were masters of 'pixel' painting, Ian Stephenson and James Hugonin: the former layering tiny dots on tiny dots on an enormous scale, creating a sea of colour which seemed three dimensional. The lighter colours appeared to float above the surface of the painting. James Hugonin uses pixels of a different kind, working within a silver-point etched gessoe grid of alternating narrow and wide bands. The resulting rectangles are filled with colour according to a carefully ordered progression, which aims to mimic the light and form found in nature around his Northumbrian studio. He has been painting this way for twenty years, producing work of subtlety and gently flowing movement: organic matter growing from a geometric core.

The upper two floors have startlingly different work. On floor three is the photo and video art of Sam Taylor-Wood. Her shots of her own suspended form from which all trace of support has been magically erased, produce a sort of extreme sensual ballet, captured at an instant by her lens. Sam's video work captures surreal images: a sleeping David Beckham, a cellist playing a digitally doctored cello, stop motion still lives decaying before your eyes.

In don't think I have ever been handed a health and safety warning for a work of art before, but that is exactly what happened prior to entering Wang Du's Space-Time Tunnel. You have to mount steps rising up from the gallery floor to meet the entrance to this crazy installation, with its snaking tube filled with a babel of TVs, overloading your senses and causing your legs to lose their normal capacity to convey you upright, without losing your balance. The sting is in the tail of this work: having climbed first down then up within it, you must get back to ground level and what better way than to slide on your butt, so that you arrive giggling and screaming like a child on the gallery floor.

In the evening we headed to Norman Foster's transparent maggot-like Sage Concert Hall, also on the cultural South Bank in Gateshead, to hear the Northern Sinfonia and Chorus, and their rendition of Zadok the Priest. The venue's acoustics are truly astonishing. The solo unamplified voice of the Radio Three presenter could be heard plainly at the back of the hall where we were sitting. The power of the combined voices and orchestra brougt the emotion of the piece alive - echoing the Coronation of King George II for which it was written.

The next piece was less well known, by Finzi: 'Dies Natalis', but had shadows of Vaughan-Williams, who was a friend and obviously a strong influence. The second half was given over to Britten's 'St Nicholas' and this wide ranging and dynamically modern work demanded not only a large orchestra with timpani, but also piano duo, tenor solo voice plus lone boy soprano supported later in the piece by three contemporaries. Even one chorus was not sufficient, as they were augmented by female voices from the cathedral choir. The whole effect was mesmerising and brought the day to a fantastic finale.

This land of hard-edged structures had a soft soul of music and art - you would be mad to miss it.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Saint George's backyard - a journey

As I sit on this Virgin train, fuelled by tea, soft drinks and with more Pete Tong podcasts than I can shake my Ipod at, I am struck by the lush beauty of England in flag-waving, World-cup worshipping glory. The occasion? A trip to Newcastle to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary, taking in a concert at the Sage, and surveying the Millennium Bridge from our hotel room.

Patriotism is everywhere, and anticipation is at fever pitch, but the golden evening sun illuminates the pastures and the urban landscapes equally and there is a tranquility which descends over Rooney's land. We are spoilt of course: our seats are First class, courtesy of a school fete prize, which means that a waiter brings us our drinks whilst we idle the hours away.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

What's the big idea?

I have a tendency to take on things that are way too difficult for me. In fact, when at school, classmates started building model aircraft to fly, I, instead of going for the smallest and easiest one, went for an enormous plane that was totally beyond my wood and tissue paper building skills.

It seems like history is repeating itself, as I continue to worry about how I can help save the planet. Some months ago, I wrote about the Stealthgen, a wind-powered generator that you could attach to your house, to save using fossil fuels to power your home. Then some bloke called David Cameron got one and the I just seemed to go off the idea, I cannot think why. I may be a closet green, but I am definitely not blue.

So, I was re-thinking the idea and it struck me that thinking big might be the answer. Instead of a small wind turbine on my house, how about one the size of several houses stacked atop each other, but parked on some convenient lofty and windy location. I am not being greedy. This wouldn't be used to feed some power-crazed habit, but to supply the whole local community - a few roads around where I live. I have even found some people in Wales who have done just that, near the Centre for Alternative Technology, and have posted information on how they did it. That's the power of internet communication for you - there is always a shared experience from which to learn.

Having watched one of the BBC's climate chaos programmes, starring David Attenborough however, I am thinking that even that isn't going to be good enough to avoid the impending catastrophe. What we need is a whole wind farm to supply a large proportion of Newbury's electrical power needs. The downside is that with each scaling up of this project, the degree of difficulty and the number of people who must be convinced that this is a good idea goes up and up. To me it is self evident but I too have a habit of jumping from problem to solution missing out all that argument stuff that goes on in between.

More anon.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Beach Life - St Ives Style

If you go to the seaside in Britain in Spring, you just don't know what you are going to experience. Predictably though it was lashing with rain, but the sight which greeted us in St. Ives was like nothing I had ever seen before. The sand had a beautiful luminescence which gave off a warming glow beneath the lowering clouds, and caused us to forget the appalling weather. In front of this apparition, right on the edge of the beach itself stood the object of our mission, the Porthminster Cafe.

We hadn't booked, as the rain had upset our plans and to console ourselves we had headed for some great food. We had read a review in the Guardian, the week before our trip, so we knew where we might find it. We were not that early either, but the friendly staff went out of their way to find us a table, with a shortish wait under the awning, next to the patio heater, with that great view of the beach.

The delay had made us even more ravenous, as we eyed the cheerful diners in the dry of the stylish restaurant itself, but the lateness of the hour meant that this would be a strictly two course affair: we had to see Tate St. Ives after all. Two of us opted for Crab Linguine for mains, with the youngest trying the goat's cheese tart, and for myself, the Sea Bream. This was Cornwall, and we were near the Atlantic, so dishes prepared with the sea's bounty were definitely on our menu, and luckily were on theirs.

The fish was served whole and was a revelation, with the skin producing a depth of flavour I had only previously experienced with, say, a grilled sardine. The flesh was perfectly cooked beneath and was a foil to the more piquant covering, which I had nearly discarded. Reports of the crab linguine were excellent, with the super-fresh shredded meat suspended within the arms of the willowy pasta. The youngest member of the party managed to polish off the goat's cheese tart, as we had to delay lunch almost to the point of starvation. The things we do to bring you these reports! Apparently, the tart had crusty flaky pastry surrounding the oozing cheese, and was 'really lovely'.

For pudding my eldest and I both chose the Tamarillo, which when it arrived turned out to be a poached reddish fruit like a pear, but tasting of boiled sweets. This came with home made vanilla ice-cream, which brought the sweetness down to more manageable levels. The others chose the cold chocolate souffle, which was light, glazed on top and beautifully chocolatey.

And so our journey to the culinary south west was at end and we made our way along the path at the back of the beach, beneath the main railway line into St. Ives, and headed to the cultural destination of the gallery. Yes, it was still raining, but we had sampled the best cooking we found on our short break, and that more than made up for it. Go there.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cathedrals of the Tin Age

Cornwall is a scarred beauty. It is picturesque yet with a rugged coastline, and pock-marked with injuries it has received in its industrial past. Yet these monuments to its former glory, the winding houses of the old stannary mines are now a symbol or talisman of its tourism-led future.

We were on the Bissoe Tramways cycle trail which is waymarked by stones bearing the above device, making it simple to follow for novice navigators. Cornwall is a thin county, making a coast to coast trip a real possibility in a day. We didn't quite manage it with the children, but we had a good go and experienced a stunning variety of landscapes in a few hours of the Easter holidays.

We had hired mountain bikes from the Bissoe Cycle Centre and Internet Cafe, which was a few minutes drive from where we were staying at Carnon Downs. The centre was located on the trail running from Devoran, situated on an inlet on the south coast up to Portreath on the opposite coast. The sectional view of the route shows it to be two gentle inclines from each shore leading up to the A30 which runs down the raised spine of Cornwall to Land's End. The whole route is 11 miles one way, with Bissoe two miles from the southern end.

We set off toward Portreath, gently uphill, but off-road and safe for the whole family. The trail itself was mostly off-road segments with some country lanes joining them and a more busy section to get across the A30 - on a bridge; there is no dodging cars on this highway to the sun.

The scenery was fantastic, with gentle streams and rolling hills giving way to more rugged sections with capped mines and the spoil from them forming mounds round about. You didn't realise you were climbing, but climb you did up the old mining tramways. This area is criss-crossed with the workings of mineral extraction on an industrial scale. Cornwall has given up its riches hidden deep underground, but it has paid a heavy price for this in the effect it has had on its more visible part. The contrasts between lush green sections and the lunar landscape of the heavily mined areas helped keep things interesting.

After journeying along the edge of a park-like stretch, conveniently off-road, we came to the Fox and Hounds at Scorrier, where we took on board liquid refreshments before we set off again across the A30 and heading on the scarcely noticable downhill side toward Portreath. We were looking for somewhere to enjoy the lunch that we had brought with us, but that was the only real disappointment of the day, as we came to no real picturesque spot where the trail opened out enough to sit down and eat. So, we were forced to do so standing up by the side of the pathway before turning round and retracing our route.

This is when the hills really became apparent as we whizzed away from the main road and down the trail back towards the hire centre in record time. I suppose we could have reached the other coastline, but instead we handed back our bikes, and quenched our thirst at the handily adjoining cafe. The weather had been kind to us, after the horizontal rain of the day before at Land's End. It was dry with a perfect cycling temperature of not too hot and not too cold. I would definitely recommend it as part of a more active day on your next family trip to Cornwall. Start early and the more experienced of you should manage the whole trail.

"Coast to coast in a few hours by bike": now that's not something that you could say everyday.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Holidaying in Contemporary Cornwall

We recently spent the pre-Easter week in the highest grade accommodation that we have ever experienced in the British Isles. There are plenty of stories in the press about 'boutique hotels', which are the new breed of place to stay. When it comes to self-catering however, contemporary is not the preferred style in the holiday letting industry, whereas twee usually sells. But diligent searching on Google by my wife brought us a quality of holiday that we could only have dreamt of a few years ago.

The Valley at Carnon Downs near Truro is a secluded development of cutting-edge designed houses around a small central complex of swimming pools and restaurant/bar. In fact it looks like a small hamlet, but from the pages of an architectural magazine rather than one that you might come across in the wild. The place we stayed in had an open plan ground floor with luxury kitchen, ample dining space and comfortable seating area with v-shaped bay with french doors. In summer you could throw these open to commune with nature and down the complimentary mead as you watch the sunset.

Upstairs, were two designer styled bedrooms with luxury ensuites. The master double had full length windows leading to a small triangular balcony: the smaller twin-bedded room was large enough for the children's needs. The whole effect was a million miles from the usual hastily converted outbuildings or whatever that usually passes for holiday cottages. These were all purpose built for the twenty-first century's needs - consumers want a lot more from their holiday these days. The development was small enough to maintain a village-like feel and the whole effect was like modern-day Portmeirion. I resisted the temptation to shout "I am not a number..." you will be glad to know.

The fact that the place had facilities appealed to us, and of course we had to try the restaurant, more of which later. You will not be surprised to learn that the outdoor pool was off-limits but looked like it would be a popular attraction in the summer. We ventured into the indoor one and found it to be large enough to get some decent swimming in, but would probably get a bit short on space if four families used it at the same time. There was a small gym, which we didn't try, and a games room with bar-billiards and pool. We spent an enjoyable half an hour trying to remember the rules for bar billiards, which used to be all the rage in pubs in the late seventies and early eighties, but which got phased out in favour of Space Invaders and the like.

So what about that restaurant? Again it was a contemporary space with large windows overlooking the pool, whitewashed beach-hut like ceiling and up-market tables decked in white linen. We think they had missed a trick by only being open in the evening, but maybe this changes in the height of summer. The welcome was warm from the recently hired staff who were obviously still getting to grips with the basics of service, but meant well.

The target market for this operation is clearly the reasonably affluent, as the menu was quite top-end with prices to match, but the food when it came lived up to expectations in the taste department, if not quite justifying the price. A typical dish was the slow-cooked rack of lamb, which was melt in the mouth. Our second visit to the on-site eatery was on the Wednesday, which was "posh fish and chips night". This being Cornwall, the county surrounded by the sea, you would expect decent fish, and we were not disappointed. To cap it all, the price was much more reasonable. OK, so we did have fish-cakes, but these were full of different varieties of fish and seafood, which reflected the plentiful supply.

We don't usually go back to places, as we work on the premise that there is lot of world out there and only a limited time to explore it, but we just might return one summer.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

West Mills - the historical heart of Newbury

It's not easy trying to dodge the showers on an April Sunday walk, but we managed it. The Kennet & Avon canal is the picturesque heart of Newbury and we really should do more to enhance it, but a swift stroll along its banks makes you realise that it is already one of the town's greatest assets.

We started at Victoria park, and threaded our way through the town in the direction of West Mills, which has the power to transport you back in time, as the cottages that stand by the banks of the canal are from an age when the industrial use of the waterway was at its height. On the way, we passed the backs of the restaurants and pubs which fill one side of Newbury's cafe quarter, the Market Place. The council has great plans for this, effectively turning it into a continental piazza, free from traffic and able to be enjoyed by residents and vistors alike.

After this, we passed the bridge that has become the symbol of Newbury, a narrow stone arch that separates the northern shopping area of Northbrook Street, with its high street names, from the independent traders of Bartholomew Street in the south. The path disappears through a small tunnel next to the Lock, Stock and Barrel pub and here the wall is grooved from the tow-ropes of the barges which plied the canal. The vista opens up after the dark of the tunnel, and the gem that is Newbury lock appears before you, with its wooden gates only just able to hold the pressure of the upstream water. One of the forthcoming 'Town Trail' sculptures is sited here, a granite bowl that fills and empties along with the lock: it is not that exciting to look at, but you have to admire the physics.

The southern view here is dominated by St Nicolas church, a stone ediface paid for by one of the town's benefactors, Jack O'Newbury, who made his fortune in the cloth trade, which was the major industry of the town in Tudor times. There is a real sense of peace and tranquility here, even when there is activity around the lock in the height of summer. The main action on this day was a canoe race, with soggy punters carrying their craft around the obstructions and leaping back into them before paddling off to the finish line, which we had passed back near the start of our walk.
The tow-path leads up to the swing-bridge, which the canoeists aren't able to get under, and we saw a couple of narrow-boat pilots operate the mechanics to open up their passage along the canal, to the advantage of one pair of race participants, who came along whilst the bridge was swung. This bridge gives access to some canal-side houses and cottages, one of which, the Newbury Granary, is a strange four storey high, but narrow-boat-thin tower. It is divided into separate apartments, and looks like it should blow over in the slightest wind, as it doesn't look thick enough to withstand the force.
Aside from the traditional buildings there is a wonderful extension (that is larger than the building it ajoins) fashioned in wood and glass, and with a silvered roof. It looks like a Swedish sauna, but it makes a welcome distraction from too much twee canal-side architecture. Again, a very broad-minded planning officer must have okayed it, as it is definitely not in keeping with the surrounding area, but challenges it and stands on its own.
We turned around at this point, and headed back past the church, through the lanes, and over the emblematic bridge. Our journey back in time was at an end.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Those restaurant reviews in full...

Recently reviewed on this site:

Pot Kiln, Frilsham

Coast, Porthcawl

Browns, Oxford

The Hare, Lambourn Woodlands

Marco Pierre White's Yew Tree Inn, Highclere

Look out for more reviews in the near future. Ideas for West Berks centred (usually) restaurants to report on are gratefully received. Those highest on the list at the moment are:

Happy eating.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A minor county no more

Reading Football Club have coloured Berkshire on the sporting map of the UK, Premiership Gold for the first time in 135 years. No longer will we have to look up enviously at our Hampshire neighbours, but stare down at them from the heights of the top flight.

I was one of the doubters, it must be said. When they lost the opening game of the season, I thought that was to augur the beginning of mediocrity, but how wrong could I be. To achieve promotion before the end of March, and even before the clocks went forward was a hammer blow to the chasing pack, and boy did it feel good.

Three generations of my family were able to celebrate this triumph, but think of all the generations before, who missed out on this golden age. I only hope that we can stay there. My thoughts turn to Oxford United, another neighbour. We don't want to emulate their rise and plummet, but it's a tough high-spending world up there and John Madjeski may not have deep enough pockets to finance this dream trip.

Let's hear it for Murty and the boys, and Stevey Coppell and his barmy army. All we have to do now is win the Championship.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Yew Tree Inn Experience

It just gets better and better for foodies here in West Berks. Marco Pierre White has invested in a local pub to prove that it is possible to turn out food that challenges some of the big chains on price and simply blows them away on quality and taste.

We wanted a Mothers' Day meal destination, and had read a few reviews of the Yew Tree Inn, which were not altogether favourable, but with such a star chef as proprietor, we simply had to try it. We weren't disappointed.

For twenty pounds a head for three courses, we were treated to good, unpretentious cooking which although not Michelin starred certainly rose head and shoulders above the mass of pub grub that England usually expects. The menu was a strange fusion of dishes of classic French and modern British extraction, but they were well executed and satisfied your taste buds as well as your wallet.

The dining room was dressed to impress, with white tablecloths and cream walls and the dark, low beams adding that country-pub like air. In fact the tables are arranged around a central bar, and so the pub heritage can be clearly seen. The brusque service mentioned by other reviewers was absent: it was pretty efficient although not over-friendly. And so with the scene set: on with the starters.

Double Eggs Benedict was the children's choice and they were rewarded with perfectly cooked eggs perched on a ham-topped white muffin and lovingly covered with piquant Hollandaise. The pea and bacon veloute served for my wife was suitably frothy and delicious, an epithet that could be equally be applied to her. Back to the meal - spurred on by a review of the many hours of chef workmanship that goes into the preparation of the calves tongue, I tried this pleasant peasant dish, which was strong flavoured if a little salty and accompanied by a tangy celeriac remoulade, which gave the right amount of lift to the proceedings. It was beautifully arranged on the plate, but I could have done with slightly less to make it nigh perfect.

Mains followed starters as surely as indigestion follows a burger and my wife and I both tried the belly pork, which was as suitably honeyed and tender as the many hours in the oven could provide. It was served very simply with a few peppercorns to cut through the sweetness and with a puree-like mash and the candiest red cabbage I have ever tasted. The sauce let the overall impression down a notch, being a little thin, but undeniably tasty.

The children opted for the medium rare roast beef, which came with a American muffin style yorkshire pudding filled with caramelised onion and roast potatoes, and the Salmon Kedgeree which was an uncomplicated melee of fish, rice and spice.

The puddings were last, as is traditional, and again my wife and I opted for the Rhubarb Crumble: we must stop choosing the same dishes. These consisted of a light stewed rhubarb, with a delicate crumble scattered over and grilled, with a vanilla ice cream scoop atop. My eldest was almost drunk on the sherry trifle "Wally Lad", and the youngest devoured the rice pudding.

Coffees rounded off the proceedings and we reflected on the state of British cooking. On this performance it is in the ascendant - if only more places followed suit. This type of food should be the norm, and not the exception. "Waiter, the bill please!"

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Walk on the Wild Side

A K A The descent of man. This walk had everything - stunning architecture, fantastic views, and an abundance of wildlife. The countryside simply shouldn't be this interesting.

I picked the start point, SU407597, almost at random. I had been researching places to go around the RodK residence, and happened upon the Wayfarers Walk. This is a long distance footpath, stretching along the escarpment of the North Downs, but a section is well within the scope of a Sunday stroll with the family.

So, stunning architecture in the countryside? We had barely set off down the rough track when we happened upon the Huf Haus, a spectacular example of germanic engineering set in a small glade perched on top of the hill. It looks slightly incongruous, the black and white frames and huge expanses of glass. It simply shouldn't be here. We knew it was around these parts as it's for sale and we had admired it longingly in the Property News each week, but we had no idea it was as remote as it was. Having thought about it though, considering it is about as far from home counties twee cottage as it is possible to get, the owners would probably have never got planning permission in any village around here.

We continued along the top of the hill, chilly wind biting into us, but with the sun giving clear views over the fields below. So far so good we thought. I had the OS Landranger map with me, and we searched for the point where we would turn off the Wayfarer's Walk and make our way back to the starting point. This is where the descent of man (and the rest of his family) comes in. Although the path had dropped from its highest point, we were still on top of an escarpment, and the path we wanted went straight down the hill to the valley below. No messing about with zig zags to lessen the steepness - I do mean straight down (at about 1 in 2). If I hadn't known better I would have thought we were in the opening canto of the Inferno, finding our way blocked and descending into a heavily wooded valley. In fact, if it had been as wet as it should have been in March, we would probably have slid to the bottom in record time. As it was we were kicking up dust as if it were a summer's day.

When we reached the safety of flat ground we headed back along the foot of the hill, still with fine views, but at a much lower level. We soon became aware though that the valley was teeming with wildlife: we spotted hares behaving madly as they are wont to do in March. They were racing about as happy as anything, undisturbed as we viewed from afar. We walked further along and the saw larger animals, which we eventually realised was a pack of deer that had wandered through the hedge and into sight.

I think the hills behind us made sure that we didn't stand out and the hares and deer continued playing despite our presence. Suddenly about a hundred yards ahead, a deer with magnificent antlers, shot out from the wood at the foot of the hill, crossed the path at great speed and cantered off to rejoin the rest of the pack. He must have heard us and thought that he better get back to safety in numbers.

After this close encounter, we noticed that there were cages set at intervals all the way along the bottom of the hill, just inside the wood. On closer inspection they were traps, and nearby was the bait, a type of seed, in containers. The traps weren't set, they were propped up on bricks but they seemed to be in regular use. We think from the seed, that they were probably for pheasant.

We were getting close to the end and the journey up the road to the car, but in the final stages we saw a rabbit who hopped his way along a well worn track up the side of a hill, a pheasant who hadn't been trapped but we followed along the path a safe distance ahead of us, a partridge that flew across our heads and into the trees to our left, and a bird of prey that circled over the clear abundance of potential meals that lay round about.

A stunning, varied walk only minutes from our home - who needs the national parks of the Lake or Peak districts when all this is in your backyard?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Allo Tosh Gotta Broken Toshiba?

Media Centre Laptops aren't cheap, and so you do expect them to be built to last. I think Toshiba have forgotten what they were intended for - watching TV, gaming, playing music and all those boring things that we used to do with PCs like writing documents. All in all they are in for some serious stick and lengthy use.

So when your system board blows up outside the 12 months warranty period you get a hefty bill for replacement. The real stinger is though that when you purchase a spare part, rather than a fully assembled laptop, the former is only guaranteed for a measly three months.

There doesn't appear to be much logic behind this. After all, what is the difference between a fairly complex board and the laptop itself?
  • They are both assembled from lower level components;
  • They are both new and not pre-owned;
  • They are both from a respected brand name producer;

So shouldn't they both be covered by the Sale of Goods Act, or similar legislation, which gives the consumer a right to a period of protection?

The reason I am worried about this is that the fault which I have with my laptop appears to be relatively common, and I think there is every chance that the board will blow again, causing my display to meltdown, not literally. I am buying the PC over three years, and I am supposed to keep it in good working order during that period. So if the board lasts longer than three months but shorter than a year or so, I could be shelling out hundreds of pounds over the time that it has left.

Would I buy another? Ask me again in a couple of years - the jury's out.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

More tales about buildings and food

Portsmouth is a watery city of controversial buildings. Then... it was Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre, a feat of New Brutalist concrete that dominated and eventually soured the visitors' arrival. Now... it is the Spinnaker Tower, a millennium project delivered too late and at huge cost to the council tax payers. This, too, dominates but it beckons visitors from afar, and lets face it, it is beautiful.

Now it is my turn to be controversial. I actually thought the Tricorn centre was beautiful too. Not the unloved, decaying hulk that it had become, but the triumphant vision in concrete that it was when new. There is no doubt that it turned into a massive eyesore that blighted the centre of Portsmouth, and that now gone, the city is free to pursue the task of re-inventing itself as a tourist destination.

And what a destination it is. We spent a day there in half term, and with the Victory, the Mary Rose, HMS Warrior and the rest of the historic dockyard, the shops and restaurants of Gunwharf Quays and the Spinnaker tower, there is much to interest and amuse.

We have learnt about the buildings, but what of the food? Well, we didn't find fine dining, but we weren't looking for that. We wanted to eat early and the only place with any customers was Tootsies, a chain that inhabits the new breed of shopping emporia. It served good basic grub, and as the main event was sightseeing, this did its job.

Even the Victory, Nelson's flagship and deathbed, was a revelation. There was more to see than I remember from previous visits over the years. You could journey from the top deck, through the living hell that were the gun-decks down to the pit of the hold and into the magazine where they stored the lethal gunpowder. It wasn't difficult to imagine the life of a sailor or marine serving on this ship, sandwiched in with 800 fellow men, sleeping and eating between the guns. And that was before they were involved in their main task, war. Facing the threat of being killed outright by a foreign cannon-ball or even worse bleeding to death through being pierced with a thousand splinters of wooden hull, it is difficult to understand why anyone would sign up to protect this isle. I guess we live a pampered existence these days.

After a quick view of the Mary Rose, suspended in its time-warp by continually taking a shower containing wax, we headed back to the tower that had brought us to the city. Despite the still lengthy queue, it was well worth the wait for a chance to really see the harbour with its constant ferry traffic and out beyond the Isle of Wight. The views from the top of the Spinnaker are fantastic, and with the winter sun going down throwing everything into relief it somehow brought out the best in the local landscape.

The kids wanted to stay longer, but there is much that we didn't get to see. An away win for Portsmouth I think: that's something you don't see everyday. We hope to again, soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A walk on the battlefield side

The first battle of Newbury: Wash Common, 1643 to be precise. That's not when we did the walk by the way - it was last weekend. There's nothing quite like looking at a piece of history to bring it up to the minute and alive again, so that's what we did.

We set off from Essex Street, which is named after the Earl who commanded the Parliamentarian forces. I am indebted here to David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History site, linked in the title. It must be said that this walk is best undertaken in a flaming day in July, rather than a slightly damp one in January, as the scenery would really come alive then.

We tracked down the eastern edge of the battlefield with the backs of houses to our right, and the open field to our left. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine what it must have been like back in 1643 as the Royalists blocked the Parliamentarians route back to London and forced them to fight. There was a eerie stillness which hung heavy with all those souls that perished here.

We continued down from the vantage point enjoyed by the forces loyal to the Crown and swung west, where we could look back up the hill and wonder how much of an advantage they ultimately squandered. Occupying the physical if not the moral high ground is one way to win, but Essex's forces managed to overcome this.

Passing Skinner's Green Farm and heading back uphill, where the original path is stunted by the controversial bypass, which ruins the calmness and tranquility of the scene, we came up past Round Hill, where Essex had held firm and withstood waves of attack from King Charles. It was difficult to see how this tiny point of a hill jutting out from the main site could have afforded the Parliamentarian forces much protection, but it was enough, with some tactical skill, to ensure that the Royalist forces were depleted enough to cause them to slink away overnight, and leave the way clear again.

We trekked back towards the road named after the victorious leader and home again. It was only an hour, but transported us centuries.

New bed from NASA

Do NASA do beds? Apparently they do, as astronauts have to catch zeds like the rest of us earth-bound mortals. When we went looking for a new bed at the weekend, little did we know that Space technology had found its way into the bedroom. Actually I told a small lie here, it isn't a space bed - now that would be cool, but a high viscosity (memory foam) mattress.

That's right, instead of a stitched fabric containing springs, there is an enormous slab of foam, which deforms to support your body perfectly, and returns to shape when you get out, or move. It feels weird when you try it, as you normally expect a bed to bounce slightly as you get in. Not this one, it just gives and you create your own sleepy hollow.

I liked it so much I bought one, and have made up a poem in its honour.

We are getting a new bed from NASA,
At least that's the plan.
We aren't fans of the ubiquitous divan.
We hope it's more effective
Than a single Temazepam.

Dream on.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Catch The Hare while you can

I don't know if The Hare at Lambourn Woodlands' chef, Tristan Mason, makes crop circles in his spare time. Come to think of it, head chefs at busy rural eateries don't actually get much spare time. But, on the plate, his leitmotif is the circle, and all manner of irregularly shaped foods end up mimicking the shape of the plate on which they are served.

That's as may be, I hear you ask, but what does it actually taste like? Well considering, as my mother, who we had taken out for her birthday bash let me know, that belly pork is a cheap cut of meat, Tristan turns it into a piece of heaven. That is the essence of fine dining: taking the ordinary and turning it into the extra-ordinary.

This belly pork is turning into a signature dish, with the beautifully succulent meat resting on a bed of cabbage all in a perfect disc, with another cirumference of black pudding mash alongside. The circular theme is extended with a glass of apple foam - not a heavy sauce, but the most delicate apple flavour suspended in a sea of bubbles.

My father, mother, eldest and wife opted for this celebrated meal, with my youngest trying the salmon, which she devoured. She is never normally a big eater, but caught up in the moment she polished it off like the rest of us. I opted for the roast beef as I had sampled the pork dish on our last visit, celebrating my mother-in law's 70th birthday. The beef was as rare as a sunny day in January and all the more tasty for it.

But hang on a moment: the circular theme was there from the off - in the shape of my foie gras and red onion marmalade roulade. That is a taste combination to die for. The rest of the family opted for poached eggs on brioche with sauce hollandaise and these were as light as a hot air balloon, but not, alas, the same shape.

For puddings, we were split 50-50. Half opted for the chocolate fondant with chocolate and pistachio ice creams, the fondant being baked with a fine crust concealing the gooey centre and the rest of us went for the winter fruit crumble, which was delicate and flowing with flavour.

With house wine, the bill for six was around £160 and the birthday girl was as knocked out as the rest of us with the experience we had.

Considering the strength of muscle in the kitchen, and the warmness of the welcome in the dining room, this place is un-realistically cheap. It is but a few miles down the road from the Vineyard, a michelin starred establishment, which attracts the sort of bucks that the award confers, but the Hare can give it a run (no pun intented) for its money.

Competition for diners pounds in West Berks is very stiff. We have an oasis of quality restaurants to chose from here, especially compared with Bracknell Forest, which was a culinary desert when we lived there in the early nineties. Mind you, given the amount of money about in this horse-racing corner of the county, we won't be piling on the pounds just yet. Prices are not at bargain basement levels, but the Hare is an opportunity to eat above its station.

Try it before they put the prices up to match the quality of their offering - in a word, fantastic.