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.