Friday, 17 December 2010

Josh & Laura

Christmas is, in many ways, all about tradition. There are traditions the majority of us observe, and still others that we choose – at a family level, or on a personal level – to follow.

I wrote last year about one of mine, which is always reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in the run-up to Christmas; that book never fails to evoke warm, positively affirming feelings in me and stops me from developing a colder heart. This year we bought a heavily abridged children's' version for our two daughters - who knows, them reading A Christmas Carol might become a tradition for them too. Other traditions in our house may prove to be temporary until the girls grow up. One is watching the Sesame Street film Elmo's Christmas Countdown (with Ben Stiller as a hapless elf) with my daughters; I try not to think of a time when they will no longer be enthusiastic about these films, try not to think that I will find it difficult to indulge my love of all things Muppet when they've grown up and moved onto boy bands, boyfriends and the like.

A tradition I started last year is to write an annual Christmas short story. Last year's – Christmas, etc – will have passed you by, mainly because I didn't tell anyone, beyond a handful of followers on Twitter, about it. You can read it here.

This year's describes a night of optimism and promise shared between two students at an end of term Christmas party, set mostly on the streets of London that I love so much. You can read Josh & Laura here. I guess you could call it a Christmas love story.

Thanks to everyone who has either voluntarily chosen to follow (or who I have coerced into following) my sporadic thoughts and musings over the past year. Have an excellent Christmas and New Year, and expect more of the same in 2011.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Žižkov Television Tower

Talk of the festive season, Christmas markets and the sharp drop in temperatures always makes me think of Prague. In our relatively carefree, childless days, Mrs S and our friends Tina and Steve took a trip to Prague just before Christmas in 2003 and it was everything that I hoped it would be, and more; that city has subsequently become indivisible from my thoughts of the Christmas season.

I soaked up the festive atmosphere, the Gothic architecture and the quintessentially Eastern European modernist design of the subway platforms with unbridled enthusiasm. So what if we also had to spend a night in the airport when heavy snowfall – initially beautifully and silently draped across the city – later brought everything unexpectedly to a standstill, including all fights; so what if the tensions of queuing all night for replacement flights meant I got into a spat with a similarly-disgruntled Latvian in the early hours of the morning; so what if it was the holiday where I may or may not have drunkenly pissed in a dustbin in the hotel toilets (after taking the opportunity to gorge on the free drinks in the executive lounge all the details thereafter became a little sketchy, though I still maintain it was someone else).

The point is that whenever I think of Christmas, I think of the wintry chill and icy splendour of Prague. Whenever I visit an ersatz Christmas market in this country I think of the infinitely more authentic market we visited in Staré Město; whenever the biting cold in late December makes me crave hot chocolate, I think of the small café we four huddled in on the other side of the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) at the base of the steps leading up to the majestic Hradčany palace complex. I understand that Prague is beautiful in the summer, but that wouldn't be the Prague I would want to remember.

Much as I loved the impressive antediluvian squares, bridges, spires and buildings, my favourite structure in Prague lies some way out from the main tourist centre. Taking the subway out to Žižkov, a mostly residential area not frequented by mainstream tourist footfall and certainly not gentrified like other areas of the city; well at least it wasn't in 2003. The central reason for visiting this relatively unassuming urban area, apart from seeing rusty old Ladas and run-down apartment buildings is the Žižkov Television Tower.

The Žižkov Television Tower has a simplistic design that evokes classic Communist post-War attempts at some sort of futuristic modernity; all told, with its double layer of curved-edge rectangular pods in the top third of the main tower, and its trio of cylindrical legs (one containing the tiny lift that takes visitors to the top), it looks like something that Hanna-Barbera would have conceived for The Jetsons. Of course it looks dated now, like it no doubt did at the time of its construction between 1985 and 1992, and it certainly wasn't at all popular with Prague purists when it opened, given its imposing, high position above the city and the fact that they built the tower on an old Jewish cemetery. I like to think of it as being a bit like our dear old BT Tower, just a whole lot funkier.

The views from certain angles in the viewing galleries afford, in many senses, the best views of Prague. Tourists may well elect to view the city at close quarters from, say, the Malá Strana bridge tower or Old Town Hall in Staré Město, but for me the Žižkov Television Tower gives a greater context and long-range perspective on this city.

If you recall the Saturday evening British TV sci-fi series The Tripods, you'd be forgiven for getting a slightly fearful sensation at the sight of the external profile of the building, a feeling which is altogether heightened by David Černý's permanent Miminka art installation from 2001 – ascending upward on the legs of the tower are several statues of crawling babies. It's quirky and not altogether right, but once you transcend the oddness (and recollections of a certain withdrawal scene from Trainspotting) it's fun.

As I've said here before, tall buildings are divisive, much more so in a city where the only other tall buildings are sacred and centuries-old religious structures, but whichever way you look at it, the Žižkov Television Tower is delightfully contrarian and wonderfully strange; a perverse thing of otherworldly elegance in a city with abundant charm already.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Snowy London Thursday

Source: MJA Smith

I've never liked snow. I hated it as a kid, though I'm sure I must occasionally have had some fun at some point. Chiefly I associate snow with having to wear wellington boots, which I detested; detested so much that during the bleak snow-filled winters we seemed to have every year in England in the early to mid-Eighties I'd occasionally find myself choosing to be one of the kids who didn't have wellies with them, thus being forced to spend breaktime and lunchtime in the classroom with the kids who had colds or ear infections, or who were being punished, rather than pelting my school friends with snowballs. That and the memory of the trek up the road to my school with my mother, past gutters from which foot-long stalactites of icicles would dangle; a sort of weird Narnia in the heart of the Midlands, past the old man's house with a different Meccano model in the window every day like some sort of out of place Lapland toymaker.

It's snowing in London today. I'm passing through Barbican Underground and there is something peaceful about the undisturbed snow on the disused platform; however everywhere else the snow is already becoming dirty as progressive commuters tramp their cold way to work. That I'm even on a Tube seems mildly amusing – checking the TFL website on the way to Euston, the Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines that I rely on to get me to the office are all suffering with severe delays, though I somehow managed to catch a half empty Met Line service no had than I stepped on to the platform at Euston Square.

I spoke to a native New Yorker this week who couldn't believe how poorly Britain copes with extremes of weather, and it is true. A colleague who lives near Horsham hasn't been able to get in to London the past two days as train services into London Bridge have all been cancelled. He and I were both supposed to be in Edinburgh from Tuesday to Thursday, but Edinburgh Airport has been closed most of the week. The New York guy said that in Manhattan life just goes on as it did before. The Lithuanian guy who works in our building's Starbucks concession also said that back home snow just doesn't bother them, their tyres having chains to prevent slippage. Here, it's complete chaos. News reports tell you how much a day of snow costs the economy, yet nothing changes. Roads go ungritted. Electricity supplies get cut. Intake of hot chocolate increases. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose as they say.

Somehow I managed to get to the office and home both days I've been into London this week, travelling from one of those serendipitously placed corridors north of London where business has carried on reasonably as usual. That said, I could have done with not looking like a complete tit wearing a beanie hat I picked up at some outward bound course somewhere in darkest Surrey a few years back.

Still, there's always the excitement etched on the faces of my two little girls to warm my cantankerous attitude towards the snow. We had the barest dusting of snow at the weekend – literally a millimetre at a stretch – and they were bouncing off the walls with joy, asking to make snowmen and have snowball fights, lying on the carpets and making snow angels. They don't mind wearing wellies either, so no chance of them being the grumpy kid choosing to sit with the naughty and sick kids in the classroom at lunchtime.

As I was trudging across the brown slushy mess that adorned the pavement, I began to wonder why I was even bothering going into the office, given that I only had a bunch of conference calls that I could very well have done from home; then I got to my floor in our office building and took a look outside, and when I saw the City spreading out in front of me covered in a delicate blanket of white snow, I realised that's why I bothered.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Dirk Benedict

Milton Keynes Theatre flyer for 'Dick Whittington'

Dirk Benedict is appearing in the Milton Keynes Theatre panto production of Dick Whittington this year, alongside Joanna Page (from Gavin & Stacey). Originally it was going to be Jason Priestley from Beverly Hills 90210, but he pulled out and therefore the aforementioned Benedict heroically took on the part.

I'm not going, mainly because the very thought of pantomimes fill me with the sort of abject dread that I used to feel whenever Christopher Biggins appeared on TV, or when my mum announced she'd bought tickets for the local amateur dramatic society's annual production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. There is also a secondary reason, which is that Amy Winehouse may be in the audience; the irrepressible chanteuse was gracelessly thrown out of the Milton Keynes panto last year after hurling cursewords and abuse both at the stage and the theatre manager. Then again, she's probably still banned. I'll therefore leave it to Mrs S and Daughter#1 to go this year and I'll find another decent excuse this time next year.

Benedict last appeared on our screens in one of the many long-winded series of Celebrity Big Brother, rarely without a cigar in his mouth. With the addition of the passing of time, this made him look more like Hannibal than Face, his character in the A-Team.

Face was always my favourite character in the A-Team, for two reasons. First, he had a really cool car. It was a white Corvette with a red stripe and it was way cooler than BA's chunky black van. I don't know much about cars, but when you're ten years old and you have a choice between a sports car and a van, which one are you going to choose? Exactly. The sports car wins every time.

Face and his 1984 Chevrolet Corvette

The second reason is because Face was rarely without some stunning pneumatic blonde model in the passenger seat of the aforementioned Corvette; whereas Murdock was known for being mad as a box of spanners and BA renowned for raw meat-headed aggression and a fear of flying, Face was the guy who always – always – got the girl. And I liked that – I had my first crush on a girl the when I was ten, and Face's antics thus made it seem perfectly normal; remember that up to that sort of age girls were odd, alien creatures, best avoided in the playground for fear of contracting a love of dolls or My Little Pony.

My classmates, who had over the years given me plenty of stick, mostly for my head of ginger hair, thought otherwise. I thought having a crush on a girl would somehow mark me out as mature and they'd somehow respect me more for my reasons for liking Face the best in the A-Team (surprisingly deep thoughts for a ten year old come to think of it). Alas, boys can be unpredictable and cruel, and instead they branded me as 'gay' for fancying girls. That's right, as a boy, I was branded gay, for fancying girls. What's that all about?

Anyway, I'm not, Face is still my favourite character in the A-Team, and I still occasionally think wistfully about that girl I first had a crush on (for the record, it wasn't reciprocated and I won't be tracking her down on Facebook). So perhaps that's the deep underlying psychological reason for not wanting to go to this year's panto.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Euston Platforms & Big Issue Salesman


I have never become sick of commuting by train from my home to London. I complain about the cost whenever it comes to renewing my season ticket, but I don't really feel that I should gripe too much as it's effectively my choice to spend almost three hours just travelling to and from work. That season ticket has literally been my passport to London's wonders for the best part of a decade and, though expensive, it feels like money well spent. It's really only when power lines fail or someone tops themselves on the line (always at Harrow and Wealdstone) that I moan about commuting.

But there is one aspect which is starting to grate, and that's the terrible layout of platforms 8 to 11 at Euston, specifically platforms 10 and 11 for a period of two minutes after my train pulls in.

The 06.34 train from Milton Keynes Central generally arrives, nice and prompt, into platform 11 at 07.20. I'll then join my fellow passengers in racing to the ticket barriers as quick as possible, because, at around 07.21 a London Overground train will arrive at platform 10, decanting its cargo of passengers onto the already-full platform. Most days the gap between the trains is sufficient enough for me to already be at the barriers when the squeal of the Overground train's brakes gets louder and I'll be well up the incline to the main concourse as the doors are opening. However, just lately my train and the Overground train have arrived at precisely the same time, the effect being several hundred extra commuters hitting the platform together, thus ensuring complete gridlock, pushing, crushing and an unnecessarily unpleasant start to the day as the throng of people tries to squeeze through a tiny bottleneck into the barriers.

Still, it's an annoyance that will be alleviated by the redevelopment work being undertaking to widen the exit, and mercifully it usually only lasts two minutes, after which I'm forced out of the crowd and through the exit barrier like a cork from a champagne bottle. And it's an irritation quickly forgotten when I head past Eduardo Paolozzi's lumpen Piscator sculpture and down the path leading to Euston Road. For somewhere between that sculpture and Euston Square Underground station, rain or shine, wind or frost, will be a person who cheers me up without fail each and every morning.

He sells the Big Issue and is probably the single most upbeat individual you're ever likely to see that early in the morning; animated and unfeasibly effervescent, engaging enthusiastically with the hordes of focussed commuters trudging past him, encouraging them to part with the £1.75 that a copy of the Issue costs these days.

He's rarely without a smile, never tetchy when people blank him and gushingly grateful when you buy a copy from him.

His welcome infiltration of my morning introspection is another reason why I'll never tire of commuting to London.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Trois: Luxembourg City

Go Ten interior
Source: Go Ten website

I visited Luxembourg City for work last week. Although much-maligned, it's a place worth exploring, as I found myself doing during a rare period of down-time. Here are three places that caught my attention.

1. Restaurant Pizzerie Bacchus
I took visiting Luxembourg City seriously, and bought just about the only dedicated guidebook that exists. Finding myself with an evening to spare and thinking that the hotel's in-room selections a bit limited (five types of omelette, five types of sandwich, expensive fish dishes), I flicked open the Bradt guide, found the 'cheap eats' section (I am a responsible corporate citizen when travelling on expenses; plus our nightly dinner allowance is of the McDonald's Happy Meal side of punitive) and settled on Restaurant Pizzerie Bacchus.

This is a great pizzeria serving beautiful pizzas baked in an authentic wood-fired oven. The staff are friendly (expect a heartly farewell and a handshake from the manager) and the restaurant itself is superb. I elected to sit on the covered terrace (which could do with some repairs) and enjoyed a quiet romana pizza and a glass of a bitter orange drink which could only be described as being how I'd expect Campari and Irn Bru to taste like.

For €15 it was a steal, and probably the best pizza I've had since John's Pizzeria in Greenwich Village.

32, rue du Marché-aux-Herbes

2. Go Ten
There is a bit of a online furore about the lack of a Starbucks branch in Luxembourg City, which is something of a surprise given how many expats there are here. This isn't in any way a bad thing as it encourages you down the non-chain route. Walking back to my hotel I chanced upon this trendy, sleek, dark bar-cum-noodle restaurant with a pulsing electronic soundtrack and pretty waitresses.

Avoiding mid-afternoon cocktails on the basis of principal I elected for a coffee and a chance to chill out in the funky surroundings. I would have stayed there all afternoon if it wasn't for the small inconvenience of my flight home.

10, rue du Marché-aux-Herbes

3. CD Buttek Beim Palais
This tiny, cramped shop caught my eye after I'd left Bacchus for an evening wander around the city. More specifically, the Neu! boxset in the window caught my eye, so after Go Ten I made a point of popping in before I left for the airport. I'd describe it as being like a record fair stall inside a shop.

The shop had good jazz and ambient / electronica sections and middle racks stacked to the rafters with vinyl from every genre imaginable. I settled for a Pete Shelley 7" before temptation got the better of me.

16, rue du Marché-aux-Herbes

CD Buttek Beim Palais window display
Source: MJA Smith

Starbucks, 90-94 Old Broad Street, The City, London, EC2N 1DP

Source: MJA Smith

I am having professional coaching at present, and one of the things my coach has drummed into me is that I shouldn't hang on to the past. It's a familial trait that has oftentimes prevented me from moving forward, professionally and personally. So it seems rather out of keeping with that counsel to write about the past, but so it shall be.

Walking to a meeting from our offices along Old Broad Street, at typical full speed, I happened to glance across at the branch of Starbucks at 90 - 94 Old Broad Street, on the junction with London Wall and Wormwood Street. The building in which it's situated (I believe it’s called Boston House) is one that I have always adored, fashioned as it is from grand red brick with lighter coloured embellishments, a carved mural just above shop-front height. I've always thought it to be one of the most elegant – if slightly careworn – premises in the City, a reminder of days gone by when compared with the sleek, glass edifices now sited majestically on the immediate horizon. Only today, when I looked across, the familiar signage had been removed and dark blinds adorned the windows. And then I noticed the 'branch closed' sign on the door, and I felt thoroughly dismayed.

This branch of Starbucks has been there as long as I've worked in the City – a whisker off a decade – and has been the scene of one pivotal moment in particular. In September 2002, our department head was killed in a car crash. Coming into work on the Monday, and hearing the news, we removed ourselves from the cloying atmosphere of the office during the morning and regrouped in the below-ground seating area of that very branch of Starbucks to share some collective, mostly silent, grieving.

It was also the scene of many informal business meetings, friendly catch-ups with people who went from being clients or colleagues to good friends, mostly because of the relaxed conversations we'd have in that branch of Starbucks; it was where one of my later managers would proffer his accumulated business wisdom to me over black tea and a 'bun' (his individual, quaint way of describing the assorted pastries and muffins on sale). For a time, it was also a place I'd sneak off to occasionally during the mornings for quiet contemplation and reflection, watching City workers file past, absorbed in their own thoughts, pressures and stresses as I sat on one of the high stools in the window.

Of course, there are Starbucks ten-a-penny in the City, and there are still two branches within a two minute walk of our office; then there's the anti-capitalist lot who despise the very sight of the now-familiar round logo. But me, I'm going to miss this particular branch. London's psychogeography is built upon the ghosts of people and events from the past, accumulated and passed-down memories, blue plaques commemorating famous residents of buildings (despite often being forgotten across generations), other plaques advising of buildings that were demolished centuries ago; for all the memories I have, this branch of Starbucks will loom large in my own personal psychogeography of the City.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Ten: Brighton

Brighton Pier, dusk by MJA Smith
Source: MJA Smith

1. Hotel Seattle, Brighton Marina

Okay, so it's not in the heart of the city (it's around a 30 minute walk – or see below), but it's a beautiful, modern hotel right in the heart of the Marina and thus escapes two major issues common to hotels in the city centre – noise (unless you dislike the sound of boat masts clacking) and lack of parking (there's a free carpark nearby). More info at my TripAdvisor review.

2. Volk's Railway

This small electric railway runs from Black Rock next to the Marina all the way to the aquarium – 1.5 miles in all. The 1883 concept of Magnus Volk, an inventor not dissimilar to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Caractacus Potts, the journey is a fun, kid-friendly way to get from the Marina to the main city attractions.

3. The Pavilion

Brighton's Indian-styled stucco-smothered pavilion was the folly of the Prince Regent and has become a major tourist attraction and landmark. Behind the Pavilion is a buzzing park and café, where a jazz trio was playing the day we sat on the grass for a picnic. Cool sounds in cool grounds.

4. Resident

So you're in Brighton and you want to buy some records; you usually shop at Rough Trade in East London and you want somewhere with the same aesthetics. Where do you head? The answer is Resident. Situated in the North Laine network of narrow streets and wonderfully unique independent shops, Resident could be the Brighton outpost of the aforementioned RT with its eclectic jazz / alt.rock / electronica focus. Brighton also has a rich supply of good second-hand record shops, if looking through racks of old vinyl is more your thing.

5. Lick

It's the seaside, so ice cream is de rigueur, right? Well, Lick (also in the North Laine) sells ice cream, naturally, but the main draw is its frozen yoghurt. Out-of-this-world-delicious is an understatement.

6. Zoing Image

'It's my boyfriend's shop,' she explained, carefully applying initials to the mounts that would soon frame a range of monochrome photos for sale in the shop. 'He started out selling pictures in the street. From that to this.' Zoing Image sells prints, small canvasses and various photo products including magnets and coasters, mostly comprising photos of Brighton, as well as Lomo cameras, books and photo-related miscellanea.

7. Eco Logic Cool

Want cufflinks made of circuit boards? Or coasters made from recycled coffee cups? Then point your environmentally-friendly compass here. And don't miss the fish in the tank underneath the till – a cheap alternative to Brighton's tedious (though structurally beautiful) aquarium.

8. The West Pier

The tragically dismembered West Pier has, over the years lost out more than once to the nearby Palace – now Brighton – Pier, first in terms of popularity, and then in terms of its very corporeality. Eerily bleak, the most tragic sight is the retrieved posts stacked up in a metal mass grave beneath the surviving pier buildings shore-side.

9. The World Famous Pump Rooms

Just east of the West Pier is this popular beach-side café, selling ice creams and locally-made coffee. Expect convivial chatter, Italian accents and great coffee. You'll feel like buying a Vespa and getting all Quadrophenic.

10. Architecture

Fans of Regency stucco-faced splendour will not be disappointed by Brighton, and its sense of preservation of these monuments to the Victorian era of UK holiday-making is impressive. Occasional civic planning inconsistencies aside (most notably Richard 'Centre Point' Seifert's Sussex Heights, a 24-storey, horizon-changing tower), Brighton's elegant cliff-top promenade is the place to head for building fans.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Advantage In Height: The Hub, Milton Keynes

Source: Glenn Howells Architects

Call it force of habit, but on a summer's Friday night, when I've completed the last commute home to Milton Keynes from London for another week, I like to drive along Witan Gate past The Hub. There's just something so convivial about the people sat drinking outside the Living Room, the waiting staff arriving at the back doors of restaurants in the throes of gearing up for busy Friday nights, and just the general sense of people kicking back after a week at work; all of this helps me with my transition from corporate life to family life.

The other reason – the main reason – I like driving past The Hub is one of personal aesthetics: I love tall buildings. I think towers are graceful and elegant. Don't get me wrong, I am appreciative of architecture generally, both modern and historic, but tall buildings in particular have always fascinated me. Trips to Birmingham as a child were all the more thrilling for the views of the Rotunda looming over the city, while sporadic visits to London found me simultaneously intimidated and intrigued by the likes of Big Ben. I didn't have enough Lego bricks in my box to build skyscrapers, but I'm sure I would have done if I could. During the first year at university, I resided in one of the lower floors of a brutalist brick tower; while it was clearly not in any way 'beautiful' in the traditional sense of the word, I thought the simplicity of the repeated floor patterns and the hard vertical lines scaling the height of the tower were nevertheless pleasing to the eye.

Back to The Hub. Designed by the London / Birmingham firm of architects Glenn Howells, the elegant main tower (Manhattan House) is fourteen storeys tall. That would be positively diminutive for London, let alone Manhattan. But compared to elsewhere in Milton Keynes, the principal tower at The Hub is a giant. Surveying the topography of this young city, buildings have rarely ever had more than three or possibly four storeys. They aim at bulk rather than height. Examples would include the dense, brick-clad Santander building on Grafton Street which occupies an entire block. It's vast, but only three storeys tall. Another example is the office of the Inland Revenue on the corner of Witan Gate and Silbury Boulevard. The only exceptions to this are Xscape – a landmark entertainment destination housing a ski slope, gym, multi-screen cinema, bars, restaurants and shops – and Mellish Court in Bletchley, which is an archetypal Sixties residential concrete mass rising seventeen storeys.

The Hub consists of various buildings, all of mixed use and of varying height. The ground floor of each is let to popular restaurant chains, cafés and shops, while the upper floors are all residential. In total, the complex consists of 408 apartments. The buildings are arranged around a large central piazza (Mortimer Square) which occasionally hosts public events, and which also includes a sequence of fountains flush with the paving – popular with toddlers who, defying their parents, love getting drenched in the jets. Each of the buildings has a name which aspirationally links the development to Manhattan. In its own way, this is nothing new – Milton Keynes already has a high-speed variation of the New York grid, and the nomenclature of The Hub appears to be an attempt to develop a quintessentially Milton Keynes version of its buildings too, sporting the names Manhattan House, Brooklyn House, Staten House, Carnegie House, Metropolitan House, Dakota House and Chelsea House.

The latter contains Brasserie Blanc, Raymond Blanc's mid-priced chain brasserie; in defiance of the sleek modernism evident across The Hub's design, the incontrovertibly traditionalist Blanc replaced the flat entrance to his restaurant unit with an old wooden revolving door salvaged from a Brighton hotel; outside it looks awkward, uncomfortable, but from the inside makes complete sense.

Source: MK_Tom / Panoramio

Apparently there was a degree of negative public reaction to the design of the buildings, as there often is to tall buildings generally. The positioning of The Hub towards the top of a hill makes it visible from quite a way off the centre of the city; but, unlike London, there are no views of St Paul's to obscure. This is a city that has existed for around half a century and all of it could thus feasibly be described as 'new'. To my mind anyone complaining about another modern facet to the city is a hypocrite in my book. The buildings required the removal of one of Milton Keynes' coveted underpasses, and unlike anywhere else in the city the buildings are situated right on the edge of the surrounding gates and boulevards, eschewing the usual grassy banks and wide walkways evident elsewhere.

The Hub's inclusion in the city is, to me, more than welcome, and certainly long overdue. But it is also disappointing. When a new tall structure appears on the horizon, it should signal a broader acceptance of such buildings, paving the way for more similar-sized schemes. Sadly, with the exception of the beautiful and chunky Pinnacle, which rises nine floors and has a roof design that references Hugh Stubbins and Associates' Citicorp Centre in New York's Midtown, other new buildings on the cards see a return to the squat, derivative structures abundantly available already in the city: the new National Rail offices, on the site of the old hockey stadium, will be a sprawling 'groundscraper', a design which is all the more disappointing after the advances of The Hub and the Pinnacle.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Martini glass

Those who know me personally, and those who've seen my Twitter feed, will know that I love making cocktails. I went on a cocktail making course earlier this year at Shaker Bar School in East London, which I'd recommend to anyone who has the remotest interest in combining drinks together.

The gimlet is, along with the martini, the Manhattan and the Collins, considered one of the classics. The drink consists of Plymouth gin and Rose's Lime Cordial. According to 2500 Cocktails by Paul Martin (my go-to guide for all things mixology), the gimlet was 'the product of two ingredients that came together by geographical and medicinal circumstance.' A gin distillery was established in the British naval port of Plymouth in 1793, while Rose's Lime Cordial, created by Lauchlin Rose in Scotland in 1867, was considered a medicinal cure for scurvy; given the disease's prevalence among sailors, it was almost inevitable that the cordial would find its way to Plymouth.

This cocktail is a variation on the gimlet, but replaces the lime cordial with Bottle Green Ginger & Lemongrass cordial (available from Sainsbury's), so I called it a greenlet

- 50ml Plymouth gin
- 25ml Bottle Green Ginger & Lemongrass cordial

Shake the ingredients, together with a scoop of ice, and strain into a chilled martini glass.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cornwall Diary (Part 1)

7 July 2010

We set off from Milton Keynes at about 6.20 and reached Tehidy Country Park just after 1.00 for a picnic. The Tehidy estate was once owned by the Basset family, one of the most powerful western Cornish families and whose family name adorns streets and pubs in the nearby Redruth and Camborne area.

Tehidy Country Park

The park consists of 250 acres of natural woodland and nine miles of paths, and is centred around a serene swan-filled lake, and also has a small café and information centre. We hunted Gruffaloes (we caught six, according to Daughter#1) and befriended at least three pairs of very tame squirrels.

For the second year running, we were staying at Gwel an Mor, a five star collection of wooden lodges just above Portreath, with tranquil views across the sea. We have always struggled to find good quality, child-friendly accommodation in Cornwall and consequently find Gwel an Mor to be a welcome breath of fresh air. This year we stayed in a 'Tregae VIP' lodge which had the upgrades of a wood-burning stove (low likelihood of getting used in the summer), a hot-tub (yes, I am Hugh Heffner) and a midweek maid service; the latter was the clincher for us – with this being ostensibly a self-catered holiday, when we stayed here last year the place really felt like it needed a clean midway through our stay, and given that we were on holiday, we were relatively disinclined to do that much cleaning.

Gwel an Mor lodge

The lodges are quirky yet homely – lots of wood throughout gives the place a cosy Scandinavian feel (the Hemnes bedroom furniture from Ikea also helps), and it doesn't take long to get used to the three bedrooms being downstairs and the lounge / kitchen being upstairs in the roof.

Dinner on the first night came courtesy of the fish and chip takeaway on nearby Portreath beach – they're not the best we've ever tasted, and not even as good as last year, but decent and good value nonetheless.

8 July 2010

This being England, weather is of course distinctly variable – even in usually dependable Cornwall – so when we saw the forecast for sunshine today, we decided to head to the beach; the beach, in this case, was Sennen Cove, near to Land's End and rightly regarded in surveys as one of England's best beaches.

Popular with tanned young surfers, sunbathers and families, Sennen is a truly wonderful place with a wide sweeping sandy beach, dramatic cliffs, good waves (if that's your thing) and, in the Beach one of the best restaurants we've ever been to in Cornwall. The restaurant has a good menu, and an excellent selection of unfussy children's dishes. Daughter#1 enjoyed a perfect soft poached egg with soldiers, while #2 had soul goujons; Mrs S had the same goujons in a wrap while I had roasted Mediterranean vegetables from the grill.

Sennen, like many Cornish towns on the tourist trail, has galleries (for buying, not just viewing); in its case, Sennen has two, both housed in the unusual round, slate-roofed building next to the RNLI station. We visited the upstairs one (the Round House), as we do whenever we visit, and came away with lots of pretty ceramics and pictures by local Cornish artists.

The Round House and Capstan galleries

Heading back to Portreath, we stopped in at Trengwainton for a stroll with my sister and my six-month-old niece. Trengwainton is a serene tropical garden just outside Penzance that's managed by the National Trust. The gardens were given to the Trust in 1961 by the Bolitho family, another of Cornwall's powerful families.

The gardens in Cornwall and manifest, and beautiful, and the tropical climate allows plants unusual to these shores to grow comfortably. My days of being a keen gardener are well and truly over, and I couldn't tell you at all what's growing in our own back garden (apart from weeds), but we love exploring Cornwall's gardens, mainly because they are such fun for kids. At Trengwainton, Daughter#1 hunted for clues as part of a kids trail, which centred mostly around the walled kitchen garden, built to the dimension of Noah's Ark for no discernible reason. Last year we climbed right to the top of the gardens, where the tropical foliage gives way to stunning views across Mount's Bay. My sister often visits the modern tea rooms here, which have an excellent array of lunches and cakes, while the sloping lawn in front contains giant kids games like noughts and crosses; perfect for letting them entertain themselves while grown ups have a natter.

9 July 2010

Ah, St Ives – I'm just not that into you. After a soggy day out there last year, we should've learned our lesson. The place is a tourist Mecca and the narrow main street – Fore Street – should really be pedestrianised. I admit it's not without its charms – much of Fore Street is beautiful, and there are no major high street chains – but it's way too busy for me, and I grew up in a tourist town so I should have a high tolerance. Plus it was drizzling, and I spent most of the morning stood outside congested shops getting wet while trying to deal with a very grumpy Daughter#2 (most shops are pushchair-friendly, but if you have more than one stroller in a shop at any one time it's usually a nightmare). Mrs S hit Cath Kidston and Joule and the unique Chocolat! (chocolate shop) and Fabulous Kids (toy / clothing shop for children) while I had a look around the the Digey's deli section. I looked at some local Cornish liqueurs from a gift shop to make some unusual cocktails. Cornish Smugglers liqueurs are made down near the Lizard and include brandies, fruit cream drinks and other localised variations of popular spirits.

St Ives may be pretty, but it's strangely not blessed with an abundance of places to eat; when we came last year, the rain made the few places that it does have far busier than we'd expected, leaving us eating pasties in the rain while fending off an aggressively insistent seagull on a bench near the Tate. This time we were determined not to endure the same fate, and so we booked a lunchtime table at the Seafood Café before the soggy hordes cottoned on.

Seafood Café is a bright, modern restaurant with an abundance of fish dishes on their menu (and given its location why not?), the waiting staff are nice and friendly and the food is excellent. I ate crab linguine which was delicately flavoured with chilli; Mrs S enjoyed a fish pie while the girls had fish and chips where you could choose from grilled or fried fish.

The best thing about going to St Ives is the journey. Rather than driving and negotiating the paucity of parking, we took the Bay Line train from St Erth which costs £4 per adult. The journey lasts around fifteen minutes and offers stunning cliff-top views of the bay. From 10.00 the train departs at 11 and 41 minutes past the hour, and parking is a very reasonable £1.50 for a full day at St Erth.

After St Ives we headed down to Penzance to hook up with my sister. We had enormous cakes and tea at Penlee House, a white Victorian house which is now the home of an art gallery specialising in the work of the Newlyn school of artists and also the original Penzance market cross, a much-moved historic carved stone cross. We'd intended to have our first cream tea of our stay, but they'd run out of scones; if the enormous doorstep cakes and slices we had were anything to go by, it's not hard to see why.

10 July 2010

We spent most of the day at Trebah Gardens, just outside Mawnan Smith near Falmouth, which is a valley garden designed by Charles Fox. Between the various Fox siblings, the family developed no less than six tropical gardens in the area, their ownership of a international shipping business allowing them to easily transport seedlings and rare plants from around the world in order for them to grow comfortably in the local area's sheltered climes.

Trebah Gardens

Trebah slopes downward to a private beach on the Helford river. The route down takes you through rhododendrons, camellias, giant gunnera, a bamboo maze and all manner of plants and trees you would struggle to imagine growing elsewhere in England. Trebah has endured something of a torrid history following the Fox ownership, including a requisitioning of the Helford beach by the US Navy during the second world war as an embarkation station for the Omaha landings; during their stay, the US concreted the beach and stuck in a new road. Thanks to the work of one owner – Donald Healey, the former racing driver and car designer – the beach is now largely restored to its former pebble-filled glory.

The modern visitor centre and restaurant is excellent; during our stay in Cornwall we ate at the restaurant three times. Their Trebah flan with Mediterranean vegetables and Cornish brie is amazing, while their fish cakes beat anything we've eaten in modern gastro pubs hands down; for kids the selections include fish finger sandwiches, and more unfussy and popular dishes. Even if you can't face the steep walks in the gardens, the food alone is well worth making a visit to Trebah for.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery

Mark Leckey, Untitled (MK:G model with green screen), 2010 (detail)
Image courtesy the artist, Cabinet Gallery and Milton Keynes Gallery
Photo (c) Andy Keate

First off, let me say that I don't 'appreciate' art. I see things I like, and like them because I like them; I don't necessarily see what a piece of art might be trying to portray, convey or otherwise, and so I don't attempt to understand it or explain what I see. That said, I still like art and visiting galleries, but for me to enjoy something I have to feel a principally visual, rather than visceral, connection to what I see.

I took Daughters #1 and 2 to Milton Keynes Gallery on Saturday to see The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery. I'd resolved earlier this year to take them to each new exhibition here, mainly because they do seem to enjoy galleries and looking at pictures and the like, but also because I think trying to culturally enrich their minds is important from as early an age as possible. Plus I think having their imagination stimulated by means other than the TV is even more of a requirement of parents in the modern age. Daughter#1 loved the linear images of the last exhibition we went to see, of Nasreen Mohamedi's works, and both girls were really excited about visiting again.

The current exhibition, organised by artist Mark Leckey and director of London's Cabinet Gallery Martin McGeown spreads across the four principal ground-floor spaces and is intended to act as a celebration of Milton Keynes Gallery's tenth birthday, an event which you'll be forgiven for having missed given that a far better known gallery, Tate Modern, is celebrating the same auspicious anniversary this year.

The clinical, large concrete spaces should have provided ample room for a major retrospective or something more weighty than the slightly tongue in cheek line-drawn renderings of cubes, ears and animals drawn on large curved hanging sheets of paper by Viz cartoonist Lee Healey. These were to be seen in the Cube Gallery either side of what was supposed to be a projection of the revolving pink scale model of Milton Keynes Gallery being filmed in real-time against a green screen; on the projection, images of hypothetical architectural concepts were supposed to appear behind the moving pink gallery image. Except that the camera seemed to be out of tape, leaving just a static blurred image on the wall.

The Middle Gallery featured more Healey images and a video of what could be a computer-generated rendition of the interior of the gallery (From The Long Via The Link To The Middle To The Cube by Tim Bacon). The organic monochrome line drawings and the fast-moving video seemed incongruous together, and like so often with art I couldn't see the point. The room just felt clinical – and not in a good way – and sparse.

Probably the best part of the exhibition was the display of miniaturised excerpts of exhibitions past stuck to the wall in a messy mosaic style in the space known as the Link Gallery. Here was colour, variety, interesting and arresting images. I asked Daughter#1 which was her favourite. 'This one,' she said, pointing at a skull. It was that sort of morning.

The Long Gallery contained a video projection with rapid jump-cut imagery and a booming, computerised voice, all of which felt like a Burroughsian nightmare or a scary wartime propaganda educational film. If it wasn't for the girls getting slightly freaked out, I'd probably have enjoyed it.

So, once again, I've probably totally missed the point of this exhibition, but in my limited frame of reference all I will say is that it felt a bit narrowly-focussed and could have been much, much more than it was. But what do I know? I buy frames from Ikea after all.

The Life And Times Of Milton Keynes Gallery runs until 27 June 2010.

Monday, 7 June 2010

A Farewell to Stratford-upon-Avon

Former technical college, Stratford-upon-Avon
Source: MJA Smith

I was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon and I called it home until I was nineteen, though I didn’t realise until three years later that I’d actually moved away forever. I left the quaint market town in Warwickshire for the concrete topography of the University of Essex in Colchester, not fully aware that I wouldn’t be moving back to the town of my birth once my degree had finished.

But that’s exactly what happened. I met a girl, got a job on a bank's management trainee scheme that needed me to based somewhere that wasn’t either Stratford or Colchester and quietly, almost without me realising, I moved out of the family home. It’s probably only in the last few years, with the introduction of children and the putting down of definite roots, that I’ve finally stopped calling Stratford ‘home‘. It’s only taken 14 years.

A home, of sorts, it remained until recently, upon the occasion of my parents selling up the house they moved into in 1983, the house where I lived out my pre-teens and teenage years and all the essential experiences and rites of passage that coming of age brings. I know for them it was an emotional departure, as it would have been for me also were it not for the fact that they have moved to Milton Keynes and are consequently just a few minutes’ drive away from us (as is pretty much everyone and everything in Milton Keynes come to think of it).

We went to Stratford last at the end of their residency, toward the end of September last year, and it was a predictably moving experience. Wandering slowly round the town, all of a sudden I grasped how little detail I had actually taken in over the years. All of a sudden the buildings I thought I knew had features I'd never before recognised and buildings that I'd never even taken any notice of before jumped out at me for the first time and seemed to scream for my attention. The feeling was dismaying, almost as if the town itself was telling me that I'd neglected its nuances my entire life.

I came away from the town perplexed at how I could have been so blind to Stratford's subtleties all those years. I'd never visited any of the principal tourist haunts, with the notable exception of Holy Trinity Church, out of principle. Like many residents, I'd elected to ignore the things so obviously important to the town's fabric but so crassly touristy, if not forever then certainly until an unspecified point in the future. Now I have no idea when I might visit those places. It's now, at nine months, the longest I've ever gone without visiting the town of my birth.

Like most towns, Stratford is undergoing changes, some of which remove some of the things I remember from childhood, forcing those memories to become like a sepia-tinted dream. The most significant of these is the remodelling of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Waterside, a building which seemed unassailable, far too precious and historic – despite being, at less than one hundred years' old, one of the town's more modern structures – to be tampered with. The new design, retaining features from Elizabeth Scott's original Art Deco design with new elements was intended to appease actors who find the theatre's backstage area cramped and dated, but also to offer a more appealing vision to tourists. One can only imagine how divisive the 1930s design was at the time. Improved it may well come to be, but it's not the theatre I will remember.

Bernadette's Restaurant, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of the Island Cafe
Source: MJA Smith

Another change which caught me off-guard in September was the conversion of the Island Café at the junction of the Birmingham Road, Henley Street and Windsor Street. The café was empty for the entire time I lived in Stratford, falling slowly into a greater and greater sense of disrepair. Its prime location at the main entry point for coaches of tourists entering the town should have made it opportune premises for any business looking to cream foreign visitor spending, but in spite of this, one day the owners locked the doors and it stayed closed, with movement occasionally visible behind the grime-encrusted windows with their crumbling frames and moth-eaten curtains. (In one of the short stories I began writing for a creative writing class, I imagined the interior of the café from the perspective of a dusty old glass left behind on one of the cafe's shelves; perhaps I'll get around to completing that some time.)

The last time we were there I was amazed to see that the café was no longer in a dilapidated state but that it had been renovated and converted into a smart restaurant called Bernadette's. All my life I'd wanted to see inside that building; I'd even had a teenage daydream where I tried to buy it with my sister and converted it into a swish vegetarian eatery where I'd also DJ an eclectic mix into the small hours. And yet here, on my last trip to Stratford was a completed altered Island Café. I was gob-smacked. I went inside, ostensibly to collect a business card, but also just to say I'd been inside. I think a small part of me rather preferred the ruined state it was in before having seen such a seismic change in a relatively short space of time. I just hope Bernadette's stays open long enough in these straitened times for me to get to visit properly, whenever that might turn out to be.

I did finally get to the bottom of one Stratford puzzle that had bothered me for years – the purpose of the building, pictured at the start of this post, sandwiched between the library and what is now the abomination on Henley Street that is Subway. For years I've walked past this building, a slender Victorian construction done out, in keeping with much of restored Stratford, in a mock-Tudor, half-timbered style. The solid, imposing wooden door to this building was perpetually closed and the diagonally-leaded windows were cloudy and revealed nothing of what secrets might be behind.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'd spent a long time imagining what this building might be, but suffice to say that thanks to a childhood diet of reading wizard-and-goblin fantasy books I became convinced it must be a shady meeting place for a secret Masonic guild in the town, possibly dating back to Shakespearian times or even further still. Something about the antiquated door and lack of signage or numbering seemed to lend itself to the remote, and slightly sinister, possibility. The air of dark mystery I'd afforded this reasonably inconsequential, comparatively hidden building over the years has made it my favourite building in the entire town.

Sadly, as is often the case with the truth, the reality was far more mundane. Thanks to the support of the Stratford Society (of which I am a paid-up member), I was put in touch with town historian Robert Bearman, whose book Stratford-upon-Avon: A History Of Its Streets And Buildings had sat, unread, on my shelves for about two years. The answer was squirrelled away in his text all along. It transpires that the building was designed by Arthur Flowers – of the local Flowers' Brewery family – as a technical college with the very laudable aim of providing Stratford boys with vocational skills to help their employment prospects. The college later moved premises, finally settling on the Alcester Road, adjacent to what used to be my High School, itself having since been demolished and replaced. I'm just glad I finally found out what it was originally for. The building is now nothing more than part of the library next door, but in my imagination still the place of illicit guild meetings.

Stratford's historic nature means that it is considerably better preserved than other towns in this country, and the scope for needless and excessive modernisation can thus, hopefully, be avoided. That said, in a town not renowned for changing – because of its historical heart – any small change is therefore likely to feel much larger than it might otherwise be elsewhere. I only hope I recognise the place when I go back, whenever that might be.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Romantic Movies

Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually

I have two favourite slushy, romantic comedy movies (I can't bring myself to write 'romcom'; it just doesn't feel right).

The first is Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. Set principally in Manhattan, the film concerns itself with Beckinsale's firm belief in fate and Cusack's intensifying quest – prompted by his impending marriage to someone else – to track down the woman he met briefly, for a single night, but who left him with no details of who she was and where he could find her. To test her belief that, if they were supposed to be together, then, come what may, they would be, Beckinsale's character writes her name in the inside of a book at a stall, and Cusack writes his name on a dollar bill. The test is that if those objects worked their way back into the other's possession, they are meant to be together. The name of the film clearly refers to the fatalistic theme of the story, but also the patisserie on East 60th Street with the same name, where the two characters share ice cream. It's frustrating, and ludicrously far-fetched, but I love it. The fact that it has New York as a backdrop is just a bonus, frankly. It was also an influence on the name we chose for Daughter#1.

The other is the significantly more successful Richard Curtis movie, Love Actually. It's a favourite, not for the over-exposed Hugh Grant-dancing-to-Girls-Aloud scenes; nor for the cringeworthy Bill Nighy / Rab C Nesbitt relationship; nor the crushing effect Alan Rickman's affair has on wife Emma Thompson; nor the ridiculously far-fetched notion that the hapless guy from the BT ads is able to bed not one, not two, but three hot girls in the States; in fact I can't stand most of the characters or the attempts at clever, casually interwoven plot lines.

My love of this film applies solely to the relationship between Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley. Their story, for me, is the only reason to watch this film, and is all the more interesting given that they hardly feature in the plot at all; for me it is perhaps the most moving aspect of the whole film. And it's not because I had a crush on Knightley; her character, yes, but not Knightley herself. Okay, maybe a little, but I'm over it now.

Lincoln is the best friend of a character who gets wed, to Knightley, early on in the film. Throughout the wedding, Lincoln films the proceedings avidly and grimly; we sense some jealousy on his part, and we assume it is directed toward the girl who has stolen his best friend, and possibly the object of his affections, from him.

Later in the film, Knightley arrives at Lincoln's studios unannounced, claiming that he has been ignoring her calls; he is dismissive, casual, and off-handed; she asks to see his wedding video which he tries to prevent her from doing, and it is only when she begins watching the close-up shots of herself that Lincoln has captured on film does she – and we – understand that it is actually Knightley who is the object of his desires.

As a portrayal of unrequited love, I regard it as second to none, particularly in the strained, knowingly hopeless way that Lincoln silently attempts to convey his love for her toward the end of the film.

And it's for those two characters, and these three small segments of this ponderous film, that I regard it as being one of my two favourite romantic comedies of all time. Call me a thwarted romantic or a desperate fool if you will, but you won't change my mind.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Staycation (Part 2)

In part one of this post I documented our family's trip to London following the cancellation of our foreign holiday owing to the volcanic ash cloud that disrupted flights in mid-April. This post documents the second leg of our staycation, in Worcestershire.

Worcestershire county arms
Source: Google Images search

I always thought of Worcestershire as being something of a 'non-county', with little to recommend it. As a child growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, we occasionally crossed the county border into Worcestershire, but generally to somewhere like Redditch, which as an urban sprawl has few reasons to visit beyond an ugly covered shopping centre. That said, we also very occasionally visited the Malvern Hills, which are of course beautiful – more on that later – or Broadway, tucked just inside the Cotswolds, but generally my over-riding impression of the county was of being unimpressed.

So it was with this mentality that when Mrs S gave me a choice between Von Essen's hotels in Suffolk and Worcestershire, I elected to choose the former. Suffolk I knew from my time at university in nearby Colchester, and my over-riding memory of that county was one of tranquil beauty. I forget now how it was that Suffolk was nudged into second place, but looking back I'm glad that it was thus.

Von Essen are an upmarket hotel chain who own a number of beautiful properties, including the historically-important Cliveden. What's pleasant about the chain is that they have a dedicated sub-collection, Luxury Family Hotels, which are just that – family-friendly hotels which appeal to those seeking the luxurious bells and whistles that often get eschewed in normal child-friendly hotels. Why should you not enjoy high standards, the theory goes, just because you have a couple of kids in tow?

We arrived at The Elms Hotel in blazing sunshine, the sort of weather we had become accustomed to that week. Driving from the M5 passed places like Chateau Impney near Droitwich Spa and the mysterious, imposing Abberley clock tower sat within the rolling Worcestershire hills and woods, I began to feel my youthful impressions of the county recede into embarassed silence. 'This county is beautiful,' I mused to myself.

Abberley Tower In Mist - Andrew Mawby
Source: Andrew Mawby (Flickr)

And so was the hotel. The Elms was originally built in 1710 and rebuilt following a fire in 1927 which left only the front walls of the house standing. It is a magnificently grand, stone property with a imposing central staircase and domed stained-glass skylight. With the room not ready for a few hours and our two girls fast asleep in the car, we ditched the cases and decided to take a drive to Worcester, about ten miles away.

The Elms
Source: MJA Smith

Going to Worcester was a big disappointment. In spite of the bright sunshine, which in most cases can render even the most ugly topography positively, the town has an absence of character. There are some nice buildings, most notably the Guildhall (whose architect, Thomas White, a Wren pupil, also designed The Elms), and the cathedral has an obvious draw, but the main streets are filled with the usual high street names as well as poor quality independents; there is also an abundance of buildings of unsympathetic and dated design, which to my mind have destroyed the basic character of what should be a pretty county town. After a thoroughly depressing lunch in Marks & Spencer where all the patrons seemed to just want to moan and gripe about illness and the poor state of everything, we decided to leave before we too started feeling miserable. We chanced upon a shop called New England Country Store on which was filled with cute home-ware products from the likes of Cath Kidston and Poppy Treffry, spent a small fortune, and decided to head back to The Elms.

Whether it was the disappointment of spending time in Worcester or a residual disappointment that we should have, at that time, been sat round a pool in Quinta do Lago in Portugal, but when we reached our room we weren't terribly impressed. We had selected an 'executive' room, as this was what was described as being most suitable for two adults and two children. The practicalities of the space, however, made movement around the room nigh on impossible. Daughter#2's travel cot only had one possible home, which was in front of the wardrobe, making it difficult to open, while Daughter#1's camp bed lay along the width of our bed, further reducing the space which was pretty limited to start with. The other thing, which is completely out of the control of the hotel, is that the furnishings are befitting of a period property; given that we favour, and are accustomed to, modernity, it took a while to adjust to this form of 'luxury'. All of this said, we swiftly climbed out of this funk and I can honestly say it was the only low point in that whole week.

One of the reasons was because The Elms has a superb, modern kids' club called the Bears' Den; I've always been quite reticent about putting our girls into these types of places, and Daughter#2 – at two – is generally too young for most crèches like this. Not at The Elms, where Ewa, Vicky and Sue had the pleasure of our children's company while we took a lovely afternoon tea (with the hotel's own delicious Abberley tea blend) each of the three days we were there. The girls loved the Bears' Den and were crushed when they had to leave.

Also modern is the Aquae Sulis spa, which has no restrictions on the times kids can use the pool, so the girls loved that. Mrs S took herself off for a massage one day, while I sat in the sun on the terrace doing some writing. I found the whole set-up really conducive to relaxing and unwinding, which I duly did. The gardens at The Elms are lovely also, and unlike other grand houses, aren't off limits for curious kids. In addition to a large sloping lawn, there's a secret garden, play area and tennis courts.

Service wise, across the stay we did receive some little inconsistencies from one day to the next, most of which were just minor irritations more than anything else. Getting peas with the kids' fish and chips meal one day and not getting them the next; having a slice of cucumber in my Hendricks and tonic one day and not the next; getting talked through the breakfast buffet and egg options each of the three days, by the same waiter, in a hotel with fewer than 30 rooms even though he recognised us and acknowledged me by name; signing for our meal in the Pear Terrace on the last night and realising that we hadn't signed for anything else the entire time we were there. That sort of thing. Whilst nothing individually disastrous, they were basics we expected a £300 per night hotel to get right without making us even notice them.

On the Friday we took a drive to Great Malvern, with the intention of walking into the hills. That didn't happen, mainly because we spent so much time wandering, slack-jawed, around the town itself, marvelling at how well preserved the town is, and also at how well it has maintained – mostly – a focus on independent retailers (Worcester take note). Even a high street chain like WHSmith has been here, in the same spot, for decades and retains features from yesterday such as the mosaic picture below. We bought bits and pieces for the house from Ipaetus Gallery and had a picnic in the serene Rose Bank gardens, marvelling at the views across the Midlands and the cascading town tiered below us. I think it's fair to say that I did rather fall for Malvern in a big way that day.

WHSMith, Malvern
Source: MJA Smith

The following day we headed for the Cotswolds, an area I seldom visited enough as a child but where I have had many, many happy times with Mrs S since. We started our mini-tour at Broadway, spending far too much time and money at Cotswold Trading until the pull of having a cup of tea in the sunshine outside The Broadway Hotel was too great. From there we drove through the countryside to Bourton-on-the-Water (cheating slightly here as it's in Gloucestershire), possibly unwise given its status as a tourist hotspot; we were also running out of time, so literally stopped there for lunch at The Croft, where we sat on their sun-drenched terrace and observed the combination of arty types and foreign holidaymakers passing by. The Croft has a really good, simple menu, and also offers good, healthy choices for kids.

The following day, after checking out, we drove along the road to Witley Court, a ruined house and lakeside garden destroyed by fire in the 1920s (was burning down the house a past-time on this stretch of road in the early part of the last Century I wonder?). Managed by English Heritage, I found the sight of an historic property gutted by flames strangely moving, while the girls loved the adventure of exploring the hollowed-out rooms, spotting the fireplaces halfway up walls where formerly the upper storeys would have been. To add insult to the house's injury, prior to the fire, all of the major fittings and fixtures were stripped and sold by the then owners.

Witley Court
Source: Google Images search

One of the core attractions of Witley Court is its fountains. To complete this sad tale of a mournful building, the piping used to pump water to the main fountain was removed during the second World War, presumably to be melted down for weaponry. Since refurbished, the fountain is now in full working order and is demonstrated at set intervals in the day; the central plume of water is capable of shooting a majestic 100ft into the air. No trip to an historic property would be complete without a trip to the tea shop, which is here attached to the remarkably-undamaged church which adjoins the main Witley Court house. Fine home-made cakes and scones ensued before setting off for home.

That completed the second leg of our staycation. It left me feeling like we'd only scratched the surface of Worcestershire's rich spoils, but at least it managed to redefine my – false – impressions of the county. Thank you, Eyjafjallajökull for serendipitously allowing that to happen.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Staycation (Part 1)

Source: Business Week

I was sat at work two days before setting off for Portugal with Mrs S and the girls when a colleague came in and pointed out that we might not be travelling after all thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash drifting toward the UK from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. In my usual, news-oblivious way, I hadn't heard anything about it. 'Don't worry,' he said, seeing my look of concern. 'It should be clear by the time you're flying.'

My colleague's news awareness alone was of course not the same as being able to see the future, and by the time our flight to Portugal was scheduled to leave – 8.25 on the Saturday morning – the punitive restrictions on UK airspace had already led to our flights being cancelled, but only after a day of nail-biting concern as to whether we'd have been notified of the cancellation the day before, or whether we would be among the mugs you saw on TV waiting anxiously at the airport for interminable hours anticipating news that wouldn't come; the idea of doing that with two toddlers couldn't have filled me with more dread.

By the end of that Friday evening, Mrs S had already scoured the web and booked alternatives for our break. A day later than we'd been scheduled to depart for the Algarve, we were on our way to Canary Wharf for two nights at the
Radisson at New Providence Wharf.

The Radisson New Providence Wharf is a hotel that we've become very familiar with, having stayed here – both with the girls and without – numerous times over the past couple of years. A suite here provides very good value for money for the amount of space you get – a main bedroom, a lounge with fold-out sofa bed for our eldest daughter and plenty of room for a travel cot for our youngest.

Canary Wharf
Source: MJA Smith

As with any stay in London, the hotel is largely just a base from which to go exploring, and that's exactly how we treated it this time around. Within half an hour of having checked in we were sat in Jubilee Park (above Canary Wharf Tube station), gazing up at the sleek glass curtain walls of the office buildings and eating a picnic in the sunshine. From there, a Tube ride to Baker Street and a wander to Marylebone High Street where we browsed the Conran Shop and Mrs S and Daughter#1 bought bits and pieces from Cath Kidston. A sleeping Daughter#2 and I sat in the Garden Of Rest opposite, a small oasis of tranquillity amidst the clamour of nearby Marylebone Road.

Further down Marylebone High Street Daughter#1 and I bought old postcards of London and a book called Pen Paper Pause by Richard Watkins at a pretty store called
Caroline & Friends, before purchasing Lauren Child books in Daunt. Daunt, an independent bookshop, has a beautiful stained glass window on the back wall and a great range of travel books in the gallery upstairs and basement. While Mrs S and Daughter#1 hit the Little White Company shop, I found a rare Inspiral Carpets 12" single in the Oxfam next door. It was an afternoon of turning up such treats.

Daunt Books
Source: MJA Smith

From Marylebone High Street to Hyde Park, escaping the touristy clamour of Oxford Street in favour of Wigmore Street, though still finding ourselves crossing Hyde Park Corner along with everybody else. It was no surprise that the park was busy with the obligatory sunbathers and footie-playing lads, given that it was a warm Spring Sunday afternoon. The girls ran about while we had a much-needed rest. Again missing Oxford Street via a walk along Grosvenor Square, we caught the Tube from Bond Street back to Canary Wharf and had a poor Wagamama experience in Jubilee Place, including Daughter#1 barely eating, me throwing food down my t-shirt and after 20 minutes of waiting, the discovery that the waiter had forgotten to order my yasai chilli men; when it finally arrived it was so spicy I fully expected to pass out eating it. But he did deduct it from the bill.

The following morning we walked from the hotel to Canary Wharf and had breakfast in
Kruger at Cabot Square; it wasn't cheap and the service was a bit off, but the food was nice. From there we caught the DLR to Island Gardens to pass under the Thames using the Foot Tunnel into Greenwich. The lift was working on the North bank, but not the South, which meant I had to lug our buggy up the stairs – I lost count of how many there were after about forty, but the burly lift operator on the North bank reckoned gruffly there were 'about 'undred'.

We hadn't been to Greenwich before, but it lived up to all the expectations we'd built up from people who had told us about it, and, if we hadn't had plans for the afternoon, I'm sure we'd have stayed there for longer. Instead we made a beeline for the park, had a drink at
Cow And Coffee Bean and let the girls have a run around in the kids' play area. As if dragging the buggy up the steps from the Foot Tunnel wasn't exhausting enough, pushing said stroller up the hill to have a picnic at the top very nearly did me in, but it was worth it for the views across Canary Wharf and the City alone.

That afternoon, we took the sleek and graceful
Thames Clipper to Bankside Pier and visited the fifth floor of the Tate Modern, figuring that the displays of Cubist, Vorticist and Futurist art would appeal to the imagination of two toddlers, and were proven correct. Daughter#1 loved the Warhols, Ruschas and Lichtensteins, whereas Daughter#2 gravitated worryingly close to the sculptures until a packet of raisins persuaded her back into her stroller.

Ed Ruscha 'The Music From The Balconies', 1984
(c) 1984 Ed Ruscha

We headed back to the hotel via the Cafe Rouge at Hays Galleria, which is a reasonably safe bet for kids' food, and Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge with a stroller from the South Bank requires a lengthy detour along Tooley Street, which is almost as long as the walk across the bridge itself. But it does offer some great views along the length of the bridge.

On the Tuesday we schlepped across to Covent Garden and were there before things really got underway at 10.00. With the sun shining and few people around (compared to normal), such parts of the West End are so much more alluring than they are at busy times, giving you space to appreciate the architecture and elegance of the area without constantly bumping into other people engaged in either the frenetic act of getting somewhere or just ambling about cluelessly.

Fopp logo
Source: Fopp website

We passed Kiefer Sutherland on Earlham Street en route to
Fopp. Fopp used to be an independent record shop until it went bust and was salvaged by HMV. The Earlham Street store has kept the Fopp branding, and also the more liberal-minded approach to its stock compared to its more universal parent. I bought CDs by Brian Eno and Television; for Mrs S it was Grizzly Bear and Ed Harcourt. For Daughter#1 it was just fun to look at the CD cases and picking out the ones she liked the look of.

A dash back across the Jubilee Footbridge to the
London Eye brought us sharply into touristville, but mercifully our pod on the Eye was almost empty. Mrs S and I had been once before, on a cloudy Autumn morning. On this April Tuesday it was bright and sunny – and plane-less, naturally – which allowed for far better views than we'd had before. The experience of seeing the whole of London laid out was only marred by Daughter#2's insistence on tearing around the pod and having a major terrible toddler tantrum; the two combined caused me to experience vertigo for the only time in my life so far.

London Eye<
Source: unknown

So, that concludes part one of our unexpected staycation in the UK, and a trip to London that included more traditional (child-friendly) tourist haunts than I'd normally elect to go to. Okay, so it wasn't as relaxing as Portugal would have been, but that's to be expected when you go to London.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


Coffee beans

I have given up coffee.

I've had intentions of doing this before, and have managed a week at best. In total I have drunk coffee routinely since I was thirteen, or twenty full years out of my thirty-three. That's a lot of stimulant.

Except that my consumption was never excessive, and in comparison to other people was positively non-existent. I'd go so far as to say it was lightweight, wimpy. I can probably think of no more than three times where I've drunk more than three cups of coffee in a day; latterly, since I started commuting into the office from my home in Milton Keynes, a decent cup of coffee was required just to get the day at work started. Just one, mind. This is contrast to people I met recently in Geneva, who would drink five or six espressos in a morning just to be able to face the day. For me it was a milky americano at about 7.30, occasionally followed by another toward the end of the morning if the day was proving especially draining.

Coffee has on occasion done some strange things to me if I stepped outside of that one, maybe two cups a day range. I recall drinking two huge lattes in a café in Colchester that was trying to capture the whole Central Perk-esque, relaxed and convivial vibe of Friends. That was at about 10.30 in the morning. Despite not having anything else caffeinated for the rest of the day, thanks to that injection, I was still awake at 3.00 the next morning. And that's the thing that was most surprising about the event that led to my withdrawal from coffee; usually, coffee would have an effect on my head, not my body. I'd come away from a strong coffee feeling light-headed and not really 'with it'.

I read an article in Esquire last year detailing the negative side of coffee drinking but despite being worried to death by what it had to say, and despite a concerted effort to start drinking coffee every other day, I failed miserably. But still I never stepped outside that one or two cups a day range.

And then, a month ago, I went round to my parents' house and had a cup of Joe; nothing too hardcore, just from a jar. And then I went home and found Mrs S making one, so I thought I'd have another, again just from a jar. I wouldn't normally have two cups so close together, but I didn't think it mattered. Remember that two cups in a day, even if they're close together, isn't in any way excessive.

So it was a surprise to me that from the moment I finished that second cup, at about 11.30 that Sunday morning, through to when I went to bed, twelve hours later, I'd endured half a calendar day's-worth of heart palpitations so relentless and intense that I thought I was either having a heart attack or about to witness my own heart break free from the confines of my chest and bounce about all over the floor of my house like some sort of psycho Space Hopper. I was petrified, and couldn't see that coffee alone had prompted this feeling.

I don't know how I was able to sleep, but I did. However, when I woke up for work at 5.00 the next day those racing palpitations were still there, so I decided to call the doctors and get an emergency appointment. By the time I got there, my heart felt almost normal again – typical – and I was just left with an equally-worrying tightness in my chest.

I told the doctor about the coffees of the day before, at which she nodded sagely, doing that semi-sympathetic, semi-patronising smile medics are so adept at, and as she explained that caffeine had likely provided the trigger, I felt stupid and sheepish. And just as I was about to slope away apologising for wasting her time, she asked me if I'd been feeling stressed recently.

The answer was that I had. A week or two before that Sunday I'd experienced some of the most frantic, busy and stretching days at work I've ever endured. She said that the coffee may well have been the trigger for the palpitations, but that the stress had provided the conditions for my body to react differently than it would normally have. The trigger for the trigger if you like.

I was genuinely surprised. Up to that point I thought I'd managed stress in my life reasonably well. The impact of that Sunday was to make me rethink my approach to complexity and uncertainty generally, and I've (mostly) been more calm and balanced since then; more like how I've been told I appear on the surface perhaps, less internalising problems. In addition, I decided to give up coffee. Completely. Cold turkey.

A month later I haven't been tempted once to order an americano at all; not once. The physical effects I experienced that Sunday prompted such a fear of what something seemingly so innocuous could do to you that I just needed to cut it out completely.

So there you are; that's why I'm no longer drinking coffee.