Saturday 13 December 2008

Traditional German Market, Birmingham

LightAs they say in Germany: Hilfe. Ich bin durch die Elfe und morgens entführt worden, die im Digbeth Busbahnhof gehalten wird. Meine nur Mittel von ciommunication ist über diesen Blog. Retten Sie mich bitte.

Birmingham doesn't have the best of histories with celebrations at Christmas time. In the late 80's an attempt was made to brand the season as "Winterval". Not a bad idea as the festive season now seams to go on longer than any other but despite only happening for a couple of years, still finds it's way into the popular press at this time of year. You can always spot it in a story about BANNING Christmas to appease MUSLIM terrorists or some other made up tale filling tomorrows chip wrapping. The city now proudly proclaims it is celebrating crimbo and to prove it for many years has hosted the largest tradition German market outside the Rhineland.

Big SantaWhat this means of course is the streets are filled with sheds. The sheds sell the sort of stuff only available at Christmas except for those that sell German beer and sickly hot wines. The former of course is for sale in any pub at any time but here you can buy it in the traditional continental litre measure instead of the good British pint. To be fair, I've seen one of these events in it's home and you really do get exactly the same thing. The shed are the same. The stuff for sale is the same and the beer is the same. In fact the only difference is that in Brum a few staff are recruited locally so Fraulein might have a Black Country accent.

But I am being churlish. 'tis the season to buy rubbish and there are few better places to do it than here. To loosten your purse string the beer kellers, now grouped well away from the steps in Victoria Square (health & safety gone mad I say), will help break down your resistance if required.

Iron Man On the Friday afternoon I visited it looked like half the office staff in the city had decided to knock off early for a bevy and the stalls were crowded. Were it not for the language heard you really would believe that you'd ended up in Germany as the atmosphere was fantastic. The place smelled right too. I'd only just eaten (a good English all day breakfast no less) which saved me from stuffing my face with odd names sausages and weird sweeties that would probably have been bad for me but oh so delicious. Food always smells better outside and this stuff worked its magic like nasal sirens. None of your dodgy market style burger and chips either, proper food which you wouldn't regret a couple of hour later. Unless temptation lead you to too many cakes or sweets of course...

There are incongruities - Queen Victoria probably feels right at home surrounded by all this. After all it was here husband, Albert, who introduced many of our festive traditions from his homeland and she wasn't un-german herself. On the other hand Anthony Gormley's Iron Man looks like its list has been caused by the arrival of a helter skelter landing like a rocket. The rusting figure contrasts well with the gaudy paintwork elsewhere.

Doggie MugsWandering along the stalls, I do feel a Scrooge like desire to ask "Why ?". The stuff on offer is very nice but mostly decorative and pointless. The kind of thing you buy as a gift rather than wanting it yourself. The recipient will like the present, because it looks nice, and then never take it out of the box again. But then I've never understood how shops that sell candles exist so perhaps I'm not the best judge of these things.

What I do know is that this is Christmas. Perhaps some Roy Wood or Slade playing in the background would top things off but you simply don't get much more atmosphere than this. Other cities may try, Manchester has a similar market corralled into a single square instead of filling all the streets like a market should, but Birmingham seems to do this best. Perhaps one day the Daily Mail will forgive them for Winterval.

Anyway, get in the mood with some more pictures on Flickr

Saturday 4 October 2008

BBC Tour

TV CentreThe BBC is an iconic organisation occupying several iconic buildings. We all know what Television Centre looks like from the outside - it appears on telly often enough during Children in Need and many other programmes. But apart from a few glimpses you don't get to see the inside, apart from the studios obviously, very often. I fancied peeking behind the magic curtain so booked onto one of the tours now available.

To get there the nearest tube station is Shepherds Bush Market, which is literally on top of the stalls. With time to kill I took a wander. Quite a fast wander actually as it's a lot bigger than I expected. A bit more permanent too with many stall extending their roofs with clear corrugated plastic to give an indoor market feel on the cheap. As befits this area of the capital the stallholders and their clientele are very cosmopolitan. Your larder can be stocked with food from around the globe should you have a sufficiently strong stomach.

Shepherds Bush MarketAround every corner I expected to see a Del Boy trading in dodgy goods but I was to be disappointed. While it might look like an archetypal scruffy market, the quality and more importantly, variety of stalls is higher than most. For example there are only a couple dealing in mobile 'phones - Birmingham Rag Market can manage 3 times that and it's not as big.

Heading away from the market, a stroll up Frithville Gardens ends in a modest park complete with Japanese Garden. One of the joys of London is that you can be in the busiest, nosiest area and a few minutes later find an oasis of calm. The park curls around the back of the Beeb and affords a fine view of myriad satellite dishes and other aerials. At the end a sign announces a bowling club - but there is no sign of a green. Better news comes from a poster telling everyone that a missing dog has been found. Nice to see someone tidying up the end of the story, how many of the forlorn notices pinned to lampposts for missing pets ever bear fruit I wonder.

Media VillageMy group was to meet up the the "Media Village" which is a poncy name for a group of office blocks 5 minutes walk from TV centre. As far as I can tell the entire site is occupied by the BBC and I think they even use some of the buildings as studios. As expected you can buy coffee from Starbucks, drinks from a wine bar and eats in a couple of cafes where the word "organic" prefaces everything on the menu. I ate a mediocre tuna wrap and supped organic hot chocolate (nice but I couldn't tell it from the ordinary, pre-processed, chemical filled variety sold elsewhere) while struggling with a couple of Guardian crossword crews and trying to spot famous people wandering out to lunch. In both cases I failed miserably.

Having gathered our group we headed off to the Centre to meet up in the main reception. This isn't the one that appears on TV, this one is full of Daleks which are shorter than expected, terminals to listen to the radio and big TV screens. Our guides met us there and took us along back out along the street to security.

I'm a bit of a connoisseur of London security having visited several Government departments and the Buckingham Palace office suite. Suffice to say the BBC is by far the toughest by far. Think airport style with all bags x-rayed and a metal scanner to walk through. Gentlemen, please remove your belts so they can go through the scanner too and don't bring anything sharp or it will be confiscated. How they get an entire studio audience through this is beyond me as 15 people took nearly 10 minutes. Good job it wasn't raining either as there isn't much shelter space other than the small gatehouse.

Once past this the ground rules were laid down - no photography unless specifically authorised, leave people alone (no autographs), stay together (2 guides, one each end of the line so we couldn't get lost) and single file so the corridors don't get blocked. Oh, and yes you can take a picture of the Tardis over there, I didn't bother 'cos it looked a bit rubbish.

The tour starts in the newsroom. Or rather a glass walled room on the edge of the newsroom. To get there the party is led through a canteen where apparently there was a newsreader although we only saw the back of her head. Actually I'm a bit rubbish at spotting celebrities so this is going to be a bit light on name dropping. I did see the guy who was the chief correspondent at the Olympics in the lift...

Once a promotional DVD (Wow, the BBC is great. And it makes Dr Who...) had been shown to us we were talked through the newsroom. This IS like it looks on TV but of course we only got to look at the staffers not the stars. I certainly wouldn't have liked to have a desk backing on to our goldfish bowl - no messing around on the web instead of working as the visiting licence payers can see what you are up to ! Various views of studios were show, mostly involving Simon Mayo looking bored in a 5 Live radio studio. Sadly the room wasn't full of people running around in a flap. It was explained that 80% of the news is known about in advance which might explain things. Or BBC people take late lunches and were out.

The newsroom is huge - 5 floors of it. When asked what news you watch, don't say "Ceefax" as you get scowled at and marked down as an idiot. Actually, this isn't so bad as there is a bit of audience participation later and I think I escaped because they didn't trust me with the equipment. I don't think the BBC is proud of Ceefax any more...

Broadcasting HouseAnyway, after the news we went to see a studio via the celebrity reception. That's the one you see on the screen with cars pulling up outside. The decor is apparently protected in some way which means they can't change it leaving a relic of the 1950's which is a bit fantastic. One wall has a huge tiled abstract mural. Apparently it represents waves or something, no one is really sure but it's definitely not just a way for the builder to use up some old tiles from various bathrooms he'd done in the past. Joking aside, it is very impressive as the few modern touches don't interfere with the overall design. I suspect the cost savings of not redesigning the place every couple of years are worthwhile too.

Outside in the donut part of the building the only design flaw was demonstrated. A single person clapping their hands echos off all the concrete walls terribly. So when the designer placed a large fountain in the middle it lasted about 6 weeks before being turned off to stop the staff needing the loo all day !

The fountain area was the best place for star spotting. I copped, Miranda Hart, Christine Bleakley and the one with dark curly hair from Strictly Come Dancing. There were others but since I don't watch Strictly (if I keep repeating this it will improve my Google ranking) they all look the same to me. Oh and quite a lot of BBC employees having a fag in shelters that we were told weren't for that purpose at all as it's a non-smoking site.

Anyway, the dancing is taking place in Studio 1 which meant that all we saw from the viewing gallery was the inside of a black curtain. A screen showed the feed from the cameras during rehearsal which meant we saw Jodie Kidd and Cherie Lughi limbering up but it's just like watching telly so seemed a bit pointless. There was a little to see at the bottom of the blackout, but only odd lights reflected off the back of the scenery.

Next stop, the weather corridor. It's got pictures of each of the presenters currently working plus some black and white shots of "The Good Old Days". In the middle of this is a wall mounted camera and a blue panel. This means one "lucky" person can have a go at presenting the weather complete with chromakey background of maps etc. For those who don't get it, the guide gets someone to wear a cloak of invisibility - or blue cloth that makes you vanish when the system replaces all the blue it can see with background. What larks ! And this takes place in an office block corridor - how Glamorous !

Studio 3 was much better. From the viewing room we could see the set of the ITV (yes, ITV, they have to rent out 30% of the studio time) daytime quiz, Goldenballs. Our view was right up in the gods so we looked through the impressive lighting rig at the crowd being warmed up. Apparently Goldenballs isn't very popular, that combined with a daytime filming meant the audience was about 25 people. The warm up artist was struggling to whip them into a frenzy.

In this studio we actually learned a bit about how telly works. The floors for example are resin coated concrete and get re-painted regularly. They have to be perfectly smooth for the cameras to move. Like (proper) Daleks they don't do rough or soft surfaces. Therefore if you see a carpet in a comedy show, it's painted on the floor. Dramas are shot on location but comedy's and game shows need an audience, hence they happen in a studio.

The studio was surprisingly small, especially since it was the same one used years ago for Top of the Pops. Think tennis court and you get the idea. Studio 1 (the biggest on the site)is the size of half a football pitch. They all look bigger thanks to wide angle lenses on the cameras - which have also make the people on screen look wider. People who have visited Chelsea Flower Show report that the same effect works on the show gardens there which are little more than postage stamps but look sumptuous on screen.

Next stop was a "green room". This is where those appearing on a show are corralled before they get to the studio. We went into number 2, which is the one used by the Strictly judges according to the sign on the door. Inside it's nicely laid out with soft furnishings and, surprisingly, red walls. There was no sign of the food, drink or other substances that rumour has are laid on in these places but I'm sure they are cleaned out before tour parties arrive. I'm not sure this is officially on the tour but our guides seemed to know the place inside out and wanted us to get the most out of it.

Further along the corridor and things went downhill. In a special room we could try out some of the facilities. This means one person gets lumbered with trying to read the news on an autocue while three others play a quiz. For the three positions on offer, only one person volunteered. The news reading looked the worst. Stuck on your own reading from a screen in between some automatically played film clips of "news". Still our victim did a good job which means I'm sure she's about to be snapped up for a newsreaders £250k salary...

The quiz was just as rubbish. The contestants watched a film and then answered questions on it. They all had buzzers but normally you'd expect that when the first person presses the button, the others wouldn't work. Apparently this is beyond BBC technology so our host had to guess who had won. To be fair there was a prize, a BBC Breakfast Mug, but I'm not sure anyone would have missed this bit of the tour if it hadn't been there. We'd have preferredlook in more studios or perhaps the place they make props.

Finally the party arrived at the BBC shop. Selling DVD's and branded tat it's the last stop in the journey. I wanted to know why it existed inside the centre at the side of the canteen. Only BBC employees and tour parties can get in there. Why not put it on the street ?

DalekIt's not the only retail opportunity either. We'd already passed a branch of Costa Coffee and a WH Smith on our travels. A hair dressers didn't seem so daft except it wasn't part of the TV make-up service but a private salon that anyone who worked there could use.

After about an hour and a half we were back in (non-celeb) reception It's an enjoyable tour and you certainly learn a bit more about the Beeb. The guides are excellent and seem to know and care about the organisation. Those not happy with the licence fee won't be happy about the extravagantdecoration and displays in some of the areas but then they probably wouldn't bother with this tour anyway. I'd have liked to see more behind the scenes stuff and less hands on, although if they'd let me have a go with a camera perhaps I'd change my mind...

More on BBC tours
More pictures here.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Tory Party Conference, in seach of John Major.

Tory Conference"You went to the Conservative Party conference ?"

I can hear the surprised cries of those who know me. As a bit of a lefty I'm hardly likely to be a fan of David Cameron and his happy gang. Since we've all seen reports on the news of the various party conferences I wondered what they were really like. Can you just pitch up and watch the speeches ? Do famous politicians swan around among the serfs ? Would I be able to punch John Major for screwing up the countries railway system and making trips between Leamington & Birmingham standing room only ?

With the Tories infesting Birmingham this year rather than the seaside it seemed a good day to find out.

The morning dawned bright and sunny. Weather forecasters predicted that this would be the same all day followed by rain of biblical proportions to follow through the week. Fortunately for my temper and the future of Mr Majors nose, the train was quiet enough for everyone to sit down. All that is, except the emo kid who decided to stand on his own at the end of the coach for angst and misery reasons. I bet he was really disapointed it even ran reasonably to time. No, hold on, being disapointed would make him happy. And that would make him sad. I dunno. He stood in the vestibule looking at his iPod miserably anyway when there were empty seats.

Things started to go wrong at New Street Station. The forces of oppression (TM) were obviously aware of my plans and started to harass me on arrival in the city. Testing a newly acquired 2nd hand camera by taking an nice arty shot of the railway lines disappearing into the tunnel at the end of the platform I was shouted at by a "platform assistant" for ignoring a non-existent sign and standing by a signal and not blocking the view of it. Of course if he'd enunciated rather than communicating in a series of shrieks and squeals I'd have put up a proper argument. As it was a colleague wandered up so rather than face down the gathering force I scarpered quick before they carted me off to some anonymous cellar to be interrogated by Michael Potillo (insert Spanish Inquisition joke). Make no mistake comrades, they were out to get me !

Wicker ShoeI don't really know what I expected to find in the city centre. Not a giant wicker shoe obviously. Perhaps some protesters as there had been during the G8 summit a few years ago. Or lots of blue flags and banners with pictures of Maggie (out, Out, OUT) and DC as his friends call him apparently. But no. Birmingham was ignoring the Tories as far as I could see. In fact I made it through Victoria Square, past the beach with empty deckchairs (calm down, coastal erosion isn't that bad, it's an advertising thing with sand around a fountain), past the threatened Library building and it's associated McDonalds, past the new Big Issue stand and as nearly to the war memorial before finding a sign of the event.

Anti Al Qaeda palmsTo be honest even when I found the first signs of conference it took me a moment to realise I had made it to the outer ring of steel. At first I thought, "The steel tube flower basket supports are interesting and new. " then looked again and saw the huge metal and concrete elliptical bases they stood in. These were no mere horticultural support, they were designed to repel anyone trying to drive a vehicle onto the plaza. I'm sure they would be very effective at this and keeping fat people out too as the space to walk through wasn't generous. Looking around, every entrance was protected with these fortifications except those off Broad Street which had been closed for the duration.

Approaching the ICC, freshly decorated with banners and coverings, it became obvious that I wasn't going to see any speeches. A huge tent obscured the entrance and out of this stretched queues of smart suited delegates sporting plastic badges around their necks. To get in you had to be checked by uniformed security guards before disappearing under canvas for indoctrination or security checks or something. Had I attempted to try and break in I suspect several of the army of police hanging around would have had something to say. That is if their colleagues on the top of the building hadn't stopped me first. Incidentally, when did the uniform stop being navy blue/black and become fluorescent ? Only the ones with guns get dark colours now - which makes them stand out more as they aren't dressed like builders ! Security was so tight that even the manholes had been sealed with something like black chewing gum to stop the communists using the sewers to invade.

Anyway, with a blue sky and interesting outdoor photographic exhibition to look at I decided to hang around and see what happened. Every so often someone would force a leaflet into my hand for a fringe event, more out of desperation to get rid of them than a desire to have me involved. Even smart jeans weren't exactly de rigueur amoung the crowds who preferred dark grey or black suits. Mind you there was a distinct lack of twinsets and pearls too so fashion has moved on in the Tory heartlands, for the conference anyway. Everyone walked around purposefully frequently gabbling on mobile phones. It was like a little bit of the City of London had moved to the middle of the country. Of course they could all have been desperately trying to offload stocks and shares as the economy melted down !

Forces of oppressionUndoubtedly the highlight was a lone protester with a small placard. His method of persuading the delegate to adopt his point of view was to shout at them. A lot. And loudly. Mostly the messages involved banning the tobacco industry which he accused of genocide. My particular favourite though was his oft repeated question, "Who likes nuclear power stations ?"

Most people simply ignored all attempts as engaging in debate which wasn't surprising really. Much as I like a discussion, I prefer not to start when one party is already at shouting point. In fact, so hopeless was he at protesting, I wondered if he had been brought in from "Rent a Trot" to confirm everyones opinions about the opposition. I suppose he gave them something to talk about inside, even if it was more likely to be along the lines of "Did you see that idiot..." rather than, "You know he's right about tobacco..."

At one point the the rhetoric revolved around Article 10 of some EU directive which protects out right to free speech. There were a larger number of police around at that point and our hero decided that they needed a refresher course in the law covering this area, specifically why it meant they couldn't arrest him. At one point half a dozen were looking on and an inspector went over to have a quiet word, I think he was pointing out that they had no intention of arresting him no matter how much it would make his day (Go on officer, do the handcuffs. And a tap with the truncheon too. I love it !) to which he bellowed that if they tried he would be happy to have his day in court. Talking to one of the dayglo stormtroopers it seems that he does attends all the conferences and would keep up the shouting all day every day. If nothing else that shows commitment and stamina.

My own hopes of protest were not going well. I hadn't seen a Major, Thatcher (out, Out, OUT) or Cameron all day. In fact the only person I'd recognised was Matthew Parris who is a lot less shiny and quite a bit taller than he appears on the telly. After looking around it became obvious why. Next to the ICC is the Hyatt hotel where the politicos stay. There is a glass walkway between the two over Broad Street. Quite simply the "stars" didn't go in through the tradesmans entrance, so we didn't get to mingle.

That wasn't the only reason though. Chatting to another conference tourist it seems I had missed shouty protesting man chatting to Ian Duncan Smith. A proper leader and I hadn't spotted him ! The main problem is that had the entire shadow cabinet walked amongst us wearing badges that read "I'm a Cameroonie" I wouldn't have recognised them. This is despite the fact that according to the web site there are enough to fill a reasonable sized bus (I know they wouldn't be seen dead on a bus but you get the idea). Lets be honest, most people could probably recognise DC, Billy Hague maybe, possibly George Osbourne at a pinch 'cos he's been on TV a lot recently, and then all they have left is Boris Johnson who isn't technically on the front bench any more.

Eventually the crowds thinned. The guys from Shelter recounted their woes to each other - they couldn't give away T-shirts to the attendees. In fact one delegate had explained that crashing property market would solve the homeless problem as "everyone will be able to afford a house". The Oxfam people had better luck with canvas bag freebies but not as well as the Telegraph with their plastic versions. The prize for handouts must go to the Spectator magazine whose attractive staff distributed many copies as people walked past. Their star though was a slightly scruffy bloke who wore his sash like a necklace or lose scarf and had plainly been told to go and do this. He did for the absolute minimum time possible and then retreated to go and do something useful I suppose.

Golden figuresWhat the ghosts of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch whose gold clad statues look over the closed streets would think of this I can only wonder. In their day they were real powerhouses, men who made things happen. Now we have sharp suited people strutting around thinking they are the new masters of the universe - which in a way they are. But none will ever come up with anything as revolutionary as these great men who drove the industrial revolution and fundamentally changed Britain so many years ago.

More pictures on Flickr.

Saturday 27 September 2008

Warwick Antiques Fair

Antique FairAs an occasional viewer of the BBC TV programme "Bargain Hunt" I've often wondered what a big outdoor antiques fair is really like. In telly I see lots of stalls with stuff on. They seem to have furniture and odd things but it all looks like a posh car boot sale. Obviously I'm curious about this but not curious enough to shlep out to the edge of the home counties where all these things seem to take place. When I spotted a poster for an event at Stoneleigh, about 7 miles away that seemed like it would be worth a dabble.

Anyway, for the privilege of going in to look at the stalls the organisers relieve you of a fiver. If you are really keen, or just want first crack at the bargains, a tenner gets you in before 10am.

Once inside the event filled what are normally called "the cattle sheds", because that is what they are during the Royal Show. And they smell of cowpat in places. The display ring outside hosted tent based traders who normally had the larger items. I would guess at around 150 stalls but there could easily be more.

NovomatPosh car boot sale would be a pretty reasonable description of the display. The quality of the goods on offer was much higher, as were the prices. Unlike a car boot though, every other stall isn't home to a coffee making machine. In fact the best thing about looking around was the variety of goodies on offer. To take a single example, one stall had a one arm bandit leaning against it and a 4 foot long Wherry hull inside.

To me, the outside stalls were much more interesting than those inside. The later was the home of lots of pots and porcelain. I can't see the appeal of china figures, of which there were an awful lot, or those white china souvenir ware thingys. Both exist in huge quantities which makes me wonder why they cost so much. On the other hand there were also small pockets of unusual items, especially early plastic from an age when they were The Future and all sorts of wonderful designs appeared.

The crowds were unsurprisingly toward the upper age ranges - no OAP entrance ticket was offered for a good reason I suspect. How many of the items sold will re-appear on the market in a few years after an estate is split up ? They will doubtless find a whole new range of collectors who will snap them up along with modern collectibles.

Perhaps the best way to approach this event is to treat it as a design museum. If we ignore the tat made of the collectible market and often sold in the magazines that come with the weekend papers then there is a lot to appreciate. Art decco items stand beside Victorian ones and you can see the step change in design. The war years interrupted the evolution with austerity items picking up the clean lines but not the glamour. Later still colour made an appearance in a big way along with revolutionary materials. Much on sale will exhibit the highest standards of craftsmanship - if it didn't then the item didn't normally survive - but not all. Some things were built to last because they had to be. I bought a Model Laundry plywood box with metal edging. To me this is a useful box for my exhibition work, for the original owner it was solid because they wanted to reuse it time after time.

KnobsI'm sure you could enjoy the fair without buying anything. I doubt there are many who are that parsimonious though. Obviously some collectors are looking for very specific items but most of us will just see something cheap and attractive and want to take it home. Hopefully this won't involve bankruptcy but I can see how that might happen ?

On Bargain Hunt, contestants have an hour to buy 3 items with the intention of selling them for a profit. I doubt I could do this and assume there is TV trickery at work. Just looking for fun took 4 hours allowing for a greasy burger break. To look properly takes either a lot longer or an expert eye. More expert than mine anyway.

Photos on Flickr

Monday 15 September 2008

Birmingham Beer Festival

Birmingham Beer FestivalOn the wall at Harbury there was a poster for the Birmingham Beer Festival. At the time it seemed like a good idea but then it was late in the evening. Strangely, it still seemed like a good idea when the effects had worn off so last Friday off we went.

The festival is held in the student union bar at Aston University. I've never been a student so was unsure what the dress code was. I mean, when I was the right age (but too thick) to go to university, students wore ex-army grey coats and dungarees. Then they shouted at you in the street in lieu of a sales technique for Socialist Worker. Now I think they wear box-fresh trainers and don't even pretend they will all vote for anyone other than a Tory. In the end I hoped that a beer festival would be mostly populated by those from the IT and Engineering sections so dressing up probably wasn't required.

Beer with no nameThe student union is in the middle of Aston Uni and was handily signposted once you got there with arrows on lampposts. It's beside a pleasant village green type space which even has a normal pub beside it. How that works I'm not sure. Perhaps the students go to the union and the lecturers go to the pub ? Or won't the pupils at the business school be seen in the scruffy surroundings of a subsidised (and therefore little more than communist) drinking establishment ?

Inside cash was exchanged for a glossy programme plus half pint glass and we headed for the wall of barrels. Each was adorned with the name of the brew and interconnected with a plastic pipe. I'm assuming that this pressurised the vessel and didn't just blow beer from one to the other. Cash was taken on the bars with most beers coming in at £1.20-30 per half.

If you now expect a beer review then tough, I can't remember all the names and certainly can't recall the individual tastes. 'cos we had to go to Brum the timings had to fit in with the trains so an early (10.30) finish meant there was no option but to start drinking at teatime.

Fortunately there were a couple of stand out brews:
Mango - Is a yellowy/orange colour and does taste like there are mango's involved in the production. Very pleasant and light, just the thing for a summer like we haven't just had.
Pooh Beer - Dark brown and if I'm honest, not very nice. Only the dampening effect of previous drinks and the fact I needed to use the glass again kept me going on this one.

Alcohol strength fans will be disappointed that as neither of these appear in the guide I can't add this vital information either. Actually, the guide while glossy and full of reading matter is a bit useless on the details of the beers. The list is missing at least 3 of the ones I tasted. Still, you can read a diatribe about possible banning of smoking outside in Birmingham by an ex-smoker who still has the odd cigar (so not an ex- then) or a new landlady in one of the homes of proper beer in the city. Nobody read any of this at the festival as far as I could see but it's worth a look afterwards if only to wonder why Tiger bitter, which is IMHO little more than the contents of the drains in the gents toilets of a tapas bar, has found a home in a temple to the brewers art.

The people weren't your typical fare either. I spotted at least 4 laptops being carried around. Several escapees from the adjacent business school wore suits that were a little too sharp for the surroundings contrasting well with the weathered beer festival t-shirts holding many a gut down. Mind you, if they were looking to work in banking at the end of term a drink or six was probably called for ! The average age was younger than Harbury but not by much. Modern students prefer quantity over quality so would have headed for the nearest Wetherspoons rather than mess around with proper beer.

Ann Duggan BandEntertainment was initially provided by a 6 piece brass ensemble followed after a 2 hour break by the Ann Duggan band. Ann Duggan is at least ten years too old for her outfit and twenty years to old to flirt with the lead guitarist, young enough to be her son, the way she does. Sadly the sound mix wasn't good enough to do justice to her vocals which was a shame as I think we missed out on an act a cut above your average pub covers band. Said guitarist was excellent even though he was plainly up past a decent bedtime for one so young. And of course no-one can clap when they have a beer glass in their hand so the audience response was more muted than it would have been otherwise.

Food was poncy (Jonathan Crisp) but delicious crisps and German sausages in buns. These smelt good and tasted better. Crepes were on offer from the same stall but how you were supposed to eat them I'm not sure as leaning space was at a premium. In the corner of the union was a Subway concession (closed for the evening) - is this part of the creeping commercialisation of the education system ? What the hell do the Socialist Worker sellers think of that ? Indeed, are there any ? The stand seems remarkably "unadorned" in what should be a hotbed for Marxists.

Anyway, a good night out. Not lefty magazine sellers (shame), some good beer and food along with reasonable entertainment. The glass survived the trip back on the train to join my collection.

More pointless pictures of beer on Flickr

CAMRA Birmingham

Sunday 31 August 2008

Harbury Beer Festival

Harbury Beer Festival
Celebrate the beer ! All Hail to the ale ! (insert other stolen catch phrases as required)

What could be more English than enjoying a warm beer on a summers evening in a rural village ? Apart, obviously, from getting staggeringly drunk, running around a town centre looking for a fight and ending the evening in a pool of vomit anyway. None of that in Harbury though, this is proper grown up appreciation of traditional brews.

The event takes place in Harbury Village hall. Despite having no less than 5 pubs, more drinking space is required when you have 60 different beers to chose from. With a bus stop outside you don't get a much more convenient location and for a change, public transport is well patronised in the sticks. As the weather was unseasonably (in the new world order where summer is like winter but with slightly higher temperatures) warm and dry everyone spilled out onto the grass outside.

Strawberry Blone BeerFor the uninitiated, a beer festival works like this:
When you go in you pay an entry fee. For that you get in (obviously, unless you are under 18 in which case you go back out again), a beer glass (which you can hand back for the return of a deposit at the end of the evening if you don't want a souvenir), a guide to the beer available and a card with a grid of 10 & 5 pence's.
You could wander round savouring the ambiance but most people head for one of the bars. There, the cognoscenti will examine the guide and pick accordingly. The rest of us just choose a name we fancy.
You order your drink, deciding between 1/3, 1/2 and a full pint and hand over your card as payment.
The barman fills the glass as required and crosses off some of the payment.
Left hand barYou drink the beer and repeat the above as long as you can either stand/run out of money(more cards can be bought)/the beer supply lasts/the event closes.

One couple, Mr & Mrs Tom Dunne, had in a stroke of genius, decided to hold their wedding reception at the festival. I can't think of a better way to do this - there are handy bars for the guests, you can give them all a beer voucher sheet and when they run out they are on their own, you have space for a band and everyone will remember the "do". They paid for the band, saving the organisers the cost too which was generous.

Anyway, what I should present is a detailed description of every beer drunk conjuring up the taste for you with my eloquent words. But I can't, partly because I'm not that good at writing and partly because I was drinking beer at the time and can't entirely remember each one in detail.

Here's some highlights though:
Strawberry Blonde - The guide says: 4.4%. Leadmill, Denby. A golden coloured beer with a bubbly white lead. This hoppy, slightly fruity beer has a dry malty finish. Some sweeter honey notes are apparent. - I say, it was a nice.
Pink Elephant - The guide says: 5.4%. Hampshire. Distinctively different; with pale malt and red wine grapes, which give a surreal flavour. Don't drink to excess, or you will see Pink Elephants - I say, it tasted like a mix of beer and wine and was very nice. Slightly pink too.
Old Field Perry - The guide says: 7.5%. Dry , yet still quite fruity. - I say it smelt like vinegar and tasted a bit like a liquidised barbecue but was very nice. Quite a sharp shock after the beer but very nice.
Navey Blue BeerBlack & Tan - The guide says: 4.3%. Houston, Renfrewshire (no not America, it's beer after all). A traditional mix of stout & pale ale - I say it's what was left at 10pm as the beer ran out. Quite nice though.
Navey Blue - The guide says: 4.5%. Church End, Warwickshire. A dry hopped golden beer soaked with fresh blueberries. It is hopped with Styrian Goldings and First Gold Hops - I say, it's blue beer. That is Beer that is Blue. Yes BLUE.

Obviously there were other beers and ciders and perry's (no lager obviously) but those are the ones I remember. The Scouts did some excellent food including hot dogs containing beef, horse radish and, wait for it, Beer.

The evening sort of drifted to a close as the larger than expected crowds finished off all the beer a bit earlier than might be expected but I don't think anyone really minded. For those that had been there all day, arriving at lunchtime and staying until the break at 4pm then heading off around the local pubs is apparently popular with some with rather stronger constitutions than mine, I doubt that they noticed anyway.

Night timeOne thing that strikes you though is that no one was actually drunk. Mellow, relaxed or tire perhaps but not proper British town centre drunk. Even the bus home was quiet. We can drink like the French, we just need to right stuff that's all.

Photos on Flickr
Warwickshire CAMRA website

Tuesday 26 August 2008

IWA National Festival & Boat Show 2008

CanalIf you think travelling ought to involve some discomfort then welcome to my trip to Wolverhampton. To start with, the train from Leamington was as heaving as a hen night at 3am. I shared the vestibule at the end of the coach with eight other people - we'd have fitted a couple more in but there was a ball of bodies consisting of three students in one corner who were fast asleep and mostly horizontal. As the weather was unusually warm this wasn't pleasant and didn't get any better every time we stopped at a station. Coventry saw a few get off and a few get on. Birmingham International removed a couple but this was balanced by one person and a ton of luggage.

New Street was the best though. We lost a few but those that got on obviously thought that we were standing there for fun and charged by us into the main part of the carriage. Of course when they got there a shock awaited - no seats ! Last on were a couple with their young daughter, three cases and a folded pushchair. They repeatedly said that they had booked seats and were going to get them. I had a feeling that he saw the presence of anyone in a berth with their name on it as a slight to his masculinity. None of us cared much as it was crowded enough without a ranting fat bloke in the middle of the space.

London commuters have a technique for dealing with this sort of travel - listen to a walkman with some nice soothing music, and read a good book. It works well and despite struggling to find space for my feet some of the time the trip was fine. Of course had anyone walking in with a blue rosette, my hatred of those who scrapped the evil BR (we'd have had 12 coaches in the old days not 4) would have erupted and I'd have pummeled them into the carpet with a diet coke bottle and a Sexton Blake penny dreadful.

The fun didn't stop at the station either. Finding a bus was easy - the stands are just across the road and a 505 was waiting. Explaining to the driver where I wanted to go was the challenge. I wasn't even the first he'd heard either - the people in front had also wanted Pendeford park for the same event. Our driver didn't really want anyone on his vehicle who wasn't from "round 'ere". We don't understand the route. We don't get the "exact money only" stuff. We don't realise that you can't buy a return. And as for the accent, well it doesn't really help if you don't speak Black Country. Anyway, for future reference a day ranger costs 3 quid and a single £1.50.

We were dropped off a ten minute walk from the park. I think the driver tried to explain that he would be going closer but only after a trip around the houses but it might as well have been in Chinese. Still, it was a nice day for a stroll.

Crowds£7.50 to get in was a touch steep even if a free show guide was included. The first thing that struck the visitor, or rather stuck him or her was the ground. Thanks to several days of rain, vehicles unloading and the crowds already there, the place was a mudbath. A temporary road had been laid along part of the showground but if you'd decided that flip-flops were the order of the day you would be wanting a dip in the canal later on.

I don't own a barge and only half aspire to doing so. The problem isn't buying one, it's finding somewhere to put it, especially if you fancy living aboard permanently. With this in mind I skipped any stand featuring engines or other mechanical bits. People with fenders, rope or otherwise got only a cursory glance. Strangely I didn't see anyone selling tyres despite their popularity with the boating crowd who like to decorate barge sides with them. This Corracolsstill left dozens of stands for entertainment. The exhibitors had come from all over the country. Many were promoting their own particular bit of the canal system and for the uninitiated the maps showing just how far you can still travel buy boat were fascinating. I was mentally planning a cruise from Leamington down to Worcester and back via Oxford. At 4mph thats a long journey but very satisfying.

The boats were fun. A display of historic vessels ran along the canal at one side of the show - a passout was required to get back in meaning you could have seen the best bits without paying :-(

Since I don't know a huge amount about barges, the detail Tug bargedifferences were slightly lost on me. In fact if I'm honest most working boats look the same apart from the paint jobs on the cabins. For technical reasons though, I found the insides of the hulls interesting as these are normally hidden by the canvas over the load. One owner tried to persuade me that by tightening up the turnbuckles that joined the tops of his sides he could gain a couple of inches for excessively narrow locks. Not sure how the cabin would get thorough though. Perhaps he takes a run at them...

I did learn one thing. There are mobile diesel stations for boats. One had a pump in it's middle. He also sold logs, coal and charcoal - just like an all night garage ! You could even have a pump-out which is perhaps a service that Shell et al might like to look into offering for night time users.

Barn owlsBack in the show we all waddled around on the soggy ground. The biggest mud bath was opposite a display of birds of prey. Everyone had the chance to pet birds with sharp beaks and talons. They were all very well behaved and didn't eat anyone, at least while I was there.

Of course if you wanted to buy a boat then plenty of people could oblige. Two rows of boats separated by and entertaining, wobbly, pontoon. One ladies description of it's movement as like a cakewalk was pretty accurate. Of course not being landlubbers we didn't care, unlike those soft, southern, nancy b******s down south who got a bit jittery when one of their bridges was a bit bouncy a couple of years ago. It's all part of the fun !

The ground conditions limited the boat visiting for me. Thanks to an irrational fear (surely a coating of the stuff isn't going to put the serious boater off buying ?) of mud, most builders asked people to take their shoes off before boarding, or wear blue plastic overshoes. Now my feet are big and I doubt any overshoe would fit me and if it did I'd look like I was wearing a bin bag on each foot. Not good. Anyway, I was only tyre (prop ?) kicking and there were queues for most craft.

There was an exception, and since I was there I determined to see the inside of one craft. This came from a Southam builder and was for sale for the "bargain" price of £46000 for a 51 foot boat. Fully fitted and with a years mooring. It was cosy in a couple of places but the shower looked good and there was the same amount of space as you'd find in a much more expensive flat. Storage would be an issue but not unsolvable. The options list showed that the price would go up once such luxuries as electricity, central heating and a non-chemical toilet were added but it didn't sound like that bad a deal. The ceiling was high enough for me to walk down it and not rub the top of my head too - something new in the canal world.

Later, avoiding some more mud I ended up in the clutches of a finance salesman so I asked the obvious question about the boat I visited. If you fancy something similar, here are the numbers: Deposit will be £9k. The remaining £37k will be loaned against the boat for 10 years. Repayments will be just over £500 per month. In other words you pay back £60k - I can't help feeling that there are better deals out there.

Lunch time saw me in the beer tent. I had brought some lovely cheese rolls smothered in home made tomato chutney and a proper pint would go very nicely with these. From the 40 beers on offer, I went for "Ginger Snaps" which was lovely. Full bodied but not too heavy for a day in the sunshine.

More strolling and I found an oddity - a canal boat you can tow behind the car. At 38 foot long it's a reasonable sized aquatic caravan. Not sure how you power it though as I'm sure most boats have a propeller underneath. Perhaps in these eco-friendly times the owner is supposed to row. Or perhaps you don't sail the thing, just dump it in the water and live aboard. With most canal holidays Bargesbeing elongated pub crawls with a bit of sailing, this isn't such a bad thing if you can find a nice pub !

One area I did miss out on big time were the craft lessons. Even though they cost extra I'd have really enjoyed a few hours learning to signwrite or paint traditional roses and castles. Looking at the prices, being taught how to make a button fender would have been a good business proposition too. Perhaps next year.

More pictures on Flickr
Inland Waterways Association website

Sunday 24 August 2008

British Waterways Museum, Gloucester Docks

Waterways MuseumDo we “Disneyise” the past in museums ?

Having taken a trip to Gloucester docks the whole area is so clean and tidy – a far cry from the images of the working port I've seen in books. The stone buildings are free from smoke and dirt. The pavements are clear and level. I fear that in gentrifying the area we have lost the atmosphere that existed in The Good Old Days.

British Waterways Museum is found in the Llanthony Warehouse in the corner of the site. For a very reasonable £3.95 there are two floors of exhibits and several historic boats to explore outside. I was lucky, on a damp day in the holidays, the place wasn't overrun by kids making it easy to see everything. I'm not saying that junior shouldn't get to go to a museum like this, just that if he or she isn't interested then please tie them up outside where there is a covered area to keep them dry, and let the rest of us enjoy the efforts of the curators.

Somehow I managed to start in the upstairs gallery. It's littered with examples of loads and loading implements that would have been Barrelsa common sight in the heyday of the docks. They aren't tucked away behind glass either. Built for industrial use it's obviously been decided that things like sack trucks can take a bit of handling from the sort of people who visit museums. There are proper hands on exhibits too – the principle of the block and tackle is explained by three sacks hanging from the ceiling with various numbers of pulleys and by pulling on the ropes you find that some are easier to lift than others. Aimed at the smaller and weaker visitor the sacks aren't exactly challenging but I suppose at least if you were to get your head underneath one when it came down in a hurry the concussion wouldn't last too long.

Good use is made of archive film too. One from the 1970's had Johnny Morris opining about “the lovely life on the water” with bucolic shots of pleasure boats and canal sides with flowers and grasses in the sunshine. A little bit of history is injected but nothing involving hard and heavy work or living 6 to a cabin in the deep midwinter. Further round the room though is the excellent British Transport Film Robert Reid reports on British Waterways”. In this Robert Reid travels up the Bristol Channel by various means of water transport commenting and interviewing people as he goes. While maintaining the BTF standards for production, the film is obviously a period piece. The interviewer travels in a tweed 3-piece suit with hat, the docks are still working well with much crane and stevadore action. There is no sign of the ISO container on any of these boats – everything is loaded and unloaded by hand. Many officials are interviewed and all are bullish about the future for water transport in the future. At this point the film introduces a campaigning element with a call for more goods to be sent by water to relieve pressure on the railways and fledgling motorway system, something British Waterways are still suggesting.

Watching the shots of Gloucester docks in the 1960's and then looking out of the window provides a real contrast. Now we have offices, flats and a giant antique centre. Once thousands of men would find work and ships from around the world (Empire in the film) called to offload cargo.

Men in suitsDownstairs the highlight (for me 'cos I'm a big kid) is a model canal system. Basically a stainless steel trough with water circulating through it with various types of lock. A couple of bathtime plastic boats are swept along by the current and visitors can work them through different locks by opening sluice gates or paddles. Someone has put a lot of thought into this exhibit – it's robust and accurate, the locks really do work like real ones. Of course this will be lost on most children who will just pull on levers and gates but maybe some will get an understanding of the mechanisms involved.

I wasn't alone in my appreciation of this either. Behind me a ground of men, all very smartly suited and booted, had a go and were thoroughly enjoying themselves despite the tendency of the water to escape onto the operator. I suspect they were a delegation to a local conference (there is a suitable commercial hotel on site) and bet this wasn't how they expected to kill time before heading home !

Outside the weather was inclement so when I found a sign inviting visitors to have a look below decks on the bucket dredger I descended the steep and slightly slippery steps into the vessel. The dredger is divided into two halves – it's a but like being inside a steel cattermeran. The entry takes you into living quarters with furniture and replica food. Further forward is the engine room with steam engine and boiler. I was accompanied by one Dredgerof the Friends of the Waterways Museum whose name I didn't get but explained in great detail how everything worked. Asking the odd intelligent question showed a little knowledge so I, and those who followed me into the room, learned everything we could possibly want to know about the workings of a dredger. You don't get this from anyone except an enthusiast who really cares about the subject. Perhaps there is a role for me there – the thick leather belts driving the buckets that scoop muck out of the bottom of the port are joined in exactly the same way as film in a cinema with all the same fun of tensioning the band except that this involves thick steel teeth and not sticky tape !

Back in the open there are other boats to look at, including a rare concrete barge, and a working steam crane that is demonstrated several times a day.

For the entrance fee I had several hours of entertainment. OK so I'm interested in the subject and better suited to the sort of museum where you can learn rather than just bang buttons and look at expensive (but usually rubbish) video displays. Located just off the centre of the city this is ideal for those who want a day out as you can do it and look around the shops comfortably.

Gloucester Docks website
More Photos on Flickr

Thursday 21 August 2008

Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery

Sharmanka Travelling CircusIt's school holiday time. What better way to entertain the kids for half an hour than to take them to see a circus ? Look, the Gloucester Museum has a free one - it's the Sharmanka Travelling Circus. Great, lets take the sprogs in there for a while, it'll shut them up.

Hold, on, what this ? I've dragged them past all the bones, roman stuff and the biggest collection of stuffed animals I've ever seen, past dusty old paintings and all there is in the room is some weird machines. We can't even see them properly because the lights are funny. Still, we get top sit downwhich should keep them still for a bit.

SculpturesHold on, the show has started. The carved monkey things have started clanging bells. At least it's got their attention.

The bells have stopped and the next machine has started. Some figures are jumping up and down. I'm not sure what they are but at least there is movement and noise which keeps the kids quiet.

Oh, no, now they've started asking me what is happening. According to the label this machine is called the leg and is inspired by the movie "Cabaret" and reflects the decadence and escapism of 1930's The LegGermany which was being overshadowed by the political events of the period. How the hell and I supposed to explain this to an 8 year old ? I'll tell him it's a penalty taking machine. Yes I know there is a little man hanging on the foot, it's foreign.

More clanging. There is a little golden man jumping around on the pointed bit of a machine. Apparently this is the artist. If he looks like that I'm surprised he can make anything. God knows who's paying for this stuff.

Last machine. There's a naked woman jumping up and down and holding two blokes who are pointing away from each other by some reigns. It looks a bit kinky to me. The labels says women are the representation of death in Russia. I know what they mean, it was the missus that told me to bring the kids here. At least the lights have come back on - I'm going to take them back to see the stuffed animals, at least I know what they are supposed to be.

Wikipedia entry
Sharmanka Official Website
Gloucester Museum Website

Phil's note - Tim Hunkin is much better at this stuff.
More pictures in Flickr

Tickets to ride

Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
How many tickets does it take to get one person from Leamington Spa to Gloucester ?

7, Made up as follows:

Single L/Spa to Gloucester.
Mandatory seat reservation, L/Spa to Birmingham.
Mandatory seat reservation, Birmingham to Gloucester.
Single Gloucester to L/Spa.
Mandatory seat reservation Gloucester to Birmingham.
Mandatory seat reservation Birmingham to L/Spa
Collection receipt - Marked NOT VALID FOR TRAVEL

OK, so I booked the ticket online and bought to singles to save money (Cost - £12) but that's still a lot of cardboard. And only the tickets were checked, no one was interested in the rest.

Wednesday 30 July 2008


welsh sign
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
Before heading out to Wales along with most English people I'd always assumed the Welsh language to be an anachronism. At best it would be spoken by half a dozen old people, at worst those fluent used it only when they wanted to talk and not be understood by tourists. OK, so I knew all the official signs and documents were translated but surely this was just because of pressure on the Assembly from the Welsh nationalists who were desperate to pretend that the country next door didn't exist.

I was wrong. Welsh is everywhere, not just on official signs but on shops and billboards.

And people actually speak it. Real people. Checkout staff in supermarkets converse in Welsh as though it's the most natural thing in the world. They simply flit between English and Welsh at will. What's more the local tongue is the preferred option a lot of the time. I don't think this was just because I am English, it certainly didn't seem to be used with any "side".

I'm envious really. Being bi-lingual must be great. Watching children speak fluently is amazing. Definitely something to be proud of. While I don't think there are may who speak no English but I now understand the translation policies.

If you want to speak Welsh the BBC can help.

As an aside, this proves that with the right teaching, British people can be as fluent at Europeans are in more than one language. I wonder why we aren't ?

Sunday 27 July 2008


Fairbourne Railway & Nature CentreWith another cracking day beckoning and my train home leaving after lunch I had two choices, wander around Porthmadoc again or get a ticket to one of the towns further down the line and have a mooch. The trouble was, which town ? Not Tywyn as that is home to the Talyllyn railway and I wouldn't be able to resit a ride - not a god idea with a big rucksack ! Harlech was tempting but in the end I decided I wanted proper seaside. The sort of place you remember going on holiday to as a child. That meant (I thought) Fairbourne.

Cynics might say this was just an excuse to find another little railway and they would have a point. The first thing you see from the station and biggest attraction on the town is the Fairbourne Railway. The beach isn't far away though so I perhaps I could go and build a sandcastle.

The train was crowded with holidaymakers and their luggage. Despite being made up of 4 coaches, only 2 were in use as for many of the Cambrian CoastCambrian line station platforms are too short for more than this. Because people are stupid and litigious everyone has to get cosy since you can't trust anyone to actually check there is a platform before stepping out can you ? According to one of the youths travelling if you look at some of the scenery near Barmouth and didn't know where you were, you could be in Florida. I could see his point, the beeches were golden in the sunshine as the curved around the bay. Florida isn't known for it's mountains or grey buildings but the sentiment was nice.

I don't think the local council will be chasing me if I say that Fairbourne isn't a big town. Pretty much everything is available within 100 feet of the station. As far as shopping goes there is a corner arcade with a (good) chippie, butchers, newsagent, Spa store, Post office and Indian takeaway. Thanks to all the goodies outside these all blend into one which could be costly if you need cash - the Spa has a cashpoint which will charge a fee whereas the Post Office will let you have money free if you can find the counter (it's at the back of the shop around a corner).

YeoThe railway is appropriately enough a miniature tourist line. Born in 1916 (ignoring the 2ft horse tramway that preceded it) and originally 15 inch gauge it still fulfills its original purpose of taking holidaymakers to Penrhyn Point where a ferry will carry them on to Barmouth. Not many lines can claim to be doing the same thing all of their life, and presumably doing it well as it's still there.

For more history, visit the Fairbourne Railway Website

In 1986 after a chequered history financially the railway was sold and re-gauged by its new owner. I suspect this is unique among railway lines - are there any others that have been completely re-laid just to bring the rails closer together ? Of course this means the original locomotives have long since been sold or scrapped but the new(ish) ones are a great selection of scaled down replicas based on other lines motive power.

I struck lucky as it was a special "Little to Large" event - which has nothing to do with the unfunny 1970's comedians - but is all about different sized steam engines running. So we had 12 1/4 on the main line, 5 inch on a secondary line along the platform and 45mm on the garden railway I'll come to later. Every steam engine the line owns was running and pulling reasonably full trains as well. An added attraction on the platform were displays of model engineering with little static engines and a second hand bookseller. Finally a miniature traction engine offered rides to the front.

All the usual preserved railway features are found - a gift shop, museum showing the history of the line and cafe. For some reason the later smelt funny (to me anyway) so I didn't bother trying it out. However in the next building is a nature centre, not something Nature Centreusually associated with railways. Originally built as a butterfly farm this proved uneconomic so it now houses a very small collection of animals - ferrets (smelly), chipmunks (cute and lively), tropical fish (wet), lobster (hiding under a rock) a gecko(asleep) and chameleon (posing). Down the centre is a long pond with coi carp (I think, not good on fish) surrounded by an extensive G scale railway. A couple of steam engines were getting a workout on its 40ft run and a small but appreciative group were chatting to the modellers running the trains. At the far end of the building is housing for owls although there were no sign of these while I was there.

Now the rucksack issues worked against any chance I had of a ride here - those coaches aren't exactly big you know. The front wasn't a long walk away though and you can follow the line - or just point at the sea and stop when you get wet feet. The beech isn't sandcastle friendly being all pebbly. Maybe there is sand under the sea but the tide was in so I missed it. A single seaside emporium lives next to it and serves hot food (hmmm), ice cream (too much ice in the Mr Whippy), souvenirs, arcade machines, trampolines, kids self drive forklift trucks and crazy golf. The view is nice though.

Back at the railway I chatted to the guy in the ticket office during a lull in trade. Apparently the line is popular with staff from other local preserved railways who enjoy coming for a drive. Apparently the Ffestiniog staff enjoy the rest compared to shoveling coal into their own engines. Mind you they do go further and faster. Which brought up an interesting new problem - preserved railways usually operate with a speed limit of 25mph. Until recently this wasn't often checked unless the locomotive was fitted with a speedometer, not always the case with steam engines. Nowadays the passengers often know how fast they are going thanks to portable GPS units and those in the know will check. Apparently several drivers on different lines have been told to be careful...

Fairbourne was everything I expected - it's the sort of place every child should be brought for a holiday. There's not a whole lot to do except have a ride on the train and mess around on the beech but that's the point. You can't spend the day shelling out for entertainment and rides. It's not a shopping experience. Perhaps it's all a bit old fashioned but what's wrong with that ?

More pictures on Flickr

Friday 25 July 2008

Blaenau Ffestiniog via the Ffestiniog Railway

Princess in the pubWhile in Wales I've spent quite a lot of time at the Ffestiniog Railway station in the south of Portmadog. It's got an excellent pub which serves a nice pint. You can drink outside in the evening sun, even on the platform if the fancy takes you, or sit inside in the best decorated bar in the country. While others have farm implements nailed to the wall, this one has a steam engine in the corner. The lines original locomotive, Princess, takes pride of place where you'd normally find an old guy nursing half a pint for the evening. Elsewhere other railway memorabilia is fixed to the walls. There's quite a bit of money up there but luckily the line doesn't need to raise any at present.

I picked the coach next the the engine for the first leg of my trip. It was the one without windows and very little in the way of walls. This isn't a great place to take photos of the engine, as proper enthusiasts would want to do, but if you just like listening the to the sound and enjoying the smell like me, it's a great spot. Worryingly the FR guard locks the trains doors before setting off. Presumably they consider the chances of passengers falling out greater than that of an accident. Mind you with no walls if there was a problem, getting out wouldn't tax anyone.

The Ffestiniog railway is big business, at least in preserved railway terms. For example Portmadog station is huge. The works at Boston Lodge are huge. At Minifford you pass a large goods yard originally used for transshipment of slate to the "proper" railways. Part of the way along the line there is even a big permanent way yard. Most lines make do with a couple of sidings but the FR have a yard and at least one special train.

Llyn Ystradau ReservoirThe train rattles along at a fair pace too. None of this meandering here we fairly belt through the countryside. While the guard locked the doors he warned us that the coach had no lights. I assumed this was a joke but no, the line has tunnels and once you're in them it's dark, very dark. Being next to the engine, it filled up with sweet smelling steam too. Nice for a short time but if the tunnels were longer it would be a different story.

Another unusual feature, for the UK at least, is a spiral. Thanks to a reservoir the route of the line had to be altered a few years ago. To gain height the railway crosses over itself at Ddualt. The new alignment runs higher up the mountain and skirts the hydro-electric scheme providing attractive views over the water.

Blaenau station canopy

Arrival at Blaenau took a while as the guard unlocking doors kept being waylaid by passengers for the next trip. The occupants of our coach were getting restless as we wathed his slow progress up the train. The sides were low enough to climb over with care but being British we politely waited our turn. Compared to the facilities at the other end of the track the converted shipping container looks a bit basic but it houses a jolly team selling tickets and souvenirs.

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a town that has suffered from transport being too available unfortunately. Most of the shops in the high street are closed and available for rent. Sadly people can travel out of the town to buy stuff and they do. What is left are a few cafes, a couple of tourist shops including the slate shop, some newsagents and and excellent second hand bookshop that only opens on Fridays. This is sad, but I wonder if a renaissance is in order.

Think about it, the town has a reasonable population and the transport links aren't bad. Every .;">Looking out of the carriage windowyear tourists will end up there simply between trains on the steam railway and looking for something to do. With the joys of teh interweb I wonder if the empty (and presumably cheap as there are so many of them) shops would make good homes for businesses looking for homes. Most of the trade will need to be mail order but passing business exists and if you are a specialist people will seek you out, especially if you are in a holiday area

Of course the town didn't appear just for the sake of it. The economy used to be slate based. You can see this everywhere, spoil tips dominate the landscape and the overall colour of the scenery is grey. It's unusual scenery though and looks well worth exploring. Locally walking, cycling and heritage are big business. The tourist information office is under a bike hire centre. The staff have masses of information to help the visitor who is staying in the area.

WaterfallFor the return trip the skies are as grey as the spoil heaps. In the open coach I had to dodge from side to side to avoid the rain. Luckily much of the trip is in woodland which provides shelter as well as glimpses of bucolic streams and footpaths. However there are several small towns en-route to add variety and provide passenger. In one we pass a lady in her back garden wearing a bright pink t-shirt. She is staring into space and doesn't look up at the train. How long do you have to live somewhere that has steam trains puffing past the back of your garden to be so used to them that they don't even warrant a glance ?

More pictures on Flickr

Thursday 24 July 2008


PortmeironWarning: If you are expecting a tirade of "Prisoner" puns then go elsewhere. This is serious blogging, not some bit of fluff. Anyway, I never understood the series so I refuse to conform to your expectaions as I am a free man...

Everyone has heard of Portmeirion. It's a world renowned tourist attraction, a make of pottery and the location for a TV series. I had half a day spare and thought it would be daft to pass up the chance to see what the fuss was about.

Getting there sans car meant a trip on the smallest bus I've every been on. Actually it's a fat van rather than a bus but the effect is the same. Turn up at the stop, pay the driver and get on board. I was the only passenger and apparently this is often the case. People prefer to visit by car, presumably hoping to take away mountains of that lovely pottery. The driver was chatty and we talked about holidays and difficulties trying to book hotel rooms. I related trying to get into Edinburgh at the same time as the marathon, he topped that by trying to get into Dublin when the 3 Nations Rugby was on.

Overall viewFor the history, try Wikipedia. In a nutshell though, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, wanted to try his hand at town planning and created this village from his own ideas moulded around old buildings that would otherwise have been lost. They were imported to the estate and eventually incorporated into his structures. The idea was to turn people on to architecture and allow them to experience the fun side. The village is a real place though, not a film set. Several of the buildings are lived in as evidenced by the bins and recycling boxes outside.

The Village is reached at the end of a windy wooded road. It's really tucked away in the trees on the side of a hill so you don't see anything at all until you are there. First negotiate the ticket barrier (£7 per adult) which isn't anew feature - to stop overcrowding from visitors a 5 shilling charge was levied many years ago.

You then walk through a gate and into the village proper at the top of the hill. Two things strike you immediately - first how bright and colourful everything is. I had an excellent sunny day for my trip and have never seen such a collection of coloured buildings. The second thing is the size - the centre would fit on a decent sized playing field. Portmeirion reminds me of a model village despite everything being full sized. It's obvious that the plan was to bring lots of elements that wouldn't have naturally been found together in a settlement to one place.

Grand houseIn the centre are fountains, around the edges, clinging to the hillside you find buildings and a few steep paths. Tucked away on one side is a house with a film show explaining a bit of the history as told by the man himself. While not the greatest film (too many stills to music, also too many bored kids) you start to understand the reality of what you are seeing. For example, there is a fantastic purple mansion that is only the size of a bungalow inside - it's all front and build into a steep hill restricting the space behind. Other pieces of old buildings, such as columns, have been included in new structures. Many serve no purpose whatsoever or have had to find a use. The domed building is currently a gallery but only exists to counterpoint the spire on a nearby tower.

Portmeirion little bayA short, if steep, stroll gets you down to the water which is wonderful. One building has a small inlet to house a boat (apparently used in the TV show I'll not be mentioning). Not special in itself but the noise the lapping water makes bouncing off the stone walls is so wonderful I could have sat and listened to it all day.

Sadly, tourism has ruined the place. While the eye has a feast, so can the tummy since the are at least half a dozen different cafes on site. If a building isn't a cafe, it must be a shop. And all of these seem to sell a very similar range of high priced tourist tat. Sells isn't an appropriate word from what I saw either as there was plenty of looking and many bored underemployed shop assistants. The stuff was OK but there was so little variety. Only one did anything in the way of TV memorabilia, the others just retailed goods that could have been sold in any tourist town in the country.

Oh, and there wasn't a mini moke to be seen. Or big white balloons. Pity really as I'd have liked to see some of the visitors escape from them.

Portmeirion IS a nice place. I loved the buildings, I loved the quirkiness. I'd love to stay there out of season to appreciate it properly. Better still, I'd love to build my own - and I guess that is what William-Ellis would have wanted.

Official web site for the village

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