Wednesday 28 October 2009

London sights

Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish KapoorNot all visits work out as well as expected - my trip to the cartoon gallery would have been more successful if I'd checked and realised that it doesn't open on Monday - but that doesn't mean a wasted day.

Strolling around London, in the grounds of Burlington House is the amazing sculpture "The Tall Tree and the Eye" by Anish Kapoor. At a guess, it's over 80 feet tall and absolutely amazing.

The mirror finish on the spheres reflects the view of the courtyard from many slightly different vantage points. Unsurprisingly, it was surrounded by photographers all shooting their reflections. Even those who don't like modern art will appreciate this - I wish it could go on a tour as I'd love to see it appearing in other cities. Victoria Square in Birmingham would be a good start - watching the fountain in reflection would be a treat.

It's not just art that caught my eye though. Wandering down to the International Magic shop I happened upon Holborn Bars which is just the most stunning brick built building. Now home to the Prudential and RBS, it stands on the site of the building that was lived in by Charles Dickens.

The place was built in an age was labour was cheap and civic buildings were erected with pride and intended to stand for many, many years to come.
Brick arch in Holborn Bars

Monday 7 September 2009

Beetle Drive, Crich Tramway Museum

Split van and Glasgow TramTerrible isn't it – you wait ages for a VeeDub event and then two come along all at once ! At least that's what the organisers of the annual Beelte Drive (geddit ?) must have thought when their low key show clashed with the much bigger VW Action. However I didn't know this at the time, so chose Crich for a day out. Anyway, Action won't be the same at any venue other than the Stoneliegh park site I remember visiting all those years ago just after I got my bug...

Another reason to go is that as a member of the Tramway museum getting in would be free. Besides, I haven't been there since last year and there has been quite a bit of building work on site since then and it's fun to spot the changes.

For those not familiar with the museum at Crich, it has a street scene at one end where you can board one of the many beautifully restored tramcars. You then ride up the line, turn around and return to stop off at the half way point where there is a mining display (the site is shared with a quarry) followed by another ride back to the tram sheds and displays. Trust me, if you like vintage transport, it's fantastic.

Add to this a load of old Volkswagens, not just Beetles but Type 2's, Wedge's, Ghias and (grits teeth) some of the watercooled stuff and what better way to spend a Sunday, even if it does involve a drive up the M1 ?

Blue GhiaWhen we arrived, there were old VW's everywhere. In the car park, around the bandstand and filling the street scene. All the time the trams kept up a shuttle service and seemed to be doing excellent business. I don't remember the average age of the audience being so young either which shows that the museum is very cleverly attracting a new audience with these special events.

After a tea and choccie cake stop we took a ride on the top deck of a Liverpool Green Goddess. The weather was fine and the Derbyshire countryside looked lovely. Even the farm in the next door valley appeared to have been tided up a bit. Well the vehicle graveyard looked a bit smaller anyway.

At the mining exhibition there is a little hut where a fantastic, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable lady sells you some rocks from around the world. I can't resist this every time – there is no high pressure sales technique, just fascinating things which she insists you don't leave with until you understand what they are and where they come from.

Back at the street end we arrived just in time for the first parade. Most of the cars withdrew to the car parks and then drove in convoy back down the street, turned around and did another lap. There were so many of them that the tail was quickly caught by the head of the line and we had a few minutes of continuous dubbin'

Vans from aboveLots of exuberant horn blowing was quickly stopped – the local residents don't appreciate it apparently. Shame really as it was a very happy sound and can't be any louder than the blasting in the quarry can it ? Most of the drivers complied but there are always one or two especially an idiot in a while bug wearing a neck brace who seemed to be under the impression none of the shouting applied to him. The brace was obviously not to hold up the great weight of his brain...

Because of the clash, trade was limited to a model stall and one selling the coolest VW shirts I've ever seen. Very sensible prices too. If they had take plastic or I hadn't spent so much the night before my wardrobe would be even fuller At least I bagged one which will be on a trip to the pub very soon.

All in all, a really lovely little event. OK so there wasn't the pizazz of the bigger shows but this was fun. People laughed and smiled and clearly enjoyed themselves even if there weren't the tradition piles of rusty exhaust bits to sort though found at bigger shows.

By now all you want to do is see photos, so please head off to my Flickr collection where they are waiting for you.

Tramway Museum official web site.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Little bits of London

A couple of months ago the Guardian printed a couple of booklets entitled "Secret Britain". Normally these head sort of things head straight for the recycling box as soon as the paper is opened but this one caught my imagination. Reading through, the obvious starting point was to try and "do" the London bits. I love London but need an incentive to visit the areas I've not been to before. The easiest way to see the city properly is to pick some destinations and then walk between them, then who knows what you might find ?

e-TicketFor me, the capital is about 90 minutes away by train. Chiltern Railways provide a nice efficient service and also sell "e-tickets". My plan involved killing two birds with one stone and trying out one of these as well as getting a cheap trip. An e- ticket has to be bought on-line in advance. The "ticket" is then texted to your mobile 'phone as a picture of a bar code. No trees are harmed in the production of this ticket. To be honest, once these arrived I wasn't entirely convinced that this would work but maybe this technology stuff will catch on one day.

From the guide I picked a couple of secret objects to visit: The smallest Police station in Trafalgar Square and Samuel Gurney's drinking fountain in Holburn. To this I added one of my own, the prototype red telephone box at Burlington House. According to the map these were walkable in the time available and would allow me to travel through places I'd never been.

At Leamington station the ticket barrier monitor didn't look at me stupid when I showed him my phone - he just opened the barriers for me (as an aside, where is the saving if you have to employ someone to man the automatic barriers) and I wandered up the the platform. With all the efficiency you'd hope for, my train arrived and just before lunchtime I was in the big smoke. Price to get there - a tenner.

Two sausage, egg & chipsNormally I make an effort to get in to "town" early to get the most out of the day. Buying cheap tickets limits this a lot during the week as Chiltern can fill all the commuter trains they like with people paying full fare and so have no desire to make things easy for the plebs wanting to play tourist. The benefit of a lunchtime(ish) arrival was that I managed to tick off another London thing - sausage, egg & chips at the cafe opposite Marylebone station. London cafs are great and for £2.95 I had 2 sausages, egg and chips. Tea in a mug and a cookie (to eat while wandering around) brought the total to just over the fiver. Excellent value and very delicious thank you very much. Just the thing to set you up for a good stroll. And I took a picture since it seems everyone likes photos of food judging by the response to a recent shot of some Yorkshire pud I posted once.

The first destination was Burlington Arcade, first introduced to me by AA Milne in his delightful 1920 collection of essays, "If I may". Milne used the arcade as a place to shelter from the rain before a lunch appointment. He describes the vendors as offering choices between regimental colour pajamas and strings of beads. Burlington Arcade 1Nowadays things have changed little. The pajamas are probably still available but mostly the gentleman is presented with a selection of cashmere sweaters and brogues. The former seem to me to be like normal jumpers, just rather more expensive. One even looked just like the sort of thing a granny might present you with at Christmas - the chest was a picture of a yacht deck with the sleeves in a gaudy blue and yellow. Yours sir, for a shade under 600 quid. Yes really.

The jewelers fared a little better. Perhaps the London Jewelry week promotions, the arcade was carpeted with a red rug decorated with crystal designs, we helping move some stock but not much. Inside one shop the laptop on the counter was set to the Windows Vista game section of the programs screen. Someone was presumably having a lot of Patience while they waited to sell a Solitaire...

Prototype K2 Telephone BoxA couple of doors down was my first objective, Burlington House. In the entrance archway there are two traditional London telephone boxes, K2's for the cognoscente. The one on the right is extra special. Thanks to John Timpson's book "Requiem for a Red Box" I know that this is the prototype for this archetypal British building designed by Sir Giles Gilbery Scott. A small British Telecom plaque inside tells the visitor that this was the original, as does tapping on the sides - it's made of wood rather than the cast iron of production versions.

Of course most people ignore the box - London is littered with them as well as the later and slightly smaller K6 versions - they are heading for the art gallery inside. By accident I had happened upon the Summer Exhibition. This is when 10,000 artworks are submitted by absolutely anyone and 1000 are chosen for display. It's an annual event that often appears on TV with some presenter trying to get their daub through the judging process and on to the wall. I've never been so in the spirit of adventure, I paid my 7 quid and went in.

I don't know much about art, but I know what I like (who said that, oh, me just now). What I know is that on that basis, an awful lot of this was rubbish. And quite badly displayed. For example, the Small Western room is a small side gallery, the walls of which are covered in pictures. Many of these are wonderful small pictures but are displayed 10 feet above the ground. How are you supposed to appreciate them from the floor ?

Other rooms feature larger works with much more space around them. Perhaps my favorite showed off architects models on black shelving. Again, the person "hanging" these ought to realise we don't all come on stilts and if it's too high off the ground we can't see through the shelf either. Some nice stuff though and I appreciate the skill involved in making the models. One point, those who are comissioning the new Newport Station might want to do a quick search on "Ladies reproductive organs" before approving the model that was on display. You will thank me for that advice.

Having said that, the sheer variety of work on display meant there is something for everyone. Postcard from Heaven was simple enough, the back of a postcard asking the judging panel to put this in the exhibition because her mum would be so proud. Winter Allotments was another joy, a slightly cartoonish painting of a man on his allotment surrounded by plants and other horticultural stuff. It was one of those pictures you could look at again and again and see something new each time. Sadly even if I could have afforded it, the painting had sold by the time I visited, as had much of the art on display.

Exiting the main exhibition, via the room with video art (all video art is shite by the way so I won't bore you with it) and pausing only to discover that the meagre selection of postcards in the shop didn't include any of the works I'd liked, I wandered across the stairs to the free, fine art part of the hall. Here, in incredibly ornate rooms, were some of the most serious and dull oil paintings you can find, However, even here I learnt something. I am an Aestheticist. Basically I take my art at face value and consider that if something has to be explained to me, it's probably rubbish. Actually this isn't entirely true, I can appreciate the workmanship in producing something too but if it's badly made and looks a mess then it can go in a skip rather than a gallery. This will not endear me to the art world which prefers inaccessible toss.

Enough art however, I needed to be on my way but outside Burlington House was another distraction - Fortnum & Mason. For those not familiar with the name, it's a posh grocer. They still display the Queen Mother's crest proudly although I wonder if someone ought tell them there is a reason she's not been in to pay her bill recently. This is one of those shops on the tourist trail along with Harrods and probably Hamleys. Inside is sumptuous and full of pricey stuff. I'd love to be the sort of person who considered this to be a handy local shop I nipped in to regularly for provisions, it's so wonderfully olde-worlde.

Trafalgar Square Police StationA short stroll led me to Trafalgar Square and my second objective - the world's smallest police station. Stone built with slit windows and surmounted by a lantern, this was apparently used to keep look out during political demonstrations and had a telephone hot line to Scotland Yard. This isn't as unusual as you might think, those famous police boxes a la Dr Who were also used for the same purpose. Some were even made large enough to house a temporary cell. Nowadays radios and squad cars have left the station as a cleaners cupboard.

Next stop was to be Holburn and this was reached via The Strand and a short stretch of Fleet Street. En route I took in such gems as Somerset House and the Royal Courts of justice. Tripping over locations like this so often makes you realise how small London really is. As a tube user you simply don't get the geography or the concentration of good things in such a small area.

Samuel Gurney Drinking FountainGurney's fountain took a little finding but it's in the railing of St Sepulchre's church oppose the the Old Bailey. I'll admit I wouldn't fancy trying it, even if the water were working. The cups attached by chains my be nice an original but I feel hygiene may have been compromised in the 150 years since it was installed.

Having completed my mission and still with several hours to kill before the return train I looked around and spotted sign - the Smithfield Market. Now I've heard of this but again, never been there. Smithfield is the last surviving wholesale market in London. Once upon a time Covent Garden used to be the place to go for fruit and veg and not a tourist attraction and there were others. Times change and only the meat trade still works in this way. Even they have had to make changes as you aren't allowed to hang carcases on hooks in the open air any more.

The first thing that strikes you, or at least me, is the sheer size of the place. It's enormous. Apparently during WW2 the market was evacuated as it was easy to spot from the air and the authorities didn't feel regular concentrations of people in such a good target was a good idea. Arriving mid afternoon, everything was pretty much shut down apart from a couple of people hosing down a stand hidden behind some thick plastic curtains. Even empty though, the hall was striking. Imagining, with the help of a photo display handily provided for tourists, a market in full swing wasn't difficult and it must have been some sight. Apparently all the work was helped by local pubs opening early in the morning to lubricate workers who had clocked on well before dawn.Smithfield Market

After this, my route is a bit of a blur. Trusting my sense of direction, and not being able to work out properly on my little map where I was I picked my way across the city heading in what I hoped was the right direction. Working on the basis that the Post Office Tower was too north and too west of where I wanted to be helped.

A couple of discoveries helped my trip. International Magic is a small shop but in the back of its dark interior you can buy magic tricks and have them demonstrated to you. A few doors down there is another business selling stainless steel screws...

All this walking made me peckish and by chance there was an "All you can eat" Thai Buffet. The food looked good and indeed the first plate was. Washing this down with some guava juice I headed up for a second dose, well you want to get value for money don't you, and it seemed the a switch had been thrown to make all the food taste less nice. Not nasty but just bad enough to stop the casual diner from eating all day. Do they all do this ? Is it just me ? If not, can this trick be patented - I foresee big sales in similar restaurants !

Last stop was Marylebone village. To me Marylebone is just the name of a station but it appears once upon a time this was a discrete area of the capital, probably in the days where there was hunting in Soho, and some marketing guru has decided that it would be profitable to keep the concept. Hence in a few days, there will be the Marylebone Village Fayre. Probably with maypoles and other rustic stuff. This is a reminder that London is home to around 7.5 million people, some of whom live in very nice little places indeed. Real communities exist so I suppose stores like Fortnum & Mason really are some peoples local shop.

As the sun set, crowds gathered outside pubs for traditional post work drinks. They spilled out over every pavement as the hot weather made sitting inside less appealing. Others relaxed with a cup of tea and puff on a hookah beside several cafes. Many hurried back to their last commute of the day gathering the free papers for entertainment on the journey. Even the half seven train was busy but with my £5 ticket scanned by the man on the gate I was assured of a seat through the countryside as my feet recovered a bit from the pounding. Why are London pavements so hard ?

I took some more pictures, go and have a look.

Friday 8 May 2009

Long Itchington Beer Festival

BeerAh, the joys of the English village. Where better to while away spring evenings with delightful, locally brewed, warm beer* beside the duck pond whilst morris dancers whack each other with sticks in a traditional manner ?

In theory, this is just what Long Itchington beer festival promises, apart from the men in bells. The website takes a bit of a dig at nearby Harbury's festival by trumpeting the fact that the festival is spread over 6 pubs rather than the village hall. That way you get to sample the ambiance of the area rather than just one anonymous building, or at least that's the theory. In other words, you can have a drink and see our waterfowl, not be stuck in a municipal building albeit one with alcoholic beverages.

Pub One: The Duck on the Pond.
Nice pub with but with pretensions top be a restaurant, the drinking space is seriously filled with tables, chairs and diners (the pub gets good food reviews in at least one guide to my knowledge). Annoyingly, that drinking space there is in the bar was filled with a circle of friends who hadn't cottoned on that they were taking up all the space where people wish to order and were oblivious to anyone else so didn't move down the bar.

The festival glass is a couple of quid and the beer that fills it eats the rest of the fiver. My mate also buys a glass and then orders beer – which the barman pours into a different, ordinary glass. “I thought you would want to keep this one as a souvenir” he says when the faus pas is pointed out, but then pours the beer from one to another after it's explained that the souvenir would be even better if it had been christened.

With no space inside, thanks to the aforementioned bar hoggers, we move outside to the er, car park. While the village pond, complete with baby ducklings, swans and other wildlife, can be seen from the pub doorway, it is separated from it by a tarmac car park which is home to a collection of exceedingly clean four wheel drives and executive saloons. To make things a little more hospitable tables are set out at the pub end with umbrellas. Nice touch but it's still a car park. The beer's not bad though.

BeerPub Two: The Harvester.
The plan was to drink a pint in each pub before catching the last bus home. Strolling past the pond we headed for what will soon be known as pub three. It looked a bit busy so we aimed around the corner for The Harvester. To be honest, as none of us knew Long Itchington we just followed people who looked like they were heading for beer. Clutching a pint pot is both a giveaway and helpful sign for those who “Bain't be from round 'ere” and don't know where all the pubs are.

Despite it's name this isn't a chain pub, more your traditional working man's village local. Again, food seemed to be the thing that kept the place afloat and the warren of interconnecting rooms were again full of tables and chairs. Decor was in the manner of a seaside bed & breakfast in a lower class resort so I'd suspect this is where the locals ate or those for whom price mattered more than presentation. The bar staff didn't have to wear corporate clothing or name badges, just like a proper British pub where if you want to know who someone is, you simply ask them.

The bar was heaving. One group of women were discussing the smell of one of the beers. By chance I ordered the allegedly aromatic one and so a round of sniffing ensured. The consensus was that it (unsurprisingly) smelt of beer. Not having a problem with this I took a sip and it tasted of beer too. The complainants then decided that it must have been a different beer and that one had definitely smelt odd. The barman tried sniffing the others on offer but they also smelt of beer. Scooby Doo not being available to solve the mystery we looked for a space to drink – and it was suggested that it was “nice out back” so out we went.

Into the car park.

And what a car park. For a start there were no cars. Hardly surprising as it turned out – access is through a locked gate under a archway. There was a reasonable sized crowd sitting round a couple of tables beside a pile of aluminium beer kegs. We sat at the other tables under some see through corrugated plastic. This was the legally mandated smoking area – hardly salubrious and probably going to put you off your fag in winter, which I suppose is the point. The view, apart from the crowd and kegs, was uninspiring being a wall and back of a few buildings. According to the fancy brickwork, one of these was built in 1861 but that didn't make it any more interesting. Again, a good pint and a busy little pub.

Pub 3: Buck and Bell
Escaping from the tarmac beer garden another attempt was made to get into the Buck. Crowds outside (the beer garden is a 6ft wide strip next to the road) promised a busy pub and we weren't disappointed. Inside, painted signs on the beams pointed us in the direction of the back bar and inevitably, a restaurant. Reaching the end we queued behind a large group already wearing the official festival T-shirts and ordered the same as they were having. While the beer was good I have a feeling that the attraction was the pretty blonde barmaid who had both the main attributes required in excellent bar staff – looks to bring the punters in and the confidence and personality to put them in their place when required !

The place looked like it had been on the end of a redesign from someone who had seen too many makeover programmes on TV. I think the style is called “Faux Posh”, a modern take on the traditional local. Not too many farm implements nailed to the wall I'm pleased to say but plenty of traditional features that were just a bit mock traditional. Add to this some accessorising straight out of a style magazine (sticks in a vase – why ?) and I bet the place does good business with the “travelling out to a little country pub” crowd. One pair of drinkers could be overhead commiserating with each other on the problems of owning a little place in another country. It seems that the Bergerac region isn't that easy to get to regularly and friends and family don't seem to want to use it as often as they expected so it's over three grand a year just for a couple of weeks. And you can't sell them either, not with the market in the state its in now...

BeerPub 4: The Two Boats
I like a canal side pub and had spotted this one as we came in on the bus. Now it might be the effect of the beer but the stroll out to it didn't seem as long as expected, little more than five minutes from the centre. We arrived to the sound of a live band, who promptly announced a break in the set. No matter, there were more crowds to struggle through and this is a tiny pub. Two rooms, each with a bar, a few tables and lots of people. Waiting time was around 15 minutes, despite the best efforts of the staff who were hurling beer across the counter as quickly as the pumps could pour it. When we were served the barmaid said this had been the second day of this and, “we've two more to go.”. It's obvious this sort of festival works so you have to wonder why more villages aren't trying it.

Beer in hand it was out to the garden, or towpath as it is more accuratly described. All the tables were full outside, often with people we'd seen in the other pubs. The entire crowd from the Harvester seemed to have made it there, or at least the memorable ones anyway.
For the first time in the evening, the beer wasn't to my taste. It's my own fault, above the bar had been a label saying that it had a licorice taste and like every right minded individual I can't stand the stuff so I ought to have known better. Mind you it still took half a pint to decide this, possible due to the pain killing effects of the previous three !

On the other side of the canal and up a slight hill there was another pub. That was where the band were. A Beatles tribute group, they were set up on some terracing so both groups of drinkers could benefit from the performance – and an excellent one it was too. From the short distance you'd have been forgiven, if you were a bit stupid and knew no pop music history, that you were seeing the real thing. Of course that might have been the beer again.

Chatting in the bar, people said that the other pub was even fuller. Quite where all these people had come from was a mystery as the last bus back home wasn't exactly heaving. Harbury certainly generates more green transport users for its festival. Where ever the source though, there were a lot of people having a good time. The pubs did excellent business so everyone wins.

Next year – I think a visit earlier in the day. Lunchtime perhaps, although it might need several lunchtimes to sample everything on offer. There is also a mystery sixth pub to find as well so it's worth the trip.

*Note for American readers. In Britain, proper beer, often known as bitter, mild or stout, is served luke warm. The only reason beer is served cold is to hide the taste. Our beer tastes nice so we don't need the refrigeration.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Living history re-enactment fair

ArmourAs many people have pointed out, all towns look the same. You wander the high street and see the same shops, or at least boarded up premises that you see in every other town. To travel isn't to expand your mind, it's just to find a branch of Next that you've not seen before. Anyone wanting to get properly off the beaten track increasingly has to fly half way around the planet and find themselves somewhere with no roads or mains sanitation. Even then there will be a McDonalds and Starbucks.

Perhaps in this globally connected world we need to form a new paradigm to describe the travel experience. Instead of visiting a place, we should visit a community. And since we aren't constrained by geography any more then these can be spread across the planet. A personal example: I belong to the mailing list, a real community where we chat and help each other with our shared interest in aged VW vans. I know some of these people better than I know many of those who live in my street.

In practical terms this means that simply changing geography isn't enough. Ever since the first printing press stopped knocking out bibles and started on newspapers we have formed links beyond out immediate area. In modern terms, social networking web sites means that where ever we are physically located there is a good chance that we will still know someone. Years ago marrying outside your village was unusual. Now you are likely to work in a different county to your home and think nothing of travelling 50 miles twice a day to do this. To put this into context, the Isle of Man had a railway system even though it's only 30 miles long. And there were lots of stations en route serving local communities whose lives were revolutionised this way. 30 miles is a trip to the shops nowadays.

WigsAnyway, all this pretentious waffle is to say that maybe there is no point going to places any more. Far better to go to communities. Thing is I'm not heading off to live with a tribe in the Amazon, I want something with more clothing you'll be pleased to hear; which is why when I drove past the Warwickshire Exhibition Centre recently, I took note of the banner advertising the Living history re-enactment fair.

I've never felt the urge to live in a tent pretending to be a Saxon or Viking. But lots of people do and so a dip into their world could be interesting. Besides, it's only £3.50 to go in so how much had I got to lose ? I've been in this exhibition hall many times but for the first time I really didn't know what would be in the doors. Not a clue. I suppose I hoped to see people making swords and stuff but as I know little of the subject it was a mystery.

First impressions were - wow, what a lot of people. And clothes, lots of clothes. And lots of the people are wearing the weird clothes. And look there is a man making a longbow. He appears to run a bow and arrow stall. And that looks like a nice suit of armour. With accessories. Nice. Oh, shiny things. Shiny things that could kill someone.
Heavy weaponry
Actually that pretty much sums up my experience. To find a modern parallel, image an indoor market but with all the stalls selling second hand clothes being purveyors of (new) Victorian and earlier apparel. The mobile 'phone stalls (as an aside, am I the last person in the world to prefer an apostrophe before the word 'phone ?) are no more but in their place you can buy bows and arrows. Drapery stalls still exist of course but the cloth is much coarser and looks like it would be as itchy as the jumper your granny knits for your Christmas present. Of course you can buy shoes but these are rather more leather than normal, with quite a high wood content too, especially in the clogs. No slightly icky underwear sellers of course but some serious corsetry in both whalebone and leather (diet, nah just do the laces up tighter and give me more cake...). And those dodgy guys selling "collectable" knives to sad acts ? They are selling various swords and battle axes...

It was fantastic. I still have no desire to live in a suitably period tent or to run around fields attacking people but the hardware fascinates me. OK so I've always enjoyed making things so watching a guy dressed in a medieval smock carving away at a lump of wood is my sort of thing (the carving, not the smock obviously). The craftsmanship is truly amazing too. Knowing a little about metal forming I marvel at how a flat piece of steel can be turned into armour without any evidence of the required hammering. Even the weapons are things of beauty - and very blunt in case you were wondering. In fact if your recreation requires a lot of hitting people with swords then hard foam ones were available so that mock battlefields aren't strewn with real casualties.

Probably the biggest surprise was the amount of Victorian attire on sale. Who exactly is dressing up in the stuff and when ? I'm pretty certain there isn't a big scene recreating workhouses and sadly no one sends children up chimneys as entertainment now. Not that there Cooking equipmentwere many urchin tailors anyway. The styles preferred were landed gentry or perhaps a beadle for those in charge of dishing out punishment.

Of course those manning the stands were especially friendly - they really care about and love what they do. You can't be a blacksmith specialising in creating authentic cooking equipment and not enjoy it I suppose. While all jobs have their dull days, being able to hit bits of metal hard at least allows for some stress relief ! My dumb questions were answered and at no point was I made to feel like an idiot outsider.

OK, so I'm not Bruce Parry but at least I went and had a look. And I think I might go back to have another. Once I've carved the horn I bought anyway. Never worked in horn, I wonder what I can make with it ?

As usual, more pictures on Flickr.

And the official website.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Slimbridge in January

Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
Where better to spend a parky January day than wandering around some wet fields ? Yes, the sun is out and the temperature is in single figures but the car park at the Slimbridge Wetland Trust is absolutely chocka.

The facts: WWT Slimbridge is a wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on Gloucestershire. Created by artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott the reserve was opened on 10 November 1946. The site covers 3 square kilometers, a portion of which is landscaped for public wanderings with the rest given over to the birds although there are several hides to allow us to watch.

On arrival adults are relieved of a hefty £8.75 in the visitor centre, an impressive building home to a restaurant, art gallery, inevitable shop and a viewing tower. Most then head straight through to to see the birds. En route the centre helpfully sells you a bag (or if you have been before and know what you are about see, bags) of bird seed. Celever idea this - the birds need feeding and we are happy to pay to do it !

Water with ducksOutside again and there are ponds. And birds. Lots of birds. More waterfowl than you can shake a stick at unless you spend a lot of time stick shaking having trained for many months to build up stamina. Since the trust take a dim view of activities involving wobbling wood, it's better to throw some of the seed. Of course this attracts the birds allowing a closer look. Actually, near the centre they aren't so bothered as everyone lobs food and therefore they are all pretty full.

Next you pass "Welly Boot Land", a brightly coloured children's playground that does its best to educate and entertain. Being rather too old for this attraction I can't describe its charms. The boots on sticks looked pretty though.

The grounds are cleverly laid out to take the visitor through various enclosures which provide different habitats for the winter visitors. The route winds its way around with no need to retrace your steps. Allowing for lots of feeding and cup of hot chocolate at the far side of the site, 3 hours seems like a reasonable day out for someone only passingly interested in birds. Several of the visitors wearing camouflage gear and toting cameras the size of a bazooka were obviously planning a longer stay.

To be honest I can't claim to be able to identify most of the birds I saw as you'll be able to tell from the photos on Flickr but I can tell them apart. And I enjoy feeding them especially in winter. Many of the geese will take seed from your hand, the Nay Nays (Hawaiian geese) seem Hawiain Geeseto expect this and gently pursue anyone who hasn't handed over suitable amounts of grub.

January was being kind, the day was dry and bright with no wind. Plenty of winter clothes made for a pleasant stroll. Some relief is provided by a tropical house half way round. Not that I saw much as the warmth steamed up my glasses and camera lens. Thoughtfully a hot air hand dried is provided just inside the door to sort this out. Again I can't identify the species but there were some of the cutest pygmy ducks ever in there.

Back outside the careless visitors will be wishing they had paced themselves with the seed or bought more bags. With quite a lot of walking and loads more attractive feathered friends demanding your attention stocks can be running low.

For the serious twitcher, several hides are provided. These are covered and nicely wind and rain proof. Although the views over the marshes towards the Malvern hills do little for me, those birds on view seemed to be the same as seen in the park, I can well understand the appeal of watching them in their natural habitat. It's also nice to see that the Trust is committed to serious work - I'd suspect that the main park is a little too Disney (it isn't unless you own camo gear and chase up and down the country in search of a twitch) for the real bird enthusiast.

Kingfisher hideMy favorite hide is Kingfisher. Not entirely finished at the time of visiting, it is a stunning piece of architecture. The walls are designed and decorated to look like mud and giant model birds nesting in the sides. The windows look out in three directions one of which has domestic bird feeders hung up attracting finches. I would guess that this is partly to encourage people to go home and look after the birds in their garden. It's a complete break from huts that owe more to the garden shed industry and will be fantastic in the summer.

Apart from this I can't say that much more about Slimbridge. It's nice, the paths are tarmaced (no need for off-road boots, but don't try it in high heels), lots of signs with pictures help explain what is going on in each enclose, you get to feed the birds and at the end of it there is serious conservation work going on. And of course, each visit is different as the population changes during the year.

Go on, take a look at the pictures.
Slimbridge Web Site

Monday 26 January 2009

Giles Exhibition - Cartoon Museum

Giles PosterI grew up with Giles cartoons. Every Christmas the Giles annual would arrive via Santa for my Father and would be quickly passed around the family with each of us taking time to work our way through the pages enjoying the humorous contents. The books were, and still are, collected together in pride of place on the bookshelf in our baronial library. As long as I can remember we've had a nearly complete set missing only a few of the earliest copies. Special editions, Guiness and RNLI stuff and a couple of jigsaws also form part of the collection. For a long while the Daily Express was delivered primarily for its cartoon (they also syndicated Garfield) content. Good job too as it was, and remains, a terrible useless newspaper that seems to gather copy from an infinite number of monkeys having a crack at Shakespeare. Even their most famous cartoonist didn't like them much often killing off one of thier other "stars", Rupert Bear, in the background of his scenes.

I digress. It is possible that some of my readers have been unlucky enough not to be exposed to a Giles cartoon and don't know what I'm going on about. If that is you then I suggest you first head off to Wikipedia for a brief and unusually accurate history or possible the British Cartoon Archive for those with longer attention spans. Then visit Giles Cartoons - A celebration and keep pressing F5 for new pictures.

The cartoons as I knew them normally featured the Giles family. Giles didn't actually have a family of his own but invented possibly one of the best known in the country. Pride of place goes to Grandma, a vision in heavy black coats and hat over a black dress. Permanently scowling she glares out from the Cartoon Museum window. This is my second trip to the museum, dig back in the blog for my first visit and more details on the place itself. This time I was to see an artist whose work I knew and loved.

It's strange but despite all those years of enjoying Giles work, I knew next to nothing about the man himself. Fortunately the exhibition has changed this. .The display, which fills the ground floor, takes the visitor through his life. Lots of original artwork is on display along with personal documents such as wartime identity and NUJ cards. Without sounding pretentious (moi ?) this does help me to understand the cartoons. For example before becoming a cartoonist Giles filled in frames in cartoon films - literally drawing the transitions between key frames created by the main artist. This shows later as the pictures are often a moment in time, you can imaging what has happened in the run up to the scene and what will happen afterwards. I'd not though of this before but can see it now.

Discovering that there was such a thing as a War Cartoonist was a revelation too. Giles was sent out by the Express and visited the Breendonck and Belson concentration camps. The paper wanted him to send them drawings but he refused, unable to cartoon the horrors he witnessed. Only photographs could show the truth of the camps he argued. Even towards the end of his life he said "There is not a day when I do not remember Belson.". That panel is the most moving of the exhibition and provides a counterpoint for the rest of the hilarity.

Giles ExhibitionSo important were the Giles family that the history of the man and the family become intertwined. Understandable as people will want to know about the development of the characters and trace thier development over time. This isn't unfair as in many was the fictional family were Giles, or at least parts of the man and his past.

Aside from the pictures, there is a recreation of Giles studio with lots of objects he owned and used to help with the pictures providing clutter. Some short films he was responsible for, including a slightly surreal one about the life of a hand grenade, are presented albeit without enough sound for my liking.

My favourite item was the original painting for the 34th Annual in 1980. It's a masterpiece. The workmanship is exquisite. Better still, seeing it in the flesh and perhaps studying it in more detail than I would have done on the cover, you see so much more. OK the picture is a bigger but even so. Another surprise joy is an undated drawing of trams in London. It's not funny and very impressionistic in style but encapsulates the feel of the scene. If only it were available as a poster or postcard !

This exhibition is a joy. Whether you look at it from a social history perspective (the cartoons document and comment on current events over a long period and can often only be understood if you know the history) or just as a chance to see again wonderful humorous pictures it's worth a visit.

Final handy hint - the green painted cafe at the end of the road (opposite the pub) on the corner near the museum is excellent. Top quality food at a reasonable price. I reckon I could have enjoyed sampling at least 10 of the cakes on display !

Friday 2 January 2009

Map with Smarties

Map with Smarties
Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
OK, so I've decided to try and visit every place on my calendar. I have a list but my geography is rubbish. Digging out a rail map of the UK I thought I'd take a look to see where these places really are.

First surprise: Glenariff is in Ireland. Whose stupid idea was that ? Are there not enough good railway posters of UK subjects for the editor to stick to the mainland ? Last year we had Stratford upon Avon for April - and easy one for me. This year, two toughies.

Second: The French Riviera looks easier than you might hing. Nice is £175 return according to the Eurostar web site.

Third: Marking the UK towns with red sugar coated bean shaped confectionery gave me an idea of the size of the problem. Those in the north west can be grouped together and possibly covered with a travelcard and B&B. Norfolk and Suffolk likewise. In the later the station on the poster is closed so I fancy Bury St Edmunds as a nearby replacement. Norfolk broads is pretty vague too so anywhere in the area with a puddle will do me. Finally St Ives is in Cornwall - two months in one go !

Thursday 1 January 2009

New year. New idea.

NRM CalendarIn April, which seems an obscenely long time ago, I started writing this blog with the intention of documenting my travels in the time I had taken off work. As you can tell from the derisory number of postings this plan didn't work out too well and I've not been nearly as far as I dreamed I would be going. In fact most people could manage to get about more in a standard holiday allowance from work than I've managed to do in 8 months free of responsibility.

The immediate excuses that come to mind involve a combination of the UK economy going belly up, petrol prices rising faster than house prices a couple of years ago and my poorly camper van (It's better now, thanks for asking). These are fair but to be honest, rubbish. Truth is that I have discovered I like having travelled much more than the act itself. And the thing I hate more is getting stuck in to the minutiae of planning a trip. Some people can head off without a care in the world and enjoy the fun of dealing with problems, such as not having a bed for the night, as they arise. Sadly, I'm not one of them.

Which all adds up to a pretty quiet blog. And that is embarrassing. So embarrassing that I have been pondering making this post the last one. A big "The End" would finish up the column and the web pages would sit unloved on-line as a memorial to a stupid dream. People would still trip over them, probably searching for "Jurby Junk" on Google, but there would be nothing new to read.

The trouble with this is twofold:
Some people have been whining about the lack of updates (you know who you are...) and so knocking this on the head would be tantamount to admitting complete defeat and accepting that there isn't much more point in leaving the front door.
Also the campervan is running OK at the moment (touches wood and crosses fingers). If the weather warms up a bit it might actually see some action.

So, I need to look at my limits a bit and try and work out how to "travel" on my terms. The trip I've enjoyed most this year was the run to Thurso. Now, I went there because I saw the place on a map and that created the urge to go. So all I need to to identify some places on maps and persuade myself I want to go.

This leads me to my 2009 challenge. Every year I get a calendar. No surprise there - lots of people do. My calendar is better than yours though, it's a National Railway Museum one showing vintage advertising posters for towns around the UK. These are great as while the UK railway system hasn't always been great at actually running trains, the marketing departments have often snapped up some of the greatest artists in the country to design the posters. Most present impossibly attractive views of the subject where the days are always sunny and the people smile all day. Every year I hang this on my wall and every year I wonder about trying to visit all the locations.

This year I'm going to do it.

So, here is the list:
The Yorkshire Coast
St Andrews
New Brighton (no I didn't know either. The Wirral peninsular apparently. Lovely)
The Broads
St Ives
North Wales
and er The French Riviera. Damn the calendar editor for wanting a foreign destination...

I'll try and do these by train and tick them off as I go. Next stop a map to work out where to go. In the meantime, visit the NRM website to see more posters, just so you understand what I'm talking about.