Saturday 30 April 2011

Long Itchington Beer Festival 2011

Duck pond"What we need", someone will have mused, "Is an excuse for a really good party. Tell you, what, have a word with that Royal chap and tell him it's time to make an honest woman of his girlfriend, then everyone can have an extra day off and bunting sales will go through the roof."

And so it is that this years Long Itch beer festival runs for 4 days, and the whole village is bedecked with more bunting than you'll see in the rest of your life. It's everywhere.

Anyway, this year there was a plan. Turn up early and go home having drunk some beer but not on the last bus in case that nice Mr Cameron cancels it before it arrives leaving us to hijack the dray that provides a pub-to-pub service for those unable to walk the distance.

First stop, The two boats for a nice Maldon Gold. Standing on the towpath in the glorious sunshine, you don't get much better. A single boat chugged by, people walked past - sometimes with dogs dragging them along and apart from two kids racing past on their bikes (one nearly ended up in the canal, there would have been a cheer), nothing to disturb the massed crowd of drinkers spilling along the banks.

Hook Norton DrayThen a quick stroll through the village centre to the Green Man where I had been promised a free pint involved passing a couple of shire horses working the Hook Norton brewery dray. How nice it was to see these fine beast and how unsurprising to watch as a BMW pull up beside them, honked his horn and then drove off. The horses looked unperturbed but the dray man wasn't impressed. I'm not sure where the car ended up, and I looked out for it as we continued, but if there is any justice it was in a stone wall at the loneliest spot on the road network.

Reaching the Green Man and squeezing inside, the staff were very busy and so I decided to hang on and pay for my pint as well as the commemorative festival glass. Looking at the signs, I knew there was only one beer for me - Chocoholic.

The contents of the glass were dark brown and at first tasted of very little. Then, all of a sudden, there was a real taste of chocolate. Good stuff too. Not strong, but pleasant. I'll confess to being a little wary as this sort of thing can be a bit gimmicky but it's not bad. One pint was sufficient but definitely worth a try.

Flying DutchmanWandering around the back of the pub, past a sign that said "Slow Children Playing" - handy as you know you won't have to try too hard to hit them - we found the pub garden along with another bar. This time I was determined. After waiting for the queue to subside, I enquired and my glass was filled with some Flying Dutchman. A really nice golden pint, all the better for being free.

After a few sips I felt the need to make a trip to the gents, partly for the obvious reasons and partly for journalistic purposes. After last years write up, I had been advised that the facilities had been refurbished. I didn't think there was anything wrong with them before but had mentioned an odd barrier to stop people falling into the urinal. This has gone to be replaced with a unit further up the wall. While performing a full test of this, another person arrived and stood alongside me.

"God, wearing this skirt really gets in the way." he said.

For some of you, these might not be unusual words to hear in a toilet. Me, I quickly finished up, washed my hands and left him to it.

All quickly became clear though a few minutes later. Into the middle of the garden strode St George, The Black Knight, a couple of other characters and a bearded mad wearing a dress. Think Snow White with a few days stubble. These were the Coventry Mummers who were putting on short plays at each of the pubs in return for donations and beer.

Mummers Play

St George took on the Black Knight in a fight and was killed. A Doctor brought him back to life with a few drops of Speckled Hen beer. They fought again, the Knight managed to wrest Georges sword away from him and things were looking bad. At the last minute the patron saint of England pulled out a pistol and shot the Knight.

We all cheered. It's not Ibson but than you don't want heavy drama when you are in a sunny pub garden drinking beer do you ?

As well as checking out the toilets, I'd been recommended toward the Noodle Bar in front of the pub. This was a good move - the cardboard box of freshly cooked sweet & sour chicken noodles was delicious. I did try with the chopsticks but quickly reverted to the wooden fork instead.

You know what it's like though. You have a Chinese meal and a few minutes later you fancy another one. We wandered back to the Harvester where I bought some Liemass Fruit beer. Pricey at over a fiver a pint but since it contains fruit it must be healthy. Mind you I think Jaffa Cakes count as one of your "five a day" so I might not be any more reliable than "Dr" Gillian McKeef on this score. The colour was a lovely red and it tasted nice.

It also made the idea accompaniment for a Water Buffalo burger. The meat is finer textured than normal beef, but otherwise I'll be honest and admit I couldn't really tell the difference. Perhaps less ketchup would have helped my palate ! Nice though and this year I didn't manage to get it all over my shirt which was a bonus.

Flowery FlagThe pub car park/garden was busy. In the corner were some of the local youth who provided entertainment for those who spotted them. One wearing florescent sunglasses managed to accidentally snap the leg off his metal char - the ground isn't level and I think he tried leaning back on it. For the rest of the time we were there one or other of them could be seen perched on it concentrating hard trying to pretend that 3 legs was as good as 4 so the landlord didn't spot them.

Finally, with the sun setting it was off the Buck and Bell. Our timing was excellent as we managed to get the drinks just before the beer ran out and customers were greeted by pumps with no labels and a cry that the barrels were being changed. My final pint of May Queen was light and refreshing but it's delivery from so near the bottom of the cask might have strengthened the flowery/washing up liquid taste a bit, something I can never decide if I like or not - for at least one pint anyway ! Still, at least we were inside as the temperature dropped and the place was quiet apart from the huge scrum on the road at the front. It's not often the biggest crowd is on the road.

Another good event. Lots of nice beer, too much to drink in a single day anyway. As the T-shirt says, Same again next year please !

See all my photos including every pint and bite here.

Visit the official beer festival website

Thursday 21 April 2011

Going down to Liverpool, to do nothing

Radio City TowerThis trip started like many others. I spotted an advert by London Midland Trains for a £10 travelcard covering trips to anywhere on their network and though, "I fancy a bit of that".

A quick look at the website confirmed two things. The first was that the furthest I could go on such a ticket was Liverpool. Obviously you don't want to go a couple of miles do you ? No matter where the end of the line is, that is the place to go.

The second was that while in theory, Leamington Spa sees this companies trains, in truth I needed to go to Birmingham or even Coventry to get on board.

So I bought my day ticket online and then picked up a ticket to Brum for nearly as much. I wasn't too worried about this as the total day out would cost less than 20 quid. That's if you ignore the delicious chocolate muffin I knew I'd be buying at New Street anyway. Well, you've got to do it. There might not be food shops in the north you know...

Standing on the platform at New Street, the train to the 'pewel was late. 10.36 comes and goes with no sign of transport. We were treated to announcements that the platform had changed, to the one we were all standing on, every 5 minutes. I don't know if the refurbishments have affected the tannoy yet but the things seemed louder and even more annoying than usual.

A train arrived at 10.54 and the passengers were disgorged onto the platform. The announcements then changed to inform us that if we wanted to go anywhere, we had to get on the "front set". That's not the handiest thing to tell us in the world since how the heck are you supposed to tell which IS the front set ? Once upon a time trains had engines, even ones powered by steam, at the front making things easy for the non-technical passenger. Now both ends look the same and the only way to work it out is to guess which way the train will go - not easy at New Street thanks to what are termed "bi-directional platforms", basically they all swing either way.

Apart from this, looking at the crowds attempting to board, I had a funny feeling that any trip would be spent standing up. A quick look at the timetable showed that the 10.36 departure would be followed by an 11.01 but plans to use this were scuppered as soon as I checked with the platform staff. It seems that London Midland Trains is having staff difficulties and their advice was "If you see a train, get on it. We probably don't have a driver for the 11 o'clock one". Presumably they have trains dumped all over the country due to lack of staff !

As it happens I managed to bag a seat and enjoyed the trip. There was a good book in my bag, a fully charged iPod for music and yummy muffin goodness. There was also a safety sign in front of me that some idiot designer sitting in front of his giant screen Macintosh computer had decided would be enhanced if all the capitals were expunged from the text. Now maybe I'm getting old but had I been in possession of a marker pen, I'd probably have fixed this. How abandoning one of the most basic rules of punctuation is supposed to help people beats me. Presumably this was done to appear "modern" in the same way 50 year olds wearing clothes designed for teenagers works so well.

Liverpool Lime Street station is very impressive. A proper overall arched roof tells you that you are arriving in a seriously prosperous city, or at least one that wanted to tell you it was.

DiddymanOn the concourse I was pleased to see a statue of Liverpool's greatest son. No, not the bloody Beatles who are everywhere else - for half an hour the announcement on the train had informed us we would soon be at "Liverpool South Parkway for John Lennon International Airport", so called because when this great son of the 'pool got some money it was the first place he went - but Ken Dodd. Yes, a life size (I've met him, it is) bronze man with tickling stick and a bag with a diddyman sticking out of it.

As I say, the Beatles are everywhere in Liverpool and so I'm not going to mention them again. If you want more, try this statue that looks nothing like them.

More excitingly, the other bit of civic art you see a lot of is the Superlambanana. This really ought to be the sort of arty toss that I hate but the idea of grafting a banana on the back of the lamb looks so funny that even I can't help liking it. This was good as for the next couple of days I had a touretes like urge to say "superlambanana" all the time.

My plan for the day, such as it was involved a trip to a local model shop, the maritime museum and perhaps if I could fit it in, wandering over to see Paddy's Wigwam. The first required a bus trip so I wandered into the centre and was distracted by spotting a Wimpy Bar. I can't resist a chance to see how we got it all so wrong with fast food and still do.

Wimpey BurgerThe staff were friendly, the burger can in a wholemeal bun (why ? It's not health food) and arrived with a knife and fork ten minutes after I ordered it. Slower, and it didn't taste as good as a McDonalds either. The Brown Derby, a ring doughnut with a swirl of ice cream and nuts on top was nice but in a traditional way. God knows who thought it up but I for one am glad they did.

Heading to the bus stop I was confused. I mean I recon on being pretty good with public transport but finding the appropriate stop defeated me. I found one that looked like it would do but according to the timetable, the thing only ran twice a day and before 8.30am at that. Asking in the travel centre didn't help much. Yes it ran but I wanted an 83A not an 83C. Despite scouring all the stops, not easy as they are either side of a difficult to cross road, helped not at all. By the time I'd wasted half an hour I was half way to the docks so I gave up on my plan and headed for the museum.

The stroll to the Albert Dock takes the visitor through the shopping centre and shows just what a modern city Liverpool is. The stores are large and brightly lit. Many wouldn't look out of place as flagship stores on Oxford Street and if the local population is managing to buy enough stuff to keep them in business then the city has shrugged off it's reputation for poor employment and wages.

Albert DockAlbert Dock also shows the changes in Liverpool. Where once stevedores would have hefted loads on and off ships you now find trendy wine bars and restaurants. Being a Monday, these were pretty empty but I'm sure at the weekend the cobbles throng with revellers. Another feature of Monday is that Tate Liverpool is shut so not arty fix for me then.

Talking of cobbles, most of the dockside seemed to be being dug up for one reason or another. Along with a huge shiny black monolith of a building, the museum of Liverpool is under construction. I'm not sure there are many cities with the chutzpa to put such a huge building up in such a prime location, a few yards from the iconic Liver Building, to celebrate the history of the place. All the work had turned finding your way to the museum into a maze of dead ends which at least wore off the burger and most of the pudding.

While Monday might not be the best day for visiting and getting in to the Tate, it's a fantastic choice if you want to enjoy a museum without dodging screaming kits who've been dragged in there by well meaning adults. It was so quiet that I was even able to try the customs boat simulator without an audience. Try that in the school holidays and you'd never get the near the controls for kids throwing them around with little or no interest in the results.

POW ModelAs a boat modeller, I've an interest in things ship-shape and there is plenty to look at with models of all sorts of vessels in glass cases. The museum is lucky in that ship buyers would normally commission a model of their purchase from the yard building it. These lived in board rooms and offices and so survived to end up on display for future generations. Thus you get different types of ship and different liveries as well. Nowadays we are used to a very small number of companies running things but years ago there were a huge number of lines. It's not just British stuff either, we had an empire once and mach of the output from this came though Liverpool and so is represented. It's a world long gone, goods arrive on massive boat in standard size containers rather than in the hold of a ship to be unloaded by gangs of men.

Once historied out, I headed back into the centre of town. Passing the base of the Radio City Tower. Outside there was a banner promising tours of the tower and to ask at reception for details. As I walked up to door a young bloke came out so I asked about this. "No problem", he replied expaling that he ran these and would be back in a few minutes if I waited inside.

As promised, a few minutes of hanging around in reception he returned and relieved me of £4.75. Apparently business had been light that day which is why he was so happy to give me a chance to have a look when normally they would shut up 5 minutes after I arrived. I was only the 5th person he'd seen whereas the previous week much larger parties had been the norm.

The lift to the top of the tower is large and takes seconds to raise you up through it's narrow stem. Stepping out and meeting the view is a bit of a shock. The windows lean outward. Apparently everyone does a double-take at this point since the view extends to the floor and does seem to falling away from you. What a view though.

Liver Building

You can see for miles up the Mersey. More importantly though, you see the city from a rare viewpoint. Everything is literally at your feet. OK, so the tops of modern buildings aren't particularly exciting being a mass of aircon units, heating pipes and fire escapes but look a little further and there are some real gems. Small green areas appear. Squares suddenly look as their designers intended and the road system is a bit more like a map. Once my initial shock subsided looking straight down there were lots of teeny tiny people wandering around completely unaware that they were being watched from above.

The building started life looking very different from the way it does now. It was originally built as a ventilation shaft for St Johns Market, a role it never fulfilled thanks to a change of legislation just as it was finished. A view gallery and revolving restaurant were constructed at the top. The eatery closed in the late 70's and as far as I can tell the revolving mechanism no longer exists. Years later a second desk was added in a £5m refurbishment. The radio station moved in and had studios in the centre of the building. I suppose for traffic reporting thay are ideally placed !

At the back of the tower are the offices which leaves about 2/3rds of the circumference for visitors to enjoy. Sadly this means Lime Street Station can only be glimpsed but everything else you'd like to see if available. I might be a bit sad but one of the things that fascinated me were the ugly vents for the Mersey Tunnels. I'd seen these years ago from the ferry and my guide was able to explain exactly which ones were which.

While up there I had one of those "Glad I don't have to do that moments." The glass was a bit grubby. Apparently it gets a clean every year by specialists but last year there was a problem. The light bulbs on the outside of the deck also get replaced by the same people so if their illumination replacement budget is stretched then the window cleaning budget takes the hit. A lot of bulbs blew last year, hence the state of the glass.

The trip up the tower was fantastic. Had I know trips were available I'd have planned my day around one. As it was I caught the last rays of sun giving me darker photos to remember the visit. Thanks too to my guide, the excellent Kyle Mansell, who was so generous with his time and knowledge.

Radio City Tours

From the tower I spotted the other place I wanted to visit. The Catholic Cathedral, affectionately known as "Paddy's Wigwam" because all the money was raised by the Catholic community who were mainly of Irish descent, it is one of the most striking religious buildings in the country. According to the map I'd looked at, the walk would take about 15 minutes from the centre and despite getting a bit lost (for a big building, it's surprisingly difficult to see until you find it) that worked out about right.

Paddy's WigwamThe current cathedral was a compromise. Originally a magnificent structure to rival the nearby Anglican cathedral was planned with the largest unsupported dome outside the Vatican. The crypt was built but then the budget soared to an amazing £27m, which in the 1920's was an impossible sum to raise. Various plans were developed to bring the scheme under control but none ever reached fruition.

In 1960 a new competition was held. The budget was set at £1m for the shell and the new building had to make use, and relate to, the already constructed crypt. The result, designed by  Sir Frederick Gibberd, was modern and eye catching. It encapsulated the spirit if the times.Everyone can see the service as the plan allows for "religion in the round" with a central alter and circular seating.

Needless to say I've had to take this stuff on trust as by the time I pitched up, about 6:30pm, the place was locked up tight. I climbed the steps to wander around the outside of the main building and it's very impressive. Much 60's architecture looks very dated but this doesn't. In fact I suspect that it's the sort of building that come along very, very rarely. The design doesn't date because it doesn't fit in to any category.

Metropolitan Cathedral website

Modern lighting and some sympathetic glass sculptural panels show the building off to best effect today. I had the place to myself and enjoyed the serenity before wandering back to my train home. The streets weren't busy other than trickles of people making their way back from work. In one window I got the biggest shock of the day. One of the kebab shops said "All our products conform to ISO..."

Who knew that kebabs had a British Standard number ? Liverpool truly is full of surprises.

My photos on Flickr