Friday, 29 February 2008

People change

I am quite encouraged by the thought that people change, and that things can get better as well as worse.

I've just had a couple of calls, about a technical problem, from a colleague in another building. I used to dread hearing from or seeing them because I found them rude, overbearing and obnoxious and felt that I was being treated as some sort of IT skivvy. (I mean, yes, I am indeed that, but most people have enough manners to make it less obvious in their dealings with me.) They were also good at little pointed remarks about how excellent the IT provision was at their previous workplace, an approach which is pretty much guaranteed to get me all warm and attentive and on the user's side, ready to do battle on their behalf. (Goak here.)

Over the past two years, one or both of us has changed. I don't feel like that any more when they call - we seem to be colleagues discussing ways forward with a problem; I like speaking to them and they are always polite and appreciative of my feeble efforts.

I have never claimed to be a saint and I have no doubt that some of our communications problems were caused or exacerbated by things that I did. At the same time, something quite big has shifted to get our working relationship to this point, and it makes me feel quite optimistic about the possibility of change, of improvement: that not everything inevitably slides downhill, over the edge, and ends up on the Misthaufen.

Onwards and upwards!

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Gig-a-Blog™ ("Classical Brazil", St Anne & St Agnes)

Monday, 25 February 2008

The church was packed for this rather wonderful recital of Brazilian music featuring the soprano Penelope White das Graças.

The first two pieces were groups of four and three songs for voice and piano (Helen Glaisher-Hernández) by Henrique and Guarnieri respectively. These were mostly light, entirely pleasant and interpreted with great clarity and conviction. I wouldn't want to insult H&G fans by saying they sounded similar (to the untutored ear perhaps, but not to ahem an expert like your current blogographer), but I think it might at least be fair to identify them as being - broadly speaking - from the same kind of tradition. Or something. Their dates are interesting - they both span more or less the entire 20th century: Henrique was born in 1905, two years before Guarnieri, and outlived him by another two years, dying in 1995.

Quite different territory was entered with the third piece, a pair of highly evocative nature scenes for voice and cello by Diego Carneiro d'Oliveira (b. 1981), who just happened to be the rather fine cellist for this piece as well as its composer and lyricist. This was proper, interesting, brave, modern music and provided an excellent contrast with the considerable but more conventional lovelinesses of the first two pieces. White das Graças has a really great range of vocal tone which illuminated this whole programme and especially this new music.

The last piece was Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras no. 5. It's one of those works that makes you go "oh that old potboiler", which is just lavishly unfair because of course it's popular because it's good, rather than bad because it's popular. It's unfortunate that ignorance and lack of imagination in the media mean that unless you stick strictly to Radio 3 (and no telly) you'll hear this work more times a year than is reasonable: but this doesn't detract from its being rather fine music. It received an excellent outing today, conducted by Eder Paulozzi: Penelope White das Graças was once again just fabulous and Diego Carneiro d'Oliveira led the cellos with a fantastic, committed performance in which his focus on the soprano shone out like a beacon.

I must just add that this great gig was part of what seems to be a sort of series-within-a-series: that is, it's in the main SS A&A lunchtime series but, like a few other concerts, it's presented by ILAMS, the Iberian and Latin American Music Society. I've missed the others so far but this one was terrific so I must try to make it along to some others.

Strawberry yoghurt: Müller Amoré Strawberry and French vanilla luxury yogurt

Long-standing readers of this blog (er, hello?) will remember my getting very excited when Müller launched their new Amoré range of megaproduct for the aristocratic yoghurt-fancier in your life. These same readers (er, hello, hello?) will remember that at the time I was a little put out (i.e. flouncing around and spitting with rage) that my local Tesco had the (admittedly delicious) Walnut and Greek Honey and Spanish Orange flavours but not the strawberry. I've been meaning to get round to trying it for some time but have not yet managed it until ...

Ta-da! I am delighted to report that the Devizes branch of Sainsburys stocks this delicious Rolls-Royce yoghurt and that it was well worth the wait.

This yoghurt has an interesting slightly edgy flavour and speaks strongly of strawberry. The inclusion of vanilla in a product like this often worries me, making me suspect that it's going to be over-sweet, that the vanilla is some sort of trigger or excuse for sickliness. But in fact this one is not too sweet at all, in fact it's pretty jolly good. Oh and it has a lovely texture, quite smooth but not too smooth, with lots of chunks of strawberry.


A fine yoghurt from Uncle Hans and all the little Müllers. Lick the lid of life™ they say. Yeah babay.

Mm yeah: 9.3

Grellt: 9

Disgustingly sweet: 0

Just right yummy: 10

Sploorn: 3

Vanilloidality: 8

Overall: 8.4

The OC:


Strawberries 7%

Whipping cream 19%!!!

150 Kcal per 100g serving

Friday, 22 February 2008

Electronically compressed air

This sounds like an interesting idea. (I promise that I will leave the Daily Telegraph website soon, never to return. Clearly we are not meant for each other.)

In Is cabin air making us sick? - an interesting and worrying (if perhaps mildly hysterical) article about your chances of either dropping dead or being flown into the ground by a dozy, gassed-up crew - the author comes out with this interesting statement:

But for all the advances in design, safety and comfort, until the launch of Boeing’s new Dreamliner (787) next year (on which air will be compressed electronically), little has been done about the fact that both passengers and crew are breathing in air that comes straight from the engines.

I want to hear more about this electronically compressed air. Shall I write in? Perhaps not. Perhaps yes. Perhaps maybe. Perhaps I should get a life, do some bl**dy work (yes Colin I am on leave today), run around the house shouting, or almost anything. Tsk.


Update: hahahaha serves me right. I did comment on the article, or rather I tried to, and got this:

Method Not Allowed

An error has occurred.

Yeah babay you bet it has. Clearly they have some advanced technique for weeding out lefty cynics before they can pollute the monitors of the Torygraph's loyal readership. Now it seems that I am doomed never to find out how you can electronically compress air. Chiz.

Shorthand more good than write words proper (Daily Telegraph)

It's spreading. This from the Daily Telegraph:

America has used flights interrogate terror suspects – in particular since the attacks on America on 9/11.

I despair. (Though yes, Tamsin, it does indeed serve me right for reading the "web site" of such a "newspaper"). Yes I have written, yes I am a sad person, no they haven't changed it or even (Heaven forfend!) actually had the good manners to reply to me.

Maybe better words like this way not bother silly little bits? Proofread waste time, cost money, same thing customer services email make it work good. Easier publish garbage! Who cares? Silly old fools! Lol !

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I get no kikc from champange

Wouldn't you think that, if you were a prestigious champagne bar in the tallest building in the City, you might look at your own web site and notice that the name of your principal drink is rendered as "CHAMPANGE" at the top right of every page?

Ho hum.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Horrible vs. Really Horrible: Hubba Bubba Seriously Strawberry Flavour Bubble Gum; Trident Splash Strawberry and Lime Flavour Sugarfree Juicy Gum

I feel it is part of my duty as a Chartered Strawberry Yogologist to sometimes explore the more remote side of strawberry-related foodstuffs. Like, Out There. So I bought two different strawberry-flavoured gums and here we go.

Firstly, they are both fairly disgusting and, I think, have probably not been anywhere near an actual strawberry at any time in their short and no doubt sordid life-cycles.

Hubba Bubba Seriously Strawberry Flavour Bubble Gum has an initially quite nice taste, if you like lab-produced strawberry flavour that is. Actually I do quite like that, but I am just weird so, like, hey. It is also honestly sweet, containing sugar as a key ingredient. Sadly this all fades pretty fast and what you are left chewing tastes like you're licking the underside of a silage lorry which accidentally drove through a roadkill storage-dump on the way to the powdered aluminium factory. I advise you to get rid of this gum before it reaches that stage. So it's briefly pleasant(ish), then horrible.

Trident Splash Strawberry and Lime Flavour Sugarfree Juicy Gum is a monument to the taste of aspartame and little else. When you first bite it the lime stuff is quite excitingly bitter and you (very briefly) think woo yeah we are on to something here. However, that fades even faster than the Hubba Bubba's initial pleasantness and leaves you with a revolting sweet aspartame blandness which gives me the impression it will last for ever. It won't get worse, it just started dire and stayed there. If there was even a moment with a hint of even the lowliest factory-strawb flavour, it was over so fast that only Glexons from the planet Graaart, to whom our minute is a lifetime, might have noticed it. So this one is even more briefly pleasant(ish), then really horribly sweet and aspartamishly bland and repulsive, possibly for the rest of your life, but I wouldn't keep it in my mouth more than a few depressing seconds. Maybe it tastes great after a day or two ... and maybe it does not.


  1. Don't buy either of these products as they're both vile, but if you must buy one then get the Hubba Bubba and spit it out before you reach the EndTimeTaste™. This is your only hope. Spit, Tamsin! The Trident thing is too depressing for words. I just can't be bothered.
  2. If you want gum to chew buy something else. Buy Wrigley's Spearmint, or Juicy Fruit: they are both much nicer.
  3. If you want chewy strawberry get Fruitellas. I suspect them of not being all that intimately acquainted with real strawberries either, but they are still nicer by roughly 160km. OK they are not gum: they are, however, chewy. What do you think this is, Which? (Stop press: maybe Fruitellas do have fruit in. Watch this space.)
  4. These two products are a very saddening experience for a Chartered Strawberry Yogologist. Maybe we are innocents, not yet ready for the outside world, and should be protected from stuff like this.
  5. Gak!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Train-o-class-a-blog™, or, Vogel is Uncharacteristically Nice about a Virgin Service: Thousands Astonished!

It is so delightful travelling first class from Piccadilly to Euston that it should probably be illegal. I have half a carriage to myself and nice young people keep bringing me food and drink.

Due to the total bizarreness of the price structure this is costing me about 2p more than standard class on the same choo choo.

Is there a catch? Do they intend, perhaps, to kill and eat me once we reach Euston? So far there is no evidence for this. I am floating back to London in a cloud of bliss. Nice.

Friday, 8 February 2008

All your base are far you live ...

...or something.

Virgin Media (I know, I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t) have a lovely thing at HateToWait to help you find out whether your street can get 20mb broadband over fibre, which I agree is a jolly good idea. When you put in your postcode and confirm your address, if you are a Lucky Winner then you get a nice page which says, inter alia:

It's reliable, unaffected by the weather and the quality of service is not base on far you live from the telephone exchange - unlike all other broadband providers.

I really can’t go on - it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Gah!

But yes, in case you are wondering, I have indeed written to them. I reckon it was 95% polite and pleasant but I’m slightly shamefaced about the other 5%. I’d have been in less of a grump if there were an obvious way to leave this kind of site feedback but, guess what, there isn’t: oh my, what a surprise. I’ve had their autoreply to say they got it, and if/when I get an actual response, you will be the first to hear. On their general performance recently I would say don’t hold your breath, but you never know – they may yet surprise and delight me.

Update (11th February): lovely boilerplate email from Virgin Media saying:

Thanks for your email to Virgin Media letting us know your comments on our website. We're always looking for ways to improve our services - including our website - to make sure they give you exactly what you need. We're really grateful for your feedback as it lets us know exactly what you think. We promise to do everything we can to use your feedback when we next make changes to our website.

Riiiiiight ... erm, good so far. Just a touch nauseating and twee, but hey. And do you think this is perhaps the exact equivalent of saying "ooh yes, silly of us, thanks, we'll fix it right now"? I mean, they haven't fixed it yet ... and you might think that a horrible, embarrassing blooper like that would be worth fixing immediately ... but what do I know? After all, the only problem is that this makes them look illiterate and careless in front of everyone to whom they want to sell this service - so where's the urgency? I'd take it easy myself. Suggested new slogan (free for first six months, thereafter union rates):

Only silly words not matter don't not much lol !

Yes, I should probably get a life. Sigh.

Update (14th February): very nice lady from VM rings my mobile. She is responding to a complaint I made, so can I please tell her my password, for identification? No, sorry, I can't, because that's what I am trained by my work to not do and although she is clearly a nice lady that is what she would do if she were a bad person trying to socially engineer me and gain unauthorized access to my account. I ask if I can ring her back: nope. I ask if she can ask me some letters from it, like the bank does: nope. I ask if we can discuss it by email: nope. Impasse. I am a bit embarrassed and flustered because at one level I feel I am behaving like a jerk and at the other level I feel that this rather sloppy security practice should be resisted. I am reminded of AOL's statement that "AOL staff will NEVER ask you for your password online or over the telephone" which seems a bit more like it to me and certainly offers commendable clarity.

Suddenly the lady on the phone has an attack of practicality and announces that as she does not need to do anything with my account in order to respond, she won't need the security check. (Correct, though really it would have been better to decide this earlier in the conversation.) She then, really very nicely, says All The Right Things about my initial complaint, which makes a very nice change. She is unable to say when they will fix it but she acknowledges the problem, has actioned it, thanks me for my trouble, apologizes for the previous stupid reply, and so on. Couldn't be better.

This is much more like it. I will look forward to finding that it has actually been fixed one day. I cannot, however, for the life of me see how it makes good security practice for them to ring and ask me my password. With no get-outs and no workarounds: I'm just supposed to tell them it on the phone. However unlikely the scenario you'd have to construct to make this a real threat, I do still feel that it is terribly bad practice when you look at the matter of principle involved. It's very nice that she had the sense to proceed with the call anyway but if my complaint had been something account-specific it's hard to see how we'd have made any progress. Ah well, the web page that annoyed me is to be sorted and that's good: onwards and upwards!

Update (21st February): no change. Dum de dum de dum. It's only a week. It must be very difficult for them.

Update (23rd February): I am glad to see that it is not just I who think that it is foolish for Virgin Media to ring customers up and demand their passwords. In a rather good Guardian Technology article, Scott Colvey asks, "Why is Virgin Media asking customers for their passwords?" and answers his own question: "Because either it is stupid, or thinks its customers are, or both." There's a little more to it than that, which is why you should read the linked article, but that's his essential point. He's right of course - it is an appalling practice, amateurish and sloppy. That a company of that size can do no better is an astonishing admission of failure. (No, they have not yet fixed the page I was moaning about. It's only fifteen days since I first attempted to report it, after all ...)

Update (28th February): dum de dum ... time passes ... [yawn] ... just twenty days since I told them and a mere fortnight since nice Mrs Apologetic (Stupid Password Request) Lady rang me and apologized and said they'd fix it. Naturally they haven't fixed it. What a very sad performance.

Update (15th March): tum te tum te tiddle-eye-o ... more time passes ... [big yawn] ... maybe they never actually will fix it. Was the lady who spoke to me actually a liar, or just incompetent, I wonder? Trying to be charitable, I look for a Third Way along the lines of "trying to help but actually unable to because of the way the company operates" but in a sense you perhaps end up back with lying (she can't help and she knew it) or incompetent (she can't help and she didn't know it) and none of it is that comforting. I probably ought to just let it go, I know, but it's precisely the sort of thing that makes me grind my teeth and want to kick someone.

Update (18th April): The lady who spoke to me has presumably been sacked for being nice and helpful on the phone without permission. The site is unchanged. It's seventy days since I first pointed out their error. Dum, de dum, de daaah daah dum. And a tiddle-eye-o!

Update (18th April part 2): It's time to move on. Although I am offended by their stupidity and rudeness I've got better things to do. In a last-ditch effort I have written them an actual letter, on actual paper and signed it with an actual pen: perhaps this will receive more attention than mere email. I'll let you know when I hear back from them, but, as I said before, please do not hold your breath.

Update (30th April): they've actually fixed it! Hurrah. Maybe writing an actual letter (etc) did some good where mere electronic protest could not. Who knows? Ah well, end of an era really - I hadn't checked the page for some time (even I have my limits of nerdy-sadness) so all we can say with certainty is that it took between seventy and eighty-two days for them to fix it from my first attempt to tell them.

It looks quite strange now, worded correctly: "... is not based on how far you live ...". In years to come perhaps I will miss its little unEnglish cousin, "... is not base on far you live ...". But not now.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Gig-a-Blog™ (Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra, Cardiff University Concert Hall)

Saturday, 3 November 2007
and bits of Friday and Sunday, to boot.

This weekend involved a massive mobhanded descent (well, six of us) on Cardiff due to this concert being led by our own dear Daughter of Middlestness. Naturally this will not bias in any way my fearless and highly critical reporting of this excellent event hem hem.

"Interesting" background information that you don't need but are being offered anyway includes:

  • The big car wasn't well, so I had to take the little car, which is also not exactly in the first flush of youth. It is also not as nice, comfortable, fast, well-equipped etc, indeed I could happily condemn it as quite inferior were it not for it being significantly less likely to lose all its oil and water then blow up. Tsk.
  • You couldn't get a hotel room for love nor money in Cardiff that night. I say Vogel, I hear you murmur, must have been a very popular concert huh? Well yes, and I bow to no man in my admiration for this fine orchestra, but actually there was also a boxing match of some colossal significance taking place at the Millennium Stadium (capacity: 74,500) and this may also have contributed to the problem in some minor way.

Erm right so on we go:

We had complex journeys. Becca drove down from Manchester, Eva and Deb came on the train, and I drove down from London but stayed the previous night in Chichester and then drove up from there with Mum.

Because of the Cardiff hotel situation we were staying way out of town, in fact, nearer Usk, at the very nice Cwrt Bleddyn Hotel.

Mum’s and my journey up was lovely. It was a very nice sunny late autumn day and the trees almost all the way up were an amazing display of colour. I seem to recall reading, earlier in the year, that it was forecast to be a good autumn for leaf colour, but I cannot remember why this was supposed to be so. Maybe I'll see if I can look it up (or not). Anyway, it did seem to be particularly spectacular.

Given the complex travel arrangements I was a little worried (i.e. gibbering) about punctuality and as we left in good time then had quite a pretty fast, clear run, we were well ahead of schedule by the time we were entering Wales. As we hadn't yet had lunch we left the M48 (the old M4 over the original Severn Bridge) at Chepstow and drove up the Wye Valley. On such a nice day and with the aforementioned autumn colours, this was a truly beautiful ride. We found ourselves in Tintern at the Abbey Hotel, right opposite the said abbey (photo at page top), and had very pleasant bar snacks there looking out over the lovely view. Pretty goshdarned near perfect. Then after a stroll down to look at the abbey and riverside (more fantastic red, green, orange, yellow, brown, gold - and the rest - catching the sun across the valley) we were off again.

In an area like this it's perhaps a mistake to entrust navigation to the GPS without checking its work. It certainly got us to Cwrt Bleddyn but along the most incredible filigree of tiny roads, such that you worry that meeting another vehicle would be a real problem; or else that the road is about to peter out in the middle of nowhere or, embarrassingly, in some farmer's front garden. In fact none of these things happened and the drive across was interesting and very pretty, as well as a bit disconcerting, so a net gain, really.

At the hotel we checked in and looked at access and so on, and had a cup of tea (but of course). It's a good place - some kind of manor-house-type building much added-to, but in a tactful enough way that it doesn't frighten the horses. The staff are very nice and helpful and the rooms were fine, though our particular corner was short on views. The public rooms that I saw - the lobby, dining room and bar - were pleasant and rather classy. Access was OK-ish: they'd given us clear warning that it's not yet fully accessible, but they helped in every possible way and it was all pretty cool, basically.

By the time tea was drunk my timetable anxieties were getting their claws in and we set off for Cardiff. It actually did get quite worrying as the traffic going in was appalling. As well as the boxing there was a firework display on (nearest Saturday to Guy Fawkes, innit) and the roads really couldn't take it all - we chugged slowly along at walking pace for what seemed like days. We did, however, make it and there met with Becca, who showed up at pretty much the same moment, and with Eva and Deb who were annoyingly calm and relaxed. Huh, train travellers.

The music department porters had kindly and helpfully carved out a wheelchair space. They had very nicely put it absolutely as close as possible to Lottie so that Bec would have been eye to eye with her from about a metre away, maybe a touch less. I don't know what this would do to you but I'll cheerfully admit that I don't think I could play a note like that, though fortunately I do not lead orchestras. No-one wanted to reject the porters' kindness but after a hurried consultation a polite delegation was sent to request a teeny shift and we ended up seated in a much more moderate position at the first crossways aisle.

While on the subject of the venue, I should just add that I rather liked the concert hall, which is actually in or at least attached to the music department. It has a nice atmosphere and feels like home but is big enough to get a decent-sized concert in.

The concert was (of course) wonderful. No, but it really was: the orchestra was great and Tim Taylor did a fine job conducting it with admirable clarity. I've seen him conduct before and he's struck me as someone who knows not only how he wants the music to sound, but also exactly how to communicate this to an orchestra. Seems obvious I know, but you'd be amazed how many conductors have one ability or the other but not both. And indeed I suppose a few have neither: but let us not start on that downward slope lest they start retaliatory blogging about bad trumpet players they know...

Chabrier's España was first, a flashy and exciting start to the concert. Next came the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major which was truly stunning. The soloist Christopher Andrews can really play. Oh and I know I should try not to be so parochial about the instrument I claim to play, but the extremely prominent and exciting trumpet part - no, seriously - was delivered with great style and verve by some talented young person, so well done them too. After the interval came a stormy, exciting and dramatic Franck Symphony in D minor. In this symphony, to misquote someone, I am never quite sure whether I like the actual music, or just the noise it makes, but the latter was more than impressive in any case. One way or another, it's quite a symphony and the orchestra certainly delivered on Franck's promises. I sort-of loved this symphony when we did it in CASO decades ago and I sort-of love it now. I probably ought (in a perfect world) to try to educate myself about Franck and his other music a bit. Finally, a Satie Gymnopédie (arranged by whom?) made for a very pleasant encore. Just as well, since the lengthy, warm and enthusiastic reception after the Franck clearly required another nice tunette to send the audience home (or indeed on to the boxing, I suppose) with the right amount of bounce in its collective step.

So all in all this was a fine and very enjoyable concert and I thought Lottie led well; and indeed looked nice, having I think invested in a new dress, er, an ting, for the event. We were very proud of her.

After the event I was pleased to meet, briefly, the famous Tim Taylor, having heard so much about him from Lottie. It's very odd doing Meet The Teacher when your child is a university student! But TT seems very nice. We've spoken and emailed in the past (a question of the Boehme Concerto in E or is it F minor, and where, pray, are the orchestral parts for F?) but we hadn't met. It's probably even more excruciating having your Dad talking to university staff than it is at a school function but we were both in a hurry so Lottie's pain was at least brief, and bravely borne.

Following that we went our separate ways, Lottie no doubt to party the night away and us oldies to stagger off back to Cwrt Bleddyn. Due to deficient planning we were hungry and had no accessible restaurant in mind, let alone booked: however we just went back to the hotel and let room service solve our problem, which it did very nicely. We had a sort of Sandwich Summit in Becca's room, and at some point I visited the rather swish bar for a (purely medicinal) whisky and, d'you know what, it was all perfectly pleasant.

In the morning I was delighted to find that Becca could get into the dining room by dint of a bit of an exterior tour and a steplet or two, but nothing to defeat the parental muscle (gnah! wagghh! ungghh!!) Having paid roughly a billion pounds for the hotel it's difficult (and indeed uneconomic) to resist when you're offered a cosmic megabreakfast: so I didn't. I had the full Welsh and, while I cannot now remember how this differs from a full English, I do remember that it was delicious. Erm, and indeed far from ungenerous. Yes.

I ran Eva into Newport to catch a train home. After that the rest of us had a shortish wander round the hotel's grounds, which are exquisite - all little streams and bridges and stuff, a very pretty setting.

I very much enjoyed Cwrt Bleddyn and would very happily spend more time there. If they spent a few bob changing the accessibility from Nearly to Actually, and kept the helpfulness they already display, it would be truly stunning. They are so close that it's quite tantalizing.

So goodbye, nice hotel, and off we set again back to Cardiff to meet Lottie and Jake and have an excellent lunch at the Grape and Olive, a trendy and very pleasant pub-restaurant not very far from Lottie's house. This place she had sussed out in advance, and had done a top job: it was really lovely - food, décor, access, staff, the lot - and I would very much like to go back one day, maybe in the evening after a walk or something, when I'd do it more justice. (Clue: can you say "hotel breakfast"? Good, good.)

Having consumed a light-yet-nutritious™ (thank you Ken) lunch I somehow managed to get back to the car (possibly on hands and knees, groaning piteously), and drive it (possibly from the back seat) back to Lottie's house. Have I learned a lesson here? Doubt it.

At Lottie's, farewells were said and we zoomed off to all - well, several - points of the compass. Bec was off north(ish)wards for Manchester; Mum and I dropped Deb at Cardiff station then set off for the motorway. Unfortunately there'd been a serious accident and everything was badly jammed up, with no chance of avoiding it for many miles, so we just crawled along. Eventually we were able to get off the motorway and divert round the rest of it, going round the edge of Newport. This was a bit tedious but rather enlivened by our being overflown, at low altitude, by the biggest flock of rooks I've ever seen. There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands, and it made a truly awe-inspiring sight.

I think poor Becca had a bit of a rubbish journey too, having been unable to completely avoid the effects of the same jam, and ended up taking quite a while to get home too. Ah - update - I had forgotten that after that Becca ran into the Worst Fog Ever while snurgling her way up through Wales, and that that was what made her seriously late back. It was really very bad indeed, thick and persistent, for many miles - she nearly got lost going round a roundabout at one point, because the exits and signage were so obscured. Nasty!

I can't remember much about the rest of our journey, which suggests that it was probably uneventful. So let's assume that I got Mum home safely, had some permutation of tea/snack/kip/chat - or indeed all of the above, then set the autopilot for Norf London and off I went. All in all, very very pleasant and well done that Leading Lottie. Woo.

Gig-a-Blog™ (capella vitalis berlin, St Anne & St Agnes)

Monday, 4 February 2008

capella vitalis berlin. Almut Schlicker & Ulrike Wildenhof violins, Martin Knizia organ/harpsichord. Trio sonatas by Handel, Purcell and others

Purcell, Sonata in E minor: Gorgeous. What is it about Purcell? Something about its sense of structure and purpose that shows through? I don't know. It's just wonderful.

Birckenstock, Sonata no. 6 in G major (1 violin & harpsichord). Short life - 1687-1733 so he was born close to Bach and Handel but died very much earlier. Rather lovely. Very busy, fun allegro. I wonder if I can get a CD? Pretty adagio with excellent pause-and-twiddle™ moments. In fact it's all rather fine. Giga - fantastic facile flurries of fast flying fingers. Silly echo cadenza thing - excellent, punters on edges of seats (well I was), very clever.

Leclair Sonata no. 1 in D minor: 2 violins & organ. Nice change of texture. Nice sonata but less exciting than the other two so far.

Handel Sonata no. 6 in G minor: Back to two violins & harpsichord. 1st allegro - intricate, clever, interesting. The arioso was quite beautiful and the final allegro light, dashing and played with precision and verve.

I loved the rich, warm, room-filling sound of this ensemble. Very very nice.

Gig-a-Blog™ (Mary Pells & Martin Knizia, St Anne & St Agnes)

Friday, 1 February 2008

Mary Pells, viola da gamba; Martin Knizia, harpsichord. Sonatas by G F Handel, G Finger and J Roman

Handel (attrib): poised, stately Adagio: incredible listenable purity and beauty of sound in this combination of instruments, or at any rate as it is played by these two people. The first Allegro is lively, tripping over itself in scalic runs then hovering for a moment over fast repeated notes in the gamba before it rushes off again. Most exciting. The second adagio is more song-like and emotional, and the second allegro is jolly, lilting, almost bucolic. Excellent fun, excellent performance. This work was great: full of life and clarity.

Roman. The "Handel of Sweden" says Martin. Allegro: light, lively, busy. Larghetto: rather squarely structured but enlivened by a couple of nice, plangent, harmonically interesting moments. Allegro: festive feeling, lilts along pleasantly, nice variety in the way the harpsichord's range is used.

Handel (the real one, not attrib!) Adagio: lovely, sinuous, flowing. I see what the programme note means, though, about the greater equality, in the maybe-fake-Handel, of the instruments. Here the gamba's getting nearly all the cool stuff and the poor harpsichord is mostly going chuggy chuggy chord-chord-chord with the odd moment of relief. Hmm I wonder if there's a big notational difference in the keyboard part between the Handel and the ersatz-Handel? I am too embarrassed to speculate in case I am so wrong as to look an even bigger nana than usual, but I might, if courage and time permit, ask someone. (Update: I asked. Yup. The real Handel is a figured bass whereas the perhaps-not-Handel specifies the right hand, at least to an extent.) Allegro: sounds like the Christmas Oratorio at the start - or is it just me? Largo: yes well he's better at lovely flowing lines than poor Roman. Very nice. Second Allegro: erm, is this a gigue or something? It's very jolly and gallops along at a fair old rollicking pace.

Finger: goodness me, this is a whole opera! Much drama in evidence and multiple changes of scene. Three movements but ten section/tempo indications. Certainly enough to get your average programme-reading Vogel quite lost. Actually I think we may have just hit the middle movement, Aria, though just now it seems to think it's a rather nice chorale. Ah, I see, now it's doing variations, how splendid. And now there's what may be the next movement beginning with a nice Adagio - or else I'm lost again. Another jolly tum-tee-tum bit - not unlike Handel's second Allegro - did Finger copy in the exam? Ah, excellent, it was the last section and I wasn't lost - makes a change!

What a lovely gig and well done Pells and Knizia.

On the way back to the office I was reflecting, with gratitude, how incredibly bl**dy lucky I am to have St Anne & St Agnes and its amazing concert series right on my doorstep. It is a crucial, sanity-saving part of my week and I cannot thank the church and all its people enough for what they have going on there. I'm like, yeah man, woo (high five) right on; yes, indeed I am. Mr Thompson, the tea for our guests if you please.

Gig-a-Blog™ (The Vaghoten Band, St Anne & St Agnes)

Monday, 21 January 2008

“Aux Armes, Citoyens!” The Vaghoten Band. Jane Booth & Louise Strickland, clarinets; Joe Walters & David Ransom, horns; Peter Whelan & Robert Percival, bassoons. Works by F J Gossec, de l'Isle and (arr.) Lussier.

A wonderful programme of revolutionary music with excellent, characterful sounds. Perhaps less smooth and homogeneous than the equivalent modern ensemble: bits of edge in the tone which add texture and interest. I'm thinking especially of the bassoons whose tone I felt had a distinct "wake up" quality compared to the modern instrument.

Similarly, there was a distinct difference in the clarinet tone, though I'm not sure I can specify for you what it was. Maybe that it was a little more direct and less rich? Definitely a bit of a tonal spectrum shift compared to the modern instrument but I fear I can't nail it down for you any better than that so you'd better try to hear this excellent ensemble and form your own view.

Fabulous horns. Mellow, brassy and downright fiery by turns. Nice one.

  • First two pieces quite jolly and cheerful
  • Third piece: excellent horn call thing
  • Some music a bit more solemn e.g. (perhaps) O salutaris (aargh help I'm lost in the programme) - well that was very nice, whatever it was.
  • Oops - it's too easy (for me) to lose track of one's location in the programme. There's not enough help from the printed programme nor the performers, though their occasional stage chat was very good and I'd have liked more.

Unusual show, great sounds, makes a fascinating and refreshing change. I left feeling distinctly inclined to go and storm the Bastille.

Update: I'm shocked that I was so unobservant (too busy ogling the horns?) but Martin told me that the fabulous bassoon sound which so excited me was, at times, being generated by a Baroque contra! Imagine - I didn't even know there was such a thing. It certainly explains the, er, deep (aha) impression they made on me, but I wish I'd seen it too. Next time I will not miss it!


On the Central Line today, on my way to a meeting at QM, I was in a happy electronic cocoon of PDA and MP3 and overshot Mile End without even noticing.

I was very surprised when the train emerged into sunlight. Quite disconcerting for a second or two. Er, hello Stratford and indeed goodbye Stratford.

Gig-a-Blog™ (Daniel-Ben Pienaar, St Anne & St Agnes)

Friday, 18 January 2008

Daniel-Ben Pienaar, Piano. Schubert Sonatas Cycle I (no. 15, D 840 and no. 19, D958)

This was a monster recital: it's only one and a half sonatas (D840 is just two movements) but it still filled every minute of lunchtime today.

D840: Starts innocently enough - pastoral calm then impassioned fireworks with some great juicy chromatic moments

D958: Fiery start then settles down to a symphonic-length marathon. Some fantastic playing here. These sonatas weren't entirely my thing despite many beautiful moments, but I can't tell you exactly why: maybe it's a product of my unfamiliarity with them, and the seriousness of the listening requirement being quite a tall order for lunchtime. Must try harder Vogel! Meanwhile, hats off to Daniel-Ben Pienaar for fabulous playing on an epic scale.

Gig-a-Blog™ (Sweelinck Ensemble, St Anne & St Agnes)

Thursday, 20 December 2007

This Christmas Oratorio (cantatas 1-3) at my favourite church was simply stunning. However, as it heralded (aha) an outrageously complex and busy period for us, starting at 5.32 a.m. on the Friday, this is just a few impressions recorded long afterwards.

  • Great singing, playing and direction
  • Excellent clarity of diction and orchestral texture so you could sort of hear through the music more.
  • Pretty fast tempo at take-off. At first I thought ooer blimey but actually it was rather good, and arguably more festive and less pompous than at slower speeds.
  • I loved the trumpets! They (Chris Bunn, Dominic Cotton, Steve Bailey) were generally good but Großer Herr, o starker König was really scintillating.
  • Nice atmosphere; mince pies and mulled wine afterwards. Woo.
  • I was delighted to have finally got Deb to a gig there to try and show her why I love this place so much.
  • Oh and afterwards we went to the middle restaurant - the Balcony Bistro - at the Barbican, and had an excellent dinner. It always amuses me how the physical arrangement of the restaurants there is a perfect map of their poshness and prices. Not that the bottom one really represents slumming it on the cheap, you understand, but you're left in no doubt that each move upstairs is a move upmarket too. So the middle one is pretty J. Gooders if you ask me. A very fine end to a musically terrific evening.

Notes from another train journey: Euston-Piccadilly again

Monday, 14 January 2008

There's the Roundhouse, looking splendid. Why on earth did they put a concert venue right by the railway? Cuh. Tsk. Eh?

Tube train at Kilburn High Road. Interesting tube-ness generally.

Trains in new "London Overground" livery, that is, er, a sticker on the side. How good could this bold project be, if it works out? Could we have some more interchanges, please? (Answers: jolly good; probably not, no.)

Massive railway lands going for miles. Much dereliction but much activity too.

About 30 minutes out - lovely area, distant nice-looking hills to the right, orchard on the left. Where are we? Chilterns or something?

We seem to be going quite slowly. Ah that's better. Woosh. Ooh, and now even more so, wooshity woosh. How very stimulating. Yeah baby.

As we rocket northwards, those pretty and now-distant hills are outlined in silver under a dramatic painterly sky. It even has God-chutes. Wow, it's fantastic: if you saw a photograph you'd go yeah right, fake for sure.

I'd partly-forgotten what an amazingly canaloid run this is. You don't seem to be far from the canal for most of the journey: there's often some fascinating glimpse, right by the track or maybe a field or two away. Obviously there are good reasons for this frequent proximity, apart from just keeping me entertained: but I love it anyway. Have I told you how much I love canals? Yeah, probably. Well, just to be clear: I really really love canals. OK?

There's still a lot of railway engineering work going on. The line is subject to massive improvements, not least doubling some of it up to four tracks. It's major enough when you contemplate just the rails and the power but then you have to take into account all the stuff which no longer fits around the line: cuttings, embankments, bridges, stations ... It is a truly humongous project, and of course poor Network Rail caught it right in the neck for over-running with their work at Rugby over New Year so that it was days before services ran normally again. I think it's fair to say that Thomas was not happy, Percy was not happy, Annie and Clarabel and their would-be passengers were very much more than miffed, and the Fat Controller was seen around Sordor bearing a grim expression and a baseball bat. This problem, and another overrun at Liverpool Street, made Network Rail so spectacularly unpopular that you'd think it would have been a really good idea to avoid it. Obviously they somehow could not: when the investigations are done and the reports all written it will be interesting to know why, assuming that we ever do.

I had a very interesting neighbour on the way up. He's a semi- or mostly-retired marine electronics engineer who'd worked for Decca, Racal, Northrop Grumman and many others. Despite this list, he'd never actually changed jobs: the company or bits of companies had been bought and sold around him. I think he said he'd worked for nine different companies, and moved offices plenty of times, but always kept the same desk! He worked on radar as well as monitoring systems like engine temperature warnings and the like.

He was fascinating on the subject of his work. One amazing story concerned a monitoring system from a ferry: following a collision, part of the electronics were immersed, then marinaded in stinking diesel/silt gunk for months. Eventually the company was asked to restore them: this was very costly but still much cheaper than replacing all the kit and rewiring half (or more) of the ship. So they cleaned it all up, fixed or replaced some of it, and handed it back, working and fully tested, two days early. That's what I call Proper Engineering!

This nice gentleman also told me a lot about his in-laws in Yorkshire and a beautiful 16th century farmhouse with which he'd helped them on electrics, plumbing and so on. I was struck by how often he mentioned "my late wife", not in a mawkish way but just as a routine part of how he told stories and fitted things together: even down to where her ashes are buried. So she was being neither constantly sobbed over nor forgotten. but something somewhere between the extremes, in what seemed a sensible and comforting accommodation with the inconvenient fact of death.

My neighbour also shared with me his theory about the engineering overrun at Rugby. According to him they could and should have got much of the electrical installation done in advance of the major mechanical work, but chose instead to do it all at the same time, thereby making the whole thing double the hostage to fortune. We'll see - I hope.

And that's another train ride. I'm finishing writing this on the way home There's less to blog about in the dark! Night night.

In making better use of the space

This is from a rather interesting historical display at a church where I sometimes rehearse (no names, no pack-drill). There's a panel about what took place during the incumbency of each vicar, with little blocks of writing scattered among illustrations.

We've just reached the 1970s, when a lot of modernization took place. Interspersed with old black and white photos of the church before the work, we find this rather poignant text:

St Andrew's was re-ordered in 1977 to provide space for community activities.

In making better use of the space not needed for a late 20th century congregation, our lectern, font, and altar rail were lost;

also the choir stalls

and the rare Caen stone pulpit.

What a depth of feeling must lie behind those few very carefully-chosen words!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Do you scoff, scarf or what?

Lynneguist's always excellent "Separated by a Common Language" blog (American and British uses of English, geddit?) has a good piece on "Scoff and Scarf". Given the known demographics of my colossal readership (hem hem) I would love to know if you use "scoff" for the stuffing of the face with food, or words to that effect. My guess is that you are more likely to use it if you are 100 years old like what I am, or if you think you are Molesworth (chiz) or Billy Bunter (yaroo) or someone. Or both. But I would be interested to know - or maybe you should just go to Lynne's article and comment there ... whatever.

To enter, read notice on right ...

... that's what it says on the front door of our building.
I have tried and tried and, believe me, it does not work.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

A visit up North last Autumn

Wednesday, 26 - Saturday, 29 September 2007

Last autumn I was on a tiny trip oop t'North to retrieve my Dearest Muvver, the Dowager Duchess von Neustadt, from her annual long holiday in the frozen wastes of Northumberland.

Only at that time of year does the ice retreat far enough for us to send in the first, elite squadrons of Jäger to clear the larger concentrations of wolves and permit the repossession of our beloved Bastle Nordgrenze, and certain of its estates and buildings, for the few brief months the watery Arctic sun will allow...

What? Oh yes, sorry. Right.

Mum had been on holiday, as she is most years, for several weeks in the non-large village of Embleton in Northumberland. I greatly admire and envy this personal tradition of hers. We have family connections there going way back; my uncle still owns a cottage there, as he has done since the 1960s. I knew that cottage even before then, when its owner was Auntie Norah, a distant cousin. My grandmother holidayed there, owned property there and indeed lived there for a while during the war and some time afterwards. My great grandfather and his brother are buried there. Mum's pretty much lost count of how many houses round there she's lived in or stayed in and can always surprise me with one I didn't know about. I cannot remember seeing Embleton for the first time: it's always been quite central in my life. It's almost as if it's the place where I should have been born: that's what it feels like to me. It is in my blood. I should perhaps write more about this place some other time.

Anyway, ramblings apart, there I am in Embleton - or, rather, about to be - picking up Mum. The usual deal is that either my brother or I will drive her up there at the start of her holiday, and the other will collect her at the end. It is, obviously, a chance to catch a couple of days there: some minimum stay is certainly required as it's almost a thousand miles for the round trip, and if other factors permit then it's great to do a couple of touristy things and revisit some old haunts. This time I had a couple of days so I drove up on Wednesday night and stayed till Saturday morning when we left for Chichester.

Leaving London was the usual horrible flap. I'd arranged to come home early but was delayed, so my plan of being well en route by five was thwarted, though I was, at least, on the move (just) by then.

Traumatized by recent M1 experiences I decided to stick to the A1. I'd forgotten how much of it is not (yet) motorway so there were tedious, busy, roundaboutoid bits to get through. Eventually it gave up being so annoying and became Easy Driving Road, which is more like it, thank you. Somewhere or other I stopped for a coffee and a break: very necessary but very uninspired, a somewhat depressing place whose name I wish I'd noted in order to avoid it another time.

I got the usual massive uplift from seeing the Angel of the North. I love the Angel. As you may have noticed from this blog I am perhaps not a deeply deeply religious person: but indeed, to be fair, we don't really know whether he/she/it/they are or is a deeply religious angel either. What I do know is that when I catch that first glimpse it's as if someone has gently opened a valve in my skull releasing about 40psi of excess pressure, then poured in some kind of honeyed herbal infusion of pleasure, joy and peace. I know the Angel's just a big metal thing, but hey. The effect doesn't need to be anything much more than associations, the fact that it's telling me I'm very nearly in Northumberland, that I was born a few miles east of here and so on: who cares, if it works anyway.

Just before I get too carried away with this I should perhaps add that the rhapsody ends, and you come down to earth with a bump pretty darned fast, if the Western Bypass is a horrible traffic-jammed mess. This is all too often the case and when it is, it's quite hard to keep any delighted feelings going too long.

On this occasion, however, I was through there quite late at night and it was wonderfully quiet and I just kind of wooshed through and was headed out towards Morpeth in no time flat. Bliss.

It's odd the way the A1 has over the years flickered across the Newcastle area like a faulty connection. When I was younger it went through the city centre, then for a while it did the same but used a few chunks of motorway (can you say "T. Dan Smith"?) Then they built the Tyne Tunnel and suddenly that, miles east, was the A1. Finally (for the moment) there came the Western Bypass and the A1 flickered again and became that.

The trouble is, that can't last either. It gets horrendously jammed up, is too narrow, and is doing too many different jobs. So a second Tyne Tunnel is to be built and when it is (2011) I suppose that it will be the A1 once more...

Anyway, so there I am chugging steadily northwards. Amusingly enough I am also falling off the map, because I forgot that my GPS isn't loaded with all the data for that far north. So now we're on the built-in "base map" which is, well, basic: for example the only road it shows up here is the A1. This is not conducive to fine navigation, but fortunately I do know where Embleton is. Owners of TomToms do not suffer from this 'forgotten the maps" issue, or not without some major between-countries movement, and sometimes not even then. But my GPS is more fun, for nerds at least: and now that the price of memory's down to 1p a zekkobyte I've bought it an even more monster-capacity micro-SD card so actually I probably could now fit in maps for most of the known universe.

So, despite the tragic lack of instructions from anything electronic there I was rolling up in Embleton, hurrah and again hurrah. Despite it being quite late Mum had some delicious food for me and I soon felt as if I'd never left. She actually wasn't in my uncle's cottage, not least because he was, but a couple of doors down in the rather lovely Anvil Cottage which we've rented many times from the Skipper family. George has recently had a lot of work done so it's even better - and it was pretty good to start with! So if Des's cottage is a sort of home-from-home then I suppose Anvil is like a home-from-home-from-home.

One really fascinating thing Mum showed me that first night was a consultants' report, commissioned by the local council, into Embleton becoming a conservation area. This threw me a bit. I suppose I had always thought, in a perhaps rather seven-year-old way, of Embleton as perfect, eternally unchanging and unchangeable. To me it was, in effect, already a conservation area because I couldn't admit or conceive of any change.

This is, of course, hogwash and dangerous hogwash at that. Sure, the report helped make it explicit for me but the fact is that there's massive change there for all to see, right in front of your nose; and indeed there always has been. If I think back to when I first explicitly knew of Embleton, in the early 1960s, lots of stuff is new or altered or gone since then. For example there's a house that ever since I was first aware of it I've wanted to buy so I could demolish it (and no I will not be specifying which one it is). The area opposite Josie's garage has also changed hugely. We once had a holiday at 7 Sunny Brae, but what was once a row of tiny cottages there is now a row of around half the number of mostly larger cottages: and so on.

This isn't going to turn into a treatise on planning and conservation, subjects about which I know nothing. I don't think that all change is bad but I do think that in a place like this it needs managing sensibly, so maybe that's what the conservation area will bring. We'll see.

So. Let me rattle through a few points about my weekend before this turns into too long a haul.

  • On the Thursday morning, going and looking down Sea Lane then catching my first glimpse of Dunstanburgh. Always a great moment. That's when I really know I'm in Embleton.
  • There are new houses, indeed there's (golly) a new road, near the church, off the Christon Bank road. Also, the old police station has been extended (or somethinged).
  • The playground is gone! This is very sad for me: I've spent countless hours there as a child and with my own children. I'm not sure if it is to be reinstated there or reestablished elsewhere.
  • Which brings up a point well made by the conservation area report: most of Embleton isn't really where I think Embleton is. It is in the newer housing north and west. "My" Embleton (ha!) is the old village-green, central bit but most people don't live there and many of its properties are second homes and holiday cottages. Great, now I have middle-class townie-southerner-incomer angst too.
  • Rock Midstead Farm is no longer open to the public! This is a disaster - it had a nice tea-room and did marvellous frozen meals to take away. I don't remember it from my childhood, so I'm not sure when it opened - 80s or 90s maybe? It was a place we went to on many of our more recent holidays and I'll really miss it.
  • We tried another farm-with-tea-shop not a million miles away. It hasn't yet filled the gap left in my affections by Rock Midstead.
  • The nice outdoor shop in Alnwick has gone. This was up behind George's shop and the bloke was incredibly helpful to us over new boots and other kit. On the other hand, there's a nice new (to me) outdoor shop up above the market square, where you go through the building with the clock to reach the next road (Fenkle Street I think). This seemed like a good and clued-up place and did a perfectly reasonable job of selling me a new Berghaus jacket.
  • And what kind of fool visits Northumberland in late September without an adequate jacket? Yep.
  • Still in Alnwick, an excellent visit to the eponymous Garden. I love this place...
  • Since we were last there the maze - officially the Bamboo Labyrinth - has grown into something really challenging, especially if you obey its rule. Actually I couldn't, this time, see the notice with the rule on so I wonder whether they're still suggesting it. But I remember what it was: no sharp turns. In other words you behave as if you're a train and have points to get you through junctions: you can only take a path that meets yours at a gentle angle, probably 45° or less. If you'd need go through, say, 90° to get onto the next path segment, then it's not allowed. I don't know if you can see it well enough but in this photo I could not turn left at the junction - I could only get into that path if I were coming in the opposite direction, when I could choose either fork. Similarly, someone who was already in that path to the left could only go straight on, not turn sharp right to where I am standing. Oh dear, I'm explaining it very badly but it's very obvious in operation. Basically what it does is to add length and complexity to the maze and thus get more fun out of quite a small site. The ferny earth banks and tall bamboo also make this a visually and aurally attractive spot.
  • I am delighted to report that the maze defeated me. I was trying to hurry to get back to Mum and I could not get the hang of it. Eventually I gave up observing the junctions rule and then it was a lot easier. But what a great puzzle! It's by the genius Adrian Fisher by the way.
  • To the sides of the Grand Cascade those beech tunnel things over metal frames are growing up nicely. I wonder how long it'll be before they're complete? They are already a fine sight.
  • The Grand Cascade itself is just wonderful. It really is spectacular and beautiful, but fun too, as witness the surprising number of soaked-to-the-skin schoolkids - big schoolkids - trooping past us on their way to a rather soggy coach-ride home. This was really quite a chilly day but northeastern kids are well 'ard.
  • A hilarious touch at the Grand Cascade is the fleet of plastic pedal diggers round its foot, a democratizing influence in a generally posh gardenscape. The Duchess is very entertaining on this topic in the DVD I bought. She was offered these diggers in some sponsorship deal and was worried they looked cheesy (which they do a little but hey). However, once they were deployed she realized that the instinctive reaction of almost every child was to fill the bucket with water then try to pour it over their parents' feet. So the tractors stayed. Classy!
  • We also visited the entirely wonderful walled garden up at the top ...
  • ... and the unbelievable, superb water'n'chrome garden by William Pye. Ah yes, it's called the Serpent Garden, it says here. It's amazing.
  • All the entrance buildings and café, shop and so on are now complete, a huge improvement over the temporary arrangements. We had a very nice lunch in the caff.

What else did we cram into this brief pre-weekend of tourism?

Howick. Ah yes. Howick Hall Gardens, perhaps in response to Alnwick's success (but perhaps not), have really raised their game in recent years. Maybe this garden always was good, but hid its light a bit - I'm really not sure. What you see now is good publicity, documentation, signage, access - the works, really, so it comes over as a serious, well-managed, high-quality visitor attraction. It's not that it's competition for Alnwick, but rather a complement. Hardly anyone is going to feel that, having seen one, they need not see the other, but I reckon that lots of sensible and interested people are going to see both and have two excellent and highly contrasting garden experiences. Oh and Howick has a superb tea-room situated in a wing of the main house, in one of the most beautiful and interesting rooms you could imagine, a real gem. Being allowed to sit in there is worth a lot more than the price of your cuppa or meal.

After Howick we had a little side-trip to admire the strange pretend-ruined folly at Ratcheugh Crag, a building that has always fascinated me. You can't get that close but we did manage a better view of it than usual. I wish I knew who to bribe to be allowed to see round it! It must have amazing views as it's right on the crest of the crag and looks both ways, out to the coast and back towards Alnwick. The linked site tells me that it was designed by Robert Adam and is a Grade I listed building. Woo: hats off if you please.

We went over to Cragside - it's such a nice drive over the moors from Alnwick. Once there:

  • We didn't go in the house this time. Nor indeed the café, which was uncharacteristic of us.
  • We did the nice long drive round the estate. It's wonderful.
  • We stopped in a pleasant, rocky carpark to look at (or for) The Labyrinth.
  • This always drives me nuts. It's marked on the maps and mentioned in texts as The Labyrinth but there's no definition of precisely what and where it is. There's a fancy entrance and a slightly less fancy exit, and there's a very nice complicated woven wood mini-maze epis. Though these are nice, it is entirely unclear whether they are the whole Labyrinth or just parts of it, so it's really not a very satisfying experience as you're never quite sure whether or not you have seen it and whether you're currently inside or outside it. I keep meaning to write to them and ask for some clarification, but in the meantime it still drives me nuts.
  • After we'd been round the estate we drove up the slope to the Formal Garden. Mum car-sat while I had a quick wander. It was looking very fine and in particular there was a really stunning border full of dahlias, a truly amazing display. That's where the Red Admiral photo posted in October came from. Oh and I had a look around the lovely little clock tower and its interesting-looking and presumably old clock.

One night we had dinner at the new (?ish) restaurant in Alnwick, Louis Steak House, which belongs to Mark Turnbull, he of Turnbull's the butcher and indeed the travelling shop which so usefully visits Embleton. You might expect that a restaurant run by a proper local butcher would know its meat: well, you wouldn't be disappointed. This was without doubt the best restaurant steak I have ever had: absolutely delicious in every way. The only thing which prevents it being the best steak ever is the fact that My Dear Wife (Bless Her) always cooks steak on my birthday. But for a restaurant steak beyond compare, Alnwick's where it's at. Des joined Mum and me for this evening of advanced gastronomy and we were all in agreement that the food and service were impeccable.

I'd love to write something about the music there - its programming and volume - but I am unwilling to besmirch the memory of a cosmically delicious meal. Tell you what, in the purest interests of research I'll go there again as soon as possible and, if the music's still annoying, give it both barrels irrespective of the wonderfulness of m'dinner. Fair enough? I think so.

Back in Embleton, it was very nice to pop into Grieves' garage for petrol - as I must have done a million times before - and be recognized and spoken to very kindly by Josie and her son. The sad fact is that, Skippers and Grieveses apart, there are very few other people there nowadays who know me. A few more - mostly older, I guess - would understand who I was if I explained: Mum, Des, Kathleen, Neva, Auntie Norah, Granny ... but really my sense of belonging there is mostly an illusion, albeit a very pleasant one. It doesn't cut the other way, and indeed I cannot imagine how it could, for the ties I feel are pretty much one-way: in other words Embleton's in my blood, but I am not in its. From the village's point of view I'm just another fat middle-aged bloke renting a cottage: not exactly rare, then. Tsk.

What else can I tell you? Not much really: just another routine visit though no less pleasant for it. Mum gave me an absolutely fascinating book on - well OK this might not fascinate you - wartime air crashes in the Cheviots; which few words, face it, contain enough slightly nerdy box-ticking to keep me rivetted (aha) for more than an evening or two. And I know you won't believe me, but it really is good, interesting, historical, human storytelling: it is exciting, moving and at times scary, and reminds you that things were amazingly more complex before we all had mobile phones, indeed landline phones, let alone helicopters and infra-red imaging and all that cool stuff. For some odd, middle-aged, midlife-crisis-type reason I am at the moment having a bit of a bee in my bonnet about my Dad and his war service and of course this book feeds perfectly into that.

Our journey down was uneventful: it was made much less pleasant by dark and rain, and much more pleasant by a stop at the excellent Tavern Inn in Walcote, Leicestershire, just a sneeze from J20 on the M1. If you ever find yourself hungry in this part of your journey don't mess around with service stations and chains: go straight here for its fabulous home-cooked deliciousnesses. Off at J20, A4304, head east (towards Market Harborough) for no more than a minute or two, and it's on your left as you enter the village. Yum.

Eventually we made it back to Chichester and I had a kip and a lovely snack (thanks Mum) and set off home, this latter trip being just two more hours. It was more than tempting to stay over but I didn't want to miss the orienteering at Ally Pally in the morning, and I had a Salomon rehearsal in the afternoon too, so I really needed to get back.

Thus ends an all-too-brief yet highly satisfactory trip to a very precious corner of the world. I am, as ever, deeply indebted to my Dearest Muvver for permitting me to be her chauffeur for this jolly jaunt.

O-a-blog™ (HH, Ashridge South)

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Yesterday I went to a very nice Happy Herts event at the National Trust's very fine Ashridge Estate. It's always a pleasure to orienteer here in these beautiful, amazingly English woods. Great course and organization too.

I did Green. I had a couple of stupid moments and of course was not fast (I really need to do some work on my fitness), but in general I thought I navigated quite well - I was pleased with the number of times I did something slightly the shorter-but-harder way and it actually worked. Possibly my pace-counting and compass work is improving a little with practice - or maybe I just got lucky. But it was certainly nice to be occasionally able to follow it ought to be here somewhere with ah yes, here it is. I think it helped that the woods are so open - your chances of being able to follow a bearing are so much better when you are not getting pushed offline by undergrowth the whole time and you can just choose a point and follow it.

Control 4 on the map extract is an example of this - it's from RouteGadget so the red line is me. I didn't really know what to do other than just take a bearing from the path then count paces, and to my amazement it worked. Woohoo.

It was a beautiful day, and having finished the course I went and had coffee at the very nice snack bar by the NT carpark. This was a lovely place to sit for a few minutes and I chatted to Oscar, a miniature Schnauzer, and his family.

Results: pleasingly, I came not much further than half way down the order, which makes a change at the moment. Onwards and upwards! (Or not.)