Thursday, April 14, 2016

Liverpool

Following on from the highly successful short breaks we had last year in Manchester and Leeds, we've just had a long weekend in Liverpool.

We stayed with a friend, and the reason for the timing was the Grand National at Aintree. However, while Mel went to the races, I wasn't overly fussed about the idea of standing in a cold muddy field in a huge crowd, being unable to see anything properly, while being lashed by rain and hail. So I spent more time looking round Liverpool instead.

We went to a fair number of pubs in the centre; I'll cover those separately.

We went on the train, down to London and up to Liverpool Lime Street. One thing I will say, is that Euston is a dismal station, and the concourse is dire. The second thing I'll say is that it's a bit cheeky to charge for WiFi access on a train these days.

Liverpool Lime Street, on the other hand, is a pleasant station - light and airy.

The first evening we had dinner at Fazenda. For those who haven't tried this (we had been to the restaurant in Leeds, and before that to a similar place in Madeira so knew what to expect), the servers keep bringing out chunks of meat and carve off a slice for you. It's all you can eat for steak. Go there hungry, and skimp on the salad bar. It's not cheap, as it's a set price, but it's good food and good value. I was astonished when Mel had a dessert as well.

Then we hit the Cavern Club. Liverpool isn't just about the Mersey Beat and The Beatles, but if you've got them make use of them. It's not the original Cavern Club - that got destroyed in development, but it's a re-creation a few doors down. We arrived early enough that there wasn't a queue, and it was quiet enough that we were able to sit down. The beer's nothing special, but the atmosphere is pretty good. There was a pretty dodgy warm up act on at the start, but later - and it was getting pretty loud and packed by this stage - we had a Beatles tribute act, and they were really rather good.

Travelling around Liverpool and environs is pretty easy with MerseyRail. We were staying out on the Wirral at Wallasey, a few minutes walk from the station on the Wirral Line. It's pretty cheap, and we can use our Two Together railcard as well. It's slightly confusing at first how the train does a clockwise loop through James Street, Moorfields, Lime Street, and Central, but that covers the whole of the city centre.

Next morning we went in on the train and had a little wander down the front before going into the Maritime Museum. Like the other city museums, entrance is free. We did the Seized! and Emigrants exhibitions in the basement, before heading upstairs. The Lusitania and Titanic exhibitions were decent, I think I found the Battle of the Atlantic exhibition the most interesting. The International Slavery Museum is part of the same building, we had to skip that as we had an appointment to keep.

Saturday was race day and I was largely left to my own devices.

To get a feel for the city I was booked on  the Free Walking Tour. We did most of the major locations, starting at St George's Hall, down William Brown Street, through the centre to Mathew St and the Beatles, the Nelson and Victoria statues, the Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, the Three Graces and the waterfront, ending at the Albert Dock. These aren't professional tour guides, so you get a different feel - although sometimes the delivery was along the lines of the Jungle Cruise Ride at Disney. We had an ideally timed stop for coffee along the way (ideally timed as a shower came over just as we arrived at the coffee shop).

In the afternoon I headed back up to the Walker Art Gallery. This is actually pretty good, there's nothing famous but there's a pretty strong range of most periods. I particularly liked some of the earlier material - the colours of some of the works are remarkably fresh and vivid given their age. Like the other museums. it's free, and has a fairly decent cafe.

Next door is the Central Library. While it's not of itself a tourist attraction - it really is a library - it's worth wandering in to have a look at the building. There's the newly re-modelled main building, which is clean and light, and the refurbished Picton Reading Room.

At the bottom of the street is the World Museum. Researching ahead of time, reviews were mixed, but it's pretty good in some ways. The building is a little awkward and could do with more or better lifts, I had to wait quite a while to get a lift up to the top and then walk down. The Space part was interesting - they had Tim Peake on a loop. Dinosaurs and Natural World were disappointing - coverage was too thin to be any good. The Ancient World is closed for refurbishment, but I found the World Cultures to be very interesting. I just had time for a quick flip through the aquarium as they were getting everybody out at closing time.

After a quick drink met up with the racegoers at the Monro Gastropub for an excellent meal. And Gastropub is a pretty good description - solid food, well presented.

Sunday we went round the Beatles Story. This comes in two parts. What I think of as the main part, on the Albert Dock, is a history of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat. Very interesting, if slightly disjointed and out of order. The second part, up at the Ferry Terminal, is just weird. It hasn't got all that much to do with the Beatles for one thing, the audio guides don't work, and the Fab 4D show is plain bizarre.

Around grabbing a few more pubs, we had a light dinner at Veeno. Shame the chain hasn't expanded south, it's ideal when you don't want or need a full meal, and just want a bit of wine, meat, and cheese to keep you going.

Monday we had a little drive round the Wirral, including stopping off at Nicholls for an ice cream, before lunch at the Telegraph Inn in New Brighton. Then just time for one last drink at The Crown Hotel by the station before taking the train home.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Growing old painfully

Heaven only knows what I'll be like when I'm genuinely old.

I've never been entirely the fittest and healthiest person. Whether it's a simple thing like Hay Fever (which must be some British pollen, as I wasn't bothered much when we lived in Toronto), or migraine attacks, which peaked in my late teens and are now just occasional interruptions,

As you get older, it seems that more problems crop up, and your ability to recover diminishes.

I suspect the current rot started back in 2002, when I had a bad fall and broke my arm. We were in France on holiday, and hired a tennis court on the first morning. Walking around picking up tennis balls, my knee gave way and dumped me on the concrete.

The arm is mostly healed, but it was on the elbow joint, so movement is slightly restricted and repetitive movements can become very painful pretty quickly. A bigger problem is the knees - the bones aren't straight, the kneecap is at a slight angle and occasionally slips to one side. This has happened every few years, for as long as I can remember, it's just that it had never caused any serious damage before this event (although I had at least one fall while carrying the kds when they were small). The fix is to tighten up the leg muscles to pull the kneecap on tighter; the bad part of that is that it's pretty sore and I don't really enjoy walking far.

A few years later I was starting to have a little trouble reading. And I couldn't really focus properly on fine things. The optician seemed to take great pleasure in explaining that this was purely age-related. "As you get past 40 these things happen." It took a year or so to get fully comfortable wearing glasses.

The real trouble hit one day in August 2013. I stood up after breakfast, and immediately fell over as the room span around me. This turned out to be BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo), and it's really quite disruptive. The spontaneous attacks went on for about a month, there was quite a bit longer when I could trigger it by moving in a certain way. With the minor symptoms it looks like I'm drunk as I walk, weaving along because your balance is telling you the world is swaying, and your body automatically tries to compensate. I've avoided cycling since, although driving is fine because everything there is a conscious movement.

Then at the start of 2014 I was actually very ill. The primary symptom was bleeding gums. Normally that means gum disease, often coupled with something else (if the body has spare capacity then it can deal with gum disease, but if you're otherwise ill - or pregnant, apparently  - then your body decides it has more important things to deal with). But a couple of dental referrals came back pretty clear - this wasn't a dental problem.

At about the same time, I was having episodes of extreme short-term tiredness. And I mean extreme. As in being unable to stand, even. This would normally kick in early afternoon. I would be fine going for my morning swim, but then I would get lethargic and worse.

My first thought was that it was coeliac disease. It runs in the family, it explained the symptoms (vitamin deficiency by malabsorption). Changing diet appropriately helped quite a bit at first.

I had a whole load of tests. The results from the blood tests were absolutely definitive. Not coeliac. And, in fact, pretty much everything came back negative. So I knew that I wasn't affected by a whole range of problems and conditions. Good news, in one way, but didn't really get to the root of the problem. Going back to my normal diet didn't make things any worse.

If you look closely enough, you're going to find something wrong. There was a minor anomaly on one of the clotting tests that they dug into. More blood tests and genetic tests followed, and eventually they confirmed Von Willebrand Disease.

The odd thing about VWD is that it's supposed to be inherited, so I've had this for over 50 years without noticing any issues (normally it gets picked up in childhood, where you're far more likely to get scrapes and bruises). And the bleeding gums were the only symptom - there's a 20-questions test, and I was well below the threshold for even thinking about a diagnosis on that basis.

This all took about 6 months, and we never found any explanation for the tiredness. VWD wasn't the cause, it just got picked up by accident during the investigation. Things generally seemed to improve over time, although my energy levels still aren't always where I would like them to be. I do take vitamin supplements now, though, and I'm sure that's helped.

I'm just hoping that nothing else on this creaking body is going to fall apart, for a while at least.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Science Museum, Leonardo, Ada, Churchill

On Monday afternoon I went round the Science Museum in London.

I've been there before, but a long time ago. At least, I presume I must have visited one some school trip or other, back in the day. Although I can't remember any previous visits.

The nudge that caused me to visit this time was the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Hailed as the must-see exhibition of 2016, it sounded interesting and really cool. And there's the whole of the rest of the museum, too.

Now, it's OK. What there is to see is pretty good. But overall, to be honest, it was a little disappointing. And the primary feeling I came away with was "is that it?". For something that's heavily promoted, it seemed a little small. Yes, there are a few models and exhibits, but my overall feeling is that it only skimmed the surface - I was expecting a rather more substantial exhibition.

The tickets aren't especially cheap either. Viewed in isolation, I would struggle to justify the ticket price. But, in the wider context, entrance to the Science Museum itself is free. And the afternoon as a whole was certainly worth the entrance fee.

I also looked round the Ada Lovelace exhibition. This one's free, so can't complain about the value. But again, it seemed a little small and superficial. It's just one small room, it doesn't really fully cover the subject.

I thoroughly enjoyed Making the Modern World, on the ground floor. But then I've always been a sucker for engines and models. And there's always the "I remember having one of those" moments.

It wasn't necessarily part of the plan, but the cafe where I had a coffee was right next to it, so I went round Churchill's Scientists. And I found this fascinating. There is, of course, a strong connection with Oxford, Cambridge, Radio Astronomy, and DNA, which are all in my personal background. Overall, this was the best part of the day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Swim 22

We recently noticed that Diabetes UK are running a fundraising event called Swim 22.

The idea is for participants to swim 22 miles - the width of the English Channel - over a three month period, starting today, and be sponsored for it.

Now, I'm not asking for sponsorship for myself. I swim half a mile most mornings, usually 6 days a week. So I'm going to be doing somewhere in the region of 35-40 miles over that period, and it seems somewhat cheeky to ask for sponsorship for something I'm going to be doing anyway.

But Melanie is participating - she does the same half a mile I do, but normally only gets to to the pool about 3 days a week. So it's going to be a bit of a challenge for her to achieve the distance - but a nice little bit of motivation to get to the pool and improve fitness.

So if you would have thought about sponsoring me, you can sponsor Melanie instead. And track her progress online.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Not quite a Valentine's Day out

There are a whole list of "XXX's day" that crop up throughout the year. Many now taken over by cringeworthy commercialism.

We've just had that Valentine's one. We could have gone out for dinner, but it's just an excuse to cram people into overcrowded restaurants and jack up the prices. We had a nice dinner at home instead.

But we did use it as an excuse to go out on Friday afternoon and evening. There are a number of bars, pubs, and restaurants in Cambridge that have either been refurbished or changed hands, or that we haven't managed to visit for a while, so we wanted to check them out.

First up was The Emperor, now rebranded as a Latin Tapas Bar. It opens at noon and of course the bus was on time for once, so we killed time looking in some of the local shops, then had a drink (in my case, a very pleasant Oakham Inferno) while sitting in the window and watching the world go by. I had never been in the pub in its original guise, so I'm not able to make comparisons. The menu looked interesting, although it's not exactly my style.

We then walked further into town, stopping at Novi. This used to be The Fountain before refurbishment, and I used to go there regularly when we had meetups in the function rooms upstairs. Now it's more of a coffee shop, cocktail bar, and artisanal eatery. Another half (Camden Pale Ale) for me, Mel went for a cocktail. I was getting a bit peckish, and plumped for a superb caramel and pear brownie. The kitchen is rotated between local independents - must go back when Steak and Honour are in residence!

Grabbing the brownie, which might have been seen as a risk of spoiling one's appetite, soon proved its worth, as we had decided to switch banks for one of our accounts. This took rather longer than we anticipated, followed by a quick diversion to get some dried fruit from the market.

The plan was then to go to La Raza, but we had missed Lunch and Happy Hour hadn't yet started, so we did a little more shopping and ran a couple of errands.

Happy Hour (why do people keep calling it that, it's half the evening) at La Raza was a great success. It was pretty quiet, so we were able to sit in peace and try a couple of cocktails. The kitchen was closed, but the friendly and helpful bar staff had no problem in getting together a plate of bread and dipping oils for us. Regular pricing would be a bit steep, but Happy Hour makes it good value.

We then moved on to the Pint Shop. It's popular, it has a reasonable reputation, it's horrifically expensive, and we couldn't get a seat. A decent half of craft stout, but in London I would get a pint and change. We've grabbed it, but don't see anything compelling us to go back.

Walking down the street we had a look through the windows at the Bath House, an old favourite (it's affordable and reliable). I'm sure it's been done up recently, but it didn't seem to have changed, and was pretty packed. Next to it is Bread and Meat, again it was full and after the loaf of bread we had eaten at La Raza we weren't quite ready for more food - one for another day.

Back in the day, there was The Vaults. It's gone now, replaced by 2648. (Their website was working, looks to be broken at the moment.) We were pretty much the only people in there, the "secret" room was open with workmen, and they haven't yet got around to food. Along with a Blue Moon, we had a fun game of table football. It'll be interesting to see how this place develops, as it's only been open a short while and, while showing promise, isn't quite finished yet.

Another place that's changed its identity more than a few times was our final stop, the Grain & Hop Store. OK, so it's a Greene King pub, but very much with a craft beer slant, and their own menu. Downstairs was packed, but we managed to get a table upstairs. I had a Porter (I'm very much into beers that are black), and we shared a delicious freshly cooked home made scotch egg.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Brussels and Back

I recently went to FOSDEM in Brussels. This isn't about FOSDEM (which was great); it's some of the things that I noticed there, and while travelling.

I ended up flying from Gatwick. It would be nice if, living in Cambridge, flying from Stansted was an option, but it isn't. I looked at going by train, but the cost difference was significant, so that was ruled out.

It was public transport all the way. While our experience of parking at Gatwick has got much better over the last year, I really couldn't see the point of driving down, especially as I was driving down on my own.

First step was a bus to Cambridge railway station. Fortunately, the bus turned up at our stop reasonably promptly. Often, the bus disservice run by Stagecoach is such that "a bus every ten minutes" translates into average waiting times of 20 minutes. Half way to the station, we come to the stop by Budgens to find it swamped by small children. This was the first time I had seen a school outing using a regular service bus.

I've recently got a network railcard. When I just used to go down to London in the evening, this would have been marginal in terms of savings. More daytime trips (commuting, although normally outside the rush hour) makes it much more attractive. With this journey as well, it almost paid for itself in the first two trips.

I took the underground to Victoria, to get the Gatwick Express. Coming up to the concourse, I thought I had just missed the train (although it's not a long wait to the next one). Then I hear over the station tannoy "Would the driver of the 11:44 Gatwick Express please report to platform 13 where his train is ready to depart". That's a new one! So I made that train with a minute or two to spare.

I'm used to going through tourist areas and being accosted by restaurants touting for trade. Some of the Brussels restaurants were plain stupid. They would almost rugby tackle us, or stand in front arms spread wide physically blocking our path. Seriously, is such abusive behaviour likely to encourage custom?

After the conference, I had a few hours in Brussels itself, as my flight home was reasonably late on Monday. It's a sorry place which has the Mannekin Pis as a major tourist attraction. The city museum was also closed on Monday, which was a little annoying.

I was, however, mightily impressed by the Stripmuseum. That's comic strips, by the way. It's not just Tintin, either. It's in an old classic building, and while most of the material isn't in English, the exhibition itself is trilingual.

Avoiding the aforementioned overtly tourist restaurants, I fancied a steak for lunch. There was a sign outside the Brussels Grill that has a big sign outside offering a steak special lunch for 11.5 euros. I was shown to a table and then promptly ignored. The place was fairly busy, with lots of people coming in, just not a lot of service happening. I was just about to walk out when the waiter came over. On trying to order, he then tells me they've run out of the special offer (limited quantity for the offer each day). I have my coat on and am almost at the door when he goes for the Hail Mary pass. Just down the street, only a few doors down, is another branch of the same chain, the Raphael, which is much quieter and won't have run out. And he takes the time to make sure I can see exactly where it is (it's not got any of the outdoor seating, so it's much less obvious).

It's only a few yards down the street, so what have I got to lose? And yes, it's far less crowded, in a far more interesting building, they do have the offer on, and service is prompt and attentive. I ended up having an excellent lunch.

Then to take the train back to the airport. The ticket machines at the station don't take notes, just coins. (Really, how hard is this?) I don't quite have enough coinage to cover the ticket, so have to queue at the counter. And they have just the one counter open, who is having to do everything from simple tickets like mine to someone in front who has some really complicated task that takes forever.

Cheap airlines charge for checked luggage (and it would have doubled the cost for me, but I was travelling light so just had a rucksack with a change of clothing, and that went easily under the seat). It seems that almost everyone is basically gaming the system by pushing the envelope on carry-on luggage sizes. There's clearly more luggage than will fit, so the last few people get their cases shoved in the hold.

One side-effect of this is that almost everyone stands in a queue for 20-30 minutes in order to get one early enough for there to be spaces in the overhead lockers. This despite the call from the desk for everyone to stay seated. I really don't understand why people do this. I finished two puzzles in the paper while having a relaxing sit down.

It's only a short hop, then more queueing at Gatwick. There's this push to make people use the e-Passport gates rather than see a real person. That would be fine if (a) the machines actually worked reliably (b) they worked reasonably quickly, and (c) there were enough machines to cope. Instead, there are a tiny handful of machines, either they're not working or people can't operate them, and it's very much slower than seeing a real person. I've nothing against the electronic version in principle, but if that's the way they want to go it's essential to equip the system with enough capacity.

Getting back home, I hopped onto the Thameslink train to St Pancras rather than wait for the Gatwick express. It was just pulling into the platform, so I decided to take that as it was there. It was fine until we got into central London, at which point the commuters going home up to Bedford pile on, and it's sardine territory. Fighting my way off the train at St Pancras was quite a challenge.

I'm thinking the trip is going pretty well as I jump straight onto a train at King's Cross, only for us to then to shortly come to a grinding halt due to signal failure around Welwyn North. Nothing about this on the boards at King's Cross, but it was almost an hour's delay.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Christmas Markets

Yesterday we went to the Bury Christmas Market. We've been there several times now, and I've never really enjoyed it.

It's got a fair number of interesting stalls. There's a wide range of interesting produce and gifts. There's also the usual amount of utter tat, but presumably it sells to someone.

The real problem I have is that these places are just too darned busy. There's often a one-way system in force (Bury had one in the Athenauem and the Apex) so you can't wander at will. You're jostled, pushed, and shoved. You can't get to actually see the stalls properly, or stop if there's one that piques your interest. It's all too tense and frantic, rather than the pleasant browse that you're looking for.

So I bailed out and spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the Mason's Arms instead. I got there just after opening time, and it was already busy, but the turnover of people popping in for a quick drink or snack was quite reasonable, so I was sat down only a couple of minutes of getting a drink. At a large table on my own, so I decamped to a nice small table in the corner once that came free and let a much larger party take over - who then had to pass my lunch over to me. An uncomplicated menu, decent food, good beer, with friendly and helpful staff - what more do you want?

We've been to other Christmas Markets over the years. We went to Lincoln a couple of years ago, and it was a total disaster. The whole town is a one-way system, it was so crowded you could hardly move, and if you lifted your feet off the ground you would have been carried along at the snail's pace of the general flow.

We went to Lille a few years ago on the Eurostar, and that wasn't too bad (although I was probably a bit cranky due to the early start). There's a picture of the Big Wheel there in one of my desktop wallpaper collections.

While visiting family we've also taken in Birmingham and Nottingham. Again, these would have been quite pleasant if they weren't quite so congested.

Back to Cambridge. Today we went into town and wandered round the North Pole. We spent a couple of minutes, and we only stayed that long to confirm that there wasn't anything hiding in odd corners.

The first year or two they had a winter market on Parker's Piece it was pretty good - never huge, but an interesting selection of stalls. Recently, it's been dire - and from the evidence we saw today, that's not improved. I really can't recommend it, it managed to come in well under even my lowest expectations.

Today we also went over to the local Christmas Market at the NCI Social Club on Holland Street. This was far more interesting - just the sort of thing you expect from a local community event, eclectic and friendly.