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.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Cambridge Food Scene

We've been to Manchester and Leeds this past year, and been very impressed by the food/pub/bar/cocktail scene in both places. But what's going in in our home city of Cambridge?

In May there's the main event of Eat Cambridge. We've missed out a bit the last couple of years, as it's been too close to the Cambridge Beer Festival. It looks like the calendar for 2016 is more favourable, so we're already licking our lips.

There's also a thriving Street Food scene. There are a whole host of independent traders who participate, and also some organised events such as foodPark and the Mill Road Feast.

There's a wide range of cuisine to satisfy any taste. I'm very boring, give me a Steak and Honour burger every time. I notice that they've branched out a bit and now have a residency at Novi.

Other burgers exist, of course, The other night I popped into Butch Annie's, and had an excellent burger washed down with a bottle of porter. It's downstairs where Cafe Carrington used to be, and I suspect it doesn't get the trade it deserves because of the location (all you can see is the stairs descending into the depths).

Fancy a tea or coffee and a cake? We have great places like Stickybeaks and Afternoon Tease, or the refurbished Fitzbillies. Walk along Green Street and you can have a proper afternoon tea at Harrietts or Bill's (which is a larger chain that also does much more). Last time I was along there I noticed that Catesby's have an upstairs cafe as well.

The area around the Guildhall and the Corn Exchange has seen some changes. Lot's of big chains have a presence, of course. I still mean to visit the Pint Shop, but it's been full every time I've gone past. What used to be The Cow is now Reys, which I've not tried (it was very empty, and moderately expensive). There's usually a queue at Aromi, I need to get in earlier to try out Bread and Meat, and Smokeworks is hidden away just down Free School Lane.

Mind you, if you're wandering around the centre of Cambridge at the moment the most visible sign if that itsu and Wasabi are following hard on the heels of Yo! Sushi. I understand one being interesting, but a surge to three seems odd.

Mind you, Cambridge is still a little light on decent wine and cocktail bars serving light meals. Oh well, can't have everything.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The curse of the car

Like it or not, the private car is an essential part of life for many. I've owned a few myself.

The downside is that it's expensive, it causes pollution, our roads and cities are congested, our housing is dominated by the need to store a vehicle (or more than one).

Realistically, though, there isn't much of an alternative.

If it were a reasonable option, I would cycle for many shorter journeys, and I suspect many people would do the same. Unfortunately, our current transport infrastructure is incredibly hostile to cyclists. Even in Cambridge, cycling provision is appalling.  There are a few token on-road cycle lanes that you are forced to share with metal monsters, many off-road paths are unmaintained, shared with pedestrians, narrow, and unlit. Many regular roads are simply too narrow for cyclists and motor vehicles to share safely, and junctions often seem to be designed to maximize the inconvenience and danger to cyclists.

And that's just the start. Woefully inadequate cycle parking and storage provision means that there's unlikely to be anywhere to put your bike when you're not on it, leading to a high likelihood of damage if it doesn't get stolen. Don't even get me started on the all too often farcical nature of cycle infrastructure. Overall, the people planning our infrastructure seem to be either plain ignorant or blatantly anti-cycling, even while paying it plenty of lip service.

So, cycling isn't going to be allowed to have much of an impact. What about public transport.

Now, I have visited places where there's a decent bus service. Cambridge is not one of those places. There's a very limited range of services, so many places aren't on a bus route at all. And you need both ends of the journey to be accessible, so that's even more difficult. Even when there is a possible route, it can take so long as to be simply implausible.

It turns out that where I live is pretty well served by bus routes. We're on 2 separate routes that go into the City Centre, so we even have a choice. It's fine in theory, and there are some days when it works out.

But much of the time, it's a complete disaster. The timetable gives a bus on each route at 10-minute intervals. So, 30 minute waits are not uncommon, over an hour isn't unheard of. The failure to actually provide buses to any meaningful timetable is a joke. Even when a bus does arrive, traffic can mean it takes much longer than the timetable says to make a journey - I've missed several trains, even allowing an hour for what's supposed to be a 20 minute journey to the railway station.

One possible response by the council is to introduce bus lanes, which turn out to do more harm than good. A prerequisite for a separate bus lane is that you have to have a spare lane so that the other traffic still has somewhere to go. So the bus lanes are added on wide, open roads where they don't give much benefit, and can't be added on the congested narrow roads that are actually causing the problem. Worse, on some of the roads (the Newmarket Road is an example here) the bus lane has to be skipped at narrow pinch points; the regular traffic queues are lengthened by the empty bus lanes (which reduce the overall capacity of the road) to the point that they block the pinch points and delay the buses.

So if not the bus, what about the train? We do use the train, on occasion - going into London, for example, or to Beer Festivals where driving isn't an option, or city breaks to avoid the effort of driving and the cost and trouble of parking.

The first snag here is that you have to get to the station. In Cambridge, like many smaller towns, it's been stuck out in the middle of nowhere (one advantage to visiting somewhere like Leeds or Manchester is that the station is conveniently located), so isn't convenient for visitors. Or locals, where you need to use the bus to get to the station - see above for why this is a problem. In fact, it's the difficulty of getting to the station in the first place that has made be reject the idea of commuting into London - the train trip itself would be fine.

Overall, the mesh of railway lines simply isn't dense enough outside some of our major cities. Part of this was Beeching - who essentially destroyed the rail network. (And on false grounds - by considering viability based on what was being achieved with Victorian equipment and working practices, not what could be achieved if run properly.) Decisions such as the misguided busway (that would have been more valuable as a rail line, which would have enlarged the rail mesh and integrated with the larger rail system) mean that the problems with the rail system in the large will persist.

Basically, then, we're cursed with the car not because it's any good but because the alternatives are so crippled by the powers that be that they're made even worse.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Long weekend in Leeds

It was our anniversary recently, so we decided to have a few days away. Having been to Manchester earlier in the year, this time we plumped for Leeds. I had been there at a conference a few years ago, and quite liked the look of the place, and noted that it - like Manchester - had a fairly compact centre that is easy to walk around.

We went up on the train, oddly via Stevenage. After dropping our bags off at the Quebecs Hotel, which was nice and central and close to the station, we set off for a little explore.

It wasn't long before we were sipping our first cocktail at Epernay. It's in the Electric Press building, so you can sit outside the bar, but inside, if you know what I mean.

We then wandered across to the Merrion Centre. Apart from the general look around, we were searching for LAB. Despite there being adverts on the hoardings, we wandered round the whole shopping centre twice and completely failed to find it. Upon checking later, we found it had closed down and had turned into Homage 2 Fromage. Why nobody bothered to put notices up is beyond me.

Continuing our stroll, we had a wonderful afternoon tea at Just Grand, one of those classic old places where none of the crockery matches.

After checking in at the hotel and freshening up, we hit the town. We had done some research, and the list of interesting pubs, restaurants, and cocktail bars was far longer than we were likely to be able to fit in. But we managed distrikt, where the staff were incredibly helpful, and I had a tasty plate of whitebait (after the afternoon tea, we really didn't want a full blown meal). And also visited Mook, which is highly recommended - a little hidden away, reasonably priced, and very friendly.

Saturday morning started a little damp. The hotel doesn't have a restaurant or even breakfast room, which is great because we intended having breakfast out anyway. So we went to Le Chalet, where I stuffed myself with the croque monsieur.

First tourist stop was the Leeds Art Gallery, which I found hugely disappointing. OK, so I'm not a pure art afficionado, but the permanent paintings were pretty poor quality, and the travelling exhibition was, well, odd and uninteresting. Fortunately, admission is free.

Then to the Leeds City Museum, also free, and also nicely located right in the centre. This was far more interesting, with a little bit of local history, the traditional stuff like an Egyptian mummy, and the 'Tailored' fashion exhibition was very good.

We headed off through the shopping center next, through the arcades and the Victoria Quarter, to the Kirkgate Market and the Corn Exchange, full of small independent vendors.

In the evening, a quick cocktail at Las Iguanas before dinner at Hotel Chocolat. Yes, dinner at Hotel Chocolat. Mussels in cacao beer, burger with chocolate flavoured accompaniments. Not something you find manay places, although the Cambridge Hotel Chocolat is just moving to new premises with a Cafe, so they're clearly pushing into markets beyond just selling boxes of posh chocolates. To finish, we went to The Alchemist - heaving, noisy, crowded, but with a good vibe, and just watching the cocktails being mixed is entertainment in itself.

Breakfast on Sunday was a sausage butty at Riveresque. We then wandered up to the bus station and took the bus out to Kirkstall Abbey. It's very impressive, but I would recommend a warmer day when you could wander along the river or sit in the park and do some sunbathing.

In the afternoon I put together a little pub crawl. Tapped, Friends of Ham, The Brewery Tap, and The Head of Steam, all very close to the hotel, and all excellent establishments well worth a visit.

Smartened up for the evening, stopped off for a coffee at Bilbao before the main meal of Fazenda. For those unfamiliar with the idea, they bring skewer after skewer of steak to your table, and cut you a piece. You have a little card which is red or green to let them know whether you want more, or whether you want a break to let some go down. Stuffed, we took in the Sky Lounge at the Hilton before heading back to the hotel.

Monday breakfast was at a wonderful little place called Burgundy. They have an all you can eat buffet, the quality was superb. Then a long walk over to the Royal Armouries, where we spent a few hours browsing armour.

Walking back into Leeds we had got a couple more cocktail bars lined up to try, but they were closed on Mondays. So when we went past Ambiente and saw the sign up about sherry tasting, we had to go in - someone round here is rather partial to a tasting flight of Pedro Ximenez.

After a bit of wandering round the shops, we ended up at Decanter to have a taster platter - they have a good range of meats and cheeses on platters, we were just looking for a little top-up before heading for the train.

Arriving at the railway station, we were greeted by a large "cancelled" sign on our train. Drinking time wasted! On the next train, which should have got us back into Cambridge only shortly after the original, due to changing at Peterborough instead of Stevenage. It didn't, of course, delays due to cattle on the line delayed that train as well.

Would I recommend Leeds? Yes, absolutely. If you're into food and drink and shopping, the centre will be fine all year round. If that's not your scene, then there are plenty of houses and museums in the area but, like Kirkstall Abbey, those would probably be better when the weather is a bit warmer.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The cars I've owned

Now that Amanda's starting to learn to drive, we looked at things like insuring her for one of our cars. It turns out we can't do that, because our insurance policies don't allow learners, so we would have to change insurer. How we get round this remains to be seen, but it's going to be expensive.

We would then have to decide which car to insure her for. Which made me think back to the cars I learnt in, and all the cars I've owned since.

My instructors car was an old Ford Escort Mark II, but the family car was a Triumph Toledo. These were all fairly simple cars, basic, but relatively easy to drive.

The first car I owned was a Renault 5, a blue one as I recall. It had a fault with the driver's window - if you opened it you couldn't close it again without taking the door apart. This car met an untimely demise in Godalming, when a local boy racer lost control on a bend and skidded across the road straight into us.

We had to replace that one. There wasn't a great deal of choice available to us as poor students. There was this metallic green Morris Marina with a leather covered roof that I quite liked, but we ended up with a maroon Talbot Solara. This was dull but worthy, although we did need to replace the gearbox when it got completely jammed in reverse (I suspect someone who had been learning to drive in it).

We left that one behind in the UK when we moved to Toronto. Although on its penultimate trip the front driver's side wheel blew out on the motorway at 70, which was fun. And it had only just been into the garage to have the tire checked (they claimed nothing was wrong, so hadn't done that good a job). Unfortunately they had put the wheel back on with air hammers, and I couldn't shift it (although I managed to bend the tire brace, which was quite impressive).

On our return to the UK, we ended up with a Rover 213 saloon. It was nice, not too expensive, and I liked the drive. It's the only thing (other than the mortgage) we've ever taken out a loan for. When it came to replace it we went for the 214 hatchback, but actually went for a slightly older Honda-derived one, they drifted away from Honda and the replacements (I think the later ones had Citroen gearboxes) were never as good. Later, the Rover range got shuffled and we couldn't find one that really suited us.

So the next one was pretty much run of the mill. With the Rover 214 and its replacement, we were having to compromise - making a single car do for everything, so it had to be big enough for children and holidays, while small enough for Melanie to be happy driving around town. So it ended up as a Ford Escort. I think it was a Mark VI, but it had a new engine model that had an entertaining fault. As it warmed up, differential expansion caused air leaks in the head gasket, so about 2 minutes after start it had a propensity to stall. This didn't affect me too much - 2 minutes into my commute it was running hard on a main road, but Melanie's trip home had a stop 2 minutes into the journey and it would cut out every time.

As time went one, managing with one car was starting to become inconvenient, so Melanie got a Nissan Micra. In fact, all she's ever had are Nissan Micras. This meant we could cut the compromises, and have a small car around town and a larger car for the meatier journeys.

Along came the Toyota Avensis. This was a nearly new ex-hire vehicle, but had things like a satnav and air conditioning. It was the facelifted first edition, and for most things I really liked it.

The Avensis was involved in a lot of pain, though. Back in 2002 we went on holiday to France and I broke my arm. Cue Melanie having to drive the Avensis (which she hated driving) in France, following an ambulance that had carted me off to hospital. Then having to drive it home, including navigating the channel crossing. Later, in 2005, I got rear-ended at speed on the A1 - I slowed for queueing traffic, the car behind didn't. That was a big hit, but because it was dead straight, they just had to pull the rear bumper back. The satnav never worked again, though.

In 2006 we were again in France when the gearbox blew on the autoroute. It turns out we were about as close to the broken arm incident as you can get without leaving the autoroute (I've been reluctant to go back to France since). We managed (after a lot of back and forward) to borrow another car to continue the holiday. Then the car was recovered back to the channel tunnel, but the recovery vehicles aren't allowed though, so we had to drive the car (which sounded like it was dragging half the tin cans in europe behind us) onto the train and off again. There was no way I was going to stop, even when I was supposed to to let a first-class passenger in ahead of us. On arrival in England it seized completely at the top of the exit ramp, about 200 yards short of the waiting tow truck.

We replaced the gearbox (relatively cheaply) and it ran for a couple more years. It was a good car, but was carrying a lot of emotional baggage, so again we looked for a replacement.

The current car is a Ford Focus. We didn't need quite as much space as the kids grew older (although getting them and all their junk to and from University isn't quite so easy). It handles well, is easy to drive, and is basically trustworthy. Performance isn't great, fuel economy is awful, and the sound system isn't fantastic. We've had this one a while, and while I don't have any great attachment to it, we don't need anything in the way of a replacement, mileage is low, and the market at the moment really doesn't have any inspirational alternatives.

I've occasionally wondered if we actually need 2 cars at this point. I think that if we just had the one, we couldn't justify getting a second - we could hire one temporarily if needed, or use public transport. But as we've essentially paid down all the depreciation on the Focus, we may as well hold on to it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Manchester May Trip

We went to Manchester, and it was being rebuilt.

Seriously, though, Manchester is going places, and is undergoing extensive redevelopment in order to get there.

Why Manchester? I went there a few years ago for business, and was very impressed with the city. Plenty of things to see and do, plenty of places to eat and relax. So when we were looking for places to go visit on the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, it was high on the list.

We went up by train. I didn't particularly want to tire myself out driving, we would have had to pay for parking, and we weren't planning on using the car to get around. We have this Two Together Railcard, which helps keep the cost down, and going up the West Coast main line is pretty quick.

Leaving Manchester Piccadilly, the first thing we see is that there's a free bus service. This is a very progressive city, so it gets extra points for that. The slightly worrying thing was that all that development and associated road works means that the route was nothing like the one printed on the map, but we got a free bus tour of the city thrown in.

We stayed at the Hotel Gotham. It's fairly new, it's only been open a few months, so everything still feels pretty new. It's pretty up-market, stylish, boutique, think American Prohibition (or the Disney Tower of Terror also came to mind). While the address is on King Street, the front of the building is actually a Jamie's Italian, the hotel entrance is just a side door that gets you to the elevator which will whisk you up to reception on the 6th floor.

First afternoon we walked over to the Museum of Science and Industry. After a quick cake in the cafe, we had a gentle browse round all 5 halls. Free entry, a sunny sunday, and the place was pretty busy, without being overcrowded. I especially liked the computer history and the planes in the aviation hall.

Back to the hotel, and we went up to Club Brass which has a small open rooftop area. Given Manchester's reputation for weather, having a look around while it was a beautiful sunny afternoon seemed like a good opportunity.

Dinner was booked at Veeno. I stumbled across the company while in York, just had some meat and wine there and got talking to the staff. So for Manchester we went for the tasting menu, which was excellent.

On the way back we stopped off for a cocktail (or two...) at The Alchemist. In this case, the New York Street location, which was nice and close to the hotel. Highlight here was the Passion Fruit Meringue Martini. Then back for a nightcap on the roof at Club Brass - fortunately the hotel supplies blankets for those who want to sit outside.

Monday morning and we joined a walking tour. The Discover Manchester tour runs every day, and gives you a good grounding on what's in the city. From the imposing Central Library, to the Manchester Central Convention Centre and the Bridgewater Hall, up to the Town Hall and Albert Square, into the John Rylands Library, past the Exchange building, through the modern shopping area, finishing by the National Football Museum. As we were up by the Football Museum, we went in (free entry again - spot the trend here?) to have a look around. If you're a football fan, definitely worth a visit.

It was past lunchtime, and we were feeling a bit peckish. We went along to the Richmond Tea Rooms - very quirky, definitely Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately we were looking at an hour wait, so nipped down the street for a delicious cake at The Molly House.

In the evening we had tickets for Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Palace Theatre. So time to get ready and take in the pre-theatre menu at the hotel before walking down to the show.  The performance was excellent, although the audience wasn't that large (maybe half full). Popped into Gorilla after the show, then round to Cloud 23 for a nightcap. Walking back to the hotel, we got the more expected weather - just a bit of light rain.

On the final morning there was quite heavy rain, and very blustery at times. Fortunately the hotel has umbrellas to borrow for just such an occasion. We wanted to go back to some of the places we had passed on the walking tour, starting with the spectacular John Rylands Library. The tour had taken us in, so we had had a brief look around but, as a lover of old books, I wanted to go back to look at the exhibits.

Then out the back to the People's History Museum - very topical with the general election only a couple of days away.

A quick lunch at Dutton's on Albert Square, and we had a quick look inside Manchester Town Hall and the Royal Exchange Theatre before having to head back to get the train home.

We feel we've hardly scratched the surface of Manchester. The place is chock full of interesting bars and restaurants, so we'll be back for another visit.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Movie night in

Been watching some movies recently.

So, I was finding I had some free time, and watched Toy Story. And the craziest thing was that I've watched this before (at least, I'm pretty sure I've watched the movie at least once), and while the odd scene was familiar the whole movie seemed rather new to me. My mind has obviously forgotten a lot.

I then watched Toy Story 2. And that was even worse. Again, there's the odd scene I remember, but pretty much the whole movie was like something I had never seen before. This is sort of crazy.

As an aside, one thing I did notice was that there's a clear technological shift going on. The original Toy Story seems graphically flat compared to the second film.

Melanie often gets a few pages into a book or movie before she gets this feeling of deja vu creeping up on her. The other night, she couldn't remember whether she had watched World War Z (by the way, I know I haven't), so I found the trailer. It was a long series of yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, finally concluding that in reality, yes she had watched this one before.

Back to the films. There was an absolute classic - The Italian Job. Not that modern remake (which, to be fair, has Minis in it, but that's about all), but the Michael Caine original. It's still pretty good. Again, I had forgotten some of the plot, but it's very much of its time, and there's this British sense of humour that shines through.

White House Down was one of those classic action movies. You know, the sort where hundreds of fully armed professional soldiers are wiped out by single shots from pathetic handguns wielded by the bad guys, whereas our rebellious hero is a total amateur waltzing carelessly around and hardly takes a scratch from literally thousands of rounds aimed straight at him. It's fun, it's silly, it's entertaining, it's the sort of forgettable escapism that makes movies.

Spy Game was a pretty standard for the genre. It's all just an excuse to show someone on the inside beating the corrupt system.

The Grand Budapest Hotel could best be described as peculiar. Dark in places, cartoon-like in others, arty and edgy cinematography. Sort of interesting, and you can see why it won awards, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Art of the Steal continued the peculiarity. It seemed excessively contrived and artificial.

Then there was The Big Bang, which wasn't too bad. There was a theme in several of the movies here in telling the story through a series of flashbacks, which was continued in this one. It sort of flips oddly between between plain and gritty and being very stylish, which is a bit distracting.

We actually enjoyed The World's End. The plot is completely stupid, the characters little better, the idea that the world has been taken over by robots with blue paint for blood is laughable, but the overall effect is surprisingly plausible. The one thing you simply can't believe, though, is that after 20 years all the pubs in the Golden Mile are still in business. No, that's totally out of order.