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.