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.