Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cotswold Country

After cricket in Nottingham, I'd arranged to stay with one of my tennis playing friends at his home in Cheltenham.  It was a short couple of hours journey away and I was amazed that so many of the big towns in the Midlands were so close to one another.  Having not been around England that much, I thought they were all miles apart but it turns out that some of the big towns were less than 20 miles away... and I drove through some of them: Leicester, Derby, Birmingham (my GPS failed miserably at avoiding it) before hitting the open country and the Cotswolds.

I'd never been this way before despite the fact that lots of people say that the Cotswolds is really what the shires of England are all about.  I don't agree.  I think a lot of bits of England look like the countryside that is the Cotswolds.  It's the towns and villages that set this part of the country apart.

My best man, Chris, years ago had a thing about Cheltenham.  He hated the notion of it and when we were thinking about and trying to raise a punk band in the 1970's, he wanted to write a song about Cheltenham that included the line: "I went to Cheltenham on Thursday.  It was closed." Sadly incompetence and lack of musical ability prevented this gem reaching the pop charts.  But I've remembered it ever since!

Cheltenham was really nice actually.  A very stylish and smart town.  I liked it a lot.  It's the stone that makes it.  4,000 years ago the Belas Knap, a stone barrow, was created but the Romans used it a lot for their roads and other building projects so the region was much populated.  Cirencester was a major Roman market town.

Later, the Cotswolds became a major wool producing area before the time of enclosures when all the fields were divided up amongst the gentry.  This resulted strangely in a mass of new building using local stone as more expensive materials could not be afforded.  The lovely towns and villages of today bear testament to this.

Kay, Wilf and I went out to a lovely art deco restaurant for dinner the first night after an amazing tennis game at Wilf's local club -- I got to play on some really nice grass courts too.  After all these years, I was utterly hopeless on them.  And to think I grew up playing almost exclusively on grass courts too!  Anyway we did win, although wasn't really the point (yes it was) but the night was glorious.

Excuse the hair, it was breezy!

The following day as Kay and Wilf were doing house stuff (they were opening the place up after 10 years so had loads to do) so I headed off in the car on a long bimble around the Cotswolds' small villages starting at Bourton on the Water (really beautiful even with 20+ coaches and hundreds of tourist cars).  The guide book equates it to Venice because of the small stream that flows through it.  Very picturesque though.

Next was Stow on the Wold -- I just loved the name!  This is another old market town with lots of lovely old homes, pubs and curious stores.  Lots of craft type stuff. Industry these days seems all tourist related to me.

Next up was Moreton-in-Marsh, yet another beautiful little town with stone houses, pubs and craft stores.  Just lovely again.

Finally was the Broadway Tower, a folly built just outside Broadway which either was just in Worcestershire or just in Gloucestershire, not sure.  This tower was built in the 1600's and was a favourite hang out of pre-Raphaelite artists but more recently was a watch tower during the Battle of Britain and something secret during the Cold War.  Wonderful views over supposedly 9 different counties.

Two days wasn't enough to get to grips with this little piece of heaven.

The village of Broadway is much used in TV shows these days.  You can see why.

Take the last train to... Nottingham

The Monkees had Clarksville, I had Nottingham a couple of weeks ago when I was joining my Bermuda cricket team for first an all day 40-over cricket match and a day, the 3rd day, at Trent Bridge for the 4th Ashes Test against Australia.  However, the East Midlands Railway did me proud and whizzed me there in style and on time.

One thing to note though is how impressive St. Pancras station is these days.  Admittedly I haven't lived in England since 1985, that's 30 years now, but when I left London was poor and a real dump.  The stations in particular were more like cess pits than places where you want to hang out.  30 years on, London is hopping and the stations have been marvellously renovated so it was with a certain reluctance I took my leave.

Nottingham is a nice place.  It has of course been around for centuries and was a big market town in the 13th century when Robin Hood was around and about.  During the Industrial Revolution, it had many of those dark satanic mills that were made famous or rather infamous by the wonderful hymn "Jerusalem".  These days they are all gone... or rather repurposed for rather nice looking apartments.

A Dark Satanic Mill

The city itself is old.  I sadly didn't make it to the castle as I'd hoped, the place where King Charles I's battle against Cromwell finally came to an end, and a nice place to stroll around taking in the sun.  However I had team meetings, dinner and general rowdy behaviour to make so I had to curtail things that first day and make up for missing Stuart Broad's bowling out Australia whilst I was on the train... before lunch on the first day for 60, taking 8 for 15 in the process.

The next day was the cricket match at a small village a mile or so away where our captain, Damion, used to play.  It had been years since most of us have played an all day game.  Our usual format is 20 overs after work.  However they had done the right thing by playing a sociable team and agreed to bat first (just in case we collapsed like Australia had done the day before).

The Associates at Plumtree

I managed to bowl 3 overs, being slogged for 14 in my first and last overs by thugs who didn't appreciate my style of swing and skill.  But then again most of the guys who were interested in bowling had a bowl and Plumtree ended up on 247 after their 40 overs.  Had Cookie not gone for 3 big sixes in that last over, or Broaders being a little more lissom in the field, or Damion taking that sitter...

One moment though stands above all of these wonders and it involved the immaculate Bally.  One batsman played a firm defensive shot all along the ground straight to him whereupon Bally adopted the "long barrier" position so approved by the MCC.  In this he knelt down and with his other leg stretched it out so that there would be an immovable and unpassable barrier to stop the ball.  Standing sideways on, it was impossible to see what happened but usually you'd see the ball suddenly deviate if it were to get past the fielder, but in this case the ball kept steadily on. Not too fast, not too slow.  As it passed Bally, he stayed there unmoving and quite probably unbelieving whilst the ball continued its merry way to the boundary.

When our turn came, I jumped at the chance at opening the batting (you never say "No" with this lot!) and probably didn't touch a thing for the first over or so but somehow managed to scratch through a few overs to get 20-something.  However we lost a few wickets and some momentum until our token Aussie Travis joined Damion at the wicket and kick started the chase by smashing the ball to all parts.  Sadly he got out an over or so too early and even with the skip's heroics taking him to 92*, we ended the chase 29 short.

Check out the Associates Cricket page on Facebook for the full sight screen to sight screen race!
Mind you we all had new top to tail kit with great hats so we all felt like children at Christmas!

The Plumtree guys were very hospitable and we did the same with our Dark n' Stormies from Bermuda which was a very pleasant prelude to dinner and a riotous finale that sensibly I didn't join opting instead for an early-ish night.

The main event was in full Bermuda attire, yellow shorts, blazer, blue knee socks and a sporty new Associates tie.  Sadly the Aussies had folded late in the day the night before losing 3 quick wickets so had only 3 left for us to watch from our box.  They didn't help much lasting only 39 minutes in all allowing England to win by an innings and plenty.

I managed to step onto the ground after most of the people left as the box stayed open for most of the day and also had a selfie with Ricky Ponting, the ex-Aussie captain, who said not one word for the entire time.  He looked OK in the picture though.

The Punter with the fixed grin

We also had a chicken suit and wolf suit that rotated through the team during the day (we'd had a memorable race off between the chicken and wolf the day before at Plumtree!) which accompanied the team on the big night after.  Bermuda shorts and animal suits certainly are really good at breaking the ice in bars and clubs although one of our guys had to convince a doubtful bouncer on two occasions that Bermuda attire is not fancy dress ("It is in Nottingham!") crossing his palm with silver on both occasions.

A chicken suit and blue Bermuda blazer certainly caused a stir!

The boys made it back at varying hours contributing in no small part to a very quiet and laid back final day in Nottingham as the guys trickled away, bit by bit.

Great time though!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Layover... London

Anthony Bourdain's second show (I think) was called 'The Layover'.  It followed the first series called 'No Reservations' which seemed to be a travelogue in which he ate and drank his head off around the world.  Being good with the chatter, it made for entertaining viewing and certainly gave Viv and I ideas for further and slightly off beat travel.  The Layover series was based around the premise that you had 24 or 36 hours in some major city and you needed to cram the entire week's eating and drinking into that compressed time frame.  Hence the title of this post!

I was going to the 4th Ashes Test Match in Nottingham on the Saturday with 11 members of my cricket team, The Associates, but was a day earlier than most of the others so planned to spend it in London.  The London underground had decided to go on strike that evening from 6.30 pm so the mood in London was grisly as everyone knew what a royal pain it would be to get home so most companies decided to let people off early.

When in London I like to stay at the East India Club and here I'll give a little plug to the University Club of Toronto where I am a member and with whom the EIC has a delightful reciprocal arrangement with members in good standing.  Fortunately I'd paid the UCT bill so I was able to stay at the EIC for a very reasonable rate and enjoy their facilities but particularly their breakfast and proximity to Piccadilly, less than 100 yards away.

As the Bermuda flight gets into Gatwick around 7 am it was a stroke of luck that the room I'd booked was available so I was able to get some sleep before stepping out on the town.  The weather was decent too so it would be a day of walking.

I started out with lunch at one of my favourite pubs just off Bond Street called The Guinea, a Youngs pub still happily which used to make the best steak pies in the country.  Certainly they were the best I've ever eaten but as their heyday was in the 1990's when they ruled the roost, the current incarnation whilst it tried hard simply didn't measure up.  Mark on report card: Must try harder.  Actually it should be go back to the old recipe and method.  Back then (in the late 1970's/early 1980's -- gulp!) they made one tray of steak pies that were in round dough balls crammed with steak.  They only made 24 each day so you had to be there early.  These days, there are pies a-plenty probably at all times of the day.  Nice for sure but it does make me wonder about changes that happen today.  At times like this, syrely there was no need to change.  Sometimes I think we make changes largely because we can.  There's some new technology available that we can use to make things quicker and -- here comes the dreaded word -- more efficiently.  So we use it.  It may be not as good but making it is sure more efficient than it was in the past.  Are we really happy to have sacrificed quality for efficiency?

I love walking in London so whilst I had a fully charged Oyster Card I also had plenty of time before I was due to meet my brother Jan and his daughter/my neice Gabs in Shoreditch.  So no need to rush over there so I bumbled.  One of my favourite hobbies.  Up Bond Street past all those designer and fine art shops, some of which I used to audit back in the 1970's/1980's.  They are still there too!  I am sure their prices are higher as whilst the street was jammed it looked like the only buyers were dressed in burkas trailing endless children.

Next was Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, Regent Street -- with enforced stop at the jammed Apple store -- Carnaby Street -- yes, its back and still as tacky looking as ever, but the record store I used to buy bootlegs from has gone of course -- Soho, China Town, Leicester Square -- no movies at the time I was there -- Charing Cross Road -- I couldn't find Foyle's Bookstore but understand that it has moved to Shaftesbury Avenue round the corner; shame it moved, there's no more book shops left on Charing Cross Road -- Covent Garden -- and another necessary pitstop at the amazingly redeveloped Apple Store there -- Holborn Kingsway -- past another hotel that I used to audit with cellars probably 200 feet down which went on for hundreds of yards containing wines back to the Napoleonic era when I was doing the audit -- down to the Strand, turn left at the Aldwych and head toward the Temple Bar announcing the start of the City and of Fleet Street.

I worked on Fleet Street in the middle 1970's with our office next to the Daily Express building when newspapers were actually printed on and around Fleet Street.  Our audit room was on the same level as the editor's office and when one of our new guys told everyone that his dad would likely be in the daily meetings, we of course looked out for him and waved like crazy.  After the first time when his dad called to tear a strip off him, we carried on anyway but they turned out to have worked us out and waved back... so of course that was no fun, so we stopped doing it and got on with our work!  Both buildings are still there happily as is my favourite pub of the time -- the Olde Cheshire Cheese -- which served lovely Marston's Pedigree.

Up Ludgate Hill across Ludgate Circus -- no more Ludgate Cellars regrettably -- past the Old Bailey to St. Paul's Cathedral.  It looked lovely as always.  There is this magnificent photo of London in the blitz with everywhere burning in the middle of which is the dome of St. Paul's.  Still gives me a lump in the throat when I see it.

My office in Paternoster Square -- an ugly building now happily gone and replaced with a vibrant new Churchyard -- was right next to St. Paul's when they were cleaning it probably for the first time in a century.  The method:  hoses.  For a year.  Before it was black and foreboding.  After it was all gleaming stone and magnificence.  Still is.

My office was in the rubble to the left of  St. Paul's from this angle, going up Ludgate Hill.  Not much left after the Luftwaffe had had their say that and many other nights.

I was sad to find that the City Pipe, another favourite haunt of mine, had been redeveloped but it was only a short stroll along Cheapside until you reach the Bank of England, Mansion House and the Royal Exchange.  Always bustling, I just love the City and about this time I started to fantasize about getting a job in the City to wind out my working days. I think I'll get over that though!

Next stop was to move along Broad Street until you reach Bishopsgate and then turn leftish towards Liverpool Street Station.  Years ago, this was much smaller.  These days it seems a monstrous sea of glass and impressive red brick.  Where did that red brick come from?  Also the usual hordes of bars and restaurants.  I am amazed about the number there are. How can they all survive?  There used to be the Great Eastern and across the street Dirty Dicks -- a real underground dive cum hovel if ever there was.  Very trendy nowadays, you can even have office functions there.  In my day, you'd never admit you frequented Dirty Dicks! -- but that was about it.

From the station, it was just a short further walk up Bishopsgate to Shoreditch.  Under the railway, first right, first left and there you are at #7 Boundary Street, the home of Dishoom, a Bombay Cafe and venue for tonight's knees up with Jan and Gabs.

Very nice place too with a lovely verandah area (summer only of course) that just begged to be sat in with cool drinks and interesting nibbles coming along to join in.  Whilst waiting, I just had to have a Limca Tom Collins -- Limca is an Indian lemonade that contains no lemon apparently yet tastes like it and is quite possibly the sweetest beverage you will ever consume.

One of the world's most sugary beverages

Then came the crowds, and the lines and more crowds and more lines.  Quite amazing but not hard to understand why as the food was terrific and when one swapped to alternative cocktails, so were they.  The atmosphere was jumping and in all we had a simply lovely evening.

The basic premise with Dishoom is that of a Bombay Cafe run by Iranians (or Farsi's in India).  The menu was just like it sounded when my mum and dad told me of the clubs they'd go to for lunch and dinner with all the little accompaniments to curries that make it such an enjoyable eating experience.

And drinking too for who wouldn't want to go to a prohibition busting bar?  Called the Permit Room because of the prohibition that exists (then and now) in Bombay meaning you had to go to a special room for those pre-independence cocktails that you love.  It's their bar.

Great time and great layover!