Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas card 2009

The Cannon Hill boating lake has frozen over in the current cold snap.  Birmingham is fortunate to have had just enough snow and just enough sun to make this kind of weather pleasant.  For walking in the park, anyway.  Although, the Canada Geese are angrier than usual.  Blaming passers by for the frozen lake.  And frustrated geese lack Christmas spirit.

If you're somewhere that has had far more snow, and your life has been as disrupted as that of the geese, you have my sympathy.  But I hope you'll forgive me posting a pretty picture.

After all, a significant number of the real Christmas cards I've received so far feature pictures of snow.  It's unusual in Britain to have actual snowfall so close to Christmas Day.  So how could I resist using this icy image to accompany my virtual card? 

Whatever the weather with you, I hope you have a happy Christmas. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Postcard from the arcade

It is a well known fact that High Streets are hell and shopping centres are soul destroying.  So, when undertaking Christmas shopping, both are best avoided.  Lucky me then, that I managed to support some independent traders in Birmingham's arcades and markets, and am now wearing the smug expression of she who has completed her Christmas shopping.

I also got to enjoy the 'even brighter than New Street's' lights on Birmingham's Piccadilly Arcade (pictured), having spent the previous weekend shopping with a glass of mulled wine in hand on York Road and Poplar Road in Kings Heath during their Christmas shopping event - an experience which can be recreated any evening at the German and Craft Markets in the city centre.

Of course, in Birmingham city centre, much of the shopping available is of the identikit chain type.  Smaller towns fare better.  For those in southern England, may I recommend Antique and Contemporary Furniture and Gifts in Princes Risborough?  OK, I admit to a family connection, but it really is a lovely shop.  And, while I'm confessing, I also admit that I did some of my Christmas shopping online; so now have the tense wait to see if everything arrives on time.  Perhaps a glass of mulled wine while I'm waiting will help...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Postcard from Topsham

Just one final glimpse of the seaside for this year although, I admit it, this photo dates back a few months.  And, to be absolutely technically accurate, it's an estuary rather than the sea.
One thing Topsham is known for is the large number of pubs for the size of the town.  This photo was unsurprisingly taken from the front garden of one of them where I was sipping at a pint of locally brewed cider.  Sometimes folk from Exeter (ok, students) travel to Topsham to take part in a pub crawl around as many of the pubs as they can manage.  My question would be: why move from this one when the view is so perfect?
Winter sunsets can be magnificent of course, but they're not often experienced from pub gardens whilst quaffing cool cider.  I'm looking forward to next summer already.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Postcard from autumn

Recent wet and windy weather means the best of autumn is behind us.  But, only a few days ago, this tree in my local park was putting on its autumn colours.  I love the traffic light effect.

Of course, the use of red in nature usually does mean 'watch your step'.  So I didn't pick this fairy tale-style toadstool and bring it home to make mushroom omelette with.  Might have written a few interesting fairy tales of my own if I had though.

Birmingham's been in the news for all the wrong reasons this weekend: concert disasters, hideous car crashes and stabbings. Thought you'd like to see that it's not all bad here. Some of it is beautiful.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Postcard from Delft

I have a good excuse for the poor quality of this photo: on my trip to Delft I was a little less 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', a little more 'Woman under an umbrella'.  The rain couldn't hide the fact that the old town of Delft is charming though.

I visited for work, but found time for a wander along the cobbled streets which run over and alongside deserted canals and into this, the main market square. At night, illuminated tall windows on the upper floors of the townhouses drew my eyes upwards to admire stylish interior design.  Best not to look for too long though.  The cyclists are fast, silent, and convinced they have right of way.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Postcard from Chesil Beach

I admit it.  I'm catching up on a backlog of 'postings' from a few months of visits to the South West, and this photo is a few months old.  Am just trying to get ahead of the Royal Mail and their inevitable backlog...
My time spent on Chesil Beach was inspired by the fact I was reading the novel of that name and thought I'd try a little co-location of the reading experience.  Not all of Ian McEwan's settings are real, but the suck and draw of the pebbles resisting the tide on this breakwater certainly are.  Attempting to hold pages open while the wind whipped them about, losing my place, wasn't easy but did add to my appreciation of the difficulty of the characters' situation.  And the physical effort of walking over those stones would leave anyone with scant energy to pursue more difficult, emotional goals.
I don't intend to get obsessive about visiting the locations I read about (I'm currently reading a book set in London.  1920s London.  Can you imagine the difficulties that would arise?), but as an experiment this was a successful one.  There are many more reasons to go to Chesil Beach though.  Well worth a detour any time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Postcard from Wells

Vicars' Close in Wells claims to be one of the oldest planned streets in Europe. Not that there haven't been renovations and improvement works: those chimneys were added in the fifteenth century to introduce some mod cons. And the streetlights are electric.

The changes of more recent years aren't so photogenic and explain the odd angle of this picture. Residents are now allowed to park their cars in front of their houses. The design of a twenty first century car may have a lot to commend it but, in this ancient street, you have to wonder what present day planning officials were thinking.

Vorsprung durch technik? Maybe not in this case.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Postcard from underwater II

County Hall used to be home to the Greater London Council. These days, the sharks there are real, and they're not afraid to show their teeth.
Palpable agression emanates from the tank, the quiet wisdom on the faces of replica Easter Island heads doing nothing to soothe its occupants.
Of course the aquarium staff are playing on the public's fears - piping tense music from speakers nearby, adding to the discomfort of standing there. Watching these fish swim isn't a relaxing experience; it is an interesting one though. The sharks are more compelling than any councillor could be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Postcard from daybreak

It doesn’t have the romance of sunset, but the start of the day has a different beauty – should you ever be awake to notice. Even the East London skyline looks rather glamorous with this lighting. The soundtrack is more subdued at that hour: the occasional car engine, a cough from a smoker warming their lungs up for the day. But the traffic is mostly silenced; the city asleep.

As I should have been. But you see some terrible things in my line of work. Five in the morning for one.

Anyway, dawn broke and I returned to work. Thought it was a relevant picture for the first post in a while. Apologies for the break in service; internet access is currently intermittent. And there’s been that postal strike to contend with... I hope to be back online and in touch again soon.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Postcard from the pitch

OK, so I'm not a huge cricket fan, and I'll admit to not following quite all of the rules (who can be bothered, this is a game that needs 3 umpires to make sure it's being played correctly); but even I know that an Ashes test match at Lords' is a big deal.

Lords' styles itself as 'The Home of Cricket', and the tube trains were full of just the type of man you'd expect to find making his way there: navy blazer, chambray shirt, beige trousers (sharply creased), the occasional flash of rhubarb and custard in an MCC tie and a tight grip on the essential blue holdall for one's sandwiches. Of course an Ashes match attracts a much wider audience as well, so I was lost amongst a regiment of the Barmy Army and Aussies a long way from home.

England couldn't have this relationship with any other country. No one else would take the 'love to hate you' banter and bat it straight back the way the Aussies do. And the mix of rigid tradition and picnicking informality makes for a great English day out.
The third test starts at Edgbaston this week. Good luck, England.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Postcard from the Pendolino

I've been a regular on the train between Birmingham and London recently. The Pendolino cuts a high-speed slice through the middle of England, leaning as it rounds the bends. Should I attempt to read, the velocity and jolting make me nauseous. So I gaze out the window at the glimpses of life the panoramic windows display, the soundtrack from the wheels a white noise pitched just too high to ignore.

Anglers drop their lines into lakes, horses and their riders cut across fields and canal boat dwellers take a more sedate journey through the countryside. Into towns, and the land by the tracks is shared between industrial units and housing crammed in painfully close to the rails. A few moments, and I'm back in the country where a Land Rover is mobbed by sheep looking for lunch. Makes more sense than the craziness of car parks – empty, but for one car parked just off centre.
The stations we don't stop for pass in a blur of lights and platforms where solitary passengers are left standing for the next train. Then my field of vision adjusts to widescreen once again as the foreground detail becomes irrelevant compared to the deep vista of woods and hills. Until the buildings appear again and we zoom past factories with advertising claims: you have to go a long, long way to bake a better biscuit. Perhaps a little further than Watford Junction.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Postcard from the parlour

Sunny afternoons in Britain aren't complete until you've heard the chimes of the ice cream van. The discordant rendition of 'Greensleeves' is a more welcome soundtrack to summer than drumbeats leaking from the open windows of passing cars.

My problem is that a Mr Whippy-style dollop into a cone made of crunchy air cannot satisfy the Pavlovian craving the music triggers. Not even if you stick a Flake in it.

I'm certain there's a gap in the market for quality ice cream parlours in the suburbs. I'd love to be able to wander down the road and choose from a range of delicious flavours as I did in the tiny ice cream parlour in Spain, pictured above.
I selected creamy coffee (and a pink spoon), my companion chose decadently rich chocolate (and a blue spoon) – gender stereotypes are alive and well! The gelato texture was heavy and smooth, the flavours intense. My only disappointment was that they weren't playing 'Greensleeves'.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Postcard from the palace

Blenheim, not Buckingham. The Queen has yet to invite me to her home; while the Duke of Marlborough is a little more welcoming to guests – pay up and you can come in. And palatial would be the word to describe the state rooms: magnificent proportions, designed to impress and packed with treasures, both commissioned and collected.

I doubt there are architects and designers working today whose names will last through history as those of the folk associated with Blenheim have. This is just one example of the work of Vanburgh, Hawksmoor and 'Capability' Brown; and it's a good one.

There's another name linked to Blenheim which will resonate for a while too: Winston Churchill. He was born there and was a frequent visitor, producing many paintings of the grounds in between finding the time to be a memorable leader. He was following the example set by his ancestor - the first Duke of Marlborough – in that. Perhaps it's an effect of the credit crunch that we can't afford to let today's architects spread their wings, and we're lacking in charismatic leaders too.

Of course there's more to Blenheim than the dazzling state rooms. Tall yew hedges give the maze an extra frisson of danger, and make you more appreciative of the open parkland once you find the way out. And you could walk for hours in those grounds, build up an appetite for a visit to the café – I can report that the cakes are exceedingly good.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Postcard from the Globe

Not the original building, obviously! London's south bank looks rather different from Shakespeare's day. I don't think there are records of what the first 'Globe' looked like, but this one was constructed using the best available information and traditional techniques. It's certainly more attractive than the concrete hulk of its near neighbour, the National Theatre.

Walking along this stretch of the Thames is an architectural cocktail. As well as the theatres, Tate Modern looms out of the old Bankside power station, the OXO tower casts a long shadow over the river and the path diverts into cobbled streets, including the site of the Clink prison. It's not all grim; there are plenty of pubs and even the odd stretch of 'beach'.

Distinct lack of forest though. Which gives the opportunity to post this photo that nature watchers will realise is a few weeks old. These bluebell woods are in Warwickshire and are reputed to be part of the original Forest of Arden, where Shakespeare may have wandered and which provided him with his setting for As You Like It – a play you could see if you visited the Globe this summer. I don't just throw this stuff together you know!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Postcard from the window

A quiz for the Londoners - work out where I was standing to get that photo! It's quite a view, and would certainly distract me if I worked in that building all the time.

Standing there, taking it in, got me to thinking about a few things, but mainly the fact that you don't often get that perspective on what a beautiful city London is. And the main thing which makes it so is the Thames running through it. Well, that's (unsurprisingly) my take on it. I gave a similar thought to Kerry in Map Reading a while back though. She's up Ben Nevis in this scene, looking out across the Great Glen and reflects:

'Living in London I forget about the horizon,' Kerry said. 'I'm always indoors or on the tube and, unless you get up high, you never get a good view of your surroundings. Then you cross a bridge or look out the window in a tall building and - there it is: London laid out in front of you. It is beautiful, just in a different way to this.'
Quite a contrast in view, but I'm with her – both are beautiful. Apparently, there are studies into the psychological benefits of different types of views. All to do with depth of field of vision, natural or man-made, etc. I don't want to analyse it that much, I just know that variety suits me; I wouldn't want to have to make a definitive choice between architecture or mountains and glens. Maybe it's just the presence of some kind of water in the view that appeals to me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Postcard from a writer's room 2

That table is incredible. On it, some of the most well loved works of fiction in the English language came to life. Look how tiny and unassuming it is. No room for laptop, notes, reference books or any of the other paraphernalia I pile up when writing. Even if I'm just scribbling in a notebook, I tend to take up plenty of space. But that table was all Jane Austen had. In a corner of the dining room in the house she shared with her sister, mother and a cousin.

The house is completely charming. Jane Austen did not live in luxury, but her brother made sure she was comfortable there and the cramped and shared conditions didn't seem to harm her writing. My other favourite item on show was a woven silk shawl which belonged to Jane. I can just picture her bent over the table, scribbling out the novels, shawl tucked around her shoulders. And ears always alert to the squeaking hinges of the door, warning her that someone was coming and the page she was writing should be hidden. No password protected documents in those days!

I guess not that much has changed about the writing process. It's still ideas moving from brain to page. I envy the simplicity of Jane's method though. Oh, and her genius of course…

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Postcard from the towpath

Call me lazy, but sometimes I don't want going for a walk to be a challenge. So a walk along a stretch of canal not overly troubled by locks was a great way to spend the afternoon. Fradley Junction marks the point where the Trent and Mersey Canal joins the Coventry Canal; I guess that means it's been the perfect place for a pub for a while now!

Holidaymakers and boat dwellers were out in force along both canals – taking in the scenery at just above walking pace. It was a bit noiser along the towpaths of Gas Street Basin later that night though. Gas Street Basin, at the junction between the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Main Line, is also a popular watering hole. They were spilling out of the bars at the Mailbox, although I guess fewer of the patrons had arrived by boat.
I have to admit that I didn't walk the entire distance between these canal junctions, and sadly didn't travel by boat either. But I did take refreshments at both, perhaps what canal junctions have always been best for.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Postcard from the curry house

Is it a bad thing when the staff recognise you as soon you walk into a restaurant? Well, I've been eating at the Kababish in Moseley for about fourteen years now (no, not every day!) and, as it's been owned by the same family for that time, I guess we've got used to each other's faces. There can only be one reason to return so often: the food is excellent. There is nothing wrong with the current spice-coloured décor (although I have fond memories of the old Parisian street scene mural), and the location is pretty handy. But it's the quality of the food that makes this a favourite (although I also miss the days when pick-and-mix balti was on the menu, things are a little classier now).

That's the Lamb Borti Bhuna on my plate – extremely tasty it was too. Across the table are the Lamb Pinnee, a side order of Brinjle Milaana, rotis and rice. Cobra to drink, obviously. I never intended the postcards blog to become the place for restaurant reviews but such a lovely meal deserved some kind of thank you. Apologies for the poor quality of the photograph, I was keen to get on with my dinner!

Of course, in the time I've lived in Birmingham I've been to many other good curry houses so, to spread the recommendations out a bit, other places I'd promote are Sylhet Spice in Kings Heath and Al Faisal's on Stoney Lane. I'm not a fan of Indian sweets, but the selection box I bought from Milan's Sweet Centre on Stoney Lane recently were demolished rather rapidly by those who know good from bad. All are independently owned, long established businesses with no city centre pricing. And all get busy, so make a reservation first.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Postcard from a sea of blossom

This weekend felt like spring had arrived in full bloom. A walk through Greenwich Park was a treat - sunshine, flowers and warmer than summer often is. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. Follow the link if you want to know more; for me it's as good a reason as any to use a photo of the Royal Observatory. Sadly, I wasn't there at 1pm to synchronise my watch with the ball's drop. So, if I'm a few minutes late, you'll know why.

Quiet contemplation of blossom is one of the few good things going on in Greenwich just now. Long running roadworks are creating traffic chaos, bringing the bottleneck town centre to gridlock. If one hole in the road can cause that much trouble, just imagine what an Olympic event could do. And without the option for pedestrians and residents to take a break from the traffic by escaping into the Park for a breather. I've mentioned the issue before, you can see the details at NOGOE's website.

Of course, there's plenty of time for Spring to be a wash out yet. But, for now, it's all about pink blossom, yellow daffs and the orange ball of Greenwich Mean Time. Next weekend, the clocks go forward. So I won't be the only one whose watch is wrong.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Postcard from the seaside

Surf's up! Well, it looks a bit rough actually. So much for a holiday in the sun, Fuerteventura's famous winds blew a lot of cloud my way. The kite surfers were well served; the sunbathing book readers weren't so impressed.

On this hazy day we travelled from the soft dunes of Corralejo to the lava shores of El Cotillo (pictured), taking a loop through the mountains of Betancuria. Perhaps in the photo you can just make out the mountains in the distance? So much varied landscape in one small island, and all so much greener than expected because, just my luck, it's rained a lot recently.

Of course, one of the best things about being beside the seaside, is eating a meal at a beachside restaurant, looking out across the water (and eating fish caught in those waters). The food certainly made up for the weather; although, some sunbathing was managed - with interruptions.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Postcard from The REP

The Birmingham Rep is a hideous building. I suppose elephant-hide concrete cladding was the height of architectural design in the 1960s, but it now stands between the classical proportions of Baskerville House (named after John Baskerville, an innovator in typesetting, writing-trivia fans) and the 1990s plate glass and tubular steel of the International Convention Centre. The Rep doesn’t bear up well to the comparison.

What goes on inside, however, makes you forgive surface ugliness. I saw the Kneehigh Theatre production of Don John - Mozart’s Don Giovanni revisited as 1970s rock opera. Hilarious stuff with a quality soundtrack. Kneehigh deserve the accolades they attract, I loved their version of Brief Encounter with song and dance. I wonder if they had to tone down the Brummie accents when they took it to the West End though?

One other thing makes the Rep stand out from other theatres - their restaurant: WineREP. Not only is the food delicious and keenly priced. Not only, as you’d guess from the name, is the wine list superb. But the stroke of genius is the showtime deal. Eat your starter and main course before the performance, return to your table for your pudding and coffee in the interval. So civilised I can’t imagine why nowhere else does it. They should.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Postcard from underwater

There are places in Britain that are further from the coast than Birmingham, but not many. The city doesn't even have a major river running through it. So, it's an apt location for a Sea Life Centre – bringing the best of the underwater world to Brummies.

Highlights include the Bay of Rays, a huge tank filled with weird creatures gliding through the water, flipping and turning like kites. It was hard to draw the smallest member of our group away from the fascination of this drama playing out at toddler-eye level.

My favourite though, was the seahorses. Tiny, delicate, vibrant-coloured and strange shaped, it seems hard to believe these funny fish could survive in the open ocean. Fortunately, they appear to be happy at home in the big city.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Postcard from Pizza Express

OK, so I'm a cheap date, but I love Pizza Express. There are so many of us devotees that we even have a club where our loyalty is rewarded with free pizza. What more could the pizza lover need?

This is the Fiorentina as cooked at Birmingham Bullring – extremely tasty and one of my favourites from the menu. I recommend having the egg soft – lots of delicious runny yolk to soak up with the dough. Serving suggestion is a glass of red and a salad on the side. But you didn't need me to tell you that, did you?

There is only one thing which could improve this meal, are you listening Pizza Express management? I can be trusted with a sharper knife. The toddler at the next table was served bambinoccino in a real cup, so how about letting the adults have cutlery that, you know, cuts? Just, whatever you do, don't mess with my pizza.

Will save my raving about the gelato and the cheesecake for another post, all this pizza talk is making me peckish…

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Postcard from outside

Even if politicians get slammed for talking about 'green shoots', it's nice to see the real thing coming through. Forget spin or economic analysis, the world is still turning and it's snowdrop season!

This weekend has also been the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. Eighteen feathered guests visited us. All common species, but it's good to have the company. Good to have an excuse to gaze out the window too. Sitting in a dazed stupor can often be put down to the hard work of preparing to write (!), but this weekend it's all in the name of nature conservation.

I might brew a cuppa, find a comfy chair and take another look. The birds and the bulbs are getting busy.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Postcard from several degrees below

To say the UK is in the grip of a cold snap is to understate matters. What with the national obsession for talking about the weather, understatement is about as likely as High Street stores being saved from collapse by a sudden rush on bikinis. It's not as if we can afford to leave the country after all!

Out on the patio, frozen footprints tell a story – the only ones venturing out are cats and birds. Both are looking for food. The cat does not live here, but the evidence is clear. A trail of footprints takes a direct route from its own house, via a call at our back door to see if anyone's home, through to the neighbour on the other side. The return route is shorter. Having been unlucky in its attempts to gain access, it backtracks to try its luck with the houses to the other side.

The birds were luckier – there is seed on the bird feeder and no sign of them having encountered the cat!

Here's hoping the weather warms up soon…