Monday, September 29, 2008

Never Coming Back

Goodbye Piccadilly...

It's a year since the legendary New Piccadilly cafe closed, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to flag up the New Piccadilly Memories flickr site. Pictures are still being added, which must be a measure of the affection the place was held in. I doubt anyone would remember with the same longing a Starbucks that closed 12 months previously. Thank God the Lorelei is still going. I don't know where I'd go for pre-beer scoff otherwise.

The number of 'formica' cafes lost in recent years is alarming, but some still hang on. Poking around in Smithfield I came across a place called Beppe's. When I worked nearby 17 years ago I must have passed it twice a day, and never noticed it. Back then of course, caffs of this type were everywhere, as familiar as a K6 telephone box. It was shut when I dropped by, but is now firmly on my 'to do' list.



Thursday, September 25, 2008

Time Out

I've barely used my scooter to get to work recently. Two weeks ago, I did an intensive driving course in a vain attempt to pass my car test. While I was learning, my instructor banned me from using the scoot to purge habits that don't translate into car driving. As it happens, I failed for speeding and er, "cornering like you were on a motorcycle". On monday I rode to work as usual, only to find that the Aldgate one-way system had been remodelled into a two-way obstacle course of traffic lights and widened pavements. Apparently it's to create a 'piazza-like environment'. I'm all for putting pedestrians first, but I can't imagine who'd want to hang about on that polluted corner. Anyway, it was fine on the way to work, but on the way back the entire length of Lower Thames Street, Tower Hill, Aldgate and Mile End Road as far as the Whitechapel Hospital was a long line of hooting, static, cars, vans, lorries, taxis and cement mixers. I'm not much of a filterer, and progress through this maze of metal was torture. It took me longer to get home that night than it would have if I'd got the tube. It used to take 20 minutes. Same thing on tuesday, but in the rain. So i'm having a break until City Hall sort the phasing of the traffic lights. Scootering, after all, is meant to be fun.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Caravan Of Love

I'm a caravan fan. I don't mean the ice-white megaboxes cluttering the slow lanes of every motorway in Europe. I mean fading beauties like these found in the backroads of our land. Much-loved hideaways, lit by gas mantle. Aluminium whistling kettle. Musty, dog-eared books. The toilet is a bucket in the dark.

The type I like - basically a tin shack on wheels - are inevitably becoming rare. The last one I found was this one:


which is at Blacklunans on the way to Spittal Of Glenshee in the Highlands.

Another caravan hunter is Flickr Holga Maestro Plastic Fantastic who has a collection of them on his brillant photostream. Have a look.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Lambretta For A Knave

I saw this sticker on a Lambretta GP parked up in Skipton. It made me chuckle and prompted me to add 'Kes' to my wishlist.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pie eyed

Skipton ('Gateway To The Dales') is a smallish Yorkshire town with a lot going for it. We were there on Market day, and it was buzzing - stall after stall groaning with things you'd actually want to buy. Cheese, meat, sweets, brooms, boots, books, skirts, apples, spanners, dog chews, music. There was one bloke who sold nothing but hats. The handsome high street is thriving without the intrusion of too many boring multiples. At one end is the 900 year old castle and the neighbouring parish church. Just round the corner from there is Stanforth's. Technically it's a butcher, but the permanent queue is all about their pork pies. Once outside you might see the 'Stanforth Bend'. This is the name given to the action of bending forward from the waist in order to eat. The pies come from the oven warm, and if you don't bend forward clear of your footwear, the first bite will send a stream of liquid fat straight over your shoes. It's hard to describe just how good these pies are. The perfect wholesome comfort food. The inside of one looks like a cross-section of the Pennines.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I like corrugated Iron. Sadly, not much seems to be made of it any more, and what did exist is rusting into the earth. This little gem is the reading room and library of the picture-perfect village of Appleton-Le-Moors, off the A170 Kirkbymoorside-Pickering road. It was built in 1911 and restored in 2004 (or 2005 depending on who you ask). Driving up the road to the village feels like going up someone's private drive. Watch out for the sheep. They have the run of the place and are in no hurry to get out of the way, especially when there's someone's well-kept hedge to chew at.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Pie Society

Inspired by The Great Steak Pie Hunt, I felt I had to share my recent pie experience up in Scotland. Our lad and me had just conquered all of Ben-Y-Vrackie's 2759 mist-shrouded feet. The route took us behind Pitlochry's Moulin Inn, and we stopped for a pie and a pint. And what a pie. Just look at this. It's a phrase I've used before, but eating it was like digging your way out of a meat avalanche. The chips were average, but in company like that who cares?

The beer wasn't bad, either - made in the pub's own microbrewery in the lane behind. I must admit, if you're in Pitlochry you'll be wanting for decent pubs. There was a nasty karaoke place that looked as if it had been transplanted from Blackpool, a soulless town centre pub full of dour-looking tourists and a place that may or may not have been a hotel bar. The Moulin was the best by a mile. Cheers.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dernière bière

On this blog I've often bemoaned the fact that an interesting place has vanished before I got the chance to photograph it, although sometimes I get it right. It's just about a year since the New Piccadilly Cafe closed, and now I've just heard that an equivalent time-warp in Brussels which closed last year has reopened as a chi-chi restaurant.

This was the Cafe La Fourmiliere on Place Rouppe, which we accidentally visited when killing a couple of hours in the Belgian capital last year. This marvellously untouched cafe bar was at the top end (that is, the end furthest from the scruffy and scary Midi Station) of Avenue Stanlingrad - a down at heel, but formerly very opulent boulevard stuffed with crumbling grand buildings. Stepping into La Fourmiliere really was stepping into the past. The fixtures and furniture were a mish-mash of periods from the 20s to the 70s. The barman was a camp old gent with bouffant hair and a 1980s acrylic jumper. The toilets were something else - they couldn't have changed at all since the cafe was first built - it's perfectly possible that they were used by Germans on leave in WW1. We knocked back a couple of Chimay Bleu before regretfully having to leave, convinced that such a place couldn't exist for much longer. Seems we were right. Apparently, the new restaurant has kept the original fittings for their knowingly ironic appeal. Boulevard Stalingrad itself is well worth a visit. On our previous visit to Brussels about three years back, the wide pavements were made of the original granite, so cracked and uneven it looked like a tank had driven over them. Maybe it had. Sadly, they've now been replaced with boring old stone setts, but the buildings were as atmospheric as ever.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Water Of Life

A short walk from our chum the scarecrow is The Edradour distillery, the smallest in Scotland. It's truly pocket-sized and from a distance looks like a collection of well kept campsite shower blocks. Despite this, it still manages to absorb 100,000 visitors a year. It was quiet on our visit, and we were shown round by a twinkle-eyed septegenarian who couldn't have been more perfectly Scottish if she'd been Molly Weir. A lot of Edradour's equipment is pretty old, some of it dating from the mid 19th century. The gleaming coppers are 90-odd years old and hand polished weekly. If one of them was half a centimeter smaller, it would be illegal. Of course, minimum size was set to stop stills being easily hidden from the Customs men. The distillery was officially founded by a co-op of local farmers in 1825, though it may have been in illegal production well before then.

As with most places of this type, the visitor centre and shop employ more people than the production staff. At Edradour there are just 3 distillers actually producing the whisky, and nothing much can have changed since the days of the co-op. Despite the slightly cheesy, folksy film we were shown before the tour, this is more or less the real deal. Unlike say, Martell in Cognac, the place isn't a sort of folk museum with the product made in a factory elsewhere. What you see is what you get. The water comes from a burn flowing through the site, and it's so pure it doesn't need to be treated. Round the back of the distillery house was some sort of ancient heat exchanger groaning and steaming like a Newcomen engine. The waste barley is still shovelled out daily for a local farmer to feed to his cattle. Nothing is automated - even the labels are added to the bottles by hand. The only time a machine gets involved is to load the bottles into the lorries for dispatch. Edradour has had a few owners over the years, including Pernod Ricard and even (it is whispered) the mafia. Nowadays it's owned by a Scottish family firm, so it looks to be in safe hands.

Nowadays, Edradour produces something like 240,000 bottles annually - or 3 barrels a day. They must have ramped up production during the war, though. Much of the cargo of the SS Politician which ran aground off Eriskay was Edradour whisky - an incident later immortalised in Compton McKenzie's Whisky Galore!

By the way, a bottle of whisky in Edradour's shop was typically ten quid more expensive than down the hill in Pitlochry.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Field work


I've just spent a week in the Highlands with my brother. We go away every year. I make him look at old trees and he makes me climb up enormous hills. Walking back to Pitlochry on our way back from the Edradour distillery (more about that later) I spotted this chap in a wheat field. Such elaborate scarecrows seem quite rare nowadays. The most common are often nothing more than sheet plastic tied to a pole. The modern farmer ploughing his hedgeless prairie in a GPS-enabled New Holland tractor hasn't time to make scarecrows. And he's too worried about EU quotas and yields.

Of course, scarecrows don't actually work. When we were in France earlier this year, I saw one with a bird actually perched on its head. So why bother with them? In areas where the land is less intensively farmed, it could be that farmers put up scarecrows almost subconsciously - just because they and their forbears always have done. There's even a theory that the classic arms-outstretched scarecrow figure is a folk memory of ancient surveyors called 'dodmen' - the 'dod' being the surveyor's pole. Indeed, in Berkshire scarecrows are called Hodmedods, which might mean 'hold my dod'. If you want to really push it, there's even a school of thought that the Norfolk dialect word for snail - hodmadod - was drawn from the snail's antennae looking like surveyor's poles. Hmm. There's a further theory that the Sussex hill figure, the Long Man Of Wilmington, is a dodman. To be fair, he really does look like a surveyor. More than a snail does anyway.

(Wilmington photo from Gösta Enhammar)