Wednesday, April 29, 2009



There was a time when I would never set foot in a JD Wetherspoon. In my early years in London I was on a Junior Designer's salary, and without getting all Four Yorkshiremen on you, the Camden Head JDW in Bethnal Green was one of the few places in the capital I could afford a few pints without ringing the bank to tell them why I was about to get 20 quid out of my account. (I'm not kidding - the Carlisle Midland Bank watched new graduates like hawks). When we first started going there it was new, well run, and full of bright, shiny people. Over the next couple of years the pub got tatty, service became indifferent and the punters became a ragged soup of crumbling old men and alcoholics with their flies undone. It was a similar story at the Moon And Sixpence in Soho - and in fact, any others I visited back then. I avoided JDWs for the next decade.

The next time I visited a 'poon was when the Livery Rooms opened in Keighley in 2004. I dropped in to have a look with my mum and dad - it was a bit of a surprise, with ten real ales, quick service and a clientele with good personal hygiene. Five years on, it's remains a decent place to visit. It might be that the competition from Timothy Taylor's excellent pubs keeps standards high. A JDW will never be my first choice for a pint, but these days I don't jump on the bus home if someone suggests a swift half at a Wetherspoon.

On saturday I was at the Penderel's Oak in High Holborn for their bit of the "World's Biggest International Real Ale Festival". This is about the best JDW I've been in - and it's round the corner from the very worst pub (and I've been in a lot of bad pubs) I've ever set foot in: the Shakespeare's Head JDW on Kingsway.

We tried (In their dinky 1/3rd glasses - so one out of every three drinks was - in effect - tax):

JW Lees Hopping Mad (Thin but decent with a lot of liquorice coming through)
Marston's Single Malt (Overly mellow - somewhat tasteless)
Moorehouse's Old Boss (Bitter, fruity - full of zing)
Flying Dutchman Wit Bier (Spicy, refreshing)
Thwaites Double Century (Fragrant, delicious)
St Peter's Golden Ale (First time I'd tried draught - prefer bottled)
St Georgen Brau Keller BIer (Nutty, hoppy)
Sinebrychoff Porter (molasses, espresso complete with 'crema'-like head)

All the above were in good condition. The real standout was the Double Century - a lot of orange notes up front. Full of malty goodness, It just burst with character. Like a good film, you know you've had an outstanding pint if you're still thinking about it almost a week later.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Absolute Zero

It was Worldwide pinhole photography day on saturday. I'm a big fan of low tech cameras and it doesn't come much lower tech than something which is literally a box with a hole in it. Diehard pinholers (like the hugely inventive Justin Quinnell who makes them small enough to go in his mouth) make the cameras themselves, but I've got a Zero 2000, a teak and brass beauty made by Hong Kong craftsman Zernike Au. It's such a gorgeous object that it's a work of art in itself. Modern digital cameras more or less guarantee perfect results but a pinhole forces you to slow down and think. The Zero 2000 doesn't have a viewfinder and exposures are calculated by guesswork or handheld meter (in my case an ancient Weston Master). It's very refreshing to use a pinhole after blasting away all day with a DSLR. You never know if you'll have anything worth printing, but that's part of the fun.


(I missed pinhole day - I was beer tasting with me brother - so here's a Zero 2000 image from a trip to Instow a couple of weeks back)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lazy Blogging, Part 7

Inspired my neighbour - he's French, goes jogging in a business suit and has spent the last five years doing up his house with the curtains drawn - Tom Waits' What's He Building?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Closing Time

Most towns have one. Some have more than one. Some unfortunate towns have nothing but them; rough pubs. I don't mean the type celebrated by tongue-in-cheek guides, with a meat raffle, a copy of the Racing Post left on a buffet and Karaoke on fridays. I mean the ones with a tangible sense of threat, like an unexploded bomb. We have one of those in Leytonstone - it's called Lincolns. Opened in 1872 and originally called The Elms, Lincolns is a handsome building about halfway up the High Road between the railway bridge and the parish church. A lot of the older community have fond memories of the Elms as a decent pub, but it's had a varied history. In 1983 - as the newly renamed Lincolns - CAMRA described the place as a "Young people's musically orientated establishment. Loud music in main bar". In the late 80s it was briefly renamed "Big Hand Mo's" and i'm sure it was a precisely as good as that sounds, especially as it was selling Webster's Bitter, perhaps the least-missed Yorkshire ale of all time.

In recent years there were complaints by local residents of blatant drug dealing and customers openly urinating and defecating in neighbouring streets. Vomit, used condoms and discarded tights became an unwanted feature of many a local garden. There was at least one stabbing and even rumours of firearms being waved around. A midnight punch-up could be witnessed at least once a week. There were some very intimidating characters hanging around. I'm no coward, but I often used to cross the road to avoid them and their stocky, snarling dogs.

The local Police have been proactive about this charming establishment, and spent some time quietly gathering evidence. What finally cooked Lincolns' goose was a copper actually being told on his undercover visit that he "looked like he might enjoy some coke" and that the dealer had "just popped out" but would be back. He was later offered counterfeit DVDs and treated to a lock-in. A court appeal revealed that the manager was actually too scared of his clientele to confront them about their behaviour. To the delight of everyone except the hoodlums who came from as far away as South London to make merry on our doorstep, the pub is boarded up. It doesn't end there though - the pub will reopen in autumn as a rebranded, renewed "community pub" selling real ale. Leytonstone could definately do with a couple more decent pubs - and I really hope that this will be one at last.

I haven't got a picture of Lincolns - so here's a supremely hoppy and fresh pint of Skinner's Betty Stoggs I enjoyed at the Bush Inn, Morwenstow, last week.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On The Lam

Cats and dogs. Apples and Oranges. Lambretta and Vespa. Sort of the same, and also completely different. I love walking, but when I set off on a ride, I don't want to complete the journey on foot or sit in the kerb waiting for Carole Nash to arrive. That's why I own Vespas.

A Lambretta rider will invariably be wearing a pair of walking boots and the facial expression of someone expecting bad news. It's not that they are inherently unreliable, just that they demand a lot more TLC than a comparable Vespa. Consequently, there are far more vintage Vespas on London's roads than their Milanese cousins. Last night I stopped to help the rider of a smart Series One who had pulled up on Mile End road. His spare wheel, fitted inside the legshield, had fallen off and he was strapping it to his carrier with a clutch cable. "I ride it every day from Camberwell to Chigwell" he beamed; "It never lets me down" - ignoring that fact that it it er, had just let him down. Perhaps more than any other vehicle, Lammys inspire an affection and loyalty bordering on the psychopathic. That's why there's a Lambretta Museum in Weston-Super-Mare, which we visited after Ilminster.



The Lambretta Museum started off as Weston Scooter Parts, run by Nigel Cox. Cox had been buying up Lambretta parts, memorabilia and even the stocks of whole dealerships since the early 70s, when nobody really wanted them. At first it was just as a collector, but he opened up as a dealer in 1986, with his collection on display in part of the shop. He retired a couple of years ago with the shop's stock going to Marco and Steve at Scooter Emporium and the museum being sold to local boys Scooter Products. It's now the largest collection in the world - literally every inch is cluttered with parts, stickers, ephemera, posters, point-of-sale displays, badges and of course, scooters - a couple of dozen of 'em - including my favourite Lambretta, the Dennis The Menace-esque Rallymaster.




A lot of the scooters here are ultra rare, many with zero mileage or fitted with hens-tooth accessories. Cox had the foresight to hoover this stuff up in the days when Lambretta scooters were seen as anachronisms and parts and accesories were being scrapped, burned, buried or even dumped at sea by the ton. He was one of the first to visit Italy in the dark days when Lambretta dealerships were closing and could pick up a whole shop's stock for a song. Originally, there was at least one example of each Lambretta model from 1947 to 1971 - including the very last one to roll off Innocenti's production line in the days when it was owned - of all people - by British Leyland. Apparently, Cox kept this one and a few other models for himself when he retired - can't say I blame him. Despite my earlier comments, I'd love a Lambretta to sit alongside my Vespas - and if Waltham Forest council hadn't dumped a third wheelie bin on us, I might have actually had the room.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Being Served

One of the joys of visiting somewhere new is finding a shop that is still trading just as it has for decades. On our way to Devon we wandered off the A303 and found ourselves at Ilminster, a place neither of us had visited before. We parked opposite the beautiful St Mary's Church and stepping out of the Wheelerwagon were transfixed, open-mouthed, by the sight of Dyer's Drapers And Outfitters.


The store started as RP Wheadon And Son in 1870 and the doorways still bear the original custodian's name, as do the magnificent etched-glass doors. RA Dyer took over in 1937 and ran the place until the 1990s. The two-floored shop is now in the hands of the Speke family who rescued the store when it suddenly closed in 2005. It seems to be doing well. An elderly couple we spoke to outside told us how proud the town was of Dyer's, and what a fine place Ilminster was to live "... even though we've now got a Tesco that nobody wanted".

The staff were mostly big-haired ladies of a certain age with half-moon glasses hanging round their necks on gold chains. They were a delighful bunch and very indulgent of me poking my camera lens into the original wooden cabinets and fittings. Captain Peacock must have been round the back having a crafty Woodbine.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Folk Law

The people of North Devon are an independent lot. It's not exactly The Wickerman out there, but if they run into a problem they like to fix it in their own way. I was once on a bus that was trundling down a narrow lane. We encountered a Lexus who for reasons only known to its beachball-faced driver refused to obey local convention and back up to a passing place just behind him. Our driver jumped out to have a word, but being ostentaciously blanked by this fool, got back in his cab to ponder his options. And there we might have sat for the rest of the day - if a farmer hadn't appeared on a quad bike, complete with dog on the back. The farmer had a short chat with our driver and trotted up to Lexus Man - who was by now standing in the lane with his arms folded, still grinning smugly, and wearing sunglasses despite it being almost dark. After a brief but animated chat the farmer punched him squarely on the jaw. Lexus Man picked himself up and hurriedly reversed back to allow a bus full of cheering and jeering passengers on their way.


Most of the pubs (and quite a few houses) in Bideford have distinctive floor tiles, like here at the Kings Arms. These came from an Italian ship which ran aground on The Bar - the notorious reef at the mouth of the Torridge Estuary. In order to be refloated the ship had to have its cargo temporarily brought ashore. Not all the tiles she was carrying made it back to the ship - whether this was legitimate or not depends on who you ask - but it was good news for the publicans of the town who never need to buy a carpet again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


We're just back from North Devon, where my in-laws have the good fortune to live. Even in the 21st century Bideford feels like a pretty remote place, with only the A386 or A39 getting you to the town. Train by London means almost three hours to Exeter, then a 60 minute trundle on the Tarka Line (mostly single track, some stops by request to the guard) and then a half hour bus ride from Barnstaple. The 'Little White Town' (as Charles Kingsley called it) is a jumble of Georgian and Victorian buildings strewn along the Torridge estuary, a working port with an open quayside. It's still one of the main places for the export of Kaolin (china clay), extracted over the border in Cornwall. Ships generally tie up opposite the Talbot Inn, which remains the 'earthiest' pub I've ever been in, with a lot of flat noses, DIY tattoos and missing fingers, ears and limbs. Despite appearances it is a friendly place, although on my mercifully few visits I've kept my eye on the door for the pressgang. Most of Bideford's pubs have had ghastly cool-in-1986 makeovers and only three or so have a decent selection of quality ales or any real character. Best of the bunch is probably the Kings Arms, near the mediaeval river bridge. Here they've got six handpumps, with the likes of Adnam's Broadside, SN Spitfire, Exmoor Ale, Doom Bar, Tribute and one from local micros Jollyboat or Country Life. Jollyboat do some drinkable if workmanlike beers, the best of which is Grenvilles Reknown. This is a decent ruby red, fairly malty pint which i've never seen outside of Bideford. If you've never had it, you ain't missing much.


Here's a pint of Tribute from the St Austell brewery, taken outside the Wrecker's Bar at Hartland Quay. I have to say, it was just about the loveliest and most spectacular spot I've ever sunk a brew.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lazy Blogging, Part 6.

A brilliant short from tilt-shift maestro Keith Loutit.

Real tilt-shift lenses are stupendously expensive specialist kit but, as usual, the interweb jumps to the rescue with a fake Tilt-shift maker, if you fancy having a go. Here's a couple of my efforts at making Djemma El Fna in Marrakech look like a 1/144th scale model:


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

There's A Riot Goin' On

Charlie and Susie are up from the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester to chuck litter bins through McDonald's window and shout at secretaries from Goldman Sachs in the battle against globalisationists and capitalist running dogs (but not Uncle Peter and his clothing imports business who bought Charlie a Mini Cooper for his 21st). Katie and Josh were coming too, but they're having a year out in Malawi helping the photogenically destitute. Tom's here and he's got his Rage Against The Machine shirt on and his cousin's at Bradford University up North so he can like totally empathise with the poor, actually.

All this means that the roads were empty and I got to work in the record time of 22 minutes. Smash the state!

Great London Rideout 2006