Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Souvenir Of The London Olympics

Olympic souvenir

My route to work skirts what will be the Olympic Park - there's a cycle path between Leyton and Hackney Wick. The road traffic thunders to my right, and the 2012 games site grows at a barely believable rate on my left. There's always something new to see, and often something new to avoid. Yesterday a series of holes had been dug in the middle of the cycle path. In the fenced-off spoil heap I saw this bottle.

"If that's still there on my way home, I'm having it" I said to myself. If whoever dug it out wanted it, they'd have taken it. It's better in our house than back underground or broken up. 6.45pm and there I am, digging away under the fence like a fox after a chicken.

So, dear visitors - any idea what it would have once held? There's a similar (but cruder) one on the Museum Of London website, described as a 'Spirit Flask'. Which spirit? Gin? Whisky? Intriguingly, it's got a glass marble sealing the neck which is threaded for a (presumably) rubber bung. Something inside rattles. There aren't any markings on the bottle at all. I sincerely hope I haven't brought home a latter-day Witch Bottle.

According to my stats this blog gets about 12 visitors a day. They can't all be spambots. Don't be shy - say hello. Especially if you know about stoneware bottles.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cofio'r hogiau

On our trip to the Somme battlefields in July, the place with the most atmosphere by far was Mametz Wood. The site where the 38th (Welsh) Division was cut to ribbons between the 7th and 12th of July 1916 is marked by a statue of a belligerent red dragon, gripping barbed wire in its claw. The Welshmen advanced past this point towards the wood. In the hours before the assault they had been in their starting positions behind the ridge here, singing hymns they would have known from chapel and sunday school. Even by the standards of the Somme, taking Mametz was a hideous task - The 14th Welsh (Swansea) Battalion alone suffered almost 400 killed or wounded from some 680 men. Any who survived the open ground in front of the wood, swept by machine gun and tangled in the wire, faced a stubborn enemy dug into a natural fortress of fallen trees and thick undergrowth. Fighting in the wood was primitive and desperate - bayonet, grenade and rifle butt. A few days after the Germans had been forced out, the poet Robert Graves entered the wood to find a greatcoat for the unseasonably cold nights. He found the wood full of the dead of the South Wales Borderers and Royal Welch Fusiliers, looking pitifully small alongside the corpses of the big Prussian Guards.

Comparing maps from 1916 with the site today, Mametz has more or less the same 'footprint', though all the trees are post 1918. The wood is a brooding presence, glowering at you across the valley. I'm not the first visitor to feel like I was being watched by many unseen eyes. It was almost as if the wood gave out some sort or radiation - like being at the other end the room from a large fire. We considered walking up to the fringe of the trees, but both admitted later that we were relieved when the sudden sound of a hunter's shotgun from within the green dark made us return to the car.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Mysterious Orient

Coming from Yorkshire and not having at least a passing interest in rugby and cricket is like coming from Spain and not being a catholic - possible, but unlikely. I quite like boxing too, but I've definately got zero interest in 'footy'. The nearest I've ever been to a football ground was last night's Piglet 9 beer festival at Leyton Orient Supporters club, tucked into Orient's new(ish) West Stand, close to what will be the Olympic park. The LOSC always has 5 cask ales on and a real cider which, I gather, is unusual in a sport associated with lagerswillers. In 2008 the club was awarded CAMRA Club of the Year, joint winner with Appleton Thorn Village Hall in Cheshire.

I haven't been to a festival in London for a couple of years. The last one was a Pig's Ear event at Stratford which was (let's be honest) dreadful. The beer was poorly kept, and for the most part undrinkable - in fact, I ended up with a raging indegestion that went on for days. However, I'd heard good things about the LOSC festivals, and everything I'd been told turned out to be true. The bar is spotlessly clean - literally gleaming in places - with enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer staff. The punters seemed more mixed than perhaps might have been encountered at similar events in the past - neither exclusively white and beardy nor male. Almost all of the thirty-odd beers were on stillage, and every one we tried - apart from one stinky half of Cambridge Moonshine's Engagement - was in absolutely spot-on condition.

Most of the ales were from Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex with a specially brewed Brodie's Orient from just up the road. I didn't get to try that, but we hacked our way through Crouch Vale's Topsail (huge hop blast), Harwich's Bathside Bitter (marmalade, orange peel), Nethergate Umbel Magna (prunes) and Old Cannon Gunner's Daughter (sharp, bitter). A real standout was Brentwood's Chestnut Stout, a massively smoky mouthful of tingling black coffee notes. We were enjoying ourselves so much that suddenly we were the last ones left, with the staff stacking up the chairs. I had a brief chat with (I presume) the club secretary, an affable gent who pretended not to notice that I was slurring my words. We weren't the only ones who had a good night. On the way home we passed a bloke who was dragging himself hand-over-hand up the street using the park railings.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death Of A Thousand Cuts


What makes London? What makes this barely-governable living city what it is? This city which I often hate but more often love? The people, the tube, the cabs, the pubs? The 'London-ness' of it all? The buildings? The shops?

Ah yes. Shops. Independent, quirky enclaves of individualism. Places like Baron Of Piccadilly, the demise of which I blogged about in June. Sadly, the Crown Estate had more plans. The entire block that Baron fronts is to go, chopped right back to Jermyn Street. Bates Hatters, Landaw Tobacconist, Geo Trumper's Gents Hairdresser. All to be destroyed and replaced by something of such staggering blandness it should make all good men and women weep hot tears of blood.


(photos from the ever vigilant Dusty 7s)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tin of doom

I'm a designer, me. I like design that's straight to the point. Economy of line and type. Less is more. I don't think I could have done my job very well in the Art Deco era or at the height of Victorian frothery. That's why I love this tin, which we saw at the Museum Of Garden History last weekend. Completely justified the six quid it cost to see what amounted to a small collection of old rakes.


'Slug Death'. Marvellous. And I've even got to the end of this post without typing 'does exactly what it says on the tin'. Oh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Life And Nothing But

On our visit to the Somme battlefields last July, we stopped at Lochnagar Crater near La Boiselle. This enormous dent in the Picard landscape was left by British miners detonating a total of 60,000 lbs of Ammonal under the German front line at 7.28 on the 1st july 1916. It was one of the first events of what was to become the bloodiest day in the history of the British army, with almost 60,000 casualties in those first hours.


The crater is now privately owned by an Englishman, Richard Dunning. He managed to purchase the site in 1978, concerned by encroachment of agriculture and attempts to refill the hole. Today, Lochnagar attracts about 300,000 visitors annually. Given the scale of the slaughter in the vicinity - it's thought that the remains of at least 300 Germans lie in the crater - it's perhaps not surprising that even such a well-visited site sometimes gives up its dead. In 1998 the remains of Private George Nugent of the Tyneside Scottish were discovered by accident on the western lip of the crater by two British tourists. After exhaustive research leading to his identification, Private Nugent's name was removed from the Thiepval Memorial to the missing and he was laid properly to rest at Ovillers Military Cemetery near Albert. The inscription on his headstone reads: 'Lost, found - but never forgotten'.


Monday, November 9, 2009


Does the world need another movie remake? The 1947 classic Brighton Rock is being 'reimagineered', this time set amongst the mod and rocker deckchair-chucking events of the early 60s.

A problem for any filmmaker wanting a load of youngsters on classic scoots is that youngsters don't ride classic scoots. Well, not many do anyway. I suspect the director Rowan Joffe approached numerous established scooter clubs for extras, which is why most of the riders in this clip, filmed by a friend-of-a-friend, look distinctly thirty and forty-something and to be fair, portly. Well, would you lend your pride and joy to an 18-year old to ride up and down Royal Parade? Me neither.

(This was filmed in Eastbourne. Brighton is too er, Brighton-y these days. Incidentally, the famous scene in Quadrophenia when the mods ride over the crest of the hill and stop to look at Brighton set before them? They were actually looking at Eastbourne from East Dean Road).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

40 Beers, Part 6


I've expressed my love for Keighley's Boltmakers Arms before. This tiny pub is the nearest thing Timothy Taylor's has to a brewery tap, and serves the definitive pint of Landlord. It's a pint of such unequivocal perfection that it's been known to bring a tear to the eye of returning natives. I was in there on friday afternoon with my mate Lee, after three pints at Keighley's JDW, the Livery Rooms. Despite the odd sticky table and stabby loon, it's pretty good as 'spoons go, and their Autumn beer festival added three pints to my Forty Beers, all from cask:

17) Adnams Pale Champion Ale: Brewed for festival. Polished copper body, with an intensely bitter, citrus -y hoppy mouthful and a long hop finish. Excellent.

18) Woodford Dragon Hall: Big khaki head, sweetish chocolatey malt, yet bitter.

19) O'Hanlon Red Ale: Glowing red body with a lacing head. Sweet, toffee, tongue-coating nuttiness. Malt finish, hints of bubblegum.

Back at the Bolts, our post-Landlord attention shifted to the guest pump. The handwritten clip said simply BOLTMAKERS BEST BITTER 4%. Someone behind us whispered that it might be a Taylor's test brew. Someone else pointed out that Taylors already do a peerless 4% Best Bitter, and it was on sale two pumps away, you idiot. There were no clues being given from the other side of the bar. "It's a one off, just for us" said the barmaid, with the guv'nor Phil looking on inscrutably. "Is it brewed in Keighley?" we asked. "Er, might be" came the reply. As it happens we later got a tip-off (with no evidence at all) that it was "possibly" a special from the Old Bear brewery. Whatever it was, it was packed with floral notes and echoes of whisky malt.

Later, at my dad's club I overheard two domino players talking quietly about "that secret Taylor's test beer they've got down at the Bolts".

And In such ways do rumours start.

The Pleasure Killers

Daft as it may seem, one of the world's first 'modern' theme parks was at Shipley Glen in Yorkshire. For the Victorian and Edwardian mill workers of industrial Airedale, the fresh air of the Glen was a welcome escape from the often unhealthy (and at times lethal) living and working conditions of the valley bottom. Local entrepreneurs constructed what we would now term tourist attractions as early as the 1880s, including cablecar rides, toboggans and something rejoicing in the name of the Royal Yorkshire Switchback. These rides came and went over the years, though some - presumably the ones with the least accidents - became permanent. Until 2004, Prod Lane at the eastern end of the Glen was still home to a collection of ancient rides at the tiny amusement park called the Pleasure Grounds. Here could be found the Aerial Glide (pictured at the top of this post - image from UK Rides), built in 1900 and the oldest ride of its type in the world. Despite its age the Glide was still definitely a thrill for the kids of Airedale until it closed. You'd sit in a chair suspended from an overhead track, an attendant would give you a hefty shove and gravity would take you whizzing over the boulder-strewn hillside. Hopefully, another attendant would grab you at the other end of the ride where you'd dismount, shaky-legged, to be reunited with your grinning parents who'd taken the same ride in their own childhoods, just as their parents had.

Inevitably, the owners of the Pleasure Grounds realised that the land was prime real estate, so the whole site was cleared in 2003-2004 for - sigh - executive housing, despite attempted protection for the Glide and a lot of legal jousting, protests and heartfelt articles in the Telegraph And Argus. No doubt this unique ride is now being recycled somewhere in China for mobile phone components. It should be pointed out that the little fairground was actually thriving. It was no dead duck.

I was up at Shipley Glen on Saturday, with my dad and grandma, both Pleasure Ground veterans. The place is now a brownfield site with no sign of building work, or even a hint of it. It is literally a waste. The only remaining attractions from Shipley Glen's themepark heyday is the marvellous Glen Tramway, which I wrote about some years back for Nothing To See Here.

Nearby is a Dodgems, rotting gracefully back into the moor, the original cars hidden under shrouds like corpses. This was functioning two or three years ago - I went on it with my mum - but now it looks likes the kind of ride seen on Scooby Doo.