Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Billy Smart's Circus - but where are the dogs and horses?

Have just recovered from week with grand daughter followed by a couple of days in Birmingham catching up with friends.
    We took her to Billy Smart's Circus, at Glyne Gap field. We all enjoyed it. The big top was classic, the band was rumpty-tumpty, the ring mistress was dashing, and the acts were of a high standard.
     To our surprise, GD seemed particularly taken with the clowns. That sort of slapstick humour has always left me cold, and when I was little, I spent my time quaking with dread in case a clown spotted me and singled me out for some unimaginable public humiliation.
      It wasn't a circus, but I'll never forget being pushed up on stage by my grandparents at a pantomime in Torquay, having to sing 'The Happy Wanderer'. Even worse... no, don't even get me started on being on stage with Ken Dodd at that Housing Conference.... I cringe to think of it.
    
Woman in cube thing

The flying trapeze...
Woman on large motor-bike. In the old days, she would have balanced on a horse - see below
     However, what was missing for me about the circus was the animals. Now, don't get me wrong, I am perfectly well aware that the use of wild animals such as lions, tigers, bears and elephants in circuses is not in accordance with current thinking on animal welfare.
     When I was a child at the circus it was so exciting to see the lion cage in place. The lights would dim, and the big cats would come slinking along their tunnel, growling and roaring. It was pretty clear they didn't enjoy it though. Although I used to enjoy the elephants, I always felt it was a bit undignified for such big animals.
     However, I can't see any problems with horses, dogs, birds, or even camels - any domesticated animal, in fact.
     Cats would be useless - No - I lie, I've found the Chicago Acro-cats, and a current article about the Moscow Cat Circus.
The Acro-cats - that looks like Digby on keyboards

Moscow Cat Circus
     Hmmn - I'm not sure about these cats - I'd have to see them.  But dogs, no problem. What is the difference between what dogs do at Crufts and dogs performing at a circus? Well, never mind Crufts, look at the agility and obedience classes at any dog-training club. Generally, dogs regard such goings-on as one big game.
     Then, there were the horses. I used to love the liberty horses, one of the classic images of the circus. A group of glossy matching palominos would come cantering into the ring, feathery plumes nodding on their heads and glittering diamante on their harnesses, controlled by a beautiful woman in a sparkly frock. How I longed to be her.
Palominos at Bertram Mills Circus, 1962
     What about the bare-backed riders? Traditionally, a girl in a ballet tutu, sometimes a whole troupe of acrobats on several horses.
Jan Ashton, 1950s
Zoppe troupe, 1950s
     How is being in a circus any more unpleasant for a horse than competing in the Grand National? Or being a police horse in the middle of a riot? Or being neglected in a field and then sent for horse-meat? Or what about show-jumping, which also involves constant travelling around.
     I have looked on the internet and currently only two circuses touring in the UK, Zippo's and Gifford's, still use horses, dogs or birds. The RSPCA appears to be against the use of any animals in circuses, as do a variety of other animal-rights pressure groups. This seems a misguided use of their energies - it would be better to focus on agri-business, and the sad lives of the animals we use for food.
     
     

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Best coffee and cafes in St Leonard's

After my post on Best Coffee Places in Hastings, I had many St Leonardsistas complaining that I had left their cafes out, despite me saying that I was only concentrating on Hastings Town Centre and the Old Town.  Well, now it is time to put that right, so off to St Leonard's we go. 
    Once again, I apologise for any omissions - I can't be calling in everywhere, I'd have extreme caffeine overload and be twenty stone.
    Also, I was asked about access for people with disabilities. I don't actually think any of the places I've mentioned here have an accessible toilet, and some are downright awkward even for the able-bodied.
    Just to recap, to get my highest rating (and I'm introducing a star rating now), cafes must have:
-  a comfortable, pleasant and welcoming interior,
-  inside and and outside seating,
-  good quality coffee and tea,
-  nice cakes,
-  good clean loos,
-  pleasant, efficient, fast service,
-  interesting reading matter 
-  fresh, tasty, reasonably priced  food.
I don't go for dark bar-type places full of pounding music and brooding youth.
    So, starting off on the sea-front opposite Warrior Square, it is good to find a seaside cafe. Position is great, but is exposed to any wind whipping along the front. No inside seating. Coffee is not good, cakes were stale last time we went, and I don't like those Warrior Square loos. So, only ** I'm afraid, despite the location.
Sea front - somewhat exposed

A little basic....
     Just to agitate a few locals before I move on. Yes, I think the nearby fish and chip kiosk looks just fine. I gather there are plans to put more kiosks along the front, on top of Bottle Alley and I think it is an excellent plan. The more the merrier as far as I'm concerned, to bring more trade. However, I hope we'll have some slightly better food and drink on offer, and some proper seating, like the places on the beachfront in Eastbourne.
     Anyway, on the other side of the road we have Gecko, Smiths and Kassa. I'm sure Gecko is fine but it doesn't seem to be open at coffee time, and looks more like a bar hang-out aimed at youth. I've never been in there. I may be wrong, and it may be full of Guardian-reading persons of a certain age, but it doesn't give that impression.
Kassa, Smiths and Gecko on Grand Parade
     Smiths is next door to Gecko, and we visit it often. Outside seating is limited and it can be noisy by the road. Inside, it can get hot from the sun and steamy in winter. They need an awning to provide shade, or blinds for the windows.
      Coffee is good, cakes are good but not much choice.  Menu is extensive, food is excellent and reasonably priced, and they do very good fresh juices. I love their egg dishes, their salads and their Welsh rarebit. Service is pleasant, but can be slow at busy times. Loo is OK, and there is usually plenty of reading matter. **** for Smiths, I think.
Sunny view from Smiths
      A few doors up, Kassa is a strange place - a middle-eastern cafe crossed with a coffee shop crossed with an opticians.  It is clearly popular, and feels like a local's haunt, not always that welcoming for strangers. There is some outside seating, and plenty of comfortable seating inside. Coffee is fine, food is cheap and tasty and there is plenty of reading matter. Loos are fine. Last time we went we had to wait absolutely ages. I don't know if this is typical but it was a bit off-putting. ***
      Round the corner into London Road, passing the One Cafe, which I have never visited. Looks quite quirky though.
      Opposite, on the corner of Norman Road is the Love Cafe. It is a real local landmark with a vibrant mural outside. The mural used to be a Ben Eine (as given by Cameron to Obama) pixilated Prince Charles, but that has been replaced. I have been into the cafe, but not for a long time, so I won't give it a rating. It has plenty of outside seating, and a quirky interior, but when we did go, the service was totally chaotic. In my view, life is stressful enough without having to contend with chaotic catering.
Love Cafe
      Across the road is The Little Larder, with, in fine weather, an outside courtyard next door but one. The cafe is tiny, and feels quite cramped. When you can get a seat the food and drink are deliciously tasty and are served up pleasantly and promptly. They do particularly good savoury tarts with a choice of salads. Plenty of reading matter. There is a loo, but you have to scramble through the kitchen to reach it.***
Little Larder
      Just up the road is the Baker Mamonova Gallery - a fantastic and interesting space, specialising in Russian art, and now made even more fantastic with the addition of Michala's Cute Cakes, which has moved across the road from Shop (which still has a cafe, but now looks a bit sad without the cakes). Michala's cakes are really to die for - and I think after visiting here too often, one would indeed die. They only serve cakes, nothing savoury. The cakes are very rich, and the portions are enormous. The other day we shared lemon meringue pie, which was a bit lighter than the killer salted caramel we had the previous time. Coffee is very good, service is impersonal, but functional. No outside space.
     The loo is very strange, thorough an unmarked door across the gallery floor. On the wall, there is a faintly spooky stag's head and a pair of crossed skis (that looks wrong, should it be ski's?) for decoration. Last time I was in there the light suddenly went out and left me scrabbling around in total darkness. If it had been a comedy movie, I would have reeled out into the light wearing the head and clutching the skis, but no.  ****
Cake heaven
Gallery and cake...

Unusual loo decor
      The shops on Kings Road change round too often to keep up with. I see a new cafe is shortly to open in the wonderful old Art Nouveau-style shop - this looks promising, and let's hope they preserve it. There was another place further up on the same side but it seems to have vanished. Moose's Kitchen seems well-established but have never tried it - looks a bit healthy to me.
      Opposite Moose's, Jempson's took over a nice old shop a while ago and turned it into a bland, soulless cafe. Their sandwiches are boring and the coffee is flavourless, but I will still be requesting a Jempson's doughnut on my deathbed. I just love them. Loo is up steep stairs. * for the doughnuts alone.
      Round the corner is Roomz. Yeah, like a too awesomely youth place for Battleaxe.
      Down on the sea-front, Poffley's Coffee Shop has taken over the premises first occupied by Aardvark, and then by the Post Office Tearooms. We still miss David and Peter. In its current incarnation, Poffley's has set up more outside seating, but many of the interior seats in the front of the cafe are hard wooden benches, leading to a slightly spartan feel. The coffee is good, so are the cakes, and indeed, so are the sandwiches. Service is fast and friendly. Loo is OK. ***
Poffley's
      Poffley's is opposite the Azur, which I always think of as more of a restaurant, so I won't include it. I think it could make much more of its beachside catering facility.
      Further along, beneath Marine Court, there is the Armenian Cafe Relax - never been there.
      I think that's all. So which gets my top rating? (OK, only from the one's I have visited).  For food, Smiths or the Little Larder. For coffee and cake - Michala's Cute Cakes at the Baker Mamonova Gallery.
      Please let me know what I have left out or got wrong!
     

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

From Lyme Regis to Llantwit Major, then a big wedding!

Home again after an action-packed week, starting in Lyme Regis and ending in South Wales, for a wedding.
     Our first stop was to visit old friend Karol, who we met many years ago in Turkey. Drove down to Lyme Regis on the A303 past some of my favourite place names. Teffont Magna, Compton Pauncefoot, Chilton Candelo, Sandon Orcas.  I have a whole fantasy scenario about life in the Dower House, Compton Pauncefoot.
     'For goodness sake write it down', says Philosopher, 'and make us some money.'
     Karol lives in a beautiful house overlooking Lyme Bay, but we were surprised to see how the trees between her and the sea had grown up since our last visit, to partially obscure the view of one lovely cliff, Golden Gap. We walked down into Lyme, and then heaved ourselves back up again - my, that place is hilly, makes Hastings look flat.
     The sun was out, the sea was blue, throngs of holiday-makers were enjoying themselves in the pretty little town and on the beach.  The beach looks sandy below but I believe that sand is imported from France.

Lyme Regis - packed. I like the ammonite lamp
     Karol has lived there for ten years now, and has been a star in organising and growing the annual Lyme Regis Arts Festival
     She cooked us a lovely meal, and gave us one of her own paintings - of Great Dixter. Next day we set off across the South-West peninsula to the other coast.
     Our first stop was Watchet.  I haven't been to North Somerset since my marriage to my first husband, in 1974, and for Philosopher it was even longer - his grandparents lived in Minehead, and he visited as a child.  On the way to Watchet we were surprised to see a steam-engine chugging over a bridge right in front of us. It turns out that the West Somerset Railway runs down that bit of coast. Readers will know from previous posts how much Battleaxe loves a steam engine, and we saw plenty of great big former Great Western Railway locomotives which are now in regular service.
    Watchet is an old-fashioned little town with a nice harbour. They had a market, and I bought an unusual yellow crocosmia plant, which I then had to keep alive for the next five days. There was a statue of the Ancient Mariner on the harbour-side, apparently Watchet was the inspiration for Coleridge's poem. In a few days time, would I be the Wedding Guest clutched by that skinny hand?
The Ancient Mariner in Watchet
     We scoured the town for a decent cup of coffee, but had to settle for bilge-water. Now for a 'why oh why' moment. Why oh why is it so hard to get a decent cup of coffee in so many of these country towns. For all we know, they have fought like tigers to keep Costa out, but the local offerings are universally terrible. Next, a 'Hastings is better' moment. Well, sorry, in this case, it is. There are numerous really good coffee places here.
    Drove along to Dunster, stopping briefly at the big beach at Blue Anchor, where there was - nothing. We had booked our 'Treat' night at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster. I was a bit anxious about it because in the last year we have treated ourselves to other heritage hotels including the Bear in Woodstock and the Alvaston Manor in Stratford, and ended up having bad nights and grief with the management about surly staff, noisy ventilation shafts next to rooms, rooms with ill-fitting windows in shabby annexes etc. However, this time there was no worry. the hotel is beautiful, the staff were pleasant and helpful, our pretty room overlooked the landmark Yarn Market, and of course Dunster is as quiet as the grave at night. We had a beer and a sandwich in the garden with a view up the steep wooded hills to the castle. It reminded us of Heidelberg. The garden was reached from the bedroom corridor via a Moroccan style verandah.
The Luttrell Arms

Lovely garden

Dunster Yarn Market

Moroccan verandah leading to garden

View from our window
    The hotel is very old and creaky, and you could be unlucky and arrive at the same time as a huge wedding party, but we had an excellent, relaxing stay, including a good bar meal in the evening.
    In the afternoon we went down to Minehead to look for Philosopher's grandparents old house. We found it surprisingly easily, a large 1930's detached house in a big garden, but it was surrounded by huge thick hedges and high, solid gates, and we could not see in at all. Maybe it belongs to a recluse, or a criminal who wants no disturbance whatsoever.
    Minehead itself was a surprise. I thought it would be a dump but it reminded us of a French resort,  with a long tree-lined boulevard leading down to the sea, full of shops and restaurants. We found the station, which, being the end of the line, had many lovely engines gently steaming in the sidings.  We had a tasty cup of bilge-water in the Station cafe.
Minehead - strangely French

What a lovely engine


Battleaxe waits for the train
    Next day, we went to Cheddar Gorge, which neither of us had ever visited. We parked at the bottom and walked up through a pseudo-Swiss tack village, and then up the Gorge itself. It was better than I expected.  We bought cheapie seniors tickets that entitled us to admission to one cave and then a free Costa coffee and cake. We chose Gough's cavern, which is the longest and deepest - again, it was much better than I expected, with arrays of petrified waterfalls, stalagtites and stalagmites that looked like the view on the screen when you have a colonoscopy (too much detail here, I fear). The Costa coffee was welcome. The Gorge was crowded, not surprisingly for a sunny day in August, but not uncomfortably so.
Swiss-style tack shops at Cheddar Gorge
Prettier than I expected

Romantic gorge

Nice strata

Petrified waterfall in the cave
Don't like the look of those intestinal polyps...
   We drove on to Clevedon, where again neither of us had ever been, despite passing the signs a million times on the M5. It is a lovely little Victorian resort - like Malvern-on-Sea. The Pier is very graceful, and has lots of plaques from people who have paid money - an idea for Hastings Pier? I also think Hastings Pier needs a cafe at the end of it.
Clevedon Pier


Tea Pagoda
    I had booked our Crumbling Faded Grandeur night at the Walton Park Hotel, a huge stone pile perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. It was like a cross between a Victorian Health Hydro and a neo-classical banking hall. The old wood-panelled lift had a grille to pull across, and the landing outside our room smelt somewhat of laundries.
    The room itself was vast, with a big window looking straight out across the Bristol Channel to Wales. We didn't even have to draw the curtains, there was nothing out there but sea, and we could lie on the bed watching the changing sky and the ships passing up and down. It was lovely, and the hotel was fine - again, we had a nice bar meal sitting in a bay window watching the sea. There was some tired decor, threadbare carpets and a few damp patches on the walls in the enormous, echoey dining room where we ate our breakfast, but who cares?
Walton Park Hotel

Sunset from our bed...
    The next day was my birthday, and I had some lovely presents, about which more another time.
    We enjoyed a cup of bilge-water in the little pagoda at the end of the Pier, and then hit the motorway for South Wales.
     My old Brum friend Sue's son Tom was getting married to a Welsh girl, Bethan, in Barry on the Sunday, with the reception in St Donat's Castle near Llantwit Major. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express at Cardiff Airport for three utilitarian nights in a quadruple-glazed air-conditioned functional cell.  We could see the planes out if the window but it was totally soundless. In many ways it is a relief to collapse into functionality where you know everything is in place, everything works etc. Well, nearly everything - the breakfast coffee was even worse than bilge water.
Somewhat less romantic view from cell window
      Met Sue and her partner Graham (both somewhat stressed with acute weddingitis), and then other Sue and Alex, with whom we had a lovely birthday meal at a nearby old pub. This was followed by a little birthday party organised by the two Sue's. Cake and champagne in hotel room - very good.
     Next day Sue, Alex and us two went to explore Llantwit Major. The others had never been before but I had. My sister lived there in the 1960s. My brother-in-law was then working on the Aberthaw power station, and my youngest niece was christened in the church. It was hard to believe this was fifty years ago, and I didn't recognise anything. The church is beautiful and very interesting, has a large graveyard to explore, and a collection of celtic crosses in a restored chapel.
Llantwit Major church

Great graveyard

Church interior
     There was much panic afoot because of the terrible weather forecast - the tail end of Hurricane Bertha was due to hit South Wales. Indeed, it was absolutely pouring with rain when we looked out of the cell window first thing on the wedding morning, and very windy. However, by some miracle, it had stopped by wedding time, and then only rained when we were all indoors. It stayed windy though - many hats and fascinators bowling about, and the bride's veil blew off high into the sky and down the street when they left the church. Fortunately I didn't have a hat to worry about.
     The Barry Male Voice Choir actually sang Cwm Rhondda (Guide me O thou great Jehovah) at the service. What a treat.
     The bride looked happy and lovely, the big bridesmaids were elegant, the little ones were cute, the groom looked happy and lovely, the groomsmen were dashing, the church looked lovely, we all looked lovely etc. etc. Sue, the bridegroom's mum, looked particularly fabulous. But what can you say about weddings? 
     There were about 130 guests. These days, Philosopher and Battleaxe rarely go to such do's. It was good to see so many people from Birmingham, and to see us all scrubbed up in our best.
     St Donat's Castle is very impressive - a romantic reconstruction by Randolph Hearst in the 1920s, and now home to something called Atlantic College. We had photographs, fizz and canapes in the sunny but windswept garden, followed by a sit-down meal and speeches in the Great Hall (which looked lovely. We had our place names written on pebbles). The man next to me started to tell me about sailing his boat to Watchet. Eftzoons, the Ancient Mariner! 'Unhand me, grey-beard loon!' nearly quoth I, but obviously didn't.
     The groom made a very touching little speech about Sue, his mum - not a dry eye in the house.
St Donat's Castle

Castle garden
     It was an excellent event, and a credit to Bethan's family, and to Sue, who had organised it all. Although I took loads of photos, I will only post one wedding picture, not mine.  I'll put a couple more on Facebook. Thanks to Anne Tucker for this one.

     After the meal, there was a band to dance to, cones of fish and chips, and ice-creams.
     We returned to our cell at about 10.30pm. I like a band, and love to bop about, but the music was aimed more at youth.
     Next day we had a very wet and incredibly traffic-clogged drive back to Hastings. It took an hour and a half to do twenty miles of M25. Arrived home worn out.