Monday, April 18, 2011

Puttin' the Kae in UK

Kae's visiting again! Woo hoo!

Trooper that she is, after much excitement and a big breakfast, the three of us then went shopping in Gloucester. Well, Tea and Kae shopped, for our imminent tour of Belgium and the Netherlands, while I'll kicked back in the New Inn with a book and a pint. I got chatting with a local, Don -- thanks, again, to the Roots swag I picked up in January; that stuff is aces for starting conversations about Canada -- who'd visited a fair bit of our beautiful country.

Many of the old travel guides I've been reading lately reference rail lines that no longer exist, including the old Honeybourne Line, which Don remembered from his college days, travelling from his home, then, in South Wales, to Cheltenham. I said that our rail network pales in comparison to theirs, and while he agreed, he said it's as the modern system does to that of his youth, when, for example, Cheltenham had three stations, and there were twice as many stations along his route to the college.

He and his family visited Canada in 2008, and had planned that part of the journey would be by rail. When they got to the station in Toronto, they learned that some signalling error had caused a derailment, and that Via was now putting buses on. (Their destination was Montreal.) Coincidentally, this was in late July, and they'd just learned about the terrible fate of Tim McLean. None of them slept a wink on that leg.

Overall, they really enjoyed Canada, though. They got to see Niagara, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal during their time there. I was surprised by what impressed him the most about our country, however: how apologetic the French Canadians they met were about their poor English. He said it was just so unexpected and genuine.

As I packed up to move on, he said I could come back and visit him at his 'office' any time. I love the New Inn!

From there, with the girls still occupied, I moved to another pub I'd been meaning to try: Dick Whittington's. Like the New Inn, it is also a historic building. I was surprised to find, in Darrel's book, The Story of Gloucester's Pubs, that the pub had suffered from poor management recently. I strongly suspect that's no longer the case, as the publican who served me was very friendly and generous with bar snacks. He also had an excellent spread of real ales on, including two from the Great Western Brewing Company, which I'd never tried before. Excellent stuff.

* * *

The next day -- a very special one for Tea -- we decided to go to Birmingham, for a day out and supper at Jamie's Italian. While standing around at our train station wondering why there were only buses on, who should appear before us but Matt, picking up his tickets for Edinburgh in a week's time. Having nothing better to do, he agreed to join us, on what would now be our drive to B'ham (for the first time).

The trip was seamless -- surprising, considering we were driving in the second biggest city in the UK -- and, as happened the day before, the girls soon left me -- with company this time! -- agreeing to meet at Jamie's later.

Aside: prior to splitting up, we'd all been shocked to discover a wide range of 'American' foodstuffs at the Food Hall of beautifully-designed Selfridges store in the Bull Ring: we're talkin' Jif and Skippy peanut butter (from Ohio!), Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Lucky Charms, a whole 'American baking' section... The list goes on. How the heck we've been ignorant of this mecca for so long is beyond me.

You'll no doubt be shocked to learn that we found ourselves at a pub shortly thereafter. First, the Wellington, which was much calmer than the last time I'd been there, and then the Anchor again. The highlight of the afternoon was definitely Beowulf's Killer Stout, which we wisely consumed as half-pints (7.9% ABV).

Eventually we found our way to Jamie's -- much later than the girls, we learned, sitting in the Anchor. Having had to walk by the patio at Jamie's to get from the Wellington to the Anchor, both Matt and I somehow failed to notice them waving at us. Ahem! A few missed calls and texts later, we sheepishly finished up our pints. Thankfully Jamie's wasn't busy, so we were quickly sat, once we'd made our way back -- and only ten times off our agreed time, I must add!

You must (must) be tired of hearing this by now, but, yet again, Jamie's failed to disappoint. In fact, my special of pork loin with beetroot and basil that had been honey-glazed and roasted, was one of the best dishes I've had to date. We got the antipasti plank again, and the bread selection; just a fantastic spread. This was Matt's first time at a Jamie's, and I'm sure he'll be bringing the family to one when they're over for a visit.

All in all, a great weekend. Now, off to pack!

Up next: Brussels

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tropical Britain: Naunton and Bristol

The unseasonable temperatures, the likes of which haven't been seen in 50 years*, had Britons out in droves this weekend. We were amongst them, of course, shaking out the cobwebs of a Friday night sending-off party and heading to the Cotswold Farm Park. Lambing season is being heavily promoted across the county right now, and Tea was determined to cuddle a good percentage of the latest to the flocks.

* According to BBC Radio Gloucestershire

A dovecote in Naunton
Despite the crowds, we had no trouble getting our hands on the lambs and kids -- U'm, that's baby goats, folks! Let's keep it clean, now. Even the lambing demonstration -- twenty minutes on all that's involved in bringing healthy lambs into the world -- was scheduled regularly to keep the audience to a reasonable size. The layout of the whole park worked very well, in fact: the fenced areas were such that you could feed the animals that were hungry -- from bags for sale -- while others rested away from the excitement.

After that, it was home for a kip before our table reservation at the Hollow Bottom -- one of the Cotswolds' most acclaimed pubs (and deservedly so).

* * * * *

We were up fairly early on Sunday, planning to hit the boot sale and antiques show at the racecourse before my noon train to Bristol. While the boot sale was packed, the £4 door charge at the antiques show kept the numbers down. The Antiques Roadshow happened to be filming as we wandered the floor; a suspicion we only confirmed later that evening. (Sorry, Mom; should've got an autograph.)

The find of the morning -- thanks to Tea! -- and a recent fascination for me, was a copy of a Ward Lock 'red' guide book of Bath from the 1930s, in beautiful condition. The guy who sold it to us was the spitting image of Tom Baker (in his heyday) -- the best of the Doctors, I'm sure you'll agree. I strung-out the conversation much longer than necessary to revel in it; luckily, he was very friendly.

From there, I hopped a train to Bristol with some friends to see Bristol Rugby host Nottingham at Memorial Stadium. With some time before the 3 p.m. kick-off, and at the suggestion of the Bristol native amongst us, we headed to the Wellington, just down the street from the stadium. A Bath Ales owned pub, the Wellie offered every one of their regular brews on hand-pump, and had plenty of outdoor seating.

Full of Sunday roast, we made our way to the 'cheap' section, which turned out to be the well-shaded area behind Bristol's end (for the first half); we had front-row seats for much of that half's action, and some great moments in the second to boot. Mike, our host, couldn't get over the number of tries: 29-19 for the home team, once it was all said and done.

One of our group was visiting from the States, so Clifton and the famous suspension bridge were next on the agenda. The whole area was something to see, especially on the day -- more like a slice of London than what I think of as the South West -- and folks were out on blankets, soaking up every last bit of it.

Mike had been talking up Exhibition cider, so the wind left our sails a bit when we saw that the Coronation Tap was closed. (Probably for the best, what with work the next day -- the stuff is legendary.) The Mall stood in admirably, though -- I certainly enjoyed my pints of "cellar cool" Tribute -- serving very good food well after 7 p.m. (Unheard of on a Sunday in Chelty, for example.)

Check out our Picasa album of the weekend for lots more pictures of lambs, flora and blue skies.