Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Trip To Italy

For some reason (most likely it being on past my bedtime) I missed the first series of The Trip. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drove around between various fancy restaurants in “the north” (mostly the Lake District), supposedly to review them for the Observer food magazine. Coogan and Brydon themselves subsequently got great reviews for their performances (though I only read the reviews in Cumbria Life, for which my husband’s grandfather buys us a subscription every Christmas), so I was keen to watch its follow-up. This time the same two actors and comedians (or comedians and actors) have been sent by an equally fake Observer food magazine on a gastronomic trip to Italy to write about six more restaurants.

It’s the sort of holiday that most of us would die to go on, but Steve Coogan only very grudgingly accepts his mission in the opening credits. And I can’t say either of them properly exude enthusiasm for the task at hand at any point. But off they go, in a black Mini Cooper whose leather seats make them sweat like the middle-aged men that they are. They are trying to follow in the footsteps of Romantic English poets Byron, Keats and Shelley, but are far from natural poets (or romantic) themselves. At least when it comes to the food. I can’t imagine what they are going to write in their reviews given that the only adjectives they come up with while eating it are “good”, “very good”, and “nice”. At least we get a quick flash of the food’s creation by its chefs in the kitchen and a brief glimpse of the finished product on their plates as the waiter or waitress serves them. But Brydon and Coogan hardly dwell on it. They almost ignore it. They spend more time looking at the bill. And they never, ever order pudding. Not even a little gelato. For heavens’ sake! Come on, guys, there’s at least one salivating lady in your audience, and it’s the sight of something sugary that she craves.

What she certainly doesn’t crave is the noise the two of them are making. Not undignified pasta slurping, lip-smacking sighs of satisfaction, or big fat belches, all of which would be perfectly forgivable given the circumstances. But the non-stop banter. It’s apparently all improvised, some of it is indeed quite funny when it’s not blatantly misogynistic (just how do you pronounce Jake Gyllenhaal’s surname?), and the impressions are, well, impressive. But after a while it all becomes very hard work to listen to. I don’t need Hugh Grant/ Michael Caine/ Roger Moore/ Frank Spencer or even Saddam Hussein doing Frank Spencer being thrust down my throat when there is all that fabulous food to be talking about. And if not the food then the incredible views they should be enjoying – sunlit beach coves, tumbling Tuscan hill towns, rainbow coloured Mediterranean ports, Roman marble. At one point they briefly acknowledge that “sea on pebbles” is one of the most beautiful sounds you can hear, before the tirade starts up again, with both of them cawing like crows.

I don’t mind the in-car banter, especially when accompanied to them bobbing up and down to Alanis Morisette, which makes them look faintly ridiculous. We can all relate to them getting lost in the middle of Rome traffic, or yelling at the sat nav. The car is generally a good place for shouting people down. But not a restaurant where in reality everybody else is sitting quietly, breathing, eating, drinking, relaxing. Ahhhhhhh...

Coogan and Brydon are allegedly being themselves, and yet they cannot be, since their personal backgrounds (partners, children etc) are made up, and things (such as infidelities) happen that you would like to think might not in real life. Some of their teasing has a basis in what we know as fact (too many panel show appearances, too much time in LA), but there’s not a lot that you can actually trust. Much of the repartee is presumably an “I’m a celebrity in public” defence mechanism, lest they should accidentally have a proper conversation and reveal too much of themselves. The pair need to show us their trade and do, constantly. As does Michael Winterbottom, a prolific film maker whose beautiful cinematography at least does the backdrop justice.

I have been to Italy many times, and would go many more if I could. I learned Italian at school and my basic knowledge still serves me well in most situations. It was a country we had been desperate to take our daughter for a long time, and – like Coogan and Brydon - precisely because of the food. Italy was the one country on the planet where we knew we could feed her without having to take a suitcase full of baked beans. Her average toddler fussy eating is generally restrictive, but as she will invariably eat pasta, pizza and ice cream, Italy had to be a sure-fire winner. But we didn’t think we could afford it. Plus to access so many of the more scenic parts of the country you need to hire a car, and driving in Italy is not that appealing when you lack Steve Coogan’s enthusiasm for cars.

But then a friend of mine told me she had booked a trip to Lake Garda with Eurocamp, and after some quick research into prices and what was on offer, a couple of days later we had done the same. I don’t think she minded too much that we had shamelessly copied her holiday. We found that for £250 in late September we could have a week’s accommodation in a mobile home on a campsite in walking distance of Peschiera del Garda. Even after booking flights to Verona, we still had paid out less than you do for a lot of holiday cottages in the UK summer season. We could have done the transfer from Verona to the campsite on public transport, but with a young child, a push chair and two suitcases in tow, the 100 Euro return taxi transfer was well worth it. And still a lot cheaper than hiring a car.

We had a wonderful and genuinely relaxing holiday, blessed with unusually hot and sunny weather for the time of year. The campsite pools should have already closed for the season, but had been kept open indefinitely. The lake itself was much warmer to swim in than the pools, however. It just came with swans. We had originally had grand visions of exploring the length of the lake and doing a day trip to Venice to mark our wedding anniversary. But when it came to it, all our daughter wanted to do was sit on the lake shore throwing pebbles into the water, and we were quite happy to sit and watch her. For a while at least. Peschiera del Garda is perfectly pleasant, but not the nicest place in the area, which meant we still wanted to explore a little further afield. So we downsized our planned excursions to places within half an hour’s travelling time, by boat, bus or train. These did not include Gardaland (may our daughter never learn about Gardaland...), but did include Desenzano, Lazise, Verona and Valeggio.

Throwing pebbles
The latter was as close as we got to a gourmet experience in Italy. No Michelin starred establishments for us. Generally around Lake Garda the food is very aimed at tourists, and German tourists at that. Most restaurants have photos of each dish on the menu, which I never take as a particularly promising sign. They are also quite expensive, so we usually opted for a basic pasta dish and never a main course, apart from on our aforementioned anniversary, when I had a dish of lake perch to celebrate. Wine was inevitably a half-litre carafe of house white or prosecco for five euros. And dessert was always a visit to a gelateria, where for some reason our daughter, when presented with an array of at least twenty different flavours, always opted for strawberry. A bit like if she was in Bod.
But Valeggio is a town famous for its tortellini production and has dozens of pasta shops lining its streets and piazzas. On the recommendation of a friend, we walked down the hill to neighbouring Borghetto, a village of medieval watermills and restaurants built on a weir across the Mincio river. The lunch we had here was superb, its upmarket nature evident from the wine only being available by the glass or bottle rather than the carafe. The tortellini – meat for my husband, pumpkin for me, just melted in your mouth. 

Our lunchtime restaurant in Borghetto

View from the Giardino Sigurto towards Borghetto
After a stroll around the magnificent Giardino Sigurta back up the hill in Valeggio, we bought some more tortellini to cook in the caravan for tea. But I made the mistake of not noticing anchovy (acciuga) next to aubergine (melanzana) on the list of ingredients. There are only two things in this world that I don't eat - Brussel sprouts and anchovies. Anchovies are Nasty with a capital N. Thankfully we had bought some more pumpkin tortellini as well.

Tortellini di Valeggio

I wonder if I will be allowed to get away with cooking pasta in pesto sauce every night when we return with Eurocamp to Holland very soon? Somehow, if no longer in situ, I doubt it.

Sunday, 27 April 2014


In our house we resist most drama on ITV, but not anything belonging to the Inspector Morse franchise, it seems. Whilst Lewis got so dull that even its two main characters resigned on screen, I do really like Endeavour, the 1960s-set prequel to Morse. It’s gloomy and dark, with grey (not black or – ahem - noir) often the predominant on-screen colour. Gramophones crackle and typewriters clatter behind the refrains of Barrington Pheloung’s theme. Morse listens to opera and solves crossword puzzles in his dingy bedsit rather than his opulent future Victorian mansion, and he doesn’t own a car yet, but everyone else drives ones just like the one that he will. Motorway service stations are just a business idea that require explanation. Not that I can quite picture Morse in any guise sitting in a Welcome Break.

Endeavour is all slightly dumbed down for an ITV audience of course, and the classical music is so mainstream even I have played or sung it  – a Chopin Nocturne, Mozart and Brahms’ German Requiem. The Oxford colleges still have their stupid fictitious names - Pelham (an electricity substation in Hertfordshire), Lonsdale (a bad pub in West Jesmond). But there are a couple of clever nods to Morse fans. Author Colin Dexter continues to make cameos - spotted on a bench, a double decker bus and during the obligatory scene (there’s one in every Morse-related series) in the Pitt Rivers museum. Future Chief Superintendent Strange is a fellow Constable. But best of all, the local newspaper editor is called Dorothea Frazil. Frazil is a type of ice crystal, so using her initial, her name D(e)-Frazil means “Thaw”. As in John. And – ta-da! – this self-same newspaper editor is played by John Thaw’s daughter Abigail. I didn’t work any of that out myself, incidentally. A Guardian television reviewer, embarrassed because he had thought Abigail Thaw was actually playing the murderer in a previous episode, took great pains to point it out.

So Morse as a young cop is already an intellectual, and quiet and moody. At the end of series one, he acquires his character’s famous future limp when he is shot. But as I can’t remember the plot of episodes from one week to the next, don’t expect me to tell you by whom. But he was still very traumatised about it all at the start of this series. He is in the pub a lot more for one thing. He has fallen for his next-door neighbour, a nurse, but we know (having seen the future) that the romance must be doomed. And he ends this series in prison, but in Oxford that's OK, since the prison is part of the Malmaison hotel chain.

Morse’s boss, DI Fred Thursday, is played by the great Roger Allam, who I once saw play Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s Democracy at the National Theatre, and who I now regularly hear narrating Sarah And Duck on CBeebies. Fred Thursday seems like a boring pipe-smoking middle-aged man in the height of Oxford suburbia, with two teenage kids and a different sandwich filling for each day of the week. However, it transpires that something terrible happened to him during the war in Italy, and something even more terrible happened to him at the end of the series finale on Sunday, when it was his turn to get shot.

I would say that Endeavour, by being grey rather than noir, doesn’t have anything remotely like the nail-biting edge of BBC4’s Danish imports, although the final episode of this series gave it a good go. The ghost story episode in the girls’ boarding school was unconvincing because you knew it would have a boring Enid Blyton type explanation. And the department store (Burridge’s) that was the centre of the action in episode three seemed to have been modelled on Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served?, with its stockinged mannequin legs, wooden panelling, blonde bimbos, dirty brown caretaker overalls and lewd conversation between the staff. The characters wearing poppies rather than Captain Peacock’s red carnations in their button holes was the only discernible difference. But Endeavour deserves respect, and he genereally gets it from his public at large, whereas anyone that Lewis interviewed was invariably rude and brushed him off as quickly as possible.

I started going to Oxford in the early 1990s, when some of my school friends went off to university there and I went down (or should that be up?) to visit them. I myself had rejected Oxbridge (rather than Oxbridge rejecting me). Their languages degrees distinctly lacked the “modern” moniker and had syllabuses (syllabi?) devised sometime not long after Noah left the ark. I got the grades but know I couldn’t have handled the stuffy academic pressure, or the public school tossers who went there. But one friend was at St Hugh’s, one of the more down-to-earth colleges, located a little out of town in a beautiful rambling Edwardian garden not far from the Cherwell punts. And I always felt very at home staying there. I was even there on my 21st birthday, for which my friend not only very kindly vacated her room for me and my boyfriend to sleep in (she did have a boyfriend of her own to crash with), but also turned up on the doorstep first thing the next morning armed with a bottle of bubbly for our breakfast. Ah, these Oxford types know how to party.

The out-of-town more modern colleges never seem to feature on Morse, however, although the Cherwell boathouses sometimes do. The same few traditional colleges appear over and over again, presumably the ones with quadrangles permanently set up for film crews wishing to throw corpses off the roof. The Sheldonian Theatre and Bodlean library are also familiar backdrops.

Thanks to my lovely cousin for supplying these photos
But I am ashamed to admit that the places I recognise most in Endeavour, Lewis and Morse are the public houses. Fast-forwarding a few years to a time when I was salaried, single and living in London, I was introduced to most of the more famous Oxford beer taverns in the course of a single weekend, when I went to stay with an American friend of a friend who was doing an MPhil at one of the graduate colleges. Delighted to have a fellow real ale lover to entertain for a couple of days, she immediately marched me across the meadows upriver to the Trout at Wolvercote for lunch, and once we had staggered (it was a very big lunch) back into town, took me on to the Eagle and Child and the Turf before ending up at a true hidden gem, the Old Bookbinders by the canal in Jericho. Here the beer flowed straight from the barrel and they did a special tasting tray so you could try up to six different ales at a time.

A couple of years after this, I began to find myself in Oxford more regularly. In trying to get himself a job nearer to me in London, my boyfriend (a different and better one, now my husband) had ended up working for Swindon Borough Council. He had been in Carlisle before, so pretty much anywhere in the country would have been nearer to London. So it was a bit of a shame, really, that he ended up in Swindon. I will be careful what I say here, since I know that at least one of my friends is Swindon born and bred, but, well, as a 1960s new town it’s not the nicest place in the country. But it does have a good designer outlet shopping mall and a Magic Roundabout. My boyfriend was frantically writing up his PhD at the time, so it was probably good that Swindon didn’t offer too much in the way of distraction. Often when I was visiting, we would not spend very much time in Swindon at all, but instead head out for the day to Bath, Avebury, the Cotswolds or Oxford.

And when the PhD writing reached its peak and my boyfriend could no longer spare full weekends for me, we would meet just for the day in Oxford, with me hopping on the coach from London Victoria. It worked out very well. There was a lot of drinking – often in the aforementioned ale houses, and often before lunch. Sometimes we would buy a picnic of bread and cheese from the indoor covered market and take it to the river, University Parks or botanical gardens to be washed down with a bottle of wine. One evening we did stay over, and ended our dinner with a nightcap of a chocolate cocktail which was so delicious I can still taste it today. We went for long walks and watched a lot of matinees at the Phoenix Cinema. Happy, naughty days. And no one, as far as I am aware, got murdered.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Battle For Britain's Breakfast

I watched this on a bit of a whim, but it turned out to be surprisingly interesting. It’s hard to believe that there was once no such thing as breakfast television. Once upon a time, the only TV before lunchtime was Open University lectures or that test card of a girl playing noughts and crosses with a scary clown. She was a big part of my youth, that girl. My mum couldn’t shove us in front of CBeebies all day long, but she could let us loose on the test card. I am sure that clown had a lot to do with a childhood phobia of the circus.

This documentary detailed the ratings war between ITV and the BBC after the government gave permission for channels to start broadcasting in the early morning. The ITV franchise was awarded to TV-am, and the cheeky BBC decided to launch a rival show two weeks before it went on the air. The first Breakfast Time on BBC1 in 1983 was a big event in our house. (We plainly had no life.) We were always very much a BBC rather than an ITV family, though me and my brother were allowed to watch Rainbow at lunchtime so that my mum could then tune into The Sullivans. So Frank “combover” Bough and Selina “Clothes Show” Scott were regulars in our house, and we only saw Good Morning Britain when we went to visit my nanna in the Lake District. So I was quite surprised to learn that people that I had remembered being on ITV, like Russell Grant and the Green Goddess, were actually on BBC Breakfast Time. Or I guess these were assumptions rather than memories. But that is what the whole ratings war was about – the BBC's breakfast show, with its jumpers and sofas, was trying to be like ITV, whereas the TV-am broadcasts, with David Frost, Parky, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and a serious news content, were trying to be like the BBC. It didn’t work out for anybody, although the BBC was winning the ratings war. Behind the scenes at TV-am there was a lot of treachery. Famous people got sacked. Jonathan Aitken was a baddie even then (he got wine thrown over him by Anna Ford - you go, girl!). TV-am went virtually bankrupt and could barely pay for enough electricity to keep broadcasting. Greg Dyke, now chancellor of my alma mater, The University of York, brought in a rat puppet called Roland to save the day. 

Eventually things came full circle. The BBC relaunched Breakfast with people in suits behind desks (to make people want to go out to work), and ITV became increasingly tabloid-influenced and sofa-based (to encourage stay-at-home couch potatoes). And since then everything has more or less remained as you might expect.

My grandfather was once on Breakfast Time, when he became the first person to climb all the mountains in England, Scotland and Wales over 2,000 feet high. However, he was filmed on location, asleep in the back of his Volvo, and hiking up his final hill, rather than being allowed on a sofa. Those who knew him would probably agree that my grandfather didn’t look comfortable on a sofa.

It’s sadly ironic that The Battle For Britain’s Breakfast was broadcast the day after the death of Peaches Geldof. Her parents were, of course, very involved with Channel 4’s own early morning programme, The Big Breakfast, which (since it didn't air until nearly a decade later) played no part in this documentary. I once walked past the house where The Big Breakfast was filmed. It was next to a grotty canal towpath that was on the Capital Ring, a 78 mile walk around the edge of London which my husband and I completed one summer. The walk is split into several easy sections, the beginning and end of which are all accessible by public transport, usually from stations in zone 4. I wrote of the Capital Ring in 2006:

“Like all of London, the Capital Ring embraces contrasts. You see some of the most opulent (Richmond) and some of the most squalid (Hackney Wick) parts of the city suburbs. There are palaces (Syon House, Eltham) and sewers (the Greenway). There are streams, canals and rivers, forests, woods, parks and open meadows. There is the world’s ugliest hospital (Ealing). There is a windmill (Wimbledon). There are cranes, swans, ducks, coots, squirrels, rats, voles, mice, woodpeckers, jays and rutting deer. There is dog shit (Crouch End’s Parkland Walk). Some areas are undergoing rapid change and construction, such as the Docklands and 2012 Olympic Park to be. Some are undergoing painfully slow change and construction (Wembley stadium and, if I think about it, the 2012 Olympic Park to be).”

Anyway, if you live in London, I wholeheartedly recommend that you give the Capital Ring a go. We loved it and were very proud of ourselves when we got all the way round. We embarked on the walk's bigger brother, the London Loop, but sadly didn't get to complete this before we had to move away.

I was surprised to read that the Big Breakfast house is still standing now, since it was right in the area where the Olympic Park was going to be built. Apparently it fell under a compulsory purchase order but didn’t in the end need to be demolished.

The first subtitling company I worked for had two contracts to subtitle the news segments on breakfast television, one for Channel 4's Big Breakfast, and one for GMTV, TV-am's successor. Being fresh out of university, I hadn’t had any experience of serious early rising, so never volunteered to cover these shifts myself. Now, with a young child and never getting to sleep beyond six in the morning, I’d be signing up for them like a shot, as you got a taxi ride into work (the Tube not being properly up and running at that time of day), paid extra, and could slope off home after lunch. (Though to be honest, given the cuts to subtitling budgets over the years, I doubt these terms and conditions would still apply.) Subtitling for GMTV was done at their studios on the South Bank and there was also a rumour that if you popped out to make yourself a coffee at the right time, you could also get yourself on television, as some interviews were filmed outside the subtitle transmission room. Our involvement in these breakfast shows' production was hardly as cut-throat as the world portrayed in the Battle For Britain's Breakfast, but the subsequent loss of the GMTV contract was definitely the start of our own company's demise.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


And suddenly it was the Easter holidays, most of which my daughter spent coughing and not sleeping, meaning I’ve been feeling ghastly too and the blog has had to be temporarily shelved. I suspect this will happen a lot. Nonetheless I persevere. There is, I promise you, more writing in the pipeline.

But in any case, recently I have been mostly watching Masterchef, so there is currently little variety to my television viewing. This series seems slightly condensed and speeded up in comparison to earlier ones, since it’s “only” on three nights a week. There’s the familiar velvety voiceover saying the obvious about what’s on the plate, contestants saying “I’m here to go all the way” or “I hope I’ve done enough” or “I’m absolutely gutted - I still haven't shown them my best” (why the hell not?), former champions brought in as critics saying, “Oh no, they're going to deconstruct something", John Torode saying, “This is a lovely, lovely thing” and Gregg Wallace strutting around saying little more meaningful than “Phwoargh!” Interspersed there is cooking ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, with smears. As usual, it’s all in the seasoning. Everyone does everything in the final minute. No one, it seems, can cook rice. Figs and cranachan are all the rage. John Torode is cooking more on screen than he used to, trying out the sweet or savoury invention test or demonstrating one of his own dishes that the contestants then have to replicate. His Asian-influenced fusion food is a lot more delicate than his manner.

To get myself back up to blogging speed, the travel section of this entry is simply going to be a link to my Italian cookery lesson with Sara Danesin Medio, a former Masterchef finalist who now runs a dining club in York and who (I have reliably been informed) will feature on this Wednesday’s episode. As some of you will recall, to do a cookery course was one of 40 challenges I set myself in the year running up to turning 40. It was a wonderful day. Ironically, the coughing daughter was ill then too... 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


It's impossible not to find Rev. utterly brilliant. It manages to be realistic, farcical, serious and incredibly funny all at the same time. Despite being primarily a comedy series, it highlights very real issues affecting the church today, such as dwindling congregations, gay marriage, financial problems, the promotion of women, the role of church schools, and trying to cohabit East End city life with other religions. The lead characters are funny because they are people with genuine human frailties rather than raucous comedy stereotypes, so they are completely believable. Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman are perfectly cast, showing how it is that an atheist and a devout Christian fell in love with one another and make their marriage work, come what may. They find looking after their new baby as exhausting and emotionally overwhelming as the rest of us. As for the scary characters, and by this I mean the bishops and archdeacons (rather than the homeless people with mental health and substance abuse issues who are forever ringing the doorbell at the vicarage), they are subtle with their menace, yet truly terrifying. Plus it’s nice to see Miles Jupp, as the intolerant lay reader, do something other than panel shows and playing Archie the Inventor in Balamory

The church playing the part of St Saviour By The Marshes looks like so many I have wandered past in London over the years – in Kennington, Shoreditch, Camden and Waterloo. It’s that Wren style of narrow tower and steeple over a Greek style portico, with sides built of brown brick. (Look at me, trying to pretend I know something about architecture.) The only one of these churches I have been inside, St John The Evangelist opposite Waterloo station near the IMAX cinema, was when I sang Mozart’s Requiem and Bach's St John Passion in concerts with Morley College Choir. Our choirmaster wore biker leathers and had a pathological hatred of John Eliot Gardiner. One particularly doddery bass (known uncharitably to everyone as Old Man) came with a minder and insisted on singing a third of an octave below the rest of his section. Halfway through the Bach concert, he stood up to take a photo of the audience, with a camera that was about as subtle as the one Martin Crane uses at Freddie’s bar mitzvah in Frasier. Old Man had dressed up, and was sporting several medals on his jacket lapel - medals which were not for armed services bravery in a bygone war, but rather for being a blood donor. The concert was a disaster, and the beer afterwards left me slightly hysterical.

I was a member of a London church congregation for approximately one month, the month when my future husband and I had to get our wedding banns read out in our Crouch End parish. The parish boundaries were rather strange, so instead of going to the rather grand looking church on Tottenham Lane that we could see from our flat, we had to walk up the hill behind us and down towards Finsbury Park, to a building that didn’t look much more permanent than a Portakabin and contained such a heady odour of incense mixed with fustiness and decay that it knocked you sideways. It was a thoroughly depressing place. The congregation was about 60% Afro-Caribbean, but with none of the colour and gospel exuberance you could hear ringing out from other local churches on Sundays. The other 40% of the congregation were couples wanting their wedding banns read out. The priest didn’t seem to like any of us. We did the legal necessities, stayed for a cup of tea and a stale bun, and never went back.

My husband says I should also write about a New Year’s Eve we once spent in the company of three gay vicars on a rooftop in Knaresborough. But given the difficulties faced by Rev Adam Smallbone when wishing to conduct a gay marriage of two close friends, until the church demonstrates a more universally enlightened attitude, I will keep quiet for now.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Great Railway Journeys: London Kings Cross to Peterborough

It’s a tough thing to admit, but it can actually be enjoyable watching Michael Portillo on the television even when he isn’t losing an election. At least if you like trains. Though it’s more about the ride than the presenter, er, taking you on it.

Michael Portillo likes making programmes about railway journeys. He wears ridiculous pink shirts matched with lime green jackets, and what he loses in sartorial elegance, he makes up for with buffoonery. His travel guide is always an ancient Bradshaw’s railway guide, whether in Britain or the Continent.  I watched most of his recent series in Europe, but last night BBC4 was showing a repeat of a journey I had made just two days prior, from London Kings Cross to Peterborough.

Now, London to Peterborough is not what many would call a great railway journey, given that it passes through Hornsey and Stevenage, but Portillo was meaning it to be part of a trip from Portsmouth to Grimsby, which is certainly greater in terms of distance, if not final destination or starting point.

What was interesting to me was at the start, Portillo had a look around the redevelopment of the area immediately around Kings Cross, particularly Granary Square. It was very much a work in progress in the film, and still is, but I had seen a much more finished product on Saturday. I was blessed with a beautiful spring day for my trip to the capital, meaning I had to carry my winter coat (very much needed on my walk to the station in York) over my arm throughout. And Granary Square was my first port of call, where I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee (which, incidentally, I don't drink), at her recommendation. It could not have made a lovelier starting point in the sunshine. St Martin’s College of Art has now moved in to the former Granary building and outside, built on what was previously a canal basin, is a vast grid of low-level fountains. Toddlers were tottering in and out of the water having a simply marvellous time. Our chosen rendezvous, Caravan, served fresh, simple but perfectly formed food with a mediterranean twist (at a London cost of course). Its buzzing atmosphere and beautiful brunch crowd, exuding cool from every table, only served to remind me of how wrong so many eateries in York still (and always will) get it.

The area between Granary Square and Kings Cross is changing and springing up day by day. And I was delighted to see that they have finally knocked down the revolting 1960s frontage to the old Kings Cross station entrance, meaning you now arrive at the Italianate style (Portillo’s words, not mine) original Victorian entrance, with a large piazza to enjoy in front of it. It’s all good.

Portillo then moved on to Alexandra Palace. Except that I could see that on his journey there he was in fact travelling from Alexandra Palace towards Finsbury Park and Kings Cross and not the other way round he implied. The Hornsey New River Village in the Crouch End borders was on his right and not his left. But details, schmetails. Only a former resident would have spotted that.

We could see Ally Pally from our lounge window in Crouch End. I am going to be lazy and import an extract from a text I wrote many years ago (before analogue television signal was switched off) when I still had that view:

"It (Ally Pally) really is a rather beautiful place, with its gilded and turquoise tiles, triangular roof and large round window... Given its history as the home of the first television broadcast by the BBC, the vista of its transmission tower makes it all the more hard to comprehend why we have no network TV channel reception in our flat. We had to get Sky just so we could watch BBC2.
Ally Pally has many purposes these days, the main one for us being a pleasant (and slightly invigorating given its gradient) Sunday afternoon stroll up through its park with visitors so we can show them the magnificent view of London you get from the top. Unlike the London Eye, this one comes for free. Alexandra Palace has a wonderful weekly farmers’ market and one of the best firework displays in London on the nearest Saturday to Bonfire Night. It has an ice rink, a garden centre and regular trade fairs for knitting, dinghy and model railway enthusiasts. It’s part-derelict from being bombed in the war and a large fire, and round the back of the palace you’ll find a Soviet style pleasure park, with concrete skateboarding ramps, a harsh-edged lake and miserable-looking pedalos."
View towards Ally Pally from Crouch End

Portillo then went on to learn about muesli manufacture in Biggleswade and brick-making in Whittlesea. This is possibly why high speed rail was invented, so that the rest of us can hurtle straight past such boring topics. But next time you are killing time before a train at London Kings Cross, take a few minutes to stroll up the new Kings Boulevard (see what they did there?) to Granary Square. Great baked goods, art, splishy-splashing water, a bench or two, and eventually much more besides will await.