Thursday, 26 March 2015

Three In A Bed

This programme is like Trip Advisor gone mental. B&B owners come and stay in each other's establishments, aiming to find fault with them but be voted the best themselves. I am not sure if people win by being genuinely good hosts or just by being mean to the other competitors.

Although it does do a lot to highlight what is wrong with so many places to stay in rip-off Britain. Mattresses that are manky, toilets that aren't clean, bathrooms that are awkward, rooms that are too hot or too cold, breakfasts that don't do what they say on the tin.

This week our competitors were Norfolk House near Newmarket, the Cromwell Arms in Romsey, and Full Circle Yurts at Rydal Hall in the Lake District. Three completely different establishments, so inevitably three very different sets of owners.

Norfolk House was a beautiful minor mansion set in a large garden that had its own pool, not that anyone braved it at whatever time of year this was. The retired owners were rightly proud of their lovely rooms and kitchen diner, and really tried to go the extra mile. However, they didn't do bacon and eggs, and their piece de resistance Bircher muesli was not seen as a suitable alternative to one set of guests. They also hadn't designed very practical bathroom solutions - one en suite was so narrow you had to sit sideways on the toilet, and another en suite was not - well, en suite, but across the corridor. And a stray pubic hair had been left on that toilet by a rogue carpet fitter, which unfortunately instantly killed Norfolk House's scores. Owner Lynne claimed she would normally eat her Bircher muesli off that toilet, and I believe her. One set of guests found that staying in a B&B was rather confining and I could see her point - you are essentially living in someone's house, which naturally requires a stiffer behaviour protocol. Particularly if you have young children and the owners don't. (Although looking at Norfolk House's website, it seems that children are not allowed, so I am a little less upset with the carpet fitter now.)

The Cromwell Arms was a pub with rooms, so more like a hotel. All swish and newly done, but goodness me, our beady-eyed guests spotted a smeary shower screen and a dusty door. And the bedrooms were too hot and in need of air conditioning. Breakfast was in the pub, but at least bacon and eggs were very much available.

Full Circle Yurts was not a B&B as in Bed and Breakfast (you had to provide your own bacon and eggs), but B&B as in Bed and owner Ben. I couldn't work out if Ben was a bit weird or simply taking the piss. He liked climbing trees, being late for dinner because he was shaving his head, and not wearing shoes. And he didn't let you wear your shoes inside his yurts because he claimed they made them dirty. But this didn't stop him marching over the cream carpets in the other B&Bs with his mucky feet. (Obviously you couldn't ask him to remove his feet without involving a lot of blood.) Still, all the gravel he had to walk over from his car to the B&B doors can't have been fun.

The yurts had the most stunning setting imaginable, and although well furnished with proper beds and a wood-burner, were still camping at heart. Cooking was done on a gas stove and the toilets were in a block down the hill. A bucket was provided for emergencies. A stay there was the most expensive of all - £120 a night, with a three-night minimum stay - whilst providing the least facilities. I suppose it's all about the unique experience of sleeping out on the fells, and that marvellous Cumbrian air.

The winner, by tactical voting and an unnecessary overpayment by Ben, was the Cromwell Arms. Which was probably the place with the least personality, and the one I would least like to stay in, out of the three.

I have been to Newmarket only once, and that was to take part in a Girl Guides national Kim's Game competition when I was about 13, and not to see any horse racing. Random objects were paraded through the ring for us to remember. Kind of like the Generation Game, only without the conveyor belt or Larry Grayson. But I did make my own bowl of Bircher Muesli last week, courtesy of a Fay Ripley recipe, and it is pretty delicious. We used to make something similar (but probably more authentic) when I worked on a farm in Switzerland, with oats, yoghurt and frozen fruit, only there we ate it for tea and not breakfast.

I have never been to Romsey, but I did watch a lot of the Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford Mysteries on ITV, where Romsey played the role of Kingsmarkham. I am not sure how much there is to see there anyway - the owners of the Cromwell Arms take their guests laser clay pigeon shooting for their local activity. I could think of better ways to pass an afternoon.

Rydal Water. Photo by H Preston
But I have spent a lot of time in Rydal, with its close proximity to Grasmere. The daffodils at Rydal Hall at this time of year are incredible. The guests on Three In A Bed attempt to compose poetry in the grounds with Ben, but I think a previous occupant of Rydal Hall has already said all there is to say on the subject of daffodils. The Badger Bar, where the guests go for dinner (sod that yurt camping stove!) is a fine pub and a favourite locale of ours - a walk along Loughrigg Terrace from Grasmere, past the mighty cave, down into the hamlet for lunch and beer, then back to Grasmere along the track to White Moss known as the Coffin Route.

Mighty Rydal Cave with local eccentric my dad.
Photo by S Dodgson

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Great Canal Journeys: London

Little Venice
This is not so much a programme about canals as a programme about the sweetness of old age - being retired, with infinite time to go on long trips in a narrowboat, and watch the world go by at a peaceful pace and not having to care. This is not so much a programme about canals as a programme about the curse of old age - not being able to remember where you are going, where you have been or what you had for breakfast, with the world watching you go by at your snail's pace and not seeming to care. For people do not respect age. They tear down boatyards of yore and toss plastic bottles into the waterways, causing pollution that lets luminous algae grow.

Timothy West and Prunella Scales have been taking narrowboat holidays together since their two sons, Sam and Joe, were small boys. Last week they were travelling along the Oxford Canal, accompanied for some of the journey by author Philip Pullman and their now grown son, the actor Samuel West. This week they were in London, which gave a fascinating insight into a watery aspect of the city that far fewer people explore than its lifeblood, the River Thames.

They start on the Grand Union Canal in Brentford, then pass through Paddington Basin. They move on to the cemetery at Kensal Green, where coffins used to arrive by canal and where they pay homage to their dear friend Harold Pinter, who is buried there. Then onwards along the Regent's Canal through Little Venice, the Zoo, Camden and Kings Cross, before heading out to Hackney Wick and the Olympic Park, arriving at the Thames at Limehouse. Like everywhere in London, they witness all walks of life, all forms of architecture, and a simultaneous buzzing clash and cheerful melting pot of cultures. There are modern developments of luxury apartments and office suites, tastes of days gone by in old fishmonger's and riverside pubs, and very rundown areas and derelict warehouses, all jostling together. Each day's journey takes longer than planned, and they end up sailing in the dark, Pru already in bed. The first night they have to sleep under the din of the M40 flyover, but their second berth, next to Three Mills on the River Lea, could not have been quieter.

Aviary at London Zoo from the Regent's Canal
Prunella Scales is suffering from a mild form of dementia, and has a slightly lost-looking and dreamy stare. She seems to function, and is still a dab hand at opening canal locks, but it makes me more than a little sad. Andrew Sachs joins them for the trip from Little Venice to the Zoo, and he reads Pru extracts from his new autobiography, which isn't so much a shameless plug as an attempt to remind her of their time together on Fawlty Towers. Timothy West is endearingly cantankerous, not minding crashing into walls or other boats but not seeing any reason to get out of the way for anyone either. They are the ultimate celebrity couple - modest, unassuming, devoted, happy. I've seen them out and about together at the Proms and the theatre in London numerous times - always charming and well dressed, never showy or attention seeking.

Pru nearly loses her implacability when she gets cross with some Camden litter louts, tutting and shouting "Naughty!", but she is held back from further intervention by the lock keeper, fearing a violent response from the culprit, even in front of a television crew. But soon Pru is smiling again, and her face as she samples weird and wonderful truffles (Marmite, anyone?) in an Islington chocolatier is a delight. Tim is sailing through an 800 metre long tunnel below. Pru is on a shopping spree to buy them lunch, which on their flexible schedule ends up being more of an early dinner, but when it finally does come is the ultimate picture of gastronomy - oysters, prawns, stinky cheese, fine wine. They always seem to have a glass of wine in their hands as they sail. Why the hell not? This is the life, I'm telling you.

I've walked along most of the canals that they explore. Some form part of the Capital Ring circular route, which I have mentioned before. I was strolling around Paddington Basin and Little Venice with a friend when my fiance rang to say that our offer on our Crouch End flat had been accepted, so it is place that symbolises the start of a whole new chapter in my life for me. I've never been cool or grungy enough for Camden Market, preferring the Greek restaurants round the corner. I always felt threatened in the Lee Valley industrial area, possibly from watching too many people fall into canals on EastEnders. (Ironically, Timothy West is now in EastEnders.)

Tim takes the boat off piste (never an elegant detour) to see the site of the original Pickfords removals company warehouse. When Pickfords first started carrying goods by barge in 1778, Pickfords could deliver packages from London to Liverpool in seven days.

They have a celebratory drink with Sir Ian McKellen in his pub, the Grapes, in Limehouse. Gandalf's staff is behind the bar. Then they have to leave their vessel behind, as narrowboats are too flimsy to be allowed on the choppy, tidal Thames. So Pru and Tim are whizzed by motor boat back to their starting point. Tower Bridge opens up just as they pass through, but not for them.

Now, I can't imagine my family would have ever gone on a narrowboat holiday together when we were kids. Far too confined a space for all those arguments and for a brother who couldn't keep still. My dad hates boats anyway, and he can't swim. I don't think it appeals to us now either. Children, deep water, bumpy ride, temperamental lock gates - all a bit of a health and safety nightmare for a nervous parent. And yet canal boat holidays do have that peaceful pace that you cannot increase, come what may. Just let the world slip by, see it all slowly and at leisure, be at one with nature and amazed by what you see. So - ultimate stress or maximum chill-out? You decide.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Center Parcs

And now the first of an occasional series of guides to "child friendly" holidays.

When you have kids, going on holiday has a very different set of priorities. It's no longer "Will it be hot? Will there be wine? Is there a world-class art gallery?" but "Is there a farm? Is there a beach? Is there a train? Is there soft play within 10 miles?" You need to keep the kids happy. Because if they're happy, you're happy. People who say "Oh, well, the kids will just have to join in with whatever we want to do" as they jet off to Thailand don't have children. Or if they do, they will find themselves looking for a farm or a steam train shortly after they arrive.

Center Parcs have built themselves entirely around keeping kids, and therefore grown-ups, happy. If anyone ever asks on an internet parenting forum, "Where should I take my family on holiday?", Center Parcs is usually top of, or at least very high up on, the list.

Sunshine over Sherwood Forest
But until last week, we had never been. Center Parcs only opened in the UK when I was approaching my GCSEs and by the time the news of its arrival had filtered through to our family, we would have all been too old to want to go away somewhere together. Plus I was somehow under the illusion that EVERYTHING at Center Parcs was under a giant dome, like some sort of Eden Project Truman Show hybrid, and this wasn't very appealing. You may think me daft, but my husband confessed while we were away that the adverts he had seen led him to believe exactly the same.

Nonetheless once we had our own family, despite all the Internet recommendations, we resisted. Partly because we saw a whole run of our friends return from trips to Center Parcs with norovirus. Partly because my husband is not a keen swimmer. Partly because a lot of the photos of the buildings made Center Parcs look like a glorified service station.

But suddenly, with our daughter now four and starting school in September, we realised this was our last chance. The difference in prices between Center Parcs in term-time and Center Parcs in school holidays is disgusting. We paid £249 for four nights at Sherwood Forest at the beginning of March. If we had picked February half-term instead, we would have paid £999. And this before you add on the location fee to be more central (there is still an extra fee to be far away), the cost of food, and any activities other than swimming and play areas.

Yet people obviously do pay Center Parcs' school holiday prices or they wouldn't continue charging them. I can understand why. There is no greater sense of panic as a school holiday approaches, knowing that all your usual activities are going to stop and you suddenly have to occupy your child for 13 hours a day without a break. Center Parcs will keep them busy and amused for days. So if you have got the money, throw it at them and you will have an easy life.

People also seem to have the money to pay for Center Parcs' exclusive accommodation. Whereas Forest Holidays offer everyone a hot tub in all but the cheapest lodges, Center Parcs charge a whopping premium (well into four figures) for any such luxuries. Their high-end lodges contain saunas, games rooms or are built on stilts to resemble tree houses, but I am not sure if they are worth paying the extra. The three more basic levels of accommodation are very nice, well laid out and more than adequate, even if they do look like breeze block cubes from the outside. We went for the Woodland Lodge, as for that week it was the same price as the normally cheapest Comfort Lodge. We also got three bedrooms for the price of two, in order to give us suitcase storage and allow us to play musical beds in the night with our never guaranteed to sleep daughter. The Woodlands also have a log burner, dishwasher and a DVD player, which all help make a holiday more restful. There were a couple of cleanliness issues - a few ants in the kitchen, small smears in the toilet and questionable stains on the sofa, but nothing too outrageous. There was a decent outside area leading down to a large pond. The garden space was not overlooked by other lodges, thanks to a clever layout of the buildings, and we were visited by a host of ducks, geese, moorhens and squirrels. A swan also came to tap on our door each morning to demand food. It was too cold to sit outside, but there were chairs and tables and a barbecue for warmer times.

Breeze block cube

Demanding swan

Comfortable evenings

We mostly relied on swimming in the Subtropical Paradise to keep us occupied. Our daughter loved it. She is a cautious child so was scared of the slides, but she loved the wave sessions and the warm outside pool. We stayed in for ages each time, and sometimes went twice a day. It was a mighty hassle getting changed - the changing rooms are busy, and each cubicle has two doors, one to the dry side and one to the wet, so that shoes don't muddy up the area leading to the pools. But they were a bit poky for two with all of our winter coats and hats and shoes and bags. I ended up losing several items during cubicle to locker transfer. All this would be much easier in warmer weather. We were grateful that we can now manage without a pushchair (even though buggy parks are plentiful), and our lodge wasn't too much of a walk from the central area. It was far enough away for some peace and quiet, but just about before moaning distance. We did take our daughter's scooter, but forgot we would need some sort of lock to tie it up outside the swimming pool, so it didn't get used.

We also spent a lot of time on the lakeside beach, digging channels and making sandcastles. There was also much fun to be had with flowing water and an Archimedes screw. Unfortunately, there aren't as many nature trails or walks as you might expect. You are usually expected to pay money to be taken on an official one rather than finding much to explore by yourselves.


Elsa on the beach

As for the extra activities, they are overpriced but all fairly enjoyable. Well, apart from the pony riding, as far as our daughter was concerned. It didn't help that she was immediately made to lurch uphill on her first ever time on horseback, and there were then only a few minutes left for the tears to subside before she had to lurch back down the hill again. It's not like the Sherwood site is THAT hilly - I am sure, for 15 minutes' walk, they could locate an entirely flat area for our 18 pounds of money. But she did enjoy a half-hour tennis session, and a 45 minute Fairy Funtime crafts session, which mostly involved glitter and face paint.

The spa was well worth a visit, mummies (and daddies). I have never been to a spa which had so much to "do" - there were 15 different sensory rooms to explore. Most of these were some version of a sauna or steam room, just with varying temperatures, levels of humidity and smells. But there were also swing chairs, little gardens, and amazing water beds where I could gladly have slept for a week. The outside pool at the spa is unfortunately not nearly as warm as the one at the Subtropical Paradise. You might actually have to swim in it to keep warm. But three hours there just flew by, and were definitely worth the money (£37 - a birthday present to myself).

The changeover days are a little crazy. You can't get into your accommodation until three on your first day, but you are allowed on site from 10am onwards. Similarly on your last day, you have to check out of your accommodation by 10am, but as long as you move your car back to the car park, you can then stay on all day. You can view this as getting extra value out of your break, or Center Parcs getting extra money out of you. Either way, it means that the site gets packed out. It was a little overwhelming to be faced with a sea of germy wailing toddlers and fraught parents when we arrived. But fortuitously the only restaurant we had been able to book online in advance for lunch was located over the other side of the lake near the nature reserve, and while this meant an annoying walk in howling winds and occasional blizzards, it did get us away from the crowds and give us some much needed peace and quiet. And it had a great play area, which our daughter had all to herself.

All the restaurants have some sort of play area. The most original one was the Lego room in the Pancake House, although its stock seemed to have been a little depleted (nicked). The food in most of the eateries isn't spectacular, and quite burger and chip themed, but there is a Strada, a Cafe Rouge and an Indian. We mostly cooked for ourselves, with one evening meal in Cafe Rouge after my spa session. They had a set menu which was quite reasonable, and the service was speedy, which is what you need when your daughter is chomping at the bit to get to the kids disco but really needs an early night from all that swimming. A trip to the Pancake House is a must, if only to see Center Parcs' Dutch origins.

There is a supermarket on site. It charges above the odds, but is useful if you have forgotten anything, and serves large family-pack ready meals if you go en masse. We took our food with us - it was cold enough to keep everything fresh in the car all day before we could access our lodge. The supermarket sells the only logs you are allowed to burn in your fire, the only barbecues you can use for your barbecue, and the matches to light them with that you will have forgotten. They also have children's trolleys, which are always a winner. Be warned: there is a sweet shop and a toy shop either side of the supermarket - they ain't stupid. "Eyes down - nothing to see here."

So is there a farm? No, but there are sessions with baby owls and ponies and lots of waterfowl to entertain you. And the squirrels are the fattest I have ever seen. Is there a beach? Yes, by the lake. Is there a train? Not at Sherwood, but you could always travel by train to Newark, the nearest station. Is there a soft play within 10 miles? There's possibly a soft play within 10 metres, but it will be small and situated inside a cafe wanting your money.

Would we go again, the online survey asked after we returned home. I said yes, but not at their current school holiday rates. Maybe a weekend if the price was right.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Taste Of Britain: York and North Yorkshire

Janet Street Porter and Brian Turner are travelling the length of Britain in praise of local produce and in search of a good eat or three. On Sunday lunchtime, they were in York and North Yorkshire. Home turf for me, and home turf for the pair of them - Janet lives in Nidderdale, and Brian is Yorkshire born and bred (and rather a Yorkshire stereotype). I can't imagine this pair of strong personalities getting on, but they seem amiable enough on camera.

They begin in York on a beautiful spring day. There is no better light in which to see our city. The banks of the walls aflame with daffodils, the blossom bursting in the Museum Gardens, and the river teeming with life. It's when we wake up from our long winter sleep and remember just how good it is to be here.

Spring in the Museum Gardens
City walls

Looking towards the site of Star Inn The City
Their only restaurant stop in York is Star Inn The City, which opened in the old pumping station by Lendal Bridge a couple of years ago. It's a sister restaurant to Andrew Pern's Star Inn at Harome, which has been known to possess a star of the Michelin variety from time to time. Though the only time we went there, many years ago now, we weren't quite sure why - it was the sort of place where the waiting staff forgot to bring you a wine list, the Yorkshire portions were enormous and sickly, and the overuse of edible flowers and black pudding did nothing but give me a migraine.

Nonetheless, we have been to Star Inn The City twice - once for my husband's 40th birthday breakfast, and once for dinner, when he changed jobs and was given a Star gift voucher as a leaving present. I don't think there's much you can say about Star Inn The City that Jay Rayner hasn't already but suffice to say, it's a very mixed bag. And it makes you cross. Because the prices are as high as the sky, but the food quality is - well, at best inconsistent, at worst inedible. When you have a young child, you don't get to go out much, so when you do get a baby-sitter and are going somewhere charging "special treat only" prices, you want the dogs bollocks and the cats pyjamas of an experience. And this you do not get. Instead you arrive and are told your table is not ready, but look, there's a nice bar over there charging extortionate rates for drinks you do not want to get you in the (bad) mood which will sour the rest of the evening. And then - when you are finally allowed into the main restaurant - there's the bread in the Yorkshire flat cap thing. And the stupid Yorkshire puns ("Ee-by-gum Madam!", "salad o't day"), and the exaggerated statements of food provenance ("Beverley reared duck breast"). Unlike Jay Rayner, I would have forgiven all that if they had just served me an amazing plate of grub for my money. But they didn't. The beetroot and goats' cheese starter was so-so, the Scarborough woof made me gag, and the gooseberry and elderflower rice pudding should have been avoided if only because the waitress had recommended it, which is usually a sure-fire sign that the chefs are trying to shift a job lot out the kitchen.

To be fair, the seafood dish that Andrew Pern cooks with Brian Turner does look delicious, and a far cry from anything we were served that overpriced night. Pern acknowledges that he does "cheffy" thing like piping puree so that he can put the prices up. Turner admires Pern's quirky sides. I guess humour is a very personal thing.

The Star Inn The City has a gorgeous riverside setting, and the dining room is undeniably lovely. York certainly needed something where it sits - it replaced the park toilets. But it's a waste of a fantastic opportunity. However, our daughter - developing expensive tastes at far too young an age - asked to go there for breakfast on her birthday last year, "just like Daddy did". We of course said no and served her her usual bowl of Cheerios. There are much better places to go in York (Melton's, Walmgate Ale House, Oxo's, The Whippet) that do what The Star is doing, with or without the quirks, that won't break the bank in the form of armed robbery, though will inevitably make a bit of a dent in your account.
Daughter with expensive tastes at Star Inn The City, December 2013

Mummy (taken by daughter) at Star Inn The City, December 2013

Then Janet and Brian move up towards Thirsk. They stand atop Sutton Bank, scene of many a caravan breakdown and my husband's first (and only) gliding lesson, when he spiralled above the famous White Horse that you can see for miles across the Vale of York. Janet then goes off to look at Mouseman furniture, which is loved the world over. My grandmother owns a Mouseman stool and a fruit bowl, and I suspect this will lead to inheritance fights in future years if she hasn't secured their future in her will. Brian heads off to a farm to look at pigs so cute that they would turn anyone vegetarian. Though a particularly friendly and gorgeous one plonks himself on Brian's foot and it seems to me that Brian is fighting a slight instinct to kick it right back off again.

Husband in glider taking off from the top of Sutton Bank, summer 2010
Janet and Brian convene at Ampleforth Abbey to consume cider and al fresco barbecued pork, which is - thankfully - pork rolled with apples and sage, and not barbecue sauce. If you haven't tried Ampleforth Abbey cider, do. It blows itself out of the bottle in a very excited fashion and then proceeds to blow your mind, slipping down like sweet fresh-pressed juice, but with disastrous consequences for your functioning. I do have to agree with Brian's question on the matter of monks brewing alcohol, "What's all that about, then?" As usual, the answer boils down to money.

I am worried the monks don't get enough to eat, as their chief cleans his plate at alarming speed. Andrew Pern says as he pokes his food, "Mm, you can really taste those herbs coming through" in a way which implies that Brian has choked his plate with sage. But I bet Brian hasn't charged Andrew what Andrew would charge us good folk of York to eat something similar.