Friday, July 31, 2009

Where did Wight go?

I’ve been here a month?
I can’t believe it.
Where did it go?
Tomorrow morning, Red Fred goes back to his owners, I take the train to Ryde, the ferry to Portsmouth, the train to Waterloo, the tube to St Pancras, and the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord… where Jean-Baptiste will be waiting to pick up the pieces and carry them back to Rue Claude Vellefeux for a few days R&R.

I’ve had a grand time here in Wight. So grand that I’ve decided to come here next year for rather longer. Well, now that the Tikeibank, the Gazellebank and their sisters have been sent to Taiwan to be turned into teaspoons, my shipping days seem to be over. So why not spent my ship-time here…? Well, that’s my reasoning, we’ll see how it goes in 2010.

I have had a good send off. Night before last, champagne round the kitchen table with the Holmes family, and yesterday Wendy and Andrew Lamb .. who brought me here in the first place, two years ago .. came down for a day and a night. We’ve walked to all the beauty-spots up on the downs, and today we lunched at Godshill.

Yes, Godshill! The place with the threatening thatch that I thought was far too touristy for me.
We had extra-dry sherry (tick), ginger-beer shandy (tick) and liver, kidneys and bacon on mash with cabbage. Well, if you go to a pub for a meal, you have a pub meal. And this one was rather superior. Ten points to the chef who actually cooked my offal pink, as I like it, when I asked. Anyway the Inn is called the Taverners, it’s warm and friendly and nice, and there’s a big carpark nearby … free!! Look out Ventnor, I may on principle, shift my allegiance to Godshill!
And now Andrew and Wendy are on the way back to Croydon, and I have packed my bag.. and now I have to pack the computer and go to sleep and try not to think about tomorrow’s trek…

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bembridge, or Expectations Exceeded

I have to say I didn’t really want to go to Bembridge. I didn’t want to drag myself from my comfy cocoon on St Catherine’s Downs and trek to another corner of the island to a place which my recce of recently had left me with an impression of being drowned in motor vehicles. When I asked glumly ‘what about Bembridge?’, the only answer I got was ‘it’s OK, if you like crazy Colonels’, when I asked about eating opportunities, I got silence. Then someone ventured timidly ‘Bembridge is nice’.
Well, I’m just back from three nights in Bembridge, and there’s no need to be timid about it: Bembridge is nice. And – even though I didn’t met any Colonels, crazy or not – I had a really nice time.
Thanks to Jayne’s arrangements, I stayed at ‘Breakfast with Tiffany’s’ – a super B&B run by Tiffany and Richard Buckley (just to explain the name) – within walking distance of everything and with all my priorities thoroughly cared for: whizzbang wifi, nice, comfy bed, aggressive shower in spotless bathroom, no noise (except actor son Jamie singing in the shower), and a breakfast fit for a condemned man (10 points extra for the Greek yoghurt!).
The walking bit was important, because on my arrival I nabbed an open-ended parking space right opposite the front door, and there was no way I was moving Red Fred (see roof below) out of it until it was time for him to take me home.

Bembridge boasts of being the largest ‘village’ in Europe, with 5,000 inhabitants. All I can say is, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels deliciously cosy, and the sunny several hours I got while there were sufficient for me to do the rounds: down to the shore, along the beach, through the back streets and the woods, taking in as I went each of the village’s four pubs. Well, I had a kind of competition on, to see if I could get served a schooner of extra-dry sherry …
Bembridge beach is fun. It has that splendidly antiquey flavour that I like … there were little boys playing bucket-and-spade, beating granny at cricket, swinging on an old tyre, and dipping shrimping-nets into the sea, and there was even a lass on a horse ... heaven! Who needs the south of Spain or a cruise ship when you can have this? I snapped heaps of photos, but alas my beloved Kodak CX4230 is dying, so I can say to the lady who wasn’t at all sure about my photographing her wee boys and their nets: it’s OK, it didn’t come out.
There were also rows and rows of sea-wasted Victorian sea walls, sticking up from the sands like stumps of old teeth, dripping with green weed.. . little pools with odd crustacea .. oh! give me this before Majorca any day!

I wandered the beach happily, and finally came upon the very decorative Crab and Lobster: the first pub, with a nice wee lawn overlooking the sea. They had the sherry, but not the schooner, so I settled for a wine glass and sat watching the water and the rusty old ships… until it was time to plunge on. Alas! I finally walked too far, out of Bembridge, and came instead to an enormous caravan-park cum campsite. Not at all my sort of thing, so I hightailed it back through the woods and, eventually, back into the tiny town and to the Windmill, which is almost too elegant to call a pub. Excellent tio pepe, but the bad news that nobody manufactures schooners any more.
After a lazy afternoon, I girded my loins to go in search of food. I’m not really a pub eater, I like my restaurants ... and I hadn’t spotted one amongst the few dozen Bembridge shops. But I was wrong. Fox’s doesn’t exactly shout at you, and when you see the words ‘fully licensed’ and look closer, you aren’t quite sure what you are in for. The décor is calm and pleasantly un-nicknackish, the menu is decidedly slim (hurrah, it’ll be fresh!), but there are posters in the window and the lady of the place is serving in slacks and a t-shirt. Am I going to get resto food or caff food…? Well, I’ll tell you: you get utterly splendid food! I shall sum up simply by saying I ate at Fox’s the two best restaurant meals I’ve had since ... since Didier’s rabbit, perhaps? Yes, two. Because I went right back the next night. Night one, homemade (definitely) crab soup, fresh-fished lemon sole with baby spuds and crisp mange-tout, and a bottle of pink bubbly; night two something splendid with shrimp or baby cray, mint, radish (yes! fab touch) and a piquant sauce, followed by the most magnificent piece of hake (merlu, as I know it) in a light lobster sauce, and a bottle of French white… and much too much drambuie!

So Bembridge really has it all. Great bed, great breakfast, great beach, and great food. What could one ask for more?
Oh, the sherry contest? Well, I had two pubs left to go. The very unpretentious ‘local’, the Village Inn, and the Pilot Boat, a rather gloomy and ill-situated place (right on the main road), where I’m told you eat well. You don’t drink well. I got medium sweet sherry in a tumbler. But the Village Inn? Hurrah for the good old ‘local’: fine sherry, the right glass, a comfy pub seat, jolly blokes behind the bar … so the Village Inn got the prize. The prize? Fox’s doesn’t open Sundays, so I went back and had my Farewell-to-Bembridge dinner there last night. First-class bangers and mash!
And now I’m back on my home Downs, and Bembridge is just a memory. But I’ll have to go back next year … for another helping of hake, if nothing else!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Winter Gardens, Ventnor


Much discussion the other day, with the theatricals and community servants I’ve been frequenting, not to forget impassioned Peter in the pub, about the Ventnor Winter Gardens. Most particularly, of course, in this day and age, about its future.
It’s a problem, of course. Just what do you do in the 21st century with buildings and facilities that were invented for 19th or early 20th century circumstances and entertainments which no longer exist? Do you (a) turn them into picturesque monuments to an era past, style Blackpool Tower, do you (b) modify them so they can be used for the entertainments of today (supposing such entertainments exist and can be found), or do you (c) bulldoze them and replace them with something else?
I guess some cases are ripe for each of those three solutions. Which one is apt here?
So I thought that I, given my combination of entertainment and business backgrounds, had better go and have a look even if it meant paying two pounds to park my car while I did so (yes, it’s the one Wightish thing that really irks me).
My first impressions, as I trundled into view down the hill, were, I have to say, not good. The Winter Garden building was constructed in 1935, and in a wilfully modern style. There is nothing sadder than a faded, out-of-date ‘modern’ building, and this one was clearly not a particularly good example in the first place. Worse, it’s been tinkered with since. Here a 1950s accretion, here a 1960s alteration. Ugh. And now, too, it’s all sea-dilapidated. The salt air is eating the outside paint, the curly rails are on their last rusty pinions.

Evidently it doesn’t come into category (a): I’m afraid you could only give it 1/10 for architectural excellence, and that one mark would be for trying hard in 1935. Although you could add quite a few extra points for location. The Winter Gardens occupy a beautiful spot on the cliff above the bay of Ventnor, with a wonderful view across the sea and down the coast. It’s a position which must have the fans of category (c) licking their sterling-stained lips with redevelopmental anticipation.

I went inside. It’s not that big, in fact. There’s a large, fairly bare, multi-purpose hall (which, with a stretched imagination, can double or treble as a theatre), with badminton courts painted on the floor, surrounded by a collection of those cluttered, ill-decorated little rooms you find backstage in any elderly provincial theatre, there are a couple of post-warring bars or tea-rooms with more nice views over the sea, and a further collection of little rooms .. I daresay they once had a purpose. The decorations all round seem to have come from the most downmarket sample-books of the 1950s. Complete with plastic flowers. It breathes all over you: ‘summer season show’. But we don’t have them any more, do we? No Tommy Trinder and Tessie O'Shea. And the holiday audience that used to attend them, and places like this, now goes to the south of Spain, or on a cruise ship.

I wandered round, a little disconsolately, wondering if this actually wasn’t a category (c) case. But the more I wandered, the more I became sure that it wasn’t. Because the place is far from dead. People use it. People were supping and tea-ing, and strolling outside where a little lady was busy watering a hundred flower-beds and boxes. And, as I would find out later, in the pub, two of my companions were going there later to play badminton, and another to rehearse a local musical, My Girl, which opens there soon. The Winter Gardens is a real ‘village community hall’. It mayn’t be pretty, but it’s alive. And there are laws, aren’t there, about killing live things?
So if (a) is out, and (c) simply has to be out – think, anyhow, with what true modern monstrosity the familiar monstrosity of 1935 could be replaced! – there is no question that it has to be (b). Adapt and survive.
And that’s where the powers that be surely have a problem. Because that’s going to cost. It will cost to rip out and re-do every bit of decoration, to replace the blocked up windows and rip down useless walls, to strip off the ugly accretions – starting with the WINTER GARDENS sign – and to get rid of the attached jumble of the years (though the plastic flowers could just be burned). It will cost if you want to turn what was originally a very spare dance-hall into a theatre-space with any character, and still leave it easily convertible for badminton or a bring-and buy bazaar. It will cost to simply eradicate the ghastly ‘backstage’ and replace it with something clean and practical. It can all be done, but it will cost. And then, after all that expense, will folk use it more, appreciate it more…? They should. Because at the moment the Winter Gardens and the land on which it stands—until it falls into the sea – effectively belongs to them.
And, as I’ve quickly found out, there seem to be quite a lot of folk in the town and the pubs (and on VentnorBlog, which is essential reading for all Wights) who think it should stay that way. Including interfering, foreign, but concerned me.
The only thing is … who is going to pay?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bloggers and Thesps

My Wightish social life has definitely taken a turn for the good just recently!

I’m just back from Sunday lunch, chez Debby, down at Ventnor. And I don’t mean a restaurant, I really mean ‘chez’ …

As an inveterate blogger, last year I checked out the well-known Ventnor Blog and I shared with the readers of its forum my delight and joy in this lovely place. So, when I got back this year, I naturally peeped in to the site once more, and put up a little post asking for suggestions as to what I might do and where I might go this time round. And that’s how I met Debby. Town Councillor Debby Robinson, that is, deputy-mayor of Ventnor.
And she invited me to lunch.

So here we are. Debby isn’t there, she’s in the kitchen doing something with a wild boar’s ribs. And David (that’s Councillor David George, Chair of the Ventnor Winter Gardens) is behind the camera… so we are left-to-right Simon and Sal Perry, the directors of the Ventnor Blog, Gänzl, K, Jill George, and Nano who may or may not have a surname and who was on a flying visit from London.
Since David, Jill and Nano are all, like myself, ex-theatricals, you can imagine the buzz.
A grand time was had by all, and Wight is feeling -- if possible -- even more ‘me’ than before …

My little family Down Under

Wendy sent me these pictures today.

There's my beautiful Elena, wholly cured, it seems, of her paralysed throat, and working well..

And here the Gänzl-Dowie babies. Lucie (left) and D'Arcy. This picture makes me think of Fritzl and Seppl (their respective brothers) at the same age .. the bright-as-a-button starlet and the naughty wee feller. D'Arcy, you are on a good behaviour bond...

Salty's, or a Dangerously Party Town

Well, it was pretty much of a foregone conclusion. I just knew I hadn’t done as well as I should have at Salty’s first time round. A second try was obligatory. So I popped into the Bugle, splashed out on a Tio Pepe with my young friend behind the bar …

and then slipped between the raindrops across the road to Salty’s.

Tonight, no frou-frou, I was going straight for the good white fish. So Jasper, my own private maitre d’hotel, popped in to see the chef, to check out what was on the menu that really was family-boat-catch-of-the-day, and came back with the good news: sea-bass!
Sigh, memories! La Colombe d’or, St Paul de Vence, France, Christmas Eve .. 1990, 1991 and 1992 … the room almost empty, because all the French were eating at home en famille … and Ian and I ordered sea-bass and champagne…
Champagne, why not? Jasper whisked up a bottle of Chartogne-Taillet, and then my fish turned up. Now that is what I call a fish. That is what I call a meal. Perfect ingredients, perfectly cooked. Bravo, Salty’s chef.

I made my way deliciously through my fish and my champagne, and at (Irish) coffee time Alain, a Belgian yachtsman who’d been devouring lobster alone on the opposite side of the room came and joined me for a bilingual chat. Then Jasper and his colleague Louis finished work for the night..

Since the restaurant was now closed, we descended to Salty’s bar, beneath. I shouldn’t have. This was the time when I should have gone home. But I didn’t. I met the chef and was able to thank him for my fish .. the bouillabaisse? We agreed to differ: his recipe comes from a different part of the coast from mine! I met a couple of other folk too. At length. And it was way after midnight when I tiptoed in the dark up the stairs of Ivy cottage (always remember to suss the light-switch before you go out…) …
Oh, yes. Yarmouth is a dangerously party town. Or is it just Salty’s? Anyway, you want good food and a good time in Yarmouth … don’t say I didn’t point you right.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Yarmouth, or The Days that the Rains came down

Well, I didn’t make in back to the Ale and Oyster. The weather didn’t permit. So I spent the day, instead, snuggled in my suite, strolling round the 19th century with Miss Sally Forde, Victorian Vocalist. I only ventured forth at the onset of evening, to open my lungs in a brisk tramp across St Catherine’s Downs which, tiens tiens! just happened to end up at the White Lion. I don’t sit on my own anymore, at the Lion, I’m on the way to being an honorary local, and I spent a grand hour and a bit with the Guinness, with Stewart from Ryde and Peter from the local drama group, until it was time to head back to Hermitage Court Farm for my dinner.
Thursday morning, the sky was a bit more favourable, as Fred and I set out for our two nights in Yarmouth at Ivy Cottage. We got a bit tangled up in the regulation numbers of roadworks, deviations and road-closeds, but we made it in time for lunch. Yarmouth is surprisingly (to me) small, so it took me no time to scout round the characterful little area of shops and eat-and-drinkeries. I had a yen for something without chips and of course without lettuce, and most places seemed to be devoted to steak or fish and chips. I guess that’s what the daytrippers off the ferry from Lymington want. But I don’t. In the end, it was no contest. A buzzing little fairylit spot called Salty’s offered bouillabaisse. I wasn’t, of course, going to attempt a huge bouillabaisse at midday (last time I did that, at Villefranche-sur-mer, in 1990, I ended up in tears of frustration at being unable to eat it all) but the fact that they even offered it, and that they boasted freshly-caught fish from the family boat (every restaurateur in town seems permanently to fish and/or bake, can it be true?) persuaded me. So I ordered my ginger-beer shandy (even though I wasn’t driving anymore that day) and a starter-sized helping of fish cakes. It was a very nice fish cake indeed (yes, one, for 7 pounds 50), so I booked myself a table for the evening and set off to visit Yarmouth Castle, which is right next-door to the restaurant. That's right, in the middle of the village.

Small is beautiful. Yarmouth Castle isn’t what you expect a castle to be: its more a little bulwark fort, built by Henry VIII to guard the mouth of the River Yar and the Solent, and made-over by countless occupants since. It’s looked after now by English Heritage, and it couldn’t be better presented: the commander’s and gunners’ lodgings, the powder magazines, and a fine little exhibition upstairs, alongside the cannon post, which explains everything in nicely adult terms. Definitely worth the 3.60 entrance fee (I forgot to ask for my senior citizen’s discount, and when I did, the lady was so incredulous I let it ride!).

I peeked into the town’s main square-towered church, nosed down several attractive streets – there’s a nice-looking waterside yacht club with a ‘Royal’ prefix, but it’s ‘members only’ -- had an hour with my feet up in my little white (again) room at Ivy Cottage, took advantage of its top-notch bathroom to spruce myself up for a brief (o!, little did I know!) evening out, and set out for a quick drink before my bouillabaisse.
The Bugle Coaching Inn looks huge and too -good-to-be-true ‘antique’, but I failed to find a cosy wee pub and the interesting-looking King’s Head advertised ‘Families Welcome’, so I opted for the Bugle. It is big, but inside it’s cosily chopped up into ‘rooms’, decorated with unkitchy Yarmouthy things and not too many of them, and the friendly servers even produced me a good Tio Pepe … in a wine-glass as someone had destroyed their last schooner.
And then, as the rain came down, off to Salty’s. I have to be honest and say my longed-for bouillabaisse was a bit of a disappointment. It was more a seafood stew (not the same thing), and some of the seafood wasn’t so fine. The bugs and single shrimp had nearly nothing in them, the ray wing was all bone…
However, the meal was an undoubted success: for I shared my table (the place being full) with Nigel and Debbie Harper from Crawley (Debbie’s thick, flaky white fish looked magnificent.. dammit), who had walked across the Island from Ryde over the last few days, and we had a most convivial time which we continued after dinner back at the Bugle, whence we wobbled forth at closing time…!

Since the weather was clearly set to off-and-on-inclement, this morning it was evident Nigel and Debbie would have a rotten time walking back to Ryde, so we pulled Red Fred out of his ten-quid parking spot, and pointed him across the island. Since they hadn’t seem some of my favourite spots, we went via Shalfleet, Newtown (of course), Calbourne – where there were no charabancs today, and Winkle Street thus looked so much prettier – Brightstone, and a visit to its first-class tiny museum and St Mary’s Church, then on to Quarr Abbey. Well, you can’t leave Wight without seeing Quarr Abbey!

Sadly, the sun wouldn’t shine through the church windows today – it colours the whole church the shade of rose-coloured honey when it does – but there was a bigger treat in store. This time, on my third visit, the Lady Chapel was open. And it is chokingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. I’m afraid I choked, and my heart stopped … and even though I am not a Christian, I put my pound in the box and lit a candle .. for Ian? for me? for us both? … and then I got out, because my chin was trembling, and we went and had a cup of Earl Grey at the tea-rooms. After which, I was in order to drive Nigel and Debbie and their bulging packs on to Ryde and the ferry, and retrace my route, in now heavy rain, back to Yarmouth
So now I’m here, on my wee white bed, gazing across Ivy Cottage’s garden, where some doves are cavorting coofully (memories of St Paul de Vence!), blogging, as stretch-marks start to appear in the clouds and a little bit of baby-blue peeps through, and mulling on whether to try the white fish at Salty’s tonight, or take pot luck at the Blue Crab (but I fear chips), On the Rocks (cook my own food?), or the George Hotel which I see advertises ‘fish stew’ on a mostly rather standard menu…
I’ll make my choice over that 5 pound 40 Tio Pepe at the Bugle Boy…

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pieces of Wight

Having spent my first week and a bit in Wight revisiting my places of happiest last-time memories – those of them that are the kind that stand revisiting, that is – I decided, the last couple of days, it was about time to get a little more adventurous.
I’ve not really investigated the bottom left hand corner of the island, judging the Needles and Alum Bay not a repeatable item, but there are lots of Downs and walks down thataway, and after my muddy 2008 disappointment with the Tennyson Trail I haven’t done any of the Tennyson stuff, so I decided on a first bite. Fred and I headed for Tennyson Downs, but we came first upon a nice, comfy car-park for the Compton Downs and decided to give them a go instead. They are a delightful, open-sky walk, steadily uphill, along a path which bisects .. the local golf course. It’s the only golf course I know which slopes, sometimes quite aggressively, all one way. Up, Or down, depending.
From the downs you get some splendid geographical views of the island, lots of fresh air, and also a nice glance over Freshwater Bay, with its background of white cliffs.

I’d been told I should go down to the Bay, so I did (12 percent steep), and was glad. It is charming. It has just the Victorian air that I like, in spite of two glossy but tasteful modern blocks of holiday apartments. I imagined the hotel – which looked sadly deserted under the greying sky – bustling with colourful but correct holidaymakers… yes, it seems a sweet place.

Since the sky now started dropping a little water, I decided against further walking, and set out in search of a new lunch-place to add to my list. Brightstone has been perhaps my most-visited village on the Island, but although I’ve visited and photographed and posted, I’ve never eaten there, so …
The Three Bishops Pub is an attractive place, manned by nice people, but I should have known … swings for children and a charabanc in the carpark? It’s a ‘family’ place. Fittingly, the sandwich was ‘hearty’ and served with decidedly hearty lettuce and … who in the world invented this idea of serving potato crisps with a sandwich? Everybody’s doing it these days (including Raffles Hotel Singapore) and I think it’s dire. Impossible to get just a plain beer and sandwich anywhere. And you’re up for eight or nine quid. I’ll have to start doing a packed lunch.

Today was to be Bonchurch. Andrew and Wendy Lamb and I walked round Bonchurch last year, but we didn’t see much, so I thought I’d try again, as I’d been tipped I might find a nice lunch there (I do think of other things than food, you understand). Well, if Yarmouth isn’t made for cars, Bonchurch even more isn’t. Especially when the one, steep road into town is under excavation, and several large trucks at once want to get down there while trying not seriously to crush the cars insanely parked down one side. I managed to get to the waterfront, appreciated the sea, and drove on towards the ‘sights’ and the ‘food’. But it was no use. You can’t stop anywhere (except when waiting for traffic to unblock), so I passed the 11th century church and Swinburne’s home (now an event centre), renounced the pretty café, and scrambled in second gear up the switchback hill to the main road.
Too hard. Life was meant to be easy. And so was lunch

So I headed back to the Esplanade at Ventnor, paid my pound to park, and sat down in the bright sun (hurrah, at last!) on the terrace at the attractive looking ‘Ale and Oyster’ bar-restaurant. The Ale and Oyster is, actually, slightly responsible for my being here at all. It has some holiday flats above it, and on my first visit with the Lambs, two years ago, I spotted them and thought ‘maybe I could…’.
If I had, I suspect I’d be eating downstairs most days. I had a very nice bowl of what was called Portuguese Fish Soup, reeking of coriander, and a ginger-ale shandy (tut! they didn’t have ginger beer) and it cost me no more than my beer-and-sandwich jobs of earlier days.

Their full meal menu is rather more pocket-stretching, but I’ll be stretching. This could be a good find. And sitting on the Esplanade at Ventnor, that delightful and characterful little street (even that bucktooth new block of grey-blue flats is starting to melt into the landscape), on a nice day, is really something of a joy.

Imagine if they pedestrianised it ….
Heavens, 10.30pm. And I haven’t even thought about tomorrow’s .. no, not lunch, jaunt..
Ummm. Maybe the Ale and Oyster...?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A day out with Fred

An eventful day.
It dawned rather more summery than it has been since my arrival here, so I leaped from the white bed (an exaggeration), breakfasted largely, and set out in the company of Red Fred for thoroughly-thatched Godshill and my doctoral appointment. I should have known the day would turn out well, for I was so busy running my needle-nervous mouth off to the charming nurse that I didn’t even notice the dreaded thing happening!

Job two was to find petrol. Not as easy as it sounds ... petrol stations are as rare on Wight as ATMs. But I knew where there was one: at Shalfleet, where the lady last year gave me a terrible tale of woe about the supermarkets pinching all their business. I would go and patronise them: especially as they are right close to my favourite village of Newtown and the New Inn.
I sent Fred off via Brightstone, and –since it was so much sunnier than last year -- paused for a half-hour to take a stroll up to the Neolithic tumuli on top of Mottistone Downs. Last year there was nary a soul about: this year, the entire school-list of Sandown High School (Sports a Speciality) was pounding down the hill. A very pretty lass demanded to be photographed with me, and a very pretty lad in a yellow tutu (I lie not, look at the photo) also smiled upon me … goodness, they are a lively lot here. Why have I never been to Sandown?

Stop Press: I now discover that the whole joyous young bunch were on a cross-island walk for charity. They'd started at dawn way down near the Needles and were going strong through Mottistone. And here was me thinking that a yellow tutu was some kind of a national costume...

On down from Mottistone to Calbourne and to Shalfleet and its garage and … a big sign: NO FUEL! My good intentions foiled (and my petrol low) I trundled on to Newtown. I was not disappointed. It is a truly sweet place. And since last year, the little church has been beautifully restored, while the old houses opposite, which were being worryingly renovated, have turned out a treat. And my beloved Old Town Hall was looking grand.

Newtown is even prettier than before. I strolled through a couple of the National Trust walks (immaculate paths), until the petrol thing got to my head and I set of for Yarmouth in search of the liquid gold.
I didn’t find it, but what I did find was Ivy Cottage, where I am to spend Thursday and Friday nights. Naturally, I popped in, just to let Veronica and Brian know what’s going to hit them… and naturally I took a snap.

There’s only one trouble with Yarmouth that I can see so far: it was not made for cars. Getting through the town streets is a slow and stopping exercise: very largely because delivery trucks simply plonk themselves where they wish to be and block up the whole slim system until they are ready to depart. So you sit there, ronronning in first gear for 10 minutes, while Yarmouth stands still and awaits the pleasure of one truck. The only real parking is a huge municipal lot, where I shall have to leave Fred. It will cost me ten quid for the two days. Parking fees are an unkind Wightish failing. But, of course, there are none on the Downs, or in Niton.
On thence to the New Inn, and lunch. The New Inn (see last year) is delightful, its folk are grand, it’s the recipient of endless Best This and Best That awards and it deserves them. I had a light lunch in their ‘garden’ (actually a plank-board area enclosed by hedges) of ginger-beer shandy and black-pudding and smoked-cheese salad and was muchly content. If the New Inn doesn’t have the view the Spyglass Inn does, and if it uses lettuce (yawn!) in its salad rather than the delicious mesclun which Chale Green gives you, on the whole it still comes out on top for me amongst Wightish lunching-spots. Though this evening I’ve been given a few more tips to try…

Still in worried search of petrol I headed back towards Freshwater where I finally found a garage purveying the necessary stuff at one pound ten pence a litre. I didn’t ask, I just filled thirstily up, and headed back along the picturesque coastal Military Road toward my home downs. Imagine my disgust when I found the garage at Chale open, for once, and selling petrol at one pound nine!
I flopped into Hermitage Court Farm in time to catch the day’s action in the Tour de France. Yes, I know I wasn’t going to watch this year, but I have and – if you ignore the ‘usual suspects’ and pretend they aren’t there -- I have to say that (give or take the silly team time trial which has no place in an ‘individual’ race) its been the best Week One of a Tour I can remember since the famous Chiapucci year.
A splendid opening time trial (instead of the usual flimsy ‘prologue’), a couple of OK sprint stages with some new names in the results, and then the magic win of Thomas Voeckler when the sprinters miscalculated their coup, and today – oh! the best of all – Brice Feillu’s triumph in the first mountain stage.

The little Agritubel team, of which I’ve been a fan since day one, winning a big tour stage… great stuff! I know I’ll lose interest when the Astanasties start throwing their weight around, but for the moment I’m enjoying it.
I celebrated by a quick dash across the downs to the White Lion, where I lifted a couple of pints of Guinness to Mons Feillu, before trundling back up Bury Lane in a stiff breeze to home and a delicious meal of veggie lasagne…
And now… now I can pop into that famous bed with a feeling of a day when the world smiled…
Long may it keep on doing so..

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Second Time Around


Coming back to somewhere you’ve enjoyed as very much as I did, last year, the Isle of Wight, is a risky business. With the element of discovery, of thrilled surprise at finding something new and unexpectedly delicious, now gone, will it be the same? Will love be lovelier the second time around. Or even as lovely?
I’ve been here a week now, so what is the answer? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘not always’.
The weather has been a bit diffident, off and on, so I’ve done rather more Victorian Vocalists than I intended, rather less walking, and Red Fred has been earning his keep rather easily. But, between the greynesses and cloudbursts, I’ve still got around a bit.
All started dazzlingly well. Fred in fine form and Hermitage Court Farm the same lovely, cosy white haven of peace and friendliness as before. My first venture was across the downs to Niton, and wow! they must have known I was coming. I whinged last year about the nettles and briars on steep Bury Lane? Someone has been down there since then and sheared back the greenery and even metalled the worst part of the track: it’s a doddle now. So much a doddle, that the 25-minute stroll from ‘home’ to the White Lion at Niton is a distinct possibility. Of which I’ve taken advantage three times already!
I climbed the downs to Mr Hoy’s monument, and to the Pepperpot (which doesn’t smell of sheep urine this year and has a smart new information board), and took Bury Lane down to the Medical Centre where the delightful Dr Hill (guarded by a series of blonded dragons, but I got past!) gave me my hay-fever jab, approved my blood-pressure, and began a serious investigation into my perhaps-not-vanished Bug. Lord, even the Doctors are decidedly fanciable here.
As soon as Fred and the weather were compatible, I took a swift zoom round my favourite route of last year. Starting at Chale Green, and … what! My sweet little grocery is gone and a posh grocery-deli-tea room is in its place. Well, I’ve now tried all three thirds of the new Chale Green Stores and … Bravo, Chale Green! A veritable hit!
On to Brightstone, Mottistone, a glimpse at Yarmouth (where the roundabout is so full of no-entry signs that you never get into Yarmouth, just chucked round and out of it), and on towards Shalfleet … I resisted the temptation to visit Newtown and the New Inn (that’s for tomorrow), and zoomed back through the impossible streets of Calbourne… ah, yes, all’s well. Everything’s just as I left it.

Next trip was a Fredderie over to Bembridge, down stage right, where I’m going to be staying for a couple of days later on. Quarr Abbey is sort of ‘on the way’, so I decided to take 15 minutes out for a ‘feeling of God’s love’ in the glorious church there.

Funny. The place was smaller than I remembered. Less impressive. Though the grounds are still oddly empty of folk. Never mind, the church is still the most wondrous I know, even if the edge was taken off my pleasure in it by a new sign telling ‘visitors’ they can’t walk down the nave. This time, there actually was a monk in view, sitting in a pew in the nave. But he didn’t want to talk to me, as he was – no, not praying – simply plugged into his ipod. Hmm. God speaks in mysterious ways. He told me to go away and keep my original memories. So I went and visited the monastery’s graveyard: the old part is memorably chaste and impressive. A simple cross, a name and a Latin date. No frills. Suitable. Memorable.

I scuttled through Brading (no, I am resisting the commercialised Roman Villa) and on to Bembridge. Well! After the spaciousness of St Catherine’s Downs, Bembridge is … er .. cluttered. How do you drive down those streets in anything bigger than a Suzuki Alto? And where do you park? Well, I guess I’ll find out next week! I am a little nervous. One day I must learn to parallel park.
Today’s trip was Ventnor. Firstly, because I like it. Secondly, because ATMs are rare in Wight and if you want cash (using a card involves a fee below ten quid) you have to go there. I paid a pound to park my car while visiting the bank. Of course, being in Ventnor, lunch at the Spyglass Inn was inevitable. The view is still lovely, the ham still good, but … my lunch at Chale Green for the same price was much better .. I think a blog entry on food in Wight is brewing…
Well, tomorrow I’m doing the other Big Test. After some other kinds of tests at the doctor, I’m going to drive out to Newtown and to lunch at the New Inn, Shalfleet. Please let it be as good as before ... I’m pretty sure it will be, just as I’m pretty sure that I’m more into the left-hand side of this island than the right…
and St Catherine’s Downs, and my big white bed the most of all.
Good night.

Monday, July 6, 2009

All's Wight with the World

I promise. No more puns on ‘Wight’.
But I’m here.
Back on the downs, back in my lovely, comfy, white suite at Hermitage Court Farm, back with Jayne and Chris and Jack and Charlie Holmes. Back where the air is sweet and swirling, where the only noise is a hare thumping across the lawn, a pigeon starting out of a hedge or the wind wuthering across the heights, and where Red Fred (saved for me by those magnificent men at South Wight Rentals) waits obediently at the door to take me to discover any bits of the isle I might have missed last year and, of course, to revisit the bits I loved last time round.
St Catherine’s Downs are quite a way from Couptrain, France, and getting here was something of a cavalcade. Brian and I drove first to le Gros Chêne, Ablon, for our ‘holiday’ night at the curiously-named Le Cochon Joyeux. The Jolly Pig turned out to be a sweetly quaint and decidedly pretty old small-village farmhouse, run by a lively former theatrical costumier.

The sort of place for a secret romantic weekend rather than for two old blokes on a stop-over, but we coped. If you have sturdy legs, you can walk from le Gros Chêne into Honfleur, but we (after walking even further in the wrong direction) took the car, and lunched on excellent tripes (well, how near to Caen can you be!) at what looked like a touristic eatery on the much-photographed and -painted waterfront. OK, maybe La Maison Bleue, Honfleur, is touristique -- Frédéric and Jean-Luc were such excellent, companionable, hyper-professional serveurs that I even left a tip (I don’t, normally) -- but I tell you, one eats very, very well, at a very reasonable price, there.

On to Trouville and Deauville – oddly, I liked the former (see photo) the better, but modern building hasn’t helped either of them – and then on southwards, where I confirmed my earlier impression that Houlgate is the prettiest spot on the coast. And, finally, to Ouistreham and the ferry.

I enjoy travelling with Brittany Ferries, and I enjoyed myself extra this time. I chummed up with 20 year-old Levi from Swindon, who was travelling from Normandy to Turkey via Gatwick, and we shared the odd midnight beer in the ship’s comfy lounge, before I bethought me of the early morrow and dove tardily into my little bunk.
And at 7am it was Portsmouth. Taxi to the Wightlink FastCat (7.45), hydrofoil to Ryde (8am), that wobbly little train from the pierhead to Shanklin (8.45), a trundle with the suitcase down the road to South Wight Rentals (9am), joyous reunion with Red Fred and, finally, at his helm, off up the Newport Road direction St Catherine’s Downs…
and here I am.
Easy, when you’ve done it before. Wondrous, when it turns out to be even lovelier than you remembered...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Couptrain Revisited


Brian visited Les Baux, and carried me off to his petite maison rose (see last year’s blog) in the Mayennais (sic) village of Couptrain.
I’ve been here now a week and a half, and – since we did all the tourisme in the near vicinity last year – we haven’t felt obliged to rush around ‘doing things’. We paid a repeat visit to the delicious little restaurant at St Aignan which I’d enjoyed so much last year (and this year the menu was … andouilette!), we paid a fresh visit to infinitely-flowery Bagnoles de l’Orme, on market day, and I was even more sunnily charmed than last year.

We dined with Kathy and Dean of British musical theatre repute (see last year’s blog), and – tenors really do seem to be my motto this year, from Berlin to Les Baux – we visited Bruce (tenor) and Christopher (chef) who live (with their ferocious hounds, Jason and Buffalo) in an amazing ancient batisse which was once a factory turning out candles for the Holy See in Rome. The hooks where the candles were stocked are still there in what is now the garage, as are countless other traces of the place’s origins, in both the huge stone house and the lovely gardens.
Bruce, I should explain, is the well-known American coloratura tenor Bruce Brewer, now retired from performing and teaching music here. He has also done a great deal of research on bel canto tenors, which overlaps a little with my own research on Victorian Vocalists, so we have a great deal in common.
I don’t know how I managed to get (left to right) Brian, Christopher and Bruceand a tiny part of the garden in a photo without Jason and Buffalo burying their canines in my right ankle, but I did and here it is.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it, but – apart from horse-racing – my sporting passion (non-participant) has long been cycling. The return to racing of L Armstrong and his unhealthy peers and the vagaries of the repugnant Astana batallion and their like have rather diluted my once unbounded enthusiasm for such as the Tour de France, and I’ve now turned my interest rather onto French national races. So I’ve been delighted not only to catch (today) the French national road race championships on telly, but to have this week’s Boucles de la Mayenne, stage two, pass – centimetres from me and my lens -- directly in front of the ‘la petite maison rose’. I took this photo from our very doorstep. It’s only the second time in my life I’ve actually grabbed an in-the-flesh glimpse of pro riders sweeping by (the first was in Monaco about 1970), so I consider it memorable.

And now, come morning, I’m off to Ablon, and a hostelry named the Jolly Pig, to Honfleur, to Ouistreham and its ferry … and on 1 July I shall arrive, once more, in the Isle of Wight. Of which more anon.

A Tenor for a Basso

If my French racing dates ended for the year at Melnay, my Norman voyaging certainly didn’t. Marion had a horse to deliver to an amazing equi-thalassotherapeutic establishment at Cabourg, and I went along for the ride. So I dipped my toes once more into the sands of the Manche, on Cabourg beach, and had a delightful late-afternoon touristic ride back home via the famous racetrack and beaches at Deauville.
The following evening we waxed wonderfully festive at the home of my ‘favourite’ Oncle Rémy and his wife Marie-Claire and family .. and then it was time to say goodbye to my Les Bauxite friends, and to my horses, and head for Couptrain.
Yes, you read that right. Horses. Plural.
Last year I arrived at Les Baux with no intention of becoming a French racehorse owner, but on day one a soft little nose snuggled into my neck from out a horsebox, and I went home as the ‘propriétaire’ of the promising Rosy de Baux.
This year it happened again. I may (in theory) be in the market for a man, but it wasn’t supposed to be a male horse. But the same thing happened again. I suspect Marion and Bernard train them to do it. The head out of the box, the instant rapport, the valiant struggle with my conscience and my wallet and my desires …

I think the coup de grace was his name: Ténor des Baux. A tenor for an (ex)-basso. So, the struggle lost – or won, depending which way you look at it -- two year-old colt Ténor des Baux joins Rosy des Baux, Elena de Gerolstein, Lucie de Gerolstein, D’Arcy de Gerolstein, Livia de Gerolstein and La Grande-Duchesse in the Gänzl standardbred stable. Did I, a few months ago, speak of slimming my establishment? Baloney.

Ténor is up and doing, so with any luck he may qualify and even have his first race before I leave France … whenever that turns out to be. But, hey! Whenever is whenever…