The Amazons, Reading Hexagon, 10th February 2018 – I’m getting too old for this!

A year or so ago I discovered Reading band The Amazons and really loved their music. So when I heard that they were going to be playing a homecoming gig at the Hexagon in Reading I had to go. Tickets went on sale August 2017 and were either seated in the balcony or standing downstairs. I love live music but I have reached the age where I won’t stand for long periods any more, so I elected to get a seat in the balcony.

A week ago I got out my ticket for the gig and my heart sank. It very clearly said “General Admission” on it. In other words – standing. I still have no idea how I managed to screw this up so badly but there it was. So last night I went along to the Hexagon to see The Amazons and stood for the duration. That said I wasn’t willing to also stand for what could be a couple of dodgy support bands so I got to the venue just before I knew The Amazons would be on.

I had feared that I would be the oldest person in the place but that fear was unfounded as it turned out. Myself and all the other old people formed a line around the back of the auditorium and let the drunk students get on with their stuff in front of us. They were certainly “enthusiastic” and interesting to watch, although I’d have perhaps liked to have been a little further away from the action. What seemed to be happening would be that somehow they would clear a large space in which a couple of inebriated youths would dance before there was a massive bundle like a playground game of British Bulldog. This continual expanding and contracting had the effect of pushing the old fogies further and further away from the stage.

One of the great things about new bands is they have virtually no material to play and so it was last night. By the time the lads had rattled through their first album and a couple of covers they had managed to fill an hour and a quarter. Even I can stand for that length of time!

What was that? You want to know what the music was like? You see here’s the thing, by the end of the third track my ears were buzzing so much that I couldn’t make out much at all. I know that they played Black Magic, Junk Food Forever, Palace and most of the rest of the album but it was just a fuzzy mass of noise. Part of that is the acoustics in the Hexagon which are right up there with Wembley Arena for awful sound. It’s also because it was just so loud that my ears couldn’t take it.

So, to recap. The Amazons are great. The Hexagon is awful as a music venue. I’m getting too old for this!

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

I was lucky that my boys were exactly the right age for the phenomenon that was the Harry Potter books. Each time a new one came out they would eagerly await their arrival from Amazon on the day of their release. We would order two copies to ensure that they could be read in parallel.

For me the books were an entertaining work of fiction from an inventive mind that inspired my children to read for which I was grateful. I didn’t think much about the detail that was written in them, dismissing it as nothing more than a work of fiction, until today that is.

Today we visited the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition that is on in the British Library. Like everything else that is Harry Potter related it was sold out a while ago and having been I can say that’s with good reason.

The exhibition merges the fiction of JK Rowling with the “factual” magical history from centuries of books and other artifacts. There were historical records including a six foot long scroll with the recipe to make your own philosopher’s stone and the first known reference to a hippogriff in print alongside original drawings and pages from notebooks from JK Rowling.

What came as a surprise to me (apart from that Rowling is a pretty good artist) was just how much of what you might describe as the background detail in the books is based on “fact”. I had assumed that the books were just a product of her imagination but, no, there is much there which is based on hundreds of years of mythology. Obviously not Quidditch or Hogwarts but much else and there must have been so much research that went into it to give the books an air of authenticity.

The event was very well laid out with rooms dedicated to lessons, so divination, potions etc. with each having a number of related and relevant artifacts in cabinets around the walls with one centerpiece. This layout, however, presented the biggest problem for me because while it wasn’t overly crowded everyone was crushed against the wall cabinets. Patience was required as you queued to get access to the next cabinet.

The whole thing was fascinating and I would have loved to have gone round alone to get better views of some things. Best bit? The empty cabinet with just a simple hook at the top and the card saying “Invisibility Cloak”!

And yes, when you have finished, it does exit via the gift shop where you can buy a copy of the official book at twice the price that you’ll find it on Amazon!

Seville 2018 – Day Four – (not so) Open all Hours

One thing that never ceases to amaze me when visiting Mediterranean countries is the odd opening hours kept by the shops here. To be honest I still haven’t worked out exactly when, or in some cases, even if they DO open. There is, of course, the loooooonnnnnng siesta that is taken from about 11 AM to 5 PM but not many seem to be open that early in the morning. Nor do they seem to be open that late in the evening to compensate for the lack of being open any time in the afternoon. How do the places make any money?

The shops here also seem to be very individualistic unlike the incessant chain stores that are to be found in the UK. A small haberdashers, a butchers, bag shop etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t chain stores here, including the ubiquitous Costa, but it is mainly small stores that never seem to open.

By this stage we had pretty much “done” all that we wanted to do in Seville with the exception of going into the cathedral. So we went over at opening time (11 AM, it seems the Catholic Church isn’t keen on early starts either) to get a head start but there was already a sizeable queue there. After dithering a bit and having a coffee we finally joined the queue and eventually got inside.

As I hinted at yesterday I am not a huge fan of the over-blown style of Catholic churches and the Seville cathedral very much fitted into this category. The adjoining tower, however, was interesting and would have been perfect were it not for the rude tourists that we had to share it with. They all seemed to be from the same country which I won’t name lest I slight the wrong one but they weren’t a great advert for whichever country it was.

The afternoon was spent pottering before taking an open top bus ride around the city. While the weather has been very pleasant for a January it was probably still a bit too chilly for an open top bus. We did, however, get to see parts of the city we had not previously explored. This included the areas built for Expo ’92 and the cantilevered Alamillo Bridge. Like every country the highlights were bigged up as the biggest, best, first etc. but there was a bout of honesty when describing the bridge. There was, it seems, supposed to be a twin bridge but due to “economic difficulties” it was never built. The architect was said to be “extremely disappointed”!

So that’s Seville done. I can imagine coming back here again and revisiting the Alkazar and other sights. It was also very pleasant to get some vitamin D so early in the year. It’s going to be a struggle returning to the UK where it is currently snowing.

Seville 2018 – Day Three – Cordoba

Today we left Seville behind and got the train to Cordoba. The station at Seville is a thoroughly modern affair, clean and efficient. By the time we reached the train we’d been through an airport like security check and had our tickets checked twice. The latter seemed very much like a job creation scheme to me. The train too was modern, clean and fast with bags of room – so the complete antithesis of anything in the UK.

On arrival in Cordoba we walked through a tree lined green space that went right down to the Alkezar. Unlike yesterday this one was a small affair with none of the geometric patterns that fascinated me so but it did have some nice mosaics on the wall in a church which looked as if they’d been on the floor somewhere at some point.

Whenever you mention Cordoba to anyone that has been there they always say “oh that’s the place with the church inside a mosque… or is it mosque inside a church?!” For the record it’s a church inside a mosque and we went there next. The mosque was another thing of beauty. A simple, clean open space with repeated pillars joined by red and white striped tops. And there, right in the centre of this beautiful mosque, was a garish Christian church. It was incredibly ornate with all the bling that you associate with the Catholic church. It was jarring to see it where it was but fascinating at the same time.

Our next stop was the Roman bridge. This seemed to be a bit of a con to me as the deck of the bridge was definitely not Roman in fact it looked very twentieth century to me. Peering over the edge and looking down what I saw could have been Roman but who knows?

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the beautifully maintained pedestrian streets. There is a very simple palette of colours used both here and in Seville consisting of white, terracotta, sandstone and blue. It all looks very appealing, especially in the warm January sun.

The temperature has been just right for us over the last few days getting to about 20 degrees. If I find it pleasant in January that tells me that it is going to be pretty hot in the summer. And while I am happy to go around in a jumper you can tell the locals as they are the ones in the bobble hats and scarves!

Seville 2018 – Day Two – Moorish

The hotel we are staying in is lovely, especially as we are in a “junior suite” which has a separate lounge as well as the bedroom. We weren’t supposed to be in a suite but swapped with the mother-in-law so that she could have the bath that the standard room we had paid for offered. Result! When it comes to hotels we are, to be honest, cheapskates. We regard it as somewhere to sleep and so given we spend so little time there it doesn’t have to be that posh, just clean and tidy.

Similarly we won’t overpay for breakfast. The current hotel want €16 per person and there is no way I’ll ever eat that much. So we tend to wander out and find a local cafe and have a coffee and a croissant there. This is what we did today and ended up paying about €3.5 each for what was billed as coffee with croissant and marmalade. Seville is, of course, famous for its oranges and marmalade is made of said oranges. So it came as a surprise when the marmalade turned out to be jam! I suspect that this is because the Spanish for jam is mermelada.

Anyway, despite not having had my marmalade, we still went out to visit the Real Alcázar de Sevilla. The Alcázar is to Seville what the Alhambra is to Granada – a royal place left by the Moors. Unlike the castles left in England by the Normans which were boxy affairs the palaces left by the Moors are intricately detailed places with fascinating geometric designs (some shown below). It must have taken decades to achieve the quality of workmanship on display.

What appeals to me most is that sense of order and regularity. Everything seems to be in place and is aligned symmetrically with clean lines. I have always had a fascination with repeating patterns and it is still my favourite boring meeting doodle involving different sized boxes radiating out.

We wandered through the palace and the gardens before heading out and towards the Plaza de España built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. We approached it from the back and from that side it was pretty uninspiring but there was a real wow factor from the front. There is an ornate building in a U shape with the plaza in front of it which also has a small canal on which you can row. It was very attractive but it did also remind me of the front of the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas so make of that what you will!

Today was my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday and the reason for making this trip. In celebration of that we had booked to go for a special meal at a restaurant that bills itself as the oldest in Seville (they are clearly proud of this fact as the Est. 1670 is printed on everything). So it is fair to say that they have had plenty of time to get the experience just right.

I knew before we arrived that the place was going to be quirky. It is basically a bar with a couple of small rooms at the back sat out as a restaurant. If you are at the bar area you can only stand but you can have tapas. The rooms, such that they were, at the back are seated but there is a more traditional menu. We arrived and it was packed, always a good sign that somewhere is popular. We had difficultly attracting someones attention to get our table but finally tracked it down and seated ourselves.

Menus were provided in a number of languages so this made it relatively straight forward for us to be able to choose a starter and main course each. When the old fella that was to be waiter for the evening finally deigned to take our order it was quickly obvious that we were to be an inconvenience to him. When one of our party couldn’t find again the in the menu with the item he wanted the waiter let out a very audible sigh and rolled his eyes!

When the food started to arrive it came in dribs and drabs rather than all at once. So first the quick and easy cold cuts came. Fair enough we thought, next must be the rest of the hot starters. This was confirmed in our minds when next arrived a soup. At this point there seemed little point in wait so those that had their starters started. While we were not more that a few bites into these than the main courses began to appear (and far too quickly to have been cooked from fresh I felt). This led to some interesting juggling of plates as the table wasn’t big enough to accommodate all that had been ordered. Finally all the main courses had arrived but we were still short of one starter – mine of course. This finally arrived pretty much as I was half way through my main.

It should be said that the food was very good even if it did arrive in a peculiar order. Had we been having tapas it might not have been a surprise but given the menu was laid out into starters and main it was very odd. We got the bill and went to pay by card. The waiter arrived with the card machine and no sooner had he done so but another waiter came over and sent him away so off he went without a word but another obvious huff. We were left with no idea what had happened and had to wait another five minutes before he arrived back again and finally took payment.

All in all it was an entertaining meal!

Seville 2018 – Day One – Oranges

Our first trip in 2018 is for some early sunshine in the Spanish town of Seville. I can’t remember the last time we went away so soon after Christmas but based on today’s experience I might be tempted to do it more often.

Getting here required an early flight on the smallest plane I have been on since my honeymoon to Guernsey some 27 years ago. At least this time there was somewhere in the hold for luggage. On that occasion our bags were placed behind netting at the front of the plane! To go with the small plane was the small airport and we were through passport control and out in next to no time. Let’s hope it’s the same in Orlando in April…

It’s an odd experience to board a plane with the temperature being close to freezing and grey and to step off at the other end and it be (almost) tee-shirt weather and brilliant blue skies. The other thing that is a little different is that this time we are here with my mother-in-law and her husband to celebrate her birthday.

Armed with approximately zero Spanish we managed to get a taxi from the airport to the hotel. Even without a shared language the driver did manage to mime how pleased he was to see the sun. Not as pleased as I was I can assure you!

The afternoon was spent orienting ourselves and trying not to do too much that we have allocated for other days of the holiday. Normally decisions on where to go are relatively straightforward with only two of us travelling. As on this occasion there are four of us and more weight is given to the birthday girl it is more, complex.

In the evening we went out to a local tapas restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel. Unfortunately it was still closed post New Year (that must have been one hell of a party!) and so we moved onto the next one on the list. This too was shut but only because it was still early as far as the Spanish were concerned (it was just before 8pm). We walked on and found ourselves in an open plaza with a number of restaurants around it. We rejected a few before finding one that looked welcoming and ate there.

Even as we walked the short walk back to the hotel it was a pleasant temperature and you could easily forget that it is still January. It is going to be a real shock to the system when we get back to the UK on Sunday!

Four Days, Four Counties, Four National Trust Properties

In what is becoming an annual tradition we have once again, having seen off family and friends, got out and about to make the most of our National Trust membership. Last year we did five National Trust properties over an eight day period and the year before five visits over five counties in seven days. For reasons that I can’t quite work out we didn’t have quite so much time this year.

Once again I have included the price for the two of us had we not had annual membership.

The Vyne, Hampshire
There’s not much to see of the house at the Vyne at present as the roof is undergoing extensive renovation work. It isn’t long since we last visited and were able to go up and inspect the work and I had hoped to go up once again and see the progress but, alas, the last trip goes up at 14:30 and we arrived at 14:31. Grr! We had to make do with a muddy walk around the woods instead.
Friday 29th December

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
A new entry, at least for our post-Christmas challenge. Cliveden is probably best know as the home of the Astors and the location for the Profumo affair which gave rise to the very famous picture of Christine Keeler, naked, looking over the back of a chair.

Now the ugly house has been turned into a posh hotel and the beautiful grounds turned over to the National Trust for the hoi polloi to roam.
Saturday 30th December

Osterley Park, Middlesex
Osterley Park must win the prize for the noisiest National Trust property that we have been to. It is bordered by the M4 on one side and the A4 (Great West Road) on the other. Add to this that it is right under the Heathrow flight path and you get an idea of just how much noise pollution there is. Nevertheless it is a pleasant walk.
Sunday 31st December

Grey’s Court, Oxfordshire
A very muddy end to our visits today but at least it was close to home.

We had intended to also go on to Nuffield Place but, unfortunately, it was closed today so that put an end to that.
Monday 1st January

Checking the National Trust website I can see that an annual joint membership is £108 a year. The total saved this year when visiting the four properties was £91 so one more trip around one of them and we will have made our membership back.

USA ’17 – The Video

This has been a while coming but finally I have managed to stitch together all the footage from the dashboard camera we took with us to the US (you can read more about the £20 camera here).

Every day that we were in the car we took a short bit of footage to give an idea of what the local scenery was like that day. I have now edited that down into the short video below. I think that this gives a good idea of the huge differences in landscape we experienced over the three weeks we were in the States. In fact, as you will see, there can be great differences even within the space of a few hours. Enjoy!

USA ’17 – Day 19 – LA, Full Circle

And so we reach the end of the road leaving San Diego this morning to head back to Los Angeles where we started almost three weeks ago.

We had intended to spend today out on a boat in the San Diego bay whale and dolphin watching but we didn’t seem to be able to find a boat to take us out so we elected to go shopping instead 😉

We know from previous visits to the States that there are a number of shopping villages dotted around called Premium Outlets that have a variety of shops and so we headed to one of these half way to LA. As they are outlets they are selling brands (such Gap, Polo RL, Tommy Hilfiger etc) at good discounts. So I was able to purchase yet another pair of Converse at 50% off bringing them under the £20 mark. Not as cheap as it would have been pre-Brexit vote but still good.

We also lunched at the outlet having a slice of pizza which would have easily fed a family of four for a week. This was accompanied by what can only be described as a bucket full of Sierra Mist (a poor excuse for a Sprite). Everything in the States is supersized and nowhere is that more obvious than in the food portions. It will be good to get back to the UK where we can control our intake a bit better.

Finally we made our way back to LA. One thing that we have relied on while we have been here is Google Maps navigation to get us from one place to another. It has been scarily accurate in showing where holdups and congestion are likely to be, although to be fair we have encountered very little of that.

Google Maps showing it’s impressive skills

In LA we took one final walk along Hollywood Boulevard as far as the Chinese Theatre and enjoyed once again the delights of Ghirardelli. As you enter the shop you are always offered a free chocolate square and Helen has calculated that over the course of the three weeks we have consumed 14 of these things. I am now thoroughly sick of spiced pumpkin though which is everywhere thanks to it being Halloween soon.

They may be free but they are also deadly

Tomorrow there is only time to pack up and fly home.

USA ’17 – Day 18 – San Diego

For the most part we have stayed in hotels on this trip but our two nights in Joshua Tree have been a bit different as we have been in a B&B. It’s funny that we paid far more in some hotels than we have at the Desert Lily yet the place has been far nicer than most and there was a fantastic breakfast included.

The Desert Lily B&B, Joshua Tree

The other thing with a hotel is that you can avoid all the other guests and be as anti-social as you like. At this B&B at any rate that is not possible as we all sat down to breakfast together and, last night, also sat chatting around a wood fire.

There were two other couples apart from ourselves – one from Bristol, UK and the other from New York City. The conversations that we had proved fascinating especially when we got to discussing politics with the Americans who were openly Republicans but admitted to voting for Hilary Clinton to avoid the Trump issue.

The time at the Desert Lily was just perfect from the room to the breakfast, to the other guests, the brilliantly star filled night skies and, of course, the national park itself. However, we needed to move on and this morning we drove across to San Diego.

The city was described to us by the couple from NYC to be ‘generic’ and I think that’s a good description for it. The place is clean and tidy with a nice breach front area but nothing really marks the place out as being that different although there aren’t many that have huge aircraft carriers in the bay.

Tonight we are off out to one of our favourite restaurants providing we can pull together some clothes that are suitable and clean enough!