Dinner at the OXO Tower, Sneaking up the Shard and Drinks on the Upper Deck

The OXO Tower

The OXO Tower

It used to be the fancy face of the Liebig Extract of Meat Company’s cold store, but like many of the buildings on London’s South Bank the Oxo Tower, named after the manufacturer’s stock cubes, had a bit of makeover and is now home to a bunch of trendy shops and galleries. The Art Deco tower dates to 1929 and was designed by Albert Moore. On the 8th floor of the building there is a rather swish and expensive restaurant, the Oxo Tower Brasserie. Normally its a bit out of our price range, but we got one of those Booktable deals with three courses and a cocktail, that they use to fill the joint in the early evening and at £30 each we thought let’s treat ourselves.

The thames from the Oxo Tower

The Thames from the Oxo Tower

Sadly we could not get an outside table to enjoy the great outdoors, but you can still enjoy the full panorama of London’s riverside through the fully glazed wall. Our table was situated next to the open plan kitchen so we got tantalising glimpses of every tempting  morsel that was passed over to the waiting staff. Our seasonal cocktail, the Sherry Collins arrived as we perused the ‘deal menu’. A blend of lemon vodka, elderflower syrup with a dash of fino sherry and garnished with a sprig of herbs it was very refreshing. I started with the Stilton salad which was a jolly nice confection of cheese, chervil and sultanas, while Mab had the battered Thai chicken. I tried a bit of her ‘posh chicken nugget’, the batter was really crisp and crunchy. For our main we had the comfit of duck, which was served with green lentils and a really nice onion jam. It was very good although it could have been a touch crisper. To finish we both plumped for the Eton Mess with strawberry, meringue and real fruit jam in cream lovely. To drink we had a bottle of the painfully overpriced house white a real rip at £25, but then you are paying for the view.

The Shard

The Shard

Speaking of paying for the view we decided to try the Shangri La Hotel’s cocktail bar in the Shard on the way home. Having sized up the cost of going to the observation deck at  the top for £25 and thought better of it, the Shangri La initially looked better value until we were told that there was a £35 minimum spend. To be honest for £35 I ‘d expect to get totally sloshed,  so we declined, however I did get a picture from the 32nd floor lobby area, so mission accomplished I say, take that forces of international capitalism.

view from the 32nd floor of the Shard

View from the 32nd floor of the Shard

Still fancying a drink on our way back to Tower Gateway Station we popped into the Upper Deck at HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast

Just so that you are nice and confused the Upper Deck isn’t on the old battleship itself, but on a platform above the ticket office on the riverbank.

Tower Bridghe from the Upper Deck

Tower Bridge from the Upper Deck

Drinks are a bit pricey, but not unreasonable given that it’s a rather cool place to watch the sunset over London.

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Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

 

Little Venice

We took a trip to Bristol last week and London Underground got us to Paddington with time not only for breakfast, but a brief walk along the Regents Canal before our train left.

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The smog full of dust from North Africa imposed a hazy kind of light, but I was delighted to find a couple of red headed pochard dabbling in the murky depths.

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They are pretty little ducks and not that common. Even their eyes are red.

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It had been a long time since I was here last and the area has had a bit of a makeover with some nice looking bars and restaurants, not to mention the odd sculpture.

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This one is called Standing Man by Sean Henry.

However we couldn’t hang about, a really tasty breakfast at the Sloe Bar in Paddington Station beckoned, £8.75 for full English with black pudding and a cafe late included, knocks spots of airport rip off joints.

‘The Chiperones are a bit bigger than usual’

So said the manageress of the Bodegon Las Tapas (Avenida Maritima, 29, Playa Blanca, Yaiza, Lanzarote) and she wasn’t kidding.

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These ‘baby squids’ were about the size of a ten-year old’s shoe and must have been more like teenage squid. They were still delicious though with a squeeze of lemon.

We had been expecting them to be tiny wee things and had also ordered some sardines in raincoats (battered sardines),

 

Sardines in Raincoats

Sardines in Raincoats

pimentos de padron, catalan toast and a bean stew, however the portions in Bodegon Las Tapas were a bit on the huge size for tapas. Despite a valiant effort it was all too much and I’m afraid one of those squid gave their life to provide a meal for someone else.

P1100121  With beers, water and coffee it clocked in at about €65 for two, good value for such wonderful food with a view over the sparkling blue Atlantic.

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

Raven Mad

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —

Not a Raven after all

Not a Raven after all

OK it wasn’t the Raven, but a pheasant sitting on our window sill at the Alton Towers Hotel last weekend.

‘I’ve never been so close to a pheasant before’ quoth the Powder Monkey

‘you were when we ate one’ I replied.

I made sure the window was well fastened I didn’t want to come back and discover he’d invited his mates round to scoff the complimentary biscuits.

Party room 105 everyones invited.

Party room 105 everyone’s invited.

A Hard Act to Swallow at Walton-on-the-Naze

We took a trip to the Essex seaside today for a slap up haddock and chips at Whites and a walk by the Naze. Up on the Naze itself some swallows have made a nest in the public loos and I was lucky enough to get this shot of one of them perched on the tree outside having a bit of a stretch.

Swallow

Swallow

Sadly the tide was in for most of the afternoon, so I only managed to get a few pictures of some seabirds including this group of juvenile herring gulls on a breakwater down by the pier in the town,

Juvenile herring gulls

Juvenile herring gulls

and a cormorant having a scratch down by the Naze,

Cormorant

Cormorant

although we did also spot some black headed gulls, wood pigeons, jackdaws and a couple of rabbits which were flushed out of the undergrowth on the red cliffs by an idiot who didn’t have his dog under control. Fortunately the bunny got away with only a fright.

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

2013 – Our Crete Adventure

Our Crete adventure began with one of those dreadful early evening flights. The kind that  because of the time difference between the UK and Greece arrive really late at night. Fortunately passport control at Heraklion Airport is pretty lax so we sailed through to the chaos at the baggage carousels pretty quickly. Typically three flights were crammed on to the only working carousel, so we had to fight through crowds of Polish body builders and Russian bodyguards to retrieve our bags, once of course baggage handling had finished whatever break they were on.

No trip to Greece is complete without pictures of cute kitty cats

No trip to Greece is complete without pictures of cute kitty cats

Having collected the bags it was out past the disinterested customs officials into the mad chaotic fury of the coach park, where eventually we found the bus to our hotel in Rethymno and then about an hour to the drop off from there.

Is it bedtime yet?

Is it bedtime yet?

Since we were the last drop off the sight of the hotel porter waiting with his trolley was more than welcome, but then as the coach pulled away into the darkness our hearts sank as he uttered the words: ‘There is a problem, the hotel is overbooked’

I want my mum

I want my mum

Fortunately it turned out that we did have rooms, so after he’d scraped us off the floor he explained that a party of Russians had turned up and they didn’t have rooms for them so things had then got a bit moody in reception which was why he was lurking outside ready to sneak us in up the fire escape and bypass the argybargy.

Think I might just lie down here for a moment

Think I might just lie down here for a moment

As it happened this was a bit of a blessing in disguise as it saved us from all the form filling and bureaucratic nonsense that normally accompanies a Greek hotel check in and we were soon ushered into our rooms. The local time was by then 2am and we had been on the road since 2pm London time. My brain does not do figures so I have no idea how long we had been travelling, but I was delighted to sink between the sheets for a well-earned kip.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Ready to play in the sand when the Sun came up.

It's down here somewhere

It’s down here somewhere

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

The Great (East Coast) Train Robbery

Last weekend’s jaunt to Edinburgh started as usual from the rather splendidly refurbished Kings Cross station.

The refurbished part of Kings Cross Station

The refurbished part of Kings Cross Station

Typically when our platform was advertised we discovered that the automatic ticket barriers didn’t work, so with a typically British attitude to bureaucracy instead of just opening the gates and letting people through (after all the only trains in that part of the station were for Scotland and the north so tickets would be checked on board anyway) three station jobsworths were busy checking every single ticket before we were allowed through to board the train.

Once underway another ticket check was started. Now we book our tickets way in advance to get the best deal (usually about £36) and being seasoned travellers on this route we always make sure that we get on the right train. Not so the poor Spanish lady sitting close to us. She had paid £60 for her ticket at the ticket office, and to make matters worse she had missed the 9.30 service only to be told by one of the station staff that she should get on the 10.00 and that she might have to pay a little bit extra.

So when the ticket inspector got to her she explained her situation only to be told that she would have to buy another ticket and it would cost £125.70, despite having already paid out £60 for her missed train. We thought that was a bit harsh on someone who had made a genuine mistake, especially when that person only spoke English as a second language and despite the fact that the train wasn’t even full, there were plenty of empty seats. Despite tears from the Spaniard and protests from other travellers (to whom he was actually quite dismissive) the callous hardman of a ticket inspector insisted on taking the money from her, after all rules are rules! What a great impression of the United Kingdom that poor woman will take back to Spain and what a fantastic impression of East Coast’s corporate culture to the travelling public.

That will be £125.70

That will be £125.70

Given that rail fares in the UK are really complicated I’m sure this happens all the time, surely there must be some discretion that the ticket collectors can use in cases of genuine error like this, after all it wasn’t as if she was trying to dodge the fare, East Coast had already pocketed £60 for her seat on the previous train before extorting the further £125.70 out of her.Not to mention the railway companies can change the conditions of tickets to suit themselves when they cancel trains and dump passengers onto other services or replacement buses.

Passengers enjoying the comfort of a £125.70 fare to Edinburgh

Passengers enjoying the comfort of a £125.70 fare to Edinburgh

It’s reckoned that in the UK we have some of the most expensive railways in the world, certainly the fare structure is quite bizarre with some people paying £36 for a guaranteed seat from London to Edinburgh while others pay £125.70 and can end up standing all the way. Having just checked the cost of Easyjet London to Edinburgh flights for this Saturday they are all £20 cheaper than the standard rail fare.  I actually paid less to fly to Cyprus last year than the standard London to Edinburgh rail fare which clearly is quite bonkersl!

Chuffin Puffins at Planet Gannet – The Return to Bass Rock

Just off the east coast of Scotland and only a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh is the largest breeding colony of Atlantic Gannets in the world.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

Bass Rock is one of a group of volcanic islands  off the coast of North Berwick that also include Fidra and Craigleith and during the spring they are host to 300,000 pairs of nesting seabirds. On a previous visit I joined the Scottish Sea Bird Centre’s RIB boat excursion out to the island (read about it here), which was pretty exciting, but now the RIB has been joined by a high-speed catamaran which gets you as close to the birds as the RIB, but in much more comfort and with no need for those alluring oilskins! It’s also cheaper at £16 per adult.

It only took a few minutes to speed out to Craigleith where the puffins were perched along the heights, just like Red Indians in a Western movie,

Puffins

Puffins

while out on the sea rafts of puffins were fishing for sand eels

Puffins all at sea

Puffins all at sea

to take back to their island burrows and feed their young.

Puffins Craigleith

Puffins Craigleith

Further down the rock face guillemots were nesting upon the precarious cliff face,

Guillimots Craigleith

Gillemotts, Craigleith

along with kittiwakes, fulmar, cormarants, eider ducks and shags.

Shag, Craigleith

Shag, Craigleith

From Craigleith it was about ten minutes to Bass Rock.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

As I’ve said before there is something pretty primal about Bass Rock. Every space on the rock surface is occupied by these majestic seabirds.

Gannets Bass Roak

Gannets Bass Rock

The noise of 300,000 birds is incredible, (as is the smell of their fishy poo).

Nice bit od seaweed for the home

Nice bit of seaweed for the home

The catamaran was soon surrounded by birds searching for nesting material and fishing. Gannets are Britain’s largest seabird with an eight foot wingspan and you really get to appreciate the size of these birds as they take to the air around you.

Gannets Bass rock

Gannets Bass Rock

As we rounded the island a small voice piped up ‘seals’ and there in a cave were a group of around five or six grey seals bobbing around in the water.

Seal

Seal

It was the icing on the cake for our trip and to think it was only half an hour from the centre of Edinburgh. (off peak Scotrail Day Return from Edinburgh Waverley £6.80)

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

I Take a Walk with Dinosaurs in London’s Own Jurassic Park

No matter what way you look at them dinosaurs are pretty cool. Let’s face it what isn’t to like about things that are big and dangerous, but have been dead for so long that they could never have eaten you or any of your family!

Gwwwr

Grrrrrrrrr

What I find even more fascinating is how science has tried to make sense of these creatures since their discovery only 200 or so years ago. It was relatively easy to reconstruct the marine reptiles that Mary Anning first excavated in Lyme Regis.

Crystal Palace's Marine reptiles

Crystal Palace’s Marine reptiles

The sediments of the early ocean had preserved complete skeletons of the creatures and in some deposits in Germany even the outline of the animals’s bodies, but it was more problematic with the fragmentary remains of the first terrestrial dinosaurs that were found in the UK. All the early palaeontologists had to go on were the skeletal plans of existing reptiles like crocodiles and monitors, so the early reconstructions were of creatures that scuttled through the undergrowth on splayed legs, dragging their bellies along the ground.

Got any fish? Icthyosaur -Crystal Palace

Got any fish? ichthyosaur Crystal Palace

By the mid 19th century Richard Owen (the man who invented the name dinosaur) had worked out from the thighbones of creatures like Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, that they actually stood upright on straight legs like an elephant or a rhino. These new-found ideas about what these creatures looked like really fired the public’s imagination. So much so that when the Crystal Palace Company decided to relocate the 1851 Great Exhibition buildings from Kensington to Sydenham Hill, they hired the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to populate one of the ornamental lakes with replicas of these prehistoric creatures.

Pterodactyl - Crystal Palace

Pterodactyl – Crystal Palace

Waterhouse worked with Richard Owen to ensure that when his models were finally unveiled in 1854 they were as accurate as possible, although compared to the more graceful creatures that we know these animals to have been now, some of Owen’s reconstructions still look like lumbering beasts.

The mighty Megalosaurus

The mighty Megalosaurus

And as for the horn on Iguanadon’s nose we now know it’s really a spiky thumb,

Iguanadons - Crystal Palace

Iguanodon – Crystal Palace

that might have been used to poke hie enemies in the eye.

In Jurassic Park Dr Alan Grant was rather alarmed when he discovered some of these,

Icthysaurus 5but I think that particular egg may have belonged to one of these present day descendents of the dinosaurs.

Greylag goose - Crystal Palace

Greylag goose – Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace is easy to reach from central London with frequent London Overground services and mainline trains from London Bridge.

All aboard graphic at Crystal Palace Railway Station

All aboard graphic at Crystal Palace Railway Station

Just take a right into the park on exiting the station and follow the path past the athletics stadium to reach the lake.

Labyrinthodon

Labyrinthodon

Amsterdam 2013 – We go Dutch at De Roode Leeuw

Having sampled some traditional Dutch snack food at Cafe Hoppe for a late Sunday lunch and an Indonesian rice table meal on Saturday night, we decided to try and find somewhere that offered traditional Dutch food on Sunday evening. This turned out to be more difficult that we anticipated as, like in many other northern European cities, there are plenty of restaurants offering overseas menus, everything from Chinese to Uruguayan, although Argentine seemed to be the most popular.

Undaunted we got a recommendation from the hotel receptionist and set off for a place called the King William steakhouse. I think we must have misunderstood the directions as when we arrived in Rembrandtsplein all we could find were pubs full of celebrating Ajax fans, who had been drinking since lunchtime. We asked a friendly cop, who was most surprised that a group of 50 somethings didn’t have a smart phone between them, for directions and he sent us up to Centraal Station. Passing yet more pissed up Ajax fans we found the restaurant and promptly decided it looked both expensive and not that authentic, with just a couple of pancake dishes tagged onto some international dishes.

The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

Marginally brassed off we realised that we were pretty close to Het Elfde Gebod at the top of the Red Light District so we dropped in for some Belgian beer, Dutch gin and cheese. While ordering the drinks we got chatting with the  barman and asked him if he knew anywhere where we could get some real Dutch food. He suggested a place called in English the Red Lion or De Roode Leeuw (Damrak 93-94) as he helpfully scribbled on the back of a beer mat.

So setting off down Damrak from Centraal station we passed several groups of Ajax fans, a couple of groups of riot police and the War Memorial, before tracking the place down. to be honest it didn’t look much from outside, but inside we discovered a dark wood panelled interior with crimson and gold upholstery and wooden carvings of carriages hanging from the ceiling, while neatly uniformed waiters flitted between tables laid with crisp white linen.

After going through the ‘have you booked’ routine we were shown to our table and presented with the menu. I chose the herring with beetroot to start and it was lovely, beetroot and herring is a perfect partnership especially when it is served as creatively as it turned up on my plate. However as far as presentation goes that was only a taster. Nick and I had both ordered the hash of beef with black pudding which dully arrived in four separate serving dishes on a trolley pushed by a very attractive young waitress.

Artistry on a plate

Artistry on a plate

As we waited she crafted the mashed potato into perfect quenelles with a pair of spoons then created an appetizing design on the plate with the hashed beef, red cabbage and black pudding.

Perfectly crated hash

Perfectly crafted hash

It tasted as good as it looked, especially the crisp black pud which together with the red cabbage and apple was a match made in heaven. Needless to say our attempts to help ourselves to seconds were not quite as visually appealing, but we wolfed them down nonetheless.

As you can imagine we were all pretty stuffed, but I still found room to polish off some cinnamon ice cream.  If you fancy some good hearty cuisine served with panache De Roode Leeuw is certainly worth searching out and it’s not bad value either . For four we paid €166 for starters, mains, wine and water, plus two desserts and tip.