God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country

On a complete whim, we decided on a mini tour of Yorkshire. As England’s largest traditional county by far, it was a very teeny weeny tour encompassing just Leeds, Knaresborough and Harrogate. We travelled across the flatlands to Grantham, the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher. I’ll leave you to decide whether that should be celebrated. From there, the Virgin Express sped us north to Leeds, the throbbing heart of West Yorkshire. Where once there were dark satanic mills, now there are trendy loft conversions, glass towers and a branch of Harvey Nicks.

Leeds Panorama

The handsome city has seen something of a renaissance of late and now boasts one of the most diversified economies in Britain. I’d like to tell you we were there to see the sights and take in the culture but I can’t. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we were off down the rough end beneath the rainbow bridge. Leeds has a small but beautifully-formed gay scene, each venue staggering distance from the next. Happy hour dribbled on all afternoon and we did indeed get to see some sights but nothing you’ll find in the tourist blurb. We eventually made it back to the hotel though I have no memory of how we got there.

Next day, button-bright, we jumped on the slow train to Knaresborough. The Guardian Newspaper describes the town as tatty and batty and the cap really fits. Perched high on the cliffs above the River Nidd and wrapped in a blanket of iridescent green, Knaresborough is famous for the railway viaduct that crosses the water. The views from the tumbledown castle are simply stunning.

The little town is also famous for its independent spirit and independent shops – the butcher, the baker, the cappuccino-maker. This is the place where madcap mattress-wheeling teams sprint around the town for no apparent reason in the annual bed race. It’s completely batty. And we do batty.

Liam and I always have an eye on the future and we wandered around the quirky streets making mental notes of the good points (many) and the bad points (few). We retired to a coffee house to debrief. The verdict? Right now, it’s top of the leader board.

The final destination on our whistle-stop tour was elegant Harrogate, which the Guardian calls hoity-toity. And so it is with its cream teas and posh nosh. I was last there for a wedding in 2004. The bride was a lovely gal from work with a well-deserved reputation for being an all round good egg. As I looked around the church at the time, I could tell who was in and who was out.

The next day it was back to good ol’ Norwich but not before I was interviewed on camera in the pouring rain by someone from the local telly asking me about local ishoos. I did explain that as I didn’t actually live in Yorkshire, my opinion counted for nowt (see, I’m already starting to speak Yorkist). He didn’t seem to mind. Hallelujah to God’s own country.

P.S. I had totally forgotten that the Harrogate bride now actually lives in Knaresborough. We could have met up for a long-overdue natter, how thick am I?

Sticky Fingers and Sticky Knickers

Sticky Fingers and Sticky Knickers

When Mother Nature flicks the switch, Norfolk broads dance in the park. So it’s no surprise the summer festival season is in full swing, with tasty titbits to suit all palates.

Put the words ‘food’ and ‘drink’ together and you’ve got me hooked. So what better way to reel me in than the Norwich Food and Drink Festival? A scorcher ensured a bumper turnout, with plenty of meaty treats to whet the carnivore’s appetite. Prime Norfolk pig took top billing on the menu – pulled, sliced, rashered, minced and stuffed into sausage skins. The air was thick with a sizzling porky perfume; dedicated veggies could only drown their sorrows at the gin, vodka and wine stalls.

And then there was the eating competition between hungry locals with their I’m-the-biggest-pig-round-here demeanour. It was way too sticky to stick around so we don’t know who won, but my money was on the butch Angle at the head of the table.

As sweat dribbled down our backs and headed south into the steamy abyss, it was time to cool down with a tutti-frutti and a drop of the amber nectar. While all things East Anglian were being celebrated across the city centre, there was something of a foreign invasion in a city field.

Lads in lederhosen and wenches in dirndls were whipping up the crowds with buckets of beer and barbecued Bratwurst at the Bavarian Beerfest in Chapelfield Gardens. Brexit may well mean Brexit but nobody’s going to stop me nibbling on a German sausage. We found a shady bench, gulped the hoppy ale and tapped our feet to the thump, thump, thump of the oom-pah tunes. We hadn’t quite appreciated the strength of the heady brew. The next day it was thump, thump, thump inside our fuzzy heads.

 

Prost!

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Learning to speak English must be difficult enough, but learning to spell it must bring even the most dedicated student out in hives. It’s just the little game we English like to play on Johnny Foreigner. Place names can be particularly bothersome. So for the uninitiated…

Leicester is Lester, Gloucester is Gloster, Chiswick is Chizik, Warwick is Warik (unless you’re Dionne) Harwich is Haridge and Norwich is Noridge (or Naaridge if you’re from round these parts).

But there is a certain consistency to the cesters, the wicks and the wiches. Not so in Norfolk – or I should say Naarfuk. Asking a Naaridge bus driver for a ticket to Costessey or Wymondham will provoke a puzzled response. You see, it’s Caassy and Windum. Confused? You will be.

We’d learned our lesson in correct enunciation by the time we caught our bus to Wymondham, a pretty parish of 15,000 souls southwest of Norwich. June was bustin’ out all over the place along the 10 mile route. We arrived to find the place bathed in sunshine but spookily empty for a hot Saturday afternoon. Perhaps everyone was at Pilates.

The main event was the famous abbey, founded in 1107. Well, it was famous until Henry VIII got his grubby hands on it. Once a thriving Benedictine priory, it only survived complete demolition by becoming the parish church – the monks were pensioned off and the last abbot became the local vicar. Nevertheless, and despite being half the length it once was, the twin-towered abbey church remains an imposing pile, rising majestically above the pine trees. Inside, the largely Norman-period nave has a fine wooden roof studded with carved angels. We sat in the pews awhile watching the roadies setting up for an evening concert. A plot for Midsomer Murders gathered momentarily in my mind in which an angel is pushed from the roof to squash a portly mezzo-soprano as she sings something seductive from Carmen. But whodunnit? If I ever get the commission, you’ll be the first to know but suffice it to say it involves a darts match and a ladies-only night in Cromer. I decided to call the episode ‘Revenge of the Fallen Angels’. As you can tell, I got rather carried away.

Wandering round, we’d never met a friendlier or more passionate bunch of volunteers. They positively gushed with enthusiasm. Without them we wouldn’t have known about the abbey’s more eclectic secrets. I cradled the hand of an angel to pray for world peace – and a lottery win. Liam stuck his finger in the monk’s hole and made a wish. Amen to that.

We were also told about the secret tunnel that allegedly led to the nearby fourteenth century Green Dragon tavern and the ancient exit still to be found in the pub. Apparently, the naughty monks were rather fond of the Devil’s brew. It might explain all that hole filling. Naturally, we had to investigate and partake of the Devil’s brew ourselves –  purely for research purposes.

 

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.

City of Stories

Jack and Liam move to Norwich

Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.

Norwich Buskers

Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.

The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.

Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.

Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.

The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.

Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.

And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.

A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…

Park Life

Park Life

Right now the view from the microloft is autumn bleak with a fat shroud of nickel grey as far as the eye can see. It’s just as well I don’t suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or I might get as low as the cloud and chuck myself out of the window. What better way to recall the hazy days of August than with a few sunny snaps of our trip to Eaton Park?

Laid out at the beginning of the 20th century, the park was designed to keep Norwich folk out of the pubs and factory-fit. It’s still doing it today with a bewildering range of sweaty things to do on bikes, on skates and on foot with bats, rackets, mallets, clubs and balls of every conceivable shape, size and texture. It was way too hot for anything muscular so we decided instead to exercise our tastebuds with a fruity bottle of white Rioja in the delicious café.

Salud!

White Rioja

Ah, memories…

Perking the Pansies

Perking the Pansies

Our hobbling tour of Bodrum was something of a boozy whirlwind and confirmed I can’t do multiple piss-ups anymore. It was season’s end with flight prices to match, but the interminable limp through Stansted was a brutalising experience when compared to our little local airport. Working to a slum-it budget, we bagged ourselves a hotel in Bodrum for eleven quid a night, breakfast included. Nothing much worked in our barrel-scraped digs but the family-run gaff was clean and convenient. This was the first time we had set foot on Turkish soil since we called time on our Anatolian adventure in 2012 and we were determined to make hay. Naturally, the wedding of the year was the main event but we also wanted to share a jar or two with some of our old muckers, so we pitched our standard on a Bodrum Beach and waited for battle to commence. The onslaught came in waves and after nine hours of friendly fire, talking ten to the dozen about everything under the moonlit sky, we staggered to the nearest taxi rank. A huge hand to all the Bodrum belles and beaus who really made our day. You know who you are.

These images are as blurred as our vision was by the end of the evening.

Of course, no trip back to Bodrum would have been complete without a reunion of the Sisterhood…

… the antidote to the VOMITing sickness that afflicts the many Shirley Valentines who wash up like driftwood on the beaches of Turkey. Many of the Sisters are reformed VOMITs who’ve been through the ringer, some more than once, but have emerged to tell the tale stronger and wiser. The Sisters stick together (like birds of a feather), because men are rubbish.

Expat Glossary

So after a day trip down memory lane along Turkey Street (more of this later), we joined the Sisterhood in Musto.

Musto was top of our list and sat in a prime location on Marina Boulevard opposite the smart shopping parade. Its handsome young owner, Mustafa the Magnificent, was second cousin to our landlady and a generous and convivial host. The eponymous Mustafa learned his trade at Sünger, his uncle’s legendary pizza parlour, a place that had been dishing up margheritas to the sailing squad since the early seventies. Unlike some of his rivals, Mustafa never resorted to pressganging people in from the street. He courted the emigrey crowd with Italian seasoning, palatable wine, affordable prices and generous yolluks. It was a formula that attracted swarms of discerning diners, even out of season.

Turkey Street

mustoMusto has expanded considerably since our last visit, though I’m pleased to say the menu and ambience remain special. Back in the day, regular meetings of the Sisterhood always kept the pansies perked, particularly during the chilly winter months when Bodrum life was as a slow as pond water. Thank you Doc, Jess and Victoria.

There was a distinct autumnal nip when we got back to Norwich and the heating went on for the first time since the spring. A day or two later, Liam departed for London on family duties so I sank into the sofa to watch an ancient episode of Midsomer Murders on ITV3 with my carcinomic ankle resting on a Swedish pouffe. I was unsettled. We thought our trip back to Bodrum would be our swansong. Now I’m not so sure. Despite challenging political times, Turkey has worked her magic all over again. Blimey.

bodrum-beach

More Postcards from Gran Canaria

More Postcards from Gran Canaria

Following last week’s delivery from the Royal Mail, here’s the second batch of postcards to land on the mat.

Mad Pedro

The staff in our global holiday village are delightful, particularly Pedro, our mad barman. He services us with charm and generosity and rings his little bell every time he gets a tip. It’s like a royal wedding at Westminster Abbey when we’re around and the bigger the tip we give, the bigger the drink we get. As Pedro said to Liam:

Ah, you Engleesh with your happy hour. It’s always happy hour in Pedro’s bar!

Loose Talk

Regular readers will know I’m a dedicated eavesdropper. Here’s a small selection:

And I’ll tell you one thing for nothing. As soon as I get home, I’m back on the tramadol.

 

 We went tut Benidorm in January. It were great. We ‘ad beach to ourselves.

Oh. How come?

It were rainin’.

 

Me son’s got an apartment in Bulgaria.

Nice. Wotsit like?

Cheap but those Bulgarians…you wouldn’t trust ‘em.

 

Of course, we normally go to Goa, don’t we Jean? All-in for a tenner a day – and that includes two packs of fags and enough booze to sink the Ark Royal.

A Yumbo Cocktail

We’re just a short mince from the Yumbo Center, the largest of the many tacky shopping and entertainment centres dotted about Playa Del Ingles. As I wrote back in 2012 after our last trip…

The Yumbo Center is the throbbing epicentre of gay Canarian low-life. The Yumbo is a naff treat for all the senses, a crumbling multi-layered open air shopping and sex emporium. It started to fall apart as soon as it was built (some twenty five years ago). By day, it’s an over-sized pound shop patronised by ancient slow-lane Germans in busy shirts and socked sandals. But, at the stroke of midnight, the racks of tat are wheeled away, the garish bars throw open their doors and the entire place is transformed into a gaudy cacophonous neon-lit cess-pit of drunken debauchery.

Gran Canaria Sex Emporium

It was one of my most popular posts ever. Can’t think why. Strangely, we’ve only ventured into the Yumbo Center once so far – and then only during the day to do a bit of shopping for that must-buy momento. The venues come and go but the place never really changes – apart from the newly installed lift for the mobility-challenged. It’s true, we did stop for a daiquiri or two – for old time’s sake and to survey the footfall. Our immediate neighbours were an over-waxed Franco-German gay couple with plucked brows, precision beards and perfect pecs. They could have been separated at birth. Must be like shagging a mirror. When they weren’t fiddling with their iPhones (to check Grindr, presumably), they communicated in Globalish*. Our barman was pretty. And pretty useless. Just like every gay bar around the world.

yumbo-centre

Geordie Shore

Mercifully, the heatwave has broken. I’d started to lose the plot and I was a hair’s breath away from garrotting the leathery old early birds who always get the brollies. With plunged temperatures, Liam bundled me out of the apartmentos for an excursion to Puerto de Mogán, a marina resort on the south-west coast of the island. We went by public transport, by far the easiest way to get around. Naturally, the bus stop was like a multi-national rugby scrum. You’d think people were fleeing a war zone. Why do we Brits bother queueing?

Set on a steep-sided valley, Puerto de Mogán is built in faux Spanish colonial style and very pretty it is too. But the epithet ‘Venice of the Canaries’ is over-egging the pudding a bit. There’s just the one ‘canal’ – more of a creek really. Still, we ate tapas in a lovely marinaside restaurant followed by coffee and cake in an inviting backstreet bakery. The port’s like a mini version of Bodrum in look and feel, particularly with the dripping, multi-coloured bougainvillea. Sadly, the relaxed ambience was marred by a gang of pissed-up Geordies stalking the streets and waving empty Peroni bottles. My dad was a Geordie. He’d be spinning in his urn.

Back to Bodrum

All in all, it’s been a splendid week, with batteries, scent and cigs (for my mother) recharged. Next trip: back to Bodrum for the wedding of the year. Now that really is something to write home about.

*Globalish is the cut-down version of English used by air traffic controllers, international conferences and dating apps which is totally lacking in elegance, colour, nuance or wit.