Wednesday, 31 December 2008

New Year's Eve Shoppers

By Jove, it wasn't half busy in Belfast city centre this afternoon. We drove in after lunch and parked in Donegall Place. I had bought the Dowager two coats, as Christmas gifts, several weeks ago at Marks and Spencer's Sprucefield store; and, since they are both too neat a fit, I intended to exchange them for the next size up. I enlisted the help of a pretty shop assistant. However, as she explained, it transpired that the Belfast store doesn't stock the whole range; so I'll need to make a return trip to Lisburn again.

No matter. It shall be another excuse for us to have lunch at the lovely Plough Inn in Hillsborough.

New Year's Honours For 2009

I've been scanning the New Year Honours List for Northern Ireland and there are four CBEs, fifteen OBEs, thirty-two MBEs, three QPMs and one QFSM; approximately, at any rate. Do not count on my elementary mathematical prowess. Nobody in the Province is sufficiently deserving enough for so much as even a Knight Bachelorhood. Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) ranks at about Number 16 in the Honours scale, the Knighthood of the Garter being Number One - apart from the VC and GC.

Of more interest to me is the considerably higher honour awarded to the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE, MC.

Sir Richard, having been a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (military division), now becomes a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath (GCB breast star pictured right). The GCB comes in at Number Three on the pecking scale now, after the KG and KT.

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Restoration Of Church House In Belfast

I am pleased to hear that funding has been secured in order to restore the Presbyterian Assembly Building, Church House, in Belfast.

Church House lies at the corner of Howard Street and Fisherwick Place; and was built between 1900-05. It stands on the site of the former Fisherwick (5th) Presbyterian Church, which opened in 1827. This original church was demolished in 1899 when the congregation moved to its present church on Malone Road.

Church House, as Marcus Patton says, was constructed using uncoursed, rusticated sandstone "in an odd mixture of Scottish Baronial and Perpendicular". It was officially opened by His Grace the Duke of Argyll in 1905.

Fisherwick Place takes its name from Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire, a seat of the Marquesses of Donegall. The 1st Marquess of Donegall was the greatest landowner in Ireland during the eighteenth century. In 1757, Lord Donegall owned about 250,000 acres in counties Antrim, Donegal, Down and Wexford; including the whole town of Belfast too. His "vast palladian mansion (Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire) with a park of 400 acres, all designed and constructed by Capability Brown".

Confusion About Sir John's Title

This petty piece of pedantry interests me, since I am a bit of an "anorak", as they say, when it comes to protocol and our hereditary peerage.

I am referring to the Right Honourable Sir John MacDermott, a former Lord Justice of Appeal. Sir John's father, Lord MacDermott, was the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland; and went on to become a Law Lord and life peer, as is customary.

For some reason, perhaps because his late father was called Lord MacDermott, Sir John is often referred to as "Lord MacDermott" by many individuals and organizations locally.

I have checked with the House of Lords on their website and they have nobody by the name of MacDermott.

Sir John is doubtless resigned to this titular elevation and accepts it without any fuss. He is a Knight Bachelor; not a life peer. I thought I'd put the record straight.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Walk From College Green To Mount Pleasant

I parked at College Green today, adjacent to College Green House. The Union Theological College, established in 1853, takes up the other side of this street; and it may well be surpassed by the giant Queen's Library block nearing completion.

I ambled along Rugby Road, admiring the largely unspoiled terraces and a number of detached houses too. The ones beside Botanic Gardens enjoy long gardens to the rear, as can be seen from the park.

Botanic Gardens was quiet today, unsurprisingly. I left the park at the Stranmillis Road exit and strolled up the road. Café Conor, directly opposite the Ulster Museum, had a few customers. The museum, enveloped in high hoarding, showed no indication of re-opening any time soon.

Eventually I came to one of my favourite Belfast addresses: Mount Pleasant (right). St Bartholomew's Church sits immediately to the right. I admire Mount Pleasant's layout, with the residents' gardens occupying a sort of island in the middle. It all seems so secluded, private and quite exclusive, in a way.

Leaving Mount Pleasant, I crossed the road and headed towards Colenso Parade, which ends at a Botanic Gardens' side-entrance. Looking across the park, the substantial, new Queen's Library (left) overshadows the entire north-east side of Botanic Gardens.

So that ended another agreeable little walk.

The Discretionary Service Charge

This morning I've been reading a few menus from some London restaurants, one of them being the Wolseley Restaurant in Piccadilly. If you scroll right down to the bottom of the menu, you shall notice the legend: A 12½ % discretionary service charge will be added to your bill. This practice is commonplace in established London restaurants nowadays. I find it brazen and distasteful. I habitually tip waiting staff anyway, unless there is a reason not to.

It will be noted that this charge is discretionary; in other words, they'll not compel you to pay it. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know how many diners deduct it; or strike it off their bill and give a smaller - or, indeed, greater - gratuity.

Restaurateurs know that, unless a meal is really dreadful or a member of staff is particularly rude, most patrons will settle their bill unquestioningly, irrespective of a substantial service charge. Some restaurants even have £2 cover charges too!

The only restaurant in Belfast which adds a discretionary 10% service charge to all bills, as far as I am aware, is Deane's in Howard Street.

I'd like to hear your views about this practice. Do you think it's fair; or do you find it objectionable?

Addendum: The service charge I allude to is imposed on individuals or couples; not parties of 5, 6 or more.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Killynether, Island Hill And Newtownards

I lit a fire this morning. I used the logs which I'd collected from the barn the last time I was at Minnowburn. A large sack lasts no time at all; three fires if you're lucky.

We jumped in to the two-seater later on and headed for Killynether Wood, near Scrabo in County Down. The views from Scrabo and Killynether, looking out over the rolling drumlins towards Strangford Lough are wonderful. I walked through the magical woods to the site where we had been coppicing and lit a bonfire several weeks ago. I passed a fine example of chain-saw wood art along the way.

We drove on to Island Hill for ten minutes, before motoring in to the market town of Newtownards, where I made a brief foray into Warden's department store. On the way home we stopped off at the ASDA petrol station, where I filled up the tank at 85.9 pence per litre.

Woolworth Connswater Is Non-Existant

It is curious that BBC Northern Ireland has disregarded Woolworths' store at Connswater shopping centre in Belfast. The BBC reports that the "five stores" ceases today.

Perhaps there is a technical reason for excluding the east Belfast store; the fact that is is in a shopping centre, for instance. I wonder how many branches of Woolies operate in shopping centres?

Friday, 26 December 2008

A Walk From Bedford Street To Botanic Avenue

Since Christmas Day was spent lounging at home - eating, drinking and watching television - I decided to drive into Belfast. Not to do any shopping, I hasten to add. The purpose of this outing was for some stimulation, fresh air and exercise.

I parked close to the Ulster Hall on Bedford Street. It looks as if there is some work still to be done at the Ulster Hall, on the exterior at least, before it re-opens in March, 2009. I crossed the street and walked up Clarence Street West, a small street which now boasts a large, new hotel called the Park Inn. The hotel itself looked empty of residents; not surprising, since it has only just opened its doors.

Ambling back to Bedford Street, I turned right towards Dublin Road. I see that the Burger King restaurant at the cinema is now closed down. There is a Tesco Express supermarket at the corner of Hartington Street, possibly where the Christopher Wray Lighting Emporium formerly stood.

At the start of Botanic Avenue, beside Shaftesbury Square, I glanced over at the place where I used to work - my very first posting in the Bank, in fact - at 9-11 Botanic Avenue. It has been converted into two shop units now.

Continuing my walk along Botanic Avenue, I came to its junction with University Street. This is a long street, stretching from Ormeau Road to University Road. I had a look at Renshaw's Hotel, which is beside Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. Renshaw's is in the process of renovation, with an extension at the rear which shall double it in size. Shaftesbury House College was formerly here.

Duke's Hotel, at 65 University Street, is also being completely renovated. The health and social services used to have offices at this site.

At last I arrived at my destination: Molly's Yard. It's at College Green Mews, although its main entrance seems to be on Botanic Avenue. This building housed the stables and coach-house for College Green House around the corner. By the way, College Green House has an interesting history itself; and has recently been sympathetically restored. Molly's was closed; I did have a look at the menu, though. I'm afraid the combination of poor daylight and my modest camera mean that the December menu, on the right, cannot be perused!

I crossed the street and ambled up University Street again, towards University Road. It's a bit disappointing to see so many terraces with an air of neglect along this road. This ought not to be the case, since it is a relatively prosperous area. I imagine the decrepit buildings will be restored eventually, should the landlords so wish it. A number of them seem derelict, with filthy facades, broken windows and overgrown frontages. Fine Georgian houses, utterly neglected and unloved.

Sections of Upper Crescent and Lower Crescent aren't much better. These Regency-style streets, with a nice little park, or green, in the middle would otherwise be among the finest in Belfast, architecturally speaking. I think so anyway. This is one of my favourite parts of Belfast; I like the architecture and buildings here.

So I came full-circle. It was a pleasurable stroll.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A Merry Christmas

I'd like to wish all my friends, readers and followers of LBNI a merry, peaceful and festive Christmas. As the old cliché goes: Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The True Princes Of Socialism

I'm all for elitism. Staying at deluxe, five-star hotels and villas is one way of doing it. I don't like spending my money on that sort of thing, I hasten to add, unless someone else is paying for it. I brush down the old forbears' dinner jacket and reserve a good seat at the opera now and again. That sort of modest activity. The nouveau elite like the footballer, Beckham, and his singing wife, are fêted, worshipped and treated like royalty wherever they go. It must be added that the Beckhams are undoubtedly beneficent, of course. The chap seems a good enough egg.

My activities are but nothing compared to the Pillars of Labour society - sorry, New Labour. Mr Blair, too, is treated like royalty: the other day, a smart London store opened its doors early especially for him. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Woodward, would not need to do such a mundane thing as that: he has his own butler. Those two are merely the tip of the Labour iceberg.

And to think that these people are all propped up by the loud-mouthed donkeys and buffoons of the Proletariat like Skinner and Prescott.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Televisual Feast?

Two of my current favourite programmes are on this evening: the BBC's excellent Wild About Your Garden; and Channel Four's equally splendid Country House Rescue. I wish the BBC would pay me a visit to landscape our garden. They never mention the cost of these make-overs: I presume the license-fee payer stumps up.

I am a devoted admirer of Ruth Watson, the erstwhile Hotel Inspector on Channel Five; and now presenter of Country House Rescue. I wish she'd come back to take charge as the Hotel Inspector again.

Maris Piper Fiasco

I dare say that some folks thrive on busy and crowded supermarkets, what with large trolleys causing obstructions; and shoppers chatting to acquaintances in the middle of the aisles. Not his lordship. I positively wilt when it is like this.

I wished to buy a few loose Maris Piper or King Edward potatoes today, in order to roast them; and ended up going on a wild goose chase around east Belfast! In the end, I called into Marks and Spencer's food store at Ballyhackamore and they sold loose Maris Pipers. A bag of them would simply have been too much.

I am eagerly looking forward to eating out at Molly's Yard, a restaurant at College Green Mews, off Botanic Avenue in Belfast next year; perhaps sooner than that. Chekov and John of Food & Drink both speak highly of it. Molly's Yard, sadly, does not have a website or I'd have perused their menus online beforehand.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Fine dining At Beatrice Kennedy's

We had drawn up a short-list of preferred restaurants for my birthday: Alden's; Balloo; Beatrice Kennedy's; and another that I cannot recall, I'm afraid. We opted for BK's. Beatrice Kennedy's restaurant is at 44, University Road in Belfast; it's very close to Queen's University, in fact.

The taxi - one of those ghastly "people-carriers" - collected us at 7:10 pm on the dot, courtesy of Valuecabs. We were conveyed to the restaurant within 15 minutes at a cost of £6.90. BK's was not busy when we arrived; and our little table was at the wall opposite the door. BK's is a small , romantic and intimate restaurant. Service is very good indeed, as are the standards.

I must admit to a certain partiality now: I am rather fond of BK's. Our table was well laid, with a vintage brass candlestick, lit; a posy of red carnations; gleaming cutlery; white tablecloth and napkins. My side-plate was missing; so, instead of causing a fuss, I acquisitioned one from an empty table! I needed it for the exquisite, home-made wheaten bread which they brought to us. The bread was really fresh, soft and almost sweet; and it came with a small dish of butter. It was the best wheaten bread I have eaten for years. Honestly.

I ordered seared scallops on Clonakilty black pudding as a starter. This, I believe, is one of Mr McCarthy's signature dishes. It was sublime. The little scallops complemented the crumbly black pudding magnificently.

My main course consisted of Finnebrogue (County Down) venison with braised red cabbage, fondant potatoes and red wine jus. The venison was gently cooked, rare. It was sliced and accompanied with a tangy concoction of finely-sliced red cabbage in a sauce. If I have an ever-so-slight criticism, the potatoes were a touch prosaic for my taste. They were served whole, medium sized. I'd have preferred baby potatoes tossed in chives, I think. That is subjective, of course. This was another accomplished meal. The meat was tender, succulent and lean; easy to digest. The cabbage was anything but prosaic! It tasted much more exotic than that. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Dowager had smoked haddock with celeriac remoulade and crispy shallots (a starter). I didn't taste it. However, the haddock looked good and was not too smoked.

I indulged in as light a pudding as possible. Basically it was pannacotta with a concentrated fruity sauce, or coulis. I simply could not find fault with it at all. It was a sumptuous dessert.

We drank a bottle of rosé méthode champenoise with our dinner; and I had a glass of cognac too.

We could have spent as long as we wished at our table. Some establishments arrogantly tell you that your table must be vacated at a certain time. Not so with BK this evening. We felt totally relaxed and unrestricted in that sense.

We spent about two hours at BK's. I ordered a taxi - Valuecabs - having settled the bill with them and the taxi (a proper saloon car) arrived within two minutes! Apparently Mondays are quiet. This one was, at any rate.

The bill came to about £64, including the tip; excluding the taxi! The bills always come with nice little discs of milk chocolate; we had about ten. Beatrice Kennedy's restaurant must be one of the best restaurants in Belfast. It would be presumptuous of me to claim it's the best, since I have not eaten in every Belfast restaurant.

Old Telly Has A New Home!

When I was at the dinner last Friday, I mentioned our old television set to Craig. He was most interested indeed since, it transpired, their old telly isn't doing the job properly.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with our old telly. It works perfectly well. It weighs a ton too! 36kg, at least.

I have, therefore, decided to donate it to the National Trust. They'll contact me in the new year to arrange collection.

Mundane Correspondence

All the usual, boring detritus is beginning to come through the letter-box already: insurance reminders, building society AGMs, a few more Christmas cards; even a computer-generated birthday card from the motor insurance company. I cannot tear up most of it quickly enough.

One positive letter was from the BBC Ticket Unit, enclosing an Invitation Concert ticket in the new year.

We have a taxi booked for this evening. We're having a celebration dinner at Beatrice Kennedy's restaurant in University Road, Belfast.

Gucci Socialism?

I read this interesting article - online - in the Daily Mail this morning about the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Right Honourable Shaun Woodward, MP. It would appear that Mr Woodward lives in some style, not to say grandeur. You'd be forgiven for mistaking him as a Conservative politician if you had read about Mr Woodward's wealth and property. His official residence in Ulster is Hillsborough Castle, a rambling Georgian mansion in County Down.

Don't be deceived. The Secretary of State was formerly a loyal member of the Conservatives until 2001. Indeed, Mr Woodward won Douglas - now Lord - Hurd's parliamentary seat in the 1997 general election.

Can he really be a socialist? Expediency apparently knows no bounds.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Sage And Onion Stuffing

Whilst seated on the armchair this morning after breakfast, my thoughts turned to the Christmas Dinner. It's virtually all ready. The turkey joint is already stuffed, though we'd prefer some home-made stuffing as well. Chestnut stuffing is in the freezer. I've tried it and, despite its rich flavour, it is still somewhat heavy.

Cognizant of this, I have decided to make some traditional sage and onion stuffing. It's mainly from an old cookery book we've had for ages. We usually fry the onion; however, the method in this recipe boils them. I was slightly sceptical about the flavour, texture and result of this; nevertheless, I decided to fire ahead. I halved the recipe too; we don't require a great amount:

  • 1 onion, skinned & chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 oz butter
  • 2 oz fresh breadcrumbs - use 2 slices of bread
  • 1 tsp dried sage
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tbsp cream to bind
  • honey to taste - optional
The original recipe omitted garlic and cream; and I had run out of white bread, so Hovis's excellent Seed Sensations bread was used instead. Use a food processor to chop the onion, garlic; and finally the bread for crumbs.

It's very simple: place chopped onion in a pan of cold water and bring to boil for 10 minutes. Drain well. Mix with other ingredients. That is it.

It shan't be stuffed in the turkey, which is already stuffed. Simply put the stuffing in a Pyrex dish with diced butter atop and cook in the oven 15 or 20 minutes before the turkey or roast potatoes are done.

I always taste food during and after preparation to ensure that it is appropriately seasoned.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Villa Vinci, Newcastle, County Down

One was seated on the noble throne quite early this morning, when the ruddy door-bell rang. Typical, isn't it? His lordship, minding his own business and getting on with the job in hand. The old butler has been superannuated, you see, so there was nobody else to open the door. The mission was accomplished - as it were - at any rate.

I had a great time last night. The occasion was the annual NT Murlough/Strangford Lough staff Christmas dinner, at the Villa Vinci restaurant in the seaside resort town of Newcastle, County Down. Villa Vinci is situated where the former electricity showroom used to be, at the northern end of Main Street - number 31 - between Donard Street and Bryansford Avenue. They describe themselves as Mediterranean cuisine.

Incidentally, Newcastle's infrastructure has greatly improved since its makeover. The new granite pavements, stainless-steel seating and general layout is impressive.

I'd never been to Villa Vinci's before. Although it was dark by the time I arrived, Vinci's gives the impression of being light and airy; plenty of windows. It is contemporary in decor and ambiance; most agreeable.

After an aperitif, we all sat down. We numbered about two dozen. I was seated between two friends and colleagues, so we chatted the whole evening. I had a prawn cocktail as a starter: lots of juicy prawns mixed with plenty of sauce; a large, erect lettuce leaf protruding from the mixture; and several slivers of avocado. I enjoyed it. I noticed some others having melon and soup.

I had the traditional turkey with all the trimmings for my main course. Again, no complaints at all: generous slices of succulent turkey and lean ham; a little stuffing; about two Brussels sprouts; potatoes and carrot; two cocktails sausages wrapped in bacon; cranberry sauce. I ate the lot. Other options included duck and salmon.

Continuing with Tradition, I had plum pudding for dessert. It looked minuscule on the large plate; and it was sitting on a sea of custard with a strawberry. This sight was deceptive! The portion was perfect. The pudding was moist and flavoursome. My fellow-diners agreed.

The staff were all young, attentive and courteous. The restaurateur himself - presumably - brought a few complimentary bottles of wine to our table; and we finished off the dinner with tea or coffee.

Bearing in mind that there were two dozen of us; and that our dinner was being paid for, I thought it all very good indeed. I'd certainly return to Villa Vinci again. I don't know what the overall cost was; I think a figure of £17 per person was mentioned. It was good, though, and that's what matters. I, personally, heard no complaints at all.

I arrived home at about ten o'clock.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Staff Dinner

I am, literally, just back from the annual National Trust Murlough/Strangford Lough Christmas dinner at Newcastle, County Down. I am sober enough to write this brief posting and inform you that I shall write a fuller review tomorrow. Needless to recount that all went well.

New Belfast Hotel

The latest addition to a seemingly endless line of new hotels in Belfast has just opened: the Rezidor Park Inn. It is located just off Bedford Street, in Clarence Street I think. Frankly, I this is the first time I've heard of the Rezidor Group at all; however, it is part of a chain.

That's another 145 bedrooms for Belfast. I have just learned that its address is 4, Clarence Street West. Stanley Harvey and Company used to be at this site and, I believe, they were the principal dealers for Rolls-Royce cars in Northern Ireland up until the 1970s.

The Staff Christmas Dinner

I'm off to Newcastle, County Down, this afternoon for an annual NT staff Christmas dinner. I cannot recall the last time I have eaten out in Newcastle; it certainly would have been a long time ago.

I thought I'd have to drive there, despite having been kindly offered a bed for the night at Castle Ward estate. However, another NT volunteer and colleague, Richard unexpectedly phoned yesterday evening and offered to give me a lift. Greatly appreciated indeed.

The Christmas bash kicks off at 5.30, and it's in Villa Vinci's restaurant.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Humble Chip Pan

God knows how long it is since we last used the old chip pan. It has been a demi-permanent fixture in the pot drawer for many months. I simply cannot be bothered making home-made chips or onion-rings nowadays, despite the fact that mine are invariably superior to shop-bought ones. I may give it an airing on Christmas Day in order to deep-fry the spuds (I cheat on making roasties).

For home-made chips, I use Heston Blementhal's ultimate chip method. This makes sublime chips, but it has no short-cuts and, if you are lazy, it is a non-starter. No. We now buy oven chips instead.

Consequently, and cognizant of this, the old chip pan lies forgotten and tucked away. The Authorities' latest advice, should you suffer a chip-pan fire, is not to cover the pan with a damp tea-towel: Get out; stay out; and phone 999! So they say, at any rate. Let us hope that the need never arises.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Gatwick Train Booking

I was browsing through the December issue of Which?, the consumer magazine, the other day and one thing caught my eye: online made-to-measure shirts by Marks and Spencer. This could, potentially, be a most useful service for me. Without delving into my vital statistics on LBNI, a hand-made shirt at a reasonable price seems attractive; particularly the various options available. They claim to beat Savile Row for relative quality and value. I'll wait until the New Year to order one.

I have booked my return rail ticket today, from Gatwick Airport to London's Victoria Railway Station. Their online booking service has advantages such as being able to walk straight to the train from the airport with one's ticket, without the rigmarole of queueing for a ticket, finding the ticket-desk etc. A return ticket costs £21.80.

My Oyster Card has £7.70 of credit; I think I'll add twenty pounds to it at Goodge Street Station.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Firewood Replenishment

Whilst at Minnowburn on Saturday, I was invited to fill a large sack with logs from the old barn beside the Office. A perk of the job! We'll be able to have several log fires this Christmas, the first fires since about March.

The Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC

While we were at Minnowburn yesterday, one of the gang made a rather disparaging reference to the Great Lady. Whilst I may well remain in the Minority with my stance - and I know that Lady Thatcher is adored and loathed in equal measure - I decided to keep my trap firmly shut, rather than start an argument with possibly some subsequent ill-feeling which may have ensued. I suppose I could have responded with sarcasm or irony: that's not, really, in my nature.

The Right Honourable the Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC - Margaret Thatcher - comes closely behind Sir Winston Churchill in my ratings. I shan't wait until her birthday, which is a mere eleven days after the Dowager's; I pay homage to the Great Lady here and now.

Catch A Pizza The Action

Whilst delivering pizzas recently in Miramar, Florida, Eric the Pizza-man was accosted by armed robbers. Brandishing the only weapon at his immediate disposal, Eric flung an extra hot pepperoni directly at the scoundrel and sprinted away.

Good man, Eric! It's amazing what can be done with the humble pizza.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Switch The Blasted Thing Off!

Not long ago, the Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green, Miss Lynne Featherstone, heard strange and alarming noises emanating from her boiler; so disquieting, in fact, that she lifted the phone and dialled 999 for the Fire Brigade.

I think I'd have turned the confounded thing off. Why did she have it on in the middle of the night anyway? Let us all hope that Miss Featherstone has put this incident down to experience; and knows what to do in future.

The Minnowburn Three

A mere three degrees Celsius. That was the maximum temperature today. Mind you, we were working quite laboriously. We were up near the Rose Garden at Minnowburn, still constructing a path which will lead down towards the river. There's a large heap of gravel stones up there and we had a couple of wheelbarrows so, with the shovels, we were wheeling a few tons of the stuff down the slope to spread it out.

There were three of us today, including the deputy warden. We had our lunch back at the Warden's Office, where there was a wood-burner lit; I had tried to buy Tesco's "turkey with all the trimmings" sandwiches, which were out of stock at Knocknagoney at 9.30 on Friday morning - so bought cheese and onion instead). Afterwards, Kevin showed me his new vegetable patch at the allotment. He intends to grow potatoes, onions, peas and carrots.

The National Trust Minnowburn staff are having their Christmas party at the Crown Bar in Belfast next Friday. This clashes with the Strangford Lough party, which will be at the Villa Vinci in Newcastle. I'm attending the Newcastle bash, though I might alternate it, in future, with the Belfast dinner.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Harris Tweed Bargain

I was meeting up with an old colleague at the Mermaid Tavern, in Wilson's Court, Belfast, today; so I ventured into Town a bit earlier in order to have a look at Best Vintage in Wellington Place. I wanted to see the Levi corduroy jeans; however, a little Harris Tweed jacket - on a tailor's dummy - caught my eye as I entered the shop. It was basically light grey with a herring-bone pattern; three-button fronted; and looked as if it could well fit self. It fitted me like a glove and they sold it to me for a twenty pound note.

I strolled around the corner and in to Queen Street, where I walked up the stairs and in to Café Renoir for a snack: one of their "gourmet toasties" and a pot of tea. I must say there was quite an agreeable sort of crowd lunching there. No rowdy types at any rate.

I met Tim at 12.45 and we enjoyed a modest drink or two.

Encircled By Vultures

The fate of Woolworth's high street store chain appears sealed. Woolworth is doomed. Eager shoppers, seeking a bargain, are already encircling their stores; rushing in to pick over the last remaining morsels.

This phenomenon rather reminds me of vultures squabbling over the carcass of a dead animal and, in this case, a mammoth one which happens to be called Woolworth.

In actual fact, the vulture is a much maligned and misrepresented bird. I suppose I'm contradicting myself here, having used the anomaly with shoppers; however, I'm defending the vulture because this bird is no predator. Oh no, this bird only eats dead meat: carrion. Vultures are really fine birds. They do not, to the best of my knowledge, kill to survive - unlike us!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

His Lordship Taking The Hump

I managed a whirlwind tour of several stores in east Belfast this morning, in an effort to conclude the bulk of the Christmas shopping. Although the turkey is already stuffed, I have a can of chestnut purée to use up; so I'll make some more home-made stuffing. I bought a lemon and some parsley today, as well.

I spotted a favourite bottle of plonk on offer too: Howcroft Estate Limestone Coast 2005 cabernet/merlot, reduced from £7.99 to £3.99. I snapped up six bottles and got an extra 5% discount.

Motoring happily on to Marks and Spencers' food store at Ballyhackamore, I stocked up on some cooked cocktail sausages and mini sausage rolls for the freezer.

I drove up Earlswood Road and forgot about the series of ghastly humps obstructing my smooth passage along the road. The two-seater has firm suspension, so I slowed right down to 15-20 mph. These humps on our roads are a confounded nuisance; especially for those of us who are largely law-abiding and content to motor along urban roads at 25-30mph at any rate.

The Authorities would serve us all better if they confiscated the jalopies of the imbeciles and cretins who speed on such roads; then, unceremoniously, lock them all up in a boot-camp for a month or two, well away from Society's sight. Sending these morons on National Service for a year would alleviate the pressure on our Armed Services, quite possibly.

Fine Wine: For Consumption Or Investment?

Now here's a fellow who knew a thing or two about discerning plonk; undoubtedly a true connoisseur and collector of the stuff. The collection has belonged to a prominent Belfast business man.

If you fancy making a bid for your favourite vino, now is your chance. You'd better head down to Ross's auction-house this evening, though.

Monday, 8 December 2008

GOC Northern Ireland Replacement

I've just heard that Northern Ireland shan't have a general officer commanding (GOC) in future. The Army has been re-organizing its structure here, since the end of Operation Banner. We have had a GOC since 1921.

The last GOC Northern Ireland, Major-General Chris Brown, CBE (2 star rank), will be leaving the Province for Iraq; and, from the 1st January, 2009, he shall be replaced by Brigadier George Norton, CBE (1 star rank).

Brigadier Norton will command about 5,000 personnel in Ulster, known as 38 (Irish) Brigade which shall be under the 2nd Division, based in Edinburgh.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Like Really Crispy Bacon?

Most of us love the taste and aroma of bacon. Give me streaky or back and I'll be quite happy. I do prefer it smoked, though that's not essential. I prefer streaky rashers to be very crispy too.

My current favourite rasher is produced by Sainsbury's; I find it crisps up very well indeed. It's called Sainsbury's Streaky Bacon; 12 smoked rashers; cured prime British pork, naturally smoked, they claim. The packet always has the Food Standards Assured logo with the little red tractor and Union Jack.

My method for crispy bacon has never failed me yet:

  • Place requisite number of rashers on to Pyrex plate (or directly on to microwave plate).
  • Place kitchen towels on top.
  • Cook on high setting for 1½ minutes per rasher.
  • Remove from microwave oven and dry on a kitchen towel.
  • Hey presto! Eat it with fresh, buttered toast and honey; or even an Ulster Fry.

The Task On A Cold, Winter's Day

It's hard to motivate oneself to perform certain chores at any time; so the annual ritual of buying Christmas cards, checking postage stamps, changes of address et al had to be undertaken. I decided that today was as good a day as any.

I bought a pack of cards from the RSPB shop at Belvoir Forest Park several weeks ago. We still have a substantial collection of old stamps; the Dowager used to collect stamps and I have been advised that most of them are, literally, of nominal value; i.e. face value! So I'm gradually working my way through them, including ½ pence stamps, endeavouring to find the right values to make up 27p.

My Christmas List is now on my computer, so I can print the names and addresses on to Inkjet Addressing Labels in a minute. It's all in the database, as Auntie Beeb keeps reminding us.

So that's it all done, for another year. I haven't signed them yet, because I wish to use my Onoto fountain pen which is on its way back to me from Worcestershire, having been repaired again.

Killynether: Woodland Management

I drove along the narrow country road very carefully yesterday morning. It was freezing and the puddles were as hard as an ice-rink. The entrance to Killynether woods is concealed; in fact I indicated too early, at another side entrance. I arrived on the dot of nine-thirty and Patricia was in the car-park already, so we shared a cup of coffee.

There used to be a rambling, Victorian mansion here, aptly named Killynether House; it was used by the US Army during the Second World War and then became a youth hostel for a spell before it was demolished.

There were nine of us today, which is a relatively good turn-out. Two staff from Minnowburn joined us with their chain-saws and equipment. We all got into the Land-rover and Mitsubishi, and drove further into the woods. We've been undertaking a gradual, phased process of coppicing in the middle of Killynether, on a steep slope at the side of a hill.

As Craig and Sean cut down hazel trees, we piled the branches on to a big bonfire we'd lit. Lighting a fire was the first task of the day! We'd brought some newspaper; Craig threw me a cigarette-lighter, and the fire lit immediately I'm glad to say. It was blazing, with an intense heat, within an hour. Poor Helen: she, or her fleece jacket, was peppered with little embers from the fire and sported lots of small, blackened holes! Never wear good clothes when doing this sort of work.

Coppicing entails cutting the trees right down to stumps at ground level, thus encouraging the growth of new branches in subsequent years. This method was used as a regular supply for fire-wood, and still is in some places. In our case it is simply for woodland management: bringing some daylight - sunlight - into the woods, thus fostering the growth or new flora and wildlife.

I'd treated myself to a Tesco Special: turkey sandwiches with all the trimmings! I dislike spending £2.50 on sandwiches (the very thought of the profit they make); however, these seasonal sandwiches were really sumptuous. They even had cranberry sauce and stuffing, sliced sausage etc.

The bonfire was still well alight when we left, late in the afternoon. Craig produced a packet of marshmallows and instructed us all to find a small branch each; then skewer the mallows thereon and toast them! Curiously enough, it worked.

Finally, later in the evening and slightly weary, I lifted the phone and ring Sam for a Chinese meal to be delivered. I'm getting rather partial to those beansprouts.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bistro Iona, Holywood, County Down

It's the second day, in a row, that I have eaten out this week. Our venue, this evening, was the Bistro Iona restaurant in Holywood, County Down. We have never experienced a poor meal at this establishment yet. Tonight was no exception.

We'd arranged to meet up with Godmother at 6.40 pm. Typically, having driven a hundred yards up the road, I checked my jacket pocket and realized that I'd forgotten my wallet; so that added five minutes to my timing, having gone through the rigmarole of unlocking the door, intruder alarm etc. Godmother was awaiting us in the Iona's dining-room. We had a table at the window.

This restaurant is reliable and consistent. Godmother and I both ordered the same meal that we had a year ago! Prawn cocktail - with a slice of smoked salmon on top this time; followed by confit of duck. The dowager had a crostini and brie salad; followed by a vegetarian dish of some sort.

The prawn cocktail was very good. It was served with a slice of wheaten bread. The duck, like last year, melted in the mouth. It was served with red cabbage and mash. The meal had plenty of flavour and was well seasoned. We had a dish of simple vegetables with it, consisting of carrot, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

They brought us their customary basket of fresh French bread with butter, which was sumptuous as usual. Steam was rising from it. Godmother had provided a bottle of red wine. The Iona is unlicensed.

The Iona is an unpretentious place. In many ways it's quite traditional. It is a small restaurant and it's on the first floor, so you have to climb a long flight of stairs. I imagine there must be nine or ten tables. The staff are friendly and attentive.

The Early Bird menu costs £15 for two courses; and £17 for three. Our bill amounted to £49.85, including corkage at a pound.

I'm looking forward to our next visit there already!

Tesco All Butter Fudge

We fancied some fudge today. The Dowager used to make divine fudge herself. It was produced at about this time of year and was always in demand.

I commented about fudge some time ago; the Burnt Sugar brand was the closest I could get to the Dowager's home-made stuff. Now I have made another discovery: Tesco's All Butter Fudge.

It comes in a small, fudge-coloured box and weighs a mere 150g. It currently costs £1.26. There are only five ingredients, which is good: sugar, butter, sweetened condensed milk, glucose syrup and golden syrup.

This fudge is on a par with Burnt Sugar fudge, let alone the Dowager's! I swear that, if you emptied it out on to a plate and handed it round your friends, they'd believe it to be home-made.

The King Of Turkey

Per ardua ad triumphus may well sum up the singular success of the King of Turkey, having suffered an epidemic of influenza.

The avian flu outbreak of January, 2007, hit Mr Bernard Matthews' turkey farms very hard indeed. Despite this, and due to hard-headed perseverance coupled with exceptional diligence, Mr Matthews has overcome this blow and prevailed.

His turkey products have seen a remarkable resurgence, as seen on supermarket shelves. Well done, Mr Matthews.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Belfast Christmas Shopping

I made a quick jaunt into central Belfast this morning. I needed to do a spot of seasonal shopping, so my first port-o'-call happened to be Primark's historic Bank Buildings. Forty years ago, there was a particularly smart department store here, and I cannot recall its name. I seem to remember it was of a similar calibre to Belfast's finest erstwhile store, Robinson and Cleaver's. Now that I think of it, it may have been a House of Fraser.

I left Primark by the Castle Street exit, and ambled up Fountain Street and into Waterstone's book shop to check the price of a recent publication about old Belfast, by a chap - long since departed - called Benn. Thirty pounds. It was £21 on the web, the last time I looked.

Wandering over to Sawer's delicatessen which, incidentally, has an excellent Christmas shop next door, I bought some Duchy Originals stuff as gifts.

By this stage I'd had enough, so I paid my very first visit to Alden's In The City for lunch. Alden's city branch is in Callender Street. It was about 75% full; however, they showed me to a seat immediately. Service is prompt and efficient here. It feels like a smart cafeteria; very conveniently located too.

I opted for the Hot Pig Sandwich (£7.25) and a pot of tea (£1.70). It came within ten minutes. I liked it. It was slightly evocative of the pig sandwich served at the now-defunct Hard Rock Café in Belfast's Odyssey Pavilion (which I loved!): shredded pork, mixed with a mustardy sauce; served with a salad on a bap; and a small bowl of the most divine chunky chips I have had for years. The chips were very crisp and dry on the outside; meltingly soft inside. Ideal. In fact I wrapped a few of them in the serviette and took them home!

The bill came to a reasonable £8.95. It's the best meal I have eaten out within the last week.

Addendum: Alden's In The City takes its name from a House at my old school; the proprietor of Alden's Restaurant most likely belonged to Alden's House.

Alden's in the City describe themselves as being an "urban deli & restaurant with express dining and fresh foods to go". The address on their green business cards is given as 8-14 Callendar {sic} Street.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

New Carpet Fitting

We had the new carpet fitted yesterday afternoon. It actually took them longer than I imagined: three hours. We're pleased with it. The modern underlay seems to be more spongy than the old stuff; whether it is any superior, I have no idea. Perhaps it's made in China!

The new carpet was certainly not made in China: it originated from Kidderminster in Worcestershire. I am amused that so many tradesmen leave their tools at customers' homes when they head off. This time he left a tape measure, although there was an ASDA sticker thereon! The plumber left us a wrench and screwdriver (which are both still sitting on the shelf in our garage).

Predictably, we have a fair bit of surplus carpet to discard up in the loft. They suggested that the largest piece could be turned in to a sort of rug, for the hall. We're undecided about that.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Out With The Old & In With The New!

Just after breakfast, this morning, I unceremoniously flung the elderly hall carpet out of the bedroom window. The Council was due to collect it, and a coffee table, today; and, true to their word, they turned up at about 11.30.

Our new carpet is being fitted tomorrow afternoon, when I'll open a bottle of Krug to celebrate Lord Belmont's Official Birthday. That's a joke, incidentally.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Opera Update

I have reserved a seat for La Traviata at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, next February, 2009. I managed, eventually, to pick a half-decent seat, number A21, in the Dress Circle.

I'm keeping a close eye on the Castle Ward Opera website and their anniversary season in 2009.

When I'm in the metropolis in the New Year, Turandot is being performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I have seen this opera before; so I'll make a decision on that whilst in London.

The Fate Of Woolworths' Connswater Branch

I see that the eminent entrepreneur, Mr Theo Paphitis, of BBC Dragons' Den fame, is interested in Woolworth's. Good luck to him. I hope he, or anyone else for that matter, can transform a coveted national institution into a national success. Woolworth and its staff deserve it.

It ought to be remembered that Woolworth has been established in Belfast for many decades; and that their main branch was in High Street, where Dunne's Stores now trade. Woolworth commercially supported the city of Belfast, and its citizens, through very hard and difficult times; right through the Troubles, in fact. We respect them for that. We wish them well.

Mr Paphitis is particularly keen on turning round the most profitable stores. I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for Woolworth's Connswater store in east Belfast. I fear it cannot be amongst the most profitable of Woolies' branches...

Divis: Frosty And Misty

If I'd peered out of the window and glanced towards Divis, this morning, I'd have known that it wasn't quite the same there as here! Visibility up there was down to barely one hundred yards. There were about a dozen vehicles at the National Trust car park. I donned my hiking boots along with Russian hat, gloves, fleece jacket; oh, and my camera!

I didn't walk far at all. I ambled to the Long Barn, on the right, which is surrounded at the front by a temporary security fence; I've a feeling that it'll open in the New Year. It has been very well restored by the NT; even the slates are from the old barn itself. The Trust has landscaped the area and there will be lavatories also.

Divis Lodge, on the left, which is a short distance away from the barn, still has temporary roofing to keep it dry. No sign of restoration work beginning there yet. I hope they'll make a start on it in 2009.

About next Tuesday, the 2nd December: a modest reminder that it is Lord Belmont's Official Birthday!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Poet Wasn't Lonely Tonight

By Jove, it wasn't half nippy tonight! Literally freezing, in fact. I'd reserved a table for two at east Belfast's newest restaurant, the Lonely Poet, this evening at seven o'clock.

In the event, it was easy to park the two-seater a few yards from the front door of the Poet - formerly the Queen's Inn. I had taken a short-cut via Cabinhill Park, turning left on to the King's Road. The Lonely Poet is just off King's Road, at King's Square Shopping Centre.

First impressions were good. It's welcoming and comfortable; especially the staff, who all try hard to be cheerful and courteous. The restaurant seemed to be fairly busy too. We were shown to a small table at the front window. I sat on a sort of cushioned, leather, banquette type of seating at the wall; the dowager had a proper arm-chair. It quickly became clear to me that this was not a wise move, on my part, because I sank into my seat making the dining-table slightly too high for me!

We ordered our meal thereafter: two ravioli for starters; one grilled skate for a main course; and two fruit juices.

The portion of our starters was modest. I should immediately clarify that I am not one of those who relish huge platefuls of nosh overflowing with chips, or anything else for that matter! I weigh about 54 kilos. I seem to recall that it consisted of three pieces of fresh mushroom ravioli sitting on a creamy sauce, on a large plate. I, personally, found it bland. I had to sprinkle salt on it, which is unusual for me because I'm normally content with the seasoning on most dishes. The sauce was thin, or runny, and I left most of it. A nice basket of fresh breads to accompany it would have been most welcome.

The Dowager had the same ravioli starter while I ate my grilled skate. She usually finds a starter sufficiently satisfying. Not in this case! The size of the portion was, again, too modest. I was largely satisfied with my grilled skate. I'd never eaten skate before, and it was a mild-flavoured fish, which suited me. It was served on the bone; however, the flesh separated easily from the bones. The fish was served with a piece of pork belly, a smallish portion of mashed potato and kale.

The bill amounted to £28.15. We both found the meal a bit disappointing. Although I quite enjoyed my main course, it was, I felt, expensive for two starters, one main course and two juices. We had no pudding, nor coffee. I thanked the waitress, handed her £31 and we departed.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Tesco Pricing Obfuscation

I happened to be at Tesco's tea shelves this afternoon, checking the prices of my current favourite tea, Twinings Everyday. Is it a deliberate ploy, on the part of major supermarkets, to stealthily attempt to confuse customers with their pricing?

  • Twinings' largest pack of tea, 240 bags, costs £4.99
  • Tesco state that this equates to £2 per 100g
  • Tesco states that Twinings 160 bag pack is about 78p per 100g. Yet, the larger pack is clearly the better value of the two. I cannot recall how much the 160 bag pack actually cost (let me know if you do). I enlisted the help of a fellow-customer beside me by asking him if he was any good at maths! He was compos mentis and agreed that the largest packet was best.
My fellow-blogger, Alan In Belfast, has pointed out this tea discrepancy before. Now I know exactly what Alan means!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Salt Island: Maintenance Day

I continually forget to take the rush-hour into account, and leaving home just before half-eight yesterday morning was no exception. I'd arranged to meet Craig and the others at nine o'clock; nevertheless, I made it on time at about 9.02. We assembled at Whiterock, County Down.

The sea was almost high and it was calm. Cloudy and dry. Six of us set off for Salt Island shortly afterwards with lots of tools, including a crook and lassos in order to catch a goat! Salt Island is a property of the National Trust. It is quite close to Killyleagh and is situated in Strangford Lough.

It took us about half an hour to reach Salt Island. We anchored at Brandy Bay on the western side. The National Trust boat we used was robust, 22 feet long with a 100 horse-power outboard motor. The bothy is directly opposite Brandy Bay at the eastern side of the island.

I hadn't been to the island since early summer and, I have to say, everything was in very good shape. The bothy now looks great, with strong, black, lockable metal shutters covering the windows when not in use. Although the bothy is basic, it provides excellent shelter with its wood-burner; the walls are a foot thick; it is dry; and it has running water with some useful provisions too. The accommodation is very basic, with wooden platforms where you'd place your cushions or inflatable mattresses and sleeping-bags. There are lavatories provided, with two barbecues outside.

Today Craig, Natalie and Self were endeavouring to repair the stone wall which surrounds the bothy. The remnants of the original wall can still be seen, the old mortar holding it together. Hugh and the others were thinning some trees in the plantation behind the bothy. It was planted over twenty years ago and has matured well.

Having tidied up later in the afternoon, we trudged over to Brandy Bay with all our gear and set off on our boat which, by the way, had almost run aground! Beware of the tides on Strangford Lough; be ever vigilant.

En route to Darragh Island, we passed close by Sand Rock where there was a group of seals - and pups - resting. They kept a close eye on us! Further on, we were treated to quite a spectacle: a school of about six porpoises. These smaller cousins of the dolphin were swimming fast, in and out of the water for breath, doubtless finding plenty of rich pickings in the lough. Their fins could be clearly seen.

Stopping off at Darragh Island, where there is a herd of wild goats, the task was to catch two of them which had been seen limping. It was a relief to catch them quickly. They both required their hooves clipped and sprayed with anti-bacterial liquid. One young goat, worryingly, had a number of large, fat ticks which we pulled off.

So, after that, we boarded our boat again and headed back to Whiterock; and I arrived home about 5.40, just in time to motor up to the old school for the sixty-length constitutional.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Twinings Everyday Tea

We quite often vary our tea. I'm too lazy to bother making tea the traditional way, with tea leaves; so we use tea-bags instead. We have been using Sainsbury's Gold Label blend recently.

We required more tea-bags the other day, and I noticed Twinings Everyday tea on the shelves - the packets which are yellow with gold and black lettering. The verdict? Very good. The best cup of tea I've had for a very long time. I'm no tea expert. I can say, though, that it had a good depth of flavour and the bag infused quickly.

I think we'll buy the largest packet - 240 bags - the next time. I'm pleased with it and intend to stick to it.

I've been on Salt Island for most of the day, so I'll write about that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Tesco Pay-At-Pump Works!

I re-fuelled the two-seater whilst at Tesco's this morning and, remarkably enough, the new pumps with their "2 minute faster" pay-at-pump facility actually work. In my experience, the original ones were unreliable and forever suffering glitches. Not so, on this occasion. I inserted my Clubcard and debit card; it was accepted; I was prompted to re-fuel; asked if I wished for a receipt; and away I drove!

Welcome Return Of The Redpoll

One infrequent visitor to our feeders, absent for many months, has returned recently. The diminutive redpoll - a finch and, therefore, close cousin to my goldfinches - visits us when the weather conditions deteriorate. Like the goldfinch, it is quite happy to feed on njger seeds for long periods. I have counted eight redpolls this morning; the male being more distinctive by his pinkish breast. Both male and female share the characteristics of a reddish crown and a black bib beneath their beaks.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Erstwhile Connoisseur Of Spam

When I was a ten-year-old boy, my father used to take me to a café in the centre of Kilkeel, County Down, which, I think, was called the Stella Maris. It was always a treat, much anticipated, because my favourite meal there was Battered Spamburger and Chips! I know, it sounds absolutely revolting now; but, in those days, things were different. I imagine it's akin to those who indulge in battered Mars Bars nowadays.

Talking of dear old Spam, my junk box in my primary email account has shown a marked decline in the number of spam emails recently. Welcome news. I had a mere one, this morning. The authorities' crackdown on the junkie pests seems to be taking effect.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Lobster Pot: A Sad Episode In Its Long History

Another title could be The Lobster Pot: Its Rise And Fall. I have been so curious about the commercial circumstances of the Lobster Pot Bar and Restaurant in Strangford, County Down, that I trawled Google this morning with the entry "Lobster Pot Liquidation". Perhaps my first name ought to be Sherlock.

My recollections of the original Lobster Pot are written here.

Our last meal there is recorded here.

On the second or third page, I noticed this legal statement in the Belfast Gazette:-

12 September 2008
Issue Number:7014
Page number:1094
Publication Date: Friday, 12 September 2008
Notice Code: 2443
Appointment of Liquidators
Pursuant to Article 95 of the Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989
Company Number: NI 031377
Nature of Business: To carry on the business of Restaurant Proprietors etc.
Type of Liquidation: Creditors
Address of Registered Office: 9/11 The Square, Strangford Co. Down, BT30 7ND
Liquidator’s Name: Desmond Lynchehaun, Lynchehaun & Associates Ltd, Suite 1, First Floor, Benmore House, 343/353 Lisburn Road, Belfast, BT9 7EP
Offiice Holder Number: GBNI 046
Date of Appointment: 2nd September 2008
By whom appointed: Creditors

It is inconceivable that the Lobster Pot's doors shall remain closed for good. Previous owners, Messrs Johnson, McMorrow & Dabbernig excluded, have spent a small fortune in gutting out and dumping any vestiges of the original restaurant, which was renowned as being one of the most successful establishments in County Down during the seventies and eighties. To my mind, it was a fundamental error of judgement to do this. Whilst it may have needed some minor redecoration, new upholstery and paintwork in keeping with its ambiance, it was foolish to spend money gutting the heart out of the dear old girl. They may as well have changed the name. Her heart was mercilessly ripped out, thus making her utterly unrecognizable and a faint shadow of her former glory.

The Lobster Pot was never the same, to me, as a consequence of this action. It thrived in the safe hands of Dr Johnston in the sixties; and Seamus McMorrow during the seventies and eighties. Things changed during the nineties, under the ownership of Walter Dabbernig and I believe the Lobster Pot was never the same again.

I hope it isn't long before it re-opens. By the way, the tiny illustration at the top shows the Lobster Pot as it was in more prosperous times, as I'd wish to remember it. It may well be gathered that I am very annoyed about what has happened to the Lobster Pot, because I care about it and hold many happy memories of former times spent there with my friends and family.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Fancy A Good Cornish Pasty?

I have always relished Cornish pasties. We holidayed, about twenty-four summers ago, in a tiny hamlet called Ludgvan, near Penzance, and used to visit the pubs in St Austell, Mousehole and other towns where I could indulge my tastes.

More recently, I have sampled pasties from all the usual suspects: Tesco, Ginster, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury. However, I have made a discovery: Sainsbury's sell large, hand-crimped Cornish pasties from behind their meat counter, at about £1.89.

We shared one this evening. It was the best Cornish pasty I have eaten for many years indeed. It's hard to describe its flavour, but I instinctively liked it.

I'll buy several the next time and put them in the freezer.

Reunited With My Rings

I phoned Margaret Forbes the jewellers this morning to inquire about my signet rings left with them one week ago to be resized. They were ready, so I headed in to Belfast again and Arthur Street.

There used to be two very well established jeweller's shops in Arthur Street; and they both closed down about a decade ago: Sydney Hanna was at 18, Arthur Street - I think - and I recall his son, Alan, who ran the shop and wore about three Rolex watches from his wrist upwards! He showed them off to us once while we awaited dinner at the Lobster Pot in Strangford 25 years ago. Sinclair's Antique Gallery was situated at the other side of the street; a fine little emporium it was, too.

Inside Margaret Forbes' shop, I tried on my rings and they fitted without any trouble this time. They aren't too loose, which is fine. I was charged £30 for resizing the pair - a reasonable price, I felt, considering I was quoted £30-£50 by another goldsmith to resize one ring. They look like new.

My signet rings are both 22 carat gold: 91.6% pure gold (thus the hallmark 916), and 8.4% in other metal. Interestingly, one ring is noticeably more yellowish; while the other is more reddish. Presumably one has 8.4% copper and one might have 8.4% silver or whatever.

The reddish one was created by Bill Steenson in 2000 and has the Millennium Mark; and the other ring was made by Ruffs about four years ago ( following a burglary at our home when my original Graham Harron ring was stolen). Harron made it with three gold sovereigns which I supplied; and I gather it is illegal to melt such coinage!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Most Famous Plough In Hillsborough

I was ready for some respite from Marks and Spencer's Twenty Per Cent Day at Sprucefield today - it took ten minutes to find a parking space; and fifteen minutes to queue at the till!

I motored further south, in the direction of Hillsborough, County Down, one of Northern Ireland's finest villages; and it boasts some of the best pubs too! Hillsborough is probably most renowned for the Castle, a rambling Georgian mansion which is the official residence of HM The Queen when in NI; I gather the odd Secretary of State has squatted there occasionally too (that was a joke!).

Hillsborough is a firm favourite of mine. We used to visit it several times a year, if only to have lunch at one of my favourite pubs: the Plough Inn. Making my entrance at about 12.45, I was greeted by the familiar faces of the regular waitresses. Very friendly and welcoming.

I sat in a corner and, without further ado, ordered the Hawaiian Plough Burger, accompanied by garlic chips; and swallowed it all down with a glass of mango and apple juice. The burger was obviously home-made: uneven in shape and crumbly in texture. It came with fried onions, a slice of fresh pineapple, salad and sauces. The chips were very chunky (as usual, I'd have wished for more garlic). It was good.

Incidentally, I noticed another diner tucking in to thick, home-cut Belfast ham with cheese mash which looked delicious. Perhaps I'll have that the next time. The bill came to £10.35. What a great place, the sort of lounge-bar I like. Cosy, opulent, bijou, quite unchanged or unaltered so it has a timeless appeal too.

I hope to be back soon.

Sparrow & Woolworth

Listening to BBC Radio Four as I began to awaken from my nightly slumber this morning, a piece about our house sparrow interested me. This once ubiquitous little bird has suffered a marked decline in numbers throughout the British Isles. The principal reason seems to be the diminishing number of gardens; particularly the substitution of gardens with decking, concrete or tarmac. This is something that never struck me.

We do still have visiting sparrows to our garden; although I have seen hardly any, at all, this autumn. Our most frequent visitors are goldfinches, due to the njger seeds I feed them!

Moving on to another topic, and fallout from the Credit Crunch, I hear that Woolworth's department store chain wishes to sell its stores for the nominal sum of one pound. Their owner must be desperate to get rid of them for the funds.

One pre-Christmas measure being taken today by Marks and Spencer is to reduce the price of everything, except food, by twenty per cent in an effort to generate sales.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Intelligent Finance

My current savings account is paying 4.51% gross, since the 16th November. That is a drop of 1.5%.

I notice that a financial institution called Intelligent Finance (IF) is presently offering 5.9% gross. This seems attractive and IF is part of Bank of Scotland plc.

I'm wondering if IF have yet to reduce their savings rates; and if any readers have any experience of them?

I intend to wait until the end of the month when I'll make a decision.

Insertion Of Tongue In Groove

A careless plumber butchered three of our landing floor-boards in August, thus leaving some without any bearer, or supporting, wood underneath. They seem to use circular electric saws to cut sections, spoiling the integrity of the plank.

Prior to the new carpet being laid, I thought I'd try to repair it myself so, towards this end, I visited the B&Q store. They had tongue-and-groove planks at about £3.84 each, so I bought three and took them home with the hood of the two-seater down.

I have just fitted them this morning and it seems to be a good job. Being a service area - the landing has piping - I really ought to have drilled holes and screwed them down. Instead, I lazily hammered nails into them! I can only hope that they remain there for many decades and a cowboy plumber doesn't damage them again.

I'm not used to that type of work. Now I need a rest!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Oleograph Arrival

The picture I ordered about a month ago from Brookpace Fine Art has arrived. It was well packaged and quite heavy; reams of bubble-wrap and the corners were protected by reinforced cardboard.

We are pleased with it; except that one corner of the frame has been damaged, presumably in transit by the Royal Mail. A small piece of plaster, about the size of a finger-nail, fell off while I unpacked it.

I naturally considered returning it, although admittedly I have been most reluctant to do so given its considerable bulk. Fortunately I still have a small bottle of gilding powder which is a good match for the frame. It is applied manually. I diligently glued back the piece of frame and re-gilded the surrounding area. The result is most satisfactory and inconspicuous, since the top of the frame, eight feet up, is difficult to see at any rate!

I have contacted Brookpace and apprised them of my action; and that I shall be keeping the oleograph.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Savings Rate Slump

Scrutinizing my savings account this morning - as I have been doing since the Crisis recently - the rate has been slashed today by a whole 1.5%. There shall be no knee-jerk reaction to this provocative act from Lord Belmont.

His lordship will lie in wait for a week or two, until the banks and building societies have all reacted to the Crisis by taking the Brown-Darling-King directive, thus penalizing savers. Then I shall make a judgement and act, closing accounts and transferring funds as necessary.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Million Pound Shock

Tune in to the BBC's Antiques Roadshow on Sunday, 16th November, 2008, if only to witness the facial expression of the lucky owner whose item has been valued at one million pounds.

Wooden TV Cabinet Restoration

As soon as we returned from the Bay Tree café in Holywood this morning, I took a notion to get stuck in to the restoration of the wooden television cabinet acquired at Ross's auction-house yesterday. towards this end, I use a potent concoction consisting of pure turpentine, methylated spirits, vinegar and raw linseed oil.

Having applied the magic mixture, the mahogany cabinet is quite unrecognizable from its lying-in-state at Ross's! An utter transformation, well worth ten - or even, dare I say it - twenty times what I paid for it. I have acquired some great bargains at Ross's. It does take time and inclination, though.

The installation operation was performed this afternoon: carefully lifting the new television off the old cabinet; unplugging the set-top boxes and transferring everything on to the new cabinet, which even has a drawer. It looks well, and the old cabinet has been re-united with our old telly in the garage.

Meal & Movie At Victoria Square, Belfast

Victoria Street, in Belfast, is like another phoenix rising from the ashes. For decades, it was lined with rotting, decaying, neglected buildings; some were so dilapidated that they seemed ruinous! Times have, however, changed. Now, there are large, concrete office-blocks in the process of construction.

I parked, for the second time in a day, at Gloucester Street and walked a short distance to Belfast's greatest shopping Mecca, Victoria Square; the purpose of my visit being a meal and a movie!

I had intended to try a place called Frankie and Benny's Restaurant; however, it seemed busy and they told me that a table would not be available for half an hour. I didn't bother waiting. Instead, I strode over to another eating-place, TGI Friday's. It was quite busy too, but they took me to a table within five minutes.

This was the very first time that I've been to a branch of TGI Friday, so I was not in a position to make comparisons with other branches; nor the service, menu etc. The service was slow. I'm sure the meal must have taken nearly forty minutes to appear, or it felt like that; it's not a place to eat at if you are in a rush!

I thought the service and the food were OK. The cheeseburger was quite substantial and succulent, though the cheese was tasteless, bland if you prefer. The meal consisted, basically, of cheeseburger and chips. There was no side-salad, nor coleslaw, so it looked a bit bare. In fairness, there were salad vegetables piled on the burger. The chips - fries - were standard McDonald's issue, I felt. I drank an apple-juice with it all and the bill came to about £13 including stringy onion rings at about £2.20. Pricey for what it was, I thought! It's yet another of those brash, noisy hamburger places which are one step up from Burger King, but twice the price. My local restaurant, Gourmet Burger Bank, could run rings round the lot of 'em!

I couldn't help noticing several people at TGI Friday's making lengthy complaints. It was noisy, so I couldn't hear what they were saying to the duty manager; but I knew by their expressions that they weren't passing compliments! One lady, paying her bill at the till, asserted that this was the very first restaurant where she hadn't left her loose change. What was all that about, I wonder? At any rate, I'll not be back: there was nothing particularly special about it.

Having left them a tip, I strolled over to the new branch of Pizza Express. Incidentally, we think their shop-bought pizzas are the best, so the ones in their restaurants ought to be good too. Gourmet Burger Kitchen was quiet again: seven people dining at seven-thirty!

The main purpose of my visit had been to see the new James Bond film, Quantom of Solace. It was shorter, at 105 minutes, than Casino Royale; though the adverts made up for this shortfall. The commercial advertisements in Quantom were particularly conspicuous. It was a car show-room for Ford Motor Company ( the only non-Ford car I spotted was a 60s Beetle); Bond drank Gordon's gin ( minimal dilution required there, at 37.5% proof), courtesy of the drinks monster, Diageo; and he played with his Sony phone.

I was disappointed in Quantom of Solace. Casino was the better movie, by far. I found the characters in Quantom uninteresting; the story-line negligible; and the ending quite feeble. There was certainly plenty of action; no complaints there. Still, it was all uninspiring. The theme song at the beginning was ghastly to the extent that I have no idea who the singer was, let alone being able to hum the tune again!

I can only hope that the next bond movie does better...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Meeting The Jeweller And The Auctioneer

That is really poetic licence; not strictly true. You get the gist, though. I motored in to Belfast this morning - after coffee - and, having experienced much difficulty in parking, I managed to procure a space in Gloucester Street. It must have taken twenty-five minutes to park!

Ambling across to Arthur Street, on my way to another jeweller, I noticed a jeweller's shop called Margaret Forbes. It may have been at the site where Hanna's old jewellery shop used to be. Walking in to inquire about getting my two signet rings re-sized, I didn't know what to expect. However, they can resize rings; and, what's more, they believe that it may be feasible to stretch my rings, because the gold is 22 carat and, therefore, soft.

I liked what I heard, so I asked them for an estimate and how long it would take - one week. If, as they say, the rings can be stretched I'd much prefer that method as opposed to cutting the ring and adding extra gold.

I left Margaret Forbes and headed over to Ross's auction-house in Montgomery Street where I had arranged to see about the wooden television cabinet which had been lying there, gathering dust, for weeks. I have always been curious to know the job description of those chaps in grey aprons who do all the donkey work at auction-rooms. Now I know: they are known as sale-room porters. In the end, it was a simple transaction: the porter let it go for eight pounds; he unearthed it from the bowels of the lower sale-room; carried it to my car; placed it - just - in the boot; and I handed him a tenner; I secured it with rope and canvas; and off I drove on my merry way!

I have left the "new" cabinet in the garage, beside our old telly, until I'm ready to deal with it.

It has proved to be a fruitful morning.