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.

Official 60th Birthday Portrait Of Prince Charles

Clarence House has published this sixtieth birthday portrait of The Prince of Wales, taken at his official London home in February, 2008.

HRH is wearing the uniform of a Colonel in the Welsh Guards. The breast stars of the KG, KT and GCB are clearly visible.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Commercial Discrimination

The telecommunications business, Vodafone, is yet another example of ignoring the people of Northern Ireland, as Alan In Belfast eloquently points out.

Many of these companies' marketing departments claim, perhaps, that they do this for logistical reasons; or is it expediency too? I wonder if Vodafone, and others, are aware of the irritation caused, particularly by their Ulster customers who notice this sort of practice? Let me remind Vodafone that the UK comprises England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. So why exclude Northern Ireland from their marketing promotions?

Alan is right to bring this to our attention.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Unable To Sleep Sir?

Chatting to an old friend on the phone the other day, he told me that he took three Nytol tablets during a long-haul flight; and that they proved effective. I was impressed and resolved to try them myself.

I'm a fairly light sleeper. I have periods when I can get off to sleep OK; and, at other times, I find it difficult. So I ambled in to Boots the Chemist's yesterday and purchased a packet of Nytol One-A-Night tablets (£4.99 for 16).

I took one last night and, to my surprise - hey presto! - it worked. It knocked me out till about seven this morning.

We revisited Ross's auction-house, yet again, this morning. I'm looking at a smallish, wooden television cabinet. The store-man told me that it was sold; however, aware of my continued interest, he explained that it had been sold to a dealer; and that it had been lying there for weeks. He advised me that the dealer might well sell me it for a tenner or so; and to return to them on Friday.

I'll be in Town again on Friday, because I require three gold rings to be resized - made larger - and I am obtaining estimates from my original goldsmith, Bill Steenson, and others.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Freesat Is A Revelation

Adrian arrived at about three-fifty yesterday afternoon to link our satellite dish to Freesat. Straightforward enough: replace the LNB with a multiple LNB in the satellite dish; align cable from dish along guttering, down wall and in to house; connect cable to Freesat connection on television.

Adrian, of Ultrabeam Aerials in east Belfast, is, in my experience, most helpful, honest and charges reasonable rates. He must have spent forty-five minutes with us and charged £65, including a quad LNB and cable.

What is my verdict, so far, on Freesat? It's a real revelation; such a change. I have the basic, free-to-air Sky package known as "Freesatfromsky" and Freesat has effectively made this, and my Sky set-top box, redundant! Freesat has dozens of channels - including a Russian one - and, essential for me, it has all the BBC and ITV regions. The reception seems to be even better, possibly because the integrated Freesat on the telly omits the need for a set-top box and connects directly in to the TV.

On Freesat picture and sound quality is impeccable; not so much as a hint of shadowing. For high definition - HD - on BBC you are prompted to tune in to their HD channel 108 for HD simulcasts; whereas, on ITV, you are advised to press your Red Button. I have only watched ten or fifteen minutes of HD - Cortes - and, I can tell you, it is most impressive; not only the more detailed picture but the sound quality too. It would sound clichéd to describe it as crystal-clear.

I may seriously consider a Freesat Plus HDD recorder next!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Underweight Loaves Of Bread

A fine of £1,500 imposed upon a very large bakery is a nominal sum. One hundred times that amount would have made a difference. The general public implicitly trusts businesses to be dependable and honest. We assume that a loaf of bread weighs the value it states on the packet. £1,500 is a proverbial slap on the wrist.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Cenotaph, City Hall, Belfast

I attended the remembrance ceremony at City Hall in Belfast this morning. It was a bitterly cold 6c, particularly if standing in a stationary position! It was claimed that up to one thousand people were there, an estimate I cannot verify since I was in the middle of it all. Certainly there were hundreds there.

It was the best parade I have seen in Belfast for a long time. The band and a platoon of the Royal Irish Regiment were on duty; and three helicopters flew past at eleven o'clock.

There were, as usual, senior officers representing the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force; and other various civil dignitaries. The General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, Major-General Chris Brown, CBE, was the most senior officer in attendance.

It's curious that, whilst it is traditional for participants at the London ceremony to wear overcoats and great-coats, the dignitaries at the Belfast occasion are presumably a hardier lot; since most of them only wear jackets and tunics instead! I always thought this strange, given that Belfast is so much further north than the metropolis.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Tackling Gorse At Ballymacormick

We were blessed with fine weather today. The sun shone most of the time and it was mild for the five of us. Parking our cars at the edge of Groomsport we walked, armed with our tools, to Ballymacormick which lies between Bangor and Groomsport in County Down.

Our task today was to cut down a patch of gorse. Essential weaponry for this job consists of thick gloves and sturdy loppers. During the morning we spotted a flock of about eight long-tailed tits, all flying past us in unison chirping away. An uncommon sight. Even more rare was a sighting, by Craig, of a long-eared owl which, we think, had been disturbed by a dog further inland. Later on I saw a stone chat and a grey heron.

Whilst having our lunch - egg and cress sandwiches, Kit-Kat and tea for me - Anna kindly produced some home-made biscuits made with apples from an ancient apple-tree on Island Taggart; and, I can say, they were very tasty!

After lunch, we collected some litter before leaving for home. Craig - the Strangford Lough Warden - invited me to a staff Christmas dinner, on the 19th December, at an Italian restaurant in Newcastle, County Down called Villa Vinci.

Incidentally, I have heard that the Lobster Pot restaurant in Strangford, County Down, has closed. If anyone knows more about this - whether it is temporary or otherwise - please do let me know.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Sparrowhawk Sighting

I was fortunate enough to see a sparrowhawk landing at our feeders ten minutes ago. A magnificent bird; I couldn't tell if it was a male - which is smaller - or a female. Its legs were almost yellow, its eyes a piercing tangerine. Wonderful.

It left, empty-handed so to speak, after about fifteen seconds. They don't hang about!

Sir John Hermon, OBE, QPM, 1929-2008

I am saddened to learn of the death of Sir John (Jack) Hermon, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC from 1980 till 1989.

I was at school with his son, Rodney. I recall that, on my first day at the Old School, he motored up the drive of Ormiston House - the House for new boys - in a Morris Oxford or Austin Cambridge car, I think, bringing Rodney to school. That was about September, 1973, when Sir Jack would have held the rank of chief superintendent or superintendent.

Sir Jack is survived by his widow, Lady Hermon, who is currently MP for North Down.

European Health Insurance Card Renewal

My European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) expired on the 1st November and it appears that it is not renewed automatically; so you need to keep an eye out for that!

The renewal process is free and simple. Here is the link.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Fine Dining At Christmas

My birthday falls very close to Christmas; and I usually prefer to dine at a restaurant which offers an a la carte menu - not just a Christmas menu.

So far, I have a mental short-list: Beatrice Kennedy's (perennial favourite); Balloo House (excellent chef - Danny Millar); and Alden's. I am discounting Deane's because I understand that a modernization has occurred and it is now entirely minimalist (correct me if I am wrong).

I shall need to make a decision, and a reservation, quite shortly. The trouble for those of us whose birthday falls at Christmas - and who prefer a hushed and reverential atmosphere in restaurants - is that it is often busy and crowded with office parties at that time of the year.

In the past, I have postponed dinner until the new year; or opted for lunch instead.

I'll be in the metropolis for a few days in January too.

Minimal Policing

The headlines I read this morning, about the number of police stations in County Fermanagh being reduced to three, startles me. The county used to have a police station in every town and village, of course.

How, on earth, can a local constabulary operate effectively without police stations? What purpose is served by a police car driven in and out of a village every so often?

Northern Ireland Police and their paymasters must have saved a fortune since the Royal Ulster Constabulary was practically disbanded; yet who persists in this course?

The consequence of station closures shall be increased levels of crime and lawlessness. That is blatantly obvious; otherwise, the local constabulary becomes virtually ineffective and inadequate. For instance, should an incident occur - it could involve a foreign tourist, a resident, a stranger or anyone - in a remote village, they will have no option except, somehow, contacting the police in Enniskillen, Lisnaskea or Irvinestown.

This is a bad decision which does immense disservice to the people of Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Channel Five Availability On Freesat

The number of free high definition channels in the UK is increasing, adding competition and pressure to Sky. The latest channel to announce that it shall commence broadcasting via Freesat is Channel Five, from the 18th November, 2008.

Our new television will be connected to Freesat next Monday.

Signet Ring Tightness

For many months, one of my little fingers has become a bit swollen - at the knuckle - and this has been caused by a signet ring. The ring has always been a rather neat fit; and obviously the trick is to have it neither too tight, nor too loose.

My finger is presently swollen to the extent that its removal is difficult and painful. I shall have to take action; it has gone on for too long. I'll visit a local jeweller for some advice. I wonder how much they'd charge to polish off the inside of the ring a touch?

Greetings To The American People

I wish to send my heartfelt compliments to our American cousins at this auspicious time. As an outside observer, maintaining impartiality, I am also pleased to offer my congratulations to the United States President-elect, Mr Obama, and his family.

I truly hope and pray that our two great nations, the United Kingdom and the United States, continue to foster the historic partnership and special relationship.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Connswater Shopping Centre Extension

I do not particularly like the kind of modern, glass and chrome TV cabinets sold widely nowadays. They are functional, I suppose; they can be bought in Wyse-Byse for about £40. I'd prefer a reproduction wooden one, or an old cabinet table which could take the set-top boxes. Decisions, decisions.

I made a brief sortie to Connswater Shopping Centre, in east Belfast, today and the new extension and entrance is now open. The food hall upstairs is not open yet; and there will be branches of Burger King, the Streat, Subway; and a noodle bar called Yamotze. The new entrance is much more spacious and a good improvement too.

New Television Arrival

It's up and running! The delivery men installed our new television yesterday afternoon. Despite its weight being 22.5kg, the gross weight as stated on the box is 28kg. They advised me to keep the cabinet from the old telly. It's not an ideal solution, from an aesthetic viewpoint; however, it hides the cables and provides a more appropriate place for three set-top boxes.

I am unable to receive Freesat because, although I have a satellite dish and Sky set-top box, I shall need a "twin LNB" connector to connect the cable directly to the Freesat plug on the telly, as well as the connection to Sky. Finlay's quoted me £125 to do this; and my local technician, Adrian of Ultrabeam, quoted a more reasonable £80 for a "quad LNB". He can fit it next Monday.

Little Dorrit will have to wait till then before I can see her in glorious high definition!

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Lockkeeper's Cottage

An absolutely immaculate, classic MG Midget car parked beside us while we were parked at Minnowburn car park this afternoon. It was quite a subtle shade of blue - Midnight Blue as it turned out - and I inquired if it was purple. The lovely little car had an abundance of chrome fittings, including a rack atop the boot; spoked wheels and a soft-top too. Its registration was an old, Belfast "COI" number. Its owner explained that it cost him £100 a year to insure; nor was there any car tax to pay.

Earlier, we had been to the newly-opened tourist facility near Shaw's Bridge, the former lock-keeper's cottage - which was not open - and another new building beside it, the Lockkeeper's Inn. This café was busy; in fact all the seating - inside and outside - was occupied. I thought it looked good. I had a quick look at the menu and they offer hot and cold meals, snacks, lovely-looking fresh sandwiches also. We'd eaten some sandwiches at home earlier; however, I'd like to return soon to the Inn for a snack.

I am still preoccupied with completing the finishing touches to our hall and landing; mostly all done now and I am 90% ready for the carpet-fitters.