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.