X is for Bletchley Park

I know what you’re thinking. Bletchley Park doesn’t begin with an X. Thankfully, it’s a destination that is also known as Station X so I can sort of get away with it (mostly because it’s my challenge and I make up the rules). Turns out it’s quite hard to find places to go that begin with an X, but thankfully I’ve been wanting to go to Bletchley for a while anyway.

I walked to Bletchley from the direction of the train station, which must have been the same journey that many, many codebreakers experienced when they turned up. For them, though, they wouldn’t have known what on earth it was they were letting themselves in for. I, meanwhile, had a good idea what to expect and wasn’t disappointed.

You get one of those multimedia audio guide things to walk you round the site, and the main highlights are the lake, the mansion and the huts. There are other bits and pieces open, and plenty of stuff that isn’t open or is in progress, but those three pieces were the areas that left a lasting impression. The beautiful lake sits in front of the mansion, and you’re immediately confronted with boards that tell you about what life was like in this secretive place – difficult to find time to relax in, almost impossible to maintain relationships in, amongst a backdrop of hugely complex tasks to complete.

The mansion has a mockup of some offices and yet more information about how the residents spent their spare time – Bletchley Park Drama Group gets quite a high billing. From there, it’s round the corner to the garages for a look at the motorbikes and cars in use during the period, and then down to the huts.

There are a couple of huts that have exhibitions about the machines used to break the codes, and the machines that were used to make the codes in the first place (so many Enigmas!) as well as plenty of documents from the period, including letters from Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower about the people at Bletchley.

Some huts are exhibitions only but some are set up like they would have been at the time. Here’s where you really get the chills down your spine, treading the same boards as these incredible people that worked so hard under difficult conditions to make a huge difference to the entire world. There are a lot of rooms that are essentially just desks and pencils and telephones but even so, there’s something weirdly compelling about the whole thing.

And then to the museum, where there’s a whole floor dedicated to Alan Turing, and whilst it’s true that he was one of many people that made a big difference at Bletchley Park, his really is the story that resonates. I walked round the museum taking it all in, but then when I saw Turing’s teddy bear, I had to make a swift exit because it made me feel a bit weepy.

I’m not 100% sure the site actually taught me anything I didn’t already know, except perhaps the sheer scale of the operation and the great exhibits that explained the steps gone through to get a message from the field and spit it out the other end decoded and useful. Mostly it was just a matter of being there, seeing the place with my own eyes, and thinking, yet again, about the incredible efforts of people who worked so hard so that I can live the life I do today.

Taste Twenty Trial – 9. Liquorice root

The one thing it is easy to forget when you have a blog is that people are occasionally reading what you’re saying. It really shouldn’t be a surprise when someone says “Hey, why don’t you try this food, I know you’re trying to taste new things, I saw it on your blog.”

I wasn’t keen, if I’m honest, because this thing is called liquorice root. I don’t like liquorice, and it looked like a tree branch, which I’ve not previously had a fondness for eating either.

But, I’ve expressed a willingness to try new things, and I was told it didn’t taste like the black sweet-like liquorice I know and dislike. So I tried.

It doesn’t really make sense to me as a food. Others were chewing on this root, saying how nice the flavour was once you get into it. Well, I couldn’t bite into the root because it was too hard (being a tree branch and all), and I didn’t like the taste long enough to soften it up (being liquorice and all).

A little further research suggests it should be used as a flavouring, but my companions were content enough to chew on it. For me, it wasn’t really a successful tasting, but hey, it’s another one off the list!

The Championships, Wimbledon 2017

For the past two weeks, the 2017 Wimbledon Championships have been underway, and they’ve provided lots of ups and downs, highlights and disappointments, the usual Grand Slam tournament soap opera. This year was different for me, though, because I was there on day one. I was one of those attendees in the grounds of the All-England Club. I never really thought I’d get to Wimbledon in person. It was a vague desire, but the complexity of getting tickets alongside the fact that coverage at home only ever gets more comprehensive and engaging meant I thought I’d be an armchair fan for the foreseeable future.

However, I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Court 1, Day 1, (thanks Helen!) and thus I was there to see the opening matches kick off. I could talk you step by step through my day, how I saw Kim Clijsters on the press balcony, how I saw James Ward taking a picture with a fan whilst simultaneously continuing his conversation with his friend, how I marvelled at Venus Williams from a seat with an incredible view, how I opted not to indulge in the over-priced strawberries.

I could do all that but why bother? You know how cool Wimbledon is.

Instead, here are five things I noticed that you probably don’t get in your average Wimbo review.

  1. The gate staff were exceptionally vigilant.
    Everyone I encountered that day that was helping out, either as volunteer, or paid staff, was supremely kind and courteous, helpful, knowledgable. It left me with a really good impression of the organisation of the event. The gate staff were checking bags, naturally, and it was a thorough but very polite search. I thought it interesting that they were on high alert for guerrilla marketing – on the walk up to the grounds, some had been handed freebie bags, these were taken off them at the gate so as not to provide excessive marketing to the companies behind it. Intriguing.
  2. The Aorangi hill is really uncomfortable.
    I’m sure there are a few prime spots, on the curve of the ridge with the screen straight ahead, but I perched on a steep incline to enjoy a snack and gained nothing but a bad back and a cricked neck. The people that sit there in the rain, or stick out five set thrillers are to be applauded indeed.
  3. The difference in power and speed that is so much clearer in reality than on TV.
    I experienced this briefly when I was at Eastbourne a few years ago, but it was never more obvious than at Wimbledon. Obviously, these tennis players are tremendously fit and hitting the balls very hard, but on TV that can almost seem glossy and less impressive. In reality, you can see the effort going into every single point, and the reactions are so much more intense when you’re looking directly at someone rather than through a TV screen. That being said, I did miss the commentary, the different angles, and the reminders of break point/set point/match point.
  4. The ball boys and girls are incredibly earnest.
    I’ve always loved the ball kids at Wimbledon, they’re very good at their work and you can see the hours of training that have gone into making the fortnight’s games run smoothly. Up close and personal, you can see how much it means to them. Their arms are ramrod straight, they dash this way and that and never leave a stray ball behind. Straight backs, barely blinking, ever-ready, it’s really a proud sight to see. As a quick aside – has anyone seen any ball girls doing the kneel-at-the-net role? Is that boys only?
  5. I know this is silly, but it’s really annoying that Centre Court is in the middle.
    You just have to walk around it to get anywhere, and it’s huge.

I found the Wimbledon experience a brilliant one, slightly overwhelming in places, but for the most part a fantastic day out. I can’t say I feel it justifies queuing from 5am in the morning in the hopes of getting a ticket but it’s certainly worth a punt on the ballot. I saw some great players, excellent matches, and wore myself out walking round and round the grounds. It only rained for a brief moment, the covers only came on for a few minutes, and the rest of the day was gorgeous – as it has been for the most of the two weeks.

Thanks Wimbledon 2017, for a fab day, an exciting tournament, and another item ticked off the bucket list.

W is for Windermere

I knew it had been a while since I last went on an Alphabet Adventure visit, but looking back now, I’m horrified to find it’s been over three years. Ridiculous. So, I stopped putting it off, and dashed to the Lake District to have a gander at that body of water known as Windermere. It’s famous, apparently, for being the longest lake in the UK, and it’s very pretty, but I have to admit, I was expecting a little more.

I took a Lake Cruise from Bowness down to Lakeside, which included a brief trip on a steam train, a walk around a very small but refreshingly modest aquarium, and then a journey by boat back up to Bowness again.

Boat

The boat trip was good, it was fun to see how long the lake is and get some views from along the way. It’s good to peek at what is nestling lakeside and see who has houses that lead right to the lapping water. There was the occasional audio guide on the boat but I couldn’t hear it at all, so missed out on all the facts. On the way back, too, I got really, really cold, so was quite happy to get my feet on dry ground again.

Train

The train was fun, although the track didn’t go round enough bends to be able to see the steam engine chugging along whilst also being on it. It’s private land, and the track travels extremely close to some houses along the fifteen minute journey. At one point, there was a man in his garden who stood and waved at the passing carriages. I can’t see him getting much gardening done if he does that to every train that passes.

Aquarium

Like I said in the introduction, the aquarium was small but I actually quite liked that – it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was. There were no huge exotic exhibits, just smaller, more domestic aquatic life. I did like some of the more unusual items, like the leafcutter ants, whereas the walkthrough underwater tunnel wasn’t as good as at other, larger attractions.

So, for the most part, a successful trip. I did feel that despite the nice surroundings, there really wasn’t so much special about Lake Windermere that couldn’t be found at any lake nearer to home.

Terrific tea tasting – Detox

I thought I had given up this tea tasting lark, but I was walking through the tea aisle of my local shop recently and all the packaging is just so tempting. I figured if I was going to ease myself back into the world of fruit and herbal tea, I should probably do it cost effectively, so I opted for a box of mixed flavours.

tea-pukka-collection

And given that it is January, there’s only one option on that list that seems appropriate – detox! At first glance, the list of ingredients doesn’t sound all that appetising. Aniseed isn’t my favourite flavour, but mix it with coriander, and fennel, and even celery? What’s that about?

tea-pukka-bag

I’ll tell you what it’s about, it’s delicious! I don’t understand it at all because there’s nothing about this I should like but somehow the mix is incredible. I’ve already drunk all the sachets that came in this pack and am now thinking it’s time to buy a Detox-only pack.

tea-pukka-detox

I’ve never really done a detox so I don’t know what they’re like, but this tea does have a clean feeling about it that I imagine would work very well for anyone embarking on such a thing. This was an excellent tea to restart my tasting adventure on. Top marks.

Birmingham Royal Ballet class on stage

My Life List has featured “watch a professional ballet performance” for a long time, and I’ve never quite got round to it. I’ve just recently realised why that is, considering how much I love the theatre and would grab any excuse to go. I have a weird obsession with ballet that manifests itself by me loving the behind the scenes activities – training and classes, rehearsal, choreography and dance schools – but then not being at all interested in the end result.

I’ve tried watching performances of things on TV, and granted you don’t get the same experience as you would live, but I’ve barely managed to get more than ten minutes into it. The actual performance and storytelling of ballet passes me by, but the discipline, the talent and the sheer craziness of the life of a dancer has me enthralled.

So, I was all for striking this item off my long term to do list, until I stumbled across a new concept to me. The Birmingham Royal Ballet have been doing a selection of Company Classes on stage – so their regularly scheduled morning class, but on stage with people invited to watch. At £10 a ticket, I thought this was more likely something I would want to watch and not too much of a wasted investment if it turned out to be too dull.

It was a bit odd going to the theatre on a Saturday morning, and I should have anticipated much of the rest of the audience being young or teenage girls keen on becoming ballet dancers themselves. Once we were all sat down though, it didn’t really matter who was in the audience. The company gradually appeared on stage in dribs and drabs, and wearing their odd assortment of clothing. I’ve always wondered how some of them can be comfortable in the items they choose – we had one girl with insanely baggy trousers that she pretty much had to keep hold of to stop them falling, and another wearing a short stretchy skirt with suspenders. Also, those with one legging down and one rolled up above the knee – why?

Anyway, it all got underway under the watchful guidance of their class leader, I was staggered by their skills. It starts slow, but even in the most basic of movements, she rippled off a fast-paced burble of moves and rhythms at the pace of an auctioneer, and then stepped back and they all completed them as instructed. It was mind-boggling, even taking into account they’ve done this many times before I’m sure.

The other thing that impressed me was their rehearsal pianist. He also managed to take in what the ballet dancers would be doing and converted it into the music required, piecing together the beats and bars needed and getting the tone just right, even switching between the more feminine and masculine feeling within one piece of music depending on the group in front of him. He could pick up the pace if he’d slightly misjudged it, but that was rare. The class leader would tend to demonstrate the rhythm required and off he’d go. I was so jealous of his skills.

The dance movements gradually got bigger and more complex. They started at the barre, then moved those to the side to do more leaps and spins and moving across the stage, before ending with a sort of show-off section where they would spin as much as they could to get the crowd’s approval.

The whole thing was fascinating, and at just over an hour long there was no time to get uncomfortable in the theatre seats. I think they could do with slightly more production – I know it’s a privilege to be able to watch the class on stage, but if the leader was miked up so we could hear her better, that might have helped, and slightly more guidance on what they were doing and why it was useful to the dancers could also have been a big asset. Nevertheless, it was a good way to spend an hour, if you’re interested in the mechanics of dance, and regardless of if you want to be a ballet dancer yourself or not. For now, I’m going to claim this as a success on my Life List, because sitting through a full on ballet performance still seems a long way off for me for now.

BBC Good Food Show 2016

The BBC Good Food Show has been on my to do list for a while, and this year I finally managed to find time to attend the show for a few hours. It’s bad timing really, because I haven’t been cooking or baking as much as I used to, but even so, I’m still keen on seeing what the best of the kitchen world has to offer.

In all honesty, I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping the show would have innovation and cool kitchen tools, areas for increasing food knowledge, cooking skills and creating more interesting dishes. Generally, I just wanted a bit of inspiration.

There was the occasional stall that had an interesting gadget on it, but for the most part, there were three types of stall:

  1. eat on the day stands, ie burgers and ice creams and such
  2. test out artisan products, such as cheese or gourmet sausage rolls
  3. extension of physical or online shop, ie the sprawling Lakeland aisles

I wasn’t that hungry when I arrived at the show, and the mixture of competing smells did nothing for my appetite, so the taste tests and lunch stalls weren’t that interesting. And I felt a bit irritated at having to pay an entry fee for what amounts to a Lakeland shop, when I can get to one for free in the high street.

Oddly, for me, the most interesting part was the Lexus stand. Beautiful shiny cars, and a magazine to take home about design. Not really anything to do with food though. The food show was twinned with Gardener’s World, and there were more fascinating stalls in that section than in the Good Food area.

Previous visits to trade shows have seen me come away with bags of leaflets and freebies, that Mr C dismisses as tat. This time, I just had a few booklets, and I picked up a flapjack or two for the journey home. A disappointing experience, but at least another check on my to do list.