#coffeeshopculturewd3: a response

Rickmansworthweb.com has recently published a post about the many coffee shops in central Rickmansworth. Now, the purpose of this website is to encourage people to frequent the shops, bars and businesses of Ricky, which is an excellent idea. However, the author’s claim to provide a helpful resource to help coffee fans choose which coffee shop to go to isn’t entirely validated by what she’s written, as, understandably, she’s focussed on the positives at the expense of a balanced review of each cafe (and has entirely left out Brown Sugar, which is unpardonable, to my mind).

When we first moved to Rickmansworth in 2009, there were three central cafes to choose from: Brown Sugar, Caffe Nero and Cinnamon Square. Each of the three had (and has) its own distinct character.

Brown Sugar is both a deli and a cafe, serving a huge range of sandwiches (you can make up an almost infinite number of filling and bread combinations), salads, baked potatoes, smoothies and cakes as well as coffee. It’s the smallest of the cafes on offer, with five four-seater tables. It’s definitely possible to get a couple of buggies in there (I’ve done it), but would be a struggle at busy times (i.e. lunch time any day and particularly Saturday). The food is lovely and the cake (watch out for the blueberry muffin cake) on a yumminess par with Cinnamon Square’s less complicated offerings. The coffee, while nothing to write home about, is a perfectly decent accompaniment to a snack or a meal and has woken me up on many a Saturday morning. Service-wise, you order at the counter and then it’s delivered to your table. At quiet times, you may well be asked at your table if you’d like anything else.  If you can’t handle all the writing on the walls (and there is a LOT of it), grab a paper menu from the side of the counter and peruse at your table before ordering. Use the numbers on the menu unless you want to customise! Negatives? We’ve often had to walk past Brown Sugar, because it’s been full. It’s also closed on Sundays. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it’s not the cafe I go to if I want to hang out all afternoon drinking coffee and reading. The upright chairs and tables lend themselves more to lunch.

Caffe Nero was the first chain coffee shop to take up residence on Rickmansworth High Street. I used to go in every morning for coffee and was always impressed by how efficient the morning staff were. The service is a bit more variable these days  – as in most chain coffee shops, there’s a regular turnover of staff – but they get through a big queue pretty steadily. Nero’s is right in the middle of the High Street with space for a small amount of outdoor seating. It’s quite a big branch with the usual range of seating, although the large number of chairs, tables and sofas does make it feel quite crowded (it certainly doesn’t feel ‘spacious’). It’s difficult to get around freely, partly because of the stupidly-placed pillar right next to the counter. Of the range of high street coffee shops, Nero’s coffee is, in my opinion, the most… assertive. Their claim to be authentically Italian isn’t far off. I’m disappointed that they’ve discontinued their banana frappe, but the new praline muffin is quite nice. Nero’s offers a 10th-coffee-free loyalty card.

Cinnamon Square: Rickmansworth’s cakey-pastry landmark. When we first moved here, it was a tiny cafe with a small amount of seating upstairs. Since then, it’s expanded to more than twice the size and has converted to table service (you even wait to be seated these days!). There’s also a new little foodstuffs and gift-style shop opposite the counter as well as bread, cakes and sandwiches to take away. Cinnamon Square’s business has always focussed on cake-making and workshops for children and adults. We’ve listened to many a children’s baking party (in the ‘Makery’!) and they always sound great fun. If you go, you must have either an eponymous cinnamon square (you WILL need a fork) or the new Ricky sticky bun. On the savoury front, there’re a range of light lunch options. Food availability has improved since the kitchen opened for longer and the savoury options are sound. Breakfast is particularly good and they can be flexible if you want something that’s not quite on the menu. The coffee’s alright, but, again, nothing to write home about. Having said that, I’m told the mocha is the best in town, so you might want to try that! Service used to be pretty variable, to be honest. We’ve waited a few times for our food for a very long time. It’s a bit better now and more consistent, but don’t be afraid to remind them if you feel you’ve been waiting too long. It’s possible to go with buggies on the ground floor, but bear in mind that the main baby-changing facilities are up quite steep and narrow stairs.

A couple of years ago – I think it was autumn 2011 – Costa opened up. As Rickmansworthweb says, it’s a lot more open than Nero’s with a more sensible arrangement of furniture. The decor is lighter and more appealing as well. There’s a patio out the back with a dedicated smoking area, if you like that sort of thing. There’s a decent range of sandwiches and the cake display is always attractive. The coffee’s less aggressive than Nero’s, but definitely stronger than, say, Starbuck’s. The largest size is encouragingly ginormous – it comes in a bowl you could wash your feet in. As for ‘family friendly’, there are certainly always a lot of families in there. Best not turn up with seven friends who also have buggies, though. You get not exactly friendly looks from the staff. One other thing to bear in mind is that hot food is sometimes a little slow in being delivered they forget about it. There’s a loyalty card system with points for each purchase, rather than for specific items. I’m not convinced Costa’s any better for interesting conversations than any of the other cafes. We once encountered an elderly gentleman in Brown Sugar trying to persuade a lady of Indian origin and her son that India had never been better than when under the Raj (partially in Hindi).

That leaves the new kid on the block, Harris + Hoole. The coffee’s best here. Do bear in mind that they serve it warm, rather than hot (it’s deliberate). The sandwiches are also gorgeous (watch out for the halloumi flatbread). I’ve not yet been disappointed by the quality of food and drink, nor the level of service, which are all excellent. It helps that you can sit down at your table while you wait for things to be prepared and then go up when your buzzer starts flashing. H+H have made a concerted effort to engage with local people via their Twitter account and the standard local events blackboard that features in every branch. Of all the chains (and, yes, I know they’re partially backed by Tesco), H+H is most successful at immitating an independent. However, like Brown Sugar, they could do with more space. The old school-style chairs also aren’t the most comfortable (particularly after you’ve given birth). There’re a few different loyalty cards, but make sure you present yours before you pay.

So, that should be a bit more useful, although, unavoidably, subjective. I don’t really have a favourite as such – each cafe has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s nice to have such a range available.

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iPhone 5 – benefits of the larger screen

The new iPhone 5 was released a few weeks ago. Despite the enormous initial uptake, many people have yet to see the handset and may be wondering how it compares with previous models. The larger screen isn’t necessarily so obvious, as the screen takes up more of the handset’s length, in addition to the unit being slightly longer also, however the net result is a pleasingly larger area to work with. What better than to make some direct comparisons:

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Gameplay of Air Supremacy benefits from a wider viewing area with more space to use controls

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Articles in Flipboard can fit more text on screen – 11 lines compared to 7 on the 4S….

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…while there’s a couple of extra topics viewable on screen at once.

Of course perhaps the biggest benefit from the larger iPhone 5 screen is the new 16:9 ration – meaning viewing video now uses every pixel of the screen.

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Visualising the Chilterns

The Inconvenient Mule has mapped the Chilterns, showing the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the many towns and villages we’ve visited and blogged about. The silhouette of a red kite, something of an unofficial symbol of the Chilterns, can be seen stretching across the area. The map also shows the Ridgeway National Trail, a track used for thousands of year, running from Ivinghoe Beacon, through the Chiltern hills and onward to Wiltshire.

 

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Feeds are no substitute for real content on Twitter

A while ago a service called paper.li came on the scene, which offered to pull together feeds into a daily digest of ‘news’, which it would then tweet from your account. It was never much good, tweeting the same message each day and giving little indication as to each digest’s contents. Should you delve deeper and actually click on the link, you’ll find that as often as not the stories will have little or no relevance to that of the Twitter account they’re being featured on. Many people tried paper.li for a short period, but most quickly realised its shortcomings and got rid of it. Most, but not all.

Some still use paper.li and other broad feed aggregators to fill their Twitter accounts, possibly under the mistaken belief that this is providing valuable content for them, whereas in fact it’s driving away many potential followers. The simple fact of the matter is that nothing compares for on-topic, audience focused tweets written by a real person. Of course this takes time and effort – an argument I repeatedly see being made when I confront organisations on their use of feeds.

Yes, tweeting takes time, but it’s only 140 characters. It’s the equivalent of typing a couple of short sentences, and in those sentences you could be providing your stakeholders, users or customers with information only you can provide; dates of events or meetings, a call to arms, sharing of news, and a great many other possibilities besides. You don’t necessarily need to tweet every day so long as when you do tweet, the contents are useful for your audience. That’s not really so difficult or time consuming, is it?

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Two takes on a Ploughman’s lunch

Take a certain route on the back roads between Rickmansworth to the Chalfonts and you’ll pass a curious old pub called the Dumb Bell. We’ve spotted it a few times and have long intended to pop in to see what this somewhat remote hostelry has to offer.

At the weekend we finally did just that. Inclement weather drove us to escape the house but not venture too far, so recalling this pub we drove the three miles or so for Sunday Lunch. It’s a somewhat rambling establishment with a sizable beer garden and a front dining room capturing all the charm of an eccentric’s living room.

A particular attraction of the Dumb Bell was its Ploughman’s Lunch. Tara is already a fan of the Ploughman’s in the Old Orchard pub in Harefield, and we were keen to see how this alternative offering compared.

The Dumb Bell Special Ploughman’s Lunch: £6.95
Menu description: “A hearty platter of freshly prepared salad and coleslaw with mature cheddar cheese and honey glazed ham, spicy pickled onions and homemade chutney all served with the bread of the day”
Tara’s view: Plentiful portion, nice salad, tasty homemade bread

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The Old Orchard Ploughman’s: £8.95
Menu description: “Mrs Appleby’s White Cheshire and Colston Bassett stilton with bread, ham, pickled onion, apple, celery and chutney”
Tara’s view: Good cheese variety, nice thick ham

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So two rather different culinary interpretations of a classic, each with their strengths. Which would you prefer?

The Dumb Bell is also worth mentioning for its generous Sunday carvery. £7.95 for slices of as many as 4 meats, if you like, and all the trimmings. Great value.

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Celebrating the high street, loving the food

The humble high street has seen a resurgence of support and activity of late, spearheaded by the likes of Mary Portas on television and now in the form of a new Twitter campaign by businesses here in Rickmansworth. Called #ShopLocal, it encourages people to support their high street by buying an extra item there instead of the supermarket.

Coincidentally, we’ve been doing precisely this for the past few months, buying a good number of items from local businesses on the high street that we’d previously got as part of our weekly supermarket shop. So far, it’s proven a very positive experience.

This move began through the arrival of a new fishmongers in Rickmansworth, whose stall offers a fantastic array of fish and seafood three days a week. The level of service – personalised, offering cooking recommendations and preparing the food – suddenly revolutionised our relationship with food retailers. No longer did we struggle over what fish we should buy without knowing much about what to do with it. Now we’re given inspiration each week based on the seasonal catch, and it’s enlivened our fish and seafood dishes immensely.

This represented something of a ‘eureka’ moment for us. Perhaps the supermarkets weren’t the convenient be all and end all of food shopping. Perhaps the high street can offer us something more and something better than the dominant supermarkets. Continue reading

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A foodie tour of the South Lakes

South Lakeland was the destination for a few days away over Easter and we made the most of the opportunity to try some of the area’s delicious food and produce.

Our visit took in towns and villages in the south of the county of Cumbria, which is dominated by the Lake District and bordered by the Yorkshire to the east. It’s a largely rural area and famed for the quality of its livestock, the farming of which remains an essential element of the local economy, along with tourism.

Cartmel

The exploration began in Cartmel, a small village punching far above its weight owing to its racecourse, Michelin starred L’Enclume restaurant and some nationally renowned foods. There’s also the curious priory, where the tower sits at 45 degrees to the rest of the building in a piece of either architectural genius or madness.

We enjoyed perusing the village’s picturesque streets and attractive shops, universally built in the unmistakable Lakeland limestone. On a recommendation we began in Cartmel Cheeses, an emporium that would delight the most highbrow cheese aficionado. Rounds of cheese are piled high and following some tasting we emerged with some sheep cheese, creamy Lancashire, soft French cheese and Stinking Bishop. The car carried a certain aroma after that!

20120413-192316.jpg Continue reading

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Events in the Chilterns – 2012

The Easter weekend kicks off a season of events across the Chilterns. The list below attempts to capture some of the largest events in our area, with a focus on those celebrating locally produce food and goods. Leave a comment if you know of an event not listed below.

Calendar of events

April

Chilterns Easter Festival of Food & Drink, Great Missenden – Fri 6 – Mon 9 April

Cheese Makers’ Market, Old Beaconsfield – Sat 14 April

May

Artists and Makers’ Fair, Waddesdon Manor – Sat 5th and Sun 6th May

Rickmansworth Canal Festival - Sat 19 & Sun 20 May

Marlow May Fayre - Sat 26th May

June

Hertfordshire County Show - Sat 2nd & Sun 3rd June

Chenies & Latimer Diamond Jubilee Celebration - Mon 4th June

Marlow Town Regetta & Festival - 9 & 10 June

July

Tringe Comedy Festival, Tring, 1 – 21 July

Penn Street Beer Festival – Fri 13 – Sun 15 July

September

Chalfont St Giles Show - Sat 8 September

Berkofest, Berkhamsted, Sat 15 September

Kop Hill Climb, Princes Risborough – Sat 22 & Sun 23 September

Thame Food Festival - Sat 29 September

Other listings for events around the Chilterns

The following websites offer a more comprehensive listing of events, including museum activities and local events:

Visit Buckinghamshire Events

Herts Direct Events

Enjoy Hertfordshire Events

Amersham What’s on noticeboard

Aylesbury Vale Events

BucksFreePress Events

Watford Observer Events

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All iPhone 4(S) all the time

iPhone 4S box

Somewhat late to the party on this one, we’ve finally become an all iPhone 4 household. Tara has taken my iPhone 4, freeing her finally from the shackles of an increasingly lumbering and senile iPhone 3G, while I’ve got a new iPhone 4S to keep up with my insatiable app and podcast addiction.

It’s proven a good move – Tara finally has a phone with a battery that comfortably lasts the day and is like a gazelle to the drunk tortoise of the 3G. The iPhone 4 is quick, fit for purpose and doesn’t require a tea break when making a Foursquare checkin.

My move to the iPhone 4S is a modest improvement, but the doubling of capacity on the 4 means I’m no longer struggling for space and can crack on with adding my back catalogue of music into iTunes. The 4S also offers an increase in speed, which has cut the frustratingly long start-up time of Camera+ to something much more reasonable. It also ensures that, until such time that the iPhone 5 graces us with its presence, my device has got the necessary oomph (a technical term, you understand) to deliver the demands of the latest apps.

Nowhere is the relentless march of technology felt as keenly as in the mobile marketplace, where the passage of only a couple of years can easily turn a top-of-the-range device into a struggling antique. Trying to keep up with this fearsome pace can prove an expensive business, which is one reason why, until now, our own devices have been lagging behind a little. The recent expense of house-buying and a wedding has meant we’ve taken the view of making do with what we have, so long as it does the job. While we may envy a little those with brand new devices boasting the latest features, our phones have done the core work we’ve asked of them, and that’s been fine. However time catches up with older devices, the slowness of the iPhone 3G was becoming more trouble than it was worth, and it was time to put it out to pasture. For now we’re back up to speed, and we’ll continue to enjoy it while it lasts.

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A 21st century festival family gathering

Christmas is traditionally a time for spending time with family, however the ease of travel enjoyed these days means that many extended families are spread across hundreds if not thousands of miles. Getting the family together in person may be impossible, however this modern problem can at least be eased by some similarly modern tech.

For the first time this year, we successfully brought together an entire side of the family on video chat using group video calling on Skype. Five video streams from across the UK and the USA all displayed on a single screen, everyone talking together, and it worked pretty well. Over the years we’ve tried all manner of services, including text, audio and video chat, but this is the first time that the infrastructure and technology has been able to offer something that allowed a quality of video and audio that’s enabled reasonably fluid conversation with everyone at once.

Getting the usability right by providing an interface that’s easy to use and that just works is essential for getting a broader audience on board who would easily be put off by technical issues. Aiding this ease of use is that fact that most people now own laptops that come with cameras and mics built-in. Suddenly we can all make video chats with no need for drivers and problems with third-party software. Our Christmas Skype chat needed no configuration aside from turning on the video and ensuring each person in the chat was a contact. Not exactly rocket science, and certainly a low level of complexity my parents could manage.

Group video calling from Skype isn’t free, but it only needs a single family member to be signed up to create the chat session. Following a hiatus from Skype of several years I’ll certainly now be looking at using it more regularly to keep in touch with the many distant family members.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Daniel and Tara at the Incovenient Mule!

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