All posts by Dan

Easter trips: Food and Chiltern villages

A week’s holiday over Easter combined with some fabulous summer-like weather was all the encouragment we needed to go on some fine day trips into the Chilterns. We made some excellent discoveries along the way – here are a few highlights:

The Swan in Amersham

We’ve tried a few of the dining options in Old Amersham over the past year or two. We were bowled over by the standard of cuisine in the Artichoke restaurant and have some good experiences in some of the pubs and the deli. This was the turn of another pub, the Swan, located further away from most of the shops and eateries, down the western end of the high street. Continue reading

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A brief melting pot: motorway service stations

We’ve been travelling up and down the country over the past few days, and finding brief respite from the road in the institution of the motorway service station. Although visually unexciting, motorway services do in fact contain as full a cross-section of Britain as you are likely to find anywhere, and are fascinating for it.

Motorway services have this amazing captive audience, as they provide the only option for fuel, food or a WC stop for perhaps 50 miles. As a result everyone is forced to use them, irrespective or whether they’re landed gentry or chav, Jag driver or on a coach trip. What results is something of a spectacle of Britain passing through those doors – all strata of society forced together unnaturally and out of necessity. Regardless of whether they’re veering off into the Waitrose, or queuing up at the KFC, they are all there together, for a short while.

Curiosity demands a pause with a coffee to bear witness to this constant flow of people comprising this country of ours. Most stops take place far from both home and the destination, surrounded by unfamiliar accents that are in turn supplemented by an array of dialects even further out of place. You may be sat next to the sort of people you’d never meet in your life otherwise, and are briefly granted an insight into lives that are no less British but potentially entirely foreign to your own. All these people brought together, all trying to kill time by browsing the WHSmith or deciding whether £8.99 for a breakfast is highway robbery taken one step too far…

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Recent culinary discoveries

The recent absence of blogposts might have been making you think that married life has put an end to our usual weekend trips out and pub exploration. Not so. In fact we’ve no less than three recent discoveries to bring you.

The Swan, Ley Hill, nr Chesham

This pub was recommended a few months ago. We decided to pop over there on the August Bank Holiday, not realising that it’s a time when many villages and towns hold special events. Ley Hill was no exception, with live music and stalls set out around the Swan as part of the Ley Hill Festival 2010. Fortunately we decided to call ahead, so did have a table secured, although were completely bemused by the level of activity greeting us on arrival! Despite being so busy there was good food and service to be had.

The Swan, Ley Hill

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On spending time in a hotel

We’re recently back from 10 days in Malta. We spent all of this based in one hotel, which, if not the longest time we’ve ever spent in one hotel on holiday is certainly the longest for a great many years. The hotel dynamic is an interesting one, as the faces you start to see on a daily basis become part of the experience, yet at the same time nothing more than the most fleeting of acquaintances is established.

So it was with our stay. The earlier part of our stay was spent relaxing, especially around the pool, and it didn’t take long for some of the regulars to become known. We never knew the names of any of them – aside from the occasional poorly behaved child whose name was shouted in exasperation – so it became normal to use epithets for these selection of characters.

The Kojak Brothers were perhaps the most distinctive poolside faces, comprising Kojak himself with his penchant for iridescent shorts and glamorous wife, and his brother, similarly bald with a less glamorous wife in-tow.

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Wedding #9 Getting hitched without a hitch

We’ve now returned from our honeymoon, bringing several months of wedding-related activity to a close. Our wedding day feels like half a world away, given the 10 days in Malta which have gone in-between. The day itself was wonderful, seeing all of the family and friends dearest to us in an amazing setting and having, speech anxiety aside, a huge amount of fun.

The wedding went literally without a hitch. The Grim’s Dyke Hotel were magnificent in their organisation and really let us get on and enjoy our day without any concern for logistics. Everyone was extremely complimentary about the food and arrangements; even an aunt of mine who arranges huge events for a living and can find fault from 500 paces said it was perfectly organised. Praise indeed.

Harrow’s registrars were lovely and ensured the ceremony struck the right balance for our wedding, of it being an important statement of commitment, while also being a day for joy and fun. Again, the registrar led their part of the day, making it stress and hassle free, with us just following the instructions, which by that point was perhaps all we could manage anyway! An undoubted highlight was the always slightly tense question by the registrar asking if anyone knew of any reason why we shouldn’t be married. At this Tara’s father shot a look over his shoulder and the guests crumpled in laughter. Superb comic timing.

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iPhone 4: first thoughts

Okay, so I’m about three weeks behind everyone else on the iPhone 4 front. However, the phone that is taking 2010 by storm is now mine and from only 24 hours of ownership I can confidently say that it’s already making its mark.

A substantial upgrade

Some context is necessary, however, to explain just why I’m finding this new handset to be just as revolutionary as it is. I’ve made the upgrade to the iPhone 4 from the iPhone 3G. The 3G was, and is, a fine phone, and has served me well. However for a number of weeks it’s been running iOS4, which as many users have realised does the iPhone 3G no favours at all. It seems that iOS4 is trying to fit too many features across too great a range of handsets and it’s simply too demanding of the iPhone 3G’s hardware. I found that simple tasks such as texting became extremely slow and would often crash the app. Running apps while listening to a podcast – a task causing no problems at all under OS 3.1.3 – suddenly led to stuttering, apps crashing, and on occasion the iPhone crashing entirely. I stuck with iOS4 as I wanted to easily set-up the iPhone 4 using the existing restore, however the weeks of waiting did severely test me.

The delivery of my iPhone 4 yesterday finally saw end to this torment. Setting it up was simplicity itself, using the last restore point from the iPhone 3G and O2′s astoundingly straight-forward SIM swapping website. The hardest part of it all was getting the micro-SIM snapped out of the card it came in.

Using the restore point meant that the iPhone 4 was immediately familiar, with all the apps in their usual places, yet the speed increase was instantly noticeable. The iPhone 3G has always struggled with Twittelator Pro; my Twitter client of choice. As a result I’d always switched between it and the quicker Twitter for iPhone (formerly Tweetie) app. Now, Twittelator offers all the speed you’d want. It’s universally quick and responsive, and a joy to use, overcoming all of my bugbears with it on the 3G.

I quickly realised that the performance limitations of the 3G had actually greatly influenced the way I’d been using the phone and apps on it. iOS4 had caused such instability and performance issues that I’d avoided using certain apps and generally taken a cautious approach to using the phone’s functions as a whole. Essentially I’d not been using the phone to its full potential; shackles now broken with iPhone 4.

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Half-term day trips: Rural Tring, Whipsnade and Thame

Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire were the destinations of a series of day-trips during half-term.

Pitstone, Ivinghoe and Tring

Back in February we visited the pleasant town of Berkhamsted. On Bank Holiday morning we pushed a little further north to the area around Tring, as two museums were open. The Pitstone Farm Museum (situated in the village of the same name) and the Ford End Watermill in Ivinghoe are unusual in only being open on a handful of days a year. The reason being is that both are volunteer-run and require a good number of volunteers in place to operate.

Tractor rides at Pitstone Farm Museum

The Pitstone Farm Museum is a real medley of attractions. At its heart is a preserved farm, however farm buildings have been turned into historic shops including a fascinating Smithy. There are also tractor rides, preserved vehicles, model railway and canal, crafts and stalls, and a brilliantly reconstruction of a Lancaster Bomber cockpit, to name but a few. There’s also a pleasant cafe selling home-made food at down to Earth prices.

Neighbouring Pistone is the attractive village of Ivinghoe, probably best known for the nearby Ivinghoe Beacon, one of the highest points in the Chiltern Hills. Also open for the Bank Holiday was the Water End Mill. This watermill is hundreds of years old and sells itself as being one of the only functioning watermills still to use its original machinery. There are friendly volunteers on hand to answer questions and activities for children to play with. The highlight undoubtedly was seeing the mill in full action, rattling away and actually grinding to make flour, which is for sale.

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Improving the commute – Part 2: the legacy of history

Much of the rail infrastructure in the UK dates back a good century or more. This leaves us with a mixed legacy of inspiring architecture but also slow journeys, limited capacity and antiquated practices.

Rickmansworth station and the line it is built on are no exception. It seems unlikely that the tight curves of the line and the short platform wedged between two bridges would have been considered if the station and line were built today. However this the legacy with which we have to live.

The whole line to Aylesbury is itself something of a peculiarity of history. Built by the Metropolitan Railway deep into rural Buckinghamshire, the quite separate Grand Central Railway arranged the share the line for its trains to travel into London. Although both companies are long gone, the relative successors of both, TfL’s Metropolitan Line and Chiltern Railways, continue to play somewhat similar roles.

We need to understand the history of the line, not just to appreciate the limits imposed on the service today but also to show that the train service Rickmansworth receives has not always been as it is today.

How Rickmansworth used to be served

Old timetables aren’t easy to come by, but those available online indicate that in the past some elements of Ricky’s train service were better than it is today:

There are fewer Marylebone trains, fewer Metropolitan Line trains and longer journey times today compared to past timetables. And of course we’ve lost the link to Watford Junction.

The campaign

There’s historical precedent for a better service than we receive today. As rail usage continues to rise we should be demanding more trains, more capacity and faster journeys. Not only should service match that of the past, it needs to better it.

According to Wikipedia Metropolitan Line trains ran at 70mph until the 1990s when they were reduced to 50mph to help maintain the ageing trains. The line speed was also dropped, affecting Chiltern services also. As new Metropolitan Line trains are introduced we need to push for a train and line speed increase as quickly as possible. The new trains are initially set to have a top speed of 62mph, however we should push for 70mph to be reinstated at the earliest opportunity.

Chiltern Railways services need to call at Rickmansworth station during peak periods. Without these Rickmansworth remains underserved compared to all other stations on the line, most being much smaller in size and far less used than Rickmansworth station. Chiltern don’t seem to be required to serve Rickmansworth during the peak, so an argument needs to be put to the regulatory bodies for this to be required in the future.

Still not convinced?

In part 3 we’ll be looking at how the service compares with others today and highlight some stats that will show that there’s little to inspire in the service we receive.

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Improving the commute – Part 1: why we should care

I normally spend around an hour commuting to work and other back. Two hours of my day that are often spent in rather too cramped and close company with strangers than I would certainly choose to be. A bad commute can cause stress bearly before the day has begun or can ruin an evening. I’m a firm believer that commuters should take an active interest in this important part of their day and not sit by the passively British way when conditions are below standard.

For 3/4 of a year I’ve commuted from Rickmansworth to central London. On a good day it can be passable and tolerable. On a bad day it can be extremely long, awfully crowded and thoroughly uncomfortable. Now, I’ve commuted from a good few places in London in the past and have become used to busy, basic inner-London commuter trains. However, moving beyond the boundaries of London made me hope that a better commute would accompany the other improvements in living standard. So far I’ve not been impressed.

My feeling is that the service could and should be better. While changing the status quo with large transport operators is unlikely to ever be easy, this does not put me off trying. After all, if we don’t make our grievences known, why should we expect anything to change? Action may not produce quick results, but fighting our corner and arguing for a decent service can only help going forward.

A big part in making an argument is to be informed and empowered. Most commuters may be all too familiar with their own commute but are likely unaware how it compares with commutes on other, similar routes. Perhaps if they did they’d feel all the more compelled to taking action. Many facts and figures that would assist a campaign aren’t made very public friendly, however they are out there if you know where to look.

In this series of blog posts I’m going to try to better empower other commuters to make their views known and hopefully also reveal just how good or bad commuters in Rickmansworth and the local area actually have it.

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Coy Carp pub, Harefield

When cycling along the Grand Union Canal to the south from Ricky, the first water-side pub I encounter is the Coy Carp. After many months we finally got around to trying it out for Sunday lunch.

Each of the roads leading to Harefield seem to be quite small and narrow. Although not unusual around these parts, Harefield is larger than some of the other villages we’ve encountered yet seems somewhat tricky to reach. On arrival however, there’s a very good size pub car park, able to cope with even the busiest of Sunday lunchtimes it would seem.

From the car park the pub is accessed over a small pub which crosses a small river, running parallel to the canal. There’s both a sizeable seating area inside the pub and outside, however the weather made the outside off-limits to all put the hardiest of patrons.

The Coy Carp’s interior is fairly standard pub, fairly comfortable without being either modern or historic. Despite some poor comments on beerintheeventing.co.uk we found the service to be fine. It’s primarily ordering at the bar, although waiting staff did take our order directly for dessert.

Tara trying the fish platter at the Coy Carp pub

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