Friday, 9 December 2011

How 34,000 Napoli Fans Watched My Wobbly Video

There's been an incredible response to that video I posted on YouTube showing the remarkable reception the Napoli fans gave to their team in the Champions League match against City.

It's low-res, iPhone and shakey but so far it's had 33,977 views, 56 comments and 88 thumbs up. It's been shared 122 times, favourited by 42 viewers and disliked by two.

The stats say 86 per cent of the viewers were blokes and 72 per cent of them found it when it was embedded on Napoli's website at 

Unsurprisingly, 30,753 of the viewers were in Italy when they hit the play button.

Some of the comments have been quite touching:

"Maximum respect to Manchester City supporters, all of you will always be welcome in Naples."

"You too have great supporters... In Naples we are so, we live for football. :D"


"Thank you for coming! We loved having you there and hoped that you enjoyed it too!"

And my favourite:

"You're my mast of work!!! But the real mast have to pass a big truble in the middle of legs."

He's got a point.

Good luck to Napoli in the jauntily titled Round of 16. I'm genuinely looking forward to our own Round of 32 in the Europa League, no matter who we get and where it takes us.

The derision that competition gets is baffling. Would fans really prefer their team to be scrapping away for the top four in the Premier League rather than going gung ho for a place in a major European final in Bucharest in May? And we wouldn't have the Poznan without it.

Bring on those Thursday nights on Channel 5.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Why Aren't English Football Fans As Visual As The Italians?

Naples: chaotic city, brilliant fans

The welcome that the Napoli fans gave to their team as they emerged from the tunnel at the Sao Paolo stadium on Tuesday was the most spectacular I've ever seen at a football match.

We were among the first of the 1,000 travelling City fans to arrive at the stadium about an hour before kick off. By then, nearly every Napoli fan was already in position.

By anthem time, at one end, the crowd parted to form an N-shape that was brilliantly illuminated by red flares. At the other, every fan waved a small, blue flag while a '74-style World Cup football banner was unfurled in the middle of the stand. Along one side of the ground, fireworks exploded into the sky.

The crowd noise was deafening. It almost drowned out the Champions League tune until the end when in unison, 59,000 voices blared out "campione". A wonderful, emotional outpouring you just don't see in England.

I put this shoddy iPhone video on YouTube on Wednesday. It's had nearly 5,000 views so far, the vast majority of them from Italy. The comments, too, are nearly all from Napoli fans. They just love their club.

City's support is undoubtedly the best in the world for its unswerving loyalty. But it's characterised by witty, self-deprecating anthems (We Never Win At Home and We Never Win Away), irony (We're Not Really Here) and a torch song of lovelorn loneliness (Blue Moon). Inflatable bananas aside, until the newly-stolen Poznan goal celebration, it was all sound and no vision.

Perhaps Anfield is the closest we get. However grudgingly, you have to admit that the Kop end full of red scarves belting out You'll Never Walk Alone is stirring stuff when seen from the away end.

But there isn't much else worth writing home about in my experience: United are noisy by volume but lack much humour; the popular end at Molineux give Wolves fantastic support; West Ham's bubblers are in tune but often groaning; Newcastle is a fabulous frenzy bordering on religious fervour; the Britannia Stadium is stirringly loud when Stoke get a throw-in; Spurs fans are probably too exhausted by the walk from the tube to give it much welly; and the Arsenal faithful sometimes struggle to turn the excellent Emirates into a cauldron.

Maybe it's the weather. Maybe we're too busy boozing to organise such elaborate pre-match pyrotechnics. 

But I bet Napoli don't lose too many at home.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Whistling Wigeon On Cley Marshes

Eerily bright, warm and sunny at Cley Marshes this morning - it's the mid-November that feels like early September.

The highlights: hundreds of whistling Wigeon; vast flocks of Golden Plover looking like blown and sun-dappled leaves; two female and one male Marsh Harrier spooking hundreds of Lapwing; a vagrant Cattle Egret - feathers so white you could see it with the naked eye from the visitor centre half a mile away; flying Shoveler; Teal and Mallard waddling around; hidden Cetti's warbler and Bearded Tit calling from the reeds.

It was warm enough for a least three Common Darter dragonflies to take to the wing to add to the three Red Admiral butterflies we saw in Wells Wood yesterday.

And we saw a Barn Owl near Field Dalling at 9.10am on the way - the first we've clocked for a while in Norfolk.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Wandsworth Common Halloween Beer Festival 2011

Our first visit to the annual event in the rain-spattered courtyard of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building - a suitably spooky Victorian Gothic pile formerly used as an orphanage and military hospital. Now the home of Le Gothique restaurant and some nice-looking flats.

The 15-minute walk from Clapham Junction was rewarded with:

Dark Star American Pale Ale 4.7% - a hip and hoppy happy glass from Horsham. (I've enjoyed many superb pints at their excellent Evening Star pub near Brighton railway station with my mate Paul.)

Dark Star Green Hopped IPA 6.5 % - strong as Superman and available just as rarely. Distinguished by a combination of Simcoe and green Target hops.  Wouldn't recognise either of them but they make an outstandingly tangy ale. 

Shepherd Neame Spooks 4.7% - a nothing-special one-off. Never been one of my favourite brewers. All tastes a bit ordinary.

Thornbridge Sequoia American Amber Ale 4.5% - tastes like they've picked a ripe grapefruit from a tree in tarty Bakewell and squeezed it into one of the best beers I've ever had. Fabulous. 

Batemans Victory Ale 5.9 % - a fresh and fruity mouthful of Lincolnshire peardrops. Brewed to celebrate Trafalgar Day on October 21. Nelson would think it was all worth it just for this ale. 

Sambrooks Pale Ale 4.2% - The light and refreshing zing of angry young Battersea. And they sponsored the jolly commemorative glasses.

Thornbridge St Petersburg 7.7%. - Back to Derbyshire for a stunning Imperial Stout. The treacly, smokey, roast chestnut taste of foggy Bonfire Nights.

Priced by strength from £1.70 per half for the standard-strength beers through to £2.50 for the less approachable 7 per centers.

A graveyard smash of an event and one for the diary next year.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Why Does Food And Drink On The Radio Work So Well?

Noisy chomping, presenters spluttering things like "astringent" through a mouthful of goat's cheese, gulping down wheat beer at unlikely hours, bottle tops fizzing off. Lots of "mmmms" but very few "eeuws"; on paper it looks undercooked, but lightly coddled on the radio it sounds delicious.

Nigel Barden is the expert on Simon Mayo's Radio 2 show on Thursdays. Our paths crossed briefly at BBC GLR and even back then he had the gift of making tricky recipes sound must-try-tonight simple.

Yesterday I was listening to Bill Buckley on BBC Oxford. A beer expert called Tim Hampson had taken in some local, bottled real ales to try. Thirsty within minutes. A phono with a Hook Norton brewer made me want to book a brewery tour there and then.

And then another phono with Tristan Hogg from Pieminister moved the conversation on to the essential life-skill of matching beer with pies. I had the advantage over Bill because I've eaten a few of Bristol-based Tristan's pies at their little shop on the South Bank. And they're delicious.

The chat was so mouth-wateringly effective that we immediately pulled off the M40 and headed for the Fox Country Inn in Ibstone. Steak and kidney Guinness pie and chips with a superfluous bit of lettuce. £12. Washed down with a couple of pints of local Rebellion beers (thanks to my lovely designated driver).

Bill Buckley and BBC Oxford. Job done.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

How Alan Partridge Destroyed Local Radio And Why I Love North Norfolk Radio

North Norfolk yesterday
The cheery DJ with a smile in his voice gives a generous chuckle as caller Annie from East Runton half-heartedly practises a scream down the phone line.

"So, Annie, who do you think it is?"

"Is it Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars?"

Cue some echoey footsteps, a very creaky trapdoor and a loud splash.

"Sorry, Annie - it's not Mark Hamill which means tomorrow's breakfast show jackpot goes up to £510! Thanks for trying to guess who's on the red carpet here on North Norfolk Radio."

Mystery voice competitions; free, no-obligation fireplace quotes; news headlines about fireworks being sold to children in Fakenham; eye-witness travel brought to you by a cycle shop in  North Walsham - North Norfolk Ray-Dee-Oh is local commercial radio as it should be.

Broadcasting from a farm in the tiny village of Stody near Melton Constable, it's a no-airs-and-graces triumph of community broadcasting - not the quasi-national programming-by-numbers foisted on us by Heart, Kiss, Galaxy and their ilk.

Compare it to the next station along the Liquid Crystal Dial - BBC Radio Norfolk. At 6.30pm last night their presenter was joined by a local magistrate and a solicitor for their Good Week, Bad Week slot. And what burning local issues were they debating? The anti-capitalism protests at St Paul's Cathedral, protocol during the Queen's tour of Australia and a woman in The Sun who'd spent £10,000 on Gary Barlow tattoos.  Not even a rural whiff of a Norfolk postcode.

Meanwhile, North Norfolk Radio's drivetime man was appealing for the owner of a V-reg Ford Galaxy in Thursford to claim their free car valet for sporting a sticker in the back window and the newsreader was telling us that the Travelodge in Norwich is Britain's favourite hotel for illicit affairs. Brilliant.

I grew up on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester in the 70s and 80s. I loved it. The DJs were proper local personalities - Phil Wood, Mike Sweeney (who's rubbish punk band The Salford Jets were a joy), curly-permed Dave Ward who once brought his unforgettable roadshow to the English Martyrs youth club in Whalley Range.

Some of the slicker ones were passing through on their way to bigger, national things - Andy Peebles, Steve Penk, Susie Mathis, the bar-setting Mark Radcliffe, Gary Davies before his execrable bit in the middle on Radio One.

And Timmy Mallett. His evening show was an unmissable masterpiece of self-made, multi-layered, madcap jingles punctuating interviews with local bands and bigger celebrities. He was the Kenny Everett of Piccadilly Gardens.

I made my radio debut on his show. A bit-too-serious appreciation of Yazoo when I was 16. I never forgot that thrill of walking into the dimly-lit studio with the big, red light over the door and sitting in front of a giant microphone which partially hid the great man from view. He asked me to stay for the rest of his stint after my bit and do some jokey inserts. They were hopeless but I was hooked.

Nine years later I managed to get a dream job as a reporter on BBC Radio Leeds, crafting what the boss called "colour radio" with a strip of tape around my neck, a razor blade in one hand and a role of sellotape in the other. Back then there was a budget for actually going out and gathering local news with a German Uher tape recorder on the passenger seat of a branded Peugeot radio car.

Magistrates and solicitors talking about what the Queen was up to on the other side of the world were rarely required.

From there it was the achingly cool (and therefore shut down) BBC GLR in London for me - James! Playing live! In the basement studio at lunchtime! - and then the fabulous Five Live in the glory days of Garvey, Allen, Mair, Sybil and Inverdale.

And it was all started by that love of pre-Partridge local radio. Maybe it was Alan who did for it. His devastating savagery of radio sports reporting began in Radio 4's On The Hour and ended in that self-same Travelodge in Norwich on BBC One.

Now he broadcasts on a YouTube version of imaginary North Norfolk Digital. Maybe local radio never truly recovered its confidence.

Instead the commercial stations have become national brands and the BBC's local stations are easy targets for job cuts - 280 were announced this month. Threaten to shut down a trendy national network and you guarantee a noisy Twitter campaign; lose ten jobs at Radio Cumbria, despite an incredible audience reach of 39 per cent, and who's complaining?

But confidence is brimming at the real North Norfolk Radio. Where the prize of a meal for two at the Dunstable Arms in Sheringham is something worth winning. And it's good to know that P&S Butchers in Holt have probably the largest selection of game in the area. Probably.

Which leaves just one question: is it Paul Gambaccini?

(The author was appointed Managing Director of Sky News Radio in 2007. Funding was pulled before the station launched.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Royal Parks Half Marathon: 13.1 Thoughts For 13.1 Miles

9.30am: At the start in Hyde Park. 12,500 runners. Excited, slightly nervous. In the blue funnel. Optimistic target: 1:55:00.

1 mile: Buckingham Palace on the right. Wonder if the Queen's watching thousands of her subjects streaming past her windows?

2 miles: Bouncing along past Big Ben and over Westminster Bridge. Eerily devoid of traffic. Quickly in the groove and feeling good.

3 miles: Long run along the empty Embankment. London Eye blinking in the faint autumn sunlight on the right. Earlier starters streaming past in the opposite direction. Where's the turn?

4 miles: Turn was just after Temple tube. Now running the other way along the Embankment. Dodging hundreds of discarded three-quarter-full drinks bottles. Surely plastic cups would be better.

5 miles: Through Admiralty Arch and down the Mall. Cheery smile for the photographer. Do I look knackered yet? Generous strangers calling out my name on my already-sweat-soaked WWF running vest and urging me on.

6 miles: Back into Hyde Park via Green Park and Wellington Arch. Nearly half-way next to The Serpentine. Where are the loyally supporting family?

7 miles: There they are. Next to the WWF panda and his rallying pals. A cheery wave from me. Seem to be overtaking more than I'm being overtaken.

8 miles: Winding through Hyde Park towards Kensington Gardens now. Can I keep up this pace for five more miles? Watch says I'm doing 8'20" per mile. Not bad.

9 miles: Long run up a slight but testing slope parallel with Park Lane. Hope that's not a twinge of cramp in the left calf.

Picture: D O'Driscoll

10 miles: Route loops back to the seven-mile bend. Another cheer from the family. Into double figures. Still feeling good.

11 miles: Psychological barrier for me. Toughest part of my longest training run. But feeling ok today. Glad I resisted a cheeky pint last night.

12 miles: One mile to go. Royal Albert Hall dead ahead. Land of hope and glory. Come on. Supine man receiving medical attention on the left.

13 miles: Finishing straight lined with hundreds of cheering supporters including little Grace. Even manage a mini-sprint to the line. Wonder what's in the WWF goody bag?

13.1 miles: Made it. Rewarded with a name check by the MC and a complimentary bottle of orange Lucozade. Risk a first look at my stopwatch: 1:48:03 (official time reduced to 1:47:59 on Monday). Quietly satisfied.

And that's it. A nice wooden leaf badge around the neck. Great route, perfect autumnal jogging weather, £800 raised for Rainforest Rescue, which Sky will double, and a real feeling that five weeks of five-day-week training has paid off.

I might even do it again next year.

And there were two samples of eco washing powder in the goody bag.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Who Are You Looking At?

We spent three days looking for elephants in Kariega Game Reserve in Eastern Cape, South Africa.

The reserve covers 9,000 hectares of pristine African wilderness - that's about 35 square miles - so there's plenty of space and bush for even 25 elephants to hide themselves.

So day one: distant views.

But day two: extreme close-ups. So close that they could have pinched the binoculars from round our necks with their trunks if they'd wanted to.

And close enough for one of the young bulls to brandish his tusks in a distinctly intimidating fashion.

Staring down an elephant? Not on your nelly. The open-top Landcruiser was thrown into reverse.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why I’m Running The Royal Parks Half Marathon For Sky Rainforest Rescue

Mo Farah pips me in Portsmouth

Mo Farah just pipped me in the Great South Run in Portsmouth in 2009. I completed the ten miles a mere 32 minutes behind the new 5000m World Champion. I had him worried, though.
The future looked bright when I bagged a couple of sub-1:43 charity half marathons in the following  months.
And then mystery ankle-knack, which baffled the finest medics available under the Sky insurance scheme, sidelined me for the season.
I lost my mojo. And it took the plight of the jaguar to help me find it again. Those furry guys are in big trouble and it’s up to us to do something about it.
I don’t want to have to look into the tiny, tear-stained faces of my imaginary grandchildren and say: “Sergio and Yaya – no, you can’t go to South America to see the jaguars. Because they’re all dead. We killed them. Because we were too tight to stump up £10 to save the trees they lived in.”
So I’m back in training for the London Parks 13-miler on October 9; an Olympic-standard regime interrupted only by a two-week wine and elephant binge in South Africa that ended with a chance encounter with a native Manchester City fan on Table Mountain last month.
He agreed to sponsor me. He understands. He wants his future Marios and Kolos to be able to look a jaguar straight in his slitty eye with a firm and steady gaze and say, “They did it. They saved you and the rainforests you live in. May they rest in peace.”
So, please - do the future world a favour and feel good today. Sponsor me at:
Sky will donate a further £1 to WWF-UK to match each £1 donated and has guaranteed to pay a total of £2,000,000.

This first appeared in today@sky

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Safety Fears Over Future Of Manchester City's Poznan

I love the Poznan as much as the next man but the Fulham match on Sunday raised the first few concerns over its longevity.

It soon became clear in the Putney End that some Fulham fans in the Riverside Stand to the left seemed as interested in the City fans as the match itself. Quite a few of them had cameras and phones pointed at our supporters during open play, clearly hoping for some spontaneous outbreak of Polish-inspired unity.

The greatest example I've seen so far was at the FA Cup final in May. We were lucky enough to be in the Wembley corner where Yaya ran to celebrate after scoring the winner. This video, shot on my iPhone, shows how quickly the fans turned from hailing Toure to turning our backs, throwing our arms over our neighbours' shoulders and jumping up and down in the most memorable City moment of my life. It's now been viewed more than a thousand times (most of them probably mine).

The joyous celebration is now as familiar and essential as Blue Moon to most City fans - an obligation every after every goal.

But after Kun's brilliant first strike against Fulham I slightly misjudged the narrowness of the gap between my legs and the Craven Cottage seat. I clattered both knees with the kind of impact that makes you feel slightly queasy for a minute. I had to grit my teeth for the encore after his stunning second goal.

The pain came flooding back when I absent-mindedly knelt down in the gym yesterday as part of my neverending training for this WWF charity half-marathon.

The other problem is the opposition piss-take Poznan. Murphy's deflected equaliser on Sunday led to an impromptu, if vastly inferior, effort from the home fans in the Hammersmith End. We had to stand there ruefully, hoisted by our own Poznan petard.

Intelligence from Poland suggests that the sight will become a Europe-wide phenomenon during the European Championships next year.

Maybe that's when City fans will shrug and move on. It'll be stored in the mental attic next to the inflatable bananas and bounced out only on special occasions.

But for now the British franchise belongs to us. So hands off. And make those terraces wider.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Coco Chanel Blamed For Drabness Of British Birds Compared To South African Equivalents

Southern Double-Collared Sunbird
Why do so many birds in South Africa look exactly the same as British birds but with more vibrant colouring?

Convergent evolution? The theory that explains how hummingbirds look like very similar to sunbirds - but the hummers hang out in the Americas and belong to the same family as swifts while the sunny guys are found in Africa and Asia and belong to the same family as most perching birds.

Possible. But not as convincing as my ground-breaking new theory honed during a two-week return drive from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth: the Creators' Colouring Book Principle.

In the Beginning, Grand Fauna Designers of each continent were handed the same colouring book template by the Creator In Chief and given free hand to do whatever they liked. It just so happened that we got a celestial Coco Chanel while Africa got Vivienne Westwood.

So South Africa has the Red-nobbed Coot: virtually identical to the familiar "bald-as-a" bird seen everywhere in Britain - but with two comedy red knobs on top of its head.

Cape Sparrow: our very own House Sparrow wearing a fetching bandit's mask.

Red-winged Starling: like our common or garden blackbird with go-faster splashes of red on its wings.

Black African Oystercatcher: the black-and-white bird of British coasts given a stylish all-black respray with stand-out red bill and legs. (But while ours are thriving, the African version is in trouble.)

Speckled Mousebird: to our Long-tailed Tit - "That's not a tail; now that's a tail."

Olive-breasted Thrush: forget the brown dots on a brown breast with brown wings on our Song Thrush - how about a splash of dazzling orange on autumnal green and slate grey?

Cape Longclaw: no to the streaky dark brown stripes and streaky light brown heads of our pipits - let's go for a bright orange throat set-off with a bold black border.

And the Cape Weaver: a bright, canary-yellow alternative to our black, speckly starlings - and these boys weave their own nests on the end of palm tree leaves, too.

I'm not sure Richard Dawkins would agree and it needs a bit of work. Maybe a research grant from the Mid-West University of Creationism. But what do you think?

Friday, 12 August 2011

This Is What Latvian Woodlands Sound Like In August

I don't know what makes that noise - it must be a grasshopper. Whatever it is, I like it!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The West London Connection With The National Bird of Latvia

The bird I was most hoping to see on our long weekend in Latvia was the White Stork.

We were there for Vince and Daiga's wedding. Vince, who's no bird watcher, had reliably informed us that the Storks would still be around in August.

They're like our Swallows to the Latvians. Their arrival from Africa in the spring signals the end of the bitterly cold Baltic winter and the start of longer and warmer days. People tempt them into their villages, farms and gardens by erecting columns with wide platforms at the top - ready-made for the welcome visitors to build their massive nests out of piles of sticks.

And the birds don't disappoint. They seem to like being near people and happily raise their young very close to farms and houses - very often on the top of pylons. Daiga told us that many people thought it was very lucky to have one nesting close by.
We got our first glimpse of them on the two-hour bus ride from Riga to Talsi. The first one was only ten minutes from the centre of the capital - strutting around in a bit of greenery near a shopping centre.

And as the packed bus sped along the arrow-straight road lined with mile after mile of pine and silver birch trees, the Stork numbers kept on rising.

So you'd think they'd be a shoo-in to be the nation's national bird. But bizarrely, they're not.

That honour goes to the slender, graceful, yet comparatively humble White Wagtail - another summer visitor virtually identical to the Pied Wagtail familiar to everyone who's ever been to a playground or shopping centre in England.

The national bird of Latvia

I snapped this young one in the fabulous Laumu Dabas country park near Talsi where the wedding celebrations took place. It was chosen as the national bird in 1960 by the International Bird Protection Council. Fair enough - it's  a nice bird. Not as striking as the bandit-masked Red Backed Shrike or the charismatic Spotted Flycatcher, which were both showing well at the weekend, but very cheerful and eye-catching nonetheless.

Young Spotted Flycatcher. Old wooden Tortoise.
And when it calls it sounds like it's shouting, "Chiswick, Chiswick", over and over again. A little bit of West London in the bright and sunny heart of Latvia.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

How The Americans Hijacked The Great British Beer Festival

Perhaps sad but true - the best beer by far at the Great British Beer Festival this year was made in the USA.

Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA smells like a freshly halved grapefruit, explodes with American hoppiness and has a taste so vivid you can still feel it the next day. It's also 7.2% so needs approaching with some caution - but it's what those third-of-a-pint markers on the glass were made for.

I've been making the annual August pilgrimage to the festival for more than a decade. I've stood ankle deep in water when Olympia failed to cope with a thunderstorm; I've made quick dashes to Earls Court after work when I couldn't get the day off; I've been reunited with old friends and chinked glasses with  friends who now flee to Thailand for the summer; I've been with my dad and my brother - last year my brother and I raised a glass in the direction of Manchester Royal Infirmary where my dad was having a heart op. (Probably a lesson, there.)

It's always the drinking highlight of the year.

And the Americans have been getting better every year. Now their IPAs set the global standard. A beer named after the British pale ale exports from Burton to the Indian bit of the old empire has been transformed and modernised by a brewer in California.

Camra legend Roger Protz startled a few British drinkers some years ago when he named Goose Island IPA from Chicago as the best beer in the world. He spotted something early on. Now there's no denying that the US of A is making the globe's best IPA.

The Summit IPA from Minnesota was also a belter and more approachable at 6.2 per cent.

Are you sure you want another, sir?
The festival judges might be making a statement with their current fondness for unique British brews; they seem to hand out the majority of the pump rosettes to those dark stouts, milds and old ales that are an acquired taste for most people.

But even though I love a British bitter as much as the next man, I'm increasingly drawn to the Bieres Sans Frontieres bar at the festival.

Other notable beers sampled this year (from memory due to lost notes and programme):

Tomos Watkin's Cwrw Haf - citrusy from Swansea; Chiltern's Chiltern Gold - bit bitter; Bollington's Best Bitter - bronze medal winner from Cheshire; Houston's Peter's Well - gold medal-winning best bitter from Renfrewshire; Rudgate's Ruby Mild - silver medal-winning mild; Reigate's Pilgrim's Porter - sweet and dark; Holden's Golden Glow - bronze medal winner from Dudley; Triple F's Alton's Pride - familiar  bronze-winning bitter from Hampshire; Skinner's Heligan Honey - Cornish sweetie; Great Oakley's Abbey Stout - the taste of darkest Northants; Widmer Brothers Okto Festival Ale - Bavarian-style American brew from Portland, Oregon; Windsor & Eton's Knight of the Garter - a dashing golden ale.

Mexico was well represented this year

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Torchwood, Choughs, Dolphins And The Best Pubs And Restaurants In South And West Wales

Rhossili Bay

The forecast said wet in the east so we headed west. It was meant to be a dolphin safari. It turned into an unintentional Torchwood tour.

The Spectacular Scenery
The rocky coasts of the Gower peninsula and Pembrokeshire in the sunshine are breathtaking. Literally, after the walk up the steep cliffside above Rhossili.
There couldn't be a starker, more beautiful contrast with the windswept heaths and big-skied marshes of our usual Norfolk haunts: 360-degree views across rolling Welsh countryside surrounded by the sea on all sides, wild ponies wandering among the heather and cliff-top flowers; multi-coloured ants on surfboards on the scudding waves way  below.

New Quay
New Quay in Pembrokeshire even looked like Newquay in Cornwall: a pastel-coloured village overlooking a bay that Slartibartfast would have been proud to carve.
St David's Cathedral
The green woods at Oxwich Point spilling into the sea; the incongruously huge cathedral in the tiny city of St David's with a path leading down to an impossibly small chapel of St Non, mother of the patron saint at the site where he was born.
 Cardiff Bay

The sleek modern waterfront of Cardiff contrasting with the slightly intimidating inner-city road to it from the city centre, waymarked with the arrival dates of each swathe of new immigrant communities through the ages.
All of it magnificent, memorable and worth a four or five-hour drive from anywhere.

The Unique Welsh Wildlife
We were photographing a Wall butterfly on the cliff-top overlooking Rhossili Bay when the unmistakeable call of a couple of Choughs got nearer and nearer until a pair landed about 30 feet away.
Unbelievable. These are real west coast specialists - crows with bright red bills and feet, doing okay now after some desperately lean years, but still only around 500 pairs in the UK. They posed for a while then were gone.
Bottlenose Dolphin Calf and Mother

We were lucky on the two-hour dolphin boat trip from New Quay. None had been seen the day before. We were treated to plenty of classic arcing loops, disappearing and reappearing fins and the best treat - a mother feeding with her calf. Lucky, too, that we were the only people on the trip and had one of the best sights in British wildlife all to ourselves.
Memorable fact of the trip: baby dolphins don't suckle; the mother shoots the milk direct into their mouths to avoid mixing it with sea water.

The Torchwood Connection
We passed the National Trust's most popular holiday cottage on the walk around Rhossili Bay. It wasn't until we watched the first episode of the new, very different and Americanised series when we got back to London that we recognised it as the hideaway of Gwen and her dopey husband.

There were swallows nesting in the outhouses and a man doing the plank in the garden when we passed.
The Cardiff waterfront was a regular location in the earlier series. Tributes to one of the missing characters line the walls of one of the docks in the bay. The Roald Dahl plaza is still a meeting point for Captain Jack and the rest in the new series.

Food, Drink and Lodgings.

The Premier Inn, Swansea - cheap, cheerful, comfortable beds, delicious all-you-can breakfasts at £16 for a family of four, loud commercial radio in the dining room - presumably to hurry you out before you polish off the lot. No complaints.

King Arthur Hotel, Reynoldston - Camra beer guide comes good again: outdoor drinking, Brains bitters and Tomas Watkin's Swansea ales on tap (are they the Woodforde's of Wales?).

Traeth cafe/bistro at New Quay - a first-floor balcony with views of the dolphins in the bay, bottles of the ubiquitously refreshing Watkin's beer and the best Sunday lamb lunch you can imagine.
Contented Customers at the Bay Bistro
The Bay Bistro, Rhossili - friendly service in a stunning patio garden overlooking the bay, excellent ham and cheese paninis and more golden Watkin's bottles to choose from.  A surf shack and coastal photos made it cool, too.

Black Boy pub, Killay near Swansea - big old Brains boozer (the Fullers of Wales?) with well-kept beer, a noisy darts night in the corner and racing on the TV even at 9pm.

Park Inn, Mumbles - a classic real ale aficionados hang-out with Watkin's Not So Ugly Now Premier Ale the standout choice, brewed to celebrate Swansea City's arrival as the first Welsh team in the Premier League. Here's hoping they get a welcome to remember at Manchester City next month.

Frankie and Bennys, Swansea - Italian-American-style diner on the edge of an entertainment district that makes Disney's Pleasure Island look like meagre gruel. Exactly what you'd expect - but I'm still quietly disappointed that the single flat mushroom promised with the £14.95, 8oz steak was the size of 50p piece and the "roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine" were neither roasted nor on the vine.
Terra Nova and the Torchwood Wall
Terra Nova, Cardiff Bay - another big Brains pub, modern on the outside but made to look quaintly old-fashioned inside. A sunkissed balcony and good beer but leave the food. They'd ran out of nachos and managed to burn the potato wedges.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

More Best Norfolk Pubs And Restaurants Reviewed And Rated With Birds

Back to the Garden

 Back To The Garden, Fakenham Road, Letheringsett

Bird Equivalent: Swallow - summer not complete without a visit.

Overview: On the main road from Fakenham to Holt, this used to a be a fabulous farm shop selling the very best local produce around. It still is, but now it's added a stunning, Mediterranean-style garden to its barn-conversion restaurant. A delicious lunchtime menu served amidst the bees buzzing on the lavender. Stock up on the way out with Brays pork pies and Wiveton strawberries for tea.

Food Highlight: Three succulent, Norfolk-pork and leek sausages and herby mash served with a giant bowl of fresh vegetables grown in their very own market garden. 

Beer: The shop sells a wide selection of local, bottled ales but the restaurant limits the choice to a stout from Yetman's up the road in Holt and  a couple of beers from the St Peter's brewery - those ones in the antique-style bottles, which are fine but controversially from across the border in Suffolk.

Bottom Line: Under £40 for four lunches with drinks.

The Lodge, Norwich Road, North Tuddenham

Bird Equivalent: Yellowhammer - an easy-to-overlook rural treat.

Overview: The first restaurant we've visited as a result of a recommendation on Twitter. We arrived at this stylishly-modernised village inn just off the A47 at 9pm last Friday night - and amazingly we were the only people there. Unexpected James Bond memorabilia on the walls, comfy chairs, Eighties songs playing and a warm welcome from the man in charge who told us it had been much busier earlier on.

Food Highlight: The perfectly cooked medium-well-done ribeye steak came with a giant mushroom and big, fat chips; the burgers were plump; the pollock was fresh and fragrant.

Beer: The last pint of Beeston's Worth The Wait golden ale lived up to its name after a three-hour drive and after that the new barrel of Adnam's Bitter was up to its usual reliable mark.

Bottom Line: £56.95 for four main courses with the drinks.

The Kings Head, Letheringsett

Bird Equivalent: A Pheasant chick - irresistible now and getting bigger and better all the time.

Overview: A fine-looking manor house-style building set just off the the main road from Thetford to Holt with a gravelly car park hidden by a big children's playground to the side of a generous outdoor seating area. It used to be a sticky-carpeted beer-and-burgers family pub but it's been taken over by the Kiwi Inns chain and upgraded into a posh gastro pub with bookshelves around the tables and very friendly and efficient staff.

Food Highlight: Melt-in-the-mouth beer-battered haddock and thick-cut chips, a huge crab salad and a very juicy ribeye steak. Brownies, parfait, panacotta and Eton Mess desserts at £6 a pop.

Beer: The ubiquitous Adnam's bitter from Suffolk - reliable but it would be nice to see a wider local selection.

Bottom Line: £100 gets you four main courses, desserts, three pints, two large bottles of water, a large glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc (on the pricey side at £6.55) and a coke.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Sound Of A Norfolk Nightjar Churring At 10pm On Saturday Night

Sunset at Salthouse Heath in North Norfolk - a banker Nightjar site in July - was at 9.10pm and looked fabulous. But that still meant a 50-minute wait until that unmistakeable churring piped up from nowhere. It was there and gone within five minutes.

They're very difficult to see because they don't wake up until it goes dark.  But just listen to that unnatural, natural sound.

The RSPB estimate there are 3,400 males in the whole of Britain during the summer, most of them in the east and south east of England. It's very rare to hear more than two in a territory and they all winter in  sub-Saharan Africa.

Joseph and I passed the waiting time with an old-time Norfolk countryman and his wife. He'd spent his life digging lugworms out of Stiffkey marsh in all weathers for sea-fishing, shooting and hunting. He was now using a walking stick and struggling with his spinal discs. He wandered off just before the Nightjar started calling.

We made it back to the cottage in time for the end of Miss Marple.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Purple Emperor: One Of The Scarcest Butterflies in Britain Found In A Wood Ten Miles From Shepherd's Bush

"But spectacular though they may be, these are scarce and elusive insects. Only seldom does the casual naturalist see one, even in its strongholds of south Wiltshire and the western Weald."

That's what the essential The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, by Jeremy Thomas & Richard Lewington, says about the Purple Emperor.

Patrick Barkham in the excellent The Butterfly Isles writes, "No other butterfly in Britain can compete with the charisma of His Imperial Majesty." This is a man who almost died of blood poisoning after getting bitten by a tick while on Emperor hunt. He eventually found 57 in Northamptonshire thanks to some judicious baiting.

So when a local wildlife expert tipped us off that a colony had been spotted in Ruislip Woods, an ancient bit of oakwood about a half-hour drive up the A40 from Shepherd's Bush, that was our Saturday sorted.

I'd never seen one before but knew from the guide books that their only rival in the British spectacular stakes was the Swallowtail - a butterfly we'd staked out in Norfolk earlier this year. But while the Swallowtail is obliging enough to glide down to eye-level flowers, the Purple Emperor prefers the neck-achingly high boughs of the oak trees where it lives.

But it didn't take long for Ruislip to deliver. Half-an hour of peering into the tree-tops was rewarded with the first high-up glimpses of a couple of unmistakeable butterflies. Even with the naked eye they were a striking sight - big enough to glide like birds with still-looking wings in the gaps between the leaves. A look through a telescope reveals their size and beauty in all their glory.

The eye-spot on the hind wing is clearly visible with the sun shining above the butterfly on the top photo.

As Jeremy Thomas says, "There are few greater thrills for any naturalist than to stand beneath an oakwood in high summer and watch male Purple Emperors soaring and wheeling above the canopy."

Especially when you can see them ten miles from the front door.

Another purple butterfly also brightened up an overcast Sunday afternoon in the garden. We'd seen a single Purple Hairstreak at Ruislip, but even though they're nationally very common, they're very unusual to find in W12 gardens, especially ones with no obvious oak trees in sight.

This one stuck around to feed on the buddleia just long enough for me to get a poor silhouette snap but tweaked on the computer it reveals that eye-spot on the underside next to the short tail - the only British hairstreak with those markings.

Well worth raising another outdoor glass of London Pride in its honour.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

12 Wildlife Snaps from A Garden in London W12 Today

Small Copper
Great Tit
Grey Squirrel
Dancing Small Whites
Leaf Cutter Bee
Grey Squirrel's Fooot

Purple Hairstreak

House Sparrow
Small White