Archive | November 2014

Ten years after…

There’s a good reason why I’ve been trawling the memory banks recently.

Today is the tenth anniversary of stroke survival.

Mine was caused by atrial fibrillation and it came without any warning signs.

I’d had a fair amount of treatment for a leg injury caused by a bacterial infection over three months in 2004, my partner Caroline is a nurse and I’d just had a medical three days beforehand when I registered with a GP after moving to Yorkshire. Nothing came up to suggest any atrial fibrillation problems.

The outer damage healed (I hit a wall and then the pavement with my face as I collapsed) and whilst there’s some effects still ten years after, I consider myself to be very lucky considering the percentages related to stroke survival

My thanks go to the ambulance crew, the team at the A&E department and the stroke unit at Airedale Hospital who spotted what had happened and also to the driver of the Polish registered car who stopped to see what had happened when four UK registered cars has driven past me as I was lying on the pavement near my flat.

A special mention goes to the makers of The West Wing too – I’ve watched the whole thing every year apart from this one as a means of testing my memory out by remembering story lines, lines of dialogue and that I really should miss one episode of the last series in future!

And also to Caroline for everything before and since!

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

DSCN0308 Just another Friday afternoon in Lisbon – fortunately it was at the end of our trip and pretty good humoured!

Caroline and I were half way through our Portuguese road trip when we got talking to a group of Brits sitting on the table next to us outside Cafe Arcada in Evora. They were on a coach trip looking at cultural sights in Portugal and Spain and the look on their collective faces was a picture when we told them what we were up to…

Two weeks in Portugal with hand luggage only and most, but not all of our accommodation booked. We were travelling on buses and trains that hadn’t been booked back home in Blighty. We were eating at local cafes or getting evening meal fodder from the local mini-market. Oh, and we were wandering around strange cities, towns and villages after dark.

I also mentioned that I’d just fired my employer and had worked my last shift for the company the day before our TAP Portugal flight into Lisbon. Were they gobsmacked? Oh yes!

Rewind a week and we’d had an early start to Manchester Airport for that TAP flight. Leaving the car at a car park near the terminal was a doddle, as was check-in once the clerk realised that we had hand luggage only and nothing for the hold. We’d also booked Fast-Track for the security checking procedures and whilst we passed with flying colours, things came slightly unstuck as there was a log-jam on the baggage scanner, so we took about the usual time to get through security and then headed off in search of coffee and a late breakfast.

After a good flight into Lisbon and a brisk stroll through the terminal and passport checks, it was time to get some euros from the cash points and a cab to our first hotel, Pensao Londres in the Baixa area of Lisbon city centre.

It didn’t take long to check in, switch on the air-con, freshen up and change before heading off for the first steps around the city. We knew we were in for a lot of walking on this trip, especially as Lisbon‘s built on or around seven hills. We expected the centre to be quiet as the guide books had suggested that shops closed around 1pm on a Saturday afternoon.

Oh no they didn’t, as we found out when we reached Rossio Square to find it heaving with tourists, locals and politicos either taking photos, having conversations or pontificating in a language we couldn’t understand. Although we had a phrase book, it wasn’t needed as everyone we encountered spoke a fair amount of English.

Things were a little quieter as we approached the banks of Rio Tejo where the first of many cold drinks and ice creams were consumed. We’d had a good summer, but the temperatures in Lisbon were higher so we were pleased that we’d packed clothes with good sun protection and a new bottle of Factor 30 in our wandering around bags.

As this was just a good excuse to get accustomed to the temperatures, the lie of the land and a good leg stretch after the flight, we gradually orientated ourselves and found that wandering around the city centre was quite easy and that we didn’t have to keep looking at the map.

So much so it was if we’d been using a homing beacon to get us back to the area where our hotel was. A short walk around Baixa and several perusals of menu boards later, we ended up at Lost In… a bar/restaurant opposite Pensao Londres. Given the outside temperatures, it seemed only natural to take our meal, wine, dessert and coffee on Lost In’s terrace to take in the views over Lisbon as sunset approached rather than sitting inside, a good move – until we stood up.

Yes, the wine was stronger than we thought and we’d polished it off in one sitting rather than taking two nights as we do at home. The double espressos hadn’t kicked in, so it was a good job that we only had to cross one road and ascend a couple of staircases to our room rather than staggering a kilometre or more back to our digs.

As it was Saturday in one of Lisbon’s popular nightlife areas, sleep was a rarely found commodity that night. We were still up early though for showers and breakfast before a day of gentle wandering around was declared.

Although it was still before 9am, we even managed to beat the first tour bus to the nearby park – Sao Paulo de Alcantara Miradouro. We’d rested there before heading back to our hotel the previous night, but it was quieter now despite the contents of the tour bus so we were able to look, see and get our bearings as to where we’d been on Saturday and where we’d like to go to during this day and the next.

Some brave souls had got up even earlier as we found when we headed into the centre – a mass cycle ride to Sintra was about to start. As the riders started, one was unceremoniously stopped in his tracks by an organiser. His crime? No helmet! Once the riders were on their way, more wandering and then more caffeine was called for.

Now we’d said that we were wherever possible going to avoid global companies on this trip, but as Caroline was looking for an Americano rather than a double espresso, it was time to hit Star****s. Yes, we’d commented among ourselves when an American couple were drinking out of takeaway cups whilst waiting to go up Elevador de Santa Justa, but the lure proved to be too great. Caroline got her Americano, I plumped for an Iced Mocha and our ‘go local‘ stance had gone out of the window for the rest of the holiday, especially when money off the next visit vouchers were handed over with the change.

As Sunday morning and afternoon meanderings go, the one in central Lisbon was rather good. Although I’m averse to most museums, the Museum of Design and Fashion an interesting experience – and not just because it was a free attraction! An old bank has been turned into a gallery with furniture, design icons and items from Givenchy and Dior.

We’d wandered back down to Praca do Comercio by the Rio Tejo, discovered ginjinha and explored the back streets of Baixa – and all before lunch too! A couple of stalls on a craft market near Praca do Comercio had extracted some euros from our wallets, but the feeling at the time was how relaxed and laid back central Lisbon was. And why hadn’t we discovered it years ago?

Lunch was equally relaxed with salmon and cream cheese wraps washed down with fresh mango or orange juice and more coffee. Eating out and outside was going to be a feature of this holiday as that night’s evening meal was also eaten outside in the garden of Terra, a vegetarian restaurant that’s famed for its buffets and surroundings.

With curried dishes included in the choices, these were a cut above those offered in another town later in the week. As our local curry houses are all in Bradford, Terra’s dishes were more akin to what we’re used to at home whereas the other establishment’s offerings were more a case of ‘take a walk on the mild side…’.

We felt that we’d earned it though – we’d been walking for hours and had found our way around quite well without resorting to getting a map out to find out where we were. Only one barrier had got in our way whilst wandering around – a charge to walk through the Botanical Gardens.

If it’s Monday, then it’s just another day in Lisbon. We’d abandoned plans to take a journey on Tram 28 the day before thanks to a scrum worthy of Odsal Stadium (home of Bradford Bulls Rugby League team).

So we had another early start and caught Tram 28 at 9am. It’s on most traveller’s ‘to do’ lists in Lisbon as it wends its way around the streets on the forty-odd minute journey between Martin Moniz and Campo Ourique. The route is almost Lisbon in a nutshell as it takes in Alfama and sights such as the Se along the way.

The walk back into the centre after the ride on Tram 28 was the result of an unexpected need to go shopping. My camera had packed up even though it was fully charged and been tried with a new memory card. Not an ideal thing to happen on the third day of a trip, but the search for a new one proved fruitless and was abandoned.

Caroline’s Pentax was in full working order and we could share the camera to take whatever shots we wanted as we wandered around. We also had some train travel to book.

The next day’s journey to Sintra was easy as we just had to buy singles at Rossio Station for the short hop to our destination. The journey to book was the one from Lisbon to Evora on the day we left Sintra. With the advance ticket office being just a few feet away from a U.S. based coffee shop, you can guess where the next destination was!

With Terra closed on a Monday, a new place to eat was sought out. Esplanada is on the edge of a park in Principe Real and it’s another indoor/outdoor eating place. As we’d gone to town on Saturday and Sunday night’s meals, we kept the bill down by ordering a couple of specials with beer for me, fruit juice for Caroline and a couple of coffees.

And then? An early night, early breakfast, a quick packing of the bags and a walk down to Rossio Station for the next part of the trip… To be continued!

Prompted by… The Guardian

Yes, it’s one of those weeks this week. Too many memories, which is probably just as well given the anniversary that looms at the weekend – and it’s not a wedding anniversary!!!

What it is will be revealed later in the week, but there was a brief mention of it on the comments section after a piece The Guardian ran on their website at the weekend.

This one though was prompted by another piece on the same website that I commented on – that Newcastle was voted Best City here in the UK by readers of The Guardian.

One of my day jobs was working in a couple of branches of a clothes store/tailors in Newcastle for most, but not all of the 1980’s. When a store closed and I started work as an outdoor instructor and writer, I still spent a lot of time in the city as I was reviewing bands, seeing press shows of films and having nights out up there, even in the days when I was at University and living in (dare I say it!), Sunderland.

Newcastle has a lot going for it. It’s a party city, it’s a shoppers paradise, it’s a cultural centre and it’s a place you can just wander around and chill out in. No need for cabs, buses or the Metro if you’re staying in the city centre, but the good mix of public transport ensures that you can get out and explore the locality without any difficulties.

Now I’m not a party animal, so I tended to stay away from The Bigg Market and the Quayside on most nights of the week (ever seen beer glasses flying from one side of a market to another on a Friday night? That was twenty years ago though.) and I’m not overly fond of football, so what is it about Newcastle?

Shoppers can hit Northumberland Street, Eldon Square and Eldon Gardens or High Bridge. There’s a host of stylish bars and eateries either in the city centre or around Jesmond, Gosforth and over the water in Gateshead and there’s traditional drinking dens too.

There’s galleries, museums, and parks. There’s the great views of all the bridges from the Quayside and there’s The Baltic and The Sage just across the Tyne. There’s some fine hotels, there’s backpacker hostels too and then there’s the cultural stuff that doesn’t include the consumption of beer, lager or alcopops.

The Tyneside Cinema used to be a regular haunt, as did The Tyne Theatre, Newcastle Playhouse and The Live Theatre. One memorable place has come and gone though.

The Mayfair Ballroom had a reputation amongst local gig attenders and bands alike – Lemmy from Motorhead allegedly dedicated the song ‘No Class’ to that venue when playing City Hall on the No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith tour. Finest shows seen there? Nirvana, The Cure, Roger Taylor from Queen and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin

Newcastle City Hall is still around and was always one of the finest hall venues in the UK. I was lucky to get tickets for Sting and Dire Straits playing home town gigs, plus tickets for Madness, OMD, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, The Mission, Thunder, Thin Lizzy, Steeleye Span and the original Lindisfarne Christmas shows.

The musical connections at the time also involved managing a trio of bands based in the North East and subsequent roles as one of the live music reviewers on The Northern Echo newspaper and music/film editor of Street Magazine. 160 + bands per year? No problemo!

The mix of music reviewed covered the Harambe Africa Festival, Jason Donovan, Chesney Hawkes, Alice Cooper, Marc Almond, The Rolling Stones, The Chieftains, Manic Street Preachers and others at the main venues in the city, but there was one hotbed of live music that made it’s mark on the local music scene in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The original Riverside Club had a 400 capacity, perfect for up and coming bands or those who wanted a relatively low-key place to play as a tour warm-up. Local bands were given the chance to do support slots and the mix on offer every month was an eclectic one.

Comedy shows included The Joan Collins Fan Club (a.k.a. Julian Clary and Fanny The Wonder Dog) whilst music over the years came from The Housemartins, Ian Gillan, Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, The Damned, Billy Bragg, Thunder, Fish, Youssou N’Dour, Desmond Dekker, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Bhundu Boys, Julian Cope, Buzzocks and many, many more.

Such nights out were balanced by walks around Leazes Park, early morning or lunchtime runs down and over The High Level Bridge before making a left turn and running back over The Tyne Bridge or seeing in the New Year with a firework display before heading home in driving snow.

Or watching gritty fodder onscreen. Michael Caine in Get Carter set the cinematic tone and it’s closely followed by Stormy Monday. I never really got into The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, When The Boat Comes In or Our Friends In The North.

I did go to see The Lindisfarne Gospels, exchange a bit of banter with Nick Hornby at a screening of High Fidelity and have a night out at a Genesis new album playback party in a posh bar on the Quayside (music, fodder and drinks only – the band were on tape and nowhere near Newcastle!).

It’s a while since I’ve been back – too long in fact. Old haunts such as The Mayfair, Riverside, The Broken Doll and others are long gone. There’s still friends up there, so I guess that a visit in the Spring could be the way of heading back up there to see whether the city had changed much and whether my memory has been playing tricks with me.

Or not as the case may be…

D’oh!

After posting Kindle surprise on Wednesday, it had to happen!

Trust me to make a comment about how often I was reading or watching DVDs instead of tuning into television…

And then remembering almost at the last minute about a programme I wanted to see – Great Continental Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo.

Yes, he’s a former Conservative minister, but I don’t hold that against him as he played an important part in saving The Settle-Carlise Railway Line. He’s also carved out a good name for himself as the presenter of several series of programmes dedicated to travelling by train.

The reason I didn’t want to miss Wednesday’s programme is because journey’s end was in a city I want to go back to – Krakow.

My last visit was in June 2000 as a guest of Helly Hansen to do some exploring of Krakow, head down a river in punts and then do some walking in the Zakopane area before returning to Krakow for a memorable night out. The hospitality, food and drink was excellent, the company convivial (a good mix of journalists, Helly Hansen management and staff plus Jane & Fiona, Helly‘s PR crew. Oh, and the kit worked well – the Helly clothing and the Scarpa boots that everyone had been kitted out with for the trip…

Our return to Krakow though came with a surprising last night. After checking into the hotel, I went on a mission to get some cigarettes and a bottle of Zubrovka bison grass vodka for one of my friends from Uni. Then it was off to a restaurant in the Jewish quarter for a good meal, good craic and some fine music too.

Next up though was an after dark guided walk around the Jewish quarter. Words flowed from our guide as to past events and the reasons why buildings hadn’t been kept in order, restored or modernised. As such matters weren’t on the history syllabus when I was at school, most of what I was hearing was new to me, and I suspect to a few others in our party too.

When we got back to the main square and found a bar that we could sit outside whilst having a beer or two, the party was unusually quiet. There were a few party animals among our number, but even they were relatively quiet on this particular night.

Now that may have been down to the previous night on the town in Zakopane (beer the equivalent of around 60p a glass if memory serves me right, the discovery of a jazz club and the return of some wayward souls at 6am…), but no, it was down to history lesson on the walk we’d just been on.

And yet I still want to go back to Krakow to spend some more time there and explore a bit more of the city itself. I can’t see me hiring a guide with a Trabant as Michael Portillo did, but I would like to get the walking shoes on again to explore the city on foot in the same manner that Caroline and I explored Prague a few years ago.

Or even the final destination of Michael Portillo’s next Great Continental Railway JourneyLisbon. Caroline and I really enjoyed our visit there in 2013, so the plan is to pay a return visit and spend a little bit longer there. One of Portillo’s other stops on his programme is coincidentally one of our other planned destinations on our next trip – Porto.

And guess how we’re planning on travelling around Portugal on our next visit – by train of course!

Kindle surprise…

I’ve gone on about my Kindle before, but as I’ve been working from home for a few weeks, there’s a few books that I’ve read over that time which have been a break from the norm in terms of what my normal reading matter is.

Book of the Year so far is still My Autobiography by motor cycle road racer/television presenter Guy Martin, It’s sheer coincidence that the latest series of Speed with Guy Martin finished at the weekend, but as I’ve taken a good look at what’s on television for the next week and found the selection of programmes to be even worse than what’s been aired over the last three weeks, then it’s probably a good job that the Kindle has been loaded with a few books that I haven’t got around to reading yet!

So, the TV has been switched off several times over the last few weeks. There have been two or three nights when I’ve fed the DVD player with Terminator, Terminator 2, Total Recall, Young Montalbano or Julien Temple’s London The Modern Babylon, but for the most part, the Kindle has come into play big time.

I may have taken (and failed!) an A-Level in English Literature, but I’m not an avid fan of fiction, yet Starter For Ten by David Nicholls and The Montalbano Mysteries by Andrea Camilleri have whiled away a few hours. The former was made into an enjoyable film with some fine talent in early roles by producer Tom Hanks a few years ago and the Inspector Montalbano television films have been one of BBC 4‘s success stories in recent years.

The book versions of Starter For Ten and the three Montalbano Mysteries definitely differ from their screen counterparts. Some deride screen versions of books, but I’ve found that out of all of the books I’ve read after seeing the film or television version first, only one has disappointed – Bridget Jones’s Diary!

Caroline is a fan of both the book and the film version of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, whilst those who have known me for a few years know that I have a certain affinity with both the book and screen versions of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

So much so in fact that it’s probably the film that I’ve seen on the big screen most times – in either the UK or in Norway. (The last time I saw it in the UK was as part of a Q & A night with Nick Hornby in Newcastle upon Tyne when I made him smile by telling him that Climber magazine had just made it their movie buy of the month rather than Vertical Limit!).

What’s next on the agenda given the state of play on TV? The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson, A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles DickensThe Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

The first is the most recent, but it is a known quantity thanks to the recent Helen Mirren film of the same name. The others are all classics of course. I switched off the modern film adaptation of The Three Musketeers on Film 4 recently, but the others have been read (and seen before in the case of the Robert Donat version of The Thirty Nine Steps and the Robert Newton take on Treasure Island) and they all are long overdue for another reading.

Will it be at home or elsewhere? Who knows, because there’s a week’s break in the diary for next week, but no plans have been made – yet! One thing is for certain – some of these books didn’t cost me anything to download onto the Kindle!

Freebies, don’t you just love them!

Down, down…

StephanieLi_1Credit

Once upon a time, in an outdoor and travel world not so far, far away, if a down sleeping bag got wet, you were kind of screwed.

The bag may have provided good warmth levels for a small pack size, but down loses its lofting and insulating properties when it gets wet, so your chances of a good night’s sleep in a warmer environment go out of the tent or bothy door faster than you can say ‘bother’ or something a little saltier…

But not any more it seems. As you can see from the above picture, proofing and after-care specialists Nikwax have come up with a solution to the wet down problem with Nikwax Hydrophobic Down (TM).

The pictured demonstration of a bag filled with this down didn’t take place on the Dead Sea, but on a lake in deepest East Sussex. Luis Brown floated from one side of the lake to another in said bag and emerged warm and almost completely dry when he exited the bag.

This is down (sorry, but that word usage just begged to be typed!) to the Nikwax Hydrophobic Down treatment that absorbs 13x less water than standard processed down. It apparently also retains more loft to keep user warmer and dryer in damp conditions than other fluorocarbon-free treatments that are on the market.

As Nikwax put it “Nikwax Hydrophobic Down is guaranteed to be water resistant, highly durable and therefore suitable for use in a much wider range of conditions.

The science behind NHD lies partly behind the encapsulation of each down filament with a flexible Durable Water Repellent [DWR] finish, created by Nikwax. This reduces absorption of moisture, protecting down from perspiration, condensation and precipitation, whilst also maintaining loft and insulation in cold and damp conditions. NHD also demonstrates improved drying times and will withstand repeat washing. Additionally, no extra weight is added to NHD-treated down.”

Nick Brown, CEO and Founder of Nikwax says: “Taking the ethical route rather than the easy-money road is a difficult decision for some, but minimising our environmental impact was always the way for me.  I am proud that Nikwax can solve problems in a sustainable way and we achieve results superior to those offered by competing, less environmentally friendly  formulas.  It’s a win for the customer and sustainability.

The floating sleeping bag, by the way, should not be taken as a literal example of what to do with Nikwax Hydrophobic Down sleeping bags. Please do not go to sea in your sleeping bag or use your Nikwax Hydrophobic Down jacket as a buoyancy aid! It is designed to show the high performance of Nikwax Hydrophobic Down in damp conditions”.

Personal thoughts? I’ve been caught out on the hill and had to bivvy for the night instead of putting a tent up (playing with metal tent poles when there’s lightning around is not recommended!), have slept outside a Lakeland cave rather than in it when another University group got there before we did and then slept in a car park during heavy rain the following night rather than wander back to said cave after a night in the pub.

On each of these occasions (and a few others besides), I’d checked the forecasts out and had decided to take a heavier and bulkier synthetic sleeping bag with me rather than a down one. If Nikwax Hydrophobic Down had been around then, there would have been a down bag that would have been packed and used instead of the synthetic one inside the usual bright orange survival bag.

A game-changing announcement?

More than likely, especially as the processes involved don’t add to the weight of products made using Nikwax Hydrophobic Down.

nikwax.co.uk

Picture courtesy of Nikwax and Spring PR

In praise of… bricks and mortar stores

Although I do buy some outdoor and travel stuff online from time to time, there are times when I much prefer to head into shops to see what’s out there.

Yes, you can see what an item looks like onscreen, especially if you’re using a 22″ monitor rather than the screen on a smartphone, but you can’t get the whole picture.

If it’s a piece of clothing that I haven’t seen before, then I want to see what the fabric’s like, what the cut’s like and whether the features on the garment are in keeping with what I’ve got in mind.

If a favourite item has been upgraded or revised, then I like to see whether the changes are for the better, or for the worse. I bought a great pair of outdoor trousers a while ago and I fancied another pair of the same. Trouble is, the pocketing has been changed on the latest version – they’ve lost the cargo pocket on the right thigh and gained a smaller one on the left side.

End result? No sale, even though I know that the trousers will last me a while.

I spent a fair amount of time on Sunday last taking a look around several shops (outdoor and otherwise) as I wanted a new pair of trousers. I got what I wanted in the end – a pair of soft shell trousers with a few zipped pockets, some give on the waistband and a belt too.

Although there was an offer of ‘Buy one, get the second half price’, I passed on getting the second pair, largely because I only wanted one as the waistline is currently being reduced (if The Hairy Bikers can do it, so can I – especially as I’m losing @ a kilo per week at the moment). And besides, the store gives 10% off full price items if you have a National Trust membership card – so a £30 bill became a £27 one in no time.

So, am I abandoning purchases on the internet? Probably not, but I’ll more than likely to restrict internet transactions to Kindle books and semi-obscure DVDs that I can’t track down in local stores (Inspector De Luca, Jean de Florette, Filmed In Supermarionation, The Singing Ringing Tree or The Flashing Blade).

Bricks and mortar stores still have their place, and it will be a shame if it proves to be otherwise!