Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Cafe, Library of Birmingham

Intellectual endeavour should always be fed by copious amounts of coffee and cake, with the occasional sandwich thrown in for good measure. This is a library that knows its users and whacks a café right by the entry doors, clearly knowing from years of experience that any research student worth their salt will never, ever pass up the opportunity to eat instead of work.

This is the best people-watching spot ever. Tucked into the corner overlooking the cultural centre of Birmingham, watching people schlep to the theatre, the Symphony Hall and the eateries is one of the best ways of passing time I have ever encountered. Cities, to this market town dweller, are an endless source of fascination, and no little envy. Sit right by the window and watch life passing you by.*

The latte is hot, foamy and drinkable, and no one ushers you on, so you can sit and muse for hours, if you so please. Perhaps on the big questions. What is truth? What is the nature of Being? Is there such a thing as 'right' and 'wrong'? Is Love indeed a Many Splendoured Thing? Is the café all that will be left of the hacks and cuts to the services and resources this £188 million library?



*Got to be careful doing all this sitting and watching. These days I think I'm coming off creepy.

Garden Room, The Anchor, Tintern

Since Tintern Abbey is not in the care of the National Trust or English Heritage, there are some drawbacks - an entry fee, gift shops selling the most unbelievable old toot and the most disgusting public toilets I have seen in a long time. Plus, this rather odd extension to the Anchor pub. The original building has all the charm you might expect - a plethora of dark wood, uneven floors and real ales. The Garden Room is a (very) modern addition and has all the charm you might expect - a plethora of blond wood, hard tiles and stainless steel.

Still, the place probably has to cater for coachloads of the very young and the very elderly and had the merit of being affordable. I had an egg and cress sandwich, a reasonable pass at one at least, served in the packet with no accompanying crisps or salad. Though, in fairness, where salad is concerned, who cares? And there was no coy attempt to pad out the actual sandwich with bundles of damp cress in an effort to hike the 'green' credentials of the place.

Drew's quiche salad was a better offering, adorned with a bright green salad, luminous yellow sweetcorn and shiny pink and red-hued beetroot. A little psychedelic, in fact; but, then, the Abbey itself is not without its hypnotic, psychoactive qualities. The great merit of this place is the view it provides of those astounding ruins that no photo*, no painting can do true justice. Sit on the farthest bench, watch a flock of birds swooping over those Gothic arches 'neath a lowering, late summer sky and ponder the fleeting nature of existence, the winking out of small lights in a great darkness (though, given the current inclement weather, Wordsworth's greatcoat would not have gone amiss).





*Not even those on the websites which, inexplicably, no one has thought to call the Tinternet.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Eagle and Child, Oxford

While we were waiting for our food here, an elderly gentlemen shuffled past, casting a disdainful glance in our direction, intoning 'This place hasn't been the same since the Lewis people found it'.

Which Lewis he meant, whether C. S. or Inspector, I am not sure. Either way, it certainly epitomises the chief attraction of this place. It is famous for being the hangout of The Inklings, who counted C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien amongst their number. It has certainly retained it's character. Being, essentially, a long narrow, dark corridor with the occasional offshoot nook or cranny, you can see it as the kind of place where you might squirrel yourself away in a corner with your mates and laugh uproariously when they tell you they have had another idea for a book about elves.

Access is not easy since the building has retained its olde worlde proportions, down to the appropriately gloomy, almost windowless interior. And, just a heads-up, it really is dark. Enter, as I did, from the full glare of late summer sunshine and you are plunged momentarily into near-impenetrable blackness. Allow a few moments for your eyes to adjust, then grope or stumble your way through, guided by the Christmas lights festooned all over the beams, to where there is a well-lit room at the rear.

This is not a large franchise pub and so the menu is not just variation-on-a-theme-of-grilled. Being a Real Ale establishment the beer is far more important that the food; but that does not mean the quality is compromised. I opted for a fishfinger sandwich meal which was battered cod goujons served on sliced granary bread and accompanied by chips, cooked with the skin on. The fish was fine, the batter pale and gravel-crunchy, the cod flavoursome and not drowned in tartar sauce. The chips were served in a large stoneware bowl, piping hot and golden brown, not too crispy but with a good earthy flavour. A proper pub lunch, basic and filling, something to absorb the beer.

Anyway, while I was there, I had a great idea for a novel. I do not want to say too much but it's just something that takes place in a fantasy world, of trolls and whatnot. Perhaps even through a magical doorway. A wardrobe, or something.*




*Whaddaya mean, it's been done?



Access: *****

Touching Souls Tea Rooms, Tewkesbury Abbey

The town is quite a surprise.Whoever is responsible for the town centre has certainly created a centre of historical interest. I have never seen such Medieval conditions in my life.

Around the Abbey itself is lovely. Manicured gardens, scrubbed black-and-white buildings. The Tea Rooms are in a separate, purpose-built unit, with a decked balcony and community rooms and halls. Its modernity means that access is fine, although it might get a little cramped in the café when it is  busy. The place is staffed entirely by volunteers which means there are several conditions regarding its running. In the first instance, it is only open for a limited time - around 10 until 1.45pm and until 4pm on Sundays. And the menu is necessarily restricted to very light lunches such as soups, sandwiches and cakes. On the other hand, it means that absolutely everything is distinctively home made and makes for pleasant revelation that, in this case, home-made does not mean fashioned in an artisan, cottage industry style business, but, really, truly made in someone's own kitchen.

The sib and I shared a platter of salmon sandwiches which were generously served with fresh, cool salmon and crumby white bread. We went for the home-made chocolate fudge cake which was as gloopy and sweet as you would expect. The whole atmosphere is very welcoming, very friendly and the food is great. I mean, if you are on your way to punch some Lancastrian lights out, it's a good place as any to stop off for refreshments.




Access: *****

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Tiffany's Edwardian Tea Room, Grand Pier, Weston-super-Mare

This is, for Weston at least, an attempt at gentility and refinement. It is definitely a cut above the usual seaside fare of fried, sugary doughnuts, fish and chips, ice creams and chicken tikka masala flavoured rock*. It is situated right at the end of the newly-refurbished Grand Pier. Access is absolutely fine, though you may have to weave in and out of the attractions of the arcade.

Being at the end of the Pier means that you have magnificent views of -- well, an awful lot of sand and mud most of the time. This is Weston after all. Having said that, it is still easy on the eyes and a balm to the nerves. The décor, though modelled on the Edwardian style and described as such in all the paperwork, is closer to Grandma's front room circa 1950; but it is just as clean and scrubbed with pristine white linen. The menu hints at gentility by hiding the fish and chips amongst a plethora of sandwiches and cream teas - but a whopping £18.95 for the latter is extortionate, even by Cotswold standards.

We only had drinks as we had already partaken of the more traditional seaside fare. The service was good, the Earl Grey was Twinings and there were at least three cups in the pot. But this is Weston after all. Ask for an Americano, be charged £2.25, not including the £1 entrance fee for the Pier itself. And get a small black coffee. Served in a teacup.



*I kid you not. Black pudding flavour, too. This is Weston, remember.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Fourteas, Stratford-upon-Avon

There are steps up to the doorway but, frankly, I found that in keeping with the entire ambience of the place. This is, after all, a time before door ramps and rails, more a time of bombs, rations, and blackouts.

Fortunately, this is not the side of wartime Britain on show here. This is very much the pack-up-your-troubles on your way to Tipperary to see your boogie woogie bugle boy from Company B aspect, where you are asked to keep calm and keep Mum. It is all designed to get you in the mood: windows are taped, staff are dressed in uniforms designed by Claire Dempsey, modelled on the headscarf-and-pinny-look familiar from even my own family photos. Tea is served in pale green Beryl Ware utility cups with the banding on the saucer and Deco curlicues on the handles.


And the only thing to do here is to truly accentuate the positive. This is not in the least bit gimmicky, or cheesy and, more importantly, not the least bit tourist-led. There is no sense that local people are sidelined in favour of visitors and the most telling evidence of this is the price of everything. A quick perusal of the menu, which is in the form of a ration book, shows a mere £13 for two rounds of eggs on toast and two pots of tea both of which served a minimum of four cups each*. I went for the Earl Grey. Sourced from the Golden Monkey Tea Company in Warwick, this is Sri Lankan in origin, super fragranced, very orangey aftertaste. The pot of leaf tea comes with a timer to ensure that the leaves are properly steeped to avoid the face-gurning stew so familiar to less sophisticated establishments.

Best poached eggs in town. No fancy schmancy boil-water-in-a-saucepan-and cross-your-fingers-you-don't-end-up-with-egg-soup malarkey. Just good old fashioned use of a poacher to make stunning eggs with the soft centre just perfect, and plump, glossy whites with the right amount of wobble. The scrambled eggs were creamy in texture on hot, buttery toast. Eat outdoors in the tea garden, or by the Anderson shelter, or just stay indoors and hum along to the Andrews Sisters.**

There is really only one way to properly describe this establishment: bei mir bist du schon. It means you're grand.




*You may have noticed, oh faithful bloggee, the lack of lattes these days and the profusion of tea . This is due to a combination of (a) age and (b) side effects of prescription drugs

** although you shouldn't sing along too loudly. They don't like that.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Cafe, Chedworth Villa

This is a small place, part of the purpose-built entrance to the ruins of the Roman villa, but easily accessible. The Romans were great ones for flat surfaces and even though it's a modern building, all the straight lines, squares and terracotta shades evoke the history without anyone actually trashing the local wildlife and offering stuffed dormice.

The menu is supplied by Huffkins bakery from Cheltenham - sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, soups, jacket potatoes. I opted for the egg mayo sandwich and a cup of tea. The sandwich was white bread with a generous slug of free-range egg filling and rocket salad. Which is fine by me. Drew opted for the jacket potato with homemade coleslaw, meaning the filling was shredded with carrots, red cabbage, and onions, accompanied by salad leaves. My tea was the house blend, an aromatic, smooth Assam that tempered the sometimes astringent Darjeeling in the mix. Drew had the filter coffee, a hand roasted Cotswold blend with a slightly woody aftertaste.

As the café is served by spring water rather than mains, there is a limit to the supply and hence the amount of washing up. Everything is therefore served on or in disposable tableware, although, being the National Trust, the eco-credentials are impeccable. Where possible everything is recyclable and there are helpfully labelled bins; although if you are anything like me and have forgotten your glasses this can result in a lot of brow-furrowing and quizzical squinting.

Not a big fan of the Romans and never was; but it is tempting when faced with all the ruins to launch into some theatrics in the manner of I, Claudius, rolling and hooting and declaiming in proper old-school Blessedness.





Access: *****
Latte/Coffee: *****