Worcester: Some cricket forced around some eating

Worcestershire have the quintessentially English cricket ground and the promise of cake. Being 45 minutes from Birmingham I took in the first day’s play of a game against Warwickshire and ate a load of food for good measure.

Costa cappuccino and brie and bacon sandwich

Apparently panini is plural for that piece of bread in Italian. I’m not sure what your average Italian epicure would make of this molten brie rectangle with bacon and cranberry bought from the only open cafe near the ground. It wasn’t too bad once it had cooled down but the coffee was a well off.

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To contemplate over breakfast, Daryl Mitchell grafted for 30 odd runs while Moeen Ali elegantly went through his repertoire at the other end for a run-a-ball 30 odd. One of England’s many documented issues at the World Cup was frenetic carelessness from Moeen at the top of the order. Against a good attack though he looked utterly unruffled though seamers Keith Barker, Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin will probably admit they made neither batsmen play enough. Mitchell must have been seriously frustrated to give it away four balls before lunch with a tame chip to mid wicket. Probably eyeing up the cake.

Scotch egg and filter coffee

After sitting on a park bench (later discovered to be pock-marked with pigeon excrement) for the morning, I moved over to cathedral view seats for a light lunch, resplendent with loud bell ringing. Lunch time message from the Warwickshire bowling coach was clearly to make the batsman play more with the Worcestershire middle order folding quick time to catches close to the wicket. The mental side of Moeen’s batting is probably his weakest facet at the moment. With only the lower order to bat with a mentally flabby poke to mid wicket was what no-one needed.

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Of the other test players involved, Boyd Rankin employed an exclusively back of the length line to floor several batsmen, rewarded by Joe Leach’s wicket out hooking. Jeetan Patel was treated to careful respect. At the other end of the scale, a good counter-punching 50 by Joe Clarke, a 19 year old wicket keeper on his second first class game, kept Worcestershire, just, in the game. He looks like he’ll have a future on this basis. The scotch egg was better than an orange-wrapped Supermarket special, but less than lovingly crafted by an old dear. Either way, it was definitely a step up on standard stadium scran. I’ve never had a filter coffee at a sporting event before, this was a nice touch.

Tea, ginger cake and lemon drizzle

Worcestershire CCC’s offering to the game of cricket is afternoon tea, served in the ladies pavilion, which I’m delighted to report has armchairs reserved for ‘Lady members’ while anachronistically you are served tea and cakes by a gaggle of old dears. I had a huge Lemon Drizzle cake, with just enough lemon peel to fizz and (Jamaican?) ginger cake. Two cakes does seem to be the limit, with the tea it comes in at a very reasonable £4.50.

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The other Worcestershire institution is the cathedral. This doled out bell rings for over four hours over the afternoon and is something difficult to convey over media. If it hadn’t been for the cake, this and squawking crows, might have encouraged the onset of some gothic horror film paranoia by mid afternoon. The cessation was awarded a round of applause from spectators.

Some entertaining late order swishing and biffing from Jack Shantry and Saeed Ajmal, back from remedial work on straightening his bowling arm, saw Worcestershire close on 242, probably 60 light. Keith Barker’s removal of Saeed and Charlie Morris with accurate length balls illustrated to Stuart Broad (and perhaps Rankin too) the importance of bowling at the stumps to remove the tail. It was a professional close to what was shaping up for a bought tail had leg theory been allowed to continue.

Apres cricket

Booked an early train home so I missed what I’m certain was a silky 44 from Ian Bell. Train was comfortable on the way home, but noteworthy for hearing one of the more interesting bits of PR from First Great Western, blaming their customers for delays by leaving the doors open! We got to the next stop four minutes early.

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Using BA Executive Club: Stop, start and continue

I was recently called upon to give some off-the-top-of-my-head advice on spending BA miles (Avios) and couldn’t come up with much of an answer. Given BA recently changed how you accrue and spend Avios, it seems to make sense to write up how I’ve made the best use of them, against what’s practical given the April 2015’s changes to the reward programme.

Stop. Spending on upgrades. Until this Spring, buying a premium economy (World Traveller Plus) return gave you the opportunity to upgrade to business (Club World) pending availability, thus you were earning Avios and Tier Points allowing you to retain status, while not paying full price business. Post April 2015, this is now very expensive in terms of Avios. An example, a PE to Business upgrade used to cost 15,000 Avios for London to Shanghai one way – it is now over 36,000. The introduction of minimum quotas of availability of peak and off peak periods gives more visible ‘signposts’ but on the whole, it doesn’t seem like such a great deal anymore – though it could be justified for the odd special trip.

Start. Long-term planning. Minimum quotas in cabins for redemptions has, partially, solved one of the perennial bête noirs of the Executive Club: Availability. Some routes are almost always available: London to New York and London to Chengdu, for example, you can use to build an indirect flight to areas in those regions. Destinations like LA and Johannesburg, however, were virtually never available. The minimum quota of four seats in each class should help, but probably only if you book a year in advance when tickets go up for sale. The new off peak/on peak pricing schedule, roughly to make the school holidays more expensive, is again something where looking six/nine months to a year ahead is likely to find some sort of saving.

Continue. Using Avios for redemptions. This has become more Avios expensive, but by a lot less than the upgrades and, if used in combination with an AmEx companion voucher can still be pretty effective with the minimum quota, and the additional flexibility of using partner airlines. A business return to Hong Kong, for example, used to cost 120,000 miles and approximately £500 – it’s now 180,000 and under £300. Continue flying, and you’ll also continue to earn Avios and Tier Points, though at a slower rate than before.

On balance, there is definitely less in membership than there was before, though before was pretty useful. If you continue to pay full price premium economy or business/first – you won’t notice much difference earning though will have slightly less choice with spending. I’ve only really done leisure with the odd short hall business which means I’ll probably struggle to retain Silver status though with creative usage of an AmEx companion voucher I should be able to make one long haul redemption in a decent cabin every other year.

Not great, but better than nothing!

Frankfurt and Hesse: A workday, an evening and a weekend

A stylish, fashionable and self-confident east end, a hotel with gold rooms and the longest shopping street in Europe (word of mouth verified) are three, only slightly off-the-beaten-track, highlights from Frankfurt and surrounding area.

I’ve set a period of the last ten years to include in this blog, during which time I’ve been to or through Frankfurt 20-something times for work and holiday, making it my most frequently-visited destination outside London (Bordeaux and Hong Kong are joint second at four visits each). Therefore, this post is a compilation of around four visits.

Working

A digital workshop sounds more cutting edge than finance or commerce, so my team’s running of this event was the perfect chance to work and stay at the 25hours Goldman hotel in the up-and-coming East End of Frankfurt, an area almost worth a visit in its own right. The rooms are slightly on the basic side in terms of facilities, but are eccentricly decorated in lime green, gold, pink or blue. It was the first and only time I’ve been asked what colour I want at checkin.

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The restaurant and the bar continue the eclectic themeas well. I can recommend the Tegenseer Bavarian beer from the bar and the restaurant did a decent, and pretty cheap, cod-based lunch with leeks. Great for the brain. This came with ‘Frankfurt cheese’, the name I forget, which is made, amazingly, I think, vinegar, which my colleague Hartmut enthusiastically recommended.

The greatest virtue of all is the price though, as little as 60 Euros a night, which I took advantage of with Becky on a subsequent visit. It’s close to a zoo as well as the European Central Bank, so there’s a huge range of stuff around and I think there’s more to move and shape to come. Great work from my colleagues Thomas, Doris and Jamil for organising this event.

The Goldman is a little far away away from the slickly-efficient financial heart of Frankfurt, this is more on the West side of the centre and is a vastly different proposition, albeit again with exceptions. My company’s base is a few minutes from Alte Oper, an Opera House, which is a German architectural landmark. Though I haven’t been in, it’s in regular use and apparently there’s a good festival there annually as well. It’s a useless travel tip unless you work for my Bank, but the 35th floor offers a superb view and also swathes of green and surrounding hills.

Playing

The “Oost” End is, naturally, a good micro location for the evening as well. Dinner at Oosten is a terrific experience for a summer evening with a terrace folding out onto to the Main river and with extensive use of glass walls. The portions, dinner and for brunch, are massive and on the way to being commensurately priced, though brunch comes out a bit more economical. I went for a slab of protein, but the salads here looked the most fun, fizzing with unexpected and satisfyingly fun ingredients. My colleague Thomas recommends a jazz night here on the upper floor, which in my mind’s eye is a relaxed and bohemian evening.

Though I’m sure they exist, the classic Germanian bier halls are thin on the ground in Frankfurt central. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Darmstadt, about 30 mins by train south. It has architecture of its own with an impressive wedding tower, used as its name suggests by my old Univeristy pal Chris, whom Becky and I visited recently. We took in two classic bier establishments here. The Ratskeller was the highlight, serving superlative German ales, stodgy pork based food with real hops as decoration. You could do the lot here on a summers evening after work in Frankfurt central and it seems very livable. Chris has been around here on and off for about 15 years now.

Relaxing

The archetypical, historical German town of Heidelberg comes into play for a weekend. Heidelberg is actually just outside Hesse, about an hour south of Frankfurt, though it couldn’t be more different. Topographically, it sits alongside the Necker river valley cradled between two of those green hills you can see from Frankfurt city. This valley creates a long, narrow town centre which Chris claims with authority has the longest shopping street in Europe. It’s stylish but funky and gives way to an old town with an interesting bridge and church, overseen by a castle reached by funicular.

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Crossing the river, you can then walk the length of the town back on ‘The Philosopher’s Way’, a path on the other side of the valley with a spectacular view. The name matches the demographic of the town, populated by students, doctors, people who work for SAP and other intellectuals, a population visually marked by a stand in the train station selling medical instruments. In almost typical German fashion, this doesn’t mean an unequal or snooty society though and there’s plenty of rowdy drinking to be had. Just the thing to set you up for a working week!

Beasts of sea and land in Lyme Regis

Rumours of a food-fuelled town, the recent discovery one our favourite London restaurant chains had opened a B&B and the promise of some primate fun incentivised Becky and I to spend 24 hours by the sea in Lyme Regis.

Fruits of the sea

The grand feature of Hix Oyster and Fishhouse has to be the view. It looks out over the harbour, for reassurance of minimum food miles, and the rest of Lyme Bay. The adopted name of The Jurassic Coast for this stretch of Dorset is, I assume, more down to anomyte fossils on the beaches, but it could easily be down to the cliffs, from which I could easily picture any number of terodactyls swooping off. We speculated on this over a negroni and an english sparkling white with radishes with celery salt. I’d normally be a bit sceptical of a vegetable-flavoured condiment, but this worked well and added tang to a simple appetiser.

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There’s no doubt where the main effort goes into in the kitchen. The Hake head, below, was visually impressive and also a great dish with clams and a white wine sauce going well with muscular fish. My John Dory didn’t have quite so much box office appeal, though was cooked perfectly and paired well with a Mendoza Sauvignon Blanc. This variety was better with food than a typical New Zealand or European equivalent grape and far nicer than the more typical Torrentes White from Argentina which doesn’t seem an essential part of any occasion.

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Service at Hix has attracted the odd comment of late. We found it to the slower side of OK and perfectly acceptable for a seaside weekend – though there were a few rumbles of discontent elsewhere in the restaurant. I think there’s a tacit acceptance the vista and a bit of time to enjoy the wine is actually part of the routine here, which might not work for everyone.

Picnics in the townhouse

We were sleeping in Hix as well, his first restaurant now paired with a very convenient B&B Hix Townhouse. As art is a big feature of all the restaurants, the gaff is stylishly decorated, albeit with the odd lapsed detail such as a few plastering cracks in the bathroom, resplendent with authentic 70’s lino. Nothing that would affect your enjoyment though, and more than offset by the pufferfish light shade spied in another room and the antique one armed-bandit in the lobby.

A thing I’ve noticed a couple of times in B&Bs now is an absence of a sit down cooked breakfast, replaced by a delivery at your room, a feature here as well. Given Hix’ fishy prowess, a picnic basket with smoked salmon and rye with fruit and muesli got the morning off to a super-food fuelled start. It must be a fairly easy thing for your average B&B owner to fix, but decent coffees and teas, of which there were around ten here, is certainly more agreeable than the Nescafé I was offered at almost every turn in Glasgow recently.

Beasts of the trees

Being a bank holiday weekend, a park with 100 plus apes was expectedly rammed full of children sqeaking. The park was a bit of a contrast to Panda and Orangutan conservation establishments we’d been to recently in that it was quite a lot more condensed for human amusement. It does, though, mean you get to see a lot of them very close up, although with very close proximity to human apes at the same time. Orangutans and Gibbons the winner, but I was starting to devise a game deriving an index from multiplying the distance away people were ramming camera phones to the animals by how many prison tattoos they had or how many KGs overweight they were. The park was good fun, and clearly conservation is the aim, but it’s slightly overrun by a crowd seeking faeces-slinging primate fun.

Chengdu: Pandas and 78 beers

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU WANT TO GO AND YOU HAVEN’T GOT THE ADDRESS WRITTEN DOWN, ARE YOU CRAZY? I presume the taxi driver shrieked this at us when we presented our hotel address in Roman alphabet at the Airport. As friendly welcomes to China go I suppose it was different, but presented the first lesson of visiting China – have your maps and addresses printed off in Chinese. It’s a big shock to the senses visiting from Sydney though, huge expanses of concrete, communal housing, grey from low cloud and pollution. It’s not a great welcome, and an important thing to bear in mind when people in the West bleat about China’s great wealth, it isn’t jelly and ice cream for everyone.

Chengdu is either the fourth or fifth biggest city in China, depending on how you count, with 13 million people packed into tall buildings everywhere. The Crowne Plaza we stayed at typified this with a marble clad, seven story high reception. The weight of opinion on reviews was accurate for us here. It was well meaning and efficient but Chinese wine, solid and square bacon and a slight language problem leading to an order for 78 beers were ambiguous features.

Pandas on the rise

Of course, one visits Chengdu for few reasons other than the Pandas, native to this region and the only area in the world where you can see any more than a handful of them in captivity. Notoriously lazy and hungry, the best time to catch them is over breakfast so getting to the expansive Panda Research Base at 8am is a must to see 40 or 50 of them chomping immense amounts of bamboo. The noise they make eating is something difficult to capture through film of photo, think train wheels over tracks when seven or eight of them are eating.

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The park, like Chengdu itself, seems on its way to better things and is currently in a state of transition with various bits being developed with others abandoned. It would be easy to think the park faces a choice between aiming for a more profitable enterprise or one based around better conservation. The ‘hold a panda’ experience at £200 a shot, though, illustrated something. Rebuilding put paid to our plans, but it’s hard to see this exercise being shelved for too long, there will always be a market for the fat yet photogenic bears so profitability and conservation could go hand in hand.

Downtown

The Panda Park takes about 3-4 hours for a good visit, so you can easily take in downtown Chengdu in the same day. Tianfu square, a typical communist effort, occupies the hypo-centre, albeit with vast underground and overground shopping centres. Compared to Shanghai or Hong Kong, however, it is much calmer. Walking through Renmin Park and Jin Li street, for tea gardens, spicy meat sticks and cheap souvenirs respectively, reinforce this with a good mix of the authentic and fun for tourists.

It doesn’t, though, make things easy to find. I remain committed to return to Chengdu to take in Grandma’s Mabo Tofu (main ingredient Tofu yet fierce chilli oil – Is it masculine?), which sadly remained hidden through development and poor mapping. Every cloud though, duck skin and fat in tea, cold rice, orange fish sticks and chicken bones can be found easily for less than £5!

Glasgow 7s: Comic book heros at the rugby

Quick trip up to Glasgow to catch the seven a side rugby tournament there with a few ales and a different dress code. Flying and getting the train to Glasgow from London takes roughly the same amount of time, though if you are relaxed about the state of the environment and have a Silver BA card, free lounge food and drink and choice of seating takes all the edge of the journey. It’s easily done after work.

I was staying at the Marriott in Glasgow City Centre with three rugby veteran pals from back home. Normally, the hotel would be unremarkable, thought this one was above par, it did have the bonus of being the base for all 16 teams at the tournament with us floor sharing with the Welsh and Australians. There is the odd downside to sharing hotels with rugby teams, even though the days of setting the curtains on fire are largely over. Intimidation in the pool for one, and them getting up early means it’s a bit harder to sleep off fruity Brew Dog beers from the bar.

The IRB 7s is two days of seven-a-side rugby, held over nine global venues. The point of difference is the main action is socially-based in the stands, this time with a comic book hero theme as evidenced below. The fancy dress makes one pretty notorious, we took great pleasure being greeted out of the lifts With “hey He-Man, Bananaman” by the world famous Fijian sevens entertainers – irony being we were really there to see them. image

Thoughts from the games, however:

Argentina v Japan: Probably decent, was in the queue. Bananaman and He Man have no clout in suburban Glasgow. Argentina fail to ground the ball after the try line, always a good laugh!

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England v Australia: 17 all draw. Draw against the Aussies = getting a blow job off a tranny.

Russia v France: Best so far, IGOR! Innovative play the ball technique by a big Russian, half yoga, half grazing giraffe.

South Africa v Samoa: Bit dull. Finished my coffee, beer soon.

NZ v Kenya: Best team and best crowd respectively. Caledonian Best Bitter, decent drop.

Fiji v Wales: Fiji unload a bit of a dicking on Wales, they’re much better. NZ and Fiji will be there at the end, by far the best and, in sevens crucially important, the quickest.

Scotland v Portugal: Good support and a piper for the home team, just saw off Portugal.

England v Russia: Race for points, emphatic 43-7 for England. Good booing from the Scots.

South Africa v Kenya: Kenyans look a bit fat. It cost them here, running out of puff in the 2nd half, ahead in the first.

NZ v Samoa: Same! Samoans on the lard this time

Scotland v Wales: Bit emotional, correspondingly a bit crap but worth it for the final play seeing six of seven Welsh players lying on the floor.

Canada v Japan: Bit of a kicking for the Brave Blossoms, redeemed by a totally unchallenged knock on by Candian with the line at his mercy. Excellent. Selfie sticks are out.

Australia v Russia: “Australia have knocked on so it’s Russia’s Putin”

England v France: Very tense. Did England get enough points? Everyone too drunk to remember.

Kenya v Samoa:Fatty Derby. Kenya less fat.

NZ v South Africa: Lots of good stuff here. Skills. Starting to force down the beer, might have to switch to champagne.

Scotland v Fiji: Bit of an atmosphere killer, Fiji way too good, 45-7.

Second day: Too emotionally overcome to recall, analyse or scribe anything. Fiji win.

Apres Rugby

Sauchiehall Street in the City Centre is perfect for an evening out in fancy dress and created plenty of attention. The biggest mistaken identity came from a waitress at the Karma Sutra Indian who shooed us into a birthday party attended by women of a certain age. Inevitably He-Man, resplendent with wig and prosthetic pants, is mistaken as a stripper. The sight of He-Man, Bananaman, The Green Cross Code man and Hong Kong Phooey scarpering to shouts of “GET THEM OFF” provides a humiliating conclusion.

Sydney: Economically booming, socially thriving

Gnocci, empty bars, armadillos and a lack of coffee in Australia’s not capital.

Big cities in decent weather with beaches are probably my favourite holiday destination, so I was excited to be heading to Sydney from Auckland.  LAN Chile do a useful and relatively cheap business class product from Auckland, forming the last leg of a Santiago to Sydney mega haul flight. Leaving at 6AM and winning two hours back on time difference, you get a full day at Sydney and with a fully flat bed, the chance to grab more sleep. There’s some recognition of this by LAN, the bed was the only real USP of the flight. Of the four long-haul business class products I’ve used (Cathay Pacific, BA and American Airlines the others) this was the leanest service.

This gave time for a good mooch around the Central Business District (CBD) at rush hour. I’m still surprised Sydney has never been the capital of Australia, Canberra holds that title with Melbourne before 1927, yet a walk around at 9AM leaves no doubt Sydney is Australia’s economic and financial hub. Most multi-nationals seem to have their own glass-clad skyscraper with people were scurrying into them via a boutique coffee shop on every corner. I’d previously been here in 2003, though perspectives change, it seems wealthier and more business-oriented here than before. The coffee scene is definitely new, though I’m shamed to admit the treacly blend and flat whites ubiquitous here aren’t really to my taste.

Boats and beaches

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Manly Beach isn’t the closest to central Sydney, being on the other side of the harbour, but unlike Bondi, it has a spectacular journey to get there. The ferry from Cicular Quay takes in, almost immediately, the opera house in all it’s armadillo-esque glory, the CBD and the harbour bridge (see Becky obscuring the Opera House above, not obscuring below). There is allegedly a nudist beach en route as well, though you must need keen eyes for this – I searched like a hawk and couldn’t see a thing. Manly itself is far enough away from CBD to be far more chilled out and with a fish and chip lunch and surf shops, it ‘s reminiscent of a European seaside resort, though, again unlike my previous visit, a lot more upmarket now. It still gets my vote over characterless Bondi and the distant Coggee.

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Less great views at the cricket

Sydney cricket ground is another architectural highlight of the city and we were able to take in an England game, versus Pakistan, before the Cricket World Cup. There was an experimental, contrived feel to the game (can’t moan, it was free) so the main experience was the 1920s members stands we were watching from. A similar ‘complaint’ could be made when watching a game from the pavilion at Lords: From the best stand you can’t see the best view of the ground. The photo below gives the best angle I could get of the members stand, from the far edge of the ladies pavilion. Useful tip: If you want short bar queues, go to a game with a heavy Pakistani contingent. I had a choice of barman for each of my four beers. image

Michelin star in a red light district

I’d exclusively dined on pies here during 2003, so eating on the second evening at Gastro Park was a a quite significant step up. The seven course taster menu covers all tastes, most interesting was a gnocchi in consume that was actually “exploding liquid balls of Parmesan and Pumpkin Soup”, a huge surprise to the palate. Almost as surprising was the location. Gastro Park is nestled in Paddington, still thriving as the red light district of Sydney, though in quite tame and kitsch way. It seems mainly cover for excessive boozing, my priority in 2003. An evening of great contrast!

After three fantastic days, a quite amusing piece of schadenfreude finished things off. A minor delay at a luggage carousel was time enough to witness an all out war between a family of five over lost train tickets. Every one of the family had a rant at everyone else, which was really quite spectacular. Bogans are still about and with all the shouting, a good warm up for China.