Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Out and about

Logan's other great obsession at the moment (I'm ignoring the rude clocks) is trains. I blame Thomas the Tank Engine, he can't get enough. We went down to Sussex at the weekend and he spent the whole hour shouting, 'More choo choo!' He's going to love it next time we go to Durham, he can watch them go past from the window at Mum and Dad's.

Baby geese (ducks?) at Kew

There were loads of baby birds down by the lake at Kew, they let you get really close. I half expected to be attacked by an angry goose but I guess they're used to it.

Treetop walk

We spent the afternoon at Kew on Saturday, it was perfect sunny weather for a stroll. The treetop walk is fab, you get a great view of the gardens. Logan wasn't scared at all, he danced all the way round! He's big on trees at the moment.


I have a thing about balloons. It's not a phobia as such, I don't freak out at the sight of them and I don't mind the way they feel or smell or anything. I just don't trust them; they lurk unnecessarily in doorways like they're plotting against us, and bob down the road in a completely unnerving manner. I don't think people believe me but I see them All The Time, lurking. I'm going to photograph them to prove I'm not imagining it, this is the first (outside MacDonalds at Archway), see Flickr for more.

Monday, 18 May 2009

On the way home

As you can see, Ireland is just as the advertisers would have you believe - all green hills, flocks of toucans and sunshine. It never rains. Oh no.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Strike a light

Irish hospitality

Had a lovely trip out to the Clandeboye estate just outside Bangor today - I want a library just like Lady Druffin's billiard room, crammed full of first editions and random artefacts.

Had dinner at the Crown Bar, one of Belfast's most notorious gin palaces and not entirely spoiled by tourists like us just yet. The tables are set in private booths, with mirrored panels, real gas lamps and plaques to strike your matches on. The food is basic pub grub - beef and ale pie, scampi, mushroom and ale pie, with chips or champ - and the Guinness is good. Finally, a proper boozer!


Is Deal or No Deal normally this freaky, or am I on some kind of trip?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Feeling Eurovisiontastic!

Ok, so watching Eurovision in a hotel room on my own with no booze is very sad, but I wouldn't miss it, it's fab! Amazingly we're coming second so far, halfway through the voting. Norway already look like runaway winners though.

Not too many comedy moments this year but Albania had a strange man in a green lycra suit cavorting with their singer, Moldova had morris dancers on speed, and Germany get my vote for their swing number and Dita von Teese's off-camera stripping.

Are people voting for us because they've changed the voting system to stop block voting, because they've got over the Iraq war thing (which was the excuse for nul points a few years ago), because the song is good or because Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jade have been on a European media blitz for the last few months? They're even giving away the single with a Russian mag apparently. That's the way to win it! Or at least to score some points.

Rhododendron buds

Spot the queen

Headed out to Lisburn today, looked round the Linen museum then jumped on a bus to Hillsborough, a lovely village a few miles away. Hillsborough castle is the official residence of the secretary of state, and the royals when they visit. The queen was here with Prince Philip last weekend but sadly they didn't hang around for us.

The tour only goes round the ground floor, and not the private apartments above, but we still viewed the dining room and sitting rooms that are used when there are guests. It's nice, obviously full of antiques but lived in, not like some National Trust properties where you can't sit down or lean on anything.

The gardens are really pretty too - Europe's largest rhododendron (they thought it was the world's biggest until the Japanese premier discreetly told them he owned that one), and some beautiful magnolias with upturned flowers. It was a bit blustery but well worth a visit.

People in Ireland are lovely...

...except the ones that nick your handbag. But before I get onto that, this is the current holder of tackiest souvenir prize - I nearly bought it for Peter but I thought it was too tacky even for him!

Back to the bag. We dropped into the Linen Hall library to see if we could get any more family info. We found a map showing the street great gran was born on, which used to back onto the railway tracks in Belfast but was bulldozed years ago, and a directory that listed the household heads at the time.

Just before the library closed I popped over to copy the pages, and foolishly left my bag in the corner out of view behind the stacks - in my defence there was only me and the librarian left, and libraries are usually such civilised places (!). When I got back two minutes later it had vanished. Luckily I had my wallet with me, but my camera and my passport were in the bag.

The librarians were helpful but kept pointing out the signs that said not to leave your belongings unattended, just to rub in how dumb I'd been. I rang the police for a crime number (they said they'd send someone round to check the CCTV, which would never happen at home!) and I was just starting to plan what to do with my extended holiday, while I waited for a new passport, when Mark texted. Someone had called him and said they had my passport and bag; news to him, I hadn't got round to telling him I'd lost it. Some kind bus driver had found my bag and instead of chucking it in the lost property cupboard like they do in London had thought to ring the contact number in my passport. Cue a quick dash to the bus office to collect it before they closed for the weekend.

I don't get to stay an extra week, and some idiot is laughing at my holiday snaps as we speak, but at least I have a good excuse to buy a new camera. Who'd have thought the library was a hotbed of crime? Proves it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Another close-up

Present from the Giant's Causeway

Sculpture close-up

Spot the leprechaun

Public art

An artist at Belfast's Europa bus station has come up with the best use of tacky souvenirs I've ever seen - turn them into sculpture! I'd love to have one of these at home. Almost as good as the musical, light-up, spinning Madonna (the Catholic one, not the Kabbalah one) we saw in Portugal years ago.

Treading in the footsteps of ancestors

An exciting family history day today! We took the bus out to Aughnacloy, where Gran's gran (so my great great gran) was born. It took about 2 hours from Belfast (via Dungannon), and we nearly missed the stop because it's such a small place, really just a high street with a few junctions running off it. We had a prowl round the Church of Ireland churchyard of St James's and found a possible relative, but still no Jacksons.

Then serendipity stepped in - the warden at the former Jackson almshouses (no relation - a well-to-do doctor while our lot were labourers) directed us to the high school to ask after the old headmaster, a local historian. We made it as far as the primary school and popped in on the off-chance; a teacher there rang her brother-in-law, lay preacher back at the church, and ten minutes later we were digging through the baptism records in the vestry.

We found the 1878 entry for Elizabeth, my great great grandmother, as well as 9 of her brothers and sisters, her parents' marriage in 1860 and her father's burial in 1905. None of these records are held at the Public Record Office, or indexed; without the kindness of others we would have found none of it.

More than that, to stand in the church where the family were christened, married and buried was something really special. Dusty paper records are all well and good (and I wouldn't be a librarian if they didn't get me weirdly excited) but you can't beat a bit of real life to make it feel tangible.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Smoked haddock

Scampi and chips

The Barking Dog

I just wrote an ace review of the Barking Dog (not this one obviously!). Then I pressed the wrong button and deleted it. That's my excuse for waffling on and I'm sticking to it.

Basically it's fab - the atmosphere and decor is relaxed but modern (despite its outward appearance of an upmarket Wetherspoons), the staff are lovely, and the food is remarkable.

There are a few oddities on the menu - the asparagus starter was really tasty but I'm not sure the poached egg benefited from being breaded - but it generally erred on the right side of wacky.

The truffled gnocchi with parmesan and mushrooms (in the pic) was delicious - yes, even the mushrooms - and it's rare that a veggie dish is inventive and tasty! Gran loved the smoked haddock with poached egg and bearnaise sauce, and even hard to please Uncle John enjoyed the scampi (though the tartare wasn't punchy enough!).

If you ever find yourself in Belfast (you never know) make your way to Malone Road pronto.

At the Barking Dog

We're going back for dinner so 'review' later.


Botanic gardens

Guilty tourist

Peace mural, Falls Road - it was a bit weird taking tourist snaps, they used to be such contentious areas, I half expected someone to chuck bottles at us, and I wouldn't have blamed them.

Bobby Sands memorial, Falls Road

Memorial to the Queen Mum, Shankill Road


Did a City Sightseeing tour on an open air bus this afternoon, it was a bit fresh but we just beat the rain!

The craic

We've not had a chance to sample Belfast's finest food and drink yet, but we had a nice lunch at this art nouveau cafe, Cafe Vaudeville. Its chandeliers, painted pillars, mirrors and carvings are completely over the top - locals call it Cafe Gaudyville - but i don't care, it's fab.

The Belfast Eye

You get a great view of the city from the wheel, right next to City Hall (in the pic). It goes round 4 times though - we were a bit nervous about spending the night up there.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Obama, comic book stylee

I really don't know what to say about this, words can't describe it! He's a hero for a new generation so I guess it makes sense that the President is being immortalised in comic book form; he's meant to be a fan (he made at least one reference to Superman during his campaign for election), so he's probably secretly chuffed; but seriously, how Blaxploitation can you get?! And I'm sure Sarah Palin is just thrilled...

Saturday family outing - free comic book day!!

Something of an annual pilgrimage for the Stoddard clan (can't believe it's a year since Ben and Kait were over here!). Logan wasn't too sure about the new-look Orbital Comics, now in the old Photographers' Gallery building near Leicester Square tube, but I was mighty impressed with the gallery area (review of my new discovery to follow later).

We went to Souk for lunch (that's Logan bouncing on the sofas to Europop), part of the same annual pilgrimage. If you haven't been check it out - atmospheric decor (candles, tapestries and shady corners) and really tasty Moroccan couscous and tagines. Logan is a big fan, and made us dance to the music the whole time we were there.

From there we made a quick trip to Topshop (not part of the annual pilgrimage, and as hellish as always - Logan wasn't impressed as you can see!), then popped in to the Photographers' Gallery at its new location on Romillies St, just behind Oxford Circus. They had some really cool photos by Maurizio Anzeri, who takes old, anonymous black and white family portraits and stitches sinister patterns over the top.

Then home again!