Scribblings from the hard shoulder of the Information Superhighway

The Accidental Mayor

The local elections in early May were tumultuous, conducted in a febrile environment of Brexit anger with a national sense of frustration at Westminster’s failure to deliver any form of exit from the European Union – as had been promised in 2016.

As Alain Juppe famously said “the people have spoken”, although fewer spoke than in recent elections with fewer than 24% of the electorate voting locally.

The election result prompted a number of, perhaps, unexpected events.

Chelmsford Conservatives lost control of Chelmsford City Council, losing a number of hard working Councillors and Cabinet Members, including Cabinet Members responsible for Leisure, Social Housing and Technology.

I enjoyed working with them all, I believe we achieved a lot for the community, leaving Chelmsford better than when we started, and I consider them all friends.

One of those who was not returned to the City Council was Cllr. Julia Jeapes, who had been Cabinet Member for Leisure and had worked tirelessly to oversee the completion of Chelmsford’s “Riverside” leisure centre’s £30+m refurbishment.

Julia’s failure to be re-elected was a surprise and a disappointment, and it prompted one of those ‘unexpected events’, as it had been proposed that she would serve as Mayor of Chelmsford for the year 2019-20.

I had previously agreed that I would support Julia as Deputy Mayor, but suddenly and unexpectedly I found myself to be the person nominated to be Mayor of Chelmsford – an ‘accidental Mayor’.

To be Mayor and First Citizen of Chelmsford is, of course, a tremendous privilege, and a duty to be taken seriously; my diary rapidly filled with invitations, I attended two official functions the day after I’d been made mayor – bumping into the Mayor of Colchester on both occasions.

He too was on his first day!

The theme of my Mayoral year will be ‘overcoming adversity’ and my chosen charity will be Parkinson’s UK. I lost Val to an aggressive form of cancer a few years ago, but she had been in the foothills of that pernicious disease for some years.

That Val won’t be with me to share my Mayoralty is, of course, a source of immense sadness for me.

My Mayoress for the year will be Jan Cheese, the widow of my very good friend and fellow Town Councillor, Jon Cheese, whom we lost nearly twelve years ago.

My Deputy Mayor is Janette Potter and her escort is former City Councillor Gillian Smith.

Sleepy Joe

(Herman’s Hermits) – Sloppy Joes bar – Havana

Val and I had visited both Sloppy Joe bars in Key West, oblivious to the fact that they derived their name from the original in Havana. The first Sloppy Joe bar in Key West opened in December 1933 (on the day prohibition was repealed), while the Havana bar opened in 1917. Both the Havana and Key West bars were frequented by American celebrities like Errol Fynn, Frank Sinatra, W.C. Fields and – inevitably – Ernest Hemingway.

The Havana bar had its heyday during the prohibition era when the aforementioned ‘rat pack’ would fly down from Miami and Key West to enjoy Cuban rum.

Sloppy Joe was Jose Garcia, and the ‘sloppy’ took its name from the melted ice that left the floor perpetually wet.

The coming of socialism, with the Cuban revolution of 1959 saw business further decline and the bar closed after being damaged by fire in the 1960’s.

The bar was renovated between 2007 and early 2013, reopening to the public in April 2013.

These days it’s a tourist attraction, the local area (Parque Centrale) is perhaps the most up-market part of ‘old’ Havana, giving clues as to how the city is likely to be revamped and revitalised in coming years.

 

Inside, the décor harks back to the bars golden age, with authentic pictures of past clientele in the wall cabinets. The bar, at sixty feet long is the longest in Havana.

I wandered in at lunchtime – El Floridita (about a hundred yards away) was rammed with tourists and while Sloppy Joes quickly filled with tour groups, I was able to enjoy a couple of very pleasant Mojitos for only 4 CUC each (about $4).

Okay so it’s been refurbished, but I suspect it’s a more authentic taste of old Cuba than many other bars.

Hemingway

(Jussie Smollet) – Don Hermanos, Havana

As I mentioned earlier (here), it’s easy to get cynical in Havana, if you believe the publicity then Ernest Hemingway regularly frequented Sloppy Joes, La Floridita, Dos Hermanos… indeed its difficult to find a bar that doesn’t have a claim to Hemingway, and I struggle to imagine how he found time to write.

I’d visited Sloppy Joes, more of that elsewhere, and tried to get into La Floridita but it was rammed with tourists even before noon, so I though I’d try Dos Hermanos.

Dos Hermanos is one of those Hemingway bars, down by the docks on Ave del Porto, a ten minute walk from the Cruise ship terminal and conveniently situated mid way between the terminal and the craft market.

As my stay on the cruise ship was all inclusive I didn’t order food, but called in on my last day in Havana for a sneaky drink on the way back to the ship after a trip to the aforementioned craft market.

It’s bright and airy, recently refurbished, with a plaque on the outside stating its heritage back to 1894 and claiming the patronage of Federico Garcia Lorca, Alejo Carpentier, Enrique Serpa, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway and ‘intellectuals from Cuba and the world’.

Inside you’re faced with a massive bar, piled high with various varieties of Havana Club rum (their museum and visitor attraction is just down the road) and a few other spirits. I asked the barman the price of a Mojito and he replied (in excellent English) 4.20 local (the local ‘convertible’ peso (or CUC), used by tourists, is about the same as a dollar).

I explained that I’d spent up and was down to my last eight (a five and three note) which I put on the bar. He grinned and confirmed that that was just enough for two.

The Mojitos were, as you might imagine, delicious and potent – I can envisage vast plantations of mint outside Havana to service the Mojito market – and the ambience great.

There’s a lot of money being spent in the vicinity, the old port buildings are being refurbished and I suspect a new cruise terminal/shopping mall/hotel won’t be long away.

In the meantime it’s a great place for a drink.

Dandy

(Herman’s Hermits) – El Dandy, Havana

Ernest Hemingway’s spirit – if you’ll excuse the pun – pervades the bars of Havana, it can require some effort to find a bar that is ‘Hemingway Free’.

El Dandy is one such bar, on the corner of ‘Calle Brasil’ and a ten minute stroll from El Floridita bar (another of Hemingway’s haunts and the home of the Daiquiri) which is perpetually rammed with tourists.

El Dandy is tiny and quaint, with prices written on chalk boards and pictures artfully displayed on the walls. I ordered a beer and a Mojito, and spotted the sign advertising baby back ribs for ten CUCs (the ‘tourist’ currency is the CUC, conveniently, about the same value as a US Dollar) so I ordered that.

The Mojito was delicious, with crisp fresh mint and the ribs, when they arrived, were a revelation.

I’m no stranger to barbecues, or rib shacks and these were as good as I’ve tasted anywhere, meaty, tender and slightly spicy. The accompanying coleslaw was crisp and crunchy and the sweet potato fries delicious. I couldn’t finish the fries and passed them to another table and they agreed that they were great.

I had a strange experience in Bar Dandy, but before I explain, you should be aware that Salsa music pervades Havana, it issues from every bar, café and taxi… I don’t think I heard any other type of music while I was in Havana.

That said, I was enjoying my ribs in Bar Dandy, and it occurred to me that I wished I’d been able to share the moment with Val – my late and much missed wife. When, out of the blue. ‘All My Loving’, by ‘The Beatles’ came on the radio; Val hailed from Liverpool and was a huge Beatles fan.

That was the only Beatles track I heard during the several days I was in Havana – spooky.

Cars and Girls

(Prefab Sprout) – The Jolly Farmer, Dronfield Woodhouse

Once upon a time, many years ago and in a previous life, I lived with my parents on Gosforth Drive, overlooking the Gosforth Valley in Dronfield Woodhouse; midway between Sheffield and Chesterfield.

I was single, in those days, and the ‘Gorsey Brigg’ was the (then) newly opened neighbourhood pub, situated in the middle of the valley, the estate and adjacent to a small shopping centre.

Back in the day the ‘Gorsey Brigg’ was operated by Shipstones, a Nottingham brewery and it stocked – if I recall correctly -Greenall Whitley brews.

In all honesty it had the ambience of a bus station canteen and its beers were not well kept.

But it was my local, I didn’t know much better, and John Finch and I would meet up on Sunday evenings to drink, feed the jukebox and discuss the usual teenage subjects…

Fast forward thirty seven years John’s been married for nearly twenty four of those years, while Val and I – well, you knw that story.

The ‘Gorsey Brigg’ has become the ‘Jolly Farmer’, operated by ‘The Pub People Company’. It’s been ‘rethought’ and refurbished to within an inch of its life, now featuring low ceilings, ‘antique’ woodwork, flagstone floors and it’s been subdivided into multiple small rooms.

It also does food, and after a busy day visiting the Hemswell Antique Centre in Lincolnshire, we called in to the Jolly Farmer for a bite to eat.

It was busy, but we found a table and I ordered drinks. There’ a good selection of ‘real ales’, lagers and the inevitable list of exotic gins. It was St Patrick’s Day weekend so there was a promotion on Guinness and plenty of pseudo Irish decorations up… the sort of stuff they don’t do in Dublin.

In all honesty, it’s a bit cluttered and gloomy, but it was busy (and we’d driven past at least five closed pubs on our day out), and a great Improvement on the old Gorsey Brigg.

John recommended the ‘Woodhouse’ burger – the burgers are named for local ‘landmarks’ and, despite the extensive menu, I followed his recommendation. John ordered the same, while his wife, Joanne, ordered the Lasagne.

At £6.99 for a main course, the prices are close to astonishing, excellent value.

The burger, a full 6oz, was well cooked, served on a brioche bun, with chips, salad, beer battered onion rings, cheese and beef chilli. It was very tasty and the chilli was flavourful and mellow.

Joanne described the lasagne as better than she’d had in many Italian restaurants.

Grand Central Station

(Steve Forbert) Grand Central, Basildon

Jeremy and I were heading east, out of London after visiting the Classic Car Show at the Excel, discussing where to lunch when Jeremy suggested ‘Grand Central’, near Basildon’s ‘Pipps Hill’ retail park. I’d driven past a hundred times in its previous incarnations, so figured it was worth a look.

Inside it’s kinda untidy looking, there are traces of Americana, artful graffiti and ‘Grand Central’ allusions, although we were curious as to the fate of ‘Booth 37’.

We were shown to our booth and handed menus, the food is – as you would expect – American. Burgers, Ribs and so on, with a few flourishes – more of which later.

For starters we ordered Chicken Wings – with a Chipotle sauce – and a ‘Blooming Onion’, a ‘much requested’ hangover from the restaurant’s previous incarnation.

The wings were well cooked, meaty, and the dressing spicy, but not overly so. Very tasty.

The  ‘Blooming Onion’ was huge – the waitress had cautioned us thus – but delicious, the ‘petals’ soft and juicy beneath a crispy batter. There was a distinctly average mayonnaise dip in the centre of the ‘bloom’, but it was most enjoyable.

We couldn’t finish either, Jeremy took the remaining wings home in foil.

For main courses, Jeremy ordered the ‘Classic Burger’ which came ‘Served in a seeded brioche with smoked cheddar, gem lettuce, tomato, onions, smokey bacon mayo, red cabbage slaw and skin on chips.’ The burger and fries were okay, but a little examination found the smoked cheddar to be a single slice of processed cheese, and the lettuce, tomato and onion to be perfunctory. Not overly impressed, for over a tenner.

For my main, I ordered the “Mango crab stack” which promised “two crispy soft shell crabs served in a charcoal brioche bun with baconnaise, mango, gem, sweet chilli sauce and dirty fries. Again, the crabs and ‘dirty fries’ were fine, the charcoal brioche a bit off-putting but the garnishes were disappointing.

Three tiny strips of Mango? It’s called a Mango crab stack, surely the Mango should be vying with the crabs for attention, not slipped in almost apologetically.

We both agreed that the mains were a disappointment, but that we’d enjoyed the starters.

We enjoyed a couple of pints of Hop House 13 lager and the total bill, for the two of us, came to a little over £60.

Would I go back? Maybe.

Next time (if there’s a next time) then I might try the ribs, we both agreed that we wouldn’t order those mains again, but there are other mains on the menu.

Rating: ★★★½☆ – and one of those was for the ‘Blooming Onion’.

Didn’t Sell My Soul To Shoreditch

I was due to meet Kit & Elaine for lunch in town, they live in darkest Deptford and Kit’s been unwell of late, so I figured Shoreditch would be convenient for the London Overground.

By chance there’s a Brewdog bar close to Shoreditch High Street Station so that seemed to be a plan.

We arrived at about twelve thirty, the bar was pretty quiet and settled in a booth looking out onto the road.

I probably don’t need to mention that the décor is standard Brewdog ‘industrial chic’, you know what to expect. The customary neon skull reads ‘Live Fast,Drink Slow’.

As we ordered our first drinks – from the extensive tap range – we asked about the burgers, we’d had a disappointing experience at the Tower Hill Brewdog bar.

We were assured that they were freshly cooked to order, would be ‘well cooked’ (we were in the Peoples Republic of Tower Hamlets) and could take ‘up to twenty minutes’. That worked for us, so we all ordered burgers… Kit ordered the Patriot, Elaine the Chipotle Chorizo, while I ordered the special – Burger Overlord.

All arrived in a reasonable time, and looked delicious.

The flavour and texture didn’t disappoint, indeed Elaine commented several times that it was the best burger she’s had for many a long while.

I had to agree, awesome burgers and amusingly, just over the road from ‘Byron’ – whoops.

After lunch we settled in for a couple of hours exploring the various brews on offer, a dark IPA, a dry stout (with Mosaic hops) from the Kernel brewery, a Pistachio Stout and a  wonderful collaboration between Magic Rock and Cloudwater breweries.

On every occasion the bar staff offered tasters.

I think I have new favourite London bar.

Full Force Gale

(Van Morrison) – Hotel Vila Gale, Cascais, Portugal

Earlier in the year a friend recommended a ‘singles’ holiday company to me, and when I received an email describing a short break at Cascais, on the coast outside Lisbon, for the Christmas break I thought it would be worth investigating.

The trip from Lisbon’ Humberto Delgado Airport too around thirty minutes on a coach (I was travelling with a ‘singles’ group) and we were promptly checked in.

My room (246) was spacious and clean, with laminate floor, mini-bar, and safe – although there was an extra charge for the safe. There was a balcony with a partial sea view, full sea view rooms were charged at a premium.

Bizarrely, there was a kitchen range behind some sliding doors.

Meals were buffet style, the food was good and plentiful, although it struggled to stay warm; after a few days the buffet became monotonous; a long stay would quickly see it become tiresome.

The bar was comfortable, and Bruno the barman was swift and efficient.

Outside, it’s a fifteen minute walk into the centre of Cascais, itself a charming town with a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants.

There’s also a bar two minutes up the road from the hotel gates.

I had, as I mentioned earlier, booked this as part of a package, but would happily stay at the Vila Gale again.

Rating: ★★★★½

Ariel

(Dean Friedman) – Holiday Inn Ariel, London Heathrow

I’ve driven past the Ariel Hotel several hundred times over the years, it’s a distinctive circular building on the A4 Bath Road, so when I found I had a flight out of Heathrow at stupid o’clock on a Sunday morning, I decided to travel to the airport the previous night and stay over – much less stressful.

I checked in late Saturday afternoon, after a relatively painless journey across London by train and tube and the ‘Hotel Hoppa’ bus from the airport.

The Holiday Inn Ariel is served by two ‘Hotel Hoppa’ buses, that run from 04:16 through until after 11pm.

I walked into reception to be greeted by a couple of automated check in screens, no receptionist, but clearly I looked sufficiently bemused to encourage Kornelija to help me check in, which she did politely and promptly. I presented my card to pre-authorise payment for dinner and a few drinks. I was also given a “guest of the day” card which gave me 20% discount on ‘food and beverage consumption’ – result!

My room – 360 – was clean and efficient, nothing to complain about, with a large TV, extensive beverage capabilities and – gasp! – a ‘Corby’ trouser press.

Dinner in the restaurant ‘The Junction’ was better than expected, although they were due to close for a large private party; much of the restaurant had been declared ‘out of bounds’ nearly two hours before the aforementioned party.

Back in the room, the bed was extremely comfortable, and while room 360 was not a ‘runway’ view room (they’re a tenner or so extra) it was possible to glimpse aircraft as they came in to land.

Check-out – at 5am – was as efficient as check-in, and reception phoned for a cab for me. A very roomy ‘S’ Class Merc. which was excellent value at a tenner to Terminal 2.

All in all, I found the Holiday Inn Ariel to be modern, clean and very well maintained, particularly given its considerable age. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before it’s replaced with something taller than its three floors, but I would be happy to stay there again if circumstances required.

Rating: ★★★★½

Key Lime Pie

(Kenny Cheney) Key Lime Coffee, Liverpool

 

We were staying in the Holiday Inn opposite Lime Street station in Liverpool and decided to try breakfast outside the hotel, there were plenty of opportunities, with ‘Costa’ Coffee bars and Wetherspoon pubs nearby.

But we thought we’d support a small, independent coffee shop and I’d spotted ‘Key Lime’ beside the hotel entrance.

I confess I forgot to take any photos inside or of breakfast as the place took us by surprise, it’s unpretentious, busy and welcoming.

I enjoyed a black coffee and the best eggs benedict I have ever tasted – served with smoked bacon.

A great discovery, highly recommended.

Rating: ★★★★★

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