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Requiem for the Front Garden

22 Jun

What are you doing people? Everywhere I look I see the same thing –  the demise of the front garden. These are sorry times. The craze of all things paved is slowly creeping across our entire island. Soon there will be just houses and double driveways with not an inch of space left for a green shoot to pop out for some light relief. Tarmac, Paving, even Concrete allowing more cars and less water to drain down into the water tables and so on to our reservoirs.

Houses in the suburbs were built to have gardens, little fences, gates and above all, a little slice of vegetation. Houses in the suburbs now have rock-hard open driveways and exposed house fronts revealing ugly lines, and, where there is no car, a skip.



Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant

22 May

Ghent, in Belgium for the ignorant, has many plus points for someone like me. First of all, it is very close by. Well, that’s relative I suppose. It’s not that close but it is only 3 train rides away (Lots of my favourite London locations are 3 train rides away.) and one of those is the Eurostar, which is mildly pleasurable with the exception of its poisonous buffet carriage. Secondly, it’s architecturally beautiful and historical. I haven’t ranted on too much about architecture but no doubt will do in future, from a layman’s perspective. It’s also a student location, which lends it a little more life to the old place. It’s a bit more real than it’s more celebrated cousin Bruges. Thirdly, and rather obviously, it has some great Belgian beer!

If you have ever seen the film In Bruges with Colin Farrell, who is actually quite good in it, you’ll recognise Bruges as being both really interesting but really boring and conservative in equal measures. This is also true of Ghent. However, there is enough sexy beer in sexy beer glasses to keep my attention for a day or too. It’s always nice to have a decent beer list in any restaurant or cafe you rock up to. Something that here, through snobbery, foolhardiness and a tendency not to celebrate things we do well, is only just appearing in restaurants. There are some good pubs/bars there too, many institutions that you have to (try to) visit.

Het Waterhuis aan Bierkant

Situated on the canal just along from the market, Het Waterhuis aan Bierkant is a fairly busy place in town. In the daytime when we were there, it was just too busy, being a bank holiday and all. Roll forward a few hours and the crowds had fallen away revealing quite a chilled out little bar. The weather was a little balmy before moving aside for a short rainstorm, which looked almost romantic on the surface of the canal from the pub window.

The service was interesting in the bar. You had to order from behind the counter and then the barman would sort out your drinks before giving them to the waiter who brought them to your table where you paid. I’m sure there is logic there somewhere, maybe they like you to have a seat before serving you.

The beer list was pretty immense and you can check it out on the website. However, what are the chances of me having all those beers in an evening. I had to choose something that I hadn’t had before, I always have to, which is a bit of a chore at times.


There was also a good mix of ages in the place, something I would aim for if I ever opened a pub. The locals were very friendly and were happy to help out with information and a little bit of banter. I’m a sucker for a bit of memorabilia really, or brewerania as some call it, and there were some good little bits and bobs around the place including this:

Xmas box!

I was reliably informed by one of the locals that this was a savings box. Regulars would have a slot where they would put some money aside over the year and it would only be opened around Christmas time, presumably for an almighty blowout in the pub itself. If you ask me, it sounds like a bit of a ruse by the publican to ensure the punters don’t go home with their own change in case they should spend it on the kids or something equally disturbing.

Reinaert Gran Cru

The above beer was fairly interesting. A 9.5% dark beer which was sweet and spicy smelling but with an underlying sourness. It was a thoughtful beer or rather a thought-provoking beer. It provoked me into thinking what I should go for next. After all the talk of choosing beers I hadn’t had before, I went for an old favourite in Saison Dupont. A marvellous choice it was too. I always think of straw bales and barns when I have this beer and it never lets me down. If I were to write tasting notes for this one they would be along the lines of .. bloody lovely  mmm straw bales! It’s quite easy to get my mitts on over here too so I did feel a little guilty choosing it from such an extensive menu. But I wanted it.

Brewerania that you can’t see very well. Still it looks chunky enough.

Overall, I liked the bar, liked the beer and enjoyed the company!!

A Tale of Two Stations

14 May

I like St Pancras station.

I do not like Brussels Midi station.

St Pancras station has a lovely roof.

Brussels Midi has concrete and washing up bowls catching the rainwater as it leaks through to the basement.

This is not a poem!!

Brussels Midi does serve this beer in one of life’s more preposterous receptacles though. Every cloud!


Why? Oh Why?

6 May

When Arthur Galston invented Agent Orange to increase the yields of soy beans, he probably had no idea that his invention would lead to the deaths of 1/2 million people and result in another 1/2 million disabilities in Vietnam.

When Thomas Midgley added tetraethyl lead to petrol to prevent “knocking” could he have imagined causing the deaths and health problems that arose worldwide from the ensuing lead poisoning?

Similarly, the man who first invented pebble-dashing was probably just joshing on a building site with his pals. You know the kind of stuff these fellas get up to on site – throwing hammers at each other and using staple guns on one another’s goolies. It was probably just one big dido where 3 burly builders threw a load of old stones in the cement mixer while the bloke responsible had been barricaded up inside the site portaloo. Little were they to know that they had unleashed a beast that was to blight towns and cities up and down this country of ours even to this very day.

Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian period properties have fallen foul of this insensitive rendering of outside walls. Why? Why? Why? Who ever thought that it might look nice? When Joe Bloggs first pebble-dashed the outside of his house way back when, which one of his neighbours was jealous enough to want to do the same? And having seen two such examples, who was the third, even more guilty, party?

OK. So we’re in this mess. What do we do? I suggest the current government put aside such trivial matters as the economy for the time being and focus on the real issues. They should break with their current non-interventionist ideals for the sake of everyone in the land and legislate. Yes, start by outlawing the practice based on its visual toxicity – no new pebble-dashing can be allowed to take place. Secondly, any existing pebble-dashed buildings should be painted – under no circumstances can they be allowed to remain brown or grey. Perhaps this could be helped by the introduction of grants to allow people to buy the necessary paint –  after all, this would be a fantastic way of putting all those savings the government has been making to a useful end. Thirdly, they could invest in some research that might lead to a clear and simple method of removing the dastardly stuff once and for all.

Along with wheelchair access for disabled cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, this is clearly one of the foremost problems currently being faced by society today and one which has been swept under the carpet for far too long. By addressing this concern, the government have the perfect opportunity to re-connect with its public and contribute to the greater good all at once.  Seize the moment Mr Cameron! What would 007 do?





Katzenjammers Bierkeller and the Hop Exchange

6 Apr

My previous post on U Fleku and Antica Birreria Peroni, started me thinking. A while back, in order to re-live some Munich memories, a few of us decided to get out to a German bierkeller called Katzenjammers in Borough, South London. I hadn’t thought I would like it, as I’d seen the places near the river at Richmond and the Bavarian Beerhouse operations and not been impressed. However, this place had something going for it in that it was located under the Hop Exchange. For those of you who didn’t know the Hop Exchange is the building pictured on the top of this blog.

The Hop Exchange minus 2 floors

Despite no longer having its original glass roof, which was destroyed during one of the World Wars, I think this building cuts a fine figure curving around Southwark Street as it does. The Hop Exchange, as its name implies, was once the centre of commerce for the hop industry where hops could be steam-trained up from Kent and people could trade in hops under the natural light entering from above. It is missing its top two floors now but it is a lucky survivor, surviving bombs, fires and redevelopment, so far!

A few years ago, I was allowed inside during one of London’s Open House weekends, when all sorts of great places open their doors to the general public for two days. It is both functional and beautiful inside, at least to my mind and worth a visit if you get the chance.

Hop Exchange Balconies

While this area was the centre of London’s brewing industry, it’s now a great centre for food, with Borough Market next door. The Hop Exchange itself has been converted into office space but it does let itself out for functions.

However, the beer connection hasn’t been totally lost, which is where Katzenjammers comes in, located as it is in the basement. The vaulted basement ceiling lends an air of authenticity to the German style beer and food hall. The oompah band, so irritating in Prague, doen’t get in your face and plays such covers as ‘I should be so lucky’ by Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley’s ‘Never gonna give you up.’ It’s quite possible that I imagined the Rick Astley song but I’m sticking with the story, it sounds better.

Unfortunately, it was too busy to get a table for food so I didn’t get to try the Schweinefleisch und Bierentopf, which by all accounts is a ‘hearty pork and dark wheatbeer stew’! On the plus side, I was able to opt out of drinking out of a stein and get some Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (a-love-it-or-hate-it smoked sausage-smelling smoked beer from Bamberg)  from the tap.  It was a busy Friday night and I think I might go there again, only earlier or on another day, I want that Swine flesh!!!!

Act of Barbarism – The Euston Arch

5 Mar

Whatever is happening with the Euston Arch?

Built in 1837, the Euston Arch was a Victorian landmark of sizeable proportions. It used to be the gateway to Euston station, which was the world’s first mainline terminus in a capital city. It was over 70ft tall and pretty imposing. I, however, am too young to have ever seen it, so must at this point out that that last adjective was merely conjecture on my part, although I have seen a few photos!! Nevertheless, it must have been impossible to pass such a classical structure without feeling some emotion. Indeed, when the decision to pull it down was made in the early 1960s, it was met with an early conservationist outcry, notably from John Betjeman. The removal of this London landmark has been described as ‘an act of barbarism’, I would agree, more so in light of the subsequent development of the station, catatonic in its mediocrity.

Demolition job

It’s fair to say that Euston is certainly no St. Pancras. The only redeeming features are the two surviving stone lodges left outside the station, which now house the Euston Tap and Cider Tap, both worthy occupants in my book. Britain often seems to specialise in mediocrity in much of its town planning, as any one glance at the standard of design and quality of public urban spaces or much of the housing erected over the last 15-20 years will reveal (slums of the future no doubt). The station, rather than becoming a proud symbol for our capital, became a station in desperate need of redevelopment.

And then there was light!

Back in the 90s in a BBC television programme, the very individual Dan Cruickshank, went in search of the remains of the Euston  Arch itself and with some success. He located large portions of the demolished arch in one of the demolition engineers’ back gardens and a whole load more dumped into an East London waterway. This seemed to spark a campaign to restore the arch to its former glory and some development plans that have been discussed for the station area seem to have included the possibility of including the arch in the new design and that, I’m afraid, is all I know…..

So what is happening now?

Every area needs good space, good design and heritage and these can sit well together and instil a sense of pride and identity in a locality. As the now, Patron of the Euston Arch Trust, Monty Python’s Michael Palin says:

“The enormous popularity of the restored St. Pancras, soon to be followed by a restored King’s Cross, has shown that celebration of the past and potential for the future are not mutually exclusive. The restoration of the Euston Arch would restore to London’s oldest mainline terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours.”

More here, here and here