Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The timewarp which is the world of bed and breakfast

Old-fashioned ways of doing things hang over the bed-and-breakfast sector of the market like a stale black pudding.
Admittedly, booking your accommodation is now so streamlined through the internet it’s almost impossible to remember how we did it just a few years ago. You had to pitch up in a town before the Tourist Office closed, and a pretty girl would ring round a few places and then give you a map with hastily scrawled directions written all over it. Or you’d look through the small ads of some publication or other – the Sunday Times, or Practical Somethingorother, to find a reassuringly familiar litany saying Mrs Bloggins Private Accommodation was still available. I think my parents used to write off to get a list of places, and then do a laborious ringing-up exercise…. All that has been swept away by or TripAdvisor or AirBnB.
But there are perils, as we found out in Ireland last year, when a sneaky old-fashioned phone-booking from someone using the old ways trumped our online reservation and we arrived to find there was no room at the inn, and the unrepentant owner sent us on to somewhere else (which we later decided was greatly superior anyway).
Our man here in Hampshire says charges him 15% which seems a lot but it pretty well guarantees him full bookings through the season.
But – and here I think things have to change – what you get for your money is still locked into a 1970s dream of luxury and indulgence…. For instance, as I logged when we arrived, the wifi in such places can be pretty dire.
And the breakfast is a resplendent dream of fat, cheap meat, fried everything, excess and inertia. We don’t eat a fried breakfast at home but it seems we have to pay for it whether we eat it or not. Why can’t we choose a health-breakfast in advance, and pay less? For health reasons I avoid cows’ milk and butter, and prefer goats’ dairy products, but asking for these in the b&b is like asking for some obscure and ghastly poison.
All the cereals are laced with sugar. All the yoghurts are sweetened.
The menu is fried, fried and more fried – bread, waffles, tomatoes, bacon, sausages, hash-browns, eggs, mushrooms…. And all this is offered like the most prized, the most luxurious thing you could imagine.
We brought with us a mango, a rare and special thing like an Alfonso, yellow and sweet, and wanted a knife to cut it, but you would have thought we were suggesting violent revolution on the streets…. I am not sure whether that was because we had brought something of our own into their dining room, or whether we wanted a different utensil from the spread already laid on the spotted plastic tablecloth.
The man is not nasty or rude, but just surprised….. He himself is a divorcĂ©, has a successful racing-driver son, gave his furniture business to his ex-wife, and now runs this 8-unit b&b in a sort of time-bubble of service and cleanliness and routine and disconnectedness.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Green mud

For supper we left the be-cabined b&b and headed a couple of miles south to Emsworth to find supper. There the wide expanse of green-clad mud stretches out and away towards the distant sea, and dozens of smallish boats lie chained up in a random scatter across the brilliant weed. A great long pond filled with murky water sits as a reservoir along one side of the bay, a remnant of the oyster-processing industry which once sustained this charming little town, and there is a sturdy walkway along its dam-walls, where you can progress in quiet conversation, with the tidal mud to your left and distant low hills beyond, and the lapping water of the basin to your right.  

We strolled along, reading about the the famous oyster-boat the Terror which has been restored as a heritage boat, and the floating fishtank installed by a local fish-merchant grandee who seems to have come a cropper in 1902 after a notorious food-poisoning incident.

Behind us somewhere inland, a series of hot-air balloons drifted up into the sky, five of them. Montgolfier's hobby alive and well.

The walkway curves back round to the shore, with more creeks and meanders to gaze at as you turn more to the west, and there you find some old cottages, pretty relics of that workaday age. One is for sale through a very important estate-agent. It is semi-detached, with a little garden sitting behind a low wall, and space enough for a couple of cars and a boat or two. The roof is slated and pleasantly higgledy-piggledy. (Later we found out this has 3 bedrooms, a downstairs bathroom, and is on the market for £620,000).

There are quite a few houses for sale in Emsworth. One is brand new, with stap-me bravado and balconies - £2,200,000. A car in its driveway had the registration CH 1LL 1N, or something like that.  One is an old schoolroom beside another branch of the great pond, one bedroom, and in need of modernisation, and that is £395,950.  It must be quite difficult to be an ordinary person trying to live there, when the millionaires have pushed all the prices up. But the beauty and charm of the whole place has made such conflicts inevitable.  We passed another very shiny car whose numberplate was FEIICES.

We decided to eat an Indian meal for supper and chose the Spice Village, installed in a classic 1930s Tudorbethan pub, with great styling inside - red cinema curtains draped in multiple shiny curves and sinuous wiggles, gleaming metal protectors on every plasterwork corner, pink and red lighting, chrome handrails guarding the unnecessary but diverting raised platform taking up part of the floor.  The guy who took our order was Indian. The guy who brought it was Romanian.  The food was very nice - absolutely identical to a meal I had last week in Faversham. I am more and more sure now that all these meals are made in some super-kitchen somewhere and just heated in the so-called kitchens of the restaurants....  There is presumably a chef there to make the rotis and chapatis, add the trim of fresh tomato slices and parsley, make sure everything meets the health and safety requirements.  But the long wait between ordering and seeing the food on the table is not occupied with frantic chopping and stirring, blending of spices.....   Anyway, it was very nice food and sharing one biriani was enough for us, and we drove away through the magic quiet lanes and fields, back to the electric gates and daddylonglegs of our bedroom in a garage.

I had a long and anxious dream as I woke up this morning - seeing someone fall from a cliff, seeing a very tall friend (Sarah? Joanna?) wearing a gorgeous evening gown demonstrate a straight fall to the ground and sustaining a horrible bruise to her shoulder.  In trying to get some arnica for her, I had to go back into a room in a seaside complex where we had previously been having a party with some grandees - royalty, even. But now they were in private session and an equerry refused me entry. Eventually when their private party was over, someone brought me some arnica - not the little tube I wanted but a display bottle from a pharmacy downstairs somewhere - flat but circular with a coloured glass panel in the middle.  I saw various friends mingling with Prince Harry, and went off to rub the oil of arnica (is there such a thing?) into my bruised friend's shoulder. Some Romanian tumblers and acrobats did impossible things flying through the air, and in the distance, finally, someone else noticed that a young woman had fallen off the distant cliff and rescue operations began.  Even though this was just 30 minutes ago, the details have already begun to shift and slide......

One of the nicest things yesterday was our drive close in along the north side of the South Downs - avoiding large roads we wound our way through quiet pastures and mown fields, with the horizon high to our left and shadows draping down the smooth green sides of the hill where each small tree or bush clung to the steep.  A glorious, precious, perhaps almost timeless sight.  As the ice retreated 10,000 years ago, and trees slowly spread north again, including (eventually) those yews, and then people came and started to let their cattle and sheep graze, long before fences and hedges and ownership... that is when the Downs took on this clothing - the smooth green grass and a few shrubs on the thin soil.  And the sun massages them every day.  It is utterly beautiful. But today we will sail away to Spain.  More when I can.

It's all about yew....

Kingley Vale just north of Chichester is an ancient woodland threading up through a chalk valley with golden fields and hawthorn hedges on either side. There's a pleasant walk from a quiet carpark, through a kissing gate, and then gently up towards the hills.

You see lovely ash trees, oak, field maple, hazel, birch, alder, all that..... and then you get to a smallish patch with the most remarkable dark and contorted yew trees, huge and ruddy red and purple, their bark almost worn away by countless hands, their black coverings overhead making silhouettes against the dappled light under their deciduous neighbours.

Somehow they survived the depredations of the medieval demand for bows and arrows... so they stand or lurch or twist or bend, and some are hollow, and some are bulbous, and they are pretty awe-inspiring.  Some of these are more than 2000 years old.

We drove across the south of England - green all the way, sunny, quiet, tiny lanes, little villages.  It's a striking contrast to the impression you'd get from 'the media' that we're overrun with immigrants.
Anyway, tomorrow we catch a ferry at Portsmouth and sail across the Bay of the Basques to Bilbao. Our daughter who is in Tarragon at the moment says it's grey and cloudy there - poor her.
We passed this morning from the heat and sun of the North Downs down into a marvellous misty pink fog over the Weald, but that burned away in due course and we've had a glorious day today all day.
I apologise for the weird layout of this post but the B&B has very intermittent wifi.   Almost as frustrating as the place we stopped for lunch today - called the Rainbow. Our modest order of sandwiches took nearly 45 minutes to arrive - but at least we did get something in the end. The people arriving after us - one car load after another - parked, arranged themselves, sauntered in, and then stumbled back out again. There was no food.  Their deliveries had not arrived following a busy Bank Holiday weekend and they had made no provision - had no provisions.
The ad for this accommodation says it has wifi but to type this I have to go into the garden, on the terrace behind the main house, and sit in the slightly chilly shade.  So they 'do' have internet, but it's really set up for garden gnomes, not guests.  And being in a valley, there's no ordinary signal.  Such a first-world problem.  Sigh.