Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Last Swim

I ventured up to the old school for my final sixty lengths of the term. The college has closed for the summer and doesn't re-open till the 1st September.

I had a brief chat with the headmaster, a fellow Old Brackenbrian, and he's heading off to the annual CCF camp which is near Birmingham this year; closely followed by a well-earned rest with his family in Cornwall for the rest of the summer.

I shan't half miss my evening swims; however, this routine occurs every year so I'll just spend more time on the rowing machine in the gym. Hopefully I'll dust down my cycle, pump up the tyres and make more use of it too.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Crowning Glory?

Westminster Abbey has ambitious plans for the 21st century, including a corona - an architectural feature shaped like the Imperial State Crown or St Edward's Crown - above the Lantern Roof.

I always assumed that the Abbey was finished; nevertheless, these plans are intriguing. I am not hugely enthusiastic about the corona atop St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, so I'd like to see a few drawings or drafts for the proposals at the Abbey before further comment. I imagine I'd support the idea in principle though.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev John Hall, is the driving force behind the plans. Dr Hall has been Dean for two and a half years.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Higher Rates

I have been scrutinizing a few of the best savings rate league tables this afternoon and there has been some modest movement upwards, at last.

Leeds Building Society is offering a half-decent online rate of 3.05% gross, among a few others.

I checked my current variable rate cash ISA and was slightly shocked to realize that the rate I'm getting is a mere 1.42%. I'll close it forthwith. I may not even bother opening another ISA, since the best web savings rates are better still.

It still pays to be vigilant; especially with instant access accounts where no notice is required.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Minnowburn Task

We met at the warden's office, Minnowburn, this morning for several hours' satisfying toil on a steep slope leading up to the Rose Garden. It wasn't half humid. Mick provided us with long-handled bill-hooks and we proceeded to thrash the Brier and undergrowth surrounding the saplings we had grown a few years ago, mainly oak.

The Rose Garden is looking marvellous; apparently a thirty-strong volunteer team from the Northern Ireland Office had been assisting there earlier in the week. This help makes such a difference.

We munched our packed lunches at a picnic bench beside the garden. Afterwards we headed down to the allotments; and the fruit and vegetables there are literally thriving. there must easily be a few dozen plots now; it has been so popular that the warden may well decide to extend the allotments to provide more space.

Car Tax Scam

Beware! There is a Car Tax scam operating in Northern Ireland, by the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVANI) no less. I applied for a refund of car tax several weeks ago, when I traded in my old car. I sent them the application form along with the car tax disc with three months' unused tax.

Today I received a letter from them telling me that my application has been rejected. Why? Because I didn't tell them that I'd sold the car to Agnew's dealership (as if Agnew's wouldn't tell them anyway).

This practice is merely another means of government retaining taxpayers' money, with excuse after excuse as to reasons why they refuse to do it. Furthermore, they shan't even send my old tax disc back to me on the grounds that "it was cancelled for security reasons". What utter rot.

It's a fait accompli. There is no mention of an appeal procedure at all. Almost £60 of my money has effectively been misappropriated by DVANI. Here is a prime example of the stealthy means by which money is extracted from innocent, law-abiding motorists.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Howard Shelley, Maestro

I fitted in the customary twenty lengths of the pool yesterday, prior to attending another BBC Invitation Concert at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. The auditorium was about 75% full.

I cannot recall ever having been to a concert where the gifted conductor and pianist, Mr Howard Shelley, OBE, has worked his magic. Watching him conducting and playing the piano in such an accomplished fashion was inspirational indeed. Mr Shelley must have burned more calories, what with standing and sitting at the piano, that my swimming earlier! He excels and inspires in equal measure.

The piece he played was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major. Mr Shelley was suitably and appropriately attired in full evening dress, excluding the white waistcoat, for the occasion; whereas the Ulster Orchestra continues to maintain a casual dress code.

The programme also included Mozart's Symphony No. 32 in G Major; and Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

During the interval the orchestra's Steinway piano was shifted towards the back of the stage. There were a few stage-hands about, and I thought nothing of it as I did my crossword; till one of them thumped the stage and, as if by magic, the large piano and part of the stage-floor - like a retracting trap-door - began to sink right down below the stage. Several minutes later the trap-door emerged again, minus the piano. I was impressed. What do they have below that stage, I wonder? Simply a store-room?

It was yet another great concert. I'm glad I made the effort to attend.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

What Car?

I accompanied my aunt round a few car dealerships, at Belfast's Motor City district, this morning. Our first visit was to Agnew's Volkswagen showroom. My aunt has owned a most reliable Polo for many years.

Of course we had to suffer the usual sales talk - my eyes glaze over at that point - however I wasn't particularly impressed with what they had, or had not, to offer. Basically they were offering us a Polo Match with five doors, the only two colours available being black or silver. This model will be obsolete in a few months' time, yet they weren't really offering us much of an incentive other than the £2000 Scrap Allowance. Moreover, they tried to apply pressure by advising us that the Government's Car Scrapping Scheme may not last much longer. I was unimpressed.

Some folk enjoy the perceived challenge of haggling and sparring for the best deal. Not I. I find it all tiresome and stressful. I generally distrust car dealers, rightly or wrongly. It's an ordeal. Notwithstanding that, I wish to help my aunt by chipping in, challenging them and giving moral support if I can.

We took the quotation and drove over to Fulton's for lunch. I relished the sumptuous mince tart with dressed salad and coleslaw; followed by lemon meringue pie with fruit garnish and whipped cream which I shared with my aunt (it was big enough for three!). Before we left my aunt chatted with the resident pianist.

After lunch we motored across the road to Lindsay's Ford dealership to view the new Fiesta car. This new model impressed us. It seems to be well built and the doors close with a reassuring, solid clunk. It's well appointed, too. If there's a snag, it is the fact that there's a price increase of 4% on the 1st July. Nevertheless, there was more choice: bright red would be available within a month.

I think, on balance, the Fiesta may well be the better of the two because the new Polo is not in the showrooms yet; which makes the present Polo a bit dated. The prices are similar though Lindsay's inferred that the price they quoted could be negotiable: perhaps, say, another £500 off. I've read a few reports about the new Fiesta and the motoring critics seem to favour it highly.

My aunt will consider the options over this weekend and deliberate with her family in the interim.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

New Lord-Lieutenant For County Tyrone

The Duke of Abercorn's successor as Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant for County Tyrone has just been announced.

Mr Robert William Lowry Scott, OBE, DL, JP, has been the Duke's estate manager at Baronscourt for over 30 years.

Mr Scott succeeds the Duke as Lord-Lieutenant on His Grace's 75th birthday, the 4th July, 2009.

Homeless Experiment

Famous, Rich And Homeless was a fascinating, if unsettling, human experiment tonight. The first episode was on BBC One at 9pm. It's one of those insightful programmes that make viewers examine their own consciences; it made me do that, at any rate. There are so many homeless people living in London.

Four of the original five participants seem to be surviving fairly well. I think they were quite brave to undertake the whole business; I certainly wouldn't have wished to do it.

It was unfortunate that Jamie Blandford dropped out so soon - apparently within 24 hours. It begs the question: Why, on earth, did he agree to take part at all? James, Marquess of Blandford is heir to the Duke of Marlborough incidentally. I am disappointed that Lord Blandford didn't persevere. That's easy for me to say, of course, not being in that position.

I shall have to tape tomorrow night's final episode because I'll be at a concert.

Footpath Weeding

I was brushing the edges of the drive this morning and was bemused to notice abundant amounts of weeds growing on the footpath outside. Who's responsible for that? The NI Roads Disservice?

The thought of sending them an invoice for half an hour's weeding at Sir A Sugar rates - "If you won't do it yourselves, here's the bleedin' bill. I done it myself; pay it pronto too!" - had crossed my mind. They'd have got a good laugh at any rate. How much would Sugar charge for thirty minutes anyway?

The so-called Roads Service spends more money on creating humps than re-surfacing the Province's roads these days, does it not?

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

BBC Concerts

I've been to lots of free BBC Invitation concerts this year; in fact I have literally just applied for another five concerts in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, this August. So far this year I've attended about six free concerts, the most recent ones having an attendance of about two-thirds' capacity, in my estimation.

I'm most grateful to the BBC, the Ulster Orchestra and everyone involved. Obviously these are all recordings for BBC Radio; nevertheless, I still appreciate it all. I wish to especially mention the Ticket Unit at BBC Northern Ireland; I'm sure that there is much effort entailed in organizing these concerts.

It almost makes paying the licence fee worthwhile!

So this is my tip-of-the-day: Book online immediately for a great summer season of complimentary tickets, available to everybody courtesy of the BBC.

Glazing Failure

I'm afraid this is all rather mundane; however, a large bedroom window has been in a state of translucence since the double-glazed unit began to fail a few years ago. I've been meaning to get it replaced for a long time.

Six days ago I accidentally cracked a pane of mirror-glass on the bathroom cabinet, so I've received a quotation from a local glazier for both jobs - replacement of two panes of mirror-glass and the window - for £198 plus VAT.

I given them the Green Light. They estimate completion by the end of the week.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Ladder Trepidation

I got the rung ladder out this morning in order to remove an abundance of bright, yellow weeds from the guttering. No sooner had I placed it against the wall that I suddenly got cold feet. There are a few chores that I can manage using the ladder; however, without someone to hold it steady, I simply don't have the confidence, to be quite truthful.

I'll ask my neighbour for a recommendation; preferably somebody easy to pay, to coin an old colloquialism. Can any readers recommend someone in the Belmont area of Belfast? I only require two sections to be cleaned - not the whole house. What is the standard rate?

Sunday, 21 June 2009

James May Night

If, like me, you are a fan of Top Gear on the BBC, that intrepid team-member, James May, features largely on BBC Two this evening.

We are treated to a repeat episode of Oz And James Drink To Britain at 7.30; then a new series of Top Gear at 8pm; followed by James May On The Moon at 9pm; and flipping over to BBC Four at 10pm for James May At The Edge Of Space.

James May Night on the BBC.

Lacklustre Horror Movie

Following some deliberation last night we opted to have a fish supper from the best emporium in our vicinity, John Dory's. I motored over there and ordered two cods and one portion of chips.

In my experience, it's always the case that the size and quality of the cod in chip shops can vary occasionally. Presumably this is due to seasonal availability. Tonight, however, it was excellent - even better than the battered fish I consumed at the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum several months ago. The cod was fairly generous in size; the batter just so; but the fish itself was so succulent and delicate, pure white and flaky - always a very good sign.

As I've always said before, consistency is vitally important: the quality of the fish, batter, length of cooking - so many variables in fact. To my mind Dory's is hard to beat; in our locality, at least.

The movie experience was poor, tonight. I paid £5.80 for a ticket at Storm Cinemas in the Odyssey Pavilion, Belfast. I usually enjoy the horror genre; not tonight, sadly. I watched The Last House On The Left and found the action so gratuitous with a particularly weak finale, where the murderer's head was cooked in a microwave oven "what are ya doin', doc?"

I spotted several patrons timing it to arrive exactly ten minutes after the start time of 8:55, which I deemed a good idea since most of the banal advertisements can be avoided. I took exception to two of the adverts in particular, for Discover Ireland and Club Orange drinks; however, suffice it to say that I'll leave it at that, without divulging the details. I might go to the Odeon Cinema the next time instead. Incidentally, Screen 12 at Storm Cinemas seemed, initially at least, to be out of focus last night. Had there been a staff member about, I might have queried this.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A Man's Best Friend

Here's a delightful little tale about a man in Stockport who found a grey squirrel when it was two weeks old; and the diminutive creature has treated him like its mother ever since. Utterly remarkable.

Belfast Taxi spotted this on his blog, too.

The Extraordinary Flautist

This has been my second visit to the Ulster Hall in Belfast within a week. There was another very good concert last night, produced by BBC Radio Ulster; and it was entitled Young Musicians' Concert. The soloists were from Northern Ireland.

David Porcelijn brandished the conductor's baton yet again. The first soloist was Éanna Monaghan, a bassoonist, originally from Belfast. He was correctly and suitably attired in full evening dress, unlike the Ulster Orchestra which is permitted to wear anything these days as long as it's black. This young fellow is tall: he stood beside the conductor and, despite Mr Porcelijn standing aloft a podium, Mr Monaghan was taller still! He played Jacob's Bassoon Concerto with aplomb.

The second soloist was stunning in more ways than one. Eimear McGeown comes originally from County Armagh. She is young and beautiful - positively glamorous and elegant in her sexy, royal blue strapless, full-length dress. She played her flute sensuously while captivating the audience with a most accomplished rendition of Liebermann's Flute Concerto. Here is no ordinary flautist: Miss McGeown must easily be one of Ulster's finest. Remember her name and relish watching her too!

Returning to the policy that the Ulster Orchestra has about staff attire: Is it customary now for orchestras to dress casually? At least some players have the self-respect to wear a black tie with their black jackets, black shirts, black shoes, black trousers...a black bandanna (you have read correctly). Doubtless black socks and black underwear too! I volunteer to inspect the blonde female members for regulation black underwear. Is the wearing of this informal attire called progress? Why shouldn't major orchestras dress formally in full evening dress - or dinner jackets, white shirts and black tie at the very least? The way this orchestra dresses for a public event is quite inappropriate.

Having got that rant off my chest, I commend the Ulster Orchestra, as usual, for giving us another wonderful performance.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Historic Pages Online

The British Library has made millions of British newspaper pages available online to the general public. Having scanned the website briefly, I see that the Belfast Newsletter is available from 1828-1900.

The Belfast Telegraph doesn't seem to be available yet. This feature could prove to be a most useful tool for the purposes of research.


I somewhat uncharacteristically lost my temper the other day when I slammed the bathroom cabinet door and the mirror glass facing cracked into pieces. It's one of those built-in, bespoke types, definitely not available in the likes of B&Q or Homebase; it was installed when our house was built, I imagine.

I made a few phone calls and there's a company at Stockman's Way in Belfast that supplies such items in three or four days, at a reasonable cost. She estimated about a tenner plus VAT.

The pane is about 13" square, so I'll most likely order two and retain the intact one as a spare.

That's the cost of my fit of anger; serves me right, doesn't it?

Castleward Opera 2009

The weather could have been a lot worse. In the event there were sunny intervals and a few light showers. I arrived at the National Trust's wonderful Castle Ward Estate, in County Down, just after five o'clock - quite early - in order to have a short walk and find a suitable location to have my picnic. I invariably head for the walled garden anyway.

I had motored into Strangford earlier: there are signs of life at the presently-defunct Lobster Pot, viz. a workman entering the premises and his van outside.

I'd taken the bother to prepare my own picnic on this occasion: smoked salmon sandwiches; egg salad sandwiches; raspberries and cream; and a modest glass of sparkling wine, since I had to drive home. The food was very good, incidentally!

I'd changed into my evening wear at home: my legendary 76 year-old dinner jacket; matching trousers, doubtless a similar age, with double piping (full evening dress trousers); an old bow-tie; and a new, white Marcella piqué dress shirt.

Castleward Opera certainly knows how to look after its patrons. They always remember me by name - "Good evening, Lord Belmont. Permit me to show you to your lordship's seat" (that was a joke, as if you didn't know). I was shown to my seat - J8 this year - and five minutes later this year's production, Die Fledermaus, began. Incidentally, this is Castleward Opera's 25th anniversary. Needless to say, it was all very well done. The scenery and props were contemporary rather than traditional 19th century; however this actually worked well. It was sung in English, too. Most enjoyable.

When I was chatting to the lady beside me she said that she'd missed the period costumes customary in this production; though she still enjoyed the show.

At the extended interval I drove down to the old farm-yard, donned the wellies and went for a stroll in the direction of the Temple Water. I spotted a notice-board to the "Standing Stone" and ventured the short distance to a big boulder. I cannot say much more than that! What is its significance? The Temple (pictured above), a summer-house of 1750, predates the present Castle Ward House. It commands spectacular views. The House can just be seen in one direction; Strangford Lough can be seen from the other side. It's a shame that the Temple lies empty; I wonder if more use could be made of it?

I walked down the hill from the Temple and round the Temple Water, a singularly important piece of 18th century garden history. Very few of these ornamental canals have survived, this one constructed by hand in 1728 as a feature to complement the Queen Anne house nearby.

Back in the Theatre, the second half of Die Fledermaus culminated with a young member of the Cast doing a spot of Irish dancing on the stage. Talk about twinkle-toes: he seemed to be dancing on hot coals! There was sustained applause. It was a great evening and I arrived home shortly before midnight.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Ulster Television

I've discovered this interesting article about the formation of Ulster Television which is now, incidentally, similar in age to self! It is on page nine.

The Henderson brothers were the Province's media barons, in those days; they practically owned Ulster Television and the Newsletter newspaper. The former family residence was Norwood Tower, a fine castellated pile in its own grounds off the Circular Road in east Belfast; in fact the grounds stretched from Circular Road to Sydenham Avenue and possibly to part of the Holywood Road at one time, since Clonaver House was reputedly the dower house. Haven't times changed? I stopped watching Ulster Television - or UTV as they now call themselves - when we acquired satellite television a few years ago. We now watch ITV 1 London instead.

Ulster Television's ethos has changed considerably since the Hendersons left, doubtless to reflect Northern Ireland in a more balanced manner, UTV would claim. To my mind their marketing and advertisements are largely parochial; though they always have been, haven't they? Personally, I prefer to view a broader picture, with British values and characteristics. I obtain local news from the Internet these days.

Classical Concert

Having devoured a light meal at home and ventured up to the sports club for thirty lengths of the pool, I still managed to motor home and leave my wet gear out to dry.

The doors opened at 7pm in the Ulster Hall, Bedford Street, Belfast. This was my very first concert there since its major refurbishment. Remarkably enough, sections of the interior walls are showing signs of mould already; it looks a bit like coffee stains on the subtly-painted surfaces. The Council had better get the contractor back to remedy matters on behalf of rate-payers.

Tonight BBC Radio 3 was producing a New Generation Artists Invitation Concert; and, despite the numbers being more akin to a half-house, rather than a full-house, it proved to be a most enjoyable concert. The Ulster Orchestra was in good form; the soloists were top-rate too.

We were admirably cosmopolitan this evening: Shai Wosner, the pianist, hailed from Israel; Maxim Rysanov, the violist, was born in Ukraine; and the conductor, David Porcelijn, was Dutch. The viola is such a marvellous instrument; so expressive, I feel. Young Mr Rysanov's viola was a Guiseppe Guadagnini made in 1780, lent by the Elise Mathilde Foundation. Sounds expensive.

The audience was treated to renditions of The Bartered Bride overture, by Smetana; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, by Mozart; the Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, by Martinů; and finally Appalachian Spring, by Copland.

This was a selection of classical music that everyone could appreciate. One pretty blonde female violinist about two or three rows in front of the conductor caught my eye again. Now and again she glanced over to her left and smiled at someone - could it have been another player? At any rate, my eye kept moving back to her during the concert. I'll see her again on Friday!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Top Gear Returns

Most welcome news: The BBC's excellent flagship motoring series, Top Gear, returns to our screens on Sunday, 21st June at 8 o'clock.

It shall be good to see the familiar faces in the form of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May back again.

Disloyal Rogers

Who the blazes does Lord Rogers think he is? He's merely a modernist architect, undoubtedly being paid a handsome sum by those who favour his type of architecture; you know, that Inside-Out style, over more traditional tastes and values.

I listened to him pontificating on BBC Radio Four this morning; and I thought that the piece was unbalanced and one-sided, because there was nobody to challenge Rogers with the alternative stance. Rogers had the soap-box to himself.

Here is a man who has been hailed and honoured by New Labour socialists and others to such an extent that he sits in the House of Lords and is legally styled the Right Honourable Richard George Baron Rogers of Riverside, CH.

Rogers is a man piqued. He's a supporter and member of the Labour Party, by the way. Rogers is a man who is accustomed to getting his own way; and he has been trumped, thank Heaven, by the Prince of Wales.

I am no architect, nor an expert in any particular field. However, I do know what I like and dislike. Rogers' architectural style is modernist and "inside-out".

Prince Charles's antagonists claim that HRH is against progress, whatever that means. Nonsense. Witness HRH's excellent development at Poundbury in Dorset. If HRH believes that Rogers' proposal is unsympathetic and unsuitable, that is good enough for me. I trust Prince Charles. HRH is also right to refrain from entering a public war of words with Rogers, despite Rogers' taunts.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Ornithological Blog

I have discovered an admirable local bird blog which focuses on our feathered friends. The photography is very good indeed, as is the narrative. I've added it to my Blog List.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Bats At Castle Ward

I enjoyed an al fresco barbecue yesterday evening at the Barn on the Castle Ward estate in County Down. Craig advised us to bring the meat and drink; and he had organized everything else, including the new barbecue, coals, bread rolls, salad and sauces.

The weather was fine: sunny, dry and mild, if not exactly warm. We initially met at Terinichol and travelled the short distance to the Barn - now the wildlife centre - where we set up camp at the grassy area outside. We numbered about ten; and a good evening was had by all. I stuck to some sort of fizzy white grape juice frappé for the evening; the baby two-seater deported herself well on the journey.

Our main purpose of the evening was a Bat Count. The barn boasts an itinerant population of roughly 103 bats under the roof; and we viewed them all coming out through sky-lights at dusk. We had special high-frequency meters to hear them. Craig explained the various types of bat on the Estate; but I cannot remember which ones we saw. Craig is very knowledgeable about these little creatures; seemingly their young are known as pups.

Later on we strolled over to Temple Water to have a look, but couldn't really see anything at all.

At about 12.20 am we decided to pack up and head for home.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Chick Saved

I spotted a tiny sparrow chick in the garden this morning. It was on the lawn and a cat was watching it from about a yard away. I quickly ran downstairs and scared the cat off. The little bird seemed alive and well, as far as I could see; so I gently lifted it up on to our large feeder table. The two adult sparrows were perched on cables above and making warning calls.

I left the chick at the table and it just stayed there, quite motionless. After ten minutes, it came to life; the male adult went to an adjacent feeder; and, while the chick opened its beak and chirped, the adult fed it.

It jumped down to the ground precariously and into the foliage while the adult kept an eye on it.

That's the last I saw of it.

NI Birthday Honours 2009

Briefly perusing the Queen's Birthday Honours List (Northern Ireland) 2009, the two most notable recipients are William Hall JP, HM Lord-Lieutenant of County Down; and Dr Billy Hastings CBE.

Mr Hall receives the most senior award in the Province and becomes a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order as Sir William Hall, KCVO, JP.

The breast star of the KCVO is pictured above.

Dr Hastings has been granted a Knight Bachelorhood as Sir William Hastings, CBE. I'm only surprised that he wasn't given a knighthood a decade ago.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Store From Hell?

I am in a foul mood. I have just experienced the Tesco store at Knocknagoney that calls itself a supermarket. I blame myself, of course; I ought to have known better. What puzzles me is Why, on earth, would any consumer in their right mind choose that place to buy their groceries in? There is an abundance of alternatives in the vicinity, viz. Sainsbury's, Tesco Connswater, Tesco Holywood, Marks and Spencer at Ballyhackamore and many smaller convenience stores.

Among other items I sought a pack of sandwiches for the Dowager tomorrow, when I'm at a barbecue. At about three o'clock Tesco Knocknagoney had merely one pack of sandwiches on their shelf. How pathetic is that for any supermarket, let alone a half-finished one?

I must have made a nuisance of myself by asking four of five assistants where various items were; and the whole experience lasted about forty minutes for a basket of groceries. They'd have been better closing the place down till the newly extended store re-opens in September.

At least I now know that they have a hopeless selection of sandwiches. I require tip-top sandwiches for Wednesday evening at Castle Ward. I shall either nip into Marks and Spencer in Belfast for a proper choice; or, perish the thought, make my own!

Trooping The Colour

Here's an interesting piece by the BBC about a guardsman's preparation with his full regimental dress for the Trooping the Colour spectacle in the metropolis tomorrow.

The first battalion of the Irish Guards will lead the parade on Saturday.

Guardsman Christopher Savage is from Belfast.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Rt Hon Ian Paisley MP

Clearly there is bitter and deep-rooted personal enmity between two politicians in Northern Ireland, namely Ian Paisley and Jim Allister. Paisley has effectively challenged Allister to a political duel on his home territory of North Antrim.

Without prejudice whatsoever, I feel the time has come for Ian Paisley to accept a life Peerage and join his loving wife, the Baroness Paisley, in the Upper House. Naturally he has always been a very strong character, fiercely independent in many ways; not predisposed to accept the counsel of others gladly.

Surely it's time for Ian Paisley to announce his retirement as a Member of Parliament?

New Home Hub

I always turn my computer, router and everything else completely off after I have used it. So, in practice, that could mean eight or ten times daily; perhaps more.

On Sunday my BT Home Hub (HH) began to behave erratically. After three minutes the Internet connexion ceased and the router stopped and started. This happened every time I switched the router, or Home Hub, on.

I contacted BT and they asked me to unplug the HH and connect it directly to my land-line in the cloakroom downstairs, which I proceeded to do. Nevertheless, the fault persisted; so I phoned BT again and the outcome is that they're sending me a new HH.

I suspect I've worn the thing out by switching it on and off continually a dozen times a day! What have I learned from this? I'm going to turn it on in the morning, keep it on, and switch it off at bedtime. I asked them what they wanted me to do with the old HH and they were utterly indifferent! They may, as well, have said "bin it!"

I have just ordered a packet of eight Gillette Fusion Cartridges from Amazon, the Internet mail order company. They cost £12.99 including free delivery. At least we can assume that they are genuine, unlike the minefield of fake blades available on a prominent auction-site. If any readers know of a reputable retailer or mail-order company which sells Gillette cartridges (including delivery) cheaper, would they let me know?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

A Taxing Issue

I nipped over to Isaac Agnew's car dealership today, the purpose being to become reunited with my compact binoculars; and to collect the 12-month car tax disc in lieu of the 6-month one they has issued me with in error. It's only £35 at any rate.

I had inadvertently left the binoculars in the glove-box of the Z4, so I'd emailed Agnew's and they kindly retained them for me.

Ever an opportunist, I took advantage of being on the Boucher Road, Belfast, in order to lunch at my favourite restaurant in that vicinity, Fulton's excellent Hawthorne Restaurant.

Today I had a sublime chicken and mushroom tart - the large pieces of chicken breast were so succulent, as was the perfect melt-in-your-mouth pastry - accompanied by their side salad, coleslaw and sumptuous mustard vinegar dressing. I can't wait to return already!

At Marks and Spencer's Belfast branch I bought a pair of classic espadrilles which, at £9.50, were already good value; however, since they were offering 25% discount today, I bagged them for £7.13.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Sad Death

I have learned today of the sudden death of an old friend. She had had a urinary infection for a few weeks; and this condition was exacerbated by chronic alcoholism which ultimately took her life.

She was one of the sweetest, kindest and most caring friends I have known. We knew each other since childhood, when our fathers were active members of the Royal British Legion's erstwhile Holywood Branch in County Down. We were both the same age.

I visited her mother this afternoon with a bouquet of flowers and card.

Goldfinch Chick

I spotted our first goldfinch chick today. I heard it first; they have a most distinctive song, as they perch well within the berberis bush awaiting their parents' regurgitated grub!

Yesterday I watched eagerly as a couple of blue tit chicks were being fed by the adults.

What a wonderful sight.

Electoral Fatigue

I stayed up last night to watch the European parliamentary UK election results; till 1am at least. The devastating result for the Labour Party in Wales was remarkable. Indeed, Socialists throughout continental Europe have suffered grievously.

The Count in Northern Ireland shan't commence till this morning. Why so? Why is the Province invariably out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom? Before I condemn the authorities, I'd like to hear a cogent response as to why, given that violent unrest is largely past, the votes are not counted at the same time as those on the Mainland?

I predict that the result in Northern Ireland shall remain essentially the same, viz. two Unionists and one Irish Republican.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Sugar's Aide From NI

I do declare I had absolutely no idea that Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan Sugar's aide on the BBC's Apprentice series, hails from Holywood in County Down. I think she must have left Northern Ireland when she went to Girton College, Cambridge.

Margaret Mountford
was educated at Strathearn School in east Belfast, just round the corner from me. Strathearn is widely acknowledged as being one of the best girls' schools in the Province.

The Best Scampi

We've had our first proper drive in the new baby two-seater and we're impressed. As I mentioned earlier, I'll post a major review in a month or two; however, the little coupé is very nippy and more comfortable, in many ways, than the Z4. The driving position is noticeably higher, with good all-round vision, a large windscreen and large side-windows. We have driven about eighty miles on an eighth of a tank I think.

Enough of that. We motored southwards, down the east coast of the Ards Peninsula and through all the little villages to our destination for a snack meal at the Quay's Restaurant in Portavogie, County Down. It was quite busy, judging by the number of vehicles. I inquired about a table and there was no problem; we were shown to a small table at a side window.

We ordered prawn cocktail, served on a plate as a main course; and scampi, which was served with a little bowl of fresh chips, a dressed side salad and home-made tartare sauce. I'm not writing a major review on this occasion, except to say that it was probably the best battered scampi I've eaten for thirty years. It seemed to be the real thing; and there was a decent salad too.

I sampled the Dowager's prawn cocktail - we shared the chips - and it was one of the best also. The prawns were succulent, fat and juicy; the salad and wheaten bread were good as well. I didn't scrutinize the wheaten bread: perhaps someone could confirm whether it was made on the premises?

The Classic Prawn cocktail was £5.95; the Portavogie Scampi, salad and chips £10.95. Including two fizzy apple juices, the bill amounted to a neat £20.60 and we left a £2 tip.

The inevitable conclusion is that the Quay's Restaurant serves the best battered scampi that I am aware of; unless there are any further nominations? Interestingly, this establishment is the Province's most easterly seafood restaurant and bar. We must remember to wave over to our cousins in Scotland the next time.

Solar Protection?

I've just been reading an interesting piece in today's Sunday Times newspaper; the article is actually by Which?, the consumer magazine. It is about sun lotions.

Apparently some large retailers are up to their old tricks again, claiming that particular lotions boast a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of, say, 15 when the actual level of SPF is as low as 9.3! How misleading is that? The mighty Tesco hasn't come out of this survey unscathed, either.

Which? recommends ASDA as their principal Best Buy at £3. Their Factor 15 is nearer to an SPF of 24; Nivea, Superdrug and Boots are commended as well.

I imagine such premium brands as Piz Buin offer the genuine article and SPF, at a price. If you are that fussy about Label Image, buy the ASDA stuff and decant it into a Piz Buin bottle!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Cuff-Links Revived

I placed the nine carat gold cuff-links in a thimbleful of pure ammonia - what a pungent pong! - and let them stew therein for awhile. They seem to date from 1923.

The ammonia is so powerful - even abrasive - that it has removed all vestiges of grease and grime, mostly from the tiny links.

They are now in fine condition.

Extraordinary Rediscovery

When I was collecting the new baby two-seater a few days ago I needed something to carry all the documentation and paraphernalia. I spotted an old brief-case atop a wardrobe, so hauled that down for the requisite purpose.

I was removing the papers from it yesterday and a small, oblong box - you know the kind that rings and studs are kept in - was tucked away in a corner. I instantly realized that I had made a miraculous discovery: I'd found my long-lost cuff-links.

Five years ago we had an intruder alarm installed and the two technicians had the run of the house for half a day. About a week after they'd left, I was looking for a pair of cuff-links and couldn't find them. I turned the house upside down - or so I thought - in vain. I knew that these were my favourite and best cuff-links; they were my late father's and of sentimental value too.

I came to the alarming conclusion - wrongly, it it has transpired - that the box had been stolen by one of the technicians. Notice the gratuitous pun there? Naturally I did nothing at the time because I could prove nothing; I simply believed that one of the technicians had pocketed my property.

Can you imagine how I felt, after five years, when I became re-united with them? The ones on the left are hall-marked "9 .375 with an anchor, a letter Y, and the Maker's Mark "JC" - G H Johnstone & Company of Northampton Street and Hatton Garden, London. I think the letter Y indicates a date of 1923.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Battered Scampi

I have a confession: I crave battered scampi. Not the run-of-the-mill breaded or battered stuff obtainable from supermarkets; nor the banal, so-called "scampi" featuring on menus in certain restaurants.

No, I refer to real scampi, otherwise known as langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns. I prefer it lightly battered and served with real French-fried potatoes which are crisp and dry on the exterior; and lightly fluffy on the interior. A garnish of lettuce, tomato and garden peas would also suffice. Sauce Tartare is essential for me, too; I can take it by the barrel-load.

I am making a call, indeed a plea, from the wilderness here: does anyone know of an establishment in Northern Ireland which serves genuine, freshly-battered langoustines as described above? If so, please do let me know.

Undoubtedly there are establishments in the Metropolis - you know, in Mayfair or St James's - which come up to the mark. Opulent, smart, carpeted, wood-panelled restaurants with a reverential ambiance; not necessarily fish restaurants, though ones which cater for and are attuned to the traditional British palate. Northern Ireland is bereft of such grill-rooms and brasseries, is it not?

Addendum: The Lobster Pot restaurant in Strangford served truly delicious scampi and chips thirty years ago; as did the Saltwater Brig bar near Kircubbin in County Down.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Very First Jay

I was looking out at the bird feeders in the garden this afternoon - an abundance of my goldfinches as usual - and the spectacle of a jay caught my eye; the very first jay I've seen in our garden. What a handsome bird. I have seen them in forests and woodland before; but not in a suburban setting.

An Infant Safely Delivered

The deal is done. I collected the baby two-seater this morning. You have to hand it to Agnew's - they know how to treat new customers, because I received a fancy Cross pen in a box; a large bouquet of flowers; and a full tank of petrol as promised.

I'm still new-fangled with the diminutive coupé, so I'll post a major review in the fullness of time. However I am delighted with the metallic grey colour, the specification and the chrome pack (which is actually rather discreet).

Here are a few photographs taken this morning at Stormont:-

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Day's Good Deed

Strolling through the indoor gardening warehouse at B&Q today, my spirits lifted considerably when I spotted a lovely little pied wagtail walking ahead of me, quite nonchalantly. I was slightly concerned that it would find its way out again, so I kept an eye on it.

Sure enough, it eventually flew to the large windows and repeatedly tried to fly out; in vain as it happened and the wonderful little creature was becoming exhausted since its beak was wide open.

I persevered and, after ten minutes, cornered it at a window; gently handled it with both hands; and carried it to the exit where my joy was boundless as it flew away.

Princess Royal's NI Visit

Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal is visiting Northern Ireland today. HRH is President of the British Olympic Association.

Her Majesty's Ministry

Ever since it came to Power, the Labour Government has been eager to repeal many of our traditions and British ways of life; not least the Executive, and the Legislature, viz. the abolition of our hereditary Peerage in the House of Lords.

The socialist Government has almost irretrievably meddled with the Offices of State within Her Majesty's Ministry and, in particular, the Cabinet.

The four great Offices of State, namely Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury; Secretary of State for the Home Department; Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; and Chancellor of the Exchequer remain in name at least. The Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the Secretary of State for Defence and some other departments remain.

One of the primary New Labour casualties has been the Office of Lord High Chancellor, now known commonly as the Justice Secretary.

The New Labour regime has unceremoniously got rid of these traditional departments:-

  • the Secretary of State for Industry
  • the Secretary of State for Employment
  • the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
  • the Secretary of State for Trade
  • the Secretary of State for Education and Science
They have whimsically added several new ministries as pet projects of their own, viz. International Development; Communities and Local Government; Women and Equalities; Children, Schools and Families; Climate Change; Work and Pensions; Culture, Media and Sport; and Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Feeling a measure of reactionary zeal today, I wish Mr Cameron's new government would reinstate our traditional ministries within eighteen months of Office, thereby saving many millions of pounds to the Taxpayer, courtesy of socialist lavishness at our expense.

The Leinster Arms

The similarities between the coat-of-arms of the Dukes of Leinster and the Barons de Ros are quite obvious, thus indicating the marital lineage of the two families.

Whilst the crest and the supporters differ, the arms Argent, a saltire gules - or the saltire of St Patrick as we now know it - feature predominantly.

The motto, Crom A Boo - Crom to Victory - is the same.

His Grace the Duke of Leinster is the Premier Duke, Marquess and Earl of Ireland; while the Lord de Ros is the Premier Baron of England. Both families share extraordinary lineages.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Portballintrae Weekend

What a popular little resort Portballintrae is. It lies between Portrush and Bushmills in County Antrim. Incidentally, we are particularly fond of Bushmills. For a small village, it boasts a good number of restaurants, small supermarkets, a hardware store, bakery, butchery, chip shops and much more besides.

We dined on Sunday evening at probably my favourite hotel in Northern Ireland: the Bushmills Inn. Whilst it may not technically be a five-star hotel, it exudes that aura of old-fashioned service, charm, opulence, character and style which comes with decades of experience. This excellence is reflected in its patrons, many of them tourists and golfers from North America and further afield. This hotel is attuned to its patrons and caters for their needs and demands. Since there was a large number of Canadian guests staying there, the Canadian flag was being flown. The hotel has been tastefully extended recently.

We had an aperitif in the lounge-bar. The range of spirits and liquors in general is impressive; so I ordered a Tanqueray gin and tonic. At seven forty-five we made our way into the dining-room, where I enjoyed a prime Ulster fillet steak with garlic fried potatoes and sliced mushrooms. My pudding was sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream. The steak was thick and quite rare. I'd requested it to be served medium; however, I still enjoyed it. The Dowager had a starter of prawns and crab served in a ramekin.

We shared a glass of port at the end of our meal. I noticed an expensive Cognac costing £75 a glass! One minor quibble I have with restaurants in general is that many no longer serve a garnish with meals; even a token garnish of lettuce and tomato would suffice. Main courses seem bare without this. The Bushmills Inn is not the most economical of establishments; however, their service, standards, stylishness, ambiance and character more than compensate for this extra expenditure.

I'm afraid I am unable to extend the same compliment to the Causeway Hotel. It is, and always has been, popular. The occasional coach-load is testament to that. Whereas the Bushmills Inn aspires to five-star standards, the Causeway Hotel makes no pretensions to attain this level of service and cuisine. Portions are exceptionally generous. I was disappointed that my favourite battered scampi was omitted from the menus - although there was breaded scampi. I had the chilli beef in pitta bread with an Oriental sauce and stir-fried vegetables. Whilst it was tasty, it was rather unappealingly served on the plate.

Many of the staff seem to be young students with limited experience of catering for discerning guests. Nevertheless, I do like the old-fashioned, traditional atmosphere of the Causeway Hotel and we shall doubtless revisit in due course. It is considerably less expensive than the Bushmills Inn and the lounge-bar is particularly popular for meals.

To return to the village of Portballintrae: after breakfast every morning I strolled above the cliff to Seaport Lodge and harbour. I revelled in watching the gorgeous little sand martens flying swiftly over the calm sea and perching on an old cable. Seaport Lodge is currently undergoing major renovations.

Seaport is quite a modest, two-storey bow-fronted house built around 1770 for James Leslie as a marine residence and bathing lodge. I had an amble round the surrounding field and noticed a curious structure built into the hill, now roofless. Could it have been an ice-house? The lodge itself has a round-headed entrance door in bow; ground-floor windows are round-headed. There are single-storey bows in the end elevations, with similar windows; and a conspicuous balustraded roof parapet. The interior oval hall has a Classical plasterwork ceiling. Seaport is presently white; though it is believed that grey was the original colour.

Seaport Lodge has the most commanding prospect of Portballintrae. Sweeney's bar was formerly the gate lodge to the House.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Home Again

We have arrived home this afternoon. What a scorcher it has been. Unsurprisingly, it was a busy weekend at Portballintrae, County Antrim. We have dined at the Causeway Hotel and the Bushmills Inn Hotel. We'd intended lunching today at the Bushmills Garden Centre; however, in the event, we just decided to drive home directly.

I've been endeavouring to keep fuel levels in the two-seater low. Despite this action, I still had to put a fiver's worth of petrol into the tank before we motored home. The orange warning light continues to remind me of the low reserves, though I have five-litre plastic can in the boot.