Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Struggling Garden, or Everyone should grow an avocado!

We live in a row of back-to-back terraces. There is a small square of concrete out back, just right for storing bicycles, catching glimpses of our neighbour sunbathing in the nude, and potting up a few plants. Alas, the vagaries of the twenty-first century British summer prove unkind to both naturists and garden pots.

I already had a strawberry, purchased late last summer, which had gamely survived the winter. I sowed seeds in April: aster, dwarf sunflower, and nasturtium. A little later I sowed some basil. Seeds are cheap, and it's uplifting to watch them sprout. And sprout they did; spring was late, but everything germinated nicely.

As you can see from the photo, taken late July, they have done little since. Relentless rain and cool temperatures have failed to inspire. The nasturtiums fell victim to blackfly. But what a lovely plant stand!

Well, the bucket is a nice colour.

But this is the Struggling Garden , not the Fail Garden, so let us consider the successes.The strawberry did fruit, if unspectacularly, and the blackbirds were happy enough to partake of it. That lush little pot in the foreground is an alpine plant I bought in Newgate Market called rock cress.  The large pot next to the rock cress contains an avocado pit, also planted in April; it is just now beginning to sprout. I grew an avocado in Manchester and I knew to be patient. (I also now know to prune it WELL before it reaches the ceiling of one's flat.)

The most successful plant of all is now in flower: a buddleia growing in the wall of our toilet block.

Likes full sun, attracts butterflies, controls minds.

Please excuse the poor quality of this photograph; it really does not do justice to the majesty of this shrub. This is taken from an upstairs window. We do not have access to that side of the block. Our neighbours to the back of us were so impressed, indeed, alarmed at the robustness of this fellow that they took a much better photograph of it, printed it out and gave it to us along with a note (because this is York and people are actually nice to each other here) pointing out that it was destroying the wall . I passed the note along to the letting agency six or so weeks ago and never heard from them again. Maybe this buddleia has powers we don't know about...

When the last of the bedding plants go on sale in late August and September, if I can afford it, I may buy a few and pot them up so we can have a least a few weeks of colour out back. In the meantime, I can enjoy the vivid planters lining the streets of York, keeping our fair city fair.

And next year? More alpine plants. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Pubs within a 15-minute stagger of my flat #2: The Ackhorne

The Ackhorne
Walking time: Two minutes 38 seconds
Real ale: Yes
Food: Yes
Pickled eggs: Yes

The Ackhorne is one of my locals. (As a resident of York I am allowed to have more than one.) The Ackhorne is on St. Martin's Lane, a snickleway between Micklegate and Bishophill running next to the spooky (is there any other kind?) medieval church of St. Martin-cum-Gregory. A snickleway that, alas, can sport more than its fair share of pavement pizza. While the pub is neatly tucked away, its proximity to Micklegate leaves it vulnerable to visits from the wasted and scantily clad. However, it is far more likely to be used as a pre-club warm-up rather than the scene of irritating hen night shenanigans, and weekday nights tend to be quiet. There is a resident black cat, who, while she does not express interest in you, graciously does not mind if you sit in her pub.

The Ackhorne is open from noon and serves food, so it makes a nice place for a break. The afternoons see a handful of regulars who stop in for a pint and a skimming of the papers. There is usually a copy of The Press (York's local rag) around, and also, unfortunately, the Daily Mail. And I am not the only person to sit with Old Rosie and do some writing.

I don't think I've actually ever had a beer at the Ackhorne. This is only because they always have Old Rosie on tap. Old Rosie is my favourite scrumpy in all the world: cloudy, not too sweet. A half of that makes you feel like everything is going to be all right. More than one and you are ready to take on the world. Geoboy has had the real ale here and gives it the thumbs up. He recommends the Roosters Yankee.

The food is standard hearty pub fare, nothing special, but good value: generous portions for not much money. A giant bowl of vegetarian chili with chips set me back a fiver and kept me sated for many an hour.

The popular Ackhorne pub quiz is held on Sunday nights. I've done it once, and found it a bit hard, but it was fun. They put free food out which is a nice touch. Anyone caught using his phone to cheat gets the pub cat thrown in his face. And the team with the lowest score wins a pickled egg. With an incentive like that, why try to win?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Stairwell of Doom

We have our own front door these days. When you open it you are greeted by these stairs.

Please admire the dirt-coloured carpet.

The stairs are steep, and for whatever reason, the steps themselves are small, forcing you to descend at an angle. Maybe folks had itty bitty feet in the 1880s.  Fortunately, there is a handrail for clinging on to.

The stairwell was intimidating when we first moved in. The bedrooms are upstairs, while the bathroom is on the ground floor where it no doubt began life as a haunted, unheated outhouse. These days it is a fully tiled part of the flat with all the mod cons, including a particularly useless heated towel rack I wish I could turn off some way besides removing the fuse.

So there you are, your first night in your new place, trying to get used to the new sounds and smells and debilitating feng shui and what have you. Then you have to get up to go for a pee, which involves getting down the stairs without taking a tumble and snapping your neck and you start thinking how, really, chamber pots make an awful lot of sense when you think about it...

I am used to the stairs now. They are less scary, although it will always be a challenge to take a cup of tea up, and if I am using legs fatigued from running, the trip down makes me consider completing the journey by shuffling on my butt.

There is a loft at the top of the stairs, and in theory, if we could reach it, it would be a good place to store camping gear and suchlike. But this is York, so you just know it's packed with slumbering night-gaunts waiting for some fool to free them to raven and slay. And for once that fool ain't gonna be me.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Spoken Word

I went to an open mic called The Spoken Word last night at the Exhibition Hotel, just outside Bootham Bar, very close to some big church the locals call the "Minster".

I hadn't been to this pub before. It seems a popular place (location location location!) and they serve food til late. Unfortunately there was only one bartender on and he was a foetus at that (if you're out of Golden Pippin, turn the clip around, you fool). The open mic was in the conservatory in the back.

The crowd was almost entirely white, middle-aged and middle class, but it's not like people can help being these things. I was one of four people with North American accents. Everyone seemed to know each other and they were welcoming to a new face. The atmosphere was that of a salon in someone's glass-walled parlour.

I seem to be meeting a lot of retirees. Not that this is a bad thing, but I think I would like to meet some people my own age, if only for the shared pop culture references. How do you meet people in their thirties, anyway? Or in their forties, for that matter? Are they all busy hatching children and only make friends with other parents?

Participants can read pretty much anything that takes their fancy; it doesn't have to be one's own work. There is a sort-of theme (this month's was "goodbye summer, hello fall colour"), but it's only a suggestion. There was a lot of poetry and a few short stories, but there was also a reading from a musty old book of observational essays about trains by Hamilton Ellis. I live with a train geek, and try as I might, I just don't feel the pants-peeing excitement at the sight of a Deltic like some of these people do. But it added to the variety of the night.

The Spoken Word wasn't the late, lamented Freed Up of Manchester's greenroom (R.I.P.), but it was very good in its own way. The quality of the original writing was high, although naturally some of it grabbed me more than others. Mostly I was impressed by the voices themselves: these people are skilled orators.

It was a friendly crowd and I was encouraged to participate. "I write, but I don't speak," I explained feebly. That's ok! you can read someone else's work, or someone else can read your work! they said. I get a lot out of attending performances (beats watching tv, or it would if I had one), but I really don't have any interest in performing myself, so I will have to give it some thought. 

For some reason, several plates of lovely greasy pub food arrived at the interval (a couple of pizzas, chips, cheesy chips (woo!), sausages). As the night was free, this was all the more surprising. A gift from the creative writing gods? Alas, I wasn't hungry so I didn't have any. There's always next month.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

York, Cycling City: Skipwith Challenge

As someone who needs to meet people, learn the area and maybe shift a few pounds, I could do worse than join a guided group cycle through the countryside. I've been on a few group rides organised by the city council with support from Sustrans. Many of these are shorter rides aimed at less experienced riders. Saturday was a longer day out, the "Skipwith Challenge".

The total distance was about 30 miles. I even got Geoboy to go with me, although the pace was very slow for him and his skinny-tyred racing bike that weighs about two ounces. It's more of a steady social ride than a training session. It was very friendly, and it was refreshing to spend a day in the open air.

The first place to receive funding under the Cycling City project was Bristol. On the one hand, they didn't meet their target of doubling the number of regular cyclists. On the other hand, they have increased it by a third. Is this really failure? (Read the BBC article here, and marvel at the density of the logic-challenged Tory councillor quoted at the end.) Mostly, the schemes seem to make people who already cycle happier and encourage them to cycle more. Reaching non-cyclers is more difficult.

I certainly have been doing more cycling in my short time here. There are good places to do it, and drivers are much better about sharing the road here than in Manchester. This may be further confirmation of the research suggesting that places where more people cycle tend to be safer for cyclists. Or it may be evidence supporting the idea that, as another cyclist put it, "York is a very civilised place". (He then went on to ask if I'd been to Evensong at the Minster.)

There were nine of us altogether including our two stalwart guides, Colin and Jenny. We had mounts of many species and riders of all ages. Colin gets a lot of miles in, and is apparently in his seventies, although you'd never guess it by his fresh face and sinewy calves.

The original plan, as the name suggests, was to stop in Skipwith at the Drovers Arms. It was temporarily closed for reburfishment, though, so we went on to the Jefferson Arms at Thorganby. The address is Main Street, to which I can only say, "Main Street? It's the ONLY street!"

It was a bit posh, but, as this is Yorkshire, also relaxed. On the wall next to the fireplace in the bar area hangs an autographed photograph of the cast of Coronation Street. (I guess Emmerdale hasn't made it in yet.) The staff didn't seem to mind having a group of grotty cyclists slouch over their linen tablecloths. The food was a little pricey. I had a mozzarella sandwich and fries while Geoboy ordered a plate of meat. Er, breakfast. The Golden Pippin was in fine form.

The route took us through a sizable nature reserve called Skipwith Common. Unfortunately, the road surface was terrible, so instead of admiring the scenery I was busy watching the ground and listening to my brains rattle around my skull. I will have to go back and take a walk there. But that is another post for another day.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Castle, prison, law court, tourist attraction: Clifford's Tower

Over the river from my neighbourhood, Bishophill, rest the remains of York Castle. There was a small motte and bailey castle on the corner of Bishophill as well, Baile Hill. It's an odd feeling passing a mound of earth erected by William the Conqueror on your way to buy potatoes. Such is life in York.

Postcards of Clifford's Tower tend to leave out the street. Not only have I included the street, I have gone one better and captured a park 'n' ride bendy bus for you. A nice photographic reminder that bringing your car into York is an  utterly stupid thing to do.

Fortunately, I was not wearing high heels this day.

After coughing up £3.50, I am admitted to the interior.

The discolouration on parts of the walls happened after the tower accidently-on-purpose went on fire in 1684, which is why it has no longer has certain homely amenities such as a roof.

On to the main reason to visit Clifford's Tower: the view.
Looking towards the Minster.
Unless you're a gargoyle on a certain local landmark, the views of the city from here are hard to top. I can (almost) see my flat!

Looking towards Bishophill. You can see a bit of the River Ouse on the left.

After the wordiness of the Mickelgate Bar Museum, it was refreshing to visit a place that keeps signage to a minimum. Unfortunately, this also meant that a placard recounting the horrific suicide/massacre of 150 Jews in 1190 failed to include much of the context of the event (you can read more about it here). I remember it every time I pass the tower, and experience a melancholic dissonance when the ramparts are plastered with tourists lazing amongst the buttercups. I wonder if they know what happened there.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A walk from Malton to Malton

On Saturday, Geoboy and I took a walk out of Malton. I have a soft spot for Malton because it is the home of Clear Spot organic tofu, the one with the picture of Captain Bean Curd on the box. He navigated (Geoboy, that is, not Captain Bean Curd, although considering the way things went, we might have been better off with the seafaring soya product in charge).

We began by taking part of the Centenary Way , "a route devised to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Yorkshire County Council" in 1989. An odd thing to commemorate if you ask me, but at least it's not yet another gruesome blood-soaked battle, plus it gives ramblers another walking path.

Between the railway and the River Derwent.

The weather was pretty good most of the time, giving us views of the Yorkshire Yorkshire-people like to think of when they think of Yorkshire.

Ee, by gum

The route took us through a small nature reserve called Jeffry Bog, a designated Site of Scientifc Interest.

The plan was to be in the pub by the time a predicted afternoon shower arrived. Alas, everything seemed to be a bit further away than our navigator thought, and we got rained on good and hard. We did eventually make it to the Stone Trough Inn for a rest and a couple of pints. I can heartily recommend the cheesy chips.

Just down the hill from the pub is the spectacular, ominous ruin of Kirkham Priory.

We crossed this suspension footbridge on the way back. It bounces! (Time to lay off the cheesy chips? Nah.)

Near the end of our walk, we found a new form of life. 

Either that or an old discarded hoover.

Back where we started, we hobbled into The New Malton, a recently refurbished pub and restaurant on the marketplace. I may have mentioned that our navvy kept understimating distances. Part of our route was on one side of the map, and t'other on t'other. Apparently this caused a few miles to fall out of his head. In the end, our six to seven mile route had become twelve and a half miles. Whoopsie! We made it back in one piece, though. More or less.