Thursday, 31 January 2008

Jeeves & Slippers

The Tesco Metro in Royal Avenue, Belfast, has apparently been having a major facelift: it's completely enveloped in a painted shroud to protect the general public from dust and loose masonry. This work must be costing Tesco a fortune; however, they are the people who can afford it no matter what it costs!

In its previous life, as a bank, I worked there for a while in what is now the off-licence section adjacent to the Ulster Reform Club's premises. Of course it's totally unrecognizable now, inside, since it was once a very busy cash centre beside the main banking-hall. The tens of millions billions of pounds that passed through that place would astound you. I remember it well. To its credit, Tesco has spent a great deal of money in its restoration. I look forward to seeing the old building when it is unwrapped.

Battered by the gale-force winds, I ambled into Marks & Spencer to see their slippers: not greatly excited by what I saw, I left with my wallet intact! I got the lift down to the food-hall to see what they sold in the way of free-range chicken: as you'd anticipate, mostly the battery variety. You'd have thought that M&S would have had greater demand for free-range produce. Seemingly not in Belfast.

There was no joy in the second-hand bookshop at North Street, as far as P G Wodehouse was concerned! Instead I'm watching Ebay.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Car And Computer

I drove my car to a local garage for its annual service today. Its mileage is 18,000 and I supplied them with the oil, Halford's fully synthetic.

I was phoned at lunch-time to let me know that it was ready. They said the brake pads needed replacing too. The bill came to £140: dear enough, considering I'd supplied the oil. The mechanic admired the old two-seater, telling me he deemed it a "very clean car". Just as well that it was a fine day: I walked there and back to collect the car.

Whilst at home, I wasted ages on my computer endeavouring to fix its poor performance, to no avail. I've tried almost everything. You name it. In the end, I bought the much-lauded Registry Mechanic on Ebay for $19.95, or £10.25. They send you a digital code. I'm hoping this may help matters because I can't think of anything else except, perhaps, a new router.

I've also installed AVG's free anti-spyware, on top of two other spyware programmes.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Gillette Fusion Razor Trial

I'm currently evaluating the Gillette Fusion razor, so I'll post my assessment of it, compared to the Mach Three I've been using for many years, whenever the blade is worn out.

The razor shown to the right is my Trumper razor with a Mach 3 blade.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Sunday Drive To Gibb's Island & The Dufferin Arms

I'm glad we decided to go for a drive today. The weather didn't look too promising at first; however, we set off towards a National Trust property which is just beyond Killyleagh, County Down. It's called Gibb's Island.

The island itself is at the end of a very narrow road, or lane, which is about half a mile in length. It's now really a peninsula because there's a permanent causeway linking it to the mainland. It's very small; you could run around it in less than five minutes I suppose. The grass was mown last autumn and it's still short; however, in the summer months, it is a glorious meadow with wild flowers, butterflies et al. There's a wood at the top of the island, surrounded by a stone wall. Such a picturesque place; heavenly on a warm, summer's day and ideal for picnicking.

On our way there, we passed a few old haunts: namely Lisbarnett Inn and Balloo House. Nevertheless we drove onwards to Gibb's and then re-traced our route to the village of Killyleagh, where I stretched my legs at what remained of the old harbour and is now surrounded by apartments.

We drove on up the main street towards the castle and down another main street, stopping outside the Dufferin Arms. I cannot recall ever having been in the Dufferin Arms, even though I'd heard it mentioned often enough. It was open for lunches, so we ventured in.

It's main entrance is unsuitable for disabled people because there's a set of about four or five tallish steps. We were unsure where the bar snacks were served, so we turned left and into an old-fashioned, quite austere dining-room where there were about ten diners. I enquired if this was the right room for lunch and the waitress replied in the affirmative.

As I said previously, the dining-room is quite plain and austere, perhaps fifteen feet square, with a piano at one corner; about forty-one framed pictures and old notices on the walls; a glass cabinet near the ceiling at one corner with a stuffed weasel or stoat; stuffed ducks in another corner; a log-burner at the fireplace; an old wooden floor, mostly round tables with old-fashioned dining-chairs. The décor was magnolia. Overall, it looked about fifty years old in appearance. It was perhaps reminiscent of an old vernacular farmhouse.

We ordered one prawn open sandwich at £7.50 and one small chowder at £3.95. My prawn open was one of the largest I've ever had! My plate was piled high with lettuce, mixed peppers, scallion (spring onion to non-Ulster readers!), olives, tomato, carrot, redcurrant, coleslaw and, of course, juicy prawns with sauce and unbuttered wheaten bread. I thought it was very good. If I'm being fussy I suppose some of the lettuce could have been swapped for grated cheese and a little hard-boiled egg; however, I enjoyed it.

The Dowager had the chowder. She said she didn't like it; that it was chewy & tough (presumably some of the seafood). I saw it and it looked good: there seemed to be more seafood than soup! It was a meal in itself. I'm not particularly fond of chowders so I can't make a fair judgement. Fresh, crusty bread and butter was included too.

I felt the menu and quality of the food was good. the staff were agreeable and attentive. Our total bill came to £14.65 and a tip of ten per cent.

I invariably prefer traditional establishments to the contemporary variety; however, in this instance I have to confess there was a little indifference with respect to the décor and ambiance. I refer only to this one dining-room; not the others which I don't know about. Perhaps it is an acquired taste.

Anyone else could have been mistaken for thinking that the Dufferin Arms is owned by Guinness, because the staff wore Guinness shirts, there were Guinness beer-mats; lots of Guinness framed posters; and Guinness was writ large on the front door. This establishment is not, sadly, the only bar in the Province which has succumbed to Guinness's blatant marketing, which I detest. A few beer-mats, their name on the bottles and beer taps ought to be enough. Tell companies like Guinness what to do with their advertisements and if they object or refuse to supply you, sue them or bring them before a tribunal. Didn't Weatherspoons pick a fight with them years ago over refusal to supply or whatever? I think they caved in, in the end. Obviously Money plays a part in this, whether it be stout, whisky, gin or any brand. Guinness, however, seems to predominate. They couldn't pay me to put their name on anything I own. Do publicans earn a bonus or a concession if they flaunt such merchandise? Enough: that's my rant for today.

So we're home safely after a pleasant day out.

Shifting Shores

Craig, who is the National Trust Warden of Strangford Lough, presented us with a thought-provoking pamphlet yesterday entitled Shifting Shores: Living With A Changing Coastline. This publication has been commissioned by the Trust and written by a team of experts from Ulster's two universities.

It focuses on three sites in the Province: the Giant's Causeway; Strangford Lough; and Murlough. The Report theorizes on the possible consequences of climate change on these places within the next hundred years.

It's not a long booklet: it runs to about sixteen pages with plenty of illustrations. However, it's interesting to learn about their predictions, how sea levels will rise; and how this will affect our coastline.

It concludes by suggesting that we should basically let the forces of Nature take their course, not resisting them. For example, we can plan ahead by re-locating paths or roads which are too close to eroding coastline; helping to protect threatened flora and fauna by re-locating what we can inland or to another location: working with Nature.

They reckon that the average sea-level could potentially rise by up to one metre by 2100.

The National Trust has, yet again, been proactive in leading the way for government with this kind of research. It's time for the authorities to start planning for the future now.

My picture above shows the tiny hamlet of Portbradden in County Antrim.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

The View From Anne's Point

Anne's Point is located at the opposite side of the main road from the Temple of the Winds at Mount Stewart. If you walk along the footpath you'll notice a willow tunnel, which runs alongside a little river and towards the man-made lagoon.

Although the temperature was about 10c, it felt colder due to the biting wind. We walked from the mount Stewart car park to the willow tunnel and, armed with loppers, saws, gloves etc, we started tidying up the tunnel.

There were seven of us today and we enjoyed a good old natter while we worked. I was equipped with my usual flask of hot water, tea-bags, milk, Castle Howard mug, a Tex-Mex wrap and a chunky Kit-Kat bar.

We remained till about three o'clock. The view from Anne's point is quite spectacular, with Chapel Island in the distance. We could hear the familiar sounds of ducks and geese nearby.

Craig told us that the National Trust would be renovating the bothy on Salt Island within the next few months, which is great news. I haven't been to Salt Island for more than twenty years, so I look forward to getting back for a weekend.

All in all, a good day with plenty of fresh, invigorating air.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Tesco Finest Handcooked Cheddar & Onion Crisps

I do enjoy a good packet of crisps now and again; when younger, my favourite crisps were Tayto Cheese & Onion and I still consider them to rank amongst the best.

More recently I've been buying Tesco's Finest Hand-cooked crisps, the mature cheddar & caramelized onion variety and, if you like a good, strong flavour these are top-rate.

I particularly noticed that the spuds come from the British Isles and there's a picture on the packet of a castle which may, or may not, be that of Tandragee Castle. A "converted 17th century castle in the rolling hills of County Armagh" is mentioned.

I believe that these exceedingly good crisps are made for Tesco by Tayto. Never let it be said that Timothy Belmont doesn't do his bit for the Northern Ireland economy!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Commander James Bond, CMG, RNVR, 007

The new James Bond film's title has just been announced: Quantum Of Solace. I enjoyed Casino Royale and expect the new one will not disappoint either.

A very beautiful gorgeous Ukrainian actress, Olga Kurylenko, will feature in the new movie which opens in November.

The Case Of The Missing Cuff-links

Several years ago, we installed an intruder alarm system. Two members of staff from the company came and fitted it, the installation requiring them to access various parts of the house including the loft and landing area upstairs. I left them to it, and stayed downstairs most of the time; my bed-room door was ajar.

A few weeks later I opened the drawer where I kept my cuff-links and two pairs of them were missing. I searched the whole house for them and left no stone unturned. I even thought that I'd hidden them.

They still haven't turned up; it's certainly ironical that they went missing immediately after we had a burglar alarm fitted. Of course I cannot prove anything, nor can I apportion blame without evidence. It can be surmised as to what the police reaction would have been, had I contacted them.

So these cuff-links were my favourites: a pair of gold, oval ones with tiny links; and a pair of my late father's which were military. I have other cuff-links: one pair gold and the other pair sterling silver Mont Blanc quill feather ones.

I fancy a pair from a shop in Bond Street called Bentley & Skinner, which sells such accessories; I've never been inside, but always window-shop whenever I pass by!

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

BBC Northern Ireland's Grasp Of Improper Terminology

At some risk of being accused of pedantry by BBC Northern Ireland, I notice in their latest article about Sir Ronnie Flanagan GBE that they refer to Sir Ronnie continually as "Mr Flanagan".

This poor grammar terminology seems to occur on a regular basis with BBC NI. Perhaps certain editors and staff should be sent on an elementary English language grammatical terminology course in conjunction with visiting their library.

The BBC ought to excel at Terminology and correct usage of grammar; didn't they invent the term Political Correctness?

Oil Dine At Fulton's Again!

Since the sprightly two-seater is being serviced next week and having been recommended the requisite oil, we ventured to Halford's at Boucher Road, Belfast, in order to buy a load of the stuff. I bought seven litres which cost £46: almost as dear as brandy. I was accosted by a particularly pushy salesman in the store who tried to interest me in one of their credit cards (why, on earth, would I want another credit card?).

From Halford's, we motored on to Fulton's splendid, self-service Hawthorne Restaurant via the Smart Car Centre: I had a little look at the latest models; very cute little things. I couldn't locate the button to open the boot. There was no sign of the Brabus model on display. A receptionist approached me and asked if I needed assistance, so I enquired about the Brabus and she said she'd get a sales person. I waited for over five minutes and nobody appeared, so I took a brochure and left. When you need 'em they're invisible and when you don't need them they suddenly accost you. Typical.

At Fulton's, having arrived shortly after midday, I joined the small, five-minute queue and ordered their savoury mince tart with salad and coleslaw (you'll have gathered by now that Timothy Belmont is rather fond of coleslaw); a bowl of stew; and a huge portion of lemon meringue pie with whipped cream, which we shared. Everything was absolutely delicious. The bill for two came to £17.70.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Classic Blue Plain Shirt

So far, it's been a fairly uneventful week. The weather's been so boring; fine for ducks mind you.
When I turned on the computer to connect to the web this morning, a rummy thing occurred: it would not connect me! It said there was an "error 721". I persisted to no avail and, eventually, "error 718" popped up. This seldom happens and I normally get connected instantly.

I decided to be patient and leave it for an hour. This strategy paid off: I finally got connected at last. Perhaps BT was overwhelmed by floods and rain!

I booked the annual car service for next week with a local garage, DS Motors, on Parkgate Avenue; I've used them before and thought they always did a good job. I told them that I'd supply my own oil, Halford's fully synthetic which is reckoned to be at least as good as BMW's Longlife oil.
I'll need six and a half litres.

The blue shirt I won a bid on with Ebay arrived today. It seems perfect; just what I wanted. I had been keeping an eye on one at Turnbull & Asser, which costs seventy-five pounds. I had hoped that it would have featured in their winter sale but, sadly, no: because the plain blue is a classic, it's not in the sale. Perhaps it's for the best, since I grabbed the considerably cheaper Ebay bargain for £6.99 plus postage. It's plain blue, cutaway collar, pure cotton, ex-M&S, and fits well too.

I have four shirts from Turnbull's: some are pretty ancient, still serviceable though; I bought one last year, which is a single cuff(so two are single cuff & two are double cuff). I'm tired of the double cuff variety and I have too many of them. Turnbull's original shop is in Jermyn Street, London.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Trip To Royal Victoria Hospital In Belfast

We braved the elements today and drove to the New Building at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where my aunt had an appointment. The West Link still appears to be in a state of considerable upheaval, the inclement weather hindering traffic even more.

We found the New Building quickly: it's hard to miss. I managed to get parked close to the entrance. While my aunt was in the hospital, I watched a classic Dad's Army DVD and this kept me amused for the duration.

I'm just enjoying a modest restorative at present...

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Great British Sunday Roast

Today has been so dreary, damp and dull; I haven't left home at all and the car has remained in the garage.

Instead, we pulled out all the stops (possibly the fourth Lord Dunleath's favourite catchphrase!) and indulged in a roast dinner: free range British chicken breasts from the Province; roast Maris Piper potatoes from Ulster too; pork, sage & onion sausagemeat stuffing; and pork cocktail sausage & bacon rolls. The sole non-British vegetables were sugarsnap peas from Egypt.

I whacked the lot in the oven, the potatoes half an hour before the rest. The peas were simmered on the hob. Everything was drizzled with a concoction of sunflower oil, honey and soy sauce.

So, please take note Sir Stuart, that everything except the peas was British, unlike Marks & Spencer which once proudly proclaimed on its carrier bags that over eighty per cent of its goods were British. Presumably St Michael can ill-afford to buy British these days: it's cheaper to pay the overseas sweatshops. Before you tell me I'm being unfair, Sir Stuart, I allude to your general merchandise and not just food.

I hail our great Triumvirate of Food Warriors: Gordon, Hugh and Jamie, who are promoting the best interests of free-range chicken. Battery chicken farming is inhumane. I will try to buy free-range chicken from now on, where possible. If I order a meal in a takeaway or other restaurant, I will try to avoid chicken unless it is free-range. If I cook an Indian curry at home, I'll use prawns instead if necessary. It is impossible to avoid eating battery chicken completely without being obsessive, but I'll try because I think the Triumvirate's campaign is right.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Thriving Bay Tree In Holywood

It's been almost two months since I last visited the Bay Tree coffee-house in Holywood, County Down so, arriving there at about ten to eleven, four of us managed to get a table in the original section. They have extended the place out to where there was a pottery shop.

I didn't recognize anybody except one regular, who just happens to be a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.

It was buzzing as usual. The Bay Tree has changed quite a lot, not just in its layout, within the last few years: its tables, chairs, décor, kitchen, crockery; even its miniature green, paper serviettes have changed (they're white now)! The chairs feel as if they weigh a ton: nobody will steal them!

Personally I preferred the Bay Tree as it was about ten years ago; its original layout was fine. To my mind it didn't require much modernization at all. It had a cottagey feel to it with its old-fashioned chairs and chequered table-cloths which was preferable.

That said, I'm still fond of the Bay Tree and prefer it to all the others in the town. It's still very good for breakfast and lunch; I haven't eaten dinner there yet, but I'm sure it's of a high standard too. The food is home-made, wholesome and fresh. They try hard and this is reflected by their loyal clientèle.

We ordered our usual "coffee and a cinnamon", their signature cinnamon scones, the recipe of which remains a closely-guarded secret. They're hard enough to describe because they're unlike conventional scones: doughy, warm, sweet, circular, melted butter, sultanas. I often wonder where Sue discovered the recipe. You're missing out if you haven't tried them yet!

Friday, 18 January 2008

Everyone's A Winner

I've won a prize! For the very first time I received a cheque for fifty pounds from Premium Bonds.

When I saw the envelope and the "congratulations" letter the figure of £50,000 crossed my mind. Ah well, I'm still very grateful to them.

Bank And Building Society Tactics

This morning I received an email from my building society, informing me that the rate on my account had been reduced by 0.25% in line with the Bank of England reduction. Naturally I was assured that the new, lower rate was still one of the best and very competitive.

On the face of it, this seems sneaky fair enough. Nevertheless, ever seeking the best deal, I checked Moneyfacts and noticed that my society had a top rate on their "Issue 2", which pays 6.4%.. They deliberately did not let me know about this new account. Investors had to discover this for themselves.

I'm used to this tactic. One must take immediate steps to open the new account (or another Best Buy). Presumably a percentage of savers do not bother to do this: it could be laziness, inertia, lack of knowledge or anything.

Cognizant of this crafty legerdemain, I have already opened a new "Issue 2" account with them, await the documentation, and when I receive it I'll transfer the funds.

It's a minor inconvenience and must surely generate a lot of work for their staff (at their own instigation); but it has to be done in order to obtain the optimum rate of interest.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Well Done, Prince William!

Prince William is now well on his way to graduating with RAF Wings in about four months' time, following a successful solo flight in a little Grob 115E aircraft. That's a fine achievement, given that HRH has only just begun training.

East Belfast Petrol Prices

I invariably fill up with liquid cognac petrol at the big supermarkets. Whilst driving along Grand Parade in Belfast recently I've noticed that standard unleaded petrol at Grand Parade Service Station (opposite a cycle store) still costs 0.99 pence a litre. At present, this extortionate price beats the supermarkets. Even Asda is over a pound per litre now.

Consequently and, since the orange warning light was on, I drove in and filled her up to the value of £46.

I always drive along Grand Parade en route to the leisure centre, so it's not out of my way.

If anyone knows of anywhere cheaper...

The Extraordinary Life Of Sir Norman Wisdom OBE

Having been up for a sixty-length swim last night, I'd been looking forward to watching the first episode in the new series of Grand Designs.

In the event, my enthusiasm waned when the topic turned out to be one of those contemporary, ultra-modern, futuristic subterranean monstrosities places, which had no less than ninety complaints.

Naturally the town-planners rejected them all, swept them aside: neighbours apparently do not exist matter nowadays, local residents have little influence and The Planners prevail. You'd think the applicants would have received the message loud and clear, that people in their street do not want all that mess and upheaval. Are the applicants arrogant and simply don't care about their "neighbours"? It happens all the time now anyway; houses being doubled in size etc whether we like it or not. Let's have a great, big building site beside us, with their skips, lorries, white vans etc blocking the road. That's their attitude.

So instead I watched quite an enjoyable little programme about the former entertainer, Sir Norman Wisdom OBE. As a child, I never missed his films. It was a bit sad to see him in a nursing home at the end of the programme; he seemed happy though.

I did some more research about Sir Norman and his extraordinary life. He's an extraordinary character too, which doesn't surprise me having read about his life.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Open Fire In Living-Room

It was nippy enough this morning to light a fire and, since I got plenty of logs from the barn at Minnowburn, I began the routine: use about six pieces of newspaper, crumpled up tightly; same amount of kindling sticks, placed gently on top of the paper; ignite a match and hey, presto! Unless something is damp, it normally lights immediately.

When it's well lit I place several bits of coal on top; it's a gradual process. Then I add a little log or two. It really is as simple as that. Mind you, I had to empty the ash bucket below the grate on Sunday. I can get five or six fires before having to do that chore. Tesco bags are invaluable for that task.

I bought a twenty-five kilo sack of coal from Tesco recently. It's called Cosyglow and seems very good. I think it cost £6.99, although I see Kingsberry fuels will deliver a fifty kilo sack for £13.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Knotts Of Newtownards And The MoT Test

I gave the car a quick wash this morning before driving to Newtownards, County Down, where I had an MoT appointment. When I go for the MoT I always have that needless, anxious feeling like going to the dentist: chances are there'll be a clean bill of health or pass, however you never take it for granted.

The Z4 passed. I've merely 18,500 miles on the clock anyway. She is due a service soon too.

From the test centre I drove into the town and treated myself to lunch at the excellent restaurant in Knott's bakery. Even at midday there were up to sixteen customers in the queue. Knott's is evocative of Fulton's restaurant, on a par; and that is praise indeed.

Today I had honey roast ham and pineapple pizza with Florida salad and coleslaw, which was very good indeed. It was an unconventional pizza: stuffed about an inch thick with tasty ham and covered. It was delicious. The coleslaw and salad were all home-made too. I also had a soft drink.

My bill came to £8.05.

This self-service restaurant is deservedly popular and this is reflected in the continual queue.

Highly commended.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Caveat Emptor

I booked a flight with Easyjet the other day. I fly in early March. I'm still amazed at how they can sell you a return ticket for £32 even though there'll be people paying five times as much. Amazing.

There was no problem booking my flight, although I encountered a series of options along the way. For instance, a few items seem to be included in bookings now by default: hold baggage is included, at a cost, unless you delete this. Travel insurance is included, at a cost, unless this is deleted too.

Consequently, you really do need to be aware of this or your plastic card will be debited for items you either don't require nor wish for. I noticed the hold baggage and insurance fees, and deleted the hold luggage as I only take hand baggage. I thought the insurance was not included and was an option instead, so I did nothing. I finished the transaction and paid £42, which I was pleased with.

The next morning I got an email from Mondial Insurance, thanking me for taking out insurance with them. Eh? I realized immediately that I'd been charged for something I did not need, since I already have annual trip insurance.

I visited the airline's website again and navigated around it till I discovered that I could go to Change My Booking and amend or cancel items. I was able to cancel the insurance, thank goodness. I'd only done the original transaction twelve hours previously.

My flight is now costing £32. My question is: is this a touch of sharp practice? As an experienced web user who has booked many flights and holidays via the web, this is the first time something like this has occurred; it wasn't like this last year certainly.

Caveat Emptor: buyer beware.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Minnowburn Woodland

I've spent a good part of the day at Minnowburn with five other NT volunteers thinning a small wood close to the river. We were lopping off the lower branches from small trees.

After a few hours' work, we returned to the office in the middle of the woods for lunch and a chat.

I'd brought two sacks with me in the hope of getting some logs and, sure enough, the old barn had a pile of small logs; so I got the sacks filled. Thanks Gary.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Culture Vulture

I'm just back from a little dose of Culture: a BBC Invitation Concert at the Spires Centre in Belfast.

The Ulster Orchestra performed admirably as usual. The Spires Centre is a comfortable enough venue, although I'll be glad when the Ulster Hall reopens next year. There was almost a full house tonight.

Sir Edmund Hillary KG KBE

I am saddened to learn of the death of Sir Edmund Hillary. We were introduced to each other at the Queen's University of Belfast about twenty-five years ago. Sir Edmund lectured widely at the time.

Robinson Centre Review

I've finally taken the plunge and joined the Robinson Centre at Castlereagh. It takes a bit longer to drive there than the others, about 12-15 minutes depending on traffic ( and the kindness of the traffic lights!); but you can park fairly close to the entrance itself.

I was "signed up" immediately. There were two members of staff at the counter; a very pretty and amiable girl whom I chatted with and she must be athletic because she trains at the Mary Peters track in Belfast. I noticed she had a great figure; I'm doubtless old enough to be her dad, dear oh dear. I must get her name.

I filled in a direct debit mandate for the Silver Membership, which is £23 per month with an initial £10 administration fee. The gym, spa and sauna are all included and I can go whenever I like. I was issued with a plastic membership card.

So I ambled into the changing-room; the lockers take tokens which you retain. As I expected, the locker room is modest in size compared with private clubs like David Lloyd. Metal lockers and open-plan showers. It's more utilitarian, but fine for the money.

I went upstairs to the gym: again it's much smaller than the private clubs; however, the equipment is excellent and there's every conceivable type of apparatus. There must be upwards of two dozen apparatus. Lots of running, rowing and step machines too. I think it's as well equipped as the private clubs, possibly better equipped than, say, Esporta. The place was quiet on Friday morning, there being about ten or twelve people.

I went back to the changing-room and on into the spa/sauna: it's OK, roomy enough though the bubbles were off at the time. Another user told me that the bubbles were normally on.

The showers are fine: hot with a strong spray.

I haven't tried the swimming-pool or the cafeteria yet; must have a snack there some time.

I think I'll be happy here; I particularly like the gym equipment which is excellent. I'll be like a mini version of Arnie The Gov in no time!

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Country Kitchen

We had a really enjoyable meal tonight: Margherita pizza with a tossed salad of little gem lettuce, baby plum tomatoes, cornichons and beetroot with a honey & mustard dressing.

Pudding was Scottish raspberry crème brulee cheesecake with crème fraiche.

We had coleslaw too; and I'll stick my neck out here a touch: the finest, manufactured coleslaw available in Northern Ireland and, possibly, the Realm as a whole is from a brand called Country Kitchen. It's the Select version. I sometimes make my own and, as it is said, home-made is usually best; but I'd happily settle for the Country Kitchen variety.

Campbell Swimming Pool

I'm glad to report that, having been up twice this week, the pool is in relatively good condition and the water is warm. The showers are piping-hot too. That's 120 lengths I've swum so far this week.

The Club is offering members rebates or refunds which is fair enough: they'll definitely not break even this year! I can't help wondering how tenable the present situation is: if the new Duty Manager decided to resign would we be "back to square one" again? It took six months to appoint the present Duty Manager.

I see there's a meeting of East Belfast Historical Society tonight, the subject being the celebrated local sculptress Rosamond Praeger MBE. My late father and his brother modelled for her as children when they lived in Holywood, County Down.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Nutty Addiction

I've always been fond of peanuts. Perhaps it ought to be called Compulsive Nut Disorder. I tend to go for the flavoured ones, my favourites being the honey-roasted variety.

Until quite recently I've bought the supermarket branded ones, often a mixture of cashews and peanuts; however, I find that their taste and quality varies if they change their suppliers.

Whilst on holiday I came across a make called Eagle and their honey roast peanuts have been my favourite for many years, invariably buying several packets for the suitcase to take home. They are practically impossible to find here in the UK. I've never seen them on the shelves.

About two months ago, however, I made a momentous discovery: KP Honey Roast Peanuts, which are sold in large 600g containers. They compare very well with the Eagle ones and, indeed, they are now my firm favourites. I know that because when I start nibbling away at them it's very hard to stop!

Most of the main supermarkets seem to stock them, so there's no further need for me to overload the luggage with nuts!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Clash Of The Titans: Belfast Health Clubs Review

I've been visiting health and leisure centres in my area recently with a view to membership; and there are lots of various leisure clubs in Greater Belfast. This review focuses on two of the largest in east Belfast. The gym I currently belong to has fairly elementary equipment which, for me, simply isn't effective enough. So I'm looking elsewhere.

I spent twelve days at David Lloyd's Belfast club, which is the best of the ones I've visited.

Yesterday, I had a trial pass for Esporta Belfast. It took six minutes to drive there in light traffic (takes eight for Lloyd's). First impressions were positive, as you'd expect: warm, clean, comfortable, friendly, efficient.

The changing/locker room is not dissimilar to Lloyd's, although it is smaller; it's clean and tidy. Lockers are generous in size, wooden and a plastic card is inserted inside, instead of £1 coins which Lloyd's uses. The floor is tiled: I think Lloyd's is lino. There is free shower gel in the showers and it generated more foam than Lloyd's! Both clubs have mini-spin-dryers for swimming trunks. If I were to choose between Lloyd's and Esporta's locker rooms, I prefer the size and layout of Lloyd's.

I walked upstairs to the gym. I noticed there was a bowl on a table with sliced oranges and jugs of water. The gym equipment in Esporta Belfast just wasn't as good as Lloyd's: Esporta's seemed less up-to-date, there were fewer machines and, yet again, less space overall. Esporta's gym seemed to be half the size of Lloyd's, making the layout inferior to my mind. The gym itself is well-tended, clean and tidy.

I changed and went for a fifty-length swim. The pool seemed small, perhaps twenty metres; about the same size as Lloyd's outdoor heated pool and certainly a lot smaller than Lloyd's indoor twenty-five metre pool. There were about three others swimming and two lanes were partitioned.

The sauna is larger than Lloyd's, but there's no steam room. There were two smallish, round spa pools overlooking the pool; one was closed. Both were smaller than Lloyd's Jacuzzi.

There's a bar/cafe/restaurant which is fine; a fraction of the size of Lloyd's.

The prices I was quoted for off-peak were:- Esporta Belfast £52 per month, £90 joining fee waived if I join now, first month free. David Lloyd £49.50 per month, £50 joining fee. I'd need to compare and check opening times, class entitlements for off-peak, minimum contract times etc.

Of the two, I preferred David Lloyd's. Their club seems twice as spacious, has a better layout in every department, bigger pools, better sauna/Jacuzzi layout too. In fact the whole building seems much larger. For my money, I'd opt for Lloyd's which I think is the better of the two.

I still think they're both pricey and and may just continue to swim at the Old School combined with membership of the Robinson Centre at Castlereagh (from £23 per month).

Monday, 7 January 2008

Campbell Swimming Pool

Amen, Praise the Lord and Hallelujah, all rolled into one! I've just received an email informing me that the sports' club swimming-pool reopens tomorrow, a Duty Manager having been appointed.

I've been on the brink of joining another club in order to swim, so this news takes the pressure off a touch. I was at Esporta today and I'll write a review about it on Tuesday.

The pool had better be warm enough...

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Two Of Belfast's Treasures

It was so beautiful today, sunny, blue sky, crisp and dry that it would have seemed a shame not to have taken advantage of it.

We drove to Minnowburn first: Minnowburn is probably my favourite woodland in Belfast, thanks to the National Trust and its dedicated warden, Craig, with his loyal team around him. Minnowburn's beauty never fails to enthral me.

Today I had a short walk past the newly-created pond, which is overlooked by a large field which shall eventually become a meadow. Several substantial branches have collapsed and snapped off under the weight of our heavy snowfall. The river Lagan is swollen too. It is still very icy underfoot; plenty of snow remaining.

From Minnowburn we drove on to Belvoir Forest and parked at the bird feeders. Another jewel in Belfast's crown, Belvoir has an abundance of wildlife and today was no exception: I spotted a red squirrel, a grey squirrel, blue tit, coal tit, great tit, dunnock, blackbird, robin, magpie and a fine hooded crow perched on the fence, watching to see if we had any food.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Welcome Chinese Takeaway On Belmont Road Belfast

We shared a sweet & sour chicken in batter with fried rice tonight, from the Welcome takeaway on Belmont Road, Belfast. I hadn't ordered from there for years, so decided to give it a go.

It was delivered quickly, within fifteen minutes. The total bill came to £5.50, including delivery. The portion was large; batter and rice satisfactory.

I was a bit disappointed. To my mind, sauce is the key ingredient of a great sweet & sour sauce. It should be half sweet (sugar) and half sour (vinegar), with soy sauce, a dollop of ketchup, perhaps pineapple juice; raw vegetables like carrot, onion, red pepper, pineapple etc. It requires something like cornflour to give it the consistency of a syrup. The pungency depends on the kind of vinegar used.

The Welcome's sauce was weak and insipid. Too runny; I couldn't taste any particular flavour in it at all; certainly none of my listed ingredients (although surely some must have been therein). There was one solitary chunk of pineapple and something red like a sliver of tomato skin.

The quest continues...

Siskins And Redpolls

While we've been experiencing this wintry spell of weather, I've noticed two species of finch which are occasional visitors to my feeders: the little yellow-coloured siskin and the even smaller redpoll.

I recognized the pair of redpolls instantly by their diminutive size and reddish crowns; I checked my guidebook when I spotted the siskins with their distinctive yellow and black colourings. The black bib underneath their beak is quite obvious.

Every bird loves the sunflower hearts, which I buy by the sackful from Jollyes at £28.99.

Best Chinese Takeaway In East Belfast?

Last Saturday I rang Sam at the Castle Hill Chinese takeaway, 224 Upper Newtownards Road, and ordered number twenty-seven which is Chicken in Beijing Peking sauce with fried rice. It cost seven pounds including delivery.When it arrived about twenty-five minutes later, the chicken was sliced meat on top of the sauce which is healthier than the way I prefer it done: in lightly battered pieces. Still, it was good enough.

Nevertheless, I'm thinking of trying another takeaway for a change and see that there are no less than five at Ballyhackamore; namely, the Mandarin City, which still advertizes an apparently non-existant website and may be the best, however it doesn't deliver to your door; Good Fortune; the Orient; Woco; and Castle Gardens. Have I forgotten any? I've a feeling that Castle Gardens may be the only one that delivers; anyone know? I may well give them a ring later and try something...

For many years my favourite Chinese takeaway was the Knock Garden; sadly it changed hands along with my favourite meals on the menu!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Belfast In Snow

I strided outdoors gingerly at about half past eight this wintry morning in my wellington boots to feed my dear wild birds, having made bread crumbs from two slices of wholemeal bread; replenished the feeders too. My goldfinch squaddies all arrived at once, within minutes.

This was the scene on our road this morning; seldom seen like this.

Having had the usual breakfast of buttered, marmaladed, wholemeal toast and a mug of Sainsbury's Gold Label tea I have lit a blazing log fire in our living-room.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Best Pizza?

Once a week we usually have a small pizza and garnish; today was no exception.

My current favourite pizza is a simple Margherita, made by Pizza Express. A few others come close; however, I think this one has the edge. It's surprising how an uncomplicated cheese & tomato pizza can have such an abundance of flavour. Some pizzas seem to have the texture of cardboard: they can be dry and brittle. Worse still if frozen. Not this Pizza Express one. It's soft, gooey, melt-in-your-mouth doughy.

This evening, we enjoyed one with a simple garnish of little gem lettuce, coleslaw, baby plum tomatoes with honey & mustard dressing drizzled over it.

It never fails to satisfy.

The Utilities' Road Damage

I have lost count of the innumerable times when I've reported a pothole or sunken manhole cover on the Province's roads, especially if it's a route I use regularly. It is so easy to report now online.

When I drove up to David Lloyd's every day recently I kept bumping over a sunken manhole cover on the main road so, while stopped at the traffic lights I made a point of noting the nearest house number.

Next time I was on my PC I visited the Roads Service website and told them about it. Simple. They usually email me when they've located the fault and let me know who is responsible: in this case, BT must repair the damage.

We spend millions of pounds on our roads every year, only for the utility companies to damage the surfaces with their drills and fill the holes in with invariably shoddy workmanship.

If the utility companies were heavily penalized for poor quality road repairs; or compelled to completely resurface an entire section of the road, perhaps their standards may improve.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Peter Grimes

I remembered to visit the website of the Grand Opera House, Belfast, this morning to select a ticket for the forthcoming production of Peter Grimes. It is one of three productions by Opera North, which is the national opera company based in the north of England.

I wanted a seat in the Dress Circle and, whilst booking online, was offered B31 at the furthest end; I simply clicked on the Continue Shopping button and went through the process again and again, till seat B7 appeared. This is the method I use in order to get a selection of seats, not just the first offered. Once I've chosen my seat, I just remove the others from the list and go ahead with the booking.

I checked the Castleward Opera website too and see that they are producing Cosi fan tutte this summer.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

New Year's Day On The Ards Peninsula

My cousin and her family invited us to their lovely home in the middle of the Ards Peninsula in County Down this afternoon. My cousin's twin sister and her family were also there, so it was good for us all to get together, especially at this time of year.

We all got tucked in to a sumptuous feast including mushroom vol-au-vents, cocktail sausages, sausage rolls, coleslaw, wheaten bread dressed smoked- salmon canapes, egg mayonnaise, sandwiches with various fillings, chocolate roulade with cream, mince pies and brandy butter, and fresh coffee. I've a feeling I had a lot of everything! I remained a teetotaller for the evening as I was driving.

We all retired to the living-room afterwards and, relaxing by the fire, watched some classic Morecambe and Wise and a game of charades (which I'm hopeless at!).

My cousin (once removed) Michael is a finalist in the 2008 Young Drummer Of The Year competition, our sole contestant representing Northern Ireland. The final is taking place at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire on 3rd February, so I'll be keeping a keen eye on that.

It was a hugely pleasurable evening; the perfect way to finish the Christmas holidays. I treated myself to a Rusty Nail when I got home.

Junk Food Permit

A happy and peaceful New Year to everyone. Our reception rooms are back to normal again, the furniture returned to its original settings. I've packed up the tree and decorations for yet another year. It always seems rather empty when everything has been put away.

One article on the news today featured the ban on so-called Junk Food during children's programmes. Let me say immediately that I enjoy Junk Food. I relish McDonald's, Burgerking, Hawaiian burgers, Chinese and Indian takeaways etc.

In moderation, though.

The last time I enjoyed a Big Mac was last August in London, four months ago. I indulged in a Burgerking Whopper with cheese, onion rings and fries whilst in Fuerteventura just over a month ago. I usually have a takeaway meal weekly.The fourteenth Duke of Bedford adored Big Macs. His wife, the present dowager Duchess, occasionally drove to the nearest drive-through in order to buy one for His Grace. So, there's nothing at all wrong enjoying this sort of food as a treat now and again.

I think fast food companies are being made scapegoats if the Government bans Junk Food advertisements at certain times. Children will continue to eat this food anyway. I believe that the Government ought to be targeting the parents. It's parents who set the example, and obese children probably reflect the lifestyle of "couch potato" parents.

The chef, Jamie Oliver MBE, admirably endeavoured to change the culture of school meals and, to a degree, this has been partially effective; however, witness the irresponsible parents who shoved packets of chips through the school railings for their kids. These are the kind of people government must tackle. Aren't they?