Lunch ON!

Ever since buying myself a Freesat box a few years ago, one of my favourite free-to-air channels has been NHK World, the international output of the Japanese state broadcaster.

The variety of programmes on NHK World ranges from news and sport to travel documentaries, pop culture magazines and cooking shows. The general theme is colourful, lighthearted (mostly), and always interesting. What’s more, NHK World is one of the handful of free-to-air Freesat channels to broadcast in HD – which makes it all look fantastic. (NHK World is on Freesat channel 209, buried in the news channels).

I’ve had a bit of a Japanophile streak for a number of years now, but I’ve never visited. I quickly set-to filling the box’s hard drive with NHK World shows, finding some that didn’t grab me, some that I like to dip into now and then, and some that I just can’t miss. The latter category tends to cover the holy trinity of food, travel and culture.

There are shows on cycling in Japan, shows on Japan’s railway infrastructure past and present, and even this one show that just hangs out at a particular place (bus terminal, outdoor bar, ferry, etc.) for a period of time, asking random individuals what they’re doing there. This last, Document 72 Hours, can be surprisingly candid and enlightening.

One of the shows I just can’t miss is Lunch ON!, a weekly look at what Japanese people are having for lunch. It follows a formula, has a chirpy narrator, and feels very sweet and comforting to watch. It really is  as simple as: 2-3 segments interviewing average Japanese people and seeing what they’ve got for lunch, or where they go.

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The scope varies from stopping people in the street, to spending a day with the workers in question to see what they do. The fact that people on the show apparently seem to ask to be featured, or that randoms in the street tend to know the show, or even watch, came as a surprise to me. I’d assumed this was just a weird niche show for non-Japanese audiences, not something watched within the country.

The most recent episode followed a pair of road painters and spent a day at an envelope factory. Another featured a team of young men who adjust a city’s bus timetables. In another, we met the employee of a railway company who spends his lunchtimes visiting new eateries and writing about them for his company’s website – with the proviso that all the featured establishments are accessible by train from the city within a lunch hour.

Other times, and more than once, the show has featured a matriarchal figure voluntarily cooking up lunch alone at home for the whole organisation, who always greet her with big smiles and gratitude.

For me, it’s the insight into ‘normal Japanese people’ just as much as the food element. It’s a very unpretentious show. Just ordinary people and their ordinary lunches. Occasionally a segment will feature a much-loved dead Japanese celebrity and talk about what their favourite dish was. It’s all done with humility, enthusiasm and authenticity.

By osmosis, over the past few years, I’ve been soaking up the various approaches to Japanese workday dining. And so it was somehow inevitable that over Christmas I treated M and I to matching bento boxes and some accessories, and we’ve been experimenting with them ever since.

People seem to have got a kick out of the photos I’ve shared of our first faltering steps at making bento, so I will do a few posts in the near future about what we’ve been up to, and anything we’ve learned.

Other NHK World shows that loiter on my TV box’s hard drive include:

  • Document 72 Hours
  • Imagine-Nation
  • Japan Railway Journal
  • Journeys in Japan
  • Seasoning the Seasons
  • Dining with the Chef
  • Trails to Tsukiji
  • Japanology Plus
  • Your Japanese Kitchen Mini
  • Cycle Around Japan
  • and so on…

2017

Happy new year.

I am now back at work (and ‘at work’ in a psychological sense) and catching up with the world after taking the last half of December off. Feels like 2017 got a head start on me but I think that’s okay. It’s only the 4th

I opened up Feedly just now for the first time since 16 December, and although I knew the number of unread posts would be high, I didn’t expect that number to be abbreviated with a ‘k’.

Rather than mark them all as read, I used the opportunity (such as it was) to further prune my feeds into a couple of categories: high volume, mainly news-based feeds; and personal, low volume feeds I don’t want to miss. The latter are mostly by people I know. Or at least by people. Rather than organisations or newsrooms.

This process also reminded me that I, too, have a blog – and that it was probably about time I updated it. My personal writing has taken a bit of a back seat over the last few months. Inspired by the ‘what I did in MONTH’ posts from a livejournal of someone I’ve never met, I have attempted twice now to summarise a previous month of my own events or movements or experiences. It is startling how helpful Google’s Timeline feature is for this (part of Maps on Android, if the relevant permissions are granted).

I’m not sure how useful this process is for anyone but the writer, but for that one person it can be, I believe, very valuable indeed. I’d like to keep up this practise – particularly if my day-to-day diary writing has faded away a little. I’ve always been a bit more of a who, what, where, when kind of writer (photographer, too).

Related: I keep thinking that I’d like this to be an email newsletter, as the format appeals to me. But then I look at my inbox, see the backlog I occasionally save up to wade through, and find myself wishing that those posts were somehow presented instead in a browser with a hyperlinked interface, or available as some sort of feed I can work through in a reader and… Oh.

Looking over 2016 is too much for me to really consider attempting fully, but I’m mindful of the fact that I researched, wrote and released a little book, and I gave my first walking tour.

Both small milestones, but milestones nonetheless. And knowing what effort they took – even down to the minutiae of booking a trip to Gloucester to do some research – it reminds me that if I want to achieve something similar this year then I’d better start putting things in motion. Not everything just falls in your lap.

I’ve also had a bit of a backlog of photographs to deal with. I’ve been lucky to go on some fabulous trips to stoke that particular enthusiasm – the Isle of Wight, Toulouse; Switzerland; mine and M’s continued progress around the Capital Ring circular walk – but I’ve been a bit sluggish about editing them and doing something with them. Increasingly it feels like it’s not worth sticking them on Flickr or similar, I’ve never enjoyed the photo experience on Facebook, and Instagram is for one-offs, so my thoughts turn to why I take them in the first place and what I should do with them. Perhaps a return to scrapbooking? No doubt these thoughts will linger throughout 2017.

Along those lines, I’ll close with a shot of a spooky ringing payphone we spotted last weekend between Stoke Newington and Walthamstow Marshes on Section 13 of the Capital Ring*. I’m sad that I didn’t take an audio clip of its plaintive, unusual ring (no doubt an error tone), but if you look closely the phone’s display even says RINGING as if silently crying out for help, unheard.

img_20170102_130051* Section 13 of the Capital Ring, incidentally, was too short, and not fabulously entertaining. It could perhaps be lumped onto the end of Section 12, from Highgate to Stoke Newington. It would make a total section of 9 miles or so – fairly long as the ‘Ring goes, but perfectly manageable given that the first part is a disused railway line and the second along a canal.

Inevitable season-changing post

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Coombe Country Park

Things change more rapidly in their appearance now in one day than they did in two a fortnight ago, but this is seen mostly in the valleys and the greater woods which border the streams.

That’s from the Guardian‘s wonderful Country Diary, 100 years ago today. Link.

I was struck by this feeling over the weekend while visiting the Midlands. The weather hasn’t quite turned a corner yet, though it is cooling down a little. High pressure coming up from the south is acting like a warm duvet keeping ‘Full Autumn’ at bay.

Visiting the rather pretty Coombe Country park near Coventry, the changing leaves made their presence known more than ever, with the depth of their colour enriched by bright sunlight between showers.

In the days since, I’ve paid closer attention to the leaves on the trees around me – on the verdant Suburb, and in the various incarnations of Hampstead I pass through from time to time. And things are indeed changing day by day now. We’re given just a small window of time during which to see the rich, golden colours of autumn before crisp, monochrome winter nudges autumn aside.

Meanwhile, the squirrels have been busy shuttling back and forth along the top of the fence outside my office window for weeks now. Occasionally we’ll see one on the lawn calmly testing the turf for its nut-hiding qualities, only looking up when enough human eyeballs are on it. M and I have followed suit, putting ingredients in jars and making our own dray as comfortable and snug as it can be for the winter.

As I stood this morning waiting for the lights to change at a crossing, I noticed how the deep red leaves on a tree over the road were being gently blown off as I watched. The tree will soon be bare.

Things are indeed changing more in one day than they did in two a fortnight ago.

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Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb
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Shades of Autumn, Coombe Country Park

My new book: CHARLES PAGET WADE BEFORE SNOWSHILL

Earlier this year, I went to Gloucester for a couple of days’ research at the local archives.

For a while, I’d been amassing research, drawings, notes and trivia about the eccentric, obsessive architect/artist and collector Charles Wade. This all culminated with me wanting to put together a booklet about the first part of his life.

Today, Wade is best known for Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire, a 17th century house he bought shortly after serving in The Great War and proceeded to fix up and fill with antiques and objects that fascinated him. He spent thirty years doing this before leaving the property and its contents to the National Trust shortly before his death in 1956.

Before embarking on this life’s work, Wade had trained as an architect and worked on several buildings on Hampstead Garden Suburb in northwest London. It’s this period of his life and career that interest me most: his journey from childhood to the decision to found such a place as Snowshill.

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.


7665495-ecc678664f0e3d2287ea50ca90ae2af1I released my ‘new’ booklet in May this year. This blog has been mothballed over the summer but is slowly whirring into life again as the dark nights draw in and my typing fingers get itchy once more.

The booklet is available online as a neat little paperback (UK/US), or it’s available on Kindle (UK/US).

The response to the booklet so far has been really nice. Friends, family and well-wishers have congratulated me on it, and although it’s not a hefty tome, it has been rather satisfying getting it finished. It’s been an itch I’ve been meaning to scratch for some time now.

The concept that nothing is ever ‘finished’ haunts me wherever I turn, although with books they sort of have to be. Hitting ‘publish’ on an order of a box of printed books is a bit different to doing so on a blog post. But that doesn’t preclude revisions and expansions in future, and I’ve got a (mercifully short) list of things that I could potentially delve into.

 

A trip to Waddesdon

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In my office, we have rather a hectic summer involving lots of admin, generating reports and invoices, and fielding a lot of calls and emails. And that’s when we don’t have an election for what is effectively our board of trustees – which this year, we did.

So it’s always nice that, around this time, we have an away day. A staff training day, if you will. It’s a pleasant excursion, usually to a stately home, or similar. This year we decided to visit Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. I was particularly excited by this, as a Bucks lad born and bred – especially as I’ve never been.

The sun shone on our visit, as you can see above, and I think we all had a really great day. A lovely lunch, an enjoyable catch-up on the train there and back (sorry to the colleagues I bored with my tales of an Amersham childhood).

The architecture of the house is just baffling. Obviously mostly inspired by French chateaux, it’s nestled on a hill, and ringed by woodland, so that the details of the roofline poke out a little as you get closer, before it finally reveals itself in all its affected glory once you break through the cedars.

And what glory: it doesn’t so much lie back inviting adoration as it sits up and practically begs for it, wagging its tail eagerly. This is definitely a house to wow and be seen. And for all its excessive jumble of architectural styles, it still looks remarkable and sharp and impressive, especially in bright sunshine.

Inside, it’s no less stunning – for better or worse. The collection of art, furniture, fittings and stuff is quite overwhelming. And, mostly, it’s interesting to see the kind of place this is, built as it was in the late 19th century. So it has a variety of architectural features spanning centuries, and it has some pretty significant mod cons, including the electric lighting that famously impressed Queen Victoria so much.

I didn’t get enough of a chance to explore the grounds as I’d have liked – I wanted to see some of their vegetable operation, for one – but I’m more than happy for an excuse to go back. I’ve not held a National Trust membership for a few years, but perhaps it’s nearly time to get one again.

Here’s a few snapshots.

A couple of days in Gloucester

img_20160129_200808My first impression of Gloucester,” writes H.V. Morton in his 1927 In Search of England, “was that of a city full of small, comely maidens between the fortunate ages of fifteen and twenty-five.” He goes on to explain that although not all of those maidens are pretty, the others do still have nice legs. Thank goodness for that, Henry.

Alas, my own first impression was somewhat different. Arriving into the city via the train station, I was met by a busy road, with a rather beaten up post-war town centre looming somewhere off in the distance. I made quick progress towards Gloucestershire Archives, the main focus of my visit.

I’ll probably write about my time at the Archives another day, but the two days I spent there, sifting through letters and other ephemera relating to the artist and architect Charles Paget Wade were useful and enlightening.


It’s funny visiting somewhere like Gloucester for the first time. I knew nothing about the city, and had no preconceptions whatsoever. But the times I wasn’t buried in paper were spent exploring a neat little place with plenty of gems, some more hidden than others. And it is a little place – a little city, certainly. Gloucester does indeed have its cathedral, and is thus a city.

I was happy to find a good number of pubs, many of which have roots easily spanning five hundred years or more. And peppered throughout are old churches and other medieval buildings. The layout of the streets even has this feeling too, along with charming names, like The Oxebode, Ladybellegate Street, and Black Dog Lane.

St Mary de Crypt Church from Cafe Renee
St Mary de Crypt Church from Cafe Renee

It was easy, therefore, to pace around, scarf stuffed tightly into my jacket from the bitter January wind, and pretend I was a man such as Morton, or indeed any visitor to the city from any point in the past few centuries. I followed my nose, looking down side streets and narrow passages that led to diverse places I would have no time to explore. But the more accessible highlights are all around to stumble on as you wend your way around.

Seeking shelter and ale, I first found myself in a Samuel Smith’s pub, Robert Raikes’ House, all wood panelling and portraits of royalty over the centuries. The pub had a sense of space one doesn’t often find – it is uncluttered, and is subdivided into several rooms. It was also empty when I visited – just the barman, myself, and one regular, propped up at the bar.

Robert Raikes' House
Robert Raikes’ House

Deciding that, with such a small amount of time to explore, a mini pub crawl was in order, I headed to Cafe Renee – thankfully more of a pub than a French bistro. Here, I found people, and a low-ceilinged establishment with a decent atmosphere and a well-stocked bar. A feature had been made of a well sunk into the middle of the room, and I heard mention of a cellar bar, only open on weekends, which is where the real action takes place.

I finally wound up at the New Inn. Morton stayed here in the 20s, and so did Lady Jane Grey, along with countless other tourists, pilgrims, heroes and villains in between. The building – buildings, really, all scattered medievally around an inner courtyard – maintains some of its character, but is now a little lifeless and run down, the hotel perhaps surviving on its storied past and the rather ancient appearance it has upon first approach. Nothing can take away from the New Inn’s presence as you come in off Northgate Street, feeling as though you’ve stepped through time in only a few short steps.

The New Inn
The New Inn

I came to the New Inn seeking shelter from the cold air and a filling dinner. I found this in the “Pilgrim’s Feast” on the restaurant’s adequate menu and, feeling somewhat pilgrim-like myself, I tucked into a frighteningly huge plateful of meat. I think there were cuts from three? Four animals? I lost count when I realised there were more than one from a single animal, even, and counted my blessings that it was all perfectly edible, and even the salad garnish was tasty.

Bloated from life-threatening amounts of meat and enough ale for one evening, I re-emerged onto Gloucester’s streets and headed for my own hotel, quietly wishing that I could ascend the steps at the New Inn and take lodgings overlooking the galleried courtyard rather than my own sterile Ibis. Next time, perhaps.

One thing that struck me, yet again, on my walk to bed, was how quiet and empty this so-called city seemed. And of those I did see, a surprising proportion looked a little less than friendly. I marched on, eyes to the floor, trying to shake thoughts of the conversation I had overheard in the Archives about the unfortunate juxtaposition of the needle drop-off point next to the library, or the sticker in the gents advertising support for sufferers of domestic abuse. On a rare look up, my eyes locked onto a lurid red poster from the local constabulary, announcing a knife amnesty to take place over the following fortnight.

I was quite pleased to find my bed for the night and to get out of the cold Gloucestershire wind.


The next morning, I made time to visit Gloucester’s crown jewel, the cathedral. But not before a delicious hotel breakfast – perhaps ill-advised, given how I still felt rather full from my meat feast the night before.

Opting for the bus on account of my heavy bag and the relentless winter wind, I was pleased to find that for £2, Stagecoach will whisk you to the city centre not just in warm comfort – faux leather seats, even – but with free wifi as well. Less excitingly, as is so often the case with city centre bus terminals, we passengers were subsequently disgorged into a rather grim little square flanked by supermarkets, off licences and a confusing ring road system.

I was glad to be back amongst the side-streets and alleyways though, passing ancient architecture and cute little shops, and reflected that when the sun is out, and the streets are thronged with not just tourists but the less seedy of the city’s population, Gloucester must be a truly charming place to visit. I made a mental note of this fact at about the same time I was considering how surprisingly tucked away the cathedral is.

Other cathedral cities I’ve visited – such as York, or quake-damaged Christchurch – have evolved, or been built, so that the vast church is front and centre, with all roads leading to its great edifice. Not so with Gloucester – or at least not any more. I expected, after first glimpsing its tower from the train, to be able to stumble blindly towards it from any direction along the city streets. But in reality I had to follow signs most of the way until suddenly, on the other side of a car park, it appeared, soaring majestically skywards.

Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral

It is a staggering sight. The clean, pale walls appear to surge up from the surrounding earth, and its mass seems immense. I was so happy to have time to discover what lay inside, and the interior just blew me away. I found myself merely nibbling at the visual feast that lay all around me – the stupidly high ceilings, intricate detailing of tombs, and just the sheer scale of it all. Around the sides, and the cloisters, I rejoiced in the incredible craftsmanship of the fan vaults. The corridors stretched on so far into the distance and, flanked by stained glass and flagstone floor, felt like another world.

Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral

The cathedral was fairly quiet – I was glad to see it at a time when there were few other visitors around. Hearing my heals clicking down those stone hallways was rather magical. But there was still a gentle hum of activity in the main body of the church, with various visitor services staff doing the rounds, and florists busy at work dressing this alcove or that. I passed a tall, finely dressed man of the cloth and thought briefly how marvellous it must feel to call this priceless gem his office.


After a few more hours at the Archives, I had just a bit more time to explore Gloucester. And so what else would I expect to find this far inland but a historic dockyard? And what a lovely area it is. Again, the sky was glowering and the wind howling, but the sight of the warehouses and wharves surrounding the site, a mixture of old and new, was reminiscent almost of Liverpool or Salford. A really unexpected treat. I sheltered at Tucci’s cafe, scoffing a jacket potato and latte as shoppers scuttled on past the rain-speckled window.

Gloucester's historic docks
Gloucester’s historic docks

And so my time at Gloucester came to a close. I’d achieved some of what I hoped to at the Archives, knee-deep in correspondence with Charles Paget Wade. And I’d just scratched the surface a very interesting little city. I’m sure I’ll be back – perhaps when the weather’s a bit nicer.

Gloucester railway station
Gloucester railway station