Thursday, 23 April 2015

All Creatures Great And Small

"They didn't say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.
I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrabbling for a toe hold between the stones. I was stripped to the waist and the snow mingled with the dirt and the dried blood on my body. I could see nothing outside the circle of flickering light thrown by the smoky oil lamp which the farmer held over me."
James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk
I don't think All Creatures Great And Small is on television at the moment. Possibly one of the nostalgia fests like Yesterday occasionally broadcasts an episode. But there are clips on YouTube. And I can tell you that every series of it is available on DVD from all good online retailers and my goodness me, some of those hard-of-hearing subtitles are great. Apart from one terrible mishear in a barn that was spotted too late to correct. (Not mine.)

So yes, the last time I saw it was at work, about 12 years ago, when the DVD release was being subtitled by the European Captioning Institute. Extraordinary how dated television from the 1980s seemed 20 years on. The sound is muffled, camera shot changes are less frequent and the picture seems grainy and muted in colour. There's an obvious difference in quality between the video used to record in studios and the traditional film used outside on location. Plots are slow to develop, numerous episodes make up a series and nothing too dramatic ever happens.

But with All Creatures all can be forgiven, for there is also the classical but catchy theme tune, the Wagnerian names, Peter Davison's knitted tank tops, Robert Hardy pontificating, a change of wife into the lovely Lynda Bellingham (RIP), the gruff farmers, fussy pooch Tricky Woo and those eternal shots of Christopher Timothy with his arm up a cow's birthing canal. The glorious Yorkshire Dales are always wet or covered in snow, and cars are always breaking down at inopportune moments.

So if it's not currently on television, why am I writing about it? Because of the fabulous World Of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk. Which is not just the best museum about James Herriot in the world, it's possibly one of the best museums in the world. At least if you have a four year old child. We went for the first time in January and had the most marvellous afternoon imaginable at a time when you have the post-Christmas blues, the weather is too cold to be outdoors, most stately homes are closed, and you wish you could afford to go and see the sun in Tenerife.

The first part of the museum is the restored house and vet's surgery, with original features and furniture and fixtures and fittings. There is a children's trail, where you spot black animals with letters on to make a name at the end. No prizes for guessing whose name it might be. (But you might get a badge.)

James Herriot's real name was Alf Wight, and he moved to live and work as a vet at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk in 1940. Apart from a spell in the RAF during the war, Wight remained working in Thirsk for the rest of his life. I should at this point tell you a whole lot more about him, but unfortunately my knowledge is limited to what I read in three of his books 30 years ago and saw on the television series, both of which have serious amounts of artistic licence and aren't meant to be autobiographical. This doesn't mean that the museum doesn't tell you LOTS about him. It's just that I didn't get much of a chance to read the information, being in the company of a child who passes through rooms that don't concern her like a whirlwind. I did manage to pick up that Alf Wight was born in Sunderland but his family moved to Glasgow shortly afterwards, and that James (Jim) Herriot is named after a Scottish goalkeeper. Wight started writing his books after he had been talking about doing so for years and his wife bet that he would never get round to it. Siegfried and Tristan Farnon are based on the owner of the practice Donald Sinclair and his younger brother Brian. The jury is apparently still out as to who was the more eccentric, Donald Sinclair or Herriot's characterisation of him as Siegfried. Thirsk is known as Darrowby in the books, and 23 Kirkgate as Skeldale House. You won't recognise much of Darrowby in Thirsk from the television series because most of the outside location scenes were filmed in Wensleydale.

In the house, you see Wight's sitting/ waiting room (complete with a barking Tricky Woo), another lounge with children's toys in it, and the tiny cubby hole of an animal surgery. Most of his veterinary work was done out on farms or race courses - small animal work was new in his day as pets were still a luxury item.

For added historical interest, the house still has a WW2 air-raid shelter in the cellar, which you can go down to see provided you have a degree in operating children's stair gates.

You then continue on to a kitchen rammed full of tins, utensils and furniture from days gone by. This leads out to a room containing a case of pottery animal characters from Herriot's lesser known children's books and memorabilia from the All Creatures Great And Small television series, including a piano score for the theme tune and a knitting pattern for that Peter Davison tank top.

The cramped surgery
The kitchen

That Tristan Farnon knitting pattern
Outside in the garden is a newly unveiled statue of Alf Wight and a pen of chickens. Inside an old stable is an account of Alf Wight's life story, as both a wall display and a film. There are copies of his books translated into numerous languages, and a lot of farm equipment and hay.

Then it gets slightly surreal. Through a door out of the garden is a replica of a TV studio. The sets used for the indoor scenes of All Creatures Great And Small at Pebble Mill in Birmingham have been transported to Thirsk, complete with mixing board, cameras, overhead lights, monitors, hats on the hatstand and the theme tune on a continuous loop. A script has been left on the dining room table for you to act out, should you feel so inclined. There is a phone that rings and you can pick it up say that famous number "Darrowby 385" to a recording of a ranting Yorkshire farmer desperate for Mr Herriot's help. There is also one of the beautiful vintage cars that was always breaking down.

The sitting room set
This is a children's paradise in itself, but then you go upstairs to the actual children's room, where there are numerous activities and games to teach kids about the life of a vet. This includes things like matching the X-ray to the animal, a version of Operation, a magnetic sheep dog trial, a giant version of snakes and ladders, a game about administering the right dose of pills, a spot the difference between a vet and a doctor's bag activity, and a game to see how many animals you can treat in a minute, as well as various quizzes and animal brass rubbings. 

How many animals can you treat in a minute?
In the next room, there is a rather gruesome museum of the history of veterinary science. However bad you think human medical treatment has been in bygone eras, animals had it far worse. Before the discovery of antibiotics, a vet's ability to save animals was fairly limited and treatment that wasn't euthanasia mostly relied on vaccination and assistance with breeding and birthing. Or preventing breeding and birthing with tools such as those below, used to castrate bulls.

And as if the kids haven't had enough fun already, then there is a room with a train set in. There are buttons so children can work the trains themselves. Grand Central have given the museum a model of their train James Herriot, which serves his birthplace of Sunderland. And if any of this gets boring, overlooking the train set is a giant set of horse's teeth that need tending to.

But still there's more! A crafts room, with little farm sets, animal masks, and cosy cushions to read books about cats on. There are also further items from the house that there wasn't room to display downstairs. I found myself struggling to explain the point of a typewriter that didn't have a screen to my daughter. "It just made your work look a bit tidier."

And then as the finishing touch, you can put your own arm up a cow's birthing canal.

So if you are in Yorkshire with a young child, head up to Thirsk. I would like to think that you won't be disappointed. Allow at least two hours for your visit to the museum. And before you go, make sure you check the World Of James Herriot's blog for special offers. We got two adult tickets for the price of one in January. It's quite expensive to visit otherwise (£8.50 per adult, although that's still cheaper than many other places), but worth it. Under fives are free. You can park on the street outside the museum (but will need to borrow a disc from the ticket office) or there is a pay and display car park nearby at Marage. Or you can park for free in the Market Square on Sundays - on other days you have to pay and there is a two-hour maximum stay which may not be enough time. If you require refreshments afterwards, our daughter would recommend the jam sandwiches at Olivia's in the Market Square.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Travel Man: 48 Hours In Barcelona

He's pointing the wrong way!

Why do travel television programmes do this? By "this", I mean send someone off on a nice holiday who obviously doesn't want to go anywhere. All so that they can make snitty comments on our screen for half an hour about how crap everything is when they get there. Why waste all that money on someone who isn't going to enjoy it? Why not send someone who might actually appreciate a five-star boutique hotel at £399 a night instead? Like me, for example. Since £399 is pretty much our current entire annual holiday budget.

Richard Ayoade can be very funny, but Barcelona is wasted on him. Or so he wants us to believe, anyway. He has Kathy Burke with him for company, sniggering like a schoolgirl in their expensive hotel suite at the thought of them sharing a bed. (They aren't sharing a bed.) Throughout their efficient 48 hours in the city, they are only made to do activities that the pair of them are going to hate, whether they involve football, cava, heights or molecular gastronomy. This may make hilarious television in the producer's mind, but it actually makes Richard and Kathy look rather rude in front of their earnest and patient hosts. I may not get the finer subtleties of Miro either, but at least I wouldn't shout "Zippy from Rainbow!" that loudly in public.

On the roof at the Fundacio Joan Miro

But I would like to know how Ayoade got a £45 return airfare to Barcelona (in these days of extra charges on low-cost carriers) without riding cargo in his suitcase. Because Barcelona is fantastic and I would so very much love to go back.

Richard and Kathy missed so much out - the Ramblas, the Boqueria market, the houses designed by Gaudi, the Olympic stadium, the Ciutadella park, the Barri Gotic, much of Montjuic, the Palau de la Musica Catalana, the Museu Frederic Mares with its weird and wonderful collection of curiosities, to name but several. Just look at it all:

Parc Guell

Arc de Triomf

Museu d'Historia de Catalunya

Castell on the Ramblas

Placa Reial

Barri Gotic

Port Olimpic, with Frank Gehry's Whale Sculpture

Sagrada Familia

Casa Batllo

La Pedrera

Olympic Park

Now, I am lucky enough to have spent a whole week in Barcelona, and I realise that anyone with only 48 hours to spend there will inevitably have to miss things out. But given that Richard and Kathy hated pretty much everything they did, why not let them find their own positive? (Would Richard have found any?) And to be honest, we only "did" Barcelona intensively for 48 hours, as that's how long our tourists' transport and museum cards were valid. So you can see a lot of great stuff very quickly. And that we did. We were so exhausted afterwards that we spent the next two days lying on the beach at Sitges. And ate lunch next to Sandra Bullock while we were there. (Sticking to a menu del dia at lunchtime enables you to be able to afford better restaurants.) Sitges reinvigorated us enough to make an excursion further afield up to colourful, beautiful, medieval Girona (although this has always been what Ryanair call Barcelona) before - sniff! - having to fly home. So get me that genuinely cheap air fare, and I will be back there like a shot of Crema Catalana.



Thursday, 16 April 2015

Secret Britain - Mysterious Moors of Yorkshire

Well, if it's a secret, don't go telling everyone about it... We don't want all those tourists trampling our heather. Or we do actually, since their money is a large part of what keeps the county going.

But just how secret is the North York Moors Railway? Or the gliding company on top of Sutton Bank? Or Rievaulx Abbey? Or the Roman artefacts in the Yorkshire Museum? Or the whaling past of Whitby? Lucky me, already knowing all about them.

Gliding atop Sutton Bank
Rievaulx Abbey
Yorkshire Museum
Whitby from the Magpie Cafe
But I didn't know about the three henges of Thornborough. (Since they are on private land.) Or the glassblowers of Rosedale. (But I have seen the Huguenot furnace at the terrific Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole.) Or the Tan Hill Inn, being neither a miner, a closet acoustic singer, or able to ride a bike that far. And I have never seen the Whitby Yards, since I am always too busy queuing for my fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe. So thank you for all of those, oh you noisy drone camera.

Ryedale Folk Museum

But who knows where this is, with its similar concept to standing in the middle of a henge and watching the clouds?

Sorry, just realised these look rather phallic.

Or this railway?

Answers on a postcard or in a comments box please.

I felt the presenters were showing off a just a teensy bit... Although their attempt at rockclimbing soon brought them back down to earth. Not literally, thankfully.

But the photography was stunning. There is no God, but there is God's Own Country. Come and visit us sometime.

Back In Time For Dinner

Time travel isn't possible, unless you are The Doctor or Henry DeTamble. But this programme is the next best thing - dressing up, recreating and reliving an era. Or in this case, re-eating an era.

The lovely Robshaw family have been selected for this experiment. They are what I (and not necessarily others) think of as perfect television - charming, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, interested and interesting. Up for the challenge but unlike people on other fly-on-the-wall shows, not up anything else. Each week their house and lives are transported to a different decade from the past 50 years, and they have to cook and eat (as well as dress and look and live) like people from the era. They relive a different year each day. The recipes for their meals come from the National Food Survey and books from the time. They start off in the ultimate austerity of 1950s rationing, and finish in the 1990s with massive out-out-of-town supermarkets, a pull-out larder and IKEA Grundtal at their disposal. Ever so slightly smug Giles Coren and food historian Polly Russell help them along their journey.

I joined them in the 1970s, the first decade that I lived through. The programme was one long set of glorious (or not so glorious) flashbacks for me. Firstly, the arrival of a chest freezer, in our case in the garage. And then the excitement of a family trip to Iceland (or for us, Bejams) to stock it, scooping out entirely unpackaged frozen fruit and veg into plastic bags. Mary Berry demonstrates her system of colour-coding these bags to the Robshaws, since there are no drawers in their freezer: a freezer which has cost the equivalent of nearly a grand in today's no longer newly decimalised money.

And there's more: riding bikes around the streets and alleyways entirely unsupervised for hours on end, or at least long enough to lose your younger brother somewhere. (Sorry about that, Stu.) Silver Jubilee street parties, though the only one I went to was inside owing to rain. A cream rotary dial telephone. (We kept ours til 1990.) A brown Tupperware lunchbox just like the one that carried my jam sandwiches to school. Frequent power cuts at dinner time, during which our next-door neighbour always arrived with a freshly brewed pot of tea from his gas stove and a plate of home-made coconut ice. Pot Noodles, which I don't believe I was allowed to try until the mid 1980s. An explosion of new varieties of crisps, all laced with possibly lethal chemicals - Skips, Discos, and Smith's Squares. And the health-food rebellion against said chemicals, which I experienced by watching The Good Life and The Flumps, and which others witnessed by eating brown rice and houmous in Cranks. (Although I did endure several thousand trips to my dad's allotment on Sunday afternoons.) Indian restaurants opening all over the UK, but none near our house. A fondue party, but this last one is a flashback for me to the real thing in 1992 on a Swiss farm, where I was told I might die because I didn't drink hot tea with my melted cheese.
You can't beat 70s style dining
Or kitchen decor
At the start of the 70s, the dad is made (with little persuading) to sit in the pub while his wife cooks him tea. He can't be contacted so he can stay as long as he likes. In those days, a pub was still allowed to bar entry to a woman by herself. By the end of the 70s, women aren't necessarily going in to the pub, but they have had to go back to work to mend the family finances. And this has raised the need for convenience foods - boil in the bag fish, Arctic Roll and packets of Smash. Or Delia Smith's much forgotten first book, How To Cheat At Cooking, where every ingredient comes out of a tin. Or - as happened in our house - the dads are made to start cooking. (It helps that some of them are on a three-day week.) Modern-day dad Brandon is the main cook in the Robshaws' house, but this is the first time he has been allowed to set foot in the kitchen in this series. He is given a book called Pots and PanTs, which explains to husbands what an oven is and how to to turn it on. Brandon rustles up a coq-au-vin, determined (as he jokes to his son) not to "cock it up".

By the 80s, the convenience food trend has escalated. Packets of sandwiches mean that lunchbreaks can be halved and confined to office desks. It is the era of the Magimix, the sandwich toaster, the microwave and oven chip. Kitchen fires have also been halved as a result of the latter, although a fear of microwave radiation has replaced the fear of the chip pan going up in flames. Fizzy drinks come in plastic bottles in the supermarket, or can be made by Soda Streams. They also come in the form of Perrier and champagne lunches for the yuppie high-flyers trading in the City. Wine comes in a box. There is nouvelle cuisine for the rich, Walls' Viennetta for those who aspire to be rich, and McDonald's and pizza delivery for the kids. One slice is never enough. Certainly not of nouvelle cuisine. (But oh, the excitement when our town got a Pizza Hut!)

Rochelle is asked to create a nouvelle cuisine dinner to impress her boss at work. She burns the top of the goat's cheese tart while the bottom is soggy (Mary, come back!), and serves a raspberry instead of a raspberry coulis on the side. Brandon covers a poached salmon with cucumber slices to resemble fish scales. They flambé the creme brulée at the table. Would Rochelle get a promotion at work as a result of this meal, Brandon asks the guests? The answer is no.
1987 fine dining at my 14th birthday party

A genuine Ken Hom wok. 
Ken Hom turns up with his wok. Cooking is becoming a hobby as well as a necessity. Chinese cuisine is popular with the man in the kitchen, as it's noisy, active and ready almost immediately. Diets become fads. The F plan. The Grapefruit. The Green Goddess makes people exercise in front of Breakfast TV. For the Robshaw family are ever more slumped on the sofa, all eating different food at different times, generating packaging waste and staring at the television. On it they see the miners' strike and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They have a video party, wearing blue mascara and eating bright orange cheese toasties. Despite their encroaching couch potatodom, the kids still play for twice as long outside as kids do now, roller-blading in velour shorts, listening to Walkmans.

Riverford set up its organic veg box scheme in the 1990s.
Its founder, Guy Watson, was featured on the programme,
showing the Robshaws around his farm in Devon.
The 1990s sees Pop Tarts and Nutrigrain bars herald the end of the sit-down breakfast, and gastro pubs and sushi bars increase the sit-down lunch. Bags of salad, sauce jars and fresh pasta keep cooking easy but at least feel more home-made than the 1980s microwave ready meal. Value ranges in supermarkets make food cheaper than ever before. The threat of BSE, a tragic consequence of mass and cost-driven farming, gives rise to the organic veg box. Brian Turner turns up to host a mini Ready Steady Cook in the Robshaws' kitchen. Of which I subtitled several hundred episodes from 1999 onwards. It's hard to accept that something I see as so recent is now considered ancient history.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Easter Activities Away from CBeebies

I'm back! Oh, you lucky bloggers who have been able to write during the Easter holidays. You plainly have a lot more energy. Or you don't have a daughter who is currently unable to fall asleep by herself and likes to take hours doing so, plainly sensing I have somewhere I would rather be. Or you don't have a husband who spends the evening hogging the laptop to read football scores work.

But anyway, pre-school is back, and so are my two hours a day of me-time. Never mind the fact that I can't currently see my house owing to piles of beads, wool, shredded tissue paper, buttons, coins, pebbles, Lego, sequins, glitter, chocolate and fluffy yellow chicks (not live ones, or ever live ones). It's a frigging mess. That's school holidays for you. The only thing I seem particularly skilled at tidying away is the chocolate, mostly because there is no available shelf-space for it, and well, it's been a long fortnight.

Did you think for a moment from my description of the mess that we might have spent the whole holiday doing Easter craft activities? Ha ha. How little you know us. I assure you we didn't. My daughter just likes spreading bite-sized crap everywhere. Which is why I tried to spend as little of the holiday as possible at home. My daughter had assigned herself a tight CBeebies viewing schedule as a backdrop to spreading her bite-sized crap around, which I was determined to thwart. Every day I had to drag her screaming away from Bing or Mister Maker so that we could do something "fun" or "educational" and not end up with me being goaded to do one of Mister Maker's sodding Minute Makes, since the items required for it were currently thinly spread all over the carpet. "You'll thank me when you're older," I roared like my mother before me, even though I know she won't.

So where we did we go? We live in York, Yorkshire, and shouldn't be short of options. We aren't. Although the crowds and the weather can prove both limiting and irritating. Anyway, here is my top ten suggestions for escaping CBeebies in our neck of the woods:

1. Go on a play date.

Where you end up with so much squabbling you end up turning on CBeebies. Hm. Back to square one.

2. Go on a country walk.

Last time
Better! We did the Farndale daffodils walk, since this is the only time of year you can do it. I have happy memories of this walk a couple of years ago on a glorious spring day, our daughter in a pushchair, the sun beating down on us, the daffodils at their peak along the river banks, and scores of old ladies serving me tea and buns in a barn at the far end.

Unfortunately when we arrived this time, this happened:

And it turns out that my husband, despite being raised in Cumbria (or maybe because he was raised in Cumbria), doesn't do rain with good cheer.

And it turns out that the daffodils that far north aren't as advanced as the daffodils in York, but there were a few just starting to come out...

And it turns out that a three mile walk is still pushing a four year old a bit too far.

I will admit that a picnic on a rain-soaked bog was a bit of a stupid idea.

But hey, there are still old ladies serving cakes in barns at either end of the walk, so that has to count for something, right?

Mummy had a lovely time. But nobody else did.

3. Go to the cinema.

I know that technically that this is escaping CBeebies only to go and stare at another screen. But I took my daughter to see Cinderella, and coupled with the Frozen Fever short beforehand, the whole thing was such a magical experience it brought a tear to my eye. I once directed and starred in my own production of Cinderella. We may not necessarily be talking quite the same scale as Kenneth Branagh here. I may have been aged eight, and in my lounge, with a Clarks clodhopper playing the role of glass slipper. But whatever, it's a story with a special resonance for my inner girl, and this film was -as a result - a delight. And my daughter was so transfixed throughout that she insisted Daddy take her to see it again the following week. Sorry, Daddy.

4. Go to a museum

Museums in York - invariably heaving in school holidays. So we met some friends at the World Of James Herriot In Thirsk. This museum is so brilliant that is going to merit its own blog post in the very near future. It was hailing outside, but dead quiet inside. Not so good for the museum possibly, but just right for us. We spent nearly two hours exploring all that it has to offer. Things like this:

 And this:

And this:

Go on, admit you're more than a little curious, even if only to find out what those ghastly looking tools are for. And it may be as bad as you think. More soon...

5. Visit relatives.

Only sometimes the relatives you want to visit are on the elderly side and live in a residential home that doesn't come well equipped for young children. This means offering a bribe as an incentive to make your child not disgrace herself. In our case the bribe was a trip to Tropical World in Roundhay Park. It was a sunny day. Unlike our country walk, at last a chance for a picnic in appropriate weather. We ate our sandwiches. And only then did I notice the queue for Tropical World. Given that it was so warm, I figured, how many people in Leeds would want to spend the afternoon inside a giant hothouse? It turns out - all of them. A rare hats off to our girl, who insisted she would wait patiently for an hour to go in and see her beloved fruit bats. It's a shame she won't apply the same behaviour at a supermarket check-out or when Mummy stops to have a chat with somebody in the street. And yes, that did say fruit bats. The butterflies, the meerkats, the monkeys? A mere flicker of attention. The yellow python? Fairly interesting (while Mummy hyperventilates). But the fruit bats? Just wow. Apparently.

6. Go on holiday.

Lucky those who can afford a proper holiday in school holidays. We have to make do with visiting Grandpa. Thankfully Grandpa lives in Grasmere. And this year, the sun was shining. And the local farmer, who has been known to spray liquid manure over the field in front of the house on a Bank Holiday weekend, had this year deposited a load of newborn lambs there instead. Instant, free and very special entertainment. Until my dad served up what he termed a "lump of lamb" on the Monday.

7. Go on an Easter egg hunt.

Misty morning, Grasmere

These are so much fun, it may turn out that you have to do it all over again. And again. Until you hide that last egg a bit too well and can't remember where you put it. Then it's back to tears. Only consoled by CBeebies.

8. Join the National Trust.

Then you can have lots of free days out, or free before ice cream, gift shop harassment (by your child, not the staff, I hasten to add) and more (Cadbury's sponsored) Easter egg hunts. A bit of history and art for grown-ups, a giant play area for children. Cake for all. This Easter we went to Goddards and Beningborough Hall in York, Nostell Priory near Wakefield, and finally Allan Bank in Grasmere no less than four times, because it's just up the hill from my dad's house.
Swing after hail, Beningborough

Nostell Priory

The wobbly play bridge at Nostell Priory

Swing in the sun, Allan Bank

9. Go to the seaside.

Unless it's still hailing, you may find that a few other people have the same idea as you. Fortunately for us this meant a very crowded train to Scarborough rather than a traffic jam on the A64, because at least the train was actually going somewhere. The sea front resembled Benidorm in high season and we were surrounded by little girls called Britney and Tegan eating Quavers and drinking Fruit Shoots and throwing sand in each other's faces, but we still found a patch of beach that was ours. Even if my daughter only informed me she had left the spade at the bottom of the hole she had dug when we had walked about a mile away from it. Fish and chips for lunch, a Twister lolly for pudding, and an 80p ride on a funicular railway on our way back to the station.

10. Make a spring collage to use up the bite-sized crap spread around your carpet.

Easter craft activities at last. Don't get too proud of us though - she claims she got the idea from The Tweenies.

Thus the two weeks are done, and they went a lot better than I expected, mostly thanks to the hail giving way to sun. I only bought myself one bottle of gin, for example. My daughter, on the other hand, is still complaining about me making her miss Bing.

(In denial that I am going to have seven weeks of this in the not so distant future.)