I do love a Belgian beer. I don't know how they do it, but their strong, sweet creations are the beery equivalent of comfort food to me. But this is a strange creature that I review today.

Bought in the Carrefour Express in Brussels Midi station, it appears to be a slice of Scottishness amid the Belgian fancies, certainly in terms of the branding. But it's 10% by volume and is quite clearly a deliciously sticky Belgian tipple exactly as I would expect, and decidedly un-Scottish. I suppose Barley wine may be the connection. It's described on the bottle as "strong blond and mellow beer" and I can't argue with that.

Is this just a piece of branding silliness, selling a bit of tartan-clad och-aye-the-noo to the rest of the world, who do appear to love that sort of thing? Possibly. But I actually liked it so much that I'd buy it again.

For what it's worth a little delve into its provenance takes us to anthonymartin.com where we find that an English brewer setled in Belgium and started producing beers in 1909 and that this particular brew has been around since 1990 and they own the TImmermans brewery known for Gueuze Lambics.

I see irritating problems. Every tangible thing I use, every service I consume, I can't help but notice all the little things that could have been a bit better. And it really frustrates me when these are details that seem so very simple to fix.

For instance, when I buy a train ticket from FCC's machines at St Pancras I can't actually see the text on the card payment screen unless I squat uncomfortably, because it's low down and inset out of sight. I know it's low down so disabled/short people can use it, but at least provide a direct line of sight for the average sized person standing in front of the machine – i.e. 95% of your customers!

I recently bought a D-Link powerline networking kit on Amazon, which is a wonderful product by the way, that worked straight out of the box with zero configuration. But the Amazon page did not state that there were two ethernet cables in the box – though I suspected there might be and was explicitly looking for this information. Worse than that, it provided a handy link to buy the product along with two separately supplied ethernet cables. So I went with that (better safe than sorry) but lo and behold: two cables in the box and now I have two extras I paid for and don't need. I feel I have been poorly served by Amazon.

Often when travelling by train, announcements are made that are inaudible due to the low volume (compared to background noise) or muffled by unhelpful acoustics. But these are sometimes really very important announcements and there's precious little point making them if they can't be heard.

Whenever I visit the hairdresser they ask me what I want doing, and I struggle to articulate it, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the back of my head. Why don't they take photos and notes (in special hairdresser shorthand) so that they can sort me out consistently every time, even when it's somebody new cutting my hair. As far as I'm concerned this is a no-brainer.

There are many little disappointments just like this that I spot on a daily basis, with physical and virtual products and services and I'm increasingly wondering whether there's a way to turn this into a job: detail consultant. Available for hire by companies small and large, I would tell them what could be improved to give their customers a delightful rather than frustrating experience. It's not rocket science but apparently there's a gap for this sort of common sense supplied from an external viewpoint. Please form an orderly queue!

In fact I'm surprised that larger organisations don't have full time employee roles with exactly this mandate: roving throughout the company and in the field spotting and fixing these subtle issues. In a competitive world where bad publicity is only a Tweet away, this seems like a very good use of resources to my naive mind. If you have any pride at all in what you're doing that is.


A Virgin hot air balloon slowly lumbered over our house this evening before nearly landing in the allotments behind our garden. It seemed to come within a few tens of feet of touching down before wisely thinking better of it. There are lots of greenhouses, poly-tunnels, huts, etc. not to mention a row of houses on the other side.

I don't know if the pilot was seriously considering landing there, as it seems like a really poor spot that would have ended in disaster. You might get the basket down safely if you were lucky but the balloon envelope would be a nightmare to deal with amongst the allotments. Perhaps as dusk drew in on a fairly still night the pilot was getting a bit nervous about losing light and further opportunities. Or maybe it was just for fun, buzzing low over the houses. It rose quickly with a big burst of flame and then headed off to the fields just North of St Albans where I think it must have landed.

A good few weeks back now, we visited Anglesey Abbey, Gardens and Lode Mill – a National Trust property near Cambridge. As usual no photos of the house (it's not allowed) so you'll have to take it on trust that it was an enchanting time-warp covering the last several centuries, with a warm, lived-in feeling.

The gardens were large and diverse, with natural woodland, formal gardens, meadows and everything in-between. There was a strong emphasis on nature, with many habitats set up to encourage wildlife. In one corner runs the river smothered in lily pads, to Lode Mill – an interesting building in its own right, but sadly the gear wasn't working when we were there. Moorhen chicks ran across the leafy surface of the river seldom touching the water and Banded Demoiselle damselflies glinted in the sun.

Onto the pictures! First, a rather fun door in the middle of the woods, followed by a Painted Lady butterfly at the edge of the dew pond.

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A quick glance of the house itself, with the corner of a formal rose garden, then a nice carved post head – literally.

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Finally, the approach to Lode Mill, which I absolutely loved, being a sumptuous watery green pathway.

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On a balmy summer's day (the day of the men's final at Wimbledon) we ventured back to Shaw's Corner for a stroll around its beautifully relaxed gardens. This is where playwright George Bernard Shaw lived for over 40 years. The house and gardens aren't huge, but I like their style – lazy, slow, ambling and pleasant. Lawns, shady paths, vibrant flowerbeds, meadowy orchards, languid trees, and all kept in a not-too-formal style that sees the stresses ooze out of me.

I only had my macro lens, so no sweeping panoramas – you'll have to take my word for it on the descriptions above, or visit the National Trust page I've linked to for that sort of thing.

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This is a slightly frayed Comma butterfly, amidst the meadowy flowers and grasses.
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No, apparently not.

We recently spent a very nice 24 hours in Helsinki, Finland before crossing the strait to Tallinn, Estonia. Helsinki is quite a modern city and its delights are subtle. We very nearly didn't go to the Church in the Rock, having failed to realise that it's one of the top tourist attractions. You wouldn't know it from the humble location in the middle of a rather nondescript residential area.


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Built in the late 1960s the church is sunk into the bedrock with just a domed roof poking above the natural lie of the land. It's really not much to look at from the outside, but internally it's a symphony of modernist concrete, rough-hewn stone, glass, wood and polished copper. It really speaks craftsmanship and slightly old fashioned Scandinavian design. It also has fantastic acoustics – there was a woman playing a grand piano as we wandered around, which just set it all off perfectly.


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My train rolled into St Albans station from the siding as per usual, though excruciatingly slowly, and I got on. Then the lights went off and all those whirring noises you didn't realise were there fell silent. Oh dear I thought. Then the lights came back on and the driver announced "I was having some power problems but I've switched the train off and on again and it seems to have cured it." Nice.
On the way back from a lovely wedding in Shropshire over the bank holiday weekend, we stopped off at Attingham Park – a National Trust property comprising a big house and a bigger estate. We got there fairly early in the day, and since the house isn't open to the massed hordes until 1pm we snuck on a free tour at 11. This turned out to be an unexpected delight, as the tour was specifically about the usually hidden process of keeping a big old NT house clean throughout the seasons. I didn't realise quite how much careful effort goes in every day just to keep dust at bay, not to mention light, insects and humidity.

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To me the house isn't the star attraction here though (we went back and had a full look once it was properly open). The vast parkland grounds are what make it special, featuring grassland, woodland, deer, rivers and ponds. These are lightly littered with some interesting sculptures, which would be more impressive if they weren't accompanied by ridiculous texts explaining what they represent. I should have burned that leaflet! We almost missed the monopoly hotels on sticks poking out of the water of a pond.

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As we strolled through the bracken there was a section that was literally swarming with large very black and rather lugubrious flies. I've since identified these as St Mark's Flies, which apparently emerge at this time of year – traditionally 25th April (hence the name).

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Down by the river (I'm not sure if it was the Severn or the Tern) there were a couple of Grey Wagtails shooting out over the water for insects.

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26. April 2009 · 2 comments · Categories: Travel
Saw this poster at St Pancras. Oh the irony! Nuff said.

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