Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Torchwood, Choughs, Dolphins And The Best Pubs And Restaurants In South And West Wales

Rhossili Bay

The forecast said wet in the east so we headed west. It was meant to be a dolphin safari. It turned into an unintentional Torchwood tour.

The Spectacular Scenery
The rocky coasts of the Gower peninsula and Pembrokeshire in the sunshine are breathtaking. Literally, after the walk up the steep cliffside above Rhossili.
There couldn't be a starker, more beautiful contrast with the windswept heaths and big-skied marshes of our usual Norfolk haunts: 360-degree views across rolling Welsh countryside surrounded by the sea on all sides, wild ponies wandering among the heather and cliff-top flowers; multi-coloured ants on surfboards on the scudding waves way  below.

New Quay
New Quay in Pembrokeshire even looked like Newquay in Cornwall: a pastel-coloured village overlooking a bay that Slartibartfast would have been proud to carve.
St David's Cathedral
The green woods at Oxwich Point spilling into the sea; the incongruously huge cathedral in the tiny city of St David's with a path leading down to an impossibly small chapel of St Non, mother of the patron saint at the site where he was born.
 Cardiff Bay

The sleek modern waterfront of Cardiff contrasting with the slightly intimidating inner-city road to it from the city centre, waymarked with the arrival dates of each swathe of new immigrant communities through the ages.
All of it magnificent, memorable and worth a four or five-hour drive from anywhere.

The Unique Welsh Wildlife
We were photographing a Wall butterfly on the cliff-top overlooking Rhossili Bay when the unmistakeable call of a couple of Choughs got nearer and nearer until a pair landed about 30 feet away.
Unbelievable. These are real west coast specialists - crows with bright red bills and feet, doing okay now after some desperately lean years, but still only around 500 pairs in the UK. They posed for a while then were gone.
Bottlenose Dolphin Calf and Mother

We were lucky on the two-hour dolphin boat trip from New Quay. None had been seen the day before. We were treated to plenty of classic arcing loops, disappearing and reappearing fins and the best treat - a mother feeding with her calf. Lucky, too, that we were the only people on the trip and had one of the best sights in British wildlife all to ourselves.
Memorable fact of the trip: baby dolphins don't suckle; the mother shoots the milk direct into their mouths to avoid mixing it with sea water.

The Torchwood Connection
We passed the National Trust's most popular holiday cottage on the walk around Rhossili Bay. It wasn't until we watched the first episode of the new, very different and Americanised series when we got back to London that we recognised it as the hideaway of Gwen and her dopey husband.

There were swallows nesting in the outhouses and a man doing the plank in the garden when we passed.
The Cardiff waterfront was a regular location in the earlier series. Tributes to one of the missing characters line the walls of one of the docks in the bay. The Roald Dahl plaza is still a meeting point for Captain Jack and the rest in the new series.

Food, Drink and Lodgings.

The Premier Inn, Swansea - cheap, cheerful, comfortable beds, delicious all-you-can breakfasts at £16 for a family of four, loud commercial radio in the dining room - presumably to hurry you out before you polish off the lot. No complaints.

King Arthur Hotel, Reynoldston - Camra beer guide comes good again: outdoor drinking, Brains bitters and Tomas Watkin's Swansea ales on tap (are they the Woodforde's of Wales?).

Traeth cafe/bistro at New Quay - a first-floor balcony with views of the dolphins in the bay, bottles of the ubiquitously refreshing Watkin's beer and the best Sunday lamb lunch you can imagine.
Contented Customers at the Bay Bistro
The Bay Bistro, Rhossili - friendly service in a stunning patio garden overlooking the bay, excellent ham and cheese paninis and more golden Watkin's bottles to choose from.  A surf shack and coastal photos made it cool, too.

Black Boy pub, Killay near Swansea - big old Brains boozer (the Fullers of Wales?) with well-kept beer, a noisy darts night in the corner and racing on the TV even at 9pm.

Park Inn, Mumbles - a classic real ale aficionados hang-out with Watkin's Not So Ugly Now Premier Ale the standout choice, brewed to celebrate Swansea City's arrival as the first Welsh team in the Premier League. Here's hoping they get a welcome to remember at Manchester City next month.

Frankie and Bennys, Swansea - Italian-American-style diner on the edge of an entertainment district that makes Disney's Pleasure Island look like meagre gruel. Exactly what you'd expect - but I'm still quietly disappointed that the single flat mushroom promised with the £14.95, 8oz steak was the size of 50p piece and the "roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine" were neither roasted nor on the vine.
Terra Nova and the Torchwood Wall
Terra Nova, Cardiff Bay - another big Brains pub, modern on the outside but made to look quaintly old-fashioned inside. A sunkissed balcony and good beer but leave the food. They'd ran out of nachos and managed to burn the potato wedges.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

More Best Norfolk Pubs And Restaurants Reviewed And Rated With Birds

Back to the Garden

 Back To The Garden, Fakenham Road, Letheringsett

Bird Equivalent: Swallow - summer not complete without a visit.

Overview: On the main road from Fakenham to Holt, this used to a be a fabulous farm shop selling the very best local produce around. It still is, but now it's added a stunning, Mediterranean-style garden to its barn-conversion restaurant. A delicious lunchtime menu served amidst the bees buzzing on the lavender. Stock up on the way out with Brays pork pies and Wiveton strawberries for tea.

Food Highlight: Three succulent, Norfolk-pork and leek sausages and herby mash served with a giant bowl of fresh vegetables grown in their very own market garden. 

Beer: The shop sells a wide selection of local, bottled ales but the restaurant limits the choice to a stout from Yetman's up the road in Holt and  a couple of beers from the St Peter's brewery - those ones in the antique-style bottles, which are fine but controversially from across the border in Suffolk.

Bottom Line: Under £40 for four lunches with drinks.

The Lodge, Norwich Road, North Tuddenham

Bird Equivalent: Yellowhammer - an easy-to-overlook rural treat.

Overview: The first restaurant we've visited as a result of a recommendation on Twitter. We arrived at this stylishly-modernised village inn just off the A47 at 9pm last Friday night - and amazingly we were the only people there. Unexpected James Bond memorabilia on the walls, comfy chairs, Eighties songs playing and a warm welcome from the man in charge who told us it had been much busier earlier on.

Food Highlight: The perfectly cooked medium-well-done ribeye steak came with a giant mushroom and big, fat chips; the burgers were plump; the pollock was fresh and fragrant.

Beer: The last pint of Beeston's Worth The Wait golden ale lived up to its name after a three-hour drive and after that the new barrel of Adnam's Bitter was up to its usual reliable mark.

Bottom Line: £56.95 for four main courses with the drinks.

The Kings Head, Letheringsett

Bird Equivalent: A Pheasant chick - irresistible now and getting bigger and better all the time.

Overview: A fine-looking manor house-style building set just off the the main road from Thetford to Holt with a gravelly car park hidden by a big children's playground to the side of a generous outdoor seating area. It used to be a sticky-carpeted beer-and-burgers family pub but it's been taken over by the Kiwi Inns chain and upgraded into a posh gastro pub with bookshelves around the tables and very friendly and efficient staff.

Food Highlight: Melt-in-the-mouth beer-battered haddock and thick-cut chips, a huge crab salad and a very juicy ribeye steak. Brownies, parfait, panacotta and Eton Mess desserts at £6 a pop.

Beer: The ubiquitous Adnam's bitter from Suffolk - reliable but it would be nice to see a wider local selection.

Bottom Line: £100 gets you four main courses, desserts, three pints, two large bottles of water, a large glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc (on the pricey side at £6.55) and a coke.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Sound Of A Norfolk Nightjar Churring At 10pm On Saturday Night

Sunset at Salthouse Heath in North Norfolk - a banker Nightjar site in July - was at 9.10pm and looked fabulous. But that still meant a 50-minute wait until that unmistakeable churring piped up from nowhere. It was there and gone within five minutes.

They're very difficult to see because they don't wake up until it goes dark.  But just listen to that unnatural, natural sound.

The RSPB estimate there are 3,400 males in the whole of Britain during the summer, most of them in the east and south east of England. It's very rare to hear more than two in a territory and they all winter in  sub-Saharan Africa.

Joseph and I passed the waiting time with an old-time Norfolk countryman and his wife. He'd spent his life digging lugworms out of Stiffkey marsh in all weathers for sea-fishing, shooting and hunting. He was now using a walking stick and struggling with his spinal discs. He wandered off just before the Nightjar started calling.

We made it back to the cottage in time for the end of Miss Marple.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Purple Emperor: One Of The Scarcest Butterflies in Britain Found In A Wood Ten Miles From Shepherd's Bush

"But spectacular though they may be, these are scarce and elusive insects. Only seldom does the casual naturalist see one, even in its strongholds of south Wiltshire and the western Weald."

That's what the essential The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, by Jeremy Thomas & Richard Lewington, says about the Purple Emperor.

Patrick Barkham in the excellent The Butterfly Isles writes, "No other butterfly in Britain can compete with the charisma of His Imperial Majesty." This is a man who almost died of blood poisoning after getting bitten by a tick while on Emperor hunt. He eventually found 57 in Northamptonshire thanks to some judicious baiting.

So when a local wildlife expert tipped us off that a colony had been spotted in Ruislip Woods, an ancient bit of oakwood about a half-hour drive up the A40 from Shepherd's Bush, that was our Saturday sorted.

I'd never seen one before but knew from the guide books that their only rival in the British spectacular stakes was the Swallowtail - a butterfly we'd staked out in Norfolk earlier this year. But while the Swallowtail is obliging enough to glide down to eye-level flowers, the Purple Emperor prefers the neck-achingly high boughs of the oak trees where it lives.

But it didn't take long for Ruislip to deliver. Half-an hour of peering into the tree-tops was rewarded with the first high-up glimpses of a couple of unmistakeable butterflies. Even with the naked eye they were a striking sight - big enough to glide like birds with still-looking wings in the gaps between the leaves. A look through a telescope reveals their size and beauty in all their glory.

The eye-spot on the hind wing is clearly visible with the sun shining above the butterfly on the top photo.

As Jeremy Thomas says, "There are few greater thrills for any naturalist than to stand beneath an oakwood in high summer and watch male Purple Emperors soaring and wheeling above the canopy."

Especially when you can see them ten miles from the front door.

Another purple butterfly also brightened up an overcast Sunday afternoon in the garden. We'd seen a single Purple Hairstreak at Ruislip, but even though they're nationally very common, they're very unusual to find in W12 gardens, especially ones with no obvious oak trees in sight.

This one stuck around to feed on the buddleia just long enough for me to get a poor silhouette snap but tweaked on the computer it reveals that eye-spot on the underside next to the short tail - the only British hairstreak with those markings.

Well worth raising another outdoor glass of London Pride in its honour.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

12 Wildlife Snaps from A Garden in London W12 Today

Small Copper
Great Tit
Grey Squirrel
Dancing Small Whites
Leaf Cutter Bee
Grey Squirrel's Fooot

Purple Hairstreak

House Sparrow
Small White

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Bullet Point Review Of The Flaming Lips Performing The Soft Bulletin At Alexandra Palace in London Last Night

* Alexandra Palace is a wonderful venue in the summer; unrivalled sunshine views across London.

* But cans of San Miguel should NEVER cost £3.90 (and NEVER run out before the end of the gig).

* Wayne Coyne is brilliant at connecting with his venue; the first thing he did was reference Syd Barrett, who apparently played a legendary Pink Floyd gig here in 1967.

* Only Wayne could constantly call everyone motherf**kers and make it feel like a compliment.

* There were brilliant giant balloons everywhere; like watching the gig through a giant Galileo Thermometer.

* The Soft Bulletin is better as a brilliant album than a live show.

* Do You Realize? is the best song of all time.

* Wayne's mic-cam is a fantastic device.

* The semi-circular big-screen at the back of the stage featured images including topless ladies and lots of animal teeth.

* The lasers throughout the show made everyone want to photograph them.

* Wayne's space bubble made everyone smile. See my short video of it here.

* I missed Yoshimi and her Pink Robots.

* I missed Tangerine.

* Most of the crowd looked like me but with less hair.

* This was the sixth time I've seen The Flaming Lips; the other five were Glastonbury, T in the Park in Scotland, Camp Bestival in Dorset, Hammersmith Apollo and the Troxy in London. They're my favourite band.

* The second time I saw them I danced on stage dressed as a cloud.

Wayne Coyne In His Space Bubble At The Flaming Lips Gig At Alexandra Palace In London On July 1, 2011