Event 1 – There’s only one word for that – Magic Archery

Onto Lord’s Cricket Ground for the first live event, the 1/8 qualifiers for the blokes’ Team Archery. For those who are unaware, yes, me too before today, it’s all about each person in a team of 3 firing 1 shot for 8 rounds at a target the size of a CD from 70 meters away. Team GB were first up against Ukraine and after some cheerful waves at the start, it all got easy… for Ukraine.

After this there were 7 other games, the most tense went to a shoot-off when Japan and India tied the game. Japan were victorious.

A fun start with the only disappointment being that Sid Waddell wasn’t commentating.

Photos below

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Here’s the thing. It’s the Olympic flame. Totally.


Allan: I know it’s been around the country in the last 10 weeks or so, but the Olympic flame passing by my work place has just raised my excitement up a notch or two. To quote Dave, on a scale of 1 to 9.58, the excitement levels are now 9.56. The excitement continues with the 3 days of Athletics, 2 days of Archery, 1 day each of Football, Handball, Sprint Canoeing, Boxing and I’m sure I’ve missed something. Cool.

Photos below of the handover of the Olympic torch for its journey to Buckingham Palace (if you’re interested, the guy was from an amazing disaster relief logistics charity called Map Action). Also included, a bonus photo of some ridiculously glam members of the Russian team walking around Parliament Square. #whosthatgirl. More posts to come in the next two and a bit weeks.

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Fat Duck Wonderland

We celebrated our first wedding anniversary with lunch at the Fat Duck. We’re making no excuses – it was bloody expensive and worth every penny. So, for those who are interested, here are the highlights.

Finding it is the first challenge. Even standing right outside, the livery is ridiculously subtle. However, there’s someone on hand to open the door and let you know you’re in the right place. This is their general approach to customer service, which is low key but always there. Always. They know you need something before you do. It’s spooky, but probably testament to the dedication of staff who seem to stay for a long time and take a huge amount of pride in their jobs. This impression was strengthened when the woman who welcomed us to our table turned out to be Fanny, who had made us bacon and egg ice cream at our table during our other visit four years ago. She’s been promoted since then, says she loves it there and can’t really imagine what else she would prefer to be doing.

But enough of the foreplay. If you’re still reading this, you want to know about the food. So here are the best bits.

Nitro Poached Aperitifs: rather than pre-dinner drinks, the Fat Duck offers (of course) a mouthful of frozen egg white infused with your choice of drinks. Chloe chose a gin and tonic, Allan went for vodka and lime. The spoonful of egg is poached in liquid nitrogen, which we were invited to eat in one bite. Chloe was spritzed with essence of juniper while she tasted it. Allan’s was sprinkled with freeze dried green tea. This starter sets the tone for the meal, which is fun and amazement.

Jelly of Quail: If you’re a fan of the jelly bits that go round the edge of a pork pie, for example, you will think you’ve died and gone to heaven when you taste this one. But it can’t be that straightforward. Oh no. To complement the truffle on the accompanying sliver of toast, you first place a strip of gelatine on your tongue which is infused with the flavour of oak moss, while liquid nitrogen mist boils out of a tray of the stuff. It’s a total woodland experience!

Mock Turtle SoupMock Turtle Soup: Chloe’s favourite. The tea party in Alice in Wonderland: remember the Mad Hatter and the March Hare attempting to fix a broken pocket watch by dunking it in tea? We were invited to help fix a watch (produced from a large wooden box, gold-covered and attached to a piece of string) by dunking it into the hot water in the large teacup beside our plates. The watch dissolved into a rich broth, full of floating golden flecks. By pouring this over our plates, we created Mock Turtle Soup. As well as being spectacular, it was also delicious.

Sound of the Sea: This is the one that everyone has heard of: a delicious tumble of fish and seaweeds is bordered by edible ‘sand’ (semolina flavoured with anchovy) on one side and foamy, fishy brine on the other. You eat it whilst listening to seaside sounds (waves, gulls, laughing) on a teeny iPod hidden in a shell. Mental.

Hot and Iced Tea: Think it’s impossible? It’s not. A cup of sweet, iced tea, one half of which is hot and the other chilled. Our brains didn’t quite know what to make of it and it was like a magic trick on a plate!

The BFG: This stands for Black Forest Gateau but, bloody hell, it’s pretty much the ultimate version. Chocolate mousse stuffed with cherries soaked in something (kirsch?) alcoholic. The forest floor is represented by chocolate shavings. Allan proclaimed this his favourite, despite it coming at the end of the meal and us both being stupidly full.

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums: Amazing. A framed map of Scotland (with an inset of Tennessee) is placed before us. Stuck to the glass, at the appropriate locations, are five bottle-shaped sweet jellies made from the whisky of the area. Although we know nothing about whisky, we definitely recognised the Highland Park and the Jack Daniels, and will take Heston’s word for the rest. Each was very distinctive and I bet would be a true joy for real whisky lovers.

Queen of HeartsLike A Kid In A Sweetshop: The finale. Two pink and white striped paper bags arrive at our table. The Fat Duck has recreated sweets from our childhood, but Heston-style. Toffees have edible cellophane wrappers. The sweet tobacco is infused with actual tobacco essence. The most grown up Orange Aero ever contains mandarin jelly and melts in the mouth. And the show stopper: a little envelope (with edible wax seal) opens to reveal a Queen of Hearts playing card, reproduced in perfect detail on both sides, which is white chocolate sandwiched around jam tart. Perfect.

Other dishes there’s no space to describe were the red cabbage soup with mustard ice cream, snail porridge, salmon poached in liquorice and more.

As if this unbelievable lunch was not enough, we were treated to a peek into the kitchens. They were tiny for a restaurant delivering such a complex menu. Every single person knew exactly what they had to do and managed to do it without all of the usual shouting and high-stress energy you usually associate with restaurant kitchens. Even towards the end of service, it was stunning how a dozen staff could move tableware, load a dishwasher and co-ordinate food coming out of the kitchen in a space smaller than our hall at home. Fanny also presented us with a little congratulations card signed by Blumenthal himself (out of a stock by the desk, but very sweet nonetheless).

So we left, stuffed, entertained and happy, deciding to call a cab from the pub next door. The Hind’s Head is also owned by Blumenthal, so we should not have been surprised when the response to our order of ‘two gin and tonics, please’ was ‘Ah, now. We have eight different gins ranging from floral to citrus…’ Allan’s came with a sprig of rosemary, Chloe’s tonic released a cloud of grapefruit oil when the lid was released. Of course it did.

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Bonjour Bentleys

As some of our dear readers may know, I have done a bit of a family tree research. Far too much according to Chloe, as this is a pursuit that should be left to keep me busy in retirement.

However, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a link from my mum’s maternal grandmother, Clara Jane Bentley, to another person’s fantastic information on Ancestry.com.

The first new names were my 7x great grandparents James (b.1699) and Grace (b.1697) and the next 9 generations, all living in Yorkshire. Back several more generations and the family was living in a place called Bentley-Haye near Cannock, Staffs. Then we had a change of surname for John de Bentley (b.1288), back to Drew de Bentley (b.1100) and 3 further generations back to a guy simply known as Dreux the Norman (b.1040).

My great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather if you want to be precise.

French-born Dreux and his son came over with William the Conquerer. They were given land in thanks for their support of William during the England invasion. It was named Bentley-Haye because it provided hay for the King’s estates.

Fascinating. And in honour of my distant and more recent rellies, attached is a photo of Bentley cairn near Bentley-Haye. Pictured are Dreux the Norman’s 30x and 28x great grandsons, taken by his 29x great granddaughter (otherwise known as Uncle Lewis, first cousin once removed Aiden and cousin Sue). Hope the visit was interesting!

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Ghana off my travel wish list

Flag of Ghana

Ghana no longer a HardCow destination

Heard the reports about Ghanaian officials calling for the arrest of all gay people in the region. Wrote to the Foreign Office to find out the UK Government’s position on this. For anyone interested, and for what it’s worth, here is their response:

Dear Chloe,

Thank you for your email dated 22 July 2011. I have been asked to respond as the Deputy Head of West Africa Section.

The Regional Minister for the Western Region, Paul Evans Aidoo, was reported as having ordered the immediate arrest of all homosexual people in the region.

The Minister was quoted as saying that “all efforts are being made to get rid of these people in the society”. His office have claimed he was misquoted. We are not aware of any gay or lesbian Ghanaians or foreign nationals being targeted or arrested as a result of these alleged remarks.

The Government believes that human rights are universal and should be applied to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the Foreign Secretary has made clear on many occasions, the promotion of human rights is at the heart of our foreign policy. All of our Embassies and High Commissions have a responsibility to monitor and raise human rights in their host countries. As well as diplomatic lobbying, we encourage UK missions overseas to seek out appropriate opportunities to promote human rights and prevent discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. We have raised these issues in private on a number of occasions with Government officials and other senior figures. We will continue to do so.

The Ghanaians are fully aware of our concerns. The DFID Minister Stephen O’Brien was visiting Accra at the time of this incident and he took that opportunity to immediately make representations at the highest level about our concerns about the recent alleged statement. He conveyed a message directly to the President’s office making clear that the UK treats such statements as unacceptable and seeking assurances from the Government of Ghana that this is not a matter that they’re going to pursue or give any credibility to. He was assured that the Ghanaian Government would take all steps to address our concerns.  Our High Commission in Accra and the Foreign Office in London continue to monitor this situation closely.

Best regards,

Martin

Martin Robinson | Deputy Head, West Africa Section | Foreign and Commonwealth Office | EG 06, King Charles Street | London SW1A 2AH
* email: martin.robinson@fco.gov.uk ( telephone: +44 020 7008 4840 ) ftn: 8008 4840 : www.fco.gov.uk

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The face of evil on the 1735 to Addleston

Evil bankerOn Thursday 7 July, trains out of Waterloo at the height of rush hour were packed. Not the usual packed, but cattle-crate, sardine-tin packed, because a big city bank was holding its ‘corporate challenge’ in Battersea Park. Clearly, patience would be an extra special virtue tonight.

I had walked passed at least six carriages before finding one which had some space down the aisles, deep in the middle of the seating area – not desirable commuter territory. Everyone knows that, if you have to stand, better it were near the doors. They offer the opportunity to gulp cool air and find protection on at least one side. (I wonder whether these are survival traits in train users and, in a thousand or so generations, whether we will see a new breed of tiny, cuboid commuter able to fit into any corner?)

In order to get onto the train, I would have to throw myself on the mercies of my fellow travellers and ask them to move down. Although I am no stranger to shouting ‘there are seats upstairs!’ on buses, I had never before attempted to communicate with the Waterloo Commuter. However, the hundreds of people in shorts, revving up for the display of corporate loyalty ahead, lent a certain carnival air to the platform and I was bouyed up by their exuberance.

‘Excuse me?’, I started strongly, ‘is there any chance that people could move down a little bit?’ One or two near the door caught my eye and shrugged apologetically, but before I could repeat myself a little louder to the bankers further inside, the gentleman in his early 60s, immaculately groomed and clutching a large briefcase to his chest, scowled directly down at me and growled ‘Nothing to do with me. It’s not my problem’.

It was the tone, as well as the words, which brought me up short. ‘Excuse me? Did you say…’, ‘Not…my…problem’, he lashed. You could almost feel the little wave of deflation wash through his immediate vicinity, like a flash fire through dry straw, leaving a layer of emotional ash on the people around him.

Now, he may genuinely have been having the worst day ever. Perhaps he had just made 100 people redundant and could barely look at himself in the mirror of the executive washroom. However, I think not (I certainly hope not).

He was the epitome of David Cameron’s Big Society. A suburban-dwelling, high salary, middle-aged, white man, he believes wholeheartedly in volunteerism, self-help and reducing state dependency. This is because if he finds himself in need of assistance to care for a frail relative, remove graffiti, educate his grandchildren or recover from a serious illness, he has his own resources to fall back on.

For him, the Big Society doesn’t mean considering what he can do to help other people – in big ways and small ways – it means paying as little tax as possible. He moves through the world, spreading low-grade, nasty, ill-will when reality does not effortlessly shape itself around him and his desires.

That’s a lot to extrapolate from a short exchange on a platform at Waterloo. But evil does not arrive on a cloud of flame, it sneaks into our lives in little ways that politeness makes it hard to challenge.

Actually, I don’t believe in Evil any more than I believe in Goodness. But I do believe that we have a collective power we rarely acknowledge. That of making the world bearable, even pleasant, through little acts of kindness.

So I don’t think it’s hopelessly idealistic to suggest that next time you’re on a packed train, stuck in a long queue or pushing through the crowds to make it home, you resist the very London temptation to lash out at the people you encounter. The only thing you can guarantee is that many more people will have a day a little bit sadder because of you. On the other hand, a small act of kindness goes a very long way.

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From Vauxhall to Birmingham

Been a while readers.

Allan and Chloe are now firmly back into the daily grind. Chloe returned after sabbatical within 3 weeks of the end of our travels and Allan secured a new contract frighteningly quickly, in his opinion, a couple of weeks later. A pleasant little interlude to the shock of working for a living again was had at the Apple store to buy a shining new MacBook Air for Allan and iPhone 4 for Chloe.

You’ll be pleased to know that a holiday to Azerbaijan is on the horizon. Why Azerbaijan you may ask. The answer is all related to a stupid bet, a bottle of Champagne and Jedward not winning Eurovision.

However, in the spirit of keeping this website about our travels, enclosed is a photo outside the new office in Birmingham that Allan has sweated blood, sweat and tears in the past 28 working days – with help from suppliers and staff – to make sure people could move into a new building today. Taken on the iPhone, so not up to the usual Hardcow quality.

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Some more photos

Battling the surprising annoying effects of jet-lag including waking up at 3am for the past few days, we managed to rinse our Internet connection to upload some photos for Malaysia and Singapore.

This gives us a total of 300 photos on hardcowtravels, definitely enough of a slideshow to bore even the most ardent of travellers!

It took significantly less time than normal proving that our home Internet connection is the best we’d had for the past six months. Most excellent.

Malaysia photos are here

Singapore photos are here

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Home sweet home

We spent six months on holiday thinking that there was something about the 70s in SE Asia. Having arrived back in Heathrow last night, it appears that the UK is also back in the 1970s when it transpired that the country just isn’t working very well.

A “broken” ramp stopped us poor steerage class folk from using steps as soon as the business and first class passengers had exited the same door; a broken luggage carousel delayed our bags whilst staff just sat around looking lost, making 500 people wonder where to get reunited with their precious items; and M&S only had one member of staff for many hungry shoppers.

On the upside, train customer service was good and our cabbie wasn’t a racist bigot, so maybe we’re not back to the 70s after all.

All we now need to do now is to adjust to an 8 hour time difference, having to work for a living, doing our our own cooking and cleaning, expensive UK prices, all the horrors of the Tory government and remembering to feed the cats. Must remember to feed the cats…

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