Monday, April 30, 2012

Heading West (and Taking Pictures)

I recently finished putting the photos from a weekend down in south-west England up on my Flickr photostream. A moderately frenetic two days, that - we got as far as Cornwall, without Angela having to take any time off work - but fun.

To start with, it gave Angela an excuse to try a return visit to the Methuen Arms, in Corsham, which once upon a time was legendary among her colleagues as a place you booked to stay on business once, so you'd know not to go there again. Suffice to say that it's changed hands since then, and been changed completely, and now it's a very nice place to spend a Friday night, with a good restaurant and all. However, that was just a first-night stopping place, as the next day, the 24th of March, we were on the road again for a few hours.

The primary destination for the day was the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which we hadn't managed to fit into previous trips down west in recent seasons. For those who don't know of them, these are the gardens of a rather grand country house which fell into total decline and decay in the latter part of the 20th century, until they were rediscovered a few years ago by someone who has managed an extraordinary feat of horticultural resurrection.Nonetheless, and despite being quite rightly full of enthusiastic visitors, they still have a slightly wild feeling in places - one part is quite plausibly known as "The Jungle" - while having been restored to enclosed formality in other parts. A good place to see, even if you're not especially fascinated by gardens as such; there's a definite feeling of an old-time private estate, with everything from Italianate formality to woodland walks, poking through a thin layer of time. Plus some fairly weird sculptures.

We'd hoped to follow this up with a quick visit to the nearby Eden Project - we still had tickets from our visit last year which are good for twelve months, darn it! - but unfortunately, that was still on its winter opening schedule, and was closed by the time that we got there. So we rolled on, diverting a short distance for a brief visit to the real Jamaica Inn (just looking round the outside, really), before driving on to spend the night in Okehampton.

The next day (the 25th of March), we were heading back eastwards - but with a stop planned. We'd seen flyers for the Haynes International Motor Museum, and we thought it sounded interesting. We were right. I suspect that this is the biggest motor museum collection in the country, lurking in a giant shed or two in Somerset, and it probably deserves to be better known. It's currently undergoing a bit of refurbishment and expansion work, but even so, it combined aesthetically impressive experiences (some fabulous designs from multiple eras) with twinges of sometimes downright painful nostalgia (several iffy 1970s models that I thought were really cool in my early teens). Probably only a motor museum can do this quite so effectively.

(A note on the name and origins of this museum, mostly for the benefit of non-UK residents; the Haynes motor manuals are a very useful line of independently-published workshop manuals. The chap who founded the company was evidently a serious car enthusiast, and his collection formed the core of this collection.)

Among the aesthetic positives, by the way, was a real, honest-to-God 1931 Duesenberg. We stumbled across this early in the tour, although I think it's meant to be a bit of a climax for a visit, because the current building work means that visitors end up going round the place in the reverse of the usual direction. This name may not mean very much to Europeans reading this; it wouldn't have meant very much to me before this trip. But let's just say that this thing is unique in Europe, one of eight of its kind in the world - and if you were drawing a comic strip set in the 1930s USA, and you wanted to show that some rich or powerful character had some degree of taste or style, this is the car which he'd arrive in. It's an authentic work of art.

Anyway, having finished there, we were able to get home in reasonable time, even stopping briefly on the way to take a quick look at Stonehenge over the surrounding fence. So I ended up with a lot of photos.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

It must be nice to be an Aardman casting director - to know that, when you're making a silly little fun movie about a bunch of plasticine pirates fighting a plasticine Queen Victoria, you can not only get Hugh Grant and David Tennant for lead roles ("you should wind the Scottish accent back for this one, David, you're playing Charles Darwin"), you can get Salma Hayek to do a cameo alongside Lenny Henry, just because. (Of course, you've also got to schedule the recording of the Pirate King's scene for when Brian Blessed is free, as it'd be illegal to cast anyone else there.) Mind you, this being an Aardman film, you have to remember that it'll all be stolen by a wordless nonhuman character; Darwin's chimpanzee butler is no Gromit, but he does his best.

Anyway, being an Aardman movie, this is definitely enough fun to catch in the cinema, although you may also want to purchase the DVD, not for the Primer reason of having to work out what the hell was going on, but for the simple pleasure of freezing every frame to catch all the little visual jokes that the makers overdo at every opportunity. Whether there's more to it than that may be an open question. It is very silly, and laden with anachronisms of all sorts, mostly no doubt derived from its source material in children's fiction.

Like a lot of pirate movies, it has small pretensions to be about the end of an age of romance in the face of the onset of the modern industrial world - here symbolised by the contrast between the pirates' ship (a proper pocket galleon) and Queen Victoria's yacht (a rather magnificent steampunk creation incorporating the domes from the Royal Pavilion). But that doesn't really fly; the heroes' secondary foes are pirates who are even more old-school than themselves, they ally with Charles Darwin, and they make good use of an airship.

As I said, it's fun. I'm not sure that it's quite up there with Nick Park's best work for the company - perhaps the anachronisms, or the touches of outright visual surrealism, or the slightly plonking use of familiar songs on the soundtrack, jarred with me too much - but it had some good jokes and excellent visuals, and the celebrity voice cast were used well without dominating things too much. Clay and CGI are quite deftly merged, too. Just don't ask me what the ham obsession is all about.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Uses of Marinades

Marking a birthday yesterday, I was in London for the afternoon. Working on the principle that a birthday demands some small new experience, I decided to try a Peruvian restaurant I'd recently read about; Ceviche, on Frith Street. Turned out to be a good move. Yes, I tried some Peruvian ceviche (raw sea bass, lime, chilli, coriander, toasted corn as a garnish); I also think I (knowingly) ate beef heart for the first time in my life - I'd assume that it could normally be rather tough, but sliced quite thin, marinaded in chilli, then grilled on wooden skewers, it was simply toothsome.

The chocolate mousse claimed to come with "guanaban (soursop tropical fruit)" cream. Umm, seemed like pleasant whipped cream to me. Maybe my palate had been a little too well blatted with lime and chilli. However, it was an excellent chocolate mousse. The coffee didn't mess about, either.

I definitely have the place down for a return visit or two. It's one of those "share lots of small plates" set-ups, and I need to try a few more of the options.