Wednesday, January 04, 2012

We’ve stayed in many, many different types of places over the
decades: from campsites to B&Bs; five-star hotels to hostels and everything
in between. They all have their qualities and often their charm is inherent in
their quirky nature and unique characteristics. So to find a place with a
mixture from two ends of the spectrum is unusual, for me personally, deeply
unsettling and in this case disappointing...

At first glance – or even after a few stays here, all is
well at the Alston House Hotel (AHH). The food is fabulous, prepared personally
by owner Michael with 30 years experience. The produce is mostly
locally-sourced and/or produced, unpretentious in nature and attractively
presented and priced. Michael’s wife Carole is an ever-present friendly smiling
face, always eager to help and very hospitable.

We decided to return to the AHH after an enjoyable one
nights stay some time ago. Knowing AHH to be a reputable, decent, dog-friendly
hotel in a quiet town with lots of walking opportunities, it seemed the ideal
get-away for a short break over New Year. Just the luxury we deserved to
recharge the batteries before returning to work and study.

We couldn’t fault the food. Lovely menu, beautifully cooked
and seasoned (although perhaps too heavy on the garlic for some palates). The coffee in particular a welcome speciality. Local ales and good selection of wine available at the bar. Breakfast was also a delight with everything cooked to order and very appetising (no kippers offered though – that was a disappointment). This is the main C2C cycle route, so many passing walkers and cyclists make a stop here. Its the perfect location. Unspoilt in many ways.

We thought it was strange that the TV didn’t work in the room, but we weren’t there to watch TV anyway - there are more than enough beautiful walks nearby - as you can see from the photos - my favourite was the South Tyneside Railway, now restored and running steam trains during the summer. We forgot to mention the TV issue to
Carole. However, upon check-out another guest mentioned this problem too, so I’m not sure whether this was a hotel-wide issue (?) Also worth a mention - the radiators go off during the day and at night. We were fully aware that there
were ‘additional heaters available if required’ (according to the guest information folder) and that actually the weather was unseasonably warm outside. However, I think in the depths of an English Lakeland Winter, it is reasonable to expect to have the heating on for most, if not ALL of the day and night (or am I being greedy?). Fortunately, our bed had the benefit of an electric underblanket,which was a God-send during the night – especially for Dizzy (but don't tell anyone)!!!

This was our fourth and final evening here and we thoroughly enjoyed New Years Eve dinner – served to the usual high expectations. It was a quiet, civilised evening with the company in the restaurant being mainly older adults, some of whom had obviously made an effort to dress formally in black-tie. The candles on each table were burning, the log fire was ambient and
the Christmas music was low. Everything seemed perfect.

Strange then, the sudden and dramatic metamorphosis that occurred after ten o’clock - just when we were congratulating ourselves on finding such a wonderful, relaxing place to spend celebrating seeing-in 2012.

This apparently four-star, classy, family-run hotel, with food of Bib Gourmand
standard and outstanding customer service, within half an hour, became a
setting of a teenage rave. A disco had been set-up and I was expecting some
loud music, but not on this scale! I did get slightly concerned when I saw the
Christmas decorations getting removed for what Carole said were “safety
reasons”. But within a few minutes, I saw what was reminiscent of the Youth
Club run at Woodnesborough Working Mens’ Club, every Wednesday night during my
schooldays - which involved paying an entrance fee and smuggling in a bottle of
cheap cider rather than paying the bar prices. Indeed, this materialised into
reality as I witnessed scantily-clad youngsters, queuing-up at the AHH
reception to pay £5 and have their hand stamped to enter the hotel’s disco.
Sadly for the owners, there were far fewer new guests that those leaving – and
I know what kind of customers I would have preferred to have stay! Many of
those leaving had (like us) enjoyed a lovely relaxing meal and would have
happily preferred to stay and spend additional money at the bar on champagne (even
though, like the white wine, someone had forgotten to put it into the fridge)
had the adult atmosphere been allowed to continue. Instead of that however,
most left to go to the more ‘grown-up’ atmosphere in the Cumberland Inn over
the road (also serving fabulous, honest food) where you could actually hold a
conversation without having to scream into each others ear over the thud, thud,
thud of whatever unrecognisable rubbish the ‘DJ’ was playing. Whilst on the
subject of the DJ – make no mistake he was useless. The best DJs, like any
presenters are always the most receptive to their audience. At one point he
actually said ‘well, it seems most people are leaving rather than dancing’ at
which the obvious remark came back “because all your music is crap”. Instead of
changing his choice of ‘music’ (and I use that word in its loosest sense), he
continued until it was nearly one o’clock (by which time we had escaped
upstairs) before I heard a Michael Jackson song (‘Dangerous’) which was the
first one with any identifiable lyrics! Oh dear, I must be getting old. But
surely this isn’t what others wanted either? The place was virtually deserted
by midnight with hardly anyone ordering at the bar.

If the owners really cared about their paying, staying
guests, then they would perhaps have been more responsive to their needs. We
obviously did not want to be surrounded by teenagers getting increasingly
drunk. As guests of the hotel, we were there for the main reason that we share
the owners’ philosophy in appreciating good food, in a stylish, relaxed
atmosphere in pleasant, quiet surroundings. None of these things are in line
with what occurred here on New Years Eve. I am truly bewildered. If the owners
felt that they needed to provide a place for the teenage children to get
together with their friends for a rave/disco, then hire the village hall which
is specially designed for such a purpose. Needless to say, many of the
youngsters did not want to attend the perceived ‘pretentious’ hotel setting,
preferring instead to hang around outside without paying the £5 entrance fee,
mixing with the smokers who had.

Two bottles of decent champagne alone would have easily
covered the relatively trivial amount raised through this thoughtless event. I
can’t understand hoteliers not wanting to keep their own customers happy first
– and increase the potential recommendations for profitable business. After
all, profits are definitely NOT to be found with drunk teenagers – especially
with all the cleaning-up required the following morning (yuk).

One last point. On Boxing Day there was a tragic car
accident where a young man was killed in the town – apparently after drinking
at AHH as well as other pubs. I have yet to read the full report, but
apparently he was drunk and deliberately drove his car into a house at a
junction. Of course, no-one can blame anyone for this horrific action, but the
local landlords do have some responsibility. It is no surprise or secret that
there is a huge teenage binge-drinking problem, combined with a drug problem in
this isolated area of the Lakes. High unemployment and little for young people
to do has had a polarising impact on local communities where more than half the
properties are holiday homes owned by wealthy ‘outsiders’. I would hope that
professional business people and conscientious parents would want to take any
opportunity they can to support their young people in a town like Alston and
provide a safe, responsible environment for them to socialise in – especially
when celebrating the New Year. What the AHH promoted did not fall into this
category and if anything only proved to further alienate the different groups
of locals and visitors.

My recommendations for the AHH for next year? Do what many
of the best hotels and restaurants do – charge extra for a set menu for dinner (easier
for Michael in the kitchen) guests can book in advance or turn up on the day
(and pay a premium). Formal dress only. Hire a professional musician – a
harpist or a pianist perhaps. Close the doors firmly at 11pm and let your
guests (and you and your family) enjoy a peaceful, grown-up and happy New Year
celebration, profitable and memorable for all the right reasons.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A Multi-Fuel Stove - a problematic experience!

Well - its certainly been an experience! We spent the inevitable three months waiting to buy this house, and during that time did lots of research about what wood/multi-fuel stove we wanted and (perhaps more importantly) who we wanted to fit it for us. the first thing I visualized in the front room was where the stove needed to be. And here we are, finally, EIGHT MONTHS later! We have a stove - admittedly it's not entirelyfinished (bits of wood to paint, floorboards to replace etc) but it is IN, it is LEVEL, the flue is (just about) true, and crucially IT IS WORKING!!! (A bit ironic after the temperatures recently have been hovering around 30 degrees with swims in the sea a daily ritual to keep cool (my dog that is) !

This was how the living room wall began its transformation (right) - originally (on the right of the picture) the wonderful 1970's 'sauna-look'!LOL! Determined to keep so me of the original 'retro' character of the house - I wanted to keep it, but update it. Wall lights had to go, then it took alot of sanding and lots of paint...

So what went wrong with the stove? Why did it take so long? Well, it all started when we went against our better judgement.

You know when you always say to your yourself (with the benefit of hindsight of course) why didn't I just 'trust my instincts'? Well, there you go.

You should.

If you don't get a sense of confidence out of someone, why would you give them thousands of pounds to do a job on your home - arguably THE most important job in your home (i.e. one that provides the heating), something that you will look at every single day for as long as you live in the house (well, OK, hopefully). There's no doubt that a wood-burning stove is a massive investment. Something that needs to be considered carefully, especially (as in our case) when you have no chimney to install it into (and don't want one built).

It's a can of worms! Even after you've decided which stove to go for (you can spend anything from £200 to £20,000). We opted for a Morso 3440. The convector seemed to be the best option because we wanted to heat the whole of the downstairs space - which will eventually be twice as big after the next big project (conservatory - EEeek). I learnt that the retailers get a 40% discount from some of these stoves, so they take the p*** when they ask the customers to pay the full RRP. In the end, we managed to save hundreds of pounds by ordering directly
online. Although we had to wait over a week for delivery, it was well-worth the wait.

The location of the flue is the next big decision. Different legislation
for different stoves in relation to the distances to the walls for the single and twin-wall....the exit from the roof, etc etc. We had to carefully consider where the fitted wardrobes were to (eventually) go in our bedroom upstairs. (It seems environmental and
financial madness to send
all that warmth outside) Next? The hearth material (we opted for an original piece of Welsh Slate as a opposed to an imported piece of granite - I like to support genuine products and J has some Welsh blood, so it kinda made sense to us). The guys at this family-run quarry were really helpful: and recommended the method of fitting and provided a type of stain-guard etc. It made me a little nervous when Mark and Dave were fitting it (Slate being so brittle) but it all came together nicely in the end.

(Left) - the beginning of the
flue system - through the roof (between the rafters - not THROUGH them and not through the ridge tiles)! and cut through the bedroom floor above....

Overall, I think I ended up speaking to everyone in Kent with (and without) a HETAS certificate. (It's essential to have a HETAS cert if you were ever considering renting/selling your house). It was Bill Hayward from Barham's 'Absolute Chimneys' who let us down badly at the last minute. The slate we wanted had a four week lead-time from the quarry, and one week before the installation was booked-in, Bill Hayward realised he hadn't ordered it! Oh dear. Suspiciously, he has just moved location and re-launched himself as 'Wingham Wood Burning Stoves' . I wouldn't recommend them for a number of other reasons. Thankfully we paid by credit-card and so insured ourselves against any risk. Worryingly, apparently there's a number of stove companies locally who are struggling to keep afloat. Is there too many perhaps, trying to cash-in on what is perceived to be a fast-growing environmentally friendly option for home-owners? After all, even Grand Designs is constantly singing the praises of multi-fuel stoves and boilers. All I can say is, if you want some advice about getting a stove; do your research, decide on your stove and pay on your credit card!

To the right - flue painted and with the ventilation plate on - and with the slate hearth fitted - tricky as the floor wasn't level....

In the long run, it was more effective to leave the retailers behind - once we had the stove, we ordered our hearth ourselves directly with the quarry and found an independent HETAS fitter from the HETAS website to do the job. Dave & Mark Harlin were absolute stars. They worked so hard until 10pm to get the job done, despite a few technical set-backs.

Yes, there's still a few 'bits' to do - floorboards to renew, paint to the fireboard to finish - but overall with the stress of the (unnecessary) drawn-out purchase and (dusty and noisy) installation behind us, I'm looking forward to keeping the cold weather firmly outside, and our home nice and cosy in the most efficient, cost effective and environmentally-friendly way we know...bring on that snow!!!

Dizzy enjoying the heat from her new stove! (shame about the lovely 1970's orange vinyl floor tiles - another job, for another day)....

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I’m always fascinated by the complexities of our English language and it often leaves me wondering how people cope when they are trying to learn it. Especially the idioms and strange sayings. But what about the actual words that don’t mean what they are supposed to mean? My students, for example, are always using the word ‘ignorant’ to mean – not lacking knowledge – but stubborn or condescending.... Likewise, those of us who teach will recognise that ‘satisfactory’ actually means ‘UNsatisfactory’ if it is spoken by your manager or Ofsted! But what about the term ‘all-inclusive’? When does ‘all-inclusive’ mean ‘all-inclusive’ and when does it mean ‘some-things-are-included-but-others-not-and-it-also-depends-on-what-time-of-day-it-is’???!!!

Destina Hotel, Hisaronu, Turkey

OK, so I’ve been a five-star hotel in Egypt so perhaps I’ve been spoilt and know what ‘all-inclusive’ really means, and perhaps my expectations are too high. So the ice-creams weren't included - so what? (Although I guess if we'd had kids that would have been a problem) and there were no fruit juices at the bar (so have a cold beer instead) and at breakfast there were (strangely) no fresh fruit salads (so go down to the village and buy some from the market for a few pence)! I guess wherever we go there is always a way around these types of issues. It appears that some British people would prefer to complain about them though!

But actually, we did our research before-hand and knew that our expectations should be - i.e. low at this particular resort. I didn’t kid myself – after all, we’d only paid £550 each for 2 weeks ‘all-inclusive’ (or not, as the case may be)! There’s not many places within a few hours fly-time of here where you get that kind of value for money. Obviously that’s why Turkey’s becoming so popular. But lets not fool ourselves – it’s rise in popularity has everything to do with the blasted European Union and the dreaded EURO and nothing at all to do with the great British Public wanting to indulge in their wonderful Byzantine cultural history. Not from what I saw anyway. In fact, it was the largish fellow who after reading the Sun, drank 20 pints before passing out for 2 days (my sympathies to his poor neglected 10 year old daughter) who brought it home to me who the typical visitor was to this place. He had a lovely tattoo of “Made in England” around his protruding belly-button. (YUK)!

But really, if you can manage to drag yourself away from the poolside in 45 degree heat and walk down the hill on the shady footpath from the hotel to the lovely town of Hisaronu – you will get an idea of some of what Turkey is all about. Here the local people and some tourists chill out in the many cafés and people-watch and maybe catch the local bus (cost 2.75TL) to the beach. Once, we got on a bus which was full and one of the locals kindly got up to let us have a seat! They really are wonderful people with a great, simple sense of humour.

On passing a shop one day, there was an item that had fallen out of one of the shelves and onto the pavement. I’m convinced most British people at home would have just ignored it, maybe even kicked it out of the way and into the gutter. However, a passing Turk picked it up and replaced it in its proper place – singing along to one of their famous pop songs (The Turks have a really successful pop song culture apparently).

Another day we were waiting for a bus and the owner of a local restaurant which we had been to recognised us and stopped to offer us a lift. He was so friendly and jolly – even with the limited English he spoke – we didn’t dare offer him any money!

The food at the hotel was fabulous, and the service – even though most of the staff spoke virtually no English – was excellent. We tried learning some Turkish words with the restaurant staff and they seemed overjoyed with us for making the effort. It’s so sad that the majority of guests there did nothing but moan! You can read my Tripadvisor review here.

Overall a fab holiday, as usual we read lots – details of some of the books on my other Blog – and did little other than swim in the sea and chill-out in shady cafés. Now home to catch-up with Beachbox projects – oh, and the PhD of course! J

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I had an interesting experience, working as a temp at the recent Golf Open championships at the Royal St George’s Golf Club, Sandwich. I had a few days spare after finishing my teaching projects and other commitments before going away for a well-earned holiday from my doctoral studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. I was prepared to accept the assignment of selling a few programmes for the minimum wage for a few hours a day, on the basis that it would probably be fun; my expenses would be nil (I could cycle the 2 miles there and back with ease); it would be extra pocket money and it would widen my experience at a local ‘prestigious’ event. I know nothing about golf and I’m always keen to get to know something about everything.

Little did I know the realities of what was behind the organisation that was behind this event - the R&A. Indeed, had I know about the systematic gender discrimination, the bureaucratic pedantic rules and the general condescending attitudes of the pompous hierarchies surrounding the Royal St Georges, I never would have agreed to work for them. By the end of the week, even the weather had changed for the worse, I felt totally taken-advantage-of and really quite angry that no-one seemed to be standing-up against this institutionalised antiquated, corrupted organisation. Thank God for the brilliant team I worked with - without the jokes and banter I wouldn't have bothered going back after the first shift!

Let me give you an example of the issues, why are there no women in the R & A? Perhaps you would like to read this article which explains about the history of the problem here

I find it incredible that despite fighting for equality in all kinds of different communities, that our English law condones this systematic discrimination. How can it be allowed to continue?

As to the practicalities of the event, there were so many problems, it’s difficult to know where to start. e.g. Why were fields given over to car parks when there were more than adequate proper car parks in the town of Sandwich and at the (now virtually empty) Pfizers site? Without proper shuttle buses from the train station (other than for disabled guests) there was travel chaos as people arrived from all over the world at the small town of Sandwich assuming that the golf course was actually in the town (when actually it was a 30 minutes walk –no bus - no fun in the pouring rain).

Why were mobile phones and cameras not allowed on the course? I was told (as I was frog-marched to the ‘secure’ stand to surrender my Nokia) that it was to do with ring tones potentially interrupting golf players whilst under concentration. Understandably, lots of guests got very angry at this and one was even arrested apparently. It was interesting to note that towards the end of the week, this rule seemed to be loosened and on more than one occasion I saw cash exchanged at the security gates for those ‘businessmen’ who persuaded the security guards they needed to keep their phones with them. Later, discussing this issue with a member of staff, it turns out that the actual reason for phones/cameras not being allowed on the course is to do with ‘illegal’ photographs being taken of the golfers. Strict rules apply to their agents apparently, who allow only specific photos to be taken (and therefore benefit from increased revenue from their manipulation of the market).

It was also interesting that the local roads were taken-over by re-directions for the visiting traffic - with no thought for the locals. Instead of taking the ancient highway route on my bike (primarily a bridlepath) this was restricted to cars only (one way) to the event (although later this rule wasn't upheld). I thanked God I wasn't living in one of the roads affected by the diversions - especially around Golf Road at the North end of Deal.

The poor weather did nothing for the badly managed footpaths and access areas. There was little gravel or chippings down on the mud around the exits which turned them into quagmires similar to those seen at Glastonbury. The state of the toilets was particularly disgusting….

Interestingly, the R&A deemed it necessary to ensure that most of the tickets (i.e. those NOT on a corporate jolly) were marked ‘no re-entry’. This has lots of consequences – most notably those for the surrounding local shops. As reported in the local East Kent Mercury and in the National Press – shops in Sandwich had stocked-up in anticipation of an increase in footfall. Instead, they saw a ghost-town, where people came in and out through the train station or along the ancient highway to the ‘fields’ of car parks, without any need to stop at the town.
However – for those who needed to get out of this enclosure – this practice encouraged corruption – I regularly saw (corporate and therefore ‘re-entry allowed’) tickets changing hands for cash at exits at lunchtime.

With limited food shops and a merchandise shop which physically ran out of stock more than 48 hours before the end of the championship, what point was there in artificially trying to keep members of the public inside the course? Those in-the-know came prepared with picnics and thermos flasks. Those NOT in-the-know sadly had to make-do with expensive stale sandwiches outputs from one of a number of burger-vans.

Like many of these events there were radios sold (£9 a pop) which informed the public about what was going on when. Our team thought it strange that the sellers of these radios finished at 2pm each day. We laughed out loud when they sold-out completely before the last day and then buggered-off early. Especially when we later discovered the last batch sold were all faulty! There was no-one to direct them to so that they could vent their anger at being conned. How unprofessional. R&A you should be ashamed.

Overall, it was a very disappointing experience. But I took the money, like everyone does and left feeling glad it was all over. Would I do it again? You must be joking! But at least I know now WHO the R&A is – and what it stands for. Something else to fight against. So much for Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ dream….

Friday, July 01, 2011

I'm just gonna quickly stick this on here for now because I haven't written anything on here for so long and feel so GUILTY about it (Why?)!!LOL

I'm be loading some photos of the house in due course - so that you can see its evolution. I'm currently getting rid of the "1970's-sauna0look" in favour of the "contemporary-beach-hut-look" and you'll see what I mean in a bit.

First, however, time to do some prep for my meeting this afternoon. And a trip to the sports centre to see whether the classes there are any better than the (frankly horrific) gym facilities. Oh well, she says to herself, it is cheap (especially with my student discount) ;)

The above is a little side-line that keep me sane. Like this little thing I made for my friend out of the growing amount of driftwood I've collected:

More later - must dash!

Monday, November 08, 2010

It was a fab sunny day on Saturday before the weather turned (it's blowing a hoolie through this door frame as a type). And we treated ourselves to a trip out to Wye to look at the Farmer's Market. Delish sausages from Burscombe Cliffe Oganic Farm. Even more lovely home-made chocolate truffles from a local lady. I hadn't realised that Wye was such a lovely place.

There was even a couple of young musicians making the atmosphere very medieval and relaxing. Next door was a book fair which kept JP occupied for hours...
then we treated ourselves to a stop for lunch at the famous Battle of Britain Pub: the Cat and Custard Pot - (fabulous name) which J has lots of memories about from his ATC days.. We were glad to see it doing so well. Hardly a place to sit!

It made me realise just how many lovely days out we've had out since we've been here.

Like this one at the Deal Folk festival last month. Again the sun shone for us and the Morris dancing was in a fab location outside the Kings Head opposite the beach.

It went on for hours and the costumes were fantastic!

More pictures of Deal...

At the end of it all, we were too tired to walk back, so we caught the bus. This was a first for Dizzy - who as you can see was a bit scared!

Just incase we ever forget what it was like in this little place - here's the view of the men relaxing in the garden. (This weather already seems so far away)!

But yesterday, guests all disappeared (for the time-being) it was a time to be lazy and watch the F1. Well, some were more interested than others...

Monday, October 04, 2010

Being a tenant (at the same time as being a landlady) for the first time in my life is proving to be an enlightening experience. I'm the first to point out people's personal prejudices, after all that's what I teach (and research), but here is a new one on me: tenants are (so I've learnt) thick, dirty, disrespectful and generally people to be avoided at all costs.

Perhaps because I've spent many years around Post Grad students who of course often HAVE to rent in order to study, naively I've been oblivious of biased views from other home owners... After a month of being here, I have to admit to being quite bored now of trying (with some difficulty at times) to justify myself.

Take the latest 'little niggle' I have: my shower screen. It's old, knackered and doesn't fit properly against the wall.

The somewhat obvious 5mm gap between between the plastic and the glass means that water gets onto the bathroom floor everyday (and has done probably for 3 years prior to us moving in). Yet it took me 20 mins (and a lot of deep breaths to maintain my patience)of repeating myself before the 'plumber' (and I use the inverted commas for a reason) actually understood that I wasn't going to believe him that it 'was the design of the screen' and that yes, what I wanted to happen was for a new shower screen to be fitted (one that actually works). "Look at it this way" I explained to the very large bloke "I'm a lanndlady and if this leak was happening in MY house, I'd want it sorted asap before more damage to the floor was caused". Oh. UUUrrrrrmmm. Yes - that shocked him.

Another little lesson in life: don't make assumptions about other's circumstances from outward appearances!