Thursday, May 19, 2011

Part the XXXVII: Top Ten Pub Signs of England

As we come up on my last full day in England, I have decided to publish a few closing articles.  People who have been monitoring my facebook know that I have been taking pictures of Pub Signs since coming to England.  The shots I take are usually just casual one as I pass by signs that catch my interest.  In England, a pub can become known simply by its sign.  As such, many still feature hand-painted pieces of art denoting the name.  Free houses tend to be the most artistic.  Other pubs may display a logo for a brewery with which they are connected and help pay for the sign.  Either way, I leave here, for your perusal, my top ten signs as decided by me:
10: The Red Lion, Lacock
The most popular pub name in England, the Red Lion of Lacock features a beautiful medieval style hand painted sign.  It fits in with the medieval feel that the village has.
9: Sam Weller's, Bath
A great design, it uses an old beer-barrel as part of its sign.  Creative and functional, it certainly shows you what to expect.
8: The Cricketer, Lord's Cricket Ground, London.
Another great antique hand-painted classic.  Everything about this old sign kind of cries out "History".  This, along with Lord's Tavern which is also on the grounds, would have been one of the premier spots to sit and drink before and after a match.  Players frequented both pubs on match days.
7: The Bear, Oxford.
Oxford's oldest pub, it opened in 1242.  It contains a large tie collection.  Basically, if you are wearing a tie the landlord likes, he will walk up with scissors and cut it off of you, then pay you back with a drink.  This sign is also a good example of one paid for by a brewing company, in this case, Fuller's of London.
6: The Mitre, Oxford.
One of the few 3-D signs that I found on my journey.  The aptly named Mitre has become famous for it's model of its namesake hanging outside one of its large bay-windows.
5: The White Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
A hand-painted cut-out style sign.  Often you see one or the other.  In this case you get the best of both worlds executed perfectly.
4: The Volunteer Riflemen's Arms, Bath.
My favorite pub in Bath along with my local, The St. Jame's Wine Vaults, "The Riflemen" was my frequent haunt every Wednesday around Lunch.  Located in the Alley that is Union Passage it may seem a bit hard to find at first.  But once you find its familiar crossed guns it sticks right out.  
3. The Porter, Bath.
Famous for being an all vegetarian pub, The Porter also sports a well painted sign of its eponymous worker.
2.  The Dandy Lion, Bradford-Upon-Avon.
It is a lion wearing an Edwardian outfit smoking a pipe and wearing a top hat: Any arguments against this sign are therefore immediately invalid.
So that brings us to the number one Pub Sign in England!:
1: The Raven, Bath.
Keeping the dandy animal theme is The Raven.  Famous for its pies and sausages, it is best known for its in-house brewed Raven Ale.  As soon as I saw this sign, it became one of my personal favorites.  

I must say, however, that I enjoyed all of the signs I saw.  What you see here are merely my top ten.  In truth, an album I have of signs numbers close to 90 different examples that I saw during my stay here in England.  Some were dives and some were expensive hot spots.  All of them, however, were unique in their own ways.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Part the XXXVI: The British Will Bet on Anything!

  Seriously, this article is exactly what it says on the tin.  I think John Cleese based his character in Rat Race on people he had met while living in England.  I don't think I have ever seen a group of people more willing to while away their money on just about anything.  "Hey, Mary is about to eat a chocolate from the assorted box.  I bet you a fiver it has caramel in it!"  You might remember how a few weeks ago I mentioned that there was betting on the Royal Wedding.  You could bet on what celebrities would be there, what color the Queen's hat would be and who, if anyone, would object.  You could even bet on the couples first dance, when they will have their first child, its gender, and, if you feel really adventurous, what its name will be.
  Not only that but they even take sports betting to a new level.  Back in the states when you bet on a horse race, you can bet who will Win, Place and Show as well as trifectas and the like.  In England, you can bet on How many lengths the winner will win by.  You can even bet who will come in last.  Don't even get me started in cricket.  You can actually bet on every bowl.  Every time the ball is thrown, you can bet if it will be hit, missed and, if hit, how many runs it will be worth.  You can even bet how the next out will be recorded.  Football betting can be on specific players to score and how long it will take.  
  Even Eurovision had open betting.  They even had a form guide for it!  Imagine the Daily Racing Form but with Song Analysis.  I kid you not, here is an actual excerpt from Moldova's entry: "Moldova is one of the only songs that could be put into the novelty act category this year. While the performance should help it score well with the public, juries are likely to be considerably less keen. All in all, this makes in a borderline qualifier, despite it deserving much more than that."  Its like if Mike Watchmaker of the DRF wrote for Billboard.  
  The best part is the places to bet.  Back home, the bigger cities may have an OTB or other off-track betting shop.  Here in England, there are still book-keepers.  And you get a choice to.  Ladbrokes (apt name if you ask me), William Hill, Blue Square, and Corral all offer different odds.  The horse going off at 100/1 at Corral could be the favorite at William Hill.  "Punting" as betting in England is known seems to have its own science behind it.  When I bet on the Grand National Horse Race earlier this year, I had to learn how to read the British racing form.  If you have ever had trouble with the DRF back home, don't even try to read the Racing Post here.  
  So what have we learned.  Basically, Englishmen will bet on anything that has multiple possible outcomes.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to bet how long it takes before someone openly mocks David Cameron at Prime Minister's Question Hour tomorrow.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Part the XXXV: Where Nick Watches Eurovision or: Welcome to the Mindscrew!

The Eurovision Song Contest (FrenchConcours Eurovision de la Chanson)[1] is an annual competition held among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
Each member country submits a song to be performed on live television and then casts votes for the other countries' songs to determine the most popular song in the competition. Each country participates via one of their national EBU-member television stations, whose task it is to select a singer and a song to represent their country in the international competition. The Contest has been broadcast every year since its inauguration in 1956 and is one of the longest-running television programmes in the world. It is also one of the most-watched non-sporting events in the world,[2] with audience figures having been quoted in recent years as anything between 100 million and 600 million internationally.

What is most interesting about this is the fact that so many countries simply don't take the competition seriously.  The Ukraine in 2007 entered a drag finished 2nd.  Finland won in 2006 with an act that looked like the band GWAR and blew away all their competition.  In 2009, Ireland entered a turkey puppet.  In the 70s, a band named Abba won on behalf of their home nation, look what they did afterwards!  This is singlehandedly one of the oddest nights of television ever.  England's BBC coverage was once famous for Terry Wogan covering it and basically laying into the other presenters.  After 2008, Graham Norton took over.
   Terry Wogan's Commentary in '06.
Perhaps one of the most famous band's to come out of Eurovision, in my opinion was Dschinghis Khan.

  So now, with cider firmly in hand, I have decided to watch and blog along with Eurovision 2011.  
8:00PM, it starts on BBC1 with the German hosts talking and introducing the show.  Graham Norton plows into the early mocking some of their adlibs.
8:15: Finland is first with a song called "Dadadum", feels a bit useless after Lordi, the GWAR style band in 2007.
8:17: Bosnia and Herzegovina "Love in Rewind".  It has a mandolin in it...and a triangle.  Very eclectic.  Oddly interesting.
8:22: Denmark, "New Tomorrow"  This band met in London and is now popular in Canada.  The lead singer looks like a troll doll.  Catchy song, Graham seems to like it.
8:26: Lithuania, "C'est Ma Vie" Feels like a number from a musical.   
8:29: Hungary, "What About My Dreams?"  Starting the pop portion of the show that tends to dominate.  She's like a weird combination of Madonna, Celine Dion, and Maria Carey...and not in a good way.
8:33: Ireland..."Lipstick", Jedward...this band...yeah.  They were famous after a good run in X-Factor last year.  Then they got picked for this.  They have been a kind of running joke in the UK.  They even appeared in a few of the Pub Quizzes I have taken part in.  The song is a kind of bubblegum pop song.  In other words, this is the exact song that could win this by a landslide.  Just odd.
8:37: Sweden "Popular"  Sugary sweet pop music.  Sounds like the X-files theme song.  Maybe this is what Bieber will be like in the future, he looks a bit like an older version of him.  Interesting use of props and lighting.
8:42: Estonia, "Rockafeller Street"  Younger girl who is very popular in her home country.  She is actually quite pretty.  The song is very repetitive, like Rebecca Black should be performing it.  Norton: "I have never felt grumpier or older".  I give up on Pippa Middleton, this is my new dream girl...
8:45: Greece, "Watch My Dance"  Includes a rapper who is the head lecturer of music at the University of Westminster of  London.  This is basically spoken word over music.  Now it is more like opera.  This song is just all over the place.  
8:49: Russia, "Get You".  Norton can't even pronounce the singer's name.  Dear God!  It's the Russian version of N-Sync.
8:53: France, "Sognu", A tenor, one of the few examples of just a man and his voice.  He is one of the favorites entered.  At 21, he is also one of the youngest competitors.  He has a great voice.  
8:57: Italy, "Madness of Love" Italy's first entry in 14 years.  A great jazzy piece.  The singer's last note sounds like a dying bird, however...the see-through piano is cool though.
9:01: Dino from Bosnia is being interviewed.  He competed here 12 years ago.  Norton lays into some of the other competitors here.
9:03: Switzerland, "In Love For a While"  Considered a dark horse.  The ukulele intro is pretty cool.  It has a very laid-back feel to it.  It sounds a bit like a song I have heard before, however, although the title escapes me.  She seems to have abandoned lyrics for "Na na na na" over and over again.
9:07: UK, "I Can", The band is Blue.  For the first time in a while, the UK hinges their hopes on a band that is actually pretty well known in the country.  It will be interesting to see where they place.  The song itself sounds a bit like a normal boyband from the US in the 90s.  The thing is that that is still quite popular here in the UK.  A truly poppy song, could this be the year?
9:10: Moldova, "So Lucky", as Norton says "They were so lucky to get through the semis."  Rap and Rock combined while the musicians wear what appear to be dunce caps.  And a girl playing a horn dressed as a fairy riding a unicycle.  I can't make this up.  Just finished my cider in a hurry after this one.  Norton unloads on them...hard.
9:15: Germany, "Taken by a Stranger"  The defending champions, Lena returns to personally defend the title, the first time ever this has occurred.  The song starts out well but it is nowhere near the level of last years winning song, "Satellite".  Just didn't quite get going.  Norton hates the dancer's costumes.
9:19 Romania "Change", Sounds like a Tom Jones or Barry Manilow song...just not a good one.  None of the lead singers clothes match, he looks like Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York.
9:23 Austria, "The Secret is Love", Celine Dion ripoff...that is all.  She looks like Marcellus Wallace's wife from Pulp Fiction.
9:27: Azerbaijan, "Running Scared"  From what...Moldova's act?
9:31: Slovenia, "No One"  Damn, shes giving the girl from Estonia a run for her sounds like "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fidler though.
9:36: Iceland "Coming Home"  Imagine a country song from Iceland, well, now you don't have to.  Then it kicks in a big band feel.  I really like this.
9:40: Spain, "They Can't Take The Fun Away From Me"  What is this...I don't even....It's so sweet, upbeat and peppy that you can taste the sugar rotting your teeth.
9:45: UKRAINE "Angel"  Hell yeah!  Lets do this Ukraine!!!  In the background the winner of Ukraine's Got Talent (You didn't read that wrong, it seems that does exist) a sand painter, performs her art to the song.  Song wasn't great but a good presentation.
9:48: Serbia "Magical"  Cool old 1960s groovy feel to this one.  I like it a lot.  Not a winner but cool.
9:52 Last song, Georgia "One More Day"  Rock songs don't tend to do well at ESC.  Looks like that won't change.

My Favorites.  I liked Denmark a lot.  They are my pick to win.  
I'll take UK, Ireland, Ukraine and Iceland to close out the top 5.
Let's see how it goes.

Interval Act Time: Norton: This is slightly underwhelming.  Nice suit for Jan Dulay.  That Plaid was awesome.
And begin the filler....
And the voting begins...politics start.  Austria gives 10 to Germany and Germany gives 12 to Austria.
And... Azerbaijan wins...the hell!!!!  Really...?  The song was boring and not that good.  Jedward beat Blue which was rather interesting.  
PS: Moldova equals the world's newest meme.

Part the XXXIV: Where Nick Goes to the BBC.


 As part of our final day of classes, our media course took a journey to London to see the British Film Institute and the BBC Television Center.  The BFI has recently created the Mediateque where they have begun to digitize all of their collections of film, television and advertisements.  They are working slowly but surely as they convert the over one million pieces of their entire collection.  It is rather interesting as one can type in any keyword and the database returns any films, tv shows, and ads that relate to the subject therein.  The predicted price of conversion for the whole project in over three billion pounds.  I, for example, dipped into their football and cricket collections as well as the episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus that they had in the system.  It would definitely be interesting to see how much more is added to the collection in the future.

  The later part of the day was spent at the BBC Television Center.  Here, in the 1940s, some of the first TV studios in the world were laid out.  Any studios that came afterward are based directly on those designed here.    We even got to see studio one which is currently the place where the British episodes of "So You Think You Can Dance?" is filmed.  It is also a place where many pieces of BBC history are kept.  Props and pieces from shows like "Eastenders", "Dr. Who", and "Absolutely Fabulous" fill cases in all of the hallways.
Example: a Tardis
  All in all, it was an interesting day and I got to learn a lot about the history of BBC media and the role it has played for the people of England.  It is also interesting to see the fans of singer Jessie J who were mobbing the gates hoping to see her after she was on a music show at the studios.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Part the XXXIII: Where Nick goes to a County Cricket Match.

May 6, 2011
"Hello and welcome to County Ground, Taunton on this the third day of a four day County Championship match between Worcestershire and Somerset."

  Thats right, you heard the announcer correctly, Third day!  After seeing the one-day at Lord's a few weeks back, I decided that I should probably take in a multi-day match before I left.  Here in England, the Liverpool Victoria Financial Group sponsors the County Championship.  This is to Cricket what the MLB is to baseball at home.  Players who just finished the Cricket World Cup a few months ago are returning and many are contracted with one of the 17 county teams around England and Wales.  So what sets County Cricket apart from the one day?   Well, simply put, the game is longer...much least three days longer.

  In cricket, these longer match are often known as Test matches.  This may have something to do with the game testing a viewers patience.  Each team gets two innings, or attempts to bat.  One team goes until all ten of their batters are out.  Then the other team goes.  Then the first, and then the second again.  The winner is the one with the most runs after the four innings.  But that seems to simple so of course there are other rules.  For example, if a team bats dismally in the first inning and the other sets a huge target in theirs, if the first team fails to surpass it in the next innings when added to their first inning score, the game ends early.  Since there is only a set number of days, a team who gets tired of thrashing their opponent can "Declare" and end their innings early.  Even worse,on the fourth day of a match, if the time runs out without the last team being all out, the match is declared a draw.  Thats right, a team losing by 500 runs can draw just by hanging in there.

So let me clarify this for those of you who may have missed it:  This is a game that can go on for four days, can end early for multiple reasons, is played by two sides wearing all white who, up till a few seasons ago weren't allowed to have numbers to tell people apart, and a team getting destroyed can force a draw just by being stubborn...Ladies and Gentlemen...WELCOME TO THE MINDSCREW!!!!

  Seriously though, I really did enjoy seeing the long game of cricket.  I arrived in Taunton by train at a little after ten in the morning.  After a ten minute walk I arrived at the County Ground.
  Built in 1882, the ground has been used by the Somerset County Cricket Club since then.  It sit on the banks of the River Tone and is flanked by the Pegasus Apartment building on one side as well as St. James' Church.
St. James' Church in the background.
  I made quick work of a breakfast sandwich and coffee and found my seats in the seats on the side of the pitch.  At the start of the days play, Somerset was 83 for 3 in their second innings.  That is, 83 runs for three outs.  Their batting this morning was kind of lackluster.  They ended up 185 all out for the day.  That set a target of 257 runs for Worcestershire to chase.  That is not an easy score to defend, especially in a test match where there is still a full day left to play if needed.
Somerset's Craig Kieswetter walks back after getting out for six runs.  I like him because he wears the classic Vest over his uniform.  It gives him a kind of old fashioned feel.

  1:00PM: Lunch.  I eat a burger and chips and sit back to talk with a few of the older guys sitting in my section.  This was a good chance to meet people who have followed the team for years.  Basically, everywhere I have gone and ended up talking cricket has always met with the same reply: "An American who "gets" I can die in peace!"  
  By three in the afternoon, Worcestershire has settled into their innings.  Now I am beginning to note other differences.  The game is much slower.  Unlike the one day where there are limited overs ("Over" here means six pitches), a batter can take his time defending the wicket and finding his groove.  If he feels that his partner on the non-striker's end isn't warmed up enough, he can forsake easy singles to keep him from coming to bat. It is like a chess match, plus it takes about the same amount of time and is at times, about as exciting as one.  By tea at 4:40, things are getting interesting, Somerset has taken quite a few wickets and Worcestershire is still chasing over 100 runs.  By 6:00, it is all over.  Worcestershire ends up all out 91 runs short.  Somerset gets a day off as the fourth day isn't even necessary.  In the end, I actually really enjoyed my first long cricket match.  The grounds had wi-fi so I could pull things up on my iPod to pass the time and even used it to pull up radio coverage of the game which added a new level to the live event.  If I get a chance, I may try to take in a one-day match at Taunton before I leave.

The players sit on this balcony when they are not batting.  They are so close that they openly talk and interact with the fans.  Some sign autographs.  One little boy who had a bat with him had his eyes light up when Somerset batsmen Pete Trego yelled down to him that he had good form.  I can't think of many times at MLB or NFL games at home where that could happen.

  I closed out my weekend with two Bath Cricket Club games.  The Saturday match between Bath Second XI and Weston Super Mare was abandoned due to rain.  The match on Sunday was National Knockout Cup match and saw Bath move on to the next round beating Frocester by twelve runs in a thriller.  Hell, even cricket can sometimes be exciting. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Part the XXXII: Where Nick Visits Stratford-Upon-Avon

  Paid a visit to the home of William Shakespeare as part of a trip with our program.  It lies about two hours by coach from Bath along the same River Avon.  I have to say that it really was a very nice little town.  Everything important is no more than fifteen minutes away when walking.  We left early on the morning of Tuesday the third and arrived just before noon.  After orientation with the town and lunch, we had a meeting with the resident Shakespeare experts in our program and were briefed on what to look out for in the performance of Macbeth we were going to see that night.  The performance was quite good and included a few actors who had appeared in smaller roles on film.  While not a huge fan of Shakespeare's tragedies, I did like the performance and found the use of the space to be creative.  The main stage of the Royal Shakespeare company is based roughly on the Globe Theater.  The thrust stage comes out into the crowd and the viewers not on the ground sit in a semi-circle around it on what felt like football terraces.  Afterwards, we went to the Dirty Duck Pub to talk and watch the actors come on.  It is basically a people-watchers paradise.
The RSC Main Stage.
  Afterwards we returned to our B&B.  I stayed with a few of the other fellows in our program at the Adelphi House B&B.  Martin and Ellie, the proprietors, are some of the nicest people I have ever met.  I strongly suggest to anyone thinking of going to Stratford to look into staying here.  They are helpful and guided me to whatever I was looking for.  More importantly, they have numerous awards to the Best Breakfast in Stratford.  Every morning they had two eggs, two sausages, two bacon, toast, beans and tea ready for me and had extra if we were still hungry.  Just perfect!
The Adelphi

  The next day was a bit of a day off.  We had a short talk about the play we had seen the night before.  Some people seemed to really be tearing it apart.  I dunno, I thought it was fine.  The telegraph and times gave it five stars and I think it was worth at least four.  I ended up spending the day doing some sight-seeing.
Shakespeare's Birthplace

The Chain Ferry known to locals as "Malvolio".  I used it to cross the river.

There on the other side I caught the end of Stratford-Upon-Avon Cricket Club laying into another team.
  We capped off the night with a ghost tour around the town.  Even if I leave Gettysburg, I still can't get away from the ghost tours.  

The last day, we left town for a while and went to Kenilworth Castle about half an hour away.  Although now mostly a ruin, it provided some beautiful views.

We capped off the night by seeing "The City Madam", a play by Philip Massinger, a playwright from shortly after Shakespeare's time.  I can only hope that someday someone performs this in the States.  Never before have I laughed at a play quite as much as I did at this one.  Plus it was opening night so it was really special.  This is a play I would suggest to anyone who liked Shakespeare's comedies.  We left Stratford at 10:30 and arrived back in Bath at 12:30 Friday morning.  The last thing I remember is staggering up Northampton Street Hill and crawling into bed realizing I had to be up to catch a nine o'clock train to Taunton the next day to see a cricket match.  That, however my friends, is a whole other post...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Part the XXXI: Where Nick Visits Swindon

"Swindon is a shithole..."
"Swindon is not a shithole!"
Literally the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about the town of Swindon, this was the conversation.  I heard back on my visit to Bristol as I was leaving the train station.  Two guys about my age were having an animated conversation on the state of the town of Swindon.  Now, I had heard of Swindon before.  I had passed through it by train my first day in England and I remembered that it was home to a locomotive works.  I even remember passing rusted out shells of steam locomotives, a ghostly reminder of what was once birthed there.  I also knew that the town was famous for its odd roundabouts.  Literally, there is a place called the "Magic Roundabout" that has five small roundabouts inside of one large one.  Don't believe me, well look for yourself then:  Swindon was also recently named Disneyworld's sister city.  "The Magic Kingdom teaming up with the Tragic Kingdom" said one paper.

I was in Swindon for a rather interesting reason.  As I mentioned earlier, Swindon was known for being the main locomotive works for the Great Western Railroad.  The works were famous for their locomotives, carriage works and carpentry where even the chairs and benches for station waiting rooms were built.  The GWR was, essentially, self-sufficient.  Right near the works was the railway village which was where the workers lived in houses built just for them.  They also got coal at a cheaper price for living there.  Swindon was, basically, a factory town.  For me this has a special meaning because I come from a family that worked many generations for the American Locomotive Company in Auburn.  Seeing this factory up close would be an interesting personal connection for me.

Luckily enough, Swindon Works is now a museum with a good sized locomotive collection.  While not Steamtown in Scranton, PA, the collection is still quite impressive.  Not to mention that the process of building a locomotive is well rendered and demonstrated.
Swindon Station.  Behind it is National Rail Headquarters.

Brunel and the drive wheels of his first locomotive.  They are 8 feet tall.

The offices.  Here, O'Malley is getting chewed out for being late...again.

The Carriage Shop

Boiler Shop.

Caerphilly Castle-the finished product.  Once the fastest locomotive in the fleet.

In the inspection pit below the locomotive.

The Panier Tank locomotive.  Duck from the Thomas series was based on this one.

Lode Star

Locomotive Coffee Pot.

Ditcheat Castle

The museum has an exhibit recreating the boardwalk of Penzence, a favored destination on the GWR.  It included old motion picture machines.  This one showed the dangers of giving women the vote.  It was actually quite funny.

The rest of the works are a shopping mall.  Some food courts have a fountain.  Others have a bouncy castle...This one has a steam locomotive.

The Railway Worker's Village.

I didn't get to see all of the town.  I stuck around the area down by the works, museum and station.  From what I could see though, Swindon seems like a nice little town.  It has a nice cricket ground and evidently plays host to a fine little football club.  It definitely didn't seem as bad as people made it out to be.  The next time I write, it will be from Stratford-upon-Avon: The home of William Shakespeare.