Sunday, January 31, 2010

All Saints Day

Our low-key Christmas in Cambridge, uber-relaxed trip to Paris, and quiet New Year's at home has been followed by an even more sedate January. In fact, I have left Cambridge exactly once in the entire month, to have dinner with a friend visiting London for work.

And today, on the 31st of January, I finally cracked.

I came down this morning -- a sunny one, for a change -- and demanded that we hop in the car and go somewhere, preferably to then get out of the car and do something. And so we did. We didn't have any brilliant ideas about where to go, but we did need to make a beer run. Where else to go but a brewery?

So, we headed 65 miles due east for St. Peter South Elmham -- a teeny tiny village (7 houses, I read somewhere) that's one of 13 nearby villages known as The Saints all named after, well, saints. The centerpiece of St. Peter is the St. Peter Hall and neighboring St. Peter's Brewery, our destination. We hit the hall first, which is where the bar/restaurant is. We chose to dine in the Library bar, which is the part of the hall originally built in about 1280. The rest of the hall is a much newer addition -- built in 1539. 

We grabbed the table right in front of the wood-burning stove and got ourselves two of our favorites from St. Peter's Brewery -- an old-style porter and a cream stout. And what's a Sunday without Sunday roast? Sliced lamb roast, roasted potatoes and parsnips, steamed veg, and of course, a Yorkshire pud. Life is good.

After a quick trip to the brewery's visitor center, we had the rest of the afternoon before us. Just another 20-30 minutes east is the adorable coastal village of Southwold, which we had visited our first year here. Lots of great walking, lots of great pubs. But heading in that direction would mean a 2+ hour drive back in the dark, 60% of which would be on rather small English roads. So, we opted instead to head back toward Cambridge for the market town of Bury St. Edmunds. 

We had heard that Bury St. Edmunds was neat, but we had no idea what we were in for. It turns out that the town was the site of a massive Benedictine monastery built in the 11th and 12th centuries. Most of what's left is ruins -- which you're free to walk over, under, around, and through. It's absolutely amazing. The abbey buildings (or what's left of them) cover acres and acres of land, with the heavily renovated and rebuilt St. Edmundsbury cathedral looming in the background. 

Now called the Abbey Gardens, the whole area has been turned into a park, complete with a sensory garden and aviary. Tennis courts sit behind what was the original cathedral chancel. There is a playground nearby. Kids run around and climb all over the remains of the buildings -- a few of which are a 1,000 years old. Wrap your brain around that. 

We were following a walking tour we had printed out before we left that took us behind the cathedral and around to see some houses that have been built into the abbey remains. Gorgeous. We could just make out the sounds of a choir as we walked alongside the cathedral. Sure enough, evensong had started about 20 minutes earlier. We ducked into the back and stayed for a couple of songs while soaking in displays about the history of the church and the new organ that they're installing.

We carried on our little walk, which took us through narrow lanes of houses, past walls that had been built of reclaimed material from the abbey, and into the town square. We passed the home of the Greene King Brewery, which anyone who has looked at more than, say, 4 pub signs will know is a formidable force in the U.K. pub scene. (Incidentally, the other major industrial employer in the town is British Sugar, which produces half the country's sugar from sugar beets.)

We wound down our tour and finished at the Old Cannon Brewery, another brewery we enjoy and whose brew pub we wish would come to Cambridge. But now we know this amazing town is just 30 minutes down the road by car. Except I've already spent time figuring out how we can make our next trip to Bury St. Edmunds by bike. Stay tuned -- somehow I think it will be a while before we spend another 30 days in a row in Cambridge.

A few more photos here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

No Finish Line? No Problem.

The enemies for a cyclist are hills and wind. The best friend? A welcoming pub. I experienced all three on a long, painful, but ultimately delightful summer day last year. One sunny weekend morning, KT, I, and our friend Lucas packed ourselves and 3 bikes into our hatchback for a quick drive south to the town of Colchester, the launching point for a charity cycling ride. The ride offered the unusual option of 3 routes—25, 50, or 70 miles—and after we got past the first hill leading out of town, the riding was smooth enough for us to consider the 50 mile journey. But then the winds and hills started to make themselves felt, at least on me. I have a bad habit of trying to power through hills rather than saving my energy and muscles by changing gears. And so, not long after the 25 mile mark, I began to pay the price, experiencing incredibly painful cramps in my feet—I’ve had leg cramps before, but never foot cramps to this debilitating extent. We had been making good time but several stops in which I slowed to a crawl and literally fell off the bike—I couldn’t bear to stand on my cramping feet—put us behind the pack. Embarrassed and frustrated, I slowly trudged on with my kind wife and friend staying at my side.

Fortunately, the day was saved when we entered Pebmarsh and came upon the Kings Head, the cute local pub (picture above) that was obviously the heart of the village. The road outside the pub was still marked with the finish line for Pebmarsh’s equivalent of a soapbox derby and throughout my time there several kids came into the pub to play (right). After hydrating, I persuaded KT and Lucas to voyage on without me and come back with the car. For me at least, it was a brilliant decision. I spent the next several hours relaxing in the sun, drinking many great local ales, reading an Agathe Christie novel I bought off the used book table in the pub, and having amusing chats with the regulars—including one who started a debate with me about whether Americans had truly landed on the moon! KT and Lucas eventually returned, which briefly made me feel bad again as I learned that the the ride organizers had taken down the finish line before they got there. But a round of the best cheeseburgers we’ve had in England soon lifted our spirits again, and we chuckled when the bartender tactfully suggested that since I had been at the pub all day, I really shouldn’t drive home. I hadn't planned to, but I appreciated the watchful eye.

Why reminisce now about that up and down (literally) day? We vowed to return to the Kings Head again for burgers but I’ve just learned that due to financial troubles, the pub closed not long after we were there. It was the only pub left in Pebmarsh and its absence has clearly saddened everyone there—and me as well. The locals are hoping the pub will reopen instead of being turned into houses—like many pubs have been all over England. I wish them luck and perhaps I should try the bike ride again this year to see if it has been revived. As long as it’s not a windy day, of course. --JT

A fun rest stop during the ride

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Feeling Peakish (or How We Found an Austrian Café in England)

As fall wound down in mid-October, KT and I were looking for one more outdoor adventure. We considered going back to the lovely Lake District where we had so much fun in 2008, but it’s a 6 hour drive and that seemed a lot for a long weekend. So we finally visited the closer Peak District, which has an equally strong reputation for beautiful countryside and great pubs, minus the lakes and crowds. We weren’t disappointed.

The Peak District is only about 3 hours north of Cambridge so we got a good start after work Friday night making it to Derby (pronounced Darby), where we relaxed with an Indian dinner and a visit to the Brunswick Inn, which is actually a brewpub—although they also carry an impressive array of other folks’ beers. The building was part of a complex of shops and housing built in 1842 for the local railroad company’s men.

Derby is on the southern edge of the Peak District so the next morning we quickly reached our initial destination of Bakewell, home to the famous tart that bears the village’s name. In fact, we parked next to one of the several shops that claim to have the most authentic version of the pastry. I don’t think either of was that impressed—give us doughnuts instead But we did make a more exciting food discovery, a café specializing in coffees and sausages imported from Vienna. Given KT’s dad makes and once sold his own sausages, we were obligated to “study” the café’s products (right). Mmmm.

After that we obviously had a need to get to our hotel and start walking. But on our drive there, we found another distraction: beautiful Haddon Hall, a medieval manor that ranks among the finestin England and whose grounds we thought me might be able to stroll—but most of the grounds weren’t open to the public. Still, we had an amusing encounter as we left—a Range Rover pulled up to the gate with a distinguished-looking couple and many fluffy dogs. When we later looked at the Haddon Hall brochure we confirmed our suspicions: it was the lady and lord of the manor.

After checking into our hotel in the middle of the countryside, we dashed over to a nearby Hartington, one of the local Peak District villages whose past success was largely driven by the making of Stilton cheese. The Hartington creamery, however, was recently closed and the village's famous cheese shop, in a cute stone building, that was closing soon we sadly learned. (But I’m excited to see on the shop’s website that someone apparently bought the shop and has turned it into a cheese, wine and ales shop!). On the edge of town, we took what I think ranks as one of the most beautiful walks we’ve had in England. It went from lush rolling hills to a wooded path where the colorful autumn leaves were falling into the accompanying stream (below) to another valley floor path where sheep were grazing on the hillsides. Throw in the setting sun and it was a superb stroll.

The next day opened grey and cloudy but we decided to press ahead with plans to take a 15 mile cycling trip. Not far from the hotel are two old railroad lines that have been converted to paths for walkers and cyclists. We rented bikes and headed out one for an hour or so, then went off the trail to cut over to the other one. Now the first part of this detour was fun, as we sped down, down, down into a valley floor that was of the village of Parwich. By that point, we, of course, had to stop at the local pub for a water break, which somehow ended up involving several of the pub’s local ales. The break was well worth it if only to see one of the locals walking her dog AND cat. Yes, the cat followed her just like the canine. Then it was time to press on, and the next 30 minutes was tough—hmm, those beers may not have been the best idea—as we inched up, up, up to the next cycling trail and made our way back to the starting point.

That evening, we made our way in the dark over winding roads to Monsal Head Hotel,which had an enthusiastic review in the Good Pub Guide. The menu had us salivating but the restaurant was full--a temporary crisis as we learned we could have the same delicious food in the adjoining Stable Bar, which luckily happened to have a table open right next to the roaring fire. The only downside to the evening was the darkness prevented us from seeing what's supposed to be an impressive view of Monsal valley. The next morning, we were able to sneak in one final walk (right) before we reluctantly headed back to Cambridge. As I write this and relive the weekend, I’m aching to get back to the Peak. --JT

Our Peak District weekend photoalbum

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Au Revoir 2009 (Can we go back to the mousse bar?)

We still have some catch-up posts, with the most recent being the last week of 2009. We stayed in Cambridge for Christmas, before nervously boarding the Eurostar train for a trip to Paris on Boxing Day. (For those wondering why we were nervous, a few days earlier several trains had gotten stuck in the tunnel beneath the English channel, throwing the Eurostar schedule into chaos and ruining the holidays of many).

For Christmas itself, we repeated our 2007 itinerary of having an early dinner at a local restaurant called Browns. It's a nice place, and was again full of festive families and couples -- it seems more Brits than Americans eat out on Christmas. We got in the spirit of thing, wearing our paper crowns (right). Afterward, we enjoyed the sunny afternoon with a stroll through the eerily deserted streets of Cambridge.

That evening we had to pack for Paris--and confirm how to get to London to pick up the Eurostar. England shuts down for both Christmas AND the day after, known as Boxing Day, so the trains to London weren't running. Fortunately instead of paying Boxing Day rates for a taxi to London (over $200), we found a bus that took us into the city and from there took the subway to the Eurostar station.

Paris itself was fun, in a slow, casual way we wanted. As we did last year, we stayed at the apartment of a friend (he and his family were off in Italy for the holidays) and again took care of their rabbit, who is getting a tad old--he doesn't hop straight any more. Our first 24 hours were probably our busiest. Within a few hours of arriving, we found a great restaurant near the apartment and had a great French meal in a candle-lit stone basement room (left). (The restaurant -- l'Estaminet on rue Oberkampf -- was so good that we returned two nights later.) The next morning we went to the local Bastille food market, one the largest in Paris, and sampled crepes, cheese, and two tasty Lebanese (right) pizzas. From there we hopped the subway and went to La Defense, the collection of massive and modern office buildings on the outskirts of the city. One can see why its construction was controversial but it had its own majesty--and a small but fun Christmas market.

From there we returned to the traditional archictecture of Paris, the beautiful buildings of the Champs Elysees, where there was, of course, another Christmas market--and seemingly millions of people. In truth, there wasn't much we hadn't seen at all the markets we've encountered, except for a hut with a roaring fire where salmon was being rapidly cooked over an open fire in front of our eyes. Mmm, very tasty. Despite the crowding, everyone seemed in a good mood, especially those on a little roller coaster next to the Grand Palais. As daylight dimmed and the lights lining the trees of the Champs Elysees began to shine, Paris once again earned its City of Lights title. (Picture, left to right: La Defense, Champs Elysees market, Champ Elysees)

The next few days were much slower. It was dryer and warmer than anticpated so we took several trips with Velibs, the free bikes spread throughout the city. We've seen most of the sites in Paris already and the few museums we wanted to hit were either closed or had huge lines on the days they were open--so we went to none! We did visit Montparnasse cemetery, enjoyed an amusement park inside the Grand Palais, and strolled through the massive Les Invalides complex, which displays much of France's military's history and includes the burial site of Napoleon. As we roamed about the city we also tried to find various spots listed on the Edible Paris Advent Calendar, which lists culinary treats under 10 euros. While I fell in love with the caramel macaroons from the famous Laduree, I think it's safe to say the highlight was the bar of 4 different chocolate mousses at Patrice Chapon! Yes, we sampled them all.

We ended the year by riding back to England on the Eurostar, where we enjoyed a Champgne toast. Even nicer, we arrived at home to a delicious New Year's Eve dinner prepared by friends who had been staying at our house while we were gone. We (just) stayed awake til midnight--and then fell asleep to dream of 2010's adventures.   -JT

New Paris photoalbum   Ah, Paris ...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy Snowy New Year!

Happy New Year from Cambridge! It's been a snowy one so far. These pictures are admittedly from our first snow a few weeks ago, as opposed to the snow that's been accumulating all week. I could probably take new pictures, but I'm on an essential-trips-only mode. Why? Because our street looks like this:

They don't really do snow removal here. So people walk and drive on the snow, and it makes ice. Lots and lots of ice. Our street above doesn't get sunlight in these wee winter hours, so it's one big sheet of ice. And then it will rain and freeze and then there's more ice. Perhaps you can guess by now that I've had some rather nasty run-ins with the ice. Biking is a bit dangerous, too, but it's tough to know if you're better on the bike or off it. These guys say off.

Still, though, it's awfully pretty. It's been snowing across the whole country all week, and yesterday around lunch time here's what the country looked like from space:

Not bad, eh? And on a nice day, there is no prettier place in the world than Cambridge. I just don't say that very often in the winter.

Hmm. Maybe it's time for a walk after all.

(See more snowy pictures here.)
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