Cream of Jersey

If you are at all concerned about flying, a trip with flybe to Jersey needn’t worry you at all. You wander down to Eastleigh, climb aboard, fasten your seatbelt and you’re there. Well, there’s just about time for the ignored duty free trolly to blast up and down the cabin, but that’s it. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are commencing our descent …”

To be frank, when we returned from our Jersey weekend, the feeling we had was more or less that we might as well go every weekend, so simple was it. A lot simpler, for example, than battling with the traffic to get to Devon or Cornwall. The initial impetus was to attend the first-ever Jersey Rock Festival (see below), but a brief search of the internet had thrown up the following ridiculous bargain: The Les Charrières Country Hotel was offering three nights’ bed and breakfast for £99, including a free car. I’ll repeat that, including a free car. And it had a nice swimming pool, fitness centre and carvery restaurant as well. It turned out to be every bit as attractive as it sounded, witrh no catches. Who knows what bargains they have on offer this summer? Check their website for details (see below).

The car is actually quite important, in that Jersey isn’t a place you can wander round on foot with any degree of success. Yes, the island is small, but the road system is dense. They are narrow and seldom have pavements, so cycling also isn’t an attractive option, outside of the specially designated cycle routes. But driving here is relaxing, as (unless you are Jim Bergerac with your little red sports car) you have to adhere to a 40 mile an hour limit, even on the token few hundred metres of dual carriageway around St Helier.

Our visit coincided with a heatwave, so most of the time was spent on the beach. Having checked out several equally appealing stretches of sand, we settled on St Brelade’s, which was just perfect, with every facility, yet pleasingly quiet. The feel is very much that of being somewhere like Granville in Normandy, except that St Brelade’s has the ubiquitous branch of Pizza Express. Two tips for St Brelade’s: Don’t tangle with the man who rents out sun loungers (he doesn’t do deals), and do take a master’s degree in understanding the incomprehensible scratch’n’sniff car parking system.

Rather like the Isle of Wight, Jersey has a wealth of things to do should the weather misbehave. There the similarity ends, however, as Jersey is a far more attractive proposition – and that’s coming from someone who actually loves the Isle of Wight as well. The world-famous Jersey Zoo, founded by Gerald Durrell and dedicated to conservation, is unmissable, as are the stunning Mont Orgeuil Castle at Gorey and the fascinating Jersey War Tunnels. The island also specializes in special events, such as the international Air Display (September), the Festival of Motoring ((June) and of course, the famous Battle of the Flowers (August), to name but a few.

We couldn’t resist the deliciously tacky “Jersey Experience”, in which the island’s history is enacted in a baffling audio-visual extravaganza, presented, for reasons unknown, by a lugubrious John Nettles disguised as a Captain Nemo character. I’m not knocking it, as it was great entertainment and also included a free round of mini-golf, set up in such a mad way that anyone useless at golf (me) can still win.

As a festival bore par excellence (every Glastonbury since 1980, numerous Readings, Knebworths and heaven knows how many others), people often ask me what is the best festival I’ve ever attended. The perhaps surprising answer is Jersey Rock. After the success of the original festival in 2004, this year’s effort promises to be even better. It’s hard to explain what the magic is. The community feel, perhaps; the fact that it is compact and doesn’t involve camping; and most of all (in stark contrast to other festivals) an intelligent coherence in the bands they book. The 2005 festival featured Southampton.s excellent Delays, plus two bands whose profile has risen enormously in the intervening twelve months: the charming Subways and newly-crowned megastars Razorlight. Razorlight’s dummer Andy Burrows, who is from Winchester, commented, “The Jersey Festival holds great memories for us. It was the first time when we were able to tell from the audience reaction that things were really taking off. The atmosphere was incredible.”

For the 2005 festival, promoter Warren Holt (an islander whose dedication and energy is crucial for the success of the festival) has secured an even more stellar line-up, with glam New Yorkers The Bravery (who will no doubt disrobe in the sun, since they stripped at Glastonbury in the rain), plus the nu-baggy of Kasabian and chirpy Geordies The Futureheads. He could scarcely have selected a more promising set of up-and-coming acts. The venue is the same as in 2004, namely the Jersey Royal Showground in Trinity. If you want to go, act fast, as the capacity is only 7500.

The highlight of our weekend last September came in an unexpected way. Searching for an idyllic harbour-front meal (we considered Rozel, but settled on the even more attractive Gorey), we stumbled upon the Moorings Hotel, in the shadow of Mount Orgueil. Hesitant at first (we feared it would be too posh), we were rewarded with a quite sensational five-course gourmet extravaganza for just £25 a head, served with impeccable courtesy and attention. You are unlikely to find a better culinary bargain anywhere in the UK. Will we go back this September? You bet!

From the Mid-Hampshire Observer

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Blues Traveller

I can remember it in detail. The most emotionally charged performance I’ve ever seen was at the Boar’s Head in Wickham, Hants (now sadly razed to the ground). Hearing John Campbell’s supremely musical rhythm section introduced as being “from Austin, Texas”, I determined: Austin Texas, there I have to go.
When Joe Ely turned up at the same venue mere months later with the same musicians accompanying him, it simply confirmed this determination. This hard, taut, electric country / blues / r & b was totally my kind of music and I had to get me some more.
Then an odd thing happened in Southampton. On an ordinary Tuesday night, Bobby Mack and Night Train appeared at the Brook and blew me right away. Bobby says goodbye individually to all his audience members after each show. All I could find to say to him was: Bobby, you made me want to visit Texas so much, I’m going out to buy the tickets tomorrow.
So now I’ve done it. I’ve savoured the “Live Music Capital of the World” and there could be no more thrilling destination for a music lover. Austin has over 100 live music venues which function seven nights a week, all year. You could stay there for months and never repeat a venue or a band. Bliss and sore ears.
Hopelessly jet-lagged and not caring at all, I staggered down the hill and along 6th street in pursuit of an in-store appearance at Waterloo Records by Billy Bragg, plugging his Mermaid Avenue album of Woody Guthrie songs. Bill had already been and gone, but it didn’t matter. Arriving on 6th is exactly as you’d dream. Suddenly, you are aware that the humid air is filled with the sounds of booming bass guitars, chunky Stratocasters and thwacking hi-hats and snares. Like in New Orleans, the only problem lies in deciding which doors to enter, but it doesn’t really matter because the beer is cheap everywhere and nobody troubles you at all.
The majority of the bars have traditional “blues bands” as we know them, but greatly more authentic than you’d find in British pub. In true Hamburg style, they play for hours and hours. I was looking for something special, though, and as Blues Travelers have to accept, was constantly frustrated.
When the Hoax played in Austin, they opened for Guy Forsyth and it was Guy I was trailing. Good news! He’s playing at Flipnotics today! Bad news! The asterisk in the listings mag means it was a lunchtime session and we’ve missed it. Good news! He’s playing at Carlos ‘n’ Charlie’s on Wednesday evening! Bad news! We’re leaving on Wednesday afternoon! It would have clashed with Joe Ely at Antone’s anyway, but you could have taken in both, Austin’s that kind of place.
So it was time to access some true funk. Antone’s on 5th Street is a world-famous blues cavern with heritage and musical excellence dripping down its walls. But each September it devotes four nights to the funktastic George Clinton style soul-rap of legendary James Brown saxist Maceo Parker. This impossibly hard-edged ensemble features Fred Wesley, JB lookalike Sweets Shirell on backup vocals and the world’s most sublime Hammond player. We danced till 2 am and only gave up because of exhaustion. By the way, Antone’s has a novel way of making sure there’s no crush at the bar. Out in the crowd are satellite bars in the form of fairy-light-decorated baths of ice filled with bottles of beer.
But were we going to find some blues? Following the guide-book’s advice, we headed away from 6th to Guadeloupe Street, where Texas State University students stumble from venue to venue (they’re only yards apart). The Hole in the Wall was great but Roberto Moreno’s band was deeply influenced by Crowded House, so it was into the car and out to North Lamarr and the Saxon Pub, which this week featured, among others, the ubiquitous Guy Forsyth as well as Omar and the Howlers, who have a residency.
We took a chance and chose a real thriller. The unpromisingly-named Monte Montgomery does things with an acoustic guitar you’d never dream possible. His country-rock craftings, his truly “Austin-tight” trio and the lovingly-created roadhouse atmosphere of the venue (plus the odd Tequila or two) made this the best evening of the jaunt. More bad news: I was compelled to buy albums by both Maceo Parker and Monte Montgomery.
The blues quest now shifted to New Orleans. A quick glance at the line-up at the House of Blues revealed that we would be missing Dr. John, Gregory Isaacs and Jimmy Cliff, but … oh, joy: Tonight, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.. Who would the support be, I enquired at the box office. “Get here early, sir. It’s Guy Forsyth.”
Deep was the disappointment when we arrived at the House to find “cancelled” notices on the door. Wherefore art thou, Guy? We are destined never to meet. Compensation was at hand, though. The legendary R.L. Burnside was to step in.
This unbelievable venue (busts of the blues greats are built into the ceiling and the rest rooms dispense free after-shave and condoms) had grabbed R.L. from his gig the previous night at the Maple Leaf and also found a support. The uninviting-sounding Willy Jaye Band turned out to be a cleanly-rocking, power bar-room trio influenced clearly by Stevie Ray Vaughan but with a nod in the direction of Hendrix too. It was interesting that this most discerning of audiences snapped up all Willy Jaye’s CDs in record time. Oh, and another thing: The bassist was a dead ringer for the Hoax’s Jesse Davey. So cut the jibes about Frank Spencer berets; they’re cool in New Orleans, you know.
R.L. Burnside is definitely one of a fast-disappearing breed (whiskey-addled, ancient, toothless bluesmen) but a lot of fun once you’d got over the initial shock at the presentation. There was no bass guitar, a guitarist who looked like a German footballer and acted as guitar roadie and general physical support to R.L., with a drummer who was disturbingly prone to solo outbursts. Chuckling away at his own incomprehensible between-song raps, R.L.’s take on the blues is indeed fascinating: extra bars added here and there kept the band on its toes and you really felt this was a pointer back to a tradition which is becoming so watered-down as to be virtually unrecognisable. The lush environment provided a nicely ironic touch.
Our last night was sad, for similar reasons. Lured by the legend of Tipicino’s (all the blues greats have played here), we found a tourist-oriented venue plagued by the dreaded blandness of a digital sound system. John Carey (latest album featuring the Memphis Horns) was completely emasculated by this awful environment and must have been devastated at the poor reception he received. We took our leave and would advise: New Orleans, cool, but for real music lovers, Austin is unmissable.

From Blueprint magazine

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On A Swiss Roll


Everything you have read about Swiss railways is true. They are clean, fast, efficient, run to the millisecond and are more than a tad expensive. The private ones, I mean, the ones that creep up and down the mountains like caterpillars, rather than the pleasingly economical state-funded ones which ply the cities.
Anyway, we had explored the beautiful cobbled streets of Zurich, done some serious hiking in the Berner Oberland, shopped like crazy in Lucerne and Interlaken, and now we were on a mission, namely to scale the Eiger and conquer the Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe, as it is branded). What? No, by train, of course.
If you are going to tackle the Jungfraujoch in this way, choose the right day to do it. We didn’t. After paying a cool £70 each, we boarded a train otherwise populated by Japanese touring parties and headed on up towards the highest railway station in Europe. Unfortunately, two thirds of the journey is spent in a tunnel inside the mountain, surreally watching on-board videos of the outside world you can’t see, while stopping at subterranean stations whose sole point is to allow the tourists to look out of a window and admire the view – which, on this particular day was an impenetrable fog of nothingness.
When you reach the summit, even on a good day, it has been turned into something along the lines of a theme park, with restaurants, exhibitions and ice sculptures. On a bad day, such as the one we chose, two thirds of the facilities were closed, which I would have thought would have merited a discount. No chance.
Undeterred, we set out the next day on an altogether more rewarding adventure. The Rigi is a mountain adjacent to the Vierwaldstättensee, an hour’s boat ride from Lucerne. As the boat glides soundlessly into the village of Witznau, the rack and pinion railway is waiting to haul you up to the summit, dropping off post and schoolchildren along the way. And the destination is simply magical.
The reason is that, when you are at the top, you are actually above the clouds. Above you, all is a stunning azure blue, while below, the peaks of lesser summits poke out from the cotton-wool clouds like islands in an ocean. The silence is total and the utter purity of the air you breathe is the most refreshing thing you’ll ever experience.
If you want to, you can stay overnight in this unspoilt paradise, a good idea if, like us, you choose to go out of season and take advantage of the tranquility. Well-signed pathways allow you to walk or sledge your way either all the way back down to the lake’s edge (it will take you three and a half hours) or to one of the tiny stations, where the returning train will pick you up again.
We reckoned that, travelling by Easy Jet from Luton to Zurich, you could be at the top of the Rigi in six hours from Winchester, making this a more than sensible weekend destination. We’ll go again.
Oliver and Birgit Gray travelled with Easy Jet from Luton to Zurich.

From The Hampshire Chronicle

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Puffin’ round Iceland

Puffin’ round Iceland
The name of the gourmet restaurant was “Lakjarbrekka” and one of the principal items on the menu was a “Puffin Feast”. Naturally, we recoiled, although later, I couldn’t work out why. If chicken and turkey are okay, why should we worry about eating puffin? Because they are more cuddly? It’s like eating cows and being shocked at the French for eating horses – illogical, really.
Anyway, I opted instead for a “Lobster Feast”, and, overlooking the fact that the poor thing had probably been boiled alive, sat down for the best meal of my life: The king of crustaceans, prepared in about eight different ways and served with as much ceremony as if we were visiting heads of state. Our visit to Iceland was getting off to a great start.
The next morning, we received the explanation for why the shower in the apartment smelt of rotten eggs. It was on account of the sulphur in the water, created naturally in the geothermal springs which supply hot water and central heating to the whole island. The Blue Lagoon, near Keflavik airport, is where you can try out he waters. Not quite as idyllic as it sounds (the architecture is austere and the lagoon is actually the overflow from a power station), it is nonetheless quite an experience, not dissimilar to a sauna, as you alternate between the surprisingly hot baths and the sub-zero temperatures outside.
Wandering round Reykjavik is a relaxed and pleasurable experience, as the capital is so charmingly laid back. The waterfront is beautiful; the range of excellent art galleries is wide and the cafés and bars so warm and welcoming (and not as wildly expensive as you may fear). Naturally the music of Björk is ubiquitous. Our highlight was an hour spent in the architectually sensational Hallgrimskirkja church, where a gentleman was playing free-form jazz on the organ and the building benefited from having no decorations whatever – no flowers, stained glass, candles, nothing, a refreshing contrast to a recent visit to Rome.
The back-packers among you are well catered for in Iceland, with a huge network of hostels and bus routes which could last you a month. We weekend-breakers had to settle for a minibus tour, one of many which can, if you have time, develop into snowmobile rides, glacier safaris, horse trecking or dogsled excursions. Our knowledgeable driver (a Devonian who had established the Ba’hai faith in Iceland, don’t ask) took us first to Pingvellir, where the tectonic pates shift and Europe meets North America. A visit to the stunning Gulfloss waterfall led on to the highlight of any visit to Iceland, an encounter with the hot springs of – guess where – Geysir. The idea is that you go as close as you dare, then run for it as they erupt. That’s when you realize the almost humbling uniqueness of Iceland, a country of great prosperity, ecological purity and virtually no crime.
And we were glad we had spared the puffin.

From The Hampshire Chronicle

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