Another Suitcase in Another Hall… no, this is no time for Evita. With theatres, cinemas and pubs closed, there’s not a lot for me to talk about in these stressful times. No plays, films, comedy, dance; the local University acting students’ FlashFringe Festival has been cancelled, and, looking ahead, can you really see the Edinburgh Fringe taking place as normal? Still, at least we’ve always got Eurovisi…. Ah, bollocks!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It’s vital that these events be shut down and that people do their best not to come into contact with others so that this terrible virus can be managed and its potency reduced. The quicker we hole up and hunker down, the quicker we can go out again. On a personal note, I’m happy to report that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, plus all our extended families and close friends, seem to be currently healthy and I pray to the God I don’t believe in that this will continue. Mrs C is permanently working from home but, luckily for us, we’re used to each other’s company, having worked together in the past, so we’re not yet calling in the divorce lawyers. In the absence of live theatre action, there’s always the written word, so I’ll be continuing with my Agatha Christie Challenge and my Paul Berna Challenge, and I’ll try to keep up with my James Bond Challenge too. My friend Lord Liverpool’s new book is out soon and I’m reading it so that I can grill him on these pages in a month or so’s time.
But yeah, Eurovision…. It was never going to be sensible or even possible, to get people from all around the world congregating in Rotterdam in mid-May. The EBU in their wisdom have declared that the songs that had been chosen for this year will not be eligible for the 2021 contest – and I can appreciate that in fourteen months’ time those songs could feel stale to the performers and some fresh excitement needs to be injected. However, that means there are 41 songs this year that have ended up in no man’s land; and some of them are pretty amazing.
So I thought I’d conduct my own Eurovision Song Contest 2020 through this blog; two semi-finals and a final consisting of the top twenty from the semis plus the Netherlands and the Big Five. It’ll take a week or so to set up I expect, so watch this space for the first semi-final coming soon and advice on how to vote.
About a year ago, gentle reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I dipped our tentative toes into the world of yoga, when we had an hour’s session during the Edinburgh Fringe with part time yoga teacher and full-time funny lady Abigoliah Schamaun. We enjoyed it and promised ourselves that we would take it up on our return. Then we went home and forgot all about it.
Then in January this year, I answered a local advert for a ten-week yoga course here in Northampton. The timing and the price were right, and, as a big bonus, the sessions would be led by none other than Strictly Come Dancing alumna Kristina Rihanoff. We took the plunge. It was in a cold little dance studio in a town centre back street. And, although we were absolutely awful at it, we still enjoyed it.
Fast forward to June, and the opening of the new Soo Yoga suite on the first floor of the Sol Centre in Northampton. Kristina, and partner and local rugby hero Ben Cohen, have realised their dream of creating a first-class, swish, state-of-the-art wellbeing centre – and Mrs C and I are completely hooked. First things first; it’s not a gym. If it was, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it. If you know either of us IRL (as the young people of today say) you’ll know that we’re adamantly NOT gym bunnies. When it comes to pumping iron, I have all the skills of King Henry VIII’s marriage guidance counsellor.
So, not a gym but a wellbeing and family fitness centre. As a result, it’s a welcoming place, where you are met with friendly smiles and personal greetings on arrival. This is not the kind of place where someone is going to laugh at your puny abs and condemn you to a hundred press-ups on the spot like at school. I can’t speak for the ladies’ changing room, obviously, but the guys’ room isn’t full of muscly men dripping testosterone, making you feel inadequate in every aspect. We’re much more likely to be saying to each other “God I’m unfit, that was knackering!” – creating a nicely informal self-help group.
The activity spaces are smart, new, clean and bright. The highlight room is the Hot Yoga studio, which is heated to 38° Celsius and with 50% humidity, to recreate the atmosphere in India where yoga originated. We go for a weekly session there on Monday nights, led by Kristina, but they have many other classes all through the week, for all abilities in many different yoga styles. We’ve also taken up the spin classes on Friday lunchtimes, in a terrific cycling room with about fifteen exercise bikes in it. Once you’ve warmed up a little, you pedal your heart out to a cracking, motivational musical soundtrack and expert guidance from the inspirational Megan Hosken. No point hiding it; the first time I tried it, it killed me. The second time – I loved it! We also do a 25-minute exercise session with Megan on Wednesday mornings – Soo Fit HIIT – which is fifteen minutes of interval training followed by ten minutes of resistance training. Listen to me, all technical. What have I become?!
There’s a meditation suite too, where we go for two classes on a Wednesday – Soo Zen and Chakra Yoga – hosted by Chinmayi Dore, who’s incredibly enthusiastic in giving people some “me time” where they can relax, renew and reinvigorate themselves. After my first session, I was so relaxed I could – literally – barely walk. It was an amazing feeling. The other regular class we attend is Kristina Rihanoff’s Strictly Dancing in the dance studio, where you can learn the basic steps of salsa, jive, cha-cha-cha, lindy hop and so on, which actually turns out to be a good exercise workout too. We’re thoroughly useless but it’s enormous fun. The new Anton and Erin we are not.
But there are so many other classes on offer that we haven’t tried yet; Pilates, TRX, Box-fit, Barre… you name it, they got it. I am tempted to try Ben Cohen’s Soo Strong Beginners’ Class because I really ought to convert some fat to muscle… ok, a lot of fat to muscle… and I can’t think of a safer opportunity to get introduced to that kind of activity by a true expert without intimidation. You may have guessed that me and exercise had a very poor relationship when I was young; when I left school at 17 I was only too happy to end that relationship, and it’s taken over 40 years for us to get on good terms again! If you’re like me, then I really recommend Soo Yoga for providing a welcoming, non-judgmental route to regaining fitness.
There are often a variety of offers on; next week, for example, from 6th – 8th September, they are holding a Free Taster Weekend where you can try lots of classes for free to see how you get on with them. There’s really nothing to lose. In any case, you can buy an introductory month’s pass for £39 which gives you unlimited access to all the classes, and if you like it, you can progress to an annual membership; or continue to attend classes on a pay-as-you-go basis. We’ve bought an annual membership as a couple. It’s £1835 for the pair of us, which may seem a little steep at first but think; we attend on average five classes a week – sometimes more – and when you divide that over the year it’s the equivalent of about £3.50 per person per class. That’s a steal. And the more classes you do, the better value it becomes!
I haven’t even mentioned the café, or the crèche, or the physio/massages, or a wealth of other options they can offer. They have a whole range of kids’ classes too, and I think are introducing some junior drama lessons as well. They have a very useful app for your phone, but the website tells you everything you need to know. It’s certainly changed the way Mrs C and I keep fit, because it’s fun, fascinating, and friendly, and you can’t beat that! Give them a try – contact them using the app or the website or just drop in at the Sol Centre. You won’t regret it!
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. That’s three words, actually; well, three adjectives and a conjunction. And if not so much bewitched, definitely the other two.
But I digress, gentle reader. We’ve all been inundated with those emails asking you either to opt back in to mailing lists or to read new privacy policies because the time is fast approaching (25th May) when the new EU legislation comes into force, protecting individuals’ interests and giving them access to data held about them. I’m as keen as anyone on the subject of online privacy, and think it’s great that we have these new powers to protect ourselves.
Then yesterday a friend sent me a note enquiring whether bloggers have to follow this legislation too. Damn! Why didn’t I think of that sooner! Much Googling later, and it looks as though there are also requirements for bloggers to comply. Makes sense, really. However, I also understand that those nice people at WordPress are putting into place centrally all the requirements to make WordPress blogs compliant. I’ve not actually heard anything from them directly, but I believe it’s only a matter of time.
Meanwhile, I thought I should put your mind at ease by letting you know what I, personally, do with your data. The fact is, I only have access to two types of data about my gentle readers. I have access to your email address, if you have subscribed to the site. Even then I don’t keep this data myself; it’s only available if I find the right part of the WordPress Admin page and click the correct button. And if you have commented on any blog posts, and your comment is linked to your own site, I can trace you back to the site by clicking on your name. If you are not happy with my having access to your email address or website then the simplest thing to do is to unsubscribe from the blog; just locate your list of blogs that you follow, then click on mine where it says “following” and you will automatically unfollow. Similarly, if you wish me to remove any comments you have made on my posts, simply ask and I shall do it.
The majority of bloggers who may have to comply with GDPR regulations more closely are those who use mailing lists, Google Analytics, a contact box or an online store. I don’t use any of those things. However, rest assured, if I discover that there are any more aspects of the site that need to become compliant, I will make it a top priority.
In the meantime, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
If you’ve read my previoustwo blog posts, gentle reader, you’ll know that last Saturday was not only Independence Day in the USA but also Independents’ Day in Northampton, when 30 or so local businesses stalled out in the beautiful setting of the Guildhall to promote their products and services and to tempt us with their food and drink. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were keen to try out any freebies on offer (we are only human, after all) and to learn about any local traders whom we haven’t yet discovered.
I did feel a little sorry for all the different people who were getting married that day as they posed on the steps for their photos whilst us punters tried to sneak past them – but there was also the courtyard access to the side which meant we didn’t disrupt them too much. Some very eclectic weddings took place whilst we were there; one had a vintage VW Campervan as their vehicle, all ribboned up and gleaming, whilst another had a vehicle breakdown pick-up truck! Maybe their original car broke down en route.
The first stall we discovered that was offering something new (for us at least) was Bite Me Spices, a little company that creates a wide range of blended spices, perfect if you’re into your home cooking of Asian dishes. We’re more the ping-a-microwave-meal or go out for dinner types, but were very taken with their range of sauces which ranged from the subtle to the well-spicey. Everything they supply is gluten-free, which is heaven to Mrs C’s ears. So we bought a three-pack of spices and look forward to trying them. Their website has several tasty-looking recipes too.
Still in food mode, out in the courtyard was an enticing looking stall with food from Nuovo and Papa Cino’s. Twice we huddled around this stall trying to get a look-in, but other determined food tasters got there first so we never actually got the chance to try. Obviously the keenness of the other customers told its own story. Instead we moved on to the stall from the Dining Room, part of the complex at the Mackintosh House at 78 Derngate. They were promoting their afternoon teas, with a special discount of 20% off for Midweek bookings until 1st August. As well as the traditional afternoon tea, they also offer afternoon tea with Pimms and afternoon tea with Prosecco. We thought of a number of friends who would find that a sheer pleasure. It’s essential to book in advance, and if you tell them in advance about any food allergies, they will cater for that too. Looks lovely!
The stall from NN Café were offering a range of delicious coffee frappés. We’d never tried this before but gave it a go. Mrs C loves an iced tea – personally I think they’re revolting, so I was a little unsure about this. But it was great, like a coffee flavoured milk shake. I had mine flavoured with gingerbread, Mrs C had hers with caramel. I think on balance the caramel won, but they were both excellent. We sat in the courtyard under the sun and had a very restful quarter of an hour with our drinks.
Back inside we noticed all the local producers of booze were attracting a lot of attention. In addition to Phipps Brewery, there were Two Birds, the gin and vodka makers from Market Harborough offering all their little bottles of flavoured yumminess, Warner Edwards, whose Rhubarb gin we had heard a lot about – and tasted, and it is sensational; and Saxby’s, who had a selection of three local ciders to try – one traditional apple cider, one with added blackcurrant juice and another with added plum juice – that was my particular favourite. We bought half-a-dozen to keep us happy on the warm summer nights ahead. And there was of course plenty of wines to taste at the Wine Connection’s stall – the independent wine shop at 11 Derngate – with the promise of a further tasting of Portuguese wines back at their shop (which we enjoyed on the way home). One of the wines we tasted was a rosé Sancerre – we all agreed it was To Die For.
We spoke to the people at Haycock and Tailbar, the trendy underground cocktail/supper room at 15 Derngate, and salivated at the prospect of their fantastic sounding steaks. We met a lady from Alflora Luxe Gifts, at 18 Market Walk, and were particularly impressed with their stunning bouquets and floral gifts. There were plenty of ladies’ accessories on offer from the people at Voni Blu, The Dressing Room, and the Wardrobe; cheeses from St Giles Cheese, and even a massage service – but I can’t remember who offered that! We spoke to a man who was promoting ginger sweets, perfect for settling those upset tummies you get on holiday (we bought a couple of boxes in advance for our next India trip, although I think they may all be eaten before then because they’re really tasty too) – you can buy those in the Northampton Health Store at 50 The Drapery.
And there was a stall from the Polish restaurant, the Chata, in St Giles Street, where I tried some of their new offerings that will be part of a new “Polish Breakfast” range. Simply mixed together and served on a biscuit, they were sensational. One was a combination of mackerel and cream cheese – delicious – the other also included a cheddar cheese and some onion, and that one was just heaven. I’m going to be down there like a shot when they start selling those. They had some gluten-free cheesecake for Mrs C – always a pleasure – and I tried some of their strawberry cake too, which was moist and flavoursome and yummy.
So I hope you enjoyed the fair if you managed to get to the Guildhall on Saturday afternoon – we certainly didn’t need any extra lunch, with all those tasty offerings! It certainly showed the wide range of independent traders we have in Northampton, and the high quality of their products, services and know-how. As a result, we certainly have many more ideas about where to shop and what to buy in future!
Yesterday I wrote about the Northampton arts scene and how it thrives through independence and individuality. Now let’s have a think about some good old shops! It isn’t easy being an independent trader. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle ran a pub for decades – in the old days where you were more likely to be a tenant of the brewery rather than a manager. I’m still in awe when I reflect on how hard she worked – and what long hours. Mrs C and I have observed a number of people going-it-alone in the world of retail self-employment; it can be a risky pastime for some. So anyone who makes a successful living out of independent trading is a pretty amazing person, I reckon.
Certainly one of the great things about living in Northampton is the wide range of independent shops, restaurants, cafes and businesses that are found everywhere around the town centre, alongside the big chains that you can find up and down the country. Things change of course; new businesses start, others close; and whenever Mrs C and I find out about an independent trader, who has had to shut up shop, our hearts go out to them. Internet shopping was a death knell for Church’s China store on St Giles Street, which closed its doors in 2011 after more than 150 years of trading – although kudos to them, because they developed an online presence instead. If you can’t beat them…! One man’s poison is another man’s meat as we now see the new Pamukkale Turkish restaurant occupying the same downstairs premises, which, in a few months’ trading seems to be gaining a very good reputation.
St Giles Street is actually jam-packed with independent retailers, including some of our favourite places to shop and dine. Bonds Jewellers at 41-43 St Giles Street is always a pleasure to browse through, and many of Mrs C’s Christmas and birthday pressies started their life here. The staff were also really helpful when I had to get something for the young Baron Brownhills’ 18th birthday. They create the perfect shopping environment – no pressure when you’re in there, you could spend as much time as you want; but if you need some help they give you their undivided attention and advice. We also love going to the Chata Restaurant at 58 St Giles Street. Here you can get fantastic hearty Polish food like goulash and dumplings although my personal favourite is the Bigos (Hunters Stew) and Mrs C always has the Golabki (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves) with a gluten-free tomato sauce. She also thinks the date, plum and bacon starter is to die for, and they also do a gluten-free cheesecake which is ace, and also a delicious apple cake. You can also embarrass your friends by getting them to try the “naughty dessert for ladies or gentlemen”, one of which leaves little to the imagination and has to be approached hands-free. Their wine is good quality but I recommend a Polish beer (Tyskie is my favourite) as the perfect accompaniment! The welcome and service is always friendly and attentive, and it really isn’t like any other restaurant I know this side of the Vistula.
I’ve been addicted to Peppertrees’ card shop ever since we moved here six years ago, for its bright, appealing atmosphere and entertaining selection of greetings cards and giftware; I’ve heard very good things about the Are You Being Served café, although we still haven’t visited it yet; and next door the Magic Bean Emporium looks fun too, running children’s storytime sessions as well as providing the more usual types of café fare. You wouldn’t get that in your average Costa Coffee. There’s also independent ladies clothes shops, the Seafood Café, Abraxas Cookshop (where I am sure we would visit more often if we didn’t eat out so much), Dreams Coffee Lounge, and even the little Sewing Studio for all your haberdashery needs. Once or twice we have been bewildered and entranced by the range and delicious smells from the St Giles Cheese shop at No 77, but if I so much as look at a piece of cheese I put on a stone.
There’s more to the town centre than just St Giles of course. On high days and holidays I meet up with my friend James-the-Poet and we put the world right over a cup of hot chocolate. Not any old hot chocolate mind, it has to be the frankly fabulous French hot chocolate at Leopold’s at 6 Abington Street. Whereas your average hot choc comes in a mug, this one gets served in its own two-cup-big pot, with a little tray full of whipped cream and another little tray full of mini-marshmallows. It’s just really fortunate that food you eat outside of home doesn’t contain any calories – I’m sure I read that somewhere. They’ve opened a second branch opposite Debenhams now, so good luck to them. Whilst on the subject of café experiences with friends, the other day I went out for a massive caffeine-fix with my friend the Doge of Dunstable. Being Italian, he suggested the Caffé d’Italia, a modest-looking place on Fish Street, which I confess I’d never visited before. But it really is like a little slice of genuine Italy. Delicious coffee, splendid desserts (I had a yummy Tiramisu and the Doge had a Rum Baba), a warm welcome from proprietor Manual and a relaxed atmosphere. A perfect place for a self-indulgent hour or so. Apparently Russell Crowe never goes anywhere else for his coffee.
For big celebratory meals our favourite restaurant in town is The Church Restaurant, at the bottom of Bridge Street, one of five excellent venues run by the Richardson Group, each with its own unique atmosphere and service. If you didn’t know (I’m sure you did) The Church really is a deconsecrated church, with stained glass windows and ghosts to boot. The service is professional but friendly, relaxed but smart, with top quality food and an atmosphere that can fit your own mood – it can be cheery, it can be romantic, it can be formal – however you want to play it really! It’s always our first choice for a special event. I’ve heard good things about Sophia’s but still haven’t got round to visiting them, and the same goes for Nuovo, a new Mediterranean restaurant on Abington Street – might make a point of going there soon. A little gem we did try recently is the Vietnamese Restaurant on Gold Street, Saigon. Two very welcoming and knowledgeable ladies there will take you through the menu minutely, suggesting meals that will suit your own taste buds’ preferences. Again it’s somewhere we know Mrs C will be absolutely safe with her gluten-free requirements. I remember not really enjoying Vietnamese food that much in Vietnam – too harsh and inharmonious for me – but the Northampton version is scrumptious.
Whilst I’m recalling happy yummy meals from the past – and plenty more in the future I trust – I’d like to recommend two other town centre eating places that we always enjoy. Saffron, at 21 Castilian Street, has been our Indian restaurant of choice ever since we moved to Northampton, with a lovely range of vegetarian and meat dishes to suit every level of spiciness. Inevitably we always order the same meals – to start, I’ll have the Assortment of Snacks and Mrs C will take the Saffron Mix, then we’ll share a Vegetable Coriander and a Vegetable Tawa, probably with some side veg stuff too. There are some smart wines on offer, which is definitely a plus. Naz and his team always make us very welcome and we’ve had a few memorable family gatherings here. Our other favourite haunt is the little Turkish restaurant, Marmaris, on the corner of Fish Street and St.Giles. You may think it’s just a take-away but they can seat a surprising number of people and the dramatic aromas of the freshly grilling kebabs are out of this world. Again, we always have the same food – Set Meal A – which gives you a tasty and varied meze starter followed by a seething mass of grilled meats with rice and salad. They also sell a splendid Turkish red wine, Yakut, which is full of flavour. It’s not a “fine dining” experience, but it’s fun, welcoming, friendly and tasty, which is good enough for me.
Pubs also, noticeably, fall into two categories: independent houses and national chains. We have our fair share of chains – O’Neills, Wetherspoons, Chef & Brewer, and so on, but none of them are a patch on places like the Wig and Pen, the Lamplighter or the White Hart. And if you’re interested in wine, there’s no finer place to visit than the Northampton Wine Connection on Derngate, where they have monthly wine tastings, an incredible range of wines that you won’t find in any supermarket, free local delivery and an unparalleled knowledge of their products and the wine industry. They can help you match the perfect bottle to a particular meal, and there’s even an art gallery to enjoy at the same time!
In an industry that seems to me to be dominated by a few leading brands and outlets, there are a surprising number of independent clothes shops in the town centre. Montague Jeffery could perhaps be considered the daddy of them all, having been established way back in 1901, and still offering that timeless, personal service and traditional, quality product for gentlemen. I bought my Union Jack waistcoat there (for Eurovision night of course!) and have also acquired some outrageous boxer shorts (not for public consumption) and flashy swimming shorts there too. At a more modern end of the spectrum, Mrs C always enjoys popping in to Voni Blu at 14 Castilian Street for a nice chat and a mooch around; she inevitably tries something on, which inevitably looks great on her, and inevitably is very good value.
I’ve only scratched the surface here, but there really is a huge variety of independent traders in the town centre. What sets them apart from the national chains is a quirkiness, a variety, and the sense that they’re interested in you the customer and your needs in a way that the chains frequently don’t have the need for. Let’s call it a state of independence.
So Saturday 4th July this year is not only Independence Day, but also Independents’ Day, with a Love Northampton Fair from 11am – 4pm at the Guildhall in heart of Northampton. A number of local independent businesses will have stalls to promote their wares and services, and you can meet them and have a chat about what they do. You can taste some food and drink, discover special offers, and much more. We’re definitely going to pop in and see what’s going on. There’s bound to be some companies or shops or restaurants that we don’t know about, and it’s important to support your local independent retailers – use them or lose them, and the ones we’ve got are too good to lose!
With 4th July looming, I was thinking about the nature of independence. Yes, I know it’s not like me to be that deep, gentle reader, but bear with me. Generally speaking, I can see there may be two stages of independence – the first, breaking away from a position where you are dependent – like a grown-up child leaving home, or the United States no longer being one of our little colonies; the second, maintaining and generally being independent, like that grown-up child taking the responsibility for his own life (and any who become dependent on him), and the United States growing into the most significant country in the world. Or at least until it was taken over by China.
For the most part – not exclusively, because life isn’t like that – it strikes me that independent people, countries, businesses, institutions, and so on, thrive through being independent, rather than following someone else’s rules, making someone else richer, or living out someone else’s dream rather than one’s own. We all like to have our own identity, to create our own space, to apply our own intelligence to our own lives, to make the world a better place. Otherwise we might as well set up shop in Pyongyang.
There’s going to be a Love Northampton Fair at the Guildhall in the town centre on Saturday July 4th, (Independence Day – appropriately enough) to celebrate and promote the town’s independent businesses and traders. One might think this just means shops, or cafés and restaurants, or bars. And of course, such places play a huge role in creating the individual sculpture that is our beloved town, and I shall be thinking about some of those places in another blog in a day or two’s time. However, there is more to it than that. In the middle of Northampton you find the classily demarcated zone of the “Cultural Quarter”, an area where many of the arts come together to form a solid heart in what would otherwise be a commercial centre. For example, here you will find the amazing museum with its massive collection of boots and shoes – a testament to Northampton’s shoemaking heritage – and NN, the Northampton Contemporary Art Space at 9 Guildhall Road, the home of the Northampton Art Collective, moved on from its now non-existent previous premises in the Fishmarket, which just goes to show you can’t simply demolish the arts. We actually popped into the NN Café upstairs last Saturday lunchtime for a glass of Pimm’s and a light bite – hurrah to them for providing top quality gluten-free paninis!
However, in the local arts scene, you won’t find a finer example of independent trailblazing than with the Royal and Derngate Theatres and their fantastic sidekick, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. Comparing with our neighbour Milton Keynes, there they have a wonderful big theatre, but everything that runs there comes through the Ambassador Theatre Group chain – an assembly of big shows that tour the entire country. So what you see in Milton Keynes can also be seen in Birmingham, Woking, Wimbledon, Bromley, Richmond, Aylesbury, or Glasgow – and plenty more places besides. It’s good business for the theatre industry and I’m not knocking it. But it does lack a certain individuality.
Of course the Royal and Derngate will take some of those shows too, but more interestingly they also create their own home-grown productions. The annual Made in Northampton season is always a remarkable achievement, with six or more plays that make the best of local staging; and that challenge both the creative teams and their audiences with a season that does not shy away from taking on major projects and carrying them out magnificently. In the six years or so that I’ve been closely following the R&D’s output, they’ve created dozens of independent productions including transfers to the West End and Broadway (End of the Rainbow) and Shakespeare’s Globe (King John). Their productions have toured to Oxford, Leicester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and many other venues. They’ve been delightfully experimental too. The audience has joined the performers on the stage (Private Fears in Public Places, Town) or in the Rehearsal Room (Midsummer Bacchanalia), at the Holy Sepulchre (King John), in the Mailcoach pub (Honest), in Beckets Park (Decky Does a Bronco) or in the Chronicle and Echo Print Works (The Bacchae). Now that’s what I call inventiveness!
And of course there’s also the Underground, a venue with its own tricks up its sleeve, where Mrs C and I have spent many an uproarious night with the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, but which can also lend itself for very experimental theatre experiences. The Actors’ Company performed Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies there in 2009, with the audience seated around the walls in a complete rectangle. Only a couple of weeks ago we saw the Young Company create their spellbinding Kontakt experience in a murky mist of incense and school desks. And I’ll never forget the extraordinary intimate staging of The Body of an American in 2014.
In addition, for the last couple of years, we’ve had the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, an oasis of celluloid culture where the cinema actually treats you like an adult. Reclining leather chairs, a state of the art sound system, films you actually want to see, decent food and drink including several lines from local producers, and above all you get the feeling it’s a place that wants to show you a film rather than a place that wants to sell you a vat of popcorn and chuck a movie into the bargain. It constantly rates highly as one of the Northamptonshire’s most popular attractions on Trip Advisor, and it certainly encouraged us to go back to the cinema after a long estrangement from that genre.
Just across the road is somewhere I regret that I still haven’t visited but I have heard great things about – and that’s the Looking Glass Theatre. They have a theatre school for 8 – 18 year olds and regularly present children’s shows and pantomimes, as well as having a major costume hire service. Further down Derngate you come across the extraordinary house at No 78, the only house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. This is now an independent tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from all over the world who are attracted by Mackintosh’s unique style. Not only can you learn about the history of this fascinating building but it also has a fantastic restaurant, The Dining Room, which offers so much more than your usual museum café.
So wedged within this small cultural enclave are a wide variety of attractions, and we are very lucky to have them. We all know of shops, restaurants, pubs that have closed down due to lack of customers. Don’t let that happen to our wonderful arts spaces. Use them or lose them – they’re far too good to lose! Why not show your support for our independent artistic adventurers in the Cultural Quarter by visiting the Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall on Saturday. It’s free to get in and you might discover something new to enjoy!
That sounds rather disreputable, doesn’t it, gentle reader? The truth is, I was passing by the wine shop the other week and thought I’d stock up on some basics (you have to every so often), and while I was there it was mentioned that they’d just widened their range of local and independently produced gin. It was the morning though, so I resisted the temptation to have an early morning gin tasting, as it would wreak havoc with my productivity. But, as it happened, I was in the same neck of the woods a few days later, and it was the afternoon, so I just popped my head in, and lo and behold an impromptu gin tasting took place.
Having the Wine Connection close by has made Mrs Chrisparkle and me turn into wine snobs. No longer are we happy to be fobbed off by a Wetherspoon’s special. No longer do I look at the top of the wine list and work my way down a little – I start at the bottom (and tend to stay there). Don’t get me wrong – we’re not looking to spend as much as possible on wine, far from it, a bargain is nearly always tastier – but we now have a de minimis quality threshold on our tastebuds, and if it isn’t reached, we tend to shoot each other sorrowful glances, as we put up with consuming calories and units but without the big taste payback. We’ve never yet tried anything from the Wine Connection that wasn’t absolutely superb, even in the cheapie range – so it’s that confidence in what they sell (as well as being a very enjoyable buying process!) – that keeps us coming back.
It was the Wine Connection that introduced us to the local Warner Edwards range of gins a year or so ago, and their Harrington Dry Gin – “an exceptionally smooth gin handcrafted by lifelong friends Tom Warner and Sion Edwards in a barn in Harrington, Northants, including ingredients from their farms in England and Wales. A truly fabulous creation of which all of Britain can be proud.” That must all be true, as it says it on their label. But it is, it really is. It’s no good having a gin like that with a supermarket tonic either. I hadn’t realised that the tonic made such a difference to the gin. I thought they were all the same – apart from the obvious difference of “low calorie” or “full fat”. But it’s true – something underwhelming like Morrison’s own brand or something sledgehammery like Schweppes doesn’t do your decent gin any favours. Hence the recommendation for Fever-tree tonic. If we’ve just got shop brand tonic in, we’ll go with our Bombay Sapphire (which, when we discovered it eight years ago came as a fantastic alternative to the Gordon’s I’d grown up with). But the mix of Warner Edwards and Fever-tree is pretty sensational.
But the idea of this tasting was to broaden my gin buds, so Graham (for it was he guiding me through this spiritfest) suggested I first tried a little Warner Edwards because I knew it and I knew I liked it, and then I could compare it with a few new alternatives. It was to be something of a “man’s tasting” as they’d run out of tonic so I had to have it all neat. Ah well, the trials and tribulations of a self-denying seeker for the truth, tsk, just one of those things you have to put up with. The Warner Edwards was as warm and smooth and yummy as I remembered.
So for contrast number one Graham poured me a little Two Birds. It’s a London Dry Gin produced in Market Harborough, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. My initial sniff was a delightful surprise. It was really light and fragrant, and made a considerable contrast with the Warner Edwards. You know how when you walk through a department store (especially with a lady) and assistants jump out at you with strips of card with perfume on for you to have a sniff – well the “scent equivalent” would be that the Warner Edwards smells rich, warm and mature whilst the Two Birds is young, floral and cheeky. It’s very satisfying on the tongue and just reeks of quality. Surprisingly, at 40% strength, it’s 4% less than the Warner Edwards. I was really taken with it. “Lovingly handcrafted in small batches, our Great British gin is delicately distilled and infused with the finest countryside botanics”. That’s the label again, not me, but who am I to disagree.
Moving on to a second gin-challenge, Graham suggested I tried Pinkster. As the name suggests, it’s pink! Not a pink gin in the traditional definition of gin and angosturas bitters, though. The source of its pinkness hits you the moment you let it near your nostril – raspberry. It’s really fruity! It actually took me ages to get round to tasting it because I was enjoying the raspberry aroma so much. Imagine a really adult Raspberry Mivvi, and you’re not far off. Not that it’s a sweet drink at all – there’s plenty of juniper in there to accentuate the dryness – but it’s just got an irreverent streak to it which made it really stand out. I think I missed out the full experience with this one by not sampling it with tonic, but nevertheless, it’s still a treat neat.
And a third extra offering – another London Dry Gin called Little Bird, this one actually made in London. It’s another serious contender for your top quality G&T. Very smooth, very full in flavour, and very lingering. Taste is, of course, totally subjective, and whilst I enjoyed it very much and expect it would be great with some Fever-tree, I didn’t feel it had the subtlety of either the Two Birds or the Pinkster. Still you’d definitely choose it over the majority of other gins you might get offered.
There were a couple of extras to this gin tasting, both courtesy of the Two Birds stable. Firstly, they do a vodka. My experience of “good” vodka is limited to blue label Smirnoff (great with a mixer) and black label Smirnoff, good enough to drink alone; by which I mean with nothing added, not you quietly knocking it back by yourself all alone in a rotting garret somewhere. Again I sampled this one neat – and I’d say it was definitely one for the boldness of just having it on the rocks and to hell with the consequences. I could imagine hordes of Russian tourists all having a very boozy breakfast with this. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Two Birds make their own absinthe. Yes, I tried the absinthe, all 70% of it, and it certainly makes the heart grow fonder. A complex blend of aniseed and wormwood apparently. It hits your tongue and it evaporates, and you’re left with a knock-out sense of something very powerful and rather mysterious. I blame the wormwood. Could it be used as a mitigating plea in court? I’m very sorry, Your Honour, the Wormwood made me do it.
I thought I’d treat myself to a bottle of something that I’d tried – and in the end I plumped for the Two Birds gin. But they were all extremely scrummy. There’s another wine tasting on Saturday night – a selection of Portuguese wines. Sounds beguiling! 11 Derngate, Northampton, is the place, and I shall be there! But in any case, the Northampton Wine Connection is always worth a visit, to broaden your wine horizons and to get that certain something you definitely won’t find in the supermarket.
That’s the question posed by a friend as part of her psychology research at the University of East London. It’s an interesting topic as an abstract, but even more so with a short and easy to understand case study that only takes up five to ten minutes of your time. All you have to do is read a statement and then answer some questions. If you’d like to help, just click here and the internet will magically take you to the study. It’s anonymous, and you can also email the researcher if you have any questions.
Please help my friend with her research – you never know, we might all benefit from it one day!
Gentle reader, if you’ve read between the lines in some of my blogs about theatre-going and travel, you might have come to the conclusion that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are partial to the occasional glass of something grapey before a show; and at the interval; and with dinner; and on holiday; and so on. Up until recently we would happily imbibe any old Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc that a pub, restaurant or theatre would serve us; and for home consumption, we would have been happy to stock up (half-a-dozen at a time of course, to get the discount) on happy wines from the aisles of Tesco or Waitrose without too much deliberation – we knew what we liked, and we liked what we knew.
But recently, we’ve noticed something rather alarming. That chirpy pub wine that always kept us contented now seems to have gone off the boil, not that you would boil wine, but you get my drift. The favourite old bottle choices in the Indian or Thai restaurants are no longer hitting the spot. Why? Because for the last six months or so, we’ve been buying our wine from Northampton’s new independent wine retailer, the Northampton Wine Connection, 11 Derngate, in the heart of the town. The shop is run by Graham, Mark and Laura and their passion for their product is palpable. What they don’t know about the wines on their shelves, really isn’t worth knowing. And it’s not just wine there either. They’re particularly hot on local producers, so they have a range of Northamptonshire beers, and the (increasingly famous) Warner Edwards gin that is distilled in Harrington. They also stock white wines from the New Lodge Vineyard at Earls Barton, and they’ve even got some really appley cider that’s made there too. Mrs C very kindly bought me a celebratory bottle of Cognac a few weeks ago, and, not knowing her Colombard from her Ugni Blanc, sought advice from them as to which of their extensive range she should buy. She bought the surprisingly reasonably priced Jacques Denis Grande Champagne 1er Cru, and, I can tell you now, it’s utterly sublime.
The big question when it comes to wine is, does it taste totally yummy? There’s only one way to find out – to taste it. And that’s one of the very entertaining aspects of the Wine Connection; on the last Saturday of every month they hold a wine tasting where you can try a dozen or more wines from their current stock. We’ve been a few times now, and it’s always a jolly, sociable event, where your taste buds get to broaden their horizons and maybe try some wines that you wouldn’t normally consider.
At last Saturday’s wine tasting Laura took us through the first few bottles. We started off with their two Le Magnolie wines; a prosecco and a spumante rosé. They are superb. Light and celebratory, we’ve already bought a number of these and they’re great for parties or just for starting an evening off with some crisps or nibbles. Actually, we didn’t need to taste these this time round, as we feel we already know them intimately! The first wine we did taste was a Moscato 47 AD, from Roncade in the Veneto district of Italy. It has the added bonus of only being 7.5% strength – Mrs C and I always like to go for wine with a lighter alcohol content wherever possible, as they’ve got fewer calories and you’re less likely to get plastered. It’s ever so slightly sweet and sparkling, which makes it a perfect solution to the rather intoxicating alternative of the Champagne Breakfast.
Staying with the sparkling but getting much more serious we tried Vixen, a sparkling red from McLaren Vale in South Australia. At 14% it’s a heady brew; a devilish mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and instantly appealing as a result. It’s after trying about four or five wines at a wine tasting that you remember that you’re just meant to have a sip or two and then pour the rest away; that way you can remain relatively sober and alert throughout the tasting so that those you taste at the end are appraised just as critically as those you tasted at the beginning. That’s what you should do… but it’s terribly hard to waste such nice wine!
On to stage two of the wine tasting, downstairs with Graham, and four champagnes awaited us. Mrs C and I are extremely fond our champagne, and will crack open a bottle at the slightest opportunity. “It’s Wednesday! Yeah! Let’s have some champagne.” The first we had to try was the Charles Chevalier Champagne which the Wine Connection have adopted as their House Champagne. It blends Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes and at 12.5% it packs a really tasty punch; also it tastes every bit as good as one twice its price. I shall definitely be stocking up on some of that soon.
Then came three champagnes from the Maison Borel Lucas, supplied by a local guy who has started up his own small champagne import business. In order, they were the Cuvee de Reserve, a Rosé NV and finally a Grand Cru. They’re all very satisfying; but I particularly liked the Rosé as normally I would expect it to be a little sweeter somehow; this example was extremely serious. Then there were two other whites to try – a 12% Soave by Serenissima, remarkably smooth and rounded for a good value Soave, which I would normally associate with a much dryer taste; and a Piantaferro Falangina which was very nice but not entirely to my taste – in an evening of taste sensations that one just sat on my tongue and did nothing much. One final rosé on offer – again by Serenissima, a Merlot rosé which is an assertive and serious wine that we’ve bought before. As we knew what it would taste like we had no need to try it again; but somehow that didn’t seem to quite matter.
Then we moved to the reds: first up, a 13% Sicilian Syrah from Piantaferro that was absolutely superb. I wonder if the first red you taste after lots of different whites and rosés always tastes great? But I thought it was yummy. Then the last two bottles in the “proper” wine tasting were the big guns. A Poderi Colla Nebbiolo, 13.5% and every 0.1% of it latches itself to your juices. Once it’s washed around your mouth a couple of times, it sticks solid; you’ll taste it for ages afterwards. This is the kind of wine you drink one evening and on the next morning you’ve got a mouth like a birds’ cage. But I really loved it. The only thing that could beat it, was the final wine of the night, a 2008 Scuola Grande Amarone. It’s like the Big Daddy of the Valpolicella family. It’s 15.5% would you believe, so you really have to stagger your drinking of it – or it will stagger you; or make sure you’re sharing it amongst a number of like-minded friends. It was simply beautiful.
Even though that was the end of the “official” wine tasting, back upstairs Mark has an add-on treat. Every so often they keep aside a few bottles for tasting in order to get feedback from their customers as to whether we think a wine is a good choice for them to stock and whether we would be likely to buy it at any given price point. There were six extra wines to try, all from small producers in Spain. The first, a white, was simply delicious and they had already wisely decided they were definitely going to stock it. The next four were red Riojas, all at different stages of oakiness. The first was a Joven, i.e. young and without oak and everyone agreed it was a super wine and they would definitely buy it. The next three had been in the oak for six months, one year and two years respectively. General consensus was that the six month and the one year wines didn’t have that much of their own identity, and that in comparison, the cheaper Joven, or the more expensive two year wine, were a much better bet. Finally there was a wine called Ciceron, and that was gorgeous too; but by this time I was unable to take any meaningful notes to explain its wonders any more fully. I’m sure you’ll understand why.
So if you’re into decent wines or want to broaden your knowledge and sample some classy vino, why not try attending one of the Wine Connection’s Saturday night tastings. You get a good discount if you buy twelve bottles and I can vouch for the fact that every single wine we have bought has tasted just as good at home as it did in the shop. Spend over £75 and you don’t have to carry any purchases home with you – they will deliver locally. You can follow them on Twitter (@NorthamptonWine) or Facebook too. Great fun, great tastes and great service – you can’t go wrong!
Still on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.
The set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.
Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.
But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.
Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.
For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.
As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.
David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.
The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.
P.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!