A Travellerspoint blog

April 2009

It Ain’t No Cat Food and Dish of Milk

Burgers and beer at the Dev Cat in Sheffield

sunny 15 °C

Thursday was the last day of my project in Sheffield, and at 6:27 in the evening I boarded a train and headed down to London. Even before I boarded the train, I knew I wouldn’t be eating my supper in Sheffield on Thursday, instead waiting until I got back to London and to my flat.

Therefore, on Wednesday evening I knew I would be having my last proper meal in Sheffield, so I headed to my favourite place to eat, the Dev Cat.

When I first arrived in Sheffield, I found myself faced with a lot of chain restaurants in the centre of town. Now, I am not against chain restaurants per se, but there are only so many times you can dine at Café Rouge, Nando’s, J.D. Wetherspoon’s or Wagamama’s before you are thinking you’d like a change of place.

One day, a few weeks after first arriving here in Sheffield, I asked some of the locals I work with for some restaurant suggestions in the centre.

“Do you like burgers?” asked one of the women I work with.

“Uh-huh,” I replied, saliva building up in my mouth.

“Do you like beer?” she asked.

“Mmmmmm, beer and burgers,” I replied, drool rolling down my chin and eyes rolling back in my head, cutting a truly Homeresque figure.

(That’s Homer as in Simpson, not Homer as in Grecian poet. Or was he a Roman poet? I always get the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires mixed up, which probably doesn’t make the Greeks or Italians especially happy. In my defense though, I think they are easy to mix up. They both featured dudes in white sheets, lots of marble architecture, statues of naked, buff folks and way too many Gods for me to remember.)

“Oh, you’ll have to check out the Dev Cat,” she said.

The Dev Cat, or more properly The Devonshire Cat is a pub in central Sheffield on Wellington Street. Offering a selection of 12 beers on draught and over 60 beers in bottles, as well as hand-made burgers all at a good price, the place is very popular with students, city-centre workers and locals alike.

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The first time I saw the Dev Cat, I must admit I was not overly impressed. Even though I have been in England for almost a year now and have been in enough pubs that I should know better, when I hear the word pub I still imagine a dark, musty space in rickety, turn of the century house with lead-glass windows, low ceilings and wobbly, uneven floors. The Dev Cat is on the ground floor of a modern apartment block that is home to students of nearby Sheffield University, and is light and airy inside with floors so even you could bowl on them, if the tables weren’t in the way.

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Sitting at a table and perusing the beer and food menus, though, put me back at ease, and once I took that first bite into a Dev Cat burger, any qualms about the appearance of the pub disappeared. The burgers were excellent, and the selection of beer impressive.

The Dev Cat doesn’t have the biggest beer menu I’ve ever seen, but it has to be the most eclectic. Like many brew pubs, it has selections from different countries, but the Dev Cat seems to go for the weirdest beers they can find. Spontaneously fermenting Lambic beers from Belgium share the menu with pilsners from the Czech Republic. Brews from monasteries are available along side saxon ciders. Kolschs from Germany along side Sierra Nevada from the USA. They also offer Tusker from Kenya, a beer that I drank extensively when I was in Tanzania (which may explain why I never made it to the top of Kilimanjaro).

(As an aside, I know this is the kind of shameless fawning that professional travel writers get paid to do. I’m not getting paid by anyone, which either makes me an unbiased and trustworthy source of information, or a sucker. I’m not sure which, but I fear it’s probably the sucker.)

On my last Wednesday, I started with a pint of Bernard Light Tap lager on draught and placed an order for a brie and bacon burger.

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I was a quarter way through my meal when I finished off my pint. As a tipple for the rest of the meal, I decided to try something a little different. I went for a bottle of the Schlenferla Rauchbier. Rauch means smoke and the beer is made by kilning the barley malt over burning beachwood logs, a traditional method from early Franconian history that can be compared with the kilning over peat used to make Islay Whisky (according to the beer menu).

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Taking a sniff of the dark beer, it smelt like your t-shirt smells after spending a night at a bonfire. The first sip of the beer was strange. It tasted like I imagine drinking a pureed smoked kielbasa would taste like. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but neither would I call it enjoyable.

Then I had a bite of the burger, followed by a sip of the beer, and it was much better. The meaty taste of the burger, the smoothness of the brie and saltiness of the bacon went very well with the smoke of the beer. By alternating a bite of burger with a sip of the beer, I managed to find a nice mix of complimenting tastes. I will admit in ordering the Rauchbier, I had hoped that it would compliment a grilled burger, and it turned out to work really well.

The smoky beer did not work well with chips and mayonnaise. Luckily I had finished off most of the chips while drinking the lager, which was much better with the chips and mayo.

I finished up my burger and beer and headed out into the warm and sunny evening in Sheffield. I would have hung around and tried a few more of the unusual beers on offer, but Arsenal and Man U were about to kick off. Despite having a lot going for it including the best burgers and beers in Sheffield, two things that the Dev Cat doesn’t have is either Sky Sports or TVs on which to show Sky Sports. The Dev Cat just isn’t the kind of place you can be at when an important sporting match is on.

See, that’s the kind of honest appraisal you won’t get from those endorsed travel writers. Perhaps I am not a sucker after all. No, I’m probably still a sucker.

Sucker or not, either way I’ll miss the Dev Cat’s burgers.

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Goodbye, Sheffield.

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Posted by GregW 09:25 Archived in England Tagged food Comments (2)

Fields of Green Felt In Sheffield Snooker City

The World Championship of Snooker 2009 held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, the same venue since 1977

sunny 16 °C

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The people of Sheffield have gone snooker mad, if you believe the posters plastered around town. Not snooker mad as in angry, like the folks of River City upon learning about trouble (that starts with T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool), but rather mad as in excited and enthused, like the people of River City when envisioning 76 trombones and a big parade.

Every year in late April and early May, Sheffield plays host to the World Championship of Snooker. The best snooker players in the world come to this South Yorkshire town to determine who, at least for this year, is the best person in the world at striking little balls with another ball that had, in turned, been struck by the end of a long stick.

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When I was a teen, we used to play snooker at the local pool hall. Growing up in the suburbs where I did, as an underage teenager who couldn’t go to bars, you really had three choices for entertainment – movies, bowling and the pool hall. So my friends and I could often be found at Formac Billiards on Plains Road in Burlington knocking around billiards balls.

We had a choice of two different games, pool (eight-ball) and snooker. Eight-ball, the most widely played “cue sport” in the world, is a game where there are 15 balls – 7 solid, 7 stripes and a black eight ball. In eight-ball, you are assigned (usually through sinking a ball within the first few frames) either solids or stripes. You have to sink your 7 balls, and then the eight ball before the other guy to win. This game is very popular in bars as a pay per game activity, as games go very quickly. Thus, after I got old enough to drink and go to bars, most of my billiards activities ended up being eight-ball.

Back in high school though, when we were looking to fill a whole evening, snooker was the game. It is slower paced, and you have a lot more balls to sink on a larger table. You need to sink the 15 red balls, and then the 6 other coloured balls in order. Once the last ball (the black one) is potted, you add up the points and the person with the most points wins.

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Unlike eight-ball, a lot of the strategy in a well-played snooker match is to leave your opponent with a poor shot. If you manage to leave your opponent with no direct shot at the ball he next needs to hit, that is called “a snooker.” The game of snooker is much more cerebral and slow-paced than eight-ball.

In high school, we would occasionally try and play the chess-match-like intellectual game of leaving our opponent snookered, but rarely had the ball control and skill necessary to pull it off. Instead, we were more likely to go for “maximum kinetic energy release,” i.e. hit the balls as hard as possible to get as many balls rolling around the table and hoping for something to happen. If a ball by chance happened to drop into a pocket, we would look up and give a slight nod, indicating that of course that is exactly what you expected to happen.

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Back in the here (Sheffield) and now (actual the recent past of Tuesday night), I figured that I couldn’t pass up a chance to see the world’s greatest players play the game that figured so heavily in my high school life. It was a chance to see snooker the way it is meant to be played. It would also have been incredibly lazy of me not to go, seeing as the matches were being held a block and a half from my hotel.

The games had been sold out for weeks, but luckily due to some last minute returns, I was able to pick up a ticket at the box office on the day for the evening session. I gave the woman at the Crucible Theatre box office my £17, and in return she gave me one ticket for seat K44 to see the match on table one – 23rd ranked Nigel Bond versus world number nine Peter Ebdon. The full matches are 19 frames, which are split into two separate fixtures, usually of 9 or 10 frames. Ebdon and Bond had already played 8 frames, and Bond was up 5 to 3 over Ebdon.

The 980 seat Crucible Theatre in the city centre of Sheffield is usually used for putting on plays, but every year since 1977 it has held the World Snooker Championships as well. With only 980 seats, there isn’t exactly a bad seat in the house, so as I grabbed my seats I was impressed of the view I had of the tables. The theatre is set up with two tables, and my seat near the centre of the theatre had decent views of both.

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I entered just as the player introductions were finishing, and they were introducing the “Thunder from Down Under,” Australian player Neil Robertson. Neil ran out, his highly-structured blond hair bouncing up and down, and waved to the crowd. There was loud applause for Neil, and then the announcer heralded the arrival of Steve Davis. The crowd grew much louder.

Steve Davis is the most successful snooker player in the world, having won more titles than any other, including 6 World Championships in the 1980s that he took here in the Crucible. Though now 51, he still plays snooker at a competitive level, as well as being a well known TV commentator. He was honoured with an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 2001.

The applause for Steve Davis, OBE died down, and a screen partitioning the two tables from each other lowered from the ceiling. Despite the screen, sitting up in Row K near the centre of the theatre, I actually had a pretty decent view of both tables. As such, I could watch both the action on Table 1 (Bond versus Ebdon) as well as being able to see 85% of Table 2 for the Davis – Robertson match.

As play was about to begin, the theatre hushed to a silence. The TV cameras took up their positions, focusing on the players’ sombre faces of concentration. Had I not chosen to come down to the Crucible this evening, I could have stayed home and watched the action on the BBC. Snooker is a prime time sport here in England. When Davis was winning his 6 World Championships in the 1980s, it was figured that he was on TV more often than the Prime Minister.

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Play started with the traditional break. This involves knocking a few of the reds a few centimetres, leaving the other player with nothing to shoot at. The other guy then steps up, and ticks a red ball with the white, leaving his opponent with no opportunities to sink a ball. The first guy steps up, and then spends a good four minutes walking around the table, considering his options. During this time, the crowd is silent except for the occasionally cough.

Finally, he sees a good shot, bends down and lines it up. The crowd holds its breath, waiting to see if this is the point when the first point is scored. The player lets the cue slide back and forth through the crock between his thumb and forefinger a few times, eyes down at table level to ensure that he has the shot properly lined up. The crowd sits perfectly still, awaiting to release their breath and any nervous energy until after the shot. The player pulls back the cue, eyes the shot one more time, and…

…stands up and reconsiders the whole table.

It is not a very fast paced game. The players could probably grow moss if they didn't make the occasional walk around the table.

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All this time between shots allowed me to take a good look around. The crowd was pretty mixed, from young kids to senior citizens. There were folks that looked like they had just knocked off dry walling sitting next to guys in collared shirts who’d removed their ties to relax after a long day in the office. There were women in the crowd, some with boyfriends and some in small groups of other girls.

Cameras and cell phones were not allowed (thus no pictures, though I have a few from the big-screen in Tudor Square outside the theatre for the overflow crowds), and the crowds adhered to the rules. Most of the 980 seats were filled, and everyone behaved impeccably, being silent when appropriate, offering polite applause at the first point, any difficult shot succeeded and any time a player snookered his opponent. Occasionally a voice would call out, “Come on, Steve,” offering a vocal cheer for Davis, but there were no other vocalisations during the matches, other than the referee announcing the scores.

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The action down on the floor was pretty leisurely paced. The most emotion seemed to come from the white-gloved, tuxedoed referee, whose job it was to replace the coloured balls on the table after they had been sunk and occasionally give the white cue ball a nice rub down (perhaps the cue ball gets tense and needs a massage). He would scowl at the crowd anytime there was a noise from the darkness, and if people were speaking at anything above a whisper, he would growl, “quiet, please.” He reminded me of Lurch from the Addams Family, but with a slightly better vocabulary.

The players themselves were all wiry thin. I would have expected a few more fat guys, after all it isn’t exactly a highly active sport, but I guess all the fat guys go into darts. All the snooker players are skinny. They are all dressed similarly, in black pants, white shirts, black bowtie and a vest, making them appear like banquet hall waiters on the lam. Ebdon wore a blue vest instead of black, making him stand out. Everyone’s vest had a BetFred patch on it (sponsor of the tournament), but Ebdon’s vest included a patch advertising Emirates Airlines. Ebdon, the Arsenal of the snooker world. The blue vest, extra sponsorship and similarity of the name Ebdon to Udon, the tasty Japanese noodle were all factors in my decision to support Ebdon during the match.

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Of course, as there was no cheering allowed, supporting was more of an internal activity, involving nodding silent to myself and smiling when Ebdon made a decent shot, and frowning when things didn’t go his way.

During one of the matches, someone’s digital watch beeped the hour. The ushers craned their necks to identify the offender, and once the offender was identified, they came over to have a quick word with the poor gent who forgot to silence his watch. The man must have been humiliated. For the next five minutes, I made sure to sit extra still, lest the ushers single me out. The crowds at snooker matches make the crowds at golf tournaments look like riotous mobs on a rampage.

For some reason, the theatre had a faint chlorine smell, reminding me of sitting in the bleachers of public swimming pool waiting for swimming lessons to begin. I finally came to the conclusion that watching snooker was like a mix between being in church and being at the swimming pool, but with less organ music, no splashing and less anticipation of having a nice dip in cool water.

Ebdon managed to win 2 frames, pulling even with Bond at 5 frames each. Bond then won the next frame, pulling himself up 6-5 over Ebdon. Over on Table 2, Robertson was pulling away from Davis, up 3 to 1. At this point there was a short break to allow the fans and the players to hit the toilets and grab a pint.

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I stood at the bar drinking a £3.10 pint of Carling, and contemplated the action I had seen. Each frame was taking close to 30 minutes to finish on average, with one of the frames stretching to almost 45 minutes. At one point, over on table 2, Robertson and Davis struck one lone red ball around the table (and between the coloured balls) for 15 minutes without anyone scoring a point. It was strategically excellent snooker and I appreciated that, however it was about as dull a spectator sport as I could imagine.

During the matches, I had found myself yawning more than a few times. I caught a few others in the crowd mouths agape in a yawn as well. It was almost 9:45, and the match was probably not even halfway through. I imagined the horror of falling asleep in my seat and, god forbid, starting to snore. If the ushers nearly had coronaries over a digital watch beep, imagine the revulsion they would display towards me if I started to snort-grunt-sputter as I do when I snore.

BetFred, the online and telephone betting service that sponsors the World Snooker Championships, had a booth set up in the lobby. One of the TVs was showing the Liverpool – Arsenal match, which Liverpool was leading 2 to 1 with 58 minutes gone. One of the ushers announced that play was about to restart. I debated staying out in the lobby and watching the football match, or heading back into the theatre. I decided to give the snooker one last try.

Of the next 30 minutes, I yawned about 60 times. Occasionally I would hear cheers from out in the lobby from those who had made the opposite choice and stayed in the lobby to watch the football. Watching paint dry in a humid environment would have been more exciting and probably quicker than watching the snooker match. I was stuck in my seat until the frame ended though, but I quickly decided that at the end of the frame, I would flee.

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The frame ended and I got out into the lobby just in time to see the Liverpool and Arsenal players leaving the pitch, having wound up playing to a 4-4 tie, including 1 goal from each side in injury time. It was a match that was described as a “thrilling act of theatre” by Kevin Garside in the Telegraph, and a “classic” on the BBC.

I sighed and headed home, letting the snooker matches unfold themselves without my observation. Ebdon, the Japanese noodle man, ended up losing to Bond in an upset. Robertson, meanwhile, took a commanding lead over Davis, ending the day up 7 to 2.

If the people of (the fictional) River City, Iowa in the Music Man were really concerned about not letting their teenagers get in trouble, they shouldn’t of started a marching band (after all, we all know what happened that one time… at band camp…). They should have changed that pool hall into a snooker room, all that standing quietly and contemplating strategy, that’s got to be good for the discipline of young minds.

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A fantastic spectator sport, though, it does not make.

Posted by GregW 10:48 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged sports events Comments (1)

Hillsborough 1989: They Never Walk Alone

Memorial at Hillsborough Stadium to the 96 lives lost during the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989.

overcast 14 °C

Hillsborough stadium, just outside of central Sheffield in the part of town called Hillsborough is home to football club Sheffield Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday Football Club was established in 1892 to keep the local cricket club in shape during the off season. The cricket club was named for the day of the week on which they played, Wednesday. The name ended up transferring over to the FC club. The club is also known as the Owls after a mascot given to them in the early 20th century. In 1899, the club moved to a football stadium just to the north of Hillsborough Park. Though the stands have received some renovations over the years, the Owls have played on the grounds in 1899.

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On April 15, 1989, the grounds was to play host to an FA-Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. As was standard practice at most important matches, fans were segregated to try and keep any trouble to a minimum. Nottingham Forest fans were assigned the Spion Kop End, with Liverpool fans being given the Leppings Lane side of the stadium, named after the street on which the entrance to the stand is.

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Kick-off was scheduled for 3:00 pm, with fans told to show up 30 minutes before the match. However, fans were late, many due to unscheduled road works on the M62 that runs between Liverpool and Sheffield. Many fans were still outside the stadium as kick-off time was drawing near.

Due to the fears soccer hooliganism, at the time fans were enclosed by high steel fences to keep them off the pitch. As more and more Liverpool fans tried to stream into the stadium, those at the front started to be crushed against the fence, with no escape routes. Generally, police and stewards would have stood at the entrance to the tunnel directing fans away from the full central pens and to the side pens. This did not happen during this match.

With kick-off near, the police outside of the stadium were unaware of the crush at the front of the stands. Fearing a crush of fans or violence outside the stadium, they opened a large gate that was to be used as an exit, causing a rush of fans into the stadium.

When the match started at 3:00 pm, already fans were being killed in the crush. Fans at the back of the mass were unaware of the problems up front, and with their focus on the match, continued to surge forward. Some Liverpool fans were lucky enough to climb over the fences, alerting the police to the problem. The police stopped the match at 3:06 pm.

Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield was at the match, and in April 14th edition of the Sheffield Star is quoted as saying, "The game kicked off and there was what looked like crowd problems. Then people starting climbing over the fences to get out. There were more and more people trying to get out. The referee stopped the game and the players walked off. It took a long time for the scale of disaster to become apparent, for people to realise that people were dead on the pitch, that there was resuscitation going on. People were absolutely stunned. Things like this don't happen at football matches."

The human crush ended up killing 96 Liverpool fans and injuring over 700 people. The force of the fans must have been enormous. Richard Caborn, MP for Sheffield Central, was also at the match. "I was on the terrace and saw one of the bars which was supposed to keep crowds from surging forward. It was bent, and I was told it would have taken something like a quarter of a tonne to have done that."

The deaths and injuries at the match brought about many changes in football stadium in the UK. Standing room and general admission with penned-in fans were replaced by all-seating stadiums.

In 1999, on the tenth anniversary of the disaster, a memorial was unveiled at Hillsborough in the memory of the fans who died there. Today, the day before the 20th, some of those who lost people, as well as other Liverpool fans affected by the tragedy, stopped by to drop off flowers, pictures and scarves in honour of the dead, before heading off to see Liverpool play Chelsea in an EUFA Champions league Quarter final game.

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The anniversary brings about mixed feelings here in Sheffield, as people are obviously horrified at the loss of life and the injuries, but also sensitive about the South Yorkshire police taking a lot of the blame for the tragedy. Many from Liverpool are still angry that those in charge of security that day were not charged with any crimes.

However, the people of Sheffield will mark the disaster quietly tomorrow, with two minutes of silence from 3:06 to 3:08 pm in the city centre, at Meadowhall (the regions largest shopping mall) and of course at Hillsborough stadium and along Leppings Lane.

Posted by GregW 13:49 Archived in England Tagged sports events Comments (0)

Two Week of Nothing Interesting To Report

...and yet, I still decided to write a blog entry about it.

semi-overcast 13 °C

It has been two weeks since I got back from Lille, though thanks to my verbose writing, you've still been reading about it for weeks. In the time since returning, not too much exciting has occurred.

Spring has sprung in London. Here's a picture of the cherry tree outside my place. I took the photo a few weeks ago. The bright pink blossoms have now given way to tree of dark red leaves.

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Even better, my hay fever, which was causing me much aggravation in the middle of March has disappeared. Hopefully it doesn't come back. It's strange to have been suffering the effects of hay fever at a time of year when back in Toronto they snow wouldn't have even been off the ground.

  • * *

Right before I went away to Lille, I had to take my Apple down to the Apple Store. The CD drive had stopped working, which was impairing my ability to play the new U2 CD. To repair the CD drive and also fix the screen (which I had water damaged due to an ill advised attempted cleaning) cost £360. That is in fact more than my other computer, a Packard Bell Windows machine cost in total. Macs are a lot like German cars, I think. They are finely crafted and you pay a premium to own one. They run really well, and rarely have problems, but when they do... look out, because your wallet is going to be a lot lighter.

Well waiting for a "genius" from the "genius bar" to help me (god, sometimes you really have to hate the arrogance of the Apple folks, don't you), I went and bought a new phone. That was another £40. The previous day I had spent £180 on a U2 ticket. I don't know what I am thinking. I better hope I don't lose my job, otherwise all this conspicuous consumption is going to catch up with me. Trips to France, computers, phones, fancy soups from Sainsbury's. I tell you, I'm going wild.

Anyway, the genius at the genius bar, who looked like Earl Hickey from My Name is Earl, only with less hair, told me that he'd need to replace the drive, and that it would take a while, so I left the computer with them and plodded off to France. When in Lille, I got a call that I could come pick it up. Once back home, I dropped into the Apple Store, and picked up the machine. Nice and clean with a new, non-water damaged screen. Only one last thing to try. "Can I borrow a CD to check out the drive," I asked.

"Sure," the genius said, and went to retrieve a disk. Greatest 1950s TV hits, or some such thing. My computer apparently didn't like 1950s TV, because it refused to play the disk.

"Hmm, not working," I said.

The genius looked confused. "I need to take this in the back and get one of the technicians to look at it," he said. Not so smart, it seems, for a genius.

Anyway, turns out they had to replace the connector to the CD drive as well. I asked the obvious question - "Can you be sure that the CD drive needed to be replaced in the first place? I mean, perhaps the CD drive was fine all along, and it was only the connector that was busted." No, I was assured, that both the CD drive and the connector needed to be replaced. *sigh* Just like an auto mechanic. What can you do? Buy a PC that you can work on yourself, I guess... But there not nearly as cool as the Mac, right?

  • * *

I returned to Sheffield, and was in for a treat. I walked into my hotel room for the week to find something I had never seen in a hotel room before. I've stayed in lots of hotels over the years, and seen some pretty decent things. I've stayed in places that had flat-screen TVs that arise from cabinets, sitting rooms with small bars and fridges, places wired for sound with decent hi-fi systems. I even once had a hotel room that had a jacuzzi tub that overlooked the Las Vegas strip. I could have, if I had the time and wasn't working, have spent a lazy evening watching the Bellagio water show from a bubble bath.

This room in Sheffield had something that none of those rooms had ever had, though. It had stairs.

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The hotel room was split into two separate floors. One the main floor, where the door was, was the bathroom and a sitting room, with a TV and the internet connection.

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On the upper floor, the bedroom with another TV.

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So sweet. Now this is luxury I could get used to.

Of course, I didn't get to spend too much time in the room. Mainly just came back at night after dinner and crashed. I had a lot of work to complete that week, so I was in the office late.

How come I never get fancy rooms like that when I go away on vacation?

  • * *

April 4th I was back in London. My flatmate said that the Grand National was on that day. The Grand National is an annual horse race that is held in Liverpool at the Aintree race course. It is, according to the pre-race hype on the BBC, the most famous race horse in the world. I'd never heard of it before, but I'm just a sample of one, so perhaps that is not indicative of its true fame.

My flatmate and her family has a yearly tradition of picking some horses and putting down a small wager on it. I joined in by picking a couple horses, and we debated about going down to the local Ladbrokes to put a tenner down on the action, but in the end just agreed on a gentlemen's wager.

I suppose that the Grand National would be similar to the Kentucky Derby back in North America (though I had previously thought that is what I would say about the Ascot, so who knows). Anyway, it is a big day for betting on the ponies, and folks who normally wouldn't watch horses race do so when the Grand National is running.

There is an image of the Brits has been a little prissy and uptight, not like the rough and tumble Americans. But horse racing here the UK certainly shatters that image. The Grand National makes that Kentucky Derby look a little bit like a merry-go-round.

The Grand National is a four-mile long steeple chase, with a total of thirty fences to jump. Riders fall off all the time, and the free horses run along with the race, sometimes impeding the progress of those still on their horses. Even the start is maniacal, with the riders all lining up behind a wire strung across the track, which sometimes doesn't get lifted fast enough at the start and you wind up with jockeys getting clothes-lined.

We each picked a long-shot and a decent odds horse. I picked Fleet Street at 100-1 for my long shot, simply because I liked the name, it being a street and all here in London. For my decent odds horse, I debated between the cool-named Comply or Die, but ended up going with Hear the Echo, who was listed as 15:1 in the paper, but by the time the race started had dropped to 33:1.

The race was exciting to watch. It took 9 and a half minutes to run, and only 17 horses finished. At one point, the leader of the race, a horse named Black Apalachi, was out in front with a comfortable lead, when he fell on the 22nd jump. The jockey curled up into a ball as the rest of the field jumped the fence and tried not to stomp on him.

In the end, Mon Mome won the race, a 100:1 shot! Sadly, my pick, Hear the Echo collapsed on the final ran to the wire and later died. Hear the Echo was the 58th horse to die in the 162 runnings of the race.

  • * *

The next week in Sheffield, I had a regular sized European hotel room. It felt small, cluttered and claustrophobic after last weeks two story affair. *sigh* The good ol' days.

  • * *

This weekend was Easter weekend, which means a four day weekend. Despite having four days to play with, I did very little. I took no trips, I didn't splash out on any big purchases. Nope, just stayed home for the most part, went out a few times. Nothing big at all...

...well, I guess I did buy a ticket for the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May... For £500. Plus hotel and travel and food...

Prior to the recession, I was quite a little saver. Now, though, I seem to have transformed into a big spender. Oh well, I guess that I am doing my part to try and bring the world back 'round.

Mr. Gordon Brown, you can send your thanks later.

  • * *

I did slightly better in my NHL hockey pool, which I wrote about attending back in Toronto in October. I ended up winning the pool for the second year running. While this shot is from last year, as the trophy is currently safely in Toronto and not here in London with me, this is what I would be doing if I had the trophy here.

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Get ready for next year. THREEPEAT, BABY!!!

Posted by GregW 08:00 Archived in England Tagged preparation Comments (0)

I died in hell - They called it Passchendaele

The Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele - visiting a rebuilt Ypres, the Passendale Memorial and Tyne Cot Cemetery

sunny 13 °C
View Lille and World War I Battlefields on GregW's travel map.

The final of my entries on my trip around the World War I battlefields of Flanders. The Brooding Soldier in Flanders' Fields looks at the start of the war and the Second Battle of Ypres. A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead published on April 8th, 92 years less a day from the battle, looks at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National monument that stands on the battlefield today. This final entry, I died in hell - They called in Passchendaele looks at the Battle of Passchendaele and the end of the war.

The Battle of Arras, of which the Vimy Ridge assault was one of many offenses, came to an end in mid-May. While some progress had been made pushing into the German lines, no major breakthroughs had been made. The war settled back into the trench warfare stalemate that had characterized most of the previous 2 years.

The attack had left a bulge in lines where the British and French forces were surrounded on three sides by German troops. This is known as a salient, and the danger with a position like this is that the Germans could attack near the back of the salient, cutting off a large portion of troops and stranding them without supplies.

In June of 1917, the British offensive started, its goal to take the village of Passendale, just a few miles from Ypres. The battle, which lasted for months, would become known as Third Battle of Ypres. It also became known under another name, the Battle of Passchendaele, with an old Dutch spelling of the name of the town used.

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The offensive did not go to British plans from the start. By this point, the land was ravaged, and stripped of all greenery to hold the soil together; the fields had become mud bogs.

“There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere.”
- Private R.A. Colwell, Passendale, January 1918

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For four months the British and Colonial troops practised a bite and hold strategy, making small gains and then hunkering down to hold the position. The fighting was awful, with tanks getting stuck in deep mud, and soldiers even drowning in it.

“We could not believe that we were expected to attack in such appalling conditions. I never prayed so hard in my life. I got down on my knees in the mud and prayed to God to bring me through.”
- Private Pat Burns, 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion, Passendale, November 1917

On the 6 November 1917, the Canadian Corps took the town of Passendale, ending the battle.

“Then on October 30, with two British divisions, the Canadians began the assault on Passchendale itself. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rainstorm and for five days they held on grimly, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. On November 6, when reinforcements arrived, four-fifths of the attackers were dead.”
- Source Veteran Affairs Canada website

The entire enterprise had achieved very little. Both sides suffered incredible loses, and while disputed it is possible that the Allied forces suffered even heavier losses than the Germans.

“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)”
- Line from Memorial Tablet, poem by Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers, November 1918.

Many of the dead are buried in nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery. The cemetery is the largest Commonwealth cemetery for war dead in the world, with almost 12,000 men buried there. In addition, a memorial contains the names of another 35,000 men who died and whose final resting place is unknown.

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Within Passendale itself, which is a nice little countryside town, is a memorial to the Canadian troops who took the town. At the end of Canada Lane is a small stone in a well maintained garden that has an inscription that reads.

THE CANADIAN CORPS IN OCT.- NOV. 1917 ADVANCED ACROSS THIS VALLEY THEN A TREACHEROUS MORASS - CAPTURED AND HELD THE PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE

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= = =

By the end of 1917 a number of events had unfolded that would dramatically shape the rest of the war. The French morale had dropped to an incredible low, and they decided to take up defensive positions against the Germans. This left burden of pushing against the Germans to the British and her Commonwealth allies. However, the United States congress had declared war on the Germans, and while there wasn’t a massive army immediately available, the Americans started to mobilze. The Germans, meanwhile, had signed a truce with the Russians, thereby freeing up all the troops on the Eastern Front to move to the Western Front.

In the Spring of 1918, the Germans launched an offensive to try and end the war before the arrival of a large number of American troops. The German offensive was successful, pushing to with 120 kilometres of Paris.

"Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end."
- Field Marshall Earl Haig, Order of the Day, 12 April 1918.

It is during this time that my Grandfather entered the war. He had enlisted back in 1916 (despite being too young to enlist), but wasn’t mobilized until April of 1918. He was in a logistics unit, and was stationed somewhere in France. He wasn’t in France for long. A train he was unloading was hit by a bomb dropped from an aircraft. Injured, he managed to make it away from the scene and found shelter until he was discovered. He was returned to London to recover. He had been hit with shrapnel, and had a large wound on his thigh. Throughout his life small pieces of the shrapnel that was still in his leg would work their way to the surface of his skin, coming to the surface as small black marks.

My Grandfather, living in Great Britain and not Canada, would of course not fought with the Canadian Corps had he been deployed to the front. He didn’t come to Canada until 1920, when he moved to Toronto. I never knew him at all, as he died before I was born.

In August of 1918 the Allied forces launched a counter-offensive, and made major gains. By October, it had become clear to the Germans they could no longer launch a defence against the armies, and that defeat was imminent. The Germans started negotiating a peace with the Allies, and on November 11, 1918, the Great War officially ended. It was the war to end all wars.

Ypres was mostly destroyed in the four years of the war. The site of so many important battles for the British troops, debate started as to what to do with the site. Some declared that it should be preserved as ruins, a reminder of the ferocity of the fighting that occurred there. Others declared that great monuments should be built.

“I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres… A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the World.”
- Winston Churchill, Minister of War, January 1919

The residents of Ypres had other plans, of course. They returned home, and started rebuilding. Like the farmer strolling across the field in Vimy, their life continued and they got on with it. While the politicians debated about the appropriate memorial, the citizens of Ypres rebuilt their town, including rebuilding the Cloth Hall (the medieval trading market) and the Cathedral to their former glory.

Cloth Hall, Ypres:
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St. Peter's Church, Ypres:
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Cemetery and Farm Outside Ypres:
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Passendale Church:
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“In February and March, the return began in earnest. I arrived at Dikkerbus on Wednesday, 17 May 1919. I found 200 people there, who were living where they could. Some had been able to make their house or stable habitable. First they had to work for days in order to move away the earth or wood, because shelter had been made in them. Sometimes they received a little help form the Chinese labourers or German prisoners. They used a few planks to hide holes in the walls, and the best ones to repair the roof. Most people, however, had built huts for themselves.

This is how the first inhabitants lived, in poverty, but happy all the same. They had their own homes, and weary with wandering, they were now once again where they belonged, and that was the most important thing.”
- Achiel Van Walleghem, priest, 1919

Life going on. A more fitting tribute to the lives lost I cannot imagine.

As for “The War to End All Wars,” were it only so. In the rebuilt Cloth Hall is the In Flandes’ Fields Museum, from which the majority of the quotes included in these blog entries have come. The museum ends with a counter, currently at 216. 216 is the number of war zones in which the Red Cross has operated since the end of World War I. The display also points out that not a day has passed since November 11, 1918 that some place in the world was not at war.

In Tyne Cot, on the headstone of Second Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young is a message that says "Sacrificed to the fallacy/That war can end war.”

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Sacrificed in Flanders’ fields.

Posted by GregW 01:00 Archived in Belgium Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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