Monday, 2 May 2011

In the land of The Other Half's fathers

Or Yorkshire, as it's otherwise known. Yes, dear readers, I spent part of last week in the white rose county, from which The Other Half hails. And I survived – although I do now possess a tweed flat cap to show for it – but no ferret or whippet!

Taking advantage of the double bank holiday (sounds like a happy hour special), we took an extra three days off work and then took off for Leeds.

Arriving there on Tuesday afternoon, I was offered a choice of activities to while away the rest of the time before evening (and dinner).

Now how many blokes do you think would ask their bird if she'd prefer to go shopping or visit a military museum – only for the aforementioned bird to opt for the latter? Well, this one picked a visit to the Royal Armouries – after all, given that pretty much everywhere in the UK is Clone Town these days, it seemed unlikely that Leeds' main shopping area would produce anything novel.

The Armouries, on the other hand, was fascinating. Yes, it is what it says on the tin – a lot of weapons and armour, including a suit of jousting armour that belonged to Henry VIII, and a very weird and slightly creepy horned helmet that was made between 1511 and 1514, and given to the same monarch by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

It's a strange piece. The spectacles may apparently indicate a fool – was Max taking the pee, so to speak? But the horns made me think of Andrew Graham-Dixon's fascinating Art of Germany documentary series a few months ago, in which he started by emphasising the place of the forest in the German imagination. The horns on this extraordinary item – which was made by Konrad Seusenhofer in Austria – seemed to nod to the fairy tale fears that hide in the dark amid the trees.

Moving beyond Henry VIII, though, there was much more to interest – not least seeing the real versions of iconic weaponary that we know through comic books and westerns: a Colt 45, for instance, or the impossibly flimsy Sten submachine gun MkIII. And given my own historical passions, it was particularly interesting to see a display of arms from the Franco-Prussian War.

It's an interesting museum – if a tad noisy from all the many interactive displays that are aimed primarily at children, which seem to overlap in your ear.

But with that experience behind us, it wasn't long before the hour chimed for dinner.

We were staying near the river and decided to pop just a door down from the hotel to Brasserie Forty 4. This proved an excellent choice.

My first meal in Yorkshire began with duck rillettes, a lightly spiced rhubarb chutney and crostini. Very tasty it was too – and while I could get pedantic, pointing out that rillettes really is supposed to be a dish made with pork, at least the meat was shredded as the pork should be.

Rhubarb, of course, is a very Yorkshire ingredient – the 'Rhubarb Triangle' is only a short distance away – and it works as an excellently tart accompaniment to duck, cutting through the sweetness of the meat.

That was followed by a rather nice piece of roast haddock with black pudding rösti, and then a dish of lemon posset with a pistachio tuile.

All good stuff. And washed down with a Sables and Galets Gewürztraminer 2008 terroirs d'alsace that offered a nice moment of personal satisfaction. Having suggested we go for that one, The Other Half nodded in my direction when the waiter arrived and was about to pour a drop or two for him a taste.

A really flowery aroma and taste brought to mind elderflower and I said so. It wasn't, but the waiter looked impressed (I hate to think what the general reaction to wine is, given his response to my novice's analysis) and told me that it was rose and lychee. But most important, it was very nice as well.

And so that was day one.

Wednesday saw us potter around by the river for a while before heading out to York, which is only a short train journey away.

This was one of the day trips that I'd most wanted to do, never having visited this historic city, and we started with a gentle stroll from the railway station into the centre of the city via a very nice park, with plenty of flowers and a ruined abbey (another bit of Henry VIII's legacy, no doubt).

We crammed a remarkable amount into just a few hours, starting with the famous minster itself – although I drew the line at going all the way into the church, having seen the prices.

The Jorvik Viking Centre offered another history hit – this a look at the remains of a Viking settlement under the present city. Excavations since the 1970s – which are ongoing – have provided an extraordinarily detailed picture of life in that time, allowing a recreation of a few streets, together with animatronic figures – and smells.

We're so absorbed with the idea of the Vikings as warriors that we forget that they were sailors and traders and superb craftsmen – some of the work that survived in the Yorkshire soil is astonishing and beautiful.

Glancing around the centre's little shop, I found pieces of stone engraved with runes – in one case, the rune for 'ing'. This intrigues me. My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Ingham. Now given the difficulty of finding out anything concrete about either side of my family, a few years ago I did a spot of research around that name, since it doesn't seem to be one that you hear or see every day.

It's made up of two parts. The first part is the 'Ing'. The second part – the 'ham' – means a 'hold' or 'home'. But who, then, was Ing that had a hold? I eventually came up with a German name for the goddess of fertility known in the Norse as Freya (whose name gave rise to Friday – Freya's day).

So it seems reasonable to suppose that at least part of my family was Saxon. Which seems pretty cool, really. And it horrified my parents when I told them (thus tickling me pink). But it's also why I find the whole northern European thing of particular interest. Any why I bought the stone with the rune for 'Ing' on it.

The Shambles offered some more non-Clone Town shopping amid half-timbered buildings that lean so far that you wonder how they're still actually standing. Around the corner at an old-fashioned market was where, in a spirit of ee-by-gumness, we both picked up tweed flat caps as souvenirs. It's hanging on top of my French beret right now.

There was also time to visit the infamous Clifford's Tower – it's difficult to look at this rather picturesque ruin now and think that this was the scene of the 1190 massacre of Jewish residents of York – and then take a walk along some of the enormous lengths of city wall that are still standing and in excellent condition.

And I cannot forget to mention spotting the best address I think I've ever seen: 1 1/2 Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. How splendid is that?

It's a lovely city that also offered the chance for a spot of foodie shopping – a book of recipes by chefs of restaurants in Yorkshire and a packet of tea from Holmfirth, which The Other Half intends to send out to his mother in South Africa, since that is where she hails from.

Back in Leeds, we enjoyed a couple of pints of Theakstons sitting next to the river outside a pub next to the hotel in the early evening sun, and after tidying ourselves up, headed for dinner. I'd had fish and chips for lunch in York, but it wasn't particularly good.

Now we headed for a Loch Fyne restaurant in the centre.

It wasn't bad. I had some paté, which was nothing out of the ordinary, followed by dressed crab with lime. The best part of the meal was, without doubt, a blackcurrant sorbet that absolutely zinged with natural fruitness. Later this year, I may well make some of my own: it was gorgeous.

And there we were: half way through our little trip and wearily to bed, with hopes that the excellent weather would hold at least a day longer.

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