A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Anyone for a duck foetus? Fried or boiled?

Many years ago I was given a copy of a wonderful book called “Exotic Food” by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published in 1969. Dipping in to it was a wonderful experience… how would you set about cooking armadillo, elephant tusk, rhinoceros thigh and other such delicacies?
 
 
Maybe it was because of that book that I have always made it one of my live-by-rules to try everything at least once and never to say ‘how disgusting’ or whatever, dismissing it out of hand. And so it was I tried dog meat in Hong Kong in the 1970s (Alsatian meat with Hoi Sin sauce – yummy!); baby milk-fed camel in Saudi Arabia (mega-yummy); sea slug (not so yummy), snails cooked in garlic (more, more!), and a host of other delicacies which – if you were to believe some comments on the web – you would avoid at all costs.
 
My latest revelation was a delicacy found across south-east Asia – in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines in particular.
 
When I used to work for the BBC World Service, I was always somewhat amused when asked by the Vietnamese language section if I could provide them with chicken eggs from my eight Rhode Island Reds that I used to rear in my garden in London. But not any egg, you understand. No; they wanted what they called trứng vịt lộn, wherein the eggs when laid were fertilised, then left for a couple of weeks or so before being cooked and enjoyed for their meaty taste. I never did supply their needs (not least because I didn’t have a cockerel at that time) but it always left me intrigued as to why they were so eager for what they considered to be a great delicacy. Only now have I come to understand what they were on about!
 
Here in the Philippines they call them ‘balut’ or ‘balot’ (which in Tagalog means ‘wrapped’). It is commonly eaten as streetfood. Imagine a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten straight out of its shell. The perfect balut egg is normally 17 days old, which is when the duck chick still does not have a beak, bones or feathers. Apparently in Vietnam however, they prefer them to be 19-21 days old, the point at which the bones of the chick are firm, albeit that they soften when cooked.
 
The process is quite straight forward. Fertilized duck eggs are kept warm in the sun and stored in baskets to retain that warmth. After nine days, when the eggs are held up to a light you can see the embryo forming inside. Some eight days later the balut are ready to be cooked, sold, and eaten.
 
Duck eggs that have not properly developed after nine to twelve days are sold as ‘penoy’, which are cooked in a similar way to a regular boiled egg, but have a meatier taste to them.  So that the producers and sellers know which is which, the penoy shells are marked with a cross …
 
 
You eat them like hard boiled eggs, but it’s normal to dip the pieces in a vinegar sauce or add salt too…
 

although they can also be deep fried in batter for a very satisfying appetiser.
 

I was recently in the rice growing region of central Luzon when I was asked if I would like to try some balut. I could see grins on the faces of the Filipinos around me. Would this Westerner shirk away in disgust? Alas for them, they were disappointed. ‘I would love to’ I replied.
 
Tina, my hostess, showed me what to do as friends and family stood around to enjoy the show…
 
First I was told to crack a small hole on the rounder, wider, end of the shell and then to extend the hole a little more and to sip the broth from the inside. Wow! Delicious! 
 

Next, the opening is enlarged even further and it’s now you can add your seasoning, or just plain salt depending on your preference. But I opted to try it without anything added so I could savour the real flavour.
 
 
It’s now you make a start on the duckling foetus. Some slurp the whole caboodle out of the shell and munch their way through; others use a teaspoon to lift the meaty egg out of the shell. Either way, it really is delicious, once you have put aside any squeamish notions you might have.
 
 
At the very bottom of the egg is a very tough lump of egg white. That too is eaten, but it’s a real chew to get through it, and for me was the least appetising part of the balut. A shame one ends with that bit – although I read that some people don’t bother with this bit and just throw it away.
 
Balut are also prepared in deep fried batter for a more wholesome eating experience…
 
 
As well as buying from street vendors – where they typically cost between P12 (around £0.18) and P20 – balut and penoy have moved into mainstream cuisine in the Philippines; supermarket food halls typically sell them – such as at this kiosk in SM City, Parañaque
 
 
where you can also get one-day old chicks, which are typically deep fried and eaten whole…
 
 
The chick has the added ignominy of having a wooden stick shoved up its backside so you can handle it easier … and then the only decision you have to make is whether to start on its head or its feet…
 

Because just-hatched chicks have few of their internal organs fully developed, one of the biggest parts at this age is the bile duct. For this reason the taste (once you have munched your way through its skull) can be very bitter. Most people opt to dip the body into a sugary-vinegary-oniony mix to hide the bile while still enjoying that fresh-cooked-chick taste.  Poor thing! But happy stomach!
 
What gets me is the way some of the web sites around cyberspace describe these delicacies as if they are particularly gross. For instance:
 
I think balut eggs might be the yuckiest looking food I have come across. Although we have no hestitation in eating eggs, or even young animals, balut eggs just push all of the ‘eww’ buttons in my brain.
 
Say buh-loot. Then shudder in fear.

How weird can a food be, you ask? Balut is way up there in the ionosphere of weird, far past gonzo. Balut is fear itself. Though a snack much beloved in the Philippines, balut to us is a torture of an item, a bizarrely-conceived if not abjectly demonic dish. It’s not a pretty sight.
 
Balut is the culinary heart of darkness. If you eat it, you have reservations about doing so. If you know about it, you have strong opinions regarding it.
 
Superman has his kryptonite and I have balut. It is probably one of the (if not THE) exotic foods I fear most.
 
Oh, stuff and nonsense! Gimme a balut egg anytime – why, it’s even better than Alsatian meat … with or without Hoi Sin sauce!
 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How On Earth Does BA Stay in Business?

What is the most dreadful job in the world? Surely top of the list must come the poor blighters who run the call centre for British Airways – possibly the call centre dealing with the most disgruntled customer complaints in the world.
 
You can imagine it can’t you – every time they answer the phone they just know someone is going to be shouting at them telling them what a crap airline BA is and demanding that they do something – ANYTHING FGS – just so long as they don’t get put back to the end of the queue yet again … assuming that is that they even managed to speak to a human being after having to listen to BA’s awful totally meaningless recorded platitudes for another hour and a half, or however long it took them to get through in the first place.
 
 
Let me make my position clear. I LOATHE British Airways and have loathed them for over three decades. Their rudeness, incompetence and lack of anything remotely resembling customer service makes me wonder how they can have remained in business so long. Unfortunately I had no choice when flying back from Beijing to the UK recently. And thus I made the acquaintance over the internet of one Mr Faisal Shaikh. I don’t feel angry with him – after all, he is only doing his job. But it’s what he stands for that I can’t stand.
 
Let me explain… I was booked on Etihad Airways, the “national airline of the UAE” (though many think that the Dubai-based airline Emirates better deserves this title). The flight was due to leave at just after midnight local time, but owing to a heavy storm that had worked its way up through China from the Philippines, the airport was closed down for eight hours and by the time we eventually took off it was clear we would never be able to make our connecting flight in Abu Dhabi.
 
 
Etihad acted efficiently – once we had reached Abu Dhabi (though in Beijing they were noticeable by the lack of any information they gave us.) As we deplaned, we were directed over to a customer service desk and within two minutes I was handed two new tickets – not directly to Manchester as I had originally planned, but to Heathrow and thence to Manchester via the planet’s least favourite airline.
 
Don’t worry, I was told; your luggage is already on its way and it should be with you when you reach Manchester.
 
Now, as everyone who knows me well will tell you, I’m a distrusting and cynical kind of guy. So when we finally arrived in Heathrow and managed to make my way over to the airport’s (truly ghastly) Terminal 5, the first thing I did was to go to British Airway’s “Customer Service” desk to check that my luggage would be safely forwarded to Manchester.
 
The girl behind the desk smiled at me (is this a first, I wonder? Maybe she was about to end her shift.) She checked her computer, dialed in my name and confirmed that I had two bags coming through and they would definitely be on the Manchester connection. Well, what more could one ask? My estimation of BA went up for their efficiency in being able to confirm with such accuracy what was happening to my luggage. Had they really turned over a new leaf?
 
Haha … as if….
 
On arrival at Manchester neither of my cases showed up on the baggage belt (what a surprise!). I reported to the baggage manager and was asked to fill in a long form – along with five other passengers who were similarly affected. Don’t worry, he said. No doubt they will turn up on the next flight. After all, there was only a 90 minute turn around at Heathrow.
 
I forbore to point out to him that efficient airports around the world manage turn around times much shorter than this – in particular Zurich airport which actually schedules its transit connections in under 45 minutes … and I have never found one of my bags missing the connecting flight there.
 
Sure enough after the next flight from LHR arrived – one and a half hours later – one of my bags magically appeared on the carousel, which is more than could be said for the bags of the other passengers who had waited in vain for their belongings. I felt particularly sorry for a Chinese guy who was about to start a six-month course at Lancaster University, now without any luggage whatsoever.
 
 
But of my other case there was no sign. Back to the baggage manager again. This time I was given a customer reference number and told to log in to a web site the following morning to see where the case was currently languishing.
 
BA, in common with most airlines, is a member of a World Tracer mechanism into which the numbers of lost bags the world over are entered and a computer magically matches them up with their grief-stricken owners on the other wide of the world.
 
With trembling hand and heart a-flutter I dial into the web site and enter my number. The form correctly tells me I have already got back one of my bags and, as I expected, confirms that the other has not been found.
 
 
I check the site again the following day, and the day after and the day after that; but each time the answer is the same. So I finally click on the Contact Your Airline Tab and enquire what is going on with the search for my missing bag. It is now that I make my acquaintance with Mr Shaikh, all of eight days later, when he finally replies…
 
Dear Mr Salter, he writes;
Thank you for your email dated 05 July 2013. I am concerned to read about your missing bag whilst flying with us to Manchester on 02 July 2013. I recognise how frustrating it must have been for you. Please accept my sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused.
Well, full marks to Mr Shaikh so far, though I suspect this is purely the first copy-and-paste paragraph from BA’s armoury of keep-the-cuastomer-quiet platitudes.
 
At British Airways we aim to give an outstanding service to all of our customers at every step of their journey with us.
Oh really? Since when, I ask myself.
 
The large majority of bags travel with their owners. However, we let you down on this occasion, and I am sorry.
Ah, another apology. Maybe I have been unfair to BA all these years and they really have turned over a new leaf.
 
If a bag misses a flight for any reason, we aim to load it on the next available flight so it is reunited with its owner as soon as possible. However, there are occasions when we have the wrong information and we are unable to re-flight baggage before investigations are carried out. This then results in baggage missing the next available flight.
Well, in fairness Mr Shaikh did not know I had already checked with BA’s own Information girls at Heathrow who had assured me that both bags were on their way to the Manchester flight.
 
For information on the status of your baggage, you can click on the link given below and go to ‘Baggage tracking service’. Enter your last name and file reference, which is AHL MANBA61301.
Oh no, Mr Shaikh. I have been doing that for eleven days now and am getting somewhat fed up with the same lack of information being shown.
 
Alternatively, you can call our baggage tracing helpline on 0844 493 0785. Thank you again for taking the time to bring this matter to our attention. We will do everything we can to reunite you with your belongings as swiftly as possible.
Best regards, Faisal Shaikh, British Airways Customer Relations
 
I try ringing the number given. And try… and try…. But give up over an hour later when I tire of listening to BA’s obnoxious messages telling me that I am their number one priority and they are there to help me.
 
I write to BA’s “Customer Service” again asking WTF is going on? Once again, Faisal Shaikh reaches for his copy-and-paste list of platitudes and fires off another missive to me.
 
Dear Mr Salter - Thank you for coming back to us. I am concerned that you have still not received your luggage. I completely understand how frustrating it must have been for you. Please accept my sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused.
Wow this guy is so understanding. If only they were all like this at BA.
 
As mentioned earlier, for information on the status of your baggage, you can click on the link given below and go to 'Baggage tracking service'. Enter your last name and file reference, which is AHL MANBA61301. Alternatively, you can call our baggage tracing helpline on 0844 493 0785.
But I have already tried doing that which is why I wrote to you again!
 
I hope you will find this helpful. Best regards, Faisal Shaikh, British Airways Customer Relations
Actually, I’m afraid I find this anything but helpful and my patience is wearing very thin!
 
I try the 0844 number again ... and this time after a mere 28 minute wait I find myself talking to a real person. I give my customer service reference number and wait while said person looks up his electronic file.
 
So, Mr Salter, you flew from Abu Dhabi to Manchester via Heathrow, But our investigations tell us the bag is not in Abu Dhabi, so our search continues at Heathrow, he tells me helpfully. Except, I tell him, I started my journey in Beijing.
 
Oh, he answers in reply. Did you? Well, unfortunately as a month has now passed since your bag went missing it is too late to check out with Beijing if they have found the bag.
 
I am outraged. So all this time, bloody British bloody Airways hasn’t even checked with my point of departure and now they tell me it is too late!
 
I go to their compensation page and start to fill out the ridiculously long form I am presented with. I have to fill in the items I think are in the bag. Does anyone remember exactly what went into a bag they packed five weeks ago? Was it ten, or twelve or maybe thirteen shirts I packed? Was it three pairs of jeans or four? What about the small items that I put in there which I am blowed if I can remember? And what about a computer hard drive I placed in there – one of 12 that I have?
 
Anyway, I write down what I remember and send in a claim for £570. Quite reasonable in the circumstances I reckon, given that most of the clothes listed were practically brand new. But once again BA shows its true colours when Faisal Shaikh writes his next copy-and-paste missive…
 
Dear Mr Salter - Thank you coming back to us. I am sorry to read about your missing bag. I would like to assure you that the large majority of baggage that travels with us does not get mishandled.
Hang on, we’re surely past this stage aren’t we?
 
At British Airways we aim to give an outstanding service at every step of the journey (I think we have already covered that – and I still don’t believe you!) and we do our very best to ensure your baggage is handled with care. However, all the checked-in baggage has to go through a complex process on its way to and from the aircraft. So unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint what happened.
With this in mind we advise our customers to place any fragile or valuable items in their hand baggage including laptops, personal electronic devices, share certificates, bonds, business documents, passports and other identification documents. Unfortunately this means we do not accept liability for the hard drive you have lost and I am sorry for any disappointment this may cause. It is standard practice for customers to claim directly on their travel insurance policy when items are missing from their checked baggage.
 
So now we get to the heart of the matter. BA are trying to slither out of their responsibility (which you will note Mr Shaikh has already acknowledged) by saying that because they “advise” against packing certain items they will not cover their loss. Worse, they are “assuming” their customers take out travel insurance so that they don’t have to cover the loss themselves.
 
Apart from the fact that I never actually booked on this miserable airline, I look up their standard terms – and there it is in black and white (well, actually, blue and white) … “In line with other airlines we cannot accept claims for loss to items in checked baggage which are … of special value.”
 
Or, to put it another way, BA reserves the right to decide what is of special value or not. Presumably if I had been carrying a suit worth, say, £200, they would have covered this. But because I chose to pack a hard drive worth a quarter of that value they won’t. Where is their logic?
 
 
So that I can deal quickly with your claim for other missing items, please send me the receipt, card slip, insurance valuation, quotation or any other document to support the value of your missing property at the address mentioned below. Please mark our Customer Relations reference number on the letter.
Oh FGS another weasel scam. How many people do you know who keep all their receipts of clothes etc bought? I reply once more:
 
“Frankly I am disgusted by the way British Airways not only obviates itself from any responsibility for losing baggage, but also from then also making up its own rules for compensating its passengers so as to avoid paying proper compensation! Unsurprisingly I have no receipts for the items that were in my luggage. How many of your passengers after all keep all their receipts for items bought?”
But this cuts no ice with British Airways. According to them, it is surely our beholden duty to receipt everything we ever put into our luggage, otherwise…
 
In settling your claim we have taken into account the depreciation of your missing items. As you do not have any receipts, we have deducted 50% from the cost of the items listed.
Thank you again for contacting us and for giving me an opportunity to look at your case again. Your feedback is invaluable, without which we would not be able to address such issues. I hope our decision will not deter you from flying with us in the future.
Best regards, Faisal Shaikh, British Airways Customer Relations
 
Amazing! Does BA really think I will ever set foot in one of their miserable planes ever again? Am I alone? Am I a voice in the wilderness? It appears not, if a deluge of comments lifted from the web are anything to go by…
 
• Next time I need to travel business I will probably be asking my client specifically not to book me on a BA flight.
• You will not receive any responses from BA until you start sending them 20 emails/day. I will certainly not fly BA ever again in my lifetime!
• I have to submit an essay to do with the evaluation of British Airways and their customer care policies; something that has been extremely fun to do as i get to point out all the things they do wrong! You are probably the millionth person to tell me of just how awful the airline really is
• I have never come across a company that was so useless at dealing with complaints, what is funny is they told me they were unable to reply as they currently had 95,000 complaints, well that’s not a surprise BA your crap and no wonder your staff go on strike.
• When a person in a service department engages a customer, the goal should be to solve the problem, not recite meaningless phrases. This was our first trip aboard British Air and will no doubt be our last.
• A cautionary tale and note of assistance to all those who have suffered the misfortune of travelling with British Airways and experiencing their unique brand of so-called Customer Service: BA are an unmitigated disgrace when it comes to customer service and they totally ruined our wedding and honeymoon travel.
• We will never travel BA Again we will spend our money on a different airline that cares for their passengers and are polite and friendly towards us .
 
I think, Mr Shaikh, my point has been made. And yes, I know I should be feeling sorry for you and the awful job you are having to do… but forgive me. The fact is I don’t!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Did Black Adder really go to Hogwarts?

The last time I went to Alnwick was way back in ancient history. So when my son and his GF suggest we go out for the day all the way up to Northumberland to visit this historic town, I find myself jumping at the idea. Why ever not FGS?
 
 
It’s a pretty hefty drive from Ilkley in Yorkshire, where I am staying, but luckily Drystan is doing the driving while I sit back in style in the back of his Megane, chauffeured up the A1 past the Angel of the North – which is only visible from afar nowadays since this iconic sculpture is mostly surrounded by trees that are many times larger than when it was first unveiled many years back.
 
The Angel, near Gateshead, was designed by Antony Gormley – a 20 metres tall, 200 tonne steel sculpture with wings measuring 54 metres across. Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £1 million. It was finished on 16 February 1998 and has aroused controversy ever since. According to Wikipedia, the sculpture is known locally as the 'Gateshead Flasher'.
 
 
Alnwick is one of those towns that was built within a city wall with various portals dotted around, such as this one at Bondgate.
 
 
The first thing that most visitors to the town come across is one of the most iconic book shops in the whole of England. Barter Books is a second-hand bookshop which attracts over 200,000 visitors a year and is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe.
 
You find it in the Victorian railway station, which was opened in 1887 and was in use until the closure of the Alnwick branch line in 1968 by the infamous Dr Beeching. Barter Books was opened in 1991. Their name is a good indication of their modus operandi – customers can bring in old books and exchange them for credit against future purchases, though, of course, standard cash purchases are also available.
 
 
Actually it’s a lovely, fascinating building inside, even if it doesn’t immediately strike the eye from the outside. The railway station was designed by William Bell in 1887 and at 32,000 sq. ft, was designed to make an impression, since Alnwick is the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland and in the 19th century they wanted to impress visiting royalty.
 
There’s a model railway running over your head as you wander along the assorted book shelves which have been separated into subject areas. There are three large murals, a café located in the old station buffet and numerous restored station features.
 
Book turnover, the owners proudly boast, is around 3,000 per week.
 
 
Around the main room you find over forty glass cases containing some of the more interesting antiquarian books, such as this Babar book …
 
 
and that’s one of the real pleasures for me – I’m afraid I have enough grey hairs to actually remember when these books were commonplace. There’s even a couple of first edition Narnia books locked up for safe keeping that I also have sitting on my book shelf back in Ilkley.
 
One of the best murals is of famous English language authors, painted by a local artist, Peter Dodd. At 38' x 16' it depicts some forty life-size writers from 1800 onwards, such as Austen, Hemingway, Keats, Stoppard and Orwell. Apparently it took two years to create, and it draws the requisite number of oohs and ahhhs from most visitors passing through the shop.
 
 
But we haven’t come to Alnwick just to visit the bookshop, beguiling though it undoubtedly is.
 
No, what most people come for are the gardens and castle. Now, I was last here over a decade ago and in those days there were grand plans to resurrect the old derelict gardens which had been lying unloved for so long. But today that dream has come true, thanks to the tenacity of the present Duchess of Northumberland.
 
 
The gardens had a long history under the Dukes of Northumberland, but fell into disrepair. The first garden was laid down in 1750 by the first Duke, who employed Capability Brown to landscape the parkland adjoining his castle.
 
The third Duke was a plant collector who brought seeds from all over the world, and he even raised pineapples in hothouses. In the middle of the 19th century, the fourth Duke created an Italianate garden featuring a large conservatory, and by the start of the next century, the gardens featured yew topiary, avenues of limes and large swathes of flowers.
 
But during World War II’s ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign, it was all turned over for food production. It was closed as a working garden in 1950 and with the ensuing austerity of that decade, the garden rapidly fell into disrepair.
 
Half a century was to pass before the present Duchess – Jane Percy – started the Garden’s resurrection in 1997. She brought in Belgian designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz to ensure that each individual garden within the overall concept was cutting edge in terms of both design and technology used.
 
As you enter, the first thing you are struck by is the Grand Cascade which is the epicentre of the Garden. It reminds me of a mini-Chatsworth, which must surely be where some of the inspiration for it originated. Running north to south it forms a dramatic centrepiece, immediately catching the eye and drawing one in.
 
 
It’s probably true to say that this is the most ambitious new garden created in the United Kingdom since the Second World War, with a reported total development cost of £42 million. Its first phase of development, which opened in October 2001, involved the creation of the cascade and initial planting of the gardens; and it was in this condition that I first saw it.
 
 
The Cascade is gravity fed – just like in Chatsworth – and every so often as the sustaining tanks fill up, a display of fountains comes into play, soaking the kids who play chicken or Russian roulette running between the on-and-off water shoots.
 
 
As we pass through the Venetian gates at the top of the Grand Cascade we reach the Ornamental Garden which really is a joy to the eye. At its centre is a little pool that runs into the rills that run throughout the Garden. Beds of roses and delphiniums are edged in box, while cut flower species grow with annuals and bulbs alongside small fruit varieties.
 
 
The deep blue of the delphiniums is beautifully set off by the sharp starkness of the thistles…
 
 
… but for me the best of all are the huge swathes of roses in all varieties and colours.
 
 
These pictures just can’t do them justice.
 
 
and they are simply crying out for the coming of smellavision to the internet, whenever that will be…
 
 
One of the disappointments for me is the maze, which admittedly is beautifully crafted from bamboo – now so thick you simply cannot see through the walls adjoining the pathways. I make two turns and already find myself in the centre. Has it been designed for three year olds? Or am I just super-intelligent, I ask myself. (Answers on a postcard…etc etc!)
 
 
There are a couple of dovecots in the Ornamental Garden which look at first as if they are standing there all forlorn and alone; but closer inspection reveals some white birds who are waking up and eventually strut their way out onto the ledges.
 
 
Emerging from this area, though, you soon come across covered walkways. I remember when they were just iron skeletons. But now they have taken on a life all of their own.
 
 
Water is a central feature of the gardens and there is a variety of fountains and water features, such as this inside-out fountain…
 
 
I’m sure there must be a special name for this kind of fountain which is really a dribble rather than a fountain. But somehow I don’t think ‘dribbler’ would be an appropriate name!
 
 
Here’s another dribbler which the daring can try to walk through without getting soaked…
 
 
And this gravity fed fountain only erupts every 15 minutes or so, with the kids running in and out of it daring the gods to get them wet before they are finally trapped inside. A nearby board explains that a pool on high ground overlooking the Serpent Garden overflows to fill up the sculpture through underground pipework. The water rises in the transparent tubes until it is level with the surface of the nearby pool and then a pneumatically powered valve below ground opens to release the hydrostatically charged water into a circular manifold that feeds ninety jets. When the jets have all but died, the valve closes allowing the system to fill up again and the cycle to continue.
 
 
This vortex sculpture is meant to represent vortices in nature, such as tornadoes and black holes, wherein the water creates a vortex as the forces of water pressure, air pressure and gravity make it move into a downward spiral.
 
 
There are other things to see as well, such as a poison garden, opened in 2005, containing plants such as cannabis and opium poppy as well as some more dangerous substances.
 
The year before, one of the largest treehouses in the world was opened containing cafés and restaurants. It covers a whopping 6,000 sq ft – that’s 560 sq m to you and me!
 
 
There’s also a peach tree garden which bursts into life twice a year with blossom and ground tulips; but today it is pretty underwhelming and we walk straight through it.
 
 
Below is a little lake which again is somewhat underwhelming, save for a Chinese-style duck house!
 
 
Another favourite place is the pavilion and visitor centre, opened in May 2006 with its barrel-vaulted gridshell roof. It can hold up to 1,000 people and features cream teas – oh yummy – once you have called their bluff over their advertised gluten free offerings. But the gluten-loaded scones are worth gluttonising over …
 
 
Mind you, the café makes up for this by being incredibly helpful when it comes to advising you that butter actually contains milk.
No!
Yeeesssss!
 
 
Well satiated, we soon get a clue as to our next port of call…
 
 
Unfortunately my Parseltongue is a little rusty these days, but it’s not difficult to find the right direction to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, alias Alnwick Castle.
 
 
Alnwick Castle is the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, and was built following the Norman conquest. Nowadays it receives over 800,000 visitors per year, helped in no small measure by fans of Harry Potter hoping to see the only Quidditch pitch in England. Alas, they are invariably disappointed.
 
Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick, erected the first parts of the castle in about 1096, in order to protect England's northern border against the Scottish invaders. It was first mentioned in 1136 when it was captured by King David I of Scotland. It was besieged in 1172 and again in 1174 by William the Lion, King of Scotland who was eventually captured outside the walls during the Battle of Alnwick.
 
Through his military accomplishments, Henry Percy, aka 1st Baron Percy (1273–1314), enhanced his family's status in northern England and in 1309 he purchased the barony of Alnwick. It has been owned by the Percy family, the Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland ever since.
 
Over the next couple of centuries, the building work at Alnwick Castle balanced military requirements with the family's residential needs and set the template for castle renovations in the 14th century in northern England. The 6th Earl of Northumberland carried out renovations in the 16th century, and in the second half of the 18th century Robert Adam carried out many alterations.
 
Alnwick is distinguished as one of the earliest castles in England to be built without a square keep. It consists of two main rings of buildings: the inner ring is set around a small courtyard and contains the principal rooms. As the central block was not large enough to contain all the accommodations required in later centuries, a large range of buildings was constructed along the south wall of the bailey. These two main areas of accommodation are connected by a link building. There are towers at regular intervals along the walls of the outer bailey.
 
 
The current Duke and his family live in the castle, but they only occupy part of it. After Windsor Castle, it is the second largest inhabited castle in England. Since the Second World War, parts of the castle have been used by various educational establishments: firstly, by the Newcastle Church High School for Girls then, from 1945 to 1975, as a teacher training college and, since 1981, by St. Cloud State University of Minnesota as a branch campus forming part of their International Study Programme.
 
And, of course, Hogwarts – which magically appeared in 2001 and lasted for ten years. You might remember these carved figures on the battlements in some of the Harry Potter films. They date back to the 14th century when there were several castles in northern England similarly decorated.
 
 
Alnwick has been used as the backdrop for numerous other films and TV series too. Who can forget Becket, made in 1964 (or to put it another way, who can remember Becket, made in 1964)? Or Mary, Queen of Scots in 1971. The 1998 version of Elizabeth was also filmed here as was the original Black Adder in 1983, starring Rowan Atkinson…
 
 
Oh, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was also filmed here in 1991.
 
 
But the marketing department knows when they are on to a winner, and it is Harry Potter’s legacy that they promote for all it is worth. Come fly with us at Alnwick Castle! the posters proclaim. Costumed witches and wizards especially welcome!
 
We are encouraged to ‘Join our resident wizarding professors and take part in one of our famous broomstick training sessions, on the very spot where Harry had his first flying lesson in the film production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Master your broomstick and don't forget to take a picture of your take-off to amaze your friends!’
 
 
But if you are already suffering from Harry-Potter-fatigue, don’t think you can escape some of the other must-do-activities on offer:

Only the most courageous and worthy should dare to enter Dragon Quest.
Put your knightly courage to the test when you enter the darkness of the dragon’s lair.
Solve riddles and face a series of challenges before making safe passage through the hall of mirrors.
Will you stand your ground or quake with fear when you come face-to-face with Northumberland’s most fearsome dragon?
 
For those slightly older than these targeted visitors, you can also enjoy special exhibitions housed in three of the castle's perimeter towers. The Postern Tower, as well as featuring an exhibition on the Dukes of Northumberland and their interest in archaeology, includes frescoes from Pompeii, relics from Ancient Egypt and Romano-British objects. Constable's Tower houses military displays like the Percy Tenantry Volunteers exhibition, local, volunteer soldiers raised to repel Napoleon's planned invasion in the period 1798–1814. The Abbot's Tower houses the Regimental Museum of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
 
One notice has me puzzled though. What, I ask myself, is the use of having a gate if it must always be kept closed? Why not just brick it up instead?
 
 
But I guess it is really no use puzzling over this conundrum; for if I learn nothing else from today’s outing it is that we should all stop worrying…
 
 
…though perhaps worryingly still, it is that we are offered no advice on how to stop worrying about the remaining 10 per cent of our worries. Hmmmm…..