Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Fragments of France

A naïve American tourist reviewing the place on TripAdvisor might put it something like this: "The building is completely unsuitable to house a restaurant – we ate with two feet of water covering the floor, the tables and benches sloped in all directions, there was graffiti all over the walls, and – worst of all –  no rest rooms."

Well, it is curious how the uutterly prosaic can be repackaged as super-romantic. We'd taken a boat trip in the huge marine nature park of the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin, in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. "Vous allez manger, les pieds dans l'eau," said Barbara, who sold us the trip. "Les pieds dans l'eau" is a bit of sales cliché when you are looking for a suitable apartment to rent in this archipelago, which is politically, if hardly geographically, part of France. It is not supposed to be a literal truth.

Déjeuner sur l'eau!

But in this ramshackle cabin, clinging to a sand bank just below the water's surface, you really do have your feet in the water as you eat. And it is great fun! Our captain, Arnaud, originally from Marseille, had already demonstrated just how fast it is possible to drive a 12-seater twin-engine boat through choppy seas, and now he was proving he was equally adept at barbecuing chicken and fish for a party that included, beside ourselves, eight Club Med guests from Nice and couple from the Champagne region.

Yes, Guadeloupe, being "part of France", inevitably attracts most of its sun-seeking guests from the Metropole. But anyone who has tried to holiday in France "out of season" (be it after August almost anywhere outside Paris, or during the appealing shoulder months in the Alps after the skiers have gone home) will testify that the French are very much creatures of habit when it comes to les vacances.

With an office these days comprising little more than a good Internet connection, we decided to take the rare opportunity to live in the sun for a month and, having recently visited Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, chose to sample the French version of the Caribbean, in the weeks running up to la grande arrivée of the hordes from France in mid-December.

 Guadeloupe is big enough to offer deserted beaches for those who look!

Besides the obvious allure of swapping single-figure temperatures for 28C every day, I have a particular fascination with these fragments of France scattered across all the world's oceans, bar the Arctic. It is a given that places like Guadeloupe enjoy both visible and less visible subsidy from the state. French citizens in the archipelago enjoy among the best living standards in the Caribbean, including all the attributes of the motherland's welfare system.

But this is the 21st century and most other major powers divested themselves of most of the remnants of their colonial past decades ago. France clings tenaciously to hers and there is little sign of that changing any time soon. Indeed, the Republic's answer to territorial claims by the Comoros islands, off Madagascar, over the French islands of Mayotte, was to integrate the latter wholly into France and the EU, of which it is now an "outermost region". It's as though France enjoys watching the irritation caused by these far-off fragments, which are like annoying splinters lodged in the flesh of their larger neighbours. France recently reopened a territorial dispute with Canada over the waters around St Pierre et Miquelon, tiny islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, which may contain reserves of oil and gas.

But back to Guadeloupe: we were chatting with Ève, another Niçoise, who had moved to Guadeloupe quite recently to join a friend in expanding his business servicing holiday apartments and villas. She loves Guadeloupe and speaks of buying a plot and building a house. Her brother (curiously, also called Arnaud) is with her on holiday and senses that something is about to take off in Guadeloupe. He compares the archipelago (home to more than 400,000 people) favourably with nearby Martinique,which he finds still stuck in a bit of a colonial rut and far less cosmopolitan than Guadeloupe. Of Ivorian and French parentage, he felt uncomfortable in the more polarised community of Martinique.
Market in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe

And while he feels the time is not yet right to transfer his photographic business from France, that day might yet come. Driving change, he says, is the extension of the traditional holiday peaks driven by French custom and habit into a longer season. This is thanks not just to more charter flights from across the EU, but also to the arrival of low-cost carrier, Norwegian, which not only links Guadeloupe several times a week to major east coast US cities but, by virtue of its new transatlantic services, to Europe, including the UK.

Indeed, during our time here thus far, Americans have been the most frequently encountered non-French visitors, followed at a distance by Germans.

I'd like to think that Arnaud could be right about good times being just around the corner: Guadeloupe may be better off than its Caribbean neighbours, but the look and feel of the place suggest that wealth is less equitably distributed than in the Metropole. And while Guadeloupean produce enjoys tariff-free access to the EU, the converse is also true and evidenced by the availability of everything from butter from Brittany to Swedish matches in the shops. Government policy is aimed at encouraging local entrepreneurship, but it is a slow process and people like Ève and her business partner suggest it is not necessarily islanders who will seize the openings that may arise from a growing economy.

For me the big question is whether a prosperous Guadeloupe can act as a catalyst for improvement across the wider Caribbean region, or if being tied to the apron strings in this way merely stifles initiative and ultimately creates greater dependence.

We get chatting a lady serving in one of Guadeloupe's wonderful beach bars one evening: her daughter is studying tourism and languages at university in Bristol – in a pre-Brexit world (and, just for the record, I increasingly doubt that the insanity of Brexit will ever come to pass) she has the same right to study and live in the UK as someone from Paris or Nice. it is also worth remembering that the converse applies to young people in the UK seeking a bit of life experience in the sun. My advice would be to make the most of the opportunity now.

Of course no blog about Guadeloupe would be complete without reference to Meutres au Paradis, or Death in Paradise as it appears, undubbed, in the UK. Indeed it was the lady in the bar who got talking about it, when we mentioned we would be spending a week in Deshaies, the prime shooting location for the popular who-dunnit. The show airs for a sixth series next year after filming again in 2016 and is major driver of new tourism. I bought  a local newspaper on arrival here. The headline was about an 83-year-old man found tied and garroted in his flat a few miles from our own. Perhaps not the most welcome example of life imitating fiction…

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Hudson miracle? Thank the system!

What happened on New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009, was not a miracle, proclaimed Jeff Skiles.

As First Officer on US Airways flight 1549, which ditched in the river a little over five minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport, he should know.

That whole short but dramatic episode is, of course, now the subject Clint Eastwood’s feature length film, Sully, after the Captain (Tom Hanks) on the flight that was quickly dubbed the Miracle on the Hudson, when all 155 passengers and crew survived.

Skiles was speaking at the annual conference of the EuropeanRegions Airline Association, in Madrid, this morning – three years almost to the day since Doreen Walsh, senior flight attendant on the Airbus A320, delivered an electrifying speech to delegates at that year’s conference, in Salzburg.

The point that Skiles was making was that, while Hollywood of course likes its heroes, the survival of all on board the engine-less aircraft was down less to heroic individual action and more to the sea change in the airline industry’s approach to safety that has taken place over the past 20 or so years.

'No more heroes' – Jeff Skiles at Madrid conference today and flashback to the Airbus soon after ditching

To recap, flight 1549 was just two minutes old when the Airbus ran into a large flock of Canada geese, fatally ingesting two of the hefty birds into the very core of each of its engines.  Three and half minutes later, with Capt Chesley Sullenberger at the controls, it ditched in the unusually tranquil and boat-free waters of the Hudson.

As Skiles so eloquently put it in Madrid this morning: “It’s taken me over five times as long just to tell you about it.”

He then went on to sing the praises of the industry’s collective response to safety – a response, he said, that was responsible for the survival of 155 people that day. A response in which many different individuals had a critical role. He and Sully, for sure, but also the three cabin crew, all the passengers (none of whom acted irresponsibly during the crisis), air traffic control, the river ferry crews, the police helicopter rescue team, the operations and training teams at US Airways. The list goes on.

“We learn from the collective experience of the group,” he said. But it wasn’t always that way. “Twenty-five years ago we had a safety management system based on the individual – the pilot, the captain. Now we have a safety management system based on the organisation, constantly identifying threats and how to deal with them.”

As a consequence, an airline that had suffered five fatal accidents in as many years, has recorded no such incidents in the subsequent 15 years.

It is the advent of Crew Resource Management training – developing cooperation and the sharing of workload among all members of the on-board team – that has delivered the remarkable standards of safety that we recognise as the norm across all levels of aviation today. It is thanks to the CRM approach that travelling by air remains today the safest way of getting from A to B.

Prior to CRM, said Skiles, Sully would not have been able quickly to take control of the aircraft and delegate a litany of checklist-based tasks to Skiles. He would have wilted under the sheer weight of tasks facing him, while his first officer sat in the right-hand seat twiddling his thumbs.

Curiously, before I had seen the conference agenda and while sitting on my easyJet flight out to Madrid, I read the most detailed report I have seen on the tragic fate of Air France flight 447, which stalled at altitude and crashed into the South Atlantic later in 2009, killing all 228 on board.

In theory, this terrible crash is precisely the kind of accident that CRM should render close to impossible.

The report, in the Guardian, was looking at the flaw in the presumption that, in an increasingly automated age, humans are there to take over when it all gets too much for the computers that run systems. Rather, it suggested, computers might better take over operations when things get too much for finitely resourced humans.

Like all accidents, flight 447’s demise came about because of an extraordinary coincidence of many different events, none of which of its own should have been sufficient to bring down the aircraft. Critically, of three men who should have been sitting at the front of the aircraft at the time, the captain was probably unfit to fly through lack of sleep and was not at the controls. Of the other two, one was young and inexperienced and the other had few recent flying hours, having recently moved to a management position.

I asked Skiles for his views as to how such a tragedy might still happen in these days of CRM. To paraphrase his response, the issue is that pilots may have learned to operate the computerised flying machine, but they haven’t necessarily learned to fly.

Partly as a consequence of this, pilots are now encouraged to disconnect the autopilot during flight and, yes, actually fly the plane themselves. “I think it’s very beneficial in maintaining my flying skills,” said Skiles.

In the Air France context, the young pilot at the controls – had he had a better understanding of what was keeping the aircraft in the air (or not) – might not have pulled back on the control stick and caused the aircraft to stall. And the team, collectively, might have more quickly worked out what was actually happening to their aircraft. And 228 people might have, indeed should have, survived.

The Air France incident remains very much the exception rather than the rule, and the truth of everything Skiles said about safety management systems and CRM is borne out by the airline industry’s exceptional safety record.

That is as true among the smaller companies represented by the ERAA as it is among the so-called legacy carriers and other large airlines. And that exceptional record is achieved despite the near-constant commercial uncertainties of an industry in which return on capital deployed is at best marginal.

In this regard, the ERAA, under the stewardship of the immensely capable Simon McNamara, has been able to report flickering lights of hope on the horizon for an industry that has been buffeted by the world’s general economic woes in recent years – and which currently faces new uncertainties posed by Brexit (a Europe-wide issue) and unpredictable dollar-based fuel prices.

McNamara’s good news is that the association’s 52 member airlines are operating eight per cent more routes this year than last, have increased their overall capacity by five per cent, and have new aircraft on order equivalent to nearly ten per cent of their total fleet.

It’s an industry that stands very much on its own feet, without subsidy. To have also achieved such immense strides in safety is a further endorsement of its continued resilience.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Jonathan's philanthropy shines a light fantastic on Bishop Auckland

Something strange and unexpected has been happening on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland this summer.

For each of 14 late evenings, ending in mid-September, some 8,000 people have been descending on the hitherto unremarkable County Durham town to witness a spectacle, the like of which does not exist this side of the Vendée, in western France.

It was France, of course, that pioneered the son et lumière concept of telling a historic story against the illuminated backdrop of a historic building. The huge Puy du Fou medieval theme park, in the Vendée, is the venue for night-time spectaculars that are a dramatic, animated elaboration of the original humble son et lumière concept.

Not before time has this crepuscular drama crossed the Channel, and the result is mightily impressive, drawing as it does on expertise built up over the years in the Vendée. The result is Kynren: an epic tale of England. The multi-million pound Kynren evokes the Anglo-Saxon word, cynren, which loosely translates as “our people”.

I was unsure quite what to expect at Bishop Auckland and was probably rather more bowled over by it all than I had anticipated. It begins with the process of actually getting to the specially-created 8,000-seat venue on the edge of town – 8,000 people means, after all, a lot of cars and special buses! So the sense of occasion is already building in the early evening for a show that will only begin as the sun waves goodbye, which is a lot later in northern England in mid-summer than it ever is in France!

So the logistics should be challenging, but the organisation is such that it all seems remarkably effortless. Very friendly guides eased our passage down the avenue towards the grandstand, where a wide array of food and drink options generated excited chatter. Queuing was minimal, and that goes for the loos too, whose numbers seemed to have been carefully planned to match demand.

The show itself takes place before a wide “stage”, which accommodates a fantastic variety of “props”. Well, props isn’t a word to really do it all justice, because by props I mean elaborate backdrops that rise from invisible vents in the ground, or from the lake that extends most of the width of the set.

The spectacle begins as night falls, with the illuminated chapel of Bishop’s Palace atop the hill over the river providing the perfect atmospheric backdrop, complemented by the appearance of Saturn and Mercury in the south-west, ahead of the stars.

The “epic tale” is portrayed through person of a young lad who kicks a football through the widow of the Bishop’s residence and then slips through a portal to an earlier age.

He encounters Roman soldiers, Vikings, and Normans, with acts of derring-do en route to the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. All is told with on eye on the region’s particular local history. The secret, in watching, is not to get too caught up in a literal appraisal of the show as a history lesson, but rather to enjoy every moment of the visual spectacles. Some of them are, quite simply, stunning and if you never thought it would be possible to assemble a competent cast of more than 1,000 volunteers, then think again! These are drawn from across County Durham, but such is the extent to which Kynren has captured the public imagination, that some travel from as far afield as Kent.

For all the grandeur of the battlefield scenes, the Roman army, chariots et al, among my personal favourite moments were with the sheep stampeding in remarkably well-trained fashion across the length of the set, and a parade of similarly well behaved geese.

With the arrival of autumn comes the conclusion of a first and hugely successful summer of spectacles – organisers Eleven Arches promise further innovations and the possibility of a longer series of shows next summer, details of which will be announced on December 1.

Kynren is the biggest show to happen in England since the Olympic opening ceremony and it happens thanks to the largesse of philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who is effectively regenerating Bishop Auckland and reinventing it as a centre for Christian heritage from his own (quite deep) pockets. I'm looking forward to interviewing Jonthan i nthe coming weeks and getting astronger insight into what makes him tick.

The impact of good works, however, is already evident, as the town – set to become a centre for appreciation and study of the role of Spanish art in religious history – already bears a more confident air, and boasts newly refurbished pubs and small hotels. With visitors reportedly arriving from China and the USA it will need them!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

A room with a view off the beaten track

“No, we don’t get much passing trade!” agreed Lauren, laughing as she stepped out to meet us when we finally rolled up outside Ardanaseig Hotel.
The sat nav had given up a mile or two previously, seemingly shrugging its shoulders and inviting us to take a compass and hike the last bit through the forest. I swear I heard its monotone drone “You’re on your own now, guys” as its little red arrow tracked forlornly across a featureless white map. If there is a more remote hotel in the whole of mainland Scotland I have yet to hear of it.
Before the sat nav finally abandoned us, it had taken us round in a near 20-mile circle. We’d driven west along the north shore of a long narrow arm of Loch Awe, technically the River Awe, dammed at the Pass of Brander. On its southern side, to our left, menacing screes tumbled sheer into the water while, to the north, rose the brooding bulk of the “hollow mountain”, Ben Cruachan – a mere 31st on the list of Munros (Scottish peaks over 3,000ft), yet taller than either Scafell Pike or Snowdon.
Some miles on we had turned south before doubling back for ten miles behind the mountains, on a single-track road, which had eventually brought us to the long cul-de-sac leading only to Ardanaseig.
And now, here we finally were, looking up at this early example of William Burn’s romantic Scottish Baronial architecture (fitting as we had just left Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, which is probably the most celebrated such Gothic extravagance).
Location is all, and we found the hotel sitting comfortably in a natural bowl in the forest, commanding wide views across the still waters of the loch. The vista was, ahem, awesome.
For once the hyperbole about a hotel (most of it, to be fair, written by people other than the hotel’s owner) looked to be, if anything, understated. We quickly began to appreciate just why the judges had been so impressed in two consecutive years. Getting the atmosphere right in a country house hotel is not necessarily all that easy – I recall a sniffy such venue in the Lake District once, at which jacket and tie at dinner was a requirement and I had brought neither. In the Lake District, land of the great outdoors, for goodness’ sake. And your country house guest list may range from young couples chasing romance to old chaps chasing a quiet day’s fishing, or shooting, so you’ve the challenge of keeping all these disparate interests happy.
The staff at Ardanaiseig, some of them local, despite the apparent lack of population nearby, seemed to strike just the right balance: not overly formal, but equally, respectful and suitably indulgent.
We quickly learned that, in addition to the guests – and a surprisingly large number were to join us at dinner having presumably similarly coaxed their sat navs to deliver them here – the hotel was lodging a very large personality. I refer to that of its owner of some 30 years, Bennie Gray. He’s loosely described in various places as an antique dealer, but really that doesn’t begin to do justice to the man. In fact he’s probably best known as the creator of Birmingham’s Custard Factory, where 500-plus artists enjoy the space to develop their creative industry in the sprawling Digbeth complex that was once where Bird’s custard was made. Prior to that, in the 70s, he brought creative entrepreneurs together under one roof at Gray’s Antiques, in London.
Bennie seemed to be everywhere: his décor was at once exuberant and yet classy. Our own room – whose window perfectly framed an idyllic island-studded view across the loch – was very red; the one next door, very green. The dining room was similarly confident, with pride of place on its walls belonging to a rather unusual picture.
Merely the largest and grandest of a collection that once hung on the walls of London night club, Tokyo Joe's, Bennie stumbled across them 30 years after that venue went bust. He believes it was originally a group portrait of councillors from Lancashire in the 1840s. Their faces, however, have been overpainted to represent, on the left, rock stars including Mick Jagger, Brian Ferry and George Harrsion. And to the right of the table, men of politics, including James Goldsmith.
The thread connecting his initiatives, says Bennie, is: "We're just trying to make spaces people enjoy being in – the trick with all of these things is to create that sense of place that makes you reluctant to walk away.”
Although someone on TripAdvisor was a bit sniffy about the dado rails being the same colour as the walls, it would be a mistake to think for one moment that Bennie is not driven by high artistic ideals and, throughout the hotel, there are signs of its gentle ongoing restoration, such as a pair of marble columns in the drawing room that had been painted over with what Bennie refers to as a thick layer of "brown gunge". Also revealed a few years ago was a fine 300-year-old chimney breast, while – in the grounds – you’re apt to bump unexpectedly into statues and other artworks, often emerging, moss-covered, from their environment.
So back to all those dinner guests I mentioned. One of the biggest challenges running a hotel kitchen in a hotel of this size, where guest numbers can fluctuate with the availability of fresh produce, is to deliver a fine dining experience from finite kitchen resources. We felt that chef Colin Cairns got the balance just about right in ensuring the menu varied enough each evening to satisfy longer staying guests. His locally sourced seafood and venison ticked all the right boxes, as did an imaginative wine list and a good collection of single malts and spirits, including the small-batch Highland gin, Caorunn.
Not enough, though, for a strange and stringy man from London, who made a rather arcane complaint to Lauren across the bar about locally sourced ingredients and suggested London’s Borough Market might be better. My advice: stay in London, mate.
His intervention, however, prompted my own conversation with Lauren, in which we got chatting about Bennie and she let slip that she believed he’d consulted a “wee wifey” before buying the place. I'm delighted that Bennie not only confirmed the story but wrote me 1,000 words of elegant prose describing the whole spiritaul endorsement and how the medium even helped him bid a lower sum than he had intended.
The secret of staying at Ardanaseig is to slow down to its pace and to feel no guilt if all you want to do is read a book while watching the changing mood of the loch out of the corner of an eye. We took a wander through the lovely gardens one day, enjoying a picnic in the tiny walled cemetery that houses the estate’s ancestors. Feeling bolder, we took one of the hotel’s boats and headed towards the dramatic ruins of Kilchurn Castle at the head of Loch Awe. Now, many people know that Loch Ness is Scotland’s largest by volume of water, while Loch Lomond is its largest by area. Fewer can tell you that Loch Awe is its longest (25 miles) and third largest by area. That’s a lot of water – water that can move about a lot if the weather turns.
Ten minutes out from shore and I began to feel uneasy: changing weather was coming in from our backs and I sensed we were running with an increasing swell. The boat felt very small and I suggested the white horses I could see ahead of us boded ill. Discretion, I find, is the better part of valour in these circumstances and I turned the wee boat gently back the way we had come and we gingerly headed back to more sheltered waters as waves broke repeatedly over the bows. Our return afforded time for a good nosey at the hotel’s Boatshed, a romantic hideaway with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the loch. For another visit perhaps.
Back in the cosy security of afternoon tea in the sitting room I thought about those hotel judges who recently named Ardanaiseig Scotland’s Country House Hotel of the Year and, a year later, regional Best Luxury and Fine Dining Hotel. This, after all is the kind of place where attention to detail is such that they even tuck the belt back in on your dressing gown when they come to turn down the bed of an evening, close the shutters and leave mints on your pillow.
Let’s hear it from the judges: “Among the factors for choosing Ardanaiseig as the best country house hotel were its setting and ambiance, and the décor of its public rooms. It has a sense of elegance, with high standards of furnishings, fixtures, fittings, art and ornamenting. We found it championed local food at all meals including breakfast. Judges were left with the happy impression of having stayed in a wonderful, real Scottish country property.”
And so say all of us!
Nearby: Inverary Castle, seat of the Dukes of Argyll; Ben Cruachan "hollow mountain" visitor centre.