Thursday, 14 July 2011

My 59th birthday day out and evening meal

On Wednesday 6th July I was 59. I spent the entire day alone. As you know, I'm a solitary, independent sort of person and I never feel lonely. But I do like to share nice experiences, and I admit that in the evening I had a little twinge of regret that I wasn't enjoying the evening meal with someone. But I still had a lovely time, as you can see from the picture I took of myself above. The little Leica was balanced on the top of a wine glass, and I made it a black and white shot that I've tinted a romantic pink-brown. In that way, the noise from the small sensor has been disguised. It just looks a bit grainy. I am wearing my opera outfit, including the pearls. And I'm looking forward to the meal ahead, of which more anon. I've said before that a really good meal of several carefully-chosen courses can become your companion, helped out by attentive staff and a fine wine.

Turning 59 was no big deal. I just don't feel especially old. And the medical regime I'm now on - the kind that people like me all share a version of - makes you look ten years younger, and maybe ten years friskier! I rather like the 'forty-fivish going on fifty' appearance, and the eye-twinkle that I now seem to have - at least in soft and flattering lighting. Yes, despite creeping old age I'm still a potential contender in the attraction stakes, although those hormones will have to do a lot, lot more work on the saggy Melford visage!

Earlier that day I drove Fiona down to sunny Dorchester. The main objective here, apart from getting a sandwich for lunch, was to visit the Dorset County Museum. I love museums. I'd not actually stepped inside this one since a school trip to Dorchester and nearby Maiden Castle (a vast iron-age hill fort that the Romans beseiged) in 1965, when aged 13. It had seemed an old-fashioned place then, and the main part, the original part, was a vast two-level space constructed from Victorian cast-iron, that still looked much as I remembered it:

It really resembles one of those classic west-country market halls, usually called Pannier Markets, such as the famous one in Barnstaple. This is a 2010 shot of the Barnstaple Pannier Market, just to make my point:

The front part of the Museum led up to a large room given over to fossil exhibits, the latest being a big fish-like reptile with huge jaws and teeth. The official picture below shows just how huge. It was being set up for filming by a BBC camera crew when I was there. In fact the creature's head was under wraps, although you could discern its general shape. Apparently it was going to be featured in a forthcoming TV programme, and I was enjoined not to take photos, which of course I didn't. So I can't show you any terrifying pliosaur shots of my own. You'll have to make do with this one:

Image copyright Dorset County Council Jurassic Coast Team

Big, isn't it? And this is what the Museum's website had to say:


The giant jaws of a huge marine reptile is on permanent display at the Dorset County Museum from 8 July – unveiled by Sir David Attenborough. Dating back around 155 million years, the pliosaur skull was discovered on the nearby Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and is one of the largest and best preserved fossils of its kind ever found. Belonging to a creature up to 18m in length, the skull is a staggering 2.4 m long and is believed to have possessed the biggest bite of all time – powerful enough to break a small car in half...The specimen has already been scanned at the University of Southampton using its high-energy, micro-focus CT scanner – one of the most powerful of its kind in the UK. The results have been used to reconstruct a digital model of the entire skull, revealing details of the creature’s internal structure that would otherwise have remained a mystery. The University of Bristol will now be using the CT scan data in a bid to understand just how powerful the bite may have been. Experts from the University of Portsmouth will also study the fossilisation process, while mud associated with the bones has been sent to the University of Plymouth to see if any fossil plankton have been preserved. Rock removed from the bones will be studied by experts in the Natural History Museum in search of bones and teeth of animals that may have hunted around the dead skeleton.

For more information about the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, visit

As you can see, my visit was slightly premature: I missed the public 'opening' of this exhibit by three days. Damn.

Built in recent years was a cleverly-designed network of modern rooms, each dealing with some aspect of Dorset life. Inevitably that meant rural life and customs, with curious exhibits such as this outfit, worn for feast-day rituals until the 19th century:

Imagine wearing that for hours on end. I suppose the jaws were made to flap open and shut, as if the face were actually speaking or singing. Maybe it chased maidens in the crowd, pretending to eat them.

Being Dorset, there was much about Thomas Hardy and other literary figures. Personally I find Hardy depressing. Hard though the 19th century rural world was - and this was real-life Tolpuddle Martyrs country, of course - it surely had happier, more cheerful moments than Hardy liked to dwell on. My goodness, he was one for the ladies, even so, with two fine-looking women in his life.

Dorset is renowned for its archaelological remains, being a favoured settlement area for neolithic cultures, and there were several exhibits full of skeletons in various burial poses. Great stuff. But I'm sure you're more interested in knowing about the tea and cake I had in the Museum Cafe, a place incidentally that you can use off the street without paying a Museum admission charge - worth remembering. The woman who served me was very pleasant and friendly; we discussed children and holidays and birthdays. The cake was home-made, and tres yummy.

Thus fortified, I sped on to Weymouth, but I didn't linger long. The afternoon had turned cool and cloudy, and I wanted to get back to change for my evening meal. I was booked in at the Greenhouse Restaurant at the Hotel Grosvenor in Shaftesbury. My Michelin guide says this of the restaurant: Ground floor restaurant enlivened by boldly coloured abstract art...refined brasserie cooking...excellent service. And of the hotel itself: Stylish former coaching inn with Georgian-style facade and spacious, trendy bar. Perfectly accurate! I'd been there before, and if you look back in the posting archives you can find a report of my June 2010 lunch ('A long weekend in Wiltshire - part 1').

I arrived when it was raining outside, and I was concerned that my long dress didn't get wet. The light was just beginning to fade as I sat down, but of course that helped to make the lights and candles seem more romantic:

I selected a jolly good meal, with a half-bottle of Chablis to go with it:

On asking, I found that the chef was still Mark Treasure. Ah, that was nice to know! The stage for a pleasant evening was set. To kick off, I had Italian breads, with butter and an olive oil dip:

Then a mushroom risotto. It was delicious, such subtle flavours:

The big white plate - or should I say dish? - made the risotto look tiny, but it was actually quite filling. I should have asked which types of mushroom were used: certainly not bog-standard growths from a damp shed. Then the main course: halibut, with a poached egg and wafer-thin whisps of bacon:

Ah, I so enjoyed that! To follow came a coffee panacotta coated in biscuit crumbs, with an orange ice and a crisp 'hat' of caramel:

And finally full-flavoured black coffee with exquisite petit fours:

Replete, I went upstairs to refresh my appearance:

Then down to the Hotel bar, where I was delighted to find James Whitty engaged in his 'daytime job' as (by now) expert sommelier and cocktail mixer. He genuinely remembered me from June last year. James's real interest and intended career is in fashion photography, and I was fortunate to catch him before he moved Londonwards. He is putting together an online portfolio, which obviously has to be carefully judged, as it's one's shop window. You can see it in its first morph at and I would like to think that in the years to come he will make it into Vogue and other fashion magazines. Well, I spent a pleasant hour over the gin-and-tonic he prepared for me, and we discussed photography (of course). I mentioned that I had just sold my Nikon D700 semi-pro camera, and was wondering what to get as a much lighter but still large-sensor replacement, bearing in mind that my professional ambitions were (realistically) caput, and yet I did want superb image quality in a handbag-friendly package. He recommended the Leica M9 or (if living in the real world) the new Fuji X100. Hmmm. I'll be looking into it.

Soon enough it was time to go. Another dash for Fiona in the rain, back to Coombe Bissett. The A30 was almost free of traffic, and I had newish high-performance tyres, and so it was a good run.

And so to bed, after a lovely day. Do you think I was silly not to invite a friend to share it with me? Well, at least two answers to that: first, wading through Museum exhibits isn't to everyone's taste; second, I couldn't possibly have expected a friend to pay what I did for that evening meal. And I suppose that, on my birthday of all days, I want to take stock, and think about my life, and decide for myself how one balances the freedoms of an independent existence with the benefits and comforts of companionship. There is no simple conclusion.

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