Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A very Newbury Christmas

Went to the pantomime at the Corn Exchange last night so now, for me, Christmas can officially begin!

If you haven’t already got tickets for Jack and the Beanstalk, well I can thoroughly recommend you do. This really is fabulous, traditional entertainment for all ages – there were lots of families with littlies (some of whom shouted out the most wonderful, innocent and often hilarious comments) but plenty of grownups without offspring were there too, having just as much fun. There is lots of audience participation (and I recommend you join in because if you don’t it ... you have been warned!) and a few surprises falling from the heavens ... but you’ll have to go yourself to find out what.

The husband and I got parked up well before showtime to get a chance to admire the Christmas lights in Northbrook Street, Market Place and Parkway – all different, all pretty, all stylish. And there is always something Christmassy and special about strolling the shops after dark for a spot of late-night shopping ... and sneaking in the odd mince pie (thank you Newbury Building Society!) and bubbly refreshment (thank you John Lewis!).

Young musicians in a steel band in Northbrook Street provided the entertainment – and how brilliant they were, with a talent that belied their years.

This was, of course, the ideal opportunity for a second visit to Victoria Park and the Christmas Market. My first visit had been in the daytime, but approaching from the bridge alongside Camp Hopson at night the stalls and fairground made a truly magical sight with lights aglow. Although this is the first year Newbury has hosted such a market, there was a nice mix of stalls – gift ideas, Christmas decorations (there is always room for a new one on our tree) and a tempting range of food and drink. Perhaps I shouldn’t have had that mince pie ...

The donkeys are very cute (and something different from other Christmas Markets I’ve been to) and I had to smile at the sign about the reindeers being sent home for being naughty!

As we made our way towards the Corn Exchange and rounded the corner into Market Place, a small group of carol singers were another treat that added to the festive atmosphere. The foyer of the Corn Exchange was busy with excited children and we enjoyed seeing the pantomime-themed mural created by local schoolchildren. I lost the husband briefly in the crush around Beansprout’s Bazaar where I wanted to bag myself a Candice Cabbage Patch wand ... but them someone pointed out: ‘He’s behind you!’ (Saw that one coming, didn’t you?)

On that note I will sign off with my very best wishes for a joyful Christmas. See you in the New Year!

Biddy x

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

'My' Newbury...

I was asked the other day what I like about working in Newbury. I came up with quite a list, so let’s kick off with three – not in any particular order.

Walking by the canal at lunchtime
After a morning at my desk, I need to get some fresh air. Sometimes it is just a quick dash to the shops to get a sandwich or Auto Express, but what I most enjoy is a break from the bustle and to get a proper leg-stretch along the towpath. Whatever the season, there is always something going on – and it gives great ‘thinking time’ too.

Coffee shops for business meetings
It has become a bit of standing joke that my ‘second office’ is one of the many coffee shops in town. I have a particular favourite – perhaps no coincidence that it is the closest to my workplace so very convenient, but it’s by no means just that – the staff are always welcoming, the coffee always good. On top of that, it provides the atmosphere I am looking for when I want a more relaxed style of business meeting. (And the caffeine can be a real boost to get the ideas flowing.)

A34 and M4 links
Newbury is fortunate in being so close to these two major roads and as my job involves me regularly travelling to other towns I appreciate being able to get ‘on the road’ fairly swiftly. Admittedly, there can be quite a bottleneck at certain times of day at the Robin Hood roundabout, but there is nothing wrong with setting out 10 minutes earlier and using the time to make a phone call or two (hands free of course), or making those minutes a pleasure by listening to the radio.

I’ll tell you more about ‘my’ Newbury next time....


Monday, 25 November 2013

Biddy Prepares for Christmas

  • Pudding made. Check. 
  • Cake made. Check. 
  • .......And that’s about as far as I’ve got. 

I am certainly not one of those organised souls with presents bought and wrapped by Halloween.

However, the Christmas plans in Newbury have clearly been underway for some time as there is a multitude of exciting events about to start. 

First off is late-night shopping in the town on Thursdays from 28 November – ideal for me as once we hit December, I like to shop midweek and avoid the Saturday crush. And to make the weekend of 28–30 November even more special, the Racecourse Newbury will be in Northbrook Street with entertainment for the little ones and something liquid for the grown ups – and a chance to win tickets for the Hennessy Festival.

Saturday 30 November is extra special this year – not only is Santa Claus coming to town to switch on the lights but what I am even more excited about is the prospect of the Christmas Market in Newbury, opening in Victoria Park on the same day. I’ve been to the Christmas Market at Winchester several times and loved it, so to have one in Newbury will be an absolute joy. I can almost smell the gingerbread and mulled wine ... now that really is a good way to get into the Christmas spirit! Beyond that I’m not going to give the game away ... if you haven’t been to a Christmas Market before, it really is something you need to go and experience for yourself.

Other late-night shopping Thursdays promise lots to look forward to as well: several shops will be offering special incentives and discounts on 5 December, and others will provide a luxury gift-wrapping service; on 12 December, championed by Newbury Building Society, there is going to be a ‘festive sing-out’ when choirs will be performing around the town centre, and everyone can join in; and on 19 December there will be ice sculptors in town, which is sure to be a really unusual and seasonally chilly spectacle on the last late-night Thursday – just perfect in the lead up to big day.

A couple of added bonuses – the pedestrianized areas will be pedestrianized longer on late-night Thursdays, up until 8pm, so you can stroll and enjoy the shops without having to worry about traffic. And there will free parking at several of the carparks from 5–8pm too (Parkway, Camp Hopson, Kennet Centre and Northbrook multi-storey). Which I think leaves all the more to spend on a little Christmas treat for ... me!

Biddy x

Thursday, 7 November 2013

NEWBURY is establishing a place for itself in cyberspace

The Newbury Business Improvement District (BID) has developed a new Social Media strategy to ensure that the town is gaining maximum exposure in the right places. That means a far more active online presence, showing everyone exactly what there is to see, do and enjoy in the area.

The strategy concentrates on the main social media outlets – Facebook and Twitter. Updates will be posted daily on both these streams, with photos also helping bring the accounts to life. Using these social media outlets also gives the BID the opportunity to engage with, and help promote, local charities and not-for-profit organisations.

There will also be regular competitions as the BID creates a social hub for residents and visitors to the town. Keep an eye out for them in near future – there will be some great prizes on offer. It is also hoped that the Facebook page is interactive as possible, offering people the chance to ask questions, which can be answered by the wealth of local knowledge out there – namely you!

And the BID knows how much people love to look at pictures of their friends and family, so it will regularly be posting albums from the many local events that take place in the town. Look out for yourself – and remember to smile when you see the happy snapper.

That is not all the BID is doing, however. A series of promotional videos are currently being created, showcasing the best sites and sounds Newbury has to offer.

The project, which the BID kicked off at the start of its second year, is being created in conjunction with local company ECP Studios, who will make four videos.

The first two, which are now available to view on You Tube, showcase the town’s shopping and entertainment facilities and Newbury as a business destination. 

The aim is to help people understand what a great place Newbury is to visit and to encourage them to choose it as the destination to spend a day above the other towns and cities in the south.

Promoting Newbury and increasing footfall in the town is the main aim of the BID and another innovative marketing tool in its armoury is the new In Newbury magazine. This glossy, quarterly publication is placed in hotel bedrooms across West Berkshire, as well as in all Newbury Building Society branches and other retail outlets.

It provides an opportunity to let visitors know all the things there are to see and do in Newbury and encourages them to return again and again.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Biddy at the Corn Exchange

Aren’t we lucky in Newbury? Not only have we got the glorious Watermill theatre but right smack bang in the middle of town we have another wonderful performing arts venue – the Corn Exchange.

The husband and I or me and the girls get there a few times a year but yesterday I was doing a spot of shopping in my new-best-friend-shopping-town when the heavens opened. I was in the Market Place at the time and took refuge in the Corn Exchange. (I blame not having an umbrella to hand on the fact that I never did make it into the Girl Guides, so me and the term ‘Be Prepared’ are only on nodding terms.)

The Corn Exchange has such impact on the Market Place, looking both imposing and attractive. Did you know the current building – Grade II listed – opened for business as, wait for it, a corn exchange in 1862? There is more about the history of it on their website: http://www.cornexchangenew.com/about/cornexchange.

I hadn’t been to the Corn Exchange Café Bar for a while in the daytime (evenings are another matter altogether) so this was an ideal opportunity to grab their autumn brochure and a coffee. And what a delicious coffee it was – just the right strength, just the right size cup and incredibly good value at £1.60 (decaff Americano, no milk thank you). My only regret was that a) I’d not long had breakfast, as the bacon and sausage sandwiches sounded tempting, and b) that it was too early for lunch, as the blackboard made good reading with imaginative fillings in the wraps and sandwiches.

Anyway, the Café Bar is just a bonus as the main attraction at the Corn Exchange (and indeed at their ‘sister’ venue the New Greenham Arts studio) is, of course, their magnificent programme of events in their theatre, studio, cinema and gallery. Relaxing over my coffee gave me a good chance to study what’s up and coming over the next few months and earmark ‘must books’. So what do you fancy? There’s music to suit all tastes: from folk to Michael Bublé and Pink Floyd tributes to jazz to opera to Beethoven to The Magic of Motown (their I’ll Be There tour – and yes, I will be as I love a bit of Motown). There’s dance: from ballet to Irish dancing to all-male dance productions which sound intriguing and very energetic. There’s comedy: the regular Jongleurs nights are always fun and there are several famous names bringing their shows to Newbury. There’s theatre: from funny to moving to unusual to Shakespeare. There’s lots of things aimed at families – and an annual trip to the pantomime at the Corn Exchange is an essential pre-Christmas treat for our household. If you like a good ol’ traditional pantomime, this is the place for you. A couple of years ago we took a friend of ours: how she got to be in her 40s without ever going to a pantomime heaven only knows, but she laughed so much and so loudly (and she has a very infectious laugh) that the manager asked if she would come every night!

If you enjoy films there is an amazing, eclectic choice on offer, and I love the fact that they have special ‘Babies and Parents’ showings where no one is going to be huffing, tutting or giving disapproving glares when he or she decides to have a bawl. Check out the website or pop in to find out more about what’s on as there is so much I don’t have the space to reveal all. So much to see, so much to do ... as I said before, aren’t we lucky?

By the way, don’t forget to wish the Corn Exchange a happy birthday when you are passing. In its current lovely, inviting, vibrant and exciting format it is celebrating its 20th birthday. All together now: ‘Happy birthday to you ....’ I think you know the rest.

Biddy x

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Hethertons Bakery launches Amy's loaf

Hethertons Bakery today announced the launch of a unique new Spelt loaf, named Amy’s Loaf. The spelt loaf, containing honey and oats, has been launched to raise money for Swings & Smiles, a local charity looking to build, equip and run a recreational facility for families with special needs children. 
The loaf will be on sale from Monday 4th November.

Named after Amy Cook, the daughter of Swings & Smiles founder, Sian Cook, the loaf will retail at £2.50 with a proportion of the proceeds being donated to Swings & Smiles. Sian Cook commented: “We are so grateful to Hethertons Bakery for choosing us as the charity to benefit from their unique new spelt loaf and we hope that many of you will go to the bakery to sample this delicious new offering.”

Today also sees some exciting changes for Hethertons at The Kings Coffee House, including a relaunched menu featuring fabulous locally produced ingredients; traditional afternoon teas; longer opening hours from Monday to Saturday, and for the first time, they will be opening on Sundays offering a great Sunday brunch menu. Hethertons are also pleased to announce that you can now enjoy a glass of wine or local beer with your meal having been granted an alcohol license.

Sue and Mark Hetherton said of the changes: “'We are delighted to be teaming up with Sian and the Swings & Smiles team and very much hope that through our loaf, our cupcake competition to help us launch Amy's cupcake, and various other ideas we have for the future, that we can do our bit to help an extremely worthwhile cause. We are also very excited about our new menu and that we are now able to offer our customers a small range of wines, spirits and locally produced beer and cider with their food. Our bread has always been produced using locally grown flour and we are now extending that ethos to the food and drink we offer and working with local produces and suppliers as far as possible.”

Hethertons Bakery is a family run business, founded originally in the 1980s by Mark and his father in law Fred. They then sold the bakery and Mark went on to enhance his baking skills whilst working for Le Grand Moulins de Paris alongside some of France’s most gifted bakers. In 2002 the bakery came up for sale again and Mark, with the support of his wife Sue, snapped it up, restored it to its former glory and started producing top quality breads and confectionery using locally grown wheat. Then in 2004 Mark and Sue decided that the 17th Century building on the Broadway known as The Kings Coffee House should be revived as a coffee shop and transformed it into the warm and welcoming environment that it is today.

Swings & Smiles was founded in 2007 to provide indoor and outdoor opportunities where children, young people, their families and carers can play together without the pressures, limitations and risks often experienced in wider community situations for families with special needs children.

Come down to Hethertons@The Kings Coffee House on The Broadway on 4th November between 8am and 4pm to sample the new loaf and canapés from the new menu. A percentage of proceeds from all sales made between 8am and 4pm on Monday 4th November will be donated to Swings & Smiles.

There will be a special cake cutting ceremony at 11am to be attended by the Mayor of Newbury (TBC), Amy Cook, Sian Cook, Sue and Mark Hetherton.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Biddy at The Newbury Show

Yes I know it is officially The Royal County of Berkshire Show but to me and most locals it has always been and always will be The Newbury Show.

The drive past the golden harvested fields around Hermitage to The Newbury Show always marks the start of autumn for me. We weren’t able to go last year so the husband and I were pleased to be able to make a return visit in 2013 – after all it is the biggest, best and busiest show in the county and a great day out. With up to 60,000 visitors streaming through the gates over the course of the weekend, it has to be a good investment for the exhibitors and sponsors, including Strutt & Parker, Newbury Building Society and Charles Lucas Marshall, to name but three whose names were prominently displayed around the showground.

But where to start when there is so much to see? Well, as per, for us it was a coffee while we poured over the programme. Having positioned ourselves in a tiered stand, we were enjoying watching the heavy horses parading (and felt very lucky to be under cover when a brief but heavy drizzle decided to show itself). In previous years we’ve been to the show in heatwaves and downpours, when tractors have had to help pull cars out of the muddy carparks, so despite not having the hot sunny day that had been forecast earlier in the week, a cloudy but mostly dry day suited us very well.

Sitting there was a great chance to people watch: the judges in their bowler hats; the competitors in their tweed caps; the visitors, some in shorts and t-shirts and others wrapped in coats and woolly hats.

We wandered in an out of the stalls in the shopping area (I was looking for a new waterproof dog-walking hat) as we made our way to one of my favourite parts of the show: the Flower Tent. I had to stop and admire the beautiful huge chrysanthemums as I headed towards the competition entries in the various categories to see what had got first, second or third prize, and why.

We enjoyed stepping back in time in the World War Two Village, with the girls in the Digging for Victory garden and the men looking like they had stepped off the set of ‘Dad’s Army’. Also great fun was watching couples as they bravely strutted their ‘strictly’ stuff on the BBC Berkshire music stage.
We sat awhile to watch the Reading Scottish Pipe Band in the main ring before moving on to see the judging of some of the animals: obstinate bulls; determined pigs; magnificent sheep – it’s a shame they can’t all have rosette. (I had to feel a bit sorry for the lovely creatures, with the tempting aroma from the nearby hog roast and sausage sellers ... the shape of things to come. But delicious all the same.)

The Food Tent seemed bigger than ever this year, with many fabulous treats on offer, such as fudge, curry sauce and vodka all within three paces. And how about a pie from Sweeney & Todds? What a great name!

On to the craft tent (where I just love that warm, comforting grassy smell) for an ‘ooh and aah’ at all the amazing things being made and sold by the talented crafters, and to make a couple of purchases to put by as gifts.

We must have covered a few miles and I must have visited every stand selling hats so it was time to return to buy the very first hat I’d tried on hours earlier. (Surely that wasn’t the husband muttering ‘Typical’?)

So goodbye to The Newbury Show for another year (and well done to The Newbury & District Agricultural Society for making it such a fine event). If you’ve never been, put it on the calendar for next year – there really is something there for everyone.

Biddy x

Monday, 23 September 2013

Biddy at The Watermill

Did you get to the summer show at The Watermill? The Witches of Eastwick was a blast. I have never seen the film or read the book (though it is now on my ‘to read’ list) so was not sure what to expect but going on past productions and knowing Craig Revel Horwood was director and choreographer ... well, I just knew it was going to be too good to miss. And I was not mistaken nor disappointed – but then The Watermill has never let me down yet.

Every time I go to The Watermill I feel truly blessed to have such a wonderful venue as my local theatre. Over the years the husband and I have taken many friends there – local and otherwise. It is one of those venues that never fails to impress – even those who are not normally theatregoers. The shows alone make it worthwhile but the pretty building in its beautiful country setting make it an even more special event.

I can remember the first time I went there, many years ago, even before we moved to this neck of the woods. As we turned off the main road and tootled along the country lane, I thought we must have taken a wrong turn. And then suddenly there we were.

I love everything about The Watermill experience – the charming youngsters who guide visitors into a parking place; the friendly bar and restaurant staff; strolling on the lawns, drink in hand, gazing at the river, admiring the ducks ... it all makes for a relaxing evening before the show even starts.

Anyway, back to The Witches of Eastwick. On this occasion we had friends from Australia staying for the weekend and had booked tickets for the four of us some time in advance. At the last minute we decided to eat at The Watermill pre-show. Despite the main restaurant being fully booked they still managed to accommodate us and we enjoyed a lovely meal in the Lily Pond. Well not actually IN the Lily Pond or we’d have got wet, but in the light and airy ‘orangery’ attached to the restaurant that happens to have a lily pond it in. Both the husband and I adore the buffet-style hors d’oeuvre starter – so much so that he generally chooses that as a main course too. (Me, I have to hold out for a pudding so sometimes skip the main course ... they are refreshingly flexible like that.)

The show was truly magnificent. As always with Watermill musicals we were full of admiration for the actors who not only act but sing, dance and play musical instruments too. As you can imagine, our Ozzie friends had never been anywhere like it and were blown away. They will be over again next summer and have already insisted on a return visit.

The Watermill at Bagnor, Newbury. I for one already have two more shows booked over the coming months and can hardly wait to see what delights the Spring/Summer programme will bring. Oh and before I go, a quick question: is it only me who has to sing ‘Didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to Bagnor’ each time we go there? (Drives the husband mad ...)

Biddy x

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Biddy hits the shops

When was the last time I shopped in Newbury? Well, last Tuesday actually. If truth be told, it had been a while. Living on the Berkshire/Hampshire border I am somewhat spoilt for choice: Winchester, Basingstoke, Southampton, Newbury – all within a half-hour drive.

For some time, Newbury was a favourite of mine for a shopping trip; I always loved the good choice of shops without that feeling of being overwhelmed. Then there was a spell when this traditional market town at times felt a little ... dare I say tired? But not anymore ...  magic has been woven and the recent development of Parkway has really brought the Newbury shopping experience into the 21st century, while Northbrook Street and its offshoots retain a charm of their own. And you don’t find that charm shopping online or in those enormous indoor shopping malls – you know, a big named-store at either end and all the usual suspects linking them, where the lights are too bright, the heating up way too high and the acoustics enough to give me a headache.

So, what makes Newbury special? For a start it is easy to park. I try Parkway car park for the first time and am pleasantly surprised at how reasonable the charges are. Big tick! The shops in the new development are definitely worth exploring – there is a good feel to them. Big tick! It is only clothes shops that I am focused on on this particular day, and as I am especially fond of Jigsaw and Mint Velvet I am very pleased to find them here.

Being in the open air as I stroll from shop to shop is a refreshing change from the aforementioned malls that never see the light of day. Big tick! Newbury’s pedestrianized Northbrook Street is another plus, making it one big, wide pavement so everyone can go at their own pace in their own space. Big tick!

There is a surprising number of individual shops and little hideaways tucked between well-known outlets. Weavers Walk is a great place to step out of the bustle; check out Fifi & Moose with its designer clothes, and Weavers Coffee Shop – a delightful coffee and cake stop off the main drag. (And I love a coffee. And cake.)

Camp Hopson is perhaps my best-loved department store of all time; I applaud the fact that this local retailer has stayed independent but offers all the choice, style and value of bigger names. Wending my way around the ‘rooms’, up and down the escalator ... there is nowhere quite like Camps. I could browse there for hours ....

Along to Bartholomew Street with Phase Eight on the corner (another favourite of mine) and where Cara of London has some exciting, exclusive numbers. Then there’s Mistral – well I’ve yet to go in there without really, really, really wanting something. Such pretty colours, such lovely designs .... The Market Place is just a few paces away and where Katharine Jayne boutique offers something special and is definitely hard to resist.

Gosh, look at the time! Must head back to the sticks – and, apart from Weavers Coffee Shop, I’ve barely started on the myriad cafés Newbury is home to. And you know how I love coffee. And cake. But that’s for another time.

If you haven’t been shopping in Newbury lately, it’s time you did. You really don’t know what you’re missing.

Biddy x