Thursday, 17 December 2015

In Coventry and Sheffield...

It's amazing how one's attitude can switch so quickly, determined, of course, by the turn of events. I was sitting on the 1243 London Euston to Coventry train. Ultimately, it was going much further than Coventry; it was going to Edinburgh, the long way, as opposed to the shorter route along the East Coast Line from King's Cross.

The fact that I was only travelling as far as Coventry depressed me slightly as there's nothing better than a long train journey to clear your head, relax, read a book and generally find peace with the world. I was only going as far as Coventry and yes, the expected joke, the one about being sent to Coventry, came up a couple of times in the office before I departed.

View from room 203, Cutlers Hotel, Sheffield
There was only one stop between me and my destination and that was Milton Keynes. To this day, I've never seen the concrete cows that are supposedly grazing in a field somewhere close the railway station.

The journey time to Coventry was roughly one hour. In fact, if we're going to be pedantic about it, 59 minutes, but being as it was lunch time and I'm one of those people who simply can't go without three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner – I was starting to wish the buffet (or 'shop' as it's called by those running it) would get a move-on and open its doors, metaphorically speaking. I say 'metaphorically speaking' because there are no doors to open. The 'shop' is part of the train carriage and no doors separate it from the paying passengers.

The train departed Euston roughly on time, but the staff faffed about, loading up shelves with biscuits and bags of crisps, and told me and another impatient, hungry person that an announcement would be made when the 'shop' finally opened. I was starving. In fact, I was looking forward to my cheese and ham sandwich and one of those small bottles of red wine that are always available on trains and planes.

I was fortunate in one respect: my seat on board the train was no more than a metre or two from the 'shop' so when the announcement was made, I was first in the queue. It was then, as I took full advantage of the free croissant on offer, that I realised a potential problem lurked. The problem was the use of credit cards and the unfortunate fact that the machines into which the credit cards are inserted often don't work.

If the credit card machine didn't work it meant that I would have to starve until dinner time. This awful fact dawned on me as the girl behind the counter inserted my credit card and we all waited patiently for something to happen. I've been in this position on Virgin trains many times before and whenever it happens I normally say something like, "Well, I don't have any cash on me, so you'll have to take it all back." Sadly, that's exactly what they do and I end up having to go without. But not today! "Goo buck to yoor sit luv and ill bring yoor cart tover to yoo," said the girl and so I returned to my seat. She eventually brought me the device just in case I was worried about her cloning my card – a thoughtful girl. I sat there watching the machine as it tried in vain to process my details.

It got better. I explained how I wouldn't make a start on my sandwich until the card connected with wherever these sort of transactions are ratified, but she assured me that if the connection wasn't made, it was Virgin's fault and not mine and that, effectively, lunch was on them. This is what happened and I later waltzed off the train at Coventry having enjoyed a free lunch. They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, but I've found that in my world, a free lunch is often forthcoming in some way or other and here was solid proof! There was a skip in my step as I found a taxi and was whisked off to my business appointment. The thought going round in my head was simple: I was up, I was ahead of the game! I had, in some small way, socked it to The Man - and all because The Man's computer systems had failed him.

Later I took a train to the recently renovated Birmingham New Street in order to connect with yet another Edinburgh-bound train, which would take me to Sheffield, my final destination for the night.

A brief word about Birmingham New Street station: it looks amazing, but it's quite a confusing place. Emerging from one platform, I found myself in a kind of pen, cut off from other platforms and hemmed in by ticket barriers. I had to reach platform 8a for my connecting train, but getting there meant going through one set of barriers and then another. Once on the platform, however, everything looked very familiar, only slightly more sleek than I remembered it.

The 1703 train departed nine seconds late, not that I was counting, and at 1818 I arrived in Sheffield, having enjoyed a Belgian chocolate chip cookie and another one of those small bottles of red wine – this time purchased with cash. "Would you like to buy three bottles for £10?" the trolley dolly asked me, but I informed her that, sadly, I wasn't on board for the trip to Edinburgh, I was going to Sheffield, so the one bottle would suffice. I must stress that I don't need alcohol to travel on a train, it's just very pleasant to drink a glass of red wine while gazing out of the window or reading a book.

Room 203, Cutlers Hotel, Sheffield
A short cab journey brought me to my hotel – the Best Western Cutlers Hotel on George Street. My taxi driver for the short ride was in an upbeat mood as he was about to hit the gym and then go home. "Sheffield's a great city, man, I wouldn't live anywhere else," he said in a manner unfitting for South Yorkshire. He went on to explain how it was a fairly low-cost place to be based. We parted company amicably (I always have a good relationship with taxi drivers) and soon I was checked in to my room (room 203 on the second floor).

The room was fine: a huge bed (two singles pushed together) a decent bathroom with proper taps – none of that designer rubbish offered by so many hotels, but proper taps with 'hot' and 'cold' written on them AND a plug on the end of a chain. Perfect! I wouldn't have to spend hours working out which was hot and which was cold and I wouldn't need a degree in mechanical engineering to figure out how to depress the plug and stop the water leaving the sink.

WiFi was free, there was a flatscreen television on the wall – after dinner with a colleague in Bill's near Millennium Square I watched the BBC news – and then, after a broken night (I rarely sleep well in hotels) I went to the breakfast room, which was located in the basement. I'm so glad I didn't have dinner here in the hotel's restaurant because it completely lacked atmosphere and, because of this, there was nobody else dining there. Bill's had a bit of much-needed hubbub about it, and by that I mean other diners, people, music, laughter, everything that my hotel restaurant lacked.

I was hoping that breakfast would deliver something special, but it didn't. For a start the room was horribly bright and white and there were 'trendy' distressed park benches and tables and a meagre self-service option at the far end of the room. Brightness of this magnitude simply doesn't work in a hotel breakfast room, in my opinion. It was like being in the garden furniture section of a large garden centre and not an ideal place to enjoy the first meal of the day.

Boxed cereal, tinned fruit and a banana-flavoured yoghurt: that was the offering in front of me, but a waitress eventually appeared and took my order from a small menu on the table: scrambled egg, toast and fried mushrooms. I'm not keen on fried mushrooms. I don't mind them raw in a salad or as part of, say, a cheese salad sandwich, but fried: ugh! Greasy and slippery mushrooms. Not nice.

The most irksome thing about the breakfast was a dirty cereal bowl. Without my glasses on I mistook the dried food stuck on the inside of the bowl for some kind of logo – how foolish and stupid am I? – but it turned out to be dried food. Unfortunately I had already tipped my bran flakes into the bowl and added the milk, so I persevered, but vowed to check everything else that came my way. Fortunately it was a one-off mistake, but it made me feel doubly relieved that I had opted for Bill's last night and not the hotel restaurant.

Rright now, rather than use my own lap top in the room, I am sitting at a wooden table just off the main staircase using the hotel's computer (a PC). Other than the aforementioned dirty bowl, the Cutlers Hotel was pleasant. I get the feeling that it was once an office building, and not a purpose-built hotel, as the main staircase screamed 'office block'. There's a large stained glass window that runs from the top to the bottom of the main stairwell and a carpet matching the window's design.

This isn't a 'grand hotel' but it's fairly pleasant, and bang in the centre of Sheffield. Despite its central location, it's quiet and peaceful and 'off the beaten track' but only minutes on foot from the Crucible Theatre and Millennium Square where all the decent restaurants are to be found: Cosmo, Smoke Barbecue, Piccolino's, Cafe Rouge, Brown's, Pizza Express and, of course, Bill's.

A brief word about Bill's. I remember visiting the first ever outlet in Lewes, East Sussex, back in the days when Bill's was simply an independent restaurant – circa 2010. I went there with Miles Jenner, head brewer and managing director of Harveys of Lewes, a fantastic, traditional brewer of fine English cask ales (my description, not theirs). Harveys of Lewes brews a beer specifically for Bill's – or it did back in 2010. The outlet in Lewes, East Sussex, was everything one might expect from an independent restaurant: pine tables and a traditional but quirky menu catering for all needs and meal occasions. I was surprised to hear that expansion was on the cards for Bill's, but a few months, possibly a couple of years later, I visited Bill's in Leamington Spa and then yesterday here in Sheffield, and all was well. Last night I ordered roast chicken with sweet potato fries and a couple of glasses of Merlot, rounded off with a light pecan pie and a cup of tea. My colleague enjoyed a rack of ribs. Why they thought I would be capable (alone) of drinking a huge pot of tea just before bedtime I don't know, but I do know that it contributed in some small way to my broken night's sleep. That comment about 'catering for all needs and meal occasions' rung true of the Sheffield Bill's as, in addition to dinner there were lunch and, indeed, breakfast offerings on the menu.

My colleague paid the bill, which was £54, but it was well worth it as the service was excellent, the atmosphere convivial and the food spot on the money.

I have another business appointment, but not until noon, so it's time to take a stroll around Sheffield, weather permitting. But first I need to tidy up my room and check out.

1 comment:

  1. I think I stayed at the Cutlers in Sheffield a few years ago. But I decided to forego the joys of breakfast.
    Breakfast in a hotel when you're travelling alone is not always a pleasant experience. This week in a hotel in Lincolnshire four solo business people, including me, sat at four separate tables - quite close to each other - all eating breakfast in silence. Three of us looked at our phones while eating. One read a newspaper. The only, albeit brief, conversations were with the waitress to give orders for tea or coffe or cooked breakfast.