The Weasel

Blinking in the sunlight at the top of this Victorian mechanism, all London lay before me... My head was in the clouds, though my feet had scarcely left the ground

Initially, the Weasel family's attempt to participate in Open Heritage Day 96, when 1,800 assorted properties opened their doors to the public, was not a dazzling success. Such was the crush of punters wishing to tour the former Midland Grand Hotel, the exotic Victorian assemblage of fairy-tale spires at St Pancras, that we were warned off by disappointed architecture buffs even before we got there. Instead, we switched our sights to the glamorous new ITN Building, a glass edifice which almost bankrupted the news organisation and is rumoured to have a persistent smell of drains, but here, too, we found an off-putting queue. After these disappointments, we decided to trade down in our choice of destination. Because I liked the name, we headed eastwards to something called the Limehouse Hydraulic Accumulator Tower - and it proved to be a revelation.

Though not perhaps the most renowned structure in the metropolis - unless you happen to be an ardent aficionado of hydraulic accumulators - it was mercifully free of crowds, and that was my sole requirement by this stage. It turned out to be a handsome octagonal turret, built around 1870 and overlooking Limehouse Basin in the East End, which formerly supplied power for dock machinery. A bevy of industrial archaeologists did their best to explain how it worked - there was much talk of "gutta- percha seals" and "weight-loaded accumulators" - but I remained in a state of blissful ignorance.

My near-mystical perception came after clunking up a seemingly endless spiral staircase newly installed by the London Dockland Development Corporation. Blinking in the sunlight at the top of this Victorian mechanism, all London lay before me. A few hundred yards away, Canary Wharf Tower was perhaps a little higher than my platform - but surely not much. In the far distance, the NatWest building was more or less on a par. I must admit to a certain amount of sceptical disbelief when one of our guides revealed that we were just 55 feet above the ground.

But this was perfectly true. My head was in the clouds, though my feet had scarcely left the ground. In the light of this serendipitous experience, I'd like to suggest to Sir Norman Foster that rather than the 1,200ft tower he proposes for the Baltic Exchange site, he should build 1,200 equally elegant towers of much shorter height. Not only would this democratise the heavens but it would make London the envy of the world. When you consider that San Gimignano in Tuscany is famous for having merely 14 towers, up to 165ft in height and distinctly old-hat in design, imagine the appeal of a whole city built along the same lines.

Mani, the isolated region at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese, is another spot famous for its towers. Hundreds of them were built in the 17th and 18th centuries and many still survive. That non-pareil of travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, described his stay in one: "One sleeps in the stars and with the moon almost within reach...I felt like staying there for ever." It is hard to imagine a finer encomium for a des res. I wonder if the custodians of the Accumulator Tower are seeking a resident hermit?

Gutted Germans will bid bye-bye to Baden-Baden following Chancellor Kohl's decision to curb the arrangement which enables all taxpayers to take a free month-long spa treatment every three years. With the assistance of a nod and a wink from medical authorities, this provision even extends to certain foreign health resorts. I discovered the remarkable extent of the Fatherland's generosity during a brief visit to the Dead Sea a few years ago. As its name suggests, this saline reservoir at the low- point of the world is scarcely a barrel of laughs. Even the treat of being able to read a newspaper while floating high in the water quickly palls. Everyone poses for the traditional snap with a copy of the Jerusalem Post and exits as quickly as possible. Aside from an unpleasant pong reminiscent of the stinks lab, the viscous fluid aggressively asserts its presence in the body's more tender spots. Nevertheless, the experience is deemed efficacious for any number of complaints.

You can imagine my surprise at discovering that a luxury hotel at this unlikely holiday spot was thronged with Germans enjoying a break at the state's expense. I don't doubt that certain martyrs basked in the brine and wallowed in the health-promoting mud, but most of them seemed to be enjoying the late Dean Martin's favourite treatment - an alcohol rub from the inside.

Disconsolate Deutschlanders deprived of their Israeli sojourns may be pleased to know that many aspects of the experience are available in tablet form - a soap tablet to be precise. Dead Sea Soap temptingly describes itself as "rich in sodium, potassium, sulphur and bromides" and claims to "stimulate blood circulation and restore water to body cells". I co- opted Mrs W to give it a whirl. After complaining about the smell (a sign of authenticity, I assured her), she lathered with it briefly - and complained about it at length, while washing with several other soaps to rid herself of the "stimulating" effect. Her face turned an unusual shade of crimson, but whether this was due to her boosted blood circulation or unwarranted bad temper, I cannot say.

Always keen to put my readers on to a good thing, the Weasel's tip is: snap up the cabbages and get fermenting. According to Newsweek magazine, French experts have declared this is a vintage year for sauerkraut. Apparently, the rain fell at exactly the right time for the crop in Alsace, with the result that this fermented delicacy is in tip-top nick. Doubtless, in years to come, gourmets will reminisce lyrically about the legendary '96 grand cru of choucroute.

I quite like sauerkraut, though I doubt if I will be going into production myself. In her renowned Vegetable Book, Jane Grigson says it should ferment for two to three weeks and mature for a further month. Perhaps it's wisest to seek out this seasonable treat in its continental homeland. Newsweek quotes a "third-generation cabbage farmer" from Krautergersheim (Cabbagetown) who insists that sauerkraut should have a "slight yellow tinge", rather than the white variety "currently in fashion". Despite our growing obsession with gastronomy, I doubt if we'll ever make the same fuss about an equivalent British dish. It is hard to imagine anyone going misty-eyed over bubble- and-squeak, however exquisite its bouquet.

A recent trip to Sir Winston's old pad at Chartwell left me less than overjoyed - though I greatly admired treasures such as the stuffed bull's head in his garden studio ("killed by the great Spanish matador, Manolete, at Valencia on VE Day") and the "handsome veneered radiogram" in the dining room. Despite feasting my eyes on these glittering prizes, my spirits remained depressed. The reason is that, but for a coy ancestor, the whole place could have been mine - not to mention a share in the pounds 12 million of lottery money recently dished out to Churchill's heirs in exchange for a few scribbles. I refer you to Churchill: A Life, by Martin Gilbert, which reveals that in 1891 the great man wrote to his mother expressing regret at having to leave London "just as I was making an impression on the pretty Miss Weaslet. Another 10 minutes and...I?" We'll never know what might have happened - but a chap can dream. Now, where's my corona-corona?

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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