From hero to zero and fighting back: How celeb chef Mark Hix revived his fish restaurant in Lyme Regis

Celebrity chef Mark Hix

The hospitality industry has suffered huge damage because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Not only are chains like Pizza Express , Frankie and Benny’s closing branches but even more up market venues like the Ledbury in Notting Hill.

One of the latter hit was a number of London restaurants run by Mark Hix, a celebrity chef, author, and owned jointly by the Reading based WHS Restaurant Investments where he had a 25 per cent share.

Without his agreement the company went into administration closing its four restaurants in London and one restaurant and town house in Lyme Regis.

The administrator’s report says that even before the Covid 19 crisis ” the business has struggled to maintain sales… with revenue declining in 2018 and 2019 as a result of sector-wide pressure across the casual dining market”.

But instead of accepting this huge setback by just taking early retirement at 57, Mark Hix went back to his roots in Dorset, bought a fish truck and started selling local fish at a local farm shop. The man who was an chef director at Caprice Holdings ( sadly the Caprice is now closed) before he had his own restaurants is now back on home turf.

A table overlooking the sea. Pic credit: Matt Austin

He has managed to buy back the lease from Deloitte’s, the administrators, of his first restaurant in Lyme Regis and is working almost non stop to revive the business with some of his signature dishes. Extraordinarily Deloitte’s won’t allow him to use his name in the title of the restaurant, The Oyster and Fish House, and according to an article in the Telegraph Magazine wanted £11,000 for it.

He is a great example of someone who has refused to take Covid 19 lying down and with luck should benefit from the staycation boom in the UK as people flock to the seaside.

There is a curious bizarre local issue about the place he has got back – none of which, I might say, is anything to do with him. Some 60 years ago the land next to the restaurant including a nearby house, reputed to be summer home of the Cadbury family – the famous chocolate manufacturers – collapsed into the sea. This led to Lyme Regis Borough Council ( as it was then) compulsorily purchasing the land.

What didn’t fall into the sea was the gardener’s home Cliff Cottage and the land surrounding it. This included an old garage on the site.

According to Marilyn Bolton, an ex councillor in the past and his present landlord, an informal agreement was made with the then town clerk on the boundary between the new council owned land and her property. This was strongly contradicted by Stan Williams, the deputy mayor, who said there was no agreement allowing her to encroach on council land.

And it is certain this was never legally clarified. Land registry records show that Mark Hix’s restaurant ( the garage was demolished and a new restaurant built) straddle her property and council owned land – enough for it to be legally codified in a lease agreement in 2013. So he has two landlords.

The view of Lyme from the balcony of the restaurant

To make life even more complicated it also straddles a right of way Stile Lane which according to Dorset Council has never been rerouted or extinguished.

Dorset Council said in a statement: “We can confirm that Footpath W2/12 from Pound Street to Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is obstructed by a number of buildings and landscaping works carried out over many years to re-profile the area following landslips and the creation of Langmoor Gardens.”

“The Highway Authority has powers to enforce an obstruction of the public’s right of free passage over a public highway, but there is an alternative route, which is safer and more commodious for the public. Therefore, this is a considered to be a low priority for already stretched public funds.

” When planning permission was granted to extend the building that is currently obstructing the footpath, this did not give permission to obstruct the footpath. The applicant was advised to apply to divert the footpath by legal order and that this order must be confirmed before work commenced. We do not believe that West Dorset District Council received such an application.”

60 year old row over footpath and land encroachment

None of this would matter at a jot – if it wasn’t becoming a live issue after an elderly resident complained about it to the mayor of Lyme Regis, Brian Larcombe, and the deputy mayor, Stan Williams. They are now investigating this and seek explanations.

It appears that secrecy surrounding property and boundary deals by successive town clerks going back years has come back to bite them by not being open about what was going on.

In the meantime if you want to savour a good meal and are holidaying in Lyme I suggest you dine there and enjoy modern British cuisine. You will be helping a very determined man get his business back on track – in defiance of the bean counters and the bureaucrats who seem to have rather messed up.

Revealed: How “Failing Grayling” derailed transport billionaires Richard Branson and Brian Souter

Ex transport secretary Chris Grayling Pic credit:BBC

Chris Grayling – who tomorrow is expected to become chair of Parliament’s intelligence and security committee – is a byword for wasting public money.

I have already written for Byline Times on his activities – and so extensive were his failings it took two long articles to add up the cost of Chris Grayling. You can read them here and here. He seems to have cost the nation some £2.7 billion – an extraordinary achievement for one individual – as well as causing misery for the probation and prison service and for millions of commuters.

Yet every human being can sometimes get things right. And last month Chris Grayling did so in a decision which involved risk.

A court judgement – virtually unreported except in the Financial Times – vindicated a very controversial decision he took as transport secretary way back in April last year on every count.

Grayling decided to disqualify three bidders from getting hold of three very lucrative rail franchises – the West Coast main line from London Euston to Glasgow and Edinburgh; the East Midlands franchise and the commuter lucrative South Eastern franchise from Kent into London.

Sir Richard Branson : A quote that came back to bite him

The bidders banned were Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains (as part of the West Coast partnership with the French state owned SNCF) Sir Brian Souter’s Stagecoach and Arriva owned by German state railways Deutsche Bahn.

The reason why Grayling disqualified them is because all three did not want to take on a big share of the liability for paying out pensions to some 346,000 retired and active train drivers and staff while they were running the services. Instead they wanted to make as money as they could by dumping the pension cost onto the state – that’s you and me.

pension costs

Their move was despite a ruling by the Pension Regulator which said anybody running a privatised rail service should have to fund any pension shortfall and not taxpayers.

Their decision caused consternation in rail franchise industry since two of the contracts were subsequently let to new providers. The East Midland franchise was awarded to Abellio East Midlands Ltd and the West Coast Partnership franchise was later awarded to First Trenitalia West Coast Rail Ltd. The South Eastern competition was cancelled.

Expensive law case

A lengthy and extremely expensive trial followed with costs building up not only for the ministry but the three companies and the companies who subsequently won the contracts who had to keep an eye on the case. Deutsche Bahn’s owned Arriva decided to settle out of court.

So complicated is the judgement from Mr Justice Stuart Smith that it runs to 193 pages and the Courts and Tribunals Service issued a rare explanatory memorandum to help the public understand it.

If it had gone the other way it could have thrown the whole rail franchise system into further chaos – since it would have meant that the two private contractors would have won the franchises by an illegal competition and they would have to bid again.

But it didn’t. As the Department for Transport said; “We strongly welcome this decision, which finds our franchise process was fair, our conduct was transparent, and the disqualification at the heart of this case was proportionate.”

There is a sting in the tale. The Department of Transport want Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter to pay all its costs.

Sir Brian Souter was chairman of Stagecoach when Grayling took action. He is still a member of the board.

This is a blow to Sir Brian who condemned the ministry when it took the original decision as ” dysfunctional and deceitful”.

And it will be lesson for Sir Richard who once wrote: You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

This time he has taken a real tumble, particularly after suing the NHS when he failed to win an £82 million contract and then blaming the NHS Commissioners. See the riposte here. The case was settled out of court and it is understood his company Virgin Care got £328,000.

This new judgement may explain something else. The Department for Transport is very wary about continuing the present franchise system. And because of Covid 19 it has virtually nationalised the railways. I suspect it won’t return to the old system as it won’t want any more nail biting court cases even though it won.

Labour is much clearer – they will simply nationalise the system permanently – a decision that its new leader Sir Keir Starmer has followed through from Jeremy Corbyn.

HS2 Fiasco: Should these two top Whitehall figures get the sack for covering it up?

Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport Pic credit: gov.uk
Mark Thurston, the £605,000 a year head of HS2. Pic credit: HS2

The damning report by the Public Accounts Committee out today tells you everything you already knew about HS2 – the high speed rail link from Euston to Birmingham and eventually Manchester and Leeds.

This rail line – at one stage facing being scrapped by Boris Johnson – earned a reprieve despite costs escalating almost out of control from costing £55bn when it was commissioned to an estimated minimum £88 billion today. Even commitments to petitioners against the scheme were wrongly calculated at £245m when the figure is now nearer £1.2 billion .And that may not be the end of the story as costs could still rise while the public will get a much delayed service with fewer trains.

The report also shows there is a huge problem with the redevelopment of Euston station – used by millions of mainline travellers and commuters – which no doubt will create another out of control of budget. We still don’t know the real cost for that.

But what I found really distasteful that Bernadette Kelly, the highly paid permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and Mark Thurston, the UK’s highest paid public official in charge of HS2 – he is on an eyewatering £605,350 salary and got a £46,000 bonus despite not keeping public money under control- conspired to cover up their failings and keep information from the public and Parliament.

The report is quite clear desperate officials were well aware that public money was going down the toilet but decided NOT to tell Parliament and be less than honest in the official annual accounts of HS2 to disguise the mess they faced.

Bernadette Kelly revealed to MPs in March that she had undertaken four separate assessments to see if the project was viable last year – but neglected to tell MPs anything about it when she appeared before them. She claimed it was ” commercial sensitivities ” that held her back.

This is serious stuff. As the report says: ” We are disappointed by the Permanent Secretary’s response to our concerns about her failure to explicitly inform the Committee of the programme’s delays and overspend when asked about the general health of the project.

“This was something that an accounting officer should share with the Committee. Failure of an Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of Parliamentary Privilege. “

To put it bluntly she may have broken the Civil Service code which lays down the ethics and rules governing how officials should behave and she may have lied to Parliament.

In that case I think there should be an inquiry and if she is found to have behaved as badly as that she should be disciplined or even sacked.

Mark Thurston appears to made sure that his company accounts did not give too many hints of the failure to control money. Why he should have a bonus when his costs went sky high – is a mystery to me. He should pay it back and questions asked whether he is the right man for the job..

I agree with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP and deputy chair of the committee: “This PAC report on HS2 is one of the most critical, in both the transparency of Government and the handling of a project, that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

“The Permanent Secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the Department it had breached the terms of the Development Agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule – yet the Permanent Secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble.

“This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to Parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence. Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform Parliament that value for money .on the project was at risk.”

The United Kingdom used to be regarded as a world leader in upholding high standards in public life. The actions of these two individuals in trying to cover their tracks is more in line with a banana republic.

Travelogue Kennedy Space Center: The billionaires’ space race to Mars

SpaceX building at Cape Canaveral

Imagine in 40 years time booking a 14 day holiday on Amazon Prime to hike the craters of the moon. Or a tourist  world voyage to Mars.

Visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a huge nature reserve on North  Merritt Island this year is not  just awesome  but at an extraordinary time in its history.The Florida site is not only where NASA does its top level research as well as showcasing its past achievements  it is now the place where the world’s richest men are competing with each other to launch into space.

 If you ever wondered where the huge profits of international capitalist companies are going, most of the money they have made is being spent here. They are gambling on a new lucrative tourist business that will be worth billions in the future. And they are changing the face of Cape Canaveral. Dotted among the state owned space facilities are brand new space centres owned by private individuals and companies each competing with each other to build rockets , space capsules and launch sites . The only one missing is billionare Richard Branson whose Virgin Galatic company is based elsewhere.

Thus you have Elon Musk, worth $37.7billion, and owner of Tesla electric cars ,with SpaceX, planning with his Falcon rocket to take US astronauts to the space station and then planning to go to the Moon and beyond. He is competing with the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, worth $125.3 billion and owner of Amazon whose Blue Origen company wants to go to the Moon. And you have Boeing with a base here who want to expand from building aircraft to spacecraft.

And what is also interesting is that the Space centre itself has the Journey to Mars centre where enthusiastic scientists are openly aiming to recruit the next generation to work on their space programme to “solve the impossible ” for the Mars mission.

The talk aimed at today’s ten year olds is premised that if you follow the history of the development of flight within 40 years what could be accomplished by a few pioneers will become commonplace for commercial services for tourists. Hence the interest in the commercialisation of space.

On the  cruise ship one of the most interesting lectures came from a NASA scientist who explained some of the pioneering work being done to aid the space project.Dr Lawrence Kutznetz showed that the breadth of research was spilling over into fields that could help the   disabled , aid medical research,and go the limits of technology.One worldwide research project involves designing a light weight spacesuit from scratch which will be essential if anyone wants to roam around Mars. Unlike the Moon Martian Gravity is similar to Earth’s and no human could walk more the few yards without collapsing under the weight of what they have to carry to stay alive. So using the Internet, peer reviewed research  is designing new materials, sealing the helmet from the rest of the body and allowing the rest of the suit to leak

Another project has very recently discovered by mistake that a particular drug when used on elderly mice caused cells covering its whole body to regenerate turning the equivalent of a 60 year old mouse to having the energy of an adolescent.

Scientists are not quite clear how this happened. The implications of this last experiment I can imagine will be very interesting for our wealthy billionaires funding the space programme – imagine being able to live until you are 150 – double the present lifespan.Or imagine Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch being offered a double lifespan.Perhaps not.

Other experiments have discovered that if you link two people’s brains using non evasive electrodes it is possible by thought alone to  operate another person’s artificial hand.

So not only is the space centre an exciting place to visit but some of the research going on there is in the realm of science fiction.

Saturn 5 rocket

Exclusive on Byline Times: Disappearing London voters as foreign buyers and new build AirBnBs flood neighbourhoods

110-112 Vauxhall Bridge Road; One of the AirBnBs block of apartments springing up in Westminster Pic credit: booking.com
The Surprise: This was the old pub that is now a new rebuilt AirBnb The original planning application was for it to be replaced by residential housing.

I have done a special investigation for Byline Times showing the extraordinary contrast between the decline of the electorate in Westminster and Kensington and the huge property and tourist boom bringing in non voting oligarchs, foreign buyers and purpose built blocks of AirBnBs.

This may have contributed to Labour winning Battersea and Kensington from the Conservatives at the last election. This time it is not so clear as Labour and the Lib Dems are vying for votes.

See my full story here.

Exclusive on Byline Times: New official “No Deal” advice means chaos and confusion for 1.3 million Brits living and driving in the EU and EEA countries

The EU British Driving Licence that will disappear. and no longer be valid in the EU and EEA.Pic credit: gov uk

Britain’s 43,000 citizens living in Holland will have to retake their driving test if they do not apply for a Dutch driving licence by 31 October, according to new No Deal Brexit advice from the Department of Transport.

In Spain any of the 300,000 British citizens who have not exchanged their licence by October 31 will have to pass a medical test to continue driving to get a new licence.

These are just two of a whole plethora of confusing and chaotic rules that will vary from country to country when the British driving licence is no longer recognised by the EU.  UK’s 1.3 million citizens living in the 27 countries will face different rules, time deadlines for applications and compulsory medical checks before they can drive again in some countries.

The full story is here.

 The full guidance -which has only just been published – is here. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/driving-in-the-eu-after-brexit-driving-licence-exchange

Warning the advice is being updated as more information on the new rules become available as the UK government doesn’t seem to have the full picture.

How Singapore shames London’s record on disabled mobility

Since taking this world trip I have gone out with my wife Margaret in a wheelchair in some 20 countries and encountered many challenges – from uneven and inaccessible pavements to stairs with no accompanying ramps, high kerbs, blocked paths and sudden inaccessible dead ends.

The visit to Singapore was a treat. It outstripped many European cities in the comprehensive services available to disabled people and the ease of getting around the country.

It sends a strong message to Transport for London on how to organise disabled friendly services across the capital. From travelling on the system it was clear a great deal of thought had been put in to make it as easy as possible for disabled people. Signage, positioning of lifts and the design of trains were all co-ordinated. So was access to the street to and from stations. It makes London just amateurish and years behind and pretty hostile to disabled people..

It was a lightening visit – just one day – it involved a visit to major attraction using the underground train system.

While This the cruise terminal was not directly connected to the metro the 250 yard walk from the terminal to the new station was well signposted. It’s served Marina South Pier where more local ferry services run. Getting access was easy . A wide ramp allowed wheelchair access to the station and lifts took you down to the booking hall and platform. The lift came out exactly opposite a carriage on the train which included wheelchair spaces.There was completely level access to the train with a minimal gap. We had to change lines at the next station Marina Bay. Again the system was easy to navigate.

Going out at Bayfront station was easy with lifts to the station entrance and a lift also well used by families with pushchairs to street level.

And then there was a bonus. We were going to the Gardens by the Bay one of Singapore’s newer iconic attractions. And round the corner was a shuttle bus to take you to the centre. But it was no ordinary shuttle bus. It included a ramp so wheelchairs could be hoisted on to the back to enable disabled people to travel in style. They were also testing a driverless vehicle.

Once there the two amazing attractions the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest were easily accessible.The Cloud Forest was particularly impressive with wheelchair accessible lift and always taking you hundreds of feet above the tree, hanging plants and huge waterfalls.The pictures tell the story.

Singapore’s system is copied by the metro in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It also has lifts to platforms and ramps into stations. Unfortunately at the two stations we used half the lifts did not work. And the access to the stations is not straightforward. More like London than Singapore.

Vietnam: The scooter boys in a booming Communist state with a widening wealth gap 

Imagine being dropped in the centre of a huge, unfamiliar vibrant place like Ho Chi Minh City without any local currency or understanding the language. The first thing you might do is look for an ATM to get some local cash. But there is not one in sight.

Then a friendly young guy on a motor scooter who speaks English suggests he can direct you to one which turns out to be round the corner.

You successfully get the money. Then he asks for payment. In the end You give equivalent of £3 and he goes away. As a tourist to the city this happened to me. I was politely fleeced.

The incident is symbolic of the current state of affairs in Vietnam. The loss of £3 was not a huge matter for me but it was a small fortune for him. It illustrates both the gulf between first world tourists and third world countries and the internal divide between the rich and poor in an emerging nation like Vietnam.

The young motor scooter rider is one of the enduring features of Ho Chi Minh City.There are thousands of them desperate and anxious for work and they dominate the roads and the pavements. Trying to negotiate a wheelchair along the pavements I found they were my main competitors for the few ramps that made the streets accessible. The traffic in the city is anarchic and you take your life in your hands to cross the road. Many of scooter riders use the ramps for the disabled to mount the pavement to avoid being held up by traffic lights.

They are at the bottom of a very large pile with shoe shine cleaners and people selling fans to tourists. At the top are wealthy entrepreneurs and property developers in the new Asain tiger.

And a visit to Ho Chi Minh city and a popular seaside resort Nha Trang confirms this. Both are booming with new tower block offices and apartments in the former Saigon and new multi storey hotels in the seaside town.

Ho Chi Minh City still has a number of its original French colonial buildings including the old post office, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an opera house that would not look out of place in Paris.But any idea that the writ of Macron runs here is out of the question. France has left an architectural legacy but not much else.

Instead it is the Japanese,Chinese, Americans and British ( in the shape of banks like HSBC and accountants like KPMG) that dominate the city alongside growing new Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

In Nha Trang a seaside resort that was a favourite relaxation destination for US troops during the Vietnam war it is US and Japanese hotels that are dominating the seafront with at least six new tower block hotels under construction when I visited.

After the American troops left it became a holiday destination for the Russians and Chinese. Now it is seeking a wider tourist market from Asia and even Europe. The resort is not just a cruise ship destination but a major tourist centre in its own right.

The present beautiful uncrowded beach could in future become as crowded as one on the Costa del Sol.

Small shacks with corrugated roofs are cheek by jowl with new luxury hotels in Nha Trang. And in Ho Chi Minh City huge swathes of modern apartments are going up in the city centre which are well beyond the reach of the average Vietnamese worker.

Communism comes in is over property ownership. The concept of private freehold property does not exist. Instead people buy a state licence to occupy the house or flat which can be revoked if the state requires the land for development. People are compensated for having to move and foreigners are restricted to a 50 year occupancy. Some, the guide suggested, get round this by getting a Vietnamese person to “own” it for them.

Most companies expect their staff to work a six day week . Japanese employers are rated the best as they offer staff a five day week.

Vietnam is a country in transition and is aping China. It is an inexpensive holiday destination if you ignore the poverty gap.

By the way the country plans to ban motor scooters from the Ho Chi Minh City by 2030 to combat smog. I wonder where they will go or whether they will succeed.

Murder at the laundrette: A Cunard experience not in the brochure 

Anybody on a world Cunard cruise cannot but be charmed  by the civilised behaviour of the crew and fellow guests. A day does not go by without any guest being encouraged to enjoy themselves by the large crew and fellow guests.Everybody is very considerate and helpful to each other. 

But there is one room in Queen Victoria where all this breaks down. It is called the laundrette. Here the genteel atmosphere throughout the ship evaporates in a mix of soap suds and wet clothes.

The laundrette is one of the few free services on board but there are only two or three machines for 100 or more cabins. And with 700 people going on a 108 day world cruise plus a turnover of some 1300 people at major ports demand is high.

To get a machine normally polite men and women are transformed into duplicitous schemers resorting to any ruse to get their hands on the machines.

When wiley women and aggressive men get going to grab a machine anything goes.

One person even came armed with two fake ” Out of Order ” notices to  attach to a washing machine and a dryer so she could get exclusive use during the voyage. The ruse was discovered when other suspicious guests tried using the machines and found they worked perfectly.

More direct action has involved taking other people’s clothes out of driers and washing machines when the guests using the machines are out of the laundrette.

One poor guest who had just loaded a washing machine and went out to get more dirty clothes came back five minutes later to find another guest had emptied her machine and replaced it with her clothes. By then she had started the machine and the first guest could do nothing about it.

As for men aggression can spill over. One man furious that another guy had taken out his washing turned to the other and said ” How dare you run your fingers through my wife’s knickers “. A fist fight broke out and it is said that Cunard threw both of them off the boat at the next port.

No wonder when you visit the Cunard laundrette you find a line of grim faced men and women guarding their machines with their lives and warning you there is a two hour wait before you need to come back.

So far the ethos of take no prisoners has not yet led to any deaths. But there is still another month on this voyage so anything could happen.

In the meantime nobody has copied the iconic Levi jeans advertisement where a  young guy goes to the laundrette to strip off and put all his  dirty clothes in the machines. But perhaps Cunard’s strict dress code of smart attire after 6.0 pm and a dinner jacket and cocktail dress on gala night puts off people from going to the laundrette in the nude. But again there is still time…