Friday, 21 July 2017

Another Year, Another Reunion

This time it took place in Hull, City of Culture 2017.

Hull town centre
We would not normally have been able to make it had there not been an eclipse due in August, but due to my desire to see a total eclipse first hand and also due to the fact that it was going to pass very close to TS’s (The Son’s) abode in Kansas, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss and most of the family involved agreed. So, not being in the USA in June, off we went to Hull. The hotel we were booked into was the oddly named Lazaat hotel a little way out of Hull and that was our first destination.
Driving up was easy, being a Sunday the roads were free of most of the larger vehicles and for a change, there were few roadworks, although the lower part of the M1 had a 50mph stretch.

Once there we gathered in the hotel meeting old friends as they arrived until it was time to eat. After the meal, our group organiser had arranged for a local lad to give a talk on the history of Hull. What the poor man did not seem to realise was that firstly no one but the organiser and his wife had ever been to Hull and secondly that we were all professional presenters, and he was not. Although we were too polite to mention what a crap performance he made, it was not completely uninteresting and we were able to find some of the places he was talking about whilst we toured around the town the next day.

The next morning we set off for Hull town centre, where we parked in the Princes Quay Shopping Centre, a modern shopping mall with a car park that has no barriers or ticket machines but works by number plate recognition. We had taken two of our crowd with us, to save the number of cars being used and we all decided to head for The Deep.

We had been advised to take the road train, which is a hop on hop off tourist guide. This takes you in a circular tour that included The Deep which is an aquarium and we decided to hop off there.

 The commentary on the road train is canned and aimed at the average four year old with an interest in historic buildings that look like owls. It was very loud, so everyone could hear you coming and get out of the way of what was obviously a bunch of tourists. The ride was interesting both from the point of view of the commentary, although ear plugs would be useful, and the state of the suspension of the train. Every time the train went over a speed bump, there was a lurch and then a bump followed by another lurch as each carriage went over it.
The building that the road train commentary claimed looked like an owl
At one point we all had to join in a singing competition, which set each coach load of passengers competing against each other. Unfortunately whilst the canned commentary was aimed at three coaches, that particular day only two coaches were attached. So the singers in coach two seemed to be strangely quiet all the way through the competition. We separated from our two passengers, arranging to meet up around four PM. From the Deep, we walked back into town, since it meant waiting for about forty minutes for the train and anyway it was a nice day and no obligation to sing on the way.

 Hull is an interesting city with a lot of odd buildings that have been spared the demolition man in a random sort of way. Of course, one of the demolition men was a German called Schicklegruber or something who took a dislike to whole buildings in England on general principle. Hull claims to be one of the most bombed cities in England and did suffer a disproportionate number of casualties during that conflict.

One of the interesting features of Hull is Holy Trinity Square, outside Hull Minster. Several flag stones have a very shallow pool of water over them to form a reflecting pool at intervals all across the square.
One of the reflecting pools in Holy Trinity Square

 After walking around the town centre for a while, we took the road train and stuck with it until we had done the entire circular tour. By that time it was around four PM and we made contact with our passengers and we all headed back to the hotel.
That evening, instead of eating in the hotel, we all went to Papa’s Fish and Chips, a really good fish and chips restaurant, which is much more than just a chippy. It is a little way out of Hull, on the A164. The meal was one of the best of its kind I have had for some time and well worth a visit if you are in the area.

On the second day we returned to Hull without any passengers this time. In town we walked to the museum quarter where there are four separate museums, one of which is a trawler, the Arctic Corsair. After doing just one museum, we were pooped and ready for a sit down, well I was anyway. So we had a sandwich in a local café and then once recuperated, we walked into town to the People’s museum. This is centred on the two world wars and was quite tiny, consisting of a single room inside a shop. After a short look around, we encountered a man sat at a computer who asked the Better Half if she had any relatives who served in WWI. Since her grandfather had been one of the fallen in WWI, we then spent an informative half hour being shown various records, including his grave in Amara.

 Our last visit was to see the smallest window in the world. This is in an hotel and must have been impossible to see if you did not know it was there. There are various legends about what it was used for, from avoiding the press gang when they were in the area, to spotting when a coach had arrived at the hotel and getting ready to receive guests. Without the plaque it would be dismissed as a deep slot between two bricks and never recognised as a window.

The vertical slot is the window
That evening, we went to eat at The Humber Bridge Country Hotel, which is in Lincolnshire on the south side of the Humber. This meant that we had to cross the famous Humber bridge, which is a toll bridge but not as expensive as the Severn crossing.

The hotel is set by a lake and is a really pleasant spot with views across the lake from the dining room.  The meal was really nice, but there was some problems with service, since they did not have a full staff on duty for reasons beyond their control and some meals were a bit delayed.  However, the meals were worth the wait.

The view of the lake from the hotel
On the last day, we said our farewells and headed off for home under the most appalling conditions. The motorways were saturated and there was dense spray, particularly around lorries, so the journey was not as relaxing as the journey to Hull.  On top of that, we heard on the radio that the M42 was blocked, so we kept on the M1 and went home via Oxford.  There is not a lot of difference in mileage, but the M1 had a 50 mph limit most of the way to our turn off.

Besides that, we encountered four wide loads at different times along our route, which caused the traffic to bunch up and slow down on each occasion. When we finally got home, I started to come down with a cold and for the next few days was as weak as a kitten and did not feel much like doing anything but sit and feel sorry for myself.  It was not such a bad cold, but it seemed to knock me sideways, probably a result of getting old. As a result, this blog post is a bit late and has formed a queue as other events have piled up which are worth blogging.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A sudden day out

The weather report said Monday was going to be a sunny day, so being retired and having done all our chores on Saturday and Sunday, and like Mr Mole in the Wind in the Willows we decided not to waste a lovely spring day and so on the spur of the moment we went out for the day.
Having an annual pass for Blenheim Palace, we headed off to Oxfordshire and the village of Woodstock.

Getting out of the car, the wind seemed a little fresher than we had expected, but it soon warmed up. The grounds of BP are so vast, in the years we have been visiting there, we have never done it all, so there is plenty of scope to find something new each visit.
The first stop was the cafe for some coffee.

We then strolled around the gardens.

 To get to the larger gardens, you have to go through the main building and then through this ornamental garden

You can then either go down by the lake or along past the South Lawn to the far side of the grounds.

One of the local residents

A spring idyll, sunshine, daffodils in the foreground and sheep grazing in the distance

The parkland has a large variety of different trees

The house viewed from the south

Not a well kept secret
After this walk, it was lunch time and we ate in the Water Terrace Cafe.  The meal was not exceptional but better than a motorway service stop.

After lunch, we then walked off in a different direction heading for the weir. 

On the way we passed all this blossom
Last time we were there, the weir was not running very fast owing to a lack of rain, but today it was trying hard to imitate Niagara. 
This year the weir was flowing well

Last year,
Walking back, we passed under this tree, which was literally buzzing with activity as several dozen bees were gathering pollen.

A bumblebee working hard

I am glad that I do not have to find my lunch in such an undignified manner.
The amusing thing about this posture is that they keep flapping their feet, even though they are in the air and so gives them no purchase.

After that, we were walked out and so around three, we started back for home.
On the  way, I was reminded that this is the time of year when you can see where the local houses dumped their garden waste when no one was looking. 
Feral daffodils
If you look at the ditch opposite a house in a country lane, you will often see daffodils growing there in the spring. Sometimes in the ditch or just on the edge of it.  When gardeners dig over a flower bed, it is not unusual to accidentally dig up a few bulbs that were planted there and disposing of the waste soil, they get disposed of too.  If the gardener decides to dump their rubbish in the nearby ditch, rather than find somewhere to dump in on his own land, a few months later up come the daffodils.  So you find these little clumps of daffs at intervals along country lanes opposite a lonely cottage or two.  Just occasionally you will find an isolated bunch where there is now no house.  This show where there was once a farm hand's cottage.   In the 60s, you would often see an old abandoned cottage which once housed a farm hand and his family, but since farms have become more and more mechanised, these workers were no longer needed.  In those days, people were moving away from the country and so a small isolated cottage with poor accommodation and maybe no bathroom, no mains water or gas, were not saleable. So they remained empty and fell into disrepair, to the point where it was more economical to pull them down and plough up the land they occupied rather than repair them.
Lastly, this sign has always made me wonder.  It is not the thing you expect to find in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, but it is a rather specialist zoo and does in fact hold a collection of crocodiles and related species from all over the world.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A trip to Oxford

This week, our daughter in law is over in England on a business trip. On Saturday, The Better half and I met up with her in Oxford and we spent the day there together. We were able to park in the out of town Park and Ride, which is very close to the hotel they were staying in and meeting up there, we took the bus into town together.
The standard tourist's view of Oxford.  But it was a sunny day and it was just the right light for a photograph.
We wandered around the town centre and visited Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famous book shop.

This place if you have never been there, works entirely within the physics of Terry Pratchett’s ‘L space’, in as much, that when sufficient books are collected together space time is distorted and the inside of a library or in this case, book shop is much larger than the outside. The store front in no way tells you how large the interior is.
My ruck sack became a little heavier after our visit there, but being a nice sunny day for a change, from there we went for a walk around Christchurch Meadows. The river was a lot higher than usual, having had a week of rain on and off.

The river at Christchurch Meadows

The ducks and the snowdrops were both out
 After a second small foray into the shopping centre, we met up with her work colleagues.

The idea was to eat in Eagle and Child, a pub where Tolkien and C S Lewis used to spend their drinking time together, but it was very crowded, so we went across the road to the Lamb and Flag, to wait until everyone had arrived.  The Lamb and Flag is a pub that does not serve food, so once everyone had arrived and had a drink, every now and then someone would cross the road to see if a table had become free.  Eventually the crowd had thinned enough in the Eagle and Child for us to find a table for five.

Great Pub Grub 
 After we had eaten, we then took the Park and Ride bus back to where our car was and leaving them at their hotel, we returned home.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Good by 2016 and Good Riddance

Well that is Christmas over and we have finally gotten rid of the Christmas tree.

Now well into the New Year, I have finally gotten around to my New Years blog.  What a year 2016 has been, with its ups and downs.
 Early in the year things went well for me and my eyesight has never been so good after my cataracts operation. But then The Son In Law broke his hip and then things went from bad to worse. The media was repeatedly reporting the deaths of so many well-known people who had long been a part of my life and the sad loss of my oldest cousin Pat, have made 2016 the year of loss.

Added to all that is the Brexit fiasco, with our esteemed leaders demonstrating their complete and utter inability to organise a piss up at a brewery, let alone an ordered and well informed referendum.

 Then Donald Trump got nominated as President Elect in the USA, making Brexit look like a better deal in comparison than we first thought.

 Meanwhile some of the worst humanitarian conditions since WWII have been spiralling out of control all around the third world and in particular as a few selfish people whip up bloody murder in the Middle East.

So 2016, was not such a great year, let us hope that 2017 will show some changes for the better.

Friday, 18 November 2016

It’s been a funny day...

The Better Half (TBH) has for some time been meaning to find out more about her grandfather who died during the First World War. TBH’s family understood that he was in what was then known as Mesopotamia when he died and a few years ago we went to the WWI museum in Kansas City, where despite it being the USA’s national WWI museum, we found a fair amount of information on his British regiment. There, we discovered that his regiment had been captured at Kut, which is not too far from Baghdad in the country now known as Iraq. For some reason, apart from Lawrence of Arabia which was made into a rather over simplified and dramatised movie, the war in the Middle East is largely forgotten. In our search for more information, a couple of summers ago, we went to the War Museum in London. There we were disappointed to find the same attitude to this important part of the war and only a tiny part of the exhibits were from that theatre of the war. I do understand that the losses on the Western front were so massive that it is hard to comprehend, but a lot of British troops, not necessarily from Great Britain were lost in those Eastern campaigns too. Since our visit in the museum in Kansas, TBH has been quietly chipping away at the research using the Internet to find out more.

Because her grandfather was in The Royal Gloucester regiment, she has been meaning to go to their museum for some while now to see what they know. This is down by the Quays in Gloucester and not too far away from our home.

 We finally decided that today was the day.

When we arrived in Gloucester we had great difficulty finding somewhere to park and the Quays car park was so busy they had people in high viz jackets controlling the cars which was unusual and we finally found a space on floor 4, which is not usually available to the public. The lift we got into with five other people started flashing the ‘overloaded’ warning, despite claiming to be able to hold 13 people. A couple who were last in reluctantly got out and the lift was able to descend. On the shopping level, the place was heaving and as we left the shopping mall, we discovered that there was a Christmas Market with stalls and wooden huts all around the docks. This accounted for the huge crowds we had been encountering and the lack of parking.

A part of the Christmas Market

This unusual cafe claims it can be hired for weddings and such like.
Following the maps, which to their credit, Gloucester council had placed all around the Quay area we were able to find the approximate location of the museum, but the maps were somewhat misleading and it took a little more exploration and intuition to actually find the entrance to the museum. Having circled the building, we found the front entrance was in full view most of the way we had come and facing us.
The museum building in full view
 We may have noticed it if we had not been concentrating on looking for signposts and maps. The museum was quite small but covered the various Gloucester Regiment’s activities from its year of formation to date.
One of the services provided by the museum is to help find information about relatives who have served in the regiment. This incurs a small fee and TBH found the right person to talk to who did a quick search for her grandfather’s records.

 At this point, it came on to rain.

That simple statement in no way expresses what actually happened. Noah would have been unsurprised by the deluge that came on, but we were all absolutely astounded.

It rained so hard that the steps we had walked down a few minutes before to get to the entrance, turned into a waterfall and anything not fixed down was swept around by the gusting wind or floated off as the water poured down into the dock. Hail formed a snowdrift against a nearby wall and the roof of the museum started to leak so badly water began to pour all over the stands in the front of the gift shop.
It is not easy to see through the wet glass and of course my camera auto-focused on the raindrops and I was not going outside for a better shot, but the steps are pouring water like an ornamental waterfall in  the gardens of a stately home

This lid off a rubbish bin was floating along on the flood, but did not quite get swept into the dock
Fortunately it did not last very long and the rest of the museum remained watertight, but it was fearful whilst it lasted.
A concerted effort by the staff soon cleared away the wet displays and mopped up the wet floor and business got back to usual and TBH was able to arrange for the museum to do a search for her grandfather’s military records, which will be sent to our home in due course.
We then toured the museum, which has a number of interesting interactive displays, and after seeing all the exhibits headed for an as yet unspecified venue for lunch.

No it is not Hagrid, just someone on stilts as a part of the 'fun' for the Christmas shoppers
Since Gloucester was heaving with all the Christmas Market shoppers, we decided to go out of town as soon as we could and look for somewhere that would not be so busy. After some discussion and a look at a nearby garden centre, we decided to go to a much nicer garden centre called Highfield that we often use when in the area because the food is good. We found the place considerably less crowded than Gloucester and we were able to get a really nice carvery meal. After eating we took a short look around the garden part of the garden centre and bought a small shrub for the front garden and then headed home. We have a problem with the local foxes who seem to treat our front garden as a public toilet and we would like to discourage them. The shrub we bought has some rather spiny holly-like leaves and it will be planted in the centre of a group of medium sized boulders which we hope will outfox the foxes and force them to find somewhere else for their business.
After the rain had stopped the sun came out and, although puddles everywhere, the journey home through the Gloucestershire countryside was really nice and autumnal.

 All in all, a strange day.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Late Christmas Present

For Christmas last year, one of our friends gave us an ‘experience’ gift, which was a trip to the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover. We were not able to redeem this gift until September, so a few weeks after we had come back from our holiday in Yorkshire, we set off to the vicinity of Andover.

This is a familiar route for me because I used it for a number of different reasons. One was when my No 1 son was on a sandwich year from university in 1997. He had got a placement with an American based computer company and spent a very productive year writing programmes for them. He was able to make their version of the DRDOS operating system year 2000 compliant and added other features to the kernel which boggled his course tutor when he returned to University. He had done things which demonstrated a very very deep understanding of computer systems, which I suspect from his tutor's response, was well outside his tutor’s own comfort zone. Writing changes into an operating system kernel is complex and not something even the most computer savvy people could attempt so it is something that makes me very proud of my No 1 Son.

Before that, in the 1980s I used to use this route to drive down to the IBA engineering department . The organisation that determined the broadcast standards for the ITV companies. I was able to keep up to date in my field of endeavour by attending lectures and demonstrations of new developments, such as satellite and digital TV, something they were well ahead of before Sky was launched. A European standard had been developed which was far superior to the, by then, antiquated PAL colour system and they were all set to roll out the new standard across all of the UK and Europe when the owner of Sky pre-empted everyone by launching the first Astra satellite and going ahead without official sanction using PAL broadcasts. This action allowed him to capture such a large customer base, that no one else could compete and singlehandedly he set Europe back about fifteen years technologically speaking and it was not until digital TV started that we got back on course. If he had stuck to the rules, we could have had high definition wide screen TV by 1990, but going ahead with the old technology Sky created a virtual monopoly and squeezed other services out of the market. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width.’

Anyway, so I knew the way to Andover and off we went. The Hawk Conservancy Trust is just off the A303, a major road that eventually passes Stonehenge and in yet another era of my working life, I used to commute past there on my way to Blandford when I worked for the Royal Signals.

Long before you get that far west, the turn off for the Hawk Conservancy is down a single track lane and we arrived in good time. The day was cloudy but dry and we were able to wander around the enclosures before the flying demonstrations took place.

Not one of the flying display, just a local inhabitant resting on a fence
There were several venues within the large area covered by the Conservancy and several different flying demonstrations were to take place throughout the day.

One of the weekend events which we did not see since we were there n a weekday
We headed for the first one, which was the African experience. This shows a number of birds from that continent, including a Fish Eagle catching fish from the small lake, a Secretary bird killing a rubber snake, Vultures, Sacred Ibis and White Storks. They also produced a mock bush fire with hawks catching prey as the smoke drove insects up into the air.

A Fish Eagle heading in for a catch at about 90mph

Clutching his prey the eagle flies off leaving a trail of water droplets

The Secretary Bird has a really long stride

I've done my act, where's my reward?

Sacred Ibis in flight

Getting fed

Add caption

An African White Stork
African Vulture
The handlers told us that these vultures are facing extinction in Africa.  This they told us this is because of poachers.  When they kill an elephant or rhino for the ivory or horn, the vultures start to home in on the kill and a flock of circling vultures can be seen for a very long way.  This makes it obvious to the local police there are poachers in the area. Because of this, the poachers have been lacing the corpses with poison to kill off the vultures and they have been so successful, that these birds are now endangered.

Smoke is made to simulate a bush fire

This hawk is able to catch insects in a real bush fire, but here is having food thrown for it to catch
The whole event was very well run and we all agreed that we had never seen so many birds in a single flying event.

 When this was over we found our way to the next event in another arena, which again has a whole range of birds, Vultures Hawks and Eagles. There was the familiar demonstration of a hawk catching prey whirled around on a cord by the handler and a flock of vultures which were encouraged to buzz the crowd by flying low over them, making people duck.

An Eagle in flight

This hawk catches the lure

It is then allowed to eat it

A vulture buzzes the crowd

There were three of them flying over the crowd and making people duck

 The last event in this show was a whole bunch of hawks trying to catch pieces of meat which were shot into the air by catapult.

They sometimes got locked together grabbing the same piece of food, but let go before they reached the ground
The number of birds in the air at any one time was many more than I have ever seen and the whole thing was really well run.  The sky was by this time getting rather dark and as we left this arena it started to rain and we hurried into the café for lunch. Whilst we were eating the rain went from large widespread drops to torrential and we were glad the weather had conveniently timed itself to rain at lunch time.

By the time we had finished lunch, the rain had stopped and we went around the parts of the Conservancy we had not seen so far. Later there was yet another flying demonstration, this time with owls and we all sat on plastic bin bags that had been handed out, to prevent getting wet from the now thoroughly wet seats. The owls performed well, but the owl’s arena was under trees and the sky was still cloudy, so the light was not sufficient to capture very good pictures of them flying.

The owls were also trained to buzz the crowd, but much more silently than the vultures

After that, we spent a while looking around the gift shop and then we went home. I also found that a Conservancy baseball cap had somehow found its way into my shopping basket, not sure how…

Altogether a great experience and I would recommend it to anyone for an enjoyable day’s outing.