Monday, 19 May 2014

Always catching up, never there on time - Part two

 May is a special month for the family, because both The Better Half (TBH) and the Granddaughter (TG) have birthdays just one day apart. TBH's birthday was an auspicious one since it was divisible by ten, something we humans find significant, probably because we have ten fingers and so can pride ourselves in our ability to count in tens. TBH is quite difficult to buy pressies for and only reluctantly gives out information and clues as to what she really wants and because it was special, I suggested that we do a mini tour of North Wales. She has not been to that part of Wales before and became quite keen on the idea. Because the top end of Wales is significantly closer to TG's home than ours, we decided that it would be nice to end up there in time for TG's birthday and give her a surprise.
The day before we set off my cousin's daughter and granddaughter, had arranged to visit for the day. My cousin's granddaughter wanted some help with a project she was doing and needed a suitable subject to do an interview. I fitted in with the subject of her studies and so she and her mother spent the day with us, stopping for lunch.

On the next day, Sunday, we set off and headed for Porthmadog. The drive was unusually straightforward, with only an average number of morons doing daft things in their cars. To get to the North of Wales from our part of the country we usually travel up the M5 and join the M6 at junction 8. Ever since those two motorways were built, and I am older than them both, that junction has been the most annoyingly difficult place to pass through with traffic queues miles long crawling slowly until you are past junction ten or so. That day, we sailed on through the junction and joined the M6 without even having to slow down. I have never experienced that clear a passage round Birmingham for all the mumblty mumble years I have been driving. Leaving the M6, we followed the M54 to Telford where we stopped for lunch in the services there and then headed on to Shrewsbury. The motorway ends just past there and normal A roads take over. On that last stretch of motorway, the traffic coming the other way seemed to consist of more motorcycles than was reasonable and pretty soon it became clear that something odd was going on.

A lot of motorcycles

More motorcycles

yet more motorcycles

Still more motorcyucles...
The mystery was solved when the TP traffic reporting system kicked in on the radio and it turned out that some four thousand motorcyclists were heading to Cosford, an ex RAF airfield, now a museum. They were all going there for a ‘Bike 4 Life’ rally. Apparently the entry slip road on the motorway had been closed at Wellington to all other traffic to allow the bikers on to it safely. For the next few miles, the other lane was just a mass of motorcycles heading East.
Our next stop was in Llangollen* for a coffee, where there was a coffee/book shop. Parking was problematical, but just by luck, after having unsuccessfully tried several jam packed car parks. with annoying people blocking the exit because they think someone is leaving; we found a space in the high street, which by sheer chance was almost opposite the coffee/book shop. Inside there was the usual demonstration of Terry Pratchett's L space, where a small shop distorts normal space/time to create a tardis like effect with rows and rows of books, and shelves stretching on for many more cubic yards of space than the outside dimensions of the building should allow.

I bought two books and we skipped the coffee, which was less than appetising looking, and went elsewhere for coffee. We then continued on to Porthmadog* to find our hotel.

* For people unfamiliar with Welsh pronunciation, Llangollen is pronounced something like clhangothlyn and the other town, portmaddock, nothing to do with a mad dog. The original Welsh language was never a written language and so I suppose that when it started to be formalised, the people who brought it into the modern world set up a convention for using combinations of Roman characters to produce sounds that are found in spoken Welsh that are not found in English. They also took a number of English words and re-spelled them to make them more Welsh. My apologies to those who can speak Welsh, I realise that my attempt at writing down the pronunciation is almost certainly a bit imprecise.

Once we had checked in to our hotel, we had a meal and then went for a walk around the town. I wanted to show TBH the Cob, which is a long causeway across the river Glaslyn. The Ffestiniog railway also runs across the Cob and at one point curves across the road as an elongated level crossing.

The long level crossing at the end of the Cob

The Ffestiniog railway crosses the Cob

The Cob heading towards Porthmadog
The next morning we checked out and went to Portmeirion. That place has always fascinated me since it was used as the backdrop for the enigmatic and now rather dated TV series, Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’.  I did not at the time know it was a real place and for many years I thought that it had been created just for the TV series and presumed it had been taken down once the series finished. Some years later I discovered it was a real place and was open to the public. I had visited it before and TBH had wanted to see it for herself too.   It was built by Sir Clough Williams Ellis and was based on his idea of an Italian village.  It is now owned by a trust and is used as a hotel and conventions.

The logo from the Prisoner series is still used

The main entrance
The weather was nice and we spent most of the day there wandering around. Near the entrance there was a large vintage car and on closer inspection it turned out to be a Lagonda, a rather expensive make of car which has been in production on and off since 1906. This model was from the 1930s and was attracting a lot of attention.

 As we walked around, we came across another Lagonda ...

and then another and pretty soon it became clear that the hotel was hosting a Lagonda rally and they were everywhere, all shapes and ages.

This time there were not 4,000 like the motorcycles, but there must have been a good proportion of all the Lagondas that still exist in Great Britain present.

Whilst we ate our al fresco lunch, we noticed a robin sitting on the wall only a couple of yards away. It was a baby, almost fully grown and its mother was feeding it every now and then. Both birds were quite unconcerned by our proximity and carried on as if they were alone. In fact the cheeky little one came and scrounged some crumbs from me whilst its mother was away looking for more food for it. When its mother was about to arrive, it hopped back on the wall and pretended it had been there all along and was still very hungry.
The mother bird has an insect.
This time it is a a piece of bread, not so healthy
Some of the gardens in Portmeirion

The round building with the blue alcove is the back of No 6's house
The land is very steep here
Looking along the water front
A small train runs around the wooded paths and visitors can take a ride on it at no extra charge.  It does not run on rails and was rather bumpy, but the landscape it passed through was worth the bumps. At one point it passed by a small lake with a Japanese style bridge and summerhouse.
An ornamental Japanese bridge and the summerhouse is just visible amongst the trees.

 The last time I had been to Portmeirion, The Prisoner and Patrick McGoohan theme was much more apparent, but since the programme has faded from memory, there was very little reference to it, with just a small souvenir shop in what had been in the series, No 6’s room, which sold merchandising from the TV show. There was a plaque over the door and another plaque, right at the far end of the village, to the memory of Patrick McGoohan, who died in 2009 aged 80.
I took this when the sun was in the wrong place, but apart from the logo on the entrance, this is one of the few references still there for the TV series.

The Plaque in memory of Patrick McGoohan

Towards the late afternoon, we drove on to Caernarfon. When I was a kid and well into adulthood, Caernarfon was spelled with a v instead of an f, but since the revival of all things Welsh in the 70s, it has changed. During the 60s, there was a small but noisy group who insisted on making all things Welsh even more Welsh and after a few splinter group terrorist acts, they were listened to by the powers that be and suddenly signposts and place names all became Welsh. Since at the time the majority of Welsh could not speak, let alone read Welsh then, the signs had to be written in both Welsh and English. This is very confusing, since mostly the signs are Welsh first and English second but sometimes the other way around and unless you are very careful, by the time you have read and understood any road sign, you have missed the turning, but that is what the die hard Welsh wanted and so we all have to live with it. 

It must increase the cost of signing and white paint for road markings, since things like Slow, an easy to understand word, written on a road surface must also has to have Araf as well, thus penalising the rate payers of Wales. But I digress.

                                     Can you read all this sign whilst travelling at 70mph?                                  At this time of year all the grass verges are yellow with a strip of dandelions.  None of these colourful strips are planted deliberately, but they seem to be in formal rows.
Meanwhile back at Caernarfon, we found our hotel , parked the car and walked into the town. Caernarfon is a walled town with a castle and this older part of town is quite compact. There are a lot of shops and eating places within the walls in narrow streets.

Looking down from the castle battlements, you can see part of the town wall behind the white and yukky green building at the end of the street.
 The Castle is on one end of the walled part of town and is in very good repair. It is almost complete and was used for Prince Charles’ investiture as the Prince of Wales in 1969.

The platform inside the castle, where the investiture took place is still present.

There was a smaller fortification built some time in the late 11th century but in 1283 King
Edward the first expanded it and built the existing castle.  Caernarfon has always had an important role in Welsh history and at one time applied to become the capital of Wales but its bid was unsuccessful and Cardiff won.
The most impressive view is from the other side of the river. This view is courtesy of Wikipedia
At the end of the day, after walking around Portmeirion all morning, we were not ready to walk around the castle, so we got some fish and chips and returned to our hotel, saving the castle for another day.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Always catching up, never there on time - Part one

May already?
We have been busy busy busy for like forever and now we are coming back down to normal.  I have been preparing two presentations simultaneously for my science group and then we had family staying up to Easter. The weather then became such that we were obliged to do something about the jungle that once was our garden. All the bad weather we had been getting before, whilst it was just the job for weeds, it was not the kind that encourages you into the outside without 'great big waterproof coats and hats on' and wellies etc, to misquote A. A. Milne.
In early April we took a walk around Oxford, the idea stemmed from my science interest U3A group.  Someone decided it would be a nice idea to look at each of the famous names that were associated with some of Oxford’s many colleges.    

One of the typically small streets you encounter close to the older colleges in Oxford

We each had a person to study and planned a walk which would take us past the many plaques that are found where something important happened or someone lived or studied.  
We took the bus which is free, with our bus passes, and which gets to Oxford in about fifty minutes to an hour. It took us through a number of roads that we do not use if heading that way by car, but which were often the only roads pre-bypass days.  The first detour took me right into the main gate of the Royal Military College of Science, the college I used to teach at.  I recalled seeing a bus there and had not taken too much notice, but this time I was interested because of a touch of nostalgia.  I have been retired for some years and had not been inside the college since I left. 

Once at Oxford we headed for the rendezvous point and looked for other members of the U3A.

Oxford is an ancient place with many buildings from different eras.   It also has one of the best bookshops in the world, namely Blackwell’s.  If you are familiar with Terry Pratchett’s concept of ‘L’ space, Blackwell’s is a very good example.  For those not aware of Mr Pratchett’s scientific breakthrough, it is as follows.  When a large enough quantity of books are collected together in one place, the presence of so much information distorts space and creates a new kind of space, which he has dubbed L-space.  Wherever L-space exists, such as inside small second hand bookshops or places like Blackwell’s, the interior becomes larger than the exterior. You can find this effect in many small looking second hand bookshops throughout the world, where the amount of books inside the seemingly small shop is much larger than the outside suggests.

Queens College Oxford
Oxford, land of the bicycle
Our day in Oxford was warm and dry, the kind of weather we had not seen for some time. Walking around the town we systematically went from plaque to plaque looking at the colleges and houses where notable people had lived, worked or studied.   One place which was interesting was where the old Jewish graveyard had been. This had been destroyed and built over many centuries ago and now has a plaque in both English and Yiddish telling the story of how this came about and how it is now restored as a monument.
My particular personage was sir Edmund Halley, the man who first discovered that some comets were periodic and successfully predicted the return of what has now become known as Halley’s Comet.  He studied at Queens College Oxford and lived in a small house nearby when he became a Savilian Professor of Geometry.  Geometry meant Maths at the time and he had the necessary skills.  It had required complex calculations to predict the return of his comet.
Sir Edmund Halley's house

Although I have lived close to Oxford for many years, the walk took me places I had not seen before and I discovered a number of nooks and crannies that I had passed by previously.  One new place was the grounds of the College of St Edmund, where a statue of St Edmund of Abingdon has been placed, sitting on a stone seat.   He taught at Oxford around 1200, but did not get into theology until 1222.
St Edmund of Abingdon still studying hard

This stone commemorates the famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, debate with Charles Darwin on the Origin of Species.  The stone stands outside the natural History Museum where the debate took place in 1860.
We finished up inside the Natural History Museum and then after a coffee and bun rest stop, wended our way back to the bus stop to catch the bus home.

A few days later, just before Easter, the family were staying with us and on a really nice day, we all went to Buscot Park. 

This is a house and grounds run by the National Trust, but lived in and managed by the present Lord Faringdon.   The grounds are impressive with walks and lakes, an ornamental stream and formal gardens.  It contains lots of interesting places to see within the grounds and house and we spent all day there.
Buscot House
 Inside the grounds there is a large walled garden, with fruit trees and a variety of different flowers.
The walled garden

An espalier apple tree
 Trees trained to grow against a wall are known as espaliers.

 Against one wall on an out building we saw a masonary bee nest, with a cloud of bees coming and going around the entrance.
 Around the grounds tthere are long walks on formal paths, stretching off in all directions.
 A long ornamental pond with a waterfall leads down to the lake.

One of the inhabitants of the ornamental pond

Another tree lined path
One end of the lake

A gnarled tree
 Chris' recent picture put me in mind of this tree.
There were lots of trees and shrubs in bloom
 Strangest of all were the terracotta warriors which line one path.  Unfortunately we were too early and they still had their frost protection on.

We were very lucky with the weather and walked ourselves to a standstill and still did not see everything.

Soon after that it was Easter and after Easter, we had more family visiting and finally it was nearly May. To be continued...