Anniversary at Wriggles Brook

Three weeks ago was (give or take a few weeks because we’ve never bothered with accuracy) the end of Ruth and I’s 8th year together, and we marked the ocassion with a mini-break away for a few nights. We spent the first two nights in a ‘showman’-style gypsy caravan in Herefordshire, and it was amazing enough that I wanted to share it with you:

'Showman' caravan at Wriggles Brook
It wasn’t quite dusk yet, but we couldn’t resist the urge to light the fire (and the dozens of tiny lanterns).

The place we went was Wriggles Brook, a ‘glamping’-style site in the shadow of the Forest of Dean. In a long field that twists its way alongside a babbling brook, the owners have set up a trio of traditional horse-drawn caravans, each in a wooded clearing that isolates it from the others. Two of the caravans are smaller, designed just for couples (who are clearly the target market for this romantic getaway spot), but we took the third, larger, (centenarian!) one, which sported a separate living room and bedroom.

Annabel in wellies stomps through the orchard at Wriggles Brook.
Between our caravan and the others the owners grew a varied orchard, which Annabel found particularly interesting. By which I mean delicious.

The bedroom was set up so that children could be accomodated in a bunk under the adults (with their own string of fairy lights and teeny-tiny windows, but after she bumped her head on the underside of the beams Annabel decided that she didn’t want to sleep there, so we set up her travel cot in the living room.

Dan and Annabel on the hammock.
Annabel and I swinging on a hammock near the serpentine stream. She clearly misinterpreted the word roots, and spent the entire trip calling it a “hat-cot”.

So yeah: a beautiful setting, imaginative and ecologically-friendly accomodation, and about a billion activities on your doorstep. Even the almost-complete lack of phone signal into the valley was pretty delightful, although it did make consulting Google Maps difficult when we got lost about 20 minutes out from the place! But if there’s one thing that really does deserve extra-special mention, it’s the food!

Steam train in the Forest of Dean.
Nearby activities include steam trains. That’s all I needed to hear, really.

Our hosts were able to put on a spectacular breakfast and evening meal for us each night, including a variety of freshly-grown produce from their own land. We generally ate in their mini dining room – itself a greenhouse for their grapevines – but it was equally-nice to have pancakes delivered to the picnic table right outside our caravan. And speaking as somebody who’s had their fair share of second-rate veggie breakfasts over the last… what, four and a half years?… it was a great relief to enjoy a quite-brilliant variety of vegetarian cuisine from a clearly-talented chef.

A speed bump sign in heavy undergrowth.
I’m not sure why the Wriggles Brook site has ocassional signs like this sticking out of the undergrowth, but they sort-of fit the eccentricity of the place.

So yeah – five stars for Wriggles Brook in Herefordshire if you’re looking for an awesome romantic getaway, with or without an accompanying toddler. Ruth and I later palmed the little one off on JTA so that we could have a night away without her, too, which – while fun (even if we didn’t get to try all 280+ gins at the restaurant we ate at) – wasn’t quite so worthy of mention as the unusual gypsy-caravan-escape that had preceeded it. I’m hoping that we’ll get out to Wriggles Brook again.

The Right Place At The Right Time

I spent last week in the French Alps with JTA, Ruth, Annabel, and some hangers-on. It was great to get out onto the snow again for some skiing as well as some ski-based geocaching, but perhaps the most remarkable events of the trip happened not on the pistes but on an “afternoon off” that I decided to take after a rather jarring 42km/h (26mph) faceplant earlier in the day.

Dan at the summit of Tougnète, near Méribel. Pardon the wonky horizon: Robin took the photo. Also: Alps happened.
A great thing about taking a GPSr for snowsports is that you know exactly how fast you were going (my record is 101km/h!) when you crash.

Not to be deprived of the opportunity for some outdoors, though, I decided to spend the afternoon hiking out to villaflou, a geocache only about a kilometre and a half away from our chalet. Well: a kilometre and a half as the crow flies: it was also some distance down the steep-sided Doron de Bozel valley, through a wooded area. But there was, in theory at least, a hiking trail winding its way down the valley. The trail was clearly designed for summer use, but it was a trail nonetheless, so I ate a hearty lunch with Ruth and then set out from La Tania to explore.

A hiking trail sign outside of La Tania, covered in snow.
Signposts marking the trail were supposed to stand six feet tall, but barely stuck out atop the drifts… where I could find them at all!

It quickly became apparent that I was underequipped for the journey ahead. With the freshly-fallen soft snow routinely knee-deep and sometimes deeper still, I would have done well to have taken at the very least snow shoes (and, I’d later conclude, perhaps also poles and rope). I was, however, properly dressed with thermal layers, salopettes, multiple pairs of gloves, hat, etc., and – unlike Rory when he got caught out by snow the other year – was at least equipped with two fully-charged GPS devices (and spare batteries), tightly-fitted boots, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. And as the only hiker foolish enough to cut my way through this freshly-fallen snow, my tracks would be easy to follow back, should I need to.

The snow-covered "path" from La Tania to La Nouvaz.
Walking through knee-deep snow is tiring, even downhill! Beautiful, though!

Nonetheless, it’s quite an isolating feeling to be stranded from civilization… even if only by half a kilometre… surrounded by snowy mountains and silent woodland. If you’re approaching the hike in a safe and sane way – and you should be – then it makes you especially careful about even the simplest of obstacles. Crossing a small stream whose bridge is completely concealed beneath the snow becomes a careful operation involving probing the snow and testing the support it provides before even beginning to ford it: a turned ankle could lead to at the very least an incredibly painful hike back!

Needless to say, my caution around snow and mountains has been expanded by not only Rory’s scary experience, linked above, but also of course by my dad’s death almost three years ago, who slipped on snow and fell off a cliff. And he was hiking in Britain!

This photo should be titled "La Nouvaz Reservoir". Can you see the reservoir? No? It's under that pile of snow on the right!
After my hike down from La Tania, I was pleased to pass through La Nouvaz, a small alpine village that indicated that I was over half-way to my destination.

The village of La Nouvaz, half-way as the crow flies between my accommodation and the geocache (and over half-way by my planned route), was beautiful to behold: a sign of civilization after about an hour of hard wading through snow. Even when you’ve used satellites to know your location accurate to a metre, it’s nice to be reassured that your expedition really is panning out as you’d planned.

A family of Luxembourgers were trying to drive up this road as I came back across it, on my way back. Their wheels span as they failed to get traction. I noted that all of the local cars, parked in the village, had snow chains.
The “road” into La Nouvaz had been ploughed that morning, but was already becoming treacherous.

I also now had a metric to translate the journey time estimates that I’d seen on the signs: it was taking me about three times as long as they said, presumably because they’d been written for summer hikers. The segment that had been advertised as 20 minute walk was taking me an hour: that was useful information – I sat with a friendly dog while I recalculated my travel time with this new data. There was a blizzard blowing across the mountaintops (which had been partially-responsible for my faceplant in the morning!) and I’d heard that it was expected to descend into the valley in the early evening, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out in the open when that happened! But everything was okay, and I had time to complete my expedition with two hours to spare (which I reasoned could be used hunting for the geocache, as well as a emergency reserve), so I pressed on.

I'm pretty sure that I wasn't on the path any more, at this point. But then, when the path was buried under over a metre of snow, is it really still a path?
The trail become more well-concealed as I pressed on. Here was my first sight of the hamlet of Villaflou, ahead.

After La Nouvaz, the path became even harder to navigate, and in the thinner tree cover huge drifts formed where underneath there were presumably walls and fences. At one point, I slipped through snow that came up to my waist, and had to dig my way out. At another, I’d deviated from the path and was only able to get back on course by sliding down a snowbank on my bum. And honestly, I can’t think of a more fun way than that to spend a Narnian hiking trip.

Only one chimney smoked in villaflou. I never saw another soul there, though.
The hamlet at Villaflou – nothing more than a couple of buildings clustered around a chapel – is as picturesque as it is remote.

My GPS coordinates took me directly to the pump and trough in the square at Villaflou, and I spent some time (in my thinner pair of gloves) feeling around its metal edges in an effort to find the small magnétique geocache that was allegedly there. But that’s not where it was at all, and honestly, if I hadn’t just spent two hours hiking through deep snow I might now have had the drive to search for as long as I did! As I hunted, I thought back to my GCSE in French and tried to work out how I’d explain what I was doing to anybody who came by, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, my efforts paid off, as I discovered a small metal plate in a cunning hiding place, disguised to make it look like it belonged to the thing it was attached to… and behind it, a log with just four names. And now: mine was fifth!

Still bloody deep, mind.
The snow was a lot less-deep in Villaflou itself, and had clearly been stamped down by locals moving around.

I texted my revised travel times to Ruth, and then set off back. Following my footsteps made the journey less-arduous, but this was compensated for in equal measure by the fact that I was now heading uphill instead of down.

As I passed through La Nouvaz, I noticed two strange things –

  • Firstly: looking back up at the route I’d come down, from La Tania, I saw that there was a signpost that indicated that the recommended route back wasn’t the route that I’d come to begin with. The recommended route was the other way, to the left, and would only take me about 30 minutes (or, based on my recalculation, about an hour and a half).
  • And secondly: looking along this proposed new route, I observed that somebody had taken it since I passed this way last. There had been no tracks on that route before, but now there were, and looking up the mountainside I could make out the heads of two hikers bobbing away over a rise.
Not pictured: my beard, full of frost, and my hat, frozen into a solid lump.
Meanwhile, the blizzard was starting to descend into the valley, so I was certainly keen to try the “preferred” route.

I followed in the footsteps of the other hikers: it’s a great deal easier to follow than to lead, in deep snow, and I was glad to be able to save the energy. I treated myself to a swig from my hip flask as congratulations on finding the geocache and my good fortune in being able to tail some other hikers heading my way. But my celebration was perhaps premature! About twenty minutes later, I caught up with the two women ahead, and they clearly weren’t doing very well.

They’d come up to La Tania from Paris, accompanied by some friends, for a long weekend. Their friends had gone off skiing, but they hadn’t been able to join them because they were both pregnant (four months and six months), and no doctor on Earth would recommend skiing after the first trimester, so instead they’d decided to go out for a walk. There was a circular walk on a map that they’d seen, which looked like it’d take about an hour, so they’d set out (wearing little more snow protection than wellington boots, and one of them without even a hat), following what looked to be a well-trodden footpath: in fact, it was probably the first part of my outbound journey, from La Tania to La Nouvaz, that they’d followed, “overtaking” me when I left the route to head on to Villaflou and the geocache.

And seriously: who's at the end of their second trimester and thinks that hiking though waist-deep snow down an unmarked trail up the side of an Alp, in winter, is a good idea?
The two women had been taking turns to lead, having also discovered how much easier it is to follow in somebody else’s footsteps, but I wonder how well-equipped to ‘lead’ either of them really were.

On the ascent back up they’d gotten lost – there are no good waypoints, the path is unclear, and the encroaching blizzard hampering the ability to pick out distance landmarks. They’d wandered – it turned out – several hundred metres off where the path should have gone, and I’d made the mistake of assuming that they knew what they were doing and followed them the same way. Worse yet, this ‘alternative’ path back to La Tania didn’t feature on any of my digital maps, and these two severely-underequipped mothers-to-be were struggling with inadequate grip on the slippy ground beneath the snow. When I first encountered them, one of them had slid into and was trapped in a snowdrift, and the other called me over to help her pull her friend free.

Between them, they had a paper map designed for casual summer use, and they’d realised their predicament. Were I not there, they confessed (once we’d established a dialogue somewhere between their shaky English and my very shaky French), they were about to start trying to find sufficient landmarks that they could summon rescue. Instead, now, they’d put themselves into my care. “We do not want to die,” said the one I later learned was called Vicki, after a few seconds consideration of the translation.

Spoiler: yes, this was a path. This photo was taken before I met the lost women and was still under my own solo navigational strategy.
Is this a path? Was it?

I plotted us a new course, cross-country up an aggressive slope towards the nearest road and thus, I hoped, towards civilization. I lead the way, tamping down the snow ahead as best I could into steps, and bemoaned my lack of a rope. I texted updates to Ruth, advising her of the situation and in each one establishing when I’d next be in contact, and as the women began to tire, prepared for the possibility that I might need to eventually relay coordinates to a rescue team: I practised my French numbers, under my breath, as we weaved our way up the steep mountainside.

I wonder how many signposts we would have seen had we been on the correct course to begin with? The route looked completely buried, from where we stood.
After hours out on a mountainside, not sure exactly where you are in relation to a safe route home, this is a sight for sore eyes.

A hundred metres from the road the gradient became worse and we were unable to climb any higher, so we turned towards La Tania and tacked alongside it. There, about an hour and a half after I first met them, we found a signpost that indicated that we were back on the footpath: the footpath that they’d originally hoped to follow but found themselves unable to spot, and which – by following in their footsteps – I too had failed to spot.

The main roads, like this one, were being ploughed about once every hour or two to keep the rapidly-falling snow at bay.
Finally reaching the main road, Vicki and Marine were pleased to be able to get back to their hotel and not die out on a mountainside.

Following that, we got back to the road to La Tania and to safety.

I find myself wondering many things. For one: who, at six months pregnant, thinks it’s a wise idea to trek through deep snow, underequipped, from a bad map, over an Alp? But I also wonder what might have happened if I’d have taken the same route back as I’d taken out to my geocache (and thus never bumped into them)? Or even if I’d not have faceplanted earlier in the day and thus decided to take the afternoon off from skiing at all? They weren’t ever far from safety, of course, and while the weather was rapidly becoming hostile to helicopters, they’d have probably been rescued so long as they’d been able to describe their position adequately (and so long as they didn’t keep wandering in the direction they’d been wandering when I met them, which would ultimately have taken them to a sheer cliff), but still…

So yeah: on my holidays, I rescued two lost pregnant hikers from an Alpine blizzard, while returning from a geocaching expedition. I think I win today’s “badass point”.

Devon – the trip we’ll never forget

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Update: following feedback from folks who found this post from Twitter, I just wanted to say at the top of this post – we’re all okay.[/spb_message]

Our holiday in Devon last week turned out to be… memorable… both for happy holiday reasons and for somewhat more-tragic ones. Selected features of the trip included:

Croyde

A Fish & Chip shop in Croyde
This pile of breezeblocks on the edge of a camp site was perhaps the sketchiest fish & chip shop we’d ever seen. Not bad grub, though!

We spent most of the week in Croyde, a picturesque and tourist-centric village on Devon’s North coast. The combination of the life of a small village and being at the centre of a surfer scene makes for a particularly eccentric and culturally-unusual place. Quirky features of the village included the bakery, which seemed to only bake a half-dozen croissants each morning and sell out shortly after they opened (which was variably between 8am and 9am, pretty much at random), the ice cream shop which closed at lunchtime on the hottest day of our stay, and the fish & chip shop that was so desperate to “use up their stock”, for some reason, that they suggested that we might like a cardboard box rather than a carrier bag in which to take away our food, “so they could get rid of it”.

Annabel on the beach with Ruth and JTA
“You’ve never seen a beach before, have you? Isn’t this exciting?”
/stares in wonderment at own thumbs/

The Eden Project

Annabel looks out over the Eden Project
In the right dome, a Mediterranean climate. In the left, a jungle. In both, lots of things for Annabel to try to grab hold of and put in her mouth.

Ever since it opened in the early 2000s, I’d always wanted to visit The Eden Project – a group of biome domes deep in the valley of a former Cornish quarry, surrounded by gardens and eco-exhibitions and stuff. And since we’d come all of the way to Devon (via Cardiff, which turns out to be quite the diversion, actually!), we figured that we might as well go the extra 90 miles into Cornwall to visit the place. It was pretty fabulous, actually, although the heat and humidity of the jungle biome really did make it feel like we were trekking through the jungle, from time to time.

Annabel gets a drink in the cool room.
The jungle biome was a little hot for poor Annabel, and she was glad to get into the cool room and have a drink of water.

Geocaching

Stile to an overgrown path; Devon.
In Devon, nipple-high grass counts as a “footpath”.

On one day of our holiday, I took an afternoon to make a 6½ mile hike/jog around the Northern loop of the Way Down West series of geocaches, which turned out to be somewhat gruelling on account of the ill-maintained rural footpaths of North Devon and taking an inadequate supply of water for the heat of the afternoon.

Very badly-maintained footpath in North Devon.
Seriously, Devon: if I need to bring a machete, it’s not a bridleway.

On the upside, though, I managed to find 55 geocaches in a single afternoon, on foot, which is more than three times my previous best “daily score”, and took me through some genuinely beautiful and remote Devon countryside.

Dan with GC24YCW - Way Down West 105
GC24YCW (“Way Down West 105”) was the last in my 55-cache series, and my body was glad of it.

Watermouth Castle

We took an expedition out to Watermouth Castle, which turned out to be an experience as eccentric as we’d found Croyde to be, before it. The only possible explanation I can think of for the place is that it must be owned by a child of a hoarder, who inherited an enormous collection of random crap and needed to find a way to make money out of it… so they turned it into something that’s 50% museum, 50% theme park, and 100% fever dream.

ABBA Robots at Watermouth Castle
A group of animatronic robots playing automatic-organ versions of ABBA songs greet you at Watermouth Castle. And then things get weird.

There’s a cellar full of old bicycles. A room full of old kitchen equipment. A room containing a very large N-gauge model railway layout. Several rooms containing entertainments that would have looked outdated on a 1970s pier: fortune tellers, slot machines, and delightfully naïve peep-show boxes. A hedge maze with no exit. A disturbingly patriotic water show with organ accompaniment. A garden full of dancing gnomes. A hall of mirrors. A mock 1920s living room. A room full of primitive washing machines and their components. The whole thing feels schizophrenic, but somehow charming too: like a reminder of how far entertainment and conveniences have come in the last hundred years.

Baggy Point

Ruth, JTA and Annabel on Baggy Point
The tip of Baggy Point gave me vibes of Aberystwyth’s own Constitution Hill, with the exception that it was sunny at Baggy Point.

We took a hike out to beautiful Baggy Point, a beautiful headland stretching out into the Atlantic to make it the Easternmost point in North Devon. It was apparently used by soldiers training for the D-Day landings, but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to graze goats. The whole area made me reminisce about walks to Borth along the Ceredigion coast. Unfortunately for Ruth and JTA, who headed back to our accommodation before me, I’d failed to hand them the key to the front door before we parted ways and I went off to explore the rest of the headland, and in my absence they had to climb in through the window.

The Collision

For all of the wonderful things we got up to in Devon, though – everything above and more besides – the reason that we’ll no-doubt never forget this particular trip came as we set off on our way home.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this section discusses a tragic car accident.[/spb_message]

About an hour after we set off for home on our final day in Devon, we ended up immediately behind a terrible crash, involving two cars striking one another head-on at an incredible speed. We saw it coming with only seconds to spare before both vehicles smashing together, each thrown clear to a side of the road as a cloud of shattered glass and metal was flung into the air. JTA was driving at this point, and hit the brakes in time to keep us clear of the whirling machines, but it was immediately apparent that we were right in the middle of something awful. I shouted for Ruth and JTA to see what they could do (they’re both Red Cross first aiders, after all) as I phoned the emergency services and extracted our location from the SatNav, then started working to ensure that a path was cleared through the traffic so that the ambulances would be able to get through.

Police car in Devon
Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars arrived quickly, or so it felt: honestly, my perception of time at this point was completely shaken.

A passer-by – an off-duty police officer – joined Ruth and I in performing CPR on one of the drivers, until paramedics arrived. My first aid training’s rusty compared to Ruth and JTA’s, of course, but even thinking back to my training so long ago, I can tell you is that doing it with a real person – surrounded by glass and oil and blood – is a completely different experience to doing it on a dummy. The ambulance crew took over as soon as they arrived, but it seems that it was too late for her. Meanwhile the driver of the other car, who was still conscious and was being supported by JTA, hung on bravely but, local news reported, died that afternoon in hospital. Between the two cars, two people were killed; the third person – a passenger – survived, as did a dog who was riding in the back of one of the cars.

The emergency services from a distance
Once we’d handed over to the emergency services, we retreated to a safe distance and, for perhaps the first time, began to contemplate what we’d seen.

I am aware that I’ve described the incident, and our participation in its aftermath, in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s because I’m honestly not sure what I mean to say, beyond that. It’s something that’s shaken me – the accident was, as far as I could see, the kind of thing that could happen to any of us at any time, and that realisation forces upon me an incredible sense of my own fragility. Scenes from the experience – the cars shattering apart; the dying driver; her courageous passenger – haunt me. But it feels unfair to dwell on such things: no matter what I feel, there’s no way to ignore the stark truth that no matter how much we were affected by the incident… the passenger, and the families and friends of those involved, will always have been affected more.

It took hours for us to get back on the road again, and the police were very apologetic. But honestly: I don’t think that any of us felt 100% happy about being behind the wheel of a car again after what had just happened. Our journey back home was slow and cautious, filled with the images of the injuries we’d seen and with a newly acute awareness of the dangers of the glass-and-metal box we sat inside. We stopped at a service station part-way home, and I remarked to Ruth how surreal it felt that everybody around us was behaving so normally: drinking a coffee; reading a paper; oblivious to the fact that just a few tens of miles and a couple of hours away, people just like them had lost their lives, doing exactly what they were about to go and do.

It’s all about perspective, of course. I feel a deep sorrow for the poor families of the people who didn’t make it. I feel a periodic pang of worry that perhaps there were things I could have done: What if I’d have more-recently practised first aid? What if I’d more-quickly decoded our position and relayed it to the operator? What if I’d have offered to help Ruth immediately, rather than assuming that she had sufficient (and the right kind of) help and instead worked on ensuring that the traffic was directed? I know that there’s no sense in such what-if games: they’re just a slow way to drive yourself mad.

Maybe I’m just looking for a silver lining or a moral or something in this story that I just can’t find. For a time I considered putting this segment into a separate blog post: but I realised that the only reason I was doing so was to avoid talking about it. And as I’m sure you all know already, that’s not a healthy approach.

Right now, I can only say one thing for certain: our holiday to Devon is a trip I’ll never forget.

Narrowboating

I’ve had a tardy summer for blogging, falling way behind on many of the things I’d planned to write about. Perhaps the problem is that I’m still on Narrowboat Time, the timezone of a strange parallel universe in which everything happens more-slowly, in a gin-soaked, gently-rocking, slowly-crawling haze.

Matt, JTA and Ruth tie up the narrowboat after our first day's travel.
The apparent haze in the centre of this photograph is not the result of gin, however, but of a scuff on the lens of the camera I was using; a fault which was not apparent to me until after I looked at the pictures, and so – now I’ve pointed it out – you won’t be able to un-see it in any of the other snaps, either.

That’s believable, because this summer Ruth, JTA and I – joined for some of the journey by Matt – rented a narrowboat and spent a week drifting unhurriedly down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal… and then another week making a leisurely cruise back up it again.

Matt takes a siesta atop the boat.
Symptoms of “boat-lag”, which is a result of spending any significant period on Narrowboat Time, include siestas, lounging, and a generally relaxed and laid-back attitude.

We picked up Nerys, out of Cambrian Cruisers, who also gave us an introduction to the operation of the boat (driving it, filling it with water, pumping out sewage, generating electricity for appliances, etc.) and safety instructions (virtually all of the canal is less than four feet deep, so if you fall in, the best thing to do is to simply walk to the shore), and set out towards Brecon. In order to explore the entire canal in the time available, we needed to cover an average of only five miles per day. When you’re going at about two and a half miles per hour and having to stop to operate locks (there are only six locks on the navigable stretch of the canal, but they’re all clustered towards the upper end), though, five miles is plenty.

Matt looks out over the Usk Valley, near our first mooring.
Time spent mooring up, casting off, refilling the water tank, and squeezing past other boats on the narrow canal willalso slow you down. But it’s still worth getting started moving on a morning, to ensure that you don’t need to compete for one of the more-beautiful spots to tie up at the end of your day’s travel.

The upper end of the canal is by far the busiest, with not only narrowboats cruising up and down but a significant number of day boats (mostly on loan from Brecon) and at least one tour boat: a 50-seater that you don’t want to have to wiggle past at sharp corner North of the Bryich Aqueduct. From a navigation perspective, though, it’s also the best-maintained: wide enough that two boats can pass one another without much thought, and deep enough across its entire width that you needn’t be concerned about running aground, it makes for a great starting point for people who want some narrowboating practice before they hit the more challenging bits to the South.

Dan and Ruth with a geocache.
The towpath is also a haven for geocachers. Ruth and I are here seen holding GC3698Y, “Jass @ Jammy”, which was hidden only a short walk from where we moored at the end of our first and third days.

Ruth was excited to find in me a driver who was confident holding the boat steady in a lock. Perhaps an expression of equal parts talent and arrogance, I was more than happy to take over the driving, leaving others to jump out and juggle the lock gates and lift bridges. Owing to Ruth’s delicate condition, we’d forbidden her from operating the entirely-manual locks, but she made sure to get a go at running one of the fancy hydraulic ones.

Ruth operates a hydraulic lock.
The hydraulic locks aren’t any faster than the unassisted ones, but they don’t take quite so much “pushing”.

After each day’s cruising, we’d find a nice place to moor up, open a bottle of wine or mix up some gin-and-tonics, and lounge in the warm, late summer air.

Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat.
Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat. Ruth, who of course can’t drink, is behind the camera.

As we wound our way further South, to the “other” end of the waterway, we discovered that the already-narrow canal was ill-dredged, and drifting anywhere close to the sides – especially on corners – was a recipe for running around. Crewmates who weren’t driving would take turns on “pole duty”, being on standby to push us off if we got too close to one or the other bank.

Moored up with a plank.
Another effect of the shallow sides was that we’d sometimes have to “walk the plank” to get ashore. On the upside, we could raise the plank at night and feel like we were isolated in our own little fortress, with its own little drawbridge.

Each night moored up in a separate place gives a deceptive feeling of travel. Deceptive, because I’ve had hiking trips where I’ve traveled further each day than we did on our boat! But the nature of the canal, winding its way from the urban centre of Brecon out through the old mining villages of South Wales.

A gentleman "pumps out" our boat.
Modern narrowboats have a chemical toilet that needs to be “pumped out”. Slightly icky, but probably less nasty than the distant historical alternative, presumably, of putting your bum over the edge.

The canal, already quite narrow and shallow, only became harder to navigate as we got further South. Our weed hatch (that’s the door to the propeller box, that is, not a slang term for the secret compartment where you keep your drugs) saw plenty of use, and we found ourselves disentangling all manner of curious flora in order to keep our engine pushing us forwards (and not catching fire).

JTA fishes crap our of the weed hatch.
Reaching into a dirty, cold, damp hole and pulling out gunky, slimy strands of crap isn’t the most-fun job. And you really want to make sure you’ve taken the key out of the ignition, too, assuming that you’re fond of your fingers.

Eventually, we had to give up navigating the waterway, tie up, and finish the journey on foot. We could have gotten the boat all the way to the end, but it’d have been a stop-start day of pushing ourselves off the shallow banks and cleaning out the weed hatch. Walking the last few miles – with a stop either way at a wonderful little pub called The Open Hearth – let us get all the way to both ends of the navigable stretch of the canal, with a lot less hassle and grime.

Ruth and JTA at Five Locks
Ruth and JTA at the head of Five Locks, the lowest remaining navigable point of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

It’s a little sad coming to the end of a waterway, cut short – in this case – by a road. There’s no easy way – short of the removal of an important road, or the challenging and expensive installation of a drop lock, that this waterway will ever be connected at this point again. The surrounding landscape doesn’t even make it look likely that it’ll be connected again by a different route, either: this canal is broken here.

Ruth and JTA look into the Cwmbran Tunnel.
The Cwmbran Tunnel is narrow, 87 yards long, and both ends are badly in need of dredging. Knowing our luck, we’d have gotten grounded in there if we’d have brought the boat that far.

I found myself remarking on quite how well-laid-out the inside of the narrowboat was. Naturally, on a vehicle/home that’s so long and thin, a great number of clever decisions had clearly been made. The main living space could be converted between a living room, dining room, and bedroom by re-arranging planks and poles; the kitchen made use of carefully-engineered cupboards to hold the crockery in place in case of a… bump; and little space-saving features added up all along the boat, such as the central bedroom’s wardrobe door being adaptable to function as a privacy door between the two main bedrooms.

Ruth and JTA set up Arkham Horror in the narrowboat.
In dining room configuration, we were even able (with judicious use of nearby shelves and the seats alongside us) to play a game of Arkham Horror. And we won, which was perhaps even more-remarkable.

On the way back up the canal, we watched the new boaters setting out in their narrowboats for the first time. We felt like pros, by now, gliding around the corners with ease and passing other vessels with narry a hint of a bump. We were a well-oiled machine, handling every lock with ease. Well: some ease. Unfortunately, we’d managed to lose not one but both of our windlasses on the way down the canal and had to buy a replacement pair on the way back up, which somewhat dented our “what pros we are” feeling.

Our final pass through Brynich Lock
Our final pass through Brynich Lock was slick and seamless.

Coming to the end of our narrowboating journey, we took a quick trip to Fourteen Locks, a beautiful and series of locks with a sophisticated basin network, disconnected from the remains of the South Wales canal network. They’ve got a particular lock (lock 11), there, whose unusual shape hints at a function that’s no-longer understood, which I think it quite fabulously wonderful – that we could as a nation built a machine just 200 years ago, used it for a hundred years, and now have no idea how it worked.

Our trolley full of shelves, in Ikea.
Our “big” trip to Ikea a few weeks later was significantly bigger, even, than this one, though.

Our next stop was Ikea, where we’d only meant to buy a couple of shelves for our new home, but you know how it is when you go to Ikea.

We wrapped up our holiday with a visit to Sian and Andy (and their little one), and Andy showed off his talent of singing songs that send babies to sleep. I swear, if he makes an album of children’s songs and they’re as effective as he is in person, we’ll buy a copy.

Andy, Sian, and baby
MiniRegz and parents.

Altogether, a wonderfully laid-back holiday that clearly knocked my sense of urgency so far off that I didn’t blog about it for several months.

Eyebombing

I’ve been sticky googly eyes to things.

Robot graffiti with googly eyes.
Things like this robot, painted onto the door of the bathrooms of a hipsterish East Oxford bar.

(it looks like one of the robot’s eyes fell off before the bar‘s owners Instragram’d it)

Robot with googly eyes.
See the robot? THE ROBOT SEES YOU NOW!

There are those who would argue that this isn’t true eyebombing, because I ought to be sticking eyes to non-anthropomorphic, inanimate objects, and making them look alive by doing so. But the folks on /r/eyebombing don’t seem to mind: they’re far more-focused on the chaos and hilarity that ensues when you just put eyes on any damn thing that looks like it could benefit from them.

This guy's so angry he's popping his eyes out of his head!
This guy’s so angry he’s popping his eyes out of his head!

When I was on holiday in Jersey, for example, I found an unattended rack of tourist information leaflets that were just crying out for a ‘bombing.

"Does this dress make my eyes look fat?"
“Does this dress make my eyes look fat?”

And because I pretty-much carry googly eyes around with me all the time – in the pocket that generally contains my headphones, a pen, a hair tie, and other everyday essentials – I started sticking eyes onto things.

Soon. Creepy cyclist is watching you exercise.
Soon.

The game didn’t stop even when I touched back down on the mainland.

Sign at the toilets in the arrivals lounge of Gatwick Airport.
Sign at the toilets in the arrivals lounge of Gatwick Airport.

Where next…

Jersey

A couple of weeks ago – and right at the end of the incredibly-busy development cycle that preceded Three Rings‘ Milestone: Krypton – Ruth, JTA and I joined Ruth’s mother on a long-weekend trip to the island of Jersey. I’d been to the Channel Islands only once before (and that was spent primarily either in the dark and the rain, or else in the basement meeting room of a hotel: I was there on business!), so I was quite pleased to get the chance to visit more “properly”.

The Bay of St. Helier, looking out towards Elizabeth Castle.
The Bay of St. Helier, looking out towards Elizabeth Castle.

Of particular interest was the history of the island during the Second World War. Hitler had been particularly pleased to have captured British territory (after the islands, which were deemed undefensible by the British, had been demilitarised), and felt that the Channel Islands were of critical military significance. As a result, he commanded that a massive 10% of the steel and concrete of the Atlantic Wall project should be poured into the Islands: Jersey was, as a result, probably more heavily-fortified than the beaches of Normandy. In the end, this impregnable island fortress was left until last – Berlin fell before Jersey and Guernsey were liberated – and this was a factor in the great suffering of the islanders during the occupation. We visited the “war tunnels“, a massive underground complex built by the German defenders, and it was one of the most spectacular wartime museums I’ve ever experienced.

The main entrance to the Jersey War Tunnels: a tunnel cut directly into the mountainside, painted as a hospital entrance.
The comparatively-small main entrance to the Jersey War Tunnels doesn’t even begin to do justice to the warren of criss-crossing corridors, rooms, and bunkers that span the underside of the hill.

The tunnels are, of course, an exhibit in themselves – and that’s what I expected to see. But in actual fact, the care and attention that has gone into constructing the museum within is breathtaking. Starting with a history of the islands (in a tunnel filled with the music and postcards of the 1930s), you can just about hear the sounds of war, echoing distantly from the next chamber. There, you walk through a timeline of the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, and see how – even with the enemy just barely over the horizon – Jersey still marketed itself as a holiday destination for Britons: a place to escape from wartime fears. Then comes the evacuation – the entire population given barely a day to decide whether they’re staying (and doubtless being occupied by Germany) or leaving (and never knowing when or if they’ll return to their homes). And then, the story of the occupation: framed in a wonderfully “human” context, through exhibits that engage with the visitor through storytelling and hypothetical questions: what would you do, under German occupation?

JTA and Ruth play adventure golf
As a result of politically-correct amendments in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s become unacceptable to use the word “crazy” to describe minature golf courses with obstacles.

Certain to ensure that the whole trip didn’t turn into an educational experience, we played a fabulous round of adventure golf under the glorious sunshine of the Channel Islands. I did ever so well, up until the moment where I lost my ball and, swiftly afterwards, my ability to play the game in any meaningful capacity whatsoever. Eventually, Ruth and I tied, with JTA just a little behind… but we were all quite-embarrassingly well over par.

Ruth lining up an adventure golf shot
The landscaping was actually really impressive. The fake cave had successfully fooled a family of ducks into taking up residence: we found a nest full of confused-looking ducklings when I explored around a corner, looking for a lost ball.

Jersey is apparently moderately famous for its zoo. Ruth’s mother had apparently been looking forward to visiting it for years, and – despite it only being of a modest size – had opted to spend an entire day there, and considered taking another half-day, too. Once the rest of us caught up with her there, we certainly had to agree that it was a pretty impressive zoo.

A pair of komodo dragons in an enclosure at Jersey Zoo
A young pair of komodo dragons use their forked tongues to smell a sack of meat that has been hung in the centre of their enclosure.

I was particularly pleased to visit their pair of very active young komodo dragons, their bat cave, their tortoises, and their remarkable aye-ayes – Jersey hosts one of very few successful captive aye-aye exhibits anywhere in the world (and let’s face it, aye-ayes are a fascinating enough species to begin with).

Ruth under a dome in a meerkat enclosure.
The crawl-through tunnel and dome within the meerkat enclosure seemed like a good idea, but once inside it became apparent that it was basically a tiny, airless greehouse… and no closer to the animals than we were from the outside.

Ruth, her mother and I also got out for a little geocaching, an activity that I’d somewhat neglected since last summer. It turns out that there’s quite an active community on the island, and there were loads of local caches. We hit Not much room? first, which turns out to be among the best cache containers I’ve ever seen (spoilers below; skip the remaining photos if you’re ever likely to go ‘caching on Jersey), and certainly a worthy find for my 100th!

Not much room? - there's a geocache hidden in this picture.
We were certain that we were within 5 metres or so of the cache, and were – in accordance with the title – looking for something small, or concealed in a crack. But this cache was smarter than that. Can you see it in this photo?

Later, we set out for View over St Aubins (which I’m sure must have been at a great viewpoint, once, until the trees grew taller and cut off the view), and a quite-enjoyable puzzle cache called Dear Fred… all in all, a great excuse to stretch our legs and to see a little more of the island than we might otherwise have.

A mushroom-shaped geocache
Here it is! Did you find it? Amazingly, Ruth’s mother was the first of us to spot it, despite this being her very first geocaching expedition. Yes, that really is a wooden mushroom with a micro cache hidden within it.

I’m pretty sure I spent most of the holiday, though, catching up on sleep (interspersed with tiny bits of Three Rings work as we came to the tail end of the testing period – the WiFi at our B&B was, by-now-unsurprisingly, faster than that which we get at home). Or drinking. Or one, then the other. After a hard run of Three Rings development, coupled with “day job” work and the ongoing challenge of buying a house, I was pleased to be chilling out and relaxing, for a change.

Jersey Quaker Meeting House.
We also got the chance to visit Jersey Quaker Meeting House: a light, modern building near the middle of St. Helier, sandwiched discretely between the grand hotels and tall townhouses of the island’s capital.

Most-importantly, I reflected as we passed back through airport security on our way back to the mainland, nobody felt the need to kill anybody else the entire trip. Ruth’s mother and I, for example, haven’t always seen eye to eye (something about me ‘stealing’ Ruth from a life of monogamy, or otherwise being a bad influence, might have been an early issue), and it’s not unknown for relations to be strained between her and her daughter or her and her son-in-law, either. But even as we bickered our way through the departures lounge at Jersey Airport, at least I knew that we’d all survived.

Liz gets her bags searched at airport security.
Amazingly, I didn’t hold us all up by getting stopped and searched at airport security, which is usually my speciality when I travel. However, Liz did so on my behalf, by failing to remove everything metal before she went through the metal detector.

All things considered, then: a successful trip. Fun times were had, lots of exciting history was learned, tortoises were prodded, and nobody killed anybody else, however much they might have been tempted.

Hello 2013: Les Gets

This is the third in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

I barely spent any of January in the office at all, between my week working in London and the week directly after it, the latter of which I spent in the French Alps!

Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.
Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.

Ruth, JTA and I had opted to make the entire journey from Oxford to Les Gets by land, because there had (up until recently) been the real possibility that Ruth would be pregnant (and air travel is somewhat riskier for pregnant women). Secondary reasons included the fact that flying is really, really bad for the planet, and that JTA’s a fan of staying on Terra firma as far as he can.

Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.
Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.

There were good and bad aspects of this kind of travel. Bad parts included having to be at a park and ride bus terminus well before the sun rose, in order to begin a mammoth journey that would take most of the day, and frantic dashes across the labyrinthine Paris metro. But on the upside, we didn’t at any point have to take off our shoes and get herded through backscatter machines, plus the fact that nothing makes you feel cosmopolitan quite like standing in the bar car of a TGV, rocketing through the French countryside, while you sip on a glass of pinot and watch the world fly by.

Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet's dining table.
Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet’s dining table.

We arrived, and met with the rest of our team: Ruth’s brother Owen, his girlfriend Cat and his friend Danny, JTA’s sister Harriet (who’d come over on the train from Lyon, where she’s studying right now), and my sisters Sarah and Becky. We also met our chalet host Dan, who – over the course of the week – put up with a great deal from us (not least our dinnertime conversations about duck rape, racial stereotypes, sex toys, self-defecation, and worse) and still stood there with a smile as he served us the most spectacular meals imaginable.

Owen shows Becky what it means to be "Double Bubbled". She remains unimpressed.
Owen shows Becky what it means to be “Double Bubbled”. She remains unimpressed.

And that’s without even mentioning “Double Bubble”, a game that Owen and Cat invented which seems to involve pinning people and tickling them. They claim that it’s the cause of the jumping, yelping, and screaming sounds coming from their bedroom on an evening, but I’m not convinced.

Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.
Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.

My first impression of the slopes of the Les Gets-Morzine area were that they were a little heavily geared towards intermediate skiiers, with lots of blue and red runs criss-crossing the mountains around the bowl-shaped valley, but before long I’d found my way out to some of the aggressively-mogul-ridden and steeper black and red runs that found out towards the edges of the resort.

Harriet, tangled around herself and buried in a snowdrift.
As a new skier, Harriet spent an incredible amount of time buried in snowdrifts, laying on her back, or tangled around a tree. It’s all part of the learning process.

It was particular fun to get out skiing with Sarah again, for the first time in years, and to finally prove to myself something that I’ve suspected for a while: that while my skiing ability is close to peaking, Sarah’s still continuing to improve and is by now a better skiier than I am. As we hammered our way down some of the roughest, fastest runs we could find on the final day before she and Becky returned to the UK, she’d pull ahead and it would be everything I could muster to keep up and keep control.

Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I'm getting my breath back from the last ones.
Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I’m getting my breath back from the last ones.

I also enjoyed finally getting to ski with Ruth, something that we’d wanted to do together for almost five years (during which we’d both skied, just – for one reason or another – never together). She’s one of those weird skiers who genuinely prefers to ski without poles, which I’d often quiz her about during our periodic high-altitude beer breaks.

Following one of my first proper tumbles in years - and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run "Yeti" when I took a corner too fast - Sarah snapped this picture.
Following one of my first proper tumbles in years – and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run “Yeti” when I took a corner too fast – Sarah snapped this picture.

In the video below (or watch on YouTube), she falls over at about 1m 19s, in case you want to skip to that bit.

Our new snowsportspeople – Cat and Harriet on skis for the second and first times in their lives, and Danny on snowboard for the first time in his – took to their sports like fish to water. Or, at their worst, like fish to waterfalls. But by the end of the week, every single one of them had made far better progress than I could have possibly imagined.

I'm sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn't stop us all piling into it at the end of a day's snowsports.
I’m sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn’t stop us all piling into it at the end of a day’s snowsports.

We worked ourselves hard, and by the time we were back in our hot tub on an evening, with glasses of gin in our hands, we really felt like we’d earned them.

Watch this space: a full gallery of all of the photos taken on the trip will be made available soon. Sorry about the delay.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Five

After our attempt at a relaxing day off, which resulted in us getting pretty-much soaked and exhausted, we returned on day five of our holiday to the comedy scene for more fun and laughter.

Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons' Gait.
Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons’ Gait. Do I win a prize for being the first Abnibber to publish a photo of Matt’s new girlfriend?

After failing to get into Richard Wiseman‘s Psychobabble, which attracted a huge queue long before we got to the venue, Ruth, JTA and I instead went to RomComCon: a two-woman show telling the story of how they road-tested all of the top romantic comedy “boy meets girl” cliché situations, to see if they actually worked in real life. It was sweet, even where it wasn’t funny, and it was confidently-performed, even where it wasn’t perfectly-scripted. The mixture of media (slides, video, audience participation, and good old-fashioned storytelling) was refreshing enough to help me overlook the sometimes-stilted jumps in dialogue. I’ll admit: I cried a little, but then I sometimes do that during actual RomComs, too. Although I did have to say “Well d’uh!” when the conclusion of the presentation was that to get into a great relationship, you have to be open and honest and willing to experiment and not to give up hope that you’ll find one. You know: the kinds of things I’ve been saying for years.

Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock's "Codemaker" to start.
Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock’s “Codemaker” to start.

We met up with Matt and his new girlfriend, Hannah-Mae, who turns out to be a lovely, friendly, and dryly-sarcastic young woman who makes a wonderful match for our Matt. Then, after a drink together, parted ways to see different shows; promising to meet up again later in the day.

"Codemaker" Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife.
“Codemaker” Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife. The audience member who’s half-standing didn’t laugh throughout the entire performance: this might not have been the right show for him.

We watched Owen Niblock‘s Codemaker, and were pleased to discover that it was everything that Computer Programmer Extraordinaire (which we saw on day two) failed to be. Codemaker was genuinely geeky (Owen would put up code segments and then explain why they were interesting), funny (everything from the five-months-a-year beard story to his relationship Service Level Agreement with his wife was fabulously-crafted), and moving. In some ways I’m sad that he isn’t attracting a larger audience – we three represented about a quarter to a fifth of those in attendance, at the end – but on the other hand, his computer-centric humour (full of graphs and pictures of old computers) is rather niche and perhaps wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream. Highly recommended to the geeks among you, though!

Ruth discovers a police box and is inordinately excited.
Ruth discovers a police box on the way back to the flat and is inordinately excited. Apparently she’d somehow managed to never see one before.

Back at the flat, we drank gin and played Ca$h ‘n’ Gun$ with Matt and Hannah-Mae. JTA won three consecutive games, the jammy sod, despite the efforts of the rest of us (Matt or I with a hand grenade, Ruth or I as The Kid, or even Hannah-Mae once she had a gun in each hand), and all the way along every single time insisted that he was losing. Sneaky bugger.

Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman.
Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman. JTA was aware that a photo was going to be taken at some point, but was distracted by talking to another comedian, off-camera.

We all reconvened at the afternoon repeat of Richard Wiseman’s show, where he demonstrated (in a very fun and engaging way) a series of psychological, mathematical, and slight-of-hand tricks behind the “mind-reading” and illusion effects used by various professional entertainers. I’ve clearly studied this stuff far too much, because I didn’t end up learning anything new, but I did enjoy his patter and the way he makes his material interesting, and it’s well-worth a look. Later, Ruth and I would try to develop a mathematical formula for the smallest possible sum totals possible for integer magic squares of a given order (Wiseman’s final trick involved the high-speed construction of a perfect magic square to a sum total provided by a member of the audience: a simple problem: if anybody wants me to demonstrate how it’s done, it’s quite fun).

Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see... wants to see them, dancing.
Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see… wants to see them, dancing. Walking around on those… what’s what word again? Seriously: what’s that word again?

Finally, we all went to see Thom Tuck again. Matt, JTA and I had seen him earlier in the week, but we’d insisted that Hannah-Mae and Ruth get the chance to see his fantastic show, too (as well as giving ourselves an excuse to see it again ourselves, of course). He wasn’t quite so impressive the second time around, but it was great to see that his knowledge of straight-to-DVD Disney movies really is just-about as encyclopaedic as he claims, when we gave us new material we hadn’t heard on his previous show (and omitted some that we had), as well as adapting to suggestions of films shouted out by the audience. Straight-To-DVD remains for me a chilling and hilarious show and perhaps the most-enjoyable thing I’ve ever seen on the Fringe.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Three

On the third day of our Edinburgh Fringe Festival Holiday, Ruth, JTA and I… saw more Free Fringe comedy. Are you spotting a theme, here?

Matt R with Helen Arney of Domestic Science, explaining why he's drawn a silicon lattice onto an iced bun.
Matt R with Helen Arney of Domestic Science, explaining why he’s drawn a silicon lattice onto an iced bun.

First up was Domestic Science, with “real life – for now – partners” Helen Arney and Rob Wells. This pair brought science to life, opening by re-enacting an event from one of their first dates when they discovered that turmeric contains curcumin, a pH indicator, and demonstrating how this can be used (by first dying noodles with turmeric, and then dipping them into acidic and alkaline solutions to observe their colour change). Later, they’d go on to perform audience-participation demonstrations of gravitational wobbles (as a mechanism to detect extrasolar planets), AM radiowave reflection off the ionosphere, and more. They also used us as a live experiment, having us listen to jokes written by comedians of different genders (but recorded in both male and female voices) and rate them, in order to see if the gender can be determined by the listener. All in all, a really enjoyable first show for the day.

Helen Arney retweets my message "New day, new #EdFringe shows. Starting with @DomesticScience. Looks like there'll be a test at the end", adding "Congrats! You passed!"
Helen’s response to my tweet that there must be going to be a test, after finding a sheet of paper with numbers on it, on my seat (it later turned out to be for the engendered-joke study).

Ruth and I took our lunch in David Bann’s vegetarian restaurant, here in Edinburgh, which was delicious, although I probably should have stopped at two courses and not also had desert, as I then spent most of the afternoon waddling around like a fat penguin. I can particularly recommend the aubergine, chick pea and cashew koftas.

David Bann, Edinburgh.
David Bann, Edinburgh.

Next up, we went to see Yianni‘s new show, Numb and Number. We’d first seen Yianni in 2006 (we had him take a photo of us with Peter Buckley Hill), and he was even more brilliant now than he  was back then. In this new show, he talks about autism, numbers, and rainbows, in exactly the right order (any other order would be wrong, right?). Poor JTA was picked on and tricked into coming across as racist, but in the most hilarious possible way.

Matt R and JTA enjoy a quick after-dinner whisky, before it's time to go out for more comedy.
Matt R and JTA enjoy a quick after-dinner whisky, before it’s time to go out for more comedy.

You might remember that yesterday, Matt was invited on stage to separate currency for magicians Young & Strange? Well: coincidentally, Yianni asked Matt what was significant about the sum £88.88, and quick as a flash Matt responded that it was the sum of all of the denominations of currency (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, £2, £5, £10, £20, £50). He denies it, but I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been able to pull off this trick if he hadn’t have been reminded of this just the previous day.

We retreated to the flat for a haggis dinner and a round of whisky before heading out again. My stomach was already bloated from my huge lunch, and I’m not sure that a large dinner really agreed with it: I almost required help to roll me up the street to the next show.

Phill Jupitus leaps around in front of JTA.
Phill Jupitus leaps around in front of JTA. Unfortunately, my camera wasn’t quick enough to catch him in the dim light of the Canon’s Gait basement, so you’ll probably have to take my word for it that it’s him.

We finished our day with Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians, still probably our go-to Free Fringe show. This evening, his line-up featured Phill Jupitus of Never Mind The Buzzcocks fame, who talked about the week that he met a Beatle and two Rolling Stones, leaving the audience laughing themselves to tears. Also in the line-up was Wil Hodgson, a heavily-tattooed former wrestler with a shaved head, who talked mostly about his hobbies of collecting My Little Pony toys. He won JTA over, I think, when he finished his set shouting “Fuck Laughing Horse!”

And then, at last, it was time for bed.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day One (was: On The Fringe)

As I indicated when I made a map of Free Fringe venues the other week: Ruth, JTA and I are this week back in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh.
JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh. We drove as far as Preston, briefly visited my family, and then took the train the rest of the way, in an example of perhaps the most-eccentric “Park & Ride” concept ever.

This is the first time we’ve been up here together since 2007, a year in which we watched a lot less comedy than we’d intended but did end up coming home and having to explain that somewhere along the way that Ruth, JTA, Claire and I had transformed from two couples into four couples in a complicated but fun polyamorous way. Later, I compiled some of the reactions we’d had to that news, in case you’re feeling nostalgic and want to see.

The flat we're renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings.
The flat we’re renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings. It’s reasonably quiet for its very-central location, but it makes up for this by having a narrow spiral staircase and no elevator…

Wasting no time, we arrived, hooked up with Matt R (who’s also up here for the Fringe), and went off to our first show: Peter Buckley Hill, of course, with his new the repeat of his 1994 show, titled “It’s Shite, Not Sh*te”. Buckers was on form again, of course, and we laughed and sang along with all of his classic shite.

Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show.
Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show (although, admittedly, not the one that I just mentioned but one in which the photo came out better…).

Later, Matt and I caught Tesco Chainsaw Massacre, a comedy piece billed as “spoken word”, which had some funny and clever ideas but could perhaps do with a little refinement, and a remarkably wonderful queer performance poet named Sophia Blackwell, from whom I later bought two books.

A quick booze-up break back at the flat.
A quick booze-up break back at the flat, and then we’re on the move once more…

We were rejoined by JTA for Thom Tuck‘s Free Fringe show, Straight To DVD. This… was simply spectacular. Perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen at the Edinburgh Fringe, Thom’s encyclopaedic analysis of straight-to-DVD Disney movies (interspersed with tales of his sad and tragic love life) is one of the best things that I’ve ever seen at the Fringe.

So yeah: that was Day One for us at the Edinburgh Fringe. An epic start to the holiday.

Edinburgh Free Fringe 2012 Venue Map

After a few years break, I’m once again heading up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. As on previous ocassions, I expect to spend a lot of time enjoying Peter Buckley Hill‘s Free Fringe, which is just about the best thing to happen to the Fringe ever. And this time, I’m going to be better-prepared than ever. I’ve made a map.

Map of the 2012 Free Fringe.
You can be better-prepared, too, because my PBH Edinburgh Free Fringe Map 2012 is here for you, as well.

Sharing is caring, so I’ve made the map available to you, too. Click on the picture to see the map. Because it’s in Google Maps it ought to work on your mobile phone. If you’ve got GPS then you can get lost in Edinburgh in high-tech ways you never before thought possible. Click on any given venue for a web address where you can find a list of events that are occurring at that venue.

Or if you’re really nerdy, you can download the KML and go geocaching-for-comedy. Just me? Okay then…

Update: you can now view the map on the frontpage of the Free Fringe website, too.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

Cinco de Mayo

This week included the Cinco de Mayo, the anniversary of the overwhelming (and surprising) Mexican victory over a superior French force at the Battle of Puebla, but used mostly as an excuse for Mexican expatriates and non-Mexicans to celebrate Mexican culture. And food. Mostly food.

To mark the occasion, one of my favourite restaurants, The Mission in Oxford, announced that they were giving away free beer to customers, and your next burrito free if you came along dressed as a Mexican. The Mission already wins my favour by making the best burritos I’ve ever tasted; giving me an excuse to dress up and get free beer and more burritos is just a bonus!

Dan with Ruth and JTA at The Mission.

We’d had a long, long day already. After work, I’d mostly been doing administrative work with helpline Oxford Friend, with whom I’m a volunteer. Ruth and JTA had perhaps been even busier, as they’d spent the evening working on the Yes to AV telephone lines, making sure that everybody who had pledged to vote was out and doing so. We all really felt like we’d earned our burritos. So we donned our ponchos and (in my case) my sombrero, and went to The Mission.

I learned two things:

  1. The Mission remains awesome. If you’re looking for food in Oxford, I highly recommend them. And no, they’re not paying me to say this.
  2. It’s really, really hard to cycle while wearing a sombrero. Those things catch the wind like nothing else, and unless you enjoy riding along with what feels like a kite tied to your neck (and that’s if you’re lucky enough that the neck string catches you; otherwise your hat flies off into traffic and you have to run after it, yelling and screaming), cycling while wearing one is not  a good combination.

We brought home a takeaway for Paul, too, which I suspect was his second burrito of the day. Seriously: nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo like Paul does.

Scotland Etc.

A quick summary of a holiday (and a series of associated trips on the side) that Ruth and I took a fortnight ago (yeah; I’ve been busy). Ruth has already written a little about the trip. I’d hoped to blog “on the move”, but a combination of low signal and low energy after a day of paddling made this pretty much impossible, so here’s the “grand catch-up”:

Wednesday 27th May

Ruth and I travelled to Shropshire to visit Ruth’s grandma in hospital, but it turned out that she’d been discharged about an hour before we arrived, so we briefly visited her at home.

Then we drove on, up to Preston.

In the evening, we played Chocolate Teapot with my family. I haven’t written about Chocolate Teapot on here yet, but the short summary is that it’s a “light” board game I’ve put together in the style of Apples to Apples meets Chrononauts… meets Dragons’ Den. So far, folks seem to like it, although I’m still ironing out a few kinks in the rules.

Thursday 28th May

This morning, we were supposed to do something special I’d had planned to commemorate the occasion of Ruth finishing her final exam, but we weren’t able to on account of the weather. I’d kept secret from Ruth what it is we were eventually to do, and the tension of not knowing (she’s not good at surprises) was very obviously boggling her poor little mind by now.

Instead, we went to Blackpool, rode a few rides (and felt ill thanks to eating a huge chocolate éclair each and then riding on the waltzer on the Central Pier), and played adventure golf, which Ruth won by a significant margin. And then ate fish & chips, because that’s what one does in Blackpool.

Got tied up with some stuff in East Lancashire early in the evening and missed our chance to get to see Pagan Wanderer Lu on his weekend mini-tour. Damn.

Ate far too much Chinese food at an all-you-can-eat buffet and gave myself nasty indigestion.

Friday 29th May

Did things in Preston, like buying lots of really really cheap clothes to wear for the remainder of the trip while paddling around in Scotland.

Saturday 30th May

Travelled up to Gretna Green with my dad and Ruth. Left the car at the services there and transferred to a coach full of Go North East employees. Travelled up to Fort William, in the centre of the Nevis mountain range and close to the Great Glen Way and the Caledonian Canal.

Despite it by now being late in the afternoon, my dad suggested we walk up Ben Nevis, so Ruth and I – joined by two others: John (fellow canoeist) and Dave (the bus driver, although – that said – about half of the folks on the trip were bus drivers) – followed my dad up the mountain. Dave, who’d apparently never climbed a mountain before, made it about 200 feet up before he had to give up. Ruth and I got to about 3200ft before we realised that we hadn’t actually eaten since breakfast and had to turn around and get some food, and only my dad and John made it the extra thousand feet or so to the summit, keeping a spectacular pace going as they did.

There’s photos from Ben Nevis here.

Sunday 31st May

This was our first day in canoes. Ruth and I took one, John and my dad took a second, and the third was taken by a pair of the bus drivers, Yvonne and Claire. We were to paddle our way up to Inverness, towards the North Sea, over four days. The remainder of the group were to walk the Great Glen Way – about 13 miles longer, and – of course – hillier, but at least they’d be powered by their legs and not their arms!

The first day was the hardest. It was the longest, which made an impact, but it was also the hottest. I’d not planned for this kind of heat (I’d thought – hey, Scotland, that’ll be a few degrees colder than Aberystwyth, but it turned out that Northern Scotland was in the middle of some kind of unseasonal heatwave): my case held lots of long sleeves and not enough pairs of shorts! Out on the lochs and canals, there’s no shade, and on our first day’s paddling, there wasn’t any breeze either. Combine that with 17 miles of rowing, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion.

Ruth overdid it somewhat, and triggered a relapse of her RSI, and she wasn’t able to carry on rowing for the rest of the trip: instead, she joined the walkers group, and a walker called Martin took her place in my canoe.

Among the many canoeing photos I took, there’s a very cute one of Ruth with one of the walkers helping her to drink a glass of lemonade because her arms were too broken to lift the glass for herself.

Monday 1st June

The second day’s canoeing was a lot shorter, and a lot easier. Martin and I – after a little bit of weaving around the canal and failing to paddle in a straight line – found a great synchronisation and made a great rowing team. We easily led the other two canoes for most of the remainder of the journey.

On this, the second day, we even beat the walkers along the first half of the route, meeting them part way for lunch on a pebble beach alongside Loch Oich.

One of the hardest bits of canoeing the Caledonian Canal is that British Waterways no longer allow canoes to use the lock gates (there’s a concern that if your boat tipped over you could be sucked into a sluice gate and held underwater for quite a lot longer than most people can hold their breath for). So we had to pull ashore, lift the boat out, and carry it up or down each hill. Walking rather than rowing gave our arms a rest, at least, but it’s not easy to lift your boat, your day bag, and your oars and then carry them up a hill.

Tuesday 2nd June

On Tuesday, we were supposed to cover the first half of Loch Ness. At Fort Augustus, we got into the River Ness (it was easier to get the boats than the canal would have been, from the back garden of the building we’d kept them at), and appreciated for awhile the current helping us along a little. We passed the smallest lighthouse in the world and headed out onto the Loch.

The wind had picked up, and it was choppy on the Loch. Paddling over waves and against the wind was more challenging than what we  were used to, and the six of us adopted a tight formation in order to keep an eye on one another in case we got into any trouble. We hugged the shore to avoid the worst of the wind, and took an early break at the bottom of the garden of a waterfront house, where we ate our morning energy snacks.

The wind felt okay in the bay we’d sat in, but as soon as we got back out onto the Loch, we could feel the wind: it was getting stronger. Paddling was very hard, and Martin and I redoubled our pace several times. It felt like we were making great time – a hard wind in your face and an ache in your arms will give you the illusion of speed – but when we pulled over and took a break, we looked at the map and realised that we had travelled about half a mile in the last hour. At this rate, we’d barely reach the next Youth Hostel in time for breakfast… the following day.

We pressed on, and stopped again and I looked up the shipping forecast on my phone. The wind was due to get worse still, with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour. We were already at a point at which we spent almost as much time going backwards that forwards, and turning sideways to the current resulted in the boats rocking alarmingly and very quickly filling with water, so we ran them aground, dragged them ashore into a building site, and called for backup to come and pick them up.

The building site turned out to belong to a chap who I’ll hereafter refer to as The Friendliest Man In Scotland, who was quite unsympathetic to the idea of us sitting around and waiting for rescue from the backup vehicle, and shouted and swore and threatened legal action quite a lot. While we waited for the rescue vehicle, I used my phone to find XSS vulnerabilities in his website. You know, like this one.

After we’d got rid of the canoes, we raced to try to catch up with the walkers, who were a couple of hours ahead, finally reaching them a little while after they’d reached the cabins in which we’d be spending our next night. It was disappointing to not be able to canoe the rest of the distance, but it really wouldn’t have been possible to go any further this day, and the weather forecase didn’t look any better for the day after (it turned out to be wrong, but we didn’t know that when we had the canoes returned to their owner).

Wednesday 3rd June

And so we canoeists joined the walkers for the very last day of the Scottish trip. The walk was long and arduous, and Ruth and I probably ought to have set off earlier, because we were right at the back of the group when we entered Inverness, and we actually had to cheat and catch a bus for the final mile in order to not keep them waiting at Inverness Castle for any longer than we already had.

In summary, canoeing across Scotland was… exhausting. Even (and perhaps especially) for the bits that we weren’t actually in canoes. But it was also a great opportunity to see that beautiful country from a new angle – from water level, looking up at the Munroes and along at the Lochs. It could be beautifully still and calm out in the middle of the bigger lochs, and it was great to just stop and sip some water and take in quite how magestic the mountains of Scotland actually are.

At Inverness, we took victory photos (here they are), had a quick McDonalds meal, and got back on the coach to Gretna, then drove back down to Preston.

Thursday 4th June

On Thursday morning, we finally managed to do the thing we’d tried to do the previous week… weather conditions were at last favourable for: a trip in a hot air balloon (thanks, Pendle Balloon Company)!

Ruth was suitably surprised.

The whole experience was a lot of fun, and everybody present got roped in to helping lay out the balloon, inflate it with cold air, check and disentangle the control lines (and all the same stuff again but in reverse at the opposite end).

It’s amazing quite how gentle a balloon take-off is. While the pilot fired the (hot!) burners in a full burn ready for takeoff, I glanced out of the side of the basket and down at the ground… and realised it was slowly moving along underneath us – we were airborne, and I hadn’t even noticed!

We sailed around at 3,500-5,500 feet for awhile, looking down over mid-Lancashire. We got a great view of Houghton Tower, where I’ve been to their annual open air classical concert a number of times (including some I didn’t manage to blog about). Ruth geeked out about different kinds of road junctions and their comparative space/throughput efficiency trade-offs. We came in low over fields of cows and horses and confused the livestock as they trotted towards the barns for their morning feed.

And after an hour of sailing around, we bumped down into a field (which happened to double as a microlite runway, which was convenient) and all helped to pack the balloon away. And it was awesome.

There’s photos from this, too: here they are.

Afterwards

Finally (after a celebratory friend breakfast at a restaurant near where the balloon launched from), we hit the road and got ourselves back to Aberystwyth. It’d been a busy, exhausting, but fun week.

And The Rest Of Bulgaria

Oh yeah, suppose I ought to finish writing about Bulgaria now that we’ve been back a couple of days.

MORE SKIING: Aced The Wall in the end, and damn it’s a good run – long and fast and challenging, even when you think you know it. Coming back up on the chairlift I met a couple of Irish blokes (the Irish seemed to be the most-represented nationality on the ski slopes; not sure why), who – as the fog of the final day began to white-out the mountain top – pointed down at The Wall and said that you’d have to be a nutcase to go down it right now. So I pointed out that I’d just come off it, and was on my way back to it again.

SKIDOOS: Damn, these things are fun. Imagine a motorcycle but on skis, ripping along hard-packed ice in the middle of the night at 70km/h, guided only by a drunk Bulgarian. On or off road, Skidoos are brilliant. When the next ice age comes, I’m getting one to do my shopping in.

KARAOKE: On our final night, we went out and (alongside some Irish blokes we met) made complete idiots of ourselves at the local karaoke night.

I’ll upload pictures from the holiday at some point. For now, here’s a video of my dad singing Dancing Queen at the Karaoke night.

So yeah; Bulgaria was fun.