Following yesterday’s Challenge Robin adventure during which I sent my partner’s brother on an extended treasure trail covering London and Penzance, we decided to have a more-relaxed day today with a gentle hike to a few geocaches (and with a pub lunch in the middle).
This was the first of the caches we found as we made our way down from the River Valley Caravan Park where we’d been staying and hacked our way through the damp paths to this GZ. What a remarkable ruin – one of several like it, our subsequent explorations showed, but still quite remarkable how well-concealed and overgrown it is. A beautiful spot, and well-worth the journey. FP awarded; TFTC
In hindsight, visiting this cache might have been a mistake as a storm was beginning to roll in, but I got there before things got TOO hairy! I was in the vicinity preparing an adventure-trail thingy along the coast path anyway, and couldn’t miss the opportunity to head for this exciting location. And it was a real treat to see a container like this: I’ve only ever seen them before when I’ve placed them myself (e.g. GC7QG1Z). Great container, hide, and description: FP awarded. TNLN, TFTC!
As of next week, I’ll have been blogging for 20 years, or about 54% of my life. How did that happen?
The mid-1990s were a very different time for the World Wide Web (yes, we still called it that, and sometimes we even described its use as “surfing”). Going “on the Internet” was a calculated and deliberate action requiring tying up your phone line, minutes of “connecting” along with all of the associated screeching sounds if you hadn’t turned off your modem’s loudspeaker, and you’d typically be paying twice for the experience: both a monthly fee to your ISP for the service and a per-minute charge to your phone company for the call.
It was into this environment that in 1994 I published my first web pages: as far as I know, nothing remains of them now. It wasn’t until 1998 that I signed up an account with UserActive (whose website looks almost the same today as it did then) who offered economical subdomain hosting with shell and CGI support and launched “Castle of the Four Winds”, a set of vanity pages that included my first blog.
Except I didn’t call it a “blog”, of course, because it wasn’t until the following year that Peter Merholz invented the word (he also commemorated 20 years of blogging, this year). I didn’t even call it a “weblog”, because that word was still relatively new and I wasn’t hip enough to be around people who said it, yet. It was self-described as an “online diary”, a name which only served to reinforce the notion that I was writing principally for myself. In fact, it wasn’t until mid-1999 that I discovered that it was being more-widely read than just by me and my circle of friends when I attracted a stalker who travelled across the UK to try to “surprise” me by turning up at places she expected to find me, based on what I’d written online… which was exactly as creepy as it sounds.
While the world began to panic that the coming millennium was going to break all of the computers, I migrated Castle of the Four Winds’ content into AvAngel.com, a joint vanity site venture with my friend Andy. Aside from its additional content (purity tests, funny stuff, risqué e-cards), what we hosted was mostly the same old stuff, and I continued to write snippets about my life in what was now quite-clearly a “blog-like” format, with the most-recent posts at the top and separate pages for content too old for the front page. Looking back, there’s still a certain naivety to these posts which exemplify the youth of the Web. For example, posts routinely referenced my friends by their email addresses, because spam was yet to become a big enough problem that people didn’t much mind if you put their email address on a public webpage somewhere, and because email addresses still carried with them a feeling of anonymity that ceased to be the case when we started using them for important things.
Meanwhile, during my initial months as a student in Aberystwyth, I wrote a series of emails to friends back home entitled “Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth”, and put copies of each onto my student webspace; I’ve since recovered these and integrated them into my unified blog.
In 2002 I’d bought the domain name scatmania.org – a reference to my university halls of residence nickname “Scatman Dan”; I genuinely didn’t consider the possibility that the name might be considered scatalogical until later on. As I wanted to continue my blogging at an address that felt like it was solely mine (AvAngel.com having been originally shared with a friend, although in practice over time it became associated only with me), this seemed like a good domain upon which to relaunch. And so, in mid-2003 and powered by a short-lived and ill-fated blogging engine called Flip I did exactly that. WordPress, to which I’d subsequently migrate, hadn’t been invented yet and it wasn’t clear whether its predecessor, b2/cafelog, would survive the troubles its author was experiencing.
From this point on, any web address for any post made to my blog still works to this day, despite multiple technological and infrastructural changes to my blog (and some domain name shenanigans!) in the meantime. I’d come to be a big believer in the mantra that cool URIs don’t change: something that as far as possible I’ve committed to trying to upload in my blogging, my archiving, and my paid work since then. I’m moderately confident that all extant links on the web that point to earlier posts are all under my control so they can (and in most cases have) been fixed already, so I’m pretty close to having all my permalink URIs be “cool”, for now. You might hit a short chain of redirects, but you’ll get to where you’re going.
And everything was fine, until one day in 2004 when it wasn’t. The server hosting scatmania.org died in a very bad way, and because my backup strategy was woefully inadequate, I lost a lot of content. I’ve recovered quite a lot of it and put it back in-place, but some is probably gone forever.
The resurrected site was powered by WordPress, and this was the first time that live database queries had been used to power my blog. Occasionally, these days, when talking to younger, cooler developers, I’m tempted to follow the hip trend of reimplementing my blog as a static site, compiling a stack of host-anywhere HTML files based upon whatever-structure-I-like at the “backend”… but then I remember that I basically did that already for six years and I’m far happier with my web presence today. I’ve nothing against static site systems (I’m quite partial to Middleman, myself, although I’m also fond of Hugo) but they’re not right for this site, right now.
IndieAuth hadn’t been invented yet, but I was quite keen on the ideals of OpenID (I still am, really), and so I implemented what was probably the first viable “install-anywhere” implementation of OpenID for WordPress – you can see part of it functioning in the top-right of the screenshot above, where my (copious, at that time) LiveJournal-using friends were encouraged to sign in to my blog using their LiveJournal identity. Nowadays, the majority of the WordPress plugins I use are ones I’ve written myself: my blog is powered by a CMS that’s more “mine” than not!
Over the course of the first decade of my blogging, a few trends had become apparent in my technical choices. For example:
I’ve preferred an approach of storing the “master” copy of my content on my own site and then (sometimes) syndicating it elsewhere: for example, for the benefit of my friends who during their University years maintained a LiveJournal, for many years I had my blog cross-post to a LiveJournal account (and backfeed copies of comments back to my site).
These were deliberate choices, but they didn’t require much consideration: growing up with a Web far less-sophisticated than today’s (e.g. truly stateless prior to the advent of HTTP cookies) and seeing the chaos caused during the first browser war and the period of stagnation that followed, these choices seemed intuitive.
As you’d expect from a blog covering a period from somebody’s teen years through to their late thirties, there’ve been significant changes in the kinds of content I’ve posted (and the tone with which I’ve done so) over the years, too. If you dip into 2003, for example, you’ll see the results of quiz memes and unqualified daily minutiae alongside actual considered content. Go back further, to early 1999, and it is (at best) meaningless wittering about the day-to-day life of a teenage student. It took until around 2009/2010 before I actually started focussing on writing content that specifically might be enjoyable for others to read (even where that content was frankly silly) and only far more-recently-still that I’ve committed to the “mostly technical stuff, ocassional bits of ‘life’ stuff” focus that I have today.
I say “committed”, but of course I’m fully aware that whatever this blog is now, it’ll doubtless be something somewhat different if I’m still writing it in another two decades…
Once I reached the 2010s I started actually taking the time to think about the design of my blog and its meaning. Conceptually, all of my content is data-driven: database tables full of different “kinds” of content and associated metadata, and that’s pretty-much ideal – it provides a strong separation between content and presentation and makes it possible to make significant design changes with less work than might otherwise be expected. I’ve also always generally favoured a separation of concerns in web development and so I’m not a fan of CSS design methodologies that encourage class names describing how things should appear, like Atomic CSS. Even where it results in a performance hit, I’d far rather use CSS classes to describe what things are or represent. The single biggest problem with this approach, to my mind, is that it violates the DRY principle… but that’s something that your CSS preprocessor’s there to fix for you, isn’t it?
But despite this philosophical outlook on the appropriate gap between content and presentation, it took until about 2010 before I actually attached any real significance to the presentation at all! Until this point, I’d considered myself to have been more of a back-end than a front-end engineer, and felt that the most-important thing was to get the content out there via an appropriate medium. After all, a site without content isn’t a site at all, but a site without design is (or at least should be) still intelligible thanks to browser defaults! Remember, again, that I started web development at a time when stylesheets didn’t exist at all.
My previous implementations of my blog design had used simple designs, often adapted from open-source templates, in an effort to get them deployed as quickly as possible and move on to the next task, but now, I felt, it was time to do a little more.
For a few years, I was producing a new theme once per year. I experimented with different colours, fonts, and layouts, and decided (after some ad-hoc A/B testing) that my audience was better-served by a “front” page than by being dropped directly into my blog archives as had previously been the case. Highlighting the latest few – and especially the very-latest – post and other recent content increased the number of posts that a visitor would be likely to engage with in a single visit. I’ve always presumed that the reason for this is that regular (but non-subscribing) readers are more-likely to be able to work out what they have and haven’t read already from summary text than from trying to decipher an entire post: possibly because my blogging had (has!) become rather verbose.
I went through a bit of a lull in blogging: I’ve joked that I spent more time on my 2010 and 2011 designs than I did on the sum total of the content that was published in between the pair of them (which isn’t true… at least, not quite!). In the month I left Aberystwyth for Oxford, for example, I was doing all kinds of exciting and new things… and yet I only wrote a total of two blog posts.
With RSS waning in popularity – which I can’t understand: RSS is amazing! – I began to crosspost to social networks like Twitter and Google+ (although no longer to Google+, following the news of its imminent demise) to help those readers who prefer to get their content via these media, but because I wasn’t producing much content, it probably didn’t make a significant difference anyway: the chance of a regular reader “missing” something must have been remarkably slim.
Nobody calls me “Scatman Dan” any more, and hadn’t for a long, long time. Given that my name is already awesome and unique all by itself (having changed to be so during the era in which scatmania.org was my primary personal domain name), it felt like I had the opportunity to rebrand.
I moved my blog to a new domain, DanQ.me (which is nice and short, too) and came up with a new collection of colours, fonts, and layout choices that I felt better-reflected my identity… and the fact that my blog was becoming less a place to record the mundane details of my daily life and more a place where I talk about (principally-web) technology, security, and GPS games… and just occasionally about other topics like breadmaking and books. Also, it gave me a chance to get on top of the current trend in web design for big, clean, empty spaces, square corners, and using pictures as the hook to a story.
Particular areas in which I produce content elsewhere but would like to at-least maintain a copy here, and would ideally publish here first and syndicate elsewhere, although I appreciate that this is difficult, are:
Reddit, where I’ve written tens of thousands of words under a variety of accounts, but I don’t really pay attention to the site any more
I left Facebook in 2011 but I still have a backup of what was on my “Wall” at that point, which I could look into reintegrating into my blog
I share a lot of the source code I write via my GitHub account, but I’m painfully aware that this is yet-another-silo that I ought to learn not to depend upon (and it ought to be simple enough to mirror my repos on my own site!)
I’ve got a reasonable number of videos on two YouTube channels which are online by Google’s good graces (and potential for advertising revenue); for a handful of technical reasons they’re a bit of a pain to self-host, but perhaps my blog could act as a secondary source to my own video content
I write business reviews on Google Maps which I should probably look into recovering from the hivemind and hosting here… in fact, I’ve probably written plenty of reviews on other sites, too, like Amazon for example…
On two previous occasions I’ve maintained an online photo gallery; I might someday resurrect the concept, at least for the photos that used to be published on them
I’ve dabbled on a handful of other, often weirder, social networks before like Scuttlebutt (which has a genius concept, by the way) and Ello, and ought to check if there’s anything “original” on there I should reintegrate
Going way, way back, there are a good number of usenet postings I’ve made over the last twenty-something years that I could reclaim, if I can find them…
(if you’re asking why I’m inclined to do all of these things: here’s why)
20 years and around 717,000 words worth of blogging down, it’s interesting to look back and see how things have changed: in my life, on the Web, and in the world in general. I’ve seen many friends’ blogs come and go: they move into a new phase of their life and don’t feel like what they wrote before reflects them today, most often, and so they delete them… which is fine, of course: it’s their content! But for me it’s always felt wrong to do so, for two reasons: firstly, it feels false to do so given that once something’s been put on the Web, it might well be online forever – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle! And secondly: for me, it’s valuable to own everything I wrote before. Even the cringeworthy things I wrote as a teenager who thought they knew everything and the antagonistic stuff I wrote in my early 20s but that I clearly wouldn’t stand by today is part of my history, and hiding that would be a disservice to myself.
The 17-year-old who wrote my first blog posts two decades ago this month fully expected that the things he wrote would be online forever, and I don’t intend to take that away from him. I’m sure that when I write a post in October 2038 looking back on the next two decades, I’ll roll my eyes at myself today, too, but for me: that’s part of the joy of a long-running personal blog. It’s like a diary, but with a sense of accountability. It’s a space on the web that’s “mine” into which I can dump pretty-much whatever I like.
I love it: I’ve been blogging for over half of my life, and if I can get back to you in 2031 and tell you that I’ve by-then been doing so for two-thirds of my life, that would be a win.
A late journey home and a slight diversion brought me up the wonderful Thames Path through Binsey and up to here to find this brilliant cache. It took into the final 150m from the GZ that I realised that really: a bike was NOT the right mode of transportation for this one (see if you can spot my route in the attached photo)! Still I pressed on and got to within 50m of the GZ before having to leave my vehicle behind and brave the nettles, fence, and boggy ground.
Cache in bad condition: missing log and writing implement, mild damage to container. If it’s true that it’s been abandoned I’d be happy to adopt it to keep this great location and cache alive! I’m moderately local (my commute isn’t far away and I’m sometimes caught drinking at the Trout) and I have the perfect replacement container just sitting in my shed ready to go, so I’ll contact the CO.
TFTC. FP awarded. I’m so bored of yet-another-magnetic-nano or city-centre-puzzle that it was genuinely a treat to see a cache that ticks all the boxes of things I love best about the sport.
1997 was the year my family got torn up when my dad was killed. Which became the reason I joined @NightlineAssoc. And @samaritans. And @BritishRedCross, and @3RingsCIC. The reason, basically, I discovered how important it was to be there for people that can't go through it alone.
Yesterday, Ruth and I attended a Festive Breads Workshop at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant Cookery and Wine School, where we had a hands-on lesson in making a variety of different (semi-)seasonal bread products. It was a fantastic experience and gave us both skills and confidence that we’d have struggled to attain so-readily in any other way.
The Oxford Brookes Restaurant is a working restaurant which doubles as a place for Brookes’ students to work and practice roles as chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality managers as part of their courses. In addition, the restaurant runs a handful of shorter or day-long courses for adults and children on regional and cuisine-based cookery, knife skills, breadmaking, and wine tasting. Even from the prep room off the main working kitchen (and occasionally traipsing through it on the way to and from the ovens), it was easy to be captivated the buzz of activity as the lunchtime rush began outside: a large commercial kitchen is an awesome thing to behold.
By early afternoon we’d each made five different breads: a stollen, a plaitted wreath, rum babas, a seeded flatbread, and a four-strand woven challah. That’s plenty to do (and a good amount of standing up and kneading!), but it was made possible by the number of things we didn’t have to do. There was no weighing and measuring, no washing-up: this was done for us, and it’s amazingly efficiency-enhancing to be able to go directly from each recipe to the next without having to think about these little tasks. We didn’t even have to run our breads in and out of the proofing cupboard and the ovens: as we’d be starting on mixing the next dough, the last would be loaded onto trays and carried around the kitchens.
The tuition itself was excellent, too. The tutors, Amanda and Jan, were friendly and laid-back (except if anybody tried to short-cut their kneading of a wet dough by adding more flour than was necessary, in which case they’d enter “flour police” mode and start slapping wrists) and clearly very knowledgeable and experienced. When I struggled at one point with getting a dough ball to the consistency that was required, Jan stepped in and within seconds identified that the problem was that my hands were too warm. The pair complemented one another very well, too, for example with Amanda being more-inclined than Jan towards the laissez-faire approach to ingredient measurement that I prefer when I make bread, for example.
The pace was fast and Ruth in particular struggled early on to keep up, but by the end the entire group – despite many hours on our feet, much of it kneading stiff doughs – were hammering through each activity, even though there was a clear gradient in the technical complexity of what we were working on. And – perhaps again thanks to the fantastic tuition – even the things that seemed intimidating upon first glance (like weaving four strands of dough together without them sticking to one another or the surface) weren’t problematic once we got rolling.
Our hosts, apparently somehow not having enough to do while teaching and supervising us, simultaneously baked a selection of absolutely delicious bread to be served with our lunch, which by that point was just showing-off. Meanwhile, we put the finishing touches on our various baked goods with glazes, seeds, ribbons, and sugar.
And so we find ourselves with a house completely full of amazingly-tasty fresh bread – the downside perhaps of having two of us from the same household on the same course! – and a whole new appreciation of the versatility of bread. As somebody who makes pizza bases and, once in a blue moon, bread rolls, I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing and I’m looking forward to getting more adventurous with my bread-making sometime soon.
I’d really highly recommend the Brookes Restaurant courses; they’re well worth a look if you’re interested in gaining a point or two of Cooking skill.
tl;dr: First time here, clicked Wishlist Search, and it suggested the person whose song I was listening to at the time. Spooky as hell.
So here’s what happened to me today. Feeling unwell – bit of a cold and grumpy about it – and sipping a Lemsip to try to stave off the worst of the sore throat, I found myself stalking a few people on Reddit, discovering new subreddits based on what they’ve commented in etc., and I discover /r/Random_Acts_Of_Amazon.
I put on some music while I surf – just a selection of MP3s that I’ve bought recently. The song that’s just come on is Peter Hollens’ and Malukah’s awesome cover of Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu (better known as the “Civ IV theme”). If you haven’t heard their cover of it yet, here it is on YouTube.
“Random Acts of Amazon?” I think to myself, “What’s that all about then?” I read a little bit of the newbie guide, then try clicking on the “Random Wishlist” button, just to see who it picks out for me and what kinds of things they want. It picks out a random user… /u/peterhollens.
Wait, what? That’s got to just be a naming coincidence, right? That can’t be the same Peter Hollens whose song literally just started coming out of my MP3 player right now, can it? I hop across to his intro thread and read some of his other posts. “What the fuck,” I say out loud, “Is this random wishlist tool psychic or something?”
But no, it just turns out that on the one and only time I’ve ever been to this sub, and the one and only time I’ve ever clicked Random Wishlist, it happened to choose the person whose song I was literally just listening to at that time. That’s insane.
So here’s a gift, Peter. Clearly the Universe wants me to send this to you. I don’t believe in destiny, but clearly it believes in you and I.
Je parle un peu le français. Je me excuse pour la rédaction du présent en anglais.
I have been staying in La Tania on a ski holiday with friends and family. This morning, I fell and her my neck, so I thought I’d take a break from skiing and do some geocaching instead. The hike down the valley was hard in the fresh dump of snow, and I wished that I’d brought snowshoes! Or poles! Our even a rope! I routinely found myself wading through knee-high snow, and I’d ocassionally have to traverse drifts that came up to my thigh. I was very glad to reach the convenient break point of La Nouva, where I stopped to chat to a small yappy dog before pressing on.
Villaflou itself is beautiful: I especially love the cute little chapel at its heart. I spent some time investigating the wrong thing, looking for the cache, before eventually working out where it might be. Only the 5th person to find it!
On the way back to La Tania (an even more arduous hike by a different route that I thought would be easier but truly wasn’t) I was distracted by two French ladies calling me over. They were lost, having taken a wrong turn, and – perhaps as a result of them being 4 and 6 months pregnant, respectively – were finding it very hard to push themselves up the mountainside against what was now ocassionally waist-deep snow. Naturally I came to their rescue, using my GPSr to lead them up to the path they sought: a further arduous journey of pushing, pulling, digging, and crawling until we finally reached the outskirts of La Tania and they were assured of their safety.
Four hours of hiking in snow, sometimes up to my waist and rescuing two lost hikers makes this perhaps the hardest I’ve ever worked for a geocache. And I loved it.
[this post was originally made to a private subreddit]
I love the MegaLounges, and I really love the MegaManLounge. We’re a hugely disparate group of people yet we’ve come together into a wonderful community that I’m proud to be a part of. And I felt like it’d be nice to give something back. But what?
If you’re like me, you love the experience of bumping into another MMLer elsewhere in the Redditverse (or around the Internet in general). I mean, what’d be really awesome is if we could find one another in the real world, but that’s a project for another day. Anyway: my point is that I get a thrill when I spot a fellow MMLer wandering around in Redditland. But oftentimes I don’t look closely at people’s usernames, and I’m sure there must be times that I’ve just overlooked one of you in some long thread in /r/AskReddit or /r/TodayILearned or something. I’d rather know that you were there, my MML brothers and sisters.
So I spent this afternoon putting together a tool that does just that. Here’s a screenshot to show you what I’m talking about.
I’ve written a basic browser plugin that highlights MMLers (and other MegaLounge-like folks) anywhere on Reddit. So the idea is, if you install this plugin, you’ll always know if somebody’s an MMLer or a MegaLounger because they’ll get one or two icons next to their name. In the screenshot – taken on /r/MegaLoungeVenus (the 23rd MegaLounge) you’ll see a snipped of a conversation between our very own /u/love_the_heat and /u/teiu88. /u/love_the_heat has two icons: the first one (obviously) indicates that he’s a MegaMan, and the second one shows that he’s reached MegaLounge level thirty-one (yes, there are quite a lot of MegaLounge levels now). /u/teiu88 only has one icon (he’s not a MegaMan!), showing that he’s at MegaLounge level twenty-three. Note that it’s coloured differently to show that this is the level that I’m looking at right now: this helps because I can see whether people are commenting at their highest lounge level or not, which may factor into my decision about where and when to gild them.
Someday, I’d like to make this available to MegaLoungers in general, but first I’d like to show it off to you, fine MegaMen, and hear what you think. Is this tool useful to anybody? Should I make a production-grade version to share with you all? Or am I solving a problem that nobody actually has?
Just to add: there are several things I’d like to add and questions I’ve not yet answered before I release it to you; notably:
Right now it identifies members of the Super Secret MegaLounge, which is a violation of the rules of that lounge, so obviously I can’t release it yet. I’d like to find a way to have it identify such people but only to other members of that lounge, but failing that, I need to have it just “skip” that lounge when showing how high somebody’s ascended.
On which note: what do you think about it identifying MegaMen? If I ever make this tool more-widely available than the MegaManLounge, should the version used by non-MegaManLounge people identify MegaManLounge members, or not? I can see arguments either way, but I will of course go with the will of you fabulous people on this matter.
I’d like to add tooltips so that people who haven’t got the entire MegaLounge ascension mapped out in their minds can work out what’s what.
Similarly, I’d like to improve the icons so that they e.g. have gemstones next to the gemstone lounges, planets next to the planetary ones, etc.
Oh, and I really ought to make it work in more than just Firefox. I’d like it to work in Chrome, at the very least, too. IE can suck it, mind.
What do you think?
tl;dr: I’ve made a browser plugin that makes Reddit look like this, showing people’s highest MegaLounge and MegaManLounge status. Is it a good idea?
[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:
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”.
The Eden Project
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After my visit the other day, I went home, read some of the logs, and thought about this cache. Boards? Boards are something that people worry about when they’re not Batman. A cache that’s placed in the middle of dead space? That’s not a problem Batman would have. I can be Batman, sure. I AM BATMAN!
So today, I finished work, changed into a set of loose clothing (that I could comfortably climb in and wouldn’t mind having to swim in if I had to), rallied my coworker and fellow ‘cacher kateevery to act as my eyes-on-land – and my photographer – and set out to the bridge.
The boards on the side I opted to start my expedition from were a little more-troublesome – stretching farther out over the water – than the one I’d taken on before, but that hardly mattered: today, I was Batman. A grab and a leap, and I was on the other side. Next came the tough bit – the crossing: no Bat-Belt; no Batarang… but I still had my pure Batmanosity. Leaping up and bracing myself against the beams, I began shuffling across. Just as I began to tire, kateevery – my very own Robin – called out, “just four more steps”, exactly the motivation I needed to complete my crossing and grab the cache.
Totally great location. Totally Batman expedition. Totally adding this cache to my favourites.
Last weekend was an exciting and unusual experience, full of exciting (expected) things interspersed with a handful of exciting (unexpected) things. Let’s go chronologically:
Thursday/Friday – Mario, Magic, Marriage
I left work, picked up a rental car (having unfortunately forgotten to take my counterpart driving license to the rental place, I had the choice of either cycling for an hour to collect it or else paying a fiver for them to run a DVLA check, and I opted for the latter on the grounds that an hour of my time (especially if I have to spend it cycling back and forth along the same stretch of road) is worth more to me than a picture of Elizabeth Fry. I drove home, packed a bag, said goodbye to Ruth, JTA, and Annabel, and drove up to Preston.
There, I spent most of Friday playing the new Mario game with my sister Becky, gave a few small performances of magic (did I mention I’m doing magic nowadays? – guess that’ll have to wait for another blog post) at various places around Preston, and went out for a curry with my mother, my sisters Becky and Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend Richard. So far, so ordinary, right? Well that’s where things took a turn. Because as Becky, our mother, and I looked at the drinks menu as we waited for Sarah and her boyfriend to turn up… something different happened instead.
Sarah turned up with her husband.
It turns out that they’d gotten married earlier that afternoon. They’d not told anybody in advance – nobody at all – but had simply gone to the registry office (via a jewellers, to rustle up some rings, and a Starbucks, to rustle up some witnesses) and tied the knot. Okay; that’s not strictly true: clearly they had at least three weeks planning on account of the way that marriage banns work in the UK. Any case case, I’ve suddenly got the temptation to write some software that monitors marriage announcements (assuming there are XML feeds, or something) and compares them to your address book to let you know if anybody you know is planning to elope, just to save me from the moment of surprise that caught me out in a curry house on Friday evening.
So it turns out I’ve acquired a brother-in-law. He’s a lovely chap and everything, but man, that was surprising. There’ll doubtless be more about it in Episode 32 of Becky’s “Family Vlog”, so if there was ever an episode that you ought to watch, then it’s this one – with its marriage surprise and (probably) moments of magic – that you ought to keep an eye out for.
Next, I made my way up to Edinburgh to meet up with Matt R and his man-buddies for a stag night to remember. Or, failing that, a stag night to forget in a drunken haze: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve drunk like I did on that particular outing. After warming up with a beer or two in our hotel room, the five of us made our way to the Glenkinchie Distillery, for a wonderful exploration into the world of whiskies.
And then, of course, began the real drinking. Four or five whiskies at the distillery bar, followed by another beer back in the hotel room, followed by a couple more beers at bars, followed by another four whiskies at the Whiski Rooms (which I’d first visited while in Edinburgh for the fringe, last year), followed by a beer with dinner… and I was already pretty wiped-out. Another of the ‘stags’ and I – he equally knackered and anticipating a full day of work, in the morning – retired to the hotel room while the remainder took Matt out “in search of a titty bar” (a mission in which, I gather, they were unsuccessful).
Do you remember being in your early twenties and being able to throw back that kind of level of booze without so much as a shudder? Gosh, it gets harder a decade later. On the other hand, I was sufficiently pickled that I wasn’t for a moment disturbed by the gents I was sharing a room with, who I should re-name “snore-monster”, “fart-monster”, and “gets-up-a-half-dozen-times-during-the-night-to-hug-the-toilet-bowl-monster”. I just passed out and stayed that way until the morning came, when I went in search of a sobering double-helping of fried food to set me right before the long journey back to Oxford.
All in all: hell of a stag night, and a great pre-party in anticipation of next weekend’s pair of weddings… y’know, the ones which I’d stupidly thought would be the only two couples I knew who’d be getting married this fortnight!
I just wanted to share with you something that we’ve all kept quiet about until now, until we all felt confident that we weren’t likely to have a repeat of that tragedy: as Ruth just mentioned on her blog, too, she’s pregnant again! With a due date of New Year’s Eve there’s plenty of time for us to get settled into our new house before then, but it looks like she’s still going to find herself excused of all of the heavy lifting during the move.
Needless to say, this is all incredibly exciting news on New Earth, and we’ve had to bite our tongues sometimes to not tell people about it. Apologies to those of you who’ve invited us to things (e.g. at Christmas and New Years’) that we’ve had to quietly turn down without explanation – at least now you know!
I’m sure there’ll be lots to say over the coming months. I can’t promise as thorough updates as Siân‘s fantastic pregnancy blogging, but we’ll see what we can do.