Holidays in the Age of COVID

We’ve missed out on or delayed a number of trips and holidays over the last year and a half for, you know, pandemic-related reasons. So this summer, in addition to our trip to Lichfield, we arranged a series of back-to-back expeditions.

1. Alton Towers

The first leg of our holiday saw us spend a long weekend at Alton Towers, staying over at one of their themed hotels in between days at the water park and theme park:

2. Darwin Forest

The second leg of our holiday took us to a log cabin in the Darwin Forest Country Park for a week:

3. Preston

Kicking off the second week of our holiday, we crossed the Pennines to Preston to hang out with my family (with the exception of JTA, who had work to do back in Oxfordshire that he needed to return to):

4. Forest of Bowland

Ruth and I then left the kids with my mother and sisters for a few days to take an “anniversary mini-break” of glamping in the gorgeous Forest of Bowland:

(If you’re interested in Steve Taylor’s bathtub-carrying virtual-Everest expedition, here’s his Facebook page and JustGiving profile.)

5. Meanwhile, in Preston

The children, back in Preston, were apparently having a whale of a time:

6. Suddenly, A Ping

The plan from this point was simple: Ruth and I would return to Preston for a few days, hang out with my family some more, and eventually make a leisurely return to Oxfordshire. But it wasn’t to be…

Screenshot from the NHS Covid App: "You need to self-isolate."
Well that’s not the kind of message you want to get from your phone.

I got a “ping”. What that means is that my phone was in close proximity to somebody else’s phone on 29 August and that other person subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

My risk from this contact is exceptionally low. There’s only one place that my phone was in close proximity to the phone of anybody else outside of my immediate family, that day, and it’s when I left it in a locker at the swimming pool near our cabin in the Darwin Forest. Also, of course, I’d been double-jabbed for a month and a half and I’m more-cautious than most about contact, distance, mask usage etc. But my family are, for their own (good) reasons, more-cautious still, so self-isolating at Preston didn’t look like a possibility for us.

Ruth and Dan in a car, in a car park.
Ruth and I went directly to a drive-through PCR testing facility.

As soon as I got the notification we redirected to the nearest testing facility and both got swabs done. 8 days after possible exposure we ought to have a detectable viral load, if we’ve been infected. But, of course, the tests take a day or so to process, so we still needed to do a socially-distanced pickup of the kids and all their stuff from Preston and turn tail for Oxfordshire immediately, cutting our trip short.

The results would turn up negative, and subsequent tests would confirm that the “ping” was a false positive. And in an ironic twist, heading straight home actually put us closer to an actual COVID case as Ruth’s brother Owen turned out to have contracted the bug at almost exactly the same time and had, while we’d been travelling down the motorway, been working on isolating himself in an annex of the “North wing” of our house for the duration of his quarantine.

Barricade with signs reading "Quarantine: Zombie Outbreak"
I set up a “yellow zone” between Owen’s quarantine area and the rest of the house into which we could throw supplies. And I figured I’d have fun with the signage.

7. Ruth & JTA go to Berwick

Thanks to negative tests and quick action in quarantining Owen, Ruth and JTA were still able to undertake the next part of this three-week holiday period and take their anniversary break (which technically should be later in the year, but who knows what the situation will be by then?) to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That’s their story to tell, if they want to, but the kids and I had fun in their absence:

8. Reunited again

Finally, Ruth and JTA returned from their mini-break and we got to do a few things together as a family again before our extended holiday drew to a close:

9. Back to work?

Tomorrow I’m back at work, and after 23 days “off” I’m honestly not sure I remember what I do for a living any more. Something to do with the Internet, right? Maybe ecommerce?

I’m sure it’ll all come right back to me, at least by the time I’ve read through all the messages and notifications that doubtless await me (I’ve been especially good at the discipline, this break, of not looking at work notifications while I’ve been on holiday; I’m pretty proud of myself.)

But looking back, it’s been a hell of a three weeks. After a year and a half of being pretty-well confined to one place, doing a “grand tour” of so many destinations as a family and getting to do so many new and exciting things has made the break feel even longer than it was. It seems like it must have been months since I last had a Zoom meeting with a work colleague!

For now, though, it’s time to try to get the old brain back into work mode and get back to making the Web a better place!

Screenshot from the NHS Covid App: "You need to self-isolate."× Ruth and Dan in a car, in a car park.× Barricade with signs reading "Quarantine: Zombie Outbreak"×

Review of LEGOLAND® Windsor Resort

This review of LEGOLAND® Windsor Resort originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

Expensive, overcrowded even outside of peak times, and increasingly losing its character and charm to become “just another theme park”… yup, this is a Merlin Entertainments acquisition, all right. If you look carefully you might find some Lego, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So long as you’re wiling to tolerate this above, this theme park caters better than most to families with pre-teen children.

Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”


Alton Towers

Went to Alton Towers on Friday for the first time in years, along with Ruth, Annie, JTA, and his sister Harriet. Highlights include:

Actually wandering around the towers, as opposed to just spending time on the rollercoasters. Who knew there was a ruin in the middle of the theme park (yes, I know, we all knew, but who actually bothered to look before now).

Getting straight to the front of every single queue. I’ll tell you what; if you ever go to a busy theme park, take a friend in a wheelchair. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not there’s any reason for them to be in a wheelchair (so long as they’re able to move around enough to get in and out of rides), because – at Alton Towers, at least – they didn’t even bother to look at the medical notes we’d brought; they just had bits of paper to sign and then we all got “helper” armbands.

And you know what’s great about those armbands? They mean you can wheel your friend in through the exit of pretty much any ride you like, and skip the queue. With busy rides like Nemesis (still perhaps the best-designed rollercoaster I’ve ever been on, overall) and Air, it’ll save you hours of your day to never have to queue, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying those controversial “queue jump” passes. I suppose that’s probably how we found the free time to tour the towers.

We squeezed in all of the water rides early on, because we didn’t know if it was eventually going to rain or not (it didn’t), and if it didn’t, we wanted the maximum possible amount of time to dry off afterwards. Which would have worked as a plan, if it weren’t for the fact that Harriet, Annie and I had to board the log flume at a special “maintenance” station (where they were able to park the wheelchair), and because they didn’t put our boat back into the maintenance station on our way back, we ended up going around twice (much to the confusion of Ruth and JTA, who’d just de-boated and were waiting near the bottom of the big drop at the end to see us splash down and get off ourselves).

Shweet ickwe baybey gooshes!!! Yeah. And here’s a picture of a confused-looking mummy goose. Later, we encouraged kids to throw bits of their overpriced hot dogs to the (huge) carp in the lake so we could watch them fight over it with the ducks. It’s easy to find entertainment in just about anything when all the rides are closing down for the night.

The relatively new aquarium/”Sea life centre” thingy, which actually turns out to be really, really, quite spectacularly good. They’ve got a petting zoo where you can play with hermit crabs and shrimp and things; stingrays and sharks that they have a “feeding time” for, and lots and lots of glass (including an underwater tunnel through which you can walk. Of course, being Alton Towers, they’re not going to let the fact that what you’re at is an aquarium stop them from selling you a ride photo, so they take a picture of you on the way in, as shown above. If we look confused in the picture, it’s because we didn’t know we were about to have our photo taken until literally a split second beforehand – we thought that we were being told where to stand in order to put us “out of the way” while they made provision for getting the wheelchair into the building.

And finally (simply because I didn’t get a picture – the one above is Creative Commons – thanks, alundavey!), I suppose I ought to mention the awesomeness that is the new ride, Rita – Queen Of Speed (stupid name, though). This hydraulic launch (though it looks like a LIM-launched one, and certainly uses magnetic braking: wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog…) rollercoaster really does have a fabulous feeling of acceleration: jumping from a standing start to 100km/h in barely over 2 seconds is quite spectacularly eye-watering.

Also, I think Ruth is in love with that rollercoaster. She sighs whenever I mention the name, Rita.

So, a rich, full weekend, between that and all the other bits and pieces I got up to. From tomorrow I’m up in Preston for a few days, then off up to Scotland for a week or so. I’ll blog on the move if I can.


It’s been a busy weekend. Aside from all the usual stuff, Claire, Beth, Jimmy, Rory, Gareth, Penny and I travelled down to Oakwood (where we met up with Andy and Sian) for a round of play at the last remaining Crystal Maze Cyberdrome and a visit to Oakwood Theme Park. I’ve uploaded some pictures to Abnib Gallery: Oakwood, and if you’ve got any photos that you took while you were there, I’d appreciate it if you’d give me copies there too! (on which note: there are people who haven’t yet uploaded their photos to the 99 Red Balloons gallery: shame on you!)

Wow; that was a link-heavy paragraph.

We started at The Crystal Maze, registering ourselves as two teams, with Beth, Sian, Rory, Penny and I in the first team (Team Moo!) and Claire, Jimmy, Gareth and Andy in the other (Team Awesome!). Each team was issued with a plastic “swipe card” which can be swiped through any of the little card readers hidden around the themed zones of the maze, causing clues to appear on a nearby screen about where you need to go to play your next game, or checking you in to a game that you’re due to play.

The games range from the cheesy to the clever. Some are computer game-style remakes of genuine Crystal Maze games (using a trackball to drag-and-drop cogs onto pegs). Some provide clever theming and interactivity for multiple players (with one, for example, climbing up a ladder to move a computerised blowpipe, and others able to see on a separate screen which targets need to be hit). Some even involve physical activity (hopping on numbered stepping stones as your team solve riddles, swinging over a chasm to press buttons, or wriggling between a maze of hanging poles without touching any). It’s a great deal of fun, although it runs on genuinely ancient technology – an IPX network of DOS 386SX computers, each with 2MB of RAM, talking to a central server – although it’s well-built: when the machines (finally) rebooted they let us carry on exactly where we left off. Our team managed to crash two of them, causing them to completely lock up, which slowed us down in our race for crystals: we ended up with 30 seconds less in the crystal dome than our opponents, and I feel that this alone is to blame for us getting a handful less gold credits than them at the end. That and Beth had never seen The Crystal Maze before (can you believe it!) – that has to count for something.

Claire points out a lit button to Gareth, in the dome

The dome itself is about the size of a medium-to-large family tent, and is more like just the top half of the real dome in it’s shape. Around the walls illuminated buttons flicker on and off, and the aim is to press them when they are on and not when they are off. Occasionally, all the lights will turn off, and the players have to find the two small illuminated buttons near the floor and press them simultaneously to make the game continue, which provides some variety. It’s a great, furious, leap-around end to the activity, and it – like the rest of the experience – was a lot more fun than I expected.

Claire in the dome

Certificates in hand, we made a move 200 yards up the road to Oakwood Theme Park. The park is small and economical, as theme parks go, but it’s size isn’t a huge disadvantage, as it means that there’s actually time to do everything you might want to (perhaps a few things twice) without running around or putting excessive effort into planning a careful route. We rode the miniature railway into the heart of the park, and, as everybody got their bearings, Penny, Gareth and I decided to ride Vertigo, a 135-foot tall skycoaster (i.e. a giant swing).

Vertigo being winched up

A crane pulled up the harness (into which the three of us were strapped – like a giant sleeping bag with Gareth in the middle), and, after it reached the top, staff on the ground counted down… 3… 2… 1. I pulled the “ripcord”, a toggle by my right-hand side, and we dropped.

The first couple of seconds are a lot like parachuting, in my experience: a sudden shock of falling, followed by deceleration as the swing (or the parachute) begins to take effect. There’s the immediate shock of the rapidly-approaching and oh-so-near ground, but apart from that, it’s a very similar feeling. Then the swing begins, and there’s a sensation of moving very quickly and very close to the ground. We unlinked our arms and (perhaps with the exception of Penny, who gripped her harness tightly for some time) reached out in a Superman-like pose, and soared back up into the air. Elementary physics dictated that we’d swing almost as high again, but it still surprised me, and suddenly falling “backwards”, back towards my feet, was quite a remarkable change and only added to the buzz of the flight.

The rest of the park was good, too. Megafobia is a fast, aggressive wooden rollercoaster with a great deal of difference in the experience of sitting at the front or the back of the train. Speed (or, as we called it, The Phallus, owing to it’s unusual shape) is a fun little vertical-drop coaster with a loop and a barrel roll: it’s a little short, and the queue a little long (for some reason, they were only operating one of the four trains they had available) – it’s well-worth fighting for a place at the front, though, as the view is significantly better. The water slides (on which you ride a plastic boat that skims like a stone across water), the Treetops mini-coaster, “The Bounce,” and the pirate ship all add to the “thrill rides” selection of the park, which had always previously seemed to me to be a bit “too kiddy.” Even the pedal boats were fun, after a fashion – assuming you ignore the pain Jimmy and I had of repeatedly pumping your knees into your chest in a too-small, too-hard seat, right after a cheeseburger lunch.

Rory at the Crystal Maze experience

And then there’s Hydro. It only opened in the afternoon, which was a pity, because we could have been using that time to dry out… Hydro is the wettest “wet ride” I’ve ever been on. They really are not kidding when they warn you to leave behind your water-damagable valuables at the station. A 100-foot drop in a wide boat right into a splash pool kicks up an enormous wave that does an excellent job of soaking every single person on the boat. As if the experience of the ride weren’t enough, we then took the time to stand on the bridge over the spash pool, bracing ourselves against the railing, to “catch the wave” – a blast of foam that pours across the bridge every time the ride goes around.

So: a good day out was had by all, I feel. Please do upload your pictures from the day, because I’d love to see them. I gather Rory might be making another one of his short DVDs: if so, we’ll show it at the beginning of next week’s Troma Night.

See also: video of the Crystal Dome.

Claire points out a lit button to Gareth, in the dome× Claire in the dome× Vertigo being winched up× Rory at the Crystal Maze experience×

Crystal Dome at Oakwood

On 27 April 2007 some friends and I went to the (last surviving) Crystal Maze Cyberdrome Experience at Oakwood Theme Park. Here, some of my friends can be seen playing the Crystal Dome game. See more photos here.