Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Ho ho ho!

Thursday, 3 October 2013


Of course, all my Facebook friends will have seen this already, but I think it's too good not to post here as well!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Bohemian Gravity

The lyrics are meaningless to me, but it seems clever and rather well done.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Looking forward to a quiet time

Edit: That mis-spelt headline (quite / quiet) has been there A FORTNIGHT and nobody pointed it out to me! I'm so pedantic about errors like that, it's embarrassing to have overlooked it for so long!

On Sunday, Jenny and I flew to Munich, where she gave a talk to the German Zoological Society at the University of Munich, returning home yesterday afternoon.  Her talk was both well attended and well received, with some good questions and stimulating discussion, particularly at the excellent lunch we went to afterwards!

All was not perfect, however.  We'd not bought any hold luggage, but one of our bags turned out to be slightly too big for hand baggage.  That cost us £25 on the flight out, and 30€ on the return, which was irritating.  And in the talk, Jenny's Powerpoint presentation included a number of short movie clips, none of which would work from within the presentation.  Fortunately there was a techie on hand to rush on each time, play the movie, then set the presentation back to where it had been before, so Jenny could carry on.  It worked fine, but she could have done without the hassle!

So we are now settling down to enjoying being at home and not having anything much to drag us away for a while.  I have a Scotland trip in mid-October, just up there one day, home the next, and Jenny has a conference in December, but apart from that, life is settling down once more.

And about time.  Here's how the past few months have been.

Late March, we had a week's freezing and not very successful fieldwork in the Borders, immediately after which, I flew to Malaga for a couple of nights to collect the last few personal possessions from our flat.

April started with a silversmithing weekend, followed by four nights in Wales looking at a supposed fish locality that turned out not to exist. The next week we were in Milan for four nights for Jenny to give a talk at the University.

We were relatively quiet until the end of May when we  flew to Frieburg for a Choir 18 long weekend.

In early June I sang with Priory Singers in Tewkesbury Abby, though Jen had to stay at home to mark exam papers.  In mid-June we flew to Chicago for Jenny to get her doctorate, and at the end we had a week's fieldwork in the Borders, much more successful this time.

At the beginning of July we were at the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Barcelona for a week, but then the rest of July was quiet.

August saw us up in Edinburgh for four days, then singing in Worcester Cathedral for a week, after which Jen went back to Edinburgh for five  days of Vertebrate Palaeontology Symposium.  I joined her for four days, and that then took us into September and Munich.

I feel tired just thinking about it!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Your Inner Fish

On Monday, Jenny was at the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar, being filmed by Windfall Films talking about Acanthostega and Ichthyostega, the Devonian Tetrapods she's been working on for the past 20 years or so. Today, I spotted on PZ Myers' blog this flier for the programme to be broadcast in the US next spring.  I wonder if it will ever come to the UK.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Funny cartoon

I like this cartoon, which I copied from

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Brilliant YouTube clip

This is fantastic, and definitely worth watching to the very very end!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

What I did on my holidays

My reader told me off last night because it's a month since I posted anything, so I figured I'd do some now.  I've been busy, alright?

A couple of weeks ago we went up to Edinburgh for a few days.  Jenny and her colleague Tim Smithson wanted to look at the fossils the National Museums of Scotland had recently acquired from Stan Wood's estate and to decide which specimens to bring back to Cambridge to work on.  They spent a day and a half asking Nick Fraser and Stig Walsh to get drawers of specimens out of storage, then peered at them through binocular microscopes and going into little huddles to discuss what they'd found.

Eventually, around 2 on the second day, they'd seen everything and decided, so Stig packed the specimens up carefully and we stacked them in the car Tim had hired.  This was a Mondeo estate, which I really didn't enjoy driving until I'd found out how to raise the seat and lower the steering wheel.  This meant that when Tim got back in the driving seat, he had to adjust everything you could adjust in order to get it back to the way he liked it!

I was mainly there to share the driving with Tim, as it's quite a long way to Edinburgh, so to fill the time, I took a hammer and chisel to Wardie beach on the north side of Edinburgh.  It's very close to the NMS storage facility where Jenny and Tim were working, and the rocks are exactly the right age for our project.

The rocks are mostly a soft grey oil-shale, much of which was mined in Victorian times to extract the oil.  The fossils are generally found in hard, ironstone nodules which have formed within the shale.  Many fossil fish have come out of Wardie, and a single aïstopod, a legless early tetrapod, which was, of course, why I was banging rocks there.

Sadly, although fossils are common in the nodules, they are generally coprolites - fossil fish poo, and while a few are quite pretty, they're not something we generally collect.  Surprise!

I collected this one because the rock happened to break at almost exactly 90°to the coprolite, so the section is almost perfectly circular, and there's a faint outline of fool's gold highlighting it. The turd is about 2cm in diameter, I suppose.

I did also find a fish, but it was so badly mashed, although I brought it home, I eventually accepted that Jenny's lack of enthusiasm for it was justified, so it will end up either as a rock in the garden or in the landfill.

I found a few plant specimens which I plan to photograph so that Jason Hilton at the University of Birmingham can decide whether or not he's interested enough for us to find a way to get them to him.  This one is a natural mold of a brach about 3cm thick and the diamond shapes you can see are the negative of the texture of the

It's possible there's a bit of the original tree inside there, but you can't tell right now.

Barely back from Edinburgh, last week we went with Royston Priory Singers to Worcester, where we sang all the sung services for the week, the Cathedral Choir School being on holiday.

The only accommodation our gallant organiser had managed to find was in Malvern St James Girl's School, which was a bit of a trek, but in fact it worked much better than I'd feared.

The accommodation was comfortable and the food excellent, which are the two things you always fear are going to be grim when you stay in a school.  We have had some memorably unpleasant
experiences, but I'm pleased to say, this was not one of them.

The clergy were very welcoming and it was a delight to sing in that beautiful cathedral.  We've been there for a few weekends in the past, but this was the first time we'd done a complete week there.  And we acquitted ourselves quite well, we thought, particularly the free lunchtime concert we gave on the Saturday.

This beautiful Sunbeam Talbot 90 was parked in the Cathedral Close on Saturday and Sunday, and it reawakened pangs of longing that I thought I'd grown out of decades ago!

I've owned three of these in the past, one not driveable, that eventually went for scrap when I moved up to the north-east.  I used to think they were the first 100mph production cars in the world, but when I looked them up on Wikipedia just now, it said the fastest of them would only do about 93mph.

One very pleasant aspect of the week was that after Jenny's Beautiful Minds programme earlier last year, she received an email from an old colleague.  Angela Kirton was doing her PhD on ichthyosaurs in the same lab as Jenny in Newcastle, and actually featured in the programme, working in the background. The fact that we were staying in Malvern was a bonus, because that's where Angela and her husband Mike, live, and we were able to meet up at the Red Lion pub and have a very pleasant evening catching up over dinner.  I remember liking them when we were in the north-east, and we still like them now.  I don't think they share our taste in music, though.

Our silversmithing tutor and his wife came to our concert, but I suspect that was out of loyalty more than anything else.  Although he has Classic FM on in the workshop the whole of the time, I suspect they weren't keen on what we did. They live on the Hereford-Worcestershire border, so it wasn't a long drive for them, and it was very nice of them to come.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Vive la France!

This is funny.  I'm on a mailing list for stuff from Chris Davies MEP for somewhere up north, as a result of my support for Hugh's Fish Fight and all of that stuff.  Below is a bit I clipped out of his latest missive.

Well done France
It may not be much compensation for seeing yet another British cyclist win the Tour de France but I would like to express my thanks to the French government for standing up to the Germans.
Readers of these NOTES may know of my long running battle to get Daimler, manufacturers of £70,000 Mercedes cars, to apply the EU law that I helped shape requiring car companies to start using air conditioning refrigerants in their new models with a global warming potential (gwp) less than 150 more than CO2.  At present most cars have refrigerants with a horrendous gwp 1.430 greater than CO2.
I hope the torrent of parliamentary questions (PQs) I have tabled, and exchanges I have had with European Commission officials, have encouraged them to enforce the law as firmly as they can, but I also know that the legal process is painfully slow - especially when a member state (Germany) is claiming that there are 'scientific' reasons for their objections.
But now the French have cut the Gordian knot.  While our UK (Tory) minister has decided to leave it all up to Brussels, the French have stepped in and simply banned the registration of new Mercedes vehicles.  So in France you can buy one of the non-compliant vehicles but you can't drive it on French roads.
Daimler sell 29,000 of the relevant cars in France each year so they have gone ballistic!  I thought the French government or the European Commission might bow to arm twisting by Germany, but last week the Commission came out with a declaration that in effect said that France was within its rights.
Vive la France!

Monday, 22 July 2013

A week in Barcelona

Life's been a bit busy over the past few months, but at last we have a few weeks at home, so we can catch up on the garden and relax a bit.  The week before last we were at the 10th International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Barcelona, where Jenny and several of her colleagues were speaking.  Fortunately it was in a big, modern, air-conditioned hotel, as the outside temperatures rose to the mid-30's centigrade.  This is the view from our room!
This old palace now houses the National Museum of Catalan Art.  I didn't go in, but we did have a drink in the café on the terrace outside the entrance.

I didn't go to many of the talks, so generally went rubbernecking in the mornings when it wasn't quite so hot, then retired to our room in the afternoon where I could work on the website from Jenny's project.  Since the hotel provided wifi and I'd taken my laptop, this was easy and I got a lot done.

I'd got the site pretty much completely translated into Spanish and just needed to tidy a few bits up, so it was a useful way to spend the time.

Naturally I also practised my Spanish.  Many of the locals don't speak any English, and the Spanish is slightly different from the Andalucian Spanish I've learned, so occasionally just understanding what was going on was a bit of a challenge.  Good fun, though!

We walked into the old city and visited the cathedral, but architecturally speaking, the high point was always going to be the Sagrada Familia, the church designed by Gaudí and still a long way from completion.

This view, taken from a terrace of the palace above, shows the familiar profile, along with the resident cranes.  What's not obvious is that there are a further 10 spires yet to be built, making 18 in all, the tallest of which will be 170 metres tall.

We took the lift up the spires by the south doors.  They are only about 60 metres tall and there's not much space for tourists up there, but then they only let a few people up at a time.

It's advisable to book tickets online, which I did from the hotel and as a result we got in with almost no queueing.  A friend also booked online the previous day and had to wait an hour, so it's a bit of a lottery.  Definitely worth the effort, though.  Fantastic building.

Actually, there are quite a lot of really fascinating buildings to be seen just as you move around the city, with wide, tree-lined streets and interesting frontages in a wide variety of styles.

We ate lots of really great food, of course!  The best patatas bravas I've ever had.  In Barcelona they seem to dollop Marie Rose sauce on them, which works brilliantly.  Also slow braised calve's cheeks and excellent fish, of course.

One thing we won't try again was the ears.  We couldn't imagine they were real ears, so figured the translation was wrong and they'd probably be some sort of mushroom.  Wrong, they were pigs' ears!  There's really just skin and a bit of sub-cutaneous fat either side of the cartilage that shapes a pig's ear, and it was a rather tasteless, amorphous tissue.  One taste was enough!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

De-scratching a camera LCD screen

Recently I bought a cheap compact digital camera to keep in my handbag for instant use, as the camera in my phone is pretty useless, and of course, I took it into the field last week to photograph whatever needed to be photographed.  I have a protective pouch for it, and when we were working at the new site shown in the middle photograph in the previous post, I kept it, in its pouch, in the breast pocket of my jacket.

After a while, I got fed up with constantly unzipping the pouch, so started just dropping the camera straight into my pocket.  This was a mistake, because I also stored a toothbrush in there, which I used to gently brush away loose dirt from the fossils we were trying to extract from the cliff.  Said toothbrush was of course, contaminated with dirt from the cliff.

On Friday afternoon I took some photographs in Burnmouth Bay in quite bright sunlight, and was horrified to see masses of scratches all over the LCD screen on the back of the camera.  They were so bad that in the bright light they partially obscured my view of what I was trying to photograph.  It took me a while to work out how I had scratched the screen so badly, and I was mortified when I realised how stupid I'd been.

On Monday, not wanting to throw away an otherwise perfectly good camera, I googled for ideas on how to remove the scratches and immediately found suggestions to use toothpaste.  Now as an amateur silversmith, I know that you can use toothpaste to do a little emergency polishing of silver jewellery, but that it's actually a bit aggressive, so I polished my LCD screen with Silvo, of the sort that comes as pink cotton wadding in a tin.

I rubbed away with the Silvo wadding for a short while, polished it up with a soft cloth and examined the results.  Seeing an improvement, I repeated the exercise several times until I felt I'd got rid of enough of the scratches. I did it in lots of short stages, for fear of doing some irreparable damage to the screen, but as it turned out, all was well.  There were still a few really deep scratches, but they were actually not the ones that had caused me so much trouble on Friday afternoon in the sunshine.  The masses of tiny ones were what had made life so difficult.

I also found some cheap, cut-to-fit protective film in my local supermarket in the mobile phones section (there was nothing in the cameras section) so once I'd got rid of the majority of the scratches, I cleaned the screen with the alcohol-impregnated cloth you get with the film, dried it off, cut the film to size and stuck it in place.  And it all seems to have worked rather nicely.

I did try the same trick on the 'big' Panasonic, which also has a three inch LCD screen, but first, that screen was rather more badly scratched, and second, I forgot to clean it with the alcohol-impregnated cloth, so when I applied the protective film, there was a speck of dust, which is still there.  I think I can still use it OK, but I might get irritated enough to rip the current film off and have another go. You get quite a lot of film for your £4.

Monday, 1 July 2013

A great week's fieldwork

Last week quite a few of us spent the whole week up in Northumberland and the Borders Region of Scotland doing fieldwork as part of the TW:eed Project.  Eight of us stayed in the same wonderful rented cottage a little way west of Berwick where we stayed in March.  There were four of us from Cambridge, three from Leicester and one from Southampton. On Tuesday afternoon we had a team meeting, so three from the National Museums, Scotland and two from the British Geological Survey came down from Edinburgh to join us.  It was a little cosy in the living room while the various teams reported their progress.

We had obtained permission from the relevant authority to remove about a square metre of rock from a specific site at Burnmouth, so Tim had hired a rock saw which he used to cut around the bit he wanted.  It was mounted in a cradle, which actually made it much harder to use than he'd hoped.  Here he is on day one, being assisted by Stig Walsh from the NMS.

Jenny and I didn't spend much time there, as there was nothing we could do to help, so we'd just have been sitting around. We extracted a couple of large bones from the same bed we've been digging through ever since we first started coming to Burnmouth.  The rate of erosion is quite fast, so this week's bones were completely invisible when  we were here in March.  One was a 15cm diameter lungfish operculum, but we don't know what the other one is.

Two geologists went to a new site to log the beds there, and Jenny and I went along just to take a look.  We were delighted to find some bits of rhizodont fish on the river bank at the foot of the cliff.

We found a bed in the cliff with more rhizodont and lungfish bones eroding out, but could not collect that as the bones were so friable they just disintegrated as we tried to remove them.  We bought some superglue, which the Americans sometimes use to consolidate the bone in the field, though UK conservators frown on that, since it's not reversible.

In the event, we couldn't use it anyway as it started to rain, and kept raining until the end of the week.  Superglue doesn't work well in the wet!  We're planning to go back later this month or
early in August for a couple of days to extract the bones, but will need to get the land owner's permission before we do so.  Not sure quite how we'll go about that, but I'm sure it's do-able.

We saw grey wagtails feeding chicks and also a pair of dippers, which were visiting this nest which we had to walk past to get to our site.  You could hear the chicks peeping when the parents went in with a beakful of tasty invertebrates!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


 Well, maybe not exactly my kind of town, but still a pretty good place!  We were very excited that the University of Chicago had invited Jenny and me over for a long weekend so they could present her with an honorary doctorate.

We've obviously known about this for a while, but had to keep quiet about it until about a month ago, and of course, I didn't want to blog about it up front, since that's just advertising the fact that our house was going to be empty for a while.

The motivating force behind all this was Mike Coates, Professor of Organismal Biology at the U of C.  He worked for Jenny as a post-doc in the early 1990's, digging out Acanthostega bones from the rock and discovering in the process that it had 8 digits on each limb.  He had proposed her and had asked me on the sly to provide him with her CV, which I was able to do without letting on to her what I was doing.

They flew us over on Thursday, she gave a talk on Friday afternoon and we attended a welcoming dinner for all honorands and their guests on Friday evening, then there was the ceremony on Saturday morning, followed by a buffet lunch.  This first picture is the view of the Chicago River from our 21st floor hotel room.

The only bits that were fraught were the flights, since I'd thought my ESTA (required for entry into the USA) was up to date, but in fact it had expired.  I'd been unable to check-in online, but the United Airlines website had not explained why.  We only discovered why when we actually got to Heathrow.  Fortunately there are pay-per-use internet terminals where you can apply for your ESTA, which only takes a few minutes.  Phew!

Then on the way back, the website checked me in OK, but refused to check Jenny in.  Turns out when I'd originally entered our personal information, the United website had concatenated our initials onto the end of our first names.  Why it checked me in anyway, but refused to check Jenny in, we have no idea, but again, it was only at the airport that we were able to sort it out.  You can do without that sort of stuff!

Everywhere we went on the official parts of the trip, we were whisked there in black limo's (not stretch, but plenty big enough!), including the airport pick up and drop off, which saved a lot of hassle.
 We had a wander around on Friday morning, and saw this amazing sculpture in Millenium Park.  It's called Cloud Gate and is by the British artist Anish Kapoor.  I took this shot deliberately to get some of the Chicago skyline reflected in it.  It is wonderful!

Jenny's talk at the University went well, though was rather poorly attended.  This is a strange thing about her talks - sometimes the place is packed, sometimes there's just a scattering of people, and you can't tell ahead of time which it will be.

Worst was that we discovered on Friday afternoon that none of her guests had actually been invited, so her friend and colleague Eric Lombard came up to congratulate her after the talk, and was surprised to find she was expecting him to be at that evening's dinner and at the ceremony the following day.  She'd also invited John Bolt and Neil Shubin, also friends and colleagues, but the University seems to have cocked up there.

The 7.15 am pick-up sounded ghastly, but in fact was not too bad as we were still pretty much on UK time.  Organisation was chaotic in the outdoor arena.  I was taken to the seating reserved for Jenny's guests, but she was just pointed across the park.  Should have been the other way around, of course.  Unable to find where she was supposed to be, she eventually made her way back to the entrance to the park, where she found someone willing to guide her to where the other honorands were gathering.  Then there was an hour's wait before things started happening.  I was OK, as I'd anticipated that and had my book!

While I was waiting, the woman you see on your left stood in front of me and took a series of photographs of the arena.  I thought her dress was simply amazing, so took several photo's of her, including this one when she just happened to be looking my way.  No doubt she looked at the photo later and saw me taking a picture of her!

There were about 1500 students being awarded a variety of degrees, but it was well organised, although the initial procession in was very slow.  There was none of this walking up onto the stage individually for the students - each bunch getting the same degree stood up in a block, got recognised by the president and applauded, then sat down, so all 1500 degrees were awarded in less than an hour.

The special folks, ie Jenny and about 10 others getting honorary degrees and a few medals, were all processed at the start.   It was all rather far away, though there were big screens where you could see what was going on better.  Sadly, when you photograph a screen like that, you don't get a decent photo, of course.

Jenny was in her scarlet Cambridge Reader gown, and the Chicago hood they gave her clashes dreadfully with it!

On Saturday afternoon we walked up the 'Magnificent Mile' of Michegan Avenue, but were not greatly impressed.  Got to the north end where we found a  sandy, white beach.  Quite unexpected.  Lake Michegan is vast, of course.  You can't see the other side from Chicago.

On Sunday, which we had all to ourselves, we visited the Shedd Aquarium, then took a boat taxi from there up to Naval Point, where the Chicago River runs out into the lake, walked upstream a bit and took an Architectural boat tour up and down the river for 90 minutes.

Chicago used to be built entirely of wood, but was largely destroyed by a fire in 1871.  Not long after that, builders started using steel frames for tower blocks, so our guide was able to point out buildings in a huge range of styles, from Art Nouveau through Art Deco, Classical, Gothic, Post-Modern, etc.  It was very interesting and she was extremely knowledgeable.

I did wish I'd had a hat, since my hair is thinner than I allow these days, and my scalp got sunburned.

And one last thing.  On Friday morning, I discovered a wonderful breakfast dish, so had the same thing every day after that!  Scrambled eggs, with apple, smoked bacon, cheese and hash brown potatoes.  I mis-read the menu, and expected to get apple-smoked bacon, but when I put it in my mouth I was delighted with the effect.  The hash browns were not like McCains hash browns, either.  They were essentially grated potato fried and crispy.  With coffee and orange juice it was just the perfect breakfast!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Tewkesbury is lovely!

Well, the weather helped, of course.  After weeks of cold, wet and windy weather, we finally had a decent weekend for our first visit to sing in Tewkesbury Abbey.

Jenny is involved in exams at this time of year, and the schedules are such that she could not come as she had a batch of exams which had to be marked by this morning.  We missed her a lot!

On Saturday morning I collected our friends Jane and Julia and we drove over to Tewkesbury, arriving within minutes of our 1pm target time.

I dumped the car in the hotel car park, checking with the owner that it was OK, and we headed up the road for lunch. The hotel owner recommended the Bay Tree, which was so good, we went there yesterday for lunch, too!
Tewkesbury is the most completely Normal church we've sung in, I think.  Only the very east end is in a different, slightly more modern style.  It has a fabulous accoustic, easily as good as Winchester, which is probably the best we'd previously sung in.  Long, long decay.  Lovely!

Sadly, as we set out, I realised my throat was hurting slightly, and by the time we rehearsed at 2.30 it was definitely complaining.  I sang in the evensong at 5.30, forcing the sound out despite the pain, because Tom, on my left, had not been to many rehearsals (he works in Wales) and Nadine normally sings Alto, so needed a bit of support.  The service went well, but my voice did suffer.

In the evening Nadine had organised a terrific choir dinner at a restaurant on the outskirts of town called Gupshill Manor.  It was great!  There were four  tables, each seating eight.  I'm not sure how Nadine decided who was to sit where, but our table had enough of my favourite women to keep me a happy bunny!

On Sunday, however, the moment I opened my mouth in the rehearsal, I knew I wasn't going to be singing for at least the rest of the day.  Fortunately, another tenor, Mark, had arrived, so there were enough of them.  I sat through the rehearsal, following the dots, but not making any sound, and during the service I sat out of the way just listening.  They were doing the Lloyd Webber service Missa Princeps Pacis, which I just love, so it was worth putting up with the rather chilly church just to hear that.  That link takes you to the Sanctus, but there are links to most of the other bits hovering around the same part of YouTube.  I recoreded most of the music on my camera, but I was too far away, really, and the sound is disappointingly muffled and indistinct.

There's an arc of small chapels around the east end of the quire with a walkway linking them all up, in which this fabulous stainless steel madonna has stood for quite a few years now.  It's quite hard to photograph, what with all the shiny surfaces, and I haven't really succeeded here, though this is the best of the several photo's I took.

After lunch a group of us took the guided tower tour, organised by the local Sea Cadets.  The spiral stairs up to the roof are pretty steep and narrow, particularly the upper half, but we made it fine and the views across the area were fantastic.  Looking south-ish, we could see the tower of Gloucester Cathedral, and to the north was Worcester, though sadly, we couldn't see the Cathedral spire.

In the evensong at five they sang the world's favourite sacred choral piece, Lord, let me know mine end by Maurice Green, so of course, I had to be there, and it was stunning.  I left immediately after the anthem as that is generally the last piece of decent music before the organ voluntary, and I can't be doing with all their praying.  I wish now that I'd hovered closer to the door, though, so I could slide in at the end to listen to David playing.  The organ there is wonderful, and David was in his element!

Jane very kindly drove us home and after a quick freshen-up she and Julia came around to ours where Jenny had prepared a delicious chicken curry, followed by fruit salad.  That rounded of the weekend nicely, though my throat is still sore and I'm coughing well. 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Landfill Orchestra

This is really heartwarming!

Singing in Freiburg, Germany

We sing in two choirs, Royston Priory Singers, which performs entirely in the UK, and Choir18 which does half a dozen gigs in the UK each year, as well as a continental trip over the May bank holiday weekend.  Last year I posted about our trip to Pisa, and this year we went to Freiburg im Breisgau.  Jenny was fortunate in that unusually, the Cambridge exams started after the bank holiday weekend, whereas normally they start before, so she generally can't come on these continental excursions.

The trip worked out perfectly, but I did screw up badly when I booked our flights, and we ended up paying through the nose for it.

First, I had a hangover when I booked the flights, and I'd already left it too late, so there were no seats available on the flight I wanted from London City airport to Basel, which is the nearest airport to Freiburg.  I must remember not to do stuff like this when I have a hangover!

I would normally go straight to the EasyJet website, but somehow ended up buying EasyJet flights from an outfit called CheapoAir.  I mean, for goodness sake, with a name like that I should have heard the alarm bells ringing!

The only flight I could find for last Friday was from Gatwick at 08:10, so that meant we had to stay overnight near the airport.  For simplicity, I booked a room in the Sofitel, Gatwick, which is right by the North Terminal and 2 minutes walk to Check-In.  Pricey, but convenient and good.

Then the only return flight yesterday seemed to be at 9pm, but after I'd booked the seats, Jenny said she needed to be home much earlier than that as she is Senior Examiner for some bits of the Cambridge exams this year, and had to be on-site by 9am this morning.  Getting back late from Gatwick was not on.

We went to EasyJet this time and found a 3pm flight, so booked that as well. You can't get your money back, of course, so we just had to sacrifice the price of the 9pm seats.

As well as all that, the CheapoAir website had not allowed me to add hold luggage or passenger details, but the flight reference they gave me was invalid on the EasyJet site, so I had to do all that stuff by phone.  It all worked, but it was a pain.  Even the online check-in didn't work until I phoned EasyJet, when the customer services person at the other end somehow enabled it.  Still, I ended up with printed out boarding passes for all six passenger trips, so that was OK.

So just to give myself something to worry about, I then phoned EasyJet and explained what I'd done, and asked them to cancel the 9pm booking as we'd be coming home at 3pm.  I figured it that would let them sell those two seats if they wanted to, and they were no use to me.  That meant I could worry about them cancelling all flights, or at least the wrong one.

There were 10 of us all arriving within an hour or so of each other at Basel, so the tour organiser laid on a coach to collect us and take us to the hotel, in a village near Freiburg.  Bizarrely, although Basel is in Switzerland, the airport is in France, so there are exits to two different countries from the terminal and you have to make sure you go out the right one.  Fortunately we were forewarned, so got it right first time!  I had also taken the trouble to check the weather forecast, so we'd packed our thermals.  It was colder than the UK!

On Saturday morning we were coached to Freiburg Minster for midday.  They have a short meditation, some sort of reading from the bible, I suppose, though as it was all in German, I have little idea what it was actually about.  Either side of the talking, we got to sing for a few minutes.  The acoustics were great and there must have been a couple of hundred people in there.  They seemed pretty appreciative, too, which was gratifying.

At four the coach collected us and took us to another village near Freiburg, where we hung about for a bit, then sang in the 6pm mass.  Unlike the French, who no longer seem keen on proper music in their masses, the Germans were well up for it, and gave us lots of slots.  We sang a lovely Victoria mass, a modern Ubi Caritas, Gabrielli Jubilate Deo, Stanford Beati Corum Via, Byrd O Lux Beata.  It was cracking, and they loved it, as did we!

After the mass, sung from a balcony at the back of the church, we went down to the front and sang a short concert of secular pieces, one of which I'd never actually seen before.  Sight reading in front of an audience is scary, I tell you!  Still, they liked the concert just as much as the mass, so we came away feeling suitably smug.

On Sunday we had a rather early start for the coach to take us to yet another village for a morning mass, this place being the monastery of St Trudpert in Münstertal.  This place was enormous, also with a balcony at the back, from which we sang.  The organ loft was up there, too, and not only was it a pretty impressive piece of kit, but the organist was really good!  It was a pleasure to watch her play the Bach voluntary at the end of the service.  The music was the same as for Saturday's mass.
 The coach then took us to Lake Titisee, supposedly to do some sightseeing, but it was cold and rainy, and our immediate group only made it as far as a restaurant right next to the coach park, where we had lunch, which took until it was time to go home.  At the highest point of the trip it was actually snowing, and there was snow on the trees and buildings.

Back at the hotel we gave another concert, but sadly whoever was in charge of publicity had failed miserably.  The audience did just scrape into double figures, but most of those were our own groupies - spouses and children of choristers.  Still, it went well and we were pleased with our performance.

Yesterday, Jenny, our friend Pam and I, caught bus, tram and coach to the airport.  Bus to the tram terminus, tram to the coach terminus in Freiburg and coach to Basel.  We were well early, but disappointed to find no restaurant in the airport, just a snack bar.  The baguettes were good, but actually, we'd have liked a sit down meal.

It's only just over an hour's flight to Gatwick and then we were amazed to get out of the airport in less than half an hour. I was sure we'd have dire traffic on the M25, it being the end of the bank holiday weekend, but there was not a single hold-up - we just drove home in about an hour and a half.  Fantastic!  I suppose the fact that it's half-term week must have contributed to that.

So all in all, a brilliant weekend.  Home in loads of time, knackered but happy. 

Friday, 17 May 2013

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Fabulous contemporary dance!

We went to see the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last night, and it was simply breathtaking!  They did three short sessions, with two intervals, which is not uncommon with contemporary dance, since it's so physical.  I think they'd exhaust themselves if they tried to organise it any other way.

One of the unusual features of this company is that they have one or more musicians on stage providing the music, whereas most companies have recorded music.   The disadvantage is that some of the floor space is taken up by the grand piano, but that didn't seem to cause any difficulty.  Well, they'll have rehearsed with the piano there for years, so must be used to it.

We were really enjoying it and telling each other how good it was, but when they started the final set we were just blown away.  This is called The Devil in the Detail and is set to a series of Scot Joplin rags.  Not only was the dancing brilliant, but it was also perfectly obvious that the performers were having an absolute whale of a time.

There's a short clip on their website, but I couldn't manage to embed the html, so I'm afraid you'll have to click the link to see them in action.  This is a the last minute and a half or so of Devil in the Detail.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A new African mask

When I was in Spain collecting a few last personal effects from the flat at the end of March, I went into Fuengirola one day and visited the African Fine Arts shop, where I bought this splendid Dan tribal mask.  There is a lower beak, hidden in amongst the grass 'hair', but I've not yet found a way to mount the mask on the wall so that you can see it.

The Dan people are from Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and this is a 'singer' mask.  The wearer sings praises, though I'm unclear exactly whose.   I've not found anything like it in any of my books about African masks.

I might get in touch with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge to see if they can shed any further light on it.

Minnesota approves gay marriage

Well, hoorah!  It seems more and more US states are approving gay marriage, and the more the merrier, I say.  For goodness sake, if two people love each other, why should they not get married?. I really can't understand the attitude that argues that there is something somehow wrong about single sex relationships.  Just doesn't make any sense to me. I don't know many gay people, but they just seem totally normal. What's not to love?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Weekend in Sheringham

We've just spent the weekend in a holiday flat in Sheringham, with our good friends and neighbours, Lorna and Richard.  As usual, we drove up on Friday and had the usual excellent fish and chips from the chippie at the end of the street, then on Saturday did a bit of birding at Cley Marshes, had dinner in the wonderful No 10 restaurant in Sheringham, wandered along the foreshore on Sunday morning and came home in the afternoon.

The chippie is called Seafare and is in Church Street, and if you're looking for decent fish and chips in Sheringham, I recommend them.  Jenny and I discovered them the very first time we stayed in this particular flat, and we've settled into the routine of getting fish and chips there on the Friday whenever we stay in Sheringham.  Terrific!

Richard and Lorna supplied lovely warm croissants for breakfast on Saturday, accompanied by the most enormous fruit salad!  We were well full by the end of that!  After a wander around town and a look at the market, we drove to Cley next the Sea where we had lunch in the Dun Cow, actually at Salthouse, next to Cley.  Despite the place being pretty full, they managed to serve us good food promptly.  We were impressed that the operation was so slick, given the number of customers.

The Cley Marshes Nature Reserve is owned by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, of which we're not members, so we had to pay to go in, which was fine. There are decent boardwalks to the hides we visited, and we got good views of quite a few birds, including ringed plover, black-tailed godwit, dunlin, redshank (displaying), avocet, gadwal and shoveller ducks and marsh harriers.  All very satisfactory.  Lorna and Richard are not birders, so their interest was limited and we didn't push our luck, so Jenny and I would cheerfully have stayed longer, but let our friends drag  us home!

Dinner in No 10 was as great as ever, with a warm welcome from owner Sonya.  I had an excellent local fillet steak, but as the rest were all eating fish, they had white wine, while I contented myself with an enormous glass of red.

On Sunday it was my turn to cook breakfast, so first we finished off Richard's fruit salad, then I made omelettes Arnie Bennett.  The pukka Omelette Arnold Bennett requires clever sauces, but the version I did is designed, according to the author of the book I used, for people who don't have staff.

Omelette for two.
4 large eggs
a slug of milk - you could probably use some of what you cook the fish in
salt and pepper
a small knob of butter
a lump of undyed, smoked haddock - say 10 or 12 cm square and a couple thick
enough milk to just cover the fish in a pan
10 peppercorns
a bay leaf
single cream
75 - 100 gm gruyere or emental

  • Lay the fish in a pan and just cover with milk.  Add the peppercorns and bay leaf.  Bring the milk to the boil, remove from the heat, cover and leave for 5 minutes. 
  • When time is up, take the fish out of the pan, skin it and flake it into a bowl.  Add a good slug of cream and mix it all up.
  • Fire up the grill so it's hot when you need it.
  • Beat the eggs with the milk, then season with salt and pepper.  Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan and when it's bubbling, pour in the egg mixture.  As the edges set, pull them towards the middle and run more liquid egg into the space.
  • Once most of the egg is set, but with the middle still liquid, spread the haddock and cream over the top, then grate the cheese over the top of that.  Stick it under a hot grill until the top starts to go golden.
  • Serve immediately.
After that a walk around the town was essential to settle things down or we'd have stayed sitting in the settees all day!  We spent quite a while sitting, reading and drinking coffee as it was!

After the walk, we decided we really needed to get some lunch, not so much because we were hungry but it was getting towards two o'clock and we knew we needed to eat before setting out back to Royston.  We went into a pub that just happened to be handy and were served enormous portions.  Needless to say, I could only eat about half of mine, but it was good - three tasty sausages in a big Yorkshire pudding with a big serving of gravy.  And chips, and peas, and carrots.  I was defeated before I'd even started it!

Lorna and Richard set off homewards more or less straightaway, but Jenny and I wanted to go to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve near Fakenham.  Sadly, the day was so far progressed by the time we set out that it was not practical, so we've had to save that for our next visit.

We were pretty glad to collapse in a heap when we got home.  A great weekend, but knackering!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Hedge Project

I seem to have re-prioritised my time and blogging has quite unconsciously been demoted.    Maybe I'm doing stuff slower these days, or maybe I'm just doing other stuff, but I certainly seem to get to blogger much less often than I used to.

Well anyway, here's one of the things Jenny and I got up to over the winter, finally finishing the project about three weeks ago.   I did eventually find a 'before' photo dating from 1992, but then realised it's just anyole leylandii hedge so there's no point inserting it here.

You'll be able to tell from the shape of the image that I've stitched together a couple of photographs!

This hedge was mature when we bought the house in 1986 and we've never liked it, though until now, not disliked it enough to actually do anything about it.  But now we've stripped off all the green stuff, so the conifers will die, and we've planted hawthorn, blackthorn, dog rose, guelder rose, bramble, honeysuckle, etc, intending it to grow into a more typical English hedgerow, better to look at than the old one and more environmentally friendly to boot.  The old trunks lend an architectural character to it, and the trellis with brushwood screening attached improves our privacy while the hedge is growing.

Monday, 22 April 2013

We've been away

It's been a busy few weeks, and it's rather pleasant to be returning to the usual routine.

First, we had a weekend silversmithing course on the Hereford-Worcester border.  I've blogged about these before, so will spare you the detail.  Suffice it to say we had a great time, stayed in the Talbot at Knightwick as usual, enjoying excellent food both evenings.

The following Tuesday we drove to Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons of South Wales, where we stayed for several days.  Jenny had been asked to consult about some fossil fish and we'd extended the trip slightly so she could visit the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff to look at some other fossil fish.

Crickhowell is a lovely old-fashioned sort of village, with lots of different kinds of shops, but no supermarket anywhere near.  We stayed in the Dragon Inn, which was fine and served us decent food.

The fossils were all a bit disappointing.  An amateur palaeontologist had collected some Carboniferous fish fossils on Anglesea, but they were very small, scrappy and fragmentary.  Jenny put lots of post-it notes into the specimen boxes with comments on each one, but there was nothing there to encourage her to return.

We visited the site up in the hills that she was being consulted about, along with a couple of folks from Natural Resources Wales, but that was disappointing, too.  The site is being designated an SSSI because of the stratigraphy of the rocks, but abundant fish fossils had been reported from the site too, and they wanted to know if they should designate it an SSSI because of the fossil fish, too.

We walked the length of the exposure, past where the fish were supposed to have come from, and found barely a thing.  This actually tied in neatly with what Jenny had found in the research she'd done beforehand. She'd read several papers and somebody's unpublished PhD thesis, and although there were several references to the fish, at no point did anyone say "I found fossil fish there" nor could she track down any specimens anywhere.  So even before we arrived, we suspected we'd find nothing.  We did see specimens of very concentrated deposits of Devonian fishes in the National Museum in Cardiff, but they had come from quite a few miles away from our site.  So it won't be an SSSI on the grounds of the fossil fish!

Last week we went to Milan.  Jenny had been invited to give a couple of lectures at the University, so on Monday we flew out from Gatwick.  We were staying in a curious place, part student accommodation but with one floor for visiting professors.  It was OK, but not brilliant.

The student who had arranged it all took decent care of us, though the whole thing was rather stressful, and indeed, must have been so for him just as much.  He'd booked us tickets to see Leonardo's Last Supper, which was great, but hard work as his only choice was 08:45.  We had to rush over there with no breakfast!  It was worth it, of course, and we breakfasted twice afterwards!

 Milan is not a particularly beautiful place, and we suspect it was badly bombed during the war, as much of the centre is modern.  The Duomo (Cathedral) is fabulous and we really enjoyed visiting it, especially the walk around the rooftops.

We also spotted an exhibition of pictures by Modigliani and some of his contemporaries.  This was also disappointing.  The Modigliani's were good, especially his Blue Caryatid, but most of the work by his contemporaries, by far the bulk of what was on display, was simply not very good at all.  Jenny summed it up well when she commented that you could see work of that standard in any village art show.

On the other hand, the city was full of elegantly dressed, attractive women, and there were masses of scooters and motorbikes rushing around the place, so we were kept entertained the whole time.

I'd read recently that Spanish and Italian are so similar that a Spaniard and an Italian, each knowing only his own language, could understand about 70%of what the other was saying, so was able to practise my Spanish, which worked well!

Jenny's talks were well received, after which it was possible for us to relax a bit, and it was all very satisfactory.

On the way home, we saw warning signs of long delays anticlockwise around the M25 so went the other way, and discovered that whichever way you go, it's more or less the same distance and takes pretty much the same time.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Spanish Flat has been sold, hoorah!

We got a bit depressed about the Spanish flat last September because the kitchen was looking really rather tired, and the letting agency were complaining that the place smelled of damp.  The agency staff were convinced the smell emanated from the carpets in the bedrooms and wanted us to tear them up and replace with marble tiles to match the rest of the place, a snip at 2,800€.

After a bit of indecision, we put the place on the market in January, but the sales staff also had problems with the smell of damp, which we were unable to trace.  Anyhow, in February we had an offer, and I'm delighted to be able to report that the sale has now been completed.

And apparently they're really nice people, so I hope they like the place as much as we have done over the years.  They're expecting to spend quite a bit upgrading the kitchen and bathrooms, which will really transform the place, so fingers crossed on their behalf.

I went out on Monday of last week for a couple of nights to collect a few personal effects, meet the sales staff and say goodbye to the chairman of the community that administers the flats, which all went fairly smoothly.  I've raved about Southend airport before, and the only downer was that the return flight meant I only got home at 00.30 on Thursday morning.  Still, that's not the end of the world.

An Innovative Shepherds' Pie

When we got back from Scotland, after a fairly tough drive with lots of snow flurries and dense spray in places, a bit of comfort food seemed to be the order of the day, so we made a shepherds' pie using some lamb and mixed root veg we'd brought away from the previous night's pub dinner, and it really turned out to be special.

First, the vegetables consisted of potato, carrot, parsnip and turnip, which we mashed roughly before mixing with more mashed potato to make the topping.  The turnip especially, was key in this.

Then the other thing we did differently from normal was to put in a teaspoonful of medium curry powder.  Not enough to make it into a curried filling for the pie, but just enough so you knew she'd done it. 

I have to say, it was brilliant, and we'll be doing that again, though possibly not every single time!

Fieldwork in the Borders Region

A couple of weeks ago, Jenny and I went up to the Borders Region to do some more fieldwork in connection with her project.  Also with us were her colleagues, Ket and Tim.  Tim had chosen that week for its lowest tides, exposing the maximum amount of the rock beds we are interested in, but we knew before going up there it was going to be cold, with predictions of snow and easterly winds, so we packed our thermals and I left the wet suit at home.

Tim had booked us a self-catering cottage a little west of Berwick upon Tweed and that proved very comfortable and quite convenient for the various localities we planned to visit, but not all went to plan.

As expected, it was very cold, made worse by the stiff easterly wind, and we had snow flurries every day.  Worse, however, was the low pressure weather system and the on-shore wind, which combined to stop the sea receding anything like as far as we had hoped, and preventing us from getting anywhere near some of the critical beds.  We just cursed and picked away at the edges.

Sarah Davies and Janet Sherwin came up from Leicester so that Tim could show them the rocks in Coquetdale, which will form the basis of Janet's MPhil, which she will start in October, I think.  Dave Millward from the BGS in Edinburgh came down for the day and drove them in a BGS 4x4 as I think some of the places they went would have been tricky in an ordinary car.  Jenny, Ket and I looked at the snow blowing past our cottage and decided that discretion was the better part of valour.  We stayed put!  We would probably have frozen on the foreshore at Burnmouth, but the rest of them had quite a nice day in Coquetdale as the valley sheltered them from the wind.

One thing I found very frustrating about one of the beds we could get to was that we could not relate the photographs I took in October to what we could see on the ground this time.  I'd not included enough of the surrounding rocks in each photograph, so although I had been able to put together a composite photograph showing the bed, with arrows indicating where the various fossils had come from, it was impossible to align this properly with the rocks on the foreshore. This was particularly tough because almost all the bones we've found have been disarticulated, apart from a section of fin, but we can't pin down where exactly the fin came from!  And it's all my fault for not including enough landmarks in my photographs.

Dave Millward came down again from Edinburgh on Friday to show us the site where the borehole will be drilled.  The farmer has cleared an area of concrete which he will be tearing up some time soon in order to erect a new barn, so he has no problems with our using the platform for the drilling rig for the next few weeks, and the borehole contractors are happy because they don't have to do anything much to prepare the site.

By the end of the week we really hadn't achieved very much, but given the amount of grief other parts of the country were getting from deep snow drifts, we were just grateful to get home uneventfully on Saturday!

So here's a picture of an interesting rock we found on the foreshore at Burnmouth.  Don't know anything about it, but thought it looked interesting.  We call it the Helmet.  It's about a metre high.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Eating Out 3

On Wednesday we tried another new restaurant.  I'd heard at my Spanish class that the Lalbagh Indian restaurant in Bourn was excellent and won awards for its food, and this was corroborated by the waitress in one of the local restaurants which we use, so I booked, and five of us went.  I used google streetview to check exactly where it is, and discovered that it's in what used to be the Duke of Wellington pub, so it's not been open many years.

Our table was really dark, though I was OK as I was sitting directly under the only recessed ceiling spotlight, but John had to fire up the torch app in his mobile phone to read the menu.  They did turn the lights up a bit, but even so, his side of the table was too dark.

But the food was terrific - much better than that in the two Indians in Royston, and definitely worth the drive out.  The other thing we noticed was that what was on offer was quite different, too, giving us lots to explore in the future.  I've not doubt we'll be back!

Eating Out 2

Actually, this is in the wrong order, but hey.

On the Wednesday, actually the day before my birthday, we'd decided to give Cira, the new Turkish restaurant in Royston a second chance.  The first time we went, in the week they opened, the food had been rather cool and one of our party had been distinctly unimpressed by his bone-in lamb casserole, but as I'd mentioned the cool food when we left, we figured they'd had a chance to fix things, so we should try again.

I booked a table for eight people, having forgotten that Lorna and Richard had decided that, as it was my birthday-ish, they'd forgo their pilates class and join us.  Fortunately the restaurant was well up to the challenge.

The place was pretty full, which was really encouraging, and we weren't the only party, as there was another group of at least 15, but the service was still reasonably quick, and all went well.  The food was good, too, though the moussaka that several of us had was rather ordinary rather than anything special.  Not that I minded, since I think even an ordinary moussaka is a nice thing to eat.

The only thing that was less than perfect was that after we'd paid the bill and were getting ready to go, the manager stopped us and implied (he was a long way away from me and I didn't hear exactly what he said) some free delicacy would arrive.  However, nothing happened for quite a while, and with no booze left on the table, I was getting restive, so Jenny and I scarpered.

Apparently a couple of plates of pieces of various fruits arrived some time later.  Described as delicious, but even so, I was glad we'd gone home.

Then I felt guilty because, as birthday host, I should really have stayed to the bitter end.  Oh well.

Eating Out 1

It being my birthday last week, Jenny and I had discussed eating out somewhere, and I'd settled on Sheene Mill, a restaurant in a nearby village.  It had been run by a couple who previously had run an outrageously expensive restaurant in the same village, but when they had split up, it closed.

Recently it reopened, run by that couple's daughter and her partner.  We'd thought about eating there, but before we managed to do anything about it, read in the local rag that they'd been burgled and had lost a couple of grand's worth of wine.

"Oh, the miserable shits!" we thought "We have to support these guys!"

So last Friday night, we ate in the Sheene Mill, and very nice it was, too.  Expensive, but not outrageous, and very good indeed.

I started with king scallops on black pudding, and my first thought was "Ten quid for two scallops!" but then I put some of it in my mouth, and immediately thought "Bloody worth it, too!"  It was just divine.

Jenny had a roasted pear, spinach and feta salad, which she said was lovely.

Then I had a small slow-cooked lamb shank on a bed of roasted garlic mash (ie mashed potato with roasted garlic in it) while Jenny had a duck leg casserole with some sort of beans (the sample menu on their website doesn't quite match the one we had, but then, it's a sample menu, not an actual one!.)  For veg we shared a small dish of green beans cooked with slivers of onion.  And it was all just wonderful, so we were delighted we'd decided to go there, and will again.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Today's small achievement

No, not the yoghurt maker, though I am very pleased with that.  No, the achievement is its location.

For the past 25 years the central heating boiler has been in this little niche behind the kitchen door, but when the lovely Ian Ruggles came to replace it, he told me that it had been illegally sited by the previous installer, as the exhaust was venting over a neighbouring property, so the new one is in the attic.

I immediately took down the bookshelves full of cookbooks on the other side of the kitchen, as behind the door was a much more convenient location than where they were, and they're now happily installed.

But the old boiler used the power point you can see the yoghurt maker plugged into.  It wasn't a socket, but a switched, wired connection.  The electrician just removed the wire sticking out and left the box where it was.

Today, I replaced the front of that box with a proper, switched single socket that I found in the cupboard of never-to-be-discarded electrical junk in the cellar, and hey presto, the yoghurt maker has a proper home, no longer cluttering up the worktop every time I want to make yoghurt!

I know, it's a small thing, but then I'm easily pleased!

A bloody nice surprse!

So an envelope just dropped through the letterbox and I found myself the unexpected recipient of a gold blood donor card!  I don't keep track of how much blood I've given, so it came as a nice surprise to discover I've made 50 donations and am thus eligible for the gold card.

At the moment the service is running an experiment to determine the optimum frequency of donation.  They've signed up 50,000 donors and given them different frequencies.  I give every two months, which is more often than I was giving before, but I've not noticed any adverse effects.  It will be interesting to find out whether things like age, sex, race, blood type, etc, affect the frequency you can give blood, or whether everyone can give every three months, say. Not sure how long the study will go on, but I imagine it will be for at least a couple of years.

Yes, I'm looking forward to reading about what they find.

And if you don't already give blood, please give it a go.  It's really no big deal, and there is a desperate need for more blood.  You will be saving lives, I assure you.

Singing in Ripon Cathedral

It's a bit of a trek up to Ripon Cathedral, North Yorks, but the people are so lovely and welcoming, and the church has such a friendly accoustic, it's really worth the effort, even if the Sunday evensong is at 5.30, with a sermon, so we didn't get away until 7.

We drove up on Saturday morning, taking another of the choristers to save on the number of cars going up there.  I'd booked a table in the Whitehouses Inn in Retford, which is a couple of hours up the A1 and breaks the journey up nicely.  Whitehouses serves decent food and we've made a habit of stopping there for lunch whenever we head up north.  They were as good as ever.

Evensong was at 5.30 and went rather well.  In fact, all the music went well.  We sang a set of responses written by our conductor, Richard Prince, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis written by Daniel Purcell, younger brother or cousin of the more famous Henry, and for an anthem we did the justly famous Lord let me know mine end by Maurice Green.

Jenny and I stayed in the Ripon Spa Hotel which is close to the centre of town, was very pleasant and comfortable and served us an excellent breakfast.

On Saturday evening, one of the choristers had booked an upstairs room in an Italian restaurant called Prima, where the whole choir had great food and drink.  Yes, it was pretty noisy!  Well, there were a couple of dozen of us.

On Sunday morning we sang Eucharist to a congregation of over 100, which was pretty gratifying.  The Sumsion mass is lovely; very calm and peaceful, but sadly I can't find a YouTube recording of it.  The communion motet was something (I forget) by Percy Whitlock that we've not done before.  Some of the choir really loved it, but I don't really know it well enough yet.

Then there was a long break, because evensong wasn't until 5.30.  We had a nice lunch in the March Hare café.  I think the TripAdvisor score is poorer than the place deserves.  We had very good food at a reasonable price, with good service in comfortable surroundings.

At evensong we sang responses by Nicolas, which I don't like at all, finding them aggressively discordant.  Others do like them, sadly.  The Mag and Nunc were by Stainer and were typically Victorian and over the top.  I was under-rehearsed, but overall they went well and I think the congregation liked them.  For an anthem we sang the Howells O pray for the peace of Jerusalem which we've done many times before and is a cracking piece.

The sermon was actually a very interesting talk about St Cuthbert, a 7th Century monk and later Bishop at Lindisfarne.  Much better than a real sermon, any day, and considerably reduced my resentment at finishing so late!

Whitehouses is closed on a Sunday evening, so we drove to Stamford, which took a couple of hours, and met up with our friend Jane and another chorister, Mike, at AskItalian in the centre of the town.  They were about 20 minutes behind us, having taken a wrong turning right at the start of their journey and gone all over the shop before sorting themselves out.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves and the girls serving were friendly.  Food was pretty good, too, but we've come to expect that of Ask.  Richard, the chorister we'd driven up to Ripon, had kindly offered to drive part of the way home, so I took full advantage and had him do the hour's drive from Stamford to Royston, thus permitting me to have more than a single glass of wine!  Thankyou again, Richard, it was much appreciated!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

One clever bird

This one-minute video is worth watching!

Buzzards and Pheasants

You may recall that last year there was a tremendous fuss when our lovely government proposed to bow to pressure from those who like to kill things for fun (ie those who shoot pheasants) to take steps to limit buzzard populations.  Lots of us inundated our MPs with letters of protest and the proposal was swiftly withdrawn.

Well now the BTO has published a short paper discussing the proposals and explaining why it was such a bad idea.  You can read it at  It's quite short and a reasonably easy read and I commend it to you.

Summary: predation of pheasants bv buzzards has a very small impact on pheasant numbers, while predation by foxes is vastly more severe.  Even road deaths kill many times more pheasants than do buzzards.

One piece of potentially useful research was lost when the gummint's daft idea was shelved, however.  Someone was going to look at changing the pheasant release pens to make them less easy for buzzards to use - shrubs instead of ground cover, removing perches which might help buzzards to survey the area, increasing the density of birds being released at any one time - and that might have been a useful avenue to pursue, but it's gone for now.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

And there might still be fish in the sea for our grandchildren!

Well I don't mean that literally, of course, as I have no children, so can't, by definition, have grandchildren, but you catch my drift, as it were.  MEPs voted overwhelmingly today to change the common fisheries policy, in line, a bit, with what the great Fish Fight has been demanding for the past several months.

Once again, there's a long way to go, and the fishing industry is bound to scream and stamp like spoiled children, but we just have to hope our lords and masters hold their nerve and do the right thing, so the seas are not totally depopulated of anything remotely palatable to eat.

Be good if they could also summon up the courage to take a machete to the common agricultural policy while they're at it, but that would be too much to hope for!

Gay marriage takes first step

Well hoorah for that!  Yesterday parliament actually approved the first steps to make same-sex marriage legal in England.  At bloody last, I say.  Of course, there's a way to go yet, but hopefully this significant component of our population will get the same marriage rights as the rest of us.  My own MP, Oliver Heald, disagrees with me, but I can't see how this will affect traditional marriage at all.

My only regret is that they still have that daft bit forbidding the Anglican Church and some other religious bodies from carrying out the ceremonies.  If the clergy doing the thing are willing, why should it be banned?

Monday, 4 February 2013

More about the boiler

The day the central heating engineer took the old boiler out and installed the new one, I discovered and immediately placed an advertisement to sell the old boiler.  I had quite a lot of responses, but they all just fizzled out, even ones where we'd agreed a price.

So about a week ago I refreshed the ad (for a fiver you can make the ad 'featured', which means it floats up to the top of the list from time to time) and a nice man from North Lincolnshire phoned me.  Once again we agreed a price but this time he actually turned up with his money and took the boiler away, so we're all happy.

My real desire was to find the boiler a good home, rather than try to make a lot of money from it, and I think I've succeeded.  I really didn't want to take it to the recycling centre.  I don't like throwing perfectly good stuff away.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

TW:eed Project website

I've created a new website for Jenny's consortium project and it's recently gone live.  There were lots of infuriating delays, but at least it's finally there!  If you're interested you can see what we're up to at or or you can just click the flag logo.  I'm not sure why we've got two domains that point to the same site.

TW:eed stands for Tetrapod World: Early Evolution and Diversification.

The colours in the flag logo are based on those used in the Geological Survey maps of the area.  The pink colour is from the Devonian Old Red Sandstones, the darker blue is the Ballagan Formation which is the bit we're interested in and the paler blue at the top is the Fell Sandstones, by which time all the interesting stuff had already happened!

The animal bottom left is a life reconstruction of the Devonian Acanthostega gunnari which Jenny has worked on for the past 20 years, while the one upper right is the mid-Carboniferous Eucritta melanolimnetes which came from a quarry near Edinburgh.  When Jenny described the new species, she had a laugh, because the name means "early creature (eu, critter) from the black (melano) lagoon (limnetes)".  She did think she was lucky to get away with "critta" as it's neither Greek nor Latin, which is generally what's expected.

The bony hand is a composite which Jenny drew especially for the logo.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow woman!

We had several inches of snow last night, good, sticky snowballing snow, so of course, I had to build a snowman.  Well, snow woman, actually!

I'm quite pleased with her, though I had to stop before she was perfect.  I was adding snow to her left arm, but as I pushed it on, she cracked right across, quite low down, so that was pretty much it.  I managed to shove her back a bit, but I don't think she'll stay upright for very long.

Various passers-by have been quite complimentary, which is nice.  As this is the fourth time I've done this, some of the locals have come to expect something to appear when it snows, so I try to oblige.

Friday, 18 January 2013


As I take part in the BTO Garden Birdwatch, every now and then I look out of one of the back windows to see what I can see.  A few moments ago, through the light snow, I spotted a male sparrowhawk sitting in the apple tree at the other end of our garden.  I got a great view.  Then he took off and flew diagonally across the garden towards me, but as he passed out of my sight (the house is L-shaped and I was in the foot of the L) there was the typical 'bonk' of a large bird hitting a window.

"Oh bugger, I hope he's OK" I thought as I rushed through to the appropriate bedroom. 

I'm delighted to say it was not the sparrowhawk that hit the window, but a pigeon, who was still standing on the flat roof of our utility room, looking rather dazed.  It flew off a few minutes later, so it was obviously OK, too.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New boiler

About six years ago I replaced our central heating boiler, but the guy who did it was useless, despite coming recommended. The worst of his mistakes took us a while to cotton on to.  We noticed that when it was really cold outside, parts of the house were chilly, too, to the point that eventually we would shut down the guest bedroom in really cold weather - turn the radiator off and shut the door - but that's not really an acceptable solution.  For a start, some of Jenny's clothes are in there, and then we also use it to dry our washing.

Eventually we realised the installation engineer had looked at the old boiler, which had a range of power settings, ignored what it had actually been set to and just chose the lowest setting, and installed the equivalent, which was an 18kW boiler.  When I calculated the power requirements using a couple of online calculators, I reckoned we needed a 24kW boiler, so no wonder we were cold.

We  now have a pet plumber and central heating engineer whom we trust, and when I spoke to him about it, we also decided to install new radiators in the attic, hopefully making that into a room we can comfortably use in the winter, so overkill is good and the new boiler will be 30kW.

He did the first few days before Christmas, but left decommissioning the old boiler until now, and he's here now.  The old boiler is in the garage and he's connecting up the new.  We'll be without heat tonight, but hopefully it will be up and running tomorrow.  Well, or Thursday, I guess.  Fortunately the outside air temperature is 10°C, so a fan heater should be enough.

So if you know anyone near Royston who needs a Vaillant ecoTEC Plus 618 boiler they can have it for a couple of hundred quid or so.

Friday, 4 January 2013


On New Year's Eve a group of friends came around to our house to see in the new year.  There were, if I recall correctly, 11 of us.  We'd decided to watch a movie, so most of them turned up around 9, though we'd not added up the numbers carefully enough and actually, it was a bit cosy.  We can comfortably accommodate 9, so a couple of folks had to sit on the floor.

As is usual for these occasions, we provided popcorn, kettle chips, nuts, etc, and folks brought a bottle.

Lorna and Richard brought Lorna's mother who was staying with them for the holiday period, and Julie, who had lent us Sleeping with the Enemy for the occasion, decided that the start was probably a bit raunchy for someone in her eighties.  I've never seen it, so have no opinion.  So we watched Dirty Dancing instead, and had a thoroughly good time.  Of course, you have to suspend disbelief quite a lot, but hey, it's the Winter Festivities, so we can manage that!

Not so in the movie we went to see last night.  We went to see what I think was the last night of The Hobbit at Letchworth Broadway.  We usually go there as it's easy to park and there's an Indian restaurant just across the car park.  And we usually try to go in the last week of showing, when that cinema is often empty. 

What a waste of time!  We didn't notice the controversial 48fps that people have been making such a fuss about.  The 3D was OK, but after a while you stop noticing it.  Their computer generated flying animals - eagles, small birds, butterflies, are simply rubbish.  No anatomist was involved in the making of those images. Ptchah!  Makes me cross.  They put so much effort into so many details in these movies, but they can't be bothered to make the things that fly look like real animals.

But worst of all was that it was mostly goodies versus orc battle scenes, endless bloody (actually no blood at all that I saw) battle scenes.  Pretty much all the orcs look identical, I think they only had one model in the computer, and they're all complete lightweights, judging by how easily the good guys brushed them aside without suffering the least injury.

Thirteen dwarves and Bilbo must have dealt with thousands of orcs and there was only one injury, and that at the very end.  It put me most in mind of a computer game, though to be truthful, I never play that sort of computer game, so have only the haziest notion of what they're really like.  You occasionally see a clip on the telly, and that's what this made me think of.

And the ridiculous underground suspended walkways, bits of old rope and planks hanging across chasms.  Give me a break!

And the way the anyone could somehow fall hundreds of feet, bouncing off the walls of the chasm and then just get up at the bottom, brush off the dust and start again.  Oh, come on!

I went in expecting a decent movie, but by about an hour in I was starting to feel restless, and I just got more bored and cynical as the evening progressed.  Talk about milking it!

There was the odd decent bit, but not much. I don't think I'll bother seeing the other two episodes, though Jenny might want to go.

Might read the book again, mind.