Monday, 29 October 2007

Action Man

We're back and settled now. The journey south was, as anticipated, quite hard, at least until we got to the M6 Toll. We stopped for a late lunch at Warwick, a first visit for all of us (though I did work in nearby Leamington for a while). Surprisingly small and bland, considering its strong reputation with the university and the castle. Still, Alice enjoyed it because the fair happened to be in town. So she had a couple of rides, one of which was white-knuckle indeed! The fact that the town centre was given over to the fairground meant that most of the shops had taken the opportunity to close early, though as it happens I'm not sure we missed a great deal.

On southward, then, until we finally reached the greenery of the forest and the comfort of home for a substantially lazy evening. I did upload all the photographs onto a computer, and at first glance some of them were very impressive indeed. (In fact this was confirmed when I looked at them properly yesterday, and after about four hours of processing the photos are now on the site.) We were so lucky with the light last week that, aside from Ullswater, the ambient light features quite strongly.

So, sitting using Bibble was yesterday evening. However, prior to that, I did have quite an active day. Of course having been away for the week the cupboards were bare, so a supermarket run was obligatory. I took the opportunity to combine this with a visit to Cotswold Outdoor, where I came away with some new Merrell walking shoes, and some lightweight weatherproof trousers.

Now, I'm sure the smart money would say, "why didn't you buy all this gear *before* you went on a walking holiday?". And I can regrettably offer no defence to this argument. I could possibly mumble something about only realising I could do with this kit having spent last week in "normal" gear, but how convincing would that be?

So, returning home from our shop, it having been raining all day, Alice and I went out for a walk, accompanied by Jack. A nice little circuit which just took us through the fields above Downton, and at an hour and a half was ideal for the kids. Withdrawal symptoms, you see.

Homeward bound for the ultimate - and most draining - event of the day. Alice is an extremely untidy child and had let her room, once again, turn into a pig sty. Event something she had brought home from Grandma's, less than 24 hours previously, had found its way, crushed, under her bed. Needless to say, Alice's idea of "tidy" is somewhat different to my own, and ultimately Muggins ended up doing things like crawling under her bed with the hoover, and had to pick mouldy old apple cores off the floor. I can't believe I found six towels in there, all having migrated from the bathroom at some point, and the amount of dirty cutlery and crockery would almost have filled the dishwasher.

Needless to say, I was hardly in a good humour doing all this, waiting to discover what the next disgusting surprise would be, so there was inevitably some shouting as Alice and I fell out. And although the end result was a tidy room, I was forced to shun human contact in favour of sorting my photographs, just to retain a modicum of sanity.

So, a late night and, having forgotten to set the clock on the central heating, I woke up this morning in an oven feeling very stuffy indeed. All of which means that I should be using this journey for sleeping, not blogging!

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Half Term Frolics

Of course, the last line of the earlier entry was somewhat contrived, since by some quirk of fate I have spent the last week on holiday. We have taken advantage of half term week by visiting Grandma in the frozen north.

For Alice, that was as good as it got. A week wearing Grandma ragged. Poor old Grandma hasn't said as much, but I'll bet she breathes a sigh of relief when we finally leave, after breakfast, today. Highlights of the week, for her, included going to see the new Disney film, Ratatouille, visiting the museum in Liverpool, visiting her great auntie Margaret in St Helens and, top of the list, blowing most of her spending money on a pair of dodgy Heelies from Liverpool market. She's been on about getting Heelies (training shoes with wheels in them) for weeks, and at a minimum price of £50 she was set to wait until Christmas in order to pool her money. However she found a pair this week for £15 - not "official" ones, of course, but some copycat brand - and is totally thrilled. Personally, neither Jacqueline nor myself share this enthusiasm - the sooner they break the better - but this is what comes of Jacqueline's off-the-cuff remark that if Alice wanted Heelies, she'd have to pay for them herself.

For Jacqueline and I, we headed up to Scotland on Monday and spent a couple of nights in the charming Moffat (the Annandale Arms, which was very comfortable and didn't serve a bad meal either). Apart from sitting on the M6 for an hour and travelling only 1 mile, the journey up was straightforward enough, although since I do relatively little driving these days I have to say that the M6 made me distinctly uncomfortable. It really is a death trap (and in fact the reason for the motorway being blocked was an accident).

Anyway, once settled in Moffat, we spent a somewhat misty Tuesday exploring Dumfries and Galloway. We headed off first to see the Devil's Beef Tub, although the lack of visibility meant that we didn't see a great deal. On to Drumlanrig Castle, and although the castle itself was closed, we had an excellent walk in the forest. On to Dumfries for lunch, and we were amazed to see so many people - mostly school children - roaming around the centre with chip bag in hand. No wonder that health in Scotland is statistically quite poor. Really surprising, and really apart from a pleasant stroll by the river, was our overriding memory of Dumfries. After a (non-fried!) lunch, we headed south to the coast to visit Caerlaverock Castle, which was very enjoyable. Having promised me an afternoon tea, we continued on to Annan, and found a town which in my opinion was utterly charmless. We did, however, find a hotel which served a microwaved scone and butter. Admitting defeat, we headed back to base camp.

Wednesday started frosty and sunny, and we took fullest advantage of this by driving north-east out of Moffat, and climbing up to see the beautiful Grey Mare's Tail waterfall. Unfortunately Jacqueline wasn't up for climbing to Loch Skene, at the top of the waterfall, but we certainly went far enough to see some wonderful views - and all of this with blue skies and brilliant sunshine. On, then, to Langholm for lunch, travelling through some 30 miles of glens and forests, and barely another car in sight. No cars, but we did come across a Tibetan monastery along the way. Lovely, colourful and not a bad cup of tea! Langholm was another example to us of a dour Scottish town, and after a brief lunch we headed southward, past a place called Bewcastle where I holidayed as a child, and on to Hadrian's Wall. Excellent - both Jacqueline and I love this sort of thing.

With the light starting to fail, we then blitzed down the motorway a few miles for the highlight of our stay, at the Rampsbeck Country House hotel on Ullswater. A charming, laid-back atmosphere, a lovely room with a view of both the lake and the garden, topped off with a sumptuous four-course dinner (hare followed by turbot followed by a pear creation). I was up early the next day to take some photos, although our stint of bright weather was pretty much over and the surrounding hills shrouded in cloud. Alas, we were staying in this particular hotel for a single night, so had to check out once breakfast was finished. However, with high energy levels, we stopped the car just a couple of miles away to walk the Aira Force waterfall. Again I took both the new camera and its tripod, a decision which proved to be correct as I was able to take some excellent long-exposure shots of the playful water. A wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, very exhilarating.
On then, over the Kirkstone Pass (past the Kirkstone Inn, where as a fifteen-year-old I get very severely hung over on a range of single malts!) and into Windermere, for my first visit to England's largest lake. Packed with people, the town was nevertheless quite charming. Very much a tourist trap, with very little there of any substance, but pleasant nevertheless.

South, south, south - via a brief stop at the National Trust's Sizergh House (very dark interior, oak-panelled walls throughout, quite depressing!) and a more lengthy stop at Ikea in Warrington, we finally arrived back at Grandma's on Thursday night, to reports of Alice having played up.

We spent Friday at leisure, with a visit to Chester. Despite Alice's difficult behaviour, Chester was a surprisingly attractive place, and with exclusive boutiques such as Molton Brown and L'Occitane it is most definitely a city "on the up". So, after a broadly positive afternoon, we headed back for one last evening at Grandma's, and had a lovely (authentic, bought in Cumbria) supper of Cumberland Sausage and mashed potato.

So we're up to date. I'm hopeful that the M6 will be quieter today, but I really woundn't be surprised if it was another nightmare. Still, at least we'll get to see our lovely cats once again, and sleep in our own beds.

Ahhhhhhh, on reflection, there's no place like home.......

Friday, 19 October 2007


For the second time today I am rendered speechless.

I am sitting on the train finding it difficult to suppress a giggle. Just outside of London, during the ticket check, a young girl behind me who sounded extremely dippy held the guard up for ages, trying to find her ticket. Eventually, the guy gives up and says he'll catch up with her later. There then follow 10 minutes activity where the person sitting next to this girl is forced to stand in the aisle, while this girl turns out bags, pockets, anything you'd care to mention.

Finally, Eureka, a ticket is produced! Train Life returns to the usual dull activity, loud people talking on phones and deaf people using ill-fitting headphones.

Some time later, the guard returns. Triumphantly, he is presented with the elusive ticket. However, in an instant the charged, excited atmosphere returns as the guard comments, "This ticket is from Salisbury to London" (we're travelling in the opposite direction). But the guard hasn't finished. A second comment, "its dated 16th March" delivers the final blow. Clearly moving in now for the kill, the guard says that the girl must pay him, and that she can obtain a refund at the ticket office, should the original ever rise from the depths of her handbag.

But the drama is not quite over. The girl has no money and no cards. Further, due to the train running at peak hour, her student railcard is invalid, and she is not only penniless but indignant. The guard requests her address, which the girl is reluctant to give. Oh, what tension!

The atmosphere is finally cut like a knife when the woman sitting next to the girl (she of infinite patience) offers to pay for the girl's ticket. A true knight in shining armour, although after the excellent performance the girl has given I'm sure if she'd had a whip round the rest of her carriage would have paid for her ticket and probably her supper too!

As if sensing the atmosphere for a small encore, the girl proceeds to alight at the stop before Salisbury. Truly this would have capped a wonderful display, had not some kindly passenger tipped her off.

At a time when I fret about my daughter's future ability to engage in any kind of paid employment (at least, without my committing a minimum of £6k every year for the next 8 years), the knowledge that such dippy people exist is tremendously comforting. If this girl is the competition at the Tesco interview, Alice should walk it!

Impossible, really, to top that. But I'll briefly mention the chuckle I had at the client. All the grief of the last couple of days, surrounding a project I'd worked on which has just gone live and is very, very wobbly, finally came to a head. Since the crisis began I have done my utmost to keep my distance from the fray (too many headless chickens for comfort), rather I have settled back, studied the problem, and this morning worked out what had happened. So not only was I the star of the show, but there was a double whammy.

Several months ago, when this project was merely a design (my design) I got gazumped by one of the client's people who basically instructed that the design be changed. Against my advice, but of course the client is the client and ultimately as a consultant I need to be prepared to just doff my cap and say "Yes, sorr". Which I what I did. Anyway, some more looking into the problem, and this afternoon I discovered that the cause of the current problem was a direct result of that change all that time ago. Of course it would be foolhardy to suggest that the problem could have been foreseen, but I do feel somewhat vindicated.

Autumn Blues

First frost of the year yesterday, followed by another one today. For the last couple of weeks I've been travelling to and from London in the dark. Whilst we'll get some temporary morning respite when the clocks go back next week, we're heading now for winter at full speed.

Life recently has been dominated by work, though I did manage a full weekend of gardening last weekend. Tidied all of the hedges around the garden. Hard work but in general nothing more sophisticated than giving everything a good going over with a lopper. Still, it looks good and the garden gets a lot more light because of it - in some cases I was taking more than three foot of branches off, and to be honest it is still not as short as I'd like. Jacqueline likes that we have tall bushes because of the privacy they afford, but once they get higher than seven or eight feet I don't think we benefit all that much.

We went to a Parent Evening at Alice's school a week or so ago, only to meet Alice's teacher, a singularly unimpressive woman who left us merely with the notion that she'd given up on Alice already. For the first time I'm starting to think that Alice may have got herself into a position where there is no way back, at least at her current school. So, I have started looking at private schools, although this obviously grates somewhat because (a) I have paid for one education already, and (b) I'm not sure that Alice will appreciate (or make the best of) the sacrifice I'd be making. Prices range from £6-12k per year, and whilst we have a lot of equity in the house I would rather like to keep things that way.

Finally to the clients. Absolute mayhem. I could go on at length, but in reality it would first of all be very boring, second-of-all very imprudent. Suffice to say, I am reminded of an old maxim from my very first boss, "We've never got time to do things properly, but we've always got time to do things twice".

Maybe I need to split this blog into two, and come out with a "public" version and an "uncut" version, for private viewing, where I could vent my spleen to the full!

I need a holiday!