Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Pie Master

I hope everyone had a great Christmas, but before I post about the festive season, I have one more post about Rob and Rhona's wedding...

Having found our way to our table I was a little worried about what I found on my seat: a chef's hat and an apron.

When Bryony and I got married, and Rob was my best man, he "borrowed" my apron for use as a prop during his speech. Given this I was more than a little concerned by the presence of a apron and chef's hat. I didn't know if it was going to be a prop during a speech or ... my imagination was running away from me in nightmarish directions.

Fortunately it was only a few seconds before I noticed that a few other chairs also held aprons and hats. Whatever was going on I wasn't alone! I hope Rob won't mind me saying, but he (just like me) does enjoy his food and the only time I have ever seen him off his food was at our wedding when he knew he had to give a speech. Having learned from that experience Rob and Rhona had scheduled the speeches for before the food so I didn't have long to wait to find out what on earth I was expected to do with an apron and a chef's hat.

In retrospect I should have been able to guess what the hat and apron were for. I already knew, and the menu confirmed, that for main course there was a choice between chicken or beef pies. Normally you have to choose your food months before the actual day but we had never been asked what we wanted. The answer was that large dishes consisting of nine portions where brought to the tables. Those with an apron and hat were then responsible for dishing out the pies; I was responsible for a beef pie.

It was really quite fun helping with the food, especially when it came to bartering with the other "chefs" for seconds! Yet again another feature of the day that was very different to anything I'd experienced at any wedding I've ever been invited to. I'm sure it will stick out as a memorable day for everyone who was there -- for me (ignoring my own wedding) it is second only in unique memories to my cousins wedding, which included a car chase that could easily have been a deleted scene from the Italian Job (note to self: that actually might make a good blog post at some point).

Once again congratulations to Rob and Rhona!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I Do Exist, Honest!

After a stressful day I appear to exist once again. If you tried to visit my blog yesterday you would have seen that it had been removed. Worse than that Google had decided to suspended my entire account. That meant I lost access not only to all my blogs, but photos in picasa, my calendars, my gmail account, and my Google+ profile. It was almost as if I no longer existed (online). I filled in the contact us form to request my account back and then almost a day later I got this e-mail from Google:
We apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced. The issue you described should now be resolved.
I don't think I've ever been quite so relieved. While the whole experience was a bit of a nightmare it did get me thinking about how I could keep backups of all my Google data in case something similar happened again in the future. After a little bit of hunting around the web (via Google of course) I came across the Data Liberation Front.

The Data Liberation Front is a Google engineering team who are trying to make it easy to liberate your data from Google products. This is useful for either moving your data to a competing service or for simply backing it up locally.

They have step by step instructions on exporting your data from most of Google's products, but they are also developing Google Takeout. Google Takeout brings together a number of the export tools into a simple interface allowing you to select which data you want to download. It then collects the data together into a single zip file that you can easily download and archive. Currently it supports: +1’d sites, Buzz, Contacts and Circles, Picasa Web Albums, Profile, and Google+ Stream. As far as I can tell the aim is to add more products to this list and I'd certainly appreciate Blogger being included.

So if you don't have a recent backup of your Google hosted data maybe now is the time to do something about it.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Name Of The Table

As I mentioned, way back in the first post about Rob and Rhona's wedding, the table names were as interesting as the place cards. Each table was named after an alcohol serving establishment with some significance to the bride and/or groom; I did want to say pub, but actually the table we were sat at wasn't named after a pub.

As soon as a I saw the table names I knew were we would be sat even before I'd found our names. One of the tables was called "The Leadmill". Now that might not mean anything to most people reading this but to anyone who went to Sheffield University around the time Rob and I did it needs no introduction. For everyone else the table sign tells the story: Where all good Sheffield nights end (unless you count the burger van).

I'm not sure there is much else to say other than that, just like the place cards, this was a really clever idea, and not something I've seen done before.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Ceremonial Madness

Having made it past the ladybird and found the bar we spent an enjoyable hour catching up with friends (some of whom we hadn't seen in years) and watching the wedding cake being assembled. The cake was apparently a last minute surprise for both Rob and Rhona, as they hadn't intended to have one. Two of the guests (apologies for not being able to remember your names) decided that wasn't right and so set about baking. Rather than a traditional layered wedding cake, they had baked what seemed like hundreds of cupcakes, all decorated with hand painted sugar flowers. Apparently it took two days just to make the flowers! Now I'm not sure which of the cake stand, table or floor were uneven but there were a few nervous moments as everything was put together when it resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa. fortunately it all got leveled out and survived quite a few knocks throughout the evening.

Unfortunately we didn't take any photos of the barn set out for the wedding. We were on one end of a row, away from the aisle and so not in the best place for taking photos as Rhona arrived, and then we were all asked not to take photos at any point during the service in order to not distract the professionals. This photo should give you a good idea as to how nicely the barn was decorated though.

Now I've been to a few civil services, and they usually consist of a couple of readings (strictly non-religious in content) and the playing of three pieces of classical music (arrival, signing, departure). This wedding was, however, quite a bit different.

Firstly the music was different. There wasn't a CD player pumping out classical music, but rather a choir and a keyboard player. During the service there were five pieces of music. Rhona arrived to the choir singing "If" by Bread which apparently is a favourite song of Rhona's. We then joined the choir to sing "It Must Be Love" by Madness. Topical and I know that Madness are one of Rob's favourite bands. the choir then sang Oscar Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening". While the register was being signed we listened to a rendition of "Fields Of Gold" (this also made an appearance at our wedding as the music for our first dance). And then the ceremony concluded with "You've Got A friend In Me" taken from the Toy Story films. All together a distinctly different musical approach from any other wedding I've been to. Church weddings often include hymns that you are supposed to join in with, but hardly anyone knows the words/tune and they all sing quietly. You really needed to be there to see what a difference be asked to sing Madness makes!

Civil weddings usually include a reading or two. These are usually poems or something that any guest with a good grasp of English can recite. Rob and Rhona went for a completely different approach and asked two friends to talk rather than read. Firstly we had one of Rhona's friends who talked about Love. This was cleverly done and focused on the impact that love has on not just the couple but the people around them. Later in the ceremony one of Rob's old school friends then talked about Marriage. This talk included some funny tips on marriage from some antique books he had recently been given as a wedding present. Both talks were brilliant and I'm really glad I wasn't asked to give one of them!

All together it was a wonderful ceremony, that was so totally different to any I've ever been to, and one that I'm sure none of the guests will forget in a hurry.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

And The Words Became Flesh

For the last two years Bryony's birthday cake has involved bees in one form or another. Back in 2009 there were the bees that wouldn't set, and then last year I was actually in China on her birthday but left a tin full of baby beehives for her and my family to enjoy. This year we were away for her birthday at Rob and Rhona's wedding, so she had to wait until today for her birthday cake.

As you may remember, one of the presents I got for my birthday was a book on how to make sugarpaste characters for decorating cakes. Over a few weeks I had fun making pink elephants, pigs, and mice. So my plan was to put these new found skills to use in decorating Bryony's birthday cake.

Among the many cookery books we have in the house there are two on cake decorating written by Debbie Brown (Magical Cakes and Lovable Character Cakes). A quick flick through both books and the cake started to take shape in my head. The magical cakes book included a large dragon wrapped around a castle, and given Bryony's love of dragons I knew that would work well. I was, however, unsure if I could pull of both an elaborate shaped cake as well as a large sugarpaste dragon. Flicking through the other book, I came across a cake in the shape of an open book with Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur) sitting on it. The book appeared to be easy to make and ice and so my idea was to make a spell book from which a baby dragon had just been summoned.

So I set about buying the necessary ingredients and equipment. There was a cake box and board, orange, black and white sugarpaste, some edible glue, paint brushes and a pot of gum tragacanth to help the sugarpaste hold it's shape. As I had hoped, icing the cake was fairly straightforward although I'm sure it could have been neater. Making the dragon, however, was quite a challenge.

I hadn't realised quite how long the gum tragacanth would take to work and so I started to make the dragon's head while the sugarpaste was still too soft. In the end I gave up and scrunched it back into a ball and left it to harden for an hour before trying again. The wings were also tricky as I had to shape them and then leave them to harden overnight before I could glue them onto the dragons back. All told it probably took me somewhere between 4 and 5 hours to fully assemble the cake, but the look on Bryony's face when she saw it for the first time this morning made it all worthwhile. I just hope it tastes as good as it looks!

Friday, 18 November 2011

An Uninvited Guest

So, having explained why I'm going to blog about Rob and Rhona's wedding, let's go back to the start of the festivities.

The wedding invite suggested (brides are supposed to be fashionably late) that the ceremony was due to start at 1pm at Lains Barn. Lains Barn is in the middle of nowhere so we arrived by taxi. We actually asked the hotel to book the taxi for noon not knowing quite how long it would take to get there. The taxi was early and we arrived at Lains Barn just after noon. Other than the groom and his best man (Barry, who I also went to University with) I think we were only the second people to arrive. Being early did have the advantage of us being able to appreciate the place without it heaving with people.
The main room (where the wedding and reception were held) is on the left, the bar and a small seating area are in the middle, and the hog (for the evening celebration) was roasted in the open air section on the right. So who was the uninvited guest that we bumped into before entering the barn?

Okay, so it wasn't a guest as such but rather a non-native species of ladybird that I spotted crawling around on a potted evergreen by the main door. Specifically a harlequin ladybird, Harmonia Axyridis Spectabilis. I've seen harelquin ladybirds before (both in the garden and in Herefordshire) but they have both been red varieties that looked more like our native ladybird. Unfortunately, while harlequin ladybirds look interesting they pose a very real threat to the native species.

So having paused to take quite a few photos of a ladybird we eventually made it into the barn (and almost straight to the bar) but that will have to wait for a later post.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Doing As I'm Told

While I enjoying blogging about the things I do, I'm also aware that not everyone appreciates their life stories begin splashed across the Internet. For this reason I'm always wary about blogging all the details about events that I'm invited to. So, for example, while I blogged about the view from a hotel room in Brighton, I wouldn't have dreamed about blogging about the actual stag do itself (although apparently there were pictures on facebook before the night was even over).

Now as I mentioned in the previous post, we spent the weekend in Oxfordshire attending Rob and Rhona's wedding. I'm sure the details will run to at least a couple of posts, but I thought I'd start with the place-cards in an effort to explain the opening paragraph of this post.

At almost every wedding I've been to, I've had a set seat at the meal. This weekend was no different. There was a large board near the entrance which showed which table people were sat at and where they were in the room (details on the interesting table names will come in a later post). So we headed to the table to look for our seats. Instead of simple place-cards each setting had a photo of the person who's seat it was, with a message, from either the bride or the groom, on the back -- a truly inspired and personal touch. Now I don't usually include photographs of myself on this blog (I'm not a vampire, I do resolve on photographic paper, but I don't like having my photo taken) but I'll make an exception so that you can see both sides of my place-card.
So here I am (on the left) with the groom, 10 years ago at our graduation ceremony. We both did a four year Masters in Software Engineering at the University of Sheffield, which is how we originally met. And of course the message on the back explains the opening to this post. Clearly Rob is happy for me to tell you all about the wedding, so you can expect posts on (at least) marauders, table names and chef's hats!

Oh and before I forget, congratulations to Rob and Rhona!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Dead Pixels

As some of you may know, we were in Oxfordshire this weekend attend Rob and Rhona's wedding. There will be a number of posts about the wedding but while sorting through the photographs we took (all 321 of them) I noticed that there appeared to be a problem with the camera.

In nearly all the photos a little red dot was present and it was always in the same place. Fortunately it's only a tiny dot and so a small use of the clone tool will get rid of them. Having cleaned the lens and taken some test shots the problem was still there though and so I assume this is actually a dead pixel on the camera's sensor and the first sign that the camera is slowly dying.

After a quick hunt around the web I did find that some more modern cameras actually include a function for "pixel remapping". Essentially the camera runs a diagnostic routine to determine if any pixels are failing to respond and then ignores them (by doing some interpolation) when generating an image from the sensor.

Now as I said our camera, a Sony DSC-F828, doesn't list this function in the menus and so I thought I was stuck with a dying camera. In computer software/hardware diagnostic routines (such as checking hard disks for bad sectors) are often performed only when the system is fully restarted. So as I had nothing to lose I decided to do a full reset of the camera. Once I'd located a paper-clip (I don't work in a paperless environment but neither am I awash with stationary supplies) I pressed the reset button and turned on the camera. Once I'd reset the clock and some other basic settings I went to try and take a photo and... the red dot was gone! Now I'm hoping it will stay gone and that some pixel remapping did take place but even if it was just a coincidence it will allow me to hold off for a little longer before having to buy a new camera.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Another Room, Another View

As I recently mentioned, my job has changed slightly over the last few weeks as I've moved from working on LarKC to working on Khresmoi. Khresmoi has just finished it's first year and this week we are having a short meeting to discuss the feedback that was obtained at the review and to plan the work for the next year. The meeting is being held at Charles University in Prague and so I've had the pleasure of spending two nights in a city I've never visited before.

There will be a couple more posts about Prague once I get home (I fly back this afternoon), but I thought I'd show you the view from my hotel room: the west end of the Charles Bridge.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Room With A View

I've blogged before about how I never expect a great view from my hotel room when I travel as we don't tend to splash out on the most expensive of rooms to keep the costs to the project down. A few weeks ago I went to Brighton for a stag do (Rob, who was my best man, is getting married in a few weeks time), and to increase the amount of money to be spent on beer we were all staying in a hostel rather than a hotel. I think most of us had visions of some horrible grotty room with a toilet half a mile down a dingy corridor. Fortunately, reality was a lot better.

Given that there were quite a few of us, we didn't end up sharing with strangers. I ended up sharing a room with four others and we had our own en-suite shower and toilet, with towels provided. More impressive was the view from the window. Not bad for £48 including breakfast!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Moving On

The research group I work as part of gets most of it's funding from external sources; government grants or companies wanting R&D. This means that while the style of work stays fairly consistent the actual tasks can vary widely depending on which project I'm currently working on. Since I joined the group at the start of 2009 most of my time has been dedicated to the LarKC project. My recent trip to Vienna, however, marked the end of LarKC and the reviewers from the EU were highly impressed with all the work that has been achieved. The work package I was most involved with helped discover a new genetic mutation which we proved causes oral cancer, and they couldn't help but be impressed by that! Actually I'm pretty impressed by it as well. Finding a new cause for cancer wasn't something I ever imagined being involved with. We are currently in the process of writing up the finding for a journal article so I'm sure I'll tell you more about it when that work is done. LarKC has also allowed me to make good use of my passport with trips to Bled, Milan, Berlin, Lyon, Munich, Sofia, Innsbruck, Beijing, Lund (which I seem not to have blogged about at all), and of course Vienna. Of course, while I do get to briefly see the countries we visit I spend most of my time with the other people who worked on LarKC, and here we all are (well those of us who were at the final meeting in Vienna).
So now that LarKC has finished I'm moving on to work on another large EU funded project called Khresmoi. Khresmoi is about medical information analysis and retrieval and has been running for a year already. From discussions in Sheffield it looks like my work will be similar to stuff I'd been doing for LarKC. I'm sure I'll have a much better understanding in a weeks time as I'm attending a project meeting next week in Prague, so it doesn't look as if my passport will be getting a rest anytime soon!

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Original Sacher-Torte

When I travel I try and make sure I get to sample the local specialty foods and drinks. For example, in Bled you have to eat the cream slice and in Beijing it's Peking Duck. When I was in Vienna I did sample the local wine (one of the social events was held at a vineyard), although I missed out on trying Sturm. I also decided there was no way I could travel to Vienna without trying the original Sacher Torte. Apparently.... the history of the world-famous Original Sacher-Torte began in 1832, when the 16-year old apprentice cook Franz Sacher created this dessert at the court of Prince Metternich. In the meantime, it has become the most famous torte in the world and the hand-written recipe is a "state secret" of the hotel. The Original Sacher-Torte is still produced in the traditional manner and is hand-made.

As I didn't have too much time to sit and enjoy the delights of the Hotel Sacher, instead of eating a slice in Vienna I bought a whole torte (in a wooden box) and brought it home. It survived a mad dash across Munich airport as I nearly missed my flight home, and it was worth every Euro I spent on it. Absolutely gorgeous. From the smell of high quality chocolate on unwrapping the box, to the lightness of the cake, it was just a delight to eat.

Of course you don't just have to take me word for it, you could order your very own Sacher-Torte to bring a little piece of Vienna to your own corner of the globe!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Viennese Wildlife

While in Vienna I noticed a couple of strange wildlife sculptures adorning the front of big imposing buildings.
The double-headed eagle is easy to explain, it's the symbol of the city. This specific example was on a Regierungsgebäude (Government Building) on Stubenring, which I photographed from the balcony of my hotel room. The gilt bee is a little harder to understand. It is on the Spar-Casse Bank on Graben.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Poetic Graffiti

As seen on a fountain in Vienna.

Monday, 17 October 2011


I'm now safely back from Vienna (I've actually already been on another trip since I got back, but you'll have to wait to hear about that) and I've still got a few things I want to blog about. So firstly we have a couple of street signs both of which were seen within walking distance of Stephansplatz in the centre of the old city.
Now I'm going to assume that the red strip signifies a prohibited action but I'm a little confused as to what those actions are. At a guess the sign on the left means something along the lines of "no ball games in the street". As for the second sign, I'm torn between "no couples allowed" or maybe "no prostitution" (no idea what the law on that is in Austria) but neither really seems convincing. I'd love to hear your (imaginative) interpretations!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Trying (And Failing) To Speak German

When I was at high school I spent two and a half years trying to learn German. It certainly wasn't my best subject and I eventually scrapped through with a D at GCSE level. Now that I travel quite a lot with work I get plenty of opportunities to make use of my limited German ability. Unfortunately although I try hard there is hardly ever a great success story. For some reason I seem to always struggle to buy lunch.

I'm in Vienna all this week and so I've had plenty of opportunity to hear, read, and try to speak German. Usually I limit myself to please and thank you, but yesterday I made the mistake of trying something a little more complex. I went into a sandwich shop, decided what I wanted, and ordered it along with a bottle of coke all in German. My sandwich and coke arrived and then I was hit with a long stream of German, of which I understood exactly zero words. So I had to switch back to English. Fortunately the guy serving spoke English and so there wasn't a problem. He even said that my German accent was quite good.

I wouldn't mind if this was the first time that this had happened, but in fact the first time I visited German (Bonn back in 2005), I also ordered a sandwich but couldn't understand the questions I was asked. On that occasion the woman behind the counter didn't speak English so I had to be saved by some helpful German students.

So from now on I think I'm going to stick to just reading small amounts of German and give up on the idea of ever being able to hold, an even simple, conversation.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Breeds of Chicken

We had planned this summer to start keeping chickens. Unfortunately things didn't quite go to plan. Firstly we haven't got as far with the garden as we would have liked, which means that there isn't yet anywhere to put a hen house. Secondly we had the unexpected expense of having to replace the car after it failed it's MOT so badly that it wasn't worth having it fixed. This does mean that we have had a lot of time to read up on keeping chickens and to spend time trying to figure out which breeds we would like to keep. Bryony has been doing most of the reading while I've settled on at least three varieties of hen I'm happy keeping: golden, speckled and crafty!

On the serious side, we are looking at having four chickens of different breeds which lay different coloured eggs. Not only will both the chickens and their eggs like nice and varied but it seems a really good way, especially as we get used to things, of keeping track of the health of each bird. If we suddenly don't have white eggs we will know which bird is sick.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Get Off Me Cheese!

Probably not as well executed as the elephants or the pigs but technically more challenging. They involve four different colours; I had to get away from just pink icing!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Pinky and Perky

As promised, after the elephants came pigs.

Thanks again to Helen, Ian and Linda for the birthday presents which led to me making these. I'm not sure what I'm going to make next but I'm sure I'll let you know.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Missing Pips

Over the years I've cut up an awful lot of oranges and lemons and you can guarantee that you'll find at least one pip in each.

Over the last few years I've started cooking Mexican food quite a bit and this, in turn, has led me to cut up quite a few limes. I must have cut into at least a hundred or so limes and I'm yet to encounter a single pip. Do limes not have pips? I'd always assumed they were reproductively similar to oranges and lemons. Am I missing something obvious?

Sunday, 18 September 2011


Dismemberment: the act of cutting, tearing, pulling, wrenching or otherwise removing, the limbs of a living thing.

Turns out I quite like fresh elephant meat. The ears were especially tasty!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Pink Elephants

As some of you will know I recently had a birthday (if I haven't already said thank you for a card or present then... THANK YOU!), and yesterday after a) fixing Blogger's mistakes and b) a full working day I decided to relax by having a play in the kitchen using two of my birthday presents.

Helen and Ian had kindly bought me a book from my Amazon wishlist about making sugarpaste characters for decorating cakes. Even after just a quick flick through I knew I was going to be making the second character in the book, a pink elephant (if you go to Amazon you can look inside the book and see the instructions for making the elephant yourself). So I spent some of the money Linda had given me as a present on buying pink icing, black gel colouring and a modeling tool. These arrived in the post yesterday so once work was over I set about making some elephants.

While I've decorated cakes before the closest I've got to making fancy decorations were my iced bees which were recognizable as bees (or possibly wasps) but which wouldn't really have won any awards for artistic merit. So while I'm unlikely to be offered a job making models for the next Wallace and Gromit adventure I'm still more than happy with the results (and I haven't even tasted them yet). I'll definitely be making more elephants in the future and as I've still got plenty of pink icing left I might branch out into making pigs as well.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Being Experimented Upon

Just a quick note to say that Blogger seem to be conducting random experiments on random blogs. Unfortunately this is affect this blog (in fact it seems to be affecting all my blogs). In this specific experiment Blogger have added support for their own clever image popup effect. Unfortunately this is interfering with the code I was already using for this. So now if you click on any photo on this blog you actually get two copies popping up one on top of the other.

It's being discussed as we speak so hopefully there should be a fix or work around soon, but until then sorry if it looks a bit of a mess. For once it's not my fault!

UPDATE: While Blogger haven't fixed this yet I have managed to figure out a work around so hopefully things are back to normal.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Bird Food

We have quite a few sources of bird food in the garden: there are five feeders as well as lots of wild flowers (the Goldfinches especially love the ragwort seed heads). I assume this means that we have quite a few small birds regularly visiting the garden. In turn this means that we are indirectly feeding this female Sparrowhawk.

She sat on top of the bird feeder for a good ten minutes happily surveying the garden. Of course any bird with any sense had buried itself so far into the undergrowth there was nothing else moving anywhere I could see. This is the third time I've seen the Sparrowhawk in the garden but the first time I've seen it sat and been able to photograph it at my leisure. Unfortunately the light was fading and I was shooting through a window which is in serious need of a wash so the photos could be better, but still a pleasant end to the day.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Back For The Future

Well if I had more money than sense I know what I'd be spending some of it on!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Faking It

When we were in Exeter, for Helen and Ian's wedding, we spent the Friday morning before the wedding at Bicton Park Botanical Gardens. We had a really great morning. The weather was wonderful and once we had escaped the hordes of small children it was very relaxed and pleasant. We walked around quite a lot of the gardens, but for those who want to experience the gardens without such physical exertion there is the Bicton Woodland Railway. The railway is apparently the only 18-inch narrow gauge railway left in Britain and was built during the early 1960's as an additional attraction when the gardens were first being opened to the public.

The pictures of the engine in the entrance to the gardens clearly show a steam train pulling carriages through a wooded glade, all nice and picturesque. Unfortunately, as soon as I heard the engine from a distance something sounded wrong. In fact the engine is a diesel locomotive built as a replica of a previous steam engine. Apparently the steam engine had become too expensive and difficult to maintain. Now I don't mind the use of a diesel engine but why dress it up as something it isn't As far as I'm concerned, faking the noise of a steam whistle, just seems a step too far.

From personal experience I now know that steam engines can be difficult to control. They are also expensive to maintain and operate. Neither of those facts are, however, enough to warrant faking a steam engine. I'm sure that everyday at least a few children (maybe even the odd adult) leave the gardens thinking they've been on a ride behind a steam engine. Am I being too picky or do others agree that faking a steam engine in this way this is just wrong?

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I always thought that the very hungry caterpillar was green with a red head. In out garden, however, they are definitely orange and black stripped!

Back in June I blogged about the fact that I'd seen three new species of moth and butterfly in the garden and that I thought allowing an area of the garden to go "wild" was partly responsible. Well one of those species was a Cinnabar moth and I knew that their caterpillars love ragwort of which there is a lot now growing wild in the garden. So every time I've gone into the garden I've been checking the ragwort for caterpillars.

On the 28th of July I saw the first Cinnabar caterpillars we have had in the garden. They were tiny. Most were less than a 1cm in length and although I used the macro lens adapter they were just too small for decent photos. By the 1st of August (when the photo in this post was taken) though they were huge! Most were now about an inch long and fat. I can't imagine how much ragwort they must have eaten in just 4 days to grow so much. Very hungry caterpillars indeed!

Not only did they grow fast but there was a lot of them. Hopefully next year rather than seeing one rather scratty Cinnabar moth we will have lots flitting around the garden.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Infinite Butterflies

If an infinite number of monkeys bashing randomly on a typewriter will eventually produce the collected works of Shakespeare and one butterfly flapping it's wings can generate a thunderstorm, I wonder if an infinite number of butterflies randomly flapping their wings would eventually produce the art hung on the wall in my hotel room a few weeks ago?

There were three African looking pictures on the wall of my room; a pair of parrots, a woman carrying a bowl on her head, and a pair of woman (shown to the left). It was at least 24 hours after I'd checked in before I noticed that there was something odd about the pictures. A close inspection seemed to suggest that each picture was actually made up of lots of butterfly wings!

Given that the pictures were framed and behind glass it was hard to be certain but the wings did look natural and had stained the mounting paper as I would have expected them to. After a bit of googling I'm fairly certain that they are made from real butterfly wings and are the work of Paul Caparatta who runs Butterfly Utopia. As well as pictures made from the butterfly wings, he also sells mounted butterflies and jewelery made from butterfly wings.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

My Hotel Room Had A ...

A couple of weeks ago I spent three nights at a hotel in Richmond while I helped to give a training course at The National Archives. Like all good British hotel rooms it had coffee making facilities (I so miss these when I travel abroad) but, unlike every other hotel room I've ever stayed in, it also had it's own conservatory!

Unfortunately I wasn't in my hotel room for most any of the day during which the sun would stream into the conservatory, although it was pleasant to sit in even when the sun had set. It just seems so odd to add a conservatory to a hotel room. Surely most people, most of the time, are going to be out of their room during the day?


We've just been overflown by this...
I've no idea why a Lancaster bomber should be flying over Penistone but as with the Linnet the photographic proof isn't fantastic -- I had the telephoto adapter on in readiness for the Linnet which was good, but it was moving so fast and the angle at which I had to point the camera out the window meant I was finding it difficult to find the plane when zoomed right in (a featureless cloudy sky didn't help) and so had to settle for less zoom which resulted in vignetting around the edges of the image. There was also some rather bad purple fringing (a known problem with my camera) and given that there was so little colour in the image anyway I've converted it to black and white to hide the purple fringes. Amazingly after all this processing you can still tell what I saw from the photo!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Status: RED

We get a lot of birds in the garden, but they are usually common species; robin, sparrow, blackbird, goldfinch, starling etc. Since we moved in I've also seen less common birds including a single Great Spotted Woodpecker and a flock of Fieldfares. Last Sunday though we increased the number of birds we have seen in the garden, which also appear on the RSPB's red list, to three.

Unfortunately a host of factors conspired against me getting a good photo. It was late in the evening and the light was poor, I took the photo through a window that needs cleaning, and the white balance setting on the camera was accidentally set for florescent lighting. Anyway after playing with the photo a bit I'm happy enough with it as proof that we did indeed have a Linnet sitting in the apple tree for a few minutes.

I've had the camera setup on a tripod ready all week in case it comes back but so far nothing. Maybe it was just passing through, but hopefully it will be back and I'll be ready for it this time.

Everything But The Pig

As well as growing strawberries we've been experimenting this year with growing a whole raft of different vegetables. Whilst not all have been a success and some aren't yet ready to eat we've produced enough that last weekend I cooked a meal in which everything but the pig came straight out of the garden!

The meal consisted of a maple and mustard glazed ham served with roast potatoes and steamed carrots and peas. The carrots (Amsterdam Forcing Sprint) were grown in a half barrel, the potatoes (Vales Emerald) were grown in purpose designed sack, and the peas were grown by accident!

We actually grew mangetout with the intention of eating the whole pods. We did in fact eat quite a few mangetout in salads and in a Chinese stir fry. However, we had planted more seeds than we needed and so got lots and lots of mangetout. As we didn't eat them fast enough they continued to grow until they were essential peas in a pod. So we picked and shelled the peas and they worked perfectly.

There are still two more sacks of potatoes, three courgette plants and some runner beans growing in the garden so I doubt that it will be the only meal this year where most of the ingredients come fresh from the garden.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cable, What Cable?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Reception

As I mentioned in my previous post, the reception for Helen and Ian's wedding was held at Otterton Mill. As it's name suggests the mill is in the small village of Otterton right on the banks of the River Otter. The wonderful setting was fantastic for photos and the weather continued to stay fine so until dinner was ready most people hung around outside enjoying a pleasant evening.

I don't know what food is like at Otterton Mill during the day but it was absolutely wonderful for the evening reception. Proper sized portions of locally sourced food -- the pork casserole just melted in my mouth. There were no speechs and no music which meant the evening was filled with conversation and slowly wound to a close bringing a perfect day to a perfect end.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Wedding

We took a lot of photos at Helen and Ian's wedding last weekend. You've already had a teaser but given how many photos there are I though I'd split them across a number of posts. As the wedding and reception were held in different places I thought I'd start with a post about each before doing some photo mosaics/collages. So...

All week the weather forecast for Saturday had been getting progressively worse and when we woke upon on Saturday it was raining. I don't mean a slight drizzle but more the biblical downpour type of rain. Fortunately the wedding wasn't until 4:30pm so we spent a lot of the morning looking out of the window and crossing out fingers.

Fortunately by 4pm it had cleared up just in time for everyone to start to arrive at Woodbury Park Hotel for the ceremony. The ceremony itself was lovely and simple. By the time it was over the sun was out and we all headed into the grounds for photos.

As well as the traditional posed photos lots were taken of people randomly walking around through the tree covered paths and I'm sure quite a lot of excellent photos were taken by both guests and the official photographers. This is by far my favourite of the photos I took during this period. I was going to show you a close up of the grooms cane, as it is definitely different, but Helen has already beaten me too it and her photo is much clearer.

After the photos at the hotel, Helen and Ian headed to the beach for some more photos while we all made our way to Otterton Mill for the reception.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

There Were Hats!

We spent last weekend in Exeter as my sister-in-law Helen and her partner Ian were getting married. It was a great weekend and I'm sure there will be a number of blog posts (from both me and other members of the family) but I thought I'd start with...

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Return Journey

Having survived the descent of Golfa Bank we arrived into Raven Square station on the edge of Welshpool. The line originally ran through the centre of Welshpool to meet up with the main line, but this extension was closed when the railway was originally shut by BR and no longer exists. Having seen photos I would think that it would also contravene goodness knows how many health and safety laws!

Once uncoupled from the carriages I reversed the engine under the water tower so the water we had boiled off during the outward journey could be replenished, and then there was another round of lubricating moving parts before we had a brief tea break (to replace the water we had sweated out during the outward journey). Once the tea break was over Bryony changed the points and signals to allow me to couple up to the other end of the carriages and once everyone was aboard we set off back up Golfa Bank.

Going up Golfa Bank is much easier than coming down, and it is the one place on the railway where you can really appreciate the power of the engine. You climb a short distance to an access road where you have to slow to 5mph, and then you open the regulator, fully. It takes a few seconds before the power becomes apparent but suddenly that distinctive noise of a steam engine working hard appears, smoke billows from the chimney and you feel the acceleration. It was brilliant!

All too soon we were pulling into the terminus at Llanfair Caereinion, and I had to stop the engine one last time. Given the length of the train and the positioning of the points you have to stop in just the right place otherwise you can't move the engine to the other end of the train. Fortunately there is a painted white mark on the platform and the trick is to stop the train with the line between the engine and the carriages. Having spent nearly three hours driving the engine I was better at stopping than I had been to start with but I wasn't particularly confident of getting it right. I slowed as I approached the platform and kept applying the vacuum brake in short bursts until I came to a dead stop with the white line just behind the cab of the engine. It wasn't until I stepped off the footplate that I realized how close to perfect I'd managed to line things up -- you can see the final position in the right hand photo above. Now I'm sure they were just being nice to me, but the station manager did mention that they had been examining some trainee drivers the previous week and not all of them had managed to stop as accurately against the line -- I call it a fluke or beginners luck. I certainly doubt I could repeat the feat! Once stopped there was time for a final photo.

I honestly can't remember the last time I had such a fun afternoon. Part of the enjoyment came from the friendly nature of everyone I met at the railway and I'd like to say thank you again to all of them. From the lady running the tea shop, to the kids shoveling coal as well as the driver, fireman, guard and station manager everyone made us both feel really welcome and ensured that I had a wonderful afternoon.

If you are ever in the area go have a relaxing ride along a wonderfully scenic railway, or if you prefer book yourself on a driver experience course and have an unforgettable afternoon.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Steam Induced Heart Attacks

Just like roads, railways have speed limits. The maximum speed on the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway is 15mph, although the speed limit is 5mph at road crossings, facing points, and within the stations. The difference between cars and steam engines though, is that a steam engine doesn't have a speedometer. This means that you have to guess how fast you are traveling. The instructions I was sent before the driver experience suggest that 5mph is a smart walking pace, 10mph is jogging and 15mph is a sprint. While this sounds helpful it is difficult, especially for someone like me who doesn't drive a car, to figure out exactly how fast you are traveling.

As I said before, slowing a steam engine down is much harder then starting it moving. Add to this the changing slope of the railway and it can be quite easy to suddenly find your self moving quite fast. According to my instructor for the afternoon I definitely hit 20mph on one section of the line when I was surprised by a slight dip. Obviously if you know the line well then you can preempt a slope and slow the engine accordingly to avoid going too fast. Unfortunately I didn't know the line that well.

The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway claims to be "Britain's steepest adhesion worked railway" because of Golfa Bank. Golfa Bank is towards the end of the outward journey as you drop down towards Welshpool. The gradient profile of the line records the bank as 1 in 29. As a comparison most mainline railways in the UK have a gradient of 1 in 40 or less, so the Golfa Bank is most definitely steep.

So if we combine my inability to determine how fast we were traveling and my lack of experience of the railway then clearly disaster couldn't be far away.

We had just rounded a corner and in front of us there was a slight rise and a 10mph speed limit sign when my instructor said "you have to be doing 10mph when you pass the sign otherwise you will never make the bank". Given the slight rise and the fact that I though I was doing less than 10mph I slowly started to open the regulator...

It took a few seconds and the fireman was actually the first to react. He dived across the cab and pushed the vacuum brake on full slowing the engine to a crawl (but surprisingly not to a full stop). Of course I had been going at almost 10mph and the curve in the line was hiding the fact that we were about to descend Golfa Bank. A quick conversation ensued where it became clear that not knowing the line I'd misunderstood the instruction, but at least we were all alive to tell the tale!

Descending Golfa Bank is actually quite demanding. The weight of the engine and carriages is more than enough to propel it forward down the slope. As the driver you have to be constantly slowing the engine down by applying the brake. The line isn't straight, so this is really important, as the last thing you want to do is end up jumping the tracks or rolling over! Fortunately after the little health scare we made it down the bank into Raven Square station in Welshpool without any further problems.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Pick, Soak, Boil, and Set

Pick, soak, boil and set are the four stages to making a truly heavenly strawberry jam. We planted five strawberry plants in the border last year, and while we got some fruit, there wasn't enough to do anything other than just eat them. This year, however, the plants have gone mad. So far we must have picked at least 3lb of strawberries and there are still plenty ready to pick and plenty that have yet to fully ripen.

When we came back from holiday (don't worry there will be more holiday themed posts) I had a few days before I went back to work and given the amount of strawberries I decided that some of the time should be spent slaving over a hot stove producing strawberry jam.

Of course while making a batch of jam is rewarding, there is a feeling of accomplishment as well as a sweet food, you can't really eat jar after jar of jam on it's own. So this weekend I made fruit scones.

So the last two days have been pretty good; eating homemade scones with home made strawberry jam while watching the British F1 qualifying/race. What more could a person want?

Under Steam

So once the driving lessons were over we were ready to depart on the 8.5 mile journey from Llanfair Caereinion to Welshpool.

The carriages we pulled along the line are interesting as they have an open balcony at each end. This meant that Bryony was able to stand just inches from the locomotive throughout the journey. So unlike many photos taken from a train, where you have to wait for a curve to get a good shot of the engine, Bryony had a perfect view, which explains the unusual angle you will see in this and the following few posts.

As well as taking lots of photos Bryony took a couple of short videos. As half the fun of steam engines is the noise I thought I'd show the video of us in motion along the open line rather than a whole bunch of still photos.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Driving Lessons

So as you saw from the sneak peak I gave a few posts ago I spent an enjoyable afternoon, whilst on holiday, driving a steam train. Specifically I drove The Earl on the 19 mile round trip along the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway. This all came about because Bryony was looking for interesting tourist attractions we could visit while on holiday and found not only the railway but that you could have a driver experience course. Bryony had no real interest in driving a steam engine but she decided that it would make a brilliant early birthday present for me. As regular readers may remember I've been interested in steam trains since an early age and unsurprisingly I jumped at the chance to get behind the controls.

Now before I was allowed to pull the train (no paying passengers, just Bryony and the guard in three empty coaches) from Llanfair Caereinion to Welshpool and back I needed to have some driving lessons.

A year or so ago I read a really informative book entitled How Steam Locomotives Really Work so I had a rough idea of what driving a steam engine would entail and helpfully once I'd registered for the course I'd been sent some material to read which included a diagram showing the layout of the cab controls as well as instructions for both starting and stopping the locomotive. Of course instructions are useful but there is nothing like hands-on experience.

So having been introduced to the driver and fireman who were going to be teaching me (I'm embarrassed to say that I can't remember either of their names, but they were both brilliant and made the afternoon really enjoyable) I was given the simple task of starting the engine moving and then stopping it at a given point on the track. Interestingly they had me start by going backwards. This might sound strange but actually for the driver it is much easier to see where you are going when going backwards, as the body of the engine doesn't obscure your view.

Starting the engine moving is easy. You slowly open the regulator (the big red handle in most engines) allowing steam into the cylinders and the engine starts to move. Stopping, however, is much more difficult. Closing the regulator is never enough to stop the engine as once it has some momentum it just keeps on going (for quite a distance anyway). The Earl is fitted with two braking systems; a handbrake and a vacuum brake. To start with we worked with just the handbrake. This involves turning a handle to apply the brake, and I found that is was exceptionally difficult to apply it quickly or accurately as such I overshot the mark by quite a long way! So we went backwards and forwards a few times while I got a handle on starting and stopping the engine.

Once they were happy that I understood the basics, even if I didn't have much accuracy yet, it was time to couple up to the carriages. So I slowly moved the engine along the track but yet again my skills at stopping the engine left a lot to be desired as there was quite a bang when we touched up to the carriages. No damage but it was a lot louder than it should have been.

Once we were all coupled up then it was time to check over the engine before the trip to Welshpool and back. This meant lubricating many of the moving parts to ensure smooth running.

By this time I was already really enjoying myself and we hadn't even left the confines of the station area. Just imagine how much fun I was going to have on the open line!

Friday, 8 July 2011

94% Roses

As I've mentioned before we tend to take a lot of photos, and our recent holiday to Shropshire was no exception. On the second full day we were there, however, the photos were all pretty similar in content. In fact 94% of the 356 photos we took were of roses!

There is of course a good reason for the vast number of rose photos -- we spent the day at the David Austin Plant Centre just outside Albrighton. It was a perfect day with an almost cloudless blue sky and in the sheltered gardens without even a hint of a breeze it was unbearably hot. We had to have a number of trips to the tea-rooms just for the shade and a cold drink.

The clear skies and heat were certainly helping the gliders though. I'm not entirely sure where they were being launched from but they were close enough that you could see the winch cable drop away as they gained height.

The only problem with the whole day was that we had intended to have afternoon tea at the gardens but hadn't noticed on the website that it suggests booking in advance. There weren't any tables left so we just had to make do with lunch. Mind you lunch was fantastic. We both had a ploughmans, with some of the biggest chunks of cheese you have ever seen, and then I finished with a scone (lots of jam and cream) and Bryony had a lemon cake with elderflower icing (at least I think that's what it was).

I don't suppose I can get away without a photo of roses, so I'll finish with one of the more interesting shots. I know that not everyone likes (can see) the 3D photos, but give this one a try, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Fabulous Beast

As I mentioned in my previous post we have recently had a few nights away in Shropshire. We were actually staying in the village of Much Wenlock just outside Shrewsbury (more on the village later), but we spent our first day dodging rain showers in Shrewsbury. There is a lot to see in Shrewsbury and we didn't make any concerted effort to see everything but we started with the abbey as that was were we parked. Across the road from the main abbey church is one more surviving abbey building (lots of the buildings were removed when Thomas Telford drove the A5 right through the abbey precinct). The building, which dates from the late 13th century, is now known as the Infirmary but was probably a guest house. The Infirmary now forms one corner of a quite green space in the bustle of the modern city and is the headquarters of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

Within the courtyard there are a number of interesting sculptures and flower beds, but this statue entitled "Fabulous Beast" caught my eye. At first I thought it was going to be some classical beast of mythology, but I'm beginning to think it is simply the product of a weird imagination!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Driving The Earl

We recently spent five nights on holiday in Shropshire and the Welsh borders. I'm intending to do a few posts on the holiday, but as a taster here is a photo Bryony took of me enjoying Monday afternoon.