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Staying firmly off the road this weekend

It’s Three Counties Show time here in Malvern, when around 100,000 people descend on the showground to look at tractors, cows and sheep. I used to quite enjoy the show when I was a girl growing up in Worcester – but mostly because we were given a day’s holiday from school every other year so that we could attend it. Since then however I find it a monumental pain due to the horrendous traffic it attracts. All the roads for miles around get heavily clogged up with day-trippers, and simple journeys to town and back take far longer than they should. 

It’s been more annoying than usual this year, as I’ve spent the past week running an equipment trial at a disused airfield some 20 miles away from Malvern – and getting there involves driving right past the showground. It wasn’t too bad on Monday to Wednesday, but on Thursday there was a lot of traffic heading there to set up stalls etc, and Friday, as I had expected, the roads were pretty bad with the commute taking at least 20 minutes longer than normal. So this weekend I’ve decided to stay at home, even though the weather has been gorgeous, as I really don’t want to get stuck in another traffic jam…. Hopefully, normal traffic should resume tomorrow. 

Back at the pottery again

I was back at Eastnor Pottery again at the weekend, finishing off the shallow bowls that I threw a few months ago. Jon the Potter had wrapped them up in plastic, so although they were a bit mouldy (which soon scrapes or sponges off) they were still in a leather-hard state and good for turning. It’s quite funny, but the plastic bags he uses to wrap up unfinished pots are ones I gave him about 5 or 6 years ago, which were soft film wrappers that my local laundry / dry cleaners / ironing-service used. He could do with a re-supply, but I don’t use that company any more, so don’t have a ready source to recycle in his direction.

I had nine bowls, all variations on a theme, most of them about the size of a soup bowl. I turned them all, then picked the best four to decorate. I cut the rejects in half with a cheese-wire to get a good look at the profile. I still suffer from “heavy bottom syndrome”, and despite turning a deep footprint into the pots, they could still be thinner and lighter. Trouble is, if you go too far then you end up with a hole in the bottom and a useless pot! Jon will fire, glaze and refine the four completed pots, and I’ll pick them up in a month or two.

Watching the BA Meltdown

After another overnight ferry from Orkney to Aberdeen, a small group of us were transferred from the dock to Aberdeen airport to catch our flights home – I was booked onto an early afternoon Flybe flight to Birmingham. This was the Saturday that BA had its IT meltdown, and it was really interesting to watch from the sidelines. There was one BA flight to London in the morning, and two in the afternoon,  which were all initially showing as operating normally.

The first indication that something was going wrong was when the morning flight was flagged as “delayed”, and all affected passengers were invited to go to the enquiries desk to pick up a meal voucher. Then the morning flight was cancelled entirely, and the afternoon flights were “delayed”. The PA asked anyone whose final destination was London to go to the check in desk where they would see what could be done to rebook them onto alternative flights. There was an EasyJet to Gatwick that left just before my flight, and I imagine that all the spare seats on that were snapped up. There were also quite a few London-bound passengers put onto my Birmingham flight – including one very cross businessman who asked me if there was actually a train station at Birmingham airport, and could one get to London from there?! My flight was absolutely full as a result, but at least the passengers were heading in roughly the right direction, even if it is a pig of a journey from Birmingham to either Heathrow or Gatwick if they needed to collect their cars from their original airport.

Then things got trickier from a BA perspective. Both the afternoon flights were cancelled and the announcer came back on over the PA reiterating that they were only able to try to rebook people whose final destination was London. All their systems were down and they were unable to book any onward connections. The final announcement I heard, just as my flight was called for boarding, was to the effect that all remaining BA passengers should collect their baggage from the check in desk and leave the airport – “There is nothing more that we can do for you”.

I felt so sorry for those people at the beginning of their half-term holiday who were flying down from Aberdeen and catching a connection at Gatwick or Heathrow to head off on holiday. They were going to lose at least a day, and probably two or more days from their vacation. It’s somehow not so bad to have disruption at the end of your break. And I did think the “There is nothing more we can do for you” message, whilst despairing and probably accurate, was not at all helpful. I was so pleased that I wasn’t flying BA that day!

Not just prehistoric archaeology

Although the focus of the trip was clearly on the prehistoric, and specifically neolithic, remains on both Shetland and Orkney, our tour leader was keen that the group should also get an understanding of more recent history. In particular, the sheltered anchorage at Scapa Flow, surrounded on all sides by the Orkney archipelago, was a major base for the British Fleet in both World Wars. In fact, my mother tells me that her father was based there for part of WWII, and when she was a baby my grandmother took her to stay in boarding houses around Scapa Flow for several months so the family could be close together. I never knew that!

As part of the tour we went to the Italian Chapel, built by a group of Italian prisoners of war who were interned on an island adjacent to Scapa Flow, and put to work building some of the anti-submarine defences called “Churchill Barriers”. These are made from blocks of concrete sunk to form barriers between the islands, which are now used as causeways between them.

Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel is made from two Nissan Huts, and was decorated by some very talented painters amongst the prisoners, who scrounged / reused / re-purposed objects from the POW camp. The walls are painted in very clever tromp l’oeil to simulate 3D stonework and carving, the font is made from a lorry suspension spring covered in concrete, and the candlesticks on the alter are made from tin cans. Very impressive!

Orkney Highlights

We caught the ferry from Shetland in the late afternoon of Day Three, had dinner on board, and disembarked in Orkney at around 11pm, getting to our hotel just before midnight. But we were all up bright and early the next day for the first of two days exploring the highlights of the Orkney Islands. For me, the main reason for the trip was to visit Skara Brae, part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site.

Skara Brae – a Neolithic house

Skara Brae is a village of inter-connected houses, dating from the neolithic age, and was inhabited between approx 3000-2500BC making it older than the pyramids. Because there is so little wood on the islands, the inhabitants had to build in stone, leading to the stunning preservation you can see above. In the centre of the picture is a rectangular hearth. Above is a stone-built “dresser” with a further storage cubby-hole to the right. On the left and far-right are stone-built box-beds. In the far top-left of the picture you can just about see the sea. The site is right on the coast, and was preserved through being buried in sand dunes until it was exposed by a particularly bad winter storm in 1850.

In comparison to Jarlshof on Shetland, visitors are not allowed to walk through the original houses, but have to keep to the paths and platforms above the houses, looking down into them. So, in order to give an idea of what it would have been like, a full-scale reconstruction of House 7 has been built next to the Visitor Centre (where, incidentally, they do a rather tasty Ploughman’s lunch, with Orkney cheese).

Replica neolithic house and Visitor Centre at Skara Brae

The replica is almost but not quite an exact reconstruction of the original. In order to comply with modern Health and Safety standards, let alone the larger bulk of some of the visiting tourists, the entrance is much higher and wider than the original neolithic building. Otherwise I suspect that some of the more obese modern visitors might get stuck!

Shetland Highlights

Mousa broch

After the first overnight crossing, we arrived in Kirkwall, Shetland Islands at 07:00am, had breakfast on the ferry, then disembarked to start a two-day tour of the archaeological highlights of the islands. Mousa Broch is an iron age round-tower, from around 100BC, still surviving to nearly its full original height.  You can see from the people at the bottom just how tall it is. It consists of two concentric dry-stone walls with a staircase between them, so you can actually still climb up to the top. It’s open to the elements now, but originally would have been roofed over. We saw several other brochs on the islands, but all the others had been robbed for their stone, and were much lower in height. This one was on a very small uninhabited island, so that may explain why it has survived in such good condition.

Jarlshof prehistoric village

Another highlight was Jarlshof Prehistoric village. I’d never even heard of it before, but it was fascinating. A community had clearly lived there from ~2500BC through to medieval times. Every few generations, the style of building changed so the people abandoned their previous house and built a new one right next door. So there is a spiral of houses, starting from late neolithic, and moving through bronze age, iron age, Pictish, Viking and medieval settlements. The house in the picture above is neolithic – you can see the low entrance with a lintel in the bottom left, and there are saddle querns for grinding grain in the centre of the picture and the lower right. I loved wondering around the village, stooping through the low entrances (I had to crawl to get into one house!), and imagining what the houses would have looked like originally. They were semi-subterranean, and would probably have been roofed with turf, so from a distance would have looked a bit like a hobbit village from Lord of the Rings.

An archaeology tour by ferry of Shetland and Orkney

I had a big birthday last week and was determined to spend it somewhere other than at work. Last year, I was running an equipment trial up at Durham University on the day of my birthday, and ended up buying a small iced cake from a bakery and taking that into the lab to share with the team. This year, I wanted to do something a bit different. I certainly managed that!

I’ve wanted for several years to see the stunning prehistoric remains on Shetland and Orkney. We consider the islands to be somewhat remote and isolated these days, being off the far north-east coast of Scotland and therefore clearly in the back of beyond. But in prehistoric times, a major way of getting around was by boat, and the islands had strong trading links to Norway, Denmark and even Cornwall. However, the subsequent relative isolation, together with the fact that lack of trees on the islands meant that they had to build in stone, means that much early archaeology is stunningly preserved.

There are a number of companies offering guided tours of Shetland and Orkney, led by an archaeologist. But my first couple of choices were non-starters – they either went at the wrong time of the year (and I particularly wanted to be away for the week of my birthday), or they were fully-booked for the desired dates. I ended up going with a company I’d never heard of before, who had availability on the required date, and were significantly cheaper than my first choice. The tour was led by an archaeologist, and went to all the key sights that I wanted to see, so that was all fine. They were clearly cutting costs on transport and accommodation. A brief examination of the itinerary showed where savings were being made. Rather than flying between the islands and the mainland, they made use of the overnight Northlink ferry service between Aberdeen and the Shetland and Orkney islands. So two nights were spent on board a humongous car-ferry, in rather poky but adequately comfortable cabins. I was rather concerned about that, but fortunately the crossings in both directions were very smooth and I managed to get at least some sleep. Fortunately the company didn’t try to get the costs even lower by foregoing cabins altogether – the alternative was to doze fitfully on recliner chairs in the main passenger lounge, as lots of locals seemed to be doing!

Despite the down-market travel options, the holiday was actually pretty good. The archaeologist knew his stuff and was a good communicator. It turned out that he was a late replacement for the advertised chap, who was stuck on an excavation on Iona and couldn’t get away in time to join the group! Our man was contacted on the Thursday, and asked to lead the tour on the following Monday, even though he’d never worked for the holiday company before and certainly hadn’t led a tour round the sites before! I got the strong impression that he’d spent the weekend frantically reading up on his old excavation notes from when he was himself digging them…. But it all worked out fine.

A brief description of the best sites and some photos will follow, once I’ve caught up with the laundry and had a chance to look at the pictures myself.

More train madness

I’ve been doing more tours of university physics departments, up and down the country. Last week it was UCL and Birmingham; this week saw two separate visits to Loughborough, as an industry guest presenter at a summer school on systems engineering for physicists. I could have done without making two separate trips there, but diary clashes meant I couldn’t accomplish everything in one visit. I was most impressed with the conference centre facilities at Loughborough University – essentially a 4* hotel with fitness centre, decent restaurant and lots of meeting rooms, all right in the middle of the campus. Though at lunchtime on Tuesday we did have to share the serving queue with the English Men’s Hockey team. They were quite easy to tell apart from the group of physicists I was with! 

The trips to UCL and Birmingham were quite simple to do by train, and in fact there’s a direct train from Malvern to Birmingham University which is much easier than driving and then trying to find somewhere to park on the very congested campus. I met several ex-colleagues on the train who now work part-time at the university, so it was good to catch up with them. Trips to London are always a bit of a gamble, but on this occasion the trains ran on time, and the helpful woman at the ticket office even booked me a seat on the peak-time train home – it cost nothing extra, and was very useful as that train is always crowded.

Loughborough however is much harder to get to by public transport. The most direct route by train from Malvern requires changes at Birmingham New Street (my least favourite station – the subterranean platforms are squalid and dingy) and Leicester.  A return ticket costs over £66 pounds, but the same very helpful woman in the Great Malvern ticket office managed to save me £30 on exactly the same journey by selling me day returns from Malvern to Birmingham, Birmingham to Leicester, and Leicester to Loughborough. I’ve heard of “ticket-splitting” before, and in fact made use of it on my recent trip to St Austell. But I find it very odd that you can save so much money by being creative in how you specify your journey. It’s a crazy way to run a railway, but fortunately the staff at Malvern station take it as a matter of pride to get the best possible deal for their customers.

A Judgement in Stone 

Malvern Theatres has put on a few plays over the years from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. They seem to have run out of Agatha Christies plays to produce, however (which surprises me somewhat as she wrote dozens of books), and have now metamorphosed into the Classic Thriller Theatre Company. Their first production in this reincarnation is A Judgement in Stone, based on the psychological thriller by Ruth Rendell. I had a free afternoon on Saturday so took myself along to the matinee on yet another standby ticket. I’ve not read the book, so I can’t comment on how faithful the adaptation was. But as a play, I thought it worked pretty well.

It was set in the late 1970s, in the wood-panelled sitting room of a wealthy couple and their family. They have recently employed a socially awkward but hard-working housekeeper, who turns out to have a shameful secret she is desperate to keep hidden. The action keeps switching between the aftermath of the family’s grisly murder, with two detectives trying to piece together what went on, and flashbacks showing us the events unfolding and building inexorably towards murder. 

The production was a bit pedestrian, but good of its type. The theatre was pretty much full, with at least three coach parties from across the West Midlands. I worked out the who-dunnit and why-did-they-do-it about half an hour before the detectives did, despite a number of red herrings which Agatha Christie herself would have been proud of.

There was one unintentionally funny bit in the middle of the second act. The two detectives were discussing some clue or other, when suddenly there was a very large BANG from the loudspeaker to one side of the stage. Everyone in the audience jumped – as did the actors who were clearly not expecting it! They then got the giggles and tried manfully to keep going despite corpsing, as the audience also dissolved into relieved laughter. I think the theatre will have had a bit of a repair job to do before the evening performance!

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

Mullion is far too far away for me to consider driving myself there. It’s also rather difficult to get to by public transport. From Mullion, I caught a bus via Helston to Redruth (a journey of well over an hour, though the scenery was lovely and you get a good view over the hedges due to sitting higher than in a car). Then it was several hours on a train to Exeter. It’s at least another three hours from Exeter back home to Malvern via Bristol and Cheltenham, so I decided to break my journey for the night.

I’ve not been to Exeter for over thirty years, so it was interesting to see it again. It was heavily bombed during WWII, and has been rather unsympathetically rebuilt. By which I mean there are some real architectural monstrosities mixed in with the older buildings. But the Cathedral survived pretty much unscathed, and there are still substantial parts of the medieval walls on the original Roman foundations. I enjoyed wandering through the Cathedral Close on my way to dinner.