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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.

Polurrian Bay

On Bank Holiday Monday, the plan was that Cousin David and his brother Ben would meet his cousins and some of Stephanie’s friends at the Polurrian Bay Hotel, and then scatter her ashes on the beach below. The hotel is in a beautiful clifftop spot, just outside the village of Mullion which is about 20 miles from Penzance, down on the Lizard peninsular.

Twelve of us met there for afternoon tea, and then we all walked down the cliff path to Polurrian Bay, which apparently was a favourite place for Stephanie. Her parents had owned a house on top of the cliffs above the bay, and I could see why the whole family loved it there so much. I remember Christopher talking about holidaying there as a child, and I think I’ve even seen some photos of him and his sister there.

Polurrian Bay

The weather just about stayed dry for us, though it was overcast and quite windy. It must be an absolutely gorgeous spot on a fine day.

St Michael’s Mount

I had a free day in Penzance last Sunday, before meeting Christopher’s family on the Bank Holiday Monday. I hadn’t realised quite how close St Michael’s Mount is to Penzance – a walk along the coast of only about three miles. The first mile or so is a bit industrial, as the coastal path is directly between the sea wall and the railway line. But once the railway heads inland, it’s a pleasant stroll along sand dunes (and a less salubrious walk through some car parks) to the small village of Marazion. The locals there seem to have perfected the art of separating grockles from their money, and it’s little more than a very pretty tourist trap. I had a tasty but over-priced sandwich there for lunch, before heading over to St Michael’s Mount. I’d checked the tide times beforehand, and was able to walk over the causeway to the island, which was quite fun.

St Michael’s Mount from Marazion beach

The island is run by the National Trust, who sting you for a substantial entrance fee. However, the gardens and the castle perched on the top of the rock are well worth a visit. I think my favourite bit was a model of the island, made by a butler to the family in the early 20th Century, entirely constructed out of champagne corks!

The pathway up to the castle is very rough – lots of uneven granite steps, and it must get very slippery when it rains. There is an underground tramway leading from the harbour up to the castle which is still functional, and used to haul supplies up to the top of the rock. But Health and Safety considerations mean that the NT won’t allow it to be used for passengers. My knees were killing me by the time I got back down to sea level, and I really didn’t relish the three mile walk back to Penzance!

Back down to Cornwall

Yes, I know that I’ve only recently been on holiday to Cornwall, but after I’d booked the trip to St Austell over Easter, it became clear that I’d be going back just a few weeks later. This wasn’t such a happy occasion – it was for a family funeral. Cousin Stephanie was Christopher’s mother’s cousin, but due to the fact that his mother died before we got married, Stephanie was pretty much a surrogate mother-in-law to me. Christopher was absolutely determined that she should attend our wedding, but she lived in the USA at the time. So we took the show on the road, and actually got married from her house in upstate New York.

Several years later, Stephanie retired back to the UK, and stayed with us for a bit while she house-hunted for somewhere to buy down in Cornwall. Her parents had owned a house there for many years, which all the extended family including Christopher and his sister used to go to on holiday. Christopher used to reminisce about piling into the family’s clapped-out car (a mini I think) and driving all the way from Kent to near Penzance, before the motorways were built.

Even after Christopher died, Stephanie always kept in contact. Over the last few years, she got increasingly ill with Parkinson’s Disease. She and her two sons (who I reckon would be Christopher’s second cousins) came to stay here about two years ago, and it was apparent then that she was seriously ill. So it wasn’t at all surprising when I got a phone call at work saying that she’d died. There was a very small private cremation service, but the sons wanted to gather her family and closest friends together to scatter the ashes. That was easier said than done, as the cousins are scattered all around the globe – USA, UK, Australia and Singapore – and I don’t think they’ve ever all been in the same place at the same time before! But it was decided that they would all meet up on May Bank Holiday in Mullion on the Lizard peninsula, which is where the family home had been. I was invited, and felt that I most definitely owed it both to Stephanie and to Christopher to attend. 

I made a long weekend of it, with short stays in Penzance on the way down, Mullion itself, and then Exeter on the way home. The countryside was gorgeous,  and I can quite see why the entire family had such good memories of their holidays there. Photos will follow when I’ve had time to look at them myself. For now, I’ve got tons of laundry to do before I go back to work tomorrow!

Abigail’s Party

The play on at Malvern Theatres last week was a new production of Abigail’s Party, the Mike Leigh classic. I’ve heard a lot about it, but had never seen it. It is famous for being largely improvised, with the original cast making it up in a series of workshops with the director. So I booked myself a standby seat for the matinee performance, and went along to see what all the fuss was about.

First impressions were good – the “curtain” was in the form of the front of a 70’s house, with a big picture window into the living room. As the audience filed in to their seats, we could see the main character, Beverly, getting ready for her party – setting out the cheesy-pineapple sticks and plumping up the cushions.

I found the play itself to be a bit of a slow-burner. Beverly was hosting the Drinks Do from Hell, whilst next door her neighbour’s daughter, Abigail, was holding her first grown-up party which was rapidly getting out of hand. Beverly was a monstrous character – shallow, bullying, selfish, and oblivious to the effect she had on her guests. I did think about leaving at the interval, but decided I ought to stick it out. I was glad I did – the second half was better than the first, with the tension being ratcheted up to breaking point. Class prejudices were laid bare, the parlous state of the guests’ marriages were hinted at, and as the characters got more and more drunk, their behaviour towards each other got more unpleasant, with devastating consequences.

Overall, I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed the play. But it’s one of those that sticks in your mind afterwards, which I suppose is a measure of how powerful a piece it is. Certainly worth the price of standby ticket….

Scattering the ashes

Charlestown beach

Christopher used to holiday in Cornwall as a child, and had very happy memories of the county. So I thought it was only right to scatter some of his ashes whilst I was down there. The spot I chose was very peaceful – a stream coming out of the small cave you can see just above the sea-wall to the right of the photo. The stream led straight down to the beach and out to sea. I think he would have approved.

Easter in Charlestown

After the end-of-year mayhem at work, I really needed a break over Easter – somewhere where I could just relax and do very little whilst recharging my batteries. So I booked a long weekend’s break in Cornwall, in a self-catering apartment just outside St Austell. I don’t know Cornwall at all well, but I rather lucked out with the place I settled on. Charlestown is a very scenic, unspoiled village, with a very sheltered harbour that is home to some tall ships.

Charlestown harbour

It is also the place where Poldark was filmed, and the locals aren’t going to let you forget that in a hurry, with photos of a topless Aiden Turner all over the place. I had an “authentic Cornish clotted cream tea” on Monday, and even the tea came in a Poldark mug!

There’s also a Shipwreck Museum, just above the harbour, that is surprisingly interesting. It has a very eclectic mixture of exhibits – just about anything with a tenuous link to a shipwreck. There’s stunning views from the cliff-top paths, plenty of restaurants, and several very pleasant little beaches. Even the weather was good – it was a bit chilly, but generally sunny.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable break – and I’ve come back feeling much more rested and ready to face the fray.

Bird Bath

I heard a distinctly odd scrabbling sound this afternoon, which sounded as if it was coming from the bathroom. Odd. On further investigation, it was definitely coming from under the bath. Even odder. My first thought was that somehow a mouse had got in there. The main stop-tap is under the bath, so there’s a small access hatch in the panelling to allow access. I opened it to see what was going on, and a little beaked head poked itself out. It wasn’t a mouse at all, but a blue-tit!

It didn’t seem at all scared, but flew up onto the shower-rail and watched with interest while the window was opened. The bathroom window is one I’ve not yet got around to replacing, so it still has secondary double glazing. I think that confused the bird, as it tried to escape as soon as the inner pane was slid open, only to fly slap bang into the outer pane. It looked a bit dazed, but pulled itself together and perched on top of the cold tap, watching carefully while the outer casement was unlocked. As soon as it was open, the bird flew straight out, so it clearly knew what was going on.

What is worrying me is how on earth it got under the bath in the first place! And if a bird can get there, then so could a mouse or worse! I’ve taped up the access-panel, so that if something does get in, then it won’t be able to get into the main house. But I’ve had a really good look around outside for a hole, and can’t see anything. I suppose another possibility is that there’s a way through from the roof space, maybe down behind the boxing that hides the pipework. I know the loft isn’t mouse-proof, so small birds could presumably also get in. Hmmm. Not happy!