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Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

I admit it. I succumbed to the publicity and hype, and bought myself a ticket to see the newly-released sequel to the original Mamma Mia film.

Malvern has a one-screen cinema as part of the theatre, so I didn’t have to trek into Worcester to see it at one of the big cinema multiplexes there. Usually, this far out in the sticks we are several weeks behind the times (my sister would say years behind but that’s another matter….), but on this occasion the cinema is actually showing the film from its general release day. They’re clearly expecting it to be popular – they’re showing it twice a day for two weeks, which is pretty much unheard of in Malvern. The matinée showing this afternoon was a bit under half full, and I had a comfy seat in the middle of the front row of the circle. The leg-room was a bit restricted, but I had a good unobstructed view of the screen.

The plot was as flimsy, unsubstantial and see-through as a net curtain, and was really there just as an excuse to break out some old Abba tunes. However, most of the well-known tunes were used in the original film, so they were rather scraping the bottom of the back-catalogue with a load of decidly “B-side” songs. I don’t know why they didn’t just recycle more songs from the first film, since so much of the plot and most of the characters were also recycled. The main exception to that was a new character, played by Cher, singing one of Abba’s bigger hits that wasn’t in the previous film. Who would have guessed that the hotel manager would turn out to be an old boyfriend of hers called Fernando?!

But despite the film being decidedly cheesy, it was a lot of fun. There were some snappy one-liners, some good ensemble acting, and both Piers Brosnan and Colin Firth got to do some singing and dancing. All the cast seemed to be having a whale of a time, and their enjoyment was quite infectious. All together, it was an enjoyable way of spending an afternoon, the main downside being that I’ve now got Abba’s SuperTrouper on the brain!

Doing yet another MOOC

I’m getting quite in to the “Massively Open Online Courses”, or MOOCs, available totally for free from the FutureLearn platform. They keep my mind ticking over, give me something new to learn, and I can easily fit them around work.

I did a mind-blowingly challenging one a few months ago from a Japanese University on quantum computing, so I decided to change the pace a bit and am currently doing a much less demanding course from the Open University on “Health and Well-being in the Ancient World”. It’s a rather superficial gallop through Greek and Roman medical practices, comparing and contrasting them with today. To be honest, I’m finding it somewhat wishy-washy, and non rigorous, though that is probably somewhat inevitable given the wide non-specialist audience that it is aimed at.

I’m finding that the most interesting parts are the side-alleys and rabbit holes that one ends up exploring through web searches. I’ve come across a fascinating site on the history of toilets from Neolithic times onwards – and what’s slightly worrying is how many of them I’ve actually visited! (Though thankfully I’ve not been to the World’s Worst Toilet!) Plus I’ve found myself wondering whether Trojan archers would really have worn brightly coloured knitted onesies (probably, yes!) and trying to decide which set of Roman Baths I should plan to visit next…..

Christopher’s Tree

Christopher’s tree, summer 2018

Peter, Christopher’s step-father, has sent me the now-annual update photo of how Christopher’s tree is doing. You can see how much it’s grown from the original sapling in 2012. In fact, it’s doing so well that it’s rather difficult to distinguish it now from the neighbouring trees. It certainaly looks strong and healthy.

A brief stop in Shrewsbury

It wasn’t too bad getting to Port Meirion from Malvern on a Friday. Although it was a  very long journey,  there was a choice of trains and if the connections had gone badly wrong there were alternatives. But it was another matter coming home again on the Sunday. There was only one train that would have got me back to Malvern at a reasonable hour, and any delays could have left me stranded. There is little point going away on a relaxing weekend break, if you then get home tired, late and grumpy!

So it made sense to take an extra day’s leave, break my journey home at a sensible mid-point, and not tempt fate by trying too challenging a journey on the Sunday. There are far more trains back to Malvern on a Monday, and I wouldn’t be held hostage to the trains running on time to meet tight connections. Plus, if you get an open return you can break your journey on the return leg without additional cost, which gives a lot more flexibility.  With that in mind, I looked for places to stop overnight on the rail route between Minffordd and Malvern. Shrewsbury seemed the obvious place – an interesting historic town centre, lots to see to keep me busy for a few hours, and a choice of routes home on the Monday (either via Hereford or via Birmingham, so plenty of options).

Shrewsbury Castle

I stayed in an old coaching inn, which Charles Darwin set off from on the journey when he visited the Galapagos, subsequently coming up with the theory of evolution. I then spent Monday morning ambling around Shrewsbury. I’d stayed there years ago with Christopher, so didn’t feel the need to do it thoroughly. But there were a few sites that we’d missed last time, like the castle – originally Norman, then turned into a fortified stately home, and now a regimental museum. That was surprisingly interesting.

Altogether a much better option than trying to get home in one step from the far side of Snowdonia!

Following in the footsteps of Number Six

On the Saturday afternoon I joined an hour-long The Prisoner themed walk around Portmeirion village with a guide. He pointed out key locations from the TV series – such as the house occupied by Number Six, the eponymous Prisoner. Today it’s a shop selling Prisoner-themed gifts, including copies of the iconic blazer for £150. Needless to say, I didn’t buy one, though I did get a fridge magnet.

The Dome was Number Two’s house in The Prisoner TV series

The guide pointed out to us how the director had used clever camera angles to make The Village seem larger and more isolated than it actually is. There’s also a lot of trompe l’oeil on the buildings, with painted-on windows making the houses seem grander and more spacious than they really are. Most of the indoor scenes of the series were in fact shot at Borehamwood Studios in London, and the interior of Number Six’s house was at least three times larger than the building is in reality.

The tour was actually more interesting than I had expected, and fortunately you didn’t have to be an über-fan of the TV series to appreciate it. I was pleased though that I had re-watched the first two episodes of the series the previous week so that I had some context to hang it all from.

Scattering the Ashes

Scattering the ashes

One of the main reasons for going to Portmeirion was to scatter some of Christopher’s ashes there, since we hadn’t managed to get there when he was alive. In the evening, once all the day-trippers had left the village, it was extremely peaceful. I found a lovely tranquil spot to scatter the ashes into the estuary of the Afon Dwyryd. The water was so still, it looked like a mirror.  I think he would have approved.

A surreal few days

Portmeirion isn’t exactly easily accessible from Malvern. It’s on the far side of Snowdonia, on the coast, and I’m simply not prepared to drive for 4+ hours through the mountains to get there. It was actually quite an easy journey by train, perhaps because Great Western Railways didn’t feature at all for once.  I changed at Birmingham for the slow train to Pwllheli, on a two-carriage train which appears to stop at every significant oak tree on the Cambrian coast. It took most of the day to get from Malvern to Minffordd, the nearest station to Portmeirion, but on the plus side the views from the train were stunning – sea to my left, mountains to the right, and sheep and lambs frolicking in the fields all around.

I’d phoned ahead to warn the Portmeirion Hotel that I was coming by train, so there was a complementary minibus waiting for me at Minffordd station to take me directly to the hotel. I had booked one of the Village Rooms, rather than staying in the hotel itself, so once I’d checked in, the minibus took me and my luggage back up to the top of the village to my room in Cliff House – perched as you would expect from the name at the top of the hill and within a short walk of all the main buildings in the village.

Portmeirion central plaza

The Village was built from 1925 onwards by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. I don’t know what he was smoking at the time, but it was certainly effective! The place is really very surreal. It’s now run by a charitable trust, presided over by Sir Clough’s grandson. He’s a Welsh-speaker, and is very keen that the staff speak Welsh too. So that just adds to the sense of unreality of the place. You’re effectively walking around on the film set of one of the most surreal TV series from the 60’s, looking at Italian-style architecture thousands of kilometers from Italy, and can’t understand a word the staff are saying to each other! It was very, very weird!

I think the novelty would wear off if you were staying for a week. You’d have to have a car so that you could get out and explore Snowdonia. Without a car, one really is a prisoner in The Village. But there was plenty to keep me occupied for a weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Staying on a film set

Christopher was big fan of The Prisoner TV series. Although we were both far too young to have watched it when it was first broadcast in the late ’60s, it was repeated in the ’80s and we both had seen it then. In his last few years, Christopher was a member of what I think was called LoveFilm, a sort of cross between Netflix and a video-library. We didn’t (and indeed I still don’t) have enough bandwidth on our broadband connection to be able to stream films, but with LoveFilm you chose films online for a monthly subscription and got DVDs sent through the post. When you had finished viewing them, you sent them back and the next lot would then turn up. It worked well, and he spent hours watching all sorts of films that I simply wasn’t bothered about. However, some of his selections were of interest to both of us, and I well remember that in about 2009 he borrowed the entire series of The Prisoner, all seventeen episodes of it, which we watched over several months.

The series is set in the Welsh village of Portmeirion – an extremely bizarre-looking Italianate village plonked down incongruously on the coast on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. It looked fascinating on the TV, and we looked into visiting it. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and he was taken ill and died before we managed to get there.

Portmeirion main square

I don’t like unfinished business, so I decided that I should make the effort to get to Portmeirion, stay there overnight, and scatter some of Christopher’s ashes there, since it was somewhere he particularity wanted to go. The majority of the buildings in The Village are used either as self-catering cottages, or as hotel suites, so there is plenty of choice for somewhere to stay.

Portmeirion colonnade and houses

During the day, the village is heaving with day-trippers. Particularly so on hot and sunny weekends like this last one. But in the evenings, all the day-trippers are kicked out and the residents have a free run of the place in peace and quiet. That was really enjoyable – if somewhat surreal.

Nostalgia Trip

Since we were both planning on going to our tutor’s Birthday Lunch on the Saturday, my closest friend from college and I decided that it would be a good idea if we made the most of the opportunity and met up for dinner on the Friday night. We both had recent birthdays of our own to celebrate, and hadn’t seen each other for over a year so had lots of news and gossip to catch up on.

I left the arrangements to Katie – she’s always been super-organised and I knew she’d leave nothing to chance. She booked us dinner at Browns Brasserie, which seemed virtually untouched since we were undergraduates. Back then, as an impoverished student over thirty years ago, it was largely out of my price range, and somewhere to aspire to as a special treat. Now, with the benefit of being older and with an income, I can see it as a very pleasant and reasonably priced brasserie. I had pâté followed by chicken schnitzel, with fries and a side salad, and it was very tasty.

Hotels in Oxford are notoriously expensive, and the more reasonable B&Bs tend to be quite a long walk from the centre of the city. So staying overnight in a college seemed like an excellent idea. However, the guest rooms at our own college are not particularly comfy, are right next to the industrial-sized washing machines which rumble most of the night, and (like the vast majority of rooms in the main college building) have shared facilities. As I recall, you have to wander down to the basement in your dressing gown, clutching your wash bag, to find the showers. We decided that we’re too old for that, so Katie did a search online and booked us into the guest rooms in Keble College, a very short stagger from Browns Brasserie.

Keble College

I don’t know Keble College at all well – as I recall, I only went there once and that was to a Ball just after my Finals. However, once you get past the unmistakable and rather ugly High-Victorian architecture, it was very impressive. The rooms had clearly been recently refurbished, and were remarkably comfortable with en-suite facilities. Yes, the shower was absolutely tiny, but at least one didn’t have to go down to the basement and then queue for it! There was an abundance of plug sockets, a large pin-board, built-in bookshelves, good WiFi, and even a fridge hidden in the wardrobe. I remember in my first year at college, there wasn’t a fridge anywhere on my staircase, and I used to have to keep my half-pint carton of milk on the windowsill. Fine in winter, not so good in summer….. Today’s students clearly have a much more luxurious time than we did!

Breafast in Hall was included in the room-rate, but seemed only to be taken up by those staying on the B&B deal – the two of us, and two clergymen (one wearing so much purple and a huge pectoral cross that I think he must have been a bishop). No undergraduates seemed keen to get up for 08:15 on a Saturday morning for a full cooked breakfast, which seemed a shame as it was very good. However, thinking back, I hardly ever had breakfast in Hall, preferring a bowl of cereal in my room. And if I’d had the luxury of a fridge in my room, I think I’d have breakfasted in Hall even less!

A College Lunch

As the Senior Engineering Scholar at my Oxford college, I get invited back  for the annual “Lubbock Dinner”, named in honour of the founder of the trust fund that supports engineering education at the college. I don’t manage to go every year, but this year was special as it was my tutor’s 90th birthday. The college decided to hold a celebratory lunch on Saturday, and invited all the engineers he had taught over his long career. I wasn’t going to miss that!

About 60 of us turned up, including three from my year. We must have been the last year he taught before he retired, as we were the youngest in the room, with the exception of the current Engineering Scholars from the 3rd and 4th year undergraduates, who were also invited. We all met for pre-lunch pink champagne in the Senior Common Room – only the second time I’ve been invited there, as it was totally out of bounds when I was a student! Then we all moved next door to the SCR dining room for a three course lunch with more wine.

I knew some of the people in the years above me from the annual scholars’ dinner, but there were lots of new faces too, plus one that was very familiar – a colleague from work who turned out to be a few years senior to me. About a year ago I noticed him at work making his way to the canteen wearing a tie that looked strangely familiar. I stopped him and asked if it was our college tie, to which he replied that he’d been wearing it once a week for the past ten years, and I was the first person who had ever commented! He introduced me to some of the people in his year, who were new to me.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable occasion. It was great to catch up with my friends from my own year, and to see my old tutor again. He was on fine form – I hope I’m as with it as him should I reach 90!