Skip to content

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!

Successfully avoiding the Royal Wedding

As anyone who has access to TV, a newspaper or an internet connection will know, there was a Royal Wedding on at the weekend. It’s not something I’m particularly bothered about – I wish them well, but it’s no business of mine. However, their “Big Day”clashed not only with the FA Cup Final, but with an important family occasion.  Last weekend was the closest weekend to my father’s 80th birthday, and my sister had booked the immediate family a table for lunch at Brasserie Blanc on the South Bank to celebrate.

The trains down to London on the Friday afternoon were packed, and there was even a “Town Crier” in full regalia on the platform at Paddington station, presumably seeing people onto the train to Windsor. The tube was really crowded too, with lots of people wearing royal wedding commemorative T-shirts. On the Saturday, the train into central London was full of people watching The Wedding on their smart phones. I wasn’t one of those people – quite apart from my almost complete lack of interest, I have a very stingy data plan on my mobile, and I certainly wasn’t going to risk going over the data cap and paying extra to watch it!

Fortunately, so many people were otherwise engaged watching The Wedding, the South Bank was very quiet, and the restaurant was only about half full, which made for a very pleasant lunch without over-stretched waiters. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by Brasserie Blanc – yes, it’s a chain making use of the name of a top chef, but (unlike for example Marco Pierre White) you got the strong feeling that standards hadn’t been allowed to slip.

I can’t eat a huge amount at lunchtime, so I went for the Prix Fixe menu which was excellent value and really tasty. I had asparagus, hollandaise and a poached egg as a starter, followed by confit pork leg with really smooth mashed potato and spring greens. The others chose off the à la carte menu, and a direct comparison showed that their portions were distinctly larger than mine – but I could barely finish mine anyway, so that was just fine by me.

The others all seemed to enjoy their meals too. The cheese soufflé starter (which my mother and sister both chose) was pronounced to be the best either of them had ever had, and the roast suckling pig, lamb tagine, roast chicken and steak all went down extremely well. Not all on one plate though, I hasten to add! That would have been excessively greedy! All of the food was well cooked and well presented, and was served by attentive (and clearly very well trained) staff.

I didn’t have room for dessert but the others did, and absolutely polished them off, so they were clearly really tasty too. I made do with a strong black coffee – I’m really not used to eating so much at lunch time! Or drinking that much either – I must have put away nearly half a bottle.

We don’t make a big fuss of birthdays in my family, and really only celebrate significant decades. But this was one such occasion, and it was very enjoyable. And it gave us a cast-iron excuse to avoid watching The Wedding!

Running to stay still

I’ve not posted much recently – mostly because I’ve been far too busy working. The end-of-year rush meant that lots of meetings had to be deferred to the relative quiet of the new financial year, and since then I’ve been dashing around all over the place. I put an expenses claim in today for business trips to London, Salisbury, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Salisbury again, and Sunbury-On-Thames. I’ve got an upcoming trip to Oxford planned, and there’s a threat of another trip to either Glasgow or Birmingham!

And of course, since I did most of the trips by public transport, I’ve had to put up with the appalling service provided by GWR trains. I think my record this month is a delay of 90 minutes on a nightmare trip to Salisbury when the most direct train was cancelled, I had to go via Reading and Basingstoke, and we “misplaced” the replacement train driver at Oxford as he was stuck in the chaos further down the line. You know it’s going to be a bad trip when the woman at the ticket office hands you a complaints form when you buy your ticket!

Throwing with a migraine

I woke up on Sunday morning with a blinding migraine – a full-on pick-axe pounding at the temples number. Which was really annoying, as I had planned to spend the day at Eastnor Pottery doing some throwing, a date I’d had to reschedule once already due to being snowed in back in March. Fortunately, my whole approach to migraines has been transformed since my doctor started prescribing triptans.  They work absolute miracles  – within an hour of taking one, the pain has vanished entirely, and I can get on with my life rather than spending an entire day lying in silence in a darkened room.

I took a triptan as soon as I woke up, and by the time I’d finished a leisurely breakfast the pain had completely gone and I was feeling well enough to go to the pottery. However, as anyone who gets migraines knows, they’re not just a “bad headache”, but rather a whole-body experience. Whilst the triptans are brilliant at dealing with the pain, they’re not so good at fixing some of the associated symptoms such as the lack of energy and exhaustion. And, as I discovered at the pottery, my hand-eye coordination wasn’t back to normal. Every single pot I threw was wonky!

I decided there was little point throwing anything that I would actually want to keep, as I just didn’t have the fine motor control to keep my two hands working together. Even a slight imbalance of pressure is enough to throw the pot off true, and that kept happening time and time again. So I decided the best use of my time was to practise throwing cylinders and try to get the bottoms and sides as thin and uniform as I could, cutting the pots in half when I’d thrown them, so that I could see the profile.

Overall, it was a very frustrating experience, as I knew I ought to be able to throw so much better than I was managing to do. And by lunchtime I was so overcome with post-migraine exhaustion that I decided I’d better call it a day and come home early. But I still managed to enjoy myself, which I would never have been able to do before I discovered how to control my migraines with triptans. I can thoroughly recommend them to any migraine sufferers reading this.

The mice are back – again!

It’s been several months since there has been any sign at all of mice in the loft, and I was getting complacent. That was a mistake! They came back on Friday night, just as I was trying to get to sleep, and were scurrying backwards and forwards directly above my bed, all night long. I ended up having to put earplugs in so that I could get some sleep.

They were doing the same again last night, but by the sound of it wearing clogs and tap-dancing. I’ve had to send a desperate text to Martin the pest controller, asking him to come over and deal with them again. I have to say that he is extremely responsive – I texted him over a weekend and he’s replied that he’ll pop round mid afternoon on Monday. I’ll need to be home from work a bit early to meet him, but since I still work part-time that’s not a problem.

I hope this sorts them out quickly, as I really don’t like sleeping with earplugs in…….

From Roman York to Roman London

The Roman Wall at Tower Hill

I had a meeting this morning at a hotel very close to Tower Hill tube station in London. The trains worked fairly smoothly for once, and I got to Tower Hill with plenty of time before I had to go to the meeting. I sussed out where the hotel was, and it was literally two minutes walk from the tube station. I knew that somewhere in the vicinity was quite a large section of the original Roman city wall, which has somehow survived to a height of several metres. It seemed a shame to walk on by when I had some time in hand, so I decided to go looking for it before I went to my meeting.

I found it, took some photos of the wall with the Tower of London in the background, and was just standing there soaking up the history for a moment when I heard a voice say “Hello Gillian, you’re looking lost! Are you going to the meeting?” It was an ex-colleague of mine, whom I see regularly at meetings of this particular interest group.

I said that no, actually, I wasn’t lost. I knew exactly where I was, which was next to a nearly 2000 year old chunk of Roman Wall. He however was clearly looking for the hotel, rather than a historic monument, and had been walking in completely the wrong direction whilst staring in confusion at the map on his smartphone. I pointed him in the correct direction, told him how to find the hotel, and said I’d be along in a moment, once I’d had a proper look at the rubble!

A few days exploring Roman York

After the very long and tiring “final quarter” of the financial year, I was badly in need of a holiday. But preferably not one that would be too exhausting. So I booked myself a few days away in York. I last went there about two years ago on business, and had just half a day free for sightseeing. That made me think that I really ought to return and see the sights at a slightly more relaxed pace.

Multiangular tower, York

This time, I had two full days in the city, and despite some really dreadful weather on the first day, I was keen to see as much of the Roman remains from the original settlement of Eboracum as I could.  Fortunately the weather on the second day was much better. York was originally a legionary fortress, and the city walls still follow much of the path of the Roman original. The picture above is of one of the original Roman defensive towers, at a corner of the fortress. The arrow-loops are medieval, but the stonework up to and including the brick courses is Roman. It’s one of the few bits of Roman York still visible at the surface – most of the rest is buried a few metres below ground, underneath the medieval and Viking settlements.

York Minster is a lovely building with some beautiful medieval stained glass windows, though the compulsory £10 entrance fee is decidedly steep. However, this does at least include access to the Undercroft, which was excavated in the late ’60s and early 70’s as part of a major underpinning exercise to stop the cathedral from collapsing due to inadequate and sinking foundations. It turned out that the reason the central tower was leaning at a dangerous angle was because half of it was resting on the remains of the Roman Principia, or legionary HQ building, whilst the other half was resting basically on mud. The underpinning gave an opportunity to excavate parts of the Roman HQ, and it’s now accessible underneath the main crossing of the cathedral.  Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor in York, quite possibly at the Principia. He was the first Christian emperor, something the cathedral displays made much of.

Roman military bathhouse under a pub

One other remnant of the Roman city can be found in the basement of a pub a few minutes walk from the Minster. It’s the partial remains of the military bath house, found in 1929 in the aftermath of a major fire in the pub. You can see in my somewhat blurry photo the remains of the hypocaust, or heating system, underneath the hot room or Calderium. The pub used to be called “The Mail Coach Inn”, but is now rather unimaginatively called “The Roman Bath” – though at least that does give one an indication of what to expect!

The Turn of the Screw

It seems ages since I’ve been to the theatre. I always avoid Pantomime Season as a matter of course, but that finished a little while ago. However, I’ve just not had the energy recently to go to the theatre – the last quarter of the Financial Year is always a tough one at work, and this year it seems to have been even more exhausting than usual. I’ve mostly spent the weekends doing as little as possible – other than shovelling snow, of course!

However, I’ve got to the end of the Financial Year more or less in one piece, and for the first time in months felt up to going out to Malvern Theatres on Saturday. I looked up what was on, and was in luck – it was a touring production of Henry James’ classic supernatural thriller, The Turn of the Screw. Even better, they had standby tickets available for the matinée, so I treated myself to one.

It’s set in the mid nineteenth century, with a governess sent to take charge of two young children in an isolated manor house. Then things start to go horribly wrong, leading to tragedy. In the book it’s deliberately left unclear whether the house is indeed haunted by the ghosts of two dead servants who are “coming for” the children, or whether the governess’ overwrought imagination has made it all up.  The staging managed to bring out these inherent contradictions very well. Whatever your reading of what went on, there was certainly an unpleasant undercurrent of what we these days would call child abuse.

Overall I didn’t find the play as creepy and unsettling as I remember finding the book when I read it some years ago. But it certainly made me think – to the extent that I spent much of Sunday searching online for literary criticism of the book, to get a feeling for what other people thought was going on. So I suppose that has to be counted a success for the play, as I most certainly don’t normally read deep and meaningful reviews of 19th century literature!