Saturday, 27 February 2010

Queens' College, Cambridge

On Wednesday Clive and I gave a workshop on Project Management to an audience of learning providers - colleges, universities, local authorities and one private provider - in the wonderful setting of the Old Kitchens of Queens' College, one of the colleges of Cambridge University.

Queens' rather than Queen's because it was founded originally by the Queen of Henry VI, Margaret d'Anjou in 1448. For some reason it was refounded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen of Edward IV and therefore the placing of the apostrophe in Queens' College is correct.

Above is seen the Cloister Court. There is a modern and a medieval "side" to the college, with each being separated by the River Cam. We were in the medieval side, or the Dark Side as it is known affectionately. The Cloister Court was built in the 1490s, though the President's Lodgings, facing onto the river, is 30 years earlier.

It was raining quite heavily that day but I couldn't let that put me off whizzing round with the camera for a couple of minutes at lunchtime.

Leading from the Cloisters up through a corridor with the Old Kitchens on the right and a sumptuous Banqueting Hall on the left are these well-worn stone steps. Walking straight through brings you to a second, earlier courtyard, the Old Court. First however we'll have a peek through that door on the left into the Banqueting Hall.

I've seldom been in a more impressive room, even walking through the likes of Windsor Castle. This room is awe inspiring with its ceiling guarded by gilded angels projecting from beams, the gold leaf decorations and the age-blackened panelling. And this in an education establishment! How different from the canteen to where I was marched in a long crocodile in Form 2 at Heywood Grammar... Do the diners here have to put up with lumpy tapioca and semolina, haricot baked beans served without the saving grace of a tomato flavoured sauce...

I left the room only with reluctance and turned left to the Old Court with this magnificent Gatehouse at the opposite side. It was a brilliant venue to give one of our workshops and I'd like to thank both the Queens' College and the JISC Regional Support Centre, Eastern for making such a splendid venue available to us.

Large versions of the photos: Cloister Court, stone steps, Banqueting Hall, Old Court and Gatehouse

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Birds in the Snow

I can't remember a winter where we had so much snow in Blackpool on so many different occasions before since we moved here in the mid 1970s. We woke up to another 1-inch covering of snow this morning. So it was no surprise to see the pheasant wandering around the garden looking for bread.

He only seems to come when it has snowed and has only ever once brought his partner along to share in the goodies. What a feathered meanie! In fact since Fran started putting bread out regularly we now seem to get a good range of birds in the garden every morning.

Thrushes and blackbirds are the most numerous, but we get starlings, and this year the sparrows are back in decent numbers after several years during which they all but disappeared altogether. We get magpies, including one poor soul who has lost his mate. They mate for life and she must have met with an accident as for a few years he has been on his own.

Yesterday I noticed two male robins in the garden at the same time - not something you see a lot as they are fiercely territorial. One stayed well away from the pile of breadcrumbs until the other had flown off with a piece of bread in his beak!

We have a container of nuts swinging on the washing line too and that attracts bluetits as well as some of the other birds.

We haven't had anything larger than the pheasant to date. The pond was dug out and grassed over last year. It had been a while since we had had fish in it - they acted like bread to the herons that used to drop in despite our best efforts. And since the opportunity to swim has gone also the ducks have given over doing belly-flop landings in the garden!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Billy Fury Weekend

We weren't able to be at the whole event of course, due to the Saturday night gig out at Windermere, but the Billy Fury In Thoughts of You fan club held one of their Billy weekends at the Metropole Hotel in Blackpool over this weekend.

We met up David and Jeannie no more than 10 hours after dropping them off last night and went down this morning to meet up with the fabulous Rob Dee and the headlining act from the weekend, Colin Paul, with whom we will be sharing the bill at the Sunnyside weekend over 19-20 March in Northampton in just 5 weeks time.

It was also a chance to meet and chat to Billy's mum, Mrs Jean Wycherley who, at the age of 88, gave us a quite brilliant rendition of Billy's hit In Thoughts of You.

She is seen here on stage with Colin Paul and of course her perhformance earned her a huge round of applause and a standing ovation from the crowd who had obviously had a great time over the weekend.

It was great to see Rob and Chris, Pat and Mags as well. We are so looking forward to Sunnyside, where we are headlining the Friday evening of the event and we'll be just one of many acts supporting Colin Paul and the Persuaders on the Saturday night.

Wedding Gig at Windermere

Last night we played in Windermere. It was ages before anyone fished us out... No, we weren't in the lake, we were at the Lowood Hotel, up near Ambleside, playing for the wedding of Kelly and Steve in support of a rock band who took over from us later on.

An early night for us then but a great night none-the-less, as there were a few inflatable guitars being passed round the audience and we got people to come out with them to help us play some rock and roll numbers!

Afterwards we headed over to Kendal to visit David's sister, Elaine and her husband David. They had made a fabulous meal for us and we were in a great frame of mind as we set off back home around midnight!

Lording It Up in Scotland

I had a bit of a treat on Monday last week, as I got to stay the night in a castle, parts of which dated back to the 13th century.

Dalhousie Castle Hotel is indeed a genuine 100% real life castle, complete with big chunky stone walls, towers, battlements and suits of armour standing ready to chop you into bits as you pass.

After all my good intentions of using the camera this year, I'd left the thing at home, so all I have are some reather blurry photos taken on my phone I'm afraid. I found the castle easily enough after a trip up from Blackpool which included a rather hair-raising (ha! I wish!) trip over mountains covered in snow with long drops down to frozen bogs and pools at each side of the road. And at one point I was treated to a blizzard on a high unlit twisty road where only the occasional bear or wolf were the only living things besides myself. Oh - and the prat in a big 4x4, who zoomed past me in the white-out shrieking "Oot o' the way!"... As I rounded the next corner I could see that a band of nomads had set a similar vehicle on fire to keep warm at the foot of the hillside far below.

Once at the castle I met up with Clive who was running one of our workshops with me the following day. We went for a meal and both immediately decided on haggis for a starter - wonderful stuff! You vegetarians would love it if you only gave it a chance...

Having feasted and decided that there was no chance of a joust in the offing, we split up and went back to our rooms, feeling the walls carefully for any hint of secret passages. I lay in bed reading for a while, occasionally glancing up to see if any wild kilted ghosties were flitting through the walls... but it was all very quiet and free from any out of the ordinary happening.

The following morning I was up bright and early and once dressed, put a thick coat on to go outside to phone Fran as per usual. The thick walls of the castle, or perhaps just the remote location, mean that I had no signal inside. It didn't help perhaps that my room was at a very low level, but the shackle rings on the wall had kept me in a comfortable position for sleeping half upright and I soon got used to the glow of the brazier and the lack of windows and the drip of water running down the walls. Joke!!! The bedroom was very nice!

Anyway I was wandering about whilst talking to Fran - in an attempt to stay warm as much as anything else - and noticed a sign for a falconry.

They had some spectacular owls but it was still only just getting light and all I had was my phone so I just managed to take a photo of the snowy owl which was making little noises that I took to mean "You look tasty, stick your finger a bit closer..."

There was a huge owl in the next hutch (for want of a better word) that had beautiful orange eyes (I think it was trying to hypnotise me) but as soon as I turned away from it there was a bang, as though it had tried to rush me from behind and hit the wire of its hutch and when, startled, I looked round it had fallen off its perch and was pacing about on the floor, shaking its head and muttering "bloody hell!" in a dazed sort of way...

Large versions of the photos: castle, snowy owl

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Unseen Things No.1 - Petra

Of all the things I have never experienced in person, there are some I have a chance of seeing, some that it is unlikely I will see and some that I will never see.

In terms of those that I will never see, it could be because they no longer exist, or because seeing them would involve more stamina, effort or energy than I currently have. Or in some case perhaps because they involve more danger than I care to accept as would be the case with some ruins I recall seeing on TV where you had to abseil down a cliff and do various mountain goat-type things to reach them, or where going to see them might damage or be bad for the things being seen.

The first on my list is perhaps one of the latter as, since listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, it has been described as having "unsustainable levels of tourism" during a time when the monuments themselves are threatened by flood water damage, salt erosion and age.

This is Petra, in modern Jordan. The ancient capital of the Nabataeans, it was a fortress controlling ancient caravan trade routes to and from Gaza, Damascus, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

It was approached by the Siq, the shaft, a narrow gorge in the sandstone with this impressive structure carved from the rockface at the end of it.

It has been used in several films and the place features as the setting for many books. Indiana Jones, gallops down the Siq in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Macro and Cato visit the city in Simon Scarrow's Roman legionary series in the book The Eagle in the Sand.

There are so many sights to be seen in that vicinity though and to date I have never been to the Holy Land. If I was there and had the chance to visit, perhaps I couldn't and shouldn't resist!

The photograph comes with grateful thanks from the Flickr collection of Mahmood Al-Yousif

A Song for Christian

David and I spent most of yesterday completing the recording of the song we sang for our friend Christian's funeral in October.

The song, chosen by Christian's family is a Christian song, with very moving words and is a little different to our usual style in that we've tried to keep it to a simple arrangement. There are no drums or beat until after the first verse and chorus and that meant we had some "fun" recording and editing the various instrument parts!

On saying it is a "simple" arrangement we still ended up recording a total of 9 separate tracks of instruments and voices - these are different tracks not re-takes of the same. It was an afternoon of the computer throwing wobblies and crashing the software too, but in the end it did come together and after a few attempts at balancing the different tracks we ended up with this version of I Can Only Imagine which will be added to the The Sunnyside of Creeping Bentgrass album as track 11.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Seen Things Item 1 - Roundabouts

What a cheat - I'm doing what I used to do aren't I? Talking about things I used to have or have now, things I've seen and places I've been to!

Anyway No.1 in a series of 100 seen things. Roundabouts may seem a strange subject, but I've been in Letchworth this week and came across this particular example...

It's Britain's first ever roundabout. It was built somewhere around 1909 and I suspect the amount of daily traffic has increased a little since then.

It is almost surrounded by signposts proudly showing its status as the first roundabout and a little further away one supposes is a heap of rusting wreckage that are the cars that collided whilst their drivers read the message...

It wasn't the first roundabout in the world however. That was built in 1905 or thereabouts somewhere in America. Roundabouts have however become much more of a familiar sight in the UK than they are across the pond where apparently the gameplay is to aim your vehicle at one already going round...

I made that up of course - but there is one roundabout that is so notorious for accidents that no insurance company will pay out for accidents that occur around it. It is in that land of the considerate - France. It holds in its centre one of Paris's great monuments and landmarks: the Arc de Triomphe.

Anyone who has ever walked around Paris will know that the local habit is to walk in as straight a line as possible and to push out of the way without apology or acknowledgement anyone who happens to be in their way. Fran and Gill were standing quite still in the Parisian Marks and Spencer on one visit and a French woman walked slap into them and recoiled with a very indignant "Ooh la la!" as though they should have seen her coming and got out of the way.

Drivers approach the roundabout in the same way.

It doesn't help that drivers must give way to traffic entering the roundabout rather than those entering giving way to those already on it. That means that if you drive at full speed right towards the middle of the roundabout, it is up to everyone else to avoid you!

It also doesn't help that it is wide enough for about 6 lanes of traffic - should they ever try to drive in lanes behind one another.

It also doesn't help that there are no less than 12 roads joined to the roundabout...

Needless to say, it lives up to its reputation as an accident waiting to happen. In fact you don't even have to wait all that long...

Roundabouts in the UK have become an everyday part of life. There are now tiny versions which are a painted spot in the centre of a junction - perhaps best thought of as an overbout... There are massive versions where gameplan seems to be to accelerate to such speeds that no one else no matter which approach road they are on dare venture out. There are new towns here where roundabouts are so common they are thought to spontaneously appear like dandelion weeds...

And they are celebrated on almost every episode of Traffic Cops and Police Stop!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Personal Item 1 - Cameras

First in a series of 100 (I just know I'm going to regret this...) of personal items.

The BBC series A History of the World is told through artifacts. Yesterday I told how the TV programme had given me the idea to tell a more personal history of personally owned items, things from places I had visited and things I have yet to see or missed because they no longer exist. I'll try to make them relevant to a wider world.

No.001 of the personal items is the camera.

The very first camera I owned was a VP Twin, bought by my Mum and Dad at an early age. In fact a bit of research says I must have been 5 at the most because Woolworths stopped selling them in 1959.

It took a roll of paper-backed film of the size 127 and took half the normal size of photograph so you got 16 photos to a roll instead of the 8 that you got with most 127 cameras.

The viewfinder was a simple curved oblong of metal that folded flat to the camera body when not in use. When it was in use - well... it may as well not have been. As a 5-year-old I fondly imagined I was taking a photo of whatever I saw through the oblong regardless of the fact you could look almost in any direction through it, not necessarily where the camera was pointing!

The shutter release was a springed opening that flicked from one side of the lens to the other. Theoretically how fast you flicked it had an effect on the shutter speed and the spring was to even out the speed of the finger. It was a system almost guaranteed to introduce camera shake.

But it introduced me to photography and I still have the odd photo taken on it, such as this one of Mum and Dad (down at the bottom) and the sky over Southport which I think is where it was taken!

A Kodak Instamatic 50 - Kodak's first camera using the much more user-friendly 126 film cartridge - was my second camera. No more tearing off the paper and risking exposing and ruining the entire film as you loaded the camera. These took a plastic cartridge and had a winder that actually stopped you from winding the entire film on after taking the first pic!

I still have the Instamatic 50 somewhere but I took this of a later (though practically the same) Instamatic camera in Bradford's museum of Photography a few years ago. It has a flash cube attached. In my youth taking photos by flash meant using flash bulbs which contained yards of thin magnesium wire that when it went off produced enough heat to melt the glass of the bulb, forming bubbles of molten glass. These cubes were marginally safer in that the melting glass couldn't drip through the plastic cube and you could take four photos and then throw it away.

My first 35mm camera was bought when I was 16. It was a Prinzflex B that I bought from Dixons for £25. Under the plastic Prinzflex badge that Dixons had stuck on, was the name of the manufacturer - Zenit. The photo shows a Zenit E which had a light meter. The Zenit (or as the English had it - Zenith) B had no light meter and the use of a separate meter - about the size of a thick Blackberry - was necessary to get your exposure right. Not many cameras at this point had automatic setting of shutter speed and aperture size.

So that takes you through my introduction to photography - a lifelong hobby and pleasure. But to mankind, photography has provided us with a record of the past that has outlived many of the objects, people and customs that photographs portray. We take so many photographs these days at such little cost that future historians will groan at the available choice.

In the early days of photography the film and print development processes used lots of silver - the cost was high and photographers rarely took more than one shot of anything. Today once we have bought the camera taking photos is free, if we store them as computer images. So judging by Flickr, people take hundreds of similar shots in the hope that luck and randomness will compensate for lack of technique and skill!

Monday, 1 February 2010

BBC - A History of the World

A History of the World Badge
I watched A History of the World on BBC2 tonight. They are trying to tell the history of man on Earth by telling the stories of 100 historical items.

The project is due to last the entire year and involves not only TV but a Radio 4 programme. The TV programme tonight showed several quite well known artifacts from the British Museum and a number of less well known objects from museums around the British Isles.

The public are being encouraged to take part and it is possible to upload photos and stories of personal items. The badge above is a link to the BBC web site so you can read their greater detail about the project.

It did stir my imagination a bit. I could write about items that are or have been in my possession or my family's possession. I could write about things I have seen on travels around my home, around Britain or around the bits of the world I been to. I could write about things that have interested me, but which I haven't seen, either because they no longer exist or because I've just not got to them yet.

Or I could do all three. If I reach 100 of each then I have potentially 300 blog posts - or 100 blog posts featuring one of each of my three types!

I recommend the idea to the house. But I need to think about it rather than just rush at it randomly. So... coming to a blog near you soon...