Tuesday, 27 July 2010


I thought it would be a Good Thing for Katie to have a go at camping in an adult-free environment. Or something approximating to that. So we bundled into the car with three of her friends and went to somewhere in the Wye Valley area that I'd heard good things about. I dumped the children and their gear on a nice spot on a hillside, and looked around for a place for me. Katie made it clear that she wanted me out of sight...

...so I settled in, and then after a while I got a visit asking for help in putting the tents up... and then later in the evening another request for help in lighting a fire. It was a bit of a jolt, and I had to recall that knowing how to do these things doesn't happen on its own. It has to be learned. And a modern childhood is a lot less wild and free than mine was.

So we got the fire going, and it got dark, and they got the marshmallows out. I toasted one myself. It tasted smoky and burnt-sugar-y, and not entirely nice. But it was hot and gloopy and burned my tongue, and it was all part of the fun. I left them to it. I felt a bit left out of it, but that's just one of the penalties of being ancient.

I woke thinking it was day again, and opened the tent flap. There was the full moon, about to pass behind the huge beech tree I'd pitched my tent close to. There was a lot of twittering of house martins. It was 4:00. I wondered if the brightness of the moonlight had stirred the birds and the insects into action.

Later, after the proper day had broken, I was brewing my hot choc and watching the martins swooping around the beech tree, very close in and mostly to leeward. They were being very acrobatic. It was still too early for the insects to be venturing further afield than the close environs of the tree. A swallow swished by at grass-top height.

I walked in the woods, over to the Devil's Pulpit, a stone pillar rising out of the side of the valley overlooking Tintern Abbey. I took my sandals off to see how quietly I could walk. I could walk almost silently, as it turned out. But I didn't see or hear any deer. Lots of nuthatches. A great tussling of dead leaves that resolved itself into a blackbird. A young buzzard, and a family of ravens, all heard through the dense trees. A flash of swooping bird through a beam of sunlight, accompanied by alarm calls from all around; was it a sparrowhawk? So much of what happens in woods is heard rather than seen. A fresh badger scrape at the side of the path. A hazel nut falling by my feet; I wait, and a squirrel saunters out of the tree heading upwards.

Flickr album

Friday, 23 July 2010

spirit in the sky

There was distant rumbling of thunder. So I popped up onto the roof.

The storm was moving in from Somerset. Against the great heap of dark cloud was a wheeling cloud of seagulls. More were flying in from all points of the compass. The whole sky across the city became one great seagull party. There was a terrific crash of thunder, and an almost instantaneous flash. Then the rain started, and I dived through the skylight.

Sometimes you just see something and you have no idea what's going on, but just have to gawp and admire. Like the bobbing gannets in the Bay of Biscay, or the night off the Ebro delta, when I was leaning out of an after hatch on the ship during a thunderstorm, and every flash of lightning caught innumerable fish, poised mid-leap in the air.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural...

...as Louis Macneice said.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

a swim along the Avon

There's a nice little round trip I've done a few times by canoe, from Warleigh Weir at Claverton along the Kennet and Avon Canal as far as the Dundas viaduct, then down the Avon back to Warleigh.

I thought that the downriver bit of the trip would possibly make a good swim. It's a mile and a quarter, but the current helps you along. So I got in touch with Mal, who is a very keen swimmer of uncharted waters. She was extremely keen. So were several other people. So it was time to get planning.

I knew that we'd need to take a boat along in case anything went wrong- the river runs deep and between steep banks, and getting out might be a problem. So I took my big canoe, and Brendagh volunteered to help crew it, as she didn't feel quite up to the swim.

There was a bit of a dropping-off of numbers as the day approached. So at last, it was Mal, Brendagh and me. And the canoe on the roof of the car.

Trundling down to Warleigh, we looked around for Mal's friends who were expected. No sign. So Brendagh and I paddled along the canal while Mal walked. It was a nice Sunday morning; it had been raining right up to the time we arrived, but the sun was beginning to make an entrance, and there was the promise of a good day ahead.

We passed lots of narrowboats, and examined them critically for style. There were the usual 'castles and roses' decorated ones, but several had more individual paint jobs. And there were lots of seriously lived-in boats, shabby and comfortable-looking, with groups of hippyish young people lounging on the canal bank next to them. We exchanged greetings as we passed.

"It's a canal thing," said Mal. "You pass the time of day with everyone. You go so slowly that there's always time for a conversation as you go by."

Mal had been away sailing the canals of Derbyshire, last month, with Adrian and Pig the dog.
"My lodger told me to look out for his parents. He said they were on their way to London, and look out for Roger and Emeline on the Charlie Beere. And I thought, how many thousands of boats are there on the canals? -and then under the bridge came the Charlie Beere! I shouted at them, 'Your son lives with me!' They looked quite alarmed- 'Who is this mad woman?...'"

Mal does have a talent for making friends. In a nice way, she reminds me of Beachcomber's Lady Cabstanleigh- "It's not meeting people that matters, it's making them meet you".

Dundas Wharf, by the aqueduct, was bustling with Sunday trippers, all armed with Tilley hats, showerproof coats and stout boots, and the occasional map case slung around the neck to aid with navigation along the towpath. A notice on a narrowboat invited us to moor alongside for Cornish ice cream. Another boat offered cheese tastings.

Brendagh and I hove to in the basin, as Mal went hunting for a loo. A kind tripper, seeing my camera, offered to take our picture.

You can see why they come here. The built things on the Kennet and Avon are very good looking. Probably being made of Bath stone helps. But the Dundas aqueduct is very solid and respectably architectural, as opposed to, say, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct that I've walked across, which may be an engineering marvel, but is also utilitarian and even plain scary- the canal there is channeled through iron sections, like an elongated bath tub with a very long drop to the side.

We hauled and pulled and dragged the canoe down the long flight of steps to the river, and Mal got changed as we launched the canoe. And then we were off.

With the aqueduct out of sight behind us, the river became very peaceful. It runs through a steep wooded valley, and although it shares the route with a canal, a road and a railway line that runs along the river bank, there is no sign of their presence, and only a distant murmuring of cars. Sometimes through the woods there came the distant call of a hunting horn. But then it turned out to be an EWS freight locomotive, or the 12:28 from Salisbury to Bath Spa, racketing past.

"It's warmer than Henleaze Lake," Mal pronounced. "If I sound like I'm not making sense, ask me lots of questions to see if I've got hypothermia."

The banks were steep and tangled with ivy, brambles, mare's tails, nettles and bindweed, and overhung with alder and willow. Occasionally, there was a cloud of damselflies over the rafts of arrowheads and the yellow- flowered brandy-bottles

"What time is it?" asked Mal after a while.
"About quarter past one," said Brendagh.
"Then I think I must have swum half a mile now."

We passed a rope that hung across the river, with a board proclaiming 500m. Probably something to do with the Monkton Combe School rowing club, from whose steps we had launched. I quietly hoped that we'd gone further than that.

We came to a bank of reeds that ran right across the river. Mal held onto the stern of the canoe, and we swooshed our way through them.

Presently we met two anglers, sitting on the bank with their gear looking grumpy, as anglers do when you meet them on a river. Mal hailed them. They had no defence against the onslaught of her good humour.

"How far is it to Warleigh Weir?"
"Oh, about five or ten minutes walk. That's how long it took us."

And indeed, a few minutes later we heard distant shouts. And round the corner appeared Warleigh Weir, alive and bustling with bathers.

There are some more photos here....

Friday, 16 July 2010

Richard's books

I don't know about you, but I can't resist seeing what books someone has on their bookshelves. So here, gentle reader, is your chance to see what Richard's study has got in it. (He was quite keen that the new cricket bat should be in the picture, by the way. You know how it is. It was freshly-oiled, too)

Thursday, 15 July 2010

bikes and beards

We used to have a bit of an infestation of bikers, in the basement of the big house in Portsmouth I used to live in. Nice chaps, though their taste in music was a bit narrow, and they weren't all the shiniest apples in the bowl; I remember one watched an ad on TV for Shredded Wheat, which claimed that 'no-one can eat three' .

"I could," he said, and suited the action to the words.

And then there were the lads from West London whom I sailed with in the North Sea back in the 80s. They were mostly into Laverda Jotas and Kawasaki Z1000s. Nice chaps all of them, and most of them still alive too. There were always great plans being made for getting bigger, better, faster bikes (I peaked with a dinky little Laverda Alpino, personally). And bike magazines lying around everywhere.

One of the magazines had small ads in the back, which were reputed to be a sort of gay dating site. So, for a joke... some of the lads put in an ad on behalf of young K. And, lo and behold, he got a letter in reply, complete with a photograph of a middle-aged bald chap in one-piece leathers unzipped far enough to show off the winky that was protruding....

Time passes.

I met up with the chaps at a reunion last year. It was a happy occasion, and entirely free of discomfort about my transitioning. That was simply not an issue. Because we're grown-ups. You know.

Someone pointed this out to me yesterday. It's on the website for SuperBike, one of those magazines that we used to have lying around on the ship.

Finally we have good news from Yamaha in WSB. We reckon if you have the attributes (i.e. you are not a bloke/transsexual/transgender type) you're in with a shout! ...Great news if you are one of James Toseland's many stalkers or have a hankering to get up close and intimately personal with Cal Crutchlow! A press release from Yamaha confirms that – assuming your not a bloke who dresses as a lady – you could be in with a chance of wearing skimpy kit and holding a brolly. Now read on...

Well, quite. And of course all motorcyclists are heterosexual men without gender issues, too. And bikes are never used as beards. Never, you hear?

Do you get the feeling that those very manly journalists at SuperBike may be just a teensy bit insecure?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

swimming in the Thames

With the gearbox newly installed in the car, it seemed only proper to give it a good run.

So I took it down to London, and managed to pick up Richard somewhere along the way. We headed out to Oxfordshire, and took a walk along the Thames. It was extremely hot, and swimming in the river seemed a sensible thing to do.
"There's a place just here," said Richard as we descended to the river bank from the bridge "-or there's a nice place a bit further down."

"How much further down?"
"About forty minutes"

"Forty minutes there and back, or forty minutes there?"
"Forty minutes there"
"OK, I can handle that. It's a nice day for a walk."

We passed some places that would have been likely contenders for swimming if they hadn't already been baggsied by herds of cattle, which stood up to their bellies in the water, occasionally sticking their noses in and snorting. The calves formed their own little coterie of disaffected teenaged calfness, under a hawthorn tree on the river bank. We steered well clear of them- Richard is not really a cow person.

Time passed.

"I wonder if I got the distance right?" said Richard presently. "When I'm running, it takes about half an hour, and I reckon I run about 1.3 times faster than I walk. Or maybe 1.5 times. What do you reckon?"

"I'd say more like 1.2," I said, being a sedate sort of runner myself.

"We'll time it, " he said, taking off his watch. Richard's watch has, of course, got a stopwatch on it. Goes with the territory.

"I'll run to that tree there, and when I get there I'll raise my arm. You stop the clock, then start it again when you start walking, and we'll be able to compare."

So that's what we did. It was a very fiddly watch, but I got there in the end.

"Fourteen seconds, and thirty seconds", I pronounced, when I'd caught up with him.

"Hmm, about twice as fast then. So it's further than I thought."

Red kites called out and circled above the meadow. A girl galloped by on her pony. She put me in mind of a gaucho, riding across the pampas. If gauchos were young girls and the Argentine pampas had Didcot power station slap bang in the middle, you simply would not have been able to tell the difference, on this breezy hot Saturday morning.

We finally found a place where you could slip into the water. There were a few narrowboats and cabin cruisers not too far away, but not too close either. and their crews were obviously having a bit of a lie in.

Richard slid down into the water and edged out. The bottom was a little muddy but firm beneath that, then shelved deeply and suddenly. He launched out. I followed. We swam to the other side, and under a great hanging willow where a swan was busily nibbling the leaves. If you were careful, you could scramble out, using the roots in the bank as steps. The river bed underfoot felt quite horrid; crunchy but fragile stuff that felt as though you were treading on small creatures; and great bubblings of marsh gas whenever it was disturbed.

It was cool and peaceful under the tree. Someone had had a bonfire there. It would have been a good place for a late night party, we agreed.

Monday, 12 July 2010

changing the gearbox

So what do you do when your gearbox starts making horrible noises in third gear? -well, after seeking advice over on the Morris Minor forum, and draining the gearbox oil and finding a tooth in the mix, I kept on running the car carefully, avoiding third gear. Which can be a bit of a bore on long uphills.

I also started looking around for a replacement gearbox, as overhauling the gearbox myself would have been quite time consuming and fiddly. It proved a bit difficult to find one, as the usual suppliers didn't have anything available- there seems to have been a bit of a run on Moggie gearboxes lately. I finally found one on Hayling Island, where John E Evans specialises in rebuilding gearboxes and happened to have a reconditioned one available.

I also needed help with the changeover, as I don't have the lifting gear available, and it is a bit of a daunting job anyway when you're busy with other stuff too. So, after reading some recommendations on the MM forum, I got in touch with Russell, who trades as RTG Services. And he came and did the job on the road outside. I helped a bit (most of the dirt under the fingernails has finally gone now....). We started on Monday, and finished on Tuesday morning- Russell had to combine his mechanicking with childcare on Monday. A good combination, in my unbiased opinion.

It was good weather for working outside. The neighbours stopped and chatted as they passed. Several of the more elderly ones got a bit nostalgic for their own long-departed Morris Minors. Russell described how some of the locals where he lives are a bit less friendly- "A young lad pulled a knife on me outside the house. So I took it off him. I said "Look, if you're going to pull a knife you've got to know how to use it, don't just wave it around"." Russell is quite big and strong, you know.

And now the car is up and running again. I took it down to London and back, just to make sure.

Thank you, John and Russell. They were both really helpful, and cheerful and friendly too.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Seven Wonders of South Wales

Someone mentioned the Seven Wonders of Wales this morning, and I'd not heard of them, so I looked them up.

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon's mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winefride wells,
Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.

I felt a bit underwhelmed, I must say. Not least because they are all in North Wales. So, in an attempt to redress the balance, I spent three minutes listing these, the Seven Wonders of South Wales. (contents subject to change depending on how the mood takes me, suggestions (polite suggestions) gratefully received).

Crawshay's great gravestone at Vaynor, near Merthyr
Port Talbot's blast furnaces, flickering at night.
The slagheap at Bargoed, now gone but still worth a
High place on the list; Tiger Bay, shiny bright
(I preferred it before). Down at Newport, now- tsk!
The Transporter Bridge gondola
Traverses no longer the mud of the Usk
-in fact, most of these wonders are broken or, duller,
Demolished, or seized up and covered in rust...

...The Market at Cardiff for faggots and rissoles.
The M4 which carries me safe home to Bristol.

Saturday, 3 July 2010


I went across the Downs yesterday morning, on my way to do something, so I stopped off and tiptoed to the place where the peregrines like to sit on a rock, basking in the sun and thinking falcony thoughts. And there indeed was a peregrine, though it launched itself off and away across the gorge when I tried to get a better picture.

Later, I stopped off again on my way home, and this peregrine was swooping around the place and riding the updrafts...

..and then it was joined by another and then another, until there were five of them. There was some passing of a dead creature between them, and a lot of play. And several swoops from a great height into the gorge, followed by zooms up to an almost equally great height. It was like watching Spitfires showing off, but without the sound of the Merlins, as it were.

Friday, 2 July 2010


This is a garage in Weymouth, that I sketched in 1997, but never got round to colouring in properly. So I've just finished the job with the wonder that is Paintshop. And speaking of wonders, I wonder, too, if the garage is still there. It did look a bit unloved. I've had a quick virtual wander around Weymouth on Google Maps' Street View, but couldn't see it. So maybe it's been demolished.

Which reminds me of a pub just around the way from here, the Cock of the North, made famous (well, relatively famous) in The Young Ones, in which it appeared as the Kebab and Calculator.

View Larger Map

...it used to be a really (well, fairly) nice pub. An unashamedly 1960s job. Circular, with the bar in the middle. Light and airy, with the big windows. And then it got made over as a sort of bogus Edwardian thing, and it's all gloomy and (last time I was in there) pongy with the ghosts of a million cigarettes and pub lunches. I suppose that the pub's problem, along with the garage's , was that it fell outside the parameters of Buildings That People Want To Preserve Because They Are Very Much Of Their Time.