Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Travel Tuesdays #11: Fire

This photo was taken in Cuba in March 2007.

We were just driving along when we saw what we thought, at first, was a bonfire. Turned out the whole field was aflame. No-one except me seemed in the slightest bit perturbed by this.

Monday, 30 March 2009

The Twitter Experiment

In a fit of experimentation, I signed up for Twitter at the end of February. I must confess it seemed a bit silly, but I try to live by "don't knock it till you've tried it" and similar platitudes (they're cliched because they're true).

I've now been 'tweeting' a little over a month, I have nearly 100 followers and have posted nearly 200 updates. So I thought it was time to share some of what I've found.
  • One of the things that really took some getting used to is the use of @ replies - a message beginning @username is treated as a reply to that person, but still sits in your stream of updates along with the 'real' messages which aren't addressed to any specific person. This creates a signal-to-noise ratio which makes it quite hard, when you encounter a new person, to work out whether they're worth listening to. Imagine that when you first visited my blog, you got all my 'outbox' emails as well as blog posts. To start with I tried to avoid sending these (for that reason) but by doing so, you miss out on the great conversational aspect of Twitter. I still wish there was a way to filter them out of the mini-feed in my blog's sidebar.

  • There's also the facility to send direct messages but only to people who are following you (so far as I can tell). The 140 character limit still applies; this is handy if you want to reply to something in private or simply keep down the number of @ replies.

  • There are lots of spambots which (I'm guessing) follow all new accounts. They're annoying insomuchas you think you've got a new follower but it's not a real person, but they also seem to be harmless. Thankfully the bots are not (yet!) sending @ messages with directed spam.

  • I'm using a site called twitterfeed to push links to all my blog posts on to Twitter. A few new people have found my blog that way, and it means the links between blog & Twitter are bidirectional.

  • Writing such short messages is good discipline, especially for someone like me who's prone to go on a bit. It's probably kept down the number of short and/or link-filled posts on this blog, because if I can think of a way to write something in very few words I'll now tweet it instead.

  • I've also got useful recommendations, recipes and article links from the people I'm following, and had lots of interesting conversations with some great people.

  • The ability to tweet by text message was handy when I went away for a week. I set up scheduled blog posts, but I could also tweet in real-time about my holiday, so I could keep in touch (a bit) even though I couldn't read replies from my phone.

  • My main concern is that Twitter is one company - as contrasted with blogs, which can be hosted on one of a number of free services (like Blogger) or on your own website. I would predict that Twitter will have less longevity than blogging for that very reason. If Blogger closed tomorrow I could reinstate my blog somewhere else, but if Twitter closed then that would be the end of that, for the moment at least. I wonder whether that will change.
In conclusion, I'm enjoying my experiment - it was worth signing up to find out what all the fuss was about. And I'll certainly stick with it, well, for as long as it continues to be interesting and useful.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

A Bloggy Visitor

This weekend, for the first time, I had a 'blogging friend' come to visit & stay at my house.

I have mentioned Julie70 before, but for the benefit of anyone who might have missed that I would strongly recommend you to take a look at her blog, Life in London after 70, which she began when she moved from Paris to London last year. She's been blogging much longer than I have (in French before she moved to England), and also makes great use of Flickr for her photos. We'd exchanged a few emails and I suggested she might like to come to visit and see a bit of the English countryside.

Here are some of the pictures I took on our walks around Painswick and Cranham.

It was lovely to have the chance to show her around our beautiful (if I do say so myself!) countryside and to have a fresh perspective on familiar places.

Here's a bonus picture that Julie took of me:

You can see more of her pictures from the trip on her blog.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Local Guides When Travelling

I've just read a thought-provoking post about whether or not to hire a local guide to give you a tour, when travelling.

I have never hired a guide. Here's why:
  • Getting lost is part of the experience. Since I joined Facebook, my 'activities' entry has read: "Getting lost in as many different countries as possible, learning languages so I can ask for directions when that happens, trying out as many new things as possible along the way." I really mean this.

  • My goal on holiday is to experience a place, not to tick off a hot-list of 'sights' (with the exception of the Great Wall of China!), so if I spend the whole time meandering through the streets and visiting coffee shops, I'll still come home feeling that I've achieved what I wanted.

  • By wandering around being friendly, it's usually possible to find some helpful locals - e.g. we were shown some Cuban mountain villages by someone whose family lived there, but if we'd hired a guide we would never have known to ask for a tour there because (with no road access) it is not obvious that the villages exist. Heck, I've even found a friendly local for NYC before I set off!
On the other hand, Andy makes some good points about compensating for language barriers and lack of research. Language-wise, I will always make sure to learn a few words before I go (even in Mongolian). And I like to make a plan before I set off, at least in terms of working out how much ground I'm expecting to cover, but I always build a lot of flexibility into my itinerary and expect to get sidetracked along the way. Lara Dunston has an interesting post about 'casual' travel which you may enjoy reading; I am probably casual by her definition, and I guess people in that category may be less likely to hire someone.

How about you?

Friday, 27 March 2009


The stunning, rugged scenery of the Peak District:

And an adorable teashop where we enjoyed very good coffee and delectable cakes:

What more could a girl ask for on a spring afternoon? I would heartily recommend Eyam and the surrounding hillsides.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Plants & Flowers (Photography)

Something about having a new camera has made me take more close-up photos of plants in general, and flowers in particular, compared to when I was using my old camera. Maybe because I trust it more to get the picture I want. Here are a few of my favourites.

I particularly love the way that flowers, which always look so beautiful and pristine when you're a fair distance away, can look so very scruffy when you really zoom in - this primrose is a perfect example:

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Sheffield In Spring

On a sunny day in Sheffield (last Friday), it was very busy outside the Students' Union. Along with various people handing out flyers or trying to sell cakes, a number of purple-shirted girls were offering "Free Hugs", which seemed very good value for money:

A group of cheerleaders were displaying their skills to raise money for charity:

And they persuaded a passing member of the public to have a go, too:

In the city centre, meanwhile, the light was doing beautiful things to the fountains; this one is just outside the City Hall.

I was also impressed by the cherry (?) blossom, which was doing a very good impression of springtime:

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Travel Tuesdays #10: Domus Aurea

This photo was taken in Rome in August 2005.

Rome is absolutely full of amazing, incredible things (it is, after all, the only city I've visited where the apology for having rubbish public transport is 'it's virtually impossible to find anywhere you can dig to put in underground trains'). The Colloseum is probably the most spectacular above ground - but underground, getting in the way of any future metro trains, is Nero's palace, the amazing Domus Aurea. The photo is a bit grainy, but that's because it's nearly pitch black in there - the camera could see these ceilings better than I could. Only a fraction of the palace survives, but that fraction is still huge, and there are original wall paintings covering most of the walls and ceilings.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Beyond The Dreaming Spires

It's a funny thing about Oxford, but even though I left three years ago I still get that 'coming home' feeling every time I step off the train. It's the only city where I really feel at ease (being, as you've probably gathered, something of a country girl at heart). I went back there last Monday to visit my supervisor, and felt inspired to show you some of 'my' Oxford.

Of course Oxford is most famous for the "dreaming spires" of its older colleges, but I didn't get as far as my ex-college on this trip; in summer I'll go back there and take some photos of Oxford as it lives in most people's minds. In the meantime, I beg your indulgence as we take a short walk through another part of the city.

I call it 'mine' because I used to live on a narrowboat on the Oxford canal. Walking up the towpath, which runs between the canal and the river, brings back more memories than I can ever recount, of long summer days and frozen winter nights. The summer memories were stronger this time, because I was fortunate enough to take this walk in blazing sunshine.

I have walked these paths more times than I can count - once the most direct route to get home from the railway station, and now the quickest route from the railway station to meet my supervisor. It's also a pleasant way to stroll, and when I have more time I also like to continue further to the north and out of town along the towpath.

It's hard not to feel sad passing the boatyard, once a place of constant activity, now boarded up because someone decided it would be more profitable to build some flats. So far as I know, the planning permission still hasn't been granted, but the damage has been done so far as the boating community is concerned. The boatyard is dead now, though the campaign goes on in the forlorn hope that one day we might get it back.

A little further along the towpath, and you can see one of my favourite pubs - the Old Bookbinders, even the name is evocative! - peeking between rows of houses. It's had a lick of paint, but I hope it's still as colourful and characterful as it was when I used to go there.

On a parallel road, closer to the town centre, the huge building housing the Oxford University Press is another landmark which most tourists probably miss:

And a little further down the same road, heading south again, is the building housing the Chinese Studies Library, where I spent many happy hours of study (for some reason, despite never officially studying Chinese).

These may not be the views which first come to your mind when you think of Oxford, but it's the heart of 'my' city. I hope you've enjoyed the walk!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Trying To Read My Drunken Scribbles

I just came across the booklet from last summer's Postlip beer festival.

From reading my drunken scribbles, it appears that I bought six different beers and sampled another fourteen.

Judging from a mixture of memory and hastily-scribbled notes, some of the highlights included:
  • Dark Star's Expresso Stout - I would just love to serve this up in expresso cups at the end of a meal. It's exactly what you'd imagine as the love-child of coffee and beer.

  • Nailsworth's Artist's Ale - happy & hoppy, with a slight bitter aftertaste.

  • Potbelly's Beijing Black - dark and treacly, almost no bitterness.

  • Uley's Pig's Ear - tastes of Christmas! Consequently not quite perfect for drinking on a summer's evening.... but that's a poor thing to hold against it.

  • Thornbridge's Jaipur - light and infinitely drinkable, to my peril.

  • Stroud's Organic Ale - every glass comes with the added advantage of feeling virtuous.

The one I really didn't like, on the other hand, was Uley's Hogshead PA - I had a taste from someone else's glass and actually made a note to myself to never buy it. The one word 'AWFUL!' is scrawled across the entry!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

More Random Facts

16. My three most recent 'main' holidays have been by bicycle, car, and train. Time for a cruise?Train

17. I used to think I wanted a pet cat, but I'd be too worried about it hunting the birds. Currently wondering about a tortoise, because they only hunt tomatoes...

18. I've had a walk-in pantry for two years now, and find it hard to imagine how I used to live without one.

19. I've been accepted onto undergraduate degree courses for maths, physics, classics, and (my eventual degree subject) linguistics.

20. I went to look round the Mormon temple in Chorley when it was newly built.

Crochet21. The the first crochet project I started (aside from making dishcloths as a child) was a cardigan requiring 56 identical squares. I'm at 30...

22. I subscribe to the popular notion that most problems can be solved by a nice cup of tea, but I don't like 'normal' tea - I tend to drink mostly rooibos and peppermint.

23. I managed to come in under my estimated budget on both wedding and honeymoon costs. It helps to be a theatre producer!

24.Because university wasn't enough studying, I took a TEFL course in the first summer holiday. I'm hopeless at public speaking but apparently teaching doesn't count... huh?

25. There are three times more computers than people in this house. It's not unusual for my husband & me to each be using one laptop with each hand.

26. I did no training for our 1000-mile cycle trip around Iceland. That might have been a mistake.Rachel with the bikes, Iceland

27. The first time my husband proposed to me, I said no. He now has a fifty percent acceptance rate for marriage proposals.

28. Christmas is my favourite time of the year.

A light snack...29. I've never been on a diet.

30. I got my degree results by text message (from my dad) while I was walking on a beach in Iceland - then went to the bar for a celebratory hot chocolate.

31. I look at my digital photos frequently, but almost never get out the 'real' albums. I'd like to digitize all my old negatives one day.

32. I will be completely astonished if anyone reads all of this list.

33. We're planning to get bees, because I believe in the 'local honey' cure for hayfever and you can't get much more local than your own garden.

34. Some courses I've taken: dry-stone walling, sugarcraft, archaeology, circus skills, chocolate making.Andy puts the last stone in the wall

35. If it's pink, purple, or red, I'm much more likely to buy it.

36. I've never watched more than five minutes of any TV soap, or of Big Brother.

37. I made sugar models of famous landmarks along the Transmongolian railway line for my wedding cake.

38. I'm absolutely in love with puffins - they're just so adorable. Did you know that they mate for life and have one chick each year, but if a baby is orphaned another couple will adopt it?

39. I once bought my husband a chainsaw for Christmas.

40. Patrick Stewart once called me on my mobile.

41. I found it much easier to adjust to sleeping under the midnight sun in Iceland than to get used to the dark again when we got home.

42. Through a strange twist of fate, I got married wearing no makeup. Then I got fed up with high heels, and spent most of my wedding day wearing trainers - they were black & red, so they did at least match my red dress.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Sweet Heart!

A wedding gift from a very dear friend, who knows our love of all things chocolate... :)

It was such a work of art it took us several months to work up the courage to eat it, but eventually we did!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Not Quite 99

I started trying to make a post of 99 facts for my 99th post, but I was struggling to think of that many short entries - then posts 99 and 100 snuck up on me when I was looking the other way.

I was just clearing out 'dead' drafts from my blog and didn't actually want to waste the things I have written so far, so here's a few snippets to (hopefully) keep you entertained while I wander off to try to persuade my university that I really am married now.

1. In our house, we have fairy lights up all year round.

Cake2. My husband's 41st birthday cake was also an exam piece for the sugarcraft course I was taking at the time.

3. The only pets I remember having, as a child, were two pet mice. Something in the back of my mind suggests we might also have had a goldfish but I don't remember that (and may be making it up).

4. It's been eight years since I had a TV at home.

5. I buy hard-cover notebooks from Paperchase because they're beautiful, even though I seldom write anything by hand. The ones with multicoloured paper are my favourites.

6. When I started helping at Brownies, I asked if I could be Barn Owl because that's what my mum was when I was a Brownie.Brownie badges

7. I've been inside the Millenium Dome once, not to look at the exhibition but to help set it up as a Crisis shelter one Christmas.

8. My husband and I held our wedding reception at the restaurant where we had our first meal together.

9. I work better to deadlines, even when they're completely insane deadlines. I need that sense of urgency. I worked all night on my undergraduate dissertation and was printing it out at 11am (the deadline was 12).

10. I thought this blog would have more PhD thoughts in it. I still wonder if that will become more true as I get deeper into research - for now, this is a nice place to escape all that heavy thinking!

Me @ 10 mins11. I was born on Epiphany, and have consequently always claimed that Twelfth Night is 'my' play.

12. I analysed over 40 languages while studying for my degree, and conducted a whole project on Thai - a language I don't speak.

13. Some time ago, Kasia tagged me to write six random things - I hope this gets me off the hook! In common with her, I have twins in my genes.

14. We're a two kettle household, having bought a new one to replace our dying-but-not-quite-dead old one but being reluctant to throw away something which actually does still work. Plus it's handy if you want to make a cuppa at the same time as a hot water bottle.

15. I'm disappointed that the orange Smarties in the 'Mini Smarties' boxes do not taste of orange. That's just wrong.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

What Next? (Travel)

I wrote a little on Monday about my plans for my fiction over the next couple of months. But at the same time as relaxing to a slightly slower pace on my novel-writing, I'm hoping to ramp up the travel writing - well, I wouldn't want to get bored, would I?!

I've had a bit of luck so far by simply pushing out general 'can I write something?' queries, but it's time to get a lot more focused. I think it's time to make sure I generate at least one angle from every trip I take, whether in the UK or abroad, and take enough supporting photographs to plausibly make a sale.

I've also acquired a number of glossy magazines of the travel variety, and newspaper travel supplements, to study and consider.

My other travel project on the horizon is a book about the cycling trip I took round Iceland - which I envision being the sort of beautiful hardback you'd be proud to keep on your coffee-table (while being careful not to spill coffee on it, of course!). One of my friends is lining up a meeting with her publisher so I'll let you know how that goes. Planning to return to Iceland this summer, with the new camera, in case I need any higher-quality images.

But once you start thinking about travel writing in a serious way, one big question seems to loom: what about guidebooks? At the moment, I'm leaning strongly away from that idea. I enjoy writing with my voice; I have no particular urge to perfect a guidebook-style factuality, and absolutely no desire to spend my holidays running around to discover a million cafes, restaurants, and hotels. On the other hand, I encounter a lot of special places on my wanderings which I want to share. For now, my solution is twofold:
(a) emails to the Lonely Planet, as my current favourite series, to help them with their updates
(b) adding tips to ivebeenthere.co.uk, a lovely site collecting recommendations from around the world (run by The Guardian newspaper)

The third prong in this approach may be to also toss out recommendations via Twitter (still experimenting there), but that feels too transient.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Travel Tuesdays #9: Gothenburg Ship Museum

This photo was taken in Gothenburg, Sweden in July 2007.

The ship museum in Gothenburg is one of the most practically educational museums I've ever been to. I was in town for a pragmatics conference and we had a free afternoon so I went, by myself, on a miserable, rainy, stormy day. Not the day you'd necessarily choose for clambering around on boats (mostly outside) but I'm so glad it turned out that way - it gave me a whole new level of respect for the naval forces, and made me eternally thankful that I can spend my days cozy and warm indoors if it's raining. With the rain and wind lashing across the decks, it gave an impression of what it must be like to be at sea where there's no escape from the elements.

I would recommend this place to anyone - choose the worst possible weather for the most mind-blowing experience. Plus, you get to go inside a submarine!

Monday, 16 March 2009

What Next? (Fiction)

I'm in an unusually contemplative mood right now.

It may be something to do with the number of plates I'm spinning, though I normally do have a dozen projects on the go at once - I suspect it's more to do with the one which has stopped spinning, i.e. the novel which I finished last night. (Finally.)

Yep, volume 1 of my series is now fully available to read on the website. It will get redrafted in due course (after at least six months of not reading it) but in the meanwhile I'm going to use my NaNo code to get a copy on real paper.

So - after a couple of hours of pure self-congratulation - I'm asking myself "what now?"

I've promised myself a couple of months 'off' from weekly serialization, so I can work on volume 2 in relative peace, and I'll probably throw out a couple of short stories to plug the gaps.

I also want to make sure that I'm completely happy with the plot of volumes 3 and 4 before I commit too much of '2' to paper (or screen), so I have quite a bit of thinking to do as well. And to build myself enough of a buffer at the beginning of volume 2 that I can start serializing it without worrying that one unexpected event would throw me completely off track.

Fiction-wise, that's probably enough to keep me busy until it's time to dive back in to serializing volume 2 - which, unless anyone has any better ideas, I intend to do in about the same way as I did the last one.

I also want to use this break to focus more on my travel writing, but that deserves its own post later in the week.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Behind The Scenes

I've always stayed behind the scenes in theatres - not because I can't act (though I haven't tried since my schooldays!) but simply because I love the atmosphere backstage. I find it endlessly fascinating. Even when I go to see a play, I often catch myself thinking about what must be happening off-stage.
One fantastic advantage of the type of holiday I described yesterday is the chance to go behind the scenes at the National Trust. Not just at the site where we were working, but also on our day off on Wednesday, when we had a fantastic tour of the manor house at Petworth, West Sussex. Well, I say house. It's more of a minor palace really, with a whole wing that was built just to show off the art collections of the family who lived here! And grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, of course.

Most (if not all) National Trust houses close during the winter months, and Petworth was just about to open its doors again, but some of the winter covers were still in place in the chapel:

As volunteers, we were also treated to a look inside the ice house which is not usually open to the public. I can't get over the fact that they shipped ice from the Americas just because it was 'purer' than European ice!

You can hardly capture the scale of the underground ice stores in one photo, but I've tried for you:

We were allowed to take photos indoors (as you can see) which is usually off-limits to tourists and made us all feel extra-special. I hope you enjoy this glimpse 'backstage'.

I have to admit that I usually find more things of interest in the servants' quarters than in the main parts of these huge, posh houses. I love kitchens of any era, and I get serious pan-envy looking at some of these!

But I have to say I was very impressed by the murals at Petworth...

... and the carvings in the (imaginatively named) Carved Room ...

... and the huge, gallery-worthy collection of paintings and sculptures:

It was also pleasant weather for a stroll in the grounds to admire the follies (and daffodils).

The town of Petworth, two minutes' walk from the house, was also rather quaint, boasting an inordinate number of antique shops (and a perfectly acceptable number of tea shops).

All in all, it was a fantastic day, and I'd highly recommend a visit to Petworth to anyone - even if you don't get the personalised tour, there's still a lot to see.

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