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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Farleigh Hungerford Castle




Farleigh Hungerford Castle


One grey June day, we were visiting my mother-in-law in Bath, and decided to take her for a trip out into the surrounding countryside. We always like to use our English Heritage membership to take in a castle or two, and this looked like a fine example not too far away.

We don't always take advantage of the audio tours at these sites (even though it's included with the ticket), but for some reason we did this time, and it was a great way to get a feel for the things which had happened here. And there was certainly some gruesome history, from the woman who murdered her husband to the man who locked his wife in the tower (not a lot of happy marriages in this story).


Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle


An artist's impression of how it would have looked before it was ruined:


Farleigh Hungerford Castle


While the castle itself was lovely, the best-preserved and most interesting part was the church on site, with ancient wall paintings, extravagant tombs, and a crypt with lead coffins. I really thought I was going to be sick when the audio guide said that someone had stuck a stick into one of the lead coffins to taste the embalming fluid!


Farleigh Hungerford Castle


Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle

Farleigh Hungerford Castle


Thursday, 28 June 2012

OCR and Blogspot's Word Verification



Have you noticed the new-style word verification on some Blogger blogs? As of late, the interface has switched to offering two "words" to check that you're a human.


Except... that's not quite the whole story. While one half is still a standard word verification, the other half is now taken from an image - either scanned or photographed. Lately (as in this example) I've been getting a load of things that look like photos of house numbers.

I was quite pleased when I found out what's actually going on here. While the standard distorted letters are still being used as a "captcha" for verifying commenters, the other half is being used to collect vast sets of data for optical character recognition (OCR) from images. Every time a blogger does word verification, they're telling Google what they think the letters and numbers in the image are. Google can store up responses for the same image from dozens of bloggers, to get a "right answer," and use these image/label pairs to improve their OCR.

You can test this for yourself by typing utter nonsense for the image part of the verification: it still publishes your comment. It doesn't seem to check whether you're entering even approximately the right number of characters - presumably all the analysis is done at a later stage.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Gerbil-Sitting



We recently volunteered to look after a pair of gerbils for a few days while their family went on holiday. They're a pair of beautiful brothers called Sandy and Snowy (guess which is which) and they were very sociable with one another. They were also super-powered shredding machines, determined to munch through several cardboard boxes and tubes every day.


Sandy & Snowy

Gerbils

Gerbils

Gerbils


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Lighthouses and Foghorns on the Isle of May





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On the last day of our trip to St Andrews, my husband surprised me with a boat trip out to the Isle of May. He booked the trip primarily because of the bird life on the island (about which another post will follow in due course) but we also really enjoyed meandering around the island itself.

There are a surprising number of lighthouses on the island - or perhaps not so surprising, when you consider that it's basically a big lump of rock in the middle of a busy shipping lane. I love to imagine the life of a lighthouse keeper here in the olden days.

But the most interesting buildings were the pair of matching fog horns, supplied with pressurised air via a giant pipe which ran almost the length of the island. I don't think they're in use any more, but I wonder if all the equipment still works today?



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Friday, 22 June 2012

Cake Etiquette and a Victoria Sponge Recipe



Victoria Sponge


"Rachel, you know about cakes. What about cake etiquette?"

Thus began one of the more surreal food-related conversations to which I've been a part. I asked for clarification, and it transpired that the particular issue of etiquette under consideration was the kind of cake one should serve to a peer of the realm. My friends had a Baroness visiting them for afternoon tea, and were feeling uncertain about what to offer her.

Having first noted how seldom I have to worry about such things in the regular course of events, I wasn't going to let lack of experience stand in the way of giving advice.

"You could go for the supremely traditional, and make a Victoria sponge," I suggested. "Or for something more contemporary, maybe serve a selection of cake canapes."

They went for the modern option, and made miniatures... and the Baroness chose a mini Victoria sponge.

So there you have it: Victoria Sponge, still the cake of choice for British aristocrats.

Victoria Sponge slice


Classic Victoria Sponge Cake Recipe
Serves 8

For the cake:
6oz (165g) butter
6oz (165g) caster sugar
3 eggs
6oz (165g) self-raising flour
¼tsp baking powder
¼tsp vanilla essence

For the filling:
2oz (55g) butter
4oz (110g) icing sugar
½tsp vanilla essence
6oz (165g) fresh strawberries

Extra icing sugar for dusting
  1. Line two 6in (15cm) cake tins with greaseproof paper, and preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F)
  2. Cream butter and sugar together with the back of a spoon.
  3. Add the vanilla essence, then add the eggs one by one, whisking until combined.
  4. Beat the mixture until light and bubbly (I use a hand whisk as my electric one is too powerful).
  5. Gently fold in the flour and baking powder, until fully combined.
  6. Divide the cake mix between the two cake tins (you can weigh it out if you're not comfortable doing this by eye).
  7. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the surface is springy and a knife comes out clean, then remove from the tins to cool on a wire rack.
  8. To make the buttercream, whip the butter until soft, add the vanilla essence, then cream in the icing sugar. Beat until light and fluffy.
  9. Wash the strawberries, pat dry, and cut into halves.
  10. Once the cakes have cooled, spread buttercream across the top of one cake. (You can slice the top first to level it if it's extremely uneven, but buttercream will cover a multitude of sins.)
  11. Arrange the strawberries on top of the cream (see image below) and then place the second cake on top.
  12. Dust the top of the cake with icing sugar before serving.
For a bit of variety (or depending on what you have in the cupboard), you could use thick whipped cream instead of buttercream, and/or substitute jam for the fresh strawberries.

Victoria Sponge construction


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Coppice House Bed & Breakfast, Callander





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We happened upon The Coppice House, an adorable bed and breakfast in Callander, as we were just driving around looking for vacancy signs. Callander is a small town on the edge of the Trossachs National Park in Scotland, which makes it a popular place for tourists - there are dozens of hotels and guesthouses, and most of them seemed to be full when we visited.

But we definitely got lucky with this one.

In its current guise, The Coppice House had only been open for a month, so everything was new and the rooms had just been redecorated. Owners Pete and Katie have managed to create a beautiful design that feels like a luxury, boutique hotel - but with prices to match the cheapest B&B rates in the area. The en suite rooms have comfy beds and smart decor, and there's even a spacious guest lounge (with sofas, table and chairs, and a TV) where you can stretch out and relax, which is a really unusual feature and much nicer than spending the evening in your bedroom. It's within easy walking distance of the town's restaurants, pubs, and tourist office - and also just a short stroll to a public park.

Breakfast was also amazing - I may have overdone it slightly as I tried to sample some of everything, from the Scottish breakfast (cooked to order) to croissants, cereal, and fruit.

We really loved staying here, and will happily visit again next time we're in the area.


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Just around the corner, the graveyard in Callander has an interesting feature. The little hexagonal watchtower was erected to make sure the dead stayed in their graves! Whether through supernatural forces or simple grave robbery, no-one wanted to see bodies disappearing - something which, apparently, was all too common at the time. It's no longer manned, so I can only assume the threat has receded.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Improve your Alexa rank #blogathon2




Biannual Blogathon BashThis post is a mini-challenge hosted as part of the Biannual Blogathon Bash, June 2012. Anyone is welcome to join in, but if you want a chance to win prizes for participating, you'll need to register over at the main Blogathon Bash site and complete the challenge during the Blogathon.

Introduction

Alexa Traffic Rank is supposed to be indicative of the amount of traffic your site receives - but because Alexa can only measure the traffic they see, you'll probably start out with a number in the millions which might not reflect your true ranking. As potential advertisers and PR contacts may be browsing your site before they ever contact you to ask about your stats, you'd probably prefer that these numbers not be too far out.

The steps in this challenge are intended to help you improve your Alexa rank and ensure that your actual traffic is reflected in your rank. If you'd like to learn more about how Alexa works before we start, I wrote a short introduction to Alexa and PageRank that you may like to read.

Here are the steps to complete the challenge:
  1. Install the Alexa toolbar
  2. Claim your site
  3. Add an Alexa widget to your site
  4. Encourage your readers to use the Alexa bar
1. Install the Alexa toolbar

Having the toolbar installed will mean that Alexa is tracking your visits. Each day that you write a post, if you then go to your blog to check the display, this will count as a visit.

You can download an Alexa toolbar directly from the Alexa site at http://www.alexa.com/toolbar. There are versions available for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

Please be aware: because the Alexa toolbar records your web activity, some antivirus/spyware programs will flag it up as a potential risk. Personally, since Alexa is owned by Amazon, I don't worry too much about this and I'll happily do blogging and general web browsing with the toolbar installed. However, I do use a different browser for my internet banking.

2. Claim your site

If you don't have an account on Alexa, you'll need to sign up before completing this step. Once you're logged in to Alexa, go to http://www.alexa.com/siteowners/claim and enter your URL. You'll then be passed through to the verification stage. Choose the 'Free' option which allows you to claim and edit your site.

You can verify your site by uploading a file to your webserver or by adding a code to the HTML of your home page. Choose whichever seems easier to you. If you're on Blogger, you'll need to do the HTML option, and add the code by editing the HTML of your template.

Note that Alexa only understands websites at the domain level. If you don't own your own domain name, you won't be able to complete this stage - e.g. if your blog address is myblog.blogspot.com, Alexa only treats this as a part of blogspot.com

Once you've claimed your site, you can update basic information like your site description. (Just ignore the several places where you'll be prompted to upgrade to the paid service.)

3. Add an Alexa widget

By adding an Alexa widget to your sidebar or page footer, you can give Alexa more information about pageloads on your blog.

Go to http://www.alexa.com/siteowners/widgets, and enter your URL in the relevant box to generate the widget code. You can then add the resulting badge to your blog, just as you would add any other HTML snippet (it's basically a picture).

4. Encourage your readers to use the Alexa bar

Getting your regular readers to install the Alexa toolbar is one of the best ways you can improve your traffic rank. If all bloggers used the toolbar when doing all our regular visits, then Alexa would have a great snapshot of the blogging community, which would help us all in the long run.

For now, why not suggest that your readers complete this challenge with you?

Verify Your Participation

Add a comment to this post with your starting Alexa rank (the Alexa toolbar, which you installed in step 1, will show your rank when you visit your site). At the end of the Blogathon, come back and compare numbers. You won't see much of a change over just three days, but over the next few weeks you should see your rank start to improve day by day.

Don't forget you can reach me on Twitter or Facebook, as well as by email, if you're having any problems.

Create a Favicon #blogathon2



Biannual Blogathon BashThis post is a mini-challenge hosted as part of the Biannual Blogathon Bash, June 2012. Anyone is welcome to join in, but if you want a chance to win prizes for participating, you'll need to register over at the main Blogathon Bash site and complete the challenge during the Blogathon.

Introduction

How often do you have a dozen or more blogs open in your browser? And how often do you see a row of orange B icons, the little Blogger symbol?

Having a personalised favicon is an easy way to make your blog stand out in a sea of tabs. You should choose a clear, easily recognisable design that matches your blog's style. Mine looks like this: 

Here are the steps to complete the challenge:

  1. Do some research
  2. Create an image
  3. Convert to .ico format
  4. Upload to your site
1. Do some research

Take a look at some of your favourite sites - which ones have a really distinctive look, even when you can only see the icon? What makes it work?

Facebook and Blogger both have bold white letters (F and B respectively) on a solid background, coloured to match their sites. The Gmail favicon is a little envelope image, and Yahoo's purple Y! is quite striking.

Most successful icons have an obvious tie to the design and logo of the site as a whole. Looking at a few examples will help get your creative juices flowing.

2. Create an image

A favicon is only 16x16 pixels, so you haven't got much to work with. Think about the best way to express your brand in such a small space - colour scheme is likely to be important. Do you want to use an initial, or would you prefer an image that really sums up your style?

You can try scaling down a larger image (in Photoshop or similar) but the results will often be fuzzy and not terribly clear. You may be better off starting from scratch, and colouring in one pixel at a time.

There are thousands of free images online, so someone may have done most of the work for you. For example, if you want a star as part of your design, there are loads of different 3D-effect stars available in appropriate (tiny) sizes already. But don't just use a free image without changing it, or you may find you're not as original as you think.


If you don't have image editing software, you could use http://www.favicon.cc, which allows you to draw a design pixel-by-pixel, online. But I'd be wary of this if you have any other options, as there's no way to save your work as you go along. However, it will also download your icon in the correct format, so you can skip over step 2.


3. Convert to .ico format

If you're on Blogger, you don't actually need to do this any more, so go straight to step 3.

But if you're hosting your own website, you can create a .ico file by visiting http://www.favicon.co.uk/, uploading the image you created in step 1, and saving the resulting favicon.ico file to your computer.

4. Upload to your blog or website

If you're using Blogger: Go to the Edit Layout section of your blog, and click on the 'Edit' link on the Favicon box (top left of the Layout tab). Select your file and click 'Save'.

For regular websites: Upload the image file (named favicon.ico) to the root directory of your site. As long as it's named correctly and in the right place, the display will happen automatically.

Once you've done this, you may need to refresh the page (or even close and re-open your browser) to see the change for yourself.

Verify Your Participation

Once you're done, come back here and leave your link in the comments, so we can all check out your new design!

Don't forget you can reach me on Twitter or Facebook, as well as by email, if you're having any problems.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Inchmahome Priory



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Nestled on a tiny island in the Lake of Menteith, Inchmahome Priory has been a royal retreat as well as a monastery. Now maintained by Historic Scotland (the Scottish equivalent of English Heritage), and accessible only by boat, it's still a perfect place for quiet contemplation. As well as the atmospheric ruins of the priory itself, there are winding woodland paths by which you can trace a path around the island.

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival




Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 2012


I only found out about the Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival when we drove past Montpellier Gardens earlier this week and spotted the tents going up. Given my love of all things food, I was delighted to have chance to go and enjoy a wander yesterday afternoon. Thankfully the sun came out for my visit, although the ground was a bit muddy in places from the earlier rain.

The first thing that struck me was a whiff of aromatic Indian spices, the strongest of the competing cooking smells from the various festival food stalls (including several local restaurants which have set up tent-based outposts for the weekend). Then, as I walked past the beer tent, the scent of food gave way to the somewhat less appetising odour of stale, spilled beer.

As I wasn't looking for dinner or drinks, I gravitated towards the huge shopping marquee. The emphasis on ready-to-eat food was a bit of a surprise, here: it felt like the "ideal customer" was going to serve up a ploughman's lunch of fresh bread, speciality cheeses, assorted olives, and a scoop of handmade (and probably organic) relish on the side. Which would be lovely, but not terribly ambitious... there were a few cookware stands, but I'd expected to see far more in the way of raw ingredients. Things that visitors can taste for themselves at the stall probably do sell better, on the whole, but personally I would have loved to discover some obscure and exotic flavours to experiment with in my own kitchen.

I could easily have spent a fortune nonetheless, as there were so many gorgeous products to sample. I went in with a hard-line strategy of "don't buy anything until you've seen everything" - that way, I didn't have to carry increasingly heavy bags, and I could go back at the end to stock up on the bits and bobs that I really wanted. With so much to choose from it was worth doing this to guard against excessive impulse purchasing, especially as there were so many stalls selling very similar products (the dozens of chutney producers stood out in this regard). My star purchase was a bar of chilli and lime chocolate, from a small Cornish company - I just wish I'd bought more than one bar!

Back out in the city of tents I found the stall from Whole Foods Market, who are sponsoring the festival to draw attention to their Cheltenham store (expected to open in October). As well as handing out espresso-sized tasters of delicious butternut squash soup, the team were really friendly and great to chat with. I've shopped at Whole Foods when visiting the US, so I'm looking forwards to the new store opening not-too-far from home, and that really should be a source of some great ingredients to play with. I was particularly interested to learn that it's going to have a section where you can buy dry ingredients loose, in just the amounts you need - an eco-friendly idea that I think all shops should adopt.

I only had a couple of hours, but you could easily spend all day (or all weekend) being a foodie in Montpellier Gardens - especially if you were also taking the opportunity to chill out with friends, enjoy the atmosphere, and sample the various cafes, bars, and snack stands. One corner of the park housed a live music stage, while elsewhere there was an extensive series of talks and cookery demos. (I'd advise anyone planning a visit to check out the timetables in advance, as I arrived in the middle of one that would have been interesting.)

This year's Food & Drink Festival is running until 17th June 2012.

Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 2012

Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 2012

Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 2012





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