Sunday, December 26, 2004

Ilmington Down

There seems to have been more sun the past two days than for weeks - what a great holiday if you like being outdoors! Today we set off in the car to Ilmington, a village in South Warwickshire not too far from home. We followed a set walk published in a series of volumes we often find invaluable. Basically, the walk took us up onto the large circular mound that is Ilmington Downs, past a very impressive Cotswold stone mansion that is owned by an American billionaire who seems to know how to keep the locals happy by building good stiles and footpath signposts. Then up to the highest point (850 feet and the highest point in all of Warwickshire!) with commanding views of the Avon Vale to the north and west before descending back into Ilmington. This village is quite special and worth a visit. With a village store and two very lively pubs (one, the Howard arms is considered to be the best "gastropub" in the country) it seems to have a good community spirit. All in all, about 8 miles, so we are suitably tired but very happy.



View of the east flank of Ilmington Down - typical Shire country, don't you think, Peter Jackson?



Foxcote House from one of several public rights of way that come very close to the property. We wonder if the absentee owner knew about English footpaths when he bought the property!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

A White Christmas on the Malverns!

Today started out sunny so we quickly got our things together and set off for the Malvern Hills in the hope that we would have great visibility and maybe some snow! In fact we got snow and later on some superb views of half of England and Wales. The following were taken as a blizzard rolled across the hills, enveloping us in snowflakes. Later the sun forced its way through and created some marvelous scenes. A white Christmas - hard to believe but true!



Paul trying to avoid being bombarded by snowflakes as the blizzard moved in.



Paul on top of the Worcestershire Beacon (highest point of the Malverns)



April enjoying the driving snow just below the top of the Worcestershire Beacon. The marker was erected in 1897 and dedicated to Queen Victoria.



Paul on the way to conquer North Hill, bathed in sunshine now the blizzard has passed.



April on the summit of North Hill with the Worcestershire Beacon behind her.



Paul shivering by the quarry lake near the car park. No swimming today, folks, forgot our towels!

Friday, December 24, 2004

A day in Birmingham

Our day out before Christmas included tickets to the CBSO's Christmas Concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. This was our first visit to what is generally considered to be one of the finest concert halls in the world and it certainly lived up to our expectations, though with a few disappointments in the program. All in all, though, a very worthwhile experience.

Before the evening concert we walked along the canals to the Mailbox, where we had lunch at Café Paxton. This is a new venture by the cheesesellers, Paxton & Whitfield. Their fourth store includes a café with a menu that is unusual and exceptional - we both thoroughly enjoyed our selections, and will include a review in a the next few days.

We then went to the BMAG (Birmingham Musueum and Art Gallery) primarily to see the social exhibits about the development of Birmingham in the nineteenth century. Some excellent if rather musty exhibits (but remember BMAG is free!) Next door is the Birmingham Main Library, a montrous concrete structure designed about 40 years ago (say no more!) which contains an impressive genealogy section that seems to be very heavily subscribed. We had about two hours to spend so we researched directories and found some useful information for the Ashton side of the family! Paul may yet get interested in genealogy.

Highlight of the day? Perhaps looking out of the glass wall at the Symphony Hall and noticing that the adjacent Birmingham Wheel was perfectly framed. Would have needed the ultra wide angle lens, so no picture this time!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

About time we had some photos!



"Santa" Paul by the Christmas Tree



Baby Olivia (in the buggy but not visible) is witness to the fact that her Daddy appears to own a shoe shop in Stratford-upon-Avon. Mommy seems very excited at the prospect that Philip will be "bringing home the shoes"!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Hard Disk Failure

Our "tower" G4 started to play up a few days ago - iTunes would stop for no reason for a few seconds, then resume. Then the drive stopped altogether and would not reboot. There is a second drive in the computer, so I loaded OSX 10.3 from the master disks onto it and was able to look at the first drive. All the data seemed to be intact but the "keys" were not aligned, whatever that means. So I copied all the data files and program files onto the second drive and erased the first drive, then loaded the operating system and copied everything back again (keeping the second drive as a mirror of the first). I am basically back to where I started but now have to upgrade 10.3 to 10.3.7. This requires a download of around 100 Meg and on a dial up this will take forever. So I am going to wait for our broadband connection, promised on January 5. All very sobering and a good reminder to back up!

Friday, December 17, 2004

While in line at the traveling fishmonger's van

A week ago we heard about the traveling fishmonger who shows up at a hotel car park every Friday afternoon with fresh fish from Louth, on the Lincolnshire coast. We went to check it out and there was a line of people. When we finally got served, he had no monkfish, so I ordered some for this week. Today I lined up again and before I could say "I ordered some monkfish last week" he slapped a fine filet down on the marble slab at the back end of his van. "You remembered!" said I. He nodded.
We joked that monkfish is often called "poor man's lobster" but John (that's his name) said "not any more" to which I replied "I wouldn't know, I haven't bought a lobster in a long long time!"

What was most interesting about this event, however, was the casual conversation with another customer. Turns out he had lived in Houston during the 1990s and had worked for a British oil company. And he knew people I know and currently work with! It is a small world.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Christmas is Coming. . . .

Things are moving along toward the Winter Holidays - today we wrapped presents, mailed cards, sent e-mails to places cards don't necessarily go, mixed the Christmas cake mix (will bake them tomorrow), made three alarm chili, visited the local dump, bought two dozen bottles of Hooky (Hook Norton Best and Old Hooky) and three tubs of Rachel's ice cream. The local wine merchant sold us the last two bottles of a particularly fine Zinfandel that will no longer be available in the UK - perhaps the low point of the day. But overall I'd say we're in the mood! Tomorrow we try out the visiting fishmonger for the first time (his van shows up every Friday afternoon, with fresh fish all the way from Lincolnshire) and will cook some monkfish curry for the freezer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Fox and Goose Inn, Armscote

We have visited this fine pub and restaurant a few times and recently learned that it has a new owner. But the staff have all stayed with the place, including the excellent chefs. South Warwickshire is blessed with excellent "gastro-pubs" as they are called and many of them manage a balance between the old village local and the new adventurous menu style restaurant. None does this better than the Fox and Goose.

The bar is small but with a real log fire in winter. Two beers are on tap, a "house" bitter, actually brewed by Ansells in Birmingham (I believe), and a guest beer which was last night was Hooky Best. There is a good wine list and the house wines by the glass are very drinkable. Most of the rest of the space is given over to the restaurant with scrubbed pine tables and old pews with soft cushions in eclectic colors. A large blackboard displays the ever-changing menu and the fact that some items may be struck out would strongly suggest that only fresh food is used in the kitchen.

We started dinner with a few slices of hot bread (locally baked) with olives and fig chutney. This helped to stave off pangs of hunger as we waited for the entrés. April had a mouthwatering fried chicken in rich brown sauce, accompanied by loads of fresh vegetables (also sourced locally). I had taggliatele with goats cheese and a most interesting salad. With beers, a glass of red wine and an expresso the bill came to less than £40 with gratuity - which is moderate by today's standards.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Black Country Joke

The driver of a white van from London was lost somewhere in the Black Country*. He stopped to ask a local man standing by a canal bridge, "Is there a B & Q in Wolverhampton?"

The man by the canal bridge thought for a minute and replied: "Dunno, mate, but I know there's two Ds in Dudley!"

*The Black Country is defined as that part of the West Midlands conurbation that isn't Birmingham! Used to be black as industrial soot, hence the name.

Jola Glass Studio, Chipping Campden

Last evening we were invited to spend the evening with Robbie and Joan Kingston and their friends. Joan and Robbie run Jola Glass Studio - this is a serious plug for Joan's unique glass fusion designs.

The evening was a great success with many friends sharing stories and generally coming to conclusion that we have chosen to live in an area that is very special to us. We define the area as having "rural sophistication" and this definition met with universal concurrence. Something of an oxymoron? Well, not really, as this was a center for the Arts and Crafts Movement at the beginning of the 20th Century and the principles of the movement have strengthened in recent years. If you don't believe us, try a visit!

Friday, December 10, 2004

ADSL Broadband Start Up Date

Well, BT (British Telecom) have finally confirmed that January 5 will be the start up date for ADSL at our exchange. 512K 15 Gig/month download service will start as soon as I receive the modem and filter(s) on the Fifth of January. About time, BT. The story behind this is long and boring but suffice it to say that BT kept raising the bar and the community kept rising to the occasion. BT finally gave way and then admitted that they would have to lay 9 kilometers of fiber optic cable before ADSL would be possible. Somehow I think they were hoping we couldn't match their ever-increasing threshold. But we did.

Another language idiom - I starting hearing internet people say "rooter" and did not have the faintest idea what they were talking about. Then I said I needed a "router" and the whole thing fell into place. American English tends to say words the way they are spelt, British English tends to say whatever has become normal over hundreds of years. Just look at the word "route" and tell me it's pronounced "root"! Oh yes, in France. . . . but they speak French over there!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Local Language

Yesterday's entry included two observations on the local language. The one is obvious, where I refer to what the "paint guy" said. The other was my own subconscious effort. Ending a sentence with the word "really" is definitely in the Midland dialect. This is how it works. "I don't think I like the new Bullring really" means something like "I'm not altogether sure but I don't think I like the new Bullring; if you like it, well, that's fine." One word can convey a lot of meaning!

And Pete used another piece of Midland dialect when he signed off for a month: "Tara a bit" is classic Brummie (Birmingham) in that it collapses words and syllables. In the Queen's English he would have said: "Goodbye for the time being".

The Brummie dialect is variously labeled as the worst, ugliest and laziest regional accent in the UK. Yet most foreigners find it easy on the ear and researchers say that it is very likely that William Shakespeare's accent was not very different. And while we're on the subject, be sure to remember that a Black Country accent is different from a Brummie accent. A very important distinction really.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Decorating

Seems like a week of decorating both here and in Banbury (where I get paid in delicious dinners - thanks Lucy!) At home it's the turn of the guest suite. An interesting area in that the ceiling is "very cottagey" with lots of slopes and so on. The original decor was all Gardenia (an off white/cream) but I thought the rooms would do with a bit brighter look so bought Brilliant White for the ceilings, and more Gardenia for the walls. This rule was decided: if the wall is vertical, Gardenia, if not, White. It seems to work but it does look a bit fussy. However, that's what cottage bedrooms generally are, so perhaps it will look fine once all the furniture is back in. Only the trim left to do.

I went to my favorite paint store this morning. The "paint guy" observed that "it's a bit thin today". I thought he meant the paint but he was referring to the weather (heavy freeze last night!)

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving!

It seems very strange to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year in a country that doesn't celebrate the holiday at all. But then I suppose the first pilgrims to New England were escaping from the UK and so it is no surprise that the last Thursday in November is just another working day here in England. When I ordered the turkey the butcher seemed quite surprised - no doubt he was thinking "that's a bit early for Christmas".

Thanksgiving is not only an important US holiday, it also very neatly defines the start of the Christmas season. Here in England the build up to Christmas has already been in full swing for weeks but until Thanksgiving is over there is very little impetus for Christmas until tomorrow - when it really starts in earnest!

We will celebrate on Saturday with a turkey and most of the usual trimmings. Then we will raise a glass to friends with whom we have shared Thanksgiving in recent years, in particular Richard and Bunny Becker, the wine makers, in their San Antonio, Texas home. Two years ago we drove to San Antonio and stayed at the Menger Hotel, arriving at the Becker home at noon and leaving at nine in the evening. Topics of conversation were as varied and as lively as the fine wines we consumed, some from Texas, others from around the world. A memorable occasion.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Birmingham in 1553



This map of Birmingham in 1553 was "borrowed" from Virtual Brum. I think they must have borrowed it from somewhere else but unfortunately no reference is given. It is 87 years before the prospect shown below was drawn but not much seems to be different. The meadow in the right side of the picture would likely be the Lords Demesne. Notice the triangular area northwest of St Martin's. This was the original Bull Ring. The dark church in the foreground would be St. Johns Chapel, hiding the Deretend Bridge. The river is now not much more than a drainage ditch between warehouses and factories.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The prospect of Bermingham from Ravenhurst (neere London road) on the Southeast part of the towne 1640



I borrowed this print in order to scan it. The view is from what is now Camp Hill, looking across the Rea Valley. I would guess the church must be St. Martins and the row of houses coming down the hill would be present day Digbeth. Note the spelling of Bermingham, pretty much the way it is said by many West Midlanders today! Sadly I did not scan from an original, but a photo of the original.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

New Travelogue - France 2004



One month exactly after returning from France, here is the four part travelogue we promised!

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Puy de Dome/St. Nectaire
Part 3 - Nissan-lez-Enserune
Part 4 - Cote de Vermeille

There is a section on Travel Notes at the end of each part with useful links to resources we have discovered along the way.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Snow on the Malverns

We continue to be fooled by the weather forecasts - Saturday should have been as sunny as Friday. So we made plans to get up early and walk in the Malvern Hills. By the time we drove off for the one hour cross country run to Little Malvern it was spotting with rain. But it was dry when we arrived at the British Camp parking area, so off we went on what promised to be a relatively easy six mile hikes across fields, common land and finally the Malvern Hills themselves. After about an hour it started to rain and, looking back at the hills, we saw that the rain was now falling as snow. This cheered us up no end (for some reason really cold wet stuff is much more cheerful than cold wet stuff!)

By the time we climbed up into the hills about and inch of snow had fallen and in places we had a near white out situation. Other hikers' footsteps guided us along the ridge and back to the car for hot soup.



April thinks the snow is great as we slog up the slippery slope toward the summit of British Camp, an ancient hill fort along the Malvern Hills ridge.



About thirty minutes later we reach the top of British Camp and as you can see at the right side of this photo the conditions are approaching a white out. At least an inch of snow had fallen by this time. Five miles to the east and 600 feet lower it continued to rain!

Geological note: The Malverns are formed of very old rocks - Pre-Cambrian - and the hills have been a prominent feature on the British landscape for hundreds of millions of years - in fact the Severn/Avon Valley was also there in Permian times when a huge desert salt lake stretched out in front of the Malverns, all the way to Poland! Alluvial fans no doubt spread out along the eastern flank of the hills which was then a very active fault line. It would have looked like Death Valley or Tornillo Flats in Big Bend National Park. Our view today was very different, mainly because of the very different climatic conditions! Actually there was very little view for most of the time.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Kingstanding

This afternoon I went to Birmingham, but more precisely to the northern suburb of Kingstanding, where son Pete lives, sharing a house with Sam. If you know Kingstanding then you will know that they live in an inter-war semi-detached house, one of tens of thousands. It is possible that Kingstanding is the largest single development of "semis" anywhere. The only relief to the monotony are the roundabouts (circles) and the various shops, pubs and cinemas that surround them. The other relief, literally, is the topography, for Kingstanding is a hilly area.

Until Pete moved there a year or so ago I had forgotten about Kingstanding. My maternal grandmother lived there until she died in 1957 and we used to take a bus to visit her from time to time. Other family members lived not far away in Walsall Road, Perry Barr and Newton Road, Great Barr and my roots appear to be all over the place - Birmingham, Aston and Handsworth - as well as one who moved to upscale Edgbaston (this was my "aunt" Lizzie who was, we think, my father's second cousin and who was a spinster teacher and lifelong supporter of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, a strange pastime for someone who lived as far from the sea as you can in England!)

I am sure my ancestors thought the modern semis of Kingstanding were a great improvement on the back to backs they came from, but today this area lacks any sense of charm. It is simply a place to live, a place to park your car or van on the grass, a place that is relatively convenient for work and play. A place to plan to move out of, perhaps.

Pete has loaned me a framed picture he found of a print of "Bermingham", dated 1640. I plan to undo the frame and scan the image because the print has significant historical merit and should be shared.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Choice of Browsers

Photographer friend Ellis Vener once coined the term Microsoft Exploder for the most common browser used by PC owners. Truth is, IE (Internet Explorer) users now have choices that don't include Netscape (which seems to be on its way to oblivion). In the Mac world we have Safari, Apple's very own elegant browser that is simple to operate yet packed with features (such as tabs). According to my family expert, Pete, I have no need to worry about alternatives, but he does suggest, quite strongly, that IE users in the PC world switch to Firefox. There are lots of good reasons for doing so, not the least being security issues. It seems that hackers like to attack the most common platform which is why Mac users often don't understand what all the virus fuss is all about. So Firefox is a good solution, at least until it becomes too popular for its own good! Best reason I know, though, is because it offers tabs and is also free to download.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Birthday Surprise!

I arrived back from London Friday evening to a big surprise from April - off to Wales for the weekend and a birthday treat back at the Tyn y Cornel Hotel - see the Cader Idris Travelogue.



Paul standing on top of Cader Idris with a gale blowing from behind. The cloud base was about 800 feet below the summit.



April posing at the col above the "chair", a corrie of immense proportions that falls away vertically about 10 feet from where she stands. Sometimes dense clouds give a mis-placed sense of safety!

On Sunday we attacked Cader Idris from the north, taking the Pony Path on a day that promised plenty of cloud and mist. It's good to climb a cloud covered mountain once in a while to make the clear blue sky days seem all the more special. This was a good contrast to our March 2004 experience. Although not cold, the wind was really blowing at the summit and our waterproofs were very much needed.



The upper reaches of the walk above Dolgoch. This is a wonderful place.

On Monday we tackled Cader again, intending to visit a waterfall above Tal Y Llyn, but the path proved to be non-existent and with the slopes very slippery we aborted, and visited Dolgoch Falls instead. This was magical. We rounded off the day in low angled sunshine in an adjacent valley, examining Bird Rock and then the 13th Century ruins of Castell Bere. Both are worth a return visit. There's lots to do around Cader Idris besides climbing mountains!

To the woman at the next table

We would just like to say: "Keep your small minded political comments to yourself!"

I don't know who she might be, but we certainly got to hear her life history as her voice had a piercing ring to it. Apparently quite wealthy, she also owned some strong opinions and more than the three people at her own table were accosted with derisive comments about the November 2 elections. The entire restaurant could hear every word.

Appears her claim to being an expert on Kerry's wooden-ness and Edwards' smart mouth as well as Bush's extreme lack of intelligence was entirely based on the fact that she lived in America for several years during the 1960s!

Both of us said later that we were about to stand up, go over the her table and politely ask her to stop. But perhaps she sensed enough had been said as she barely spoke again for the rest of the evening. Ah the power of mental persuasion!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Hotel Highspeed Internet

So I need to download some files and do research while in my hotel room. London hotels have always been notorious for their telephone charges but cell phones have probably put paid to that lucrative profit center. Along comes highspeed internet as a replacement. For £18 a day I can have both ethernet and wifi high speed internet in my room (and by wifi in the lobby should I want it!). Wow! That's more than a month's service on a regular broadband connection. I'm making sure I won't be needing the service again! Internet cafe charges in the area are a lot less.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Isobel portfolio

As noted on October 26, I spent a productive four minutes with the F5, 2 rolls of Astia and my granddaughter. Here are the results.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Fuji UK Processing

The two examples below were scanned from slides processed by Fuji UK. As I mentioned earlier this month, it was with some trepidation that I finally tried a different processing shop (AZ Photo Lab in Houston are that good!) Well, I am very pleased with the results - no water stains, nominal dust and everything done right. The system takes about 4 days including first class postage in both directions (the films go in a pre-paid mailer, the slides are returned for a nominal pstage charge). Slides can be mounted and come in Fuji-green boxes!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Olivia (with Alex)

A "Mother and Child" portrait:

Isobel - Age 1

Isobel taken during a "David Hemmings Blow Up" type session with the F5. Up close and comfortable!

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Decorating

The past twenty four hours has been one of activity in the dining room. All that good paint I bought from Jewsons has been applied, except for the trim gloss which will have to wait a few days (it stinks and we are having house guests on Monday night!)

It has all been very satisfying. There is no doubt that Dulux Trade paint is exceptional. And good Harris brushes and rollers make the work flow (pun!) efficiently. I would guess that preparation and clean up take about 75% of the total time, so if you just like to paint this can become a costly experience (brushes can be cleaned and in fact they get better with use).

So, once the gloss trim is on, where to next? The guest bedroom beckons.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The last leg

Up early to catch Le Shuttle. Then a huge traffic jam on the M20 caused by a Polish articulated lorry (18 wheeler to US readers) that decided to leave the highway. Then it started to rain. Welcome home!

The past 14 days have been great - the longest holiday April and I have enjoyed together. All the pictures below were taken by April using her Canon digital. We plan to do a proper travelogue later, using film as well as digital.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Montlucon to Boulogne

We managed to drive into Paris (well, La Defense) by taking a wrong turn onto a toll road! Other than that it's getting colder by the kilometer.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Nissan-Lez-Enserune to Montlucon

The weather has changed! Cold and rainy for the return journey north.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Day 6 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

Our last day in Nissan and a significant change in the weather - it's cold and windy! We had planned to spend time by the pool and try to store up a few more sun's rays for the long winter ahead. Instead we went to the wine cooperative and bought our stored up sunshine in the form of several cases of wine! Then a quick stroll around the village to take pictures and buy lunch from the boulangarie.



Here is a photo of our home for the past week. Our apartment is behind the main house (right of picture)



Our final evening was spent in a typical Logis de France - L'Hotel Residence - where during the week we have sampled a wonderful selection of French cuisine accompanied by the local wine - a big thank you to our hosts for directing us there on our first night in Nissan.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Day 5 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

The weather started cloudy but we had already decied to spend the day back in Collioure and this was a very good decision. We made good progress and decided to visit some of the small villages flanking the mountains west of Collioure. We ran into a lot of English residents during the course of the day and it would seem that this area is slowly being taken over by sunseekers. Too bad that one attractive village has had its creperie turned into an Irish bar serving fish and chips! Before reaching Collioure we took a look at Argeles sur Mer and Argeles Plage and have to disagree with the guide book that this is a place not worth stopping for! As the photo below shows, the beach is an expanse of perfect coarse sand.



The very last beach before the Pyrenees come down to the Mediterranean is called Racou Plage and here we found several rows of small beach houses forming a summer community.



So, on to Collioure and a picque-nicque on the beach, but not before we both enjoyed a long swim in the bay. As the afternoon cooled down we took the opportunity to stroll around the town, fast emptying of the day tourists.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Day 4 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

Closer to "home", a day of exploration. First, a visit to the ancient ruins at Oppidum d'Enserune, located a few kilometers north of Nissan. This hill settlement was first occupied in the 6th Century BC and continued until the 1st Century AD, at which time it was abandoned. Many of the remains are still buried and excavation is taking time (as funds, no doubt, are hard to come by). The museum contains an abundance of material collected from the site.



Very near the ruins there is the Malpas Tunnel, a short stretch of the Canal du Midi that passes beneath the ridge on which the ruins are located. We watched several canal cruisers pass by.




The weather began to warm up, so we decided to check out another beach resort area, Cap d'Agde. This is a modern development which has been tastefully executed though we are sure it becomes very busy in August! The Cap is composed of volcanic lava flows that extruded out into th sea from an inland vent. The rocks are black to dark brown and contain lots of evidence of volcanic ash and bombs (rocks ejected from the volcano that land on its surface. We drove past the large naturiste area (a commune that claims to be the largest of its type in France) and parked on the cliff edge near Le Conque. A short walk found us on the beach and swimming in the Med. Cap d'Agde has a charm that is lacking elsewhere along the coast but it does not compare with Collioure.



Early evening our hosts at Paradix invited us in for a glass of wine and we shared views and opinions on many things, using our expriences as illustrations. A delightful evening on their large balcony, watching a fine sunset. The wine, a Sauvignon Blanc from the local cooperative, proved to be excellent and confirmed a decision we had already made: to visit the Caveau for a tasting as well as a "few" purchases!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Day 3 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

Collioure is a long way from Nissan (1-1/2 hours) so we chose for Tuesday to be a rest day, rising late and doing little but shop for pastries and then lounge by the pool until mid afternoon when a few clouds rolled in. This prompted a short excursion to test the theory that other beaches in the area might be better than the ones visited on Sunday evening. As a bonus we included the Montagne de la Clape and the ancient fishing village of Gruissan, just in case the beaches didn't pan out.

We had found a recommendation on the internet that the beach east of Gruissan was worth a visit. Well, it isn't! The sea is clean, of that there is no doubt, but the sand has an unattractive color and texture and there is no shade. It's such a pity that some of our English and Welsh favorites do not have warm Mediterranean waters lapping on their shores. Perhaps global warming could help?

Gruissan is a mix of the old and the new. The original village is built concentrically around a small hill with a tower that goes back 1300 years - the Cathars once dominated the coast. Unlike the tourist-dominated old town of Collioure, old Gruissan has a sense of community. But this is being subsumed under a vast sea of new development.

We also visited a large disused quarry on the Montagne - this entailed a short walk to view the dark green waters in the quarry floor. Hiking is supposed to be popular here but there is little evidence of trails and footpaths other than to "sites of special interest".



For dinner we decided to eat out at the local Hotel Residence, a fine restaurant serving traditional French food. Beautifully prepared and presented, the three courses chosen were rich in flavor but light in content - not at all fattening!

Monday, October 11, 2004

Day 2 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

Monday started out a little cloudy and this determined our plan of action - to drive toward Perpignan and then explore the eastern end of the Pyrenees. Autoroute 9 made this a relatively easy target and we were soon in the foothills, thinking of Lance Armstrong as he used these mountains to forge ahead in many of his Tour de France victories. The minor roads are in excellent condition but very windy (and windy at times too!). A sharp shower forced us to consider the coast and we could see it was bathed in sunshine, so by early afternoon we were in the delightful small town of Collioure, an ancient fortified bay with quays and beaches as well as promenades.



The old town is typical Mediterranean, with narrow streets and, no doubt catering to the large numbers of tourists, lots of signs to remind that Matisse "discovered" this backwater and made it famous.



We found a spot on the beach (small pebbles, not much sand) and tested the clear, warm water in the harbor - clean, exhilarating but busy (we are, after all, used to places like Padre Island!) Then, as the clouds rolled in, we reluctantly drove off south for a few kilometers to see if the other towns are as special - they are not but the coast is quite spectacular! Collioure therefore seems to be the gem of the Languedoc-Roussillon coast. But we suspect that this may not be the case in August when it will be inundated with tourists (it was busy enough today).

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Day 1 - Nissan-Lez-Enserune

The eTrex GPS unit says we are 1,041km from home (as the crow would fly). It's actually taken us a lot more miles to get here, so today we rested up, spending time in the sun by the pool that is shared between the owners and their four apartment guests. The weather is true "Indian Summer" - warm when the sun is out but cool in the evenings.

Late in the afternoon we decided to go out and investigate the nearby beaches. To be brutally honest, these are not what we came for and the modern developments reminded us of Galveston Island in Texas. So somewhat disappointed we decided to go home and plan a trip for the morrow.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

St. Nectaire to Nissan-Lez-Enserune

Another long day in the BMW (incidentally we now know we made the right decision in shipping it over to Europe!) We drove south to the Mediterranean along the toll-free Autoroute A75. This road passes through stunning scenery but the highlight must surely be the Millau Viaduct. Still under construction, this structure claims to be the highest bridge (i.e. distance below the deck) in the world. It is certainly quite breathtaking. We took a side trip to a viewing area, driving up a winding single track road to get there. By next spring everyone will be flying across the Tarn Gorge without stopping to admire the technology.

Our destination, an apartment in the small town of Nissan-Lez-Enserune near Narbonne, turned out to exceed all expectations. More about this in the days ahead as we are booked in for a week.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Montlucon to St. Nectaire

The day started with continuous rain beating against the windshield, not a good omen as we headed to hopefully warmer and drier climes further south. This day was committed to less driving and the opportunity to visit the Puy de Dome, an area of recent but now extinct volcanos immediately west of the city of Clermont Ferrand. A road has been constructed to the top of Puy de Dome, from which excellent views of lesser volcanic cones can be seen when the clouds disappear (which they did!)



Our next night was to be in a Chambre d'Hote above the spa town of St. Nectaire but we had plenty of time to picnic high in the foothills flanking Mont Dore, another (older and larger) volcanic center. St. Nectaire once had popular thermal baths and has obviously seen better days, but our B&B was incredible - located high on the hillside with dramatic views of Mont Dore as well as the town below.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Calais to Montlucon

The day started with fine weather interrupted by sharp showers, but a fine sight of the White Cliffs of Dover from 19 miles away evoked strong emotions, based upon WWII history. We followed the Autoroute to Rouen, then drove across country to Orleans before joining another Autoroute to Montlucon. This small city is roughly in the center of the country and is a good place to stop for the night after about 7 hours on the road. In fact we stayed two nights as we had family to visit!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Off to France!

Two weeks in France! The first holiday of such length we have ever experienced! Imagine then, the surprise (shock) when we found that April's passport has expired and it is only 30 hours to our scheduled departure on Le Shuttle! Thankfully the UK Passport Office can move quickly enough and by making a detour into central London, we were able to leave the country legally with every prospect of being able to return!

The Eurotunnel option to cross the English Channel is now the preferred route and we can see why. Show up 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, drive on to the special trains and 35 minutes later - voila! France. Once on French soil we knew our first Chambre d'Hote was only minutes away but through a quirk of French autoroute signage we overshot the exit. We later found out the exits had been renumbered! Anyway, as darkness approached, out came the GPS system and we were safely in our French B&B in minutes.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Route 66/GPS update

Route 66 has a good web site with available downloads for upgrades to their software. I noticed that the GPS function has been greatly improved with potentially no lag time. Also, the printing functions under OS X 10.3 are now more stable (they were basically unstable before). This, then, is becoming a very useful set up and we are about to put it to the test in a big way!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Monday, September 27, 2004

Isobel's Birthday Lunch

Yesterday we hosted Isobel and her parents to a birthday lunch. As noted below (Sept 24), she's just turned one! The weather was fine (unusual!) and lunch proved to be a great success - roast leg of lamb from the town's butcher ("Welsh lamb is the best!") with rattatouille. Afterwards we went for a walk and later I had a brief photo session with the F5. With film, of course, there are no instant results, so it may be a while before examples are posted. I felt like David Hemmings in "Blow Up", taking ultra close ups of Isobel as she attempted to attack the 60mm Macro lens that somehow managed to keep her inquisitive features in focus. The results may be a bit blurry - fast moving subject in the shade with 100 ASA film - but I really enjoyed the tactile feel of instant response to the shutter that digital cameras lack. The F5 simply clicks when you expect it to, not 500 milliseconds later (when Isobel is already doing something else and the moment is lost).

Friday, September 24, 2004

One Year Old Today!

Granddaughter Isobel is one year old today! Happy Birthday and congratulations to Mom and Dad. Here's a recent picture:

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Nearly a year later. . . .

Here is a photo of Alastair and Rebecca at their wedding last December. The photo was taken with the F5 shortly before I decided to switch to digital only. My reason for this was that the professional wedding photographer was also using Nikons and I felt I was treading on his toes - people started looking at me rather than the official guy! As a result the few film shots I took languished - first in the camera, then waiting for processing, finally in the container, along with the scanner. Well, that's enough excuses!

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Some observations

The BMW is finally "on the road"! The last time it was driven legally was three months ago, in Houston. We have been allowed to drive it occasionally when on official (read red tape) business, but it did seem strange to actually get in it and drive off on personal business! The red tape is significant and money has to be spent to comply but overall it has been well worth it. Simply put, we could not have afforded the UK prices, so the effort has been rewarding.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Olivia Grace

Taken at 4 weeks in Chipping Campden, with mother Alex - a real mother-daughter study!

Sunday, September 19, 2004

A day in Birmingham

We accomplished two things: Sarehole Mill and the Back to Backs.



Sarehole Mill is part of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery system and is the only remaining working water mill (of 70) within the city. Water driven power was responsible for the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Sarehole Mill is a fascinating experience simply for the way in which the museum is set up - interesting, educational and free! But there is a bonus. J R R Tolkein spent his formative years living around the corner and credits the then village of Sarehole as being the setting for the Shire and Hobbiton in particular. So LOTR fans will find Sarehole Mill a Mecca. The village has long since been subsumed into the southern suburbs of Birmingham but this small gem remains.



The Back to Backs form a unique piece of social history right in the middle of Birmingham. Originally conceived as cheap housing during the industrial revolution, this "court" of 11 family homes sharing basic facilities has been preserved in a museum setting that only opened to the public in July. It is already a hot favorite among National Trust members - we were lucky to get on the tail end of a group tour. The court is surrounded by modern buildings - Chinatown, the Hippodrome Theatre and new urban housing projects (very different from what they replaced!).

Saturday, September 18, 2004

East Devon



Reluctantly leaving Weston Mouth after a day of sunshine.

Wales



April at the western end of Black Mountain, framed by Llyn y Fan. We subsequently walked along the edge.



Above Llyn y Fan from Black Mountain.



On the quay at Aberaeron.

Some catching up to do

The server has been down (it had to be reloaded and our password was lost in the process). And we were wondering why FTP wouldn't cooperate.

After a brief summer the weather has closed in again with more wind and rain. So we have been busy doing other things. One of which has been to prepare some photos:

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Omygod, it's September!

This has been an interesting non-summer in the UK, at least until the day after summer officially ended on the Tuesday after the August Bank Holiday. Since then we have had lots of sunshine and no rain. Fortunately, this good event coincided with plans to take some time off and travel to Wales (Aberaeron) then Devon (Salcombe Regis) to take advantage of sunshine and relatively warm seas.

High points (no photos yet):

Tuesday, August 31: Drive to Wales very early, stop to climb the Black Mountain. On to a perfect sunset at the Harbourmaster Hotel in Aberaeron. A very good start.

Wednesday, September 1: On the beach at Pen Bryn. All day. At low tide waded into the next bay (to the north). Magic.

Thursday. September 2: Back to the beach at Pen Bryn. All day. Even better magic. Started to get used to the temperature of UK sea water.

Friday, September 3: Reluctantly said goodbye to Glyn and Menna (owners of the Harbourmaster Hotel) and drove to Exeter to see April's grandaughter Olivia at one month. Lovely.

Saturday, September 4: Explored East Devon and decided to camp at Salcombe Regis camp site (excellent location and facilities). A 20 minute walk from Weston Mouth beach on the Jurassic Coast. A recommended naturist beach (a good rule to follow, as naturists know their beaches!) For picture of beach see archives 05/04 as well as post above. Sea water warm and crystal clear. Cannot really recommend this place as we don't want it spoiled!

Sunday, September 5: Woke up to bright sun so back to Weston Mouth for the day. Only downside to the day, Paul sat on a wasp which retaliated! Struck camp at 6 p.m. and reluctantly drove home.

Friday, August 20, 2004

One more move and that's it!

M&G delivered some of our Houston "stuff" today and removed other "stuff" to storage. The bottom lines to this apparently never ending saga include:

Nothing appears to be broken - everything was well packed and handled (Thanks, guys!)

Things in Texas really are larger than everywhere else! Will everything fit? I don't thinks so!

It takes as long to unpack as it does to pack

Maybe longer

It usually rains on move-out and move-in days

It's good to have everything on one continent

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Should the BBC be politically active?

The BBC is an interesting organization that generally provides excellent news around the globe. But much of of its web-site content is contentious, politically motivated and to my mind inaccurate. This page is a good example. The BBC clearly believes that global warming is a proven fact of life, yet it isn't by any reasonable measurement. Too many people have been taken in by the global warming bandwagon. It's time I started to counter some of the wrongs that have been done in the name of "scientific research funding".

Basically, global warming has been floated as a means to gain access to public funding for research. Never mind that geologists can demonstrate huge shifts in temperature through (geologic) time frames and that in many cases there appears to be a strong correlation between the sun's activity and warming/cooling trends here on earth. Most models established to demonstrate recent "global warming trends" don't work (but give them more funding and they will try to perfect the models to prove their point!) There is scant evidence that humankind during the past 100 years has made any significant and long-lasting impact to the state of our planet. In fact, volcanos have created more impact than all the man-made emissions in reducing the effectiveness of the ozone layer.

It is worth considering that a reduced ozone layer may have been responsible for allowing radiation to cause the mutations that gave rise to the evolution of homo sapiens. Now there's a thought! Only a thought, mind you, so why not spend huge amounts of money to test that theory?

Coming back to the BBC. I personally resent the fact that our mandatory TV and Radio License Fee is paying for web pages such as the example given. It is wrong to allow an "independent" body to have so much political sway and yet remain unaccountable to those that foot the bill.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The most visited place in Europe is?

Would you believe it isn't Disney Paris and it isn't the London Eye. No, it's the Bullring (in Birmingham)!

How to unload a car from a container

First the container shows up (at M&G Storage, Redditch) but the driver knows nothing about there being a vehicle inside. No ramps. Frantic call to shipping agent. Two men are on the road with ramps. They soon arrive (anyone who knows Redditch also knows that its road system is most confusing) and get to work. Needless to say, there were the usual jokes - "OK, one on each corner, lift!" and "It's an off-road vehicle, init?"



Problem solved!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Swans of Avon

Swans are a very popular feature of English waterways and nowhere more so than around Stratford on Avon. On Saturday we went to Charlcote Manor, upstream from Stratford, and walked around the grounds of this National Trust property. The first sighting of a swan was on the River Avon. The second was of a family close to their nest by a stream that feeds the artificial lake designed by the famous landscape gardener "Capability" Brown. They were grooming and it took quite a while to finally get a shot off with all three swans' necks erect! Beautiful birds in a beautiful setting.


Saturday, August 14, 2004

Canon Powershot S500

April has had good reason to use her new Canon digital camera - the birth of her first grandchild, Olivia Grace Jones (congratulations, Philip and Alex!). Pictures to appear later. Meantime I have to say that this camera is superb! Easy to use but packed with good features, the quality of the images is excellent. It is very compact and there can be no excuse not to have it with you at all times. This cannot be said for my Fuji FinePix S7000 which is too large to carry on the waist yet offers very few advantages over the Canon.

Travel, Weather, Customer Service

Regular readers of this page will know that I have a soft spot for Continental Airlines. It is rare that they let me down in any way, and on a recent three leg 27 hour journey their standards of service were high - until the last flight arrived at Birmingham approximately 4 hours late. This in itself was not Continental's fault, but their baggage handling agents managed to delay transfer of the baggage for over an hour, claiming "operational problems". Turns out there were no staff available at 3 p.m. That in itself is again no cause to complain (well, perhaps it is) but the total lack of communication to nearly 200 weary passengers was most un-Continental in its approach. Continental uses Servisair to handle their Birmingham operation but this company does not live up to its name.

Good to be home, all the same!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Life without the Internet, part 2

Access to the internet in Venezuela is a hit and miss affair. I do have access to a network in Maturin and once again the airport hotel near Caracas has free in-room high speed ethernet (they suspended it for a few months after a change of ownership). But the hotel in Puerto La Cruz and the hotel in Maturin both have access in a business center that is closed - always when you happen to need it.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Political Update from Barcelona

That's the Barcelona in Venezuela! In the weeks leading up to a significant recall vote of confidence in President Hugo Chavez, the political slogans are everywhere. On August 15 Venezulanos will vote "No" to keep Chavez and Si" to remove him. Political rallies in uptown Lecheria are of the "Si" variety and include plenty of music and pretty girls handing out leaflets and stickers. In the barrios it is mostly"No" and "Chavez no se va!" Here are some of the posters in Lecheria: