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‘My name is David and I am an anorak.’ I’m pretty sure that’s how my opening line at Anoraks Anonymous would go, were such an organisation to exist.
Having proudly completed (‘travelled along’) the entire UK passenger rail network the day before my Young Person’s Railcard elapsed for the final time, I have fed my habit by finding increasingly obscure railways to travel along – those normally restricted to freight traffic or diversionary routes.
This month was gearing up to be quite a spectacular month in this regard. I had booked a ticket on a charity railtour to take in the esoteric wonders of Felixstowe docks. Frustratingly, this was postponed due to ‘a dispute between DB Schenker and ASLEF [which] has meant the long standing agreement for drivers to work on their days off has fallen’. A bit shoddy for a not-for-profit fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Society, one might think.
Undeterred, I booked myself on another railtour – this time to the 11-mile branchline to Boulby potash mine in Cleveland. Passenger trains are as rare as hen’s teeth here, so I was thrilled to bag one of the last tickets. This trip, the delightfully-named Grinkle Belle, was due to take place today. However, on Friday morning – with less than 48 hours to go – the organiser had to send out panicked emails, text messages and first class letters explaining that this excursion too had been ‘cancelled by train operator DB Schenker due to the escalation of an industrial dispute with members of the train drivers’ union ASLEF’. Great.
Note: since tweeting crossly about this, I have been chided by the ‘National Organiser’ for ASLEF. He alleges that the cancellations are down to ‘abject mismanagement’ and ‘if DBS actually had enough people to resource the contracts, the charters wouldn’t be canceled (sic)’. Which are clearly weasel words. It’s patently obvious that when a union directs its members not to work, that is going to have a detrimental effect on the number of staff available. Targeting charity fundraisers in this way seems mean-spirited and counter-productive - not exactly conducive to public support.
Anyway. I needed to find some obscure track in an ASLEF-free zone. And found this gem of a railway, just north of Henley-on-Thames:
The Ordnance Survey aficianados among you will note that this is a mile-long railway completely disconnected from the national network and with no public road access to it. So what is it?
The answer: it’s Sir William McAlpine’s back garden (he of construction company fame). Having a bit of spare cash, and being a fellow candidate for Anoraks Anonymous, he’s built his own private standard-gauge railway to house some of the ephemera he’s collected over the past seven decades. And why not?
The Fawley Hill Railway is normally an invitation-only affair. But being fine upstanding members of the local church (one of the stations is called Bourne Again Junction), the McAlpines opened their grounds to the public yesterday for a fête to raise money for the church building’s upkeep. There were all the usual sideshows – coconut shy, cake stall, tombola, beer tent, bouncy castle – and to ensure a healthy dose of English eccentricity, a display of post boxes.
The railway, naturally, was the main draw. As I arrived, the Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0 saddle tank (eponymously also known as Willy) was trying its best to climb up the 1:14 gradient, a fearsome climb for an adhesion railway. In the end, it had to be given an unceremonious shove from the rear by a Class 03 shunter in a scene reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine.
After much headscratching and consternation, it was ultimately decided to detach Willy from the train and allow the diesel loco to do the hard work. Thus D2120 conveyed me from the beautifully restored Somersham station to the junction (watched by bemused emus – the avians, not electric multiple units) and on to line’s end at ‘Inverernie’.
The other highlight was the opportunity to look around Sir William’s personal collection of railwayana on an hour-long guided tour. A staggering array of relics from the Great Western Railway era right up to the modern day, with exhibits including the old departure board from Brighton station.
I’m sure Fawley Church will have benefited handsomely from the entrance fees, donations and cake sales, etc. Many thanks to the McAlpines for hosting the event and opening their fabulous gardens (and railway) to the likes of me for the day.
I have a strange life. Good, but definitely unusual. Yesterday was a case in point…
The day started with an agreeable amble across the flood meadow in front of our house, unquestionably part of England’s green and pleasant land. After taking a (German-built) train to the capital, I walked across London Bridge to the office of The Salvation Army’s international IT team. From the entrance, I briefly admired the Shard – the latest addition to the skyline of the metropolis. The top was just disappearing into the clouds, like a modern-day Tower of Babel.
Once inside, we discussed various projects: one relating to a new database project to store details of mission resources right around the world, another relating to a forthcoming European conference in the Czech Republic. We made good progress and finished our deliberations ahead of schedule, giving me a brief window of opportunity to put together a Portuguese website before having lunch together (Chinese chicken and Welsh cakes, naturally).
Then it was off to the leafy suburbs of Sydenham, home of The Salvation Army’s college for in-service development – a place where up to thirty officers from all over the globe convene for a couple of months of theological and practical training. I was due to be met at the station by an African officer, whose cultural understanding of ’13:52′ differed from mine. By approximately 23 minutes.
After a couple of hours of fixing their existing website, listening to their future requirements and setting them up with new Flickr and Disqus accounts (interspersed with publishing a news release about flooding in Indonesia), I was not unreasonably expecting to be on my merry way home. But no! In a further cultural twist, I had an African ‘invitation’ to dinner extended to me – one which could not be declined without causing grave offence.
It transpired that the delegates from North and South America were hosting an evening showcasing their own culture, the dining room adorned with stars and stripes and maple leaves. The meal comprised of burgers, nachos, salsa, guacamole and slaw, which was as appetising as it was unexpected. The USA’s national drink (Coca-Cola, obviously) was served too, leading to a fulsome discussion with an adjacent Aussie about the various merits of diet Coke and Coke Zero. Meanwhile, there was unrestrained debate among South Asian delegates about whether picking flowers from front gardens was socially acceptable in the London hinterlands…
Mercifully, I managed to extricate myself before the inevitable line dancing began. Once I’d phoned to explain my unplanned detention to a by-now-anxious Sarah, the journey back to Alton was largely uneventful. I was, eventually, welcomed home by some traditional English church bell-ringing. And an ‘opportunity’ to intervene in a Facebook diatribe which might euphemistically be referred to as an incident relating to a Canadian in Zimbabwe.
If at times I don’t appear 100% sure whether I’m coming or going (or even which country I’m in), this may go some way to explain.
As part of our ongoing quest to greenify the Giles residence, this week has seen the installation of a wood-burning stove in our living room. It’s a Morsø Squirrel (with squirrel sides) and it is rather lovely.
Previously, the fireplace was occupied by a rather bland and unexciting gas fire arrangement. We never used it, didn’t like it, and have been keen to replace it ever since we moved in.
So. On day one, the gas man came and disconnected the fire. That took about two hours. (The plumber also came to look at our hot water and central heating, which are having issues, and the window man came to repair our derailed patio doors, so it was a fairly chaotic day in our house.)
On day two, two men came and took out the surround and hearth and widened the opening. They left the bricks behind (for building our new hearth). That took about three hours.
As part of the process, they also wrapped our living room in cling-film: the carpet, the sofas, everything. Even the mugs in which we’d given them their tea got the cling-film treatment.
The picture above reminds us of ‘Army of Ghosts‘, the episode of Doctor Who where the cybermen convert people at the Torchwood Institute.
See? (And yes, of course we have been playing at recreating this by taking turns at standing in the living room with a colander on our heads. What do you do on Tuesday evenings?)
Day three, and it was time to play with a pile of bricks and work out how we wanted the hearth to look. This was almost as much fun as playing cybermen. Would it be the herringbone?
The straight lines?
Or the not-sure-what-to-call-it arrangement that I made up?
We went with something like this in the end, after being interrogated a bit about the reasons for the single bricks in the pattern (they’re to make it symmetrical. I like symmetry). And then we went and hid upstairs while the men got to work, because it is loud and dusty and we have jobs to do and what-not. When we came downstairs for lunch, this was the sight we beheld. ‘Surprise! We’ve replastered the entire chimney breast and part of your bookshelves!’
Meanwhile, sheets of ‘brick slips’ cavity lining were sitting around in the front garden, giving the game away to anyone who cared to look. In my book this is cheating. Good job the neighbours are on holiday. The shame!
Next there was the saga of the oak beam. It was reclaimed from a local barn. It’s quite a friendly looking beam, with two flattish sides and a curved face with all the lovely grain showing. But which way round would we put it? The chaps wanted an on-the-spot decision but I was having none of it. Me, Dave and the beam excused ourselves for a short meeting in the hall and discussed our options. Decision made and instructions issued, we left them to their work again. Meanwhile the beam started to make a bid for freedom. I think if I was threatened with a circular saw I’d do the same.
Beam caught, sawn and sanded, it was put in its place (but not yet fixed to anything). I hid nervously upstairs. I always worry that I’m not going to like the finished result. Only once they’d left did I venture down for an inspection.
Day four came, as did the stove. It was installed and lit. Some fumes from the coating burned off, and we were asked to open the patio door. With some trepidation, we did. The door broke again. But that’s another (expensive) story. The stove chaps then declared the job finished. We had a few issues with that, specifically some gaping holes which needed bricks and mortar and skirting boards in them, but apparently that is the previous chaps’ job. Sigh. We have been assured that they will be back out to make it all wonderful just as soon as they can. A forthright email from us with some photos of the issues will be helping that process along later.
Meanwhile, we leave you with these pictures of our nearly-finished fireplace and our lovely squirrel stove (with squirrel sides). We just need to stock up on logs and then autumn is allowed to begin.
P.S. For more stove-related goodness, you might like to read a post I wrote yesterday about a book I worked on recently.
Being the founder member of APES (the Anti-PE Society) while at school, I was quite pleased that I’d managed to avoid all things Olympian for the last 68 days. But today – the penultimate day of the Torch Relay – the much-vaunted flaming Cornetto made its way to the international offices of The Salvation Army where I (occasionally) work.
After a surprisingly smooth journey into London – let’s be generous and not mention the lineside fire at Wimbledon – I was astounded to discover that Waterloo station has had most of its irritating obstacles removed. As had Waterloo East and London Bridge. As an Olymposceptic, I almost found myself thinking that the Games might just have been worth it for this miraculous tidy-up alone.
There was a certain buzz in the air as I sauntered through the City this morning. Policemen were chirpy, people smiled and said ‘hello’. That kind of thing. All rather jolly.
As The Salvation Army has been very much involved in supporting the progress of the Olympic flame on its tortuous (torchuous?) route around the country, it was fitting that International Headquarters should receive its 30 seconds in the limelight. Scores of volunteers – some from as far as Australia and India – were on hand to distribute Christian literature and talk to anyone interested in the faith. Being part of the Communications team meant that I, with three others, was enlisted to photographic duties. I duly staked my claim to a vantage point opposite the international headquarters that appeared to offer a favourable angle and lighting conditions.
It would have been marvellous, had the police cordon not moved forward (and then backwards again) in the minutes before the Torch arrived. Then, as torchbearer Steve Chalke (probably one of the country’s most famous Christians) bounded enthusiastically down Queen Victoria Street, the media vehicle beaming TV pictures of proceedings around the world parked right in front of me.
Fortunately, I manage to poke my camera lens over the shoulder of an unusually-obliging police support officer and snapped away merrily. You can see some highlights on the Salvation Army website…
I must confess that I still cannot fathom what possessed so many people to line the streets of London – and the wider UK – to see the fabled Torch. But it’s fair to say that there was an atmosphere of shared excitement and conviviality – city bankers making way for small children so that they could see what was happening. Regardless of the sport, the politics, the dubious sponsorship deals and the security debacle, the Games do seem to have sparked a revival of community spirit. And that’s got to be a good thing, in spite of any lingering memories of ghastly PE lessons.
It might have passed you by, but this weekend marked something of a rail milestone. On 24 June 1812, the Middleton Railway near Leeds became the first railway in the world to successfully use steam locomotives in a commercial environment, hauling wagons of coal into the city centre. The railway itself predates the introduction of this new-fangled steam technology by a considerable margin, first opening in 1758.
And so, in honour of the anniversary, the present-day Middleton Railway – now a heritage line – held a gala weekend. It would have been churlish not to support them, so early on Saturday morning I found myself on an East Coast service from London to Leeds. Several croissants later, I was boarding an old-school bus just outside the station (and, rather bafflingly, being filmed by German TV station ARD1) for the half-hour ride to the railway’s based on Moor Road in Hunslet. The route was meandering, taking in views of the remnants of the city’s once-extensive locomotive works industries.
To mark the occasion, the Middleton Railway had borrowed Steam Elephant from the Beamish museum – a replica of the locomotives that would have originally worked the line in its early coal-freight days. A ‘driver for a fiver’ scheme was too good to pass up so I donned some gloves, acquainted myself with the regulator and reversing lever, gave an enthusiastic blast on the whistle and coaxed Steam Elephant off past the coal bunker to Parkside Junction. I either impressed or alarmed the fireman by stopping as close to the red flag denoting the limit of shunt as was feasible. Reversing lever inverted, it was off to the other end of the section of line – stopping close to the main maintenance shed for the railway – before changing direction again and stopping where we first began. Excellent! Huge thanks to the crew from Beamish and the Middleton Railway for a first class experience.
The day continued with a ride on the open verandah of the railway’s wooden-bodied coaching stock to the southern extremity of the line which is now at Middleton Park. Back at Moor Road station, there was plenty of opportunity for more photographs before boarding a goods train brake van for the short (and rare) ride along the line which connects the railway with Network Rail’s track. There was also time for a guided tour around the railway’s maintenance shed and workshops.
Later in the afternoon, I ventured to Elsecar near Barnsley – the location of another elusive stub of track. In stark contrast to the very well supported Middleton event, I was one of only three fare-paying customers on the 1600 departure. Sadly, the line’s celebrity locomotive Mardy Monster was out of action, but its stunt double performed well.
End result: haulage by 7 different steam locos. Not bad for a total outlay of £14. Great day out!
This is a response to a challenge from Ali Edwards (VIP scrapbooker extraordinaire). I liked the idea of having a list of activities to inspire us through the summer, so here is mine. This will come as news to Mr Giles, who is in London for work today. He may have different ideas and will almost certainly not mind at all about item number eight. He does, however, have some rail excursions planned, so that should all work out happily for everyone.
* The sort with fish and fruit and things, not just sausages.
** I may have a bit of a pineapple obsession since buying the WonderGadget that cores and slices fresh pineapple. I love it.
*** I finally tracked down the supplies I needed (three more hard-to-find 3″ book rings) this week.
Today was Alresford’s Watercress Festival: an extravaganza of culinary discoveries, waiting to be sampled. Being
good at eating keen to experience its delights again, we ventured forth (on the Watercress Line, naturally). And it did not disappoint us.
The opening ceremony featured a jazz band and three sides of morris dancers. Cunningly, we’d arrived a bit early so managed to partake of numerous samples of sausages, cheeses and preserves, many of which involved either watercress or copious quantities of chilies. Quite right too.
After making a pleasing number of purchases (justified as ‘supporting the local producers’), it was back on the train and time to cook up some of our finds for our lunchtime guests. Lovely.
In case you can’t make out what’s what in this picture, we have (from left to right): pork and chilli sausages, pork and watercress sausages, pineapple corer (I’ve wanted one of these for ages), pineapple,watercress and lemon pesto, watercress, local oil with ginger and lemongrass, Nutella (snuck that in from the Co-op), chilli jam, extra hot chilli sauce, chilli-coated goat’s cheese, apple juice with damsons and sloes (a long-term favourite of ours), watercress scones, coffee (also from the Co-op), and a watercress loaf. Very Pleasing Indeed.
I have been trying to master it over the last few weeks, as we begin to tame our garden. But I think we must have a wild mattock rather than a domesticated one.
There is presumably a knack to subduing it. There is presumably a way of ensuring that the adze bit of it makes contact with the same section of shrub on each wallop, so that you sever the branch/trunk/root rather than just create a series of impressions up and down it. (Mind you, I would consider it progress if I could hit the same shrub.)
Alas, there is no Mattocks for Dummies. There is no masterclass to attend. There is not even a Cubs mattock proficiency badge to strive towards. It’s just a battle of wills. And the mattock is currently winning.
So if you see me wielding a big metal wallopy thing-on-a-stick, it may be best to maintain a safe distance.
Yes yes. Part two has been a long time coming. I am finally writing it now
to stop my mother-in-law nagging in response to many requests for an update. So. Here is the Kitchen of Wonder.
Behold! The beautiful oak worktops and the gas hob with wok attachment (optional)!
Be amazed by our magic cupboard which makes things clean!
Gasp in awe at the shiny sink!
And wonder at the marvels that are our clever ‘Le mans’ corner shelves, shown here modelling a Kenwood mixer (2003 edition)!
You may also like to admire the lovely laminate floor (Topps Tiles bargain), the subway-style tiles (Wickes) and the piece of cardboard covering the catflap hole beside the back door (Kelloggs).
Coming soon(ish): details of what else we’ve been doing in the last two months.
We’ve just returned from a 12 day trip to Ireland, and very nice it was too.
Our travels began at an eye-watering hour on Wednesday 4 April, having mustered about 4 hours’ sleep in the wake of the previous night’s Passover meal. We flew from Southampton to Dublin, picking up a hire care at the airport for the onward journey to Galway.
After a lavish brunch, I left Sarah to explore the delights of the city – which were rather less extensive than hoped, it transpires - and headed for the Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) station in Castlebar. My target: the branch line from Manulla Junction to Ballina which had eluded me on a previous visit. It’s a short but strange line, not least because Manulla Junction is only accessible by train. That, combined with a frustratingly sparse timetable, required wit and cunning to ensure it was achieved.
Mrs Giles had exhausted the shopping potential of Galway long before I returned, so a couple of train-free days were appropriate to restore equilibrium. Our B&B just outside the city was comfortable and the breakfast was more than ample to fuel us for two days exploring Connemara and the Burren. Of the two regions, Connemara was by far the more picturesque – we enjoyed pootling around the single-track lanes and stopping off at various remote spots, villages and bakeries. ‘Ireland’s best scrapbooking shop’ proved to be something of a disappointment, however. Unusually, no purchases were made.
Saturday’s journey south involved various forms of transport. Firstly, we drove to Athenry station where Sarah deposited me for the 1005 train along IÉ’s relatively recently-reopened Western Corridor route. She took the almost-deserted M18 (also new) and met me an hour later at Ennis. We continued into West Clare, catching the vehicle ferry across the River Shannon from Killmer to Tarbert and stopping in Listowel. Here, Sarah waited patiently while I ventured into the surreal world of the Lartigue Monorailway. ‘Bonkers’ doesn’t really do the monorailway here justice. The original system ran for 16km or so from Listowel to Ballybunion, although the ‘preserved’ system is a 1km return trip. The track is an A-frame, so the specially-built locomotive and carriages straddle the running rail. This means that, to avoid toppling over, the carriages have to be balanced by distributing the passengers evenly. (This was even more awkward when originally used to convey livestock to market. A farmer wanting to sell a cow would also have to take two calves along for the ride, so that they would counterbalance the heifer on the outward journey and then shuffle around to balance each other out on the return. Mad.)
The other main drawback of A-frame monorailway is that the usual method of using points to allow the train to switch tracks doesn’t really work. Instead a bizarrely complicated turntable system is needed. This meant that Sarah’s patience was tried to the limit as I was stuck on the train 50 metres away from where she was parked but unable to disembark until an arcane series of shunting manouevres was conducted. The visit, which I’d predicted would take about 20 minutes, ended up taking over an hour.
Once free, we drove on to Tralee (for provisions) then via the staggering beauty of the Gap of Dunloe to Sneem on the Iveragh peninsular. We first visited Sneem on our honeymoon, and I’d booked the same cottage that we stayed in then – a traditional stone-built cottage overlooking the tidal river, formerly used as the harbourmaster’s residence. It was still as beautiful as it had been on that first visit. The owner had lit the peat-burning stove for us and left some fresh local milk in the fridge. We unpacked and snuggled in for a wonderfully relaxing week.
The ever-changing view from the cottage – and antics of the resident otter - meant that it wasn’t really necessary to do too much travel to experience County Kerry in its fullness. That said, we did enjoy excursions to nearby Killarney and Kenmare (both having branches of our favourite café, Jam). We took a couple of invigorating walks – one up a hill and over a waterfall in Gleninchiquin and another along the beach in Derrynane.
On the Thursday, we embarked upon a full-day trip to Skellig Michael – an uninhabited rock ten miles out into the Atlantic. This involved travelling in a very small boat in sea conditions which can only be described as tumultuous. For the first ten minutes, this was quite exhilarating. For the next 80, it was more a case of fearing for our lives. Even disembarking at the tiny quayside on Skellig was not for the faint-hearted – the boat was rising and falling by more than a metre so it was necessary to time one’s leap to safety with precision. This was made even less easy when the boatman was trying to ‘help’ by unceremoniously pushing one’s posterior in the direction of dry ground.
The two hours on Skellig was very special. Ours had been the only boat to make the journey across, so the 12 (fool)hardy passengers had the place to ourselves. First and foremost, Skellig is a haven for seabirds and within a couple of minutes there were puffins flying past our ears. There is a rough-hewn 600 step staircase cut in to the rock, and many more puffins had burrowed in underneath where we were stepping. Some of them appeared almost unaware of our presence, and we got surprisingly close to them. We spent much of our time admiring them and their comical expressions.
At the top of the rock, there was an abandoned monastery with bee-hive shaped stone cells and sanctuary. I’m all for a bit of solitude from time to time, but actually living on Skellig would have been something else. The monks would have had no running water, no mains electricity, not even a source of firewood without having to brave the Atlantic again. The views are breathtaking though – definitely a place where you can sense the presence of God.
The boat returned us to the mainland where we changed our soaked-through clothing and headed to the Skelligs Chocolate Factory. Situated right on the coast overlooking the Skelligs, it has got to be one of the least likely locations for a chocolatier in the world. But they do very good hot chocolate (amongst other things) and it was the perfect place to recover from our oceanic ordeal.
Cork was the destination for our final night in Ireland, revisiting a Mexican restaurant that we’d enjoyed on honeymoon (and getting in another bit of track that IÉ had helpfully opened since our previous trip). Checking into the hotel was a curious experience, as the lobby was full of seven-year-old ballerinas, young people dressed in SpongeBob Square Pants costumes and half the cast of Riverdance. It was apparently to do with a regional heat for the Irish equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent (presumably Ireland’s Got Talent).
Our journey home was via the scenic narrow-gauge Waterford & Suir Valley Railway from Kilmeadan to Grace Dieu, on which we had a carriage to ourselves. From there, we continued to Avoca (aka Ballykissangel) and the Wicklow mountains back to Dublin airport.
This week we’re having a new kitchen installed in the Giles residence. It is all Very Exciting.
And, no doubt, the sun will shine more brightly, all our troubles will cease and little bunnies will hop contentedly about in our garden.
These are the ‘before’ pictures.
All fairly inoffensive, certainly better than the kitchen of our house in Thailand, but a more than a bit shabby round the edges. Broken handles, worn-out worktop, and a general air of not having been cared for much since it was installed in the 80s. The gas cooker was unreliable and the storage just wasn’t very clever (note our delightful mixing-bowl-on-chopping-boards-on-microwave-on-fridge-freezer masterpiece above). And the less said about the sink the better.
So. Having chosen and ordered the shiny new kitchen six weeks ago, all the kit arrived on Friday.
And on Saturday we sprang into action, washing and painting the walls and ceiling. Some parts had once been white but were now brown and greasy. Nice. The ceiling got two coats of white and the walls a liberal dose of ‘unused pot of blue that we found in a cupboard and don’t remember buying’, aka Focus’s Blue Orient. We also painted a blackboard wall for writing shopping lists and messages on. We are very taken with it. (The blackboard paint is from Wilkinson’s.)
Yesterday morning, the fitters arrived at 8.30. It took them about 2 hours to remove all trace of the old kitchen: units, cooker, tiles… gone. Marvellous. And by the time they left at 4.00, they’d installed about half of the new units. And done a bit of the painting we’d not been able to get at before (above the extractor hood). And swept the floor. We like them.
After they’d left, we did a bit more painting of bits we’d missed or not been able to reach before, then zoomed over to Basingstoke to get another 2m² of lovely white subway tiles and some new socket fronts (the old ones were all mismatched). Then we came home, Mr Giles cleaned a bit of grotty wall behind where the sink unit used to be, and that was the end of day 1.
Today there’s a lot of loud drilling going on (making a channel along the wall to plumb in the washing machine in its new position). Something electrical, also involving the bashing out of a new channel in the wall, is happening as I type. And we’re expecting a plumber and/or an electrician to come and join the fitters at some point soon. Meanwhile we are happily making cups of tea in the living room, doing the washing up in the bath, and looking forward to the weekend when it will all be complete and we can find new, sensible homes for all our kitcheny things (which are currently residing in some very odd locations all over the house).
Watch this space for part two.
It’s not really been my intention to reduce the frequency of blog posting to monthly, but it’s been fairly frantic over the past few weeks.
My birthday was marked by a keenly-fought game of Articulate (girls vs boys – the result will remain unpublished to avoid stirring up trouble), a mystery-shopped birthday lunch at a rather nice local pub and a chocolate cake bedecked with a musical candle. The previous day had involved office-based birthday celebrations, which was rather nice – a fellow birthdayeer had supplied some distinctly more-ish cup cakes and our desks were festooned with confetti and banners. I am now the proud ‘owner’ of a Burundian goat called Billy. And the word ‘locomotive’.
Church has been busy with musical and Sunday school duties (top tip: never turn up for services too early), and we continue to enjoy our Tuesday evening life group which has tackled subjects from ‘what is heaven like?’ to ‘pancakes… and spiritual disciplines’. Church also continues to baffle, especially where the wide-eyed naivety of some of our fellow congregants is concerned. Following a burst frozen pipe incident in the church building one Sunday morning, Sarah was bemused to be told by someone sitting nearby that ‘God is clearly saying that everything’s going to be all right’. Eh? Does not compute. So we weren’t altogether surprised when part of the church hall ceiling caved in less than 48 hours later.
I have undertaken a rather enjoyable series of mystery shops, about which I cannot give many details. Suffice to say, they have involved trains and eating – so they have suited me to a tee. On Saturday 25th, I took part in an anorakky day out to the industrial wastelands of the north east, taking in such delights as Jarrow oil siding and the distinctly rusty branch line serving chemical plants in Seal Sands, near Billingham. Lunch was taken under the benevolent gaze of the Angel of the North, before taking an unexpected detour into the carriage washer at Tyne Yard.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve both had an inordinate number of meetings and a mountain of paperwork to contend with. We thought we had left Thai bureaucracy behind when we left Pakkred 18 months ago. But no! We have one last tangling of red tape to contend with. Hopefully.
I’ve also had battles with the DVLA (who wanted to charge me for a form they’d lost) and Wickes (who decided to unilaterally withdraw loyalty points we were entitled to when purchasing a new kitchen from them). Fortunately, I have won both cases. But it wasn’t always like this. In the good ol’ days when companies made mistakes, there was usually an admission and some corrective action. Now it seems to be necessary to publicise a company’s failings on the internet before they’ll sit up and do anything about it. I wish this was not necessary and that things could be resolved in a more sensible, less maddening way.
Well, hello 2012. I’m writing mainly to allay any fears of an untimely demise. We’re still alive and kicking (and, at times, screaming, but let’s not dwell on that).
The house move went very well indeed, despite the rather tense game of match-up-the-paperwork that the various solicitors appeared to be playing at their respective Christmas parties. We are feeling very much at home in the new abode, and have been delighted to welcome friends and family members. Should you find yourself passing through Alton, you’ve probably taken a wrong turning. Fortunately, we have maps to aid your travels, so do pop in and avail yourself of them over a cup of tea.
One of my new favourite pastimes in Brandon Close is enjoying Bird Lunch. To clarify, this does not mean that I’ve adopted a solely poultry-based diet. Now that we have actual garden, we have a regular stream of avian visitors. They are particularly keen on the sunflower seeds and peanuts that we’ve put out, and seem to have a regular lunch break at about 12:45 each day. We’re getting to know their interesting quirks, such as Mr Robin (who prefers to divebomb the suet cake) and Mr Angry Sparrow (who doesn’t like to share the peanuts with anyone else).
The house does need some work doing to it, and as a result we have become very well acquainted with Southampton’s Ikea and various DIY stores closer to home. Sarah has been especially busy decorating one of the bedrooms – starting not so much with wallpaper stripping as an archaelogical dig. Big thanks to the in-laws, who have been helpful beyond the call of duty.
January has also brought about a change in employment status for me. I’m still doing the same job – managing The Salvation Army’s international websites – but am now an employee. I’m nipping into the office in London every couple of weeks, but they are otherwise letting me work from home. I’m really enjoying it. A major upgrade that I’ve been working on for several months should see the light of day by mid-February, and that will be followed by rolling out the new technology and look-and-feel to all the subsidiary sites. I’ve also been helping other Salvation Army territories from as far apart as Angola and Papua New Guinea to see the merits of the web… no travel yet, but watch this space.
I’ve managed to shoehorn in a railtour to some very obscure bits of track that are normally only used by freight trains (Brentford refuse terminal, Colnbrook oil depot, Wolverton rail works and Swanbourne siding – using both legs of the Bletchley flyover), and I have mystery shopped a certain service provider who has featured on these pages previously. That was quite cathartic.
All in all, 2012 has started promisingly for us. We have been very, very busy though – so if you’ve emailed, texted, carrier-pigeoned, etc and not yet heard back from us… sorry. We’re working through the backlog. It does look like it’s going to be a memorable year, with various other challenges in the pipeline. Stay tuned!
‘Twas the week before Christmas
and, ’spite our great nous,
we Gileses aren’t festive –
we’re about to move house
There’s no tree in the window,
no goose in the fridge.
All our worldly belongings
boxed up – infra dig!
The long house-moving saga
began back in spring
when we found a new home; thought
‘we’d like to move in’.
Our offer was accepted;
our Pine Road house ‘sold’
but the purchasers pulled out –
our best-laid plans bowled.
Weeks and months then elapsed;
a new agent appointed
(much better than the last one,
their systems less disjointed).
Then while sunning ourselves
(the Italian/Swiss lakes) –
three viewings, then an offer
firmed up – no mistakes.
Found a new house in Alton
that gave us a glow.
Four bedrooms and a garden,
on the flood meadow.
We started the ‘fun’ of the
(as self-employed types,
not a pleasant sensation)
Tax returns and accountants,
surveys, legal mess.
‘Twas a minefield and stressful
throughout, we confess.
At times, twas so maddening –
solicitors: boo hoo!
(exchange of contracts delayed
by their Christmas do!)
After months of (to us) in-
we’ve today exchanged contracts,
uttered fulsome hurrays.
Ergo we’ll be moving on
22nd December –
the shortest day of the year
and one to remember.
We look forward to welcoming
you to our new home.
But for now, ‘Happy Christmas’
marks the end of this poem.
The house move process is still proceeding at the rate of glacial flow, so we still don’t know whether we’re moving this side of Christmas or not. This is frustrating: it means lots of other things are also on hold. There are lots of boxes in the current Giles residence, but they’re neither wrapped in festive style nor positioned lovingly underneath a beautifully decorated tree. We are meeting our solicitor again tomorrow, so hope to achieve a little clarity as to what is (or is not) happening. And, more specifically, when.
That said, it’s been a busy couple of weeks even without the logistical challenge of a house move to factor in. We’ve had our first Christmas lunch of the season – at the delightful Scolfes near Eastbourne (one of our friends is at uni there, another friend’s family owns the restaurant). We’ve both been fully occupied with work (Sarah is working on the Woodland Trust’s annual review, I’m managing various international Salvation Army websites – I even had a meeting with the General last week). We’ve had lots of church meetings, we’ve more-or-less completed the Christmas present shopping, and we’ve tried to keep sane by scheduling in the odd excursion.
So yesterday we visited the National Trust house and gardens at Mottisfont, near Romsey – mainly to prevent us from tripping over the packed boxes at home. The weather was not great, but it was good to get out and enjoy some fresh air. (The pub meal afterwards at the nearby Bear and Ragged Staff was also very welcome. If you have the opportunity in the next fortnight, the yuletide pie comes highly recommended!)
Our cards are ready for posting, Giles News (with our new address details) is ready to be published… just as soon as the solicitors all manage to decide when we might be allowed to move.
Well, hello. It’s been a long time.
Somehow, Advent has crept up on us. The evenings are well past the ‘drawing in’ stage, my yearning for sprouts is strengthening and there are only two shopping days left until Christmas. (Don’t panic. The last clause merely indicates that I can only muster enthusiasm for two more visits to the shops this year. Your stamina may vary.)
I very much enjoyed playing and singing some Advent songs at church last Sunday, and watching the spectacle of two young children wafting a lighted splint vaguely in the direction of the first Advent candle. My hope that said wick would spontaneously combust before the kids was, mercifully, well founded. If it had gone wrong, though, there was a large baptismal pool in the place that would ordinarily be occupied by a liberally-festooned Christmas tree. I suspect it will be making its annual appearance next Sunday. I’ll just have to wait.
Nevertheless, I spotted the first Christmas tree of the season at Testwood Baptist Church last Tuesday on the occasion of the Seriously Funny evening with Jeff Lucas and Adrian Plass. (Please note that I am not counting the various festive accoutrements that have been present in the majority of high street stores since, seemingly, September. This accounts for at least part of my attitude in paragraph 2 above.) The Seriously Funny book was one of the things that kept us on just about the right side of sanity in Thailand, and it was marvellous to hear a further collection of musings from the pair in person. Thought-provoking, inspiring and funny. Excellent.
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Just as you will have almost certainly been waiting on tenterhooks for this latest epistle, we have been waiting with varying levels of patience for a number of things to get going this year. Chief among these has been our long-awaited house move, a process that we started even before Sainsbury’s put their mince pies out. Which was about mid-March, if my memory serves me right. Since then, we’ve had the joy of offers being accepted, the heartbreak of offers being withdrawn, the ‘joy’ of having to complete a tax return in record time in order to satisfy our mortgage lender (the perils of self-employment), the bafflement of solicitors who are only tentatively acknowledging the presence of the 21st century (viz an email which read ‘I will dictate a letter to my secretary which you should receive later in the week’).
It now seems that, with a trailing wind, we might just be exchanging contracts next week and moving before Christmas. Three successive Christmases, three different addresses…
Meanwhile, to help you get into the Christmas spirit, this video is an interesting insight into how the run-up to Jesus’ birth might have been if social media tools had existed. Or how about some daily Bible readings from The Salvation Army?
Sadly, we had to forego our splendid Aracoeli breakfast bonanza this morning, due to the paucity of trains on the line which serves Orta. It was also something of an uphill trek to the station which was a mile-and-a-half from our hotel.
The diminutive two carriage train trundled in a few minutes late at 07:40, though there wasn’t a battle for seats as there might be on a train into London at that time of day. For the first few miles, there were some very pleasing views across Lake Orta.
As we headed north, the hills slowly became more and more pointy (to use what I’m sure is the geologically correct term). The train pulled in to Domodossola station on time, and I went in search of the left-luggage facilities.
‘When would you like to pick up your bags?’ asked the charming tourist information assistant, in flawless English. ‘Tomorrow afternoon,’ I replied. ‘Ah,’ she responded, looking equally disconsolate and embarrassed. ‘We are closed at 12 tomorrow’. It would have been churlish to point out the Saturday opening hours on the poster next to her, which clearly indicated that the office should have been open. So, suitcase in tow, we mooched off to the Co-op for lunch supplies instead.
Returning to the station a short while later, I noticed with some alarm that the train we were supposed to be catching on to Brig in Switzerland did not appear to be mentioned anywhere. I discovered a stuck-on bit of paper on a departure board which apparently said ‘new timetable’. Fortunately, we were in plenty of time for an earlier train through the Simplon tunnel.
In Brig, Sarah stocked up on postcards and other ‘ephemera’ for her scrapbooking-on-the-go supplies. I sat on the station concourse observing the exquisite way in which postbuses connect effortlessly with all the train arrivals and departures. Why can’t Britain have a system like that? I’m almost minded to pay for a Stagecoach manager to come and witness the operation here, so that they can see how it should be done at Alton station. But I digress.
Soon, we were on board a local metre-gauge train in hot pursuit of the Glacier Express which left four minutes ahead of us. And ‘hot’ is a particular apt word. We had been prepared for the temperature in the Alps to be somewhat lower than we’d become accustomed to on the lake. But no. It must have been at least 30 degrees, and the breeze through the opening windows was extremely welcome.
The views were stunning – clear blue skies with just the occasional fluffy white cloud. Streams. Waterfalls. Alpine meadow flowers. Soaring mountains that dwarfed the train, some still with snow on the top. Magnificent Swiss engineering.
We disembarked at Oberwald to board a steam train that would convey us on the next leg of our journey. The DFB follows the original route of the Glacier Express (the new route dives into a very long tunnel just east of Oberwald). It’s a heritage, volunteer-led operation that only reopened the entire route last summer, but the results are outstanding.
Our reserved seats were clearly marked on the carriage windows, so we boarded and stowed our luggage as soon as we were able. We had the rear carriage of the train almost to ourselves for the journey to the first intermediate station, and were able to take great advantage of the open-air verandah at the back of the train. (British Health & Safety officials: look away now.)
Words will probably not do justice to the experience, so ogle some of these photos instead. It was breathtaking.
Alas, a large party of German tourists boarded at Gletsch station and decided that our seats were actually theirs. After much remonstration, calls of ‘auf’ and summoning of the guard (who had already seen our tickets and further annoyed the Germans by not asking to see them again) they realised that they might just have lost the battle. The icy glares took a while to thaw though.
After a couple of photo stops in wonderfully remote countryside and a pause for some free cheese-tasting at the summit station of Furka, we descended to the village of Realp. Here, we rejoined the main route of the Glacier Express as far as Andermatt, where we branched off for the circuitous and precipitous descent to Göschenen, another engineering marvel.
Our final train of the day (much to Sarah’s delight) took us directly to Locarno, on the shores of the second lake of our travels – Maggiore. We (eventually) found the van that our hotel had despatched to collect us, and checked in for the night tired but exhilarated.
Hello. Mrs Giles here. Please make up your own train numbers for this instalment. :) The tale of the first stage of our journey can be found here if you missed it.
On Sunday morning, having left Nice, we travelled first along the Mediterranean coast to the Italian border station of Ventimiglia. Mr Giles’s verdict on the Côte d’Azur? ‘All right, but not as good as Dawlish.’ (Readers of any British railway periodicals – and their wives - will know that at least one picture of a train on the Dawlish sea wall is compulsory content.)
It was at Ventimiglia station that I made one of my favourite discoveries of the trip to date: Nutella in 5kg jars! Hello!
And thence to Milan on the ninth train of our expedition. I was keen to sample Milan’s legendary coffee, so, having purchased our next set of tickets, we scoured the station building for a suitable establishment. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only was my caffe americano delicious, it came with eminently scrapbookable paper napkins with the words ‘Stazione Centrale di Milano’ on them. Excellent.
From Milan, we caught the train towards Domodossola (a double-decker one, no less), changing at Novara for Orta san Giulio. We were met at the station by a friendly taxi driver who dropped us as near to the hotel as he was permitted to drive (Orta is pedestrianised to all but a tiny amount of local traffic) and gave us walking directions in ebullient Italian, complete with much waving of arms which didn’t leave us much the wiser. We trundled off happily down a cobbled path in vaguely the right direction, whipped out the guidebook and were in the right place within five minutes. Success!
Our hotel isn’t a single building but a collection of them: a few bedrooms in a place down this alley, a few more there, reception on the main throughfare, a breakfast buffet at a cafe on the main piazza… all very civilised and friendly. And speaking of the breakfast… impressive. Breads, hams, and cheeses in abundance; cook-your-own eggs, bacon and sausages; cereals, yogurts and fruit; and, to our amusement, a dessert table. Tiramisu, anyone?