Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Today's Quote

I am so convinced of the advantages of looking at mankind instead of reading about them, and of the bitter effects of staying at home with all the narrow prejudices of an Islander, that I think there should be a law amongst us to set our young men abroad for a term among the few allies our wars have left us.

-Lord Byron, poet (1788-1824)

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Remember my quest to try different and unusual drinks? Earlier this week, I was at my local newsagent’s when I noticed some interesting blue cans. Upon further investigation, I discovered Rubicon Mango Sparkling Exotic Juice Drink. Who knew you could puree mango, mix it with sugar and carbonated water and end up with a (somewhat) tasty juice beverage?

Just a side note…I recently found my local newsagent’s. It turns out that, once you get away from the streets, there’s a whole network of sidewalks around the neighbourhood. And, not three minutes from my house, is a handy local newsagent’s who also happens to sell food and drinks. It’s so nice not to have to walk 15 minutes just to get a paper or a can of Rubicon Mango.

So, does this place need a maths teacher or what?

This week’s school newsletter included the Governors’ Annual Report to parents. I was pleased to see that in 2004, our school had 101% of its 14-year olds reaching a Level 5 or above.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…what’s a Level 5? Basically, that’s the minimum level of achievement we’d like our students to achieve by the end of year 9.

Oh yeah, I know what else you’re wondering…how’d we manage to have such a high level of achievement with six students absent? Basically, we’re just lucky, I guess.

Ah, right, I know your last question…why didn’t the maths department reach the 112% success rate of the science department? Basically, we’re just slacking, I suppose.

Well, I just suppose that I’ve got my work cut out for me…explaining percentages to the Governors.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


One of my year 7s told me this joke today:

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were travelling on a train. They saw a cow through the window.

‘That’s an English cow,’ the Englishman said.

‘No, it’s an Irish cow,’ the Irishman said.

‘No, it’s a Scottish cow,’ the Scotsman said. ‘It’s got bagpipes.’

An Exciting New Typeface

Okay, normally, I’m not one to get all excited over a new font. Sure, choosing the right font is important, but I don’t normally tell the world about it. On Monday, however, The Times had an article about a new typeface that is helping dyslexic people overcome reading difficulties.

Natascha Frensch designed the new Read Regular font when she was studying at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Here’s why it’s interesting:

It seems that with most fonts, there are relatively few unique letters because a ‘b’ is inverted to make a ‘d’ and, when turned upside down, makes a ‘p’ which is then inverted to make a ‘q’. With the Read Regular font, however, ‘each letter has been designed so that it is sufficiently different and does not mirror another. Each character stands on its own and works with the previous or next character, but without interfering with legibility.’

Read Regular has also been designed to counter three common types of effects sometimes experienced by dyslexic people: the washout effect (where the middle of the word seems to fade out), the river effect (which groups words and seems to place random spaces between groups), and the swirl effect (where the words in the reader’s peripheral vision become blurred).

It is said that Read Regular works much better than other fonts designed for dyslexic readers because the Read Regular font looks much like regular type but includes enough subtle differences in letters that many struggling readers are easily able to read more quickly and fluently. Here in the UK, Chrysalis Books is planning on using Read Regular for all its textbooks for primary schools.

So, what does this all mean? It’s no magic pill to help dyslexic people learn to read better. But, if the learning process if aided simply by using a different font, wouldn’t it be worth a try?

More information is available at this website: http://www.readregular.com/english/intro.html

Another Joke

I heard this joke in our lower school assembly on Monday:

Once there was a bloke who got a job at the zoo. On his first day at work, the Head Zookeeper pointed the bloke towards the animal feed and said, ‘Go and feed the animals.’

Pushing his wheelbarrow towards the tanks of fish, he figured it would be a fairly simple job. He scooped up the fish food and began to feed the fish when out from the tank flew the fish and they landed on the dry land, flopping about, gasping for breath.

Startled and more than a bit worried, the bloke quickly gathered up the fish, threw them back into the tanks and began to feed them again. Once again, as soon as he began to feed the fish, out from the tank flew the fish and they landed on the dry land, flopping about, gasping for breath.

Once again, the bloke quickly gathered up the fish, threw them back into the tanks and began to feed them again. And, once again, as soon as he began to feed the fish, out from the tank flew the fish and they landed on the dry land, flopping about, gasping for breath.

Frustrated, the bloke didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t stand here all day gathering up fish and putting them back in the tank; he had animals to feed.

Suddenly, inspiration struck. ‘I’ll feed them to the lions!’ he thought. So, gathering up the fish one last time, he dumped them into the wheelbarrow, took them to the lion house, and threw them in.

Satisfied that problem was solved, the bloke moved on to feed the monkeys. He scooped up the monkey food and began to feed the monkeys when out from the cage jumped all the monkeys.

Startled, and once again, more than a little bit worried, the bloke quickly went around to the nearby trees, gathered all the monkeys, and managed to get them all back in the cage. As he began once more to feed the monkeys, out from the cage jumped all the monkeys.

He caught all the monkeys again, put them all back into the cage again, and started to feed them again. Once more, out from the cage jumped all the monkeys.

‘This is just crazy,’ the bloke said. ‘I’ll never finish my job this way.’

Again, inspiration struck. ‘I’ll feed them to the lions!’ he thought. So, catching the monkeys one last time, he dumped them into the wheelbarrow, took them to the lion house, and threw them in.

Satisfied that problem was solved, the bloke moved on to feed the bees. He scooped up the bee food and began to feed the bees when out from the hive flew all the bees.

Frantic, the bloke began swatting at the bees. He swatted here, he swatted there. In fact, he swatted quite a bit everywhere. Soon, there were no more bees to swat; they were all on the ground, smashed to bits.

Realizing that he had just swatted down each and every bee he was supposed to have been feeding, the bloke frantically searched for a way to hide his deed.

One more time, inspiration struck. ‘I’ll feed them to the lions!’ he thought. So, sweeping up the bees, he dumped them into the wheelbarrow, took them to the lion house, and threw them in.

Pleased that he had solved his problem, the bloke moved off to feed the giraffes. About this time, a new lion arrived in the lion house.

Walking up to the closest lion, the new lion said, ‘So, what’s it like around here?’

The other lion replied, ‘It’s great! In fact, just this morning, they’ve fed me fish, chimps, and mushy bees!’

(Yeah, yeah, I know…)


Number of loads of laundry done in the past week: 4

Number of white t-shirts turned unto blue t-shirts in the past week: 2

Number of spam emails I deleted yesterday morning: 99

Number of personal, genuine emails I received yesterday morning: 3

Number of times in the past two days I’ve explained the American high school system to British people: 5

Number of exercise books I brought home last night to mark: 29

Number of exercise books I actually marked last night: 0

Number of pages of blog entries I typed instead of marking exercise books: 7

Number of television channels I receive: 7

Number of programs worth watching at this moment: 0

Number of times today my department head told me something: 3

Number of times today I had to say to my department head, ‘Wait, what was that again?’: 6

Number of kids not in my class who tried to sneak into my class instead of going to their own class today: lost count at 9

Number of times I had to eject one particular kid from my class and send him to his own class: 4

Number of days a 2-litre bottle of Diet Coke lasts in my refrigerator (average): 2

Number of times I had to read the microwave instructions before I managed to cook my dinner tonight: 5

Number of times I successfully managed to accurately follow those microwave instructions when I cooked my dinner tonight: 0

Contract Update

You may remember an earlier post about the recent contract I received in the mail. (You remember, the third copy of the contract that ends at the end of this month.) Well, after talking to several people about it (‘The buck stops here…and here…and there…and quite possibly over there.’), I finally got word from the head that they were giving me a permanent contract and she was so sorry that they fumbled the earlier contract the way they did.

So, rest assured, I’m not unemployed as of May 1. It seems (at least until I manage to figure out otherwise) that I now have a job here for as long as I like. Not that I want to be here forever, but at least I won’t go unemployed anytime soon.

Now, all I have to do is figure out how to get that pesky work permit thing extended. And my visa.

Gee, I wonder if there’s a form for that…

Oh, here’s something else that should be fun…

Last Sunday, I was in London. When I was at King’s Cross Station, waiting for my train, I figured I’d use the Cashpoint (that’s an ATM) to withdraw my rent money then rather than walking an extra distance in Stevenage to the Cashpoint. (When, oh when, will I learn that my timesaving measures rarely are?)

Since one of the Cashpoint machines was out of service, there was a line at the other. After queuing up, it was finally my turn. I inputted my PIN, pressed the £100 key, and then retrieved my card and my £60.

(Oh yes, you read that correctly. Missed it? Read that last sentence again.)

Not believing that it really was £60, I counted again. Sure enough, there in my palm were six £10 notes rather than the four £20 notes and two £10 notes there should have been.

Thinking that maybe I pressed the £60 key rather than the £100 key, I headed back to the queue. Unfortunately, it was quite long by this point and my train was due to leave quite soon. I decided to leave Kings Cross Station and see if there was another one of my bank’s Cashpoint machines nearby.

Luckily, there was (at the Thameslink station a couple blocks away – no, this was quicker, really). I first got a MiniStatement (a really handy thing – it lists for you the most recent transactions on your account) that confirmed that I did indeed press the £100 key.

Let’s review here. It’s Sunday afternoon. All bank branches are closed (heck, I couldn’t even SEE a bank branch, much less find an open one). I’m in London, getting ready to leave. I withdrew cash from a machine. I neglected to count my cash in plain view of the camera (not that you’re supposed to, but it might have made my case a bit stronger). There’s not much left for me to do but hop on the train and head home.

Monday afternoon, full of impending dread at having to explain to someone at the bank that their machine unfortunately decided to withhold 40% of my withdrawal, I went to the local branch of the bank.

Luckily, the customer service person was quite nice about it all. And, evidently, this thing happens quite a bit. Well, at least often enough for them to have both a specific ‘Cashpoint/ATM Transaction Discrepancy Form’ and a unit dedicated to investigating Cashpoint/ATM transactions.

So, I haven’t gotten my money back yet, but at least I’m hopeful. I mean, I filled out the form. That’s gotta count for something, right?

These are a few of my favourite British things

Favourite weekday newspaper: The Times

Favourite Sunday newspaper: The Telegraph

Favourite excuse: ‘You can’t do that to me…I’m a maths teacher!’ (Really. It works for just about every situation: extra lunch duty, traffic tickets, visa revocations…you name it!)

Favourite Tesco sandwich: Pesto Chicken on a Rustic Roll

Favourite chocolate bar: Yorkie

Favourite digestive biscuit: Marks and Spencer chocolate covered (they’re well good!)

Favourite museum admission price: free

Favourite British pastime: (tie) filling in forms and queuing for anything

Favourite generic diet cola: Marks and Spencer (it tastes pretty much like Diet Coke)

Least favourite generic diet cola: Tesco (it tastes pretty much like crap) (as a side note, so does Virgin Diet Cola…actually, it’s even worse, but it’s not considered a generic…at least I don’t think it is)

Favourite reason for trains running late in the autumn: the wrong kinds of leaves are on the tracks (really)

Favourite voltage: 220 (hey, like I’ve got a choice?)

Favourite reason for not getting off my butt and exercising more: I’ve got to write more entries for the blog.

Common British Names You Just Don’t Hear Very Often in America



Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Oh, what a poor choice of names…

On Sunday in London, I saw a food caterer’s van parked by the kerb (or, in American, curb – you see, in England, ‘kerb’ means verge, edge, wayside, pavement, or hard shoulder while ‘curb’ means restrain, control, limit, etc.). Now, I’m sure that the caterer wanted to bring to mind high-class French dining but unfortunately, all it brought to mind was scruffy, dirty, shabby, and scabby dogs.

The name?

Mange on the Go

Any Readers in England?

Ah yes, I’m delusional, I know. But just in case there are any readers here in England, would you consider the following slip that I got in church on Sunday?

“Our choir CD ‘Free’ is up for an award at the Classical Brits this year. If you’d like to vote for it, please ring the number below – and pass it on to many friends! To vote for Libera ‘Free’ ring: 0901 190 0035 (calls cost 10p)’

What an Interesting News Day

Perhaps it really was an interesting new day or maybe I just read a bit more closely. Whatever the reason, there were a few titbits of news that made my eyebrows rise. So, for the benefit of you, my dear readers, I have summarized some of it for you here (and, where suitable, given my comments as well). From Tuesday’s Times:

In an article about the desalinisation plant that the Mayor of London vetoed:
‘London is already drier than Madrid and Istanbul, according to Thames water, and climate change is likely to make the problem worse.’

Interesting. I’ll bet London gets foggier, though.

In an article from Australia:
‘A teenager stole a Melbourne tram and drove it so well, picking up passengers during a 40-minute ride, that the tram company has not ruled out offering the 15-year-old a job. Transport officials said that he had managed to switch tracks manually, manoeuvre the 27-tonne tram through big junctions and reverse into a big station. In June, the boy will appear in court to face nine charges, including theft and endangering life, after twice taking a tram – the first time driving for several hundred yards only. Yet Dennis Cliché, of the Yarra Trams service, said that the company was impressed with the boy’s driving. “Anybody who passes the mustard for or recruiting policy, we’d be glad to offer a job to, provided he’s old enough to hold a driver’s license.”’

Interesting. Evidently the recruiting policy neglects the line asking about any felonies. It also makes you wonder just how someone manages to steal a tram…I mean, what’d they do? Leave the keys in when they popped out for a cup of coffee?

In an article about the upcoming election:
‘Hopeless Cause of the Day: “The first door I knocked on, I was told to burn in hell. I felt things could only get better after that.” -Lucille Nicholson, who is contesting Easington for the Tories. Labour is defending a 21,949 majority.’

Interesting. Now here’s an optimist, but I suppose she does have a point. (Note for people not from here…evidently Ms Nicholson [no period after the Ms – they don’t do that over here] is in the Tory party campaigning in a district – Easlington – that is overwhelmingly full of Labour party supporters.)

In a letter to the editor:
‘Sir, A letter from my daughter’s primary school in Essex reads: “Change to the School Menu – In response to recent publicity, ‘Turkey Twizzlers’ have been taken off the school menu and replaced by ‘Chicken Teddies’.”’

Interesting. Reading this letter, I am left with two possibilities. First, the Essex primary school has begun dressing birds in lingerie. Either that, or there’s a growing market for disguising disgusting processed bird bits with cute names. I can only hope for the Avian Nighties.

In an article about London’s 2012 Olympic bid:
‘Selling Points:
‘London will pay for a flexible return economy airfare for every team member of the 200 countries expected to attend the Olympics and Paralympic Games. Cost: £10 million.
‘London will give each visiting country a £30,000 voucher towards accommodation for pre-Games training camps. Cost: £6 million.
‘All competitors in the two Games to have £60 worth of free phone calls. Cost: £800,000.’

Interesting. England has a terrible shortage of qualified maths and science teachers yet in order to come teach here, I had to pay not only my own airfare, but also for my own visa to stay here. If only I could run fast or jump really high. But I guess I need to remember the old saying: Those who can, get free airfare and phone calls. Those who can’t, teach and pay their own way. Which leads me to the next article…

From a commentary about the main political parties and their promises of more teachers, more doctors, more nurses and more police. Due to the length, I’m not putting everything here, but I’ve made certain not to change the meaning at all:
‘The main political parties each promise us more teachers, more doctors, more nurses and more police. They do not make these promises recklessly. They have calculated the cost, and they are confident that it can all be afforded without any increase in tax (except the Lib-Dems who plan to squeeze the rich).
‘Yet calculating the cost is not enough. They are looking at only half the issue. … You should not buy everything you can afford. A purchase is only wise if the object’s value exceeds its cost. Otherwise, you end up worse off. …
‘Government spending is no different. It is a good idea to employ thousands of extra teachers, policemen and so on only if they are worth more than they cost. Yet our big-spending politicians never even address this question. … How do they know the spending is worth it?
‘It is a serious problem, because there are grounds for doubt. Consider education. Extra teachers must be recruited from the ranks of those who do not now fancy the profession. This will require the government to increase teachers’ pay. As the number of teachers increases, so will the cost of each teacher.
‘Yet the value of each additional teacher will decline. Suppose the number of teachers was doubled, cutting the class sizes from 30 to 15. The quality of education would improve, but it wouldn’t become twice as good.
‘With increasing costs and diminishing returns, we must eventually arrive at a point where the cost of extra teachers exceeds their value. Each new teacher only makes us worse off. Perhaps we have already passed this point, not just for teachers but for police, doctors and nurses too. Our politicians neither know nor, apparently, care. …’

Interesting. The value of each additional teacher will decline? Each new teacher only makes us worse off? What is the value of a generation of educated children? What is the value of one child who was unable to learn in a class of 30 who is finally able to learn to read in a class of 15? Just how does one calculate the value of education? Just how does one calculate the cost of ignorance?

Let’s work the argument in reverse. Rather than saying that as more teachers are recruited and will cost more money per teacher, let’s say that if fewer teachers are needed, it will cost less per teacher. And, sure, if we double class size from 30 to 60, the quality of education will decline, but it wouldn’t become half as good.

This also seems to imply that, basically, as long as England can get people willing to work under these conditions, why bother doing anything about it?

But, rather than thinking MY life is bad, I bring you today’s final news item.

From an article about health (or something like that…it really seems to bugger any categorization)…oh, and the ice cream reference is a rather lame transition from the previous article…just disregard and keep reading:

‘An unfortunate chap whose case is detailed in DOCTOR (April 12) could have done with some ice cream but made do with yoghurt. He was chopping chillies but had to heed a call of nature. Result? Severe irritation of a sensitive area “normally tucked safely away from exposure to kitchen condiments”, as the urgently summoned GP delicately describes it. Ouch. But after a couple of hours immersed in cool, southing yoghurt the irritated member was restored to health. ‘I am told that a jock strap can support a yoghurt-dipped penis, carton and all,” writes the angel of mercy.’

Interesting. Where to begin? When you consider it, at least all he had to do was…um…wee. Think about it. It could have been much, MUCH worse.

And on that note, that’s it for today’s news. I mean, how could I possibly top that one?

Oh, How Awkward Can I Make Things?

After this sentence (‘Either that, or there’s a growing market for disguising disgusting processed bird bits with cute names.’) from the news article, I’m kinda disappointed I didn’t try for more d-words in that sentence. Couldn’t I have tried with disgusting namesa bit harder to use ‘digesting,’ and ‘dismembering,’ and ‘disagreeable’ as well?

How about:
‘I’m disappointed that there is such a disagreeable market for disguising disgusting pre-digested dismembered bird bits with cute names.’

And what happens when you quote a letter that not only quoted another letter but also needed to put specific terms in quotes? You end up with this:

‘Sir, A letter from my daughter’s primary school in Essex reads: “Change to the School Menu – In response to recent publicity, ‘Turkey Twizzlers’ have been taken off the school menu and replaced by ‘Chicken Teddies’.”’


Okay, here’s a challenge for you (although it will probably be disappointing in actuality): diagram that sentence (you know, the one about the twizzlers and teddies).

My Theory of Relativity

You may know that I am trying to get my QTS – that’s Qualified Teacher Status here in England. Since I have a teaching qualification from America, it’s supposed to be relatively simply.

The key word there is ‘relatively.’

I’ve already submitted original university transcripts and my original teaching license (actually, I’ve submitted it all several times to about four different people over here, but that’s a different matter). I’ve filled out some forms. I’ve talked with the head of maths from the LEA (Local Education Authority – like the central school administration office) about what maths classes I’ve taken. I’ve explained the American system of education to people (several times).

And that last part is where we have the snag.

Here in England, at age 16 students take end-of-course tests called GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education or something like that). So, rather than receiving a high school diploma, students receive GCSE results. And, here in England, the GCSEs (or their precursors, the O Levels) are pretty important. Regardless of what higher education you have, your GCSE results follow you. (Even the head of my school, with the doctorate in mathematics, had to include here O Level results on her resume).

In order to allow me to continue with the process towards QTS, I have to submit evidence of the equivalents of GCSEs. I’ve tried to explain that American schools don’t have such an equivalent. I’ve tried to explain that in order to enter my university degree program, I had to graduate from high school (I’ve even pointed to that line on my original transcript). I’ve tried to explain that in America, once you get a college degree, nobody ever, EVER asks for your high school grades (asks where you went, maybe…asks for a specific list of classes, not that I have ever heard of…at least not to be a teacher).

But, that seems to have no impact. So, I will now write a letter to my high school and ask how to request a transcript of courses I completed almost thirteen years ago.

Of course, since I’m on the relatively simple method of getting my QTS, I absolutely shudder to think about the other methods.

Just a side note, the next time this comes up, I’m going to give them a different example: Imagine an English person going to American and applying for a job. That English person is told that they cannot be hired unless they show their high school diploma. And, the English person won’t be able to do that. They just can’t. The system isn’t set up that way.

Someone in my department (someone from England) said this: ‘You wonder why they have trouble recruiting maths teachers? Know you know.’


Last Saturday, went into London. (Yes, I know….gasp…went to London…bit shock there.) Even though it was mid-afternoon, I headed to Portobello Road. Ever since I got here, a line from a song in a movie I once saw has been running through my head: ‘Portobello Road, where the riches and treasure of ages are sold.’ I’m not sure which movie it was…Mary Poppins? Bedknobs and Broomsticks? The Simpsons Go to London? I dunno…one of those.

Anyway…if you like street markets, you must go to Portobello Road. It’s huge. It goes on forever. Well, maybe not forever, but for a long, LONG way. And there’s just about anything and everything you could want: antiques of every variety, clothes, food, books, furniture, Virginia State Trooper badges, you name it. (That’s right…I saw not one, but two Virginia State Trooper badges.) I settled for getting a jacket that I needed (one that better fits the spring-like weather).

But, if you go, go early on a Saturday. Even though people are still packing the place at 4:00, the vendors are starting to pack up.

That evening, I met some people in London. They wanted to walk around and show me some places. It was nice to have some people from here who knew what these places are. The evening’s highlight was when we stopped in briefly at Westminster Cathedral. Unlike Westminster Abbey, which is an Anglican church (yeah, I know, church probably isn’t the proper term…I think it’s officially a Royal Remit or something like that…the point is, it’s not Catholic and it’s not a cathedral), Westminster Cathedral is London’s Catholic Cathedral.

It’s also unlike other cathedrals I’ve seen. First of all, it’s not stone or marble or anything like that…it’s brick. (It’s also more Byzantine than Gothic…I think.) And, upon entering inside, you can’t see the ceiling. Really. The entire interior ceiling is made of black brick. So, you can see the lower walls and the windows, but then, the building just seems to disappear. I didn’t get to look around too much since there was a Mass going on, but it’s definitely a place I need to visit again. Plus, they have a tower I can climb!


On Sunday, I went back into London. (Yes, that does make twice in one weekend, thank you very much.) I wasn’t going to, but Sunday was the 25th London Marathon. And, you know me: give me a huge crowd of people and some blocked-off streets, and I just have to go get in the middle of it.

The Marathon starts in Greenwich and winds around the streets of London, eventually ending on the Mall, just down from Buckingham Palace. The streets were lined with thousands for screaming, yelling people. In all the miles I walked, I only saw one gap in the people against the barriers lining the street…and that was only just large enough for me to wedge myself into so I could take a picture.

The great thing about the Marathon was all those people, yelling and encouraging the runners. It was amazing, really.

And, now that I’ve been to the Marathon, I can confirm one thing: not only does Elvis live, but he can run more than 26 miles in just under 4 hours and 17 minutes.

Since I was Londoning on Sunday, I decided to head in a bit earlier and visit my friends at St. Philip’s in Norbury. Janet and Basil say hi

Weathering the Weather

Here is a perfectly valid weather report from the BBC:

Right now, it’s pretty mild, except for those areas where it’s colder and possibly warmer. The weather today is going to be rainy except for those areas where it will be dry. Once the cloud passes over the country, we might possibly see some nicer weather in some places.

Really. I’m serious. If you don’t believe me, ask my mom. Not only is this perfectly valid, it’s pretty common. It’s gotten to the point where I listen to the weather so I can do the opposite.

So, when the BBC predicted cold and rainy weather for the London Marathon on Sunday, I left my umbrella at home. I was rewarded with a warm, sunny day that was just about perfect.

What the...?

I simply cannot get used to swearing over here. Yeah, you read that correctly.

Polite, proper little old ladies use ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ in their conversations (albeit not regularly). My students don’t hesitate at all to look at something and say, ‘what the hell is that?’ The s-word (and worse) is used all the time over here.

But let me say the word ‘crap’ and even the kids look at me and say, ‘Awww…Sir’s swearing.’ And they mean it.

Food for Thought

Okay, I hereby renounce my condemnation of blackcurrants. At least for the next paragraph or two. In Saturday’s Times magazine, there was an article about Jerry Hopkins’ new book. Called Extreme Cuisine, this book described his eating adventures throughout the world. From eating dog (note: old dog is chewy) and drinking freshly-drained bat’s blood (fresh as in, the waiter slit its throat at the table and drained the blood into a glass) to whipping up a batch of grilled whole baby mice, he seems to have tried it all. The oddest food in the book? No, not the mango urine lassi recipe. Not even eating a still-beating cobra heart. The oddest food, by far, was what he sautéed in butter and onions and then served as a pate on crackers to guests coming to visit his new baby. That thing he offered up? His son’s placenta. Really. (He did warn the guests first, though.)

But, after eating all sorts of food and there’s-just-no-way-this-can-be-called-food from around the globe, guess what he simply can’t stand.

That’s right...he just hates marmite.


If anyone out there has any Geordie language tapes, could you pass them along to me? I’ve decided that I’d like to cultivate a nice Newcastle accent and, living rather south of New Castle, need to either get some tapes or import someone. I think getting tapes will be easier.

(Yeah, I know you’re probably wondering why someone from Newcastle is called a Geordie. So am I. I would have chosen Newcastlonianite.)

(In case you’re wondering what a Geordie accent sounds like, watch Billy Elliot [the movie or the musical]. There’s just noting like the sound of a Geordie having a go at someone. It would be perfect for school.)

I am SO missing out

If only I lived closer to Wales. I mean, just since arriving home today, I could have watched these shows on telly:
Planed Plant
Party Election Broadcast
The Simpsons
Wedi 7
Darllediad Etholiadol
Pobol y Cwm
Y Byd Ar Bedwar
No Angels

I can’t believe I missed Darllediad Etholiadol. Life’s so not fair.

Why I Like British Newspapers

It’s simple…there are so many of them. Each day, I have a choice of quite a few. Some of them are ever quite good. Plus, since there are so many, they compete for readers. Recently, The Times included a DVD of the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys with each copy. (This DVD thing must work because it’s becoming fairly common.) Better yet, yesterday’s copy of The Times came with a free book! I got my very own copy of the bestseller The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Ah…nothing like the newspaper helping to feed my obsession.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Feast or Famine?

Yup, it's like feast or famine around this blog, isn't it?

Some More Contextual Humour

Or perhaps it’s situational humour. Anyway…

The head of my school is Dr. Francis (her doctorate is in maths). In the maths department, we have a Learning Support Specialist named Mrs. Francis. Our recently-returned head of maths has reverted to her maiden name and is now called Miss Francis.

So, in order to make things simpler for everyone (and to get a better deal on nametags), the rest of us in the maths department are changing our last names to Francis.

The Final Word on Driving

In England, people drive on the wrong side of the road. No, no…this isn’t a cultural thing…it’s not me being insensitive…it’s true.

Here’s proof:

In America, people drive on the right side of the road. (Well, they do.)
In England, people drive on the opposite side of the road as they do in America. (Well, they do.)
The opposite of ‘right’ is ‘wrong.’ (Well, it is.)
Therefore, in England, people drive on the wrong side of the road.


In the interests of bringing you information about British food, I recently purchased a packet of Hobnobs. Made by McVitties (‘The sign of a better biscuit’), Hobnobs are oat biscuits with milk chocolate icing on top. (Yes, yes, I know that I suffer greatly to bring you these reports.) And as we say over here, they are well good.

That Funny Money

Regular readers may remember that I recently visited Scotland. Once there, I had need for a guidebook that I purchased with nice, regular, common English money. In return, I got my guidebook, a few coins, and some rather odd-looking Scottish paper money that claimed to be a £5 note. As the day progressed, I got more of those, which I pocketed, somewhat intrigued, somewhat worried about how I would get rid of them when I returned to England.

So, assured by the friendly tour guide from London Walks, I decided to use one at the Marks and Spencer food store at Paddington Station (I really needed those bacon strips and chocolate digestive biscuits). The look on the cashier’s face was brilliant...she managed to look bored, confused, and suspicious all at once. ‘I’ve never seen one of these before,’ she said. It almost makes me wonder what else I could have passed off as money….

I also tried to use one at the post office in Windsor. Evidently, she had seen them before. ‘Yes…we take those,’ she said, while managing to look disgusted and annoyed at the same time.

Thinking back, that was rather fun. I still have two Scottish notes to use. I wonder if I can get a few more….

Sounds Fun

In Friday’s Times, there was an article about the new Duchess of Rothesay and the ribbon cutting at the new playground in the Deeside village of Ballater.

What’s that? Your Field Guide to European Aristocracy has no entry for the Duchess of Rothesay? Ah…check the index…look under ‘Rothesay, Duke of.’ Yup…it says ‘see Windsor, Duke of.’ Evidently, when Charles and Camilla cross over into Scotland, they become known as the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay. Yeah, it was news to me, too.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that those folks opened a playground that included ‘swings, chutes, and wobbly chickens on springs.’ Really. Wobbly chickens on springs. I simply MUST visit. Soon.

(My other favourite part of the article: ‘If there was one tiny wisp of disappointment, it was that the Duke of Rothesay did not take a turn on the new swings. “Och, he wouldn’t have done that,” the Chief Charitable Chiel said. “He was wearing the kilt.”’ Maybe so, but you can’t tell me he wasn’t tempted by those wobbly chickens on springs.)

The Thing About Laundry

The thing about laundry is that, when you finish, you have something to show for all that work. Even if, sometimes, that work results in two less-than-stylish formerly-white-but-now-oddly-bluish-grey t-shirts.

(I told you that black Griffyndor shirt was magic…it turned my white shirts blue.)

What Fun I'll Have

We just found out that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate is playing another visit to our school. (Just so you know, a visit by HMI is a very intensive, stressful time at school for everyone involved…it requires intensive planning and getting-ready-for procedures.) This time, they are visiting on May 16 and 17. Now, keen readers may have already realized something about this. But for the rest of you, I’ll clue you in.

Let’s work backwards…May 17 is a Tuesday, May 16 is a Monday. May 15, a Sunday, is the day I arrive BACK in England from my trip to the United States. May 14, a Saturday, is my brother’s wedding. May 13, a Friday, is still fairly open. May 12 is a Thursday and my brother’s wedding rehearsal. May 11, a Wednesday, is the day of my flight to the United States. May 10, a Tuesday, is the latest possible time that five full days’ worth of lesson plans are due.

So, in one week, I’ll have five full sets of lesson plans to turn in, two transatlantic plane flights, a wedding, and a crucial, high-stakes inspection. I will certainly need a stiff Diet Coke when all that is over.

The only saving grace is that, last time HMI came, I was one of the few (very, VERY few) people who actually got a good rating.

From Church Last Sunday

We had a lay preacher at church on Sunday (there’s probably a proper British term for it, but you get the idea…I hope). It was the first time I had heard of Jesus being referred to as ‘that bloke.’

Four Quotes

From BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday:
‘The ethics committee doesn’t like it when we brainwash people.’

(Huh…how inconvenient.)

From The Simpsons:
‘As long as he has eight fingers and eight toes, he’s fine.’
‘Did you know that the hole’s only natural enemy is the pile?’
‘All my life I’ve had one dream: to achieve my many goals.’

(Okay, I thought they were funny…maybe it’s one of those contextual things. On The Simpsons, the characters only have four fingers on each hand…hence the eight fingers and eight toes thing. In one episode, Bart goes to an Imax film documentary all about holes (but in the style of those serious nature documentaries)…at dinner that night, he’s going on about all he learned, including the fact above. And the last one…well, that’s just Homer.)

Friday's Mail

In the post today (Friday), I received an envelope from the Hertford County Council. Of course, I didn’t know it was from them until I opened the envelope…return addresses aren’t a big thing over here for some reason. Inside was my teaching contract. Nice, yeah?

Except for two rather small details. First, today is April 15. The contract is from January 1 until April 30 (that’s two weeks form now). Second, they already sent me two copies of this contract in February.

Also interesting are these facts: the date on the contract is February 24 and the envelope was postmarked two days ago (April 13), I signed and sent back a copy of the contract weeks (months, actually) ago, the contract says I still need to send in a copy of my medical check (first sent last December, again in January, and again in March), a copy of my criminal background check (first sent in December, again in January, and again in March) and a copy of my teaching qualification (first sent last December, again in January, and again in March).

As least I’m getting mail.

May I Have a Word, Please?

Today (April 15) is not just the tax day (in America). It also happens to be the 250th anniversary of the publishing of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the American Language. The Times had an article about it and listed some words and definitions, including this interesting definition for oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Here are some that I haven’t used too much recently but I rather think I should (let the children beware come Monday):

fopdoodle – fool, insignificant wretch (handy for my year 10s)

pickthank – whispering parasite (useful a couple of year 8s I know)

giglet – wanton, lascivious girl (okay, probably not one I should use often, but still…)

jabbernowl – blockhead (quite handy no matter which kid I’m having a go at)

abbey-lubber – slothful loiterer in a monastery (perhaps the most useful of the bunch)

What I Learned Today...

Evidently, there’s a neighbourhood kid named Elliot. And how do I know this, you may ask? Because his mother stands outside and bellows ‘Eeeeeeeeeeelliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooott!’ when it’s time for dinner.

As we say over here, it’s well annoying.

A Royal Time in Windsor

Last Saturday I decided to pop over and visit my friends Charles and Camilla on their wedding day. I took the train from Stevenage to London Kings Cross, the tube from Kings Cross to Paddington Station, the train from Paddington to Slough (pronounced so that it rhymes with ‘cow’), and then a quick train ride from Slough to Windsor Exeter Central. By this time, it was getting quite late…nearly 9:00 in the morning.

My initial plan was to wander about the small town of Windsor for a bit to get an idea of what would be happening where. I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t easily find the Castle or the Guildhall from the station. Fortunately, just by taking a left turn out of the station, I found the castle in front of me and just a block or two down the street was the Guildhall. Of course, my search was aided a bit by the convenient barriers the police had erected to keep people off the road. I simply followed the barriers, the crowds, and the throngs of police officers and there it all was.

Looking to my left I noticed the Guildhall. I decided that I should probably just find a viewing spot and stay there. Even though the Royals weren’t due to arrive for nearly three and a half hours, I still wasn’t the earliest one there. Two women from South Carolina flew to England just for the wedding and the people next to them arrived Friday night and pitched a tent next to the barriers. There were also quite a few people who arrived that morning.

So, I decided to stand just across from the Guildhall. There was an open space along the barrier and only the press photographers would be in front of me. So, fortified with pre-cooked bacon strips and chocolate-covered digestive biscuits (um…that’s ‘cookies’) from Marks and Spencer, I began my long wait for the arrival of the Royals.

From my stationary position, I was able to watch the crowds pass by on the sidewalk behind me. There was an interesting mix…the flag-and-hat seller, the camera crews, the throngs of tourists, the police, and the guy with the large sheep on his head. Okay, I made that last part up…it was a large ram on his head. Really. It had those curly horns. And it was fairly large, too…about the size of a large dog.

From my stationary position, I also began to realize that those empty stepladders in the press photographers’ pen weren’t just there for decoration. Oh no. It seems that since the porch of the Guildhall has an iron railing, in order to get any decent photos from across the street, the photographers would need to stand on those ladders. No problem, I thought…I mean, how many people could they possibly put into that space? Heh. I was soon to find out. I should have taken a clue from the hoards of television crews filling each and every balcony anywhere within camera view of the guildhall. (If you were a police sniper, you got the top of the church tower…if you were merely a police photographer, you had to lean out from the roof of a building half a block away.)

I can now tell you how many photographers, stepladders, press officers, computer technicians, and security men you can fit into a space about 12 feet long and less than 4 feet deep: 10, 10, 1, 1, and 1. Plus all their equipment. But, all that’s keeping me from an unobstructed view of the Royal arrival is the four photographers on stepladders directly in front of me, the computer technician (who was uploading digital pictures live from the sidewalk), and about seven large bags of equipment. Luckily, the police officer (who, after ignoring everyone in this area for more than three hours decided to search photographers bags at promptly 12:26 pm…exactly sixty seconds before the arrival of the Royals) was merely next to me and not in front of me. Oh, and I also had two Japanese college students pushing and climbing over me.

But I digress. Here’s what happened… Just keep in mind that I was viewing all this from between two sets of photographers’ legs and stepladders. Really.

Just before 12:30, a small bus pulled up and several people arrived…I think there must have been Camilla’s family. A couple of minutes later, another small bus arrived bringing ‘all of the senior members of the Royal Family except for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’ (that’s how they kept saying it) and Charles and Camilla. Since I don’t know who Camilla’s family members are, I wasn’t all excited about the first bus, but I could actually recognize people from the second bus: Prince William, Prince Harry, the Princess Royal…despite the frantic clawing of the Japanese college students, I was getting excited.

Then, at 12:30, Prince Charles and Camilla, accompanied by the frantic noise of thousands of camera shutters, arrived at the Guildhall (perhaps it was in the posh car that belonged to the Queen Mother, I’m not positive…sorry…you know…photographers’ legs, stepladders, clawing people…). They waved briefly at the assembled masses and entered the Guildhall.

After everyone went into the Guildhall (well, the thirty of them…the rest of us had to stay outside), there was a brief moment where we all looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow! That was it!!’ This was followed by a longer moment where we all looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow! That was it??’

And, twenty-seven minutes later, it all happened again as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Windsor, left the Guildhall. The stopped, waved, and smiled. And for the first time, Charles actually looked happy.

Then they got into their car (at least I assume they did) and drove off (at least I assume they did…you remember… photographers’ legs, stepladders, clawing people…) and drove off to Windsor Castle.

That was it…all that waiting for two brief glimpses of the Royals. But I saw them, durn it! And it was worth it! Of course, I could have done without all the clawing….

So, I was left to find some lunch (it was after 1:00). I also had to find a loo (oddly enough, for all the thousands of people expected in Windsor that day, the only loo I could find was at the train station…and it was a rather small loo).

I also stopped at the post office to pick up a few of the new Charles and Camilla stamps. It seems they come as a small sheet of four stamps: two 30p stamps and two 68p stamps. You can get individual sheets, a presentation pack, and a first day cover. I got a presentation pack (basically, it’s the stamps with a somewhat sturdy folder and a plastic sleeve) and a first day cover (an envelope you address and a sheet of stamps you lick and stick on the envelope…then it gets a special postmark…I had a choice of several postmarks…how exotic!). Have you ever tried to lick a sheet of several stamps? There’s just no polite way to do it. Really. There’s just not.

Oddly enough, there were only two stores I saw that were selling the tacky (and somewhat expensive) wedding souvenirs. So I waited to get a commemorative spoon when I got back to London. It would like a nice Charles and Camilla tea towel though…

Anyway, it was a nice day. I ate some nice bacon strips and chocolate digestive biscuits, I rode eight trains, I saw the Royals…twice, and I got a spoon and some stamps. How’s THAT for a productive day?

As a side note: In England, it is very rare to see a gun anywhere. Even police officers walk around (in pairs) without guns. In fact, about the only place you normally see a gun is at the gate to Number 10 Downing Street. Of course, it’s a very big gun….

But I digress again. You could tell how important the people were who were in Windsor on Saturday: some of the police were armed. Yes, only some. Most of the police were without guns, except for a few officers in uniforms and some large gentlemen in suits. Not that you could see the guns under the suit coats, but you could see the bulge under their arms. Okay, look…I had three and a half hours to do nothing but check this stuff out. Well, that and the guy with the ram on his head.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Having a Mean Time in Greenwich

On Thursday I decided to head into London once more. London Walks offers a tour that begins at Tower Hill. (Since I realize that all of you sit at home with a London map while you’re reading this, you’ll notice that Tower Hill isn’t exactly near Greenwich. Which is why….) Our trip began with a boat trip down the Thames. Along the way, we were treated to on-and-off rain showers, a recorded narration about the sights along the way, and the screams and shouts of a group of French school kids. (Anyone who tells you that Americans are loud needs to be in an enclosed space, trying to listen to the audio tour while being able only to hear the screams and shouts of French kids playing cards while their teachers sit by...clueless. And just in case you think I’m being overly harsh, our tour guide was also a teacher (for thirty years) and she sees groups like this all the time…she said that the French groups are the worst.)

Anyway, after our docking in Greenwich, the group assembled in the shadow of the world’s last surviving tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, built in 1869. It also happened to be the world’s fastest tea clipper, making the trip from Australia to England in only 72 days. Our tour continued through the town. We heard about Greenwich’s role in English history, including the fact that it was here that King Henry VIII finally decided he was through with Ann Bolyn.

Since the day’s weather alternated between dark-and-rainy and warm-and-sunny, our guide Hilary did a great job of getting us inside before it rained and back out again when the sun came out. We made a brief visit to the Queen’s House and then stopped in two rooms of the Old Royal Naval College – the Chapel which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the Painted Room where the body of Nelson lay following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. (Well, not directly after his death…first he had to travel back to England…preserved in a barrel of whiskey…really…actually, two different barrels of whiskey…the sailors kept sneaking drinks from the first barrel…really. Ok, I think one was a barrel of port…or maybe gin, but I’m not positive.) As a side note, prior to being the Old Royal Naval College, the buildings were actually, until the 1990s, the Royal Naval College where Britain trained it’s Naval officers. Before that, from its construction in 1696 until 1873, the buildings were used as the Royal Naval Hospital.

We also watched the ball drop at 1:00. (No…really…it was interesting…honest.) The Royal Observatory at Greenwich is located at the top of a hill, overlooking the Thames. Each day, since 1833, the ball atop the roof of the Observatory has been dropped to allow sailors to set their chronometers. So, from the bottom of the hill, our group stood and watched the ball be hoisted up and then dropped. It was just like at New Year’s…only during the day…without screaming and cheering...but still….

After our guided tour, it was nearly lunchtime. Actually, it was way past lunchtime. The walk began at Tower Hill at 10:45. By the time the walk was over, it was nearly 2:00. I’m not sure why, but Greenwich is home to a number of Mexican restaurants. (Yes, this is a big deal…these are the first Mexican restaurants I’ve been since I left Roanoke before Christmas.) I ate lunch at one that offered a lunch special. The food was good, I was the only customer there, blah, blah, blah…but the seats! This place had the most interesting seating of anyplace I’ve ever seen. The booths were along the walls and then in between each booth was a narrow ladder leading to another set of booths set atop the first set. Okay, it’s tough to explain. But it was neat. Trust me…I’m an engineer.

Following my lunch, I set about visiting the places I couldn’t visit during the walking tour. So, of course, I headed straight to the market. Each market day is themed…Thursday’s theme was bric-a-brac. And, true to its word, the place was filled with both bric and brac. I settled for only buying a small bric…or maybe it was a brac…actually, I’m not sure.

I also visited the Cutty Sark. It has the requisite deck-with-cramped-rooms you can visit, the requisite come-draw-a-picture-of-a-ship for the kids, and the requisite gift shop. It also has an interesting display of figureheads from a number of ships. The most interesting part about the Cutty Sark, however, is the outside (and therefore, free) part. Instead of being in the water (yes, it is a ship, but stay with me here), the ship is located just a bit away from the river in a dry berth. This allows visitors to walk down into the berth and look closely at both the fore and the stern (I’m not really sure what the ship parts are called…but you know…the front and the back).

Then I hiked up the hill to the Royal Observatory (why this country insists upon building things uphill and up stairs is beyond me). This, however, isn’t just any observatory; this is the observatory from which both the world’s time and the world’s longitude are measured. Ever heard of Greenwich Mean Time? This is the Greenwich. Ever heard of 0º longitude? This is that 0º. (As further proof that this place is important, ever heard of the Prime Meridian? Yep, this is the place.) Here it’s possible to stand with one foot in the Earth’s eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. There’s also a nice set of exhibits tracing the history of timekeeping and astronomy. You can also climb a set of (what else?) spiral stairs and see the large 28-inch telescope inside the large dome (28-inches refers to the diameter of the mirror (I think) rather than the length…so, a 28-inch telescope is actually a very large telescope).

Since it was getting close to 5:00, the National Maritime Museum was closing, so I had to save that for next time. (Just as a side note, the Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House, and the National Maritime Museum are all national museums, and are therefore, free. The Old Royal Naval College isn’t a national museum but it’s free also.) What I did see, however, was a beautiful rainbow stretching from near the Thames towards the observatory. I’ve got a few nice pictures that I’ll post soon (I hope).

So, I walked under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs. (Yeah, there’s a sentence you don’t see very often.) You see, there’s a tunnel under the Thames built so that workers in the late 1800s could easily get from one side of the Thames to the other without having to wait for, and pay for, the ferry. And the Isle of Dogs is the place in the Thames where the Canary Wharf area is located. From there, I took the DLR towards central London. (Look! More strange letters! The DLR is the Docklands Light Rail – kind of like the Underground but run by a separate company. It also has shorter trains and you can see out the front. This last part, seeing out the front, is probably the best part…you get to see ahead of you through the tunnels. The DLR is also controlled by computer…some times of day there’s no driver on the train. When I rode, though, it was rush hour and there was a person to make sure the doors didn’t close on some last-minute commuter.)

Back in central London, I visited the Tesco Express at Trafalgar Square. Then, I found (miraculously) a dry bench and (even more miraculously) a table. I managed to get my entire meal eaten without being rained upon.

As I headed towards the Internet café, I noticed lights on in the gift shop of the National Portrait Gallery. Never one to pass up an opportunity like that, I decided to stop in. Then, I saw that the entire museum (nearly) was open for a couple more hours. So, I spent some time looking at portraits of old, dead people. Okay, to be fair, not all of the people were old when they were painted, and almost none of them were dead at the time. And, since the National Portrait Gallery is a national museum, it’s free. (Special exhibitions, however, may incur an admission fee.)

After viewing many portraits of many people, I went to the Internet café. Once there, I checked my email and posted a couple entries to my blog. And speaking of my blog, you really should check it out sometime….

Before heading back to Stevenage, I decided to head back to Trafalgar Square and pick up a few Royal Wedding souvenirs (I have this misguided notion that the now misdated commemorative spoons will be worth something sometime). The shop was closed but just a bit further on, I saw a large crown of people in the street.

It turns out that a huge group of people were moving in a solemn procession from Trafalgar Square to Westminster Cathedral. Thousands of people, many of them carrying Polish flags and carrying candles, were moving slowly through the streets in memory of Pope John Paul II. Occasionally, groups would begin singing. I’m not sure what language it was, but it wasn’t English. At the Cathedral, many people left their candles nearby and moved on. Others stayed for a while just to be there.

I followed a group of people moving towards Victoria Station and headed home.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Tuesday's Adventures

Yesterday, I went to London to climb the Monument. According to my entrance ticket, the Monument is the tallest freestanding Doric column in the world. Built between 1671 and 1677 by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr. Robert Hooke to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666, the column is 202 feet tall (exactly the distance from the tower to the source of the fire). The balcony is 160 feet up the tower and can only be reached by climbing 311 steps. (Keen mathematicians will realize that 160 is less than 202…the remaining 42 feet consists of a drum and a copper urn from which symbolic flames emerge.) The Monument is located just outside the Monument tube station (how nice…they named the column after the subway stop…) quite near the Thames.

To reach the top, you first squeeze through the narrow entranceway – only the size of a standard doorway, they’ve handily placed two turnstiles, one in and one out. Evidently, if you can’t squeeze your way through the entry, you need to take that as a clue and not continue up the column. Once through the turnstile, you pay your admission fee (yes, I know, normally one pays first and THEN passes through the turnstile). When I visited the Tower Bridge last week, I purchased a combination ticket to the bridge and the Monument, saving myself £1.

Then, you climb, and climb, and climb. If you’re lucky, as you’re climbing, you won’t meet anyone coming down. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky. The nice thing, though, is that the lower portion on the column is generally wide enough to allow two people to pass on the stairs, although one of you ends up on the narrow part of the spiral stairs. My technique of choice was to stop climbing, cling to the rail and let the other person pass. As you climb higher, the column narrows and makes it harder for people to pass. They still try though.

If you stand at the bottom and look straight up the centre, all you see is a spiral that appears to extend infinitely. When you’re climbing, you realize that the appearance of extending infinitely isn’t just an illusion…you really do climb forever. Combine that with getting slightly dizzy from the constant circular motion. Then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll be about 10 steps ahead of a little kid who loudly counts each step along the way. You find yourself thinking, ‘if he doesn’t hurry up and get to 300 soon….’

Then you reach the top and are rewarded with some very nice views of London. Of course, your nice views are tempered by the fact that you’re desperately trying to keep your back against the column while at the same time inching near enough to the edge to get some nice pictures. A handy sign directs the flow of traffic anticlockwise (that would be to the left as you come onto the balcony). This is a rather nice, helpful idea until you reach the back and part of the balcony is roped off. (When’s the last time YOU got hemmed into the corner of something round?) Anyway, once you push your way past the group of French tourists and get back to the door, you can begin your descent back down the column. Luckily, the counting kid seems to have disappeared and there isn’t anyone to remind you of how far you still have to fall…I mean, descend.

Upon your successful completion of the climb up and the descent back down, you are rewarded with a certificate that certifies you have climbed the 311 steps of the column. (After realizing that they give you the certificate after you come down, I don’t suppose you actually HAVE to climb all the way up…just go up about 10 steps or so, wait a few minutes and climb back down…but then you miss the sheer terror…I mean, sheer delight of seeing London from 160 feet up on an exposed platform that is more than 325 years old.) It’s interesting the things that go through ones mind on such a climb…I mean, I can know how much trouble I had with some of my engineering classes even though I had a computer…I sincerely doubt that Sir Christopher had a computer…I wonder just how strong these cantilevered steps are after 325 years…an interesting word, cantilever…it means ‘totally unsupported on one end…usually the end upon which you’re putting the entire weight of your body….

Now, after climbing high above the world, I decided to descend below its surface with a visit to the ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch (in Essex)’ – that’s what the brochure says. So, first, some background. During the Cold War, the government of England decided that they needed a network of underground bunkers in case of nuclear attack. The bunker was originally used as an RAF ROTOR station (even though I know you know what that is, I’ll tell you that it was used by the Royal Air Force to plan counter attacks following a nuclear attack), then it briefly became a civil defence station, and then became a Regional Government Headquarters where up to 600 civilian and military personnel (perhaps even the Prime Minister) would have gone to ‘organise the survival of the civilian population in the aftermath of nuclear war.’ This particular bunker was active until 1994.

How does one go about locating a Secret Nuclear Bunker? It’s simple…you just follow the signs. Really. Local road signs point the way to not only neighbouring towns but also to the bunker. It is somewhat odd to see signs reading ‘Secret nuclear Bunker.’ I also had directions from the website. I was prepared, really. (Yes, I know, you’re not used to me actually being prepared for an excursion, but I had copies of the directions in hand.)

Now, frankly, I don’t know why the government bothered to hide this place. I had directions and even road signs point to it and I nearly never made if there. The directions were simple: by underground – ‘Take the Central Line to Debden, Theydon Bois or Epping, and then a 7 mile taxi ride. There is also a bus service from Epping, which is the 501 Townlink bus.’

Simple, right? I got to Epping just fine – it’s the last stop on the tube’s Central line. Once there, I found the bus stop right outside the station door. Glancing briefly at the bus schedule posted there, I found that the bus did indeed stop at Kelvedon Hatch. The only problem was, it looked like the bus took over an hour to get there. So, I decided to check the taxi prices. After being laughed at when I said it was supposed to be a 7 mile taxi ride (‘Not hardly, mate, more like 15.’), I was told it would be about £15 each way. Now it was my turn to say, ‘Not hardly, mate.’

I went back to the bus stop only to see the exhaust fumes of the 501 bus roaring away. Checking the bus schedule again, I learned two things. First, the bus took over an hour from BRENTWOOD station but I was at Epping station, a much shorter distance from Kelvedon Hatch. Second, the bus I needed only ran once an hour.

So, I decided to walk to the town centre to wait for the next bus. About an hour later, I caught the bus, and rode out to Kelvedon Hatch. (Incidently, Kelvedon Hatch is, and has been, the village name long before the bunker was there…I figured ‘hatch’ referred to ‘bunker opening’ but evidently, since some other villages have Hatch as part of their name, it refers to something else. This bit of information would have come in very useful BEFORE my trip.)

I was on a bus whose driver made it his personal mission to get all passengers to their destination as quickly as possible, even when circling the local hospital parking lot. We passed the earlier mentioned Secret Nuclear Bunker signs and I finally saw the sign for the ‘Bunker Car Park (160 yds).’ Quickly pressing the ‘Please stop at the next bus stop’ button, I watched as the driver (very, very quickly) passed the entrance. We eventually stopped at the edge of the next village, about a mile or so away. (In reality, it was probably only a half a mile away, but at that speed, it seemed much farther.)

Beginning my walk back to the entrance, I realized that not only was there no sidewalk, there wasn’t even much of a verge (shoulder) so I ended up walking along the edge of a farmer’s field. I reached the entrance to the bunker car park and realized I still had a substantial walk ahead of me since the bunker was located in the middle of this field. Now really, if you’re going to the trouble of having signs leading to your secret nuclear bunker, why bother putting the entrance in the MIDDLE of the field?

I finally reached the car park area and found the small path leading to the bunker. Entrance was through a small bungalow, not out of place at all except for the surveillance cameras along the roofline. Keep in mind that the last person I have seen is the back of the bus driver’s head as he zoomed off towards Brentwood. Since then, I’ve walked through two different fields, along a dirt road, around curves, and through some woods. Now, I’m getting ready to enter a house. By this point, I couldn’t wait to see another human being.

Unfortunately, this bunker is run on the honour system. Really. A handwritten sign at the ticket booth tells visitors that their admission fee is payable at the end and to please nip around inside the admission booth and pick up a handheld audio trail guide. Arrows on the floor directed me further down the entry tunnel. Several additional signs warned me that by passing I agreed to pay my admission fee at the exit. Oh yes, and I was being watched by video.

Here I was in the middle of Essex, alone in a secret nuclear bunker going 75 feet underground, with nothing but a handheld audio guide. All of this was creepy enough until I started hearing things. Despite what I first thought, I wasn’t going crazy…these were actually recorded sounds being played to enhance the experience of the bunker. The creepiness would only get worse when I saw the dressed mannequins placed through the bunker. I finally ran across two other visitors about halfway through my tour. It was somewhat a relief to find two other people who also had their audio guides stuck the their ears.

So, audio guide to my ear, I walked down the entrance corridor, through the heavy blast doors, and into the communications centre, where, despite being physically cut off from the world, the bunker was connected by more then 2000 phone lines, as well as radio and computer links. The bunker also had a BBC radio studio where people (including perhaps the Margaret Thatcher mannequin there today) cold have addressed the nation. I also passed through the Scientists’ Centre, the Military Operations Command Centre, and the Devolved Central Government area. The tour also included the plant room with its life support systems, the startlingly small sick bay, and through several dormitory rooms. Since the bunker was built to house 600 people, but for some reason only had room for 200 beds (even after a number of beds were placed in the entry corridor – outside the main blast doors), the bunker would have operated under a ‘hot bunk system’ – you had an 8-hour shift in your bed after which someone else had an 8-hour shift in your bed, followed by another person’s 8-hour shift in your bed. Thus, all 200 beds were used constantly. The tour also included a toilet area where each sheet of toilet paper was marked ‘Government Property – Use Both Sides’ and the soap was marked with the Queen’s seal and initials.

The tour ended, surprisingly enough, in the gift shop and snack bar. It was here that I finally saw the man who oversaw it all. He was sitting at a table, oddly uninterested in anything going on around him. The video monitors watching my progress through the bunker were across the room, unmonitored. My bunker admission fee was paid into an honour system box along another wall…a sign said to put in your money and take what change you needed. Souvenirs and snacks were sold on the same basis. All in all, it was a rather odd afternoon.

Of course, then I needed to get back to civilisation. On my trek back through the farmer’s field, I watched the 501 bus go by. Finding the bus stop, I read that the next bus was due in an hour, but I could get a bus to the Brentwood Station in just a few minutes. Actually, the bus didn’t stop at the station, but it got me close. So, I took that bus, walked to the station, and took a train back to London. Obviously, the British government wasn’t expecting any invaders to take advantage of public transportation. Or, maybe they were (and still are) which explains the difficulty getting places…

On the way back to London, I noticed in the paper that an art exhibit was taking place near the station where I would end up (Liverpool Street). The Red Bull drink people sponsored an art competition called the 2005 Red Bull Art of Can Exhibition. The competition was ‘designed to embody the “mind” element of the Red Bull philosophy “stimulation for the body and mind.”’ Seems like an excuse for free advertising for me. But anyway, the deal was that artists could make whatever they wanted as long as they used a can of Red Bull somewhere. And, despite the obvious commercialism, some of the entries were really good.

(And, before you think that I actually got someplace yesterday without getting lost or trekking through a field, don’t worry. I, not having my London map and not being able to reach the ones behind the counter at the bookstore, wandered about lost for a while, went back to the train station and asked directions. It turns out that the Old Truman Brewery is located in the middle of a large Bangladeshi community. Interesting.

After all that, I had some dinner and took the train back to Stevenage.


On Monday, I caught the train to Edinburgh, Scotland. Remarkably enough, all this required was being at the Stevenage station at the right time to catch the train north. No connections, no transfers, just four and a half hours of riding. As we pulled into the train station in Edinburgh, the first thing I saw was a sign saying ‘Welcome to Edinburgh Waverley.’ Despite the warm welcome, I felt compelled to mention that, first, my father wasn’t with me, and, second, they misspelled his name.

Unlike my arrival in Cardiff, where I looked around and thought, ‘Great…now what?’ upon my arrival in Edinburgh, I looked around and thought, ‘What first?’ The train station is in the centre of the city in a somewhat low area. The hills of the city rise all around the station. I purchased a guidebook from a woman who asked if I needed a ‘wee bag’ for my book. Visitors to Scotland must realize that, even though meaning something totally different in England, ‘wee’ means ‘small’.

The first order of business, being nearly noon, was to get lunch. McDonald’s was, predictably, packed to overflowing. Instead, I went to a nice pub and had a wonderful chicken and ham pie while I read my new Scotland travel guide. It recommended that I first visit the Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately, everyone else in Scotland seemed to have the same idea. So, rather than wait in the long, winding line just to buy a ticket, I decided to save the castle for my next visit.

I was, however, at the start of the Royal Mile, a main street that leads from the Castle all the way down to the Palace at Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The distance is almost exactly one mile…hence the term Royal Mile…. Had I waited but a single day and gone to Edinburgh on Tuesday, I perhaps could have seen the Princess Royal who held the Scotia Centenary Awards Dinner for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. It seems as if my invitation got lost in the mail…again….

So I started at the top of the Royal Mile and headed down, visiting sights along the way. My first stop was at the Tartan Weaving Mill and Exhibition. Basically, they took their tartan weaving mill and built a gift shop around it, leaving space for a few ‘Let’s Talk About Weaving’ exhibits along the way. I did get to see two of their powerlooms in action.

Next, I made sure to visit a few of the seven million gift shops on the street. About the only thing made of tartan that I didn’t see was a toilet seat cover…which gives me an idea….

I did stop in at The Writer’s Museum and saw the exhibits about Scottish writers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I also visited both the Museum of Edinburgh and The People’s Story. The first has the requisite artefacts of Edinburgh’s history (from shards of Roman pottery to modern objects) and the second traces the lives of ordinary people of Edinburgh from the 18th century through to today. The museums are informative, interesting and free.

Since this is Europe, I had to visit a church or two. I popped into the High Kirk of St. Giles, a Presbyterian cathedral, which has a very nice Thistle Chapel built in 1911 for the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s order of chivalry. I also noticed a church that seemed to be either wedged in amongst the other buildings or was built first and the other buildings crept up on it. The current building of the Old Saint Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church was built in the 19th century. I wandered in and had the entire place to myself. (It seems that I am becoming quite good at occupying empty buildings.)

At the end of the Royal Mile, just before the palace, is the new Scottish Parliament building. Still being completed, this building is perhaps the most interesting one I visited in Edinburgh. It was designed by an architectural firm in Barcelona and appears to have very few right angles, instead having curves and things like that. In order to enter, I had to pass through a metal detector and leave my keys at the desk (it had my small, innocent Leatherman Micra attached to it). Even though Parliament wasn’t in session on Monday, I was still able to visit the debating chamber.

Throughout my visit to the city, I kept getting glimpses of this huge mountainous crag in the background of things. It’s as if this gigantic mountain just decided to lurch out of the earth and tower above the city. So of course I had to climb it. Evidently, it pays to seek out a less physically intensive route to the top. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know about that. I decided to take the twisty, haul-yourself-to-the-top-by-clinging-to-clumps-of-grass route. After resting a bit and convincing myself that I wasn’t going to get blown off Salisbury Crags, I enjoyed the great view. It was also fun watching a seagull fly around in the air BELOW me.

Since I had some time left, I wandered to another part of town to see what I could find on Calton Hill. I found an interesting cemetery with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Coty Observatory, and huge Romanesque columns that are part of the unfinished national monument. I also found a tall column dedicated to Lord Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar. And, since I seem to be a glutton for punishment, I decided to climb to the top. I had the entire column, including the balcony, to myself (except for the old Scotsman taking the admission). Despite being fairly calm on the ground, I experienced gale-force winds at the top. Of course, I had to squeeze myself through the narrow door to get out there. (And by narrow, I mean it…it probably wasn’t more than 14 inches wide.)

A few other things about Scotland…people here seem to be exceedingly polite. The kid in the red Mohawk certainly was: ‘Sir, could you buy us some cigarettes please?’ It also seems that banks in Scotland can churn out their own money. I have notes from the Bank of Scotland (and the Royal Bank of Scotland plc…I’m not sure if they’re the same) and Clydesdale Bank plc that say that those banks promise to pay the bearer on demand five (or ten, depending on the note) pounds sterling. I haven’t figured out if I can use these here in England…that should be a fun experience. ‘No, really, Sir, it’s money…well, Scottish money…but it says…oh alright…’

At the train station, my return train was delayed by 40 minutes. The nice train company woman told us it was due to sheep in the tracks. Later, on the train, they kept apologizing for the delay ‘caused by a late start from Cardiff due to a broken down freight train.’ I actually liked the sheep explanation better…it seemed so…Scottish.

At one stop, my seatmate and I ended up having three drunken guys sit by us. They were loud, and rude, and drinking even more. At the next stop, thankfully, they left the train. Or so we thought. As the train was pulling out of the station, it suddenly stopped and a recorded voice said, ‘Attention train crew…passenger emergency alarm activated.’ It seems that one of the three managed to leave the train while the other two weren’t so sure. Once they decided to leave the train, it was already moving so they pulled the emergency stop. Of course, once the emergency stop is activated, the train engineer has to wait for official permission from the controllers to restart.

But, restart we eventually did and I arrived back in Stevenage at about 12:30.

Today's Quote

The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


On Saturday, I decided to travel across England to Wales. And, since this was an east-to-west trip, I had to go south first. So, I caught the train to London Kings Cross, took the Tube to London Paddington, and then took the train to Cardiff Central. Simple, right? Well, almost. Due to scheduled engineering works, we couldn’t go straight to Cardiff (with a few stops along the way). Instead, we had to go to Swindon, up through Stroud, Stonehouse, and Gloucester, and then back down through Newport and on to Cardiff Central. (I realize that to most of you this makes no difference whatsoever, but there may be some train people out there.) As a result, the trip lasted almost an hour longer than normal.

On the way, I was able to sit and watch my fellow passengers. And let me tell you, most of them were boring (although after three hours with them, I was able to identify many of them solely by their mobile phone rings). I was interested, however, by the mother, grandmother and two young kids, who, due to the nearly-full seating, had to take seats at two separate tables (rather than all four at one table). After a while, the grandmother took out a roll of Happy Birthday wrapping paper (yes, a full-sized roll of wrapping paper) and proceeded to cut off large sheets and hand them across the aisle to her daughter who then (and I’m only assuming here since I didn’t have a good view of her) wrapped the birthday presents. I can only wonder what their table-mates made of the whole affair.

Along the way, it was interesting to see how the land changed from east to west. I live in the east where it is mainly flat (yes, some hills, but relatively flat). Moving to the west, I began to see houses built on hillsides. If for no other reason than the scenery, the trip was worthwhile. I was also able to see some grazing sheep, or as the grandmother above described them to her grandson, clouds with legs.

Upon arriving in Cardiff, the first thing I noticed was a sign saying ‘Caerdydd Canolog.’ Luckily, I remembered that I was in Cymru and that the sign was telling me that I was at Cardiff Central in Wales. (And no, I don’t speak Welsh, I simply looked at the English translation on the line below.) Almost all signs on Cardiff (at least any publicly-funded signs – street signs, museum labels, train schedules, and the like – are in both Welsh and English (and usually in that order).

Not having much of an agenda or plan (this is me, remember), I started off by wandering about. I figured that the capital of Wales was bound to have a city full of things to see and do. And I was proven to be correct. If I wanted to go shopping, that is. Cardiff appears to be the shopping capital of Wales where it is possible to spend your hard-earned British pounds on everything from notebooks made from recycled circuit boards (no, I didn’t but I was tempted) and used books (ah, yes, but only one) to Welsh rugby shirts and Welsh national costumes.

Along the way, I stumbled across the Castell Caerdydd (you know, the Cardiff Castle). Luckily I was just in time for the 12:40 guided tour of the interior. It seems that various parts of the Cardiff Castle have been around since Roman times but the main buildings were built (or rebuilt) in the 19th century for an obscenely wealthy coal marquis who used the place for only six weeks out of the year (four weeks in the summer and two at Christmas). Our tour began with a welcome in Welsh and a guided explanation of several rooms. After the inside tour, we were free to explore the grounds, including the Norman tower.

Clearly, the Keep, as it is called, is the highlight for many people. Envision your stereotypical castle – build in a hill, surrounded by a moat, made of stone, that sort of thing – and you have an image of the Cardiff Castle Keep. Although not huge (it must have been a fairly small keep), it is made of stone, built on a hill and surrounded by a moat. Most that remains today is the well, the steps leading inside, the tower and the circular interior area. Visitors can climb wooden steps to explore the tower. It has several levels and the narrow spiral staircase finally ends on the roof with a great view of the city.

Here are a few other observations about the Castell Caerdydd that I couldn’t fit into decent, proper paragraph form. There are peacocks roaming the grounds (okay, to be honest, all I know for certain is that there is one peacock roaming the grounds). The hillside of the keep (from the moat to where the building begins) is absolutely covered with blooming daffodils. Photography is forbidden inside the main buildings (‘Dim Ffotograffiaeth ar deithiau tywys’) so it’s worth the 30p for postcards in the gift shop.

After the Castell, I wandered about some more looking at the shops. It was a beautiful day and the main shopping areas were packed with people enjoying the day. I was actually looking for a particular shop, Cardiff Music. All I knew was that it was located across from something famous, I thought, maybe. Yeah, that helps. (One day I’ll learn to get better directions.) Anyway, since Cardiff is the shopping capital of Wales, this proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought. After quite a bit of walking (including around the National Museum and the University – hey, they’re famous – and down each small arcade I could find – but since the signs nearby proclaimed Cardiff to be the City of Arcades, this wasn’t too helpful) I realized I was rather hungry.

Earlier in my walking, I had picked up a coupon from a rather zealous McDonald’s manager promoting their new line of deli sandwiches so I decided to try one. The place was packed. (That’s another thing…with all the McDonald’s around, how come every one I’ve seen in this place is filled to the gills with people?) I decided to try the quick line…it worked (or was SUPPOSED to work) like this: at the first register, you place your order. Then you move to the second register and pay. Then, by the time all of that is finished, your food is ready to be picked up at the counter. Unfortunately, the guy at the first register didn’t seem to understand what I wanted (evidently the zealous manager promoting the new sandwiches forgot to explain it all to his employees) so I got moved to the second register where the cashier had to sort it all out for me. Then I paid and moved to pick up my food…that wasn’t ready yet. I was told that ‘it will be a long time for your order’ – at least she was honest. During my wait, I was able to see how the express line was supposed to work. Evidently, they key is to order something simple like a cheeseburger. Anyway, I finally got my sandwiches (yes, not one but two, despite only asking for one, only paying for one, and only being hungry for one).

Thus fortified for the remainder of the afternoon, I decided to give up looking for Cardiff Music and just look at some of the shops down this particular arcade. (And, in case you were wondering, an arcade seems to be a winding, narrow shopping alley.) So, of course, since I had stopped looking for the music store, I promptly ran into it. They had the three CDs I was looking for (no, even though this store seems to be the only place internationally to get these three CDs, my trip to Wales wasn’t just to get these three CDs, I could have ordered them). My spirits buoyed from the successful music search, I popped into the used bookstore next door. I found a paperback copy of an Orson Scott Card book…a book I didn’t have in paperback…despite having it in hardback…twice…ok, it’s an obsession, okay?

(Note on obsession: I collect books by Orson Scott Card…it’s not enough to have one copy of a book…there are hard backs and paper backs to collect…American releases…overseas editions…signed copies…even a CD and a poster or two…obsessed enough that, before signing one of my books, Mr. Card once said, ‘Where did you manage to find THIS?!’ Luckily, I have most of it all already. But even still, I’m not as bad as this one guy, Noah, in Washington…now HE’s obsessed...)

I next decided to visit the National Museum and Gallery. This free museum (I’ve got to say, all these free museums are great) is billed as having the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of Paris. I don’t know that for a fact (but, I mean, why would they lie about something like that) but I did recognize a bunch of the names there: Monet, Whistler, Rodin (not all Impressionists or even painters, but I figure if I’ve heard of them, they’re probably pretty important art figures). The museum also has a large collection of other works, including Dutch, French, and Italian paintings from the 1600s, Flemish art, French Realism works…from the looks of the brochure, it has every major movement from Medieval and Renaissance art through modern and contemporary art.

The National Museum also has several rooms dedicated to science and archaeology, which trace the history of Wales from prehistoric cockroaches (really) through the early Christian stone burial markers to the world’s largest sea turtle (again, really). Luckily for us all, the layout of the museum is better than the layout of that sentence. Basically, you can think of the museum as combining the highlights of the Natural History Museum with highlights of the National Gallery of Art.

On the way out, I bought a postcard of a maths snake. Really. It is! Honest. On the back, it said, and I quote, ‘Adder.’

In the main shopping area, I saw several modern-day rickshaw drivers. I don’t know what the real term for them is, but basically, it’s a covered bike that has a seat for the peddler and a row of seats in the back for two people. The side said, ‘Take a Ride! No Catch!’ But, alas, I could no catch one, so I could no ride one.

Nearby, however, I heard a loud drumming. Upon further investigation (remember, I’m here to bring you the best in interesting experiences) I found members of the Samba Galêz, Cardiff’s community samba band wailing away on their drums and homemade percussion instruments. As we say in England, it was well nice. (In Wales, we probably way something like ‘cymerwch ofal ar stepiau ac o amgylch y ffos.’ Actually, that means ‘please take care on steps and around moat,’ but you get the idea.)

I also had the change to speak with a very nice person from Greenpeace. Several of them had a table set up on the main shopping road. He was quite nice and without being too pushy at all, he gave me information on Greenpeac membership, a card about stopping climate change, a very nice Welsh/English Dywedwch wrth archfarchnadoedd i stopio sleifio GM i mewn i'ch llaeth leaflet. (That means, ‘Tell supermarkets to stop sneaking GM (Genetically Modified ingredients) into your milk.’ Oh please, like you didn’t know that already!) I also got a super spiffy badge with a red triangle and a really mean bull’s head (he said it’s an anti-GM campaign pin, but I wouldn’t have guessed that if he hadn’t said so).

I decided to take the next train back rather than wait a couple more hours until the latest possible train left. Upon entering the train station, I was met with the standard Arrivals/Departures television screens. What was different was that they were in Welsh (perhaps they alternated between Welsh and English but I’m not sure). So, I was forced to figure out which platform was for ‘London Paddington.’ Luckily, the Welsh for ‘London Paddington’ wasn’t all that different from the English. (And before you start marvelling at my facility for Celtic languages, my other choices were things like Casnewydd, Abertawe, Caerfyrddin, and Y Drenewydd.)

The only interesting person I encountered on the train home was an older name with his dog, Bob. I was initially worried to be in such close proximity of a person who, frankly, seemed a few ants short of a colony…and his dog. However, the dog stayed still and silent the entire time, and the only time the man spoke was when he realized he was (due to the planned engineering works) on the wrong train. Luckily, he was planning on going to Reading eventually and that’s where we were stopping soon anyway.

Oh! I nearly forgot! I saw a whale in Wales! Ok, it was the 29-foot skeleton of a whale, but still…how often have you gotten to see a whale in Wales?

I also had the change to speak with a very nice person from Greenpeace. Several of them had a table set up on the main shopping road. He was quite nice and without being too pushy at all, he gave me information on Greenpeac membership, a card about stopping climate change, a very nice Welsh/English Dywedwch wrth archfarchnadoedd i stopio sleifio GM i mewn i'ch llaeth leaflet. (That means, ‘Tell supermarkets to stop sneaking GM (Genetically Modified ingredients) into your milk.’ Oh please, like you didn’t know that already!) I also got a super spiffy badge with a red triangle and a really mean bull’s head (he said it’s an anti-GM pin, but I wouldn’t have guessed that if he hadn’t said so).


On Friday, I visited the Stevenage Museum. Located in the basement of St. Andrew and St. George’s Church (an interesting late 1950s concrete structure), the museum offers free admission to its galleries, which trace the history of the area from the first known Roman settlers in 80 AD through the modern town of today.

Having included in my above description what might be one of my longest, most annoying run-on sentences to date (aside from this one), I have decided to make an attempt, however unsuccessful, to use shorter, more understandable sentences from here on out.

The Stevenage Museum is small (and not as large and well done as the St. Albans Museum) but it does a nice job of showing the town’s history and importance throughout the past two thousand years or so. The museum’s gift counter (it’s not large enough to be considered an full-fledged gift shop) offers several books about Stevenage’s history and the fist Stevenage postcards I’ve seen here. I purchased a few postcards and a small, sixteen-page history of the town (it was well worth the 50p I paid). There is also a small six-page pamphlet available free of charge.

The museum and brochure explain the origin of some of the current place names. For example, Six Hills Way, a major road through town, is named after the Six Hills – six Roman burial mounds dating from 100 AD. In the Old Town of Stevenage, there is a small, narrow passageway called Middle Row. The shops there today have evolved from a live of medieval market stalls. The area of Shephall was once a small village that is now surrounded by Stevenage.

Stevenage is best known today for being the first of New Town, one of eleven proposed satellite towns planned to provide housing for Londoners following the bombings of world War II. Actually, today Stevenage is probably best known for having the highest percentage of teenage pregnancies in England, but in 1946, it was best known as being designated the first New Town. Much of the museum is devoted to items showing how the New Town of Stevenage grew from a small village to the concrete wonderland it is today.

(For those of you who have been to Reston, Virginia, you may understand what I mean when I say that parts of Stevenage remind me of Reston. From what I remember, Reston was a planned town to provide housing for people unable to find it closer to Washington. Since both Reston and Stevenage were both developed at roughly the same time, much of the pre-planned, concrete, urban architecture is similar. And, just as Reston has gotten much larger in the past years, so has Stevenage. However, the central, original areas maintain the 1960s appearance.)

To explain just how important the concept of New Towns were to England, one must to only count the number of Royal visits. In 1956, the Queen Mother laid the foundation stone for St. George’s Church and in 1959, Queen Elizabeth II officially declared the New Town open during her visit to the Town Square, the first pedestrian-only shopping centre in Britain. In 1972, the Queen Mother returned to Stevenage to open the Lister Hospital and in 1995, the Queen opened the GlaxoWellcome Research Centre.

So, to sum things up (or to sum up things if you want to make sure to get the preposition in the proper place), the Stevenage Museum isn’t the greatest museum ever, but it serves to give a very good sense of place for the town throughout history. Plus, you can’t beat the price.

Interesting Facts

On Saturday, I took the first Great Western railway from London Paddington Station to Cardiff, Wales. In my seat pocket, I found a very nice brochure entitled ‘discover your journey west.’ Opening the brochure, I found pictures and information about things along the route. (Turning the brochure over, it was possible to ‘discover your journey east’ by simply following the pages in reverse.)

From this brochure, I learned the following:

‘Only 43% of the London Underground is actually underground.’
‘The “Covent” in Covent Garden is actually a spelling mistake. The area was a market garden of what was Westminster Abbey monastery and Convent.’
‘The power station at Didcot is located on a 300 acre site formerly part of the Ministry of Defence Central Ordnance Depot.’ The cooling towers for this power station are located right next to the rail line. Despite the initial impression, these aren’t nuclear cooling towers…the plant appears to be coal-fired. (Unless those huge mountains of coal are just there as a decoy…)
‘Prince William passed his driving test in Chippenham on his first attempt after just twenty hours of tuition.’
‘Frome is home to miles of mysterious underground tunnels. No one can explain when or why they were built. They are brick-lined and are approximately 4ft wide and 5ft high. They have connections to all the principal churches in the town and many of the old inns and public houses.’ Now, how can miles of brick-lined tunnels just appear? I mean, wouldn’t someone notice and maybe mention something? I know if I started digging underneath my local church and carrying loads of bricks in, people would certainly remember it.
‘Cornwall is home to the Cornish Pasty. Traditionally the pasties used to contain meat and vegetables in one end and jam or fruit in the other, to provide a practical two course lunch for hard working tin miners.’ As someone who has issues with his food touching, I find this highly disturbing.
‘The world’s only leech farm is in Swansea. The leeches are used for microsurgery.’ Farming leeches I can understand. Teaching them how to use tiny scalpels is something else altogether.
‘Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world.’
‘The world’s largest chained library is at Hereford Cathedral which dates back to the 17th century. Chaining books was the most effective security system in Europe dating back to the Middle Ages. The system allows you to take a book from the shelf and read it at a desk, however the book can never be removed from the book case.’

Now, wasn’t that fun?