... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Sunday 31 January 2021


On January 21st, I posted a jokey piece about the pressure of getting to the top of the UK Waterways Ranking Site's blog rankings. Paul - who owns the site, and persuaded me to sign up again a couple of years ago after quite a long hiatus - left a comment saying that I should post about waterways more often, seeing as it was the Waterways ranking site. Despite a lot of kind people saying they didn't mind what subjects I posted nonsense about, I thought this was quite an important point. I dislike an incorrect categorisation as much as the next person (probably a lot more, to be honest) and I had kind of overlooked the fact that I wasn't posting about boats and boating, because I am still thinking of it so much of the time. 

This may, temporarily, not be a boating blog, but it will always be a boater's blog.

So I set myself the challenge of seeing whether I could crowbar in some kind of reference to boating or waterways into every post - and I wasn't going to cheat by having negative ones - e.g. 'Today I did not go for a walk along the Sheffield Canal.'  So far, so much fun.

Then a couple of days later, Halfie made a little joke about including a waterways reference in his post. And Paul replied in the comments:

That's fine - but you're not claiming to be top of the "Waterways" ranking table with no posts about waterways. That generates complaints from those further down the table who are posting about waterways and don't think it's fair.

I must admit I was a little taken aback to hear that there had been complaints. And that these had been, not on the understandable grounds of the incorrect categorisation, but on the grounds that it was somehow unfair. So I'd like to explore that a little further.

The basis of the claim of unfairness must be that blogging about non-boating subjects gives me an advantage in the rankings over those virtuous souls who confine themselves to boating-related topics. This might be because non-boating subjects are more popular than boating subjects. Or it might be because having a wider variety of subjects to post about enables me to post more often - because as I noted, the way the UKWRS works means that frequency of posting within any given rolling week is a big factor in rising up the rankings.

However, I don't think either of these holds water (ha ha). There is no evidence that boating topics are less popular than pottery vegetables, holey stones, beer festival glasses or whether I have or have not been to Bristol. I have posted some frankly very dull stuff over the past month, and I am sure that my posts would be far more interesting and exciting if I were actually out boating. 

The reason I crept up the rankings when I did was not because I had something great to post about every day; it was because I was making the effort to post every day. But I don't think that my ability to post more often was down to having a wider range of available topics. After all, for those who live aboard, every day's post is a boating post - and for those who don't, well, Paul was very clear in his response to Halfie that non-boating posts are not verboten per se; only in excess (however that is judged). 

So whoever it was who complained that it was unfair, I contend that they were mistaken. If there is no advantage from non-boating posts, then there can be no unfair advantage. I have to say that I was surprised and a little saddened that someone had actually taken the whole thing seriously enough to complain. I am sure that it was no one I have met; beyond that I shall forbear to speculate.

Whoever it was, they will no doubt be delighted to hear that I have decided to withdraw from the UKWRS once again - for the same reason I did last time: because this has never been nor wanted to be solely a waterways blog, even if that's how it all started. And because I think the Waterways Ranking Site should be a niche waterways site, or what's the point. And this isn't a niche waterways blog. Oh no. It's much duller than that.

Saturday 30 January 2021


I was just chatting to Sebasrian about the difficulty of maintaining an acceptable level of boat-related content from the confines of my study, and he very kindly offered me some pictures of Aurora's boat. It is called the S.S. Green Toys and is apparently made out of recycled milk bottle tops (I was picturing something more .... aluminium (yeah, like a Sea Otter) but I suppose that's just me showing my age). It has a grille in the back deck for no better reason than so it can sink, and a lip at the front for refloating.
So there you go. First boat picture I've posted for a while.

Friday 29 January 2021


A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from Sebastian telling me to expect a parcel. He said 'I don't know if the reality will be any good, but the concept is, and either way you can blog about it.' I was quite mystified, as you might imagine.

Then the parcel arrived, and it was labelled 'A Box of Stories'. And in it were four, random, brand new books - one by an author I'd heard of, the other three published by Faber (i.e. not rubbish). And the concept is, indeed, a good one. Because these are remaindered books, which would otherwise have been pulped (or, presumably, sold in the remainder bookshops that I used to enjoy frequenting). As a result, they're cheap - not charity shop cheap, but supermarket cheap - £14.99 for a one-off box of four, or £13.49 for four if you have a regular subscription. These are completely random boxes - more specialised/delective ones are available at a higher price. So it's a bit of a gamble, with all the concomitant excitement but little of the danger.

I've just taken out a subscription for a mixed box (fiction and non-fiction) once a month. They'll be dispatched from Glasgow (on the River Clyde).

Thursday 28 January 2021


The latest edition of that Journal I mentioned a couple of days ago has just been published - and it's all online. It contains an article by me - the last one (pp. 91-100) - which of all the things I've written, is probably the one I'm proudest of. Doing the research for it took me to a city on a river, a city with lots of canals, a city with a canal and a river, and a place with neither (you can try and guess what they were but don't say in the comments - and I won't tell you because it would compromise my respondents' anonymity).

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Double superfine

For a long time, on my Sheffield charity shopping expiditions, I was on the lookout for an egg cup. I found one eventually on the bric-a-brac stall at the Erewash Canal Preservation and Development Association's gathering at Langley Mill in 2018 (good, now I don't have to work in a gratuitous reference to the River Yare). It's a lovely green Hornsea Heritage one, which matches the mug on Chertsey's cabintop in a 1970 photo which I can't now find, which is a bit worrying, especially as I forked out a tenner on Ebay to get one like it for the fiftieth anniversary trip that didn't happen last year.

Obviously I didn't want an egg cup so that I could eat a soft-boiled egg. Perish the thought. No, I wanted an egg cup to mix mustard in. Mixing the mustard for the quinseminal (I just made that up) boiled bacon joint (Sunday dinners rotated through roast lamb, beef, chicken and pork, and boiled bacon) was a ritual I remember from childhood - the egg cup, the yellow powder, the tiny trickle of cold water, stirred with the handle of a teaspoon and left to develop for ten minutes. After all that, I never tasted English mustard as a child - it was assumed that it would be too hot for little tongues. This being the seventies we got mild, vinegary 'French' mustard instead. I liked it then, but I can't stand it now.

I am prompted to write this because I have just - for the first time I can ever remember - finished a tin of mustard powder. Most tins of mustard powder probably never get finished. I husbanded mine well, though, protected it from damp, and if it had lost a little potency by the end, I can't say I noticed. The tin I bought to replace it has a 'best before' date of May 2022, so on that basis I'll assume that the old one had a similar nominal shelf life (16 months) when I purchased it. Its 'best before' date was May 2015, so that suggests I probably bought it early in 2014 - seven years ago. I think that for a single person to get through a 4 oz tin of mustard powder in seven years is pretty good going. It went religiously into cheese sauces, as I was taught at school; into cheese scones - where it really does make a difference - and of course, into tiny portions of fiery paste to adorn, well, sausages, mostly, and alongside them mashed potatoes, and greens. And no, I very rarely threw any away, but always made it in such tiny quantities that it was never quite enough rather than too much.

Back in 2014, the tin indeed said '4 oz (113g)'; the new one, half the size, says '57g'. I like the way it's still clinging to being 2 oz by another name; I bet the next tin will be 50g (and before anyone either casts me into the outer darkness, or grasps me to their sceptical bosom, my attachment to imperial weights and measures for comestibles and cooking should not be taken as any indication of anti-Europeanism, any more than my perverse persistence in speaking English. It's practical and pragmatic, not ideological). The new tin has lost a little character, and gained a Unilever logo and a nutritional infographic (really - who counts the calories in mustard powder?). It isn't - very sadly - even made in Norwich any more, as of a couple of years ago. I will, of course, be keeping the old tin.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Lemon curd shortbread

When I wrote back in 2018 about my friend Doug joining us an our way up the Erewash to Langley Mill, I noted that this had come about because of a conversation we had had a few weeks previously, over a coffee at the University of Nottingham, where I had gone to visit him (and his colleague Peter) to talk about setting up a journal.

It was clearly a successful conversation, because the third volume of The Journal of the Foundation Year Network is about to be published, and Doug, Peter and I are still its co-editors. Readers of this blog will be horrified to learn that I am also a demon copy-editor (the shameful secret is that I rarely proofread the blog before hitting publish, hence it frequently being riddled with typos).

What I did not note at the time was that something else momentous happened at that meeting. Idly browsing the pastry counter in the coffee shop in the utterly magnificent Trent Building (does that count as a waterways reference?)

Photo: University of Nottingham
I settled on something I had never encountered before: a piece of lemon curd shortbread. I think it's fair to say that was a life-changing decision. The combination of salty, buttery shortbread with sharp, rich lemon curd is sublime. You don't really need a recipe to make it, but just to encourage you, here is the one I cobbled together on my return. I have made it today for the first time in a year, because I've only just got hold of some lemon curd. 

You will need plain flour, butter and caster sugar in the ratio of 6:4:2. For a tin that's about 10" x 8" I use 12 oz flour, a whole half pound of butter (and as that's a metric half pound, that's a bit extra) and 4 oz sugar. I cannot imagine doing this without the Magimix, but if you have big muscles and infinite patience you probably could. Just beat it all together until it's a crumbly dough. Then (don't guess) weigh half of it (i.e. half the total weight of the original ingredients) and put it in the tin. I like to grease and line my tin, then grease the lining, to be sure it comes out neatly. Press the shoutbread hard into the tin with the back of a spoon.

Now, this is the bit where I am going to save you a lot of grief. You need to get a thinnish layer of lemon curd all over this surface. For that quantity I would use about half a jar.  But you won't be able to spread it. Don't even try; that way madness lies.  You could possibly pipe it (but imagine the washing up) but my technique is to use two teaspoons to plop lots of little blobs over the shortbread, then just squish them about very slightly until they meet. Then you get the other half of the mixture and, breaking up any big lumps, distribute it over the top and press it down. Bake it at around 150C for about an hour. Lift it out of the tin (by the paper) to cool, and cut it up before it's cold. Seriously, it's divine. And it always reminds me of my first breathtaking sight of that building.

Monday 25 January 2021


We have come to the end of my official 'beer festival' glasses. However, so intertwined are the worlds of historic boating and traditional beer drinking that it is often hard to distinguish between their gatherings. There's always a beer tent or a bar - or, in the case of Droitwich, a Working Men's Club, that one being memorable for the least flavoursome ale I have ever been forced (yes, forced, I say) to drink for three days (Wye Valley, yes, I mean you).

But in 2014, when we had our biennial southern (well, more southern than Ellesmere Port) Easter Gathering at Foxton, there was even a glass. Sadly, in order for the design to be visible, I have had to fill the glass with beer. I have just trawled through the posts from March and April 2014 to refresh my memory of this event only to find that there are none. A few posts about the lead-up (would we replace the starter motor in time?!), one about the quiz and a brief mention of the tat auction, but that's it.

I do recall that I actually helped out on the bar this time, which if I recall was in the village hall. The beers probably came from the Bridge 61 (pretty sure some emergency supplies did) and therefore likely included Inclined Plane (if I were marking this, as I was essays all weekend, I would now be thumping out 'avoid speculation'). I remember the 'fact' that we went up the Market Harborough Arm, turned round and came straight back ... except I don't think we actually did. We probably thought about it, just as we thought about going to Basingstoke.

Other than that, well, I've been through, and stopped at, Foxton quite a few times so it's all a bit of a blur. It may have been on this occasion that we strung the keb with garden wire in an attempt to retrive someone's glasses that had fallen in. We were eventually partially successful, but unfortunately one of the lenses had dropped out. Or the time there were dog rose petals strewing themselves like heart-shaped confetti.

Sunday 24 January 2021


Having just searched the archive I find to my surprise that I didn't blog at the time about my final beer festival glass. Only three beer festivals, I hear you cry. Yes, I was quite suprised myself. Only three from which I have glasses at any rate. It is perfectly conceivable that there have been others that I have forgotten about.

Each festival has been linked to a different job and workplace, first Huddersfield, then London, and finally Sheffield. Little over a month after my arrival, Sheffield Cathedral ('a place for all people') hosted a beer festival. This proved to be quite controversial, with local radio phone-in lines hot with people pointing out the paradox of a beer festival being hosted by an organisation that also worked with problem drinkers. I don't think they tried it again.

Anyway, I trotted along and did my bit of milling around the forecourt where the festival was being held in a marquee (I still haven't been inside the cathedral) before settling down at a table in the October sunshine.

Being alone in a new city, I had promised myself that I would strike up a conversation with the first person who sat at my table. This turned out to be a Sikh man who worked for Network Rail, and had come by coach with a CAMRA party from Leicester, a city on the River Soar which I have visited by boat. I'm afraid I've forgotten his name (quite impressed I remembered so much else) but it all formed part of a very pleasant introduction to the city which I have come to call home.

Saturday 23 January 2021


My second souvenir beer glass is from 2009 (I'm not a massive beer festival goer, much as I like the stuff). It's from North London CAMRA's 'London Drinker' beer festival. I was working in London at the time, just down the road in Tavistock Square, but the only reason I went was because the festival's chosen charity that year was the Camden Canals and Narrowboat Association, with which I had not long since become involved. CCNA run the Large Northwich  Tarporley as a community boat, and have done since c. 1970. I signed up as a volunter before I got Chertsey, but when I knew I wanted a big 'un, to get some serious steering practice (yes, I know Tarp's a Northwich, but needs must. Through people I met via CCNA I did also get in a lot of steering experience and informal training on Chiswick, for which infinite thanks to the late Bob Wakeley, and to James Bill). Checking out whether CCNA and Tarp are still going I see that she's had a splendid new Coronation paint job.
I'm sure CCNA won't mind me using their photo. (I also note in passing that Kings Place is now a WeWork. Sic transit etc.

CAMRA entered into the spirit, if not the historical accuracy, of their charitable commitment by featuring what looked very much like a Calcutt hireboat on the festival logo. It was their 25th anniversary, hence the bridge number. I got a T-shirt too,

which no longer fits me (but I feel a new series coming on once I've exhausted this one). I also bought a Courage Directors T-shirt, which was smaller still, but was the last one they had. As for the festival itself, well, I described it here at the time. My abiding memory is of crowds of smelly men with either beards or very interestingly bad complexions (or possible both of course, the former camouflaging the latter). To be perfectly honest I didn't really enjoy it, but I'm glad I went.

Friday 22 January 2021


In 2005-6, I worked in Huddersfield for sixteen months (it was a two year contract, but when I broached the subject of leaving because I had secured a permanent job, my then boss said 'Thank goodness, we've spent all the funding for the post  and were wondering what we were going to do'). I'd commute back to Sussex at weekends, and during the week I lived on a boat on a BW towpath mooring just by Aspley Basin, the interchange basin between the Huddersfield Broad (aka Sir John Ramsden's) Canal and the Huddersfield Narrow (aka the Huddersfield) Canal, with a splendid view of the famous Locomotive Bridge.

There were a few great pubs in Huddersfield (the Albert Hotel, with its marble and mahogany bar, is particularly fondly remembered) but our favourite destination as an office group was the Star.

One amazing thing about the Star was that the landlady, Sam, was from Ditchling (that's in Sussex) and there was a framed Harveys of Lewes poster on the wall. It was in the Star, on Sam's recommendation, that I first tried Timothy Taylor's Landlord, which has remained one of my favourite beers ever since. Once a week, on Wednesdays, they served food, which was pie and peas. Nor was it gourmet pie and peas. It was a cheap shopbought pie, microwaved and plonked in the middle of a bowl of mushy peas, which you doused in mint sauce and ate with a spoon. I think it cost £2. I'm getting nostalgically tearful just thinking about it. When I left Huddersfield, my leaving do was pie and peas in the Star. 

I am pleased and relieved to see that the Star appears to be holding up. And delving a little deeper on the dreaded Facebook page, it appears that Sam is still running it. I must get back there as soon as I can.

To get there from our office on the ringroad, we passed through a lovely industrial landscape, and crossed the River Colne.  Here is a stolen picture:

In the summer of 2005, Sam put on a beer festival at the Star. It was the first beer festival I ever went to, and provided the best beer festival glass I have ever acquired - an oversized half-pint, really solid, heavy-bottomed tankard. I am supping Landlord from it as I write. It was my work water glass, and rescuing it was one of the reasons I made my mercy dash to the office in October (that and my PhD thesis).

I don't remember much about the Star Beer Festival. It was sunny, and they had a mini-marquee in the garden. I think they had some Dark Star beers all the way from Brighton. If I didn't have the glass as a constant reminder I might easily have forgotten about the Star, Sam, discovering Landlord, pie and peas with Pete and Pete and John. Maybe I would even not think so often about my very happy time at Huddersfield when, Landlord, pie and peas and all, I fell in love with the North.

This is the first in a series of 'Souvenir Beer Glasses I Have Known', all of which have a waterways connection, of course. As will every post I ever post from now on.

Thursday 21 January 2021


It's tough at the top.

Not so hard to get there these days with so few must-read blogs - all it takes is to post every day - and if my record is anything to go by, about any old rubbish.

But, oh the pressure of staying there. Because the hits are added up over a week, I can't afford to miss a single day.

I was planning to begin a series on 'Festival Beer Glasses and the Reminiscences they Inspire' but that will now have to wait until tomorrow. My goodness, that'll keep you coming back.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Edgar Allen

Apologies for the absence of plant photos yesterday; it is most mysterious. I confess that I was lazy enough to just copy the emails across in their entirety, but when I switched back to my personal account just now and opened the blog in a new tab, they were still there. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the text. I think with the exception of a few people who must have led very sheltered lives, most people can picture a weeping fig and a money plant - if not, there's always Google.

You might perhaps have wondered about the home from which the plants were eventually evacuated: Edgar Allen House. It sounds quite imposing, doesn't it. In fact it's  PoMo monstrosity occupying a street corner just off prime drunken vomiting territory.

It's nothing to do with Edgar Allen Poe, in case you were wondering.

William Edgar Allen was a steel magnate (of course), and slightly ahead of his (Victorian/Edwardian) time in that he sought to look after his employees when - as appeared to happen with alarming frequency across the industry - they susteined industrial injuries. This included setting up a physiotherapy centre and supporting some pioneering work in artificial limbs.

When the NHS was established they took it over, at some point (presumably in the 1980s) demolished the old Edgar Allen Physical Treatment Centre and build Edgar Allen House.

I had always understood that this was on a different site, but this old photo (from the Sheffield Libraries Archive) actually looks like the same site as the current building.Edgar Allen Physical Treatment Centre originally named Edgar Allen Institute from Glossop Road 

You can tell how assiduously I do my research. Anyway, the NHS moved out at some point, and the University bought the building in 2011. We moved in in 2014. It was supposed to be temporary.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Plucky plants

I used to work in an open plan office, with about twenty-eight other people, and quite a few plants. Apart from one brief visit in October, I last left the office on March 17th. So did everyone else.  From time to time, one or two people wound wonder what to do about the plants, but by and large we were far more concerned about the students, each other, and getting our teaching and - for me the really big adventure - assessment all online in a really short period of time.

I mentioned that if someone else would fetch the plants, I'd be happy to look after them.

Then it was forgotten again. Only t'Boss had access to the office. I told him I would look after the plants if he would fetch them.

Then nothing happened for a bit. By this point I fully expected all the plants to be dead, which was a bit sad.

Finally, on July 1st, a car double parked in the middle of the road outside my house, and a motley collection of pot plants was quickly offloaded.

They weren't dead. Despite having been left for fifteen weeks in a stifling office, not one of them was dead. To be honest, most of them hadn't been particularly well tended even when we were sharing the office with them, so I ended up repotting every siingle one of them, at the same time as stripping off all their dead bits.

Then I sent an update to all my colleagues, written in the breathless style of a cut-price foreign correspondent:

July 2nd 2020
From your local reporter:
Finally released after a fifteen week ordeal, the process of recovery can now begin for these brave survivors.

A group of plants found themselves innocent victims of a university's scramble to lockdown in mid-March.

A weeping fig wept as it described how it and its companions thought that they had been abandoned, trapped without food or water throughout the hottest spring on record.

Unbeknownst to them, however, the plucky plants had not been forgotten. Former colleagues, working from their homes across the city, were working on plans to liberate their valued oxygenating companions. Plans which finally came to fruition on Wednesday night, when rescuers finally breached the alarm system and entered the abandoned building.

Sadly, not everyone made it through the ordeal, and the rescue mission occasioned some collateral damage. A money plant told your reporter: 'Don't get me wrong, it was a really great effort, but I'm gutted that some of my shoots got left behind.'

The surviving plants were taken to a secret location in the west of the city, where they are undergoing a careful programme of rehydration.


A couple of months later, I followed up with a human (OK, vegetable) interest update:

September 1st, 2020

Two months on from their dramatic rescue, we catch up with the plants of Edgar Allen House


Sun streams into a light airy attic; a gentle breeze wafts across a group of plants basking beneath the open Velux. A cluster of spider plants, looking green and vigorous, huddle together; two venerable money plants watch indulgently over a tray of cuttings; an amaryllis relaxes in the corner. The scene looks idyllic, and a far cry from just two months ago when the plants, dehydrated and terrified, were snatched in a daring raid from locked down Edgar Allen House.

On arrival at the reception centre the exiles were given new pots, compost and water, and, above all, time to recover from their ordeal.

The weeping fig, who told me in July of their terror at having felt abandoned by the authorities, now shyly shows off its new leaves. One of the most vulnerable of the plants, staff at the reception centre had initially feared for its life, but the slow process of recovery has begun.

When I last spoke to the money plant, it had expressed concern at the way the rescue had been managed. What does it think now?

'The operation was particularly tough for us' it told me. 'We had a lot of casualties. But, you know, it had to be done. To be honest, it cleared out some of the dead wood. But we lost a lot of youngsters too that day. Those that came through though ... they're stronger and more independent than ever. The money plant community will be fine.'

Some of the rescued plants have moved on from the reception centre. One spider plant told me about its new home in a bathroom.

'I do miss the intellectual cut and thrust,' it said, from its position on the windowsill, 'But the humidity is awesome.'

Another has been lucky enough - along with its twenty-seven offspring - to find a place in a study.

'This is the sort of office I always dreamed of,' it sighed. 'Of course, I miss the others, and I know I will go back to Edgar Allen House one day. But a lot of the little 'uns will be putting down roots and staying here, I'm sure of it.'

All the plants agreed that their place was at Edgar Allen House, and most were anxious to return. The amaryllis said 'It's not easy being a university office plant - the heating, the air conditioning, the postmodern angst ... but it's what we know. Some of us have done it for generations. It's not just a job, it's a way of life.'


Monday 18 January 2021


Whilst I had my chequebook out, I also renewed my membership of the Cinema Organ Society. This did not go off to anywhere as atavistically satisfying as Sidcup, but - and this is even better - I was requested to include a stamped addressed envelope for the return of my membership card. 

Having just read this article about Coventry, I also considered joining the Twentieth Century Society (I might yet, but it's a bit dear).

It must be a sign (one of many) of getting old that I can remember when the twentieth century was the epitome of modernity - and now it stands for Sidcup, and SAEs, and cinema organs, and there are adults alive today who have never lived in it.

Sunday 17 January 2021


I ahve just written a cheque for £73.95 to renew Chertsey's insurance for another year.

If that sounds cheap - I agree, it is. Another massive advantage is that they don't require a survey.

Is there a catch? Well, you might think so, but I don't.

It is, of course, not fully comprehensive insurance. It does not cover me for any damage that occurs to Chertsey. It does, however, meet all CRT's licencing requirements, and gives me the peace of mind of knowing that I'm covered if Chertsey does any damage to someone else's boat, or if she sinks and needs to be moved out of the way. That, after all, is where the big bills are likely to be - not in repairs to an eighty year old boat with scarcely any fit out, no expensive equipment or systems, and which is constantly being patched up anyway. 

Of course, if Chertsey was damaged by another boat, I should be able to claim on their third party insurance - so the only gamble I am really taking is that I won't wreck her myself. And I really will try not to. In some ways, The Basic Boat Liability Company would appear to be taking more of one - providing salvage insurance without a survey for an old boat - the fact that they're prepared to underlines how low the risk, actuarily, must be.

I am of course happy to save the costs of comprehensive insurance and regular surveys, but even more valuable is not having the hassle. An added bonus is that I can do it all by post, and better still, they're based in Sidcup.

Saturday 16 January 2021

Hang on, I *have* been to Bradford

I have just been re-reading about my Big Day Out to Saltaire, and I realise that, by the same token as I have been to Bristol - i.e. being dropped off at the station - I have been to Bradford. For what I had forgotten was that after attending the organ concert, and then going for a bite of tea in Shipley, I had missed the train from there, and David gave me a lift to catch one at Bradford. Sadly I did not take a photograph of Bradford Interchange in the dark. So, Hull is absolutely, definitely and unequivocally the largest town I haven't been to.

I recall that when I was at Huddersfield, there was some discussion about whether it was the largest town that wasn't a city - with plenty ready to claim that it was. The ONS figures DG cites suggest, however, that - at least now - it is vary far from it, being 11th in the list once cities are discounted.

And on that basis, the biggest town that isn't a city is in fact Reading - the putative destination for my next Big Day Out (along with Ladybank, when Edinburgh start stumping up for me to attend exam boards again). At present I am averaging one Big Day Out every two years, so at that rate I should have completed them all by 2385. Perhaps I should hurry up a bit.

Friday 15 January 2021

Have I been to Bristol?

I'll try not to get into the habit of just responding to Diamond Geezer's posts, but a couple of days ago he had a cracker, which along with its follow up yesterday has been keeping me intermittently entertained ever since.

His question was 'what is the largest town (or city) you haven't been to?', and he helpfully provided a list of the hundred biggest towns and cities, by population, as defined by the Office for National Statistics. 

I cast my eye down the list and Bradford, at number ten, leapt out at me as somewhere I haven't been. Bradford was the stumbling block for quite a lot of people, being populous, but not necessarily popular.  This would only count as somewhere I have not visited if the population of Bradford does not include the population of Shipley or Saltaire, both of which I have been to. I have tried looking at the data to see whether it does, but it defeated me.

If it turns out that I have, technically, been to Bradford, then the next biggest place I haven't been to is much more definite - Hull, twelfth on the list. I'd love to go there one day, but it is, for no more than geographical reasons, the sort of place that you have to make a deliberate visit to.

However, when I went back to post my comment, I looked at the list again and saw Bristol at number 4, and I thought, hang on, I haven't been to Bristol. I have changed trains there many times, mostly on the way to Newport, but the rules are clear that changing trains doesn't count.

I think DG's comment


may have been aimed at me.

But then I thought about it some more (I said it kept me entertained for days) and I remembered this photo:

And indeed, this post.

Changing trains doesn't count if you don't leave the station, but given that under his own rules DG has 'visited' Southampton by virtue of slipping out of a station side exit, briefly, then being this far away from the station must count, even if that is where one has just been dropped off by the rail replacement bus.

So although I would very much like to go back and explore properly, I have, unequivocally, been to Bristol.

(Interestingly, my visit to Bristol came about as the result of my second Big Day Out, and to Bradford (or at least close) as the result of my first.)

Thursday 14 January 2021



We had quite a few hours of snow today, which has settled (or stuck, as they say up here). I don't know what other areas have had it - my colleague in rural Derbyshire at about 9:30 hadn't - which is the opposite way round to usual. By the time it stopped it was a good couple of inches deep, possibly more. It was nice, looking at it and knowing that I didn't have to set foot outside the door. I haven't even unlocked the back door for two days (and the front door, of course, is never unlocked - this is Walkley).

I wonder if it will still be there in the morning.

Wednesday 13 January 2021


 A few weeks ago, Firefox pointed me to this article by Joanne Limburg. It's about - among other things - the experience of being (female, late-diagnosed) autistic. I'd already read some of Limburg's work - her first memoir, on living with OCD, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, and her book of poems, The Autistic Alice, although I didn't make the connection when I first read the article. Limburg is a writer, and works in a university - and this is important, because so much of what is written about, and for, and even by, autistic people, about us and the world of work, ignores the professional workplace; as if, perhaps (and maybe this is true) we had fewer problems than someone being coached to stack supermarket shelves.

The article said so much that I have wanted to say to people at work. I can write, but not as well as Limburg, and also - sadly - people are more likely to take something seriously if it is written and published by a third party, rather than sobbed at them in frustration by their slightly odd colleague who 'makes them feel uncomfortable.' So I shared it with t'Boss, who agreed, and soon I shall share it with my other colleagues. But that isn't really the point of this post.

The article was in an online magazine which I hadn't previously come across, called Aeon. Firefox Pocket clearly did a good job in bringing it to my attention. Unusually, for me, I signed up for their daily email of articles, and find I have had something to read over breakfast every day - ranging from what neanderthal women did, through flirting and courtship in the eighteenth century, to scientific discoveries and political theory - written and edited by academics and experts, free and with no ads. So yes, I recommend it.

Tuesday 12 January 2021


According to my colleague Simon, today is National Soundcheck Day.

I think this was last held eight years and a month ago. 

Monday 11 January 2021

Sunday 10 January 2021



The Lenten rose is somewhat early this year.

Saturday 9 January 2021


Many years ago, in my first or second year of teaching, at Sussex, I had a student who was French (those were the days). One day he was late for a seminar, and and the gist of his apology was:

''Zere was a squirle in my room. I say to 'im, Meester Squirle, you must leave now. But 'e 'ide under ze bed'

Thus for the past twenty years, members of the species Sciurus carolinensis have been known as squirles. At Sussex they were very tame, and would take nuts from your hand.

As a child - I have no idea what age, about thirteen or so - I 'rescued' or otherwise acquired a young squirle, and kept it in my room for a bit before releasing it back into the trees at the bottom of the garden. This is how I know that squirles have fleas the potency and malignancy of which puts those of cats and dogs in the shade. And we also had about nine cats at this time, so I know whereof I speak. Come to think of it, I think that was how Che (for that was the squirle's very temporary and slightly onomatopoeic name) came to be in the house and needing rescuing in the first place.

About this time last year I hung a bird feeder on the clematis wire outside the dining room window, with fat balls in it. No birds ever visited. The fat balls went rancid and mouldy. I was, therefore, very surprised before Christmas to find scatterings of fat and husks on the ground beneath it, and the contents gone. I replaces them, with fat balls that were not mouldy, but probably every bit as rancid, and, as I had half expected, my customer was not a bird, but a squirle. The photo shows it having retired to the fence to finish some particularly tasty seed. The new balls were gone within a day - but an awful mess left on the ground. So I put some nuts out on the wondow sill instead - but somehow the squirle hasn't worked that out yet.

Friday 8 January 2021

Berlin Wall

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have a number of pieces of the Berlin Wall. My sister was in Berlin in early 1990 - in pursuit of David Bowie, which I suppose makes this an appropriate post for the fifth anniversary of his death. Pursuit of David Bowie was where she was most of the places she was, other than Newport, Gwent. She brought us each back a piece. Mine, I subsequently discovered, was the smallest, and fell apart. 

However, I now also have in my possession her piece:

The piece she gave our mother (the biggest and the best piece):
And, as I finally unearthed over Christmas, our father's piece:
You may be wondering why the first two are so beautifully photographed - at least, I hung a velvet jacket from the fence and photographed them against it in daylight in the garden back in the summer.

The reason is that I wanted to feature them in a short 'mystery object' video which I'd agreed to make to use in online outreach. There were going to be others, but somehow mine was the only one to get made. You can watch it here. Although I fear some people might be terribly disillusioned by finally hearing the sound of my voice.

Thursday 7 January 2021

1970s glassware

My father died in 1992. My sister and I packed up the contents of his flat. Some boxes went back to my place, some back to hers. When my sister died, her boxes ended up in my mother's spare room. When my mother died nearly five years ago, they all found their way back to me.

Over Christmas, I opened the last one, and picked through the crumpled 1992 newspaper. This was a box that my sister had packed, of ornaments from my father's living room. Some I remembered, and some I had never seen before. Most of them, to be honest, were not very interesting - cheap holiday souvenirs. But there was the lovely hand-carved wooden bowl that I posted at the end of last year. There was another piece of Berlin Wall - packed away only two years after being hacked out (I now have four pieces of Berlin Wall, all purchased on the spot from the pickaxe entrepreneurs by my sister in early 1990).

And there was this.

I have confidently billed it '1970s glassware' because what other era could it possibly be from? The glasses are tiny, scarcely bigger than egg cups, from which you can divine the size of the decanter. The stripes are orange. They are probably very trendy in some circles. I must quite like them, because I've washed and polished off the thirty year-old Woodbine smoke and put them out on the dining room sideboard. For now.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Twelfth Night

There's always something slightly sad about taking the Christmas decorations down, and letting the chill January light back in.

Happily, I have avoided that this year, by the simple expedient of not putting any up in the first place.

Mostly, I just have a tree. A massive one. Last year, sawing up the Christmas tree, hiding the biggest logs at the top of the garden, and sneaking the rest into the dustbin over the course of months, was the first job in tackled in ... mid-March. This year I was planning to arrange for someone to come and take it away.

Then the rubber plant put on another growth spurt, and, now at over six foot, needed to sit on the floor. The only floorspace was the place where the Christmas tree usually goes.

So I put some fairy lights on the rubber plant instead (thank goodness for heatless LEDs). And it looks so nice (and the plant doesn't seem to mind) that I am going to leave them there.

I did get my advent calendar out again.

Every year I say I won't, because it's over fifty years old, and notwithstanding a brilliant repair job a few years ago by Sebastian's friend's mum who is a book restorer, it is delicate. I have even put a note on its envelope this year advising myself not to use it next year, but I shall probably ignore it when the time comes.

Tuesday 5 January 2021


I've been baking my own bread since March.

When I first got a breadmaker, all the advice was that you had to follow the recipe they gave you with scrupulous accuracy, down to the last gramme (and a large wholemeal loaf called for 528g of flour). The recipes that came with it also called for strangely large amounts of sugar, and quantities of dried milk, and crushed up vitamin C tablets. In short, they were replicating commercially made bread - the very thing I wanted to get away from. 

I never added vitamin C, or dried milk, so they have their escape clause if ever I'd tried to complain. Sticking to the quantities otherwise, I could turn out a most impressive white loaf, no problem, but wholemeal always sank alarmingly, giving a slice with a profile like a cat's head, with points that could lacerate you.

Naturally, I sought the advice of the internet, and the suggestion that caught my attention was something along the lines that the machine doesn't get the gluten lined up properly before it starts cooking. I followed their suggestion to allow the breadmaker the sticky job of the initial mixing of the dough, and its first proving, but then turn it out, knock if back by hand, and leave it to rise in a loaf tin before baking in the oven. And this works.

There is the added advantage that your loaf is now a sensible shape and size that will fit into a plastic bag, and doesn't have a bloody great hole in the bottom.

After months of experimenting I have now also arrived at a simple back to basics recipe which, using this method, works every bit as well. And it is: half a pint of warm water (or a bit more depending on the flour); half a pound each of white and wholemeal flour; a level 5ml teaspoon each of sugar, salt and quick yeast, and a glug of oil. I pour the oil over the mixing blade (though I doubt if it makes any difference), then the water, salt, sugar, flour on the top and yeast on top of that - then the machine does all the sticky hard work leaving me with the fun part of the final knead. It goes into a 2lb tin and once risen, into the oven at a touch under 200 C for 35 minutes. It might not always come out perfect, but it's never less than adequate and better by far than the machine baked version.

Monday 4 January 2021



Well, doesn't it look like Tony Blair?

Sunday 3 January 2021


When I was a child, finding a pebble on the beach with a hole right through it was a very rare and special event. I didn't know then that hagstones, or witch stones, or adder stones - or one of many other names - were believed to have magical powers. Just finding one was exciting enough.

For years I idly puzzled over what could bore a hole through the hardest stone - for hagstones are usually flint, renowned and used over millennia for its hardness. And that, it turns out, is the secret. The hole in a hagstone has its origin in the stone's formation over millions of years. Flint is formed in chalk, as silica gradually - grain by grain, molecule by molecule - replaces the calcium carbonate through a chemical reaction. This is why flint is most common along the chalky south coast. As the chalk wears or is washed away, the flints are released, and in many cases fall into the sea to be worn and smoothed into pebbles. In some flints, before they became flint, there would have been a fossil, or something other than chalk, which instead of turning into flint would form a softer stone. While the action of the sea would only very slowly rub the corners off the hard flint, this softer stone would eventually be worn and washed away, leaving the hole.

All the time I lived in Newhaven, we rarely visited the stoney beach, preferring instead the enclosed and sandy West Beach until it was preremptorily closed. But going back now, and walking the dogs at Tidemills and on the beach to the east (which has sand at low tide) we encounter a lot of pebbles. South coast, flinty, pebbles.

And, once you get your eye in, hagstones aren't that rare. I now aim to find at least one on each visit.

As a result, I now have forty-five. I put them out in the garden last summer, in the old stone sink, but this morning I brought them in, gave them a rinse, and laid them out on the washstand in the dining room. 

This was partly in recognition that they are - notwithstanding their relative abundance in Newhaven - rather special, and also to bring a little bit of seaside into the house deep in an inland winter.

I might also have knotted them onto a cord in various ways to hang outside the door, to keep away witches and evil spirits. Or I could protect the house by attaching a hagstone to my keyring (although I find a bottle opener more useful). I could hang one around my neck to fend off impish tricks. Perhaps my bathroom is particularly protected, as I have long had a hagstone as the pull on the end of the light switch cord.

In a couple of my stones, a little bit of shingle has got wedged immoveably within the hole.

Now they are indoors, I can get to know them better. We may not believe in their magic as such, but they are a constant source of wonder, and have the power to transport me back to the seaside, which is magic enough.


Sources of information:

Saturday 2 January 2021


I posted about my old furry (and otherwise textile) friends two years ago.  Eventually I brought them home in a cardboard box and stowed them - safely, so I thought - in the attic.

But when I went to look one of them out before Christmas, tragedy had struck the merry band, in the form of a vicious attack by moths.

In the case of Daisy and Bonny, this proved fatal. Some of the others also, to whom I wasn't particularly attached, have been banished as likely carriers.

On the plus side though, as a child (literally) of the sixties, most of my toys were made of synthetic fibres. So Jumbo Tint is unscathed apart from a tiny nibble to his velvet ear-lining, Mint the dog is no more dog-eared than previously, and Whisky the Crimplene rabbit remains pretty much indestructable as long as he stays away from hot irons.

They have all been quarantined in a big plastic bag pending treatment.

Today's reason to be cheerful: Finally getting a supermarket delivery slot for the first time since October.

Friday 1 January 2021


When I return from a train journey, I put any remaining tickets in a Measham jug on the mantelpiece.

Coming back as I do to Sheffield, where there is a right of way through the station, and hence no barriers, I nearly always have my return portion at least.

Yesterday evening, I took them out and sorted through them. I put them into date order, and laid out one for each journey.