Mary and I have been out and about quite a lot this year. A couple of trips had to be cancelled for health reasons but these turned out to be minor bumps on life’s sometimes rocky road. This year has also seen a notable rise in routine check-ups and medical preventative maintenance for me (bowel cancer screening, prostate examination, abdominal aortic aneurism scan, flu jab, eye test, hearing test, dental checks) and, although nothing untoward came up, it’s making me feel like an old man. I got my bus pass in October, too!
In May we joined the Charnwood U3A organisation and a few months later we both signed up for a couple of the U3A interest/activity groups. Mary joined the Philosophy group and one of the two Science & Technology groups; I put my name down for the Photography and Making Music groups. So there is now some competition for our leisure time between our Trent 36 friends and U3A.
Mary continues to teach English for the WEA, mainly to elderly women of Asian extraction. And Phil is still spending far too much time writing for his music blog, which now has its very own Internet domain.
Other events of note include: five theatre trips (one comedian, four detective/suspense plays), a free online course entitled Logical and Critical Thinking and the addition of a shower and storage units to the bathroom. For further details, read on …
Let’s start with the nearest thing to a proper holiday we had this year, a long weekend in Edinburgh with two other couples from the Trent 36 group.
We took advantage of a special offer to book first class tickets for the journey north. For some inexplicable reason no first class seats were available for the return journey. Having taken a local train from Loughborough to Grantham the station announcer there informed us that there had been some damage to the overhead power lines north of Newcastle. Some trains were delayed, some were cancelled and passengers for Edinburgh and beyond were advised to get the next train and change at York. That wasn’t too bad – we had booked seats on that service and the first class tickets entitled us to a free breakfast. If the journey took a little longer at least we would be suitably refreshed and prepared for whatever the privatised rail network could throw at us.
It had been an early start and we were soon ready for that breakfast meal. Stewards came and went with no sign of any food being served so we enquired politely. At first we were assured that breakfast would be served shortly. When rumbling tummies prompted us to ask again the response was somewhat disheartening. “Oh, no, there’s no food on this train”. “But, we thought …”, our spokesman stammered and it soon became clear that the stewards really had no idea what was supposed to be provided. What was quite clear, though, was that we wouldn’t be getting our complimentary breakfast.
At York we left the train as advised. We didn’t have any choice as it was terminating there. There was time to grab some brunch from one of the station cafés and get the latest information from the display boards and announcements. Our best bet seemed to be to get the next train to Edinburgh no matter how many stops it would make or what its final destination might be. When it came it was crowded. Our party bundled on and searched in vain for seats. There were none. We had reserved first class seats but, of course, they were on the train we had just left. With grim determination we parked ourselves in the doorway along with half a dozen other disgruntled passengers and their luggage. And there we stayed like cattle in a truck for the next two and a half uncomfortable hours.
It was early afternoon when we got to Edinburgh Waverley station. With a huge sense of relief we eased our weary bodies out of the carriage, flexed our stiff limbs and trundled our wheeled suitcases through the streets of Scotland’s capital city to our hotel. After checking in the six of us gathered in the lounge and set off to climb nearby Calton Hill. It was a glorious sunny afternoon and there were spectacular views across the Forth estuary to the north, Arthur’s Seat to the south and out over the city towards the castle in the west. (Follow the Edinburgh link above for some photos.)
We stayed three nights in Edinburgh. That first evening we chose a smart-looking hotel restaurant, The Blue Thistle, for our evening meal. The food was satisfying, the prices were reasonable and, perhaps because we had the restaurant to ourselves, our waiter was attentive without being intrusive. It was a pleasant way to round off our first day.
On day two each couple prepared separate itineraries. Mary and I headed out to the zoo. There’s plenty to see there but the main attraction is a famous pair of pandas. We were told we had about a 50% chance of seeing a panda as they spent much of the time hidden away in the private den at the back of their enclosure. We loitered there for 10 to 15 minutes but, sadly, no panda appeared for us. As if to make up for that disappointment we were treated to a most unusual (human) wedding procession – a Scottish groom in a kilt, a Chinese bride in a white wedding dress, bridesmaids in brightly coloured oriental costume – and the whole party made quite a picture as they assembled by the penguin pool for photographs. (I have a few photos but to respect the couple’s privacy I haven’t published them.)
That evening all six of us decided to see Cats, which was having its last night in Edinburgh, and dropped into an Italian restaurant for a quick pre-theatre meal. There was one committed fan of musicals in our party; the rest of us had more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. We’d have preferred to have gone to see Sarah Milliken but her show was fully booked. The theatre was about two thirds full and there were several unoccupied rows in front of our moderately priced seats giving us a good, but distant view of the stage. (See photo.) It was rather warm, though, in the theatre and the performance was less than captivating. The musicians and the actors put everything into it but the songs just didn’t stir my emotions. At the interval four of us decided not to bother with the second half leaving our one enthusiast to enjoy the rest of the show with Mary for company.
For the morning of our last full day (a Sunday) our organiser-in-chief had recommended a guided tour of Mary King’s Close. In Edinburgh a ‘close’ is a narrow street with many-storeyed buildings on either side. There are lots of them spreading out like ribs from the backbone of the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close has been thoroughly researched and our guide, dressed as she was in period costume, did a splendid job of telling us the history of the close and its inhabitants. If you’re ever in Edinburgh I can heartily recommend it.
In the afternoon Mary and I walked into the suburbs to visit Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. It drizzled on the way but the rain stopped when we got to the gardens and we had a very enjoyable stroll around the lawns and flower beds. Then, in the evening, we all met up for dinner at a small restaurant called The Educated Flea. Of the three restaurants we patronised over the weekend this was my favourite. It had a pleasant relaxed atmosphere, the food was very good and the service was friendly. (If you Google it, ignore the Indian Restaurant description. The menu is actually quite varied and none of it is Indian!)
The next day we had some free time in the morning before our train home so Mary and I wandered up and down the Royal Mile where I took some typical tourist photos. The return journey was mercifully uneventful and we arrived home physically tired but mentally reinvigorated.
As far as short trips are concerned, as that old Johnny Cash song has it, I’ve been everywhere, man! Well, not everywhere but too many places to write about them all here. Instead, here’s a list of the photo albums I’ve added to my flickr site this year together with a brief description of the place/event. If a picture is worth a thousand words this lot must be a whole novel. (N.B. Access to the Gung Ho! album is restricted to family members only.)
- Hodsock Priory – snowdrops and daffodils
- Ticknall Tramway – reconnoitre for a Trent 36 walk
- Trentham Gardens – parkland, gardens and some wonderful sculptures
- Lea Gardens – rhododendrons and more
- Wymeswold Open Gardens – annual show, with sculptures this year
- Edinburgh – see above
- Felley Priory Gardens – pretty house and even prettier gardens
- Belvoir Castle – castle and extensive gardens
- Donington le Heath Manor – attractive 1620s house and gardens
- Doddington Hall – hall, gardens and lots of sculptures
- Countryside Show – local food, crafts and demonstrations
- Rockingham Castle – homely castle and gardens
- Market Bosworth Country Park – with photo of a wild muntjac deer
- Gung Ho! [restricted access] – obstacle course run for Children In Need
- Watermead Country Park – wetland park on the edge of Leicester
- Bradgate Park – old hunting park and a favourite haunt
- Rosliston Forestry Centre – trees, grass, gardens and play area
- Leicester University Botanic Garden – a floral jewel in the city suburbs
- Castle Ashby Gardens – a glorious Halloween in Northants
- Rushcliffe Country Park – trees in autumn colours
- Ashby de la Zouch – a U3A photographic treasure hunt
- Nottingham Xmas Fair – U3A Photography group outing
I’d particularly like to draw your attention to the fairy sculptures in the Trentham Gardens album. The picture of the muntjac deer in Market Bosworth Country Park is nice, too. I’m not sure who was more surprised, myself or the deer.
On St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) we hosted an evening of Limericks, Guinness Cake and Irish Coffee for Trent 36. Attendees were invited to write their own limericks or choose some from a book or a suitable online source and recite them for our entertainment. We had some excellent original verses and the evening went rather well. I’m thinking of offering a franchise agreement if you would like to use the idea for your own event. 😉
Other T36 events included: the Edinburgh trip, a scrumptious barbecue hosted by Richard and Sarah, a couple of short walks, a coffee evening or two, dinner chez nous with Guy and Sue while their kitchen was being refitted, a Christmas meal at Ashmore’s Restaurant in Radcliffe-on-Trent and the traditional mince pies and mulled wine evening.
Charnwood U3A has regular monthly meetings open to all members and some 80+ groups with particular interests. Mary and I went to the monthly meeting in May as guests before joining. We had just missed a new members meeting and there was no monthly meeting in June to allow for holidays so we didn’t immediately sign up for any of the groups.
The monthly meetings usually take the form of a talk followed by tea/coffee and biscuits. The topic of the first talk we went to was “cheese” and the speaker had brought three trestle tables full of smelly cheeses for the audience to see and sample. Now, I don’t like cheese and I had to sit several rows back to avoid the pungent cheesiness but from there I was able to savour the side salad of words and slides.
Other monthly meetings we attended included a talk by our local Police and Crime Commissioner (Lord Willy Bach) about his role as PCC, a fascinating account of one local woman’s journey across South America from the high Andes to the Amazon basin, a biography of the Arts and Crafts architect and builder Ernest Gimson and a rather rambling talk entitled “So You Think You’re British?”.
Mary and I were encouraged to join several of the U3A groups at the new members meeting in October. Having bought a new camera (a Canon EOS 100D) the previous month I was particularly keen to sign up for the Photography group. I also made a point of having a chat with the organiser of the Making Music group that is currently being set up. Mary got involved with the Philosophy group and one of the two Science and Technology groups. I think I put my name down for Science and Technology, too, although that was more of an afterthought.
As it turns out the Science and Technology groups both meet on Thursday mornings when Mary can’t go because she is working. The programme did, however, list a talk entitled Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO). Having worked for a company that makes equipment for laying and repairing pipelines under the North Sea that sounded interesting and I went along.
PLUTO was a second world war project to design, manufacture and lay pipelines to carry fuel from England across the English Channel first to Cherbourg and, later, Ambleteuse near Calais in support of the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The technical information in the talk is readily available online but the speaker has done a considerable amount of personal research. He was able to show us photos of all sorts of buildings, rusted old pipework and marker posts that are still visible on the Isle of Wight and on the mainland across the Solent. It was that personal connection that made it interesting.
So far I have been to four Photography group meetings:
- a macro workshop in which we took photos of small items such as old circuit boards, disassembled watches and coins;
- a “treasure hunt” in Ashby de la Zouch with the theme of opposite pairs;
- a talk by a director of the Charnwood Arts organisation in which he showed us some really impressive photos he took in the course of his work with Charnwood Arts and for private commissions
- an outing to Nottingham Xmas Fair at dusk
Mary has participated in two Philosophy group meetings in one of the member’s homes. At the first meeting the topic for discussion was Nietzsche and his ideas. Now, I always thought philosophy was a discipline that applies rational thinking to some of the deeper, most perplexing problems of our age but I didn’t find much logic in the handouts that Mary brought home – not even in the factual summary of Nietzsche’s work. To say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. Perhaps I had been spoilt by the FutureLearn course I took back in the Spring. And that brings me to …
Logical and Critical Thinking
Some time around the end of last year or the beginning of this I saw an announcement for a free online course called Logical and Critical Thinking run by the University of Auckland in New Zealand. It started by saying that “we are constantly called upon to use our critical and logical thinking but most of us are not that good at it”. It then promised to help us to recognise and evaluate arguments that we come across in the news and the myriad of other communication channels that bombard us with a never ending stream of facts and opinions. I couldn’t resist it.
The course started on 29th February and ran for eight weeks. The first four weeks covered the definition of an argument, how to recognise one, how to put it into a standard form and how to assess its validity and strength. Over the next three weeks we applied what we had learnt to well-rehearsed arguments in the fields of science, morals and law. In the final week we looked at an argument ‘in the wild’, specifically the question of whether we should all become vegans.
The course was excellent. In fact, in my end of course comments I expressed the opinion that something like it should be a compulsory component of every secondary school curriculum. I am now much better equipped to deal with fervent evangelists when they knock on my door – and rather less inclined to humour them.
Sounds New To Me
In February we went on an expedition in search of Hi-Fi sound for the TV and video recorder. We investigated soundbars but the ones that sounded good didn’t fit on the coffee table we are using as our TV cabinet. We considered a home cinema system but most of those deliver 5.1 surround sound through speakers in all four corners of the room and there’s nowhere for us to put the rear speakers. In the end we settled on a Bose SoundTouch 220, a simple home cinema system with a pair of small mid-range speakers and a bass module.
Not only does the SoundTouch sound nice, it also streams music from the computer in the study to the speakers in the living room over the wi-fi. So I can now listen to my music downloads in comfort without having to burn CDs. In fact, it has made the old Hi-Fi system obsolete. One of these days I must find a good home for it.
Once again I have the BBC’s 6 Music radio station to thank for bringing my attention to lots of good music this year. Stand out tracks include:
- All Flowers In Time (Bend Towards The Sun) by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser
- Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez
- Burn the Witch (for a terrific video) by Radiohead
I also recommend the following artists/bands that I hadn’t heard a year ago:
- The Pineapple Thief (see Magnolia, Fend For Yourself)
- Kate Tempest (see Let Them Eat Chaos)
- Hidden Orchestra, my band of the year 2016 (see Archipelago)
All track and artist links are to entries on my Crotchety Man blog where you can find my reasons for loving them.
Although it doesn’t qualify as ‘new’ I’ll also mention here that one of the Trent 36 chaps and myself went to see Soft Machine in late November. I have now seen them three times, more than any other (relatively) well-known band. I saw them at the Greyhound, Croydon around 1972 and at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon around 1973. So that’s a 43 year gap between the second and third live show I attended.
Amazingly, two of the four members of the current line-up had joined the band by the time of that 1973 gig: John Marshall on drums and Roy Babbington on bass. Even John Etheridge on guitar has been with them since 1975. The fourth member, Theo Travis, has only been in the band for about 10 years but he proved perfectly capable of filling the horn and keyboard slot vacated by Karl Jenkins in the ’80s.
There’s a piece about the concert on the Crotchety Man blog here.
Towards the end of May, having spent weeks trying to find a plumber, work started on installing a shower over the bath and replacing the toilet and pedestal wash basin with some built-in units. The idea was to provide the option of a shower for visitors, add some storage and have a shelf on which to put tooth brushes, contact lens cases and the other paraphernalia of a bathroom in everyday use.
There were a couple of hiccups along the way. At one point there was a tremendous crash and I went up to find the plumber sitting on the bathroom floor with a stunned expression on his face. He had fixed the new washbasin firmly (he thought) to the wall, but when he let go the heavy piece of china slipped free of its fixings and, before he could react, it had come crashing down and smashed. The whole episode was too tragic for words, even swear words. Fortunately, though, there was no other damage to the new units, the wall or the intrepid installer himself. “I’ll have to order another basin”, said the plumber. And we left it at that.
From the measurements it seemed as though the new vanity unit would completely cover the part of the floor where the old pedestal washbasin had stood. The hole left in the vinyl wouldn’t be visible so we hadn’t planned to repair or replace the flooring. Unfortunately, when it came to fit the unit, it became obvious that the ugly wound in the floor would show and that it would spoil the overall effect. As the plumber and his mate had agreed that this problem wouldn’t occur they could hardly object when we asked them to delay the installation of the units until we had had a chance to lay some new flooring.
In the end we had some attractive wood-effect vinyl flooring laid, the plumbing team returned and fitted the storage units and our bathroom upgrade was essentially completed around the end of June. All that we need now is for Mary to find something she likes as a splashback to go above the shelf/worktop and our swanky new bathroom will be truly finished.
Back to School
In November of last year I received an invitation to lunch at my old school, St. Dunstan’s College. The invitation was sent to those who, in the normal course of events, would have left in the period 1930 – 1970. That meant that I just scraped in. If it wasn’t for the fact that I stayed on to do the Oxbridge entrance exam I would have left in 1970. As my dad also qualified for this event it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So, on 18th June, Mary and I got the train down to Catford station, met my dad’s train when it arrived at Catford Bridge and the three of us strolled round the corner to the school.
The buildings haven’t changed all that much since I was last there some 45 years ago. Several headmasters have come and gone since then, of course, and the school has been independent of local authority finance for some time but the biggest change is that what was a boy’s school has become co-educational. Surprisingly, the school ethos doesn’t seem to have changed much at all and the atmosphere was spookily familiar.
We had an appetising lunch, browsed the photos and memorabilia and chatted to some of the other guests. We had been promised a tour of the school and a video interview with one of the prefects about our school days but there was no time for either of those things before the scheduled end time of 3 p.m. and we had to leave to catch our trains back home. It was an interesting experience, though.
I had a funny turn in August passing out embarrassingly in the theatre. From my description of it the doctor seemed to think it was just a simple faint but when Mary gave her account he decided it needed further investigation. He arranged an ECG, which showed nothing abnormal, and sent me to see a neurologist. The neurologist appointment wasn’t until 5th December. After hearing our accounts the specialist arranged for a 24 hour ECG and an MRI scan, and told me to inform the DVLA of the situation. Unfortunately, that means I am not allowed to drive at the moment.
I’m due to be fitted with an ECG monitor on 11th January. The MRI scan is yet to be scheduled. We shall have to see what, if anything, those investigations turn up.
In summary, then, Mary and I have both had health issues this year but nothing that has (so far) threatened to impinge significantly on our full and busy lives. Not being able to drive is annoying but it has its compensations – I get chauffeured everywhere now!
All that remains is for me to wish all my family, friends and other readers a Merry Christmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year.