This explains everything (or, at the very least, quite a lot)

I had an interesting conversation with my mother last night. That in itself is not, I hasten to add, sufficient reason to devote a blog post to it. But the topic of the conversation is, because it explains quite a lot about how our country has got itself into such a pickle about the European Union. Continue reading

Why I’m voting to remain in the European Union

I don’t remember much from my time at school, but one moment has remained in a dusty corner at the back of my mind for over twenty years.

I was at a weekend conference for teenagers to learn more about the European Union, which had brought together people like me from across the continent. And we spent a fun couple of days listening to and questioning representatives of the various EU institutions and learning about the different countries that we all called home.

On the first day, though, we’d all had to introduce ourselves and say where we came from. So there was me and a few others from the UK, some Germans, some Italians, and so forth.

But then this tiny, dark-haired girl from Spain stood up.

“Hello,” she said. “My name’s Maria. And I’m a European.”

A simple statement, maybe, but a profound one, too. And the cheering and applause that followed were as heartfelt as they were enthusiastic. Continue reading

A quick update

To say that things have been a little hectic recently would be somewhat of an understatement. And they haven’t really calmed down, to be honest. So I guess I’m just going to have to live with this new level of frenzied activity. Which means I’m going to have to become a whole lot more disciplined about setting aside time to, you know, eat, think… and write! Continue reading

Parental gardening support 101

My mother has big plans for her garden. And these plans, perhaps inevitably, involve a fair amount of digging, heavy lifting and general gorilla work. Which, perhaps even more inevitably, is where I come in. And so we found ourselves spending a tiring – but ultimately rather enjoyable – weekend tearing up a small portion of Somerset. Continue reading

A couple of days in Jersey (Day two)

I wrote last week about the first half of our recent visit to sunny Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. After a fairly hectic weekend, which saw my extremely jet-lagged wife returning from a week working in even sunnier Texas, I’m finally getting around to telling you about the second half.

We started day two of our adventure by wandering into the centre of St. Helier and taking a bus out to the western end of the island. Given that the previous day had been so glorious, we were somewhat surprised to find the whole island shrouded in a dense cloud of white. It was so foggy, in fact, that the airport was closed and they hadn’t even managed to fly in the morning newspapers.

We wandered northwards along the beach, listening to the sound of early morning surfers and dog walkers emanating from deep inside the murk. In the distance, we saw a group of horses and their riders out for their morning exercise. It was kind of spooky as they loomed up out of the mist, only to disappear again as they headed on their way. (In fact, we thought it might be the apocalypse, until we realised there were only three of them.)

After our walk, we leapt onto another bus (Jersey’s bus system is very good, by the way) to the Durrell Wildlife Park, one of the island’s main tourist attractions. As you can see from the photo below, by this time the weather had cheered up significantly, with the sun now just as brilliant as the day before. The newspapers were, no doubt, well on their way.

The wildlife park is home to all sorts of animals and birds, from gorillas to meerkats. (My wife would like me to point out at this juncture that she has been a fan of meerkats since long before they became famous and got their own adverts, TV series, etc.*)

The frogs were particularly photogenic…

They were also adept at posing for the camera. This little fella clearly has designs on his own TV or postcard franchise…

I was rather jealous of the Orang Utans, who had an amazing enclosure that I would have absolutely loved to have had as a kid. Admittedly, their native forests are being destroyed so that we can have cheap peanut butter (buy palm oil free peanut butter, people), but some of the lucky ones do get to hang out in places like this. Note in particular the one right at the front, who has found himself a sack to sit under.

I’m not sure whether zoos are a good or a bad thing, but if they can help more people to understand that animals like Orang Utans are essentially just like us but more hairy, and should be treated with respect, then that’s clearly a good thing. In fact, we should treat all animals with respect, whether they look a bit like us or not. Sorry, rant over.

Oh, and on a lighter note, we even had our very own ‘bigfoot’ moment…

As the weather got warmer, the animals sought out shelter wherever they could find it. The ducks, on the other hand, headed for the water to cool down. This one seemed to be having a particularly good time. (And despite the impressively huge fountain of water, I was surprised to see that the duck itself was actually really, really tiny.)

After the wildlife park, we caught another bus (I’ve never been on so many buses in just two days, or possibly even in my entire life) and headed out to Gorey, a fishing village on the eastern end of the island. Over the village looms the castle of Mont Orgueil, which was built in the early 1200’s to protect the island from the French. So yes, it is perhaps a little surprising that they decided to give it a french name. But it does provide a very stunning backdrop to the village, perched on its rock looking out to sea.

France is only a short hop across the water, so close that we could just see it through the haze. France is the darker line along the horizon, in case you’re wondering, not the little rock with the stick on it. That’s still Jersey.

Beneath the cliff, a little lobster boat pottered about just off the beach. They didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, but there again who would be on a day like this.

In fact, looking out across the tiny harbour from the end of Gorey pier, it’s difficult to see how anyone could want to be anywhere else. All in all, a great couple of days on a fantastic and extremely beautiful island. We’ll definitely be back.

* For any readers not in the UK who are wondering what on Earth I am talking about, I should point out that cuddly – though somewhat disturbing – meerkat toys are used in the UK to advertise a particular car insurance comparison website. And meerkats in the Kalahari – actual ones, this time – are the subject of a fairly long-running TV documentary series.

A couple of days in Jersey (Day one)

With much of the country having been battered for the last couple of days by storms and torrential rain, summer seems but a distant memory. So I’ve been cheering myself up by looking through the photos from Natalie’s and my recent trip to Jersey, our first (but definitely not last) visit to the Channel Islands.

We hadn’t had time for a summer holiday, so we decided to take a short midweek break. With flights and guest house booked, we got our skates on and headed south. As luck would have it, we’d chosen one of the sunniest weeks of the year. And the kids had already gone back to school, so things were nice and quiet, too.

We started off by having a look around St. Helier, the main town on the island and where we were staying for the duration of our visit. Here’s proof that we were there…

While one could be forgiven for thinking that Jersey is little more than a tax haven for the uber-rich, it has quite a significant maritime heritage. It also has a very excellent maritime museum, with a wide range of interactive exhibits highlighting the island’s close links to the sea. Adjoining the maritime museum is the, erm, tapestry museum. Not so much my cup of tea, to be honest, but OK if you’re into that kind of thing. I suppose.

Around the marina, whoever comes up with such things had been very busy developing some rather inspired maritime-related art. All along one side of the harbour, for example, were stone panels illustrating the Beaufort wind scale. Also making an appearance at various points were Morse code, international code flags, semaphore and the names of famous ships built in the boatyards that have long since been replaced by a shopping arcade.

As the afternoon drew on, we hopped on a bus to St. Brelade, a small town towards the western end of the island. It was a cracker of a day and the long, sandy beach was particularly appealing. But for once, rather than just loafing around on the sand, I was looking for something in particular. I’d read in a guidebook about an old parish church at the foot of the town (on the right in the photo below) and had been attracted in particular by the description of the old fisherman’s chapel next door.

There’s a strong bond between fishing communities and the church. Anyone who regularly sets out in small boats will know just how vast and unpredictable the sea is. And anyone who has ever wandered around the graveyard in a coastal town will know just how many seafarers go out but don’t come back. Faith – and superstition, too – is part of everyday life.

Anyway, here’s the chapel. Simple, I’d agree, yet all the more powerful because of it.

Outside, meanwhile, the sun continued to shine. And both the sea and the sky were such a vibrant blue, I seriously considered taking up banking and moving over permanently. (But don’t worry, the temptation was short-lived and my conscience soon regained control.)

Here’s looking the other way along the beach, back towards St. Brelade. For future reference, you can hire kayaks and paddleboards here.

Anyway, it was getting on time-wise by now, so we took the bus back to St. Aubin, half way between St. Brelade and St. Helier, and had dinner overlooking the harbour there. And after dinner, as the sun started to set, we wandered slowly along the promenade back towards St. Helier.

While the tourists headed to their hotels or hit the bars, the locals came out to walk their dogs or to jog along the beach. After a hectic day of financial wheeling and dealing, it was as if the island was taking a deep breath and settling in for the night. Which, on our arrival back at our hotel, is exactly what we did.

Meet the family

It’s my mother’s birthday today*, so at the weekend the whole family got together at her new house in Somerset for a bit of a celebration. It was also my youngest nephew’s first birthday and had just been my other nephew’s second, so there were many reasons to celebrate.

After much to-ing and fro-ing and several abortive attempts, we managed to get everyone together for a group photo. So here they are. This – for better or worse – is the family.

From left to right we have: Julia (sister), Me, Molly (Labrador), Natalie (wife), Edward (the nephew who’s two, Julia’s son), Sue (sister), Dave (Sue’s fiance), Vasco (Border Collie), Seth (Joe’s husband, and perhaps not the gangsta that he thinks he is), Hal (Border Collie), Mum, Otto (the nephew who’s one, Joe and Seth’s son), and Joe (sister).

Oh, and the statue of St. Francis on the far right of the shot is an actual statue. It’s not some kind of spooky apparition. Just wanted to nip that one in the bud.

* Happy Birthday, Mum!

Our little tribe

We had a relatively free day on Saturday, so decided to head out to the beach at Sand Bay near Weston-super-Mare. It was a bit of a grizzly day, but the grey clouds and grey sea made for a very atmospheric view across the Bristol Channel to Wales.

I was feeling quite energetic, so Molly and I did a bit of racing up and down the beach, while Natalie looked on in bemusement. Sand Bay is a very dog-friendly beach and possibly one of Molly’s favourite places. And I’d have to admit a certain fondness for it, too.

As we were wandering back up the beach, I noticed that quite a few other people had had the same idea as us. Stretched out along the mile or so of sand were several small groups of people – and dogs. Little tribes, much like our own, making the most of this grey day by the sea.

A day at the seaside

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie, Molly and I headed out to Weymouth for a day at the seaside. In case you’ve never been there, Weymouth is a medium sized town on the Dorset coast, now famous for having hosted the sailing events for the 2012 Olympic games. I spent several of my childhood years growing up in Dorset, so feel a close connection to the area.

We’ve been to Weymouth a few times before and have always been impressed by the town’s ability to be a tourist destination while also having it’s own identity and sense of purpose. The big draw, clearly, is the beach. It’s big, sandy and protected from the worst of the weather by the Isle of Portland to the south. Here’s what I’m talking about…

And here’s some more. As you can see, it’s a pretty family-friendly place, with the gentle slope of the beach making it ideal for adults and kids alike to play around in the water.

At the southern end of the beach, there’s an area where dogs are allowed, too. So this is where we inevitably ended up. In fact, Molly had seen the other dogs from about a mile away and had dragged us there at top speed. She’s not always a big fan of the water (I think she’s put off by the breaking waves), but today was an exception.

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like 32 kilograms of high speed, soaking wet Labrador…

But she seemed to be enjoying herself. So did Natalie. And so, for that matter, did everyone else. Including me.

Weymouth also has a very picturesque and incredibly busy harbour, with a good mix of working and pleasure craft. Here’s what greets you as you come in from the sea. Just the thing after a hard day’s sailing.

And here’s the view looking out from the main quayside area. The town is on both sides of the harbour, with the two areas managing to be both picturesque and bustling at the same time. In these current austere times, it’s nice to see a coastal town thriving like this. (And yes, I have considered moving there. I fact, I still am considering it…)

As we walked along the southern side of the harbour towards the sea, we came across some gig rowers taking part in a regatta. As coincidence would have it, this is a team from the Clevedon Pilot Gig Club, which I have recently joined. I don’t know how the team did in the race, so we’ll assume here that they absolutely destroyed the competition and won by several boat lengths.

And as we walked further, we came across a veritable nest of boats as they changed crews for the next race. Having now been gig rowing twice, I can confirm that it is, indeed, as much fun as it looks. Possibly even more fun, in fact.

We stopped for a little while to watch the rowers. Molly, for one, was enthralled.

At the entrance to the harbour is the imposing Nothe Fort, a massive fortified structure built in the 1860s and designed to protect nearby Portland Harbour. It’s now a popular tourist attraction as well as a reminder of the role that Weymouth and Portland played up until very recently as a major naval port.

The views from the area around the fort are fantastic. You can see why this part of the world is so popular with watersports enthusiasts and why the National Sailing Academy is based here.

We also stumbled across the rest of the gig racers, taking a break while their team mates took their turn at the oars. There was an incredibly sociable atmosphere, with people from the various teams sharing war stories over a beer and a barbecue. This, it struck me, is what sport is all about. Molly had the same idea, so I dragged her swiftly away from the barbecue and we continued on our way.

But not without a parting glance at the gigs waiting patiently at the start line for the next race. One day soon, this could be me…