Educating Molly

As part of my never-ending quest to keep the dog entertained, I bought Molly a Kong Treat Wobbler, which dispenses food when she plays with it. It’s like one of those Weebles you probably had as a kid*, in that you can knock it around but it returns to an upright position. And if you fill it with small treats (or bits of kibble), they fall out of a small hole in the side as the thing rolls around. Well instantly, that’s so much better than a Weeble… Continue reading

The dog’s new favourite place (other than the sofa)

A while ago, a fellow dog walker recommended that Natalie, Molly and I take a day trip to Saunton Sands in North Devon. She described it as some kind of dog heaven: miles and miles of sandy beach and, more importantly, no restrictions on our canine friends. I filed this information away somewhere in the deeper recesses of my brain and thought nothing more about it. Until one particularly sunny day last month, though, when we decided to leap in the car and give it a try.* Continue reading

Basecamp

As I sit here at my desk with a bit of a cold, staring at the rain pouring down outside and listening to the wind buffeting against the side of the house, I thought I’d cheer myself up (and avoid doing any work for a little bit longer) by sorting out my photos from my recent trip to Devon for a weekend of expedition training with the fantastic people at Monty Halls’ Great Escapes. Continue reading

A combe with a view

Last Saturday, with the weather being remarkably good for this time of this year (i.e. it wasn’t raining that much), Molly (my Labrador) and I decided to take a walk up Goblin Combe (pronounced ‘coom’, meaning ‘valley’), which is an area of woodland on the other side of the valley we live in. We’d wandered along some of the lower tracks before, but I thought it would be fun to explore the upper reaches of the hillside, too. 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!

The water dog

It turns out that Molly, who woofs manically whenever there’s anything new going on in the garden (or, indeed, anywhere in the broad vicinity of the house) is bizarrely at ease among kayaks and windsurfing boards.

At one point, I’d rolled the kayak onto its side to clean the bottom. I looked around to see where Molly had disappeared to and found her stretched out along the underside of the ‘yak. Fast asleep.

Molly the water dog. Definitely a hound after my own heart.

Dry Stone Walling 101

A couple of weekends back (yes, I’m a bit behind with my blog posts), I went on a two-day introduction to dry stone walling, run by the fantastic people at the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. I’d been nurturing a vague interest in dry stone walling for some time, so when I saw that there was a course on (quite literally) just down the road, I felt that it was some kind of sign – so signed up!

In case you haven’t come across dry stone walling before, it’s the craft of (as the name suggests) building a wall from stones, but without using any mortar. Dry stone walls are common in many parts of England, particularly in agricultural areas. Because the geology of each area is different, the style of walling varies to take account of the characteristics of the local stone.

Our task on the course was to dismantle an old wall (i.e. the one built by the people on the previous course a few months ago) and rebuild it from scratch. The first job was to take down the old wall down and to dig out the large foundation stones. It’s important to build directly onto the inert subsoil, as the topsoil is still breaking down and does not, therefore, provide a stable base. This means lots of digging.

At the end of which we were left with a satisfyingly large pile of stones, each sorted vaguely according to size…

…as well as a very nice trench. We used a frame and some string to mark where we wanted the wall to be. The wall is made up of two separate vertical layers, interlocking with each other, and with smaller stones filling the gaps in the middle. And the two layers slope inwards in a 1:6 ratio, providing additional stability. (I bet you didn’t think you’d be learning this when you started surfing the internet today…)

With our trench all marked out, we started relaying the foundation stones. We each worked on one section of one side of the wall, so we soon got to know each other quite well. And the agony of lugging massive stones around created an odd kind of bond in seemingly record time.

Thankfully, it was soon time for lunch. The course instructors were well prepared, with a gas stove to boil water for tea and a converted horse box with a toilet. (Yes, you read that correctly. It’s behind the white partition in the photo below.) To be honest, after weeks and weeks of doing ‘work’ work, I was really enjoying just being outside and doing some manual labour. I don’t know why, but it just feels more honest, somehow.

Inevitably, we were soon back at work. By this stage, the wall was starting to appear above ground level (always helpful in a wall) and we had to make sure that all of the stones were well fixed and didn’t move around. (The trick is to insert smaller stones from behind to get a solid fit.) While some parts of the country have lovely, uniform chunks of stone, the local pennant sandstone around here appears to be somewhat random. But if you look hard enough, I found, there’s almost always a stone to fit the gap you’re struggling with.

By the end of day one, our wall was almost certainly recognisable as such. Admittedly, it wouldn’t yet keep the cows in (I forgot to mention that we were working in a cow field, with the cows paying particular attention to our activities), but it was most definitely getting there.

You can see in the photo below how the stones overlap to create a solid structure. The mantra, apparently, is ‘one on two, two on one’, to make sure you don’t get any weak points. Admittedly, there are some fairly sizeable gaps between some of the stones, but please don’t forget that we were beginners, and so should be permitted a certain amount of leeway in such matters.

We were also fairly mucky by this stage, as the wind had been blowing the dirt around in little dust devils. I didn’t realise until I’d walked home quite how much like a vagrant I looked. Which explained why the wedding party I’d passed at the church had given me such a wide berth. In fact, I didn’t really get properly clean until about three days later.

On day two, we soon got cracking in adding height to our wall. By lunch time, it was already approaching the correct height – about 1.2 metres. And it hadn’t yet fallen over, which is always a good sign.

Next step was to add stones along the top, each tilted at 45 degrees. These help to stop the stones along the top from falling off, but mostly just look pretty.

With this final task done, we stepped back and admired our handiwork. We were, to be honest, all feeling a little bit pleased with ourselves. All except the chap in the camouflage jacket in the photo below. He’s Jon and he was our chief instructor. And he’s clearly wondering how he’s going to explain to the farmer why his perfectly good wall has been demolished and replaced with this rather wonky one.

In all fairness, I think our wall looked fairly good. Well made dry stone walls can last for millennia, so hopefully ours will survive at least until the next course comes along and rebuilds it.