(Newest entries first)

Star

I had a couple of hours to spare so went down to Swindon's STEAM museum to watch a homecoming.

Back in the town where she was built, 48 years ago, was Evening Star, the last steam locomotive built by British Railways - although, as of last month, not the last steam locomotive to be built (see here).

Evening Star is to be displayed at STEAM for the next couple of years, while King George V is swapped with the National Railway Museum in York. I know all this because I've been doing some PR work for STEAM. This gave me access to the museum, tonight, that the general public didn't usually get, so I could get some pictures from the other side of the fence, and I even ended up chatting with the Mayor of Swindon, who is a railway fan (although he's not actually from Swindon).









Blackpool Lite

OK, we give up. This weekend we finally surrendered to the worst summer of weather ever known. Cold, rain, wind and - worst of all - unpredictability, have been the hallmark of the last three months, and this weekend was the perfect example.

We intended to stay for three nights of camping at Clitheroe in Lancashire, including a day trip from there to Blackpool - mainly because the kids in our party (which ultimately didn't include Sean anyway) could go to the Pleasure Beach.

Well, the signs weren't even good before we went because the people at the campsite phoned to warn us that the ground was very soggy. Maurice and Jacky therefore decided, rightly, not to bother, but as we had promises to fulfil to the kids, we decided to go ahead and travel, although we also started to have second thoughts during the journey up on Sunday morning. With grey skies and drizzle, we still went to the campsite, but only to check that it was as sodden as they said, and with the updated forecast promising heavy showers for days, we checked into a Travelodge for one night instead, cutting short the trip. Blackpool was fully booked, so we stayed in Preston on Sunday night - which wouldn't be top of many people's places to spend any kind of holiday.

The weather never did turn out as bad as forecast (if there's been one thing worse than the weather this year it's been the accuracy of the forecast). In fact, Monday, which we spent at Blackpool, was pleasant enough, but, later, the conditions were certainly not camping-friendly, so we had made the right decision.

All this meant we ended up spending a day and a half in Blackpool, whereas the original plan was a day there and a couple of days relaxing by the tent. This changed the character of the trip completely, plunging us into the bizarre world of British seaside holidays that you might have thought had disappeared forever. But the 'Kiss me quick' hat mentality is still thriving up there, with the only thing missing being hats that actually say 'Kiss me quick'. Otherwise, all that stuff is still bringing the crowds in - chips, doughnuts, rock, shows with old-fashioned stand-up comedians, ice shows, even gypsy women telling fortunes in booths on the prom. And the old-fashioned Pleasure Beach is still going strong too, I'm glad to say.

When we went to Blackpool last, about 15 years ago, we were taken aback by how scruffy the Pleasure Beach was, but it's been modernised a bit since then and has a handful of modern rides to go with The Big One, which was then brand new. It's still a long way from Florida in slickness, mind - a very, very long way indeed, but it does have a certain appeal.

In fact, the rides are excellent, especially the three wooden rollercoasters, which I had never ridden before. They all looked like they might fall down at any moment and all drastically needed several coats of paint. One didn't get working all day and another finally came to life late in the afternoon. This turned out to be the treat of the weekend - a famous rollercoaster called The Grand National, which has two cars, running side by side, as if racing, while whizzing round a very up-and-down course. Built in 1935, it's rattly, rickety and fast, and makes you feel as if the car is going to jump off the rails. I am sad enough to keep a mental league table of favourite rollercoasters in my head, and instantly installed it as my number three - behind the sublime one at Great Yarmouth and the massive Gwazi at Busch Gardens in Florida. Almost impressive but different in character is The Big One, the tallest, steepest and fastest in Europe, which is a superb ride by any standards.

There were several other rides that impressed too, including the 104-year-old Sir Hiram Maxim Flying Machines*, the Steeplechase - carousel-style horses that travel along a track at a surprisingly scary speed, and Avalanche, a rollercoaster that leaves the rails to travel down a banking bobsleigh track.

I enjoyed Blackpool more than I expected. The Illuminations are worth seeing, the Tower - even though you can't go up it in the evening unless you've forked out for show tickets - is impressive, the trams are quaint (we rode in one) and the Pleasure Beach has its charm, but I have to say that the strongest memory of Blackpool will be the litter that seemed to be everywhere - especially having seen how they do tourism in Florida, which is spotless. From the hordes of people who still flock to Blackpool, I can only assume that visitors are happy to put up with the squalor.

Actually, our abiding memory of the trip will be the scene when we got back to Preston, where we had left our trailer full of redundant camping stuff at the hotel, ready to collect on the way home. Somebody had selfishly parked their car in front of it, blocking it in. With the comical duty manager no help, it took us an hour to track down the owner, and when he finally came to move the offending car, he offered no apology whatsoever for the inconvenience he'd caused. By now it was 10.30pm and we faced a three-and-a-half hour drive home... through torrential rain, naturally.

*Sir Hiram Maxim built the Flying Machines to raise money for his attempt to be the first man to fly a measured mile.

Some of the pictures are only suitable for people who like trams and wear anoraks...






















Great ashtrays of the World II

One thing that is very noticeable if you walk around Blackpool is the large proportion of visitors who still smoke.

We reckoned that you would see at least twice as many - possibly as many as three times - smokers on the prom as compared with, say, Swindon town centre. Since the ban on smoking in public places, 14 months ago, everywhere else has seen a sharp drop in smokers, but in Blackpool it seems to go hand-in-hand with its old-fashioned image.

Indeed, far from shunning them, like elsewhere, Blackpool goes out of its way to accommodate smokers, as this tempting offering in the Pleasure Beach souvenir shop proves. I'm not sure whether you are supposed to carry it around with you or stick it in the ground when you're at the beach or outside the pub, in the cold and rain.

See Great Ashtrays of the World, part one from September 2007.

Swinging sixty

The story of my brother Ron's heart transplant is now well known. He's been on the front of the Swindon Advertiser three times this year, has featured in a documentary on national TV and will even be on the front cover of Papworth Hospital's (ie, the world's leading heart hospital's) annual report, so a party to ostensibly celebrate his 60th birthday but probably more to celebrate the fact that he is around to celebrate it, was going to have to go some to live up to expectations.

But it did.

About 150 family and friends descended on the Moonrakers pub for a bit of a dance, a poignant speech and a fundraising raffle* that all went down very well indeed (and, with donations, raised an impressive 1,730 for Papworth Hospital).

I was originally down to play a bigger part, our band hoping to be able to play, but that was scuppered by some very unlucky clashes of dates. With hindsight, though, I'm quite relieved as the pressure would have been on, because our band haven't actually played together in front of a proper audience yet - and I never have.

Besides, it went very nicely anyway, and you wouldn't have wanted it to have been any different. I did have some indirect input, helping to put together a slideshow of pictures from Ron's life - a kind of This Is Your Life which ended with the five of us (me, my sister and three brothers) donning Rolf Harris glasses and beards and then leading the rest of the party on a singalong to Two Little Boys, which sort of recreated a Christmas party at home in 1969. All very surreal and bizarre, really, but not half as surreal and bizarre as wishing a happy 60th birthday to a brother whose heart isn't 60 years old.

And possibly most surreal and bizarre of all is suddenly finding yourself old enough to have a brother who's 60.

*Our number was one of the first out of the hat, naturally, us being extremely good at winning raffles, and we came home with a cap and gloves signed by Swindon's two-times Ryder Cup golfer, David Howell (whose brother is the partner of my neice, Claire, so is almost family).

Party pictures are notoriously bad at capturing the atmosphere, but here are some, anyway...









Doing the locomotion

Today was another day when I was able to remind myself that, no matter how frustrating and thankless and badly paid my job sometimes gets, at least I have some days when it's nothing if not interesting.

Of course, not everybody would be quite as interested in some of the things I have to do, but when you get the job of finding out all about somebody moving a 100-ton historic Swindon-built steam locomotive and writing a press release about it, you have to say that it's one of your more interesting ones.

Next Wednesday, Swindon's railway museum, called STEAM, is taking delivery of Evening Star - the last steam locomotive built by British Railways, which they will be exhibiting for a couple of years. Though built in Swindon, she (steam locos are female) hasn't been 'home' for more than 30 years, and the sight of her coming through the streets of town on a lorry should generate plenty of local media interest - regardless of whether my press release is much good or not.

I had to phone up the haulier and had an interesting chat with him. He turned out to be the kind of chap who sees bringing massive things down the motorway from County Durham and owning several steam locos of his own as no big deal, so was very easy to interview. He also told me something that would have been at the top of my press report, if I'd written it - "There are two railways in the world: the GWR and the rest." Which, of course, is correct.

Old friends, Olympics, walkies and giggly girls

A nice, chilled-out Bank Holiday weekend Sunday today, with some unexpected pleasures.

In the morning we turned the clock back five and a half years when we were visited by friends Karen and Gary Watts and their three kids - now all much taller than when we last saw them, more than four years ago (still not sure why this should be a surprise as they are hardly likely to get shorter). We all got to know each other after one of the boys, Charlie*, was Sean's friend at infant school, but they all moved away to live in Manchester.

It's funny how you can slip back into conversation with people, as if no time has elapsed, even though you've only kept in contact through text/email (Julie with Karen). So our plan is to meet up, somewhere in-between our two homes, for some camping and conversation, and probably curry.

Early afternoon was spent watching the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, which included the handover to London. I can't say I was particularly impressed by the sight of London mayor Boris Johnson, struggling to wave the Olympic flag without dropping it. Julie said he was literally a clown - which isn't quite right, but only because he doesn't wear a red nose and big shoes. I take her point, though. Boris notwithstanding, I'm already looking forward to the London games, if only because it will show all those cynical people who are already gathering, like vultures, hoping to see it fall flat on its face, proved wrong. Only 1,430 days to go - and I'll be there.

This evening, we got the surprisingly enjoyable job of walking next door's dog. They are away for a night, celebrating their first wedding anniversary (although they have been living together much longer). A friend usually looks after their pets when they're away, but we were needed for walkies at 10.30pm. Tara, the dog, knew where to go and was happy to amble along (despite being a greyhound) and do plenty of sniffing, and could not have realised how much we enjoyed it, this being the first time I have walked a dog in many years. As cat lovers, dogs are a pleasure we rarely get.

The day was rounded off by four giggly girls involved in Holly's sleepover (Rachael, Amber, Megan, Holly). With an unusually dry weather forecast, we decided to pitch the tent in the back garden. With both nextdoor neighbours away, we thought that it would be a safe way of distancing ourselves from the giggling. But we could still hear it indoors at 1.30am.

*Charlie is Charlie Watts - thus sharing his name with the Rolling Stones' drummer. I always remember that his music teacher was particularly proud to tell others that he taught Charlie Watts how to drum.

Huckleberry finished

That must be a record - nearly four whole months to read a single book, and not a very long one at that (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

The delay was partly caused by the holidays, ironically. I had already nearly finished the book when I took it on holiday to Florida, but whereas some people spend their whole holidays reading books, our feet hardly touch the ground when we go away, so I never get round to reading any of the books I take. And then, when we got back, I made the mistake of not putting it handy - say, in the bathroom.

Anyway, I finally got round to finishing it today, and found it even better than the only other Mark Twain book I've ever read (earlier this year), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - mainly because Huckleberry Finn is a better character. Indeed, his book takes a severe dive when Tom Sawyer turns up, near the end, and the plot gets pretty silly.

Otherwise, it's a great book, simply because it is beautifully written. Although essentially a children's book, it's only for kids in the same way that The Simpsons is, working on different levels, and at times is quite dark, again like Tom Sawyer. It's not often that I read any fiction, but this was definitely worth the effort, and I'm going to return to read some more Mark Twain eventually. Ironically, it will be non-fiction next time because he wrote a book about his life as a riverboat pilot, which is interesting for several reasons.

In the meantime, it's back to the non-fiction...

Ten out of ten

Well, Sean's GCSE results have arrived and... roll on the drums... he passed the lot!

He got five grade Bs and five grade Cs, so now has ten O Levels - two more than I got myself! And it's five more passes and three more Bs than he needed to go to New College to do the A Levels he has chosen - music, music technology, English language/literature and business studies.

He certainly deserved it because of the hard work he put in during the last year and leading up to the exams - and he's done especially well considering he passed his Grade 8 in drums in the midst of it all, which required loads of practice.

Needless to say, he is pretty proud of himself, but not half as proud as his parents.

Band on a run

Our band - still unnamed - is back on course and sounding good. At least, it sounds good from where I'm sitting.

We have a new bass player, Des, who seems very keen, and immediately slotted into tonight's rehearsal/practice at Bourton, our new practice venue. I enjoy playing there - although 'enjoy' may be a bit strong as I'm still finding it all a huge challenge. At least playing with live people makes you improve, and I can feel myself improving. It's also encouraging to have some very talented guitar playing to hide behind. I figure that the better that gets, the less they are going to be listening to me.

The problem is that some of the songs that we play, which seem simple enough, such as Brown Eyed Girl and The Last Time, have to be just right and have some bits where you'd really mess it up if you did the drumming wrongly. Then you get others which sound difficult - Honky Tonk Woman and Sweet Home Alabama - but are surprisingly easy to play because it's a simple beat and you get to throw in some random fills that just come naturally and sound fairly impressive.

The more I play, the more I am convinced that drumming is all about one thing - finding the very fine line between strict discipline and a laid-back style. If you can relax while still being precise, you've cracked it. Slowly, very slowly, I'm getting there, but now it gets serious because we are getting to the stage where we will soon be playing in front of an audience. If asked, we could probably do that right now and mostly get away with it, although it would be a bit rough round the edges.

Soft option

Holly has had to wear glasses for a little while, having inherited the Carters' blind as bats genes, and today she got her first contact lenses.

She's suddenly decided she wants them, even though, a few weeks ago, she was adamant that she'd rather carrying on wearing glasses. I'm not sure what brought the sudden change of mind. Amazingly, she went into town not knowing whether she would be able to have them - some minor concerns over being diabetic and being only 13 - but came home wearing disposable ones.

This is a far cry from when I had my first lenses. I had to take my sister Carol along to my appointment, so she could guide me round town and stop me bumping into things, because they were so uncomfortable that I could hardly look up. They were old-fashioned hard lenses, which I soon got used to, though I later progressed to gas-permeable, which I still wear - and which are also now old-fashioned.

Then again, come November I will have been wearing contact lenses - all day, every day - for 30 years.

Camping without the carry-on

We've just got back from a very successful camping trip - and one that was against all the odds, weatherwise.

This was another big family camping expedition, with not only me, Julie and Holly going along, but also my two brothers Maurice (with Jacky) and Brian (with Sarah, Lucy and James) plus two new converts to life under canvas (nylon, actually) - my nephew Mark and his wife Maxine.

We very nearly didn't go because of the weather forecast, which really couldn't make up its mind. And neither could the weather itself. We had a lot of rain during the weekend (Saturday morning to Monday afternoon) but, amazingly, only a few drops fell on our heads. The worst of it came during both nights, with a real downpour on Sunday/Monday, but apart from having to go inside the tent for evening drinks on Sunday, we weren't put out.

Although camping at Graffham in Sussex - a nice, foresty site with pitches between the trees - we travelled a bit, exploring Emsworth and Chichester on Saturday, which were both pretty pleasant, then Portsmouth on Sunday.

There is so much to see at Portsmouth now that we decided we'd have to return, possibly later in the year, to see the stuff we didn't get round to this time. What we did get round to was going up the impressive 170-metre Spinnaker tower, which gives stunning views over the city and harbour, plus Southsea, Gosport and the Isle of Wight. There are also plates of glass in the floor on the lowest of the upper decks, so you can 'walk on air', which is mildly scary and pretty cool to do.

A short walk away are the historic docks, and we visited both the Victory (Nelson's flagship on which he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805) and the Mary Rose (Henry VIII's flagship which sunk in the harbour in 1545 and was raised in 1982).

I've been on the Victory many times and was prepared to miss it out if it meant more time seeing the other attractions, but in the end decided to stay with the rest - and was glad I did. Previous visits have always been on guided tours, and this time there was either more to see than I remembered, or more time, or both. I've always been bothered by just how much of the ship is genuine and how much is restoration, but the chance to see such areas as the hold and the gunpowder store, as well as the other bits I remembered from before, such as where Nelson fell and died, gave a good picture of how the ship functioned.

After that we went in to see (for my second visit) the remains of the Mary Rose - which, as everybody knows, isn't much. It's less than half of one side of the ship, and falling to pieces, to be honest, but in its climate-controlled room, where it is constantly sprayed with a water/wax solution to preserve it, it's an impressive, eerie sight. You also get a good impression of its size - which is quite small, being about twice the length of a canal narrowboat, but with four or five decks.

What lots of people don't realise is that there were masses of well-preserved and absolutely fascinating artefacts recovered along with the old timber - 19,000 in all, and many personal items that gave a good picture of the sailors' lives. Most significant for me was the master carpenter's rulers, which, like the rest of his tools, were pretty crude and almost seemed home-made, with not all the inches marked on the ruler being the same. Yet they were from the most celebrated ship of Henry VIII's fleet. It demonstrated how primitive Tudor times were. After all, the Mary Rose sank 250 years before Victory was even built.

After a nice curry in the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower, we left Portsmouth, sadly leaving me no time to retrace any of my steps from the year I spent at college there in a past life. All I got was a tantalising glimpse from the tower of the Still & West, a charming pub with upstairs and downstairs bars, which I went to a few times when I was a student. I always did like Portsmouth/Southsea, but the way they've developed the harbourfront now also makes it an excellent tourist destination, where we'll definitely return to soon.

With the rain ending at exactly the right time for us to get our tent down and packed away dry, we were pretty relieved that our luck never ran out. This was our first outing with our new tent, recently bought, which has turned out to be a very good buy, especially as putting it up and putting it away is much less stressful than our previous one, which we've never really got on with.

We made some brief stops - at Petworth and Midhurst - before driving home through miserable grey weather, and still none of it on our heads.


The pictures:

The Spinnaker Tower...



..with its glass floor...





..and its view of the harbour mouth (including the Still & West)...



..Portsmouth and Southsea...





..and three generations of warship (the Ark Royal, left, Victory, centre, and Warrior, foreground).



HMS Victory...











..and the Mary Rose.


Creative arts and the Circus of Death

An unusually busy second half of the week thankfully spared me enough time, this afternoon, to pop into Swindon College to see the presentation at the end of the Creative Arts Week, which Holly and her friend, Rachael, have been attending all this week.

About 30 kids took part in a week of many different activities that will eventually culminate in a DVD of two short horror films the kids have put together from start to finish, including scriptwriting, make-up, models, special effects, etc - and the only bit left to do is the editing, which is why we didn't get to see the finished product today, as it will take about three weeks.

Holly immediately got involved with the arty side and got the job, along with Rachael, of making a model circus tent for the short film she was involved in, called The Circus of Death. We naturally couldn't resist bringing the model home. We also came home with some compliments about Holly's efforts during the week, which are always nice to hear.

This is the second Creative Arts Week that Holly has been involved in, having gone last year. They are run each summer by the University of Bath and are free - another amazing example of superb opportunities currently being given to kids through education, especially as this year's featured some professionals from the film industry.

Fen and games

We made the most of a kind of enforced trip to Lincolnshire today.

We bought a tent off eBay, which was such a bargain that it was worth a two-and-three-quarter-hour drive (each way) to Spalding to collect it. I figured that if we made a day of it too, it would be even more worthwhile, so after collecting it, we then went across to Ely ('we' being me, Julie and Holly, but not Sean, who opts out of such things, now that he's 16).

I've never been to Ely before, which is a nice little place, with two attractions in particular (three if you include the river). The first is the cathedral - Ely being one of those places that boasts a much bigger cathedral than the modern city really has any right to. It also has one of only two surviving buildings in which Oliver Cromwell lived (the other is Hampton Court). Both of Ely's famous buildings were worth seeing, but a bit disappointing.

Cromwell's house has been knocked about a bit since he lived there from 1636 to 1647 (and he was away for much of that, fighting the Civil War). It later became a pub and is now partly the tourist information centre, so Cromwell probably wouldn't recognise the inside. And the outside is fake Tudor half-timbering, dating from the early 20th century, which is a huge shame considering the house is actually Tudor.

In the circumstances, they've done well to try to re-create the feel of a Tudor/Stuart house, with the kitchen and a bedroom seeming to be the most authentic. There are also various exhibits, but almost all of them seem to be modern reconstructions (it didn't actually say which, if any, were genuine). These included various (definitely not genuine) hats and helmets that you could try for size. So it's all fairly fake, unfortunately, and I have to admit that although I tried very hard, I never came close to feeling a sense of 'Wow, Oliver Cromwell once walked through that door.' I studied the Civil War at school, for A Level, and it's always been one of my favourite periods, so I probably didn't learn very much today that was new.

The most enlightening part of the visit was a film about the Lincolnshire fens, which finished the tour of the building. I'd never quite realised how massive drainage schemes have completely re-drawn the map since about 1630 - and because the geography gave it its own identity and character, it was significant that Cromwell was from this part of the country.

Ely Cathedral, though impressive, doesn't make it into my list of favourite cathedrals. I always make a beeline for the nearest cathedral when we visit places - not for any religious reasons (being an atheist) but rather on artistic, architectural and historical grounds, on which they always score highly. From the outside, Ely is probably the least attractive one I've visited - more like just a big church - but the elegant and imposing interior makes up for it, especially the octagon tower. They run tours so that you can actually climb up inside it, but we couldn't muster up the energy or spare the time, as we wanted to walk down to the river.

The walk down gives an unusual view because although the cathedral is in the middle of the city, there is a field next door to it, complete with ponies. If you ignore the lampposts, you sort of get a picture of the cathedral as it might have looked at any time in the last thousand years.

The pictures of the day are below, and there's also a new panoramic picture.







The view from seat R160

It was the first day of the football season today - and for the first time in years, I was there to see it.

Thanks to greatly reduced ticket prices and a much more positive attitude from Town's management than we've seen for... well, ever, probably... both I and Holly (not to mention various other people called Carter and nearly 8,000 others) were there to see Town convincingly beat a very poor Tranmere side 3-1.

Sean was there, too, dispensing burgers and other overpriced refreshments, He's been promoted to supervisor of a (smaller) kiosk. The drawback to this is he didn't get to see any of the game, but would normally see nearly half.

I was hoping to take some pictures, but forgot my camera.

Five ring circus

Like most people in the world - except for about 1.3billion in China - I wasn't too impressed when I first heard that Beijing had got the 2008 Olympics. But I was very impressed today.

I've always loved the design of the Bird's Nest stadium, and today's opening ceremony was a very fitting occasion for its opening. I managed to catch about half an hour of it live, then watched highlights later, and I have to say that it was an absolutely magnificent spectacle. Yet even amid the wow of it all, the Olympics seem to bring out the worst in some people.

Almost straightaway, lots of people were saying that we will never be able to live up to that in 2012 (want to bet?). Then they'll be on about the cost of it and how it's going over budget (as if a major build like that has ever gone under budget). And then Beijing is a death trap because of smog, and some poor Chinese people lost their homes to make way for the Olympic Village (even though it might have been a slum clearance operation and therefore overdue - and we don't always get all the details to be able to judge). More to the point, in Britain, we aren't usually interested in the details, in case we then have to make a proper judgement. And if all else fails, we can obviously go on about China's human rights record, on account of neither us nor any of our allies have ever indulged in anything like imprisoning people without trial or anything.

If you ask me, all that's a cop-out. Spouting on not only achieves nothing but is ultimately self-destructive. Take that attitude and there would never be any coming together of people in events like the Olympics, and no showing each other what we are capable of. Much more constructive is to think how it all might make the Chinese authorities have second thoughts about human rights and Tibet and all those things, now that their standing in the world has been raised by the whole Olympic experience. The Olympics should be a carrot, not a stick.

Even though most of the country will be determined to only see the downside of it all, there is no doubt in my mind that Britain stands to gain massively from having the Olympics in London in 2012, and I can't wait because I intend to be there - for the Olympics and Paralympics. We were in Sydney, seven months after the 2000 Olympics were held there, and you could feel how the experience had touched the whole city.

They are not actually recruiting for London until 2010, but I've just registered my intention to be a volunteer here.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm going to have another look at some excellent pictures on the BBC website.

Near miss

Even more scary than the Countdown ghost! (see below), we had a near miss on the motorway tonight - not with another car, but with a pedestrian!

We were driving home from Bristol - ironically, the same destination we were returning from when we thought we had discovered a dead body on the side of the road, last February. This time, it was about 9.30pm and I was doing about 70mph in the middle lane, somewhere near Chippenham, out in the sticks. There was spray on the windscreen from the earlier rain and it was dark, so visibility wasn't perfect.

I had just overtaken some cars and was deciding whether to return to the inside lane or stay in the middle lane, as we were approaching some other vehicles. I had probably just made up my mind to stay in the middle lane when I noticed what looked like the shadow or silhouette of a person, somewhere ahead, but I wasn't sure. It's so unlikely that you are going to encounter people on the carriageway that you automatically assume, if you think it's actually a person, that they must be on the hard shoulder. About a mile earlier, we had passed a breakdown of some kind, which the police were attending, so my first thought was that there was maybe some other kind of breakdown.

Two or three seconds later, we passed a young girl - somewhere between a teenager and in her twenties - who was walking on the inside lane as I whizzed by in the middle lane. I could scarcely believe it, but Julie saw her too, and we both decided that the best description of her action was that she was strolling. Strolling - on the motorway, on her own, at night! She seemed oblivious to the traffic or the danger - yet if I had been going 1mph faster or had decided to switch lanes, there is absolutely no doubt we would have killed her. We were easily close enough to her to see that she was wearing a light coloured top - probably blue - with dark trousers and dark, shoulder-length hair. Even people who would be crazy enough to cross the motorway at night would rush in a straight line to get across, but she was walking diagonally across the carriageway - and we couldn't work out why, as there was no sign, anywhere, of broken-down vehicles.

"I can't believe we just saw that," said Julie, explaining that when she had seen the same silhouette that I had - probably at the same time as I did - it was in the middle lane. Then she added: "It was like she was a ghost."

No, definitely not a ghost this time - although she could be by the morning.

Napoleon's back

For most of this year, Napoleon has sort of been our sort of third cat, sort of, but just lately we've hardly seen him.

He comes round for food, but doesn't seem so hungry during the summer, so we don't expect to see him everyday if it's not so cold. But we only saw him once or twice in the fortnight leading up to our holiday, obviously didn't see him when we were away for a fortnight (although we are told he called in at least once), and then hadn't seen him in the two weeks since we got home.

We were getting quite worried about him, actually, and today asked the neighbours if they had seen him (they had, about a week ago). Then, right on cue, he turns up, but looking very smart indeed, rather than the grubby alley cat he was before. It even seemed that his fur had been trimmed or something, and it really was a transformation, apart from the ever-present scratches on his face.

So now we're more intrigued than ever to find out his story - who owns him (if anybody), where he sleeps, where he goes, and suchlike, and especially what his real name is. Putting a collar on him, with some kind of message for people to read, is too scary, as he's a bit of a bruiser, so we are thinking of devising some other method - maybe leafletting. But the main thing at the moment is - he's back!

Semi-camping in Wales

Not for the first time, today we went semi-camping in Wales - rendezvousing with Maurice (my brother) and Jacky, Brian (my twin brother)/Sarah/Lucy/James at their campsite, having originally intended to camp there ourselves. This time it was at Cwmcarn Forest, near Newport.

A combination of obstacles got in our way, including one of the poles of our tent needing mending and the fact that we have generally lost patience with it (we've never really liked it, so have just bought a 'new' one off eBay, which we are going to collect next week). So we decided to travel down first thing, stay all day and then return home when it got dark.

With grey skies and heavy showers all the way down, even fake camping seemed optmistic, but after we had had breakfast, the skies cleared, the sun came out and we had a really enjoyable day on the Forest Drive - about five miles of road around the forest with pull-in points that either had excellent views or interesting wooden sculptures or both.

With a bit of a walk along the river, chips from the forest visitor centre and chatting in Maurice and Jacky's tent, it all added up to a very good day indeed.






Hidden Swindon found again

I'm glad to report that one of my favourite websites is back. Hidden Swindon was retired by its creator, June Jackson, but is now back.

June is a Swindon woman who, basically, just goes round recording what she sees - which doesn't sound like it's going to be much, but it throws up some interesting insights into everyday things that most people walk by without noticing.

It started out mostly being about Swindon but has now widened to include some of the many interesting villages around town. One of the latest entries, for instance, highlights a stained glass window in the church at Lydiard Millicent, which I find really attractive. Most stained glass windows are striking and dramatic just because of their colours, but if you took this one out of its context, it's still a work of art. And I never even knew it existed.

Did you see me on the box?

I am told that I appeared briefly in Lifesavers, the documentary featuring my brother Ron's heart transplant, on Channel 5 on Wednesday. Apparently, you could see me following him and his wife, Jenny, through a door, although I never spotted myself when I watched it.

The film is still the talk of everybody in the family and anybody we bump into.

Mac 3

We have a cool new Mac in the family, after the purchase of a secondhand G4 with a big screen.

That's three - my old one that is now going into semi-retirement, the iBook, and now this. Perfect. And to think that millions of poor sods in the world are still using crappy PCs running Windows.