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August 31, 2009

T351AAN RIP


We finally did the dirty deed today and dumped our faithful old car.

It had been a good servant over the eight or nine years we had it (from nearly new). Sure, it needed a bit of money spending on it - well, quite a lot in the end - but it had done nearly 110,000 miles, and although it broke down a few times in its life, I can't remember it ever refusing to start in the morning, which is the most you can ever ask of a car.

We'd grown attached to it, but it was worth £2,000 in the Scrappage Scheme against a new car, so it was curtains. I drove it on its last journey, to the Nissan showroom, and we left it there, trying not to look it in the eye.

Unfortunately, when we go back to the showroom to pick up our new car - supposedly later this week - it may still be there, waiting for its execution.

I thought I would upload a picture of it in happier times - in the Channel Tunnel in 2004.

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August 29, 2009

Wunderbar


Yet another fantastic Carter family wedding to remember.

This time it was at Paintworks in Bristol, where my brother Ron's middle son, Trevor, married Conny Kowalczyk.

There are lots of things that you can say about Conny that are fairly obvious - she's beautiful, intelligent and charming - but probably even more significant than those things is that she is German.

Indeed, not only is she German, but she was originally from Salzgitter, which happens to be Swindon's twin town. We believe this is the first time the partnership of Swindon and Salzgitter has produced a wedding, which is (if you ask me) the ultimate stamp of approval of a very good idea. Even more notable is that the twinning is no coincidence. It was actually responsible for bringing the two together as Conny met Trevor while on an exchange visit, nine years ago.

The Anglo-German aspect added to what was always going to be an unconventional wedding, given the fact that Trevor and Conny are very laid back and no respecters of convention - to their credit - so we really didn't know what to expect.

The wedding was at a converted warehouse called Paintworks, for a start, which doesn't sound very promising on paper, but turned out to be a conference/events venue that somebody has thought long and hard about turning into something impressive, and which we took an instant shine to.

The complete absence of religion from the ceremony and any other proceedings also obviously had a big bearing on the style of the wedding. The service was very short and to the point - and even shorter for me as I managed to miss the start of it. Me and my brother Brian (who was the officially appointed video cameraman) were waiting to see Conny arrive in her wedding 'car' - a VW camper van, naturally - and hadn't realised that she had arrived at another entrance. We were also thrown by the fact that Conny also ignored convention and became the first bride I've ever known to turn up on time. Sadly, we never did get to see the camper van.

This seemed to confirm that fate was against us after all, as we had narrowly avoided being late for the wedding because the driver of the coach that had been laid on to take Swindonians to Bristol had not only never looked up 'urgency' in the dictionary, but neither had he ever heard of forward planning (as in actually looking at the map before he went) nor satnavs, so we turned up with ten minutes to spare.

Despite the generally unconventional nature of the wedding, it still involved certain German traditions - the only one we knew about beforehand being the eagerly anticipated breaking of crockery, but also including eating salted bread with water, cutting a heart-shaped hole in a piece of linen that Trevor then had to carry Conny through, and finishing off the meal with a little bottle of Jagermeister, which tasted like a cross between cough mixture and Benedictine but was strangely moreish.

I'm not sure whether the idea of having award-winning pies and mash for dinner was some kind of German tradition or the opposite again, but I do know that nobody ever enjoyed a wedding meal more than I did today, being a simple soul whose happiness can always be doubled by the simple act of mashing spuds in my vicinity.

Another inspired idea was to put us on a table with some of Conny's relations, and we had a very nice chat with her aunt, who spoke excellent English and told us lots of interesting things, including the significance of the Jagermeister.

Also on the table was Conny's uncle who, we discovered, has possibly the coolest claim to fame of anybody I've ever bumped into. At an open-mic night in a nightclub in Hamburg in 1961, he got up and sang with a couple of blokes called John and Paul, who went on to become quite famous. He only sang one song - Mr Moonlight, which The Beatles later recorded on Beatles For Sale, and which I will now listen to with renewed interest.

Some elements of the evening reception were not only a surprise to us but even to the parents of the groom, who hadn't been told that Trevor and Conny had hired a magician and a caricaturist (called Chrissy Marshall) to walk round, entertaining guests. This would have been a brilliant idea no matter how good they were at their jobs, but they both turned out to be really talented. By the end of the evening, most people, including us, had succumbed to their early misgivings about posing for the artist, on account of his stunning ability to capture likenesses. We got chatting to the magician later, who was as friendly as he was talented, but we never got to find out his name.

So, a brilliant day was had by one and all.

All five of the family weddings we've been to in the last couple of years have been different to each other, but they've all had two things in common - the happy couples have all gone out of their way to have the day they wanted, and they (and their families) have all spent a fortune on giving their guests what have turned out to be genuinely memorable days.

Back to tradition now - with the customary online album of wedding pictures.


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August 28, 2009

Canal revisited


Finally got the canal pictures sorted...

Click here.

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August 15-22, 2009

Llovely


Well, that was fun - a week of messing about on the Llangollen and Shropshire Union Canal as a party of no less than 14 Carters in two narrowboats - me, Julie, Sean and Holly with my brother Brian and his family (Sarah, Lucy and James) on one; and my other two brothers and their wives (Ronald and Jenny, Maurice and Jacky) and Maurice's son Mark and his wife Maxine on the other.

This was my sixth canal holiday - and the second on this particular canal. All four of us had a go at driving - Julie and Holly very briefly, while Sean successfully navigated his first lock.

We picked the boats up at Trevor, within sight of the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which we immediately crossed, and within the first couple of hours had also been through two tunnels and crossed another spectacular aqueduct, at Chirk.

The rest of the journey will eventually be told in pictures - when I sort through the nearly 800 photos I've taken in the last week. Suffice to say that we had a great time, but came home pretty exhausted as although canal holidays are relaxing in a way, it's very active, what with being on the move most of the day, the locks and sometimes difficult driving (usually but not always made to look easy).

We can even look back on an unsavoury moment when a prat driving the boat behind us got frustrated that we were going too slow (!) even though we were on the speed limit at the time. He came alongside and pushed us out of the way. Fortunately, I am now at the age when people like that don't bother me. They just throw into sharp relief all the positive things, including the friendliness of most of the other boaters and everybody else you meet along the way.

There is always something interesting on the canal, even when there is a hole in it, like there was, 10 miles further up, which caused us to have to walk the last three miles to Audlem, which was our intended destination before we turned round. We visited a 'secret bunker' (a Second World War radar station turned nuclear bunker, now decommissioned); saw a giant 'sculpture' of Big Ben, made out of haystacks; stopped off at some interesting shops, including a floating one; and had a memorable curry in the lovely town of Llangollen on our last night.



Great at the Great Britain


Rather than come straight home from Llangollen, we headed for Bristol, where I had press tickets to visit the SS Great Britain (I'm writing something for the Swindon Advertiser).

Despite an unexpectedly long trip there which gave me a headache - partly because I had to concentrate on the cricket commentary while driving - I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's years since I last went there, and since then it's been turned into an award-winning and vibrant musuem, although the ship is impressive enough on its own.

The main thing they've done is install a sheet of glass where the waterline would have been, on which there is a thin layer of shimmering water, and this creates a really interesting space underneath, in the dry dock - the dock itself being part of the history because it was built to house the ship. Also amazing was the size of the bunks - even for the first class passengers, which showed just how small people were compared with how we are today.

Definitely worth a visit if you haven't been for a while.





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August 14, 2009

Hate male

A funny thing happened to us when we were visiting my mum at the old people's home where she now lives.

We were chatting to her when an employee slowly helped an old gentleman - the best way to describe him - past us, very gingerly, holding his hand. The man, who was quite frail and obviously had some kind of mental health problem - related to him apparently being well into his eighties - stopped to give us a nice smile, put his thumb up and tell us how nice we all were. I've noticed a tendency in others like him to be friendly and generous in their greetings.

Anyway, after he'd gone past, my sister-in-law, who was also there, said she had noticed that the old man had the letters 'H-A-T-E' tattooed on one of his hands, and how she presumed that the other probably had 'L-O-V-E'. Of course, there was a bit of a fashion for this sort of thing - in the Fifties, I believe - but of all the things you might have expected from this poor old man, that wasn't one of them.

There must be thousands of people walking round with tattoos that have ceased to have any relevance to their lives - which is one reason (among many) why I've never even considered having one.

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August 9, 2009

All hands on decking


I thought I had done my share of DIY. We once virtually renovated a whole house from top to bottom, and in the now 19 years that we have lived in our current house, we have carried out numerous improvements.

But there hasn't been much to speak of in the last few years - which is why we are on a bit of a DIY frenzy at the moment. I can see lots of decorating looming over the winter, and I have recently put up a new front gate. The big current project is building decking at the back of the house.

The traditional wet July and August weather hasn't helped, because four or five times I assembled all the tools, ready to have a good go at it, only to be beaten by showers. But over the last three or four days, the weather has been better, and we have made significant progress, so that we may get to eat our first breakfast on the decking before September ends.

I wouldn't tell Julie this, but I am enjoying it. Sort of. There's nothing like physical labour to give you job satisfaction, and digging holes to fill with concrete has had the paradoxical effect of curing my bad back.

Now, where did I put that spirit level?

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August 4, 2009

On the rails


I had the privilege of going to STEAM today.

I had a feature to write about it for the Swindon Advertiser, and thoroughly enjoyed the visit, even though it's probably the sixth time I've been round it.

STEAM has the twin appeals of local history and family history for me, but even if you take those attractions out of the equation, it's still a good museum, with plenty to see.

The best exhibit is undoubtedly the pit that allows you to walk underneath a Castle class locomotive - built in Swindon, of course - and not just any Castle but Caerphilly Castle, which was the prototype of the class. It is also the engine that was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, alongside the LNER's Flying Scotsman - a coupling that led to the 'Locomotive Interchange Trials' to establish which of the two was more powerful.

The Flying Scotsman has gone on to be much more famous, even though the trials proved the GWR engines to be far superior.

The moral of the story is obviously that more famous doesn't necessarily mean better.






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July 31-August 3, 2009

Chilling out, down Canterbury way


Eureka! We've finally done it. After years of spending holidays rushing around like mad things, we've now mastered the art of chilling out.

Holly's still away (with her friend Rachael and parents, on holiday) and Sean is old enough to be left on his own, so for only the third time since 1992(!) me and Julie managed to slip off for a weekend on our own. Just the two of us.

When freedom itself is a novelty, you don't have to go anywhere fancy, and a campsite in Kent was more than adequate for what we wanted to do - which was mostly not much.

Sitting around in the sun, reading books, people watching, listening to iPods and thinking what we are going to do for dinner was all we have to report, although we also spent a nice afternoon/early evening with another couple of happy campers (Jean and Andy, a copper), who turned out to have an uncanny amount in common with us, including being temporarily sans-kids (one of whom turns out to be called Sean). The four of us decided that we were sufficiently cool to deserve chilling out even more with a curry. And very nice it was too.

It's funny how people talk to you on campsites more if you don't have kids, although it may also have something to do with being around more, rather than dashing off. Also on our campsite was a loud Northern Irish lady called Olive, who delighted in telling us how she had outraged the local elders of her church.

Our resolve did crack slightly on Saturday, however - the one day of the four where the weather wasn't camping-friendly. With the clouds gathering, we drove to Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, to discover that apart from a nice walk along the concrete sea defences and people taking iguanas for walks around the shops, there isn't much there.

In fact, I couldn't even find much to photograph, apart from labybirds (above), which demonstrate the amazing macro capabilities of my cheap camera, and I also saw one of the best examples I've ever seen of apostrophe abuse (below). And don't get me started on the shopkeeper's indiscriminate use of capital letters and overuse of exclamation marks, either.