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June 29, 2012

Dramatic licence

Theatre time again for us tonight - but something a bit different.

Our friend John Marshall was starring in a play at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, so we decided to treat ourselves to a night out.

For years, this has been something we couldn't really do, but we are now fully accustomed to the freedom of having kids who are old enough to be left at home, and we are enjoying it, I have to say.

The play was called Whatever Happened to Wallenberg? and as well as being an absorbing, highly concentrated piece of theatre, it was also enlightening as the real-life hero, Raoul Wallenberg, was an extraordinary man with a compelling and ultimately mysterious story.

Wallenberg is a bit like Oskar Schindler in that he saved lots of Jews from certain death during the Second World War, but with two big differences: whereas most people have heard of Schindler and his list, Wallenberg, who was a Swede working in Hungary, has been largely forgotten. And whereas Schindler saved an estimated 1,200 Jews from death, Wallenberg, may have saved as many as 100,000.

Despite his heroics, he was arrested by the Russian liberators of Hungary, apparently under suspicion of espionage, and was never heard of again, officially. He is widely believed to have died in a Russian jail in 1947, but reports and sightings of him continued until at least 1978. Speculation that he was still alive for some years is the basis of the play, which is set in a cell which the hero is sharing with a (presumably fictional) German.

It's a pretty grim scenario and an intense play, which might not appeal to some, but you would hardly go to it expecting it to be slapstick comedy, and I sometimes find serious stuff like this can actually be a relief from the mindless crap they turn out on telly or the predictable action movies that now rule the cinema.

It reminded me of a play we saw, years ago, in Swindon, called Hess. That was actually a one-man play about Rudolf Hess in prison, and one of the best dramas we've ever seen, because it really made you feel like you were in there with him - and sometimes actually that he deserved some sympathy.

Whatever Happened to Wallenberg? wasn't quite as convincing, mainly because there was far too much background to work into the story, although using film projections to handle it was quite effective. But it certainly succeeded in making the audience think thy were in the cell too, and even sympathise with Wallenberg's fictional friend.

It's impossible for us to say just how good John was at being Wallenberg, because he was always going to be John to us, but the audience seemed pretty spellbound by it all and suitably impressed, it seemed to us, and there was no doubt John was extremely well cast.

We like all kinds of theatre, from big West End musicals to Shakespeare, but there is nothing quite like feeling so close to a really thought-provoking story for a couple of hours that the intimacy almost makes you feel uncomfortable.

Nobody will ever know what really happened to Wallenberg, but it is fascinating to discover such an amazing true story and have it told in such a compelling fashion.

June 28, 2012

They seek it here, they seek it there; they seek that Bunky Bridge everywhere

There is a new website that is of interest to history types, and it includes two pictures of special interest to Upper Strattonites like me, especially those brought up in Meadowcroft (me again).

It's called Britain From Above and features aerial pictures taken between the 1920s and 1950s. The two from Stratton that caught my eye were taken in 1920 and show the First World War 'powder works' (ie gunpowder) that used to be where Kembrey Park/Elgin Industrial Estate now stand. As the two pictures are very similar, I've only included one above, plus enlargements of it.

I knew a bit about the powder works, although I had no idea how huge they were until I saw these pictures. I also knew about the two big chimneys, which were taken down during the Second World War because they were thought to be too much of a navigational aid for German bombers. But the powder works are not the main interest in the photos. Oh no.

Towards the back of the picture, the bridge you can see over the railway line (the Swindon-Highworth branch line) is the 'Bunky Bridge', which both I and Julie played on as children (but not, as far as we know, at the same time) and which was sadly demolished in about 1970, soon after the line became disused.

I've been searching for a decent picture of this and have previously got hold of two (one shown below). Although these new ones only show it in the background, it's nice to see it in its proper context, in the landscape, along with the nearby cottage, which I'd heard about, but never seen. That was gone even before the Bunky Bridge was removed. All the land to the right of this cottage, on that side of the line, became the vast Pressed Steel car body plant, which was later British Leyland and is now BMW's factory turning out Mini panels.

Sadly, there is a problem with the 1920 view of the bridge because it doesn't seem to be the same one pictured below in 1953 (a picture I saw for the first time last year). The older picture seems to show a bridge with solid sides, or at least a heftier iron construction, rather than the later wire fence to stop pedestrians and cyclists falling off, and is maybe flatter, unlike the later picture, where the bridge has a slight arch, over the two supports. I am wondering whether they took down the old bridge and replaced it with another, somewhere between 1920 and 1953.

The worst thing about this is: in my dim memory from my very young days, the bridge I remember is actually more like the earlier bridge than the later one, so my memory must be playing tricks on me.

The story doesn't end there because I've also got hold of a couple of other (colour) Bunky Bridge pictures (see below), courtesy of Phil Marshall, the brother of our friends Liz and John. These were taken during its demolition, so give another tantalising glimpse of what the Bunky Bridge looked like in the Sixties.

Sadly though, I am feeling fated to never see the Bunky Bridge as it really was when I was growing up.

However, if we return to the Britain From Above pictures (above), we do get a fascinating view of something even more significant than the Bunky Bridge. The picture shows the railway line curving away at the top of the picture, which is interesting because my boyhood home in Meadowcroft, which is now owned by my brother, was built next to the railway, and in 1920 the line clearly only goes through open fields.

Our house was built roughly between the first and second crossing points (as I presume them to be), seen as parallel dots, either side of the line. Once again, I have vague memories that there were stiles at these points.

Altogether there are 19 pictures on the site that show Swindon.

June 27, 2012

Bee movie

Don't say I didn't warn you that there would be more bee-related stuff on here? The ones in the bird box at the back of our house are really busy busy bees at the moment, so the film below was made without consideration for my own personal safety (I think I was starting to annoy them a bit).

If you don't like it, you can buzz off - because they provide us with hours of free entertainment.

Well... minutes, at least.

June 17-23, 2012

Just what the doctor ordered

It would be difficult to say that the holiday I've just enjoyed in Cornwall was hard-earned (although it was for Julie, who has been working harder than ever lately).

One of the problems of virtual unemployment is you don't feel as though you have earned a break. And maybe some people will think you don't deserve one, but I can't remember a time in my whole life when getting away from it all was more welcome or quite as necessary.

We weren't even supposed to have had a get-away-from-it-all holiday this year, having committed our time and increasingly limited financial resources to attending Olympic/Paralympic events of one kind or another, more or less one day at a time. That's our choice, obviously, and we are looking forward to the experience immensely, but sometimes you really need some en bloc escapism.

Life has a habit of surprising you, though, and although we are often guilty of planning our breaks like military operations, this one just sort of happened to us. We didn't even choose the venue; it chose us.

That's because the holiday started off as a proposed camping trip with the Carter family's fellow would-be campers - my brothers Maurice (and Jacky) and Brian (and Sarah, and my nephew James). But when Jacky got the chance of some extremely cheap (but very smart and perfectly located) dry accommodation, it escalated into a full-blown week-long (or, for us, nearly a week-long) break.

Everybody has their stresses and challenges in their lives, including stuff that isn't broadcast, but if you sat down and wrote a list of some of life's biggest challenges, then our party, between us, have had our fair share in recent years. All three families have also been (and/or still are) facing some tough work-related situations in 2011/2. No wonder this trip felt like one the doctor had ordered.

If any of the above sounds like we are feeling sorry for ourselves, don't get the wrong idea. We consider ourselves very lucky in lots of ways. We have our health and we are blessed with good friends - both of the trusty old/lifelong variety and some valued new ones who seem to have popped up in recent years to expand our horizons further, as if we had placed an order for them.

Above all else, though, we are both lucky to have families who not only care about and support each other, but also - and this certainly doesn't apply to all families - generally actually like each other. So we have had a whale of a time in Cornwall, enjoying shared interests and sharing a determination to recharge our batteries and not to let anything - not even the weather - spoil it.

As it turned out, apart from a day or so in the middle, and despite otherwise miserable weather this summer, our holiday weather was pretty good, even though I didn't quite require any of the pairs of shorts I brought.

Within hours of enjoying our friend Liz's birthday party (see below) we were on the road, setting off at 4.08am for a journey that we had previously described as "through the night". However, it was light before we reached the motorway, and the four-hour drive couldn't have been easier, being on virtually deserted roads. So we arrived perfectly in time for breakfast and to meet my niece Claire and her new boyfriend, Steve, and his son, Louis, who were just departing.

We didn't need to be in Cornwall for long to realise that our recent approach to it was mis-placed. Having done two major Cornwall holidays before, we made the mistake of putting it in the 'Been there, done that' box. But Cornish towns, scenery and attractions are so good they are always worth revisiting. A case in point is St Michael's Mount, which we nearly didn't visit this time, having been there twice before, but which turned out to be a great day. For the record, we arrived via the causeway and returned by boat.

But I am getting out of order. Below is a brief summary of all that we did, along with a few photos, ending with a picture of what an ice cream looks like in St Ives, about ten seconds before you are mugged by a gang of seagulls and are left holding only the cone.

The picture above is an old GWR poster - a copy of which we bought soon after arriving. Ours is printed on wood and we got it as a kind of present to ourselves in lieu of our upcoming silver wedding anniversary.

St Ives: We were based in Carbis Bay, which is to St Ives what Upper Stratton is to Swindon, and we quickly fell in love with it. We briefly visited St Ives, 20-odd years ago, and had forgotten how charming it is. In fact, it is everything a British seaside resort should be (but rarely is) and is now officially my second favourite place to be beside the seaside, after Great Yarmouth, which wins for sentimental reasons.

St Michael's Mount: If I didn't know better, I would say that Slartibartfast designed this amazing piece of scenery and all-round great place to visit. If he had, he would undoubtedly have won another award for it.

Carn Euny: An ancient village, first occupied in the 5th century BC and still being visited by a few intrepid tourists today - although we had the place to ourselves for half an hour. Because it was home to Cornish families for 900 years and therefore has a complex archaeology, it is difficult to imagine how it was when it was occupied, but it's worth a try.

Men an Tol: A few standing stones, including a distinctive doughnut-shaped one, which is much smaller in real life than in pictures, but interesting to visit, nevertheless.

The Wayside Museum: A fairly eccentric little museum of rural life at Zennor, which is more famous for the carved mermaid in the church and the fact that DH Lawrence wrote Women in Love in the village, starting at the Tinners Arms pub. The museum owner used to work for the Swindon Advertiser and ended up as CEO of the Oxford Mail, so we had a nice chat about the depressing demise of local newspapers.

Cape Cornwall: A truly beautiful place for a picnic, a clamber on the beach and calling in on the local National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) lookout. We had already spotted the dorsal fin and tail of a basking shark in the water, which the volunteers of the NCI and their binoculars confirmed, and they also pointed out two seals swimming near the rocks.

The Lizard: The most southerly point in mainland Britain. I have now visited three out of the set of four, having also been to Land's End, the most westerly (on a previous visit to Cornwall) and Lowestoft, the most easterly. Lizard also has the world's biggest lighthouse, which includes a visitor centre and guided tours, and, on our visit, lots of rain.

Pedennis Castle: A nice castle where they have a nice guided tour, but not always nice weather.

St Ives: Did I mention how lovely St Ives is?

Mousehole: The quintessential Cornish fishing village and harbour, which can only be improved on by popping into the pub for a cloudy cider. Mousehole was host to the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981.

The following are obviously just some of the pictures I took. There is a holiday snap frenzy on Flickr.

June 16, 2012

Happy birthday Liz

Not much time to give a full report on our friend Liz's 50th birthday party tonight, except to say it was another highly successful Mercer bash - and happy birthday Liz!

Here are a few photos...

June 14, 2012

Just the ticket

They're here - and their arrival has already caused a little tidal wave of excitement to pass over our little house.

And they are only the tickets to London 2012, so God knows how we are going to feel when August actually arrives.

It's months since we heard we were getting tickets for the session including the men's 100m final, women's 400m and men's steeplechase, plus rowing finals, and during that time we have begun to wonder whether it might actually be a mistake or somebody's idea of a cruel joke. Now we can finally rest in the knowledge that they are the real McCoy. They even have my name printed on them, as if it is additional reassurance.

It's probably fair to say that night will be the highlight of the sporting year, and the ten seconds of the 100m final will definiitely be the most anticipated ten seconds of sport in the whole calendar. Billions of people will be watching on telly, across the world, and we will be about 100m from the starter's gun when it goes off.

As we have £50 tickets, which I think are the cheapest, that obviously doesn't mean we are going to be on the finishing line, but rather a couple of seats in row 63, and today we found out that will be near the end of the back straight of the track - half-way between the goal and the corner flag in footballing terms.

But although we won't exactly be looking up Usain Bolt's nose when he crosses the line, you tend to forget how small stadiums are when you get inside them in real life, compared with how they look on the telly, so we will be plenty close enough to soak up what is sure to be an amazing atmosphere.

And that's only one of ten treats we have lined up for London 2012. As well as the Olympic rowing, we are also aiming to see the women's marathon (on the morning of the day we have tickets for the athletics), the cycle road race (in Surrey) and the men's marathon (like the women's, lapping around central London). And when all those are over, we have Paralympic athletics, swimming, cycling and wheelchair basketball to look forward to, as well.

And this is what we're like after just receiving the tickets!

June 7, 2012

Bee plus

I am delighted to report that a colony of bees has moved into our neighbourhood.

In fact, they have taken over an old birdbox, just a couple of yards from our patio door, so we get to see them come and go all day, like our own private episode of Springwatch.

I've always been fascinated by insects that live in colonies, but especially since, a few years ago, I wrote a feature about beekeeping and even got to don the protective beekeepers' gear. It was all I could do to stop myself getting my own hives back then - and now we have a colony anyway.

They are bumblebees, not honey bees, so there are probably only about 50-100 of them, not the thousands that you get in a hive of honey bees, and we aren't going to get an endless supply of honey from them, either. Although bumblebees do produce honey, it's not on the same industrial scale of honey bees, and it is difficult to harvest.

Bumblebees also move on to form new colonies every year, so ours will only stay for a limited time. That does mean, however, that we can look forward to opening the box and seeing what they have left behind at the end of the season.

I've already had a tentative look inside, but I could only see some old cobwebs, didn't want to disturb them and was seemingly threatened by a bee that came out to see what was going on. So I'm leaving well alone.

One of the pleasures of the bee colony is I have got out a little book I picked up at a fete or car boot sale or something, a few years ago, which is probably the most attractive little book I own. It's now it's useful to read, as well as being a pleasure to own.

Incidentally, the BBC News website's Magazine, which is always good reading, recently did an interesting and beautifully written feature about why Shakespeare referred to 'king bees' and not queens. And, of course, Alfred Williams has plenty to say about bees in his books about the Wiltshire countryside.

I only have one half-decent picture of our resident bees so far, but no doubt there will be more to follow.

June 1-4, 2012

The Jubilee Freeman Weekend

This weekend will go down in history as Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Wekend, but we have much more to celebrate than the silly monarchy.

"We" being the Freeman family, which I married into, nearly 25 years ago, but which has probably never seen such a momentous few days as the last few - specifically the children of Julie's brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Lynne.

On Friday night (June 1), daughter Katie was preparing for her wedding, three days later, when they were involved in a serious - but fortunately not that serious - road accident, miraculous escaping with minor bruises. As I understand it, they were on a dual carriageway, between Katie's parents' home and the wedding venue (Ufton Court, near Reading), when a car turned right, across their path. This was without warning, so there wasn't even time to brake.

Although Katie and Matthew's car was written off, their main injuries were the minor ones from the airbags that went off, while the other driver also escaped, despite his car ending up on its roof. Ironically, he was in the area because he was attending his daughter's wedding, the next day.

Although all three were taken to hospital, they all not only lived to tell the tale, but also attend their respective weddings.

Before the Freeman wedding took place, however, there was more 'drama' as news finally came through on Saturday morning that Katie's brother, Alex, was about to become a father, and the overdue (by five days) baby would be called Daniel. So we now had the sex of the baby and his name - but not the baby himself, who eventually arrived at 12.30pm (June 2) in Lancashire, where Alex and his wife Amelie live.

The big question now was whether Alex, Amelie and Daniel would make it to the wedding, which was scheduled for 47 hours later...

I'm now a great uncle six times over, by the way, but it's the first one on Julie's side of the family.

The wedding day arrive amid the Jubilee celebrations and were perfect timing for me. I can see no reason to celebrate the perpetuation of an unelected regime in the 21st century, but with seemingly everybody else raising a glass or two, it was great to have a proper excuse to do the same.

In the last few years we've really enjoyed our nephews' weddings, especially as the tradition for traditional weddings is thankfully dying out. Katie and Matthew are certailny not the kind of couple to do things just because that's how they've always been done, so they added some individual touches to their wedding, such as a table of pictures from previous family weddings (including ours); a 'sweet shop' for guests to help themselves (including my favourites, Palma Violets); dog Millie acting as 'ringbearer'; guests encouraged to bring along instruments (guitars, ukuleles, mandalin and even a saw, but sadly not drums); barbecue-style food (an excellent choice); plus plenty of other very nice touches.

The weather, by the way, behaved. It wasn't the sunniest day in history, but considering there were grey and miserable days either side, nobody was complaining.

As befitting a perfectly matched couple (who, incidentally, have known each other all their lives because the families have always been friends), everything went off perfectly - and Alex, Amelie and Daniel did manage to attend in the end. Steve set up a brief iPad link just after the ceremony as they were still at home in Lancashire, but they set off in the afternoon and eventually appeared in person at about 11pm - the perfect ending to the perfect day.

I should add that Holly was one of the bridesmaids, and that although illness had long made it seem unlikely that Julie's Uncle Fred and Auntie Jean wouldn't make it, they not only did, but thoroughly enjoyed their day, even though we drove them home at tea time, as planned, before returning to the wedding in the evening.

We eventually got to bed at 2.30am, but were already wishing we could relive it all the next day. For the record: the happy couple are off to Hawaii on honeymoon.

A small selection of photos are shown below, but of course there are plenty more where they came from. In the car wrecks picture, theirs is the silver one on the left.