September 2015

IMGP3111We are currently about midway between Summer and Autumn as gradually the warmth from the sun becomes a little less each day, and increasingly chillier nights start to make their presence known. Living in an area where there are no gas supplies and with no prospect of ever having such luxuries, most county dwellers have to be like good boy scouts in terms of being prepared for winter. This entails having oil boilers serviced and oil tanks replenished. Unlike most urban areas where gas is readily available, many country folk are heavily reliant on oil for heating. It is not possible with oil to just turn the tap on demand in the event of a cold snap as oil has to be purchased, delivered and stored in advance. It also means that unlike gas where the price for the winter ahead is usually known in advance, the cost of oil can be unpredictable.

Domestic oil prices are subject to wild day to day fluctuations dependent on the world oil markets. Fortunately a combination of economic depression in China and the USA once again having oil surpluses due to increased shale oil production, the price of oil has been dropping like the proverbial stone.Oil users do have at least one silver lining over gas users in that there is never a worry about foreign countries having the power to turn of the UK’s supplies in the event of a international spat, as the UK’s gas now originates or passes through pipelines that we have no control over. I always though the UK’s policy of abandoning our own gas industry in favour of foreign supplies very unwise for this very reason.

IMGP3115During the Summer I had one of my Australian nephews and his partner staying with me for a few days. The were on a around-the-world holiday visiting the US, UK and Europe. One thing they had asked to see during their stay with us was the City of Bath some 35 miles from where I live. They had read so much about it in advance and for them it had become a must. They were particularly keen to see the Roman Baths something I had not seen before myself. On my previous visits to Bath, the Roman Baths had been closed due to on-going excavation and construction work. The closest we had been was in the delightful restaurant known as the Pump Room which has windows that overlook the Roman Pool. Whenever I had seen news items on the baths be it television of newspapers, they had always been set against the almost obligatory background of the pool itself.

I was pleasantly surprised during our visit to discover that not is there only the famous pool but also a large underground complex covering a Roman Temple and the spring that feeds the baths much of it still well preserved. The route through the complex is reminiscent to a slowly descending helter-skelter as the path slowly meanders around the top of the baths down through various rooms to the temple complex before eventually emerging by the pool itself. I could thoroughly recommend anyone who has not had the opportunity to make a visit to add it to their wish list.

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Wells Cathedral

DSCF1424Recently my wife and I paid a visit to Britain’s smallest and I think most pleasant city of Wells in Somerset. Although deemed a city, Wells is about the size of a small market town and indeed still has a thriving outdoor market held in the shadow of Wells Cathedral.

The city is nestled in the foothills of the Mendips close to Cheddar Gorge and derives its name from three freshwater wells. One is located in the market place and is dedicated to St Andrew, the other two are within the adjacent Bishops Palace the traditional home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Wells was originally a Roman settlement but started to rise in prominence when the Saxon King Ine of Wessex built a minster church there in A.D. 704. In A.D. 909 Wells became the seat of the newly formed Bishopric of Wells. The Cathedral and Bishops Palace were built between 1175 and 1490 with the original Saxon minster church being replaced.

One item that Wells Cathedral is renown for is the 14th century astronomical clock built about 1390. The clock which does not have the traditional hands displays the time. date and moon phase on a series of dials. The clock is the second oldest in the UK, Salisbury Cathedral possessing one that was built a few years earlier. On the hour, a seated man to the top right of the clock rings the hours out on a bell and a series of jousting knights facing each other revolve on two turntables above the clock.

I created a Photosphere of the High Altar to allow viewers a 360 panorama of this part of the building.

The exterior facade of the cathedral consists of numerous alcoves containing some 300 statues all surmounted by Christ and his disciples.

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.I have also added below a series of photographs showing others aspects of the interior including the ornate ceilings.

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Yeovilton Air Day 2014

As usual, RNAS Yeovilton put on a dazzling day long display of flying skills on 26th August. Aircraft from around the world arriving in the preceding days gradually built up the growing expectation of another fine display.

Aircraft of all shapes and sizes, old, new, small and large, jet or propeller powered and more importantly the pilots that flew them all added to the carnival atmosphere of the day. Although rapidly becoming aged, the Avro Vulcan bomber once the mainstay of the UK’s mainline defence always draws crowds even if it is just to watch it arrive or depart..

Sadly the Sea Fury based ay RNAS Yeovilton as part of the historic flight did something of a pancake landing a week later at Yeovilton’s ‘Sister Ship’ RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall during their annual Air Day display. For some reason one of the undercarriage legs collapsed on landing but fortunately the pilot walked away from the crash unharmed. Provided the Sea Fury is not too badly damaged and provided its airframe is still airworthy, I would not be at all surprised to see this fine aircraft rebuilt.

I have placed a selection of pictures below.

 

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June 2014 – A Village Affair

Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas Giant

There can be little doubt that the Summer months provide a rich backdrop to outdoor activities throughout England. Most of this activity s not centred around the more grandiose sporting event like Ascot Week which tends to cater for the well heeled and shod but in the variety of village events. Fetes, dog shows, gymkhanas and a host of other local festivities which normally take place during the months of June and July.

Living close to the Somerset/Dorset border it is inevitable I will frequently venture into my bordering county. Yesterday I went to one such event in the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset located in the Cerne Valley.

The Cerne Valley nestled in the Dorset Downs is a narrow winding, lush green valley running directly north of Dorchester towards the ancient town of Sherborne. The head of the valley being near the village of Middlemarsh and is steeped in history despite its relatively sparse population. At one time settled by the Vikings during the Dark Ages. in AD 987 a great Benedictine Abbey was established in the valley around which grew the pretty village of Cerne Abbas.

Cerne Abbas is something of a chocolate box picture village attracting coachloads of tourists in the days prior to mass car ownership. It is also famous for the figure of the Cerne Giant cut into the adjacent steep chalk hillside. There is much speculation as to the age of the giant as to whether it is Celtic, Roman or much later in origin. Whatever the truth there can be little doubt that this huge warlike figure brandishing a club was designed as a fertility symbol. Local stories still abound of young maidens wishing to ensure a future family visiting this icon on mid-summer’s day.

It was also mid-summer’s day that I visited Cerne Abbas for its annual open gardens exhibition. Except for access to a free car park, the village is closed to through traffic for the day allowing visitors to safely wander the streets. Residents of 29 properties within the village threw open their gardens to public view with the local church of St Mary providing a cream teas on the lawn service. One modest fee secured access to all gardens and monies raised are used in local good causes. Many of the buildings are heritage listed to protect both the buildings and the village from untoward development. The spire of the church dominates the local landscape..

Accompanied with a group of friends, my wife and I found it a pleasant is not slightly tiring afternoon wandering other peoples gardens. It was a good way of gaining ideas and inspiration for what may be possible in ones own garden.

On returning to friends who live close to the Cerne Valley to enjoy an evening barbeque, silently like some leviathan from a Space Odyssey, the billowing canopy of a hot-air balloon suddenly and unexpectedly came drifting across the tree tops. You never know what you are going to see next in the country.

I have added some views of the village and gardens below.

 

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Town or Country living? You decide

Country VillageThere can be few people who at one time or another have not entertained the thought of what country living would be like. The yearning for a rural idyll like a hidden Shangri-La.   For some who are committed urban dwellers the notion will probably not stay in their minds long. Others will hold the thought a bit longer before it fades into the obscurity of practicability. A much smaller minority will continue to nurture the thought weighing the pro’s and cons in their minds until some are suddenly motivated by thoughts of “Why not? Let’s do it”.

After a lifetime of urban living, that is the decision my wife and I made well over twenty years ago when we moved from East London to rural Somerset. It was a move I have never regretted but it did take an initial short period of adjustment. In our case it was the pro’s that far outweighed the cons and I suspect many others may have some lingering doubts about what are the realities of country life. The vistas from our new home were one change we could readily accept. We exchanged a view of houses on the opposite side of the street coupled with the view of backs of house in the adjoining street for one of open rolling countryside. Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Tor and the Mendip Hills can all be easily seen from our new location. Apart from the new vista, opportunities to explore an area of the country steeped in myth and legend also abound.

Certainly to myself, living in a village was a case of moving back to a meaningful community life. A sense of community which once abounded in East London but sadly started to fade into a form of isolationism as the nature of the populace changed, be it new people with different outlooks moving into the area or younger generations growing-up but possibly not with the same degree of neighbourliness that their parents may have once fostered. Whatever the causes the saying about the loneliest place in London is the middle of Piccadilly Circus certainly began to arouse feelings of truthfulness in our particular quarter.

For young parents and their families, country living is something of a bonus. Not only because of the fresh air and lack of urban pollution but because similar families in the same village always seem to gravitate towards forming their own interest groups and blossoming friendships. Gardens tend to be much bigger as well.

That is one positive aspect on one side of a many faceted coin, the opposite side of the coin while not being negative does present differences that require some adjustment. My own village has neither a public house or shops so transport is an essential requirement. In most villages a school bus service obviates the need for the dreaded “school-run”, but travel to shops and stores usually in a not too distant market towns usually requires personal transport. In urban areas despite complaints, public transport is usually available even if sometimes delayed. In rural areas it can sometimes be either scarce or even non-existent. In my own village for example, a few buses run in the mornings on two days of the week only. No street lighting exists in my village either but it does make for magnificent star gazing of a nigh time due to zero light pollution. Silence is something else we have in abundant quantity of a night time, a point which guests always remark on when they awake fully refreshed the next morning. Because the mind tends to filter out noise pollution, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just how insidious and constant it is.

The bonus is how far and quickly it is possible to travel in a car from ones home. Traffic is usually very light when compared with urban areas and most country roads still have a 60 mph speed limit which is safely achievable. Using the one mile-per-minute rule of thumb, it does mean it is possible travel anywhere within a 40 miles circle from my home in about 20-30 minutes. A 40 mile circle roughly equates to the size of Greater London. Apart from a variety of easily reachable and good shopping venues, it also means we have a greater choice of entertainment and sporting venues of all descriptions than we did within my London locality and at a fraction of the time. Numerous public houses with good restaurants usually modestly priced also abound within an area like this.

Country Village 02Rural rail services tend to be something of a spiders web, At the centre of the web, rail lines and services tend to become concentrated while the further out from the web one travels, the lines become further apart. Before I retired I used to commute to London by rail which meant an early start and a twenty five mile drive to the station to board a reasonably rapid train for the next 95 miles. While the journey to the station could normally be safely and legally completed in 30 minutes or less, (an impossibility in London), account had to be taken of weather conditions. Heavy fog or mist in the Autumn and ice during the Winter. Heavy rain with surface water can create additional problems. I always found it somewhat galling having struggled to work through appalling weather conditions to sometimes find others where I worked  in London and living only a few miles away, not reporting for work due to adverse weather conditions.

Service utilities like gas taken so much for granted in most urban areas are frequently non-existent in rural areas with the likelihood they will never be supplied. Heating is normally by oil-fired boilers and is very effective. Unlike gas available at the turn of a tap, oil has to by purchased i advance and in bulk which can be expensive. It is also subject to day by day price change dependent on the vagaries on the international oil market.  Onsite oil storage is another requirement. One of the adjustments to life is ensuring oil tanks are full before the onset of winter and maintaining an adequate reserve as it is consumed. If you run out of oil there is no gas tap to turn on, you simply go cold and delivery of new supplies may take several weeks.

Extra-fast broadband may be a factor individuals need to consider, especially if they intend working from home. Somerset was an area scheduled by the Government several years ago to have extra-fast broadband in rural areas. However from my own lay-persons point of view, information on what is happening appears to be almost non-existent and once again I suspect that except for villages on the peripheries of urban areas, it simply will not be installed no matter what the Government promises. I did check on anticipated broadband speeds should a guardian angel ever decide to bestow it on us and it appears the so called speed rapidly drops away with the distance of the home from the street telephone junction box. As our telephone junction box is situated about a mile outside the village, anticipated speeds will be little different to what we already have. It does make one wonder how vast countries like India already have broadband speeds everywhere that are much faster that what this country is hoping to achieve in the future?

Most market towns have a full range of shops and supermarkets found in their larger urban counterparts with most of the supermarkets providing ample free parking due to their reliance on customers needing to use their own transport. Car parking charges where they exist tend to be modest in comparison with larger cities.

All important employment opportunities do tend to be lower but clearly do exist. Many rural dwellers know they have to be prepared to commute longer distances to work often using their own transport. As a form of compensation, the urban traffic jam does not tend to exist.

Market towns frequently provide a pleasant medium between city and rural life with the added bonus that the countryside is literally on the doorstep. One striking aspect I have noticed in both urban and countryside housing developments is the newer larger housing schemes tend to feature deserted streets while areas which have developed more naturally positively abound with street life.

I suppose in the end it really is a matter of personal choice governed by individual circumstances that dictate which lifestyle we wish to lead. But as they say, where there is a will, there is also a way and anyone wishing for a more rural lifestyle should not feel they are forever trapped by the clutches of urban shackles. Provided there is a willingness to adapt, then anything is possible.

The one common feature I have noticed amongst of people like myself who made the move from town to country is the overwhelming desire never to go back.

The Great Storm of 1703

Storm CloudsLiving in Somerset makes one acutely aware of not only how extensive the flooding in the county is, particularly around the Somerset Levels, but also of the extraordinary duration of the flooding. It was on Christmas Eve 2013 that the area experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall when the flooding commenced and now, six weeks later little has changed in this aquatic landscape, leaving one with a literal sinking feeling the Somerset Levels are becoming tiny semi-permanent atolls of habitation. It is little wonder that Alfred the Great chose this area as a safe and impenetrable retreat to initial flee from and then fight the Viking invaders.

At long last following tremendous pressure  from the triple verbal onslaught of local Members of Parliament, farmers and residents, the Government has agreed that finally local rivers will be dredged to alleviate future flooding, the very point that locals have been campaigning to achieve for years. The problem is that dredging operations cannot take place until the riverbanks are dry and firm enough to safely support the weight of dredging equipment. With a seemingly constant bombardment of storms rolling off the Atlantic Ocean, one cannot help but wonder if that may be some time away and will the Levels remain under water for months to come?

The prolonged flooding and storms triggered a distant historical memory of a natural disaster now known as the Great Storm of 1703 which befell the UK. The storm produced a exceptionally low atmospheric centre with observers noting readings of only 973 millibars but it is thought that atmospheric pressure may have fallen as low as 950 millibars over the centre of the country.

Thanks the inspiration of the author Daniel Defoe, he advertised nationally for people to write to him with their personal accounts of the storm. It was the first time such a national reckoning of a disaster event and it’s aftermath had been accurately recorded. The thousands of letters he received led Defoe to write his renown book “The Storm”. It was calculated that between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall. The West Country of England was badly effected particularly around Bristol. Hundreds of people died on the Somerset Levels, the very area which is flooded today, along with thousands of sheep and cattle. The ferocity of the storm was so great that one ship was found 15 miles inland. Across the country storm damage was extensive with over 2,000 massive chimney stacks blown down and over 400 windmills destroyed. Many vessels were lost at sea.

Clearly natural disasters are nothing new, some like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes are difficult to take advance preventative measures against, but effective advance planning can help reduce the loss of life, damage to property, livelihoods and transport.. One hopes that the preventative measures promised for the Somerset Levels are not a one-off operation but part of a sustained effort for the future. Perhaps Somerset’s global mini-disaster will prove to be something of a wake-up call that maintenance in all its forms is something that cannot be neglected in the future.

Somerset Floods

Somerset FloodsNormally a New Year starts with something of a bang, however continuous wet weather since before Christmas has turned that into something of a damp squib.

Like much of the country, Somerset has been badly effected by flooding particularly the area now as the Somerset Levels. The Levels as they are known locally are a 650 Km2  area of land with the Eastern edge running north/south between Yeovil, Glastonbury and Wells and nestled between the Blackmore Hills to the Mendip Hills.and then westwards to the sea. The area is mainly drained marshland that historically flooded each winter restricting use to the Summer. It is thought the the name Somerset may have been derived from the “Summer Lands” which was a good description of this area. It is one reason Glastonbury became known as the Isle of Avalon towering aloft it’s winter watery surroundings

Over the years the Levels were drained for farming and grazing by improvement to water courses and the construction of artificial drainage channels with probably the best known of these being the King Sedgemoor Drain. Although the Levels continued to be subjected to flooding, the maintenance of most drainage channels ensured that floods were short-lived. Last winter and the winter so far this year has seen something of a change. Local farmers claim that budget cuts has led to less dredging of the rivers and channels by the local drainage boards while the drainage boards in turn claim the amount of dredging locals claim is needed is neither required and is unnecessarily expensive.

It’s a debacle that has been going on for some time but no one can deny whoever is right or wrong, homes, farms and roads not only continue to be more severely flooded, cut-off and isolated than ever before. While some authorities are worrying over their budgets, no mention is made of the great cost of all this in terms of flooded homes and lost production to the insurance industry and to farmers let alone additional transport costs of wide detours to circumnavigate the flooded areas. It is hard to believe that we now live in the 21st century with all its modern technology and still not agree as to the cause or even more importantly, the solution to what is rapidly becoming an annual problem. A ridgeway road (A39) that runs between Glastonbury and Bridgewater currently gives the impression to drivers of driving along a causeway surrounded by views of flooded terrain on either side.

I cannot help but notice in the extensive television news coverage of flooded areas of the country, new build housing seems to predominantly figure in the background. I would have thought that with all new housing schemes, flooding would be one of the more important aspects to be taken into account. I have no doubt there will be claims that potential flooding is taken into account in such schemes but the eyes do not belie what they see on television screens almost every evening.

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