31 December 2011

Return of the Native

Take Wuthering Heights, mix in some Anna Karenina, and what do you get? The return of the native, by Thomas Hardy.

Hugh had prodded around a bit in my sense of aesthetics, and had found enough windswept wasteland there to give me this book (and Dostoyevsky’s “the idiot”, but I haven’t read that yet) for my birthday. And when I fell ill I had a chance to read it.

It starts with a very gloomy description of the fictional Egdon Heath; beautiful! And this sets the scene for a narrative where decisions on marriage, not taken after sufficient consideration, end even worse than in Emily Brontë’s classic.

I liked the modern relational bungling up of the main characters; this hardly felt 19th century! But of course, it was 19th century, and that means a lot more is at stake. So trouble was brewing. And it didn’t let anyone wait.

After a while I got a bit fed up with Hardy’s tendency to really let everything go as wrong as it possibly can; everything is timed to perfection to do the most damage. Of course that letter is delivered late, of course the suspected lover and the suspecting mother end up at the cottage at the same time. Of course everybody is asleep when they shouldn’t and awake when they shouldn’t. Of course there are always prying eyes, which will sooner or later release their knowledge. But just as I got tired of the gimmick it ended! And Hardy very elegantly lets one of his own opportunities to throw a spanner in the machinery go by unused. Even though a footnote suggests he had to make a serious effort to do so...

An interesting thing about this book is also that it was not published in one go; it started as a series in a magazine, and many versions exist of the text, which show how Hardy was, till the very end, tweaking the social status and moral standing of his characters. In a way, you can choose yourself here, which version you prefer!

So whoever is looking for a book with plenty of rainy, dark, thorny hills, and marital choices leading to agonising downfall, and well-meant attempts at social reform that are doomed from the start (here comes Anna Karenina, or rather, Kostya), the clash of dream and reality (Anna herself, here!) I can recommend this book! And yet again, I got reminded of what a great improvement it has been that women now have a life of their own. I might be a hopeless reactionary, but this is surely an aspect of modern life I thoroughly appreciate!

30 December 2011

Still ill

On the first day of my illness, my true love gave to me: a partridge in a pear tree. One may wonder where I would put that tree. If you take this song further, I would by now have eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, five gold rings, four colly birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and, of course, that partridge in the pear tree. My house would be quite overcrowded by now. And who knows, I might make it to the end of the song; I can talk again, and my tonsils have receded back out of sight, but I’m still coughing and sneezing and quite drained. After going to town for groceries today I had to lie down for 3 hours to recover. It’s been quite enough now, as far as I’m concerned! They can keep their twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords-a-leaping, and nine ladies dancing. I even resorted, quite in contrast with my upbringing, to multiple self-medication. I have commenced consuming, on top of the recommended paracetamol, pink cough syrup! Let’s hope it works against, if not ladies dancing, then hopefully lords a-leaping...

Read the year 2010

What does one do if one is too ill to do anything strenuous, but too healthy to lie in bed all day? One reads. And as I was ill for much longer than I expected I not only got frustrated, but I also was in the luxurious position to read more in a week than I had done in the preceding six months. The reader may already have noticed I read a magazine, but most of my reading concerned books.

My choices were somewhat eclectic, as one can see. I started with “Essays in Cornish mining history”; need I say more? Neil had given it to me, and it had wrestled its way to the top of my to read list. But then I thought the time had come to dive into Schott’s Almanac. And then I went on to Thomas Hardy; that will be another blogpost.

The last week of the year traditionally is one for looking back. And commonly on the year coming to an end, but I chose one before; when I, at the end of the year 2010, saw this book, I figured it would be a splendid monument to my affair with the UK. It was an overview of the first year I lived for the whole year in this country, and therefore it would likely be the year in which my opinion on it would be largely constructed. The year by which I would remember it! And now, yet a year later, it may be interesting to see how someone else would have documented that pivotal year.

In reality, this almanac covers rather the academic year 2009/2010: September 2009 to September 2010, but that only makes it even better suited for my purpose. And it covers all big news world stories of that time: the Haiti earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, Eyjafjallajökull, Greek debt, and all that. And of course the big UK stories: the UK elections, the rampant UK gunmen, parliamentary expenses, the Chilcot inquiry (on the legitimacy of the Iraq war), the cat in the wheelie bin, Catholic abuse scandals, William Hague, the Stig, the Pope’s visit... the book did quite what I hoped it would do!

Some of the things that coloured the UK year were: the person of the year; the mili-cleg-eron. “A well-schooled, Oxbridge-educated, London-centric, white, married, heterosexual, 40-something male.” And some of the words of the year: media stacking (using several types of media at the same time), showmance (a showbiz romance faked for PR reasons), iPod oblivion (the inattentiveness of those engrossed in iPods, iPhones, etc), twillionaire (a twitterer with more than a million followers).

And beside that it offered an interesting range of trivia, some of which I will reproduce here. It claimed that a poll by YouGov/Softwareload indicated that 92% of Brits think that bringing a laptop on holiday will not result in arguments, and that one by Orange suggests that 58% of British men lie to their friends about having seen classic films.

The most popular baby name in 2009 (according to Bounty) for a boy was Jack, and for a girl Olivia; interestingly enough, the top ten of both genders was practically identical to a 2010 poll by OnePoll which gave the most regretted baby names. The most common regret in parents seems to be giving their child a too common name...

A Girlguiding survey showed that girls up to 11 years old are mostly dissatisfied with their hair & teeth, and older girls have as their biggest physical complaint that they think they’re fat.

Headbanging leads to modest head injury if the range of motion is over 75°.

The percentage of children that have ever smoked has gone down 1997-2008.

Homicides in 2008/9 are mainly performed using sharp objects. The next likely way to meet your violent end differs for men and women; for men the no.2 is being hit & kicked, while for women it’s strangulation.

The oddest book title in 2009 was, according to the book trade, was “Crocheting adventures with hyperbolic planes”.

The Darwin award 2009 went to two blokes who tried to blow up an ATM, but misjudged the amount of explosives needed; they also blew up the entire building, and themselves.

One of the nominees for the igNobel prize was a team of scientists that had invented a bra that could, in case of need, be quickly converted to two face masks.

A newly identified Australian snail was baptised Crikey steveirwini.

Travel website Zoover asked their visitors which Euroean males were considered the sexiest: Italy won, and Switzerland came last. OnePoll asked what accent was the sexiest, and the reply was: Irish; strangely enough, the top 10 contained 6 versions of English. Probably because of English domination, I guess...

In 2008/2009, London had 847 fast food outlets.

The global economy is suffering, and one seeks a way to try to measure the gravity of the situation; there’s many economic indices, some of which are not so well-known; such as the Hemline index (skirts get longer in economically trying times), and the popcorn index (healthier economy = more popcorn eaten in Odeon cinemas).

In the period 1997-2010, the business most on the rise was the lap dancing club, with a >1000% increase. Other big winners were drive- through restaurants and betting shops. The biggest losers were sports/social clubs, with other big losers being livestock markets and hospitals.

The National Biblical Literacy Survey showed that 5% of Brits know the Ten Commandments, 57% knew 3 or more, and 16% couldn’t name any. Curiously, 41% of non-church-goers knew the “golden rule” (Do unto others as you would have them do to you) compared to only 31% of self-declared church goers.

The science museum polled Brits for their most common lies to their significant other: the top 3 for men is 1) I didn’t have that much to drink 2) Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine 3) I had no signal, and for women it is 1) Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine 2) I don’t know where it is, I haven’t touched it 3) It wasn’t that expensive.

Nothing like some trivia to clear the clogged head!

Of lighthouses and the damage to humans

"I'm surprised you don't know what that is!" I had just told Neil the story of how I managed, just before our epic hike on Dartmoor, to slip on a smooth slab of rock in a Plymouth pavement, and flop my knee inside out. Only moderately, fortunately; the hike was not jeopardised by this event. But I mentioned I did not know what that smooth slab was doing there. Evidently to Neil's surprise.

The blog reader would be excised for thinking Neil had vanished from my life after the sad events of last August, but that is a mere artefact of a specific blog bias; I preferentially blog about events I have taken pictures of. And since mentioned day in August we have only met to catch up, which is not a very opportune occasion for photographic documentation. So though he's been absent from the blog, he has not been absent from my life, and it was during one of these catching up sessions this conversation took place.

"You've seen more of Plymouth and surroundings in a few years than most locals do in a lifetime! I'm surprised you don't know what that is. That slab is part of a cross-section of the Eddystone Lighthouse. (This tower is widely used as the symbol for Plymouth.) It beautifully shows the interlocking stones. It even includes a metal slab, which symbolises a blob of molten lead that fell of the roof when this was on fire, into the mouth of a guy who was looking up, and eventually killed him."

Needless to say; the next time I was near I had a look. And indeed; I had been blind! It it a most interesting little display, for everyone to enjoy, but probably ignored by almost all. But maybe through the blog it might reach a few people more!

Blimey, it really says "it's rock base", right? How sad...

29 December 2011

Does a bear shit in the woods?

What seems evident to most can be an interesting research question to a scientist. The obvious is often untrue; those who watch QI will get a regular taste of how much we think we know but don't. And whether bears shit in the woods does contain at least one interesting scientific question.

Having become Quite Interested in the underground realm I subscribed to "Cave and Karst Science". In it I found an article called "Fish remains in cave deposits; how did they get there?*" It warned against unfounded assumptions, apparently common in archaeology and palaeo-anthropology, that fish only end up in caves** due to human actions, and fish remains thus prove human use of the cavern they are found in.

The authors rightly point out that there are more cave-using fish-eaters; eagles and bears are only a few examples. Concerning bears, they mention that many studies exist on fish eating by bears, but generally with a focus on something like the impact on fish abundance, which is of limited archaeological interest. The authors go on: "For example, the studies often list in detail how many salmon were taken on certain days, but not what parts of the fish were eaten, where the remains were deposited, or where the bear defecated afterwards - all important information for archaeological research. "

Does a bear shit in the woods, or sometimes also in a cave? Who's going to write the research proposal...

Fish remains. Figure taken from mentioned article (full reference below)
*Russ, H and Jones, A.K.G: Fish remains in cave deposits; how did they get there? Cave and Karst Science 38(3), 117-120
**this, of course, only applies in caves where fish do not naturally occur, as they may do in e. g. sea caves

25 December 2011

Sniffly Christmas

My plan was: set an alarm, get out of bed, and evaluate the situation. If I felt OK I would throw my bag in my car and abscond to Exeter airport. If I didn’t I would return to bed.

That was easy. The alarm went, I assessed I felt shit, so I went back to sleep. And slept hours more. It would have been dangerous to drive, detrimental to travel and dubious to show up at social engagements in such a state. My head was full of slime, my nose was clogged, I could not speak, my throat and head hurt and I was knackered. So my Christmas Eve was spent asleep! That was not according to plan. But sometimes the body wins over the diary. And this is one of these moments.

Falling ill just before Christmas is a bit tricky; before you know it you are left without supplies, as the shops close. But I was lucky to have a guardian angel; Hugh, who would stay in the country as well (in his case on purpose). He bought me lemons, oranges, honey and everything else someone with a cold might need. I think this time it’s just laryngitis with a severe cold, and no tonsillitis: my tonsils have reasonable sizes and colours. I’ll just go on sleeping and eating citrus fruit and honey until I feel better! And merry Christmas to all you healthy people!

23 December 2011

Oh no not again!

In about 13 hours I'm flying to the Netherlands. At least, that is the plan. But yesterday, after our normal lunch run, I felt less than healthy. And from there on things went worse. And during the last hours my voice has faded from husky to nearly absent. Shit! Is that another laryngitis coming up? Or perhaps even laryngitis combined with tonsillitis? Shit! Tomorrow morning I'll have to decide whether or not I deem myself fit to fly. And if I do I most likely won't be fit to talk! The timing couldn't have been worse... Watch this space! For those that I would meet: be aware you may be disappointed...

Underground Christmas Celebration

After the office Christmas do comes the club Christmas do! In this case the followed each other at unnerving speed. I got back to Plymouth from Totnes, went to my office, exchanged my shiny new jacket for a muddy one, had a big coffee to reenergize myself, and a big tea for rehydration, and was on my way again. One of the other caving ladies had kindly offered to pick me up from campus, and thus I could make it to these two celebrations on one day.

As it had been interesting weather recently we had decided to celebrate in a well-drained mine. That meant a certain compromise on space, but the advantage of that was that a small space is easier to decorate. We had Christmas lights, Santa hats, battery-powered candles, tinsel, glow sticks; what not! And above that we had inhuman amounts of food.

Pic by John

We settled in the stope of Old Gunnislake mine; this is the prettiest part of the mine. And soon it was prettier than ever! We were with a modest group, but the atmosphere was most merry, and overeating of course is quite a robust Christmas tradition. We’re ready for another year of happy caving!

CORiF Christmas lunch

The cliché is to have adulterous interaction with the boss behind the copier. But not all office Christmas parties are like that. We had the general geographical Christmas do recently, which merely involved civilised consuming in a cosy English pub. Then two days later we had the coastal Christmas do at Gerd’s; that was really nice too! Every year he fills up his picturesque cottage with loads of colleagues, family members, neighbours, dogs, and endless amounts of food and drink. Roland had even brought his newest offspring Aart; this young chap turned out to be quite generous, and shared his food, both before and after digestion.

And then there was the CORiF lab Christmas lunch. This would be a profoundly English one: first we would walk from Totnes, through the scenic countryside, to Bow, where a rustic country pub awaited us for lunch. And after that we would trace our steps back, repeating this brisk walk, and then either let our hair hang down in Totnes nightlife or return west.

And so it happened; under the inspiring leadership of Will (the Tornado), and the avuncular supervision of Geoff, the head of the lab, we walked along the Dart, over the rolling hills, in the pale wintery sunshine. And in spite of being a veritable collection of nerds we kept up a healthy pace. So healthy that, even though we had to initially wait for Will who had to deal with a small family emergency, we arrived at the pub of our choice an hour early. But resourceful people like us are not fazed by such discrepancy; we just walked on to the next pub for a noon pint.

When we came back to the initial pub I was glad to see the table arrangements; we got Christmas crackers! I had seen these in the shops, but never actually held one in my hands. This was continuing to be a very English celebration!

The pub; pic by Rob

For the non-Anglosaxons; these Christmas crackers are toffee-in-wrapping-shaped cardboard things, which two people pull from each side; it will then break with a small “bang”, and reveal its content of a thin paper crown (too small, unless you suffer from microcephaly), a piece of paper with a saltless joke on it, and a little toy. You put on the crown, read out the joke and rejoice in the little gift. How most splendid!

I should have used the anti-red eye-flash...

The most appreciated gift was a tiny notebook; we transformed that with combined efforts into a flick book of unprecedented artistic quality. It didn’t flick too well but that is but a trifle.

The pub also distributed pieces of paper on which you could list music requests. That provided some extra entertainment. We were spread out over two tables; both tables submitted a list, and there was plenty of opportunity to slack off the choices of the other table. We tried to compose a list that expressed the time of year (Winter), the day of the week (Ruby Tuesday), the nationalities at our table (with songs from Air, Midnight Oil and Caro Emerald), the company (White Coats, Even the Losers), and the research interests (River Runs Red, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay). They managed to play quite some of that!

The food was excellent but copious, so by the time we left we were all bordering on mortal obesity, but even in that state we managed to walk back at a good speed. We made it back to Totnes just before dark. There we experienced a dichotomy; four of us, including yours truly, proceeded to the railway station, while the rest had only started the celebrations, and would proceed to enjoy more beer, sample the Christmas market, and enjoy live music until who knows how late. I went back to my office; I had to get ready for the next celebration, this time underground!

21 December 2011

Torrington Christmas Caper

Yes, I know, another race. Yet again without horizontal sleet! But we did get some hail along the way. This year’s quite unlike the previous: deep into December there’s still no sign of winter. So the Torrington Christmas Caper wasn’t excessively Christmassy either, but yet again, it was fun. And yet again, it was an off-road race, so my results were shit. Even shittier than the Drogo results!

I had my running mate Hugh back, and this time I would turn out to manage to keep up with him for several minutes, so I even noticed. When we arrived at the venue we were struck by the large number of dressed up people, which made it a bit Christmassy after all, in spite of the weather.

This run, which covered 10.2 miles of north Devon countryside, was sure one of extremes. It started on the road, and there were rather large parts on the road this time, allowing me to run more than 10 km/h on average, but it also had unprecedentedly rough bits. Soon after we left the road there was a flooded bit; at the deepest the water came up to my crotch! One does not go very fast in that. And one’s muscles are a bit cold after it, which enhances sore muscles the day after. And there were plenty of very, very muddy bits.

Entering the water

It would even get deeper than this!

At some point I was running on a small track next to a properly sized forest track. The latter had big puddles in it, and one can’t see what’s in them, which may be a hole for instance, in which an ankle is easily twisted, so I tend to avoid these. But behind me I heard a runner approach, then I heard “excuse me!” and then “WHEEEEE!” “SPLASH!”. Some people like their puddles…

A race of extremes; one moment you're running through scenic wooded lanes...

...the next moment you're running through derelict industrial complexes!

It was a nice run, with a nasty ending after some very swampy meadows. I had read a review of an earlier edition, where they mentioned these very fields, and that they have patches of knee deep swamp in them. I didn’t really believe that. Until I went down into one, over the knee! It was true…

The winter sun on tinsel garlands enhances the experience

After just over 1.5 hours I crossed the finish. I received the trophy: a small Christmas pudding with clotted cream! And then it was time to check out the excellent facilities of this race; headquarters were a rugby club, so there were showers, and the possibility of purchasing a hot beverage. Both were welcomed; we would proceed from the race straight to a Christmas celebration at Gerd the Coastal Professor’s place, so we had to get that inch of mud from our bodies, and change into a befitting outfit. And it was a rather cold day, so a post-shower hot chocolate was most appreciated.

Running in the sun under a lead-grey sky. Notice "Santa" is still at my side; she already was on pic #2!

The muddy finish

I would have stiff calves for days, and had to accept I had never performed so poorly, but I couldn’t wait to register for another race!

19 December 2011

Repair or replace

Nothing like Dartmoor in late October to find out if your kit is waterproof! Unfortunately, when I went there with several splendid friends, I had to conclude my jacket wasn’t waterproof at all. I tend to be fairly fatalistic about such things, but my companions weren’t, and they inspired me to go back to the shop. And there they didn’t ask any questions; they just took it back to send it back to the manufacturer. And I didn’t really expect anything to happen before Christmas (mind you, I brought it back on November 14th), but lo and behold! On the 16th of December I got a message that the manufacturer had sent a brand new specimen back. So now I can try again!

When I picked it up from the store one detail struck me immediately: the older version of the jacket had inferior Velcro on the cuffs, so I replaced that. This newer version has a different kind of velcro; evidently they figured out themselves the old stuff wasn’t working!

My first action point was testing its waterproofness. And it wasn't raining outside so it became an indoor test. And the jacket came through well! I just hope it stays like that for a while... I hope to have lots of outdoor fun with this jacket!

Goretex testing in action

Geographical christmas lunch

More than 30 geographers in the pub for a Christmas lunch, and only one bicycle outside! That’s how it goes. Every year such celebratory lunch is organised, and this year, like last year, it took place in Jon’s favourite hangout: the Clovelly Bay Inn. Last year I’d missed it due to being in the USA, but this year I gave acte de présence. And of course I came by bicycle. And when I was on my way there the sun shone beautifully on the wet vegetation and the railway relics still ubiquitous along the bicycle track, which is, of course, and old railroad. And I figured everybody else was missing out.

When I was taking a picture of a bridge I saw a man with a very small dog run over the path. When they came closer the dog turned out to be a Jack Russell puppy. And he was flirtatious. Cute! Who travels on bike gets bonuses. Though those having come on foot could have flirted with any passing dog as well, I suppose…

The lunch itself was lovely! Good company and good food. And plenty of beverages. It’s good to sometimes come together, outside campus, and socialise. Next week we’ll do it again; this time with the CORiF lab!

18 December 2011

Belgians everywhere

There's even Belgians in the Belgian government! Unbelievable. Here in Plymouth I had only met one: Tony the robotics lecturer. I even mentioned that this week to an Australian historian I met, who turned out to study the cultural identity of the Belgians. Or lack thereof, as a PhD student at Delaware University remarked.

I was in the lab, doing my thing, when two gentlemen unbeknown to me were doing some analysis on sand. I listened to them for a while, and figured one was French and the other American. Though I realised I’m crap at recognising accents; they might as well have been two Canadians. It turned out they were two PhD students: one local one, and the other one, you guessed it, visiting from Delaware University. But then we started chatting; soon it turned out the Frenchman was actually Portuguese, and the American was… Belgian. He lived in the US, though, so he sounded proper yankee. But as soon as the Portuguese left he switched to Flemish. Lovely!

He, by the way, announced I was a real Dutch girl; when he explained where he was from he mentioned Lille, or Rijsel as the Flemish call it. And he wondered if I had heard of it. Of course I had! They make Oude Rijsel there, also known as Vieux Lille. And making such a cheese reference will do just fine for nationality stereotyping. He was so kind as to say “amaai” or “allez” in every single sentence…

Anyway. It was good to meet a rare Belgian. But later in my office I went to the university webpage, and whose face was adorning the front? Tony the robotics lecturer! Now there’s none to be seen, now they’re everywhere…

The front page of the University Website last week

That didn't teach all of them equally well

Student fees go up to £9000.-. You’d better offer the students some quality for that! Roland does his part: he teaches a module in which the students do an entire sea level reconstruction project, using foraminifera, from the fieldwork all the way to the writing up. Fascinating! At least, that’s what I think.

The idea is: the students take surface samples and a core, and survey all of that. They count the forams in the surface samples, so they know at what elevation the various species live. Then they count the core sample, and then they figure out with what elevation the forams live that they encounter there. If they find an assemblage typical for 30 cm above sea level at half a meter down in the core, they know that when these sediments were deposited sea level was 80 cm below the current surface. And if you know where sea level is with respect to the surface nowadays, which they do, and they have a datapoint for every level in the core, they have a sea level reconstruction! Isn’t that magnificent. And such beautiful collaboration: tens of students all together contributing to such a dataset.

We went into the field and I was quite impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and skill (though there were the inevitable traces of standing around and hoping someone else will do something). During the microscope practicals I was also quite pleased with their achievements. And it’s the better students that involve you the most. But at the end of the exercise you get to see everybody’s results, including what students have been trying to hide. Most did a good job (though I suspect many were only counting the bigger forams!), but there were students who had only counted one sample, students who had counted the wrong sample, so some had been counted thrice while some had not been touched, and one student had just picked a few sand grains and hadn’t even realised he had missed the entire point, and some were quite sloppy with transferring their data from their paper counting sheet to a spreadsheet. There’s a lot that can go wrong! I’m interested to see how accurate the sea level curve is they can produce with such a data set.

And if you wonder: the samples that had been counted more than once did not yield the same results at the hand of the different students! But it’s a splendid training for professional life: they’re all bound to end up in situations where they will have to work with several colleagues, all with their own level of skill. Will you try to lift the weaker ones to a higher level, will you do the work yourself instead, will you shrug and live with it? Relevant questions…

17 December 2011

Combined rescue training

The thing with people being missing is that you tend to not know where they are. So one could picture a call-out to find someone of whom it is not known if they reside above or below the surface. And in that case, it may be a good idea to have both above- and below-ground rescue teams involved in the search. And it’s best if they have practiced collaborating. And that’s what the plan for my birthday was.

We drove to a parking lot in the woods that was packed with big vans and SUV’s with lots of reflection and phrases such as “mountain rescue” and “ambulance” plastered all over them. These Dartmoor rescuers have the stuff! I got into my very muddy kit and waited for things to happen. Dartmoor rescue was in charge of this exercise.

Big rescue van with well-prepared banana-carrying rescuer!

We cave rescuers had just gotten new jackets (which we paid for ourselves, worried taxpayers! Though we did get a discount as it was a bulk order), and several members had realised that it was my birthday, so now a few of these shiny new garments aren’t so shiny anymore.

Teams were made with members of each team, and after some more faffing we were off. There was no briefing, but it became clear that the idea was each team would search a number of mine entrances, and once we would find the victims, which were assumed to be underground, cave rescue would get them out and mountain rescue would take them over at the surface. Each team had a caver that knew the area well and would be able to find the mine entrances; in our case that was Richard. So he lead the way.

We were supposed to search what was called adit 8 and 9. To get there, one gets past adit 7. This one was unlocked, and there were bags at the entrance. To me that indicated another team was in there. But the Dartmoor guys figured it meant the victims were in there, so they wanted to contact base to see if we should change our plan. Unfortunately, radio contact was hampered, so we just stood around for a while. Hmm!

Seemingly unavoidable in rescuing: standing around

In the end we got through to base, moved to the next adit; it was locked and the water in it was clear, so there was likely nobody in there. We were only in it for some tens of metres when we were called back; the next adit was unlocked! So we checked that one out first. Nobody there. We locked it behind us, in spite of Dartmoor rescue objecting; they figured that if someone was in there after all, they could get out. They had no idea that there’s nowhere to hide in there.

When we got out there was news: the victims were found in another adit, so we went there. The scenario was two people had gone in; the guy had crossed an unstable winze, dislodged something, and fallen on his head and passed out. The girl was unhurt on this side of the winze, but she was quite distressed. One of the mountain rescuers took it upon himself to talk the girl back to base, so we could concentrate on the unconscious bloke. Base had been informed a stretcher and rope was needed, so that was on its way. I went in with one of my team mates to inform the casualty carer who was looking after the victim to tell him that (OK; that was a lame excuse. We wanted to get in! But that was a good idea; that way we would get an idea of the terrain between the exit and the hapless chap), and happily crossed the aforementioned winze. There were some dodgy looking planks over it, and a solid metal pipe. We didn’t really take much time to behold it; we wanted to get to the victim! But on the way back we had a closer look; it was an unfathomable depth! We decided to leave the planks and cross using the more solid pipe. How would we get the victim over that?

Soon the stretcher arrived. I put it on my back to carry it in. Richard advised me against that; it’s too high and would hit the ceiling. But I had a small moment of triumph; it would hit the ceiling if carried by a tall lad like Richard. Not if it’s me! So we carried it in, and started getting the victim all packed up nicely.

Turning the victim into a muddy christmas present

The evacuation started smoothly; the tunnel was wide and the ground solid. Until we reached the winze… we came up with a plan: two people sit on the pipe, attached to it so a fall wouldn’t be fatal, and then we would pull and slide the stretcher over their laps. I was one of the sitting people. An honourable job! And it worked a treat. These are the cherries on the rescue practice cake!

The next problem was a very narrow bit. Just big enough for one person at each end of the stretcher… that’s heavy. Later we also had to slide him over the ground as the ceiling was so low one could only crawl. And then we were out! We briefed their first aider on what had happened and off they were. The mountain guys have a splendid stretcher-thingy on a big sturdy wheel which is good for transporting casualties over uneven terrain without having to carry them all the way.

By then it was late. We had a brief debriefing, and then we absconded. I hoped we would go to the pub, but it was already 11. The pub Dave tried anyway was indeed closing. Too bad. Not a birthday drink! Nor a more thorough and informal evaluation in the pub. Especially with this combined training that would have been good. But what can one do... and it had been a good night anyway!

15 December 2011


Every year I think my birthday comes at an awkward time. It’s right in these last weeks of the year when people are still at work, but only just, so it’s the time when all the office Christmas parties take place. There never is a day left for a birthday party! And on top of that; all sorts of things tend to have to be finished before the new year starts, so it’ s quite busy with work as well. And I’m generally terribly disorganised. But this year I didn’t have to worry about what to do on my birthday: there was a cave rescue training scheduled. What better activity could one think of!

Our rescue trainings during the week take place in the evening, so during the day I was just at work. But it was a very nice, relaxed working day! Get out of bed at a leisurely time, buy cake, do some work, kiss the boss (and quite some other colleagues), play around with some hydrogen peroxide, eat the cake, fail a student, and get marvellous presents from loved ones! Hugh, Rob and Sam perhaps showed their own interests quite clearly. I got high literature from Hugh, high cuisine from Rob and chocolate from Sam! (And kisses from all, of course.) I was most chuffed. And because I had to get to Chudleigh for rescue practice, I had to make this a short working day. And I’ll report on the rescue practice later! But for now: thanks all, who made my birthday a good day!

13 December 2011

Fruitless digging

I was digging endless amounts of loose rubble in a confined space and realised not everybody would consider that a good way of spending one’s free Sunday afternoon. But I had a blast!

This day would turn out to be the end of an endeavour that started about a year and a half ago. One summer evening we went on a search for a mine shaft, and found it, amidst all brambles and hollies and other unwelcoming vegetation. That autumn we went back to descend that shaft. We found a little beauty of a mine! With a collapse at one end that looked promising. So in early spring we went back to see if we could dig through that collapse. We managed to displace loads of loose rubble, but there was always more. And now we were back to continue our efforts.

I parked my car, got out, and was immediately flagged down by the landowners. We had their permission, but they didn’t know we had picked just this day for our endeavour. But they greeted it! They asked me if we knew where we could come out if we would manage to indeed reach the surface. Lionel wasn’t there yet, so I just showed them. The last time we had searched for a possible link to the surface, and we had found a pit of sorts that looked plausible. The land owner hoped he could indeed walk in there later that day. It would not be!

When we walked back Lionel appeared. And after some more chatting we got geared up and went to rig the shaft. On our way to it we found another pit of sorts; maybe we had been mistaken, and this would be where our dig would reach the surface! If so that would be bad news. There would be metres of rubble above us.

We were not discouraged and rigged that shaft. We are getting experienced at this. I went down, only to have to wait for Lionel who did an unusual amount of faffing before coming down. I spent some dreamy minutes lying on my belly in the entrance to the shaft, tens of metres below the surface, where it was all quiet and some raindrops only accentuated the stillness, while above me the wind chastised the trees. But then Lionel touched down. And off to the dig we went!

We knew the procedure: an upward-sloping tunnel would end in a narrow bit, with up, down, left and right solid rock, and forward loose rubble. Dig some of that out and more comes down. Like uncontrollable diarrhoea, as Lionel unhelpfully commented. Just shovel that back until it falls down a flooded winze and dig some more out. Repeat ad infinitum.

Not a very clear picture, but this is what it was all about: the opening through which the rubble kept steaming out.

So that’s what we did. Within minutes we had fogged up the narrow space with our breath. Sweat was dripping down our faces. We would take turns in digging at the front; the role of the one in the back was shovelling the rubble into the winze. We were a bit reluctant to do that, as blocking the winze might stop that tunnel from draining, and then you can have a problem, but there was nowhere else to put it.

We had some dubious fun. Our method was raking rubble towards us until we could get behind it, and then lie down and push it further with our feet. These are good bulldozery things! And bigger rocks you throw down. At the best of times you thus end up sweaty and with rubble in your shoes, under your knee pads, and under your watch. And it got worse: Lionel couldn’t possibly be bothered to look where he was throwing and bulldozering things, so he would sometimes throw the rocks at me and bulldozer the rubble not into the winze but into my boiler suit. When I got home and undressed to take a shower I found half the mine in my bra! Thanks Lionel.

A sweaty Lionel enjoying a break

One of the highlights was finding a piece of unidentified pottery amidst the pebbles. Another was the creating large rockslides into the winze, see it rush down, and listen to the thunder it created by reaching the water. A not quite highlight was that I once managed to have a rockslide cover my shovel… luckily I found it back.

After a few hours, and a small wander in the rest of the mine by means of break, we called it a day. Lionel insisted of using a brought metal pole for clambering laboriously over another winze, where we also had been the previous time but which he had forgotten, only to find yet again a dead end not far behind it. And then we went out! I went up the rope first. I hadn’t done enough arm muscle training recently! But I got up safely. And then my job was to pull up that metal bar. How did I get talked into that? Lionel is much stronger! After hours of digging and then prussicking up that shaft my arm muscles had surely done enough. I was very relieved to see the top of the pole peek over the top of the shaft. Next thing was Lionel coming up, and then we together hoisted our luggage up. I would have really struggled to do that myself!

Clear evidence mineral collectors come down here too! But without permission, the rascals...

We de-rigged in a jiffy, and then went to look for our pit. The second one we had found, higher on the slope. Lo and behold; it was much deeper! This was the surface depression we had created with our digging. And the whole area around our pit also consisted of loose rubble. No way we could reasonably dig our way out of that! Too bad. At least we had had fun.

While discussing what other collapses we might have a go at in this mine we walked back to the cars. I had a social engagement to rush to so I just changed and left. Lionel provided some bonus entertainment: as it had been raining the long grass was wet. So he crawled and rolled around in it for a while in order to clean up… whoever thinks I’m daft: look at Lionel and realise it could be much worse! And daft or not: I hope we’ll be back down there one day, trying our strength at another dig. Maybe we can get into the part of the mine on the other side of the road!

12 December 2011

Cockington Christmas Caper

I expected horizontal sleet. It's December, after all, and for a while the weather forecast for the weekend had been ghastly. But lo and behold, I was yet again standing beside a stately manor in the bright sunshine!

My favourite racing diary had revealed yet another off-road race not too far away: just inland from Torquay. I am not at all good at off-road racing; I’m way too scared to hurt my knees, but I do like it. And it gets you to places where you otherwise wouldn’t go! And this Cockington Country Park was, as was the Teign Valley, quite decorative.

This was a small race; only 171 runners. And the route lead over quite many narrow paths and over many stiles, but with so few runners there was never a problem with queuing runners at a bottleneck. And the route was pretty, the people were nice, the weather was gorgeous! What more does one want.

After I'd finished I had a small look around; the prettiness of the surroundings merited that. And I noticed that the church that featured on the route was accommodating a wedding! So you had a strange blend of muddy, sweaty, lycra-clad people mixed with people in their beyond-Sunday-best, but nobody seemed to care.

I don't know how I fared; the results aren't in yet. The organisation was in Christian hands, so I suppose they can't process results on a Sunday. But whatever my results have been: that was a Saturday morning well spent! And I already look forward to the next one: ten miles next week...

The picturesque setting

This was the information available on the route: most informative! Not.

An uphill bit near the start of the race,with everyone not spread out yet

There were many stiles in the route, but it never got annoying.

If you look closely you can see the runners in front of the hedge row.

At the end of the route we ran past the local church: how scenic!

December sun near the finish line

The finish!

Me with the finish in sight

And the goodies.