21 December 2012

Underground(ish) Xmas celebrations

It's that time of the year again! After the professional Xmas do's (I even popped by at the Marine Institute do for half a hour) it was time for the Caving club events. The Plymouth club tends to celebrate underground. This year we kept it low key. Venues of earlier celebrations like Wheal Fanny and Old Gunnie were decided against as the former is too much hassle and the latter would probably be too flooded in a week like this. So we went for an abandoned railway tunnel.

As one of us did his usual getting-lost-routine we decided to go in in two groups. Two of us waited for the latecomers while the rest went in. We walked all the way through. It's not far, and though it's fairly monotonous it's an impressive tunnel, so I don't mind. I mused about the trains that would have thundered through as late as 1966... One of our Daves had even been in one!

On the way back we found a spot with little dripping water and little garbage (these tunnels attract lots of fly-tippers, apparently). We had hoped we would have met the latecomers by then, but no sign of them. And no signal in a tunnel! So we unpacked our bags: quiches came out, and samosas, and pickled eggs, and mince pies, and whatnot. We even had some tinsel, tea lights, flashing Xmas hats and such tack. A modest, but nice celebration! Fortunately, after a while we did see some lights in the distance. Five more people! Now we were complete.

When we were done we walked to the end again, as not all of us had seen that, and then we walked back, with a camera at long exposure times aimed at us. I was hoping the pictures would have come available by now, but alas. I know they're beautiful!

My wish on a picture Dave took a few years ago

Two days later it was the turn of the Cornish lot. That was a much less  acceptable celebration; that took place not only above ground, but even in a bowling hall. I admit it. I went bowling. It wasn't my idea! It seems that they always do that to celebrate the end of the year. Strange habit; over-eating underground seems so much more appropriate.

It's far, and I wanted to finish stuff before the holiday, but I was chanceless against the charms of Mark, the organiser of the whole thing. And as Dave wasn't going, and Lionel would come from the west in stead of the east, I even had to go alone. And I don't like driving! But it was a good opportunity to test my brand new clutch and gearbox.

To my surprise I found it in one go. A somewhat depressing venue, were it not for the people in it! The Cornish are a lovely lot. So after an initial lasagne I obediently traded in my boots for bowling shows (no steel toecaps, to my surprise) and took my place on lane 1. And hurled some balls in the general direction of the pylons, or whatever they're called! I am truly rubbish at it.

Even the Cornish were keen on going home at a reasonable time, so when I decided to abscond at 21.15 I wasn't even the first. I am glad I went! Although that bowling malarkey isn't my thing...

Have a great Christmas everybody!

20 December 2012

Jewellery bonanza

I am very lazy. Most of the time I can't be asked to put a tea bag in my hot water. I also tend to always wear the same earrings. I used to wear simple hoops; you can leave these in day and night. No time spent on them at all! But sometimes you lose these, for instance while taking off a shirt. And that happened.

I accidentally mentioned that back then to Neil, with whom I was walking through Totnes. He immediately dragged me into the nearest jeweller, where I picked a set of trilobite earrings (it was Totnes, after all). I wore them ever since. I still like them a lot. But I did start to feel, after more than a year, that maybe there was something to say for more variation. And you can just walk into the nearest jeweller and buy buckets full of them, but I prefer ornaments, if they're more conspicuous than a simple stud or hoop, to be significant in some way. So I started to search for something interesting on internet. And I found "Made with Molecules"; a website by a lady who traded science for jewellery-making. She makes ornaments in the shape of molecules of interest. She has, for instance, caffeine on offer, and testosterone. But I chose a pair of serotonine earrings. Serotonine matters!

And then I was on a roll. I accidentally came across Cornish engine house studs. Made with Crofty tin! Of course I bought these too. And then I remembered a weathered belemnite I had pulled out of the Oxford Clay in Peterborough; since recovery, it had broken lengthwise in two. A pair of earrings in the making! I drilled holes in both halves, and tried to fit metal wire through. One half shattered into pieces. The other half made it. That left an empty finding; I decided to hang a piece of coral I had recently found on the beach in it. From one pair of earrings to four in only a few weeks: not bad!

I even bought a banded iron pendant on the market! I'm turning into a veritable Christmas tree!

19 December 2012

Swan handbag

Lay a little sheet down on the ground. Pick up a swan, and place it on top of the sheet. Fold the sheet around the swan. There is a zip on the sheet: zip it closed so the swan is now in a little swan straightjacket. There are straps on the sheet, too: tie these together so the swan is extra snug, and you create a handle. Then walk away with the swan as your handbag.

Is that strange? It happened for real! When we walked to the restaurant for the geographical Christmas lunch, we came across a lady who was doing just that. Why, you may ask? She was of the RSPCA, and had been called because someone had noticed something was wrong with the swan. She was going to take it to a vet in order to find out what was the matter. And people evidently have invented special injured-swan-recovery sheets for such occasions! Who would have thought.

17 December 2012

Book review on science blog

I've published a review of Michael Mann's book “The hockey stick and the climate wars - dispatches from the front lines”;  on my science blog. Mann is the lead author of the nature articles on the famous hockey stick graph. Since these were published he spent a lot of his time in the trenches of the war against the climate denialist lobby. It's very interesting! (The book, I mean, not my review, though I hope it will inspire many). Read it!

 Mike Mann. Source: Greg Grieco, Creative Commons

...and even the review comes recommended! From Twitter.

16 December 2012

Birthday by proxy

I raised a glass of champagne to my birthday at midnight, in a ponsy wine bar on Royal William Yard. I thought I would be eating Asian food with colleagues to celebrate. How naive of me.

This year my birthday was on a Friday. I figured I could invite some people over, or go into town. But I didn’t have to decide; an email arrived, inviting the department to a Christmas lunch on that day. Well, that settled it then! I was surprised anything happened; the department seemed to skip this tradition this year. And I had been invited to the CoRIF lunch; I wouldn’t be without altogether. But now some of our newer colleagues had sprung into action, and all changed.

But the day before my birthday, Simon the Historian celebrated his (it’s actually two days before), and I intended to pop by for a calm pint. He would be in the pub on Royal William yard. I like the place!

When I got there I found a select company. Before I knew it there was a lively discussion in whether SF was just the cold war fictionalised. That's what you have historians' birthdays for! It was quite a nice occasion. And after my arrival, two more newcomers joined us. One didn’t even know Simon would be here; this was just her local haunt. She had only arrived in Plymouth three weeks before.

At the time I had intended to leave too, everybody else, except Simon (of course) and the new lady, Jodie, left. They were all too aware of their obligations the next morning. Jodie wasn’t going anywhere, she was only getting started, and she didn't take no for an answer. In spite of our objections she got me another beer and Simon a drink on fire. As you do. And then she asked us to join her to a nearby wine bar for a glass of champagne. We were just in time; they were about to close!

We sat down and met the only two other customers; a somewhat awkward couple of royal marine with way younger girl. Nice people! But clearly not very balanced in their love life; it was a bit painful to see their snog- and-tear riddled panto of relationship on the brink of collapse. (He’s not right for you, girl!) I suppose we might have offered a welcome distraction; sometimes it’s easier to deal with strangers. When it struck midnight they toasted with us.

Soon after that it was time to get home. Birthday or not; there was another day tomorrow. I had drunk more than I intended, and my guess is the same held for Simon. I got my bicycle, fought Jodie off who thought it wasn’t safe for me to bike home alone, promised to text both when I got home safely, and set off. What a wild birthday! Booze, late nights, fire, strangers, tears, art and history; the next day wouldn’t match that. And it didn’t...

The next day was nice, though; 26  geographers showed up for the Christmas lunch. We had lovely Asian food, then went to the Gin Distillery with a selection of the 26, and then down to the Barbican with an even smaller selection. It was very nice! And many people thought of my birthday; I got presents and cards and congratulations from all directions. But my hangover inspired me to sample the alcohol-free cocktails in both restaurant and distillery, and to abstain from drinking liquids altogether on the Barbican. But one needs no alcohol for a nice day with colleagues! Thanks Simon and Jodie for the initial celebrations, thanks Agatha, Julian and Stephanie for the Christmas lunch, thanks Marta, Agatha, Roland (and Maria – her name was all over the present) and Sam for the birthday attentions! Marieke for phoning! And everybody for the good company, and Martin for walking me back to my bike. Even though I was actually celebrating other things, being 37 started well!

Sweet birthday present!

12 December 2012

New car (almost)

"We have something to show you!" I was at the garage, to pick up my car. They carried a handful of loose bits of metal to me. Then they raised it to my nose: "this must have been what you were smelling!" and indeed it was. The foul odour cars can sometimes rather inexplicably emit was unmistakable. And I recently had gotten quite a large cloud of it.

What they carried to me was what had remained of my clutch. It had given me trouble: a few days before I had just wanted to drive off, but instead of acceleration I had gotten smell and powerlessness. That worried me! I phoned the garage, and from my description they couldn't tell what was wrong with it. They recommended that I would come in with my old car.

When I started the engine again after having hung up, the car responded normally, so I drove to the garage without issues. The garage holder got in, and without even taking it off the handbrake, he tried out both forward and reverse. That was enough for him; he re-emerged from the vehicle, and said "your clutch is gone". I was glad I had chosen to have it checked!

A new clutch isn't cheap, and the car is old. The question was if it was worth having it replaced. The garage holder had an idea: he could perform an MOT (which was due anyway), and if it would fail in many ways I had better scrap it. Did it pass, then I might as well have the clutch repaired, as buying another car is a lot of hassle. And the next Monday I received a phone call: it had passed! So I asked them to proceed with the clutch replacement.

On Tuesday I came to collect it. That was when they brought me the crumbling remains of my clutch; they hadn't known what was happening to them when they opened the car up and found that. "Did you really drive to us with that??" I must have been lucky.

 A clutch disc as it is supposed to look; mine had fallen apart into components...

I had to cough up 80% of what I had initially paid for the whole car, but when I drove away I noticed I had gotten worth for my money; it drove like a new car! Such smooth gears! It was a right pleasure steering that reborn machine through the streets. And I have managed to show a seasoned car mechanic something he never deemed possible...

11 December 2012

CORiF christmas walk

It's that time of year again! The christmas lunches are upon us. Last year I had been a user of the radionuclide lab, CORiF, and had thus been invited to their lunch-cum-walk. And it had been fun! This year I had not had any business in the lab, but they're not too strict about such things; if you're an ex-user and you've made a good impression, you are still welcome. So I got invited again!

Geoff, the head of the lab, had come up with a nice walk on the Bere peninsula; I had never explored it. And the weather forecast that morning promised sun only; this would surely be the day to do something about that.

When the chosen seven got out of the train it was raining. That didn't discourage us! We walked a nice muddy route that mainly followed the Tamar. The views were nice, and the route sometoimes was so soggy it was a real challenge!

 The seven walkers

The Tamar

 The route was a bit soggy; soon I looked like this

This could have ended in slapstick; Geoff jumps onto a log that isn't very stable...

Admiring the river from a hill

The river was very pretty with the stark back-light

The Tamar at Weir Quay

Another muddy challenge!

 And finally: lunch!

We got to the pub in good time. We all had a pint while the missing man, Will, who hadn't been able to make it to the walk, phoned to say he was coming for lunch. Good!

The pub in Bere Ferrers is very snug, and it was a nice meal, although there was a slight feeling of impending loss as two of us would be going north soon. Geoff hadn't heard yet Roland was leaving too; he regretted that. There was a general sense that his leaving was a symptom of both the department, and the university as a whole, only focussing on teaching, and disregarding research.

While we were eating Will showed up; fortunately, he can scoff down a meal in half the time it takes any of us, so we all finished at roughly the same time. What now; dessert, or the early train? Our Calvinistic work ethic won, and we were off. At three we were all back in our offices!

10 December 2012

Robots: man's best friend?

Robotic Companions: Best friends forever?

Humans are a social species. Over millions of years they evolved to socially interact with each other, displaying and understanding a wide range of social cues. This has served us well as a species, but people are so good at interpreting social cues that they keep doing this … even with machines! 

In this discussion Prof Tony Belpaeme and Dr Tim Auburn will consider questions such as: Should we allow people to bond with robots? What about children, or adults with dementia, who may not realise the limitations of the machine? Can robots substitute for human social interaction?

Tony Belpaeme is Professor of Cognitive Systems and Robotics and leader of the EU ALIZ-E project. Tim Auburn is an Associate Professor with special interest in discursive psychology and social interaction.

If you see the above announcement, would you not go? It’s a very interesting topic! I sure put that date in my diary. And not only because I know Tony is a very friendly chap. I wouldn’t be 

I had time for a glass of mulled wine with him before it all started. Then I found myself a seat. The talk by Tim Auburn was very interesting; he showed us how much information there is in the most basic of human interactions. And he finished by wondering if computers would be able to pick up all that information anywhere soon. Then the floor was Tony’s. 

Tony ran us through the history of robotics. And he spoke of how we humans tend to project all sorts of human traits on inanimate objects; as an example he mentioned minesweeping robots, which the troops tend to give a name, and which they want repaired when it breaks, so they can have the exact same back. He also spoke of how we do more of that when robots look more like humans, but that that trend stops when the robots become so human-like it becomes scary. Even though it is probably possible to make robots so much like us it’s not uncanny anymore; the first ones to nail it will probably be the Japanese. They already have Hiroshi Ishiguro with his robotic twin, and they won’t stop there. 

He then went on to situations where pets do social work. They feature, for instance, in hospitals, and homes for the elderly. But there isn’t always the money or the possibility to employ pets; they need lots of care, and they are far from sterile. Is that where robots come in then? 

There are already social robots for in such environments. Fluffy seal puppy robots to lift the spirits of Alzheimer patients. Talking robots that can hang around on hospital wards with quarantined children. And he said it is amazing how well it works already, but that there is still so much room for improvement. 

When the chair opened the floor for questions the little hand of a small girl on the front row shot up: she said she wanted a robot companion as she didn’t have any brothers or sisters…

One of the other questions from the audience was, of course, whether the panel thought a world where we give our suffering elderly citizens inanimate companions is a good one. It answered with a question back: is a world where we have homes for the elderly a good place?

Another question regarded the moral framework of a robot. And another question dealt with human-machine interaction; isn’t it very boring if a machine is programmed to please? Would you not get fed up with it? And if you don’t, would it inspire you to expect similar behaviour from your fellow creatures? There are many issues involved. 

Tony answered that if research turns out people want a bit of unpredictability in their (robotic) companions, that can be easily be programmed in. Though they would have to get the dose right; if your robot is too temperamental you would just take the batteries out. And society changes with every new development; that’s just how life works. And I think that’s true. One can’t stop progress. One can try to make the best of it. 

After the discussion I seized the opportunity to socialise a bit with a robot myself; they had one that supposedly could catch a ball. In practice it found it hard to grasp it even if it was handed that ball, but well, one has to start somewhere. It was interesting to see that as long as it didn’t move it was just a thing, but as soon as its camera-eyes caught a glimpse of the ball, followed it with their gaze, and its arms started to reach for it with very theatrical gestures, it immediately felt very human.
I think robots are on the up. I’d like one to do my hoovering. And whether they do things well or very badly, it’s an interesting field of science to keep an eye on. And this one, by exception, makes you see how sophisticated we humans actually are…

ps Nice link with robot pics - including the seal puppy - here!

09 December 2012


Celebrating Sinterklaas with non-Dutch is perhaps even more fun that doing it with the Dutch. (And the Belgians. Germans and Poles, who celebrate it too.) Our Dutch PhD student wanted to share Sinterklaas fun with her colleagues and invited a lot of us to an evening with food, drink, presents and poems. And we were keen! Two of us couldn’t make it, but there were still 9 ladies (our only men had dropped out) gathering on December 5th. We were three English, two Dutch, one northern Irish, one German, one Spanish, and one Syrian lady. We had all brought something to eat and drink, and it was quite jolly! But that was only the beginning. When we were all satisfied it was time for presents.

 Six of the participating ladies ready for some Sinterklaas - and notice the bunting!


 Unexpected presents!

Most of us had never made a Sinterklaas poem. But all did really well! Instinctively everybody hit the right balance between being nice and taking the piss; Hoayda was laughing so hard she couldn’t read hers. What I found funny was that several poems mentioned Christmas; for us Dutch it's so evident Sinterklaas and Christmas are two fundamentally different things! But it's true; from the outside it's less evident. And not only the poems were good; the presents were very imaginative. One lady had just moved to a house with a wood burner and got an axe.

We couldn’t possibly finish all the cheese, but we managed to finish all the mulled wine. Next year I won’t be there anymore to celebrate along, but I think it caught on, and Sinterklaas will visit again. It was a good night!

07 December 2012

Go north!

The times, they are a-changing! It had been a long, long while coming, but now things have come into the light of day. My days in Plymouth are counted! Somewhere in spring, probably May, I will be moving north. Have I found a new job? No, I haven’t, but two of the men in my life have! And I come along.

Roland had seen an advertisement for a job at the University of York, that had caught his eye. They were looking for a new chair in Physical Geography, and they hoped Roland would be willing to apply for it. He was! He has been living in the Southwest for over 17 years now, and he was ready for a change. And there were some more factors in play. Furthermore, if he wanted to move elsewhere, this may be the time, as neither of his children went to school yet.

York. Picture: Lisa Jarvis, Creative Commons

I am paid for, not by university, but by the NERC (comparable to KNAW in the Netherlands), as part of a big research project. That project is linked to Roland; not necessarily to Plymouth. So what would I do if he got the job?

Another big change helped make that decision. Hugh was aware of the end of his project, in July 2013; he isn’t the kind of guy to wait around until it is upon him. He kept an eye on job sites. A permanent lecturer’s position at Liverpool University came up, and of course he applied. And those who have seen his CV would say: of course he got the job. Who could rival that?

So when that was decided, Hugh kept his fingers crossed for Roland, whose interview was later. Plymouth-Liverpool by train is ~6 hours; York-Liverpool is about 2.5 hours. A big difference!

Of course, Roland got the job. He accepted about a month ago. He wanted to negotiate the position to the last comma, though, so he hasn't signed it yet. And as long as he hadn't signed he didn't want me to blog. As it had already been officially announced in the department I wasn't sure if that was a reasonable request, but before I made up my mind York officially announced it too, so that was the end to all the secrecy. So here it is, the announcement on my blog!

So big change is upon us! Roland starts on June 1st. I suppose I would do something similar. Hugh intends to move in March or April. So now I have to make sure I enjoy the Southwest while I live here! I will miss many colleagues and caving companions. And I will miss Dartmoor, the plethora of mines, and the hills in town. But I trust I will get lots back.

 Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales. Picture: Childzy, Creative Commons

I have only been in York once. Do I know what I let myself in for? Clearly not. But what DO I know? York is small, beautiful and old, and the university has an excellent reputation. York undoubtedly has more to offer regarding cinemas and such than Plymouth. The Yorkshire Wolds are nearby on the east; the York Moors are nearby in the north, and the Yorkshire Dales are nearby in the west. And these Dales have lots of interesting caving! I have been assured by many I will like the underground world there. They also seem to have a good cave rescue team. I trust I will grow roots there soon!

I am excited. I am keen to find out more! And I trust the same holds for Hugh and Roland!

06 December 2012

Mining - the real thing

Mining in Cornwall. The phrase has a decidedly historic ring to it. It sounds rather 19th century! And reality is of course wider than the cliche; it probably started in the Bronze Age, and only ended in 1998, but it's hard to think of  Cornish mining without thinking of chaps with mustaches having a candle on their hat. But Cornish mining is not dead!

The last mine to close was South Crofty, in 1998. The tin price was at an all time low, and it just wasn't viable anymore. They quit production, they stopped pumping, and that was it.

The famous South Crofty Headgear

Only a few years later the tin price went up again. And up. And up. If the money invested in keeping the mine going in the last years had been spent on not mining, but just pumping, they could have recommenced as soon as the ore became economically winnable again. But that's Captain Hindsight speaking.

Why did the tin price rise? Several reasons. More and more people turn to tin for welding, replacing the much more unwholesome lead. If you add tin to steel, it provides protection against corrosion. If you add tin to a certain kind of batteries, they hold their charge better. And one could go on. And in some regions, tin mining is on the way down. So this may be the time for Cornwall to claim back its place on the world stage of tin mining.

South Crofty has new owners. They have been working for years now, acquiring the mine, acquiring the mineral rights, getting the necessary permits, evaluating the mineral content; and in the midst of all that they found time to present all of it to the Trevithick Society. Where I heard their talk.

One wonders why there a mine, having been in operation from at least the 17th Century until 1998, still holds enough ore to be of economic interest. Yes the tin price is several times higher than it was when the mine closed, but surely, the tin price must have fluctuated a bit over that period. It seemed that there were a few reasons for that: one was that mining directly underneath the town wasn't allowed for centuries, another one was that the methods used didn't take the irregularities of the mineral lode into account, and another was that for some reason, mining up is harder than mining down, so the original mine just went further and further down, and ignored all the riches overhead.

View from Dolcoath in 1983

What the new owners now want to do is make an incline, right between South Crofty proper and the neigbouring mine (Dolcoath, if I'm not mistaken), and mine away all that's left above the original workings. These days it's much more efficient to just truck out the ore; no faffing around with steam trains in horizontal tunnels, unloading these, putting the ore in a big bucket, and then hoist it up a vertical shaft. They've inventoried how much tin is still in there, and they're determined to get that mine working again. It'll take a while before it kicks off for real; they'll first have to de-water it. Not a quick task! But once they properly get going, it will be the historic re-start of Cornish mining. Tin mining!

"Oh no", you might think now, "that will be massive pollution and spoil heaps and tailing dams and noise and misery and whatnot! Dead robins!" But things have changed; these days you need a permit for discharging your waste water, so you'd better treat it before it goes anywhere. Whatever rock you crush that's not ore is either sold as aggregate, or put back underground - there's plenty of space... So the sad thing is that mining these days doesn't look like mining as most of us imagine it, but the good thing is, it isn't very disruptive. And I must admit that I find the thought that they will fill up many of the passages with waste rock quite sad; that's industrial archaeology you're clogging there! But I know quite well that by the time such structures are left to the connoisseur to appreciate, the pumps aren't working anymore, so most of the mine will be flooded, and lost to sight anyway.

Is it certain it will happen? No, not certain. But very likely. Is it a good thing? I think so. This society needs jobs. This society needs tin, as well; if you read this blog you need it too, as there is bound to be soldering involved in the device you read it on. And then let it be mined by the best: the Cornish!

 A Dolcoath engine house

ps South Crofty has a website with an amazing photo gallery: do have a look!

03 December 2012

The joy of teaching

Disney alert! This blog post is a politically correct feel-good story. Sometimes these things happen for real.

I wrote we are teaching the sea level module again. This year we had a Spanish Erasmus student; I had heard of his arrival and his enthusiasm about that, and I looked forward to teaching the chap. I wasn't really prepared for reality.

I knew from Marta that at Spanish universities, one tends to learn only theory. These students aren't taken into the field, they are not placed in front of microscopes, they don't get to handle samples. So this guy
 wasn't prepared for the practical side, and the theoretical side of the teaching was hidden behind a language barrier for him. The first few practicals he spent dividing his time between misunderstanding our instructions, and understanding them, but throwing his hands up in the air, claiming he couldn't possibly do what we wanted from him. Not a student that brings out the best in you.

But immersion in another culture can have thorough impact. Every week his English was better, and every week his practical skills were better too. And after only a month he was already done. He had done four samples (we require them to do only two), his taxonomy was quite good, and he had found two species of foraminifera nobody else had found. The practicals run for two more weeks, but he can go to Spain with an unburdened heart.

One of the species he found: Gavelinopsis praegeri. Isn't it a beauty? Picture from foraminifera.eu

I thought things got really funny when Roland sent the spreadsheet template around that the students have to use to document their data. A few hours later he mailed another version around; the Spanish guy had found errors in the original file, and Roland had to send a corrected version out. This guy is going to get far in life...

02 December 2012

Media Training

One of the perks of working at Plymouth University is that it offers an interesting range of courses one can do within the framework of professional development. Some time ago I registered for "media training"; I was warned the participants are dragged right out of their comfort zone. That would be interesting!

The day came. A few apprehensive academics gathered in a room. Soon the instructors introduced themselves: they turned out to be two ex-BBC journalists who had started a company giving media training to academics. QED. They used the morning to talk us through things like how to summarise your research in a press release, how to draw in an audience, what questions you need to have answered to yourself before you reach out, where to look during a TV interview, and how to deal with difficult questions. Some of that we practiced; we, for instance, all made a draft press release, to which we got useful feedback. 

After lunch it got much more confronting; we were all interviewed in front of a camera. We had all been told what the first question would be, but the rest would be all new to us. Exciting!

To my surprise, my question was "you mention on your science blog that we here up north should be most worried about Antarctic melting. Why is that?" I was chuffed they had bothered to read the blog! And it's a fun question to answer. I had to do that staright after lunch; I was the first camera victim. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it! It was hard, because they evidently had read quite some of my blog posts; I suddenly got a question on geo-engineering. I didn't see that one coming! Of course I gave an unwise answer.

When we had all been interviewed, and had received feedback on the played back recordings, we all were interviewed again, so we could avoid the pits we had tumbled straight into the first time. To my surprise, I enjoyed that less, as it was more familiar now, and less of an adrenaline kick. But I was better than I thought I would be!

When these interviews were also played back to us, accompanied with feedback, the day was over. It had been a great day! Not only had it been very educational, but we had also been a very interdisciplenary group; we had two material scientists, one poet/painter, one lady doing stuff with waste management in Nigeria, and a historian studying a rebellious 16th century printer. It was great to hear all these people being interviewed! I was especially charmed by the printer. Next week I'll go and have a coffee with the lady who dedicates her time to this character. She can tell me more about Tudor typography, and she was keen to hear me say more about ice ages and geo-engineering! These things one learns at a university. And if ever someone wants to stick a camera in my face while I speak of such things, I'll be slightly prepared!

Raise money for cave rescue!

If you have money to spare, maybe better give it to cancer research or something like that. The chance of your few quid saving a life are bigger! But as it is foolish to only pay attention to the most important, and none to the somewhat less important, I answered a call form the cave rescue team to go fundraising. The shop "Go Outdoors" supports mountain rescue, which we are a part of, so we have an agreement that boils down to that we sometimes come in in our oversuits, and then man the climbing wall they have in that shop. Every (parent of a) climber is asked to donate at least £1. And people are quite free to give money without climbing, too.

I was part of the Saturday morning team; it's a quiet time. There weren't many people in the shop in the first place, and of course even less who were interested in the climbing wall, or in us with all our kit. So some of the time was just spent chatting and drinking coffee. But we did get three young boys who wanted to give it a go! One wonders if only boys accompany their parents to outdoor shops, or whether only the boys fancy a climb is hard to say. We did see some girls who were old enough (there was no minimum age, but there was a minimum height of 1.20m), but none of them fancied a try.

 With nobody wanting to climb we had to sometimes just sit around and drink coffee. It could be worse!

The first money we earned was some change donated by nobody other than Rob! I was surprised to see him. He had just come out of the gym with his crossfit friend, and popped down to buy some tape. That was a nice surprise!

I don't think the three of us managed to raise more than £5 in a whole morning. And that would be around 50p per person per hour; that makes the whole exercise a bit odd as it would have been so much more efficient to each just pay a few quid and spend our time on our expensive selves. But it's not just about the money, of course. I don't think we'll be able to buy a new rope (just to name something) from the results of our efforts, but we've shown our faces, and that's worth something too!

01 December 2012

South Wales

I’d been in North Wales only three months ago. And it was great! So when a trip to south Wales came up I decided to join. Rupert picked me up. The car got quite full; Paul and Laura were in it too, and so did quite some club kit. We were all wedged in, but we got there. Where?

The hut

We reached the hut; I could tell, as it looked like on the website. The door was locked, the shutters were closed. It was freezing! We had a description of where they key should be, but even with it it was hard to find. We found it though, and we got in, to a snug hut where the remnants of a fire were still smouldering. I immediately got me a litre of hot water. I also wondered what bed to pick, and decided on the one in the furthest corner. It would turn out to be a wise choice!

The bucolic view from the hut

Before the others had returned from the pub I called it a day. I stuffed toilet paper in my ears and curled up. I slept quite well, even though I sometimes half woke up and heard the murmur coming from below.The next day I would find out people had been partying into the early hours. They had even equaled the local record in the squeeze machine! (For those who don't know what that is: this website is rather illustrative.)

The next morning we would go into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, where I’d been before. We would meet up at another hut with some members of the Axbridge caving club; we’d meet at 10.30. We hoped we would have Dave and Dave too by that time; they had had commitments the day before, and would drive in that morning. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it. Bernard decided against joining, as he felt a bit iffy in the ear. So with a reduced group we had a massive fried breakfast and off we went. We were at the other hut at 10; some faffing followed. It turned out the other club wasn’t keen on teaming up with us anyway, so we went in ourselves.

The other hut, half-hidden in the valley, and three cavers on their way to OFD.

It was a weekend with massive weather warnings all over the place. We had decided we were fine going into OFD, but not into the active streamway. There was bound to be a LOT of water in there. And we didn’t want to get swept away, or trapped by rising water. Luckily, OFD is very large, and there was enough to go around. We rummaged around a bit; I lost track of where we were quite soon. But we had a play in the grid that OFD is (a map clearly reveals the cave was formed by water running through a the fracture system consisting of two perpendicular sets), and saw rifts, dripstone formations, minor streamways, and whatnot.I took only few pictures; I didn't want people to wait for me all the time, and with my weak light it can take forever to light up the large spaces you tend to find in OFD. But for the curious: there is an excellent virtual tour! We were in OFD II-III, so that's where the link goes, but those that want to see OFD I too should go here.

A pretty aven in OFD

At some point we decided to split up; there were two locations we wanted to visit, and it would get somewhat congested if we would go with all 9 of us at one time. I teamed up with Lionel, Richard and Alex; we would head for the Maypole. It’s a precipitous drop into the streamway. We got there soon, and upon inspection of the drop we decided to use a rope. It’s a scary climb! But we only had belay belts; we would have to go up and down on an Italian hitch. I am fine with that going down, but not going up, so I chickened out. That way I got to see another group come up on our rope, the presence of which they found rather convenient. A guy came up first, and then belayed up the rest. It was nice to just have a relaxed chat with him. If I knew someone would belay me up I would have gone, but well, one doesn’t, does one. He belayed our men up too. Then we were on our way again!

We soon met the other group, and then we switched directions. We clambered to an impressively big chamber with imposing drippies. The only way further was up a rope, and we didn't have SRT kit on us; so we turned back. We just went to the exit; we expected the other group to do the same. We got back to the hut, and those who had thought of bringing a towel (me) had a shower.And then we had to wait for the other group. That took longer than we had thought... The cave kept on vomiting out groups of cavers, and it takes some focus to distinguish these from each other, but many groups had walked past the window before we finally recognised the gait of one of our own members.

When they had changed too we went to the pub. For a pint? A meal? A pint, then home to hang out our wet kit and collect Dave, Dave and Bernard, then a meal? Some confusion later we settled for a pint and a meal. Wales isn't littered with places to eat, and we'd rather have food with an incomplete group than no food at all. So it was after dinner by the time we not only got to hang out our kit, but also were finally united! That was our cue for some relaxing at the woodfire. Not too much, though; I am just a pansy, and the others were exhausted after last night's debauchery. I curled up with earplugs one of our chaps had brought, and slept like a princess.

Lounging in the hut

The next day the consensus on what to do gravitated towards Dinas silica mine. Lionel had described it to me as a good place for the weak, old and boring. And I had to agree it wasn't a venue full of physical challenges, but it was stunningly beautiful! It was a rather steeply inclined lode that had been mined out, with pillars left in place. The place was littered with remains of rails, machinery and whatnot, and had quite a Moria-like atmosphere to it, due to the size of it all, and the sheer desertedness. I had a blast!

The waterfall just outside Dinas

Group picture in the silica mine

I didn't take many pictures in there, so I stole a few from an earlier trip I didn't attend; this pic was taken in 2011

At some point, we walked up an incline, found it reached the surface, clambered out, and then scurried around until we had found a way back in. We don't need much to stay amused! Soon after that though, we went out. We had some fun looking at people jumping into the river from the waterfall, and then Bernard wandered into a tunnel on the other side of the river. That became Dinas adventure nr 2...

The mine had some nice dwellers too: snottites!

One needs not point out Lionel and I couldn't resist such a temptation. Neither could Richard. We walked into a tunnel, and near the end we found an inclined shaft with a waterfall in it. The three of us went up. Lionel was muttering something about it being harder to climb down than up, but I didn't pay attention. This shaft also reached the surface. Lionel wanted to go back down around the outside; Richard didn't fancy it and went down the way we had come. I followed Lionel; I thought it would be very unlikely we would make it; it was a very steep valley, but especially then it's important to stay together. We scurried through the near-vertical woods until we were quite sure it wasn't a good idea. On the way down the inclined shaft Lionel, of course, came down without problems, while I struggled a bit. Me and my big mouth.

Another 2011 picture, which gives a reasonably good idea of what the place looks like.

We were back just in time to catch up with the rear end of the cavers' peloton. And then the trip was abruptly over! We still had hours of driving ahead. We didn't even wait for each other. We just changed, waved and set off. Goodbye to Wales!