31 October 2010

Long way home

I biked the short way to Roland. I wanted to get out of the working day what I could get out. But on the way back I would have all the time in the world, so I would take the eastern, longer road. That means first getting to Gunnislake, then crossing the bridge back to Devon, and then to Tavistock, where the West Devon Way starts. That’s a lot of up and down, so it takes quite some time. And from Tavistock, where you leave the main roads, the route becomes not only prettier but also more elusive.

See! I was wearing a helmet. How un-Dutch, but very responsible, of me!

A moment of slacking attention meant I accidentally took route 27 instead of the West Devon Way. The map suggested it would stop somewhere, so I took some dodgy-looking route. It started after a bridge, which was so pretty I decided to sneak in a tea break. And it was fun! A winding road of appalling quality, snaking its way up the hill, then transforming into ribbons of muddy grass in a moors landscape. And by the time I reached Yelverton I was hungry, so I stopped for lunch. And a pint of cider! Belongs with English lunch, and it gives the inimitable feeling of alcohol in your leg muscles afterwards. Not that from there I still needed muscles: in Yelverton it’s done with the slopes up. There you hit the old railway which gently slopes down.

Good venue for a tea break!

A beautiful autumn scene.

Somewhere along the way I came across an open mine entrance, and that was too much to resist. I wasn’t dressed to caving at all, but well, isn’t a bicycle lamp some kind of weak miner’s light? And is a bicycle helmet not some lightweight caving helmet? And well, I was going to have soaking shoes and socks, but there’s worse things in the world. So I parked my bike and sneaked in. Not wise, perhaps; nobody knew where I was, and I was alone and badly equipped. But I was glad I had done it: it was a cute little safe mine; not worth going there specifically for it. But if one is in the vicinity anyway it’s a lovely little bonus!

Near Clearbrook the path runs parallel with what I assume is Drake's Leat (the linear feature in the meadow). It was an old attamept by Drake to supply Plymouth with drinking water. Nowadays this comes from Burrator reservoir. Do notice as well the excellent signing!

With my dripping shoes I hit Plymouth, and one of the first buildings I came across was a DIY shop. I figured I may well just get me a pad saw. Why? It will all be revealed in due time! And then I went home. Altogether this trip had taken me at least twice as long as the way up, but this was a nice way of going about things! Not just a bike ride from A to B, but all sorts of weekend fun. Great!

Strangely timed dinner party

When I came to Plymouth, Roland lived in town. Within half a year he moved to a hamlet just outside town. And now he lives in Cornwall. That's a lot of moving house to do! And the first of these moves was the worst: they'd been living in that house for quite a while, and stuff tends to accumulate in such circumstance. Their big loft was full of dusty things. And it's a lot of work getting all that ready for the moving lorry. So Roland had called upon Rob and me. And he promised us a dinner in return. To be enjoyed at some later date. And we rocked that attic!

It turned out moving house was easier than organising that dinner. By the time Roland already moved out of the house just outside town I started to make him feel bad about still not having delivered. And it worked! So this Friday the dinner would finally take place. The night would be enlivened by the presence of Dorit; an Israeli lady who was in Plymouth on sabbatical, intending to work with Roland (at the time she organised that it evidently wasn't known yet he would be on Sabbatical too), and her husband Eli.

I was looking forward to it, and even a bit more than normal: Roland takes his sabbatical seriously nowadays, so I rarely get to see him. Good for science, bad for me!

I took the opportunity to go there on bicycle. It was a good ride! It was less than two hours, and the last miles were on small country roads (or even bumpy ex-roads full of pheasants), quite many of which I still remembered from walking there with Roland and Veit almost a year ago. I even got treated to a very pretty sunset.

The road lead me over the Tamar Bridge. There's actually two: I took this picture from the new one, that holds the cars, cyclists and pedestrians, and what you see here is the old one, over which the trains go.

Sunset in Cornwall! When I took this picture I was already fairly close, so it wasn't entirely dark when I arrived...

While the darkness descended onto the land I reached the house. In good time to have a shower before the tidier guests would arrive! And the house looked much better than the previous time; then there were boxes as far as the eye could see. Now it was a house! Roland immediately dragged my bags into the house and claimed that "my room" was still a bit messy. They have a way of making you feel welcome!

Roland picked up Rob, Dorit and Eli from the railway station, and then we were complete! Now the night could really start. We had an excellent meal, as you do at this household, with excellent beverages. Rosa ran amok through the kitchen, and in between bonded with Dorit, who she seemed to adopt as an extra grandmother. Dorit and her husband also taught me a few words in Hebrew. Monday she'll make me do an exam!

It was a great evening, and these go fast, so before I knew it Roland had to bring the other guests back to the station. I would stay the night, and bike back the next day. So after one last glass we all went upstairs. And I slept like a princess. This gathering had been a long time coming, but well worth the wait!

29 October 2010


How often do we look for things all over the world that we turn out to have in our back garden? I travel the length and bredth of southwest England (and some of Wales) to go underground, but I had never been underneath the very campus of Plymouth University. I had seen there's an entrance to the Students Union, and I figured it was some place that's used for more things, such as parties, but maybe because of being an arrogant member of staff I had never set foot there. But for odd reasons I had been running around on campus on Wednesday, and that very day there was a plant sale going on. Down there.

My office had never held plants as long as I had inhabited it, and my plants at home had all died while I was doing the Norway fieldwork. And this evidently was the time to do something about it! So I went down, and a whole new world opened in front of me. So that's where the students go and eat, relax, play pool, do whatever it is that students do! Quite a nice place. And not my place; I'm an arrogant member of staff! But now I was staff on a mission. A green mission. I bought three plants for in the office, and six for at home. Both look much nicer now! And there are no more fieldworks to finish them off. I hope they will last!  

The window sill of my office, new style

The harvest for at home

28 October 2010

Catholic swim

Last Friday I had a real Norwegian feeling at the end of the lunch break. People got up to go back to work, and one of them said "we should talk about running next week" and another one said "we should talk about swimming next week". Yay! Colleagues want to engage in sports activities with me! It took a year, but now people say such things, instead of only "let's go for a pint".

The weather forecast for Wednesday was good, so I proposed to use that day for swimming. Not that you need good weather; you get wet anyway. But for the view, and for the changing before and after, good weather can be nice. So Wednesday we went!

Federico, for he was the swimmer, preferred swimming in daylight, and he wanted to be back in time for a meeting, so we had to go early. And I don't normally leave work early, but now, with all sorts of deadlines looming, I basically work anytime I don't have something specific to do otherwise, so I could just take a swimming break and then work into the night. So at a strange hour I biked home, tossed my swimming kit in a bag, tossed my bag in the car, and crawled my way through traffic to the campus, to pick up Federico. Traffic out of town was even worse, but we got to the beach, which was lying there beautifully!

We changed into our respective wetsuits and got into the water. It was lovely! Waves to have fun with, and a great view. Federico had his own thoughts about the abundant sea weed, but that couldn't kill the fun. He even raced me, but I think he won't do that again, for he is about twice as fast as I am. No challenge there!

The plan had been to go and have dinner in the nearby cafe after the swim, and then go back to the university where he would have the meeting and I would just go back to work, but things were complicated by that I erroneously thought the cafe was closer than it really was; it turned out to not only not be close but also closed; the next pub was closed too; Federico normally calls for help from Jon in such pub-related cases, but his phone was out of battery power; and finally by that mine wasn't, but Jon didn't answer anyway. We were saved, however, by that the road back mainly followed the route from me to Dave (or back), which I evidently know very well, and which I knew would lead us past the Plymstock. They were open! And it was a bit later than intended, but we did get excellent food there, and it was all pleasant. Good, as I had often biked past and wondered what it would be like to be inside. Now I know!

All in all I returned Federico to the campus a little too late, but that didn't seem to matter too much. And instead of to my office I went to the pub, as we had a new doctor, fresh from her viva, and that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. But an hour later I was in my office after all, and I was glad I had let my calvinistic spirit be overruled by a sporty catholic, because one can work at any hour, but one cannot go for a sunny swim at any hour! And after such a bath one is quite refreshed and more productive than when just staying in the office all the time. Perhaps a good idea to keep it up! And the running, as well...

Trip down memory mud

Time flies when you're having fun! Less than a year ago I took up caving. The third trip I went on was to Wheel Russell. We would go back there. So I had a look at my own blog to refresh my memory. And blimey, all these things that have changed!

When we went there last year I hardly knew more people by name than Dave and Neil. If I now look back at the pictures of that day I see faces that have become very familiar. But I also see that I was still crap at underground photography! And I'm still far, far from good now, but at least not as rubbish anymore as I was then.

My kit has also changed. And my approach to things. Back then I was aiming for staying dry. How I gave that up! It can hardly be wet enough for me now. So instead of donning waders I now zipped myself into a wetsuit. And then I found out I had forgotten how far away from the car park the entrance actually is! And whether you wear waders of a wetsuit; you get sweaty. But the good thing about a wetsuit is that you can flush the sweat out of it once you hit the water...

We struggled over hills and through undergrowth to the adit, and by the time we got there I was properly overheated. So I asked Rick, who lead the trip, if he minded if I already went into the half-flooded tunnel, while we were waiting for the last ones. He didn't. It was nice and cool in there, and that way I got to see Wheel Russell the way one rarely sees it: with clear water! It's about a foot of clear water, overlying about two feet of mud, until you stir it and it becomes three feet of tomato soup. The honour was mine!

The water level was lower than the previous time. Unfortunately! But the entrance chamber (the only lode in the mine) was still amazing, and I was still unable to make decent pictures there. I may have improved my photography skills but not my photography patience. Ah well. I remember!

We went to the end, and this time I did go into the final tunnel before a collapse; it had deep water, and I could do with some more water cooling. Then we went back. I did manage to take a few 15 second exposure time pictures on the way!

When I explained to my father and sister why caving is great I also mentioned the strange mineralogies, leading to strange colours and textures. Where do you find such pebbly floors above ground?

There is a side level behind an ochre dam somewhere along the way. I couldn't resist! But that meant I came out covered in mud up to my waist. So as soon as the path back to the cars went along the river I seized my chance. I jumped in! It was lovely. And in the mid-distance I saw some lights; it turned out to be Lionel and Jenny standing in a shallow part, cleaning up as well. I swam to them, and came out all refreshed. Splendid bonus! And I would go swimming again the next day, and I knew this way my wetsuit would never be dry by then, but well, there are worse things in life.

"Group" picture (we were at least twice as many as figure on the picture); pic by Dave

The gloop from which we emerged (pic by Dave)

We wanted to go to Chipshop, but the pub was reportedly closed! Another certainty in my English life down the drain. We redirected ourselves to the Queen's Head in Albaston, where we had a nice pint. And way too late I managed to drag Dave out of conversations with pensioner locals with all the time in the world. We had to get back to Plymstock, and from there I still had to bike to Plymouth! And the next day would be a proper working day. But it had been worth it. I like Wheel Russell! And I increased my sympathy for the Tamar as well. And it had been a brilliant illustration of the progress of time...

27 October 2010


The days flew by! There were only two. Friday evening I was standing on the platform when the train from Bristol rolled in, and two very familiar shapes came out. Through the dark my father, my sister and I walked home, and for the first time I could welcome relatives in my abode! My father took a glance at my side table, and concluded rightly he was already there. They then both showered me with cheese and pepernoten! We had another beverage together (I had bought beer with a train on the label for my dad - that gets him drinking!), which was the first time in quite a while we could catch up, but then it was already bedtime.

The next day had a moderately good weather forecast, so that one was scheduled to be used for urban activities. While we had breakfast it was illustratively raining. Petra had done her research, and decided the sights of choice would be the Mayflower exhibition and the Marine Aquarium, but when we got out she decided that first we should get some fresh air, and explore a short stretch of the South West Coast Path first, and not just any stretch, but the one going east from Mountbatten. So that's what we did. Petra was so kind as to give me an excuse to add some more Margot-style bushwhacking; we came across an electricity line that seemed to go nowhere. I spotted a small track going in the same direction, upon which she said: go check, have fun, and we'll see you in Jennycliff cafe! And that is of course an offer I cannot refuse. Properly scratched and sweaty I could report over lunch...
Wim and Petra in the Mountbatten water taxi

On the way back we visited the Mayflower exhibition. There's still a lot I don't know about the history of Plymouth and the rest of the world! And by then we had deserved a big cup of tea. After the tea it was still not beer time, so we had a stroll through the old town, past the gin distillery, past the Merchant's house, St. Andrew's church, Charles Cross, the university, my modest office, to very illustratively enjoy a pint in the JSV (the campus pub). And after that it was dinner time, and then bed time! As I said: the days flew by.

The next day was Dartmoor day. A good one for it! Excellent weather. Due to my colander memory we first had to stop by a supermarket for lunch, and the Tesco had cunningly disappeared to make me look foolish in the eyes of my family, but M&S came to my aid and sold us all we needed for the walk. I had picked a nice round walk on paths marked on the map, but after about ten minutes we had lost it. As we did know exactly where we were (three Sahers on the go: almost fail-proof!) we just decided to cut through to the path we would take on the way back. That was invisible as well! And I was the only one dressed to bushwhacking, so this expedition was a bit flawed. We came back onto the visible path with only the same ten minutes to go, and we extended that a bit with venturing in the direction of Burrator on another very visible path, but then we returned to the car. Back home!

Lunch break

Petra and Wim admiring the view

We had a cup of tea and a beer, and went for dinner. On the way back we strolled around on the Hoe in order to scrutinise all memorials there in the dark, and then it was bed time. And the next day they would already leave with the 10.25 train! 

Wim in the dark at the naval war memorial

So what have we done? Not much more than strolling around a bit. But now we all are fully updated on the size of Petra's kids, on why caving is fantastic, on what Wim would have studied had the variety in academic education that exists now existed in the fifties, on how Petra's husband's political career is coming along, how her eldest son's football team has been performing over time, how it is different to immigrate into England compared to Norway, how rowing combines with pregnancy, and all sorts of other things. And that was the main point!

22 October 2010

Ready for family

Visiting me is contagious! It seems. When Stuart came to see me, Sanja came falling out of the sky (or out of a South African sailing boat, or an Antarctic airplane, or whatever it was) and came visiting too. A lovely surprise! My father would visit me, and when the plans became a bit more concrete he proposed coming together with my sister. I thought it was a good idea!

How does one prepare for such things? The fist thing one needs in a household of three Dutch people is three bicycles. I have two. And last week I went for a bike ride (a long anticipated one) with Jon. He elaborated on how he would rekindle the acquaintance with his steel steed only in the far future; not before spring. And then suddenly I had an idea. I could perhaps borrow it for the next weekend! And indeed I could. So then the most important issue was addressed. And my kitchen can hold three bikes (and all necessary caving kit) without problems!

I then only had to think of where my relatives would sleep and what they would eat and drink. And, it turned out, I had to organise hairstyling products for them (that is, for my sister; anyone who's ever met my father knows hairstyling products are not of use to him, and that's not because of a lack of hair). And I had to upgrade the tidiness and cleanliness of my house a bit. Tonight they'll arrive; I think I'm ready!

20 October 2010

The sweet and the sour

Working in science means saying goodbye all the time. The contracts are short, the playing field is international; making friends can't go without losing friends. One of our Plymouth PhD students; Heather, was in the process of writing up, and would move to Wales before it was done, so we threw a goodbye party before she left. It would be a wine, cheese and games night. At at its peak we were 10 people; overfed on cheese, drunk with wine, and shouting at each other over some game. In short: a good night! I hope Heather takes good memories of this night, and of her time in Plymouth, to Wales. And we'll see her again when she cames back to submit, defend, and celebrate!

19 October 2010

Silver mine

It had cost £1. The entire mine, and the land on which the entrance could be found. What a bargain!

As far as I knew, there would be a trip to Wheel Jane on that Sunday. But evidently, I knew wrong. No such trip. Dave drew my attention to a trip of some other caving club in Plymouth, founded by a guy that had been politely asked to leave the Plymouth Caving Group. This trip would be to Combe Martin, a silver/lead mine in northern Devon. Both the distance, and the presence of this man that had proven to not be compatible with our club, made me doubt if I should go. But the pull of the underground won. I went.

Combe Martin (the village), seen from the mine entrance on the hill

It was a beautiful day. At the site we were greeted by one of the the owners of the mine who showed us around, first at the above ground remains of the mine. And later than I'd hoped we went down, over the grimy ladders, into the shaft. I was immediately charmed.

The entrance

It was evident this mine had had a long history; the shaft looked modern for mining standards, but there were old, narrow tunnels everywhere, with the pick-axe marks still in them, as if they were made yesterday. The oldest recorded activity in this mine was in 1292!

Pic by Dave

Beautiful internal supporting wall (pic by Dave)

A droplet makes an excellent lens

Modern supports

Pic by Dave

Pic by Dave

We happily scurried around, taking pictures, but we couldn't go everywhere due to collapses, and were out fairly soon. Even before the other batch, including the infamous guy, even entered. Outside in the sunshine we discussed the possibility of coming back in spring, and helping the owners with some maintenance, such as the clearing out of aforementioned collapses. Sounds great!

Pic by Dave

The mine came with a small garden shed also functioning as a museum. The local blacksmith talked us through the findings displayed there. And then there was quite some doodling and faffing, and I had a proper Lionel fit, and wanted out of there. I have time to go underground, but I have no time to just hang around!

The mini museum

We went down to the village museum, which was closed, and then to the pub, for a pint with the others. Ali had wanted to do another mine as well, on Great Hangman cliff, but it was too late for that. We did go and have a look, though. It was probably good we hadn't counted on this, as it looked like there was nothing we could secure a rope to, and attempting to enter the mine entrance on the cliff face without one would be suicide. We'll have to come prepared if we want to go there... but we got a nice afternoon walk.

Little Hangman

Picture taken from Great Hangman

And then we were off home. If I ever settle down I wouldn't mind doing that in a house with an affordable silver mine in the back garden!

18 October 2010

Fun with the microscope

I rarely see things through my microscope that would be of interest to anyone other than micropalaeontologists with a thing going for salt marshes. But recently I did! Or at least, maybe I did. The first thing was a foram that couldn't decide which way to coil. Quite many forams coil, a bit like a snail or a nautilus, and normally they coil either clockwise or anticlockwise. Below is an example of a conventional specimen.

Balticammina pseudomacrescens

One day I saw a foram that had changed its mind halfway. That's odd! It started out going in the same direction as the one above, but after ~9 chambers it suddenly turned around. One headstrong foram, that! Picture below.

Same species, strange specimen

It might be that two-way coiling forams send all my readers to sleep. But I have something less nerdy as well! I had a metallic object under my microscpe, and the patterns in it were very arty. Maybe even to be appreciated by non-nerds! 

And if even this doesn't appeal to anyone I should just take pictures of the dead creepies and crawlies I find. Because I do! Maybe I should put some online for Halloween...

Another scenic swim

Sometimes the things you look forward least turn out the best. I had been zombieing away in the lab, sieving samples (which is fairly dull work), having built up a bit of a lack of sleep over the week, and I would go swimming after work. In the sea. I was tired! The last thing you look forward to when tired is getting cold and wet. But I knew it might do me good.

When I arrived at Bovisand Beach with Ferret it turned out to not be cold at all. Comfortably I got into my wetsuit, and no time later we were in the water. And it was good! The water was hardly cold, and the beach was beautiful in the fading light. There were lots of rocks to scurry around and over (I was wearing neoprene socks and shoes, so I could safely walk on the barnacle-encrusted outcrops) and I greatly enjoyed it! When we came out I felt reborn. I think I may be doing more of that!

Rescue: room for improvement

In May we had rescue training in Great Rock Mine, where we trained our searching skills. It's a mine with many entrances hidden in the forest, so it's more a hide-and-seek thing than a caving skill exercise. And I hope we're better at caving per se, as we failed to retrieve two of the (plastic) victims.

In June we trained with what's called the Heyphone; a sort of underground walkie-talkie. We hadn't tried that system before in an iron mine, and as the device uses the rock as an antenna that matters, so we should.

The heyphone

This picture of a puddle in a spoil heap illustrates the mineralogy: the white is kaolinite; weathering product of the granite that dominates in the area, and the silvery stuff is the micaceous iron ore. In the picture above it's evidently oxidised, but not here.

This gave us the opportunity to follow up on two trainings at the same time: go back to Great Rock mine, armed with Heyphones, and find the hapless two victims. While we were at it we also brought Little Dragons; hot-air rebreathers, which can be used to make hypothermic casualties feel a little less uncomfortable.

Mike assembling a little dragon

The little dragon worked! It's a neat invention. We did not manage to get the Heyphones to work, though. And by all indications that was not because of the ambient mineralogy. They are just old. There's a more modern, and hopefully better, system in development, and we hoped to already have gotten it, but it takes more time than expected. So to all those intent on getting lost in a cave: maybe wait a few months!

We were not allowed to look for victims beyond this point; the big slab on the right had recently come down, and one could see more of that on the verge of yielding.

15 October 2010

Blog crisis!

I had never really thought about the possibility of filling up a blog. But I did! A blogspot blog seems to come with 1GB free storage space. And I filled it up. I bought 20 GB extra, but somehow the upgrade has not had proper effect. If I want to upload a picture I get a stern message that I ran out of space! I sent a message to Google, and I hope this will be settled soon, for I suddenly became aware of how addicted I have become to blogging. Or to "hysterically broadcasting my inner life", as I've heard it describe. Must blog about cave rescue! Must blog about microfossils! Must blog about swimming in the sea in the fading light! Must blog!


PS It's solved! It's solved! Spontaneously I could upload stuff again... yay!

13 October 2010

Scenic swim

Next time I'll wear a wetsuit! That's what I though the first time I went down Redmoor Mine. The water in there is very cold. And I ended up surveying with Ali, and that involves lots of standing still. At some point I was shivering uncontrollably. Time to get out.

So a wetsuit. Until I got an email from Lionel: "Will be coming, with waders this time"; waders! That's another thought. Staying dry. The parts of the mine I had seen the previous time had water comfortably below maximum wader level. But in the end I decided to go for maximum flexibility: a wetsuit, after all.

In the cold October night I changed into it. And no time later I was lowering myself into the inclined shaft. This time with less friction than the previous time, so I was down quickly. This was working out well! When a few of us were down we started exploring. It's a pretty mine.

15 seconds exposure time can lead to confusing perspective effects... here a triple junction with a hole in the middle.

With Lionel I went all the way down one level until an inpassable collapse, taking pictures along the way. Then we went back to where we came from. Close to the inclined shaft there is a chute that connects two levels; we saw the lights of all the others, and knew they were in the other level. We walked around and followed. The previous time I had not gotten very far in this level, as I was really cold; now I had a blast in my wetsuit! But the water got deeper and deeper (strangely enough; this level was above the previous, less flooded one!), and Lionel, who had stuck to his prediction and had showed up in waders, could not go any further without filling these up entirely. Which would be most undesirable. When he decided to not go any further he was standing on tiptoe with the water only two inches below the edge of the waders... I am such a kind person, given that I did not give in to the temptation to give him a bit of a push!

I went on, reaching a T-junction; I arbitrarily chose to go right, and after a while I had walked to a dead end. So I tried the left arm too, but that left me no choice but to swim. And the water got deeper and deeper while the ceiling got lower. And still no sign of the others! So there I was, swimming in a narrow space, on my own, in an orange dreamworld. It was magic!

After a while the water table reached the ceiling. No others! They really weren't there. I resisted the temptation to see how far I could go, took some pictures, and went back to Lionel who turned out to be chivalrously waiting for me. He was as surprised at the absence of the others as I was. They must have taken a way back to the lower level just as we were walking around! But at the lower level we found them again. And unitedly we decided it was beer o'clock.

I took the fast road back to the inclined shaft. To my surprise I was the only one, and I heard the voices of the others from a distance when I reached the rope. I made a quick decision; I was in a wetsuit, so there was no urgency in getting me out and back in dry clothes again. Worse: I didn't have Dave's car keys, so I would be exposed to the wind while not having access to my clothes. But I knew I was one of the faster ones, and decided to just get back up before anyone else reached the rope. And off I was!

The lower level; it's a bit hard to take pictures of a tunnel if the only places where you can put your camera is on the side... but it gives some idea.

About three seconds later Lionel was up, then Rick, and then Finbar. Lionel was surprised to see two ropes attached to him; we only had one there, didn't we? Then we saw he had accidentally taken the end of the rope with him. Down there they were left without! Lionel thought it was hilarious, shouted "rope free!", imagined the surprise of the next in line at not finding any rope, and almost killed himself laughing. But then got his act together and brought the rope back down.

The inclined shaft, with Lionel, who is reduced to ghost status by the long exposure time, bringing the rope back down

By the time we were all out the pub was almost closed, but we did manage a pint and plans for the next three weeks. It had been a very good night!