30 January 2012

Run for the county

Divide et impera – it’s an old slogan, but it still works. Draw an arbitrary line between “us” and “them” and let the rivalry begin!

Left: St. Piran's flag, the ancient flag of Cornwall, and right: St. Petroc's flag, the brand new flag of Devon (only designed in 2003!)

One cunning race organisation had come up with the “Devon vs Cornwall” concept. They organised a 10k race near the Devon/Cornwall boundary, and asked all participants to pick a side. At the end they averaged the times of all runners of each side, and concluded Devon had run ~1 minute faster than Cornwall. And to stir up the competition even more, they organised a rematch of 10 miles. I couldn’t make the 10k run, but I was available for the 10 mile version.

The black (Cornwall) and green (Devon) race shirts. Picture by William Debois for Shred Events

Waiting in line to collect my race shirt. Picture by William Debois for Shred Events

I had felt a bit awkward about having to pick a side; I live and work in Devon, so it was the evident thing to run for this county. But I quite like Cornwall! Where would I be without the Cornish mines, and the Cornish miners? Running in the black of the Cornish flag would make me an imposter, though. So I collected my green Devonian shirt. And blended with the sea of green at the start. Not many runners for Cornwall, by the looks of it!

The start went quite steeply downhill; not my forte. But soon we hit the normal Mount Edgecumbe paths again, that I walked on several occasions in the past. On these you can make a rather good speed! And I must have; about 1.5 miles into the course I saw Hugh wasn’t even that far ahead of me. Yet.

It was yet another scenic run… the sea was a mirror, and Cawsand and Kingsand were picturesque as ever, though it was very overcast, and therefore it was hard to take pictures.

For a while I ran just in front of a lady who was running for Cornwall. She clearly had a fan; some woman took pictures of her, shouted encouragements and took over her gloves, who were not needed anymore after 3 miles of warming up. This lady turned out to be her sister… I would see her twice more along the track, and again at the finish. From the second encounter she cheered for me too! Such things make a race extra much fun.

Not everybody ran in county colours! Picture by William Debois for Shred Events

Quite soon I reached the turning point. I still felt good! Fortunately; there weren’t many runners (results indicated there had been 157) and these do get spread out over a 16 km course. For quite a while I just saw one guy in front of me, and heard one behind me. When that happens some of the race adrenaline dissipates away. But that would solve itself…

At some point I noticed the distance indicators (big signs after every mile) had small print... provocative statements as "Cornwall says it has better pasties and ice cream!" or "Devon claims it has better beaches!" That's attention to detail...

When I had about two miles to go there was a sharp turn in the route. I got to see what was behind me. Lo and behold; a young woman in a black shirt! In other words: a rival! She would not only be in the same age/gender category as me, but also run for the other county… I thought I shouldn’t let her get past me. It really works, this divide et impera thing!

The only vaguely acceptable picture I managed to take during the race

I tried to be fast on the flat bits, and not too slow on the slippery slopes down. And to have some energy to spare for the last stretch: that grassy slope we had started on, which we now had to run up! I struggled up with less and less breath. But I managed! The woman in black hadn’t overtaken me…

The day after, when the results came in, I saw I had indeed finally managed to improve on my previous performance. I had finished neatly in the middle of the field, and within my age category I was even among the fastest 40%. I was quite happy with that! And 1:33 isn’t bad for 10 miles off-road over a hilly route!

After the race Hugh and I buggered off quickly. We managed to get the 1PM ferry back to Plymouth; quite executive, given the race started at 11AM! And then it was time for a shower and a well-deserved pub lunch, this time to be enjoyed on the appreciated Royal William Yard. Another good day!

28 January 2012

Facing your fears again

I almost hoped the cave rescue call-out would put an end to the caving trip we had scheduled that night. We would go to Afton, and that’s the scariest underground place I’ve ever been. I was so happy to be still alive when I got out the previous time I had tried my skills at this at this intimidating rift! And now I would do it all again, Voluntarily. Unless, of course, we would be needed for a rescue…

But we weren’t. I left the door just as the “all clear” signal came. I went up to Ferret who would give me a ride; quite punctual I rang his doorbell. To my surprise his girlfriend opened the door; it turned out Ferret himself was at the call-out site, and hadn’t told me! Pippa kindly invited me in for a cup of tea, but I declined, and instead rode home quickly. I could still make it in time in my own car!

Quite punctual I arrived at the gathering place, finding Richard, who would lead this trip, and Skip. Lionel and Rupert were on their way. Rupert had been stood up at the last minute by his passenger; this way five cavers had used five cars to get here… but what can one do.

Lionel and Rupert seemed to look forward to the trip. Richard is always overworked, and sometimes only leads trip out of sense of duty; it seemed to be a night like that. Skip and I had only done the trip once before; I think we were both shitting our pants. I sure was!

Soon we clambered up to the entrance and went in. The first few metres are easy, and then the shit hits the fan. The actual rift! A bottomless depth you have to wedge yourself into! Richard and Lionel happily scurried through it, but I was very apprehensive. To my reassurance I found it much easier than the previous time! But when I got a bit spooked at a nasty turn I was glad Lionel immediately clambered to the rescue, wedging himself below me, so I couldn’t fall.

Richard pretending he enjoys this

Lionel actually enjoying it.
Note that the men are wedged in, and not standing on anything.

Sometimes there's a rock wedged into the rift; I'm standing on one here

Skip gratefully used this safety measure too, and Rupert came up right behind him, as if he was walking over a red carpet. Once this first rift was passed it got easier, at least for most of us; it gets tighter for a while, which is where things suddenly are easier for me than for robustly built guys such as Lionel.

For a while we just happily squeezed and clambered until we reached a tricky drop; Rupert managed on his own, but his face informed me it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. For us it was, as Rupert wasn’t above offering himself as a foothold for those coming after him. And then onwards!

Rupert helping Skip down

We had already noticed the somewhat fresher air, indicating we were coming close to the entrance again, and soon we came to the squeeze that heralds the approach of the very difficult last climb. Lionel commented on the three “stick insects” that effortlessly had scurried through the quite tight squeeze before him. He himself saw the need to utter a profanity or two when he managed to pull the plug out of his headlight twice in a row. But soon after that we all reached the bottom of my nightmare: the same rift as in the beginning, but now done vertically. Richard was up before anyone could say “rift”; I would be next. From above Richard offered to belay me; I did not have to think about that one very long. Yes please! This climb still freaks me out. There’s room enough to climb up, so room enough to fall down! And the only thing that keeps you alive is the friction between the soles of your shoes and the slippery wall. And there’s nowhere you can take a breather. Help! But once you’re on a rope it’s OK, of course. If I have the choice again next time I think I want that rope again. I can die another day!

Lionel going into the squeeze

Before I had managed to pass by Richard without engaging in too much sexual intimidation Rupert was up too. We went out, making space for the other two. This time the elation of survival was quite modest! Everything but the climb had been quite acceptable, and the climb had been made easy by the rope. Still I was glad to be outside again.

After a while the other three came out too. We had taken our time; we would have to hurry to still find a pub. And hurry we did, but both pubs we tried were closed. Oh well. I would just go home and wash my hair! And admire my bruises. I would hurt practically everywhere the next day. But it had been worth it. And the next time it will be yet again a bit less hard and dauting!

27 January 2012

Waiting by the phone

What a difference one little text message can make. I was just chasing down some relevant literature, and the occasional mug of coffee to go with it, when suddenly I saw a message from the Cave Rescue Team. We were summoned to stand by! More information would follow.

I grabbed the literature I had obtained and made my way home. I got my caving kit together, made sure my phone was at hand, and started reading. Another message came in, asking us to stay standby. But no details followed anywhere soon.

It happened to be Tuesday, so we had a regular caving trip coming up. I was wondering if we could still do that. When would we know whether we would be needed? I sent a text message to our rescue coordinator, who promptly phoned back.

I got more news now. What had happened was that a group of cavers had seen a light on the bottom of an underground body of water in Pridhamsleigh Cavern, near some unidentified yellow shape. Yellow is a popular colour for caving suits! So they had sounded the alarm.

Lots of cavers wear yellow! I do too, but that isn't so conspicuous...
Pic from trip in autumn 2010

As far as I understood it, our afore mentioned rescue coordinator had gone up there, and summoned the people on the first call-out list to stand by. Some had decided that standing by was too boring, and had shown up anyway. These eager beavers were then employed as Sherpa’s and guides for some divers that checked whether there was some hapless drowned person in that little lake.

By the time I heard all that it looked like there was no victim, so the caving trip might still be on. After all, if something would change after all, they could still summon us back. So I got ready.

Just when I got out of the front door I received the “all clear” message. Evidently it was now certain there was no body in there, either alive or dead. So in the end it had all worked out: we had done our rescue job, but I had as well spent half the afternoon working undisturbed at home, and even our caving trip was still on. So that was it; now we could go off and get into underground trouble ourselves!

26 January 2012

Ireland recce, day III

One last (half) day in beautiful Ireland! The Sunday was for doing everything we hadn’t managed to do on the Fri- and Saturday. I had a wish list; I had realised the whale on the beach could be a fun side project for the students. If I’m interested in whether it could realistically have ended up there during the storms just after Christmas, why wouldn’t they be? So I decided I needed its size and elevation.

I also wanted to have a look at some of my boulders lower down on the beach; due to tide I had been somewhat restricted the day before. And if I would still have time I could have a small look at the route I would have to walk with the students of the first day; it’s nice to have an idea on what it is you’re supposed to be knowledgeable about.

I got lucky yet again! As before, nobody else wanted to go to the far reaches I wanted to visit. As before, Chris and Pete wanted to scurry around in the south and had to somehow make that work with only one car, and Wil had appointed himself once again as Alison’s field assistant, this time joined by Lou. So it was just me and my trusted Hyundai again! And don’t get me wrong; I’m not a loner, and I do enjoy good company, and I would even had had more fun if I’d had that, but I was quite happy as it was. Workwise it was by far the most efficient!

On the sunniest day so far I drove back to Pol Sallach, and measured in the whale. The 6m long animal had managed to end up 7.5 m above sea level! Quite a feat, even post mortem.

If you look closely you can see the pale shape of the whale amidst the boulders

I also took the opportunity to take some pictures of the stunning and bleak Burren landscape. Burren (from Boireann) just means something like “place of rock”, and one can see why it’s called that. Lots of bare, eroding limestone. Beautiful!

Barren Burren landscape

The joints in the limestone, which erode heavily, can go on forever

After the whale it was time for some low boulders. Tide was with me this time! And then there was some time left, so I drove the part of the first day walk that leads over a road. And then it was time to drive back to the airport to deliver the car back. And it all worked out fine. I even slept on the plane; I hadn’t realised how tired I was.

Pretty erosional features on the boulder beach

Colourful rockpool dweller

Burren landscape in the sun

The Burren walk; I'll be doing some of that

The fatigue started to show with most of us on the drive back, but without problems we reached the campus again, and dispersed. There was technically about 5 hours of weekend left; no time to waste!

25 January 2012

Ireland recce, day II

I started the day with what they called a full Irish breakfast. This was THE day of the reconnaissance mission to Ireland, and it would be a long and tiring, but splendid, day. My plan was to check out the field sites where my students would do their own projects. If any time would be left I would go and see some of a walk I would do as a day excursion.

I was lucky; as I was visiting several sites in some far north-western corner, so I got to take a car of my own. A cute little brand new Hyundai ix20. Freedom! I would have happily given Lou a ride, but the Irish busses already catered sufficiently to her needs. So in largely the same configuration as the day before we dispersed into the region.

I had prioritised a project concerning large boulders on a beach; one of the beaches has blocks of sometimes several metres long on it, and one may wonder how that happened. Were they put there by a glacier? A tsunami? A storm? Do they move? If so, what does it take to move them? How often does that happen? Many things one can wonder.

Last year the students surveyed in 60 of these. This year a new cohort will find them back and re-survey them. That will tell them if they have moved in the past year. And if so, how far. And whether they all move or just some, and if some, then which. But I had to get there first, to see if it could be done; can one find them back? I had practiced with the GPS on campus, but now it was time to do it for real. And this time at a very exposed Atlantic beach in January.

While driving up there I saw another beach, and I thought I recognised is as Pol Sallach; a venue for a project that wouldn’t run this year. But just out of curiosity I had a look anyway. A spectacular place! And after admiring the general view I noticed there was an addition to this scene: a dead whale. Of course I had to have a look. It looked like it had been dead for a while! It was a pilot whale; they are infamous for stranding on beaches. This one had gotten pretty far up, though… Would that have been a victim of the storms raging over Europe around Christmas?

The churning sea at Pol Sallach. Notice the boulder beach on the far left.

The poor pilot whale that had gone to meet its maker

The sun even gave some acte de présence!

But enough time spent on whales: time for my boulders! I parked my car in the tiny village of Fanore, got the GPS out, and saw my boulders were 4km away. I figured that would be an appropriately sized walk. I might see interesting things on the way!

After only tens of metres I walked past a house. It turned out to be guarded by a border collie, who seemed eager to keep me away from this premise. How I obliged! I wanted to be 4km further north. And when the dog saw I wasn’t keen on entering the garden she then seemed to contemplate other possibilities. I could be a friend! So she followed me.

My charming companion

For 4 km I walked on tracks and on the beach and scrambled over more of these rocks, with a happy dog running around me. She surely liked a day on the beach! When I got to my boulders, though, I bored her a little; she saw no fun in standing on top or a boulder with some electronic device in your hand. I found what I wanted, though; the boulders weren’t marked anymore, but the GPS, which even had pictures of the measured boulders in its memory, made me find them back after all. And some seemed to have moved; the students can have an interesting project!

Work to be done!

And again, the sun showed itself briefly

Not easy, but very pleasant, to do your job with such an affectionate assistant 

Tide came in with lots of foam
At some point I realised I had more to do, and was getting hungry, and still had quite a walk back to perform, and the tide was too high to get to the lower boulders, so I called it a morning. To the great pleasure of the dog! So together we made our way back inland. In order to save time I had decided to walk over the road, this time. On my way there I met a lady; she turned out to be a Franciscan Sister who was worried about me, a young and vulnerable woman alone in these remote places! I initially thought she was afraid of me falling off a rock, banging my head, and nobody finding out until I was properly dead, but instead she worried about scary men. She’d pray for me! As she said, while the dog was over-excitedly licking her boots. That was sweet. Both the praying and the enthusiasm of the dog, actually.

When I continued my path I passed another farm-with-dog; one bark from this male sent my companion racing in the opposite direction. I don’t think she likes any display of aggression! So I walked back alone, but when passing the same house again I was glad to see she had, as expected, gotten there before me.

I figured I had spent too much time on that beach to warrant a relaxed pub lunch; I went to the shop to see if they would sell a sandwich. The lady behind the counter offered to make a fresh one for me. Grand! And in order to not spent the time waiting for my lunch in silence I started a conversation. I told of my charming companion for the day. To my surprise she said “that might have been my dog! She was missing for hours!” I was glad to reassure her the dog was back. The lady didn’t seem too certain she would not one day bugger off for real with some random stranger…

Scenery on the way back

With my sandwich I said goodbye to Fanore and went further north. I had another project there; a spit (a tongue of sediment (partially) closing off a bay), of which the students will have to decide, on proper earth scientific and managerial grounds, whether it merits official protection. So I had to have a look first! But I started by having my lunch in the sun, and sheltered form the pounding wind.


After lunch I wandered over the spit. An interesting feature! But quite big. And as exposed as the beach with the boulders. I had to hold on to my note book with force; otherwise the wind would run off with it. When I came off again I was tired! But I still had another task to do. The owner of the lake wanted to show me some device. So I drove back to my little lake, where the man showed me a benchmark. Most useful! But that marked the end of my to do list for the day.

The spit starts like this...

...and 2 km further on it ends like this!

I had another half hour or so of daylight to go; I decided to drive back, but stop at interesting stuff I’d pass on the way. And in Ireland, that’s quite some stuff, believe me. I managed to fit in two ruined fortifications before it got too dark. Not bad!

The region is littered with impressive ruins

When I got back to the hotel I found out that all the others were already back. Later we would go into town for dinner, but for now some were enjoying the facilities of the hotel (pool with Jacuzzi!), and Alison, unfortunately, had to tend to a dog bite she had sustained that day. It was the day of the dogs, and I had drawn the long straw!

23 January 2012

Ireland recce, day I

When you take 106 students on a field trip to Ireland, taking them on two excursions, having them do one staff-lead project and two student-lead projects, you had better know what you're talking about. There’s a lot of opportunity there to either shine or sink. I had never been on the Irish west coast. I had decided to do some projects that had run in previous years, so I would not have to come up with projects without ever having seen the place. But in order to really supervise them I would have to see the geographical features for myself.

Of the 13 members of staff that will lead this trip this year, four had never done it before, and one had only done half the trip. So all of us (partial) newbies teamed up to go and have a look at our field sites, and Wil, who happened to be the general organiser of the fieldtrip, came along. That way on a dark Friday morning five scholars gathered at a still empty university, loaded their bags and themselves into a big car and set off to Totnes. There we picked up scholar number six, and off we were, to the airport.
We would arrive in Ireland in the afternoon, and have just a bit of daylight left to do some exploration on the first day. We would then have an entire Saturday, and then Sunday morning, after which we would have to get back.

Without incidents we arrived in Shannon, where we rented three cars. And then we were off, without any wavering, into the field! Our comic due Pete and Chris shot off, as they mainly had their business in the south. Pete, our fluvial geomorphologist, was looking for suitable rivers, while Chris, our urban planner, had all sorts of plans as to what the students might want to be researching in the various towns. Alison, our glaciologist, had her eye on glacial features further north, while my areas of interest were all the way at or near the north coast. Of Galway Bay, that is; not of all of Ireland. And Louise mainly had business in Galway itself (even further north!), but that would have to wait to the Saturday, and now she was quite happy to come with me. Wil had decided he would come with Alison, so neatly distributed in the cars we ventured north. My first glance of western Ireland! It’s very beautiful. Green rolling hills, the stark bleak rock landscapes of the Burren, and crumbling ruins from the Stone Age to the previous century on every street corner. Amazing!

My first glimpse of western Ireland

When we reached the little lake I wanted to core Alison caught a glimpse of what from a distance looked like interesting glacial sediments. I had prepared well; I knew where the gate was, where exactly I would have to core, where the owner lived and what his name was, so I was quite happy to get down and dirty on my own. Wil wanted to come with Alison, and Lou preferred sediments exposed in a section over standing over her knees in water, so they all shot off.

"My" little lake!

I took a core. I knew what to expect, but it’s always good to have a look for yourself. Mud is better than hearsay! When I was done coring is was practically dark. I dismantled the corer, cleaned it, changed back into civilian gear, and by then in the pitch dark I went to meet the owner. A most friendly chap! So far this trip was going swimmingly!

The lake seen from inside it

Done coring; just in time as light is fading!

When I was done the other car showed up again, and I stole Lou back so I would have good company for the drive home. This became a bit more eventful than it should have been; I had the address of the hotel, and all coordinates of my field sites in my satnav, but we soon had to conclude the charger was broken. So out of the window with modern navigation! We had to drive back on a map with a rather sub-ideal scale, and also a sub-ideal date of manufacture. Since that map was printed these Irish had built quite many new roads… luckily we recognised the number of the road the hotel was on (preparations, again!) and only with a mild detour we got to the hotel. Champion navigators, we! By now with empty stomachs… it was getting late, and we had had a light lunch at Bristol Airport at 11.30!

When Lou and I came in we found Pete and Chris, already working on their second beer. When we checked in we saw Alison and Wil come in too. Time to get out of our field boots, and into the pub for some well-deserved grub! And a pint of Irish stout. Or perhaps two or three. So far things were working out quite well! And this was only the first day! Stay tuned for days two and three, where it gets even better...

19 January 2012

Underground photographer strikes again

It had been quite some time ago I had taken the time to take some pictures underground... the last time I posted a picture taken with long exposure time on the blog seems to be all the way back in July last year. A waste, really! It's lovely to go down, but if you have good pictures you can enjoy the experience forever. Unaided, memory fades way too soon. And of course, often there are other photographers around; especially those with slave flashes can produce amazing pictures in not much time, but there's something to say for taking your own, in your own way.

This trip didn't look like the one to set this right; those in the know had said the adit was very small, and we would go with many people... not a good configuration for long exposure time photography. You can't have people walking through your view; especially not if they have bright lights on their helmets.But the good thing is that if you're the only one taking pictures with 15 seconds of exposure each, you end up lagging behind automatically, and then you have your stretch of the mine for yourself. So I had some fun!

The adit wasn't as small as I had imagined it, and there was quite a lot to see. We had Rick with us, who could identify, and elaborate on, every notch in the wall. He had even identified evidence for fire-setting in this adit; fire-setting boils down to breaking down rock if you don't have, or can't afford, gunpowder. And of course there were dripstone formations, flooded winzes, old timers, and all that lot. Great! I had a blast. And judge for yourself if the results are worth making such a fuss about!

Rick showed us the evidence of firesetting I just didn't manage to take a picture of

Skip crosses a flooded winze

Pretty copper staining and straws on the ceiling

Orange flowstone on the floor of a greenish tunnel

Pristine-looking timbers

There's someone around the corner, unwittingly helping me light my picture!

This mine had nice white fungi on the wall, that retain droplets of water, and thus seem fluorescent

I enjoyed that!

Find your way

In March I will have to take 106 second year students on a walk, telling them about the geomorphology and vegetation of limestone areas, the effects of changing lithology on drainage, soils and vegetation, rural settlement patterns and land-use in the past and present. The day after I have to show them aspects of rural economy, show how a previously glaciated landscape and the underlying geology control forestry, drainage and agriculture, lecture on river basin and coastal planning, and the uneasy balance between tourism and preservation. Then I have to guide them in doing a small sea level reconstruction project. And that already sounds enough for one week, but no; I also have to inspire them to measure big boulders on a beach, and ponder their provenance, and supervise them when they assess whether a specific spit merits governmental protection. It’s quite a lot! Especially if you ponder how much of that I have actually been educated on myself.
The coming weekend we will go and have a look. I’ll get to see my sea level field site, my boulders and my spit. And in order to get as much out of that trip I had better come prepared.

The boulder project needs the most attention. A previous year, students have measured the position, orientation and size of 60 boulders, and marked them. I will now go and have a look; with the university GPS I should be able to find them back. Even if the marks have come off. If they are indeed identifiable the students can have a look at whether they have moved in the past year, and how that matches with data on things such as wave height. And if something hampers that they may for instance replicate the initial survey, and make sure this time it’s done better.

Surveying random objects on campus

In order to do my investigation I have to know how this specific GPS works; this week I have found back some curbs I had surveyed earlier, with Richard the technician, who had taught me the ropes. So that’s done! I then proceeded to have a look on Google Maps to get an idea of the actual boulders. That was less of a success… I hope the weather will be better when we get there than it was when Google had that aerial photograph taken!

The very illustrative Google Maps image of the field area

18 January 2012

Road trip

It's a nice tradition: first run through mud until you're tired and very smelly. Then change (perhaps shower), and turn into someone most civilized, and have some lunch and do some promenading around. The "Oh my Obelisk!" run was very good for this purpose. There were showers available, and Dawlish, where it started and finished, is a picturesque coastal town. We were even in the luxurious position to frivolously ignore it, and trade it in for even prettier Shaldon, where we had our well-deserved lunch at the seaside. Two poor pollocks sacrificed their life for out leisurely exploits.

Teignmouth seen from Shaldon


After lunch we drove the long way home; all along the coast, over rather small roads. Most decorative! The journey this way also incorporated a quaint ferry crossing over the river Dart, and a drive over Slapton Sands, where we briefly stopped for some fresh air, the stretching of our suffering limbs and the ogling of the enticing tank that's on display there. Running is just an excuse for exploring the region...

Stately building in Dartmouth

The pub at the ferry landing

Looking up the Dart

The ferry was propelled by a tugboat fixed to the side; as it was fixed only at the nose it could turn around in mid-journey

Slapton Sands

Aussie on the beach