30 September 2013

Preview of caving talk

Once every year there is a big cavers' gathering: Hidden Earth. I've never gone; it's all about caves an not about mines, and it seems to involve an awful amount of drinking too much and going to bed too late. Not for me! But this year I did get a nice preview.

One of the YUCC guys we had been underground with the day before would give a talk there, and he wanted a try-out. Matt and Gary were happy to host, and Laura and me were invited. And I was pretty shattered after the very late caving trip, but I went anyway. If you are very tires, what better to do than sitting on a couch, looking at pretty cave pictures, while fondling a large cat. Which is how I pictured the evening. So I went!

The bad news was that there was an amazing amount of faff going on, and I was only home at 11.30 again. I had left directly after the talk!

The good news was that it was an amazing presentation. They spoke of this year's YUCC caving expedition to Montenegro. I have never done expedition caving! It was interesting to see how that sort of thing unfolds.

They had pitched a camp somewhere in the mountains, and had combed the surroundings from there. If they found something they checked it out; bolting pitches and widening potential squeezes with hammers and crowbars. They found hundreds of metres of unexplored cave! And the presentation was full of lovely pictures and amusing anecdote. And there was indeed some cat-fondling involved int he watching. So I was dead tired by the time they were done, but I was glad to have shown up. I have a much clearer idea of cave exploration now!

Toby has learned something too; to keep his hands of the cat. His pre-dinner fondling resulted in him having to do his presentation sniffing, snotting and coughing. He forgot he sometimes is allergic...

29 September 2013

Boxhead and Lost John's

(For those mainly interested in pretty pictures: I didn't take any. I was too busy caving. But other people have; take a look here for some good ones. And here for a lovely video.)

Since joining the YCC I had been dragged to both North and South Wales, the Forest of Dean, and the Lakes District. And in the Yorkshire Dales, the local caving Mecca, I had only done a day of walk-in mine exploration. But after several months I would finally get my baptism of fire: a proper Yorkshire multi-pitch SRT caving trip. We would do Boxhead Pot, and perhaps Lost Johns. Boxhead Pot starts with a 70m rope pitch. Seventy metres! That’s 20m more than my personal record. Dearie me. I wasn’t really prepared. I figured this might get interesting.

When we set off in the morning I heard three guys from the university club would be going too. Matt hoped we could do an exchange; we would get down Boxhead with all the kit, and they would do the same with Lost Johns, and then we would meet in the middle. We would then come out where they had gone in, and bring all their ropes and paraphernalia out, as they would do with ours. If not we would just go all the way to the bottom and then back up!

We drove to Ingleton, which hosts two (!) caving cafe’s; we would have breakfast in the scruffy one. I of course had heard of this place so many times, and enjoyed finally seeing it for myself. And they did good daft breakfasts! I just went for the standard English, but Laura went for something that only here counts as a classic; a Yorkshire pudding filled with chips, peas and gravy. Strange, but surely filling! And after a while both the last YCC caver; John, and the YUCC chaps arrived. The latter were easily talked into doing an exchange. Good!

We set off to the parking space near both entrances and changed. Soon the students arrived in their slightly too studentesque car; it had smoke billowing from the bonnet. Oh dear. It was leaking oil like nothing on Earth. Hmm. A concern for after coming out...

It took us a while to find the entrance, which is a plastic tube at the bottom of a shakehole. I struggled to get down it with a rope bag; if the rope went first it got entangled in the ropes, and if I went first it hardly fit past. Matt decided to solve this by taking the rope bag himself. And then I was down!

It’s a descent down an impressive shaft. At the bottom of it is another pitch that goes around the corner, and which is the infamous 70m drop. With the enormous drops, Hollywood-esque shafts, and plethora of deviations and re-belays I started to understand why cavers think we mine explorers are softies. And why caving is big here in the north. I would have to step up my game here!

There was some crawling, some looking for the way, some clambering, some stepping over deep holes, and whatnot. And at some point a steep climb with a handline, which we changed into a climb on a proper rope, as it was up a tube and John had indicated it only works if you have long legs. And that’s probably not true; there must be short-legged hardcore cave girls who have done this, but well, I was glad to actually be attached to something while dangling high in a chimney. And after several hours we reached the bottom. This is where we hoped to meet the students. But no sign of them! John and Gary went ahead to see if they could find out anything, and to my relief found them descending the last pitch. That meant we would not have to go back up the 70m pitch! I tightened my harness; in a caving harness that is one tug on a strap, but I wear a combination harness, as I happened to have one because of glacier hiking. And that took me half an hour to adjust to something that was as tight as it went, but still wasn’t tight enough for climbing a rope. And if you only have one pitch, especially if it’s not a very long one, you can afford to have a badly adjusted harness, but down here, I needed to be as efficient as I could.

We talked the guys through the route; they had a description, but some bits are a bit confusing. And then we said goodbye. We went to their first pitch. I ached massively when I reached it; with my harness tight my back was pulled in to an awful curve. What a relief to hang myself into a rope! But what an embarrassment to try to climb up and being pathetic about it. Note to self: do arm muscle exercises and go running! I struggle on a 30m pitch! Tsk.

Between pitched I partially undid my harness; that bent-over posture really won’t do. I followed the route back, first after John, through an awful traverse. I hate traverses! I hated this one even though it was rigged. Can you imagine rigging it yourself, as the students had done...

After the rift I overtook John; we small girls were sent ahead without bags, and the three sturdy men would follow us, carrying all the rope. We were lucky with such companions!

As then men were de-rigging they vanished out of earshot, and I just followed ropes, streamways and passages. I knew the route would lead me out automatically. It was one short pitch after the other. So much rigging! But it nicely cut up the long ascent.

Together with Laura I suddenly reached a dead end. Hm! Something had gone wrong. We went back, and checked all the other passages. And then we saw a rope! It was not a rope that belonged to us, but it pointed in the right direction. Soon I saw daylight. Daylight? I thought there’d be one more pitch! But I was glad there wasn’t. We emerged into a beautiful setting sun.

We changed, being laughed at by John, who thought it was very funny we had walked into the wrong passage at the end. And then we saw Matt and Gary emerge. Now the wait was for the students. Matt was still a bit worried they would get lost, so we wouldn’t leave until they had emerged. So we stood there, on the parking spot, looking at the hillside that became engulfed in darkness. No sign of the students yet. The Milky Way appeared. No sign of the students yet. We interpreted every star and every car headlight in the distance as their helmet lights, so keen were we to know they were safe and we wouldn’t have to get back into our wet kit to descend that 70m pitch to go look for them.

And then there was a flash. This time it really was at the right location! It had been 1.5 hours of disconcerted waiting. And now some more waiting; they had to de-rig the final pitch as well before they would walk up!

By the time they arrived at the cars we were cold and terribly hungry, but we decided to wait until they were ready to drive off. We didn’t trust that smoky car of theirs! Luckily, it did start.

On the way back we went past a pizzeria in Skipton; I don’t think I have wolfed down a pizza that quick ever before. And then we went on. By the time we reached Skelton Laura was fast asleep. I was home at midnight! This surely had been a baptism of fire!

28 September 2013

Stamford Bridge

Yes I went to Stamford Bridge. No I did not go to a football stadium. When I became aware of the existence of both the village near York and the football stadium, I thought the stadium might have been named after the village. Not because I think football clubs in national capitals are generally keen to name their stadiums after daft hamlets, but because this specific village is famous for the Battle of Stamford Bridge; one of the most famous battles in English history. You know, the one where the Anglo-Saxons managed to fight off the Vikings, and only had three days to enjoy that, as then William the Conqueror saw an excellent opportunity to extend his area of influence by landing his army on the other side of the country. And the rest (cliche alert!) is history.

So anyway. When Roland moved up he chose Stamford bridge, the village near which this famous battle must have taken place (although its seems that nobody knows where exactly that was) as his new home. And I would now visit.

I mounted my map on my bike, and set off. One of the regional cycle routes comes through Stamford Bridge, so I followed that. It's well-indicated, but it's not at all beyond me to miss a sign here and there so I kept a close eye on the map. On the maps I had noticed part of the route seems to go over footpaths, and it does! And by the grace of route 66 going over them they must have technically become cycle paths, but they sure don't look that way! I liked that.

I reached the village rather punctually, and found Roland's house. His children opened the door for me. And Rosa immediately asked if I would watch "Horrible Histories" with her. Well why not! It turns out to be quite fun, and I thought they had a rather attractive Lord Sandwich in a sketch. And by the time they were done with all the blood and gore (the name is not a misnomer) there was just time for a tour of the house before it was dinner time. Jambalaya! Roland's favourite, and I can see why.And it was such a balmy day we dined in the garden!

After dinner Roland offered to show me the village. That sounded like a good idea. He showed me the Battle of Stamford Bridge monument, and the shops downtown, and the bridge that may or may not have been built on the location of a bridge that played an important role in the mentioned battle. And it's Roland, so he showed me the best of the three local pubs too. Nice beer! But it's a bit of a walk, and I had announced I wanted to leave early, as the day after we'd do a fairly die-hard caving trip. And I wanted to be fresh for that. So as soon as we got back to the house I packed my stuff. Time to find out if I could find the way home in the dark!

I kissed Maria and got hugs from the kids (Aart managed a well-pronounced "BYE BYE MARGOT"; not bad for a chap who's not even 2 years old!) and off I was. And finding the way home turned out to be very easy, fortunately. And the day after I would find out that was for the better; I'd need all the energy I had!

27 September 2013

Pancakes for cavers

I'd already been living in York for almost 4 months and still my house was only warmed for 1/3. I had decided to split the warming into three parts: the PhDs, the cavers and the movie lovers. The first part happened in August, which already was two months into my occupancy, and after almost two months more the cavers would have their turn. And when I say "the cavers" I mean "some cavers". One day in the pub Matt had pushed the subject; when was that housewarming of mine going to happen? And he suggested a day. And that day turned out to be convenient for him and Gary, and for Laura and Sam, but for nobody else. But that's fine! If I would have been more interested in quantity I would have incited everybody at the same time. I'd rather have a few people each time than have the house filled with people you hardly end up talking with!

During the weekend in Wales I had been talking with Laura about the difference between the British and the Dutch, and nutritional differences had come up too. So the idea had been planted in my head to do something Dutch. And what's festive Dutch food? Pancakes! And the supermarket confirmed that that was a good idea; it didn't sell curly kale or endive or such things to make "stamppot" with. So pancakes it should be!

Just in time I figured there was a complication. Sam is intolerant to the daftest foodstuffs. I asked what exactly I should avoid: dairy and eggs! Oh dear. Milk and butter are easily replaced by soy/rice/almond milk and vegetable oil, but the eggs were a harder to replace. Internet suggested banana. Worth the try!

I went home fairly early to start baking. Complications: I had never made egg-and-milk-free pancakes before, my one frying pan might be older than I am, my stove isn't big enough for both at the same time... it was going to be a bit of a challenge. And I didn't only want to offer pancakes; I also produced various vegetables with dips. But the banana batter worked!

 Dairy- and egg-free pancakes! And normal ones, in the background.

With about ten minutes to spare I had finished both tubs of batter. And had presented the side dishes on the table. A few minutes or relaxation before everybody would arrive! And then there was a knock on the door: Laura and Sam arrived. While I let them in the phone went: Matt and Gary were standing at the back gate with their bikes. Everybody was there!

We first did the tour. I enjoyed showing off my caving kit hanging out thing. Whatever it's called. I'm glad they all liked my place! Even though Gary found several things to disapprove of before Matt firmly told him to snap out of criticism-mode. And then it was time for a drink. And after a while I brought the pancakes out. As my guests were all well-raised English(wo)men they asked how I advised them how to consume them. I said the best pancakes are those with bacon, cheese AND syrup. That was greeted with surprise, but also with a willingness to try it out. Except by Matt, who is a vegetarian. Gary tried it, looked at his pancake, and said "great, so the Dutch have found a way of making Bacon even less healthy by coating it in a sugary substance. Let's hope the Scots never found out about this. They'd deep-fry the whole thing!"

Having encouraged my friends to try combinations they thought were strange and which I thought were normal quickly evolved in them experimenting away, and trying combinations I had never thought of. Sometimes it's good to be presented with a fresh view on things. Almost all the pancakes vanished that way, but we had to leave space for desert; Laura and Sam had brought a spiffing forest fruit strudel with ice cream. And I can't keep ice cream, so whatever wasn't eaten would get wasted. At the end of that I think we had five food babies present. But that's OK! We had a spiffing evening. I did at least.

And as the cavers had been more thorough in bringing beverages than actually drinking them, I was left with the especially bought alcohol stock. But as there should be a film night in the pipeline, I think that will be no problem!

26 September 2013

Beer festival

As if I didn't have enough to do yet. A beer festival! My friends mentioned it was on. It was not well-timed. But a beer festival! So I more or less prepared for the days to come, and from university went to town for a quick meal with Tom and a mate of his. That saved me going via my house, which is on the opposite side of town! And after the meal we went to the marquee on the racecourse where all of it would take place, and where we would meet the others.

We walked in, bought our tickets, got our glass (well, made of plastic), already bumped into Louise and her friend Mia before even getting in, and then we stepped into the marquee proper.


All these beers! A whole marquee lined with a rack in which the barrels were stacked three high. So much to choose from! I stumbled into the nearest counter, and saw a barrel with the label "Absolution". I thought I could do with some of that!

After the absolution I became a bit more thorough in my choices. I had bought a booklet that listed all the beers available. So you could browse it, and look for strange things! I decided to try a smoked beer. I had never heard of such a thing. It was nice! And then a rowan berry beer! Nice too. In the meantime we also teamed up with Abi and her boyfriend Adam. We were complete!

We just randomly occupied a quite bit of the marquee, and from time to time some of us ran off in search of a new beer. Acquisitions were shared around. I tried six different beers (which still didn't amount to much; you could get beer by the 1/3 pint, which is only marginally less than a "fluitje", but still not very much) and I liked them all! I tried to cover many of the types on offer: pale, amber, dark, fruit, spice, wheat and honey. Didn't manage all but came a fair way. And I was still in bed at a reasonable time. It was great! All those beers, and nice friends to enjoy them with! If I'm still in York when the 2014 beer festival breaks loose I'll sure try to come again...

Beers tried (brewery - beer):
Abbeydale - Absolution
Anarchy - Smoke Bomb
Isle of Skye - Witchwand
Hambleton - Stallion
Hand drawn monkey - Hop Water Music
Acorn - Gorlovka

25 September 2013

Trying to be noisy and smelly

Thirty-seven metres. There is 37 metres between the far end of where we got in Jenga Pot, and the far end of Excalibur Pot. And you can feel a draft at both ends. So they might be connected, be it at the moment not by any passage negotiable by a human. But what might be able to travel through is things airborne: noise and smell, for instance. So in order to check if this observed draft indeed goes from one cavern to the next, we would one evening go to both ends. The Jenga team would support the collapse at the far end with scaffolding, so we could at a later date move through en blow up some more rock without having all of it fall on our head, and the Excalibur team would yell and set off some sort of stink bomb. If the Jenga team would hear or smell that we would have confirmation that the systems link up!

I arrived at the scene, where I found Richard and Handshake. They said they were the Excalibur team; did I care to join? I had only been in Excalibur once, and never been to the far end, so I agreed. I asked if this was a wetsuit job, and Richard said it was. The men vanished, and I changed.

I went down the shaft, and found the men at the top of the pitch. As soon as we were down we went in a different direction than the previous time. It started out innocuous, but that was deceptive; soon we found the entrance of the ominously called "shit creek". Once you're in it, it's not hard to figure out why they call it that! It's not shitty in the sense of filthy all the way, though; but where it's clean you have to crawl over pebbles and bedrock, and that hurts. And the places where the passage is high enough to crawl on your knees is negligible. It's 200m of flat-out on the belly! And quite a lot of that through either mud or water; I was very glad I was wearing a wetsuit... And it was an excellent work-out.

By the time we really thought it couldn't be far anymore it turned out we were right; however, Richard did mention hat the worst was till to come. Oh dear. But it was true: what was left for us was "welly sump"; a U-shaped passage you normally have to bail out before you can get through, but which was dry this time. But it's muddy and featureless, and tight, so you have to squeeze through, uphill in the end, without having purchase on it. But we managed.

Handshake at the far end

And then there was the final bit of passage; that was quite squeezy, even by Shit Creek standards. But we were there! We were lying in a dry streambed full of rounded pebbles. And it got tighter ahead. This was a s far as anybody had been! I was a bit hesitant to push further; it was very tight as it was already. Richard had even decided to stay on the other side of the squeezes. But Handshake hadn't come this far to turn around. He started to rummage around in the pebbles with a crowbar we'd brought, to see if he could make the passage a bit higher. He managed to stick his head around the corner, but that was about it. He then shouted as loud as a human can be expected to. We didn't think that would help; we couldn't hear any clanging of scaffolding poles, but well, one had better be on the safe side. We took some pictures to show the others, and then we retreated. As a last act we set our incense sticks on fire, and got the hell out of there.

 Me crawling back. Notice the trails our backs have drawn over the ceiling. Picture by Richard.

The way back was long. Very long. I was very glad to see the end of Shit Creek! And from there on it was a picnic. In no time I was out, and washing my stuff in a puddle. By the time Richard, who had de-rigged, and Handshake appeared at the cars, I had changed. I decided to go ahead to the pub. There I found the Jenga team; they had started to worry about us! We had been down so long. I was back at the car at 10PM. And they hadn't heard our yelling nor smelled our incense sticks. Unfortunately! But they were excited to hear about how dry it had been. And they had already ordered beer for us, the sweethearts. So next week we'll go back to Jenga and leave Excalibur to itself for now. Jenga is much more promising!

24 September 2013

Like silicones, but then organic

You know these types, who shout loud they are opposed to something, only to give in to it later themselves! I ended up like that. I don't like the thought or the look of lips filled up with silicone. Or artificially enlarged in another way. And then I biked to work. I biked along a bicycle path, with a rose bush beside it. As someone was coming from the opposite direction I stayed close to the shrub. And then suddenly something flew out of it, into my lip, and I felt insectish feet and sharp pain. Shit!

I tried to wipe whatever it was from my face. Clearly too late. I managed, but I felt the poison. And I could feel my lip swelling. I increased my speed; I wanted to get to work where I might be able to cool the bite.
When I got there I was feeling miserable. My lip hurt, was uncomfortably swollen, and I felt grotesque.

No silicone needed here.

Luckily, the swelling abated fairly soon, and by coffee time people hardly noticed. It still hurt the next day though! But that was my morning of having a silicone mouth. I don't like it. 

23 September 2013

Air, water and a bigshot

One of the perks of working at a university is the wide range of lectures you can attend. There's always something going on! In York I had already greatly enjoyed the Festival of Ideas, which included a reading by none other than the now late Seamus Heaney - I am glad I seized that opportunity! And this month there suddenly was a lecture by Han Seung Soo, who is not only a former prime minister of South Korea, and a special envoy on climate change for the UN, but also one of the first PhDs the University of York ever delivered. To his own surprise; he said that when he applied to do his PhD here he thought the university would be as old as the town. He would be in for a surprise.

The topic of his talk was: Air and Water; free goods? And he sketched how both commodities had been taken for granted for centuries. These days, that won't do anymore. He didn't go too deep into the practical issues of irrigation, CO2 exhaust, political selfishness and such things. He went deeper into that these issues need to be tackled, and that the generation we are educating now will have to do the bulk of that tackling. And that it matters to not lock yourself up in the ivory tower, but to go out there and make things happen. And he could even have said "do as I say AND do as I do"!

Bike brother

I like telling people I bought my black bike about 15 years ago, for about £15 (contemporary exchange rates). It was already dented and worn and might have been quite old back then. By now it's ancient! And it's also changed a lot in the meantime. I changed the tires, saddle, chain, cogs... and brake pads and -wires more often than I like remembering. It lost a horn and it gained double pannier racks and mud guards, and a stand. I tend to think it's the only one of its kind left. Who else keeps such an old heavy bike going for so long?

And then I walked past an university bike rack. Where just that very same model was parked! Also black! I got all excited. And took a picture. There's someone else out there with this bike! And they clearly take better care of it than I do! This bike looks fabulous! And that without mud guards... if I ever meet the owner I might have to be ready for some telling off!

What my bike must have looked like, in the distant past! 

And only a few days later I sought a place to park my bike. And found a space next to another bike - yet another black Raleigh of that very kind! With the thick oblique beam! This one looked a lot more knackered than the one above. A bit more like mine, in other words! But this one was considerable smaller. Three bikes of the same model, regularly parked within a few tens of metres of each other. We can start a black Raleigh society!
My bike (in the back) parked next to its little brother!

21 September 2013

Back to the Netherlands

I went back to the Netherlands for my mother's birthday. But of course I included Roelof in my itinerary as well. And I was lucky; just that day he was visited by Viking, so I killed two birds (or three; there's Micha too) with one stone! Very nice! And I also made sure to see Monique. Roelof, Viking, Monique and me have now known each other for 20 years. That's special! I'm blessed with such friends. And it was short, but powerful! My mother was happy with my visit (and my present!) and it was good to have time to catch up with my friends. And before I knew it I was back on the train to Schiphol. When's next? No idea!

I had agreed to meet Monique at Central Station, and when she would arrive a bit later than scheduled I decided to wait in cafe "Balkon". I'd always wanted to do that! It's on platform 2b and it overlooks the central hall. And the building is beautiful. And they turn out to serve Duvel!

Later we went to cafe VOC in the Schreierstoren. Notice the pub cat on the barstool!

20 September 2013

Margot's photo studio

Think of the average consumer, and then try to think of its opposite. Chances are, you're thinking of my mother! She doesn't like stuff. She's very good at getting rid of things. And she doesn't like eating. Or television. Not too keen on music either. Let alone films.

You can imagine it's not easy to think of a birthday present for someone like that. One could think of a book, but a book is stuff. And it's difficult to pick something that is a hit. I tend to just bring flowers. But I had noticed, during earlier visits, she had put up some more pictures of her children. So that gave me an idea! I'd take a picture of myself. It sounds very self-centred, but it was something I figured she'd really appreciate.

So then the picture. My house is a bit dark, so I had to either work by daylight, or come up with some form of artificial lighting. And I'm not home during daylight hours very often. So I experimented a bit; I figured I had to drag in the standing lamp from the lounge. And they were too low; I had to place them on a chest for increased height.

And I realized a portrait picture looks strange when taken from below, so I brought in a stool too, to place on top of the table, so the camera would stand high enough.I crouched for the final picture, but even so, the camera needed to be at height!

Then I realized that if you use the timer, the camera focusses on whatever's in sight when you're setting the timer, which by definition is not you. So you get pictures of a blurry person in from of a sharp wall. So I brought in a chair to focus on, and shoved it to the side when I took position. And I had to remove distracting things from the wall. This was getting complicated. The diner had by now been entirely transformed! But in the end I managed. And it was appreciated! Mission accomplished...

My improvised studio; notice the camera on the tripod on the Persil box on the stool on the table!

19 September 2013

Clean evening out

Digging normally is a very egalitarian activity; after half an hour underground everybody looks the same. Jut oblong blobs of mud. But one week was an exception. The digging crew has several active and abandoned projects, all near the same stream. (And some elsewhere, but that's not relevant to this story). It vanishes underground at some point, hence all the caves there, but depending on the weather it vanishes at different sites. And we keep a very close eye on the hydrology; understanding it helps with predicting in what direction (partially) discovered caves go on, and where as yet undiscovered ones may be. And not only that; it is vital to know under what meteorological circumstances one should avoid these caves, in order to not get trapped by rising water and drown.

Water, in these projects, is both friend and foe; it creates the caves to start with, and can flush out sediment. But on the other hand; it can also fill up a painstakingly widened passage with thick layers of mud again. And it can kill you. So sometimes one wants the stream to flow somewhere, and sometimes one doesn't. And the men don't shy away from some Dutch-like tampering with the water;  at some point they had blocked up one of the sinks the stream uses to get underground, hoping to force it further downstream over the surface, and make it flush through one of the projects. But that had been a dead end. And now we were keener to get that sink active again. The precise hydrological reasoning has escaped me, but there was one. So on one Tuesday evening we were going to largely stay at the surface!

We got to the sink in question, dug out the stones and mud on top of the tarp that made this cover waterproof, cut it away, and then filled the hole again with boulders. Water would have no problem percolating down! But it was closed enough for the cows to walk over and not hurt themselves. That was a nicely clean and responsible evening! And as it was still early, we visited one of the abandoned projects, as the newbies among us hadn't seen it yet. And then it was pub time. This time I didn't even change into my normal post-caving gear, which can be characterized by the keywords old and quick-dry, but back into my office outfit... The week after we'd more than compensate for such cleanliness!

Starting clearing away the rocks

 The public

We reached the tarp!

 Glorious pose when the hole is filled in again, this time in a permeable way, and the work is done

18 September 2013


"If I wanted rejection, I'd audition." It's a brilliant line (at least that's what I think) from a song by Maria Mena. Nobody likes rejection! I had not experienced in in my scientific writings. I often have to do a "major revision", but it had never happened to me that an editor received one of my manuscripts, and decided to not even send it out. But now it has! We had sent our manuscript, which presents a 600 year sea level reconstruction for Iceland, and relates the changes seen in it to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), to Earth and Planetary Science Letters; that was a bit ambitious, I have to admit. Their scope is, and I quote: "Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) is the journal for researchers, policymakers and practitioners from the broad Earth and planetary sciences community. It publishes concise, highly cited articles ("Letters") focusing on physical, chemical and mechanical processes as well as general properties of the Earth and planets - from their deep interiors to their atmospheres." The editor in question said our manuscript was too specialized. Well yes maybe it is. So now we'll send it elsewhere!

 The Icelandic Gyre, which plays a role in the NAO

I was myself thinking of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology ("...an international medium for the publication of high quality and multidisciplinary, original studies and comprehensive reviews in the field of palaeo-environmental geology. The journal aims at bringing together data with global implications from research in the many different disciplines involved in palaeo-environmental investigations.") One of my co-authors suggested Global and Planetary Change, that also published my latest article on the Barents Sea. We were also considering Climate of the Past, but that is an open access journal, and it's expensive to publish in these. The idea behind this is: someone wants to get rich over the backs of scientists. So we do the work, and then generally deliver out work for free (or even pay a fee for colour figures) to a journal, which takes over copyright, and which will place your work behind a big paywall. And then they can cash in. If it's open access they make the authors, rather than the readers, do the paying. And we ran out of money! It's a daft system, but once the ball is rolling it's hard to stop.

And then Roland came up with Climate Dynamics. In the first instance that sounds like a journal for research on the processes going on in climate, not on reconstructions of what has happened in the past, as necessary as it is to have the latter to understand the former. But I read the aim: "Climate Dynamics provides for the publication of high-quality research on all aspects of the dynamics of the global climate system. Coverage includes original paleoclimatic (!), diagnostic, analytical and numerical modeling research on the structure and behavior of the atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, biomass and land surface as interacting components of the dynamics of global climate". So it's a good candidate after all! And it's still a journal with a high impact factor. It of course means re-formatting the references, re-naming all the files, putting the figures in a different format... lots of faff. But hopefully worth it! We'll see how we fare! It's submitted now. I keep my fingers crossed...

17 September 2013

Wrysgan Slate Quarry

When we parked for Cwmorthin we saw a beautiful incline on the opposite hill. It seemed to lead into a hole! We figured it would be worth having a look. Laura had been to the top of the incline, and to the quarry she said was behind it, but she hadn't been underground. Matt and Gary had downloaded information on quite a number of nearby mines, including this one; it seemed to be called Wrysgan, and there was mention of some nice little loops one could do. So we went for it!
The incline, going diagonally through the centre of the picture,as we saw it the day before.

All further pictures by Gary

At the foot of the incline. From here you can see it's not a black hole at the top, it's a passage through!

When I tired to take a picture of the rather impressive incline my camera said "this battery cannot be used". What do you mean cannot be used? It clearly works for displaying that message on the LCD screen! And it worked fine the day before! I switched the camera off and back on. I took the battery out and put it back. I tried to clean the contacts. Nothing helped. This battery could not be used. Bugger!

 The spiffing view from the incline

Me almost at the top

We climbed the incline, which had an amazing view over the landscape around (bugger!) and got to the quarry. Now we had to find the entrance! After a while we did; a tunnel at a reasonably steep angle, leading into the rock. And soon we came down to an ENORMOUS stope. This was not a mine like Croesor or Cwmorthin, with separate chambers; here they had quarried away a massive body of rock, at a pretty steep angle. Impressive! It looked a bit like Dinas silica mine. W found ourselves on the top ledge. There seemed to be more levels below, but it was hard to see, even with the brighter lights! But we could go on laterally; there was a robust steel cable bolted into the wall. So we did! And further on we found a rope that got us to the level below.

We followed that level as far as we could. We were stopped by a traverse that was way too dangerous to do without a handline. There were bolts, but we had no rope with us! We tried to make an in situ steel cable stretch across but that just wasn't going to happen. Too bad! But fun to try!

 Matt in descent

We then went to the other side, and then further down, via a path. We also found a message regarding safety; some levels were declared safe, and others weren't. We could see why; big blocks had been falling out of the ceiling, and there were places where one might expect a bit more of that. But what level were we on? The message didn't say. Hm! Just do what we always do; rely on our own common sense.

We reached the bottom, and checked that level out at its full extent. And when we were sure we'd seen it all we went out through an adit we had seen on the way. It got us out on the other side of the hill! Again with great views. So we enjoyed that for a minute, and then went down. And admired some remains at valley level. And changed. And drove off. We had vacated the hut in the morning, and could go straight back home! Where I would find out that with my other battery the camera did work. So too bad I couldn't document this trip, but I only had to buy a new battery, rather than having to buy an entire camera! So not too bad after all.

15 September 2013

Cwmorthin slate mine

What is as much fun as going to North Wales with the PCG? Going to North Wales with the YCC! With the PCG we divided the time between the beautiful landscape and the slate mines; the weather forecast on the eve of the YCC trip there suggested we’d be better off underground the whole weekend. Except perhaps the time spent in the snug hut with the woodfire. We had been instructed to bring sufficient booze, as there was no pub around.

We drove up with five people in one car, and arrived to find club-loner Nick, who was trying out is own alcohol collection in his van, as we had the key.  Soon we were inside around the fire with a drink in our hand! But soon it was bedtime. 

The cute little hut

The next day was for a slate mine both the PCG and the YCC had been before. I had a reasonably good idea what to expect! I looked forward to it, but was slightly worried as Matt had told me the specific goal of this trip was a walkway bolted into the wall, with a dodgy safety line. Sounded scary! 

We drove up, got changed, and walked up, past the beautiful mining remains. And got in. Rather soon we came to a pitch. And from there we had an explore. We didn't really know where we were, but we made sure we remembered the way. We saw amazing archaeology, impressive drops, and dodgy decaying bridges (Croesor-Rhossydd style). And even a sort of zipwire-Croesor-style; a steel cable across a chamber, to which you could attach yourself with a karabiner and then pull yourself across. It was great! But when we came to the furthest point I was a bit frustrated; my light had practically gone out. I had bought that thing especially for not doing that! It hadn't been a good buy. Luckily I had my rather impressive back-up light. But it's nicer to be able to walk through a mine without having to worry about when your light will go out. And these large chambers in slate mines are best admired with a powerful beam!

 On our way to the entrance

Clapper bridge with mining ruins

We didn't cross this bridge!

Happy caver

Industrial remains can be good for taking a break

Matt admires some of the objects left by the miners

We headed back to the round trip. We stumbled into it in an unexpected way. And soon we went up a long internal incline which passed all the levels. At most levels we stopped off to do a little explore. And at some point we finally came to the traverse that was the goal of the trip. It's called the catwalk. And when I looked at it I saw it wasn't half as intimidating as I had expected. The footholds looked solid, and the safety line was immaculate! Maybe even a bit too safe - you had to change over your cowstails what seemed like a million times. Fewer points of attachment would have done too! I took forever; my one cowstail was too short, and I had to use a sling to attach myself, which is extra hassle. But I got to the other side. Where I installed my camera for some long exposure shots. A nice photo opportunity! It took 30 seconds exposure time, but it was worth it. Even taking into consideration that I broke the tripod while setting up the shot. 

Matt on a traverse that actually leads nowhere

 The catwalk!

And here some pics Gary took on a previous trip, and which I inelegantly nicked:

Soon after the catwalk we were back at the pitch. And soon after that we were out! Into torrential rainfall. It made the landscape even more dramatic. Not waiting for it to get dryer meant we hit the cars during a dry spell, so we quickly changed, and drove back to the hut in more torrential rain. And we got back to  a nice hut, with fire, Matt cooking pasta, Laura making very potent garlic baguette, and a fine selection of beers. My kind of day! 

Laura as a cool silhouette in front of the entrance

Walking back through the deluge

Clearer skies ahead!

The living room by the time we went to bed 

PS This is a rather good 10 minute film, made by people I don't know, of what it's like down there. They catch the difference quite well between what you see when you're just scurrying through with a not-too-bright lamp on your head, and how clear it all becomes if you take a picture with a long exposure time! I expect nothing less than a minute in some of these pics...

13 September 2013

Small gear

What do you do when you approach a long, steep hill on a bike? You get off, you manually lift the chain of the second smallest cogwheel, and put it on the smallest. You get back up and tackle the hill. At least, that's how I've been doing it for some 15 years. Admittedly; sometimes I managed to change into small gear without getting off the bike, but I could never count on it. I suppose people would sometimes have wondered why I could be seen riding a few circles at the bottom of a hill before I would ride up - sometimes it just needed persistence to get my gears to respond! But all of that should now lie in the past.

I have tried many times over the years to tune my gears so that they respond properly. I'm not good at it. So I just lived with it. But then my other bike started to refuse to get into small gear. That's bad! It's nice to have at least one bike that can cope with hills reasonably well. So I brought it to some campus-visiting bike mechanics in Plymouth. They said the front derailleur was just too old. So I bought a new one on eBay. And then didn't get around to installing that.

When I realised you have to take off the chain in order to replace the derailleur, and that I don't have the tool to do that anymore, I decided to bring it to the repair shop to have it done. And that very day they fixed it. They replaced the part? No, they just cleaned it. It wasn't too old! And indeed, it changed gear like nothing on Earth! So I decided to bring in my old, black bike, on which I had crossed several mountain chains, but never with properly working gears, and see if they could do that trick again. And it turned out they had to bend the metal in order to get it to reach the small cogwheel, but they, if that's what it takes! It now changes gear without any effort! After all these years I can now do hills in the way it is meant! I love it! Hurray for the bike mechanic!
My bike in its younger days, on a Slovakian hill

12 September 2013


When I decided to take the place in York I rent, I did so conditionally; I made sure to ask for the landlord to put a lock on the back gate. So far it only closed with a latch, which you of course can't open or close from the outside. So in order to be able to use the gate as a bicycle entrance it needed a lock! And lo & behold, it was there when I moved in. Excellent.

And two months later it was broken already. You could turn your key in it all you wanted! Nothing happened. A repairman came to have a look, and decided it needed replacement. I'm now waiting for that to arrive. Behind my gate with only a latch. So when I leave in the morning I take the bike through the gate into the alleyway, go back into the courtyard, latch the gate, go through the house (locking all doors behind me), walk around the block back to my bike, and can then leave. Not very practical! I hope the new lock arrives soon...

What's wrong with this picture?

PS And it came! I have a lock again. Lovely!

11 September 2013

York nightlife

We walked into a pub. And the first of us walked out again almost immediately; "not enough teeth to go around". One can hardly judge someone's morality by their number of teeth, but the sentiment is clear: that pub was a bit to chavvy for given gentleman's taste. This was Plymouth. And it was a sentiment that was not rare.

That was Plymouth. This is York. Things are different! And of course there are chavvy pubs here too. But plenty of nice ones as well! In Plymouth pubs were sometimes needed as a meeting place for friends, but there were only a few that were an attraction in themselves. I liked the Providence, the Clovelly Bay Inn, and Nowhere, and that was basically it. But after only three months in York I already have been in several pubs that are nice places to be in. Go York!

I have a favourite. When I came to York, I asked around what the good pubs were. And tried them out. Nice ones! But the best one came falling out of the sky. In August there was a period where many of us went away for a while. I did too; I went to Scotland. And when I came back there was this one day that everybody was in town. So we went to the pub before everybody scattered in all directions again. Tom suggested "Pivni". I had to google that one! Nobody had mentioned that place to me.

I saw it was in a inconspicuous corner of town, and served many different beers. I came in, and saw that was true; all these unknown beers on draught! And picked an IPA and intended to work my way through them. Until one of the guys came up with a Westmalle or something like that. What? Belgian beers? I had to check out what they served from a bottle. And then I saw an old friend: la Duchesse de Bourgogne! That is a superb beer.
Picture from last year, when I had visited the biggest beer shop in the UK; first time I met the Duchess

 More beers from Beers of Europe. Many gueuzes! And they had several in Pivni too!

They had more interesting stuff. Orval, Oude Gueuze, you name it! I love that place! And it's bad for your wallet; these bottles don't come cheap. But what a range they offer! I want to go back there!

08 September 2013

Scaffolding fun

"...NORMAL people, who don't go dragging scaffolding poles through tight, muddy caves..." So that clears things up then! Do you indeed NOT engage in above activity? Congratulations, you're normal! At least according to Matt, who is the source of the above quote. I'm not normal. I already dragged scaff through tight, muddy underground spaces years ago. And this was a mine, not a cave, but I don't think that makes much of a difference.

Anyway. So I'm not normal, and I looked forward to ferrying scaffolding to the very end of Jenga Pot. When I arrived I could already hear the clanging of the poles; when I had changed and reached the entrance everybody, except one other late-comer, was already underground, but they weren't far; I could hear them still. So I clambered after them.

I wasn't even immediately sure who the yellow-clad chap in front of me was. It turned out to be one of the new guys, who had come to see Excalibur last week; one of the three Richards we had that day. (We were with only six, mind you! This must be one of the reasons these chaps like nicknames so much.) Soon he reached the bottom of the cave; from there on it's mostly horizontal. There he found all the scaffolding, and there Lee, the last inline, joined us. Let the ferrying begin!

 Richard, seen from above, in the narrow rift with all the scaffolding poles

Why were we bringing building material in a cave to start with? I spoke of the boulder choke at the far end (about half a km in), behind which we expect more passages, potentially leading to Excalibur pot. The men had blown up a few of the boulders, but we didn't want to cross before the remaining boulders had been stabilized. And that's where the scaff comes in. And this evening we were with no fewer than nine people; an excellent opportunity to make a money chain, and get these heavy bits of metal to the far end of the tight, muddy cave!

From the bottom of the cave things got difficult. That is where the belly-crawling through cold mud started. And where you have to belly-crawl, you tend to have little space to look what you're doing, or to move your limbs around. But we managed! And every time the scaffs landed at the front, and we leap-frogged over to repeat the exercise, we seemed to get quicker at it. So slowly but steadily they moved deeper into the recesses of this esoteric cave. With us in tow! Several of us had never been that far in; Lee hadn't because the last time he showed up this part hadn't been discovered, Richard because he had never been in Jenga at all, and Chalky because he had never before dared venture the trip, as he was (rightly!) afraid that while crawling though the sucking mud his leg would come off.

 My view back


And my view forward

Before we knew it we reached the end. We inspected the results of the earlier blasting, and then it was pub O'clock. So we turned back! As on the way in, I was behind Richard, who was easily the tallest of the bunch. And height is often a disadvantage underground. As is size in all directions. So he struggled. In the narrowest passage he even thought he'd gotten stuck. He hadn't, of course. With some extra will power he wiggled himself through. But you could tell he was getting tired.

 The monkey chain - notice the lights in the distance, below the light patch Laura makes on the wall

I was behind him, not wearing a wetsuit, and quite aware of the very cold mud we were lying in a lot of the time. The more mud, the slower Richard got! And it's easy to get very cold. So I was eager for him to keep going. And he did.

In the last little chamber before the climb out he let me go first, so he could have a breather. I was keen to clamber out, and have a wash! I was looking as I usually do coming out of that place. And I know I tend to be the last one in the pub if I first rinse off. So I was a bit rude, left Richard, and marched to the water. And was the last one in the pub! But not by far. Richard, who had been much filthier in the face than me (that's the being bigger, and being less able to lift your face out of the mud), looked quite clean too, so he must have found water without me. And in the pub we found Gary and Richard (one of the other ones); they hadn't made it in time to come down, either on purpose (Richard) or because of work (Gary). We had a nice pint! And next week, that scaff can be put to use... which brings us one step closer to finding out what is behind the boulder choke!