31 December 2015

Christmas in the Netherlands

I don't have to think about where to go for Christmas; I go to the Netherlands. But still every year the moment jumps at me. This year the whole student thing had taken more time than it should have, so I wasn't very organised. I just went to my mother and had to fill in everything else from there! Which wasn't that easy as I had a new phone and had to faff with it a bit in order to find out how to make it accept Dutch internet. Fortunately, text messages still exist.

It was good to see my mother; it always is. But rather soon I would be off to venture into Amsterdam to see some friends I had been hiking with in autumn. It was winter now, officially, but we sat on a terrace! That was very nice. I don't get that at home: a quiet beer on a terrace with friends I've known forever.

The view from the terrace, with the science museum prominent on the horizon

Another perk of the Netherlands: bock beer! 

My next port of call was a dinner with Floor. He had to practice with his band afterwards so couldn't stay long, but it was good to get to see him. Not much had changed since last time! But every time I see him I am less shaken by it. The first time I saw him since a long time it took me at least a week to recover. The last time I managed with a mere walk. This time I managed to keep it dry. It's still unlike seeing anyone else but at least I can cope. 

After that dinner I headed for Hoorn to see Monique. I would be there for a whole day; we tend to have a lot to discuss! I hadn't written her for way too long so it was time to catch up. And I went for another run from her house. Hoorn is beautiful! And after you come back from a run to her house you get the salt licked off you by her dogs. Sweet!

There's a piano in Amsterdam Central Station, and it is very often in use; when I was waiting for the train to Hoorn a girl was singing to the tunes, and a man was dancing to her singing. Lovely! 

Maybe the most impressive building in Hoorn's old centre

Between trips I would go back to my mother. After all the horrible weather we had had in Wales it was quite nice to wander through the calm dryness of the Netherlands. Amersfoort is lovely and places like the Koppelpoort are amazing under a full moon!

The brightly lit Onze lieve vrouwetoren seen from Plantsoen Noord

I also went to my sister's for a christmas dinner. Time flies and life changes; her eldest son is now the tallest in the family except his dad, her other son will be choosing a secondary school in the coming month, and her daughter had helped making the dinner. Her husband had started his own company and she herself had a new job. 

I spent Boxing day with my mother, just taking it easy. I did go for a run (and got slightly lost so it was a long one)  but most of the time we were just drinking coffee, tea or wine, and talking or reading. Nice and calm! Although I did get a bit worried; I saw on my phone the road home was flooded, and nobody could get into or out of North Wales. Fortunately the weather forecast for the coming days was alright! 

I then had another day with old friends; I would see Roelof again, and Marijn had joined; this was apparently contagious, as Erik then joined too. All people I've known for more than 20 years, and with whom I've been through a lot! We had a chat and later went to the movies. That was less exclusive since Bangor has a cinema too, but it was nice.

My last full day I met up with my sister again; I had half a day unplanned, and if you only see someone in the presence of their whole family plus your parents you may end up not talking with them very much. We went to the resistance museum to see an exhibition on the true face of the Indonesian war for independence; the Dutch had made quite an effort to make that struggle look clean from the Dutch side, but some pictures had emerged which showed the not-so-clean side. Not nice to see, but impressive to see how long a government can keep something out of the public eye.

De Sluyswacht, one of my old haunts, and a very cute building

My last event was a meet-up with my old PhD colleagues from Amsterdam; only seven of us showed up, but it was nice to see them. Only one still worked full time-ish at the Free University! The others had dispersed. I hope I'll be there again for next year's meet-up; it's a nice old tradition!

Amsterdam by night

After the pub meet I went back to Amersfoort for my last morning with my mother. I'd fly in the afternoon, but it's good to plan in some extra time, as travel disruptions between Amersfoort and Schiphol are barely unheard of. So after a last lazy morning with coffee I left again. I had had a good time! I have no idea when I'll be back but I should make sure it's not too far into the future!

The Koppelpoort under the moon

29 December 2015

New building: in use!

When I applied for my current job, James pointed the foundations of the new buiding out to me, and explained that the building of those would be the most time-consuming part of the process. The rest would just shoot up! I actually believed him. He probably believed it himself.

When I came back to start the job in April it was clear that indeed a lot of progress had been made. There was verticality! In May I blogged about it. But then the promised speed didn't materialise. There was a lot of pootling and re-doing things and nothing happening. A year later, the building acquired its main door. A nice addition. But did that mean it was almost finished? No. It was turning into a bit of a shame, just like the embarrassing delays in the building of Pontio.

By November it was building-shaped and had lost most of its fences. It wasn't finished yet, but some of its occupants were moving in anyway, as there would be a big financial penalty for the building not being put to use by then. It was a bit weird. Some offices were in use, but we the other SOS-ers were not allowed to go in yet, and workmen in hardhats were still scurrying around all over the place. There was still scaffolding and paint and whatnot everywhere too.

Then the first public event took place in this building: the annual Christmas drinks. I just came out of a trying meeting so I didn't think of taking pictures, but I had taken a few on an earlier occasion, when I had to see one of the building's occupants. It isn't finished yet, but it's in use, it doesn't make much noise anymore, and it doesn't have many impeding fences! The waiting is almost over and the building has turned from nuisance into asset!

The main entrance

A view from the back

Modern interior

The view from the coffee chamber

The only provided bicycle parking

26 December 2015

Students vs staff, part II

You know something has gone wrong if you hand over all your emails to a senior manager for scrutiny, and you're grateful for the opportunity. 

The case was closed; my name was cleared. The students hadn't performed well in an assignment and , whether they liked it or not, they had received justified low grades. But, just like can happen in criminal law, in staff-student disputes a closed case can be re-opened. The university finds student satisfaction very important; it's one of the things with which we draw students in. And without students no money. So if students are angry they get plenty of opportunity to plead their case. If indeed some injustice has been done to them it needs to be addressed! We can't waste student satisfaction. But we also have to maintain academic robustness; we can't let the aim to please lead to us just giving high grades to whoever asks for them.

As I wrote about before, the students had not done well on one of my assignments and had demanded a higher grade. The Head of School had ruled that the marks had been fair and that the students' claim their marks had been my fault had been unfounded. I did two extra sessions of Q&A for the students so at least they had a chance of brushing up their knowledge before the final exam. But the students were still not satisfied, got the Student Union involved, and had the case reopened. They requested another meeting with the Head of School and had a meeting among themselves beforehand to gather as much evidence of this being my fault as they could. That is a rather intimidating thought; 38 people gathering to scrutinize everything you have said, shown, written, uploaded and mailed over months, trying to pick out every imperfection they can find.

I figured the gloves had come off. I made sure I documented every email the students had sent me, I made sure I knew who had accessed documents on Blackboard and when, who had come to the extra session, and all such things. I also decided I would request the Head of School read every email that has been exchanged between me and the students; not a job I figured he'd appreciate but it was time to bring everything into the open. It was all well for the students to claim they had asked a multitude of questions about this assignment and that I had answered them in unacceptable ways, and me claiming neither was true, but that stays a game of did not-did too until an independent judge would have a look.

I didn't sleep well the night before and had quite some adrenaline in my system when I walked into the office. I was also a bit conflicted; I would of course fight my corner, but the girl who represented the students was very nice, hardworking and chivalrous, and I felt bad in advance about having to aim all my ammunition at her, of all people. Soon we started. The head of School chaired.

The students hadn't found much evidence. All of it was easy to counter. As staff you know sooner or later some student will try to screw you over, so it doesn't take long for you to realise you should never delete an email by or to a student. I was glad the Head of School suggested himself he would read them all. One victory! I had all the facts, and it sounded like the student representative didn't; it seemed she was fighting a case on hearsay. The Head of School explained to her the procedure of module evaluation and grade evaluation and that even if the students don't raise any concern, everything that looks a bit off is closely scrutinized, and corrected if needs be. It is true but not what the student rep wanted to hear. At the end she got upset. It was painful. She herself had no beef with me, and I had no beef with her, but she had taken it upon herself to represent people who did, and had to take all my rebuttals on the chin. So in the end, all were unhappy.

The students were unhappy with their grade, I was unhappy with both their efforts on the assignment and the way they chose to respond to their grades, the student rep was upset, the school is unhappy about the evident lack of student satisfaction, and everyone involved has had to spend a lot of time on a matter that just wouldn't get any better. I am glad the correspondence will be reviewed as I stand by it, and would like it to be judged on what it is, an not on what people who benefit from having a biased view say it is. I expect my name to remain cleared which is good, but that also means that all the signs indicate the students really don't have a case. And that may spell bad things: as they have all gathered together against a common enemy, got all fired up, and taken their case to the Head of School twice, I don't think there is any chance they will now just accept they just didn't do a very good job and should have asked when they had questions. That would be a bit of a tough thing to admit at this stage, wouldn't it? Nobody likes admitting they buggered up and tried to blame someone else. So I think there is a good chance they will decide this is a staff conspiracy and that they'll bear a grudge ever after. And then there's the "where is smoke there must be fire" effect. There is no good way out of this. I'll just have to try to shake it off and enjoy if my teaching even remains upright if 38 angry people do all they can to bring it into disrepute. If I can survive this, I can survive teaching at its most trying!

24 December 2015


If you want to read the classics you can't put off Ulysses very long. I was curious about it; I knew it was a book that described 24 hours in the life of an Irishman in Dublin, and that it was inspired by Homer, but not much more. I was in for something.

It was a hard book to get through. Well, I could have expected that. But on the first page I wondered if I should keep a dictionary next to it. What is or are ouns? What is Chrysostomos? But I decided against; that would just be cumbersome. I figured I would not get all out of it that way, but I wouldn't anyway; I don't know the Odyssee off by heart and don't have the same cultural luggage as Joyce had. I would just read as is and see what would happen.

It didn't get better for a while. As soon as Bloom himself gives acte de presence it gets confusing as then too many characters get introduced; I struggled to keep them apart. A bit like the start of a Russian classic, like War and Peace. But these get better as well; I persevered.

I was quite often a bit unsure of what was going on. A page-turner it is not! But as I struggled on it did grow on me. For instance, as a Welsh resident I was interested in the discussions on the Irish language. And I didn't know beforehand Bloom was (part) Jewish, and that Jewishness would be discussed a lot (which shows you how little I knew of the book when I started).

When it came to the style I also got into it more as I came along. In the beginning it looked like doing difficult for the sake of doing difficult. Since when is a sub-heading of "Sophist wallops haughty Helen square on proboscis. Spartans gnash molars. Ithacans vow pen is champ" anything other than a piss-take? But later a chapter followed in which the whole history of the English language was travelled through. I was starting to enjoy the daftness of this book. Then it turned into a play with stage directions. These could not possibly be followed; characters change appearance all the time, come out of nowhere, exchange gender, and do whatever else Joyce feels like. He must have had a lot of fun writing that! And a later chapter written in a very scientific style went down well of course (on the boiling of the kettle: "what announced the accomplishment of this rise in temperature? A double falciform ejection of water vapour from under the kettlelid at both sides simultaneously.")

The last chapter is somewhat awkwardly punctuation-free, but I enjoyed it anyway; it's the thoughts of Bloom's wife Molly, and it proves Joyce can write a plausible female character, which is something not all male writers can. Reading the classics can hurt my feminist heart quite a bit, but not this time! And when I got to then end I wasn't quite sure what I'd read, but I could see why this book was quite an icon. How many books have this much freedom of style in them? Maybe one day I'll re-read it and get more of it, but as long as this took me, I'm glad I gave it a try. What's next?

21 December 2015

Suffragette in Pontio

In all excitement with work, cars, birthdays and whatnot I almost forgot to announce on this blog that Bangor has a cinema cum theatre again: the Pontio building, which is both part of the university (mainly for the Arts faculty, but containing a big lecture theatre that will be used by whoever who needs it) and the town's cultural centre. Great! It's taken WAY too much time and money, and it's not finished yet but at least it's functioning. Inside you still run into fenced-off bits and workmen applying finishing touches, and that can be annoying (I don't like elevators but if the staircases are not released yet there is little choice), but the main thing is: we have access to culture now! I love it!

I went to see "Suffragette" with Marjan on the second day the building was in use (Dec 2nd) and it was nice. I look forward to doing more of this in the new year! Including a play in February!

Notice the bilangual greeting, and notice the absence of bicycle racks!

19 December 2015

Climbing again!

In October one of the underground men, Phil, invited me to go indoor climbing. It sounded spiffing! I like active things. I like climbing, actually, but it's been a while since I did that on a regular basis! And I like nice people. And the hall was only some 15 minutes on bike away. Sounded great! The climbing would be Monday night. But then the next Monday he wasn't going. The Monday after I was away. The Monday after he was working late. Etc etc. So by the time it was December I had pretty much given up on the whole idea. Until I saw Phil at my birthday party, and he suggested climbing the next Monday! And this time, it happened! Which was great; this meant we'd go on my actual birthday and that's nice!

Phil phoned me when he was nearby, so I jumped on my bike and set off. We got there at the same time. We walked into the hall and he introduced me to his mates. Nice people! Then I changed and off we went. Phil chose a wall and we started with something simple. I raced up, and so did he. Then we moved one route sideways and tried one a little bit harder. Was the idea. I got about a meter off the floor and floundered. This one was hard! I fell out. Only then did I realise I had intended to climb the purple route but had unthinkingly climbed the pink one. That was supposed to be hard! We then did purple proper.

We also tried a route on the auto-belay machine. The kit is fine! The route was challenging. We both got stuck somewhere. That makes you wear out your arms! Mine felt like they were balloon-sized and made of some disturbing material. I got worried about what they would feel like the next day.

I wasn't sure if I would be able to do anything more with such arms, but I turned out to be pessimistic. We tried some routes on a part of the wall that wasn't just smooth and vertical but was irregular and clearly imitating natural rock. That's fun! Then there was a short mince pies interval (for Phil; I don't like them) and then we did a final burst. We tried a route we couldn't do, and then closed off the evening with a slightly easier one. It was great! I am keen to go again! And the next day my arms were fine! I think I should re-acquaint myself with my pull-up bar and raise my game...

17 December 2015

Fortieth birthday

Nothing like a wet mine to celebrate your birthday in. I thought a play on the GoBelow zipwires would be a good idea! But first we had to get there. From the hut in which we would later do the party proper David, Coleen and I set off. Coleen was my running mate who couldn't make it during the evening so who was keen on entering the day programme. David was the only one of the Thursdaynighters who had been able to make it during the day. Not a big group but big enough for some fun!

Driving to Blaenau was alright. Then we had to change in the torrential rain. And then we walked up; strangely enough, we went rather fast! We did admire the torrential stream but didn't pause too much for that purpose. I was already soaking through when we got to the entrance. This was wetter than I had ever seen. It was rather spectacular! We went in, soon finding one of the men we had brought into the Lost World only a few weeks earlier. We then tried to find our way to the zipwires via a route that had no constricted spaces but that did have nice views. It took a while! And we also stopped once to take pictures of a waterfall that wasn't normally there, and for some lunch. Coleen brought out a surprise; she had banana cake with birthday candles! So sweet!
Walking up in the rain

 Coleen lighting the birthday candles

Happy gathering

After that we went to the zipwires. And promptly bumped into a GoBelow group. They had first dibs! And there seemed to be two more around. Oh dear. We scampered around a bit to get to a free one, but it was a specimen of impressive length and impressive sag. That one looked like a bit of a bugger! If you're in the middle it's an uphill struggle in either direction. We decided to give it a miss. And we headed out. We already had to do a slight traverse to get from A to B and Coleen, who doesn't like heights, figured that was bad enough. And I thought we might have time for a cuppa if we left early!

Coming out onto the path-turned-stream

We got back out. It was still raining. We walked out, past the lake, back to the stream. This was now flowing over the road, and over the bridge. Oh dear. I'd seen the stream swollen, but never like this! I was getting worried again about the roads flooding and me drowning my car. It was a bit of a deja-vu! We walked down, changed again in the rain, and drove off. The landscape was now a lakescape. And indeed, the rivers were encroaching onto the road. Oh dear! I did the first puddle with two wheels on the pavement. The next one I chanced. And got away with it. We were getting worried about us not getting to the hut, Coleen not getting home and the other guests not making it. But then the road rose again and we knew we would at least make it to the hut.

The sticky-outy thing is in the middle of the bridge, and the nearby water is supposed to be the path!

Coleen decided to make a dash for home before the flooding would get worse. David and I went in, put on dry clothes, and started the fire. Snug! I got myself a flood of tea. In spite of all the water I was thirsty. Then Jaco and Marjan arrived, with presents and decorations. It was getting festive! And then Guy and Kate appeared. Most people were there now! I started a beer. It was my birthday! Phil texted. Edwyn arrived. I was getting hungry! I knew Phil was having dinner with us so only when he was imminent did I want to start cooking. And then he arrived too. I started the cooking, but I only turned around once and David and Jaco had taken over. Very executive cooks! And it was very nice, and exactly enough. Good stuff. Then Mick appeared.

We enjoyed the dessert prepared by Jaco and Marjan. Waffles! When these were consumed Paul phoned; he had first watched a football game. His team had won, so he was in high spirits. We were complete! And retreated to the lounge for more beer and wine by the fire. But then people started to leave. Not everybody wanted to spend the night here. In the end there were only four left. And it was bedtime!

Snugness at the fire

I figured with only four people I didn't need earplugs. That was wrong! I didn't sleep very well. Oh well. We got up and David and I baked the pancakes. I had hoped the Sunday would hold a walk as the forecast was dry, but it was actually raining, so that plan went down the drain. We tidied and cleaned the hut and ferried all the stuff back to the cars. And then the men were off again! I lingered a bit; I didn't want to leave this valley yet. Although it was wet and water-logged it was very beautiful. I wanted to revel in it for a while! But after half an hour I got into my car too and went home. Even though I technically hadn't had my birthday yet it was time to go home and revert to normal! Laundry, marking, and that sort of stuff! But I had had a good weekend. Bring it on, forties!

16 December 2015

Runup to birthday weekend

I tend not to celebrate my birthday. If you have your birthday in mid December you're pretty much done celebrating anything by the time you get to that date. Everybody plans Christmas activities in that period. If it falls on a Friday or Saturday then there undoubtedly already is a party planned on that day; if it's another day it's not a convenient day for a party anyway. (And if not: go underground!) But I like round numbers and I didn't want to not celebrate my 40th birthday. I wasn't sure how to go about it, though.

If I do a standard party at my house most of my friends would have to drive home as they live too far away. The ones that live close by are either Jaco and Marjan, or they are PhD students, and these tend to booze until dawn, and I don't want to do that. And I like outdoorsy things. When someone by sheer coincidence mentioned mountain huts I thought I had the answer. Get my hands on one of those, have people drive in, and let them spend the night! That way everybody could drink. And during the day we could go for a walk. And I would wake up to a beautiful view. I find that special! I got my hands on a list of huts and booked it for the night of 12-13 December, and told people to save the date. The most important bit was done!

The rest of the planning would have to be done later. It was hard to find the time, especially with a trip to Edinburgh getting in the way. But I decided the easiest thing to do for food was to cook a pile of pasta, and I wanted bacon pancakes for breakfast; for drinks I would ask people to cater for themselves. Regarding the day program the weather gods took control; the forecast was awful. It would have to be underground! And by the time that was clear almost everybody had dropped out; only David was left of the underground folks, and only Coleen was left from the Ocean Scientists. Coleen declared herself not a fan of tight spaces, so I thought of our default mine Cwmorthin. Sorted!

I was back from Edinburgh on Wednesday. On Thursday I was teaching all day, and then attended the Ocean Sciences Christmas Party (QED). On Friday I was teaching again until ~14:30. I decided to go home early, get my caving kit and my overnight bag ready for the next day, get into my car, drive to the hotel where I would have a Welsh practice with Jenny, received some firewood from Edwyn, drove to the hut to see what it was like, drove to the shop to buy stuff for dinner and breakfast, and got home tired. I still didn't feel festive but I knew it would be better once I was in the hut and things started to evolve.
The hut

It took slightly longer still until I would feel festive; the next morning I woke up listening to the rain, and drove to the hut. Its parking place is a bit of a distance from the hut, and the rain was torrential. Ferrying the food and the firewood and my bag to the hut was enough to have me soaked. Unpleasant! But soon we would get into caving gear and then all would be different. While I was till ferrying, Coleen arrived. She helped. Then David arrived. Time to all pile into my car, drive to Blaenau, and have the festivities begin!

14 December 2015

Sampling before the move

Edinburgh is very far away, but I have to go there often. It's where our cores are stored, and where the BGS keep its geophysical data. I beat a path to the door of the offices (and storage) in southern Edinburgh. But things will change! The next time I go there they'll have moved to elsewhere in Edinburgh. And Tom, the Transect Leader of "my" 2015 transects, had asked if I could come up before that all happened. We all know about moving house; it's a pain and you can't get to what you want! And that will probably happen to our cores too. The timing was awful; I was drowning in marking, I was still in the middle of processing the 2015 data in order to decide what I wanted to do with which part of which core, and on top of that I had a birthday to organise, a car to scrap and a new one to buy and sort out. But well, let's get some more on my plate.

We in Bangor (that's me, James, Catriona, and then one additional PhD student and two MSc students) were done with quite some core sections, so I could take them back. That meant going by car; my guess was that they weighed over 200kg and that's not something you bring by train. So I got me a car, loaded up on a Friday, went off on a Christmas party, and entered the weekend. On the Sunday I was in the office all day, vainly trying to finish the marking before I left, and then I took the car home. Ready to leave early on Monday!

After an uneventful trip I got there, and met Tom. He had already brought out some core sections. There was one core he had fallen in love with;  he had even had it CT scanned. No puny 2D X-rays; no, full 3D! Amazing! We got some nice shells and gastropods out of that one. We then took some slab samples out of another core. If you don't have X-ray data or something of that kind you have to just sample blind. And then the day was pretty much over. Tom had to see to his family and I went to check into my hotel. I later went for sushi.

Settled in the lab with radio, coffee and laptop

Taking slab samples

 A proud and warmly dressed Tom in the cold store

The next day I got up ealry to go buy some lunch. It  would be a long woring day! And the hotel didn't serve breakfast until 8, but the nearby shop opened at 7:30, so I did that first. I also bought some kitchen towel for in the lab. And after breakfast I came in. I made myself comfortable; I had brought my inseparable radio, and a flask of coffee, and my laptop to guide me through which core was which. It's a large, empty, cold space with only a very inconspicuous window, but I was quite alright that way.

I had a list of cores from 2015 Tom wanted sampled, and I had a small additional list of my own of some last 2014 cores. So I got started! Tom had clearly chosen more cores than I could feasibly do, so I just went with those that wouldn't be likely to yield anything in X-raying so would have to be slab-sampled anyway, and the most important other ones. And I tried to fit in all the 2014 ones. I needed to get one of the people who had been on our crtuises to help me get to some of these; the core store has these nicely efficient movable cupboards that are supposed to have an engine to move them around, but these didn't, so it took quite some muscle power to get the heavy things going. By the end of the day I had done most of the 2015 cores, and all the 2014 ones bar one which I couldn't find. And just scrolling around doesn't work very well if you need two people to shift the cupboards. Oh well. I went to the hotel, and later on to a nearby pub for a meal.

The next morning I checked out and got back to BGS. I saw Graham, the logistic chief, scamper around with heavily laden trollies, moving the BGS fossil collection. He said he know off by heart where my last core was! Excellent. We shifted the cupboards and I could sort that one out too. Then Tom appeared.

We decided I had done enough; if he was extra keen on some extra cores he could come in and sample them himself; he only lives 10 minutes away from where the BGS is now. It will be further away after the move, but nothing like the 300 miles it is for me. I now had enough mud to keep me busy for a long time! So we unloaded the car (finally), put the cores back in the storage, and said goodbye. I was home at 6PM. Time to unpack, cook, eat, and go to bed early; the next day I was teaching from 9AM on, and before that I had to sort out the samples and bring the rental car back! No rest for the wicked...

11 December 2015

YCC in Wales

Early December is not only time for Sinterklaas! It is also time for the YCC coming to Wales. It is always a bit of an awkward time it seems; all these things that need doing before the end of term. But they're such a lovely bunch so I would go anyway! And in spite of the awful weather I got there on time. I managed to park up (the hut they tend to stay in had an awkward approach) and I walked in. Matt immediately offered me a cup of tea! Typical. Before they got here some exchange of venue ideas had taken place via email and Facebook, but the decision had to be taken there and then.

I had suggested some of our more obscure venues. Someone else had suggested some others. One of the names mentioned was Rhiwbach, which we had visited twice in a row rather recently, so that meant I would remember the way. That helps! So that was chosen. And I know how to get to the hut where we were, and I know the way to Rhiwbach, but I don't know the way from the former to the latter. The trip there was already very epic! The landscape was entirely empty and blasted by the rain.

We parked up. Soon two of the GoBelow minibuses parked up too. The woman who guided the tourists addressed me; she warned me against going through if the water was too deep. We'd have to see! We walked up. We were there in no time. The YCC is not the Thursdaynighters! Soon we were in. We first got to the traverse, but we found Marty (of Belgrave fame) there with another group of tourists. We decided to leave them to it and go on, towards the traverse-with-drop. And into the incline with the waterfall in it. The lady from GoBelow had mentioned that this would be the moment to decide whether it was safe to go on. Fortunately, it looked like it was. All were very impressed by the amount of water that came down!

The incline which is the main throughfare

Me at the waterfall

We could tell when we got to the exit the weather hadn't improved...
All pics by John

We went on and admired the jumper and the stitch drilling. I managed to find it! Not in one go but that's a detail. Then we went up to the level with the waterfall. It was rather swollen and nobody was keen to go up it. Oh well! That left us the level with the air shaft. It was still early when we came out. That's the YCC for you! But to our surprise, that was when things got exciting.

We came out in heavy rain. When we got out of the pit with the entrance in it we were almost bowled over by the wind. And there was water everywhere! The stream was enormous! It was epic. It was a bit tricky to walk down without falling over but we did our best.

It wasn't much of an extensive trip but now the YCC have seen this venue too. I hope next time I can show them Aberllyn! As it is I'm not sure enough of the route to the entrance and then back out. I have a mission! It's nice to show people venues they don't know yet. And there is much to see here!

Believe me; the river doesn't always look like this...

10 December 2015

Trying the new car

I picked a day with storm and flood weather to try my new car for the first time. I suppose I had little choice; I was too busy during thew week, and on Saturday I had to get to the hut the YCC had rented, which was in SW Snowdonia. After I'd said goodbye to the old car I got into the new one. And I liked it!

It wasn't very damp (the car, that is; not the weather), the lights were good and the window wipers worked well. And it received BBC radio 4! I was happy. The weather was terrible but a car doesn't get blown over that quickly. There were big puddles on the road. I didn't worry about it. They got deeper. I started to worry about it.

At some point, I wondered if my car could cope. The water was so deep! You can't see quite how deep exactly but I could feel it. Up to the bumper! It would be a bit silly if I would manage to flood the engine the very first time I would ever take that car out! But I made it.

We decided to go to Rhiwbach, and we went in two vehicles. No need to bring mine! And there were puddles on the road, but nothing worrying. We had a nice trip. When we came out we had a long walk back to the cars. The rain was still horizontal, we were repeatedly almost blown over, and the stream near the path was a lethal torrent. Blimey!

Picture taken on the way down from Rhiwbach

We made it back to the hut. It was still raining. I kept thinking about these floods on the road that would still be getting deeper. I was worried! I imagined myself stranded between floods and only having my soaking wet caving gear to keep me warm through the night. I had decided I'd head south on the way back, get to the main road at Porthmadog, and then follow that home. I figured that one would still be clear! And if the road was flooded before Porthmadog I would have to go back and sleep in the hut. I was welcome! But it wasn't needed. I got home without incident. Which I didn't take for granted! And I like that car!

08 December 2015

Goodbye to Silverbonnet

I had decided it was time to retire my trustworthy little old car, which, due to its anomalously coloured bonnet, was sometimes known as Silverbonnet. A bit sad, really! I like its quirkiness. But I don't like the fortunes it costs to have it welded each years. So I had bought a new one, but this did mean I had to scrap the old one. But when? I thought I had time, but then I realised on Friday the MOT would run out on Wednesday the next week, and you can't take a car that has no MOT on the road, not even to drive it to the scrap yard. And I had to go to Edinburgh Mon-Wed, not knowing what time I'd be back. I clearly couldn't do it after the weekend! And scrap yards tend to be closed on Sundays. It dawned on me I had only two chances of scrapping the car without breaking the law: do it on Saturday morning or asking help from friends.

I have spiffing friends. David and Guy were quite willing to sort me out. David for driving the thing to the scrap yard and Guy forbringing him back. Lovely people! And it's most appreciated. I just figured I had got myself into this pickle and should get myself out. I decided to just get up early on Saturday and sort it. There was time! I had to be at the Clogwyn hut to meet up with my old friends from the York Caving Club at 10; it's just under an hour from where I live. The scrap yard opened at 8. Possible!

I got up early, took everything I wanted to keep out of the car, packed my caving kit so I could leave immediately after coming home again, and set off. I had seen on internet where the scrap yard was. I hadn't checked streetview; it seemed evident. And as the scrap yard wasn't far my initial thought would have been to plonk the bike into the back and rise that back, but the weather was atrocious. I would be blown off that bike all along the way. Plan abandoned! I googled some taxi companies in the surroundings and set off.

I couldn't initially find the place, but I found a bloke in an unrelated company willing to show me the way. Soon I was parked on the weighing bridge! Oh dear. End of an era. This little car has served me well for six years.

The little car on the weighbridge

The last time I would see it; notice its bum sticking out from a shed

A friendly man sorted out the paperwork and told me the car was worth a staggering £18. Oh well. That would pay for the taxi home! While he was looking things up I phoned a taxi company; I didn't have much time to spare. And then I got all the papers and saw another employee drive my little car away. The last time I would see it! Thanks Silverbonnet for the good times! But I had little time to dwell on things. The cab showed up and soon I was home, about to set off on my first trip with my new car. Which would be an adventure in its own right!

06 December 2015


I had hoped that the week before, I would scoot off to Rhyl with David after work, have a look at a car, buy it, have a celebratory dinner in a local pub and go home. It didn't work out like that! The car had been sold. Instead of sorting this annoying car business out, and getting a dinner with a friend on top of that, I stayed in the office. Not quite as much fun! But things would look up. There was another car for sale, in Rhyl too, and we ended up going to have a look at in on Monday. This time it happened! And it got even better; that very day we got an email from a colleague, saying he had vouchers for free dinner in Colwyn Bay (which is between Bangor and Rhyl), but couldn't use them himself. Any takers? Well, yes!

We drove up in my car and sa the Citroen which was the object of our interest already parked up. The chap who sold it was friendly and showed us all the ins and outs. And when I say "us" I mean "David"; I just want to know if the obvious things (doors, lights, boot) seem to do what they should and I don't know much about anything else. David immediately starts prodding the engine, inspecting all liquids, listening to the exhaust like a heart surgeon etc etc. It was a bit like I was the Miss World judge while he was the medic doing health checks for potential astronauts. He judged the thing was sound. We went for a little ride and it still seemed fine. I decided to got for it!

We went inside to sort the paperwork out. Sorted! We could even take it home. David's insurance allows him to drive any car. So he jumped into this one while I jumped into the little old rusty thing and off we went. We struggled a bit finding out way out of Rhyl via a petrol station, but we got there. Off to the restaurant for our free meal! It was busy but it was a nice place with good food. A nice addition to a successful mission!

I am a bit shocked I now have a car that gives me information only via digital displays; it's both a bit more modern and grown-up than I am used to, and, more importantly, if something goes wrong with the digital stuff I'll be screwed. Having this car fixed would probably be as expensive as having the old one welded. But what I'm very happy with is that this one is a lot safer. Its breaks are stronger, its lights work, and it probably is less damp so the windscreen would be more translucent. And it has ABS! Taking pride in keeping an old car going is one thing, but becoming a menace on the road is another. And this car is bigger, which is good, because we've started to make a habit of fitting 4 people + kit in our cars on Thursdays! That'll be easier in this beast!

04 December 2015

Back to Belgrave

We didn't know who we were waiting for, we didn't know where the entrance was, we didn't have the required ropes. Sounds like a well-prepared trip!

We would go back on a Saturday to revisit the trip we'd done some two weeks earlier, which wasn't a great success as then we didn't know where the entrance was, and didn't have the required ropes. And there seemed to be a collapse. We decided to re-rig the pitches and drop them both. The last time we didn't have a rope for the second pitch so the only thing we could do was stare at the rusty anchors.

It was a busy time but I was feeling down after a hard week and decided (correctly) that a day underground would help. I hitched a ride from Phil. He was a bit worried we wouldn't fit, as he had another hitchhiker, and we all needed a fair amount of kit. I brought my rope, as I wasn't sure if we had that sorted yet, but he told me to leave that in my car as he said Brian would be bringing one, and Mick the other. OK then.

We drove to the meeting place; everyone was on time. Except Brian. Until we realised Phil had misremembered that Brian would be coming. So we didn't have Brian, and we only had one rope! Oh dear. But we did have some scraggy ends of rope, and the first pitch was rather short, so I figured we could do it.

We parked and got kitted. Then everyone ran off in the wrong direction again. Oh dear! This time I remembered where we had to go, and soon we were in, and at the top of the first pitch. I rigged it with a sling and three stubby pieces of rope. It worked! It was just long enough. I was down.

We then rigged the second pitch on the old anchors while Phil installed new anchors. For the second pitch we used two ropes, as the knot would be passed at a convenient point. I went down this one too! We didn't quite know how deep it was, so also not if this rope concoction would be enough. I went down rather carefully! I didn't know if the rope had a knot at the end so I could potentially kjust slide off the end. Not an attractive idea. But I was careful, and I came down with a few metres to spare. Nice! I shouted really loudly up that the rope was free (there was a bit of a waterfall coming down the pitch) had a look at the part of the level that went into the mountain. It ran dead rather soon. I sat down and had some lunch. It was almost 1PM! I figured we'd scout the other side together when everyone was down.

 Phil armed with resin for re-bolting the pitches

Male bonding with Phil and Mick

Waiting for people to come up. All pics evidently by Martin poole aka Marty

Then Jason came down, and Angela. Then I figured it was perhaps an idea to check if the way out actually went. It got wet very soon! It soon reached knickers level. Oh well. Onwards. Then it reached bra level. Oh well again. But then the water got so high and the ceiling so low I had to cock my head in order to keep my nose above the water. Not good! And I could hear the banging sound of the waves I was making slamming into the ceiling. Not good. I decided I didn't want to go any further. It sounded properly flooded to ceiling level!

I went back. Phil was coming down; I was hoping he could relay the message up to the people above, that it didn't go and that those not keen on prussicking all the way back up shouldn't go down. He decided to turn back on the rope instead and go and tell people. Works too!

As I was entirely soaked I requested being next in coming up. Ange and Jason agreed. I noticed the pitch was a bugger to get out of, so when I was up I shouted down and waited for Angela to come up, so I could help her if needed. It took her a long time to come up, but she ded need help to get out, so it was good I had waited. By then I was a bit cold so I went up the second pitch, saying I would be back when Jason was due, in case he needed help too.

I After some 10 minutes I came down the pitch again. There was no sign of Jason yet. I went back up. And then down again. Still no sign! Was somethign wrong? I noticed the rope wasn't loaded. He wasn't even on it! Was there a problem? I decided to go and hava a look. I went to a point where I could see him. We couldn't hear what the other was saying, but he sounded like there was no problem. I went up the ridge and shouted "rope free". Then I could feel the rope being loaded! Which left me on a ledge without a rope, but I knew we had yet another loose piece. I asked Ange if she could get it to me, but rather soon I got bored, and just free-climbed out. This was actually a lot easier than coming up the rope! I went up the second pitch again just for the heck of it. Then I went back. Jason was in sight! Ange went up while I waited for Jason, who then also free-climbed the last bit.

It turned out he hadn't heard Angela's feeble "rope free", and thought she was in trouble at the top of the pitch. He didn't want to risk making things worse! But he was out now. We went back up the next pitch. From there we just went straight out and back to the cars. The other entrance would have to wait for another day! We had squandered a lot of time. But I really wanted to one day see the other side of the collapse. Not today, though. Enough for a day. I had seen enough of this mine now!

02 December 2015

Students vs staff

One of the big challenges of teaching, I find, is getting the students to speak up if they don't understand something. If you do a lecture and ask if anybody has any questions you tend to just stare into the sullen faces that avoid your gaze, with a deadly silence hanging over the entire room. And quite often, you know there MUST be questions, but they just won't speak up.

When the students had to get going on their assignment based on the Laugharne fieldwork I gave them an introductory lesson. At the end I asked if there were any questions; there were none. That didn't prove they got it, though. I would later find out just how small their understanding was.

When I got the assignments I was a bit shocked. This cohort had done so much worse than last year's! And they had got better preparation. Last year I had no idea how they would do. This year I had flagged up all the common issues I had encountered the year before, and told the students how to avoid them. They should sail through! They clearly hadn't. I wanted to know what had gone wrong, but I knew from their deadly silence during the lecture they wouldn't be keen to speak up. I figure they'd only be happy to do so from the comforting shelter of anonymity.

As soon as the marks were released an explosion of student indignation followed. The student-staff liaison officer (or whatever that's called) called me in for a meeting. He had had a lot of complaints. The students claimed the questions were too long and unintelligible, the methods were unclear and unexplained, the reference list was not up to date, pretty much everything was wrong and unfair and awful. And they wanted a higher mark. And it was his job to mediate; what did I think?

I explained the students had not flagged up any issues during the preparatory lecture, and they had asked me some questions by email, but none of these were addressing understanding of the actual questions. I wasn't sure why they had done so badly. The students were not happy with that. They admitted that hardly anyone had come prepared to the lecture, in spite of me urging them to read the assignment in advance so they could ask if something was unclear, but they seemed to think that was something I had to compensate for, not them.

In order to get an idea of what had gone wrong I had decided to open a discussion forum online where they could post anonymously. Do I need to even mention that triggered a storm surge of filth thrown my way? I tried to just take it as information and nothing more, but I found it impossible to not be affected. And it wasn't particularly helpful even; some students flagged up reasonable things, such as that a word limit would be helpful, but most of it was just unfiltered ranting. In a way I understood; they had blown the chance of learning, but they still had a chance of getting a higher grade, if only they managed to pile all the blame on me, and not themselves. They scraped the barrel in order to find fault in me. I tried to shake it off (note the modern popular reference) but I didn't go into the weekend feeling very happy.

With the issue not solved by mediation it went to the Head of School. I did not speak with him, but I heard the result. He had judged that indeed the students had had plenty of opportunity to raise questions and had wasted them. No further action required. It was nice to have my name cleared, but I was still bothered by the fact these students had done the entire assignment without ending up with a proper understanding of palaeoenvironmnetal reconstruction, especially using foraminifera. Not very satisfying!

The module is not over yet; they still have an exam to sit. I decided I would offer them an hour to come and talk through the whole thing. That way they had a chance of learning something, and as they would still benefit from it grade-wise they would probably even bother. It would be frustrating to sort out another session while they had so clearly wasted the previous one, but in the end it is for the better. I don't think this lot will ever become a fan of foram work, but if they at least understand how it works I'll be satisfied! And I hope next time they'll bloody ask those questions they have, and to do so BEFORE the grades come in...

01 December 2015

Lost world

You can go into Cwmorthin many times and still see new bits. Some time ago we had gone to have a look at some out-of -the-way bit with original bootprints. Along the way, we came ast a pitch that gets you into what is known as the Lost World. This week, we would drop that pitch. And we would have Rich with us, who was buzzing with adrenaline, as this would be his first rope work.

Two more newbies joined us. For some reason, a trip to the Lost World attracts a lot of attention. Especially from people who couldn't go there unaided. We got Rich into a harness and off to the entrance we went.

Soon we reached the pitch, and rigged it. Edwyn was down in a jiffy. I wanted to stay up to help Rich down, but David thought he might be better equipped to do that. He suggested I may be too impatient. The suggestion alone! But Rich didn't care who would talk him down so I went ahead.

I kept an eye on the next person down, and took some pics of him doing it. Then I set off exploring. After exploring every tunnel I went back to see how the newbies were doing. This way I managed to see all there was to see. Finally, I saw Rich was coming doen. I stayed for suppoert! He was clearly nervous, and nervous people tend to make life harder on themselves. This abseil was not a free hang, but a rope-assisted walk down a stepped slab. And these slate slabs are often wet and slippery, and this awas no exception. And nervous people often tend to lean forward, while it is a lot easier if you lean back.
 Andy coming down the pitch, watched by Edwyn

Rich lost his balance at some point, and rolled over. But he stayed calm! He was just wondering if he could abseil facing away from the wall. I figured the rope might not feed through through his descender, so I talked him back to facing the wall. And helped him down the last step. He was down!

He needed a fag. And when that need was sorted I dragged him along to see the sights. As this area is rarely visisted, it has lovely artifacts, and also more hob-nailed boot prints. Nice!


Some of the artifacts; all pictures by Andy.

Time was flying, though, so I hoped we'd soon go up again. I thought it might be a good idea if I go soon, and perch on a ledge, about halfway down. I could provide mental and physical support from there. And so I did! And then Rich was sent up. He struggled, sweated and swore, but he got there. The other newbies were a bit more restrained on the swearing, but equalled him on the other fronts. But finally, they all made it up without needing being pulled up by us! But by then the clock had struck midnight and we were still deep down inside.

Everyone who could leave left while David and I came up last, watched by Mick. We derigged and left too. All the newbies were very excited to have made it! I think we'll see all of them again. Altogether a good night, but we shouldn't make a habit of this. Sleep is necessary too! Next week we won't do any rope work. You can't be this extravagant every week!

29 November 2015

Conwy Half Marathon

November is a nice month for racing, and the Great Orme must be beautiful. So when I saw the Conwy Half Marathon on Nov 22 advertised, a race that goes all around the great Orme, I registered. Several people had recommended this race to me! And I would even have company; Coleen, whith whom I had also ran the Anglesey Trail Half Marathon in January, would run too. So all good! Later the Cave Rescue Team would move a training exercise to that day, which was a bit of a pain as I wasn't keen on missing out on either event, but I chose to stick with the race. Not without some worries; it had been very busy recently, and shit weather, so I had only done my usual short runs recently. The day I shoudl have run further was so miserable I couldn't get myself to do it. And the only day I did was only a week before the race: too far! And I also hadn't slept very well the last nights. My-worst prepared half marathon ever! But well, it's only a half, so I would be OK.

When the day approached she mentioned some people whe knew would run too, and go for a meal and a pint afterwards. That sounded fun! So on the race day I was picked up from home, and brought to a pub owned by one of the other runners. This chap would drive us, and yet another runner, to Conwy. But he wasn't very punctual. Luckily the pub was warm and dry and had coffee.

We drove through the rain to Conwy, and struggled to park anywhere. When that was sorted I got restless. I had to dump my bag, and I wanted to go to the loo before the start. But we were late, and the organisation turned out to be flawed; they had bag storage, but they labeled every bag before putting it away. And they didn't have enough people by half! Nor did they have enough toilets! Walking through the start area was near impossible with the crowds and all the queues that snaked everywhere. It was a bit awful and I lost everybody. The race would start at 10AM; at 10:10 I was still in the queue for the toilets. I was feeling casual; I figued your time only started running once you crossed the start line, so well, starting a bit late would be fine. In the end I crossed the start at 10:15, together with many other people. It was a busy race!

Queueing up for the start, with a dramatic skyline

Ready to go!

We ran over the bridge into Llandudno, and soon entered a sandy coastal path. It's scenic and the sand is nice on your feet, but this early in the race the field hadn't spread out enough to make such a narrow path comfortable. You couldn't politely get past people most of the time!

On the sandpath

The the race got back onto the road, to cross over to the other side of the peninsula. There we finally got to see the limestone cliffs on the Great Orme. Very nice! And even the sun came out!

Along the eastern side of Great Orme

While running uphill I found Coleen back. Se wasn't enjoying the uphill bit. We stayed together for a while until she ushered me on. I proceeded to the top, and then started the nice and fast descent. The miles flew by! But maybe I went too fast; at the 9 mile marker I developed a stitch. I don't like them! I slowed down a bit and hoped it would go away. Luckily it did. At the 10 mile marker the worst was over and by 11 mile it was all gone. By that time I was tired, though! But that's fair I suppose. And by that time you start to get conscious of your result; I hadn't looked at my watch so didn't know quite how I was doing, but I knew I had passed the 2 hour pacers near the 10 mile mark, so I knew I was probably going to come in a few minutes within the 2 hour boundary. But when I'm closing in I become aware of the women near me, especially the ones that look like they're in my age category; every one you overtake is one position higher! I overtook all within reason, and when the finish loomed there were only men in sight in front of me. I accelerated a bit on the downhill bit to the finish, but not too much as I didn't fancy falling on my face in the last few metres. And I came in with a gun time of 1:57 so I knew my chip time would be 1:52. Not bad at all!

The mainland comes into view again

The castle, where the finish is!

I went to get my medal and race shirt, and considered getting my bag. I decided against; if I came back to the finish now I might see Coleen finish. I found a good spot but didn't see her. At some point I figured she must have finished while I was collectin gmy medal, and I had also got very cold, so I decided to go get the bag and proceed to the showers. I was glad I had an emergency blanket with me! The queue for the bags was as awful as expected. When I had the bag I also had my phone, so I found a text from Coleen, saying she indeed was on her way to the showers by now. I limped there too. I was properly seized up now after getting so cold.

What's my time? 

The showers were a blessing! They warmed me up again. And Coleen turned out to be in the same row of cubicles. It was nice to see her again! I also drank some extra water; I had run on less than half a litre and that's not enough. I often run myself a headache.

After the shower we went to the pub where we would meet. The others were already drinking. Unfortunately, the pub didn't serve food. I wanted food! But the others were more keen on alcohol. Not good! I managed to put pressure on the company, bt only enough to get us food by about 4PM. I had finished at 12! What are these people thinking! They were nice, but I might not do something like this again, viz. joining people I don't know for a pint after a race, as I seem to be one of the few people in this world keen on satisfying basic needs. I need water and food after a race! And I am never keen on a piss-up, and especially so in circumstances like this.

The pub where we ended up

After I finally had had my shepherd's pie (yay!) I was keen to go home. There was a train at 17:33 I could get, but Coleen didn't want to take it. She volunteered for the 17:59 one. And I considered my options; the latter would probably get me home quicker, as her bloke would pick us up from the railway station. A bus would probably not be so convenient. So I stayed for a last half hour and then we were gone! It was nice to be brought to the door, but then I was knackered. I was in bed within a few hours. Note to self: do run races but don't go to the pub afterwards!