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The Ridgeway. It only took seven years!

May 8, 2016

You may recall my post back in 2009 about walking the Ridgeway long distance footpath. Well you can see from that post that I had left the final section, from Fox Hill to Overton Hill, a distance of about 17 miles, to be completed.

What happened? “Events, dear boy, events.” A lot has happened in those intervening seven years. I got a job – that was the immediate cause of my being unable to finish the walk. We’ve also acquire a beautiful great-niece, Imogen, and a great-nephew, Toby. My Danish niece Katarina has moved to the UK to study at Canterbury Cristchurch University. Her sister Sarah has graduated with First Class honours. And Maddie, the daughter of my best friend from University, has become engaged.

And that’s the trigger. Maddie invited my wife to her hen weekend, and so my wife asked me what I’d be doing this weekend while she was away drinking prosecco and Pimms at a cottage somewhere in the North of England. And I thought – I can finish the Ridgeway path!

That’s how I found myself crammed into a very small seat on a GWR train to Swindon in the rush hour on Friday night. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to get this final section done is that it’s not very accessible – but I finally worked out that I could do it using Swindon as a base. So I’d booked into the Travelodge for two nights – it’s very handy for the bus and train stations – and I was on my way.

We used to live in Swindon. More than 30 years ago. It’s changed so much I didn’t recognise anything at all. There’s a new cinema complex which includes several chain restaurants: Prezzo, Nando’s and GBK. Having explored the, rather depressing, town centre, I opted for Prezzo and had a decent meal. It’s about the most up-market restaurant in the centre of Swindon. I had a beer in the bar of the Travelodge before retiring, and had a long chat with the manager who promised to buy me a beer the following evening if I finished the walk.

The next morning I loaded up with the buffet hot breakfast – just scrambled egg, and no black pudding, but tasty sausage, beans, mushrooms, toast, tea & OJ. Then I was on my way to the bus station to get the 48 service to Fox Hill, the place where I’d finished the previous leg all those years ago.

Irritatingly Thameslink buses only accept exact fares on their services – the driver has no access to the money and can’t give change. So I had to over-pay for my bus fare. At least the bus ran on time, and the fares aren’t exorbitant (unlike the services where I live in Wycombe and South Bucks, where the fares are high and the buses seem to never run to schedule). As I boarded an elderly gentleman asked which way I was going to be walking. I explained I was heading south west to Overton Hill and Avebury. He suggested I got off the bus at the top of Liddington Hill. He was trying to save my having to walk a mile or so along the road from Fox Hill to Liddington where the Ridgeway then leaves the road and heads up over the hills again.

I thanked him for his concern, but pointed out that for my own peace of mind, as well as the completeness of the walk, I needed to start the walk from the point I finished it last time. So there I was. Fox Hill. Next to the long-closed Shepherd’s Rest pub and opposite the bus stop where my last adventure along the Ridgeway path finished seven years ago.

Bus stop at Fox Hill

Bus stop at Fox Hill

So I unholstered my new trekking pole, donned my sunglasses and set off.

The road ahead

It’s just over a mile to the point where the Ridgeway leaves the road again and you start the climb to Liddington Castle; most of it involves walking on the verge or on the road itself. I started to see people running in the opposite direction. Then more of them. Then lots and lots.

When I eventually left the road and set off uphill I encountered a checkpoint for the runners, and since there was a pause in their flow I stopped to ask the marshall what was going on. Apparently today was the day for an Ultra-runners’ 40 mile race along the Ridgeway from Overton Hill to Goring, and this was about the 15 mile point. Some 300 had set off, so clearly I wasn’t going to have a quiet walk, and I definitely felt that I was swimming against the tide! Most of these runners, after 15 miles, looked as fresh as daisies. But a few others looked like they’d had enough already. I hope they all made it. I said “Good morning” countless times.

At four miles on my walk, as I approached Ogbourne St George, the runners started to thin out, but there were more and more walkers, all heading in the opposite direction to me. But as soon as I passed the point the Ridgeway crosses the Ogbourne St George to Aldbourne road there were no more. They were obviously starting a day’s walk on the Ridgeway from Ogbourne and heading in the direction from which I’d come.

After this it was quiet, sunny and warm. Quite a beautiful walk round Ogbourne and along the ridge towards Barbary Castle. Smeathe’s Ridge just short of Barbary Castle is where I chose to stop for my lunch – a ploughman’s sandwich I’d picked up at Tesco in Swindon before I got on the bus. I’d encountered three horse riders, whom I helped through a gate, and 28 mountain bikers (they announced their number as they passed me, so I’d know when they’d all gone by) some of whom looked more terrified than others. Oh and a young Italian family walking in the sunshine. But otherwise it was quiet and beautiful.

After my lunch, a drink and a brief rest to get some blood back in my feet, I resumed my progress.

Smeathe's Ridge

Smeathe’s Ridge

Through the hubub that was Barbary Castle, where I found all my mountain biking friends having lunch at their cars, and once again I was on my own on the climb up to Hackpen Hill. I felt a few spots of rain. The rain held off for a little while, but then it got heavier. And heavier. And the walking got harder – this is a byway, so motor vehicles are allowed, and they’ve cut enormous ruts in the surface.

Rain and ruts

Rain and ruts

This makes it hard to find anything like a pleasant walking surface. But on I trekked. In the pouring rain. Until over one crest and there I could see the end of the walk – the A4 with heavy traffic on it – in the distance.

The end in sight

The end in sight

And after another mile, that was it. The end of the trail. A bit of an anticlimax really. There’s nothing but a car park, a small nondescript sign that says “Overton Hill” and a signpost pointing the way to Ivinghoe Beacon, 87 miles behind me.

Ivinghoe Beacon - 87 miles

Ivinghoe Beacon – 87 miles

So it was a further trudge of about two miles along a very wet road with no footpath to Avebury, for a pint (of Wadworth’s 6X – we’re in Wiltshire, what else?) and a deserved sit down while I waited for the bus back to Swindon to collect that pint from the manager of the Travelodge. That’s it.

One big thing on my “to do” list ticked off.

You are here. Overton Hill

You are here. Overton HIll

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easyJet Plus card – is it worth it?

October 22, 2015

Short answer: probably not.

If you fly more than 5 round trips (10 sectors) a year on easyJet, AND you book the most expensive allocated seats then it may be worth considering it. Otherwise don’t bother.

How do I know?

Well, I won one.

Yes, I entered a Twitter competition and won a free easyJet Plus card in October 2014. I’ve been using it for a year. It’s now renewal time. My question is – is it worth paying for?

my easyJet Plus card

my easyJet Plus card

At the time I won one, the price was £149 to join and £139 to renew. However during the year they’ve changed the Speedy Boarding and Plus Card rules, and the price has gone up to £170 per year (£160 if you join on board – but of course if you do that you have at least one flight where you can’t use it). And there’s no discount for renewal.

So in the year since I got the card would I have saved money? I’ve flown 10 sectors in that year, but two were before the card arrived so I couldn’t use it. So 8 sectors. Even if I had chosen the most expensive allocated seat (£15.99) on each flight then the current annual fee for the card significantly exceeds the amount I would have saved.

Surely there are some benefits you don’t get if all you do is pay for seat allocation?

Yes, but only fast track security. Not all airports have one, and we’ve found on at least two occasions that it’s faster at Gatwick (our normal originating airport) to go through regular security rather than Fast Track.

Shame there isn’t a Fast Track arrivals – that would be worth paying for!

But the other benefits: Speedy Boarding, two carry on bags and dedicated bag drop are all available to those who just pay for seat allocation either upfront or in an exit row. Most of mine would have cost £10.99 rather than £15.99, so I’d have had to fly 16 sectors to make it worthwhile – that’s twice as many sectors as I actually flew.

So for me a paid for easyJet Plus card doesn’t work. At the old renewal price of £139 I’d probably just have done it, but at £170 it really doesn’t make economic sense. And since there’s no discount for renewal, if I decide next year that I will be flying enough to make it worthwhile, I’ll simply join again – I can save money by not being a member when I don’t fly – and there’s no penalty for leaving and joining again several months later before your next flight.

Thanks for the freebie easyJet, I really enjoyed it. And I will occasionally miss using the fast track security, but overall it’s just not worth paying for. Sorry.

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Does London need a better concert hall?

February 19, 2015

There is much speculation in the classical music world about the future of Sir Simon Rattle. He has not renewed his contract with the Berliner Philharmoniker and so will leave in 2018. And since Valery Gergiev is leaving the London Symphony Orchestra later this year, much of the speculation is focussed on whether Sir Simon will return home to Britain and replace Gergiev. Read Sinfini on the speculation here.

However it seems that the price Sir Simon expects to extract before he confirms his appointment with the LSO is the commitment to London building a new (or replacement) classical concert hall with better acoustics than the Barbican, the current home of the LSO. There’s history here; he did the same in Birmingham when he was with the CBSO, and the city built him the Symphony Hall. This is reputed to be one of the finest concert halls in Europe. Its acoustics are, in my experience, magnificent. It kept him at the CBSO for a further 10 years and sparked the regeneration of both the cultural and commercial life of the city.

So is this going to happen in London?

Last night’s Evening Standard reckons that the burghers of the City of London have heard the appeal and are considering ways they can fulfil Sir Simon’s request. And London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is apparently also minded to hear the appeals favourably.

But Ivan Hewett in the Daily Telegraph adopts a contrary view, believing that while the major venues in London (Royal Festival Hall, Barbican Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall) may not have the best possible acoustics, the audience doesn’t go to concerts just for the acoustics but for the whole ambience and experience. His conclusion is that spending millions on a vanity project to bring Simon Rattle home to London isn’t necessary.

Unlike most of those commenting on Hewett’s article, I like Simon Rattle and his approach to music. I particularly like his interpretation of his, and my, favourite composer: Mahler. And yes, I went to two of Sir Simon’s concerts last week with the Berliner Philarmoniker, one at the Barbican and one at the RFH.

So is Sir Simon right? Well yes, I believe he is. I love going to concerts at the Barbican, but even I can hear that the sound there is “dull” compared to Birmingham Symphony Hall, or even the RFH since its recent refurbishment.

As he said recently, it’s an embarrassment that of all the major cities in Europe only London and Munich are without venues with great acoustics. Attending a concert at Birmingham Symphony hall with Andris Nelsons conducting the CBSO is a delight. And indeed Nelsons is high on the bookie’s list of contenders to replace Rattle at the BPO – Birmingham as a feeding orchestra for Berlin?

But could there be something else involved? Sir Simon said recently in his video biography broadcast on BBC Two recently that a conductor doesn’t really reach their prime until they are in their 60’s (he said 60 on one occasion and 65 on another) and the recent London Residency celebrated his own 60th birthday. But as those of us of a similar age are only too well aware, our hearing deteriorates with age. We just can’t hear those higher frequencies any more.

A former colleague of mine (also 60) who is a part-time music producer pointed out to me recently that younger listeners found the tonal balance on the recordings he was making was much “brighter” than they liked. He realised he was compensating for his own diminishing ability to hear the higher frequencies.

Is this Sir Simon’s problem? Is his age, and his own physiology, encouraging him to believe that concert halls need to have brighter, livelier acoustics than they really need? Considering the audiences for classical music, perhaps he’s still right – the average age of those attending the London Residency concerts last week must have been in the 50-70 range, so they would all benefit from better, brighter acoustics.

I remain optimistic that the City of London, the owners of the Barbican, with the wealth available to them will seriously consider either redeveloping the Barbican Hall, or building a new venue elsewhere in the City, and that we will welcome Sir Simon to the LSO in 2018.

According the the Evening Standard, the search for a site is already under way.

UPDATE: Today (19th Feb 2015) the Evening Standard reports that chancellor George Osborne has “thrown his weight” behind the project and asked for a feasibility study.

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Why? Waitrose, Why?

January 19, 2014

Is encouraging shoppers to carry hot liquids around the supermarket really a good idea?

Normally I avoid supermarket shopping (unless it’s for alcohol… which is one of “my jobs” in our family). However my lovely wife and I dropped into our local Waitrose supermarket for a few bits the other day, and I was surprised to see people wandering around the store clasping cups of what appeared to be hot coffee.

UPDATE: Waitrose replied to my post by email within minutes of my posting it. See end of full post below.

I must say I generally abhor people eating and drinking while walking around in the street. This is a trend I blame entirely on Starbucks. But do we all lead such busy lives that imbibing our caffeine fix must be done literally on the run? If you must do it in public why not find a seat, a public bench, a shop window ledge, or better, a real café in order to sit down and drink it? I’m sure it’d be better for both your blood pressure and your digestive system.

But now people are doing it in the supermarket.

coffeeThen I discovered the reason Read the rest of this entry »

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Olympic traffic hell

July 25, 2012

OK, it’s not that bad yet. And I mostly commute by bike from Marylebone Station to the City, so I’m not trying to drive around London.

But two issues really concern me:

More danger

First, the only dedicated bike route from the West End to get to Marylebone Station has been closed – just to save a few seconds at the lights on Marylebone Road. Now, in order to legally cycle to Marylebone Station I have to turn right onto Gloucester Place – the main northbound route in that part of London – and do battle with dozens of buses, lorries and motorists – and the bus lane has been painted out so no protection there. At least I can cross Marylebone Road easily because left turns have been banned, and then I have to turn left into Dorset Square. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sort out passports, UKBA, for the country’s sake

April 28, 2012

The news today is full of reports of 2-hour queues at Heathrow to get passports inspected.

I remember the halcyon days of international travel, back in the 1990s, when getting back into the UK after a trip abroad was a breeze. You stood in line for a few moments with a queue of maybe 10 or 12 people ahead of you. The passport official (now the UK Border Agency of course) took a cursory glance at your passport and you were in.

Back in the halcyon days of travel only getting into the United States was tricky and time consuming. Today getting back into the UK, Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s hard being young

October 28, 2011

It was George Bernard Shaw, that most quotable of authors and playwrights, who said, “Youth is wasted on the young”. He had a point, but the young don’t have it easy, and while I wouldn’t mind having youth, I wouldn’t want to be young again today.

Getting an apprenticeship isn’t easy

My nephew has not had the easiest start in life. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he grew up as part of a loving family, has a doting mother and four gorgeous siblings, and a fantastic auntie and uncle who took him on all sorts of adventures (guess who that might be). But he suffered with “glue ear” when he was young, ended up having to have grommets and now has mild hearing loss; he also has mild dyslexia. So his education wasn’t the easiest. He dropped out of sixth-form college after having been badly hurt in a car accident – as an innocent pedestrian I should add.

Since when he’s had a series of jobs, none of which really offered him the career potential that he is capable of. Earlier this year, inspired by a friend of his, he decided he’d like to qualify as an electrician, and started looking for an apprenticeship. Read the rest of this entry »

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