Heigh-ho, heigh ho...

Sometimes you just have one of those days where you are just so pleased that your job is what it is. For me, yesterday was one of those.

I had been invited, with my departmental health & safety hat on, to visit the underground laboratory at Boulby Mine, on the Cleveland/North Yorkshire border. So, I spent most of Thursday travelling up country, met up for dinner with the staff of the lab and the other couple of visitors that were also making the trip, and then crashed in a local hotel.

The next morning started fairly early so that we could have our safety briefing, get kitted out in lovely orange overalls and the assorted safety gear, and then catch the 08:30 cage ride into the pit. The cage drops about 1000 metres in something approaching 10 minute and is quite an experience being sardined in with 20-odd miners going down to start a shift. Boulby is a working potash mine (with a sideline in rock salt), so the scientists have spent a lot of time and effort building up good working relations with the mine workers.

The whole trip was an incredible learning experience. We were given a thorough tour of the lab area, the good, the bad and the ugly, which was fascinating, but what really astounded me was the mine itself. It's an environment that is so amazingly alien to me and which I had no real concept of what it was like.

We didn't have time to visit the working face (which would have been close to a two hour round trip), but we did get to visit a location where some scientific equipment (a muon detector) was about to be set up. This location was a half hour drive from the shaft! I had heard that there are about 100km of tunnels, but even that hadn't really prepared me for the scale of the mine. Many of these tunnels are full sized roads where two vehicles can easily pass each other (though there are some larger vehicles that find this less easy!). Travel around has to be via trucks, buggies and other diesel-powered vehicles due to the distances involved. Our guide and driver pointed out features like when we were passing under the coastline and began driving beneath the North Sea, or the workshops where the heavy mining equipment is assembled and maintained.

On the way back we were shown a "safe haven", a refuge where in the event of an emergency, workers could shut themselves in and have access to piped or bottled air supplies while they await rescue. Given that the ambient temperature there is around 40 degrees Celsius, you can imagine the discomfort if there are fifty men crammed in there breathing through smoke hoods, with a fire outside and no water supplies inside. Well, you can treat dehydration and heat exhaustion but you can't treat dead.

Unfortunately I don't have any photos of this as we weren't allowed to take any electrical kit down. But you'll just have to take my word for it, this was an awesome experience. And I owe great thanks to the team that was looking after us.


Training a Gamer

I've been seriously slack at posting here over the last couple of years, having been distracted largely by other things. Most of my (admittedly very irregular) blogging effort is currently going into Training a Gamer, something of a record of sharing a boardgaming hobby with Miss B. Take a look if you are interested...


Time Travel in Ireland

Wow, it's been an awfully long time since I posted, so I've got a fair bit to catch up on. What first...?

Well, last month we had a week or so in Ireland, mostly to visit family, but with a couple of days to do some exploring and touristing. Places visited included Cahir Castle (a nice castle on a little island in the river), the Rock of Cashel (spectacular ruined cathedral and other buildings on a rocky hill), and the Irish National Heritage Park (a collection of replica buildings representing 9000 years of history).

The Heritage Park was fascinating, and quite light on people, which was both a blessing and a curse. It was one of those places that would be quite at home with a bunch of reenactors wandering about, grinding corn or lathing wood into chair legs. Anyway, the guide leaflet was enough to help us get around with a break for snacks half way, and each group of buildings had a very good introductory sign, explaining the background of the exhibits.

Some of the areas looked fantastic (like the monastery, complete with a painted high cross), but a good many parts were heavily overgrown and looked like more funding was required to get things really looking great. One of these areas in particular was the crannog, a man-made island settlement in use, apparently, until about 400 years ago. The houses were looking very much the worse for wear, walls collapsing under the weight of their roofs. We were just musing on how unfortunate it was that the upkeep of these places wasn't being seen to when <3 spotted a sign we had missed on the way in, which explained things. Apparently the crannog was being deliberately abandoned so that archaeologists could study the decay. The plan was to leave it for a few years, then burn the remains down, doing more excavation, and then reconstructing it anew. It turns out that the way the walls collapsed offered an explanation for how excavated "real" houses of this type showed fireplaces that moved around: the inhabitants would have moved the fire to keep it beneath the shifting smokehole.

As far as Miss B was concerned, the best bit (apart from the ice cream she had) was the viking boatyard which included, critically, a small longboat that she was able to climb onto and run around on, ordering her parents to be the captain and set sail. No, I don't know quite how that works either.


Improving Meetings

Based on a conversation at coffee in which a colleague referenced a Guardian article about how most meetings are a waste of time, I have a plan for improving efficiency in our organisation. Put simply, make provision of coffee and biscuits compulsory at all meetings (and charged to the meeting organiser's project). That's it. I am assuming some sort of internal economy where a catering provider/group charges for the coffees, and not someone just bringing in a packet of Hobnobs -- though it is possible that could work OK too.
I predict the following benefits:
  1. The organiser will think twice about whether or not the meeting is actually needed as most budget holders would tend to be pretty anal about not wasting project funds (certainly the case where I work in this time of funding squeezes).
  2. The organiser will only invite people who are actually relevant to the meeting, for the same reason.
  3. With "free" coffee, the meetings should actually be pretty well attended, avoiding the problem of critical people going AWOL.
I rest my case.


The Adventures of Little Miss Daredevil and the Slide of Doom

We've been really lucky so far with the health of Miss B. She's been ill a few times and required a trip to the local minor injuries unit to get a bump patched up, but until now we've avoided hospital. In fact, we're still very lucky as this first hospitalisation was a relatively minor injury and some very straightforward treatment. Anyway, to the story...

In our garden we have a slide. It's one of those little plastic ones with three steps and is all of two feet tall at its highest point. Miss B loves it, even though she is now rather too big for it. She slides down it happily, even though her feet nearly reach the bottom when she is sitting at the top, and she jumps from the top of the steps for dramatic effect (3-year-olds seem to like jumping).

So on Sunday afternoon, Miss B was playing in the garden and <3 and I had gone inside for a while, when we heard a scream that sounded a bit more serious than one which accompanies "I have wet socks" so we got outside PDQ to find the little monkey lying on the ground, holding her arm.

Now, my medical training amounts to a couple of half day first aid courses, so I'm no expert, but I was pretty sure that arms bend at the elbow and wrist, but not usually anywhere in between, so the diagnosis was pretty obvious. We figured it would be best to splint the arm, so with a large wooden spoon tied on by a couple of muslin squares, we got into the car for the drive to the John Radcliffe hospital. After some tears, B fell asleep for most of the journey.

At the hospital we went through a series of reception, triage (where we had the "oh, so you're the girl with the wooden spoon!"), X-ray, minor injuries, kiddies minor injuries (where they put on a temporary plaster splint), back to X-ray, and then finally up to a ward. During this we learned that B had a clean break of both ulna and radius, and that the plan was to put her under general anaesthetic in the morning in order to straighten the arm properly and put on a proper cast. B was a proper little star through all of this, going through the whole process without complaint — other than some frustration that putting Lego blocks together was much harder with only one functional arm.

So we did a bit of parent juggling with me going home to get some changes of clothing and have something to eat while <3 put B to bed, then <3 going home for the night while I got what sleep I could on the couch in B's bay on the ward. At least B managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep despite her arm being strapped up in an elevated position, which made her usual night time wriggling slightly comical.

<3 was back with us nice and early and a couple of hours we all trooped down to the trauma theatres (with B looking like the Queen of Sheba as she was wheeled along on her bed). The only tears we had during our time at hospital was when Miss B decided she didn't want to wear the hospital gown that she had been given. Anyway, the little'un was put under (with one of the ward's "play specialists" blowing bubbles to distract her and <3 and I were at last able to get off for a cuppa (no hot drinks allowed on the kids' wards).

We collected B from theatre a little over an hour later and found her in the recovery room looking dazed and groggy but generally OK. Back on the ward, her recovery was impressive: it wasn't long before she was eating toast and drinking squash like it was going out of fashion.

The rest of the day was a bit boring as we waited for the OK to take B home, but this was livened up a little by a trip to the trauma unit to get the plaster cast reinforced with a nice pink covering. This trip took a little longer than planned as our guide got lost on the way — it turns out that the children's wards don't often have much to do with the trauma unit, so some of the staff had never been there before!

Miss B was discharged at about 3pm, so home we went (via a shop where we had promised to buy her a new cuddly toy — she chose a Tigger) and she has been fine since. She's not even requiring pain relief now. There'll be a few more check-up appointments to come over the next few minutes, and we still have some sleep to catch up on, but all is well now.


Some folks like radishes, and some curly kale...

So this weekend saw the 2010 Icknield Way Ale, where approaching 100 morris men (yup, an all boys event, this one) from all over the country gathered to dance, sing, eat and maybe have a beer or two. Four casks of ale from the ever reliable West Berkshire Brewery dealt with the drinks element, three vast vats of stew (plus spuds, coleslaw, pickles, cheese, etc.) provided more solid sustenance, and we managed to look after the rest between us.

A good night appears to have been had by all, though one day I might remember that it is a good idea to get more than an hour and a half of sleep after a lot of drinking and dancing. Oh well, nearly recovered now.


Catching Up 2: Getting Older

Time is ticking away since this, but a couple of weeks I had the first real birthday party I have had since, well, I can't remember. Probably the last for just as long too, but as it was one of those things that people label as a landmark birthday, it seemed a good excuse. So <3 hired a nearby village hall, ordered a cask of ale, invited a lot of people, bought a heap of food, and then we waited for people to turn up...

...Which they did.

So we ended up having a fantastic evening, kicking off with an enormous amount of food and drink to get people started, followed by a series of entertainments. I can't remember the precise order of things, so I'll just blurt out some of the highlights.

First up we had the maiden performance of Lepton Morris, a mongrel morris side (some borders and some Cotswold dances so far) based at work with lunchtime practices. For our first time out of the practice hall, we managed three dances which went pretty well over all. Great for morale.

We were also entertained at a couple of times during the evening by V and K, who had brought some lovely kites to float around the hall. Good fun.

A scratch band played for us while J called a few ceilidh dances for us, including the ever-daft Orcadian strip-the-willow.

We had more morris from Icknield Way, doing a few dances — and later on, G and I danced an amateurish but enthusiastic (and seam splitting) Bampton jig.

Another maiden performance came from Rose Hips, <3's new bellydance troupe using live European folk music for a fun set that really impressed us all. We're looking forward to their next performance at White Horse Ceilidhs at easter.

Then later, things calmed down for a little while before a session kicked off with a good few tunes and songs. This could easily have gone on for several more hours, but we had to be out of the hall by midnight, so had to call it all to a halt as everyone was warming up. A pity, but then again, it's always good to leave 'em wanting more.

That was great fun, so thanks to everyone who came and contributed.


Catching Up: The Kennett Ale

Life has actually been pretty busy lately and I figure I have some catching up to do. So, taking events in no particular order, let's get started.

This weekend was the Kennett Morris Ale, and my second year of attendance. I rolled in a bit on the late side (well, just as things were getting started rather than in the planned good time) due to getting lost in Bracknell, my planned co-pilot having had a better offer in the form of a paid trip to the USA.

We were a bit limited for our show dances as we only had six of our side in attendance, but borrowing a musician for one set and a dancer (who is also a part-time Icknield Way man) we got through pretty well -- and I'm pleased with this picture showing Graham and I getting some fairly decent air on a Bampton dance.

Beer was drunk, chilli was eaten, dances were dances, and songs were sung. Much fun.

In the morning I gave a new friend a lift to the station, taking a rather circuitous route given that neither of us had any idea where the station was. It turned up eventually and I then managed to make my way home for a bit of a lie down.


Getting Jiggy

This weekend was pretty full on. I went with a couple of the other Icknield Way men to Nottinghamshire to take part in the Morris Ring's annual jigs instructional weekend. Unfortunately I forgot to take my camera, so no pictures this time.

For the uninitiated, a jig in the context of morris is a dance typically performed by one or two dancers, usually with only one of them dancing at a time (there are exceptions to all of that) where the emphasis is on individual skill, as opposed to set dances (usually 6 or more dancers) where it's all about the presentation of the group as a whole.

The weekend featured seven Cotswold morris traditions (a tradition is just a group of dances which were collected from one place, and which all have a number of stylistic features in common), with between 45 minutes and twice that dedicated to study of the jigs associated with each of them. That's quite a lot of dancing.

So the weekend went something like this...

Friday... Drove up with the lads, getting to the hall at about 8pm, being presented with dinner, and then getting stuck straight in to an hour of Ascot Under Wychwood, a tradition that was completely new to me. That done, it was off to take up residence at the pub for lots of tunes and singing.

Saturday... Somehow managed to crawl out of the sleeping bag for breakfast and then into the workshops that began at 9am. I was almost out of my depth with the morning Fieldtown and Bledington workshops (mostly struggling with the slow capers), but I think I can work on a couple of the Fieldtown dances and get them tidied up. Then we had a two hour lunch break which included a much needed relax in the pub. After lunch was one of my favourite traditions, Bampton, and I reckon I have three jigs from there which, with a little more practice I could dance out. Following that was the nightmare that was Sherborne -- a great tradition, but massively different from the others I know (it has its own stepping style), so I spent most of the time tripping over my shoelaces. All that done, we got cleaned up, into our proper dancing kit and settled in for the evening's feast -- a top notch meal which set us up nicely for another long night at the pub which this time also included a few set dances, which is always fun when in a very crowded pub where there's barely room to stand, let alone dance!

Sunday... The last lap, with workshops in Oddington (in which I have a little experience) and Headington (of which I have none). Then a quick reprise session where we had a chance to dance through one jig from each tradition. And finally lunch and home.

So, one hell of a weekend. I learnt a lot, and now know of a lot more stuff I want to learn, plus a few new friends. Hopefully I'll be able to go back again next year, but for now... Well, 48 hours after finishing dancing I am almost starting to feel human again.


Quick and Random

So, we're in the last few days of the year and I am about to leave work for the last time before Xmas, and I figured I'd stick a quick post up.

We've been up to loads over the last month or so, but for some reason I just haven't got around to posting anything. We've been to the seaside, got a new freezer, made booze, done morris dancing, learnt new songs (including my first attempt at 4-part harmony since a brief stint in a school choir 25+ years ago), and witnessed the Youngling performing in a nursery Xmas concert (overdose of cute!).

All in all, 2009 hasn't been a bad year really. Let's see what 2010 has for us...