Tuesday, 21 December 2010

I Love Celestial Mechanics


Driving to work at seven this morning, a clear cloudless sky over the Pennines. I looked up "What the f**k is wrong with the moon, half of it's missing." See the cutting edge insight, a science PhD brings to the observation of nature. Anyway spent the next twenty minutes watching the eclipse more than the road. Science with the solar system as a laboratory; brilliant.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

I love real Christmas trees, they look better than artificial ones by not being perfectly symmetrical, have a nice smell and interact better with you (by dropping needles all over the place (I quite like this). I feel guilty every year though; chopping down a tree to have in my house for about two weeks before discarding it to landfill. They are perhaps the ultimate example of of our convenience disposable society. Should I buy an artificial tree? They must be more environmentally sound? Well.. No!


Real trees do not come from a random guy walking into a wood with a chain saw. They are farmed and consequently for each one cut down at least one is planted to replacement indeed the more we buy the more will be planted, so no deforestation going on here. But... Real trees will be sprayed with pesticides during there growth damaging biodiversity and polluting water courses.

For the years they are growing real trees remove carbon from the atmosphere, I don't have any figures but they probably remove more than is expended in transporting them to our houses during the festive season. The manufacture of artificial trees uses energy and then the carbon footprint is increased by shipping them halfway across the world (most are made in China). So unless you plan to drive to the tree farm to collect your tree on carbon footprint terms it's a big win for real trees.


Then there is what there made of. Real trees are made or err... wood so that's OK. Artificial trees are made of poly vinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is made from vinyl chloride which is not only energy intensive to produce  but very toxic, volatile, and difficult to handle. Also as the PVC is often made in China where environmental standards are lax to say the least, it is highly probable that the manufacture of PVC will be polluting the local environment and water supply. Worse phthalates are added to PVC as plasticisers (chemicals which make plastic bendy), phthalates are one of the suspected culprits for the falling sperm counts in men as they can mimic hormones. Don't go chewing on your tree guys.

Yes real trees are disposed of to landfill but they are after all made of wood and will rot just as they would have don't if they had died in the wild. Your average artificial tree will last five to ten years but will then either need to be recycled (more carbon footprint) or burned/buried (likely to release highly toxic chlorinated dioxins).

There you have it, go forth and buy a real tree. Better still one with roots on which you can use again next year.

Sources



Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Stage Is Set - Ice Climbing on Hellvellyn

"Oh F**K", here we go, nausea building up in my stomach making me feel like I'm going to be sick. It's only a matter of time now, nothing I can do except I brace myself and accept the inevitable as blood pours back into my frozen hands. PAIN! Excruciating pain as if my fingers are on fire, or in acid, or both. Curling over my axes I wedge my self into the gully thankful I have a solid footing and am mearly seconding the pitch.

Hot aches, the climbers name for the feeling when blood rushes back in to hands that have got to cold and drained of blood. Most climbers have experienced them at some point and will testify to the potency of the experience. Climbing in winter leaves you particularly susceptible, not just from the colder conditions; but holding axes above you head, and over gripping whilst on a route.

I'm half way up a mixed route called Blade Runner (IV,4), perched high on Helvellyen the third highest hill in the Lakes. I love winter walking and climbing to the point of obsession, mountains draped in gowns of snow and ice, brilliant blue skies, and a soft clear crispness to the light and air which makes for amazing days out in the hills. This is the dream, the ideal, days we will spend a lifetime endlessly chasing as rare and valuable as diamonds. For these experiences we put up will all the bad days, the white-outs, blizzards, spindrift, the heavy loads, and exhausting walk-ins, and yes the hot aches. Winter climbers are optimists of the first rank.

The last wisps of cloud exit stage left; the scene is set 



Dom and I had driven up to Glenridding and camped discreetly overnight in the corner of the carpark. This cold snap appears to have inconvenienced most and driven many inside in search of warmth. I however spent last week getting progressively more excited at the thought of an early start to winter. Scouring the weather forecasts, brain a mass of wind directions and temperatures, devouring the UKClimbing log books to see what what was getting done and where. 

It's minus two when we leave the village, the sumits of the hills lost in a blanket of grey cloud. Heavy packs weigh us down and i'm soon regretting a summer spent doing too much cragging and to few big mountain routes. Getting higher an we begin to feel the sun, the clouds filter the light to a gentle pastle hue hinting at clear air higher up the mountain


We reach Hole In The Wall and turn walking towards Red Tarn. Nature now moves her chess pices, the cloud begins to roll off Striding Edge and across Helvellyn like a curtain of some massive stage leaving a brilliant blue sky, the tarn and it's backdrop of buttresses and gulleys as the stage on which today's drama will be played out. Talk about good timing.


Castye Cam from the belay ledge


The actors (me more of a stand in!) struggle into harneses and crampons; metal cold against bare skin. Carves begin to burn as we front point it up the broad lower slopes of Gully 1, moving centre stage. Just after the gully narrows a large belay platform up left marks the start of our route, Blade Runner a narrow chimney chocked with ice and frozen turf.

Dom ties in as I take in the view back to Catstye Cam a perfect cone shining white in the sun. The we go, I enjoy climbing with Dom (aka The Crux Monkey) it's really important to have partners you trust on winter routes as really falling off is a very bad idea. He move slowly and delicately up the chimney making appreciative noises about the quality of the climbing, and less appreciative noises when he forgets that putting metal gear in you mouth in winter is not sensible idea. Disappearing above leaving only the rope continuously paying out to keep me company as I stamp my feet and bob around to keep the body warm and muscles loose.


Dom nearing the top of the first steep section on Blade Runner

My turn, "don't fluff your lines"; it's not a barnstorming performance but the axes move nicely biting deep, crampons feel solid and I smile as concentration and adrenaline course through my body. Dom is right about the style of the climbing; really three dimensional, holds to the left and the right, a step out to bridge here, a bit of axe swapping there, two really good ice columns I can hook my axe right round.


Then the hot aches arrive. I stop to remove a well buried warthog and get my thin liner gloves covered in powder. The warthog refuses to budge, hitting it with my hammer, or trying to leaver it out with my axe fail. Finally after a right battle it moves but my hands are now freezing. I realise I've cocked up my glove system and should have gone for my bigger pair. Knowing what's going to happen I  climb quickly to where the chimney relents to an easy angle slope where I can suffer in safety.


Purgatory. After what seems like an age the nausea and pain subside. I move up to the belay blurt some incoherent words at Dom and let my hands recover again. Then put on a proper pair of gloves, and lead strait through running up easy angled neve to the summit, right by the shelter. The view is a showstopper!

South east from the summit over Red Tarn and Striding Edge

The summit shelter is coated in horefrost blasted against the rock by the freezing wind. The scene takes the breath away, enriching the soul  Beneath the azure blue sky the hills stretch away on all sides. East beyond the great whale back of Highstreet, Cross Fell stands proud of the northern Pennines, north Skiddaw and Blencathra, south and east the Langdale Pikes and Scafell massif complete the panorama all reigned in white. The day has been worth it just for this, sitting drinking tea surrounded by such beautiful landscape.

Dropping down Swirl Edge back into the corrie, we have a crack at Thor's Corner another IV. This turns out to be rather thin, with turf not really frozen. Dom gets no decent gear till after a rather delicate crux which sees him bridging across the corner on thin rock ledges. 

As a finale to the day we solo up Gully 2 a broad easy Grade I although this early in the season a few small ice steps add a bit of extra interest. Then it's down Striding Edge trying to stick to the ridge a much as possible enjoying the exposure and absorbing the view. Heres to a long and productive season.

Gully 2


Sunday, 21 November 2010

So The Red Needle Points North? - Mountain Leader Training

I peer down at the map, the glare from my head torch reflecting back at me obscuring the detail, the contours I'm struggling to match with the immediate terrain about me. Scanning the darkness I can see little more than 30m in all directions, hemmed in by a curtain of night yet aware of the vast space in which we are moving.

Night navigation; a baring, distance and time, three friends in this open landscape. I've paced the distance but the contours look wrong a depression where the map says there shouldn't be one. I look at the map again trying to morph the contours onto the landscape around me, then suddenly it fits I realise the depression does not matter "We're here" I announce.

Here is Mountain Leader (ML) Summer Training. I'm on night navigation in the north east Carneddau the rounded monsters that brood in the north east of the Snowdonia National Park. Nestled in the valley below Fole-fras I'm searching for a shoulder on the 590m contour line my leg in the night navigation exercise before we tuck ourselves up in our bags for a night in the hills.

Anyway rewind. I've decided to split this blog into two as it got quite out of hand when I planned it out as a solid lump. This first instalment is about my direct experience of the course and what I got out of it. The second will be about the UK mountain training system itself and how it works in allowing people to access the mountains. This was a key point hammered home to us on day one; the ML is not a personal skills award, it's about developing the leadership skills to enable an individual to take anyone whatever there experience into the hills and allow them to have a great mountain day.

Cloud inversion over Lynnau Mymbyr with Snowdon in the background;
not a bad view from the breakfast table.

My ML award is something I have wanted to do for for a while, I signed up in 2004 but for a number of reasons I never got myself organised. I am now particularly pissed of at myself for this as during my PhD I had both the time and the money to really push on. This year I've finally realised that I actually want to spend my life working in the outdoors and have given myself a kick up the backside and booked the training course at Plas Y Brenin (PYB) also known (by me at least) as the Hero Factory.

The Brenin is an outdoor pursuits centre run on behalf of Sport England (even though it's in Wales). It exists to provide experience and training across a range of outdoor sports. From complete novice to expert there are courses for anyone interested in walking, rock and ice climbing, all types of kayak and canoeing, skiing, mountain biking, mountain first aid, alpanism. The mountains and adventure are in its DNA and it's a fantastic place to visit (open every day to grab a coffee and a weather forecast). 


Tryfan and the north ridge

An enthusiasm pervades the whole centre you can almost feel it seeping out the brickwork, people passionate and active in their sports (actually I don't like the word sports, to me its an outlook and a way of life), walls lined with maps, pictures and photos, evening lectures and slide shows from staff and guest speakers about trips they have made to the far flung corners of the world.inspiration for a thousand adventures. I defy anyone to come here and not be opened to new horizons and new possibilities. I now have an obsession to jump in a canoe and go paddle through the north west territories of Canada. 

But I digress in my excitement; after a night in a comfortable room more akin to a hotel (no bunk rooms here) it's down to breakfast and to meet up with the other students and our instructors. The group is a mix across the ages and sexes but has quite a lot of experience. As for our instructors we have struck lucky, for most most of the week we are working with Stu McAleese and Paul Warnock both of whom are fully qualified British Mountain Guides. The Guide ticket is a very hard qualification to achieve requiring a huge amount of experience in the mountains. It's a bit like being taught football by Rooney and Lampard.


The Cannon Stone on Tryfan: Please note this is not a good example of ML bahaviour

So on to the hills; we practised navigation on Moel Siabod a hill I have always overlooked on my mad charge towards the Welsh 3000s but a hidden jewel offering fantastic views over to the Snowdon massif and the Glyder range. The movement on steep ground day involved a trip up the north ridge of Tryfan, and our expedition took us to the north east corries of the Carneddau an area that I had only ever seen from the top of the surrounding peaks. 

It's hard to pick out highlights (although the PYB afternoon cakes are up there) as I enjoyed pretty much every second of my time at the Brenin. The course certainly has pointed out to me my strengths and weaknesses. I proved to be quite pathetic at identifying any mountain plants an area along with geology and local history which is becoming much more important within the syllabus.

A brocken spectre, sunlight casting the walkers shadow onto low cloud.
The other group saw one on Tryfan, my group a couple of 100m lower missed out.

River crossings were traumatic (read cold!), navigation challenging, rope-work interesting to a climbers mind, and synoptic charts a revelation. I started the week with quite a poor understanding of weather; by Wednesday the start of our camping expedition I was getting the hang of it. This was just in time to comprehend the full horror as nature deposited a huge low pressure system over Snowdonia with weather almost guaranteed to put anyone on the mountains "In the hurt locker" to quote guide speak.


The expedition was great Stu and Paul made good decisions about the location. By going into the NE Carneddau we put Snowdon, the Glyders , and most of the Carneddau in between us and the incoming fronts. A bastion protecting us from the "walls of hate" (more technical Guide speak) rolling in of the Atlantic.

It's been a great experience, new friends, new ideas, I will definitely be going back for further training in mountain biking, mountain first aid, and kayaking. Plus there is a date with my ML assessment sometime next summer. First however I need to go out and rack up some more Quality Mountain Days for my logbook. It's a hard life.

Oh and the navigation? Nailed it.


Saturday, 6 November 2010

Fire And Life From The Heavens

The subject of this weeks very interesting Horizon was asteroids and the influence they have had on this planet throughout it's history.  Now if you believe Hollywood, and the majority of received popular science asteroids are out there to get us and have already polished off a large number of species that have attempted to make this planet there home. Well it turns out that this is true for the most part.



I was under the impression that we have a pretty good idea of where these are and more importantly where they are going. Unfortunately this appears not to be true, yes we have identified all the really big ones, ones capable of wiping out a continent or worse. These however are really rare and apparently it's the small ones we need to be worrying about. The latest research suggests an asteroid a mere 30m across exploding in the lower atmosphere would have the same effect on a city as a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima Bomb. There are a lot of asteroids about 30m across.

So we would really like to know where these things are, unfortunately they are so small we will probably get about twenty-four hours notice if one gets too close. That's a day to evacuate an entire city? A day to make sure nobody gets the wrong idea and triggers a full scale nuclear war when a city disappears as if hit by the Bomb. Scared yet? Apparently last year Barak Obama was alerted was when an asteroid was spotted and calculated to hit the earth in less than a day. The asteroid exploded in the upper atmosphere over the Bolivian desert but produced an explosion easily visible from space. Not much we can do, but at least somebody is looking!



It turns out however that asteroids are not just harbingers of doom. They may have played a part in the creation of life itself. Current thinking is that a large proportion of the water that swathes our planet and formed the womb from which life emerged was delivered to earth from innumerable asteroid and comet collisions over a billion years. More amazing is that we have recently detected amino acids the building blocks of proteins, and nucleobases a key part of DNA in space. These have been created in comets and asteroids by the action of sunlight on base elements. This offers the possibility that asteroids may have brought the very building block from life itself.

Science is truly amazing, I find these discoveries inspiring and the mechanisms of creation beautiful. Creation is comprised of many processes often simple but built up with astonishing complexity, and conducted over eons of time and distance. All the zinc in you body for example was created as an ancient star exploded in a supernova and blew the stardust from which you are made across the galaxy.

Sure beats the whole thing being cobbled together in six days!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Nature's Paintbox

If your in the Peak at the moment go and drive the Snake Pass, the colours in the trees are amazing around Ladybower reserviour.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Time, Light, and Beauty

I discovered this trilogy of videos this weekend whilst hunting around on the Teton Gravity Research site. TGR in my opinion have set the standard to which all, and I cringe slightly when using this word "extreme" sport videos should be judged. I don't think the director here, Jordan Manley works directly for TGR but the same quality shines through.

I always think the biggest problem with these types of video, and this is especially true of a lot currently produced about climbing is that they are often quite insular; trying to appeal to people within the sport rather than showing the beauty of the sport in a way outsiders can understand and appreciate. These videos manage to do that without dumbing down and compromising on quality.

There is some exceptional camera work here that captures the beauty and fragility of the mountain landscape. Episode 3 in my opinion is the best and contains changes in focus and time lapse shots of brilliant inventiveness. I love the star wheel shots above the camp-site the rhythms of the planet sped up within the minds eye.

I hope you enjoy.






Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Salt, The Spray, The Gorgeous Undertow.

For me climbing is about adventures rather than difficult routes and pushing grades; it's about getting into situations out of the ordinary and experiencing a little taste of the buzz of exploration. Sea cliff climbing offers all of these things, and in Britain we are shaped by our relationship with the sea and blessed by the quality of our coastlines. Fantastic climbing can be found the length of the country, Cornwall, Devon, Pembroke, Gogarth, and Scottish sea stacks stand out in the mind, classic routes like A Dream of White Horses, Riders of the Storm, Doorpost, and The Old Man Of Hoy.

I've just got back from a extremely enjoyable trip to the Pembroke Coast in south west Wales, an area of beautiful coastline and fantastic coastal climbing. The sea makes a climb hugely more atmospheric, looking down to see the waves breaking against the rock below makes the situations feel much more exposed, and the abseil approaches often required make the climbs feel more adventurous and committing. I personally feel much more connected to nature on sea cliff routes, the sounds, the smells, the colours. One can see the influence of the waves on many classic sea cliff routes, both A Dream Of White Horses and Riders Of the Storm are named for the influence of the sea on the atmosphere of the first ascents.

The view from camp in the morning.

Saturday morning dawned cold and clear, breath steaming in the morning air. We headed over to Stennis Head to have a go a Manzuko (E1 5b) a classic route which weaves it's way up the buttress. Wicks lead the route, I seconded. The holds were always there although they were often small and the climbing was quite sustained at 5a and above. Footwork is crucial on limestone and a succession of small edges and pockets could always be found allowing you to drop your body into a new position and gain the next hand hold. 

Not a bad view from the belay.

Huntsman's Leap is a deep narrow chasm running in from the sea which contains some of the finest hard routes anywhere in Britain. Dan wanted to have a go at Just Another Day (E4 6a) so we abbed in feeling like we were descending into another world going from bright warm sunlight to a cool slightly oppressive space where you feel dwarfed by the cliffs towering above you.

The view into the Leap, Just Another day climbs the wall
on the right.

The leap from half way down the abseil.

Dan really went for it, I could tell from the sharp breaths that the route was testing him to the limit,  making me slightly nervous as to my ability to follow the route on second. He almost made it on-sight but unfortunately fell on the last hard move. After a rest the last moves to the belay were completed and it was my turn.

Huntsman's Leap

It did not go well, I got about seven meters off the ground before play was stopped by the first 6a sequence which I did not have the skill/strength for. This left us with the small issue of stripping the route which took much of the rest of the afternoon and involved tensioned diagonal abseils and then prusisking up the abb rope (I had been telling myself for year to practice climbing a rope before I needed to do it in anger and had never got round to it). Climbing (prusiking) a rope is one of the most tiring things I have ever done: pull up sling prusik, stand in sling, pull up waist prusik, sit on waist prusik, realise you've moved about 20 cm, repeat, collapse of exhaustion after about 5 m.


video

Restored to the golden sunlight having escaped from the pit of the Kracken, we then wondered over to Saddle Head to join the rest of the our party and watch the sunset over the sea. Blues, golds, and pinks fade to give a sky full of stars and a cold crisp night.

Sunday was another beautiful day, clear blue sky and a warm autumn sun. Wicks and I headed over to Flimstone Bay, an area I had wanted to visit for a while having spotted it whilst spending too much time looking at routes on UKC. Yesterday had been the hard day so today was to be the easy day and I was enthusiastic to get onto Bow Shaped Slab which has three routes at HS4a/4b.

Flimston Bay

Looking down the slab.

I lead the centre of the slab and the right hand corner route, Wicks took the left hand route through the overlap at half height. All three routes were a joy to climb; easy but delicate moves on good holds and with reassuring amounts of gear, and at over 40m long, each gave you plenty of time to enjoy the situation, and savour the moves.

Abbing in to Bow Shaped Slab

As I sat at the base of the slab belaying Wicks the warm sun radiating off the rocks I had one of those moments of complete contentment. The sea lapping and gurgling in the caves and gullies just below me, the cliff towering above me, the spectacular views across the bay to the neighbouring headland. I feel immensely lucky that I have these moments and experiences in my life, they are my most precious memories and I value them hugely.

New life on old.

The slab tiny pockets and ledges at the base of the slab are littered with limpets and tiny sea snails some of they clinging to the fossilised shells of life from another eon which also dot the slab. This and the slab itself, seafloor now twisted through to about 70 degrees testify the the  beautiful complexity of the processes that form our landscape. Sitting on the belay I can see the past in the strata that now forms the corner of the slab.


Rock strata above the slab.

What a brilliant weekend, Pembroke has never let me down I've been here about seven times over the last ten years and each trip has had it's special moments. I'll be back again; so much more to do, and the memories will live long and bring a smile to my face as I swing the car north on the long slog back home.

Info:
Camping: St Petrox
Pub: St Govans Inn, Bosherston
Supplies: Pembroke Dock
Recommended climbs (not all first hand): Climbs Sea Mist (HS) Myola (HS), Blue Sky (VS), Riders of the Storm (HVS), Star Wars (E4), Bloody Sunday (E4).
Look out for: The MOD own much of the land and firing may take place during the week, with associated access restrictions.


Some more memories.

 Pembroke Coast

Tom on Sea Mist

Sunset

 Sunset

 Moonrise

Blinking Lights

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Quick Trip To Curbar

Some pictures and video from Saturdays trip out to Curbar.



The days highlight was a route called Sorrels Sorrow which is graded HVS 5a. It's best described as a "traditional climb" in the proper old school scene of the word. The kind of thing  people did back when climbers were real men and women with thousand yard stares and biceps honed by juggling sacks of coal. The route is an off-width crack which basically means it is too wide to jam your hands in but to narrow to jam your body in. 

Seconding I repeatedly fell off the first overhanging move where the crack proper is gained by some horrible arm-bar / heal-toe jamming malarkey swiftly followed by shuffling upwards with your shoulder wedged in to the crack. Character building is a term that comes to mind; this would have been a particularly impressively bold lead in the days before camming devices when the only protection would have been chock stone wedged into the crack. Sweat and swearwords materialise in profusion as I pull into a mid hight rest. The upper section was considerably easier with some good jams on less steep terrain. Overall it was awful, it was awkward, it was horrific, it was brilliant, I left half my skin on it.


George then attempted Moon Crack, this is about as far as he got.




Wicks having a go at a hard V5 boulder problem.

video



Me having a go on an easy but brilliant VDiff crack line.


video

Thursday, 30 September 2010

“To Strive, To Seek, To Find, And Not To Yield” Heroes :- The Men Of The Terra Nova Expedition – The Polar Party

Like my last hero you may not have heard of the Terra Nova expedition, but you probably have heard of Robert Falcon Scott as his name is seared into British history as one of the grate figures of heroic failure.

Scott and his companions died on their way back from the South Pole having been beaten to their goal by Roald Amundsen by a matter of weeks. When they died they had been man hauling sledges weighing up to 700lbs for five months covering a distance of about 1600 miles climbing from sea level to the Great Antarctic Plateau at a height of 9300ft via the crevassed and broken jumble of the Beardmore Glacier then thought to be the biggest in the world. Such a test of endurance against adversity is heroic in itself but this is overshadowed by the story of the events as they made their way home.


There journey back is vividly told in Scott’s posthumously recovered diaries where the set backs and disasters of the return march are confronted with a determination to keep going against adversity oven though deep down he could tell he was doomed.






The story is given added tragedy by the fact that starved, frozen, and dehydrated they died less then nine miles from a supply depot trapped in their tent for seven days by an atrocious blizzard.


There are more stories of heroism here; would you leave a man to die if in doing so you would probably save your life? The polar party was a team of five men, Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Evans. Soon after the return journey started Evans weakened drastically; frostbitten and with an injured hand he could barely walk never mind help pull the sledge. Progress became slower and slower as they struggled down the Beardmore glacier but they refused to leave him behind even though they knew they could never get him home. Evans died at the foot of the glacier allowing the remaining man to push on with renewed speed

But there is more Oates had been walking for days on feet that were little more than lumps of ice, swollen and frostbitten, suffering in silence and refusing to shirk his part of the work. When finally he was forced to revel his injury to the others because he too could hardly walk they again refused to leave a man who was now little more than dead weight. They struggled on with Oates making much smaller distances than necessary to reach their depot’s of supplies.

One night after setting up camp, Oates realising he was dragging is friends to there doom walked out in to a blizzard with words that have gone down in history for heroic self sacrifice “I’m just going outside; I may be gone some time”. He was never seen again.


One of the things I most admire about the British Expeditions to the south is they had such a vigorous scientific programme, many of the members were scientists and although the achievement of the pole was a very important target it was only a part of the goals of the expedition. Amundson came for the Pole which he got, The Terra Nova Expedition despite the tragedy returned with volumes of survey data, meteorological and oceanographic data, and catalogues of new species, in the end only one of these achievements is of true lasting value to humanity.

When found the polar party were still carrying 30lb of geological samples from the heart of Antarctica, useless dead weight to be hauled by men who knew they had to move faster or die but who clung on to the belief that exploration is about knowledge not just the destination. This is the last reason the Terra Nova team are heroes of mine.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

The parties epitaph the last line from Tennyson’s Ulysses carved into the memorial cross erected on Observation Hill overlooking Hut Point, McMurdo Sound Antarctica.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

People's Palaces

Do you know about the great civic buildings of the north? I don't mean a dry list of names and dates or a discourse on architectural styles, I mean the big ideas and social drivers behind their construction. No? Me neither, but the ideas behind these buildings should be a matter of pride. This has been prompted by a series on BBC 4 about the civic architecture of the great northern cities. To me it's been a bit of a revelation, the amount of amazing buildings that dot our cities and the time, effort and detail that went into building these structures.

Today's prevailing attitudes about the north especially in London centric Britain can be quite dismissive; dirt, decay and dead industries. Such attitudes however wrong and ill-informed contain a seed of truth about the north; industry. The Industrial Revolution built the cities of the north, and these cities then became the powerhouse which built the British Empire. Manchester clothed the world in cotton, Leeds in wool, Sheffield produced half of Europe's steel, Liverpool exported these goods all to the four corners of the world, and from their soot blackened wombs of steel and brick they gave us civic buildings to rival any in the country.


St Georges Hall, Liverpool,


What was most interesting about the programmes was how the attitudes of the time shaped the architecture, and it basically boils down to two key points. Firstly civic pride, these new cities grown rich on the fruits of their labour wanted to make a statement of success, this coupled with the desire to outdo their neighbours and rivals resulted in a series of spectacular town halls and public buildings.

Manchester Town Hall
Sheffield Town Hall
Leeds Town Hall

Taking years to build and lavishly decorated they were designed to provide a focal point for civic pride, venues for meetings and public events, unlike today where pride appears to relate the power of your financial district. I love the effort that went into these structures, artisans taking time to carve statues and relief's, and painters decorating the walls and ceilings with fresco's levels of detail that are unthinkable in today's time and money conscious world.


Secondly whereas today a city builds a stadium or a tall office building when they want to show off the Victorians had a much better idea. Libraries, concert halls and museums were their statements of intent. One can understand this as during this period Britain was undergoing a revolution in knowledge with science and technology advancing rapidly and the passing of the 1870 education act introducing formal education of all children to the age of 12. Thus the genesis of many of these structures lies in the Victorian idea of self help through education.

I love the way these buildings were themselves designed to be used as lessons with lessons in classics from Roman and Greek influences or the use of paintings and stained glass all to tell stories of historical events.

The money for these structures often came from the new money industrialists in philanthropic gestures that were the style of the times, men at the forefront of technology who were always pushing the boundaries of production. Men not scared of new ideas represented by these buildings or frightened of the challenges in there construction. One could argue that there is an element of hubris in all these structures and while that may be true but I still think the ideas behind them are relevant and valid but just not the whole answer.

Ryland's Library Interior
Ryland's Library Exterior
An astonishing Milton Floor in St Georges Hall
The foyer of Leeds Town Hall


Throughout the series the thing that struck me most is the detail and creativity involved in these structures, the effort taken to create something really special almost regardless of cost or time taken. Today we can, and do build some extraordinarily beautiful structures we tend to rely on clever engineering tricks and the use of light and space to inspire. There is nothing wrong with this but I feel these structures lack the permanence of there Victorian brethren.



"When we build let us think that we build forever" John Ruskin.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Dalby The Return; A Story Of Mud, Sweat, And Gears, Disapearing Brake Pads, And The Motivational Power of Chocholate Cake

A couple of months ago I went to Dalby Forest and broke my bike and almost my chin but that's another story. Anyway a rematch was in order so with Messrs Sergeant (John), and Headley (Ben) completing the dream team (not a particularly good dream you understand, more of a middle of the road one that's only half remembered upon waking) we rocked up ready to go.

Bike, check; helmet, check; sensible trousers, ahem!

The trail center was quite busy despite the rain and fog with we went through our crucial pre-ride preparations, coffee in the coffee shop and a couple of chocolate biscuits then hit the initial zig-zag's. Legs feeling good and progress was made, Dalby trails are quite open and flowing not particularly technical and usefully for today well drained.

About half way round after a particularly steep and demanding set of switch backs I notice a bit of a horrible smell emanating from my rear brakes. A quick inspection revealed that 15km of Dalby's finest had manage to ware the brand new pad down to the metal which was now doing its best to chew through the rotor leaving me with rear brakes with the same stopping power as engine oil. Being organised and prepared individuals we had no spares but I still had my front brake right?

A far to clean bike.

The Dalby red trail is long about 36km with some fantastic flowing sections but quite a lot of up and down, the odd technical rocky section and some awesome bomb holes (these are particularly fun with no rear brake). The trail at times can be quite narrow and if you pick the wrong line or take a corner too fast you will end up in a ditch (always amusing for your friends).

There is a term in cycling called bonking (trust me there is I read it in Singletrack), and unlike the other form of bonking this type is not fun. Bonking is the cycling equivalent of  what runners call the wall, apart from whereas you can run through the wall bonking usually results in complete collapse of all your muscles through a combination of exhaustion, low blood sugar and lactic acid build up.

Anyway by about 28km John was suffering from cramps, lactic acid build up in my legs was making the climbs a test of endurance with power levels waning, and Ben was discovering that not satisfied with eating my brakes Dalby had had his for dessert. Good god when does it end was becoming a bit of a refrain.

There are many ways to motivate; ideals, money, great speeches and leaders; we settled for chocolate cake. Back at the trail center was a big slice of soft, moist, chocolaty goodness (complete with chocolate icing) and it was ours if we could just get there. Armed with such a lofty idea we found unknown reserves of power and bravely face those final miles.

Legs burning and covered in mud we pile down the last switchbacks back to the car park big smiles on our faces, we don't do enough of this sort of thing. Oh and the chocolate cake was good.