Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted is a fantasy that would be a fairy tale were it pared down to the bone. I greatly liked it, and read it in a few sittings, rather stretching out my afternoons when I should have been in the garden.

There's lots of things I liked, that thinking back probably reflect the fairy-tale stuff. There's a king for example, but he's just The King most of the time, he only just about has a name. There's a knight-in-armour, who has a name, but who is effectively the Knight in Armour, well sort of. There's the valley, which might have a name but who cares; and there's the capital city, which didn't. But this is all good, because it contributes to the atmosphere. And there's a Wood, with no name but developing properties. The story centers around the Young Apprentice, sort of.

That's enough generic description and about as much flavour as I can give without giving it away. Only read on if you don't mind knowing the story.

The Young Heroine lives in a poor-but-happy house in a p-b-h village in a valley whose Lord Dragon is sort-of-terrible - he takes a girl as servant every ten years - but otherwise merely distant. Inevitably, he take Our Heroine instead of the Girl With All The Talents, for reasons initially unclear but eventually she realises, because she has Magic. Naturally He is haughty and unimpressed by her fumbling; naturally She is resentful and lonely in the Distant Tower. She fails to do Magic his way but slows grows in strength her way, a sort of Earthy, Messy, and possible Female sort of magic. Still, she is Apprentice, until he is called away and she has to deal, Alone, with the Growing Experience of fighting off The Wood. Later, she has to rescue the GWATT from The Wood, and again Grows; The Queen (for slightly hard-to-explain reasons, so I won't) and again Grows. This brings on the attentions of the KIA and so she has to travel to the City, but without The Dragon, so again she has to Grow. The Court is strange to her; she has to learn to Be Herself; to Solve Mysteries; and finally to Flee back to the Dragon for the Final Climatic Battle which turns out to be but one stage. The Final Unravelling is also Climatic but Unifying; Peace with The Wood is restored and those too broken to heal are given Rest.

Things that are slightly unsatisfactory but which I forgive: there's no clear reason why she is so powerful so young, or why her earthy magic so differs from the other's more bookish style; though there are hints that she is a throwback to a Baba Yaga-ish ancestor. Her house, village and valley are too uncomplicatedly happy and free of conflict; though that's also good, because there's no tedious messy details-for-the-sake-of-details stuff you'll find in The Eye of the World.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Rotterdam marathon 2016

Like 2015 but slower: TL;DR 4:16:51: shocking I know, but wait! I have excuses.

Firstly, I'd done essentially no training. Secondly, I'd hurt my back in Sabaudia on the last day and it took a week to recover. Third, I'd spent the previous weekend in Yorkshire (is that an excuse?). Fourth, I'd still got the cough I (probably) caught off Chris in Sabaudia, and I suspect probably most importantly, still got the edge of a mild flu.

 The ferry over was much like last year - Harwich still haven't fixed their gangway, so you still have to go into the ferry by bus. This time I walked from the ferry to the end of the breakwater, and then back and then on to Maassluis West because I could. Indeed with more time I could have walked all the way into Rotterdam, it really isn't very far; but 16 km the day before a marathon was probably a bit silly. To the Mainport Design Hotel, which is just by the Maritime museum and convenient for the start next day (to compare with Pincoffs from last year: both are nice, this one is more expensive, this one wins as more conveniently situated). All insanely over the top - for example my room had a jacuzzi in it, which really I'd rather not have had, but I'd booked late and didn't have much choice of room. And there was a sauna in the bathroom. But there was a lovely view out over the river and the quay of the museum. Eat in for dinner - pasta - and then spend some time in the evening trying to photograph myself in some impressive way.
Anyway, the day dawned clear and still and I went down to breakfast nice and early. The buffet was good, but the one in the Neue Post in Innsbruck was better. There was enough time to do everything, most especially to check my watch was charged and go to the toilet five times. Leave bag with hotel having checked out, and off: its warm enough in the sun but chill out of it; I could do with a binliner. There's the usual (for Rotterdam) confusion of getting to the start: since they wall bits off, you need to wiggle round back streets. But, there's time, especially since it doesn't start till about 10:20. Somewhat tastelessly - or so I thought, given Boston - each "wave" was started with a loud bang and/or some kind of firework. Well, who cares? I started off not fast, but settled into just-better-than-5:30-per-km, which was fine by me, since 4h was my aim, feeble though that is. I went through half way in 1:57 I think, which was just about in touch; but was overtaken by the 4 h pacers at about 26 km as we went back over the Erasmusbrucke; and I struggled with any kind of pace after that. I settled for aiming for 6:30 - oh dear - but allowing myself to walk through water points, and how I looked forward to the next water point! But finally the last few km drew nigh, and I imagined myself rowing down the Cam thinking its not very far now, and at last I finished and oh how good it was to stop.


* Meanwhile, JA was running 2:54:41, but he had to do it in Manchester.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Three days in Yorkshire with three girls

The semi-annual Coton ex-school-parents trip to somewhere to climb something came round again, and this year was to Yorkshire to do the Three Peaks. This isn't an area I know much about - it turns out to be close to the Ribblehead viaduct, which you might know, and Settle of James and Julia fame, and not far away from Skipton and Bolton Abbey of Hirst fame.

Some slightly confusing combination of Clare and Nigel had organised choices of accommodation - I hate choice - and fortunately we choose the bunkhouse, because that was where all the Kool Kidz were, so we blended right in. We drove up on Wednesday afternoon, fairly painlessly, guided by Google; unpacked our excess kit and excess food, and settled in. We'd brought, but didn't need, carry mats; I didn't even need my sleeping bag just the liner, because it was warm. Present were Clare, Stan (somewhat grown up) and Gemma, Ross and Karen and Olivia and Matthew, Paul and Helen and Vivian and Ginny (arriving late), the Gabriel Foxes, Nigel and Anna and Cosmo and Joshi (later, and camper vanning), Charlie and Tommy, Nigel's-friend-Ivor, and some other people whom I quite likely talked to but, being me, didn't remember the names of.

Thursday was the fair weather day so those who wanted to were going to do the full three-peaks-in-a-day, starting off from Horton-in-Ribblesdale at 7, to make sure they had time. However they took the precaution of not fully packing the night before and leaving slightly late with much to-ing and fro-ing, so didn't get off, I'm told, till 7:30. We sluggards were to meet them at The Station Inn, Ribblehead or thereabouts, and a time somewhat like 12:30. So we got there about 12, but it was a lovely day, so waiting around was no problem. We sent the three girls off in the direction we expected the Peakers to come from, then realised we didn't know where the girls were, and chased after them. Anyway, about 12:30 people came in, in three groups, and we went back from the tea-van at the t-junction up to the pub, because they wanted a sit-down. Once we'd all regrouped and so on we set off up number two (for them) which was Whernside, at 1:15. GPS trace, until it died on the way down. It's a lovely route and it was a lovely day for it, starting off under the Ribblehead viaduct and then heading upwards via a clear, obvious and easy path - this is a popular route. We got to the top at 3:25 and had a leisurely time admiring the glorious views.

Isn't that lovely? And a light sprinkling of snow too just to set it off. In total we spent about 25 minutes up there, including waiting for the hindguard, so didn't start down till nearly 4, and I was somewhat wondering to myself why the Peakers weren't a bit keener to get themselves going. But down we went, to the Hill Inn which kinda looked shut but we sat in its garden anyway and the braver folk went inside and inveigled drinks out of them. I'd left my car here (actually just up the hill where there's space, as the Hill Inn folk are pretty fierce about not parking anywhere near them) so took Clare and Karen a few km back to the start to pick up their cars. When we got back I picked up the Girlies and we went back to the barn, leaving the others to their drinks. We showered and so on, I sat around happily reading Adam Smith. Very much later on we were sitting back in the living room rather wondering where the Peakers were, as it was long after dark - about 10 pm - and we'd had no word. It turned out that they'd ended up in a slower and a faster group; the faster had made it round, but the slower had watched the sunset from Ingleborough and found the downgoing in the dark more troublesome than expected, despite the near-perfect weather, and so had taken a deliberate shortcut - instead of coming down to the Horton railway station, they'd taken a quicker route to a road about 2.5 NNW on the B6479, between South House Farm and Gill Garth Farm. And then finding them there and so on had proved tricky, reception being poor. Poor Ivor, who had finished earlier, had even gone up looking for them, but of course because they were off the route he didn't find them. Anyway, all ended well and those who had made their Peaks were happy if footsore.

In case you were wondering, I had a cricked back from the Sabaudia trip and wasn't fit to run round - as I'd originally intended - so decided that backing off was the path of greatest sanity. Back home the girlies wanted fish-n-chips, and we went out for Generic Coop Food and f-n-c, but by the time we got to the chippie it had closed (shuts 8:30) but the girls pronounced themselves pretty full anyway so meh.

Friday was not a fair weather day. Whilst not actively raining it was overcast; anyone who'd done the Peaks yesterday was not inclined to join us so I and the girlies set off to do Ingleborough in the morning weather-window, since the afternoon was slated to be worse. We drove down to Clapham so we could traverse it, and because the start-of-walk from there looked nice, and so it was. Here we are in the village on the bridge over the stream, just about to admire a cat.


Notice how unsuitable Miranda's bag is for a mountain; and (more subtly) Maddie's too, since it was completely water-un-proof. GPS trace of the route. It starts as a "toll path" (but its cheap) up though a pleasant sheltered valley, then out into a little limestone-walled, errm, valley with interesting caves, then out onto the rather more exposed tops, where we found an exciting sinkhole and explored it down to the "chute" at the end that we didn't explore. Then, onwards and upwards. The higher up and more exposed the stronger the wind grew, and it was a strong and bitter wind, exposing our not-really-Yorkshire standard of clothing. Still, we pushed on. At 600 m (the top is 723 m) we got to a "false summit" with a nice semi-circle dry stone wall behind which we gratefully sheltered, and I destroyed Miranda's illusions by telling her it wasn't the summit. I was seriously considering going back: the wind really was very strong, and my fingers were cold, and I wasn't sure if the girlies morale would hold out; but to my surprise their fires were undimmed and so we went on and up. It wasn't much further. At the top is a vast tableland, or so it appeared in the cloud / mist, but I didn't have my head up looking around oh no my head was down avoiding the horizontal snow. After a mis-step corrected by the phone, that invaluable walking tool, we found shelter in the, errm, shelter - a most providential three-walled windshelter which provides a lee no matter which way the wind may be blowing. Taking bearings again we set off correctly, found the perfectly clear path down, and kept going down, finding shelter from the wind eventually. And so down into Ingleton, where we went into the climbing cafe for hot chocolate and on the off chance of finding the others, since they were going there at some point. But, no. So I ordered a taxi and took the girls back to the barn, and then myself to Clapham to pick up the car, and then off to Settle to find James and Julia and their magnificent palace-temple (head out of Settle on the Kirkby Malham road, its just up the hill, easily recognsiable by the stained glass). Having told them the girls were coming too I was obliged to eat more than my fair share of cake, and drink lots of tea, and bemoan with them the state of the blogging world: things ain't what they used to be. James, amusingly, is planning to run the Peaks in the upcoming race and will be disappointed with more than four hours. And so home, via a tour of the undercroft. Profiting by our knowledge of chippie shutting time we got there in time to buy two cod-n-chips, one chips, and one scampi-n-chips, which did us quite well, indeed I got to finish off Miranda's cod.

Saturday was also no fair weather day. But I could not restrain the girls, they insisted on doing Pen-y-ghent and so we again picked the likeliest weather window - starting around 10 - to head up from Horton (from us, drive to Ribblehead, turn R to Horton, drive all the way through and just at the end is a little loop of road for convenient parking, and head off up the banks of the stream past the primary school). GPS trace. Today was rain, but mercifully little wind. The rain was continuous rather than torrential; P-y-g was hidden in the clouds at all times.

Here's a selfie of us at the summit, taken by Alice who has far more experience of such things than me, my attempt was rubbish.


We look a bit bedraggled but cheerful, which is about right. The path heads up onto the moors soon enough and is pretty easy to follow and to walk; its also quite direct to the summit so despite some determined girlie slowness we steadily knocked off the height - I love walking with a GPS altimeter - and got to the "steep bit" which is quite fun and was very nearly scrambling, in that at one point I thought about holding on to a rock with one hand. And so to the top, where we sheltered from the wind in the helpful windshelter rather than admiring the non-existent views. To come down we made a loop of it for fun, down the Penine Way (see the GPS trace) and so back to the car somewhat damp around the edges but not in our cores. On a day of lovely sunshine I'd be rhapsodising about the views and the lovely track; today I could tell you about me undamming little mud dams on the path, but you don't want to hear about that.

And so back, quick shower, bit of food, pack, say goodbye to those who were there, and head off; back by a curiously quicker route that involved some unplanned diversions into Bradford, due to my unfamiliarity with navigating via google maps. And if you wish to complain that was four days, not three, then I shall ignore you. Daughter.

Monday, 28 March 2016

A trip to Sabaudia - day 6: Sabaudia to Home (Sunday)

[Day 1: Rome | Day 2: Rome to Sabaudia | Day 3: Sabaudia (thursday) | Day 4: Sabaudia (friday) Day 5: Sabaudia (Saturday) | Day 6: Sabaudia to Home (Sunday)]

Sunday dawned clear and bright, but it was our last day. I was neither clear nor bright, partly due to excess wetness on Saturday afternoon, the copious red wine at the evening meal, and then the regrettable mistake in the cocktail bar where an "Americano" turns out to be a  cocktail as well as a coffee.

We were an VIII and a Quad, with me coxing due to enthusiasm for rowing by Will, and also me cricking my back whilst trying to put my socks on, it isn't easy you know. Chris and Brian still hors de combat. The water was still and we rowed quite decently, though the Quad refused my challenge to a race to the death.

And then, it was all over bar the washing the boat and each other down. Here we all are (I have resisted the urge to add a Ukrainian for scale): Front L to R: Brian, Will, Simon E, Me; Rear L to R: Lewis, James, Anne, Simon L, Pamela, Lorraine, Dan, Amanda, Amy, Chris, Keith.

For fans of completeness: lunch was yesterday's carefully pre-bought cold pizza, bus from hotel left 1:30 to Ciampino 3:00 where we broke into our separate parties, the bulk sitting around in that characteristic state of modern budget travel; I was pretty tired by then. Back in the UK just before 7 pm and the trudge through customs.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A trip to Sabaudia - day 5: Sabaudia (Saturday)

[Day 1: Rome | Day 2: Rome to Sabaudia | Day 3: Sabaudia (thursday) | Day 4: Sabaudia (friday)]

Today Dan and a few others were keen to cycle in the afternoon, and I decided to join them, so after breakfast we wandered into town, carefully went past the first cycle shop, and hired bikes in the second cycle shop. They didn't have proper racing bikes for hire - they did have one rather nice one but that was demo only - so instead Dan, Amanda, Pamela and I got "town bikes" - pah - but in practice they were fine. Except for Amanda's on the steeper hills, when the chain fell off, but of that more anon.

So, first, the rowing, and we ventured on 2.5 lengths of the lake - originally it was to be three but we saw sense thank goodness. Featuring the usual warm up and exercises, followed by a few gratuitous starts for the fun of it, a significant amount of shipping water from various washes, and then some "battle paddling" of us versus the launch. Which is fun until you work out how to do it. Version one had us going off, James setting the throttle to match us during the first 20 strokes, and then us trying to stay ahead for the following 3 km ish. Or however long it was. We were forced up from 21 to 28 in order to stay there, but we did. The next one was shorter, and I realised it was easier to not pull quite so hard for the fist 20 strokes, tee hee.

Lunch, then bikes. A few more people decided to join us, but didn't because the shop was out of bikes. In practice this was probably good: getting four people to agree on a route was hard enough, even though there was only one way to go. Which was: along the beach, around the mountain, along the coast on the far side to the end, and then (for me) over the top and back. Or in more detail: we set off and happily cycled along the beach road in the sunshine, stopped to look at the tower at the end, then went into territory new to me, as the road gently rose through the forest roughly parallel to the ridge of Monte Circeo. Vair nice, and after a bit we came to the turning that would take us around the shoulder, fairly steeply up, with Amanda obliged to push her recalcitrant bike; but we made it up and into Sant Felice Circeo. An old town - now much extended - and we failed to stop for coffee which was a mistake because it is the last convenient stop. But there's a nice view of the sea. And so on round, up and down a bit but mostly contouring in the way that contouring is never really level; and eventually to the end of the road in a track and a path - we left our bikes - to a view of the sea and the cliffs under Monte Circeo, since we'd come all the way round. Then back - with a false start, sorry, it is amazingly easy to get lost - and then we split at the bit where Google maps clearly showed a zig-zagging road up the mountain, and I could clearly see from below the lines of masonry walls underpinning it. The others went back on the coast road, I headed up. I went straight past a locked gate - obviously - and only realised a bit later that I'd missed my path, and that if you looked closely you could evade the gate. Then I got lost again in a maze of excavation and finally realised - when another cyclist on a real mountain bike went past - that the true path went up the tiny track I'd ignored. At which point I was forced to admit that the "road" up the mountain was actually a track, and I could not cycle it, I would have to push my bike. Not quite the whole way - I rode perhaps 50 m -  but the vast majority.

Nonetheless, it is a lovely path, strewn with iris and amaranth, and with gorgeous views, I recommend it if you're hard enough. However, about half way up - thank heaven for GPS altimeters - the skies darkened and the rain came in, and I started to regret my decision to lighten my rucksac by, for example, leaving my raincoat out. On the plus side, the biker I'd seen earlier came back down again, so I got to feel like an explorer again, with no certainty of making the top. I pushed on.

After many twists and turns I was rewarded with some stunning views of Monte Circeo, and out to sea, and a distinct feeling of wetness. Coming to the end of the path I saw a huge barred metal gate ahead of me and thought "I am not going back. How am I going to get over that?" but happily it had a tiny sally port cut into it and I was through, onto road. I wizzed along - still in pouring rain - along a kinda summit ridge but downwards, till I found a deserted cafe with a porch to shelter in and feel wet till the rain nearly stopped. Then down, quickly but carefully, to SFC where I found a nice cafe to sit in and shiver uncontrollably while I warmed up. And so home, happy to do the forested bit while it was still fairly light; a lovely sunset sky of pink underlit clouds coming down to the beach; and a fairly safe bit along the beach road.

Back at the hotel a warm shower and dinner; interrupted by someone saying there was someone come about a bicycletto - oh, yes, I'd put off the business of returning the bike till later, the shop owner turned up and seemed very happy to get the keys back, I didn't even have the wit to apologise but we shook hands and were both content. And so dinner, and later on cocktails, Keith and I both rather confused to order an Americano and get a red alcoholic drink.

Friday, 25 March 2016

A trip to Sabaudia - day 4: Sabaudia (Friday)

[Day 1: Rome | Day 2: Rome to Sabaudia | Day 3: Sabaudia]

Friday is the sunny day as evidenced by the light streaming in from my window. B'fast and down to the lake. Start off with a "ladies VIII" filled out by three men in the bows, me being three. The traditional two trips down the lake and back, somewhat uncomfortable because for one reason or another the balance was poor. On the few occasions that will reminded us to sit back at the finish and rock over it went sat for ten strokes or so, but it didn't last.

As yesterday, at lunchtime I went for a run, Keith helpfully offering me an orange he had cadged from breakfast, I must remember to do that tomorrow. Along the beach again, only this time in the sun, and then go off an explore the tower. It turns out to be private, somewhat to my surprise, but the considerable wall can be turned and I do, taking moderate care not to be more obviously visible than a man in a fluorescent green tee shirt has to be. There's an abandoned house with the roof falling in, then a closer also abandoned but not in total disrepair house, then the tower which  has is non-beach-facing side covered in scaffolding. Behind, a terrace and so on and an abandoned swimming pool. In all, a gloriously situated place sadly in need of care and attention and money.

Since I have time, so up the track and try following the "yellow" path so see where it leads. It heads straight up like the "red" one, but only for 500 m or so, and then gentles and starts curving round right towards the ridge, which it intersects. So you get views, back to the lake and out to sea; and then at about 250 m there's a little summit, where I pass two people; and then at 430 m the "true" forepeak which you see from the main peak, where a party of three are having some tea. I go on a little past them for a better view of Monte Circeo. From this side the extensive cliffs that separate me from it are clear. It is all quite limestoney, pleasantly vegetated, and at this time of year a pleasing temperature, and the plants are soft rather than spiky. Decide that this is a nicer path than the red route to the true top.

And so down, via the same route. Then its the run back along the beach, the intrinsic pleasantness of which can't disguise the fact that I'm really quite tired by the time I stop at 16 km. Meet Brian running out about 1 km before I stop. And so, back to the rowing club in time for a five or perhaps ten minute rest and drink and banana (thanks James) before I need to start rowing.

Afternoon outing: now down at bow, with an odd-handled blade and where the feet are a little odd: there's very little slack in the heel restraints, but decide not to fix that as it will encourage me not to extend forwards. The outing is much better sat than this morning so I'm much happier; I'm mostly trying to survive and perhaps that helps. Warm up in sixes, some finish exercises, some starts and then some pieces.

Wend my weary way back towards the hotel for a well earned shower (discovery: the reason my shower produces only dribbles is the head, which is adjustable, duh) and collapse before dinner.

A Stome Pine apparently, says Amy.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A trip to Sabaudia - day 3: Sabaudia (Thursday)

[Day 1: Rome | Day 2: Rome to Sabaudia]

Sleep well overnight. Breakfast: buffet. Fine in quantity and acceptable in quality. Plenty of coffee and more cake than I could eat. I always feel I've let down a buffet if I can't scoff the lot. Amy discovers "BlueFi" app that allows you to use your phone's BT as a walkie-talkie, so we'll try that to mitigate lack of wiring. Grey skies outside but no rain; off for our "early morning" outing at 9:30 - hands on time; not M1 "turn up about then and faff a lot" time. Chris "sick man of Europe" Wood still sick but will be spotter in the launch.

Outing: front-stops work most of the way down, some bursts on the way back, and 4 * 500m pieces on the second way back, clearly I've forgotten something. In general it went well, though lacking the oomph of the full IM3 VIII. Others out in the Quad. Will coxes with a megaphone.

Now its lunchtime, but I rather fancy the run along the beach and maybe a shot at the prominence at the end. So elect to skip lunch, it is but food, and head off. Over the bridge over the lake, turn left, and almost immeadiately there's a side path down to the beach. Which is sandy, and empty. To my right the sea, to my left the quite tall and quite uniform dune about 20-30 feet high, with houses spaced out and the odd quiet bar. I follow vehicle tracks for a km trying to find some firmer sand, then head down to just above the sea and its better there. Steadily eat up the km, though not quickly, stopping every km for a pic as the hill gets closer. The beach is longer than it looks, and my watch shows 6 km by the end. Trend up, over a little road bridge over the exit canal, and where the road swings left I continue straight up a stony track. Just on the end is an old fort, which wiki said was to guard the canal. After about a km of gently rising track the "red path" turns uphill and continues straight up the hill side with neither zig nor zag; I start up jogging but am soon reduced to a walk. Its steep enough to need care and moving from one footrest to another on the slippery soil. About 2/3 of the way up there's a break in the trees - otherwise I can see no distance - and the path starts zigging; and just when I'm wondering if I'm going to have to turn back a little more push gets me to the top. 541 m says wiki, which I'll take over the just-less-than 500 that my GPS offers me. Great views, back over the lake and into the distance, and over the summit down to the far side, whatever that is. Look around but there's no rest for the wicked so head off down. There's a tempting "yellow path" that I suspect would be friendlier, but I can't be sure where it goes so stick to what I know. I don't run down but I do bounce from tree to tree. And so to the "easy" track, and then to the road, and take the road rather than the beach. easier but more boring, especially since its tree lined and I can't see lake or sea. GPS gives out at 14 km with 4 km to go, and running that last 4 km was quite hard.

But I get back only a little late, in time to leap in and cox the afternoon outing, which went fairly well. Same exercises, Dan still stroking, Will in at 6 with great enthusiasm, and James in the launch again.

Finish around 5, shower there, head back quite slowly, lie down for a bit, go down for pre-dinner drinks with Brian and Amanda and Chris; some others turn out to have been out on the town. Dinner: mushroom risotto is good, followed by decent pork and roast potatoes; and a choux pastry.

Then its time for a bit of video watching, and pore over the mornings outing. To my surprise I'm still over-reaching at the catch, because I thought I'd carefully backed off, but no. That's rather interesting; clearly I need to back of even further. And I also need to watch out for going in ahead of Dan, especially at 30.