Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Camomile Lawn

As I mentioned in my epistle on guerrilla gardening I've been creating an legitimate 'show yard' as an example to my less sophisticated neighbours.

With the bergamot planted, the mint developing in the pot and the camomile lawn starting to take hold the tea theme is now coming along nicely. The theme is somewhat polluted by the generalist flower bed to the left (which I'm intending to rationalise when the camomile lawn is complete) and the fig tree, but I'm getting lots of positive comments from the the locals. I cannot currently get hold of the tea camellias so this is going to require some more research but I feel sure there are camellia nutters out there to help me out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sassoon Conference September 12th 2009

Should I survive my trip up the scary side of Mont Blanc in Mallory's jumper there will be more early century nerdery at the Annual Siegfried Sassoon Conference in September. Oxford bags, brogues and a silly hat being compulsory.

I'm actually quite looking forward to the meaty intellectual programme too. This will focus on Sassoon's early life in Cambridge and his conspicuous failure to leave with a degree.

Click on the image for details

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reclaiming Osborne Street for the Gorillas

When I moved over here from Oxford I was faced with a choice of buying a ‘nice’ new house in a quiet suburban estate (I’m dosing off just thinking about it) or somewhere less respectable. It was a no brainer. I bought a small Edwardian house by Bletchley station and I’ve been doing my little bit to improve the neighbourhood by stealth ever since.

We are a mixed community of Bangladeshi, English, Scottish, Polish, Norwegian and Italian residents and there is a really great community feel to the place – but there is a lot of rubbish and some of the gardens are in a bit of a state. I am now implementing a three point plan to rectify the situation. It goes something like this:

  • Clean up and enhance one of the worst public spaces as an example of cheap, independent, sustainable community action

  • Use my own front yard as a ‘show yard’ to display what can be done to improve the environment

  • Bring together a small group of the willing to develop their own yards, lobby for improved public services and defend the improvements
I’m not a natural door-banger so I have chosen to lead by example and casual conversation. This makes things slow but I think it communicates the sincerity of the mission; and though I say so myself I’ve achieved quite a lot.

The public space I chose to improve was a narrow strip of land neglected by Vincci and Sainsbury and favoured by local yobs and fly tippers. So far I have removed 10 sacks of rubbish, 15 abandoned shopping trolleys, one lot of building waste and a car but it appears that respect breeds respect and the space requires a decreasing level of clearance.

In place of the broken bottles and shopping baskets I have planted over 400 bulbs, 20 or 30 native hedging plants, various free reclaimed shrubs and a riot of the most delicious hollyhocks. Most of it was free or freely given – some by neighbours. The transformation is amazing.

My ‘show yard’ is also taking shape. So far I have only spent £10 on compost and £8 on a hippo bag with the plants and tools all being gifts from family and loans from neighbours. The idea is to transform the depressing concrete rectangle into a tea theme garden with a small camomile lawn, a herb parch with mint, bergamot and (ornamental) nettles and a small hedge of Camellia Sinensis. I am pleased to say that the concrete has now gone and the earth exhales. Mmm… maybe I’ll get cabbages.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

George Mallory's Knitwear: going strongly for the top

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a somewhat ‘early 20th century’ streak. I’m fond of tales of gentlemanly exploration, tweed, pipes and casual acts of selfless heroism. There is a little part of me that wishes to disappear into the gathering cloud and be last seen ‘going strongly for the top’. It was with this in mind that I embarked on my current project.

The aim is to research and commission a copy of the sweater worn by George Mallory as he and Sandy Irvine disappeared into that mist on Everest in 1924 and to test it, in my own small way, on a serious route in the Alps. The Alps are, of course, not the Himalayas and with modern telecommunications are about as remote as Great Yarmouth but then again I am not George Mallory or the foremost anything of my age. Consequently I’m hoping these things even themselves out and I'll get a small glimpse into that world of wool from between the wars.

My plan is to tackle both the Traverse and Brenva Spur routes of the Mont Blanc Massif wearing my replica sweater and clutching my pipe between my teeth. Then, if all goes well, I hope to be seen ‘going strongly for a beer’ in Chamonix before nightfall.

The research hasn’t been as easy as you may think but after several loops through the Mountain Heritage Trust and the universities of Derby and Southampton I finally managed to contact the lady who created the hand knits of the official Mallory recreation project. Thanks to Joyce Meader I obtained a materials specification and a textual pattern.

Things now seem to have gone into fast forward. I found a skilled and enthusiastic knitter (Catriona) through The Open University intranet and ordered the wool online through Shetland wool brokers Jamieson & Smith. I have chosen the same pattern as Joyce's Replicas and a sample is reproduced here. The next step is measuring and starting a trial knit. I'm really looking forward to it.

The pattern below was taken from a pre 1924 pattern book of knits for the forces:

Gent’s Sweater (knitted)

Material required
1 ¼ lbs. 5 play Greenock Fingering or Super Fingering; set of bone needles, size 9, set of 4 steel needles, size 12.*

Cast on 200 stitches, knit 1 plain 1 purl for 3 inches. Knit plain 23 inches or length required to arm-hole. Now run half the stitches on to a thread of wool and leave. Work the remaining 100 as follows:-

At the beginning of the next 8 rows knit 1st 2 stitches together (4 decreasing on each side), then work 8 inches without decreasing. Knit 28 stitches, leave on thread, cast off 36 stitches for neck, knit 4 rows on 1st 28 stitches, leave on wool. Take the 100 that are left and work in same manner until shoulders are completed. Cast off shoulders back and front together, taking 2 stitches at a time, 1 from front and 1 from back.

On steel needles cast on 70 stitches, knit 5 inches of 1 and 1, now substitute bone needles and knit 12 rows, and on every 6th row thereafter increase 1 at each end until there are 92 stitches. Continue knitting the 92 stitches until the sleeve is the desired length, then cast off 2 at the beginning of the next 8 rows. Knit 1 row and cast off the remaining stitches.

On steel needles cast on 100 stitches, rib 3 inches working round as stocking, then knit 4 inches working backward and forward, cast off loosely. Sew on stitches of collar to neck neatly, sew in sleeves.

*Joyce recommends Jamieson & Smith 2 ply jumper weight for this type of knitting

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Paris Marathon: race day

I honestly had no idea when I stepped out onto France’s most famous street whether I would make it as far as the far end of the road. I hadn’t run for two full weeks and I had spent the whole of that time with my right calf and shin under compression and on ice. The pain had never been intense but I certainly could not run more than a few paces (even on carpet) during the last weeks of March.

The enormous and inelegant queue for the toilets on the Champs-Élysées kept my mind off my lower limbs as the seconds dripped away and before I knew it the multilingual announcers were counting down to the start. Now I began to worry and to paw the ground gingerly with the afflicted part. Was that splintering bone I felt or just a little stab of hypochondria?

Somehow I had ended up behind the 3:15 pacemaker and I think this spurred me on for the first few kilometres. The leg was sore (really quite sore) but there is always a chance of shaking it off. I kept up the stride rate but limited the stride length - which is my normal way of increasing speed. After Paris's dreadfully organised first feed stop (it was bad in '07 too) I was moving fluidly and i was inside 3:20 pace at 5km. But would the leg hold up? surely I couldn't hold on to the 3:15 pacemaker... could I?

By 10km the field was beginning to string out and I was being passed by quite a few pacey athletes but I was amazed to find that not only had I maintained the speed I'd actually improved it to 3:18 pace. The pain and fatigue were kicking in as we moved out along the line of the river into Paris's eastern suburbs. As we entered the parks I was starting to consciously defend my 'lead' and i was still up on my required average by half way. 21.1km was reached in 1hr 44mins (3:24 pace) and the possibility of a PB or even my 3:30 goal still remained.

By now we were heading back past the Ile de la cite and I had lost sight of the yellow 3:15 pacemaker. The 'engine' wasn't feeling too bad but the injured right leg was beginning to tighten up. I could feel the fluidity of my running ebbing away and as the course dipped under a black underpass and climbed towards the 30km mark at the Eiffel Tower I had to make a decision. It was either go 'balls out' for the time and risk pulling up or slow down and guarantee a finish.

The decision was made for me on km32 as the tendon connecting my middle toes started to tighten up and numb my foot. I backed right off the pace and shortly afterwards was passed by the 3:30 pacemakers. This was getting tough and I needed to dig deep in the 'suitcase of pain' just to keep going.

The last 10km is through the parkland to the west of the city centre and I decided I needed fuel. I finished the last of my drinks bottles and dived into a food stop; coming out with banana, raisins and water. Somehow this didn't seem enough so I grabbed some Powerade from another stand. It was blue (no food should be blue) but I chugged it down anyway. I was suddenly filled with a food mania and spotted the Beaujolais Marathon stand around the next bend. They were offering bread, soft cheese and small glasses of wine - I had all of it.

There was a few minutes of digesting and then whoomph! the afterburners kicked in. Having spent 39km going backwards in some level of pain suddenly it was like a video game. All the imperious muscular Frenchies were moving in slow motion as i flew past them into a blurred tunnel of speed. I must have picked up 300 places in the last 3km and by the time I entered the finish straight I was chanting "on, on, on" in a Tom Simpson style and darting from frogless gap to frogless gap.

I crossed the line in a respectable 3:55. I should have been disappointed as this was way outside my target time but I had actually really really enjoyed the race and even to complete it felt like a victory.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Marathon de Paris

This is typical… bloomin’ typical. For once in my life I have been relatively scientific with my marathon training. I took onboard Ruth’s advice and cut out all my ‘junk’ miles. I also made sure that I wasn’t training for a bike event at the same time.

My schedule was based on two speed sessions (Tuesday and Thursday) and a long weekend run which built from 10 to 22 miles. Everything was in the bag, my times over distances up to 7 miles were coming down nicely (1, 5 and 7 mile PBs)and I was running my long runs at 8min mile pace (as required for a 3:30 marathon). I left a clear two weeks for ‘tapering’ and all was going well. Then ‘bang’ the injury I had before Paris 2007 struck again. At one point I couldn't have run 26 paces never mind 26 miles. I have pain down the front and inside of my right shin, discomfort in the large muscle on the outside of my right calf and I'm packing ice like a herring.

The masseur/physiotherapist at 'Joint Solutions' thinks I may have damaged my soleus and was noncommittal about whether I should run; so I’m travelling to Paris tomorrow in somewhat less than buoyant mood.

I expect not to run and will certainly not to break 3:30 if I do. I don't intend to enter Paris Marathon again. Grrrrr....

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tour of Buckinghamshire: 19th - 20th Sept

My latest project is the creation of a new cycling classic: The Institute Tour of Buckinghamshire (or possibly the Instituto Giro di Buckinghamshire). The concept is to put together a group of twenty+ road bikes divided into four colour coordinated ‘teams’ and to affect all the characteristics of an established stage race without the actual racing. I want people to experience the bunch! the peloton! the gruppo! and the amazing speed bonus that comes along with group riding.

To Tim Krabbe's loathed 'non-racers' we will appear as a splash of colour against the autumnal sky of their dull lives; a burning comet that blazes and is gone. To 'The Man' we will be an ambiguity; a contest or not a contest; a weekend ride or a traffic violation? To the participants we will be almost cinematic in our beauty; a mirror to history; an ever changing collage of colour and form. Am I losing the plot? Possibly, so on with the plan...

The idea is to make it accessible to everyone (I especially want a good gender balance) while capturing the spirit of a Tour style ‘peloton’. To give the relevant atmosphere I intend to:

  • Mark/map the course with appropriately enigmatic directional symbols
  • Issue riders with a unique Tour of Buckinghamshire 'dossard' (rider number)

  • Have a neutral service vehicle and broom wagon

  • Have a feed station with hand made 'ToB' musettes (feed bags)

  • Include some intermediate sprints for four nominated team leaders and their domestiques

  • Book an appropriate chateau as our Ville d’etape

  • Hire a masseur to sooth the aching limbs

  • Have a champagne parade to the finish
Prologue time trial
For a bit of fun team leaders will time trial over a 1km loop for the honour of starting the race in ‘yellow’.

Stage 1
‘Stage 1’ will consist of three hours of riding, augmented by an optional two hour 'Mountain stage' to Great Missenden, and will terminate at our Ville d’etape chateau near Aylesbury. This will be the Hartwell House Spa. There will be massage, dinner in a French style and a chance to see the Roubaix documentary 'A Sunday in Hell'. Breakfast will be late, continental and hopefully with optional steaks (a great favourite of racers in days gone by).

Stage 2
The commencement of stage 2 will be delayed by the traditional 'workers protest'. In this case the worker will be me and the protest will be my need to commence riding no earlier than 10:30am on a hangover. The bunch will ride a further four hours which will feature one intermediate sprint before the final champagne parade (served from the team cars) to the finish.

This will be one of the crowning glories of The Institute and you absolutely have to come. Don’t worry about the bikes, the distance or anything – I have it all in hand. The provisional route is shown below and the date will be some time in September.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Snowdon, Crib Coch and the Pen-Y-Gwryd

Snowdon never ceases to please. Rich and I were there at the end of 2008 and raced over Crib Goch and up Tryfan in brilliant sunlight. This time we took a bigger group of friends and completed the ridge in low cloud and fallen snow. The character of the route is ever changing and I always forget and recall different bits.

We conceived of a the trip after the organisational problems proceeding HIM II and a rather super 'old world' dinner at the Pen-Y-Gwryd. I wanted a simple trip with people who wouldn’t complain about the cost or have trouble with the physical demands. It worked perfectly.

The Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel was a meeting point for the ’53 Everest team and retains much of its old world charm to this day. There is no piped music or mobile phone signal; there are no flashing lights and no TVs and there are lots of bits of subtle climbing and walking reference built into the fabric of the building.

When Julia, Chris and I eventually arrived (following an embarrassing lapse which saw me heading to South Wales instead of North wales) we walked from a wet envelope of fog into a warm wood panelled bar with waiting pints of Welsh beer. I felt immediately at home amongst some dear friends and a wonderfully conducive 'brown' environment. Soon I was nestled between the monogrammed sheets for eight hours of 'the dreamless' before being gently awakened by the sound of the breakfast gong. They really do have a gong.

Like the rest of the hotel, breakfast was exactly proportionate to requirements. Good quality food was supplied in just the right amount for a day in the hills. I didn't come away from the table feeling like a ball of grease and I wasn't faced with too much choice.

By 10am we were assembled in the bar ready to meet the challenge of the mountain and the wintery embrace the outdoors. We strode up the road with the droplets of water condensing out of the fog onto our clothes. Turning into the car park at Pen-Y-Pass we headed up the gradual shoulder which heads past the Pyg track to the buttress and the ridge.

This is an excellent warm up, punctuated as it is with small sections where three points of contact are required. We moved well with the girls and boys all mixed up and working together. Nobody was consistently at the front of back and all showed pluck. At the division of the paths (where I had anticipated a decision) we collectively decided to head up the ridge. There was little snow and no ice and the risks were negligible. The cloud swirled in any out and visibility waxed and waned. At some points the route looked quite committing and serious and at others it was a walk in the park.

Everyone was sensible and focused on the exposed sections and I spent my time stamping in appropriate footholds where poor technique by climbers ahead of us made footing treacherous. We stopped on the ridge for an impromptu lunch before pressing on over rising ground to the subsidiary summit cairn and the obelisk which marks the exit to the Pyg and Miners’ track. The temperature was falling as we walked through the snow to the Snowdon summit cairn. Oddly it was populated by pasty weirdoes with greyhounds and beer. It is funny but that rather spoiled things for me and I pootled off to stare into the cloud and think about the route down.

We decided to return via the pyg track (a well trodden route to Pen-Y-Pass) but I hadn’t quite bargained on what was in store. The route was heavily covered in snow and the first section was a little treacherous. However, once we found our feet (and our bottoms) we discovered that we could run and glissade down huge sections of it without effort.

Everyone was almost dizzy with exhilaration as we tumbled and slid our way down. It was some of the best fun I’ve had in ages – like being a child again. We arrived back in the car park tired but thoroughly fulfilled. The climb was a real success.