Tuesday, 24 August 2010

It's nearly September - time for an update!

Back in the hot and dry part of summer (21st June to be exact) we celebrated an old friend's mother's funeral. She was a good age and it was a jolly affair as she'd had a full and happy life. And it was a chance for me to meet up with many friends from long ago, some of whom I hadn't seen for 30 years or more. Today, just nine weeks later, we had what amounted to almost a re-run, for her husband this time, who died last week at the age of 99. Once again, those faces from the past, looking as we all do a tad 'more mature' these days, met again. And one, Liz, chastised me 'for not updating that Blog'! So, earliest to latest, here we go.....

Claire becomes a Vet! And we celebrate!
In early July, elder daughter Claire finished her degree course at The Royal Veterinary College in London after five hard years, and is now a fully qualified Veterinary Surgeon. It's been her ambition since she was little, and she has worked tirelessly towards that goal not only in achieving high academic standards, but also in building up a 'CV' of working with animals - farm work, sanctuary work, working with vets, lambing in all weathers, helping at pig farms, working with horses, at zoos, and a special project with the elephants at Knowsley Safari Park. This latter won her a prize along with her veterinary degree - the prize for the best dissertation on 'exotics'.

Anticipating this success, I had booked my wife Chris and myself into the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury, and on Monday 19th July we enjoyed lunch and a G&T or two while speeding south, first class, on a Virgin Pendelino from Wilmslow to Euston. After checking into the hotel, we caught the Tube up to Cockfosters where Claire and boyfriend Dave met us to drive to her student house in Potters Bar where Dave prepared a barbecue and the fizz flowed!

Next morning was the start of the Big Day.... Claire's 'investiture' into the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and presentation of her degree and 'exotics' prize, at the Guild Hall in the City of London. (For larger images, click on the picture).

Dave and Claire arrive at the Guild Hall

Claire, begowned, before the ceremony

Claire receives her 'Exotics' prize

The Principle reminded us all that no-one gets to qualify as a vet without a great deal of parental support, both financial and otherwise. How true! So he asked the graduates to applaud us!

The graduates applaud the parents!

Claire with proud parents!

Class of '10! Playing 'Scottish Widows'. Claire, being tall, is back row 5th in on the left

Claire at 'The Anchor' on the South Bank that evening. Then the four of us went for a fabulous meal at 'The Don'. 20th July was also Chris's birthday, so we had a double celebration!

The next day, Wednesday, Chris and I enjoyed a visit to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, and to the Science museum. The weather all week was sunny and hot (about 29 degrees C), and we breakfasted at pavement cafes or at the 'Cafe in the Gardens' which as its name implies is in the gardens of Russell Square, just round the corner from our hotel.

On Thursday we returned home on probably the friendliest and most luxurious railway companies operating on Britain's railways - the delightful 'Wrexham & Shropshire', one of the few 'open access' companies; that is, they don't hold a franchise, they simply operate a train service on the franchise holders' lines. Anyone can do it - you can. I can. 'Grand Central' run a service from Hull to London Kings Cross, and 'Wrexham & Shropshire' run from the delightful London terminus of Marylebone, to Wrexham via the Chilterns. Over Saunderton summit, down into the Vale of Oxford to Banbury, and on to Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Wrexham.

Wrexham & Shropshire train

The on-board service is efficient and friendly. It's only a short train - three standard class Mk3 coaches, and a buffet / First class coach with a class 67 diesel at one end and a Driving Van Trailer (DVT) at the other. The engine pulls the train to London, and pushes it back to Wrexham from the back of the train, the driver driving from the DVT at the front. Lunch in first class is stunning - three full courses (we had soup or pate, lamb shank, and a choice of dessert washed down with a very acceptable bottle of Cote Du Rhone). The coaches are ex-Virgin, but fully refurbished with a silver paint job, and sumptuous grey upholstered seats. Highly recommended! We got off at Shrewsbury, and a nondescript Arriva Wales diesel train whisked us back home to Wilmslow.

What a super week!

Saturday 24th July - Northern Dragons 'Real Ale by Train'
Made famous by Oz Clarke and James May on their 'Drinks in the UK' TV programme, the Trans Pennine Ale Trail is well worth doing. This was the third time I've done it, and it's always a great day out.

One gets a day return ticket from Wilmslow (in our case) to Leeds, arriving in Leeds in time for lunch (home made pies in the Scarborough Taps just across the road from the station) and the first of many pints of good real ale.

The first 'Northern Dragons' trip in 2009; some of the Dragons at Leeds en route to Dewsbury (L to R, Adam, Steve, Vince, Daniel)

The previous two trips comprised members of the 'Flyer' internet forum (the name 'Northern Dragons' derives from the largely southern membership of that forum exclaiming that their 'northern' UK flying charts were blank sheets simply stamped 'Here Be Dragons'). This trip, however, was a contingent from our local pub in Wilmslow, the Horse & Jockey. It comprised me, Tony (retired builder), Malcolm and Ray (retired BA long haul captains), Frank (retired Astra Zeneca exec), and Steve (not sure what he does).

Ray, Steve, Vince, Tony, and Malcolm tuck into home made pies at the Scarborough Taps, Leeds, at the start of the 'Ale Trail'. Frank took the picture.

After Leeds, one travels one station back towards home, to Dewsbury. Ray had an extra pint (or two) at Leeds, so he and Malcolm missed the train and caught the next. The real ale bars from now on are actually on the station platforms, a mere step or two from the train.

We were in boisterous mood, and as the ale flowed, so did the chat and the anecdotes. It transpired that Malc and Ray's time flying for the BA Super 1-11 Division at Manchester a few decades ago were fun years! Eight hundred feet up and down Blackpool prom in a 1-11 was was one memory, showing the passengers the Blackpool illuminations (for that was the purpose of the flight) under a nine hundred foot cloudbase! Try that today - the on board live telemetry would report what you were doing back to base, and bye-bye licence!

Next stop was Hudderfield. Once again Ray was delayed by 'that extra pint', but this time it was us that got it wrong. We trooped out onto the platform a couple of minutes before our train was due, a train with 'Huddersfield' on the front rolled in, so we got on. It was the local stopper! Ray finished his pint, and emerged onto Dewsbury platform in time to step onto the train we should have caught. As we waited in our vibrating 'Nodding Donkey' (Pacer) at Mirfield for the passengers to board, Ray swept past at 70mph on the Trans Pennine Express! By the time we got to Huddersfield, he was into his second pint there!

Final point of call was Stalybridge, with its famous Buffet Bar, where the last pints of the day were enjoyed before returning to Wilmslow.

I must be getting old. On the 2009 'Dragons' trip, we'd finished off with a couple more in the pub opposite Manchester Piccadilly station!

Monday 2nd August - Dave takes to the air
Claire loves flying in the Chipmunk and intends to get her pilot's licence as soon as she can afford it (note to Claire; one can never afford it. You just have to do it!). But Dave had never flown in anything smaller than a Boeing 737 and she was determined he should experience what real flying is like, in the back seat of the Chippy. The weather and the forecast was good, though the cloudbase was bit too low for aerobatics, which as this was to be Dave's first flight, was perhaps as well.

The Chipmunk is two seat, one behind the other. Each cockpit has a full set of instruments and flying controls, but some stuff, such as the radio and transponder, are only in the front. So that's where I sit. I can, of course, only take one other person with me at a time.

(Pictures by Claire, except last one which is by Dave. For larger images, click on the picture).

I strap Dave into the rear seat

Dave, ready for the 'off'

Just about to 'commit aviation'

At Liverpool, we live with some bigger neighbours

Claire's turn

Dave was perhaps a bit tense. After take off, as we climbed out over the Mersey I asked if all was OK - he sounded fine (our only communication was the rather noisy intercom). "If you don't like it at any time", I said, "just say so and we'll go straight back".

As soon as I'd levelled off and set up for cruise, I gave him control. Wow! Just as Claire was when she first took SL's controls, he was a natural! Nine times out of ten, if I do that with a novice I have to take it back within fifteen seconds as they vastly overcontrol our 'think it though the sky' aeroplane and get totally out of sync with it, despite my warning of its sensitivity.

But Dave did just fine, holding height and heading remarkably well. I took control again just to demonstrate a steep heading change (roll to 70 degrees in an instant, pull hard for a second as the earth revolves around the wingtip and we are pushed into our seats by the 'G', relax the pull and simultaneously roll level, revelling in the joy of using those powerful and precise ailerons). "OK with that?", I asked. "Fantastic!" he replied. Low cloudbase ruled out any aeros, but he was clearly happy with 'pulling 'G''.

After we landed back at Liverpool, he had the biggest grin on his face I'd ever seen. "I'm going to do this", he vowed; "learn to fly". "Hang on", said Claire. "We can't afford both of us to do it!".

But somehow, I think they probably will.

Friday 6th August - The Scarborough Flyer
A day out Scarborough - steam hauled there and back! When I booked this day out for Chris and I the organisers were promising our motive power would either be 'Bittern', a Gresley A4 pacific, 'Princess Elizabeth', Stanier's first 'big engine' design for the LMS after he joined them from the GWR at Swindon, or 'Duchess of Sutherland', Stanier's masterpiece and a member of probably the finest class of locomotive ever to run in Britain. My luck was in; on 6th August, it was my favorite locomotive in charge of the 'Flyer' - Sutherland!

'Duchess of Sutherland' at Wilmslow

We left Wilmslow at 07:52 and picked up more passengers at Stockport before leaving the mainline at Heaton Norris Junction and heading towards Stalybridge. I had booked us in 'Premier' class (cheaper options were 'First or 'Standard', but my belief is that if you do these things, you do them in style). By Denton (our first stop to top up the locomotive's tender with water) breakfast was being served. A 'Full English' with fruit juice, cereal or porridge, bacon, egg, fried bread, sausage, hash browns (or kippers), toast, and tea. And Champagne!

Soon we were pounding up the bank past Diggle to Standedge Tunnel, and being only one coach back from the loco the magnificent sound of the Duchess making light of our twelve-coach train up this steep climb was music to the ears.

We routed via Wakefield, south and east of Leeds including another stop for water, to join the East Coast Main Line south of York, then east through Malton to arrive in Scarborough by about 1pm. We had passed through some rain on the way to the East coast, but the weather in Scarborough was dry and fine so we walked down through the town to the sea front, enjoying some traditional fish & chips and a pot of tea in a cafe on the way. There's an active fishing quay on the bay which we walked around, and miles of golden sand with little groups of donkeys every hundred yards or so giving rides to children. The southern bay at Scarborough is dominated by the brooding presence of the Grand Hotel, a monument to Scarborough's more salubrious past.

We ascended to the upper promenade by the cliff lift railway and decided to have a look at the Grand. It is pure 'faded elegance'; a magnificent staircase superbly decorated rises from the now rather nondescript foyer with its tacky bars. We found our way up through one of thes bars to the terrace which overlooks the bay. What a view! Every visitor to Scarborough should come up here.
Cliff Railway

The view to the south from the balcony of the Grand Hotel

We returned to the station in time for me to board the footplate of 'Duchess of Sutherland' at the fireman's invitation. After the 'Planet' locomotive I fire at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry the Duchess's firebox look enormous. "How on earth do you fire down to there?" I asked the fireman, indicating the cavernous firebox stretching into the distance. "Oh, I don't", he replied. "I just fire the back end and the sides and fire works its way down to the front.

We steamed out of Scarborough on time at 17:00 with me enjoying a fine pint of real ale served at table, and a spirited run to York got us there early so we had to wait on the Ouse bridge just outside the station until it was time for us to pick up those of our passengers who had got off at York on the outward journey.

After leaving York, the evening meal was served. Soup or pate for starters, lamb shank with all the trimmings for main course, choice of dessert, cheese and biscuits, tea or coffee, and for us, a bottle or two of red to wash it down. How civilised!

We arrived back at Wilmslow on time, about 21:00, after a fantastic day out.

Here's a video someone took of our train later that evening speeding through Holmes Chapel, heading from Wilmslow to Crewe after we had left it.


Saturday 14th August - Smooth FM at Concorde
I'm 61 today, but hey ho it's just another working day at Concorde. It's tough, but someone's got to do it. Today is a bit different; the radio station Smooth Radio are broadcasting from the hangar at the Concorde Conference Centre, and I was interviewed on air by their presenter Derek Webster. This is getting to be a habit - the Phil Wood Show on Radio Manchester a while back, interviewed in our Chipmunk at Woodvale by BBC TV in May, and now this. Pity it doesn't pay!

Here's me in a picture from the Smooth Radio website conducting a 'Concorde' tour that morning.