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Entries in UK (51)


The accident of birth

Who could drive from Wales to London without going through Ironbridge Gorge, the cradle of the industrial revolution? The bridge is rather unassuming, just 7.3m wide, 30.6m long and 16.75m high, but at the time it was revolutionary. It was designed by Thomas Pritchard in 1775 and built by Abraham Darby III in 1777-79 as an advertisement for the skills of the Coalbrookedale ironmasters. It was the first bridge in the world to be made totally from iron, using 384 tonnes of metal, and artists and engineers came from around the world to see it. Abraham Darby was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Society of Arts for the artistic merit of the bridge, which was widely praised:

"But of the Iron Bridge over the Severn, which we crossed and where we stopped for half an hour, what shall I say? That it must be the admiration, as it is one of the wonders of the world."
John Byng, Viscount Torrington, 1784
"...a far greater and more wonder piece of Architecture is now in agitation, a Fabric which England or the whole Globe cannot equal. This is an Iron Bridge... the whole will be of Cast Iron without an ounce of any other sort of material about it..."
J.M. Fisher, 1776

To be fair, the town itself was not received with the same glory:

"Coalbrookdale wants nothing but Cererus to give you an idea of the heathen hell. The Severn may pass for the Styx..."
Charles Didbin, Dramatist and Songwriter, 1787

"...an uninteresting and somewhat squalid town... sloping down to the Severn whose banks are... covered with slag and refuse."
J.E. Auden, 1912

From Ironbridge we drove to Wolverhampton. It is thanks to an accident of birth in this small industrial town outside Birmingham that Lydia and I are able to live in Europe today. My mother was born in Wolverhampton and migrated to Australia on the ship "New Australia" in 1957 on a one-way family migration ticket, a "ten pound Pom" on Australia's mission to fill up the country with English immigrants. Her family, the Spencers of Wolverhampton, are actually related to the Spencers of Northampton (the most famous of which was Princess Diana), although there must have been another accident of birth or some seriously bad life choices at some point down to line to make our branch poor enough for the family of six to sit on a ship for 38 days on their way to poverty in a new country (albeit one with better weather).

Finally, we finished the day by visiting Cadbury World in Birmingham, where Lydia was camouflaged in a sea of royal purple chocolate.


The mountains and castles of Wales

The weather looked poor in Llanberis, so we headed out for the coast and ended up having a glorious day with perfect weather.

Our first stop was Caernarfon Castle. The castle was constructed by King Edward I of England, after his invasion of Gwynedd in 1283. It was modelled on the walls of Constantinople and cost £22,000 (a staggering amount at the time, more than the royal income for a year), forming one of the strongest castles in Europe in an effort to hold on to his gains in Wales. Without the series of castles we saw at Caernarfon, Conwy and Dolbadern it is unlikely that Edward the First could have conquored Wales at all. One of the pleasant surprises of Caernarfon (apart from the perfect weather and beautiful stonework) was seeing Welsh as a living vibrant language.

I had half expected Welsh to be limited to old men mumbling to each other in smoky bars, but instead bilingual signs were not just on official government signage, but also on private businesses. As a sign of how alive and well the language is we saw a well dressed young woman abuse her five year old daughter in Welsh - obviously not something you do in a second language.

Following Caernarfon we drove to Conwy, to see the city walls and castle also built by King Edward (between 1283 and 1289). We also saw in Conwy the smallest house in Great Britain. It was condemned for human habitation in 1900, then the owner then went around Great Britain with a ruler measuring small houses to prove that his was the smallest.

On the drive back to Llanberis we passed through Llanrwst, with its beautiful stone bridge, and Betws-y-Coed. St Michael's Church at Betws-y-Coed is closed down now but shows a rich heritage of tombstones (with an interesting transition from Welsh to English on family tombs). We stopped at Swallow Falls, where they charged us one pound to see the waterfall and we got scared out of the toffee shop by a Grandmother promising to beat her child when they got home, then climbed over the ruins of Dolbadern Castle back in Llanberis.

It was really a beautiful day spent in the mountains and castles of Wales.


Hedgehogs and falcons

We spent Saturday night at a school camp dorm, near Ross-on-Wye, courtesy of an old friend of Lydia's from when she lived in Cornwall. They kindly took us out to Ross-on-Wye for a good English breakfast the next morning, then out to Symonds Yat. Symonds Yat looks out over the Dean forest and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds kindly had volunteers at the yat with telescopes set up on the Peregrine Falcon rooks. We went down to Symonds Yat East for a beer, watched the cutest little hedgehog trundle along, then had a Cornish pasty for lunch in Hereford (after investigating the Old House of Hereford, built in 1610). The rest of Sunday was spent driving across Wales in miserable weather to Llanberis in Snowdonia National Park. We had a wonderful end to the day, with a butternut pumpkin lasagne and great cider at the Peak Restaurant in Llanberis, followed by a few beers sitting out in the Welsh fields.


The Roman Baths

Two days after moving into our new home in Brussels and we had our first house guest. My brother Russell was in town on his first European vacation and visited us in Belgium in between mountain biking in the French Alps and his whirlwind tour around Europe. It was really great to see him again and to share the new life that we have established here in Belgium, a life that Lydia and I have worked so hard for.

The one place that Russell wasn't going to see on his trip was the United Kingdom, so we decided to take him on a brief trip across England and Wales. We caught the train from Midi to St Pancreas, two hours from our house to the centre of London, meet up with our good friends Luke and Shyla and drove out of the big smoke.

Our first stop was in Bath, to see the stunning 18th century Georgian architecture and the ancient Roman Baths.

It was a really beautiful city to wander around, surprisingly lively, stunningly picturesque in the warm evening light and oddly maritime with the squawk of seagulls overhead. Out the front of the Roman Baths were large and peculiar statues ("Minotaur and Lady-Hare Torsos" by Sophie Ryder) under constant video surveillance, with posters up praising the people who knocked them down at Easter as a public service against hideous public art.

The Roman Baths themselves were really very interesting. They have been in constant use and redesign, with everyone from the Romans onwards taking advantage of the geothermal hot spring that wells up under Bath. It was quite hard to tell where genuine Roman architecture stopped and imitation classical architecture began. For me the most interesting part were the Roman artifacts that had been dredged up from the site, such as the engraved signet stones that had fallen out from Roman rings when the heat of the bath melted the wax holding them in, or the foul curses cast against petty crimes that were thrown into the temple spring in a wish for revenge ("Docimedis perdidit manicilia dua qui illas  involavit ut mentes suas perdat et oculos suos in fano ubi destinat", roughly "Docimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his minds and his eyes in the temple where she appoints").

We had nice Thai for dinner with a truly disgusting organic cider, then drove onwards to Ross-on-Wye.


Richard Dawkins at the British Humanist Association

The British Humanist Association were giving a conference on “Darwin, Humanism and Science”, so I nipped over to London for the day to see Richard Dawkins, Luke and Shyla. By strange coincidence (or was it?) it was the same day that Lydia had tickets to see Britney Spears putting on a show, so there was something for everyone in London.

It was my first ride in the Channel Tunnel. In under two hours we zipped from Brussels to London. The tunnel itself was anticlimactic, no big rollercoaster dip as it went down beneath the English Channel. No glass panels to see the fish above us. Just one long smooth ride through darkness to represent a truly ingenious feat in human ingenuity and technology, beyond that of merely flying up to the moon.

I meet Luke and Shyla at the other end and we caught up over breakfast before heading to Conway Hall.

The conference organizer got up at the start to ask (in English) those people requiring simultaneous translation into French to come up the front and get headphones. There was a ripple of laughter in the audience until one person then shouted out the same message in French, getting a chorus of “ah” in reply.

Polly Toynbee introduced Richard Dawkins, who spent his hour talking about the last paragraph of the Origin of Species:

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

It was quite an interesting talk, mostly on the importance of Darwin's insights. He also talked about the intellectual dishonesty of creationist arguments, spending quite a long time on rebutting the Strong Anthropic Principle and supporting the Weak Anthropic Principle. He came across as charming, gentle and intellectual - I enjoyed it, but wouldn't have minded a bit more fire-breathing. In the question time I asked him whether Charles Darwin had any insights that were extraordinary for his time, or whether it was just the period of history where enough natural history had been collected for the idea to be bubbling up.

He said that The Origin included some extremely impressive insights, but the main arguments were coming up from multiple sources (Wallace most obviously, but also Malthus). From his perspective the main contribution of Darwin was as a science writer, since the joint presentation of Darwin and Wallace at the Royal Society didn't even raise a stir among scientists, as just another hypothesis floated up. What the Origin of Species did was to provide step by step overwhelming evidence of every principle of evolution to the point that evolution just could not be rebutted on its science. This must be one of the rare cases in science where the glory went not for the original flash of insight, but rather for the slow metholodogical accumulation of supporting data.

Following Dawkins, Charles Susanne (from ULB) spoke about the pressures on EU governments to stop the teaching of evolution, with creationist groups running a campaign of trying to insert creationism into school circumulm (with too much success in many cases).

James Williams (University of Sussex) followed this up with a very entertaining talk on the creationist literature that is sent out to schools, often deliberately hidden in book donations to libraries and designed to instill resistance towards evolution in kids minds by playing on the love kids have for dinosaurs - such as comic books with Jesus talking to velociraptors or cowboys attacking the last pterodactyl (no kidding, they actually claim the last pterodactyl was killed in 1890 by cowboys in Arizona). Once these exciting images are installed it becomes so difficult for mere fact to displace them. He had one line that just cracked me up. He was talking about how intelligent designers rely on the argument that if there is something that science doesn't currently have an answer for it must be the result of a creator:

"No, it just doesn't work like that. You then need to do research to see if there is or isn't a natural explanation for that phenomenon. I mean, a PhD student can't just say 'I have no idea what the answer to this research question is, therefore it must be due to intelligent design - may I have my diploma now?' If intelligent design wants to be a science it needs to research the questions before it labels them as unanswerable."

During the question-time this guy got up and started ranting that he believed that evolution fashioned every organ for its own purpose, which is why he was against homosexuality, because it was using an organ for a purpose it wasn't evolved for (his analogy was "you wouldn't try drinking through your nose instead of your mouth"). He ranted for about five minutes while the rest of the audience was softly laughing and trying to see who it was with the microphone, then Polly Toynbee wisely said "well that doesn't deserve an answer, next question?"

Afterwards Luke and I met up with Shyla and Lydia for a pub meal and a beer at Shakespeare's Head, before Shyla and Lydia went off shopping. Another couple of beers at a Dutch pub and the Salisbury and it was time for me to hop on my train and be whisked back to Belgium...


Flemish political parties

In a week's time I have to vote in the EU elections for parties from the Flemish list. My reference point in political parties is really Australian, US and UK politics, so I have been trying to work out which Flemish parties equate to which Australian/US/UK parties. My current approximation is:

Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest)
= One Nation (Australia)
= Ann Coulter wing of the Republican Party (US)
= British National Party (UK)

N-VA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie)
= Nationals (Australia)
= Mike Huckabee wing of the Republican Party (US)
= Tories (UK)

Lijst Dedecker (Dedecker's List)
= Liberals (Australia)
= Lou Dobbs wing of the Republican Party (US)
= Tories (UK)

CD&V (Flemish Christian Democrat party)
= Kevin Rudd-wing of Labor Party (Australia)
= Blue Dog caucus in the Democratic Party (US)
= Tony Blair-wing of Labor (UK)

Open VLD (Flemish Liberals and Democrats)
= "Wet" Liberals (Australia)
= Mitt Romney wing of Republican Party (US)
= David Cameron wing of Tories (UK)

SLP (Social Liberal Party)
= Bob Hawke wing of Labor (Australia)
= New Democrat Coalition caucus of the Democratic Party (US)
= "Old" Labor (UK)

SPA (Socialist Progressive Alternative)
= Greens (Australia)
= Progressive caucus of the Democratic Party (US)
= Left-wing of Labor (UK)

Groen! (Green)
= Greens (Australia)
= Code Pink wing of the Democratic Party (US)
= Liberal Democrats (UK)


Back to the Motherland

For the last three days we have been in London. The last job interview for me, and the final destination to research for Lydia. London is immediately attractive to us because of Luke and Shyla. A city feels so much warmer when you can turn up and already be surrounded by good friends who show you the best parts about living there.

We have been staying with Luke and Shyla since Saturday night. On Sunday we went out for an English breakfast on Portobello Road in Notting Hill (which was fantastic), then they took us out to London Zoo. The Zoo is quite small, being in London, so they have concentrated on the most interactive exhibits and having only a few large exhibits rather than lots of small ones (with the animals needing the most space out at their second zoo).

I especially enjoyed the bug exhibit and the giant stick-insects. I was really interested to hear the origin of the saying "one for the road". When we were on the bus down Tyburn Road, Shyla told us that the people to be executed at the Tyburn gallows were allowed to stop on the road to have a final drink. We had a great Indian dinner just across the road from Luke and Shyla Sunday night.

Monday was my day of interviewing, and Lydia's day of stationary and paper museums. Once again, Mill Hill awed me with the fantastic people working there. In my opinion it is one of the best places in the world to be working on cellular immunology. The people are motivated, intelligent and collaborative. The bulk funding means they can focus on top research and not worry about applying for grants or getting the micky mouse papers. And the commitment to mouse biology is shown by the direct absorption of mouse costs by the institute, so individual labs don't have to factor it into consideration. The building is old, and on the very edge of London, but there are hundred good reasons to work there.

Today was the day for World Heritage sites. Shyla had to work, but Luke, Lydia and I caught the tube down to the Tower of London. The Tower was founded by William Conqueror after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. He founded the central tower, the White Tower, in 1078. Other towers and fortifications were progressively built, being completed by Edward I in 1285. The inner wall is the highest, at 15 feet high, with 13 towers. The outer wall is the thickest and has 6 additional towers, giving 20 towers in all. The moat around the tower is 125 feet wide. It was originally built too deep, such that it collected debris from the Thames rather than being washed clean by it. On this plus side, this has made the moat an archaeological gold mine. Our tour was conducted by a Beefeater (Yeoman Warder). The Beefeaters have been guarding the tower since 1485. They live in the tower with their families, and are locked in every night at 10pm (there is a whole little village inside the tower). Last September the Beefeaters gained their first female Yeoman Warder. To become a Beefeater you must have served in the army, royal marines or royal airforce for 22 years (people from the navy are not accepted as they do not swear to the monarchy), rising to the level of Sergent Major and having good conduct medals. The post seems to be an odd retirement position, being locked in at night and conducting tours during the day. They must go mad bellowing out the same poor jokes every hour, on the hour. In the tower we also saw the Crown Jewels (guarded in the tower since 1303, and including the largest perfectly cut diamond in the world) and the old armoury. Also interesting were the ravens of the tower. They are fed by the beefeaters (with beef) and their wings are kept clipped so that they do not fly away, due to the myth that if the ravens leave the tower, the city will fall.

After the tower Luke had to leave, but Lydia and I caught a ferry down to our next World Heritage site - Greenwich village. We wandered through the charming streets of the village, including the oldest brewery in Britian, and on the campus of Greenwich University. We then climbed up to the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. Interestingly, this used to be in the Tower of London until the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed complained about the ravens to Charles II. It was after Charles II ordered the ravens removed that he was given the prophecy about the city falling, so instead he moved the astronomers out to Greenwich. The highlight of the observatory is the Meridian line, the definition of zero degree longitude, and the clockwork defining Greenwich mean time. Afterwards we went back into town to meet up with Gwyn and Lyn for a beer at the Mason Arms, and then had a great pizza dinner with Luke and Shyla.


The political murals of West Belfast


Our navigation from the Giant's Causeway to Belfast was somewhat complicated by the large number of towns beginning with Bally- in this small region (the Bally- prefix means "town" in Irish) - Ballymena, Ballyclare, Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Ballyrashane, Ballyvelton, Ballybogy, Ballylintagh, Ballyleckan, Ballyvoy, Ballyknock, Ballynafie, Ballygelly, Ballyeaston, Ballynure, Ballypalady and Ballygallagh. Despite this, Luke drove through without a problem while Shyla and I dozed.

Belfast looks like a city still under reconstruction. The old churches and sites still looked shattered, groaning under the weight of neglect. Compared to Dublin, the city has the feel of a hard edge that is slightly unnerving. Walking through West Belfast in particular makes you feel uneasy. The heavy tattoos on everyone are not the body art of Seattle, but rather the political tats from the Troubles. The three decades of guerrilla war, IRA bombings and unionist suppression of Catholics have obviously taken a hard toll on the city. Whatever mistakes they made, the hard work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in forging the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland was a lasting good.

We saw the Peace Line wall, made to fence in the Catholics, and the Wall of Solidarity, where the Republicans show their support for other populations politically repressed by a stronger force, with murals painted by the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Basque separatists. And we saw the headquarters of Sinn Féin decorated with the quote from the famous hunger striker Bobby Sands "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children". A reminder that now the Troubles are over.

Following our visit to Belfast we drove to Drogheda, a surprisingly charming city with beautiful churches, old fortifications in the middle of the town and a lovely atmosphere to wander through. We had a nice dinner at a pizza joint and then stayed our final night just outside Brú na Bóinne. All up we drove nearly 700km across Ireland, had a brief, yet enlightening, taste of the Emerald Isle, and I got to catch up with dear friends.


Driving along the coastal highway of Northern Ireland

After a day of crummy food, Shyla had set rules for today - a traditional Irish breakfast with soda bread, and either a Sheppard’s pie or an Irish stew for lunch. Luckily, we were able to do both - and see the most stunning natural site in Ireland, the Giant's Causeway.

 We had to refill the car after our long day driving, and paid the most I've ever seen for petrol - £1.16/litre (that is $2.40/litre for Australians and $8.56/gallon for Americans). Although since Ireland is so small, I doubt most people have to fill up very regularly. We drove to Ballycastle for breakfast above a bakery, which was simply delightful. I had eggs and fried mushrooms, with a pot of tea and a fruit scone, while Luke and Shyla tried the Irish fry-up with soda bread. Just the smell whifting from the bakery was amazing. I haven't eaten such amazing baked goods since the last time I drove from Canberra to Adelaide and stopped in at the Narrandara bakery.

From Ballycastle to Carrick-a-Rede. Famous at Carrick-a-Rede is the rickety rope bridge which has been used by fishermen for 350 years. The bridge is now stable with iron cables, taking away any of the novelty, but it did make a good excuse to walk along the coast and out onto the bluff, seeing the nesting seabirds on the cliffs and the heath meadows framing the deep blue and turquoise ocean.

From Ballycastle we drove along the coast to the Giant's causeway. The Causeway is another of the three World Heritage sites in Ireland. It is a rock formation starting at the coast and diving into the ocean, formed by basaltic lava cooling rapidly, such that the contraction caused fracturing of the lava bed into hexagonal columns. The Irish legend about the Causeway is that it was built by Fionn mac Cumhaill in order to walk from Ireland to Scotland to fight Benandonner. After building the causeway he was so tuckered out he had to have a nap, and Benandonner crossed over the bridge for the fight. Fionn's wife Oonagh laid a blanket over Fionn, and told Benandonner than Fionn was just her tiny baby. Imaging how big Fionn himself must have been Benandonner ran back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway. In Scotland at Fingal's Cave there is a similar formation, representing the other end of the Causeway. The coast along this region was simply beautiful. We had perfect weather, deep blue skies and strong sun, the ocean was gorgeous and the rock formations were interesting.

To fulfil Shyla's second gastronomic imperative, we headed down the road to Bushmills to eat at the Bushmills Distillary kitchen, for Irish Stew, Shepherd’s Pie and Pasta Bake, washed down with Guinness.


Driving along the coastal highway of Northern Ireland

From Slane it was my turn to drive, the first time I have driven in two and a half years (and the first time in more than six years that I have driven a significant distance). I was rather relieved to find that it wasn't difficult at all to get back into the drivers seat (odd too, that despite living in the US for more than two years it still felt natural to drive on the left).

The plan was to head up to Belfast, see the political murals of West Belfast and then drive further onwards along the coastal road to Cushendall. The Irish countryside is very pleasant to drive through, lots of sheep and rolling green hills. Once we crossed the border into Northern Ireland (there is now no actual border crossing) it changed from sleepy little agricultural towns to more industrial and modern towns.

It was getting later than we had planned, so instead of stopping in Belfast we decided to just drive through it. Thanks to the complete lack of adequate signage, navigation was almost impossible without a detailed map - roads were not labelled, and when they were they used different names from the one on our basic road map. Eventually we managed to muddle our way out of Belfast, but not without cost to our congeniality.

The coast of Northern Ireland was stunning. We got to enjoy the long slow sunset and pink light over the Irish ocean, views of the mountains of Scotland in the far distance, and the smell of salt water. The towns we passed through were all quite cute, but from a gastronomic point of view strangely barren. We had given up hope of finding any food at all when we reached Glenariff which (oddly) had two late night Chinese take-aways open. The food was horrific, but it let us reach our hostel inland from Cushendall. At the hostel were no other tourists, just locals from Ballymena who came here on the weekend out of boredom. We shared a few beers and Baileys with them, try to stifle rolling our eyes at this one drunk girl and got some helpful advice on our following day.