Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A trio of targets

Let's have a look at these mountains then. (Yes, it's another bloody Three Peaks post. Look, it's a big thing for me. Come back next week if you're getting bored).

Ben Nevis - apparently from the Scottish Gaelic beinn nèamh-bhathais, beinn meaning 'mountain' and nèamh-bhathais meaning 'too scary for English people to pronounce'.

Ben Nevis, or simply 'the Ben', or just 'Benny Boy' to it's closest friends, is at 4,409 feet the highest peak in Britain. At this point in the post I guess I'll lose the Nepalese audience.

People carrying out the Three Peaks Challenge tend to do Ben Nevis first, mainly because being in the Scottish Highlands means it's officially a Sodding Long Way from most places. I'll be there at 5pm on Saturday and it's a ten-hour drive to get there from our starting point. Seriously, this is a small country, how can anywhere be ten hours away?

Me and the Ben have some history. I want this one.

Scafell Pike - because we like to confuse people in this country, Scafell Pike is right next door to another mountain called Sca Fell. That's just cruel.

The summit was donated to the National Trust by Lord Leconfield in 1919. Which was a surprise, because the National Trust only wanted gift vouchers.

Being the less well-known and smallest out of the three, at 3,209 feet, Scafell Pike is like the ginger step-child of the Three Peaks. But it's the hardest, many say. There's no walk-in, you're straight into steep from the beginning. Plus it's normally hellishly rainy. Look, even English people have been known to say ,"Whoa, that's a bit much" while trying to climb it. That's rainy.

4am on Sunday. I'll be there, testing my waterproofs. If I manage this one it'll be massive.

Snowdon - never called Mount Snowdon unless you want to be run out of Wales. Mind you, you can be run out of Wales for a lot of things. In Welsh, it's called Yr Wyddfa. I have no idea.

Its English name came about, apparently, because there is often snow at the summit. Someone was clearly up all night in the Mountain Naming Institute thinking that one up.

It's 3,560 feet high but tends to attract the less serious day-trippers. It's not unknown for Mountain rescue to be called out to chaps wearing shorts and sandals with a Tesco carrier bag full of Red Stripe lager, each making for the summit like a tattooed Chris Bonington.

I aim to be better slightly prepared. I'll be there early on Sunday afternoon, if minor miracles have happened earlier on. If I get to the top of this one, I think I'll run out of words.

Shameless plug approaching. If you've been suitably impressed, a few quid would be very welcome. I thank you.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Sweating it out

Organising any outdoor event in this country means having to deal with the weather. It's a cruel, unforgiving mistress, the Great British Weather. It builds your hopes up, makes you think anything is possible, flirts with you and then leads you on. But then, almost on a whim, it leaves you crushed and broken, manning a lemonade stand at a windswept summer fete in Kidderminster while a torrential downpour of Biblical proportions lays waste to everything around you.

In no other country are weather forecasters afforded the same treatment by the general public; a mixture of disdain and blind faith. We're not sure we should be taking any notice of their forecasts, but in our millions we tune in regardless.

I've been paying quite a bit of attention to weather forecasts recently. Given the whole Three Peaks thing that I'm doing next week, I'd quite like to understand where I stand. Or, perhaps more accurately, where I collapse in a sodden heap.

Up until yesterday, I was holding out for warm and dry. Warm and dry would be good. Warm and dry would be preferable. Well, preferable to cold and wet, anyway. Warm and dry was what I wanted, up until yesterday. Up until yesterday.

Yesterday I went out for a few hours, planning on walking about seven miles. It was warm and dry. In fact it was quite hot and dry.

"This is quite nice," I said to myself as I set out, walking through a leafy forest. I was alone, the sunlight forcing its way through the leaves. So far so good. Then I left the wood.

Christ on a bike and Batman. It was like walking through a blast furnace. I was in open country, the breeze had died down, the sun was beating down. Mainly on me, or so it felt. All I could hear was my own breathing. What do they say about mad dogs and Englishmen?

A quick respite came when I found the shade of an oak tree and sat for a while. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? But I was whimpering gently as I necked a bottle of water in one go. Then back out from under the shade and the giant hairdryer was switched back on.

The last portion of the walk was about two miles along a canal towpath. The air was like warm treacle and I longed for bridges and tunnels to give me some shelter. I noticed with some alarm that my left hand had swollen up. That's not good, is it?

Eventually the finish line came. I limped to my car, wondering what a black car parked for three hours in direct sunlight would be like. I found out.

If it's like this next week we're going to struggle. Put it this way - while I'm not exactly praying for rain, I'm no longer worrying about it either.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Peaks and troughs

I must be mad.

Just before Christmas last year I mentioned that I was planning on doing a coast-to-coast walk this summer in aid of a good cause. Quite a few of you said generally supportive things. Which was nice.

Then I started doing a whole heap of walking around the English countryside in an attempt to get myself used to hiking long distances. Which had the effect of making me rather red-faced, while providing hours of free entertainment for passers-by.

The trouble was this, though. I soon calculated that walking Hadrian's Wall in six days would cost me something like £500 in transport and accommodation. This started to put the whole endeavour firmly into the category of 'Jolly Boy's Week Off'. It became difficult to justify. Seriously, I could have just written out a cheque to the charity instead and spent summer sitting on my backside, eating pies.

And believe me, I was tempted. But I'd lost my chequebook.

So instead I'm doing something else. In two and a half weeks time, I'm going to climb the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales, all on one trip and preferably within 24 hours. The good cause - Diabetes UK - remains the same.

And it would be great if you could spare me a few quid to make it all worthwhile. Don't worry, there's a widget on the right-hand side of this blog to remind you. Or I could just post the link again.

The National Three Peaks is quite a challenge, and I'm not really in great shape. So why do it? Well, my dad used to tell us that one should always try things out. "If you don't try you'll never know." (Mind you, he also used to say, "If at first you don't succeed, give up. There's no point being a bloody idiot about these things.")

But he had a point with that first comment. I have to try this. As I've said before, I'm tired of being the bloke who drives the van for events like this. Who organises the meetings and writes the communications, but doesn't pull on his boots when things start getting strenuous. This time I'm going to have a go.

And if you've got a pound or two going spare.....

Sunday, 13 June 2010

A good day, seriously

"You've written about the cake production," said Katie, "you've even written about utensil delivery. You can't not write about the wedding itself."

These words were delivered to me with a finality that was non-negotiable.

"Have you read my blog?" I countered desperately. "I try, more or less, to find something comedic in everyday life. I am wry. Everything was perfect yesterday - there was nothing I could poke fun at."

"Well, how about the setting up of the cakes we had to do ourselves? 140-odd cupcakes, delivered to the venue first thing and set up in a vaguely artistic way. Quite a job, that was."

"I think people are getting cupcake fatigue, Katie. I know I am."

"Well, OK then, how about the ceremony? Two people, pledging their lives to each other, making a life-long commitment..."

"Well, yes, I could do that. But it would be a little worthy, a little 'Last Two Minutes of an American Sitcom', wouldn't it? How about something about how sickeningly great they looked?"

"Well, you might get away with that, I suppose. But they'd look good in sackcloth, so that's not telling your readers anything."

"How about the reception? A fabulous hotel, a marquee, superb food, great company...?"

"It was indeed a great afternoon. Thing is, the amount wine that was flowing means I can't quite recall every detail. Hang on, though, wasn't there some entertainment?"

"The table magician and the fire-juggler? Yes."

"Outstanding. We made do with Paul's mobile disco for our wedding, if I remember correctly. There was quite a lot of Spandau Ballet. Possibly even Jive Bunny. It tends to suffer by comparison."

"So you see," Katie said, an exasperated look on her face, "there's plenty to write about."

"But I don't know where to start."

"OK, I tell you what. Just transcribe the conversation we've just had. Put some pics on. Then something heartfelt to finish."


"Yeah, something like how we've been married for 12 years and we're still finding out things about each other now. How they're about to embark on the biggest and best journey of their lives, and how they should just sit back and enjoy the ride."


"Oh yes, people lap that sort of thing up, you know."

"And you think I can make a meaningful blog post out of all that?"

"The important thing is that Matt and Kate read your blog. Get your laptop out."

I know my place. That's married life. And if you're reading this, Matt, you can have that one for free.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

There are only two syllables in England

The house diagonally opposite has a huge cross of St George flag hanging out of an upstairs bedroom window. There are smaller versions flying from small masts on their car. They are not alone. Over the last few days it's been difficult to cast your gaze anywhere without seeing an England flag.

It's World Cup time again. And, for one month out of every four years, a collective insanity grips everyone.

I say that like it's a bad thing. It's really not.

Let me state my position right away. I'm not a massive fan of football. I have a little difficulty with the offside rule. And I'm not entirely sure I'd want to spend too much time with professional footballists. (That is the correct term, isn't it?)

I'm also not into the public displays, the flags, the bunting, the t-shirts. This open, chest-thumping, tears-in-your-eyes form of patriotism - it's fine for other countries, just not very, well, English. I love the place, its history, landscapes, cities, culture, humour, people. But I'm well aware that nationality is an accident of birth. If I was born elsewhere I'd probably have similar feelings about that place. Well, maybe not Belgium, but you get the general idea.

But I don't mind other people indulging in all of this. Although if you're going to fly an England flag, please choose one that is a simple cross and doesn't have 'ENGLAND' emblazoned across it. We're not schoolchildren on Flag Recognition Day.

But here's the thing. Despite my lack of football knowledge, my quiet undemonstrative patriotism, I love all the stuff and nonsense that goes with events like the World Cup. For four weeks we'll all be united, gripped by dramas being played out thousands of miles away. We will sing silly songs, share outrage and delight, and maybe the odd beer or two. And we will, undoubtedly, find some tiny level of detail, some rulebook minutiae, over which we can obsess.

Sounds decidedly English to me.

Friday, 11 June 2010

I blame the Magnolia Bakery

There is a sweet smell throughout the house. Every horizontal surface in the kitchen seems to be a little sticky. And there's enough white powder floating about the place to get the Colombian Army marching to the moon and back.

Katie's been baking again. She's agreed to produce cakes for our friends' wedding tomorrow. A few years ago this wouldn't have been a problem. You'd make a little cake, a medium cake, a large cake. And maybe a larger cake, if you wanted to go really wild. Icing, decoration, place them on top of each other like a sugary ziggurat, and Bob's your uncle.

But these days the individual cake is the fashion. Which is why I encountered the following when I opened the fridge this evening:

Yes, they're vanilla cupcakes with frosting. But there's something ever-so-slightly menacing about them, don't you think? Like a confectionery army.

I had to close the fridge door as I could feel myself contracting diabetes just by standing there.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Heavy duty

What we will, inevitably, refer to in the future as Boxgate started as I arrived home this evening.

"Oh," said Katie innocently, "I took a delivery at work today for something I'd ordered. It's in the boot of my car, could you nip out and bring it in for me?"

"OK," I replied, skipping lightly out to the driveway. But as I approached the car, I wondered to myself. What has she ordered this time? Why does she need me to come and get it. Should I be worried?

I approached the car, remote control alarm plipper thingy in hand. What was I expecting to see there? Something scary? A Great White Shark?

Don't be silly. How could you fit a fully grown Great White in the back of a Mini? Oh, of course. Put the back seats down.

Plip. Open the hatch. Oh my God.

It's OK, I thought, it's just a box. But quite a big one. In fact, it's fair to say, bloody huge. Essentially, it would seem, my darling wife had simply driven home on a large cardboard box, with the functional bits of a car wrapped tightly around it.

I tried lifting the box. After a few seconds, lights started to appear before my eyes and my breathing was getting laboured. I went back into the house.

"How did you get that into your car? Did you, perchance, get them to leave it in the car park at work, then reverse towards it at high speed with your boot open?"

A small voice. "I might have used a trolley."

Eventually, after having mined a whole new seam of swearing, I got the box into the house. "What, exactly, is it?" I gasped.

"It's a food mixer."

"Oh, of course, I'm sorry. I must have been asleep at that meeting where we agreed we were going into the catering industry."

"Don't be a pillock. This is a Kenwood. I've wanted one of these for ages."

"That's lucky, because I wanted a double hernia, and lo and behold..."

You'd be amazed how sharp a dough-hook can be to the back of the head.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The rain god

In his book So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams briefly introduced us to a character called Rob McKenna. Known by his few friends as 'The Rain God,' McKenna, a lorry driver by trade, noticed that he was always being rained upon. The clouds seemed to love him, to want to be near him, to nurture and water him.

This made him quite a thoughtful fellow.

He kept a log of the perpetual downpour, listing all of the 231 different types of rain that he had encountered. He didn't like any of them. Eventually he made his fortune by hiring his services out to holiday resorts. He would charge them not to go there, thus keeping them rain-free.

I mention this because I think a little McKenna-ness has rubbed off on to me.

This afternoon I went out for a walk. It's something I've been doing more and more these days, as I attempt to get myself into shape. Or, rather, away from the shape I'm currently in. Circular is a shape, just not a particularly healthy one.

So I parked my car at the Heron's Nest, pulled on my walking boots and headed up the Grand Union Canal towpath in a vague northerly direction. The sun was out, the sky was blue. Narrowboats chugged along, families strolled past. And I was getting a few funny looks.

Everyone else was dressed for the weather. Shorts and t-shirts, floaty summer dresses for the ladies. There had been an outbreak of sandals. But I was wearing the Big Clumpy Boots. I had on my walking trousers and my special technical t-shirt designed to wick away moisture. (This latter item would later end up being ironic enough to qualify for an Alanis Morrissette lyric.) And I had a backpack.

At that point I must admit I looked a little out of place. And yet I strode on. Past the flight of locks at Knowle, ascending a gentle slope like a watery staircase. People smiled and said hello. Anglers sat at the bankside, carefully drowning worms. Things got a bit quieter until I was the only person around. I walked up to the Copt Heath Wharf, the M42 motorway above me a dull roar.

And then there was a little spot of moisture on my face. I walked on. Then another. And, quite soon, some more. The surface of the canal became a network of rapidly widening circles.

I was more than an hour from where I'd started, in open countryside. And it was raining. Bugger.

I slipped under a bridge and opened my backpack. All was not lost. I had a ham and mustard sandwich. But not only that! I also had a waterproof packaway jacket. I ate the former and put the latter on. It seemed the most logical approach to take.

I started back, swathed in Smug. The sandal-wearers were now struggling somewhat. They were scattering, running for what little cover they could find. I splashed through puddles, the raindrops bouncing off my jacket.

But then the rain got heavier. It was hooning down. It was like stair-rods. Even the ducks were getting a little tense about the whole situation. And there's nothing more depressing than a tense duck, let me tell you.

It was at this point that I realised that although my jacket was borderline waterproof, my trousers were not.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they were the very opposite of waterproof. My trousers were making me a current-day Rain God. I experienced all types of rain in that hour. The rain that gets in your eyes. That trickles down your back. That clings to the inside of your thighs. I was not having a high old time of it.

And then the thunder.

People who know about such things will tell you that you never hear the thunder before you're hit by lightning. Let me tell you, this is no help. This just means that the absence of thunder becomes very worrying. Particularly if you're the lone high-point in a particularly flat bit of landscape.

Eventually the rain lessened slightly, from Biblical to JustNotFunnyAnyMore. I squelched onwards. I came back to my car, now hemmed in by others, and played the 'Let's try not to get any moisture into the car' game. I failed miserably.

Sitting behind the wheel, I punched the button for the radio, only to hear a song by American band Puddle of Mudd. Ah ha bloody ha.

Oh, to be in England now that Spring is here.


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