It’s crazy how fast time flies and how things progress.

Honestly, I pay for this domain name. I need to stop abandoning it for long stretches. Also, if I keep it alive this year it’ll be a 5 year old blog. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a plant alive that long.

So. Anyway.

When last we spoke, it was the beginning of a long, dry, hot summer in the UK. We didn’t see rain here in Essex for over 50 days. It normally rains here at least once a week if that gives you an idea of how crazy it was. Ah, but ignoring the parched earth it was glorious. We roamed the local country park a few times both with and without picnics. We went to Mersea Island and played on the beach. We even accidentally came at high tide and had to drive through the sea a little bit. Don’t worry, the Mini did fabulously.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this summer was the need to leave the windows open as much as possible, especially at night to try and drop the temperature in our bedroom from 29º down to 25º (if we were lucky). During the daytime we mostly had to chase flies and the occasional rogue wasp out of the living room because of this, but then the Flying Ant Day Accident occurred.

Flying Ant Day is a strange British phenomena. Normally, these pavement ants do not have wings and are happy to live their lives underground. However, there is a point in the summer that they reach breeding season and all seem to grow wings and fly en masse. (Apparently it’s not just a single day and happens across the UK all summer long, but it’s still an impressive swarm when it happens near you.) This type of swarm is like midges or gnats, but much larger. They don’t really do anything to you other than get in your face, but in a swarm it’s awful.

HOWEVER, they do seem to like the light, very much like moths. And we have a streetlight outside of our bedroom window. “Well that’s a bit creepy to watch, but surely no harm right?” you say to me. Oh but wait. One of us accidentally left the bedroom light on when we’d gone up to open the windows and then shut the bedroom door so the cat couldn’t get out of the house.

Perfect. Storm.

M was still having a glass of water and otherwise getting ready for bed downstairs whilst I came upstairs to sort out my clothing for work the next morning, only to be confronted with something that looked like a scene out of a horror film. HUNDREDS OF FLYING ANTS ALL OVER THE ROOM. They were in the windowsill, the curtains, the lampshade, the bedding, the laundry, and all over the floor. They were crawling the walls and ceiling. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the horror of it.

My initial reaction was just to stare at them and then scream for M to bring up the fly spray. (Why I thought a can of fly spray would fix this I don’t know.) I stood, riveted in the doorway, somehow thinking that if I took my eyes off of the swarm that they’d all come down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Thankfully, M came up and had more common sense in how to deal with the scene.

Long story short, M emptied an entire can of Raid in our room and half filled a Dyson vacuum with flying ants before we went to bed two hours later, sleeping in the guest bedroom. Everything in the room that could be washed was washed, including the bedding that I had just changed that afternoon. 😥

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Plagues of ants and drought aside, nature decided to just get a bit rude in general. The heat spiked to new and exciting levels, and the train network is not currently equipped to deal with weather so extreme. This had happened last year and there was about a week that it was nigh on impossible to get on a train into or from London.

This year they did try to do some things to help with the heat. A lot of the rails in the stations had their sides painted white in an effort to drop the heat whilst the trains were at the platforms and prevent the tracks from buckling and warping. However, when the weather stations starting predicting a heat spike so intense that it could make new records, the train companies just decided “sod it” and preemptively cancelled trains at about 9:30 the night before. Awesome, right? At one point they could only run a train an hour from Colchester to London, and I’m amazed those trains didn’t get stopped more from overcrowding and overheating inside of them. It was insanity.

Supposedly, Greater Anglia is getting new trains out in 2020 and they’ll all come equipped with blessed air conditioning. Why do I feel like the seats are going to be even smaller though?

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When I was able to get into work, I was able to work on my last project as staff at the NHM. We’ve already processed all the Toxodon fossils that Darwin sent back from South America on his Beagle journey and posted them online, but the chance came to reunite two portions of a Giant Ground Sloth skull that haven’t been together since Darwin cut them into two pieces. Not only did I get to witness the event, but I got to scan said pieces! It was all very cool, and a fitting way to end my work.

You see, I had applied and been accepted to do a PhD at UCL whilst working alongside the NHM. But we’ll get back to that later!

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FINALLY, we got rain in Essex again. It took weeks for the grass to go back to green and the cracks in the earth to heal, but it was amazing to have it back. We joked that my mother in law is apparently a water spirit, as every time she comes to Essex it rains. If we’d have known, we’d have had them over much sooner!

Towards the end of the summer it was finally beginning to cool down, and the Heritage Open Days EU project kicked off, opening access to historical places that are either usually closed to the public or paid entry only. Most everyone went to the castle, but I had a list of some of the more obscure and usually closed buildings that I desperately wanted to see, and a husband with an infinite sense of patience for my love of all things old.

We were only able to do one of the open days, but in that day we went up and down Colchester and managed to see the inside of the Anglo-Saxon church (the oldest in town), the facade that houses the archaeological discovery of a Roman theatre (you can easily walk by it), the interior and the view from the upper floor of the old abbey gate (the only thing still standing of the abbey), and most of the structure of Tymperleys, home to William Gilberd, scientist and physician to Elizabeth I (and now a place with most excellent scones).

Autumn began to creep in with cooler weather, and with it came the time to go back to school again. I could have sworn I was never going to do a PhD, but here I am. In fairness, my future predictions have been pretty wildly off the mark so far, so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before the official start of term, all of us in the SEAHA program (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) convened in a village outside of Brighton for an induction into the way of things, and a chance to get to know and bond with our fellow students. I am so, so glad they did this for us, and not just because the hotel was amazing. Getting to know everyone in advance really helped make the first few weeks much easier.

One can’t stay in opulent hotels forever, and after the weekend retreat we were ready to begin lectures. Of course, this is SEAHA and we are anything but standard, so they included a trip to Stonehenge halfway through the first module, so we could write up a presentation in the second half about what we would do to modify the current A303 Stonehenge tunnel plans to make them better, using our mixture of experiences. It was more of a challenge than expected, but we ended up with new friends out of the experience and I can now tell you far more about the proposed tunnel project than I ever thought I could.

With autumn also came the harvest season, and this year I was feeling crafty. There are shedloads of sloe berries and growing on the side of a quiet road near the fields I jog past, and eventually I got up the idea to go harvest them and attempt a batch of sloe gin. You aren’t supposed to pick them until after the first frost, but the hot summer had rather killed a fair few of them, so I just picked them and froze them in the freezer at home to make up for it.

They were then added into a jar with obscene amounts of sugar, and of course, some gin. We left them to infuse until just before Christmas, then strained and decanted them out. Some have been given as little Christmas trinkets, with the firm advice that they’ll be better if they’re left until about mid-January to drink. I for one am excited to try ours out, perhaps mixed in with some prosecco, or even by making a proper sloe gin fizz!

As it does every year, my birthday snuck up on me. This year is the last year of my twenties. M thought it amusing to get a tiny cake and put 29 candles on it, so I brought out the fire extinguisher just in case. (Did you know you can buy fire extinguishers and fire blankets on Amazon Prime? Best late night purchase M’s made in some time!)

I didn’t really have any grand goals to achieve by the end of this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to do for my 30th birthday party. On one end, I could have a bunch of people around and make a big do of it, or it could just be the two of us on an adventure somewhere. I should probably sort it out before springtime.

Regardless, this birthday was a fabulous birthday, with cake, a new coat I’d been lusting after, and an evening out in the lovely medieval section of Colchester. 🙂

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Classes back in swing, birthday survived, and coats brought out of storage, we trundled into the cool autumn air. Except this time, I had friends from the US coming around with me! As is the Great American Tradition when coming to the UK, we managed to traverse across a wide swathe of the country in a little over a week. The two of them even carried on into Wales, but alas, I had to get some work done for the module. We did try to give them a weird and wonderful ride through bits of the country that not everyone goes to see on a typical tourist tour, but some things you’ve just got to see – like Stonehenge!

It’s always so exciting when people come to the UK, whether or not they’re coming to say hello. Being on an hour’s ride into London means it’s usually easy to catch up with people, schedules permitting. It was hard to part ways, but back to the States they eventually had to go, and the cat finally decided to come out of hiding and take up her roost in the living room again.

Module one was completed with much grumbling and typing, but completed successfully. I’m now at the tail end of module two, which had a bit of a twist to it this time. We had the option to do a basic laboratory procedure in the lecture hall, or we could liaise with our supervisors and do one elsewhere that might further relate towards the PhD. Needing to learn how to run an SEM and process photogrammetric data anyway, I opted to go back to the NHM. Over the course of two weeks I have learned how to dehydrate a specimen, coat it for SEM, run the basics of an SEM, and process photogrammetric images! It all sounds rather fancy for staring at a fly face for two weeks. I’m currently tweaking the write up of my experiment, and it goes in for submission next Monday. Looking forward to what the next module will hold!

In between modules, M and I left the country again. My parents were going to see one of our exchange students and her family, and they were kind enough to invite us to stay at their house as well. We took them up on their generous offer and ended up with an absolutely unique experience of the Netherlands that one could only get from a local, and got to see my parents! I would definitely like to go back to the Netherlands, but perhaps when it’s a bit warmer. Those winds coming off of the ocean have nowhere to go but straight into your bones.

Whilst there, we took a train over for a day trip into Germany as my mom had never been. It’s fascinating to see the sharp difference between the Netherlands and Germany, seemingly just across the border. We’d hoped to see the Christmas market in Dusseldorf, but arrived a little too early. It wasn’t a lost trip though, as we got to see the famous Rhine River and a painstakingly redone Altstadt, built back up after the war.

Christmas showed up soon afterwards in a big way. When not covering our house in tinsel and Christmas cards, we were out and about and enjoying the festive spirit of it all. Got the chance to pop into Paycocke’s House and the Grange Barn out in Coggeshall for their special Christmas hours. It really did feel like going back into Tudor Christmastime, and I only wish I hadn’t gone by myself as it seemed like it’s really meant for company to come along.

Getting closer to Christmas, we managed a long weekend journey up to York to catch up with our Northern friends. I probably should have known better than to go into the Christmas Markets in York, but we braved the crowds and found some fabulous little trinkets and all kinds of snacks! Even managed to score a table with seats in The Three Tuns at peak pub hour in the rain, of which I was far too proud. Finally, late into the evening, we saw the Shambles quiet and then took ourselves back to the AirBNB for the night.

And then before we knew it, the last few weeks had passed and it was Christmas! We went up to Manchester to celebrate at M’s big sister’s new home. It’s a gorgeous new build with a massive back garden. Their days of househunting really paid off. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of it, as I appear to have caught food poisoning off something just before we arrived. Thankfully the sickbed was comfortable and M made sure to keep a steady supply of Sprite, so it could have been far worse. Other than that hiccup, it was really good to see everyone, especially our ever growing nephew of whom nobody can rival in Marvel knowledge. Honestly, I’d call that kid first on any game show.

We got back home for New Year’s, had a quiet night of it, and then slowly dragged ourselves back into the real world.

So here we are, a lightning trip into the present. Now that I’m not on the trains for 4 hours every day, I should hopefully be a bit better about popping in every now and then. Until we see each other next, hope you’re having a good one. 🙂

 

— Kate

February, aka WHY IS IT STILL COLD Month

Right, so. Survived January, only just. I will have you know that the Dry January was under hilariously loose terms and that I only drank eight days out of the entire thirty-one. I have excuses at the ready and everything. There were two days with leftover champagne or prosecco, and we all know that it’s a travesty to pour these things down the sink. There was one Really Long Week that was rewarded with two pints of cider and a tot of rum. Our wedding anniversary was of course accounted for, and there was a birthday celebration in there at work.

Basically, my “dry” January should really be what the rest of the year looks like. I’m aiming to continue only indulging when there’s actually a social event and not just because I’ve made it to the weekend. My sleep is a much better quality, and weight loss is actually much easier to achieve. Shocking, right?

I tried starting up doing some jump rope this last weekend, but it was still raining/snowing and COLD AS ALL GET OUT. I did have plans to start with the new year, but I then managed to fall down a flight of steps at Liverpool Street and shredded my knee, so had to wait for that the heal up. Then the office head cold hit and I sat/slept on the sofa most evenings and complained bitterly about my lack of breathing out of my nose.

Final results at the end of the month: 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) lost

So what else happened this month?

Well, we discovered the BBC Big Cats programme was on, and Ophelia was ALL ABOUT IT. We’ve had to save the download as she loves watching it so much. Guys, we’ve turned the cat into a TV addict. We’re bad cat parents.

As mentioned earlier, our two year wedding anniversary came up! It’s hard to believe it’s been two years, but hopefully it always stays that way. We had a great week of festivities, and even managed to somewhat stay in the anniversary present tradition of cotton for the second year. Though I think really we ended up getting wool for each other. Eh, clothing. We’ll call it good.

Dippy finally went live on the museum’s website, so I’m finally allowed to talk about the 3D scan and print we did of him. Honestly, the print has been sitting in our office window for months now. He’s very popular to take selfies with. Been doing lots of scanning on another two projects in the meantime, which hopefully will be hitting the airwaves soon so I can tell you all about it. Needless to say, they are Pretty Cool.

In Boring Adult Life, we got a new IKEA wardrobe for the spare bedroom, and M heroically put it together over a Saturday afternoon. Slowly, our house is looking less like a visible hoarders home. Just don’t look under the beds or in the wardrobes. It did make a huge improvement to the room though, and has now banished all the cardboard boxes from the house except for the in the office. That will be the final frontier in our house for making a massive storage difference I think. All the remaining cardboard boxes need a sort through, and we probably need another bookshelf. After that though, the remaining piles of stuff around the house should evaporate. From there, we might even consider proper decoration of the walls and things. Heady times.

I suppose I’ll round it out with the weather, being an English institution and all. It keeps snowing and upsetting everyone, except children of course. So far the snow has gotten me stuck at home for two days because the trains were so bad, and ended up with a cancelled driving lesson. Even the cat is having none of this weather and has basically given up on any major adventures into the back garden at the moment. Storm Fiona came breezing in towards the end of the month and caused absolute havoc with all the London commuters, knocking down multiple trees, blowing cars around a bit, and gusting with such force that one had to walk with a forward lean to get anywhere. If it were in America, Jim Cantore would have been spotted nearby, reporting the current conditions to the Weather Channel.

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Finally though, it looks like there may be a hint of spring once this current frozen week ends. The daffodils and snow drops are sprouting, and the trees are showing a slight hint of buds on the tips of the branches. As of 10 February, the sunset won’t begin until 5 PM, meaning I may actually get to leave work with sunlight again. Definitely not counting down or anything (I am totally counting down), but by mid-March the sun won’t set until 6 PM and I might even get to see scenery on my train ride home!

So, this month is the No Snacks month. Wish me luck. Actually, wish me impressive weight loss. That would be much more useful than luck. Hopefully will write again before the end of the month!

 

— Kate

Offbeat Objects: The Great Bed of Ware

If you’re in London and the queue for the Natural History Museum is looking a bit too manic for you, pop across the street to the V&A Museum to see an Offbeat Object that you very well might have missed otherwise, and makes for a great tale. Today’s recommendation is – the Great Bed of Ware!

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Human on the side for comparison.

You may be thinking, “It’s just a big bed, what’s the deal?” Well folks, let me tell you the story of this bed. It’s 3 m wide (~10 ft), so already larger than a California King sized bed (measuring in at a paltry 1.8 m / 6 ft wide). History says that it could comfortably accommodate up to three couples in it. Allegedly twenty-six butchers and their wives spend the night in it for a bet once.

And not only is it gigantic, it’s pretty old. We aren’t sure of the exact year, but it was constructed around 1590. The first mention of it in writing comes from a letter written by a travelling German prince staying in the White Hart Inn in 1596. It was already 100 years old at the time of the 26 butchers stunt! It was likely always in the town of Ware until it’s movement to the V&A in 1931. The local inns purchased it off one another over the years as an Elizabethan tourist trap, as Ware is on the road between London and Cambridge. The bed was as famous in its day as some of the more unique American road stops are, like the giant ball of twine or world’s largest chair. One could even argue it was more famous than that, as Shakespeare used it in 1601 to describe something enormous in The Twelfth Night with Sir Toby Belch describing a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware.”

Moving it from Ware to London proved an interesting challenge for the V&A. The bed had to be carefully dismantled and packed up over six days. In total, it weighed 1413 pounds! It took another nine days to physically move the behemoth, and then required ten strapping carriers to porter it through the museum’s corridors. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been moved from its display since – but that’s mostly because it’s been a crowd-pleaser since arrival.

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Once a tourist attraction, always a tourist attraction.

On its display now, you can get very close and personal with the bed. If you do, you’ll quickly notice another thing about tourist attractions that seems to withstand the test of time – graffitied initials all over the bed. Visitors have carved initials all over the wood, or applied red wax seals with their stamps on it. Not even the lion at the top of the headboard was spared the indignity of a seal to the nose. Whilst it was probably pretty tacky then, it’s fascinating to see this 400 year old graffiti and wax seals up close today.

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Ye olde “RB <3s EH” kind of action going on here.

A final note – this is an authentic Elizabethan bed, and although much larger than most, it gives a great idea of how people of some means would have slept. The wood is mostly bare now, but conservators have found evidence that the carvings would originally have been painted. The busy scenes around the bed would have been meant to be enjoyed and looked at for some time. The bedding is obviously more recent, but has been made with period materials and kept to look as much like a bed of the time as we understand it to be.

It’s not often one goes to see furniture on a museum visit, but I cannot recommend this one enough. Also, if you’re big into Elizabethan era things in general, you’ll find that the bed is in the middle of a bunch of artefacts from the period. Now go! Find something new and obscure to tell your friends about!

 

— Kate