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. 😥

IMG_1020

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?

IMG_1310

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!

IMG_1332

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. 🙂

IMG_1723

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

Trip to Manchester (Winter 2017)

Another Friday off, another great journey into the North. This time around, we went for Manchester to celebrate the nephew and sister-in-law’s birthdays. Learning our lessons from driving to Leeds, we did not get off the motorway in hopes of avoiding any traffic jams. We made it to Manchester in good time, but then nearly ended up in the centre of it when our sat nav decided we should start making illegal U-turns on a busy road.

However, we managed to turn around in a bingo hall car park and get to our hotel for the evening in one piece. Everything settled and unpacked, M and I were taken to his sister and brother in law’s house. Our nephew was super excited for his party with classmates the next day and was telling us all kinds of new Harry Potter facts. The party was epically themed to Harry Potter with all credit due to my crafty sister in law A. The wee one quizzed us on our Potter knowledge all through dinner and until he was put to bed. I was excited he was honing in on a fandom I could compete with this year!

We got back to the hotel later in the evening and were sorely tempted by this majestic creature in the hallway –

IMG_3328

Somehow though, we resisted and went to bed. Tomorrow was a double birthday celebration after all.

We all made it to the nephew’s party somewhat on time, and were promptly put to work. Not only were M and I made prefects of different houses, we were also to put together some magical book bag parting gifts and produce a cut up birthday cake. A still managed the lion’s share of it all though, keeping all the kids occupied with games and stories and making sure they were fed. From the noises coming forth from the other room as we were on cake duty, I can only guess that the kids all had a great time of it.

IMG_3326
M did try to write an H in candles. Still, Haribo cake? Awesome.

Birthday mischief successfully managed, we all helped tidy and get the new toys carted back to the house before splitting up into groups again. M desperately needed a nap after all the child minding, so we hung about the hotel for a bit until it was time to go back to A’s for her birthday celebrations.

This time, the poor nephew Super Child was not coming along and he wasn’t too pleased about it. His babysitter arrived and put him in good spirits though, and we took that as our cue to head on over to the pub we were having dinner at.

It was a lovely evening out with the portion of the clan that were all in attendance and the food was super filling. I think we were all still a bit tired from the party earlier though, as we only managed the evening and not late into the night.

The next morning we tried to rectify this by going to a trendy new breakfast place in town called Brezo. It had a very boho atmosphere and the food was good, but man was it popular that morning.

By the end of the meal, we were all full on food and new Harry Potter trivia, and so we walked back to their house to digest and decide our routes for the day. The husband and I decided it was best to be off soon if we wanted to miss the rush at the afternoon, so we hopped back in the Little Red Mini and headed back towards Chelmsford. It was a short trip to see the family, but it’s good to see them all doing well.

 

— Kate

Trip to Milan (Autumn 2016)

Shortly after moving in, we got word from my parents that Dad had a conference in Milan the week of my birthday and that Mom was thinking about going along too so she could visit Italy. We did some quick research and found that flights from London to Milan are relatively cheap, so booked it up and planned to meet up with them at the end of September! Time flew past and soon we were through customs, off the train, and walking into central Milan.

IMG_1387
Our base camp for the next few days.

The bit of the city we were in was relatively modern, but there was a wide array of history to be found in Milan during the week. M and I had arrived a day before Mom and Dad, so we had a little tour around the centre of the city to see what there was to see – without visiting all the touristy bits we knew Mom and Dad would want to come along to as well. We stumbled upon a statue of Leonardo da Vinci, whose famous Last Supper painting is in Milan. (We regretfully didn’t book tickets far enough in advance to see it. 😦 ) We also had a nice wander through the massive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. It’s named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy and was built 1865 – 1877. It’s still actively in use today for the same purposes.

M and I called it a quiet night with just the two of us and waited to catch up with the parentals. The next day we went hunting for history with Mom (Dad was at his conference) and found a rather macabre church nearby that of COURSE we had to go see – the San Bernardino alle Ossa. The church itself is standard Catholic beauty, but the small side chapel is a whole other ball park. The chapel was originally built as an ossuary in 1210 when the nearby cemetery ran out of space. A church was attached in 1269, but the bones were left be until 1679 when it was transformed into a chapel and the bones collected over the years were used as decor in the Roccoco style. You have to ask to be taken to the chapel, but it is still open to visitors today.

From there we thought it might be best to take a trip back to the living, so we headed out for lunch and then left M at the hotel so Mom and I could check out our very first cat cafe. It was all you could hope for and more! The cats were all very sociable and we had little furry friends hanging out on the sofa with us as we drank tea and split a slice of cake. The staff have to give you a warning not to feed the kitties, but that was easy enough. Man, if I had a cat cafe within easy reach of me, I would definitely be there all the time. So much fun!

 

We spent the evening back in the Milano Navigli district where Mom and Dad were staying and all met back up for dinner at a Texas themed rib joint. (Hey, why not?) After dinner, we strolled around the canals and had a nice night outdoors. It’s a really trendy part of the city, and a great place to go in the evenings – though very popular, so book ahead.

IMG_1496

Bright and early the next morning, we dashed across town via the Metro system and made it to the train station just in time to catch a train to Switzerland. We’d heard Lugano was just as lovely as Lake Como and only half as busy, and Mom thought it’d be fun to check two countries off her list in one trip – so off we went! Mom and I were rather disappointed that they didn’t bother to check passports, as it meant no new stamps for us.

Still, Lugano proved to be exactly as gorgeous as everyone said it would be, and very quiet.

 

We mosey’ed about for the afternoon, had lunch, and then climbed back up the side of the foothills to the train station to go back to Milan. Went out for dinner, then got the parents into an intense round of Pandemic back at their hotel. If you haven’t played this board game, you really should give it a try. You can play with 2-4 people, so it’s great for couples or groups. There’s also a ton of expansion packs, so you always have something new to add to it. For this round though, we just went with the original so we could teach everyone. It was a good night. 🙂

The next day was my birthday, and a day Dad had off from the conference, so we went out to do all the touristy bits in the city that we’d been wanting to see. It wasn’t even breakfast before I was dragging people to look at some Renaissance era buildings that we walked past.

The big deal for the day though had to be the Duomo, or Milan Cathedral. This building took nearly 600 years to complete and is the largest church in Italy. The roof is open to tourists and allows a close up view of some of the beautiful architecture that would otherwise go unnoticed at such great heights. The view of the city at the top is nearly as breathtaking as the building itself.

 

Inside is a world of history. The construction began in 1386 with the demolition of older buildings on the site. Construction began quickly and already famous artwork was created for the site, including the tomb of Pope Martin V in 1424. In the 16th century the building was still not completed, but the Spanish domination of Milan put it to a standstill and made the cathedral usable in most respects. The next major works did not begin again until the 17th century. Due to this, the cathedral contains a wide array of styles bridging through the time periods. The cathedral was finally declared completed in 1965, even though there are still some uncarved blocked that are meant to be statues. Regardless, this is an impressive building, and it even contains the remains of not only a saint, but reputedly one of the Holy Nails from the Crucifixion of Christ.

The cathedral is not only the centre of Milan now, but apparently is on the spot of the centre of the Roman Mediolanum. A paleo-Christian basilica was discovered underneath the foundations of the current building that date to 355. You can still see and even walk into the remnants of the old octagonal baptistery.

Feet utterly aching from walking for hours, we took a breather and then all regrouped for birthday dinner at this hole in the wall place that looked authentic as all get out and proved to be utterly delicious. Let me spare you talking about all the food we had during this trip and just give it to you all at once. Good lord, I think I gained ten pounds, but it was all so good!

The morning dawned, and we were on our last day. Determined to go find something Roman whilst in Italy, I then dragged my beloved family across town to go look at the Roman Museum and nearby amphitheatre remains. Got my Roman fix, and got some bonus Etruscan artefacts in there as well. Score!

With that, M and I had to head out before Mom and Dad did, so we all got in a ton of hugs and parted ways towards the airport. It was such a great trip being able to catch up with my family and see some history on the side! We flew back to the UK, which was significantly cooler than the Milan we left. We were coming through customs and I told the guard how glad I was to be home, with which his response was a gloriously sarcastic, “Well you say that now.”

Never change Britain.

 

— Kate

A job! A job! (Spring 2016)

After many an adventure over the winter months, spring rolled around and finally I found a job. It was temporary work through an agency, but it was a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, the place I was sent to was reorganising and the local branch was being closed down by the end of the summer. Reasonably enough, a lot of the staff were heading elsewhere for permanent positions, so I was brought in to fill the gaps until the bitter end.

You don’t realise just how bleak being unemployed is until you are in the situation. It’s nice for a bit and you catch up on all your sleep and bad tv, but eventually you start to crack. I dunno, I just need to be doing something productive with my time and I’m not a particularly crafty person. I desperately needed to be out and doing something. When this opportunity came up, I was over the moon.

I’m so glad I took the position. The staff were all so friendly and took me under their wing. Even though they were all about to be spread across the city like seeds in the wind, they were all so lovely and kind to the end. It was really like a little family. Also, there was cake nearly every other day with everyone leaving, having birthdays, or doing fundraisers. You can never speak ill of a place with lots of cake. 😉

img_0297

I’m still in touch with a lot of the gals online and am pleased to say that they all appear to be doing really well with themselves. I mean really, I would expect nothing less from those fabulous ladies. 🙂

— Kate