No one woke me up when September ended!

But seriously, that Green Day song has been the bane of my birthday for YEARS now. Oddly enough, no one mentioned it this year. This was finally the year I was allowed to sleep through September ending. Wild. So, what’s been happening?

Well, for starters we have a new and furry family member in our house! Her name is Ophelia and she’s the prettiest kitty in Colchester. (Significant Otter will argue the prettiest ever.) She spent the first week in our house hiding behind the sofa, and the next two only hanging out with us when we were sitting. Nowadays, she goes where she pleases and loves hanging out with us. This does lead to some comedic moments, like this morning when she accidentally fell in the laundry basket and nearly destroyed it getting out. However, she came out unscathed and came to purr on M’s legs whilst he tried to sleep a little longer.

I’ve also been on a bit of a museum binge (Surprising, I know.) recently and been to some new ones. My colleague managed to score some tickets to the Bart’s Pathology Museum, which is only open a few times a year. It’s a room filled with jars of human bits and skeletal remains. Basically, it’s disgusting and fascinating in the same go, and each jar has a little blurb of information on it, so you could easily spend a lot longer than your allocated hour there. It was originally used by the university as a teaching collection, but now the room is only ever used for exams. M says he’s sat some there and was wholly unimpressed. I loved it. Unsurprisingly, they don’t let you take close up photos of the specimens, but you can take room-wide shots. The room itself is cool just for its architecture.

Next was a staff field trip to our satellite museum in Tring. Someone described it to us before going as a Dead Zoo, and that’s actually a pretty apt description. Not in a terrible way, but I wouldn’t go if you have issues with taxidermy. It’s a small museum, but absolutely stuffed to the gills with specimens, and really helpful and friendly staff. Tring is a bit out of the way, but it’s definitely worth a stop. We got a fascinating backstage tour of the collections, and saw more eggs and bird remains in one room than I’ve probably ever seen alive in one area. They’ve got one of the best and most diverse collections for each, so if you’re researching birds, you’ll likely end up in the little town of Tring.

After a museum binge, I had two different work trips through September. First was the ToScA 2017 meeting, in which I had to give a talk on my work with the blue whale. It was only slightly terrifying, and I think it ended up okay. Over the three days, I met a load of interesting new people, learned some new tips and tricks in the tomography world, heard some cool new work going on, and got to have dinner on the HMS Warrior – the first ironclad ship built in 1860!

Towards the end of the month, I got to fly on one of the few uncanceled RyanAir flights up to Edinburgh to attend a Standing Up for Science workshop. While there, I learned all about working with the media as a scientist and how best to get work across to someone who will inherently not know what the topic is on. It was a really handy course, and I met even more cool people in varied fields with some fascinating works. It was a good month for meeting people! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to wander Edinburgh as I’d hoped, and was on the last flight of the evening home for a weekend with the family.

Towards the end of September of course, is my birthday! I was working late on the actual day, but the Saturday morning M and I had a nice lie in and then wandered over to the nearby village of Coggeshall. It was such a cool place, with over 300 listed buildings and two National Trust sites. I spent the day blissfully looking at old things, and my beloved M came along for the ride, enjoying a scone with me in the garden of the Paycocke’s House and a pint of beer at the medieval pubs I had earmarked. We ended the adventures with dinner at one of the pubs, which had a steak so good that I think we would both gladly go back the 13 miles to have it again. The weather behaved, my gifts from everyone were fabulous, and it was all in all a really good day.

Sunday morning began October, and with it my Sober October challenge. I’ve signed up to be sober for the entire month in order to raise money for the cancer support charity Macmillan. It’s a great cause and a good reason to give up alcohol for the month. I suspect by the end of it I will be a bit healthier and Macmillan will have a bit more to put towards helping people whilst they fight cancer. I’ll be taking donations all month, alongside of sorry looking photos of me in pubs with friends and a soft drink in my hand, so if you feel charitable, donate a pint’s worth to the cause. 🙂

And most recently, there was the car wreck outside of the Natural History Museum that had everyone in a tizzy. Turned out to be just a really bad taxi driver, and nobody had serious injuries. I wasn’t even at work when it happened as it was on a Saturday, and got woken up from a nap with my phone blowing up to ask if I’m okay. Grumpy yes, but okay. Honestly though, don’t let these things put you off coming to London. It’s a wild city with so much to offer. And if you want to see us here at the NHM, we’ve still got the Whales exhibition open where you can stand next to a flipper for a sense of perspective – and the ice rink will be opening soon!

All in all, it’s turning into a fine autumnal season. I’m looking forward to seeing what October will hold. 🙂

 

— Kate

Christmas 2016

Christmas snuck up much quicker this year. Suppose it helps being employed! However, M and I were quite pleased to have all the presents wrapped and accounted for BEFORE Christmas Eve. We were even packed up and ready to travel before strictly necessary. It was wild.

There were also all the Christmas parties in the world to go to during December. At least it felt like it. (Not a complain by the way!) So maybe that’s what made it feel like it was coming up so quickly. So many opportunities to wear my reindeer antler headband. Looking back, I can see why my jeans were so tight by New Year’s.

The husband had work until Christmas Eve, so we left the evening of and headed out to Tetbury. It was nothing short of miraculous that we managed to get our luggage, all the presents, and ourselves into the Little Red Mini, but it was accomplished!

It did make for a bit of a laugh when we finally arrived at the in-laws around midnight and added our presents to the pile. Seems everyone was feeling extra festive this year. After we got everything in the house, we snuck up to bed to get a few hours sleep before the youngest in the family woke up to Christmas magic. We almost made it until 7 am.

Gift opening took less time this year than last, but it was mostly due to a new opening system. That and everyone looked like they could use a nap before Christmas dinner. Post-present, post-nap, we all got dressed up nicely and came down for the Christmas feast. All the traditional foods were served, including the ever misunderstood Brussels sprouts.

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In case you wondered what they looked like in the wild.

Dinner concluded, the annual Christmas game began. It goes as thus – wrapped presents appear on the table. Everyone picks a number out of a bowl. Depending on the year, the person with the highest or lowest seems to go first. They pick a present, but don’t open it. The numbers go around with everyone picking a present in order. Then they’re all opened and the real game starts.

Unlike other varieties of this game that you will see, the family rule is that it continues until everyone is happy with their gift and no one else swaps for an entire round. This makes what could otherwise be a 20 minute game into a two hour event. Keep in mind, these are not high ticket items, but you’d be amazed the bargaining power of a cat head timer or a pack of wooden spoons. Bargaining and pleaded was completed, and we all headed to the living room for the evening.

The next day was Boxing Day. Tradition in this house is to do a cold cut spread, and this year it was EPIC. Keep in mind, there were twelve adults present, but there were still bits to nibble on the next morning.

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After two days in the house, M and I really needed to go for a walk, so we took a joy ride over to Cirencester and wandered the town. He ended up being dragged into the Corinium Museum to satisfy my never ending need to see old things along the way, but handled it admirably.

We did have a time frame to stick to though, as we were due at his aunt and uncle’s house for the belated Boxing Day party and (this year) murder mystery dinner!

After Boxing Day festivities, it all went quiet in the Cotswolds as we relished in that limbo period between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Most of the family headed out to Manchester to celebrate the youngest’s birthday, but we stayed behind as M had to be back at work too soon to allow it.

He did however plan to meet up with his friend from Leeds, who was currently in the area visiting his family. He went out to pick him up from the nearby town and I hung around the house, figuring I’d give them some male bonding time. Little did we know just how long they’d be gone.

I never quite got the same story out of both of them, but from what I gather, they were about 3 miles away from the house with groceries in the back of the car when suddenly M either overcorrected or just didn’t see it, but managed to hit a pothole. I only wish I could see this pothole, because the damage it did not only shredded the tyre, but upset the wheel too.

So the boys got to sit on the side of the road for about 2 hours as one AA van came out and agreed that the tyre couldn’t be reinflated, then a tow truck followed along to get them back. When they got to the street, the truck couldn’t go down it, so they had to take the poor limping Mini off the back of it and slowly drive it to his parents’ house.

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The poor car. 😦

The next morning, we got to call every tyre place in the region to find someone who could not only replace a tyre, but also a wheel. In Christmas holidays.

Miraculously, one was found that didn’t cost an arm and a leg, and we headed out only a day later than intended. It’s not a holiday without something happening now is it? 😛

Thankfully, the journey home was uneventful and the overall festive period was much enjoyed!

 

— Kate

New Car! (Autumn 2016)

Whilst M has been legal to drive since this last summer (Hooray for passing the driving test!), we’d been so busy that he hadn’t been able to actually acquire a car to use with said licence. That was rectified at the beginning of October when he bought his mum’s old car. We are now the proud caretakers of a fabulously British little red Mini!

M’s travel time to work was reduced, and we could now drive out to Sainsbury’s for our groceries on a bi-weekly basis rather than relying on a big grocery delivery once a week and sporadic runs to the nearby Tesco.

This also means it’s so much easier to get to see friends and relatives across the country, of which you will see in later posts!

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The Little Red Mini will become a solid companion over the next few months, with a few good stories revolving around it as well. 🙂

 

— Kate

Back to America, Part One (Summer 2016)

It was bound to happen eventually. Yes, I went back to America last summer for three weeks. Man, that was an adventure. 🙂

We began our journey in London, boarding on to a plane and sitting there for the next 10 hours. As it seems to be a tradition by this point, the significant otter had just gotten off night shift and wasn’t too fussed with the soon to be 7 hour time difference. I didn’t sleep quite so soundly.

However, we arrived in good spirits into Salt Lake City airport, collected our bags, and headed over to border control to enter the country. I’ve gotta say, it’s a pleasant moment to know that someone actually has to let me into a country for a change. My favourite person was a bit overwhelmed by the burly customs agent with his weaponry and questions about where we were going and who we were staying with, but I happily chirped the answers and he let us in with no trouble. I’m not sure why M seemed to think there’d be any trouble for an Englishman coming to visit America with his American wife. I suspect he just needs a baseline level of things to worry about.

We waltzed through the gates and back into the land of my birth, headed towards the car rentals. The doors opened and we were immediately hit with the dry, hot, oppressive air that is Salt Lake in late June. I thought it was glorious. The husband thought he had walked into an oven. Perhaps 97°F (36°C) was a bit much to introduce to the sweets straight from England, but we were going to be in a desert in some form for most of the trip, so I suppose it was best he learned then.

The hotel we crashed at for the evening was across the street from a Cracker Barrel. Of course we had to go in. He needed to witness the American-ness that is Cracker Barrel. And to see what a proper US biscuit was. He survived on a steak and I revelled in the fried chicken. It was a win for all. After dinner, we popped over to a Walmart for his second American experience and picked up some supplies for the next day. I have to say, I was disappointed he wasn’t particularly shocked by it.

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The next morning we were both wide awake at 7:30 thanks to the jet lag, so we decided to go see the Salt Lake before the temperatures rose. I remember visiting the lake last in a cool March afternoon, and forgot some of the things about Salt Lake that are wise to remember.

  1. It is indeed salty, but doesn’t have the tides like the ocean. Therefore when hot, it smells quite strongly of fish and salt spray.
  2. It is really, really sunny in Utah.
  3. The midges like to take over the edges of the lake on nice warm days. Like Biblical swarms that you don’t see until you walk into their lair and they all start to fly away.

On the plus side though, it’s still a phenomenal thing to witness in the middle of a desert, surrounded by mountains. It’s also still beautiful, and the water was lovely to stick your feet into. 🙂 We explored the perimeter near the Salt Air building, then took the causeway over onto Antelope Island inside the lake. There are bison roaming the island! M took it as a mission to try and capture one on camera. I was content to just drive and enjoy the breeze.

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We went back into the city when the afternoon arrived and had a wander around the area for the rest of the day before calling it an early night. When in Rome and all that meant that we had to go look at the Mormon temple. It’s honestly not as big as the photos all make it look, but it’s very distinctive in the centre of a bunch of modern city sky scrapers.

The next day I woke up sunburnt to a crisp, whilst the sensible husband was fine from his constant slathering of sunscreen the day before. Thankfully we had a bunch of water in the back of the car from the shopping before, and so we continued our journey out of Salt Lake City and down into southern Utah to see Zion National Park.

If M thought SLC was bad, he didn’t know what he was getting into. When we arrived into Zion it had reached 107°F (41.6°C) and the park rangers had put up warning signs everywhere to drink loads of water. Even the local wildlife was parched.

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We started at the top of the canyon and drove inwards, then carried on through and explored through the Zion Canyon at 3,000 feet deep on foot. The top of the canyon is entirely desert, but in the basin where we were was forest and the North Fork Virgin River. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go into the Narrows this trip, as we were just too hot to safely continue walking long distances. Zion never fails to feel like an otherworldly experience though. It really does feel like stepping back in time, and the photos never do justice to the actual sight. I cannot recommend the park highly enough.

 

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As the sun slowly began to drop in the sky, we left Zion and headed to St. George, Utah to sleep for the night. We had found this really interesting place called Inn on the Cliff online and booked it because A) it had a beautiful view and a connected restaurant and B) it was next door to a private airport and M wanted to peep at any prop planes going through it. It turned out to be probably the best hotel we stayed in on the vacation, and I wish we’d had more than a night there!

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The view from our room.

Day three began and we got to watch the £ plummet in value. Oh yes, Brexit happened the first day we arrived. Yeah, that was only slightly traumatic.I don’t think any of the English family are still overly keen to discuss it at any get togethers. We felt a bit separate from the world at that point though, going from one desert wilderness to the next. Sighing at the news and packing our bags, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Just like Zion National Park, photos do not do justice to Bryce Canyon. Oddly enough, the area is not actually a canyon, but a massive collection of giant natural ampitheaters along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. These are filled with distinct geological structures called hoodoos, which have been formed over the years by the constant cycle of snow, rain, water and wind. Though only 70 miles away from Zion, Bryce is much higher in altitude with the rim varying from 8,000 to 9,000 feet. It doesn’t feel like it when you’ve driven up to near the top of the rim, but you certainly feel it when you start walking and gasp like you’ve been running.

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After catching our breath and marvelling in the natural beauty, we reluctantly got back into the car and started to drive towards Salt Lake City again. I’ll leave you here in this tale and continue next post!

 

— Kate

 

Newark Park at Eastertime (Spring 2016)

Slowly working my way through the backlog of the year. Our next major trip wasn’t until Easter, when we packed up our bags and drove to the Cotswolds to see the family. We also learned on this trip that when you hire an automatic car in the UK, you pretty much just get whatever they have as most people here drive manual cars. Normally I have ended up with the tiny Vauxhall Corsa I asked for, but this time all they had was a Mercedes C-Class. And they would have to charge me the rate for the Vauxhall because I hadn’t requested it. Oh darn.

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It was a fantastic Easter weekend with the family and we decided to make the most of it by going to visit the nearby National Trust site of Newark House that Saturday. M had just gotten off night shift the day before and was much keener on some sleep, so we left him to snooze for this one.

Newark Park is up a windy country road on the top of a hill, but it has an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. It’s a Grade I listed country house built between 1544 and 1556. It sits on 700 acres of unspoiled Cotswold countryside and gives a view that looks similar to how it would have centuries back.

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The house was originally a three storey Tudor hunting lodge with a basement that belonged to Sir Nicholas Poyntz, a Groom of the Privy Chamber to Henry VIII. It was called the “New Work” and was partially built with materials from the then-recently dissolved Kingswood Abbey nearby. The lodge has been altered over the course of the centuries, but it still remains as the eastern part of the present building.

The home passed through a few hands over the years and eventually became a rental property in the 1860s. It stayed this way until 1949 when it was given to the National Trust. Unusually, the Trust did not open Newark Park to the public, but instead let it out as a nursing home. This continued until 1970 when the estate was declared in disrepair and it was taken on privately by an American architect, Robert Parsons. It was due to his efforts that both the house and the surrounding grounds were restored and its Grade I listing was achieved.

 

The house is still managed by the National Trust and privately occupied, but you can go visit the cafe for tea and enjoy the beautiful grounds. We took it as a chance to go on a grand Easter hunt around the estate!

 

— Kate

How To: Get Around With No Car

Getting around without a car in England was something I was looking forward to, coming from a town in the US where the nearest grocery store was 2 miles away and the main shopping area was close to 3. This however is entirely dependent on how close to (or in) a city you live, though even if you’re in the countryside you can get by with just buses and trains if located in the right spot. Even in the cityscape, you have 4 main options: buses, taxis, trains, and feet.

Buses

Buses in Leicester are next to useless if you live near the city centre, as all of the buses terminate in the centre. This means if I wanted to take the bus to university that I’d have to take one to the city centre (going the wrong way!) and then wait for another one to take me the correct direction towards the campus. If you time it right and don’t miss your connecting bus you’ll get in at … exactly the same time as if you had walked. Needless to say, I don’t bother with the buses in Leicester unless I’ve got arms full with grocery bags or am visiting a village on the outside of the city.

However, buses can be useful in other cities. The one in Colchester is useful for the days you really don’t want to climb up the steep hill to the High Street, and they have a few lines that run across the town. How convenient! The only major issue with this is that (in any town, not just Colchester) you need to know the name of the stop you’re getting off at before you get onto the bus so you can pay the right fare. There won’t always be information as to where each bus line goes, so be prepared to look up this information on your phone ahead of time or brave the possible wrath of a disgruntled bus driver and a queue full of people who would really like you to just not get on.

Taxis

Taxis, while not something I’d use on a daily basis, are not nearly as expensive as you would think, and are sometimes very much worth it. Coming home from the other side of town late at night or with a suitcase is well worth the £6. You forget just how much you rely on your car until you don’t have one, as I have a time or two coming home late. If you can, call a private company in town as the famous black cabs are also generally the most expensive. They’re also the only ones that are legally allowed to be hailed off the street, so sometimes they’re worth it on that alone. It just depends on what you need. In this day and age it’s not so much an issue, but still make sure you’ve got cash on you for these rides just in case (and exact change if you’re going to use the bus!). Also be prepared to tip your driver. The tipping culture is much less extreme here than in the US, but there are still times when it is proper.

Trains

Trains I’ve spoken about before, so I’ll mostly just link you back to that entry. With that stated, trains are my main mode of long distance travel around the country. You can still have some trouble getting certain places though, especially if it’s a small village. You’ll need to prepare to catch a bus or get a ride from someone (or even hoof it) in these cases. This should be factored in to getting BACK to the train station too. Also worth noting is the power of the advance ticket. If you know for sure that you’ll be traveling on a certain day at a certain time, it’s well worth buying a ticket in advance. You can book them up to 12 weeks beforehand, and the sooner you do, the more likely you’ll get a great deal. Add in discounts for going at odd/off-peak hours and having a 16-25 railcard discount and it makes traveling much more feasible.

Feet

So you’re getting ready to go somewhere with no car. We’re going to say just in the city this time, as this is the day to day you’ll deal with. You need to become adept at knowing EXACTLY how long it takes to walk to get somewhere. Google Maps on my phone is generally pretty spot on for estimating walking times (24 minutes to campus!), but it’s always wise to pre-walk the path ahead of time or plan extra time to arrive somewhere when the timing is important. You also need to consider the importance that you will no longer have your car to act as a storage unit. You will become your own pack mule and either learn to travel light or develop new tone to muscles on your back and legs.

A good backpack is a must! At first I was hesistant and tried to get by with my crossbody messenger bag, but even the best of them can’t compete. It’s very common to see people with backpacks on though, even if they’re otherwise dressed really smart, so don’t worry about looking odd for it. Also, this should be a no-brainer, but make sure your bag is waterproof. Umbrellas don’t always cover your back side all the way and no one likes soggy papers or (god forbid) a wet laptop. Along this vein, make sure you either carry your lunch separately or be really confident in your food storage. You’ll always be in the worst spot when the broccoli juices leak out and there are rarely ever paper towels in the bathrooms here.

This bag logic will also inevitably spill over into your grocery bags. There are pros and cons to both though. When it comes to it, plastic bags:

  • Cut off blood circulation to your fingers, unless carrying very light items
  • Can’t be slid over the shoulder
  • Always have a chance of breaking due to weight strain or sharp object edges making holes (cereal boxes are notorious)
  • Bang your things around more, which could be devastating to your bananas and/or glass bottles
  • Some places make you pay for using them, to try to get you to be more eco-friendly

Reuseable bags are however:

  • Generally more comfortable (unless overstuffed and then they like to slide off your shoulders)
  • Fashionable or let you show off your favorite things/places (I’ve resisted the urge to pick up many reusable totes from the museums we’ve visited this year)
  • You have to remember to have one with you when you go out, which you sometimes won’t when you pick things up on the way home
  • Usually pretty good about not upsetting the self-checkout machines
  • Great for rescuing laundry, toting things to friends’, etc.

With this in mind, you’ll start changing your shopping habits a bit. The giant hauls of food don’t happen so often when you realise you have to carry it back. It also helps curb any therapy shopping too when you have to lug it all around town and back home. In general though you’ll just be walking around more, so it won’t feel like much. You just kinda learn to plan your life around it. You get in the habit of walking home with people or calling people up to make the walk pleasant, which is really nice. You can also plug in and tune out with music or podcasts. Regardless, you’ll adapt quickly and if you wear a pedometer you’ll find that reaching those healthy 10,000 steps a day is actually pretty easy to do. You’ll also find that you can in fact walk your bum off, but that it makes finding jeans SO much simpler.

In short, while having a car is really nice and I do miss it on occasion, getting by on foot is entirely doable in Leicester and I love it. At this point I wouldn’t want to drive on a daily basis. Anyhow, it’s getting close to dinnertime and I should probably go find something to cook. Talk to y’all later!

— Kate

ministry of silly walks