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

Hidden Places: Castle Combe

Still lurking about in the Cotswolds, may I direct you to visit the little village of Castle Combe? This one is about 5 miles northwest of Chippenham, and is located in two parts. There is the narrow valley of the Bybrook River, where most of the chocolate box cottages live, and an Upper Castle Combe on higher ground where a modern motor racing circuit can be found. For today, we’ll be walking down into the lower portion.

If you’re coming in hopes of a castle, I’m afraid it’s long gone now. However, the 14th century market cross still stands, as well as two of the old village water pumps. In the same area you can also see some old stone steps near the cross that were used by horse riders to mount and dismount.

The village reached its economic height in the 15th century whilst under the guidance of Millicent, wife of Sir Stephen Le Scrope, and then Sir John Fastolf, who was the lord of the manor for nearly 50 years afterwards. The wool industry brought a lot of wealth across England, and did so in this village as well. In this case, Sir John Fastolf made a killing by supplying wool for Henry V’s war in France. Because of this business boom, most of the buildings that you can still see today are from the 15th century, with a few older buildings such as the Church of St Andrew built in the 13th century.

Castle Combe was once used for filming the musical rendition of Doctor Doolittle in 1967, and the residents became so irritated with the producers mucking about with their village that they attempted to sabotage the entire thing. Between the locals and the constant rain, the production had a rough go of it. It appears that filming shied away from the village for a few decades, but most recently it’s been seen in the movie War Horse and in an episode of Downton Abbey.

If you want to visit today, there’s a car park at the top of the hill. Be sure to bring your umbrella though, as it’s a decent enough walk and you’ll regret it otherwise. (We managed it!)  There’s a lovely inn you can stay in if you’d like a quiet weekend, and a couple of pubs to visit – of course. Apparently there used to be a little local museum, but my sources tell me that it’s been shut for a few years now. Pity! Regardless, it’s a lovely day trip, and I intend to go back sometime when we have more than a few minutes gap between rain showers.

 

— Kate

 

Hidden Places: Lacock

Everyone always goes to London when they come from America. I get it. It’s got all the big museums and attractions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to London. I love London. But if you want something old and beautiful and uniquely English, you need to go to the West Country to visit the little village of Lacock.

Lacock is in Wiltshire, about 3 miles away from the much larger town of Chippenham. Nearly the entire village is owned by the National Trust, and it fiercely maintains its quaint, historic appearance because of this.

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Pretty sure I’ve seen this in Harry Potter.

Lacock has been around since at least the time of the Domesday book, in which is was mentioned as having a population of about 175 people. There is an abbey in the village that was founded in 1232 and is frequently used for films as it is in fantastic shape. The village itself survived through the ages off the wool trade and being a crossing point for the nearby River Avon.

With the exception of the abbey, most of the houses in the village are from the 1700s. However, there is still a medieval church, a 15th century inn, and a 14th century tithe barn still standing. They’re all beautiful architecture, and it isn’t uncommon in the warmer months to find people using sites for wedding photos!

The Talbot family (of historical photography fame) have owned the village for centuries, up until 1944 when Matilda Talbot gave the estate to the National Trust. You can see the grave of Henry Fox Talbot in the Lacock village churchyard. Unlike other National Trust sites though, this is still a living estate! Lacock obviously thrives off tourism, but people live in the village and even have a small school.

Because the village is so fiercely maintained in its historic state, it makes for prime filming. Signs for businesses cannot be posted to the wall like any other town, which makes it easy to work into many different time periods and places. Among other things, you’ll have seen the village in Pride and Prejudice (1995), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and Downton Abbey.

All of this culminates in a gorgeous afternoon out, walking down the charming roads, having a pint in a medieval inn, and maybe even doing a bit of crafts shopping in the locally owned shops. Some of the houses will be opened during the day so you can get a feel for the interior of them, and some you can even rent for a holiday if you feel so inclined! I would definitely consider it as something slow paced to do, and a stunning base camp to go see the Neolithic attractions that Wiltshire is so well known for.

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Just a bit of medieval doodles. No big deal.
So if you’re looking for something off the beaten tourist path as an international visitor, I cannot recommend this place highly enough!

 

–Kate

Tea in Tetbury

So we recently stopped over in Tetbury to catch up with the lovely in-laws and ended up going out to see one of the National Trust homes nearby – Dyrham Park. The house is absolutely gorgeous on the exterior, surrounded by countryside, but the garden is what they put the most work into. Even in the bare beginnings of spring, you could see that the garden would be astounding. Historically, a goodly bit of time and effort have been put into the garden, so the National Trust have continued the works.

The interior of the home has many pieces of original furniture for the period, as well as some well done reproductions, but they have chosen to focus more on the educational aspects of the artifacts over the visual appeal. The National Trust have also only allowed access to the ground floor, which was a total bummer as they had some amazing staircases that just beckon to be explored. Perhaps at a later time.

In terms of historical merit, the park has been in existence since 1511, but some form of manor has existed there since at least the time of the Domesday Book. Because of the charter given in 1511, it meant that a wall could be erected and deer kept inside, which the owner would have exclusive hunting rights over. The name Dyrham actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word dirham, which was an enclosure for deer.

The Blathwayt family owned the house from 1689 until 1956 when the National Trust acquired it, but during WWII it was used for child evacuees. Multiple additions have been done over the years, including a greenhouse addition in 1701 and a 15-bay stable block that has been altered into the tea-rooms for visitors today. A section of the stables remain standing to get a feel for the space. The greenhouse is still in use today, and you can even sample some hot chocolate made with on-site grown fruits and spices!

There is a church adjacent to the property, St Peter’s, which is not actually a part of the National Trust. It has been in the area since the mid-13th century though and has many tombs and memorials for past owners of the house.

Fun fact for my Whovians – this house was used for scenes from the reboot sixth series episode “Night Terrors,” with the gigantic doll monsters. With the fog rolling in on the day we were there, I could easy see something eerie happening!

Also kinda cool was the historic recipe at the tea-room. Beyond the usual soup and sandwiches that you’ll find at any National Trust site, they were also selling a batch of ‘biskets’ that they had made off of a 17th century recipe. Normally I’m not a fan of anise in any form, but this was so faint that it made it really surprisingly lovely. It was like a mix of a shortbread biscuit and a biscotti. Would totally eat one again.

After our adventures concluded, we ended up going out to pick up some last minute shopping whilst the rugby was on and then all heading out for a super filling Italian dinner in town. We also ended up with a full sized rubbish bag full of M’s childhood stuffed toys to take home. The largest, a full sized Alsatian puppy, even ended up buckled into the back seat of the Little Red Mini. Sadly, such good news could not be said of the rugby match.

Unfortunately, the daily grind called us and we had to head back to the East of England Sunday afternoon. It was great to have a low-key catch up with the familials though. Now to plan when we can all meet up again next!

 

— Kate

 

Museum Job! (Autumn 2016)

So that great news I was hinting about last post? Well, after a few months of job hunting and a few interviews that followed, I was offered work at the Natural History Museum in London! Not only was I getting to use my degree, but I was also going back to being able to do 3D surface scanning like I did at my last museum!

I’ve been steady at work on a few different projects, some of which should hopefully be going live in the next few weeks so I can tell you all about them. All I can say for now though is that I am working in an amazing place with fantastic people, and that I have a really, really cool job. Honestly, the commute is worth it to do the things I get to do every day. 🙂

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My home away from home!

— Kate

Getting a Look at Norwich.

Holy crow, as my mother pointed out to me today, I am “a 26 year old WOMAN now. Engaged to be married and with two university degrees.” I don’t know when this all happened and I started to look like an accomplished individual, but it sure feels like it snuck up on me. It was a great birthday though! Had a laid back weekend with friends that made a seriously superb steak dinner and didn’t even do too badly when England lost to Wales in the Rugby World Cup. For the birthday proper, we stayed in and opened gifts, then had some takeaway curry and drinks. Low key with lovely people – just the way a birth-week should be. 🙂

Since I now have more time available other than sleep, commute, work, commute, eat, sleep, I’ve been spending more time getting to know the layout of Norwich. It’s such a pretty city, and while the weather is behaving I intend to make the most of it and get in those coveted 10,000 steps a day! I know there are also lovelies coming to visit over the winter, so I wanted to give them a good sense of what should be seen in the city and what can be missed if time restraints are at play. The city council actually has a pretty impressive heritage scene, but appear to have chosen this summer/autumn to work on a few of their “Norwich Twelve” historic places of note. As it stands, I’d rather just wait until the scaffolding comes down before trying to get photos of a few of them, like the Norwich Cathedral and Dragon Hall. They deserve better justice than I could currently give them.

In the meanwhile, I’ll be posting about 3 spots worth of a visit per post, even if I’m investigating more during the week. I can’t help but predict another week of biblical rain coming up, so it’s best to stockpile some. In absolutely no particular order or even places close to each other (gotta get the step count somehow), I give you – This Week in Norwich!

Firstly, there is a castle in Norwich, and it is lovely. It is said to be one of the finest surviving Norman castles in Europe. The castle was built in the 11th century as a royal palace for William the Conquerer with the huge stone keep being a symbol of the king’s power at a time when most new buildings were small wooden structures. The Norwich Castle mound is the largest castle mound in the country. From the 14th century the Castle no longer served the purpose of a Royal Castle and for the next 500 years was used as a prison. In 1890, the castle and surrounding buildings were converted into a museum.

In terms of a modern museum, you definitely get your money’s worth. They’ve somehow managed to combine a natural history museum, an art gallery, and a history museum together. Oh, and then they’ve got a separate bit just for the castle’s history. You’d definitely want the guided tour of the castle keep though. There’s a lot of history that they don’t really mention in the signs around the building. You can also pop in for lunch or tea without having to go into the museum, and they even offer picnic basket lunches when the weather is nice so you can eat outside on the castle mound.

Next, there is the Church of St Peter Mancroft. The largest church in Norwich, it is outfitted with a tower containing 14 bells and is unlike any other in the city. The building represents the most striking example of Perpendicular style in the country. There was a Norman church on the site before it was rebuilt between 1420 and 1455 as the building you see today. Inside the church, light can easily reach the single span hammer beam roof from the many large and beautiful windows – the most magnificent being the east window with its stunning medieval stained glass.

Though it’s in the middle of a busy portion of town, it is always quiet and soothing inside this building. They’re open every day from 10-4 and you are always welcome to come sit and pray, or to wander around quietly and enjoy the history and architecture of the church. It’s free to visit, but they’ll gladly take donations, and I’d highly recommend going in for a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

City Hall

A quick detour if you’re already by St Peter Mancroft and like newer architecture, City Hall sits right next door. In 1919, the city council had outgrown the traditional Guildhall, but did not want to demolish the building. A national competition was held in 1931 for the design, and was won by London architects Charles Holloway and Stephen Rowland Pierce. The clock tower holds the largest clock bell in the UK and the hall boasts the longest balcony in England. I think you can go in and tour, but I felt pretty judged for taking photos of the outside and didn’t feel like pressing my luck.

Finally, on a cheesy (or should I say mustard-y?) note, there is always Colman’s Mustard Shop & Museum. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Colman’s Mustard, this museum and shop was opened and become one of the city’s premier tourist attractions. (So says the council’s informational brochure anyway.)  It’s more like 75% shop, 25% museum, but it’s got some nifty facts about the company and more mustard kitsch than you could ever dream about. Have you heard of mustard foot soaks to restore your aching feet? Me either, but you can buy the kit! The shop/museum is in the middle of a really nice arcade shopping lane, so it’s worth walking by at least to enjoy the scenery along the way. Or you know, to get your mustard party on, I suppose.

More news next week!

— Kate