Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

First major museum field trip! We were given a section at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival alongside a good handful of colleagues from around the museum. Our demonstrations were on 3D surface scanning and creating 3D images and prints within the Natural History Museum. But first, I had to get there.

Had a bit of a hiccup Wednesday evening. I had already intended on doing half a day in the office and then heading back up to Chelmsford on the train so M and I could drive down. Unfortunately, either I straight up lost my season ticket holder or someone nicked it. Regardless, I ended up halfway to Liverpool Street Station via the District Line before I realised what had happened. Apparently if you come up to the station staff at the barrier gates with a concerned look on your face and tell them you’ve lost your Oyster card, they’re really pretty helpful. Greater Anglia, not so much. The lady at the desk was lovely enough, but unlike TfL they won’t just replace your lost/stolen card. Even though it’s a SmartPass and all the details are saved in the system that prove it’s me. They were kind enough to freeze the card and let me buy a single ticket home. Ugh.

Thankfully, the monthly passes were both set to expire before I got back from travelling anyway, so that wasn’t too awful. Even better, my manager is a saint and let me work from home for the half day. Probably for the best, as we were definitely not packed the night before in any useful amounts. Eventually, the significant otter left the hospital and we packed up the car to drive the 4.5 hours to Lyme Regis.

The drive was gloriously uneventful and we made it in around 10 pm. Everyone else was already at the cottage and set up, so we all caught up and then headed to bed. It was due to be a busy day the next day.

IMG_4376
The view from our cottage room Friday morning.

The next morning was our schools day. Constant streams of small children in washes of different coloured uniforms poured through the doors. Most had the level of excitement and attention you’d expect at that age, but some were genuinely thrilled by the prospect of 3D and microscopes. It’s a beautiful moment to watch the beginnings of a small scientist. 🙂

M had of course come down with me, but obviously wasn’t part of the museum so enjoyed a nice lie in and a wander around the town while the rest of us were up at the Fossil Festival location. At lunchtime I got a break and he and I wandered around together and enjoyed the distinct lack of rain (It’s either full on or off at the English coast. I’m convinced there’s no in between.). This year, the Fossil Festival was being held across the town rather than in one location, so we went to see what other groups were doing, between strolling the beach and eating chips cautiously. (Seriously, the seagulls were downright predatory if you weren’t careful.)

It was a trip to the pub after the event wrapped up for the night and a game of skittles, then a slog up the 14% incline of a hill back to our cottage. (Views like that don’t come for nothing!) The next day was our busiest day of the weekend, and we went out in full force. We scanned objects from fossils to children’s wellies, and showed 3D images from microscopic to full size. The public engagement and honest excitement and interest was fantastic. We guessed from rough estimates that we had probably 230 people come and chat with us.

There was a brief lull around lunchtime, probably due to the lovely weather and hungry children. That was quickly rectified though with an inflatable T. rex costume and a walk down the pier. People seem to want to know where a dinosaur and giggling museum staff are headed. Who would have guessed?

Before we all set off for another trip to another pub for food, it was mandatory for me to go see the grave of Mary Anning. You see, Mary Anning was one of the pioneers in fossil collecting and helped to change the views on what prehistoric life even was. Of course, she was ignored in her own time, despite her accomplishments, and didn’t even get a grave to herself. Instead, she is buried with her brother. Still, she was a really interesting lady that you should read into if you have a free moment. She is the “she sells seashells on the seashore” inspiration behind the tongue twister!

The evening was spent roving the town with my colleagues and M, eventually ending up at a party held at the house of a local fossil collector. I’m still not entirely sure how so many people ended up in such as small area, but it was a riot of a time. Because I am an old lady, M and I bowed out around midnight for home. Most of the rest of the crew didn’t come home until gone 2ish, from what I was told. And who says scientists are boring?

IMG_4488The final day dawned and we all managed to arrive in mostly one piece. Our scanning did get a bit silly as the day went on, but the public seemed to rather enjoy it. I mean really, who doesn’t like a pork pie – digital or real? (Okay okay, maybe just me. But it was good fun!)

It was throwing down sheets of drizzle all day, so having a nice walk at break time was a bit out of the question. At that point though, I was too tired and cold to want more than caffeine and dry shoes. Lesson learned for next year – prepare to get by on a lot less sleep than usual.

At the end of it all though, we all cleared up the location and headed out for one last night on the town with the NHM crew. It was a lovely bonding moment for all of us, and I can see why people come back again and again to do it. I think I may need the year to recover, but it’d be good fun to go back again next time! Now hang on until next week and I’ll tell you about how we got in the car and drove straight for the coasts of the other end of the country.

— Kate

Trains – Choo Choo?

Came back in last night from Colchester by the train line and I must say, I absolutely adore the train system here. To be honest, I don’t know if it could ever become a thing in the US due to the sheer size of the country, but it works well for the UK. Rather than just gush about how cool the trains are here, I thought I’d just give you an idea of how a typical journey has gone so far (we’ll stay on the rosy side and not go into the fun of when the trains go awry this time).

To begin with, I ordered the tickets online in advance. Not the furthest in advance for optimal pricing this time, but it does make a major difference in cost. Train travel has a lot of options, and booking a particular train for a particular time in advance is typically the cheapest method of traveling on the rail. However, there are also options such as off-peak, super off-peak, or anytime passes that you can buy for a day at different costs if you want some more leeway in when you’re on the train that day. Another fantastic feature is the railcard system. I qualify from age alone to get the 16-25 railcard discount, which takes 1/3 off each ticket I purchase. The card is also good for students of any age, so long as you have proof of student status. There are also a few other schemes such as the Two Together railcard, the Family & Friends railcard, the Senior railcard, or the Disabled Persons railcard. If you’re planning on making at least 2 decent-length journeys while here, these railcards will pay themselves off really quickly. God knows I’ll manage to do it.

So I booked the tickets online through National Rail this time, though there are other options such as the train companies or third parties. If you’re in a small enough place, you may need to have your tickets posted to you overnight or within a week, but living in Leicester means I have the option of picking up my tickets at a self-service machine at the station here in the city. In order to do this, you only need the card you used to purchase the ticket and the confirmation code, which is sent to you via email. When the machine prints out your ticket, it’ll look something like this:

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 07.25.18 pmWell, actually you’ll get 2-3 little stubs in total, but this is the actual ticket. The others are good to hold on to for advance tickets as they’ll usually have your seat information if you reserved a spot. Now with this ticket, I have to keep my railcard with me as they will check your ticket on the train to make sure you’ve paid for that particular train (and there are some stiff fines if you haven’t), as well as check to make sure you actually have the valid railcard for the discount.

This ticket was actually run through machines at 6 different points, so HOLD ON to these more-orange-than-golden tickets. In this instance I was coming from Colchester back to Leicester which meant feeding it through the gate at the platform to get to my first train, then to get off that train platform in London at Liverpool Street Station. I then fed it through the Underground turnstile to get from Liverpool Street Station (Don’t just call it Liverpool, even if the context is known. You will be giggled at by locals.) to King’s Cross St Pancras International Station and again through a turnstile to get out. (Technically there is King’s Cross Station and then across the street is St Pancras International Station, but the Underground stop is good for both. Trust me, you don’t walk far to get to either – maybe 5 minutes if there’s a queue to leave the Underground?) Pro tip at this point – see the little cross at the bottom middle of my ticket? That means that your fare on the Underground is included in the cost of the ticket so long as you’re going from point A to point B. Just run it through the Underground turnstile like a day pass and it lets you right through. Of course, (as I am coming to see about a lot of things) the Brits kinda just assume you know basic facts like these and it’s not mentioned in any obvious points. Finally, this ticket will be run through a machine again to get on the platform at St Pancras, and then depending on the time of day you get to your destination it’ll go through the exit machine and possibly be eaten. I got in late on this round and they’d just opened all the exit gates so they wouldn’t have to be staffed in case of machine muck-ups. You can also see the stamp on the bottom middle where the train conductor checked my ticket.

So what about the trains themselves? Well, it depends if you end up on a commuter train or a long distance one. From Colchester to London I was in a commuter train similar to this, run by Abellio Greater Anglia, which stopped about every 10 minutes for about an hour to get to London:

This is one of the more spacious commuter trains. There’s been at least one I ended up crammed in the exit passageway by the door, standing for the whole ride. At least you can stick your head out the window?

 

Then when I left London for Leicester, I got on a train with East Midland Trains that only stopped at Leicester, Loughborough, East Midlands Parkway, Long Eaton, and Derby (pronounced Darby). Seeing as I was the first stop, it was a nice straight shot. That train looked more like this:

You can’t fit more than a small duffel bag or a jacket up in those racks btw. RyanAir-sized luggage is even too big. There is a luggage rack on each end of the carriage though.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but then the anthropologist gets let loose and it gets to be pretty entertaining. (For me anyway.) It’s one thing to ride the trains. It’s another thing on how to follow the cultural norms of the trains. Let’s continue with this particular train journey. From Colchester to London, I had stood at the platform and just kinda zoned out until the train arrived. Unlike in the US, it’s pretty odd for a stranger to come up to talk to you. As the train came in to the station a woman had asked me if she had the right one, and we all quietly shuffled into the carriage. It’s not an everyday phenomena, but sometimes when I say something I’ll get people asking if I’m American or Canadian, which happened this time. She said she could never tell the two apart, and a very well-timed Canadian that just happened to be on the train chimed in to represent the Canadian homeland.

From that point, Canadian Jake and I chattered for the rest of the ride into London. If you catch other North Americans on a train and they seem friendly enough, it tends to be fine to talk to them, even if they’re strangers. It can be a nice little slice of home to hear a reference (like “Rocky Top”) that’s totally lost on the locals here. I’m glad I talked to Canadian Jake, as I now know of a promising burrito joint at King’s Cross to check out. Getting on to the train to Leicester was more of the average experience. Everyone is very polite and courteous, but beyond that you really don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, even at a table seat. You just read or write or gaze off into space and hope you don’t accidentally end up staring at someone. Train trips are MUCH faster with friends.

Speaking of friends, I watched two girls out of the corner of my eye at the table seats to the right of me pop open a bottle of wine and have a few drinks while nibbling on snacks on our journey north. Drinking laws are much, much more lax here than they are in the States, and you can not only buy alcohol on the train from the food carriage/trolley (depends on the train), but you can totally just bring your own and drink it – the staff on the train couldn’t care less. I’ve not yet done it, but it feels like I’m being a little wicked and breaking all the rules I’ve grown up with. Give me a month or so though, as it’ll probably amuse me far more than it should. It’s the little things that are fun like that. 😉

Hmm… Have I missed any important bits? Have any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment, especially if there’s something about life here you’ve been curious about. Otherwise you are subjected to my totally random topic choices! Well, I’ve got a field trip tomorrow with the programme to Sheffield at 8 am, so I should probably wrap things up soon anyway. All is doing well here. 🙂

— Kate

 

In Which She Travels Even Further

I’ve made it to Day 7 and have managed only minimal jetlag. Sleep is a bit wonky, but turning out okay. It’s been around this time in the late afternoon each day that I start regretting not making a second cup of coffee or tea, but I have yet to learn from this. Let’s see… What have I gotten into since? Well, on Tuesday a handful of students in the program all met by the clock tower (We originally were supposed to go to the Starbucks at the university, but I got two of us lost… Thankfully everyone was fantastic and they came to the tower.) and all grabbed some coffee and lunch and chatted for an hour or so. It’s SO nice to meet people before term begins, and everyone was awesome. I’m greatly looking forward to courses with them!

After we all went our separate ways, I continued with my new tradition of wandering aimlessly around the city – half genuinely lost, half somewhat aware of landmarks and just adventuring. Not having a car and aiming to walk everywhere teaches you some important lessons pretty quickly. Firstly, you really don’t need all that crap in your bag that you always take with you. Secondly, the more you can fit in your bag, the less you have to carry in flimsy plastic bags that cut off circulation in your fingers. Thirdly and most importantly, if you cannot carry it all comfortably in a basket in the shop, you are going to have a heck of a time getting it home. The only time a shopping cart is a good idea is when you have a willing victim alongside you that can help carry things home, of which I did not. Amazing what you’re capable of when you realize it’s either sit on the street and wait for an expensive taxi to come by and take your lazy rear home or just suck it up and walk already. Needless to say, I’m gaining new callouses on my feet.

Walking back from meeting fellow students and there’s a very drunk man staggering through the streets and screeching (at 3 pm). I stopped and asked some shop staff:

“What exactly is he going on about?”

“England. And some profanity. That’s all we can understand. He just came out of the pub, so sports maybe.”

Exciting.

Back at my flat, it was time for mail call!

Have I mentioned recently that I have amazing parents? Because they not only sent me things I needed that were going to be hard to walk back from the shops with, but also a surprise with the sweeteners.  I have since christened the coffee machine and can gladly dismiss the stereotype that the British do not have good coffee. Picked up a Colombian fresh roast from Tesco that tasted great.

After unpacking presents, it was a walk to the train station to catch up with one of my favorite Twitter people! I take great offense at people who say that technology is ruining our social lives and that we all need to leave the phones at home. Yes, you should always engage with those talking to you, but the internet only helps to broaden that scope. My life would be much poorer without the weirdness of social media, and I wouldn’t want to change it. Heck, even meeting everyone from the program ahead of time was due to Facebook and email. Making new friends, the millennial way. 😉 Had a massive “You’re a real person again!” squeal, then set out on the city to talk and catch up with so much that’s happened since last we saw each other in November.

I would like to apologise to the now local ( 😀 ) people in my life as the anthropologist in me has been having a field day. Coming to a new place you’ll always have new experiences to process, (sometimes happens just crossing America) but instead of just shrugging it off with a “well that’s odd,” I have an intense curiosity to find out why things work that way. It’s my motto to always look at life and new things as interesting, never weird or “not like home.” The world works around things in many different ways, and societies are fascinating because of it. Over the space of dinner my poor friend was questioned on how the bank overdraft in the UK works (you can pull much, much more over the limit of what you have in your account than in the US), the why/when/how of putting x’s at the end of text messages (best stick to loved ones to be on the safe side), and the curious absence of doggie bags/boxes in UK restaurants (though honestly, if you walk everywhere it’d be a pain to carry that around). And of course, any time you share restaurants around the world, you’re bound to get a giggle out of the menus and signs.

This leads us into Wednesday, which was a travel day. Brief wander around town, but I had also packed up a bag and made sure to wash the dishes in the sink. By the afternoon, I wheeled my bag to the train station and hopped on the first of two trains to Colchester, where I’ll be visiting for a little over a week. Trains really are the way to get around in this country, though there’d have to be a cultural shift to have something like this happen across the United States. Maybe when gas hits $10 a gallon it might become more of a thing. Be sure to bring something to read with you though, because playing on your phone will suck the life out of it and unless you’re in a first class seat, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a charging place for your plug. Also, if you qualify for a railcard and plan on doing more than a quick journey or only one ride, it is well worth the price for the card in the savings you’ll accrue over time. Train travel is still at reasonable costs, but that little bit helps.

On the train from Leicester to my change point in London, I just happened to sit across the way from two Texans visiting friends in Nottingham and heading back to London for the evening. Sadly, they were University of Texas alumni and my family are Texas A&M alumni, so we were sworn enemies. I kid, I kid! It was nice to hear a random “y’all” so far from the source. 🙂

Oh! An important thing I learned when you come in to London in one station and have to leave from another to make your connection – you don’t have to cough up cash or your Oyster card to use the Underground as long as you go from point A to point B. Make sure your ticket has a little cross printed on it somewhere on the bottom and you’ll just feed your ticket through the reader at the Underground barriers, letting you both in and out. Basically, DON’T LOSE THAT TICKET. You’ll also be using it to get through the barriers coming and going from each train station as well. Another random but important fact – there are toilets on the trains, but you can’t use them in the station because the flush system just dumps it out of the bottom of the train on older models. Eww.

So as I write this, I’m now safely in Colchester, about 2 hours away from Leicester by train. I’ve got near and dear people to pester, and as it turns out there are a few other foreigners that I may get to catch up with in London! The world is shrinking every day, and it’s pretty interesting to witness. Hope all is well wherever you are. 🙂

— Kate