Kiri and Steve.co.uk

line

Buwch Goch Gota Gobaith

April 3rd, 2024 (by Steve)

It seems appropriate that 10 years after our travels around Europe in Bertha, we once again have a van! Her purpose will very much be as a coppicer’s van, so she’s a little Ford Transit Connect but large enough to carry hazel products and coppicing tools. We went for the crew van variety, with a row of fold-up seats in the back, so that we can escape as a family in her too. Her name? Penny Van (as in Pen y Fan). So is this a blog post about our first time away in her? Ummm, well, it was meant to be but sadly it wasn’t to be. You see within a couple of weeks of buying her, the DPF (diesel particulate filter) wasn’t working… and it turned out she hadn’t got one… and then the fuel vaporiser needed to be replaced… and then… and then. The joys of purchasing an older vehicle! So rather than departing in the van, we departed with Penny in the hands of our friendly mechanics.

Van or no van, Wales was once again calling us for our biannual retreat, but before retreating we first had the matter of an Aussie Pink Floyd concert to attend. Having picked up our eldest from the first of likely many sleepovers, we packed up the car and headed to Kiri’s parents’ where armed with knives and spoons (not coppicing tools!), the children crafted a pumpkin before we tucked into the best cheese and onion pasty available (courtesy of Church Street Bakery).

After a quick nap in the afternoon we headed out to Cardiff Arena where our nephew was about to experience his first gig. This led to conversations about what our first gig was… I clearly had the coolest claim to fame. Anyone heard of the Barron Knights? Thought not! Anyhow, 50 years after Dark Side of the Moon came out, this evening was all about Pink Floyd… but Aussie style. The prism of the album cover was replaced by the shape of Australia, there was an inflatable kangaroo… but other than that, I’m told it’s as close to the real sound as you can get. The laser show and inflatables were impressive and the angry songs of revolution were brought up to date with modern imagery projected over the stage. A good measure of the demographic of the audience was ladies gloating in the interval that they didn’t have to queue for the toilet whilst a gentleman beside me grumbled “all I need is a good tree”. Alas, for there are no trees at Cardiff Arena.

After a very late night (for us… even though the clocks had gone back!), our youngest chose to wake at 04:30, but bacon sandwiches accompanied by a Rugby World Cup final set us up nicely for the day. Before Kiri and I escaped, we all headed out to the coast, wandering along the cliff tops to Dimhole Bay where we saw the huge fossil in the cliffs. As the tide was right out we then wandered along the shoreline back to Llantwit Major where my brother in law so very nearly caught a huge fish in a tidal pool.

Following an icecream in the bay, then risotto and pumpkin pie back at Kiri’s parents, we bade our children farewell and headed off for a long old journey to our place of retreat. Noddfa was booked up, so we journeyed even closer afield and ended up in Tresilian Wood and a little place called Hide at St Donats. Nestled beneath the trees our resting place was a caban (Welsh mining hut) with a separate private kitchen in a little outbuilding and a pot wash and bathroom in a shepherds hut. The caban had a bed, wood burning stove, little table and chairs and a sea view. Wonderful. Our hosts had apologised that there was a bit of an infestation of ladybirds hibernating in the windows, but we don’t mind – we like ladybirds.

It was all a bit quiet after the excitement of the day and previous night and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves, so we spent some time praying, ate some crisps and then tucked into some bread, cheese, olives and wine for our tea. The electric heater was a bit too noisy, so we lit the stove (encouraged with the help of Kiri’s blow stick) and had a short game of crib before retiring for a very early night.

It wasn’t quite like sleeping under canvas, but we still were able to appreciate the gentle patter of rain in the night and even though we were up before 7, we’d still managed 11 hours of sleep. We stumbled outside to the kitchen (the one down side of the caban) where we rustled up a breakfast of eggs and rolls accompanied by Hide coffee. As we enjoyed our leisurely breakfast, it was great to watch a woodpecker on the grass outside. We then turned to the luxurious rhythm that we adopted on our travels of unhurriedly reading the bible together, reading the book of Philemon. The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation seemed at odds with the very fresh news of the Gaza attack on Israel and subsequent fighting, and news of a “mob” in Dagestan hunting for Jews. We believe in the power of prayer, but it feels like prayers only go so far with situations of this complexity and scale. However, we have to hold onto hope… we have to seek hope.

After an al fresco washing up session, we hopped into the car towards Mountain Ash. When we’d met Katie and Chris (of Coalfield Flower Farm fame) back in the spring they’d mentioned a couple who were bringing new light and life to a hillside farm near Mountain Ash – Bryn Gobaith. We’d listened to their story on a podcast, but wanting to know more had got in touch with Joy and Tim, who very kindly had invited us to visit. As we were fed warming soup and bread we heard more about their vision for reclaiming and refreshing the 300 acres of land they own – around a third of which is usable pasture and woodland. The light across the valley was incredibly stunning as we discussed what it means to be church and what it means to retreat. They are very much not setting up a retreat centre, but want the land to be a place of retreat, community, refreshment and hope… hence the name Bryn Gobaith “Hill of Hope”.

We received a text message from our eldest (they grow so fast!) as Tim went back to work and Joy set about giving us a tour of some of the space. The small flock of sheep in one patch came when they recognised Joy’s voice, we saw a patch where a local housing development project had been creating bio char, an area where pigs had been used to clear some of the land, a space that could be used for camping, woodland crying out to be restored, stone walls that are slowly being rebuilt (it’s not every day you hear someone referring to “our” dry stone waller!) and acres of land with so much potential. Joy was very clear that it will take longer than one generation to fully be restored, but also realistic about the challenges they face with such a large area to try to manage.

Before we left we bought some sausages made from said pigs and headed back towards Hide, taking a phone call en route from Paula at Hide asking for permission to clear ladybirds from our caban! Our dinner was posh hot dogs (the only ever time we shop in Waitrose is on retreat!) after which we spent some time in prayer… it’s not every day that a prayer ends with “…a chainsaw in my hand. Amen”, but I guess that’s preferable to “… a chainsaw in my leg. Amen”! More crib led to not quite such an early night as the previous one, but we still had lights out by 9.

The sausages from the hill of hope (does that make them sausages of hope?) were a beautiful accompaniment to the egg and mushroom rolls for breakfast. Washing up done, I prematurely took our waterproofs to the car before getting stuck in a torrential downpour whilst sheltering under the open boot. And then it was time to be reunited with the kids – out of the 20mph speed limit of retreat and back to the 70mph speed limit of parenting.

We just had time to drop our things off at Llantwit and then we were back out to Jump Jam near Bridgend. It’s not particularly easy to take things easy at a trampoline park with so many exciting things to do – many trampolines, a climbing wall, soft play, large inflatable obstacle course and a long run up to a foam pit… but we did our best to ease ourselves back into things. How do the kids have so much energy!? I’m not sure we managed to wear them out, but we all had fun and followed it with an afternoon of K-Nex and pudding at tea time of freshly-made banana bread.

The following day we managed to grab a wild and windy 5 minutes at the beach before the rain of Storm Ciaran made itself felt and we bade farewall to Wales once more. It was sunny as we unpacked the car back home, finding a stray ladybird in the boot. It’s interesting that in many cultures, ladybirds are seen as a symbol of newness. Or positivity. Some might even say hope.

Posted in Life | 4 Comments »

AI-nother Greenbelt

November 19th, 2023 (by Steve)

Every time we go camping, we seek to defy physics – squash every atom of everything that’s in the car to try to fit the maximum amount in! With the weather forecast for Greenbelt this year being decidedly soggy, we’d purchased a new event shelter which took up extra room… but this was offset by us compromising on the size of pillows and quality of mattress. Somehow, it all fitted and we were off, with the soundtrack of bands from previous Greenbelts on the CD player (Wildwood Kin and Lee Bains III) entertaining us as we queued to get onto the site.

Over the course of a few trips between the car and campsite we transported all of our stuff… some trips with the kids, some without (it’s a long old trek!). And we were done. Only a couple of minor issues… first one was that our new airbed was slightly too wide for the sleeping compartment of the tent. Second one explained how we had managed to get everything in the car. Now a trick to simplify the first night of camping anywhere is to make the meal in advance, then freeze it. The frozen food acts as an extra ice block in the cool bag, then all you have to do is heat it up to eat it. However that doesn’t work if the lovely bolognaise is still in the freezer at home! The ever faithful Milk and Honey campsite store provided us with milk and sausages and we were set. Our niece joined us in our camping huddle, setting up her tent with a rather optimistic sign:

At this stage we took the lead from other parents that were in out group “Let’s have wine now as we might not get a chance later”. As we poured it into the plastic beakers the kids normally use at home, our eldest looked slightly alarmed and said “you’re not going to give us wine… are you?”. Instead we cooked them sausages and pasta, leaving them happy (although a little hyper due to the excitement of Greenbelt). A random man wandered into our camping huddle and asked “has anyone got any scissors?”. It being Greenbelt, we gave him some. It’s what you do, although one of our group did at that point recount an exchange from earlier that day when she thought someone asked “can I borrow your mattress?”. Bit of an odd request until you realise that it sounds very similar to “matches”.

At 8pm with the light fading we attempted bedtime, did the washing up and then there was stillness. Despite the campsite heaving (so many more people than last year, even in our early curfew area) there was a certain air of calm as we attempted a triage of the programme for the following few days, before crashing out shortly afterwards.

6am was announced with a phone alarm – but not mine! We were out of the tent by 6:45 and coffee softened the morning as we had a staggered breakfast. We were staggered that our youngest slept until 8am… and very happy that it was a dry night too! Once fed, we assembled a packed lunch, did the washing up, got glitter on the kids and headed into the main festival in time for the 10:30 kids briefing. We passed the green flags and our youngest announced “we’re leaving Greenbelt”. We passed the yellow flags; “we’re entering the festival”. We passed the orange flags; “we’re in the car park”. Hang on a minute… no we’re not… but let’s play along!

After the welcome for the kids, Kiri took our eldest to the Make and Create venue whilst our youngest played with a friend on the Greenbelt owl… and then it was time for the first session I wanted to get to.

The venue of the talk was Exchange – described as a place for exploring new economies / innovation and this particular session run by CMS had a title of “Tech for Good”. It soon became clear that this session was more about apps, with the desired outcome of the session an idea that could be put through in an application for the KingdomCode hackathon. Whilst this wasn’t quite the session that I was expecting, it was interesting to hear how a community project had made use of an alternative currency app (zlto) to allow refugees who had been volunteering to build up points and exchange them for goods. The panellists explained how the world is an increasing hostile environment for those not included in the digital ecosystem – so many services now rely on “online” – payments, banking, universal credit etc.

We were then put into breakout groups to come up with ideas for an app to take to the hackathon based on local issues in our own particular areas. Our group chatted around issues of loneliness, knowing which resources to trust, supporting local business etc… but in our group all of us questioned why an app should be the answer to these. Surely there are existing mainstream platforms that could meet these needs (if technology is even the answer to some of these issues?). Some of the other groups fed back ideas around integration of digital into phone-based services for the elderly (along the lines of the sermon phoneline I set up in the first lockdown)… or using voice-based AI chatbots to allow the lonely to talk to “someone”. All sorts of philosophical / ethical questions come out of that last suggestion. Since Greenbelt it was interesting to see what was actually taken to the hackathon.

I left the session with mixed feelings as I rejoined Kiri and the kids for lunch at Glade (the main open air stage). There we got chatting to a friend of a friend, and when our friends moved off, the friend of a friend stayed. I love the openness to form community at Greenbelt! Our niece had bought some henna and was decorating every exposed limb… and our kids joined in the action. As we sat and munched, we were approached to answer some questions about Greenbelt and sustainability which we did, as well as our niece complimenting the questionner on her mushroom hat. The outcome? She got one for herself!

By now the crowd was building around us for crowd-pleasers Harry and Chris. Their banter-filled comedy jazz rap set was an hour of joy including classics such as “Let’s all play monopoly“. But interspersed were some more thought provoking pieces – “The fear song” (watch out for those ladders!) and then a personal high point – “Every atom of you“. Chris explained that last year they shared some time backstage at Greenbelt with “Dicky Dawks” along with Chris’ son who has downs syndrome. Now Richard Dawkins has previously said that it is immoral to birth someone with downs syndrome. Chris’ response? To choose to love him.

Since midway through Harry and Chris’ performance, our youngest had been saying “I want to go back to the tent”, so after having a short wander to Greenbelt’s newest venue (Orchard) where we had a look at some coppicing products and a pole lathe too, the two of us headed back to camp. I made tea whilst we both appreciated a touch of downtime away from the noise and bustle of the festival. There was still no sign of the forecast rain, but the temperature dropped soon after tea, so we all headed down to the camping village, watched a bit of jousting and then tucked into a hot chocolate in the 24 hour cafe. It was dark by the time we returned to the tents with only a few spots of rain, but at 9pm the heavens opened, so we took that as a sign to all go to bed!

I was once again on kitchen team come Saturday morning – coffee and breakfast, then making packed lunch and doing the washing up, but I was happy with that. I’d circled several items on the programme associated to themes of AI and faith and the first was this morning, however instead we decided that I’d take the kids to the Folk On Nursery Rhyme time whilst Kiri would do some pyrography. Our youngest was obviously in an appropriate mood for the sort of humour to come, as the question “Daddy, can we have a pet tractor one day” was asked whilst on my shoulders on the walk into the festival.

I came across Folk On at my first every Greenbelt back in 2010 and after a few years away, they were back! I wonder whether Harry and Chris would exist without the foundations of comedy music being laid by Folk On? They were trying something new with this short slot for kids, introducing the set with the words “Prepare to be bemused”. The first nursery rhyme was announced followed by “If you know it, feel free to join in… there might be a couple of verses you might not know”. Our eldest looked at me earnestly and said “I only know one verse”. Me too. For example, I’ve never come across the verse “how much is that capybara in the window, the one with the very square poo”. The kids were delighted. The grown ups were amused. Joyful, unashamed silliness – love it!

Sadly whilst we were being entertained, Kiri had been queueing in vain for the pyrography. A site wide power outage was announced shortly afterwards (unrelated to the pyrography!), so we spent a short while down by the lake watching an old-school juggler. After lunch there was a quandry – there was another session on AI that I’d spied with the author of “Robot Souls“, or I could build shelters out of branches with the kids. I was pleased I chose the latter, as on the way we met some giant pigeons (don’t ask!) and then we all enjoyed constructing a shelter that was in no way, shape or form going to keep out the rain that was falling by then!

Kiri’s parents then took the kids for an hour or so whilst Kiri and I had no agenda. Orchard drew us – a lovely place to be even in the rain, especially when accompanied by an appropriately-named Ale Fresco. We returned to camp for tea and Kiri went to do the ice pack run as our hard block of butter was definitely not hard any more. Over tea I got my AI fix for the day, listening to both a teacher’s perspective, but also a teenager’s perspective of ChatGPT and how pervasive it already was, raising questions around critical thinking and trust.

Whilst Kiri headed off to The Rising Special with Lee Bains III, I focussed on encouraging our wee ones to sleep. It took our youngest so long to drift off, that by the time sleep had taken over, our oldest (who was reading in our bedroom compartment) was also asleep, requiring a 17 point turn in our little tent to manouevre the sleeping child into the correct sleeping bag.

Sunday at Greenbelt means communion – gathering from many traditions, celebrating our diversity and being united in one body. As with every year, we shared a little brown paper bag with a few others around us, containing the things we needed. Every participant made a little tissue paper flower that was then passed forward to the front to be made into a giant art work. The theme this year was angels – the expectation that we will meet angels to comfort us, bring us gifts from God, inspire us and kick us into action. Of course there’s a famous song about angels by a certain Robbie Williams, that we all sang together… I don’t know what I made of that, and I would be interested to know what Robbie would have made of it too! So I focused on the unity aspect of the communion.

After a brief journey to the arctic courtesy of some Greenpeace virtual reality, I settled down for a panel discussion on AI that I attempted to live-tweet (link for those of you not on Twitter / X)… but lost connection midway through (not through lack of strong signal, but through lack of bandwidth). The panel were made up of:

  • Professor Doctor Beth Singler – an anthropologist assistant professor in digital religions who described herself as “Thinking about what you think about what computers might think”
  • Professor Jennifer George – head of computing at Goldsmiths university with a specialism in human-computer interaction
  • Doctor Eve Poole – director of Carnegie Trust and author of (amongst other books) Robot Souls

Each panellist had an opportunity to briefly talk about an area of focus. Eve spoke about rights for robots… drawing parallels to both corporations (that have rights so we have something to sue) and animals (that have rights to protect them from us). Jennifer asked about the consequences of the fall and how it changed our relationship with God – as co-creators now, we should be asking what is AI’s relationship with us, others and the world. Beth focused on the concept of the “singularity” – when AI becomes more advanced than its creators, as this conversation is what is driving much of policy at the moment. Will the singularity be a god? Are we blessed by AI?

In response to audience questions, further topics were touched upon such as bias that will always be baked into any AI based on how it is trained, the hallmarks of what it means to have a soul and who has the power. When Jennifer said that it is the responsibility as a Christian to ask the right questions as a designer, developer or manager (or another role) in creation of AI, it led to a bit of soul-searching in terms of how I am presenting AI output through onebread.co.uk. There were some predictions by the panellists around “what next with AI?” (suitably caveated by Beth with “Anthropologists don’t make predictions…”) and then the panel closed. This is the sort of conversation that we need to be having outside of tech and academic circles – we need to be talking about the implications of AI in schools, churches, families and communities because it will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones before we know it.

While I was getting my geek on, Kiri and the kids were doing an altogether much more wholesome activity of making dorodangos (shiny mud dumplings) as a mindful worship activity; “loving something ordinary into something precious”. They’d also had a bit of a run in with some giant silver tubes that were moving around the festival, but as I don’t want to re-awaken the fear in my youngest, I’ll say no more about that!

Today was also to give us a double dose of Ida Mae, described by our oldest as “my favourite ever band”. We’ve been following the musical journey of Chris and Steph since their time in Kill it Kid and it was great to firstly see them at The Rising with Martyn Joseph alongside Tawiah. And what a celebration of music it was with conversations of collaboration and a clearly shared respect amongst all 4 on the stage. I particularly appreciated one of the songs from Ida Mae’s new album – “My whispers are wildfire” with the lines:

All sitting there like church mice
Before an algorithm antichrist
Who knows what to trust?

An exquisite observation of society.

The kids had been taken to a balloon modelling workshop by our niece and reluctantly (because I can’t stand the sound of balloons squeaking) we joined them there after The Rising. It could only be described as balloon carnage, but eventually we emerged from the tent with a couple of balloon dogs and nerves just about still intact. We wanted to catch Ida Mae in Orchard, but needed food, so as with last year we treated ourselves to tasty stuff from some of the food vans on site. We then had a game of “follow the pizza” across the site to ensure that we were in a good spot for Chris and Steph’s performance.

The last time Kiri and I had seen Kill It Kid live was at the Roundhouse in Camden when we lived in London ten years ago and they were cool. Like really cool… almost too cool. What I loved about Chris and Steph’s stage presence this time was that even though the musicality had been taken to the next level, there was a new warmth and playfulness. It was almost as if we were being invited into their creative space – we felt like participants rather than consumers of their music. Absolutely top notch live music… and the kids appreciated the chance to chat to them afterwards and meet their little one, even offering one of the balloon dogs as a gift!

As we headed back to campsite for the final time we each reflected on our top 5 things of this years’ Greenbelt. Our youngest responded with the word “banana” 5 times (despite only having had 3 bananas at the festival!) before were interrupted by a random child who compelled us to stop and watch his diabolo show! Love it.

Before we were properly ready for it, the time came to leave. Kiri’s parents came to camp to pick up our niece and a couple of our bags to take to the car. I struck camp, very happy that it was dry and the only moisture was a little bit of condensation. I mused along with another fellow camper whether the most efficient way next year to transport stuff between car and campsite might be to inflate the tent like a hot air balloon… one to ponder!

We said our goodbyes and headed to the car to change out of our wellies before the drive home. Hmmm. Couldn’t find the bag with the shoes in. Ooops – it had headed off with Kiri’s parents! The queue to leave the car park was immense – it’s always difficult leaving Greenbelt, but normally that’s not on a physical level. Some campers were getting fairly irate and we heard one lady declare “I’m going to rally people and form a barricade”. I didn’t want to point out that this might slow us down even further… but finally we’d left the grounds and our youngest declared “I miss Greenbelt”. I mean… we could always turn around and go back to the car park for a few hours?!

The question on the way home was whether we’d make it home in time to get to Lidl within bank holiday opening hours. What could we have for tea? If only there were a frozen bolognaise…! You’ll be pleased to hear that we did make it to Lidl, although as I wandered round I wondered what the smell was… until I realised it was me. Oh. Thank goodness I received the text from Kiri before I got to the checkout – “Just clocked what else was in the bag with the shoes… our toilet bags”. Time to buy some deodorant!

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »

Noddfa

August 15th, 2023 (by Steve)

Noddfa: a Welsh word meaning sanctuary or refuge; a place of renewal. Don’t we all need that at times, right? We certainly did, so when we were looking at AirBnB places for our latest escape without the kids and we stumbled across somewhere called “Noddfa” near Cowbridge, we knew it would be the right place for us.

Now we’re not particular fans of stereotypes and generalisations, but Wales really didn’t do itself any favours on the journey. The skies were clear… then we got to the bridge and couldn’t even see it because of drizzle on the Welsh side – come on Wales, you can do better than that! We battled through the drizzle, dumped the kids with the grandparents, had a quick lasagna made by our niece and nephew and then escaped (via Co-op for supplies) towards the Coed Hills Rural Art Community, where we were met by Andy, the owner of our home for the next 3 nights.

What a place! With some AirBnB places you just have a short interaction with the host… or just pick up a key. Not here; we were treated to a full on tour and history of the site (and its residents) over the next hour – a community of similarly minded folk who have chosen a rural, creative way of life that’s alternative yet adjacent to modern living. The closest we’ve come to something like this was when we visited Bussana Vecchia on our trip. The woodland site is dotted with small, low-footprint dwellings with a large gathering space, allotments, a hand-crafted sauna and shower block and a 20 year old stone circle! And the cabin itself? Nestled at the furthest end of the site, a totally off-grid wooden structure with a 40 litre water tank, a few electric power packs, composting loo and wood burner; equivalent to motorhome living, but static!

It being February, we set to work making the place warm by lighting the wood burner… which got hot so quickly that we had to open a window and take off our jumpers! And then… well… nothing really. We tucked into a Welsh dragon scotch egg (leek and chilli) for dinner, followed by beer and chocolate (which melted in the heat!) as we played KingDomino. Although it was still really early in the evening, with low light outside it felt much later, so we spent some time praying together, then just sat enjoying the stillness. The silence was punctuated occasionally by a nearby owl, but that was it. Peace. And then bed.

We’d been warned as part of the introduction to the cabin that we might be woken by squirrels and indeed we were, but there are worse alarms! There was a squirrel feeder directly outside the kitchen window of the cabin and the chattering and quarreling of the bushy-tailed rats was quite amusing to watch… although we did question whether squirrels should be encouraged, because of the damage they do to native woodland? Once the stove was lit, the space was again warm and with a coffee and egg on bread inside us we settled into a slow and uninterrupted routine. We love the simple life; granted some things are more effort (such as composting loos, and having the charge the lights), but that’s just part of the rhythm.

We wandered through the partially managed woodland back to our car and off to meet a family introduced to us by mutual friends. Katie and Chris are in the process of setting up a social enterprise in Tonyrefail to improve mental health through the growing of cut flowers (obviously they’re cut after they’ve grown). They’ve got a 3 acre patch of land with a semi-level area, along with a hillside of small terraces, all previously grazed by horses. They’d just got tulips in the ground when we met them and it was so exciting to hear their journey and vision. As we wandered the site they patiently and enthusiastically answered our many questions about contacts, training, networks, ideas, experiences and culture within the valleys as we could see ourselves doing something similar (maybe with woodland) in the coming few years. They very kindly invited us for lunch and it was a joy to share food together and have a slow afternoon with them and their delightful children (a little younger than ours) who taught us the Welsh words for ladybird and woodlouse!

Fired up and excited about both Coalfield Flower Farm, but also whatever might be in our own futures, we popped into Lidl to get some stuff for tea (no fridge in the cabin!) before having some down time. Kiri had her head in her sketchbook, I had mine in the Big Issue. A simple tea of fritata and vegetables was followed by a time of reading our bibles together where we chewed upon a meaty passage about submitting to authority as a means of glorifying God, even when that might lead to those who are submitting being subject to unjust suffering. Much conversation and debate ensued which could only really have one satisfactory outcome – prayer!

We cracked into beer and chocolate whilst we played a couple of games of crib, before Kiri spied a box that said “do not touch”. This is where Kiri and I differ – I’m massively compliant and was happy to accept that whatever was in it wasn’t for guests to explore. Kiri on the other hand is more like a cat, so her curiousity was piqued. She claimed that as she didn’t technically touch the box to peer inside it, all was well… which led to a well-mannered musing on the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law; the kind of philosophical conversation that we don’t seem to find time for in our child-filled lives. And what was in the box? Well, I’m not going to say, because I didn’t see what was in it, and coming from a place of compliance, it wouldn’t have been right to ask! Although it can’t have been much after 8pm, it could have been midnight what with the stillness and deep darkness of the woods, so we decided to tune our bodies in with nature and settle down for the night.

It worked, as the following day we woke with the light (despite the blackout curtains), lit the fire, popped the coffee on and had breakfast. Today all we had planned was a circular walk to the Bush Inn for lunch in the nearest village, so we dug out phones to find out opening times. Oh. It was closed on a Monday and Tuesday. Guess what day it was? Yes, Monday! It was a damp morning and we pottered around the cabin, recording a video message for our kids which we struggled to upload due to poor mobile signal. I got quite excited when Kiri announced “I’ve got a squirrel”, but it turned out it was a photo of a squirrel for the kids rather than the protein for our dinner. I got stuck into a book about the local area, particularly appreciating a section which had lists of derivations of place names in Welsh. Llan = a meeting place or church. Coed = wood. We need to find Llancoed (or perhaps found it if it doesn’t exist already?)

But that’s for the future… on this particular day we would settle just for a woodland walk. It was… well, an interesting walk. The surroundings were lovely (despite the drizzle) including an incredible ethereal semi-submerged glade, but most of our energy was expended on a long, at times heated, debate about leadership. We were in the early stages of setting up a community garden in our local area, and grappling with how much we should be leading it with a clearly defined vision (that others could subscribe to), versus how much we should just start something and see how it grows organically (but where folk might not know what they’re signing up to by getting involved). Both approaches have their merits and I don’t think we landed on a particular conclusion, but the process of talking it through was very necessary and helpful, if a little exhausting!

Walk over, we headed into Cowbridge to find some food with no real plan (that’s us, rather than the food… not sure that food generally has a plan, apart from to be eaten?). We somehow ended up in the Waitrose car park and wandered off to find a nice independent tea room or coffee shop. We were amused that one coffee shop chose to advertise itself using the adjective “strong” as the sole selling point of their coffee. Not all who wander are lost, however we didn’t find what we were looking for and ended up in Caffe Nero for a snacky lunch before returning to our car. Finding that we couldn’t open our boot as a Porsche had parked too close to us (such a cliched Waitrose thing to happen) we decided to pop into Waitrose and get ingredients for a posh burger for tea – venison grill steaks (beats squirrel!) and a cheese and onion focaccia. It was only as we departed Cowbridge that we spotted the “Happy Days” tearoom which would have been right up our street. Next time!

Before our luxury dinner (we cooked the venison in chilli oil with a splash of red wine and accompanied it with lemon and garlic olives!), we had a bit more time to read and sketch. It seemed appropriate to dip into one of the books we found in the cabin “Fully automated luxury communism”, which had some mind-expanding concepts. There was an interesting selection of books, ranging from earthy books on woodland through to philosophy and spirituality – it’s a bit difficult to pin down what this place is – possibly just a retreat from the mainstream into… well… anything that’s not mainstream? Predictably Kiri won at crib again, but Uno was more evenly matched. It was a slightly later night than previously, but in the grand scheme of things it was still an early bedtime!
 

And then it was time to emerge from our short hibernation in the woodland bolt hole. We were woken by my alarm (stupidly I’d forgotten to switch it off!), then we pootled around, having a slow breakfast before tidying away and bidding farewell to Noddfa. We’ll be back.

Our emergence into the real world was complete when we were re-united with the kids! First it was pancake time (it being Shrove Tuesday) and then we had a trip to the beach with a hammer and spoon (as you do… apparently the spoon is to tap rocks with, to find out whether there are fossils inside and the hammer to split the rock). Fossil found (the spoon may or may not have played its part), there was a bit of a tricky bedtime as the kids adjusted to us being around again and then we were treated to a rich, spiced tagine for dinner.

Wales is calling us. Welsh woodland is calling us. The question is what steps we take to answer that call. Do we formulate a clear vision, or do we just take a leap of faith and see how it pans out organically?

Posted in Life | 3 Comments »

Professional precipitation in Pembrey

April 30th, 2023 (by Steve)

The wind howled around the tent, finally claiming victory as it ripped the pegs out of the loamy soil, sending the canvas crashing down, cocooning one of the inhabitants who tossed in a dizzy fever dream. Was the world actually spinning, or was this just a dream? But let me start at the beginning.

October half term might not be the most traditional time to go camping in Wales and even my Welsh colleague questioned my judgement. The forecast was grim (and I’m not talking about politics or economics… although they had both seen sunnier times) with strong winds and heavy rain due, but we had a strong tent with 4000mm hydrostatic head so we ploughed ahead. Our youngest had a bit of a temperature; playgroup had been shut recently and COVID was once again on the rise. Do we delay? Nah – let’s do this!

As we left the house for the second time (we’d forgotten to lock the door the first time!) the sun was shining and it remained that way until we got to The Bridge. As we entered Wales, we bade farewell to sunshine and said hello to traffic. Service stop. Traffic. Repeat. Our littlest one was very floppy at this stage and off food, so missed seeing the rain start at Port Talbot. But it was OK – Kiri’s parents were already at Pembrey and had picked a picture of our pitched tent to send to us. We arrived, said hellos, tweaked the guy ropes and wrote a shopping list… Calpol Infant, Calpol Junior, Liquid Nurofen, Cold and Flu tablets… plus a bit of food.

Between Llannelli Llidl and Llanelli Coop (loving these double letters!), we managed to get everything that we wanted and we all crammed inside Fifi for the first night of dinner as the professional rain lashed against her roof and sides. After a worrying half our where we couldn’t convince our little one to swallow either liquid Nurofen or Calpol, we finally got a dose inside, brought the temperature down and peace descended on our part of the campsite. Our older child was very much awake when it was time to be asleep as the grown ups (well, those of us who were parents) played Canasta. There was an audacious request from the sleeping quarters for us to play the game outside to allow them to sleep… followed shortly afterwards by a complaint about the sound of the rain on the roof. Both were politely ignored and soon it was time to set up Fifi’s table as a bed, transfer the kids to their resting point and return to our tent. We were pleased to see that it was not leaking, but in the damp air there was plenty of condensation.

The night was good; we clearly chose the correct sleeping compartment in the tent as the other one had a puddle in, where the tent peg had worked loose from the sandy soil. But that was easily fixed and as we stepped up into Fifi we were both handed a bacon sarnie and provided with news of a positive night for the kids. Surprisingly the rain had stopped, so we thought we’d make the most of it; adjusting the guy ropes again to ensure our tent wouldn’t be breached, then setting off to walk to the nearby beach.

I’ve never seen a sign warning of wild parsnips before, but we certainly avoided them on the way to the beach. At the beach there were some litter pickers and bags to borrow, so I grabbed one and we all proceeded to the beach. And what a beach it was – a vast expanse of sand, sun and sea with clear views across to Rhossili and “Kiri’s Hill”. A truly liminal place that was quite breathtaking to just be in. We enjoyed spotting lots of shells, including crouching on haunches for a good few minutes, following one that was moving (clearly with a hidden little crab inside). Sadly the train that offers short rides wasn’t running as the Welsh and English half terms didn’t coincide, but we had some fun on the playground for a while before returning to Fifi for a simple lunch.

What was running though was the toboggan run. 3 goes for £6.50… let’s make that 6 goes then! We have form with toboggan runs… not necessarily good form. So as “responsible” parents, we had to get the balance right between going down the courses as fast as we could versus making sure our children didn’t fall out. I think we succeeded… well we certainly did with the latter criterion and we definitely had fun. As the sun was shining, it would have been rude not to have an icecream, so we did!

Back at the van it was drawing time, then the kids had some down time with a film. An Autotrail Adventure 55 pulled up alongside us and we looked up the spec online, admiring its compact exterior yet practical interior that could probably work for a family of 4. Maybe we would go for something like that one day if funds allowed? After our dinner we continued musing on this theme as we browsed motorhome brochures from a recent motorhome show that Kiri’s parents had been to, as this was the last trip with Fifi.

We continued the game of canasta from the previous night in the same teams, turning the tables on the scores before we turned the actual table into a bed and departed for our tent. A spider looking suspiciously like a false widow had taken up residence in our sleeping compartment, so we released it back out into the drizzle before settling down to sleep. It was to be a very windy and rainy night, and memories of nervous nights in Bertha re-surfaced, but all was well and our tent remained standing and strong against the weather.

The morning brought a lull in the weather and after showers all round, everyone was ferried (as in shuttled… it hadn’t rained so much that we needed an actual ferry) to the town of Kidwelly just down the road. We were to visit the castle there… but pondered whether it was even legal to visit a castle without Grandpa. As our eldest quite rightly puts it “Grandpa LOVES castles”. I therefore channeled my inner Grandpa as we worked out with the kids the best way we would storm the castle, how to spot the defences, looking for clues as to where previous wooden floors would have been, giggling at garderobes and chatting about sieges. The kids appeared to enjoy it, but we’re definitely going to have take Grandpa with us to the next castle.

We’re obviously bad parents who haven’t brought our kids up to share our values though. We gave them both the chance to buy a little something from the gift shop and NEITHER of them went for the mangonel pencil sharpener that can actually fire little bits of paper. Clearly the best thing in the shop. We may have bought it for ourselves…! On the recommendation of a local, we went to the Gatehouse Coffee Shop for lunch which offered a cosy welcome, large portions and an open invitation for dogs. Ticks all our boxes (not that we have a dog, but dogs are cool). Our little one once again was floppy, so fell asleep as we ate.

In the afternoon we headed for a round of crazy golf which was a mixed experience, involving tantrums, country wees, holes in one, lost balls and a dragon to consume the final shot. By the end of the round, Kiri was beginning to feel poorly so once again the evening was low key and chilled, with a visit to CK foodstores to buy sparkling water, bread and chocolate. We really know how to live!

It wasn’t the best night – the weather was fine, but we were both under it by the morning. The bacon butty and coffee in the motorhome helped a little, as did the cold and flu tablets. WhatsApp was down and our new Prime Minister was just about to go and see the King, but I just wanted to sleep, so I crashed out in Fifi whilst everyone headed off for a wander through the woods to the lake, followed by playing on the playground. Everyone returned for lunch and it was my turn to be the one without an appetite. My temperature was on the rise too, so as everyone else ventured out for another round of crazy golf, I once again remained in the van. Maybe subconsciously I wanted to say a proper goodbye to Fifi? I obviously wasn’t right, as I couldn’t face pasta and meatballs for tea, or the “famous custard slice” from CK stores. Instead, I staggered to the tent as the wind and rain decided to up their game.

The night was full of fever dreams and every time I opened my eyes, I felt dizzy. A few times Kiri got up to check the integrity of the tent, each time finding it was still watertight even in the 40mph winds. Until 6am.

Our tent isn’t self-standing – it relies on guy ropes at either end in tension to keep the central poles vertical. At 6am this historic morning it was barely standing – one of the tent poles was no longer vertical, and the other sleeping compartment was rapidly filling with water. As Kiri studied the situation, one of the main guy ropes worked loose from the sandy, loamy soil. The tent was on its way down. Kiri burst into Fifi with the mayday call for reinforcements as I lay helplessly submerged in soggy canvas. The adults rescued the contents of the tent as I struggled to get my boots on. Kiri then stood between the two uprights, like some kind of reverse Samson in the temple, as her parents mounted a rescue operation, digging through the layers of canvas to find me, then half-carrying me to Fifi where I collapsed on the bed next to 2 bemused children. The rest of the adults dismantled the tent and stowed it away in the car and then the day started!

With the combination of illness, weather and a collapsed tent, it was clear that we weren’t going to stay for another night, but we wanted to make sure that the kids still had a good time. As soon as it was light, the first game of the day was a peg hunt to recover those that had been missed in the dark, then they headed off for a final game of crazy golf. I was still well below par, so remained prone as the others returned to the beach and playground, finishing up with lunch in the campsite cafe after Kiri had packed the car.

Fed and happy, they all returned and somehow manoeuvred me like a lifesize ragdoll into the car for the journey home. The road was a rough sea with no chance for me to disembark, no matter whether I had my eyes open or closed… but I found a compromise of one eye open was the most bearable. Despite not feeling 100% herself, Kiri did a magnificent job of getting us all home safely, packing me straight off to bed once home whilst she unpacked and got the kids sorted.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Maybe there isn’t one! Given what we know now, I think we’d still do it again. Now… we just need to get the tent ready for the next adventure!

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »

The robots are coming for us!

March 30th, 2023 (by Steve)

Robot reading the bible

I’ve always been fascinated by the overlap of technology and creativity; whether that be an interest in 3D photography, the creation of Lego stop-motion animation videos, or even my dissertation (which had the grand title of “Algorithmic harmonisation of a melody into a four part barbershop arrangement). But here we stand in March 2023 and it feels like the world is at a pivot point. Why? AI.

Before I start to unpick this, just a note – it’s called AI (Artificial Intelligence), but I really don’t like that phrase, because of the science fiction connotations. In my dissertation nearly 20 years ago, I instead talked about neural networks and genetic algorithms. Much of the development since then in the “AI” space has been using the language of machine learning – using training sets of data to build probabilistic models (i.e. billions of paths through a network of possibilities).
But let’s not get too far into the tech – instead I’ll focus on why I’ve said we’re at a pivot point.

Back when I was visiting universities about to study computer science, AI was a buzz word (or should that be buzz acronym?) and there’s been slow and steady progress over the last 20 years, but the cost for individual use has been incredibly high. Huge costs of training these models and not quite so large costs of asking questions of them, for an output that was… OK. What’s changed in March 2023 is that suddenly the output is more than just OK, and the cost of querying them is low, and the compression on these LLMs (Large Language Models) is such that some can be run on a personal device.

Some of the prompts I can feed to these LLMs are:

  • Re-write the first verse of “S Club Party” in the style of a Beatles song
  • Summarise the Gettysburg Address as a limerick
  • Tell me how the Spanish Inquisition is relevant for a delivery driver today
  • Write some php code that will grab the top headline from the BBC website once an hour

And you know what… it’s pretty good. There’s no “intelligence” as such, but if you give one of these LLMs a prompt (just a sentence in plain English as above), it will word by word (well, technically it works on tokens… one token is generally around three quarters of a word) try to work out what the most likely next word should be. They have been trained on vast swathes of data to try to understand and model the patterns and relationships between words, that are then transformed into probabilities. Basically, predictive text on steroids.

When I was originally going to write this blog post, I would have said “and these LLMs aren’t attached to the internet, so don’t know real live facts”… but just last week OpenAI announced the concept of plugins, including one that can load stuff from the internet – this stuff is progressing very quickly.

So… how do you get access and ask these questions of an LLM? The simplest way is with OpenAI (other LLMs are available!) – visit chat.openai.com, create a free account, then you can start asking questions.

But I wasn’t content with just asking questions – could I build something with this? Oooh, they have an API. Now, given that all of this is based on training data, what might feature heavily in there, that could also potentially provide something interesting, thought-provoking and possibly helpful – how about something to do with the bible? So, I created an API key and, with my free $5 credit got to work.

My initial plan was to build a website where a visitor could enter a bible passage and their occupation, then the site would provide a summary of the passage relevant to their occupation. But, maybe that’s not a good idea giving free text fields that might be open to prompt injection (i.e. malicious prompts) and with a cost per question, it could get expensive for me really quickly. I then moved to the idea of possibly loading up a bible passage of the day… but then that could also get expensive if it was regenerating every time.

OK, how about setting it so that when the first person visits the site in a day, the code makes the call out to OpenAI, then saves the result into a WordPress blog post… which others can see. Remember that last question from above where you can ask the LLM to write code for you? Well, I had a morning free to write all of this… so we got to work… with a lot of the code written for me. In the end I stuck with 4 bible passages a week taken from the Church of England lectionary, as I couldn’t find a suitable site that lists a bible passage of the day.

And here is the result: onebread.co.uk. The initial prompts ask it to describe a visualisation of the passage, summarise it as a limerick, provide some basic action points, and related passages… but ultimately there are many things that we could do with it:

  • Generate an image for each passage using Dall.e (I intend to add this to the site over Easter)
  • Ask it to identify a craft activity associated with the passage
  • Ask it to explain how these passages are related to the top news headline drawn from another website
  • Ask it to re-write the passage as a parable / with a particular metaphor

The only limit of this is the creativity of the prompt writer… and it’s not just LLMs with text-based interaction, there’s also generative “AI” that will create images (Dall.e referenced above is just one of them), there are models that will generate videos, models that will generate audio, or translate audio to text. And all of them are now at the stage where actually, they’re really good.

I honestly believe that we have pivoted from the Information Age into the Intelligence Age. It is a tool to be harnessed and will likely change the way that we use and view computers. It will also likely change a lot of jobs, challenge assumptions about creativity and change the way we look at things – how can we trust that something is real, rather than created by a computer?

I was going to end this blog post with “What do you think?”… but actually that question could just be fed to an LLM to answer… so instead I’ll change the question to “How do you feel about this?”.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Wake Up!

January 25th, 2023 (by Steve)

It’s funny how two words can invoke different feelings at different times of the year. “Wake Up!” in January immediately leads to thoughts of “must I?”, yet on a sunny bank holiday weekend last August, the response was altogether more positive. For this was the theme of Greenbelt 2022.

As with our previous visit to Greenbelt as parents, I deliberately set myself low expectations and instead prayed that God would guide me to meet with people He wanted me to meet, and to end up at sessions on the programme that were suitable. But first, to get there. We thought we might need to draw lots to decide who would be left behind, but there was surprisingly more space than expected once the top box, boot and footwells were filled. As with our adventure earlier that month, we headed up the M5, M42… but this time onto the M6 (a bit like the M6 toll, but with one difference… 12 quid!). We parked up, were given our wristbands (our kids had “under 18” in large letters on theirs – I presume in case they tried to go to the bar?) and headed to a huddle of tents in a hollow to camp with friends.

The first evening was all about settling in – introducing the kids to portaloos, reheating some food from our freezer at home for our tea, then heading into the main festival area full of new lights and sounds for the wee ones. By the time we returned to our tents (via the tent of Milk and Honey where we picked up milk and… eggs), our youngest was nearly asleep on my shoulders, so we tucked them up into bed. As I sat cross legged doing the washing up with an amazing view, someone from our neighbouring huddle popped over to ask if we had some washing up liquid. Turned out to be someone I went to Kenya with 20 years ago, who was also camping there with her family! We had a quick chat, then as the light faded we sat in the camp with friends, munching on chocolate buttons.

Our eldest took the title of the festival a bit too literally at 6am the next morning, culminating in shouting “why should I shush?”. Sorry other campers. We got the coffee on the brew as early as we could, queued for the loos, then whilst the grown ups in our party headed off to listen to Caroline Lucas, I headed to the kids tent for “Godly play” which was retelling the creation story. As part of that the kids were asked “which was your favourite day… or the most important day”. My youngest said “the final day, where there is nothing”, which was represented by a plain white board. And then when we did a creative activity afterwards, they chose to paint a rainbow, as white light is made up of “everything – all of the colours”. First profound thought of the festival for me. Nothing is everything.

After some more coffee, we put our heads together and came up with a bit of a plan. The kids wanted to do archery and tomahawk throwing. Children and sharp flying objects; bring it on… what’s the worst that could happen? We went to the main lawn to try to find the archery, but it had changed venue, so we stopped for a spot of lunch overlooking the lawn. There were several people playing football and one hit me as someone scored a goal (I’m brave, I didn’t cry!). After they apologised they decided “we need to move our goal”. Second profound thought of the festival – what goals do I need to move, where success for me could harm someone else?

At risk of getting lost in a mire of deep thought, we went to find some axes and arrows. We were the only ones there, so Kiri threw a few axes (proper sharp ones), our youngest threw a few axes (foam ones with velcro), and I did a bit of archery with our eldest. We saw a squirrel (also known as “dinner”) as I had bow and arrow in hand, but I focused on the static target rather on success which could harm something else.

I’d managed to make it through to the afternoon of the first whole day without engaging in a single talk. Whilst Kiri headed off to listen to Nadia Bolz Weber (in a very small venue), I took the kids to see an immense bubble show where huge, iridescent balloons just called to be popped, however there were very clear rules set in place with a rope between us and the show – the “beauty zone” was the other side of the rope, but if the bubbles came over to our side, they were fair game in the “kill zone”.

And then I had a bit of time for me – I decided to go to a guided meditation session. The venue was the other side of the earth – literally – as there was a huge earth suspended over one of the paths. Looking around there was a certain demographic at that session and I wasn’t it! As I lay down amongst spiders and nettley grass in the Shelter venue, my last thought as I drifted off to sleep was “it’s a bit bizarre that they’re playing weird animal noises, but as I’ve never done a guided meditation before, I’ll roll with it”. Turned out it was just a kid making dinosaur noises outside! As I came round from my sleep, I pondered on how much I was getting from the festival when totally ignoring the programming – it was telling me to “Wake Up!”, and here I was falling asleep!

Sausages for tea back at the tent went down very well and my parents in law popped by with freshly frozen icepacks from Fifi. It was a clearer, colder night that the previous one, but with a lovely sunset whilst washing up. With the kids down it was eventually wine, chocolate and crib time with the distant sound of Kae Tempest in the background on the main stage. We played until we could see the cards no longer, then headed to bed.

Communion on the Sunday has historically been one of the creative high points of Greenbelt and this year didn’t disappoint. The focus was the climate crisis and between the giant globes that were bouncing around the crowd, a disturbing and chilling re-imagination of “all things bright and beautiful”, Harry Baker’s “Impossible” and potentially radioactively charged, bright purple Ka drink to accompany the bread we broke together it was a thought-provoking feast for senses, mind and body.

After communion, I had a last minute change of plan and spontaneously decided to go to a conversation about capitalism and work in the “Rebel Rouser” venue, set in some woodland. The sound check where they encouraged speakers to get really close to the mic as it was set up for punk music set the tone, as a PhD student and economist explored some of the concepts of where power, boundaries and exploitation are perceived to lie in the chain of “work”. There were some interesting soundbites to chew on:

  • “the availability of cheap labour (even in the UK in small sweat shops) is a barrier to automation”
  • “colonisation of creativity” (in reference to things like the TFL quotes at tube stations that started off as a creative idea, now being corporately managed)
  • “what is the effect of a never satisfied desire for growth and profit in a finite world?”

However, the thing that I felt was lacking was balance. What I love about Greenbelt is that you normally hear both (or many) sides of a story; this felt quite one-sided in its proposed solutions of “changing the owners” and “unionising”. What was topical back in August is even more so now, as we face the most strike action in the country since the 1970s… but a breadth of opinion would have been appreciated. I’ll admit I left early to join the kids and Kiri who were building shelters on the edge of the woodland.

Having taken out a small mortgage to pay for icecreams for the kids, we settle down for a session at the main stage with Martyn Joseph. He opened the set with his anthem of hope “Here come the young” before apologising that the rest of his songs were so miserable that they would make Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews. I have to disagree – the topics they touched upon were raw and real, but not miserable. This glass is half full, this half is heartbreakingly beautiful. And the purpose of power is to give it away. These are songs that reveal an alternative way to live. I think the dragonfly (often symbolic of new life) circling around over our heads might have agreed.

Those deep thoughts had returned, so once again we sought out axes. Having been on a spoon carving course a few weeks earlier where we used carving axes, here we were throwing them. Kiri and I love axes… is that normal? The axe throwing was right next to (parallel, not perpendicular for obvious reasons) the motorhome field, where we were reunited with Fifi and treated to dinner. The topic of conversation was about potential post-Fifi options. Whilst possibly not that tactful to talk about within earshot of Fifi, it was exciting to hear my parents in law talking about maybe going down the route of an electric campervan next.

We headed back to our tent via Milk and Honey where we bought milk and… bacon (one day we’ll get the correct shopping list) and once we’d done the evening jobs, I settled down with Harry Baker’s book, revisiting “Impossible”. As the light dropped, our circle of camping chairs grew until we had a lovely crowd, with the main topic of conversation turning to food van recommendations; something we hadn’t sampled by this stage. We listened intently, and were amazed at the feelings that raw tomatoes can invoke in others. Eye opening!

I’d like to say I was woken by my alarm the next morning (it being a Monday), but our oldest was already awake by then. Cream off the top of the milk in coffee and a bacon sarnie made the early start acceptable, and then there were decisions – do I go to listen to Richard Dawkins, or a conversation with the authors of Young, Woke and Christian? Dawkins won, so as Kiri headed to the “Ta dah” and “Make and Create” marquees with the kids, I settled down to listen to a conversation between Giles Fraser and Richard Dawkins.

I guess the key topic covered was that of truth. There was plenty of exploration of topics around science and religion and actually how there is collaboration on issues of mutual importance like the climate crisis, but Dawkins was keen to stress that it’s also important to talk about fundamental questions we disagree on too, which is where he came onto truth. He stated that scientific truth is the only truth, but acknowledged that this won’t have the answer to moral questions. Fraser suggested that his definition of truth may be too narrow, asking “is it true that torture is wrong?”. Dawkins responded that they share the same sentiment, but wouldn’t he use “truth” in that context – it’s neither true nor false, but a matter of moral assessment and law; it could be justified in some circumstances.

Fraser then challenged Dawkins on a statement he had made in 2021 on how it is immoral to birth someone with downs syndrome, and gave him a chance to retract the statement. Dawkins did not, and requested to move on, saying that it was an unfortunate choice of words that had been taken out of context. Then he said that even if it were not in the best interests of humanity, hypothetically he would rather focus on a truth, than a lie that would be good for the world. And he gave what I perceived to be a telling response when Fraser suggested that the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the conservative, fundamentalist cartoon of God, rather than a rich, nuanced, theologically-complex God. His response firstly was “The American audience I write for is much bigger than the British audience”… followed by “I can’t get to grips with what your God is, if it’s not the fundamental God.”

Then just as the conversation turned towards spirituality and Dawkins said how important it is, but how difficult a word to understand it is, the time was up… but not before a member of the l’Arche community (where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together) invited Dawkins to share a meal with them.

The afternoon activities were much less thought-provoking, but equally enjoyable. After lunch with the kids, we all headed back to the main stage for an hour with Harry and Chris – poetry, music, deep love, joy and authenticity (as well as a moment where they expressed their excitement at being a support act for “Dicky Dawks”). We had a bit of a wander, having a game of giant draughts, and then headed off to see some good old fashioned (but not dated) magic and circus skills courtesy of Tommy Trilby.

As a treat that afternoon we had tea from the various food vans around site, between us managing to sample pizza, halloumi fries, onion bhajis and macaroni cheese. Once replete, we headed back to the tents to grab the kids’ stuff which we took to Fifi, giving them a final evening of adventure whilst Kiri and I could have a bit of a date night. We chose to go to the Hope and Anchor – an alcohol-free bar, where each evening there was a mystery guest. This final evening it was the authors of Young, Woke and Christian chatting about the chapters that each of them had written. They also played a round of “Cards against Mundanity” – a means of bringing structure to promote honest, open conversation against topics where participants will likely disagree. Kind of what Greenbelt is all about.

We stayed for most of it, but we had an appointment with a beer and some music at the main stage. With a pint of Piggin Saint freshly pulled from the Jesus Arms, we enjoyed a fantastic show put on by Wildwood Kin; a family folk trio from Dartmoor. Tight, inventive vocal harmonies and solid, creative rhythm sections are two things that musically float our boats and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Add in the “honest bants” (which were at one point described as “pleasantly awkward”) and lack of slickness and it was the perfect combination. It felt like we were sharing the corner of a rustic country pub with them rather than a large stage at a festival. What contrast there had been on that one stage in one day!

And then suddenly it was all over; the final morning we returned our empty milk bottles to Milk and Honey (having never managed to see the honey), packed up the car and returned to life and reality. Did the festival wake us up? I’m not sure, but as with every Greenbelt we’ve attended to date, it certainly gave us plenty of food for thought to carry back into our everyday routine.

Posted in Children, Life | No Comments »

Peak motorhoming… with kids

October 9th, 2022 (by Steve)

Ever since our wee ones stepped foot inside Fifi a few years ago, we’ve tried to figure out how it might work to take them away in her. Covid put a stop to our original plan in summer 2020 to do a mini road trip of northern France with them… and it’s somehow taken another 2 years to get our act together to attempt it again. Not northern France, but “up north” in the Peak District in mid August. Kiri would argue it’s Midlands really… but we headed north from home, so technically we can both be right! The occasion was a family get together in the area where my grandparents met 80 or so years ago.

So… first step in going north is to go south, right? Well, actually south is left from our front door, but in any case, we had to head to Hewish to pick up Fifi, which meant braving the southbound holiday traffic in a hot car on the M5. Finally we got to Fifi, swapped keys, got the kids’ car seats strapped into the back of Fifi, rescued our little one from flying through the fly screen on the door and we were off. Well, as far as home, where it was lunch time by now. So we grabbed a bite to eat, loaded the bikes onto the back of Fifi and threw the rest of our stuff into cupboards and we were off. Well, kind of. Might have been faster to walk.

At the 2 hour mark, we were yet to hit Birmingham. The youngest was asleep and we were crawling. We set our sights for Tamworth Services on the M42 for a bit of a breather in the journey… then took our sights off the signs for the services whilst we updated our fellow family travellers that we had set sights for the Services… and somehow ended up on the M6 toll road. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Quite a costly lesson. However once we were on the A38 we realised we weren’t the only ones who might be navigationally-challenged. A white van ahead of us indicated left, got onto the slip road, then swerved into our lane at the last minute, stopped completely, then turned right. We learned two other lessons. One, how to wake up a small child in the back of the van. Two, that Fifi has very good brakes.

Our alternative to the services was the faithful yellow and blue friend of the motorhomer; Lidl. We’re still using the same “offline” satnav from our KIST 2EU travels and the Lidl POIs continue to be helpful. We had a quick game of tag in a quiet corner of the car park and a whip around the store where there weren’t any cucumbers, but there were 4 cookies with our names on! Was the journey then plain sailing from there? If your definition of “plain sailing” includes stunning rolling hills, fields of heather, evening sunlight on sundried grasses, us ignoring the sat nav and ending up going down a 1 in 5 hill (we’ve done steeper in Bertha who had worse brakes!), passing on the wisdom of how to have a poo in a motorhome toilet to the next generation… at which point both kids wanted to try… then yes, it was plain sailing! We’re so pleased we (and the kids!) were out of nappies before doing motorhoming with them!

Finally, 9 hours after we first left home, we checked into our campsite just outside Bakewell at the time the kids would normally be in bed. They were sent off the playground whilst I prepared the standard motorhome fare of pasta, then we sent them packing off to share the fixed double bed in the rear of Fifi whilst I headed to do the washing up at the campsite sinks. I got into a lovely conversation with a local who gave me all of the tips for the local area. With my head spinning with facts, I clambered back into the van at the time I would normally be in bed… to find the kids were still awake! The lights were out in the van to see if that helped, and as I sat at the table I watched my first ever moonrise. Absolutely stunning. With one down and one still awake, we cracked open the wine and chocolate. In any other setting wine, chocolate and whispered conversations in dark could have been quite romantic! It was 11 by the time we got to bed.

We really have been spoiled with our previous Fifi adventures where it’s just been the two of us. The luxury of a lie in. Alas, not today. 6 o’clock. We managed to stay in bed until half past, but breakfast was necessary. We realised that there’s a lot more stuff to manoeuvre in a small space where there are 2 kids travelling with you and fewer free surfaces to use! As the campsite woke up around us (hopefully not caused by us), we scarpered just in case, driving to the agricultural centre car park in Bakewell which could facilitate motorhome parking. Online it previously seemed to imply that you could stay overnight for a pound… but there were clear signs in the car park forbidding overnight stays – glad we didn’t try it.

We unloaded our tired children onto bikes and pedalled our way onto the Monsal Trail towards Hassop Station. This was the venue where our kids would get to meet some of their great aunties and uncles, first cousins once removed (not sure who removed them) and second cousins that they’d never met before… as well as some closer family. After greeting everyone, two parties set off in the direction of Monsal Head; some on bikes and some on foot. We were in the cycling party; one of our kids on their bike, one on a bike seat and with another child on a bike too, progress was a little stop-start, but we overtook the walking party after a while.

I reckon that had the kids had a bit more sleep the night before, we might have gone a bit further, but we made it as far as the first tunnel and the Monsal Head viaduct; re-assuring our kids that the dank, dark tunnel they were cycling through did have light at the end of it! Icecream is always a good bargaining chip and in this case convinced our eldest to get back on the bike rather than staying put on the viaduct. It’s a good job we found one at Quackers; a cafe about half way back to Hassop Station.

The next few hours at Hassop Station provided a brilliant backdrop for a family get together. There were gifts from our Germany-based family (thank you Story Snug!), family albums from the 1930s and 1940s to pore over, a leisurely lunch with plenty of chair swapping, a chance to reconnect with wider family and a very patient teenager who seemed more than happy to play with the children! Who by this stage were absolutely exhausted, and still had to cycle a few miles back to Fifi!

We made it though, covered in dust. Bikes onto the bike rack. Gas off. Back to the campsite. Swift shower. Bite to eat. Kids into bed. Straight to sleep. Except that last one didn’t happen for both of the kids. An hour and a half later, our eldest was still loudly awake, at risk of waking our youngest. Should we maybe have abandoned our dream of being able to have an evening when we go on holiday with kids? Eventually it was beer and crib o’clock – once around the board, before we too settled down by 10.

We must be thankful for small blessings – we had a lie in until 0645! And that was followed by a very chilled breakfast, washing up (with a spider incident involving lots of scared grown men and a woman who saved the day saying “don’t worry boys, I’ll look after you”), playing on the campsite playground and emptying the loo. We’d agreed to meet my brother’s family at the splash park in Bakewell for some splashing and a picnic, so we stopped off at Aldi on the way, where we each chose one favourite item to take on a picnic. I’ll leave you to guess which of us might have chosen honey on bread, olives, smoked salmon and chocolate biscuits.

We arrived at the splash park after a quick game of pooh sticks, met the other family and got the kids into clothes ready to splash, at which point the water stopped. We were assured that it would only be off for 15 minutes… but Google told us otherwise – that it was off for a whole hour over lunch. So instead we consumed our picnic of champions and played on the playground until the water resumed. It’s amazing how water can entertain children for so long and it was lovely watching the cousins all playing together. However, all good things must come to an end – we lured the children away whilst they were still asking for more, with the promise of icecream. Skirting past the icecream van where cones and lollies were 4 quid a pop, past the huge fish in the river, past the lock bridge (not lock as in lock gate, but lock as in bridge with padlocks on) we found Co-op where for 4 quid we picked up 6 mini magnums and a large bottle of ginger ale. That’s more our style!

Once back at the campsite we tried a different tack after tea; we got our younger one to sleep on the fixed bed whilst the older one lay reading in the drop down bed. There was then a pivotal life moment; the teaching of crib to our eldest. In the background, the campsite was slowly settling down for the night. A little girl in pajamas waddled past our motorhome with icepacks wedged down her trousers and there were reports of the Macarena happening in the ladies toilets. You don’t get that when wild camping!
 

Luckily for us though, there is still coffee and bacon when on a campsite – both were needed following the 6am wakeup the next morning, but once again we had a quiet morning. It was cooler today with cloud cover as we picked up my parents from Hassop and drove to Bakewell. Our normal parking spot at the showground was taken; someone was reserving the spot for some friends who had bikes on the car roof which couldn’t fit under the height barrier of the main parking. We were too British to risk inconveniencing them by suggesting that maybe they could have just removed the bikes, and as we were not going to decapitate Fifi, we found a parking spot by the side of the road around the corner.

It was market day (which explained the busy parking) so we had a lovely wander around the stalls in town before going on a lunch hunt which ended in another picnic eaten al fresco in some gardens by the river. This was followed shortly afterwards with a Hope Valley icecream for all… well, nearly all – I decided to go for a Bakewell pudding instead. A few spots of refreshing rain arrived, to take the edge off the sweltering heat we’d been having, so we headed back to Fifi and returned my parents to Hassop. They very kindly offered to look after the kids if Kiri and I wanted to go for a cycle ride together at that stage, which in our sleepy delirium made us both chuckle… so we all sat down for a coffee, entertained by our little one who was dancing around, refusing to admit that a toilet stop was needed!

The campsite was quieter on our return (we must have frightened everyone off) and it was cool enough to eat our hot dogs outside before we adopted the same strategy as the previous night with getting the kids to sleep. Either the plan was a good one, or maybe they were too tired to resist, but there was no fight, leaving a little time for a game of Uno washed down with some local beer (including gluten free – what a find!).

Normally when you strike camp that’s the end of the holiday… but given we’d got quite a long drive to return Fifi we had decided to tack on an extra night near Hewish. By this stage we’d got into the swing of mornings and were resigned to the reality of no lie ins. The journey back home to drop off bikes was fairly uneventful. At one point we took a left hand corner a little too fast (not for the van… but for the drawer catches). A drawer slid open with a bang, surprising the kids. The solution? Take the next right hand corner a little faster than normal. It worked. In totally unrelated news, a couple of minutes later there was a plaintive call of “Mummy, I feel sick”. Oops.

A service station stop solved sickness sorrows, although with the playground shut, we had to find alternate amusement in the form of a chain curtain and hearing a child coming out of Waitrose moaning “but Mummy, I absolutely must have some olives”. After a bite to eat, everyone’s stomachs were settled enough and we dropped off the bikes and panniers at home and once again headed south – this time to Brean. We trundled down a single track road with passing places, then onto a slightly wider road (where we met a double decker bus!) before finally arrive at Diamond Farm Holiday Park where we pitched up in a spot next to the River Axe in a part of the campsite with no marked pitches or hookup.

We just had time to turn the gas on (for the fridge) and pop to the campsite shop for an icecream when the thunder started… and then big spots of rain. We retired to the van to appreciate the storm whilst the muscle memory of being in a motorhome in the rain flooded back. Cooking tea was a balancing act of circulating air to let steam out, but trying to prevent rain coming in. There’s something really lovely about hearing the rain ping off the roof of a motorhome whilst you’re all cosy inside, with no reason to go outside. We didn’t fancy walking to the sinks to wash up, so we just did it in the van, watching the field getting more and more waterlogged.

When the youngest went to bed, we let our oldest stay up to play Uno (under strict instructions of “we don’t talk about Uno, no no no” to the youngest in case it’s seen as unfair) which led to some incredibly creative wildcard rules. Never before have we had an Uno rule that “when you play a 1, if you see and name a bird, you get another go, otherwise you miss your next go”. Sadly the birds seemed to stay away on my go! Once both kids were in bed we had a drinking water conundrum – do we fill up a 2 litre bottle in the dark and dry (the rain had paused), or wait until the morning, pre-coffee, when it would potentially be raining? I splashed across the field.

I needn’t have worried though – when we woke the next morning it was dull, but dry. Everything was packed into bags and Fifi was cleaned, then we headed to the campsite waste area to “empty stuff” whilst Kiri and the kids had a quick play. And then to the beach! Well… we tried at least. The only car parks we found were paid for on a per day basis rather than by the hour and with the dearest at £16 and the cheapest £6, I stayed in the van whilst Kiri and the kids got out to see the sea for a few minutes (not that it’s easy to see without binoculars at Brean!). Everyone was bundled back into the van and we headed off to find the elusive Sainsburys petrol station from our last trip where we topped up, glad that the price of diesel had fallen to “just” 182.9p per litre. Ouch.

When we returned Fifi, we just about managed to fit everything back into our car and were just doing one last check around Fifi when we found a cupboard with 3 more bags in it. We debated whether to leave one of the kids behind in Hewish, but settled on all just being a bit squished for the final leg of the adventure. And then we were home – arriving just as a broadband engineer was knocking on our door. As that would have been a bit of a rubbish end to a blog post, we decided to finish the holiday with one last icecream. There’s always space for icecream.

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »

Greek sun

August 31st, 2022 (by Steve)

Finally, we made it to Greece. It might have taken two years for it to happen, but we made it there in the May half term. And it’s strange how much things can change in two years – hold luggage for small child… no longer necessary. Masks suddenly mandatory. Crazy queues at Bristol airport due to staff shortages with the 3rd (4th? 5th?) wave of Covid. But we did it – with a minor delay where we had to go back to the house to pick up a bag with nappies in. I tried to convince the kids as we turned round that they’d just had the holiday, but they weren’t buying it. We were off to Greece!

The journey to Greece was a blur – a cabin bag audit for the 11 of us to maximise use of space, an alarm set for 0245, removing a pair of compasses from cabin luggage just in time, a Casio watch with broken strap sacrificed at security checks, a very early coffee and sausage butty, a bit of a funny turn (my body played the “nope” card just before check in – if you don’t know what that means, it’s worth playing the game “Exploding Kittens“), mixed mask messages… and then suddenly out into the hot dry air of Zakynthos.

A stamp in the passport marked our arrival; the first travelling we’ve done post-Brexit… but old habits die hard, and nearly everyone on the flight wandered through the “EU” channel. Then the pace changed. A basking lazy lizard, darted into the shadows of the car rental place. We meandered around Greek roads (Kiri driving on the right!) until we reached a steep side road down to our villas for the week. And then? The swimming pool welcomed us. This wasn’t to be our usual brand of adventurous holiday; instead a chance to just be. Good food (thanks Jake!). Good company (thanks family!). Good weather (thanks God!). The only downside were the noisy peacocks on a nearby hillside. Who knew they sang so badly?

The next few days blurred into one – waking up, throwing open the shutters at the end of our bed and watching the sun rise as swallows darted over the pool. We lay on various beaches, swimming in the clear waters with the kids and snorkelling with the fish (we were the ones wearing snorkels… not the fish, obviously). We shared amazing food – souvlaki, tzatziki, hummus, olives, pitta, moussaka, oranges straight from the tree, baklava. Oh my, let me pause on the baklava. We bought a huge one from a bakery, where I could only manage a sixth. It had sweet, deep, floral flavours and it’s only been this good when friends have brought it back from Egypt. The 3 generations swam and played in the pool (I lost the game of pool chicken with my nephew where we each tried to be the last one to get out!). Then evenings were spent with the older ones playing games, chatting and listening to the playlist in the dusk, punctuated with the odd “Is that one of our kids? No, just a peacock”… or a random moment where the playlist was playing Ruby and suddenly the phone assistant piped up “Item added to shopping basket”. There was no TV (there was one, but the best I could get in tuning it was the Disney channel in black and white and in German), but that didn’t matter.

We did have a few low-key adventures though. One day we piled into a coach in Argassi (the nearest settlement… which I was convinced for the first few days was called “Gassi” and people were just saying “Our Gassi”) to be taken to the other side of the island. As we drove through the nightclub district with pizza houses, chicken houses and McDonald’s the conversation turned to tourism; something that has sat uncomfortably with me and Kiri throughout our various travels. We totally get the need for trade and tourism as a source of income, and I guess it’s only natural to give punters what they want, and many punters want their British home comforts, but with sun. But it’s not really us. I accept that we are tourists. I’d like to think that we seek authenticity though… but then that leads to unanswerable questions about what it is to be authentic!

In any case, an hour later as I clambered up a ladder into a boat with one hand, clutching 4 Cornettos, a small child and a bag of wet swim gear in the other I realised how much I was rocking the tourist look. We were on a turtle boat trip, where we saw a turtle through the bottom of our boat (it was glass bottomed, rather than leaky), experienced Whitney Houston played at full volume in a sea cave, swam in clear waters (not with the turtles this time) and refused to sing as we passed the island that features in the film Mamma Mia.

On another day we wandered through the streets of the city of Zakynthos. We saw the plush thrones, gold leaf, ornate carvings and intricate murals inside an Orthodox Church, where many were taking the non-Covid-safe choice of kissing paintings. We were offered a “very best price” coffee and milkshake in one of the squares and we marvelled at how “pedestrianised” seems to have a different meaning in Greek when it comes to streets. Our plan had been to eat at a taverna in town, however having earlier in the week eaten at our “local” taverna (Agnadi) to celebrate a big birthday, we realised that we’d be hard pressed to beat it for view, quality of food, or welcome. We also bought a stunning olive wood bowl that had been turned by one of the owners and made a promise to our future selves to work with wood.

And then there was the day of the road trip with banging tunes. First stop was Aristeon olive press where we were introduced to the process of extracting oil from olives – we were fascinated by the business model of farmers paying for the pressing service by the press keeping a percentage of the oil. We were shocked though that the second press of the waste from virgin olive oil uses petrol as a solvent to extract further oil… that’s done on the mainland. With the car weighed down by as much olive oil as we’d be permitted to carry in cabin bags on the return flight, our next stop took us up into the hills to Agrodesmos cheese factory. This clearly wasn’t on the regular tourist trail. A huge rusty saw hung outside an industrial unit and after a short wait, a member of staff bruskly ushered us through a sterile, dark corridor. I thought I’d seen this horror movie before… but obviously not, because at the end of the corridor was a room where feta was being salted. We then got to taste a selection of cheese, one of which had been marinated in Ouzo. We expressed surprise. The straight faced response was “of course”. Well there we go. Feta and Ouzo.

This is probably the time for me to make an admission. I’m conflicted about feta. I don’t know whether I like it or not. As a big slab on top of a greek salad? No thanks. In little bits within a greek salad? Yes please. In moussaka? Take it or leave it. In a spinach pie? Yes please. I think it’s probably a combination of a texture thing (I don’t like crumbly cheeses) as well as a flavour thing (it needs to be balanced with the correct other flavours). Maybe it’s also a quantity thing? Anyway, back to the story – thanks for indulging me.

Our final stop on the tour was Callinico winery. We were casually told to look around and then have a taste. Left to our own devices, we found some bottles that were the same age as us, as well as a violet carpenter bee. Not a violent carpenter bee – that’s something totally different. The guy serving us the tastes of white, rose and red smashed a glass in the process… and then knocked over a couple of bottles. Maybe, like the olive press, he was paid in the wares that he sold? It was the end of the month!

And then suddenly (via an unpleasant moment where I had my face in the sea next to one of our kids and they announced loudly “I’m having a wee!”), we were on our last evening, reflecting on highlights and dreaming about the next family adventure in a few years time. The sweet spot that ticked the boxes of the various families involved sun, sea, good food and culture. So maybe Croatia? Could we add in an extra element of adventure and have a race to get there by different modes of transport?

Our final morning involved consuming as much of the leftover food as possible before wending our way to the airport. Our oldest was swabbed for explosives as we went through security (clearly the most suspicious of our party) and we stocked up on lollies to help with ear pressure on the plane (to clarify, they’re to suck, which helps the ears to pop… you don’t stick them in your ears!). The flight was uneventful – clear skies as we took off and flew north over Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. It was only the beginning of June, but we could see many wide river beds with just a trickle of blue in the middle. The descent was rather more eventful with our youngest not wishing to wear a seatbelt… we apologised to the other passengers profusely for the noise. We were then at the receiving end of an apology at border control after long queues, with the explanation “it’s what’s called Windows 7”.

The kids were both asleep by the time we got home, so we carried them up to bed, checked the garden (the tomato plants had all been eaten, even the backups in the cold frame), appreciated the ability to flush toilet roll down the loo and then settled down to watch a documentary for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I think we’ve turned middle aged!

Posted in Life | 2 Comments »

A life-giving break

July 2nd, 2022 (by Steve)

We’ve never seen Fifi’s home before. Fifi belongs to my parents in law and is hired out for public use by the motorhome holiday company. In March this year, we left the kids with my parents in law and headed down to Hewish to pick Fifi up. There we had an amazing welcome from Nicola and Jordan and a lovely chat about our previous adventures in Fifi and how we could be trusted with her as we were old hands at this motorhoming stuff. And then we tried to start her with the wrong key. And then forgot to take off the handbrake before departing. Isn’t there a saying about pride and fall or something?

Our first stop was Lidl where we both stocked up with supplies, but also had lunch in the car park. Kiri remarked that it reminded her of old times – I think she might have been commenting on the fancy cheese we’d just bought, but it could have been the consuming of lunch in a Lidl car park. Lunch was swiftly polished off and we hit the M5, observing the new style pylons being installed in the fields and getting excited when we passed an Autotrail Chinook (it wasn’t Bertha). It was to be the start of a few days were we looked both back and forward, yet as we overtook a van daubed in messages of support for Ukraine which had just returned from delivering humanitarian aid, we also could not escape the present.

The first overnight was in a pub car park on the edge of Dartmoor, at first with just chickens and goats for company, but soon we were joined by other motorhomes. At 6 we popped into the pub for a couple of draught ales (Otter and Dartmoor Legend) which accompanied a burger and Irish stew – a small price to pay for an overnight stay. By the time we were replete it was 7:15 and we were both ready for bed, but decided it was a bit too early to turn in for the night. So we had a game of Uno Flip, some quiet prayer time and then we lowered the top bed (which we were testing out in preparation for a summer trip in Fifi with the kids). We were asleep soon after 8 – both stupidly and sensibly early!

Having not slept “up top” in a motorhome for nearly 7 years, we’d forgotten what it was like to have to climb down a cold ladder for the loo in the night, but that aside, we had a blissful, uninterrupted 10 hours in bed. Our pace didn’t pick up that much as we had an unhurried morning, doing our customary Worldle, Wordle and Heardle… before a horrible thought that we might not have put the fridge on gas and the milk might have curdled. We had. The milk was fine and the coffee that we had before our bacon butty hit the spot. We liked the style of the pub and hospitality for motorhomes. Over the pandemic we’ve been supporting a social enterprise called the Long Table; making sure everyone has access to food and encouraging community through shared food – wouldn’t it be great if at some point in our lives we could set up something like that for motorhomers?

Our plan for the day was to drive across Dartmoor to Lydford Gorge. As a child we used to drive down to Plymouth to see relatives. As a university student a friend took me across the moors in his Triumph Spitfire and I remember with fondness the rugged moorland and raw landscape. I was looking forward to a scenic drive. We pulled off and drove down the main road before beginning to head towards the moor. There was a sign warning of a narrow bridge and another bridge not suitable for long vehicles. Ah, but we can do this. We managed the bridge not suitable for long vehicles with ease, but I felt a little more uneasy as we counted down the miles to the narrow bridge. I was right to. As soon as it came into sight, I realised I had been too ambitious. 3 point turn, embarrassed faces and a circumnavigation of the moor that was in sight, but tantalisingly out of reach. Next time we’ll do our homework in advance!

We had an early lunch on arrival at Lydford Gorge so we wouldn’t be ravine-ous (sorry) before exploring as many of the paths as we could that were open. It was out of season for visitors, but in season for those managing the woodland, restoring paths and clearing away remnants of winter storms. Who knows – maybe managing woodland will feature in our future? Kiri certainly looked enviously at the huge chainsaw a worker was wielding in a picture at the entrance to the gorge. Oh, and the Whitelady Waterfall was just as impressive as I remember as a child.

What followed was a lovely leisurely drive up to the car park of the Yarde Orchard cafe; a rural spot on the Tarka Trail near Torrington next to a disused railway station. We checked in with the kids (just to allay fears, they were with grandparents – we didn’t leave them on their own!) and had a hot chocolate at the cafe before wandering along the railway line; now part of the Sustrans network. We had the luxury of uninterrupted time to read before making tea, so I got stuck into reading a political book, whilst Kiri read the book of Amos. So nothing too heavy really. A burger completed the day, followed by a game of crib and another early night.

Birdsong. A much less abrupt alarm call in the morning than a child. With no fixed timings for the day, we took our time over another fry up, read through Amos together (a prophecy of impending judgement for all nations… but ultimately restoration in the end) and chatted about the current state of the world… feeling very much that there is big stuff on the horizon (which I’m not saying is judgement), but knowing that ultimately there is restoration in the end. This trip away really felt like an oasis. Like we were able to take precious time away from the storm to reflect and recharge – almost like being in the eye of a storm.

A winding road through Barnstaple and over the hills took us towards the Valley of the Rocks, where we drove around the roundabout the wrong way (for old times’ sake) and parked up. This time the white lady we sought was not in the shape of a waterfall, but a gap between rocks at the top of cliff and we climbed up to take a closer look. Whilst Lee Abbey and the surrounding area was a formative place for both of us as we grew up, we’d never been there together until now.

The next few hours were brilliant. We wandered along the toll road to Lee Abbey and down to the beach, looking back and sharing memories of our very different but significant experiences of this special place. It was too cold to paddle, but we scrambled on rocks and reminisced. When I first came to this place, my Mum was the age that I am now. That made me feel old! We tried to wander back to Fifi via the scenic route through the woods, but came across fallen trees at every turn. After pushing our way through the first few, we soon realised that it probably wasn’t the most sensible of ideas to continue to press on, so we headed back up the road and took a minor detour to the wood store that kindled (get it!) Kiri’s love affair with axes and chainsaws.

We thought we’d top up with some supplies on the way to our campsite for the night, so set the course in the satnav for Sainsburys in Barstaple… but couldn’t work out how to get to it. This is the satnav that took us around Europe (so not new-fangled and internet-enabled), yet we couldn’t get to Sainsburys – we could see it… but it was tantalisingly the other side of a park. So we gave up and went to Asda. We then had a lovely drive where once again our conversation was incredibly deep and philosophical. We always wave at other motorhomes… but sometimes find ourselves waving at horse-carrying vehicles. What is it that makes these vehicles not motorhomes, if they have sleeping compartments? If there’s a satellite dish on top, should we wave? What about if there’s a canoe on top?

Our musings were cut short by a shut road. No short cuts for us. Initially we were happy that we’d be spending a little more time on an A road… but then the satnav moved us onto a B road… then an unnamed road… then there was a telecommunications van totally blocking the road. We reversed Fifi, turned around and took the alternative, alternative route… where the sides of the hedges were brushing Fifi… and we went through a ford! Well that was an unexpected adventure. I think we need a bit more practice at this motorhoming malarkey!

We finally arrived at a lovely farm where found a pitch that suited us (plenty to choose from), filled up with fresh water (our “wild camping” of the last two nights had been on slightly less than half a tank), hooked up the electrics and got tea on the go. Then the standard Fifi routine of crib and another early night. This is the life.

It certainly wasn’t -2 degrees in the van when we woke the next morning (memories of Serbia in Bertha), but it was cold enough for us to hop out of bed to turn on the heater, then get back into bed until Fifi had warmed up. Once warm, it was breakfast and packing things away as we wanted to pop in on some elderly relatives (ahem!) in Somerset on the way back. We had a swift cup of tea and slice of cake in the garden (we’ll come again!) before raising Fifi’s sails and setting her on a course for home.

We knew we were cutting things tight and we needed to return her with a full tank of fuel, but once again the satnav failed to deliver with regards to the Sainsburys petrol station – we got as far as Sainsburys… but couldn’t work out how to get to the associated petrol station. Once again we gave up on Sainsburys… this time saved by Morrisons. Fifi was returned, we hopped into our little car and headed back to relieve the grandparents who described their time with our kids as “life-giving”.

Yep, that’s a good way of describing our break too.

Posted in Life | No Comments »

Take time to make your soul happy

November 7th, 2021 (by Steve)

With the pandemic still in full flow (albeit with hope on the horizon), when a chance appeared for Kiri and I to escape with Fifi for a few nights in the summer, we leaped at it! The grandparents arrived, we packed our things and hopped into Fifi, ready for a quick escape! Kiri pushed back the driver’s seat… but then couldn’t get it forward again. 10 minutes later after levering the mechanism back into place with a short plank, we tried again. Only this time we’d forgotten the key – good start!

With a slightly rosier outlook for the pandemic, we chose to venture further afield in Fifi than last year, but still heeding the advice of the Pet Shop Boys. We arrived in Brecon, stopped at Aldi to stock up the fridge (reduced lamb burgers, brioche rolls and local beer), then found our car park for the night. It had a big sign saying “no camping”, but we know that one! All it means is that we couldn’t put out an awning, camping chairs, barbecue etc – and that was fine by us. The car park was in a lovely quiet spot right next to the river and whilst it was deserted when we arrived, others joined once it was free to stay (between 6pm and 8am). We got cracking with tea and found the reason that the rolls were reduced; lovely and mouldy inside… but the rest of tea was good. It meant that we had to head into town to hunt for bread that evening, but it was a lovely stroll along the promenade and back to nicely set us up for an evening of beer and crib before being in bed soon after 9.

The night was fairly uneventful – we were only woken by rain once, and then again when I rolled over in my sleep, knocked the bottom of the spring-loaded blind and it shot up, but otherwise it was quiet. The alarm went off at an incredibly civilised 7:55am for us to get another parking ticket, then we had a leisurely cooked breakfast with the fresh bread.

We’ve said before that when we were travelling and we arrived at a new place, we’d always seek somewhere high, to get a feel for the lie of the land and several years on, we haven’t changed (at least not in that respect). It was a short drive to Pen y Fan from Brecon, where we changed into our walking gear and set off.

About half way up we were overtaken by the army who were going at quite a pace, but we were in no rush. Whilst we started in sunshine, as we climbed the mountain we entered a cloud, where it was very wet. By the time we reached the peak, we were soaked, and couldn’t see much at all. Was that a metaphor for life at the moment where we don’t have a clear view of the lie of the land? However, there was a small, painted stone with the words “take time to make your soul happy”. Maybe that’s the message we should be taking from this?

It was amusing to see some graffiti on a stone at the top saying this was nothing compared to the Tatras mountains and we had to agree, but the descent was much more comfortable 7 years on following my knee operation a few years ago. After a soggy amble down the mountain, we broke into short-lived sunshine that turned to a torrential shower just as we arrived back in Fifi for lunch.

After lunch, we turned south, towards Pont y Pandy… nope, that’s not right… Font y Gary. Now why would we do that? Well, whilst we try to be optimists in life, we hadn’t expected England to be in the Euros semi-final, so had totally mistimed our trip away. We’d heard rumours that we’d have a good signal and electric hook up on a campsite in South Wales and given we wanted to avoid being in a bar (due to COVID) that seemed like a good solution. So we’d hastily booked a few days before.

So we arrived at the campsite, hooked up to electricity, turned on the gas, got the kettle on… now time to test the television. Wouldn’t tune. Tried again. Wouldn’t tune. Went outside to see if the aerial was pointing the right direction. No aerial. Started to panic – had it fallen off? Called for remote technical support – my Father in law confirmed there wasn’t meant to be an aerial. Hmmm, still no signal. Kiri didn’t like my alternative suggestion of watching a DVD of Midsomer Murders that we’d found by the TV, so we tried a different tack. We had free WiFi on the pitch (camping, not football), so we tried that – DHCP not working, so couldn’t get an IP address.

Now I was very uncomfortable being in a bar with cases on the rise, but Kiri was adament that we couldn’t miss the match, so we headed to the campsite bar (yep, it’s some campsite!) to find out if we had to book. We didn’t, but it was first come first served, so they suggested we arrive by 18:30 for an 20:00 kick off. Just time to grab fish and chips from the campsite entrance.

We arrived in the bar at bang on 18:30, to find it deserted. So we filled in the track and trace forms, ordered drinks on our phones and nursed them over several games of crib before the bar began to fill up at around 19:30. I won’t give any spoilers in case you missed the match, but there was a mix of English and Danish support in the bar and one group left disappointed. We had news from home that kids were asleep nice and early (following a 5:30 wake up that morning!) and to be honest, I didn’t want the match to go to extra time because I wanted to go to bed too! At least we had an option to have a lie in the following morning.

And that’s exactly was we did – it wasn’t solid sleep, but we remained horizontal until 9am which was a luxury. Just one night without an alarm was so restorative. And a slow-paced morning with no agenda was equally balm for the soul – bacon butties and coffee with a sea view in the sun. First question was whether we should shower (we decided it was best to as I had to go to work the next day as soon as we got home), and then the second question was how we should spend the rest of the day. After much deliberation, we moved to the car park next door (still in the grounds of Font y Gary) and then went for a wander along the South Wales coast path

We took our time wandering around the perimeter of Aberthaw power station – a beautiful post-industrial landscape being reclaimed by nature. It brought back memories of a photo walk I did at Folkestone Harbour Railway Station many years ago before it was restored, with amazing flora and fauna fighting back against concrete and rusting steel. And we saw a heron. Definitely not a pelican (don’t ask!). As we wandered we had long conversations about how to be church – the pandemic has got us questioning, deconstructing and exploring. We stopped for a protein bar and some Makka Pakka stone stacking on the beach, then headed back to Fifi for a well overdue lunch. Mountains? Tick. Sea? Tick. Just woodland to find now, and we’ve ticked off the three best types of landscape…

Sadly we’re out of practice with this whole motorhoming malarkey, and we’d forgotten to turn on the gas when we parked up, meaning the fridge had slowly been warming up whilst we’d been walking. It was such a shame that I had to therefore have icecream for lunch! It was also a shame that we had to have a game of adventure golf before we left the campsite – I mean, there was a dragon on the course and it would have been rude to drive away without getting a selfie with it…

Our drive back up to Gloucestershire took us on a couple of loops of Newport (I was navigating, and totally missed the petrol station!) before we arrived on a great campsite – well established, quiet and well thought-out. We emptied the loo and disposed of some recycling (we’re living the dream!) before tucking into one of our standard Bertha meals – pasta and veg in a tomato sauce… and just like the old days before kids, we could put olives, wine and chorizo in it. Nom.

After dinner, we stowed things away in preparation for a swift morning getaway, before settling down to read the bible together. It used to be a solid part of our Bertha travelling routine (normally straight after breakfast) and we miss that unhurried daily rhythm of grappling with what the words mean for our lives. We picked a section at random that talked about living a radical life of sacrifice and service to others and pondered on how we could live that with young kids… in the middle of a pandemic! We continued pondering as we played a game of Ligretto for old times sake. I tell you what, our reactions are a lot slower than they were 7 years ago!

Our 7am alarm would herald the last lie in for a while, so we grabbed a banana, tidied up, emptied the loo one last time and the grey waste before the short drive home. Our arrival home was timed to perfection – 2 minutes later and Fifi would have been facing off against a recycling lorry coming the other way, but that epic standoff (and resulting screenplay) would have to wait for another occasion. Instead, we hopped out, had an enthusiastic welcome home from the kids – it was so great to see them – and then after a swift handover I headed off to work.

So that’s twice we’ve been on a Fifi adventure just the two of us. Could we make it work with 4? She’s a six berth beast… so maybe our next Fifi blog post will be about the trials and tribulations of motorhoming with two little ones?!

And now once again for the infomercial. Do you want a selfie with a dragon? Do you want to sleep in a car park? Are you dreaming of football success? Actually, all of those are irrelevant to booking Fifi… but if you do fancy taking Fifi on her next adventure, why not visit the Motorhome Holiday Company website to find out more. Terms and conditions still apply; it will likely be time taken to make your soul happy, and you may end up buying your own.

Posted in Life | 1 Comment »