Monday, 26 April 2010

Statistics can be Beautiful

OK. That probably put off half my audience – I don’t care. We are all subjected to a constant stream of statistics, whether we like it or not, unless we opt to ignore the outside world, which is increasingly hard to do.

In the course of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name – spelt Eyjafjallajoekull - I came across Information is Beautiful a site by David Candless. What impressed most is that the graph shown is version 3. On the Home Page is an apology for getting the original numbers wrong. He corrected them.

Even if you have no time for statistics, take a few minutes to look at the various visualisations (also known as graphs). They have a beauty which transcends the data. I’m impressed enough to put his book on my Amazon Wishlist.

In particular, try The Solar System  Music Box.  If you click on the graph, you will get an inkling as to why mathematics and music are so tightly intertwined.

The key benefit is that the data is made available. Even if you don’t have the skills to make use of it, it is there for those who have and that gives it authority.

Trust me, if there was any doubt, someone would have brought down the site in flames by now. Statisticians are as prone to confrontation as anyone else!

The second site is one which is a spin-off from a print UK newspaper.

Scroll down to ‘Tax receipts since 1963’. Note that beneath the pretty – though worrying – illustration there is an invitation to ‘Download the data’. If you see this offered, you should be able to trust the graphics.

As Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard University wrote in 1909, “Statistics are like veal pies, good if you know the person who made them and are sure of the ingredients”.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Northumbrian Miscellany – New and Old

Kielder Water – a ‘new’ beauty spot

DSCF8504The largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, the reservoir was built in the 1970s to provide water for industry in the North East of England. That industry has long gone but it has now come into its own as it has underground springs which keep it topped up whatever the rainfall levels. They say there is enough water in the lake to give 1 cold shower to every person in the UK – I do wonder at the mindset of whoever came up with that illustration.

The lake is surrounded by Kielder Forest, which is the largest human-made forest in Europe. It is a beautiful area and well used by walkers, sailors and fishermen.  We spent some time by the lake and also travelling to various viewpoints. There are more pictures on Picasa and Alan has written a little from a Tourism Management perspective.

Black Midden Bastle - a complete contrast


A ‘Bastle’ is a fortified house and this one was built in the 16th Century on a hill in the wilds of Northumbria. Within the strong walls, farmers found security for their livestock on the ground floor and for their family above. It is a reminder that this was once border country, wild and lawless, and there are more castles and fortified houses in Northumberland than any other English county.


We drove down a narrow country lane seeing no signs of life. Although a signpost said 1 mile, it was very much a country mile! Apart from the sheep, we had the place to ourselves on a glorious day - perfect.

If you look at the top photo closely, you can see where the original narrow door in the gable end has been blocked and the two ground floor doors are later additions.

We spent some time just enjoying the stream at the foot of the hill while Mac investigated the exciting smells.


As ever, there are more pictures on Picasa.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Alnmouth, Northumberland



Inhabited since Saxon times, it is difficult now to believe that Alnmouth was once a thriving trading port, exporting grain, and notorious for smuggling. Late in the 18th century, there were 16 granaries in the small town.

John Wesley is said to have visited in 1794 and noted that it was “famous for all kinds of wickedness”. No sign of that when we were there in the morning!

Its other claim to fame is that during the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones attacked the town in 1779, firing a cannonball which missed the Church, landed in a field and bounced onto a farmhouse roof.

On Christmas Day in 1806 during a great storm, the river changed course to the North of Church Hill (seen below), cutting it off from the village. The Church, which had fallen into disrepair, was finally demolished by the storm. Ships found it more and more difficult to get into port, then the railway between Edinburgh and London was built and Alnmouth lost its trade.


Now it is a seaside village with wide beaches and dunes.  I sat for a while on a bench overlooking the beach in the spring sunshine, just soaking up the peace.



We drove up the coast from here past the Aln, meandering like a textbook geography lesson across the plain behind the dunes and cliffs.

More pictures at Picasa.

Winter’s Gibbet

Winter’s Gibbet really needs visiting on a stormy night with an uncertain light – possibly with an owl flying silently across the face of a ghostly full moon just as it comes out from the clouds. However, it was a bright morning when we visited so you’ll just have to imagine it.
The gibbet stands on a wild moorland road, once a drove road from Scotland to England, above the village of Elsdon in Northumberland, a severed head still swinging from it. The head is a fibreglass one, fortunately. It is a grisly memorial to William Winter, the last man in England to be gibbeted. Winter was a gypsy and noted criminal. In 1791 he was charged with the brutal murder of an old woman who lived at Raw Pele, nearby.
He and his two women accomplices were executed in Newcastle and the bodies of the two women were handed to the surgeons for dissection but William was put on display here and left for months, until his clothes had rotted away then it was cut down and the bones scattered.
It was believed that rubbing the gums with slivers of wood from a gibbet would cure toothache and this one gradually disintegrated and rotted away.
Around 1867 Sir Walter Trevelyan of Wallington ordered a replica with a wooden body to be erected. The body was often used as target practice and eventually only the head remained. Even that was frequently stolen and in 1998 the entire gibbet disappeared for a while. A joker left a miniature one in its place with a sign proclaiming that it would soon grow, given the rainfall!
It is said that the sound of rattling bones can often be heard there, especially on stormy nights, and that the ghosts of William Winter and Jane and Eleanor Clark can been seen running from the old tower at Raw Pele. There are more photos at Picasa.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Lindisfarne (Holy Island)

P1010116David and Shirley set off across the causeway DSCF8394The tide coming in 

For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o'er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.
-- Sir Walter Scott

There is something exciting about a tidal island. The 3 mile long causeway is generally clear from about 3 hours after high tide until 2 hours before the next high tide and we checked the tide tables, but there is that little frisson of fear as you look out of the car to see the mudflats and the water lapping gently only inches from the road. Some people do get it wrong!

P1010106Lindisfarne is a small island and most of it is sand dunes but the tiny village (less than 200 people live there) has Lindisfarne Priory, at its centre.  Founded by St Aiden in 635 AD, it has long been in ruins but is a quiet and peaceful place, even with tourists wandering round. It wasn’t always so. The Vikings sacked the island in 793 AD and it was noted at the time that

“The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

In 875, the monks fled the island because of more raids. The priory was re-established in 1093 as a Benedictine Monastery but suppressed by Henry VIII in 1536. Some of the stone was used to build a fort, which is now Lindisfarne Castle.


We parked at the large public car park outside the village and walked the dogs before catching the little shuttle bus into the village itself.

Alan and I opted to visit the priory while David and Shirley visited Lindisfarne Castle which was refurbished by Sir Edward Lutyens early in the 20th century.

P1010140As we crossed at low tide, Alan and I went back again another day to see the tide come in, so the first two pictures were taken on different days – you’d never know!

DSCF8404There are more pictures at Picasa.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Hadrian’s Wall Chesters and Vindolanda

HadrianswallHadrian’s Wall near Housesteads – a classic view 

Hadrian’s Wall is a Roman fortification running for 117km (80 miles) across England from Wallsend on the East coast to Bowness on Solway on the West coast. Hadrian was the 14th Emperor of Rome and had the wall built for reasons which we can understand today. Firstly, it reduced raids by small bands of Picts or Caledonians who lived in what we now know as Scotland. It seems that cattle raiding was the national sport and continued after the Romans left right up to the end of the 16th century. Secondly, as with the wooden palisade across Germania (roughly, the north of Europe), it signified the frontier of the Roman Empire to the North. Thirdly, Hadrian was probably looking for a ‘monument’ to his reign and to appear strong to the folks back home in Rome. Does that sound familiar?

Hadrian had a shrine erected in York to Britain as a Goddess, and coins showing a female figure as the personification of Britain, labelled BRITANNIA were issued.

In Germania, the boundary was a wooden palisade but there were not enough trees in this area of England so the Romans used whatever was handy. In the East, this was stone and the wall was 3 metres (9.7ft) wide and 16-20 feet high. Needless to say, a lot of the stone has now gone – recycled by later generations! ‘Green and mean’ is not a new concept.

DSCF8150 Reconstruction of Milecastle at Vindolanda

Every mile (or so, depending on geographical features) was a Milecastle with a garrison of just a few dozen troops. There were also intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. The Milecastles had gates to the North and South – perhaps for easy access to fend off raiders. Some historians suggest that there was trade between the North and South. Given that the troops were here for long periods, one can imagine all sorts of alliances with the locals, there were certainly marriages and the resulting sons following in their father’s footsteps.

We visited two major sites with David and Shirley. The first is Chesters Fort, known to the Romans as Cilurnam. Oddly enough, David and Alan visited this site first in 1956 – and so did I. Did we see one another?  We’ll never know.

DSCF8048 The Barracks at Chesters – note the larger rooms for Officers at the far end and the drainage ditch along the middle.

There is a lot more to see now than in 1956, thanks to English Heritage. The fort is situated where the wall crosses the Tyne river and the abutments of that bridge can still be seen on both sides of the river.

 DSCF8067    DSCF8061

We can thank John Clayton for most of the preservation of what remains of Hadrian’s Wall. Son of Nathanial Clayton who was Town Clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1785 to 1822, he succeeded his father in that post – do I hear calls of “nepotism”? Be that as it may, his father bought Chesters Estate, in the grounds of which Cilurnam stood and covered the remains in order to have uninterrupted landscape to the river.

From 1834 John began buying land to preserve the Wall, at a time when the wall was little understood.  He even had some restoration work carried out.

Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall which includes Chesters, Vindolanda and Housesteads.  He was immortalised in a painting by William Bell Scott which hangs in nearby Wallington Hall.

Clayton_paintingPicture reproduced from Wikipedia Commons

It shows a Centurian overseeing the building of the wall but the face is that of John Clayton. More photos on Picasa.

The second site was very different. Vindolanda is basically an excavation in the raw and I would not recommend it for anyone who has mobility difficulties.

DSCF8126 DSCF8122
Administered by a Trust, whose aim is ‘to excavate and preserve the Roman remains associated with the land owned by the Trust’, we found it fascinating but confusing as there is little interpretation on the site, though there is a good display in the entrance area. It’s almost like being invited to watch a private dig.

P1010079I was amused to see that the few interpretation panels were in four languages – English, Latin, French and German. A nice touch. It is a huge site and we didn’t see everything as we ran out of time and had left the dogs in the vehicles. There is a museum down in the valley which we didn’t get to, to our disappointment.  This houses a collection of finds including some writing tablets, the best known of which is the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina asking her to attend her party on September 11th " to make her day more enjoyable". This is the earliest surviving writing between two women in Western Europe.

The Vindolanda Trust has a Roman Army Museum just down the road which we would also like to have visited – we’ll just have to go back one day.  More Vindolanda pictures can be seen at Picasa as well as a couple from Hadrian’s Villa just outside Rome from when we visited.


Thursday, 15 April 2010

Alnwick Gardens

DSCF7721 Alnwick Castle is nowadays known as the setting for Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films but has it’s own history as the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland for 700 years.
We missed on the castle as we were only in the area for a short period and we were all keen to see the gardens. Developed over the past ten years by the Duchess of Northumberland, the gardens have been controversial.  Many people wanted a more traditional approach and there was a legal battle when English Heritage objected to the design and demanded a ‘restoration garden’.

I’m usually in favour of Conservation but the gardens were derelict, needed a large amount of money to restore or redesign (£42m is a figure quoted) and needed to pay their way for upkeep – there’s not much point in investing that much money if they are going to be neglected down the line.

P1000913 The result is a garden which treads the fine line between ‘garden’ and ‘visitor attraction’ and succeeds. The casual use of these toy diggers by children to scoop up overflow water from the fountains and trundle it around is a joy to see. Many must be regulars as they were in wellingtons.

DSCF7817 Similarly, the use of some very clever fountains was enhanced by the way children (of all ages) were enjoying them without fear of being told off was a refreshing – and amusing – sight.
There are places where the serious gardener can find inspiration, especially a rather good knot garden. I found it admirable that so much has been done in ten years.
There is a good cafe – in design as well as choice of food – as well as the usual shop and plant sales.  I’ll admit my eyes crossed at the price of admission but it was worth it, with more to see than our limited time frame permitted.
More pictures on Picasa

PS - I got the entrance fee wrong as Alan quoted Gardens and castle. The garden entrance was in line with National Trust fees.  Sorry - eyes uncrossed now.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Nunnykirk Caravan Site


This lovely setting is just South West of Rothbury and nestled next to the Font River. It is the first ‘big’ site we have used – 84 pitches – and we had some reservations as to how we would like it. It has turned out very well, possibly because we are out of season. They were full over the Easter weekend but most people had left by the time we arrived on Easter Monday.


David and Shirley’s motor home is on the right here and we are on the left. Rather fun having relatives ‘across the road’.  The pitches are all grass which we like as it gives a less regimented feel to the site. That was a slight problem when we arrived as the ground was very muddy and vehicles were getting bogged down, which is why we are parked so close to the road. That is not a criticism of the site but a moan about the weather – which has cleared up steadily since we arrived.

 P1010026 P1010028

Several miles from the nearest shops, this site would not suit all, but a fish and chip van arrives on Friday evening, a butcher delivers on Saturday and modern caravans have fridges so it is not such a problem. The only drawback for us was the lack of mobile phone signal. It is strange when you think that we would not have considered that important five years ago but it feels strange being out of touch.


Most people using the site have dogs – in fact we feel caninely challenged in only having one! The dedicated dog walk shown here is well used.



Peaceful, beautiful countryside, Impeccable facilities, the caravaners are as friendly as we have found elsewhere. A site we would recommend. We liked it enough to extend our stay till Wednesday.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Northumberland and out of touch

We’re staying on the perfect caravan site, nestled in a valley by a stream, surrounded by trees.

Except for one thing. No mobile phone signal, no mobile internet access and dodgy satellite access.

It’s a weird feeling. For us, it is an inconvenience; for Shirley it is more annoying as her brother-in-law is ill and she is out of touch.

As we drive out each day, we have mobile phones at the ready. “No signal, no signal, no signal. . . .  Signal!” Only then can we make contact with family and friends.

Getting internet access is even more of a problem as the signal strength does not equate with the ability to stop the car.  The roads round here are narrow, like a switchback and littered with ‘hidden dips’ – that is where you think you are over the crest of a hill and the ground suddenly falls away.


But, here we are. Thanks to this array which is right by an official parking area.

We suspect that some of it is associated with the nearby Otterburn Army Training Area. If so, we may end up with a visit from some official persons who suspect us of being terrorists!  Watch this space. If they grant us internet access, we will launch an appeal to cover our bail. You know we are innocent.

If all is well, we’ll be posting on a superb new garden (Alnwick) and the first house in England to be powered by electricity (Cragside) and Hadrian’s Wall (the last outpost of the Roman Empire).

My purchase of a really good rain hat seems to have worked. I wave it at the sky every morning and, each day is better than the last. If this continues, we may stay a few days longer.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Caravan - Nuts and Bolts


Alan has fitted an adjustable bracket to hold the TV, freeing up some much needed shelf space. As a consequence, he now knows more about the intricacies of bolt sizes than he really wants to and we have a nice collection of spare bolts. You can no longer go into a local hardware shop and buy one bolt to try. They come in packs of 6, or 10  or 12 – allocated in an arbitrary manner by length x thickness x head size - and we only wanted 3.

The chances of getting it right first time are N to the power of Y (take away the number you first thought of) = 0. The sizes don’t quite fit the thickness of the partition (even though both are metric) so he has had to include some washers – Again, not sold in the numbers we need.

Alan is about to get a customer of the year award at B&Q.

We also removed the microwave. Why I thought I needed one, I don’t know! I must have had a brainstorm. I hardly ever use the one at home, except to warm plates and for quick scrambled eggs. That has freed up a much needed cupboard but left us with a pristine microwave to store at home. With a good sized cooker with 3 burners, grill and oven, I really have enough cooking facilities.


Hi-Tech or not, we’re still getting to grips with using the caravan and are continuing to move things round and adjust how we store them. I suppose it’s like moving house when you shift the furniture and ornaments around till you have them just as you want them. Then circumstances change and you move them again. Perhaps it’s just me!

Of course we had hoped to have many more nights under our belts than we have. Once again, the best laid plans of mice and men have gone awry. We’ve had local commitments and then bad weather since before Christmas so last weeks trip to Buckinghamshire was our first foray this year.

We’re off again on Monday to Northumberland (that’s north of here, between Newcastle and Scotland for anyone geographically challenged) and meeting up with Dave and Shirley – Alan’s brother and his wife – for five days. They will have their motor-home.

If the weather improves (cross fingers, touch wood) we may stay an extra few days.

Storage is the main issue in a caravan. Believe me, clutter really shows up in the small space. There is a big locker under one of the single beds which now holds the table and chairs for sitting outside  - if we ever get the weather to do so,

We were tempted to leave them at home till the summer but Murphy’s law will ensure that the weather will turn glorious if we do. Perhaps we can fool the weatherman by hiding them under a bed?

Friday, 2 April 2010

Pigeons at War More from Bletchley Park

German Camera Pigeon, WWI, licensed under Creative Commons

I came across this odd subject while looking for something else – not an unusual occurrence on the internet -  and was reminded of it when we visited Bletchley Park where there is a room dedicated to the subject.

Pigeons have been used to carry messages for centuries and all participants in World War I made use of the Homing Pigeon’s ability.The British alone employed about 9,500 birds.

The Second World War once more saw the major powers make use of the Homing Pigeons and Britain used 250,000.

Each bomber had 2 pigeons on board and, if shot down, released the pigeon with a message giving the co-ordinates of the plane and many lives were saved this way. The pigeons returned to their home lofts and their owners found the nearest telephone to send in the message they carried.

Secret agents, inserted into Europe carried them and they were even parachuted to resistance groups.


Pigeon Parachute at Bletchley Park

P1000778 P1000779

During the D-Day invasion of World War II, many soldiers were sent with a pigeon beneath their coats. This was a period of radio silence, so the use of pigeons for relaying messages was needed. The pigeons sent back information on German gun positions on the Normandy beaches. Thirty-two pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal, Britiain's highest award for animal valour.

Just in case our American readers are scratching their heads at the primitive Europeans, you used them too and a bird named "G.I. Joe," flew 20 miles in 20 minutes with a message that stopped U.S. planes from bombing an Italian town that was occupied by British forces. He was awarded the Dickin Medal.


American Pigeon carriers at Bletchley Park


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