Ireland road trip

An unenthusiastic driver and a small city car might not seem ideal for embarking on a 1,500 mile road trip to explore the Emerald Isle. Perhaps we should have seen sense, booked a fly-drive or travelled around by train. But no, gripped by an unusual sense of adventure, we had soon booked car ferries and hotels that would see us cross the Republic of Ireland from coast to coast. Twice. We’d also need to cross the entire breadth of Wales and much of England just to reach the boat over of course, but the fun is in getting there – no need to get bogged down in details.

And so it was, we loaded up our modest chariot, cramming what little we could in the minuscule boot and heaping the rest across the back seats. Our new SatNav app was set for Fishguard, and given this was its first outing, we were counting on it to take us at least roughly in the right direction. On to the M4 motorway, the Satnav instructs us to follow the course of the road for the next 180 miles. Nice and easy. Easy that was, until we reached the Newport tunnel just closed by a lorry fire. We ground to a halt at first, and then began to proceed at a pace that would not see snails break a sweat. Would we even make the ferry and get to see the shore of Ireland? Happily we eventually emerged out of the contraflow system and made best speed for Fishguard port, arriving shortly before check-in closed.

Just when we felt we were getting our sea legs onboard the ferry, Rosslare emerged from the sea fog and it was time to return to the car. We were on Irish soil, and my first precarious miles of driving abroad began. It’s just as well that Ireland makes for a relatively gentle introduction to hitting the road in another country. The core principles remain the same, such as driving on the left, but it throws in some unfamiliar elements to keep you on your toes, such as speed limits in km/h and the use of many curious road signs using the American yellow diamond format.

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Make your smartphone happy for a tenner

I like to think I command an above average knowledge of Scottish phrases: Auld Reekie, dreich and many a mickle maks a muckle being among them. However, I’ve got to admit that giffgaff is a new one on me. It turns out to be an Old Scottish word meaning ‘mutual giving’, but it’s also the name of a UK mobile phone network offering some rather attractive bundles.

For the reasonably priced sum of £10 a month, giffgaff offers unlimited data, which prices it below even Three’s £15 PAYG offering. As a smartphone user, data is my top priority when it comes to network deals, yet finding data without paying through the nose has becoming increasingly difficult, as most networks have imposed strict 1GB or even 500Mb data caps over recent years.

Now these may sound like plenty of data for a mobile device to use over a month and yes, it’s fair to say that I don’t normally get near to this limit. The thing is, I’ve realised that I’ve learnt to curb my use of apps so I don’t risk breaching the limit, which has meant I’ve been avoiding media-rich content such as audio and video. I have in fact been failing to make full use of my smart phone because of data caps and it was time to put it right.

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Gastro pub discovery: the Jolly Cricketers

We’re fortunate to have some excellent gastro pubs in the area, and this week we discovered one of the best.

The Jolly Cricketers is located in the affluent village of Seer Green, near Beaconsfield and Chalfont St Giles.

It’s a good looking historic pub on the outside, but it’s on the inside that it reveals its secret – serving up some truly fabulous food, and recently voted the best gastro pub in the South East.

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Any Human Heart

William Boyd’s book Any Human Heart follows the life of writer Logan Mountstuart (LMS) through some of the most defining and turbulent years of the Twentieth Century. The book is based on the journals of LMS, an approach which allows a uniquely personal insight into the deepest feelings of the character. This works brilliantly, as it captures character’s humanity – his lust, frailty, fortune and despair, and lays it bare before us on the page. In doing so it reveals something profound about all of us, how we live our lives with the hand we’re dealt and interact with the events of our time. Indeed it’s this passage through every decade of the past century that provides the book with a second compelling strand of narrative. Through his long life, LMS encounters the bright young people of the 1920s, is forever changed by WWII and has a particularly memorable run in with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, amongst an array of others.

I’ve taken this book quiet slowly over quite a number of weeks, dipping into just a few pages each evening, and progressing LMS’s life little by little. By the conclusion of Any Human Heart I found I can scarcely recall the early years, which rather accurately reflect the memories of the man himself, looking back 70 years on from his earliest journal entries. By doing this, I felt I’ve followed LMS on his journey, albeit in microcosm, allowing me some of the same reflection of LMS’s actions over the weeks I read the book as the character applies to himself over the years of his life.

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Walking in the Chilterns

Towards Ivinghoe Beacon

Walking in the Chilterns combines two of my loves: great countryside and indulging in the tranquility of nature. Actually I should include a third: photography, as if I’m going somewhere scenic, my camera will likely as not be coming along to capture the places, and perhaps something of the moment.

I’ve spent many days off and weekends in search of some of the best of the area’s landscapes. There are some real corkers too, such as the panoramas from atop Coombe Hill, Ivinghoe Beacon, and Whiteleaf Hill – all of which I’d be a very long time getting bored of, especially when they can be transformed entirely depending on the time of day, weather or season.

Enabling all this good walking in the Chilterns is an extensive network of footpaths, ranging from national tracks to the smallest of snickets. However all these options can make for a bewildering choice when it comes to planning a walk, as the bigger routes by no means have a monopoly on the best walking.

As I can only occasionally set aside a day for walking, I find it worthwhile to put some time into planning, to help ensure there are some good highlights on the routes I take. Happily, there’s a good range of both online and offline resources that make this easier than ever.

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The journey through life, one radio station at a time

Radio stations may often serve as background audio but our choice of station is often read as an indicator of our stage in life. The formative years are intimately associated with Radio 1, whereas Radio 4 is often portrayed as a middle-aged and full of dreary domesticity – albeit almost exclusively by those who don’t listen to the station.

These days I’d comfortably pledge my allegiance to 6music. As a station, it speaks to me and where I am now, while indulging in shared culture I can relate to. 6music’s core audience is, I imagine, around mid-20s to mid-40s, and its presenter line-up is full of names the audience grew up with, including the likes of Adam and Joe, Marc Riley, Stuart Marconie, Mark Radcliffe, Cerys Matthews, Craig Charles, and others. The music on 6music evokes delight, surprise and serendipity, all in a way that’s somehow attuned to my musical tastes. It is the farthest cry possible from the dismal repetition of commercial radio, which I choose to avoid at all costs.

Although I struggle to define the demographic, I suspect 6music is expertly speaking to a group that I happen to neatly fit into. It’s perhaps for those who have cast aside self-consciously following the trends of the latest hot indie bands that defined our university years and have moved on to wanting new musical discoveries, but now entirely comfortable in our own musical tastes.

The strange thing is that this progression is often one that’s done unconsciously. I only realised that I’d mentally moved on from listening to Radio 1 while on car journeys where I found myself feeling entirely out of touch with the music and callers on the air. Was I ever in the position of those Radio 1 listeners with the radio on revising for some exam? At one time, yes, but it seems a far cry and thoroughly distant from my life today.

And so, without seeking to be defined, I have, I suspect, made the move from one demographic group to the next; one of several I’ll likely make during my lifetime. Yes, radio may only be background audio, but it’s someone we choose deliberately and it continues to say something about us.

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Queen’s Birthday flypast at RAF Halton

WWII aircraft at RAF Halton's Charity Flying Weekend

The Queen’s official birthday is celebrated by trooping the colour and a flypast by the RAF in central London. If the idea of the tourists crowds don’t appeal, it’s happily possible to watch the flypast from the comfort and attractive surrounds of Buckinghamshire.

RAF Halton holds a Charity Flying Weekend each year to coincide with the trooping the colour flypast, and welcomes visitors to what is normally a military aerodrome.

The 2011 event was held in conjunction with the Chilterns MS Centre, who held their Summer Fete, and the Berkhamsted-based De Havilland Moth Club, who had arranged various flying displays.

We arrived shortly after midday, so in good time for the flypast at around 1pm. We were struck by just how popular it was, given that we’d only heard about it through having come across photos of the previous year’s events and looked up the 2011 dates. The parking area was filling up quickly with hundreds of cars, although still had room enough for us.

Spectactors at RAF Halton watch Battle of Britain Memorial Flight approach

We had no idea what to expect, however there was a good selection of stalls – many in military green tents that were rather in keeping with the event. Arts and crafts, traditional fete games (Tara won a coconut from the coconut shy), and the usual food and drink were all there, so everything you’d need. Many visitors had also come well prepared though with some impressive picnics, table and chairs in evidence. Well prepared to enjoy the day.

Turning towards the aircraft, the inter-war De Havilland Moths were much in evidence, with much to-ing and fro-ing. A nice selection of WWII aircraft were also on the ground. The main event was the flypast – which included most but not all of the formations seen flying down the Mall a few minutes earlier. While the Red Arrows went elsewhere, we saw the fast jets, transporters, hawker jets and the always superb Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which gave us three fabulous passes.

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This week in corporate Twitter – the good, the bad and the absent

It’s been an eventful week, and one that’s seen Twitter used brilliantly in some cases – and rather less well in others.

The good: the Chiltern cow incident

A Chiltern Railways (CR) train hit a herd of cows that had escaped on to the track at around 7.30pm on Thursday – mid evening, but still well within London’s extended rush hour. Their main line was closed but CR’s consistently excellent communications team stepped up the mark to help inform the large numbers of passengers facing disruption. CR do Twitter well – really well in fact. By day their tweets are friendly, engaging and create a real community spirit amongst commuters and travellers. However when events call for it, CR’s twitter team is in place to get vital information out and be there to respond to customers’ questions.

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The Artichoke revisited

We first visited the Artichoke restaurant in Amersham a year ago, when we were struck by the very high quality of the cuisine and service. On something of a whim, we decided this half-term that it was high time to try it out again. In particular, we had heard that the Artichoke had recently expanded its premises into the adjacent building, and we were keen to see how this had changed the restaurant.

The Artichoke’s website offers three dining areas within the newly expanded restaurant: The Kitchen Dining Room with views of the restaurant’s kitchen, the Garden Dining Room with a kitchen garden theme and a Wine Room, upstairs. Having recently been engaged by recent Masterchef and Great British Menu TV series, we were keen to see the chefs at work, and requested a table in the Kitchen Dining Room.

On entering the Artichoke, you’re immediately aware that you’re not in any old restaurant. The service is elegant while being extremely slick. To our delight we’d be given the table right in front of the kitchen area, so prime views of the chefs were on hand. Within moments the chef himself arrived and greeted us personally – a lovely additional touch.

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Calculating the commute: to live near or far

For the past couple of years we’ve explored the Chilterns and discovered a growing list of delightful towns and villages, where we could quite easily see ourselves living when we upscale in a few years time. This has led me to wonder: just how realistic and affordable it would be to live in these places? Would the various commuter factors make it impossibly expensive or impractical, or could owning a home in the Chilterns be a distinct reality?

I wanted to find out whether it’s more cost-effective to live in a pricier but easily commutable town or to live further out where property is cheaper but possibly have to drive to and park at the local station. To find this out I put together a spreadsheet comparing house prices and commuting costs in each of our favourite towns and villages.

This looked at:

  • annual mortgage payments for the typical price of properties that meet our house criteria
  • annual season ticket for me to travel to work on the train and tube
  • cost of parking for a year at a station in cases where I’d have to drive to the station, plus an estimated £1,000 annual cost for running a second car
  • petrol costs for the year of Tara driving to her work in outer London, based on mileage at 13p/mile

What the figures say

There was a £5,964 per year difference between the cheapest and most expensive towns. Far and away the most expensive on our list is Chalfont St Giles, due to it having some of the highest house prices and requiring a second car to drive to the station, which in turn has expensive parking. Continue reading

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