Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Saturday, 19 December 2015

2015 Awards

From the books I have read, films I have seen and songs I have heard for the first time this year, here are my number 1s!

Book of the year:
I have read twelve books for the first time this year, plus I finally finished Les Miserables, hooray! There has been something of a dour theme too, with other books about war and death, and my choice of the best book I have read is in some ways no less positive. The novel is a discussion of people, their choices and misunderstandings, and particularly what happens when they get it wrong, but the detail and care with which the story is written sets it far above any other book I have read this year. It is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Film of the year:
I have only been to the cinema three times this year, despite there being several films I would have liked to see, however I have discovered many other films that I have enjoyed (if that is the right word), including Twelve Years a Slave and Tracks. However, my top film this year is a small budget movie, released in 2013, and featuring a superb performance by Brie Larson (who is currently being tipped for an Oscar nomination for her new movie Room, which will be released in the new year). In this movie Brie's character, Grace, works with a tough group of young people, and brings out inspiring, amusing and heart warming moments. It is called Short Term 12.


Song of the year:
This year I have gained a greater interest in songs (pop and not) than ever before, I think, including new tunes and old. My top track comes from yet another Swedish artist and was released in August 2014. I find the song inspiring and particularly the lyrics: "Every day people do everyday things but I can't be one of them... we can do anything". I think I connected with it given my perhaps unusual job with PGL and I also liked the idea of being, as the song says, a hero, if in an unconventional, small but personal way. This is Heroes (We could be) Alesso -feat. Tove Lo


Thursday, 10 December 2015

Story of Grace

She looked at me, but I could not hold her gaze. “It’s alright,” she said, “you don’t have to be afraid.”
   “Am I afraid?” I replied. She just smiled.
   She reached out a hand, I hesitated, then took it and she helped me up. She was small, I suppose, but somehow I didn’t seem to be any taller.
   “What’s your name?” I asked.
   “I’m called Grace,” she answered.

At school no-one liked her. They made fun of her. Whispered comments came her way, or sniggered suggestions. She sat quietly and smiled, her small, quiet smile. No-one knew why.
   When she was eleven she became ill, of what, the doctors could not say at first. At school they said she faked it, that she was scared of them. She smiled.
   One day she arrived in a wheel chair. Some just laughed, others tried to push her the wrong way. In PE she took shots at the netball hoop, at one point scoring five in a row. Everyone pretended not to notice.

She looked at me, her eyes shining brightly.
   “Why are you so kind?” I said aloud, by mistake.
   “It brings me life.”
   “Don’t you mean joy?”
   “That too.”
   “But why are you so nice to all the others, at school I mean?”
   “I’m called Grace,” she reminded me.

Story of Grace was inspired by the picture above, sketched by Naomi Saunders. There might be more to tell.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

For we are Living

“Does anybody know what we are living for?” Says Queen. “Does anybody know what we are looking for… Another hero, another mindless crime. Inside my heart is breaking, my make-up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on.”  [From The Show Must Go On]

It has struck me recently that we have no idea what other people are thinking or feeling, what is really going on behind their smile. I believe this may be particularly true of people in the UK, though I imagine it is applicable for many other places too, and it is probably due to two things: we are bad at sharing our thoughts and our feelings, and possibly even worse at noticing, or caring, about those of others, at least until it is too late. Instead we seek an outlet for our thoughts, desires and emotions in often unhelpful places, which can lead to disastrous consequences.
Recently I saw a performance of We Will Rock You, the musical based on songs by Queen, updated slightly since its first release, and with a youthful twist (it was a school production). The musical is written as a comedy, and yet I couldn’t help being provoked by the themes of media frenzy and fitting in with the crowd, of immersing yourself in the internet and not looking at anyone beside you. These themes have been discussed in many mediums, and often in more serious ways than this play, but still this had an effect on me, reminding me what we all do too much, removing ourselves from the real world for the virtual.
Sometimes we realise that people do still live and breathe but mostly only when they stop living.
Having been reminded recently by news stories of how short life can be, the poignancy of the song No One But You, also known as Only The Good Die Young, was clearly felt by everyone in the theatre. (It may not technically be true, but who can say who is good and who is bad? That is a discussion best left for another time). Equally the song Who Wants To Live Forever struck me. We try to extend our lives, but why? Why do we want to live forever? Is it because we are afraid of what comes next, or that nothing comes next?
Under Pressure, a Queen classic, does remind me that there are things worth living for. The people on the street, families split in two, lifting the pressure that is on all of us. Pressure to perform, to conform, to survive, to do things because we should rather than because we need to, or because they’re good things to do. There is love, that ‘old-fashioned word’ which dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night (everyone), to stop being so consumed with your life that you notice someone else, that you listen to someone else and realise that they’re missing something and perhaps lead them to safety.

That may take courage, but as Ernest Hemingway said, "Courage is grace under pressure." It is a test of our ability to put others first, a good pressure to be under.
So, while the show must go on (and yes it must; we must not stop living and bringing life to others) it should go on for a good reason. It should go on because we want it to go on in others, because we don’t want them to stop going on. It must go on because there are great things to do and to believe in. We are all looking for another hero, a personal hero. May we find them, or they us, before it is too late.


Monday, 23 November 2015

How to avoid punishment for driving offenses (according to my Great Grandfather)

On the 7th of December 1981 my Great-Grandfather, then aged 81, appeared in court to answer for some misdemeanour while driving. He was due to be fined, and possibly lose his driving license, but he had a plan. The court was in Leicester, while he was living, some 50 miles away, in Milton Keynes, and my Great-Grandfather decided he would cycle to the court room as a sign of humility. He duly arrived, to much amazement at his feat, and some time later was dismissed without charge; his plan had worked (apparently).
     Outside a reporter, who had heard the story, decided to follow him as he began his return journey. At this point my Great-Grandfather became worried, because he had not cycled 50 miles at all. He had simply driven to Leicester with his bicycle, parked at a suitable distance from the court and then cycled the remainder of the journey. Now cycling away with a reporter on his tail he could not simply return to his car but had to cycle for many miles until the reporter left him, which eventually he did.
     Two days later my Great-Grandfather received a letter from a solicitor in Leicester, which I have in front of me and now quote; "I must say that it was not my eloquence which persuaded the court to be so reasonable about the fine, it was your achievement in cycling to and from Milton Keynes which spoke for itself, with an eloquence I could not match."

Monday, 16 November 2015


Peter is 10. He lives with his Mum and Dad and three older brothers. When asked what is interesting about himself, he just shrugs his shoulders.
Daisy is 12. She went to a disco the other night where she sat at the side with her friend all evening. She was actually asked by a boy if she would go with him but she said no, even though she liked him.
Dan is 9. He has been through four foster homes in four years. He is short with a cute face and makes everyone laugh. Everything seems fine with Dan, except in the few moments he doesn’t smile.
Joseph is Dan’s older brother. While everyone is making a fuss of Dan, Joseph sits by himself and plays repetitive games on his phone.
Millie likes playing football and trains twice a week with a local team. She admires her team mates who are more naturally skilled than her but she berates herself when the opposition score.
Jess is 16. She received vocal training when she was younger because her Mum loved to her hear sing. Now she has a beautifully clear voice and recently she joined an a cappella group. The others in the group are amazed by her talent and tell her how good she is, but she’s heard it many times before and now it doesn’t sink in.
Every young person is unique. Some have lives that are perceived by the world to be difficult and some to be easy, but in my experience very few ever feel like they are important, or that they are making a difference.
Peter has a quick wit that often helps to diffuse tension at home, his siblings all secretly consider him as their favourite brother. Daisy is clever and often helps out her classmates at school when they don’t understand something, it is this attention, rather than her looks, that attracts the boys. Joseph feels the weight of responsibility for his brother, but Dan keeps him from worrying with his winning smile. Dan appreciates all the attention he gets from other people, but the only person he really loves is his brother, because Joseph is the one constant left in his life. Millie’s team mates are always challenged by her commitment and persistence, something the coach has spotted, so he ensures that she plays in every game. Jess’ Mum suffers from bouts of depression but she gets through the worst times when she listens to Jess singing. When she’s older Jess will get involved in music therapy and use her voice to help other children who struggle for one reason or another.
I may have invented these children and their lives, but they are not so very different from millions of real young people. When I talk to children I make it my intention to discover something interesting about them and show them that they are important.
It is my desire for every child to be able to say

Monday, 9 November 2015

Autumn at Winmarleigh

Sadly a small monsoon has been sat over north Lancashire (and I think much of the UK) for the past week, so there hasn't been a chance for many autumnal snaps but here are some of my best pictures of Winmarleigh over the past month.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Mountain Men

It’s funny the people you meet on top of mountains, apart from the odd ones (like the 45-year-old runners who arrive at the top, wait 20 seconds and then turn to run back down, or the 5 blokes carrying massive bags, which turn out to be paragliders, who jump off the steepest bit they can find). Others, though, I find can be remarkably like myself, or how I imagine I might be when I reach their age.

Today I climbed Blencathra for the first time, in glorious sunshine (I think I may have turned my clock back to September last weekend). It’s a tricky little mountain, being deceptively steep and with a plethora of sheep paths to deceive you (the Ordnance Survey map shows one main path going in an arrow straight line – they lie). After the lower section you suddenly emerge at the top, or close to it, and the ground almost disappears. Out of nowhere ravines and crevices appear to the south and the Solway firth lies away to the north (although I couldn’t see it because it was bathed in cloud, along with the rest of the UK apparently).
On my way to the top I met a retired vicar and we sat to chat for a good twenty minutes, he telling me about his trip to Bagdad and charity cycle rides (both in the 11 years since he’d retired) and I telling him about the joys of pushing kids out of their comfort zone, but mostly I just listened to him. This was his first mountain climb since retiring (retired vicars are often in demand for a whole range of roles apparently) and he was making the most of it.

Later, at the top, I sat to eat my lunch in the quiet – that stillness that only exists at the top of mountains – and watch the sunlight on Thirlmere and Derwent Water. Also enjoying this moment was another man. After a while we got chatting and on asking if he’d climbed Blencathra before he revealed that today was his birthday and he was revisiting a moment from 30 years before when he climbed this mountain with his parents on his 18th. We gazed and marvelled at the view and the incredible weather, and shortly after parted to begin our descents, equally happy in our solitary expeditions.
I don’t know where my life will lead, but I could see myself climbing Blencathra again in 30 or 50 years’ time, still in my element.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Emotional Moments

Saying goodbye to a group of kids after a busy week making sure they don't break themselves, the beds or my sanity can be a wonderful time of relief, but it can also be surprisingly moving. I don't often find myself welling up, but to see a child run to their dad, after not seeing them for a long time, and give them a massive hug, always seems to get to me. This makes it slightly awkward when parents come to pick up their kids from PGL. I'm there, trying to tell them what a good week their child has had, and all the while water is lurking in the corners of my eyes.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Christmas Birthdays

So it turns out that people who are born on Christmas day are a lot like the proverbial London Bus. Before this week I did not know a single one, and then suddenly I met 3 in as many days (plus someone else who was born at 2 minutes to midnight on Christmas eve). Two of the three were also twins, which is even more bizarre.
     Aside from the obvious reason I'm not sure why so few people seem to be born on the 25th of December, it's 1 day in 365 (unless you're born on a leap year - and incidentally I'm yet to meet anyone born on the 29th of February) so maybe I've just been unlucky.
     There's also that weird fact that according to probability you only need 23 people in a room for 50% chance that 2 of them will share a birthday, and approximately 70 people for a 100% chance. I only have seven cousins but I share a birthday with one of them.
     For a while facebook used to have a page where you could see all of your friends in birthday order. At the time I knew approximately 400 people on facebook but they only covered about 220 days, with September the most popular month to be born in and February the least. By carrying it on for a while I was able to tick off another 50 days, but only now could I put a mark (or three) next to December 25th!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

the five people you meet in heaven: review

The five people you meet in Heaven, written by Mitch Albom and published in 2003, now often makes lists of books you aught to read (and features on my page 100 books) and along with it's interesting premise I thought I would give it a go.

The story is of an old man (Eddie) who, on the event of his death, reaches Heaven (or a Heaven invented by Albom for this book) and there meets five people who affected his life in some way and help him to understand the meaning or purpose of it all.

With this in mind I began reading but was initially disappointed, partly because Albom didn't introduce the story in the way I was expecting, or the way I would have written it, and partly because I think he over explains things a bit too much, rather than letting the story do the telling. He also seemed to be struggling to understand the Heaven he had invented, with vague references to God (who doesn't appear) and confusing settings. Slowly this does iron out and the story becomes clearer and although it is fairly obvious which way the book is heading there is a nice ending that I didn't quite predict. Albom is also brave in so openly offering five 'lessons' to Eddie, which other authors have, in my opinion, sometimes struggled with (E. Nesbit, Five Children and It) and occasionally succeeded wonderfully (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird). Personally I found the lessons unclear, although the ending helped to clarify them a little.
     The book is not long (under 200 pages) and is easily readable and overall I found it enjoyable and a little moving. I'm not convinced it would make my top 100 books, but as a simple story it's worth a read.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Helvellyn: Take 2

Today I finally reached the summit of Helvellyn, on my second attempt of the year. This time I approached from the north-west up an never ending staircase of stone steps, rising above Thirlmere and into the cloud.

After waiting for the cloud to dissipate until my legs got cold I eventually trudged onward into the mist. The top levelled out and through the cloud I made out Red Tarn to the east.
Ten seconds later this was the view:

If you hadn't guessed it was blowing a gale, but at least now I could see where the sheer drops were.

After this the views improved dramatically on all sides, although the cloud hung around until I was lake-side once more, when the sun turned the Lake District golden. Consequently I have come to the decision that while Helvellyn is a monster of a mountain, and not to be taken lightly, it is also one of my favourites.

Friday, 9 October 2015

PGL Update

It's been a busy few weeks and I realised I haven't written about PGL recently, so here's an update.

I am now qualified in almost all of the ropes sessions at Winmarleigh, including Abseiling, Zip Wire, and all of the 'Ground Up' sessions (climbing), of which there are many. This means I do fewer ground sessions, in which you generally get to know the group better, but does mean I get to really challenge the kids. The most rewarding moments are when children, who are truly scared, achieve something great by stepping out of their comfort zone. Some only get half way up a ladder, and some come down in tears, but telling them how amazingly they've done to push beyond what they thought they could do seems to increasingly make me start to well up too.

During the past week I have been group leading, working with a group during their stay, but I have also run a few sessions. This morning I instructed a session on 'Wobbly Bars', the final activity for eleven of the kids from my group. Most of them managed fine, but one girl had to be persuaded to climb beyond the 10th step, up to the lowest bar. Eventually she got her feet onto the bar and managed to shuffle far enough away from the ladder to be let down. She was in tears but had gone further than in any other climbing session during the week. Later the whole group (I was co-looking after 80 kids in total) were asked who had achieved something during the week that they didn't think they could have done. Almost all of them put their hands up but I noticed the girl from earlier didn't and she looked disappointed. I managed to catch her eye and told her with a look and a point of my finger that she had. She got the message and raised her hand minutely.

Playing games, singing till my voice is broken and dancing wildly at a disco are all great fun, but it is these wonderful moments that make working for PGL so brilliant.


Monday, 28 September 2015

The Science of Fine Tuning

Did you know that if the mass of Jupiter was greater than it is then Earth's orbit would become unstable, meaning our planet would drift either closer to, or further from, the sun? Earth is approximately 93 million miles from the sun and a change of more than a million miles or so would render life on Earth impossible. Equally if the mass of Jupiter was lesser than it is, Earth would receive far more asteroid and comet collisions, too many to sustain human life. The same things are also true is Jupiter was closer or further away from us.

Life on Earth is ridiculously unlikely when you look at all of the requirements. The study of such requirements is known as the Science of Fine Tuning. There are a lot of requirements.

The Earth tilts on its axis at 23.5 degrees, which prevents the planet from becoming too hot or too cold. One or two degrees different and there would be no life here.

The reason for the tilt is because of our moon, which is the perfect size and sits at the perfect distance. This also means we get the wonder of eclipses, when the moon lines up with the Earth and the Sun for dramatic effects.

Other necessities for life include oxygen and nitrogen levels and the ratio between them; the thickness of the Earth's crust; the length of one rotation of the planet; the surface gravity; the amount of seismic and volcanic activity (yes these things are vital for life); the quantity of water and the quantity of salt in the oceans (3.4% - which is equivalent the quantity of salt in our blood streams), quantities of chlorine in our atmosphere and iron in the soil, and many more things I cannot comprehend (such as the quantity of iodocarbon-emitting marine organisms).

If such things do not make you wonder about life on Earth, how it exists and how precious it is, I don't know what will.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

From the Private's diary

Dawn had not yet broken as HMS Inconstant arrived in Rosyth Harbour at 6 am, March 5th, 1918. It had been a night without event, which by then was not so unusual, especially for the light cruisers, although the cold March winds across the North Sea, and off the East coast of Scotland meant there was little joy on board.
     The day was grey and plain, without rain, but the fifteenth century ruins of Rosyth Castle, rising above the new walls of the dockyard in which the admiralty had trapped it, were damp and blurred by the sea spray from the Firth of Forth. At one time the Castle had been surrounded almost completely by the river and over the years had been passed through many hands, but by 1903, and having been partly dismantled, it became the property of the Admiralty and soon after lost its position on the waterfront due to land reclamation for the dockyard. The Castle that had withstood many battles had been replaced by a modern defence, but still men fought to defend it.
     Having docked, the crew of HMS Inconstant set about oiling and watering the ship down. This took time, but was a well practised routine and meant little to the men and it only gained brief mentions in the diaries and letters of those who liked to write. Private Ligertwood was one of those, jotting down short notes whenever he could find a spare moment. He also liked to draw and sketch and having some free time he learned how to draw a pig with his eyes shut, and proved his success by pencilling one into his pocket diary.
     By the following morning the weather was even more unsettled, and very cold. The wind was causing problems, and the sporadic showers left everyone irritable and short tempered. The lack of orders was not helping either and although the harbour was busy, crowded with vessels and shouting, their was a general feeling of boredom amongst the men. On deck some went through rigorous fitness exercises, while down below others played cards, chess, chequers, or wrote letters, poems, diaries, anything to keep their minds occupied.
     Fred Ligertwood liked his writing, and particularly liked words. He enjoyed spelling them out, and putting them together and it was always a disappointment he didn’t have time to write more; another curse of the war. He was a young man, typical of those in the forces. He’d joined up in 1914, illegally, as he’d only been 14 at the time (instead of the required 15). Like many others, he had lied his way into the Royal Marines. Four years on he was still there, and no less happy or thrilled by the boyish feeling of being part of the War.
     He’d played his part, quite literally, when he’d blown the Bugle to begin the first attack in the Battle of Jutland, possibly the biggest Naval battle of the war to date. It had lasted almost two days from May 31st to June 1st, 1916, off the coast of Denmark. The Germans intended to lure out a portion of the British navy and defeat it, but as per usual with all well made plans, particularly in war, things were never going to be that simple. By the end of the battle many ships and even more lives had been lost, on both sides, but the British remained in command of the sea and therefore saw it as a victory for them. HMS Inconstant had returned unscathed and for her crew the war had gone on.
     At the entrance to the harbour HMS Champion, who had also been at Jutland as the leader of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla, was on the lookout for submarines, while most other ships were under ‘short notice’. At 1pm they were put under 1 hour’s notice. The white ensign was flying at the masthead of Inconstant and they were secured for sea, but they didn’t get ‘under weigh’ until 5.30pm. HMS Courageous led the way out of the harbour, the other ships filing in behind, like people from a stadium after a match has finished. For these men, though, the nervous excitement was only just beginning. Most of them knew nothing of their mission, but Private Ligertwood noted in his diary – “Weather expected to be very rough – buzz about convoy being sunk in North Sea.”
     In the end he never discovered if this rumour was true because the weather was beyond rough. So much so that at 11.50pm all ships were ordered to return to base. This alone took over 5 hours and they eventually entered the harbour under the early morning light. Private Ligertwood felt a little the worse for wear and submitted himself to the sick list. A quick injection later and he returned to update his diary. “Blinking sore.”

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Sports Fans

As much as football crowds in the UK have a bad reputation both for being crude and occasionally violent, they do also contain a seed of that brilliant British humour. Only a football crowd would sing "Is there a fire drill?" while the losing opposition fans head for the exits before the conclusion of a match.

Cricket fans, however, have to top them for being able to create a great atmosphere with fewer members in attendance. Although only at cricket matches do you get supporters of the winning team leaving before the conclusion because they've got to get home for their tea.

Rugby fans, predictably, are the most hardy of supporters, being the ones most happy to continue watching in an open stadium in a downpour, although a match is only 80 minutes long.

The best all round supporters, however, are probably those who follow individual sports such as golf and tennis because they are most appreciative of great play regardless of who is successful, and that is something I wish would transfer to all sports grounds, because I think it is something that is in all fans.

Friday, 4 September 2015

East of Eden

Having finished reading my second John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden, I am quite happy to include him in my list of favourite authors. Steinbeck seems to me to be someone who saw the world very clearly and on picking up his pen was able to write about it in a way that made it clear to others. He seems to have understood people and the way they work, pointing out things that aught to be obvious but somehow the rest of us missed, or at least could never put into words.

East of Eden begins slowly and for a good many pages (the edition I have has 714 pages) I was unsure of where the story was going. As the book unfolds, however, the characters become more real and the connection to the story from the beginning of Genesis is more apparent. For those who have read the opening chapters of the Bible, as I have, it may seem obvious what will happen to the characters, in particular Aron and Caleb, but Steinbeck is clever enough to keep you from guessing correctly.

The overarching theme of the novel can be summed up in this quote: "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?"
     Each character battles this inside themselves and comes to different conclusions, and, at different times in the book, I empathised with many of them. There is Cal, who tries to be good, although struggles to do so openly and often ends up getting it wrong, and in return receives both guilt and blessing. While Aron is summed up by another character, Abra, thus: "Aron didn't grow up. Maybe he never will. He wanted the story and he wanted it to come out his way. He couldn't stand to have it come out any other way."
     Steinbeck also gives Abra this to say, which makes sense to me: "When you're a child you're the centre of everything. Everything happens for you. Other people? They're only ghosts furnished for you to talk to. But when you grow up you take your place and you're your own size and shape. Things go out of you to others and come in from other people. It's worse, but it's much better too."

Steinbeck successfully avoids having good characters and bad characters and instead has real characters. This matched with beautiful writing is an excellent formula and one that has kept me thoroughly engaged and given me much to think about. I would encourage everyone to investigate his work and find out what they can learn from it, and for the pleasure of a good read.

Saturday, 22 August 2015


As humans we have few things as precious as water.
Nothing like a good obvious statement to open a blog post. However, I write this because I have become more aware of how much water I consume over the past couple of weeks, and as someone whose most regular drink is a glass of H2O that is saying something.
     Winmarleigh Hall sits in north Lancashire, where for the past two weeks the tap water has contained something nasty called cryptosporidium (I don't really know what this is, but apparently it will make me ill if I consume it). So instead we have been downing bottled water by the litre, and maybe even the gallon - I wish I'd kept a running total of how much I've used. When getting water from the tap I have never realised how much I take. I might have a few glasses to drink each day, but I also have a quick swig straight from the tap from time to time when my mouth gets dry (something I haven't been able to do for a while).
     As well as having bottled water in the dining room for meal times, we have also been passing out more bottles to the kids each morning and evening so they can have clean water to brush their teeth with. Again I would never have thought this would use much water, but I have generally got though well over half a 500ml bottle myself for each brushing. In the first five days these are most of the bottles I got through, not including the water I drank at meal times.

I guess I should come to some kind of point. I don't think we should drink less water. Maybe we could appreciate it better and not take it for granted as we so often do. Overall though, I think we should simply enjoy it more, it's just great, and after all it is one of the most precious things we have. I know I'm still working on it!

Sunday, 16 August 2015


This morning I was woken at six o'clock by geese honking happily across Chew Valley Lake. I noticed through the walls of my tent that the sun was also already up, so I braved the cold and stuck my head outside. It was as though I had entered a Robert Frost poem, or a Swallows and Amazons story. A very fine mist lay on the low hills and the lake was illuminated by the ascending sun opposite my camping location. Slowly the water began to steam and the rising mist was blown gently across the surface. Small flocks of birds and ducks flew low over the lake, calling to each other, and from my vantage point I could see their reflection in the water, too.
     It was a photographer's dream, as the light danced on the water, the hills and the long grass, but all I had was my phone and so this will have to suffice:


Monday, 3 August 2015

Lessons of a week in Paris with (and sometimes without) a large group of children

Having just returned from a week in France, in which I helped to take a large group of kids around Paris, Disneyland and a few other places, I will now share my observations.

Firstly, having not been to France in many years and never visited Paris, I was just as excited as the young people, and maybe more than some, because several of the 40 or so I travelled down with had been before. This was a good thing because enthusiasm is important in any job, and particularly with children. The other PGL leaders were equally upbeat, especially on the excursions and together I think we managed to make the week even more exciting.

On Monday we travelled in to Paris, and going by coach is definitely a good move. You see lots, you can show and tell the young people about the city, while keeping them in an enclosed environment so that they can't scatter. It's also a stress-free way to travel.
     We parked outside the Eiffel Tower and began our day by climbing to the second level, an experience which costs (to my amazement) just 5 Euros. Although you're only about half way up, the views are still superb. Of course 600 or so steps is quite a lot for some kids but we got there without too much difficulty. Rounding them up and getting them back down proved harder, especially when they decide to go and sit down, hiding amongst the hordes, but we made it eventually.

The tower was followed by a river trip, not necessarily the most exciting, but good again for keep the children together, showing them the sights and giving them a time to sit down. After a time for some souvenir shopping we returned to the Chateau where we were staying, and if this had been it I would have been a bit disappointed. Fortunately, though, I had the next day off, and so returned to roam further across the city.

Tuesday's trip began with a march up to the Arc de Triomphe, which the 3 of us who had come in discovered was free to enter for anyone up to 25, this makes it even more of a must see. Views from the top show off the Eiffel Tower and the many roads leading away from the roundabout-without-rules. To be honest, though, the best thing to do is to peer down at the carnage as the hundreds of vehicles try to navigate around the unmarked tarmac!
 Obviously the most recognisable road is the Champs Elysees, which was where we ventured next.

It's just one of those special places to be and have lunch, which we did, equally revelling in the fact that we weren't having to count children every 5 minutes.
The best part of two miles away, in an arrow straight line, lies the Louvre, not somewhere we ventured in to but of course extremely recognisable, with the large pyramid at the centre of the ancient palace.

Continuing the tour I walked along the banks of the Seine, something which is not necessarily as appealing as it sounds, (it doesn't smell so great) up to the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral. Again, I didn't go in, but appreciated the Church from each side.

We completed our day at a restaurant, sat outside under the awning, feeling very pleased with our Parisian day. There were and are many, many other things/places we could have done and visited, but it's always better take time and do things well, than rush to do everything in one go, which never works, especially when seflie-taking children are involved.

Wednesday turned our attentions to Disneyland. Probably not somewhere I would have considered going, but if you can get in for free then why not. Actually the best way to see Disneyland is with a large group of kids, even if it means stopping in every stall and shop for some expensive cuddly toy. The attention to detail in the park and on the rides is fantastic and I even enjoyed the parade at the end of the day!

The rest of the week was quieter, even with a visit to a large supermarket with the group, but we rounded off with another trip, this time to Park Asterix. Much more of a rollercoaster park than Disney this was a fun day for the trill seekers and those who somehow still hadn't spent all their money. There were also several shows, of which the Dolphin display was the only one I managed to see, although it was a nice way to end the week.

 A final note came on the journey home when one girl asked if I had enjoyed my holiday.
"Holiday!" I exclaimed, "I've been working this week, you know!"
"Yeah, but it's not that difficult is it," she replied.
'Oh no', I thought, I've been rumbled! Yet, on further reflection, while it may not have been the most challenging week, and has definitely been enjoyable, I'd like to think I have made a worthwhile contribution through my work to these children, who, I hope, will use these experiences and memories to spur them on socially and academically in the future.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Bonjour Paris

Never been to Paris, not properly any way, nor Disneyland. Now I get paid to go to both. Admittedly I have to take a load of kids with me and make sure I bring them all back again, but still, not bad as jobs go.
     Tomorrow I head to France, my first stay there since the year 2000. It's a long coach ride down (hopefully not delayed by Operation Stack, or any other tunnel issues) and then a week of activities and excursions in and around the capital. All this because things have quietened down at Winmarleigh for the summer after a busy few months, and it'll be a fun change to the routine.
     I don't speak French, or at least no more than the average Englishman, but I'm still working on that.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Waves on the western shore

We made our way to the western edge of the island and on to a small strip of land, which at high tide is almost an island of its own. The wind was blowing fiercely off the water and we battled against it as we descended the stony beach. The sea was a foaming mass of white breakers, and large waves attacked the shore. With the tide coming in too, we turned and walked down the beach. In land the hills were layered in cloud but above us and out to sea the sky was blue and it would have been warm if not for the vicious gusts that battered us. Not being the place to linger we pointed our backs to the sea and the wind and were driven back up to the road.


Monday, 13 July 2015

Comfort Zone

First there is the Comfort Zone, then there is the Stretch Zone, and finally the Panic Zone.

To enter the Stretch Zone is to give up your comforts, securities, and to trust that everything will be okay.

To enter the Panic Zone means you have been pushed too far and usually means you just give up.

To watch someone walk along a pole five metres in the air is comfortable for most people, to do it themselves is either a stretch or a reason to panic. But of course having done it and found themselves back on the ground and still alive, they want to do it again (mostly). It's the way it goes with most things. Until you trust you won't leave your comfort zone.

Still working on that.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Spatial Surprises

A few nights ago I had the pleasure of watching the sun go down in the west under a clear blue sky, while in the east, a full moon rose. The two lights opposed and yet in union, both large and bright. Slowly the sun dipped and disappeared while the moon seemed to grow, large and clear against the darkening horizon; it seemed to be within touching distance. The Moon, however, is further away than we often realise. In fact, did you know, it is possible to fit all of the other planets in our solar system (including Pluto) between the Earth and the Moon? The average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 384,400km, and even with the other eight giant orbiters of the Sun squashed in between there would still be more than 2,000km to spare!

Friday, 26 June 2015


A positively normal Friday. Work finished, driving home in rush hour traffic, and whole weekend off ahead of me. The past weeks have been busy, but pleasant. Winmarleigh Hall has been full of excited, post-sats year 6s, for several weeks, but from next week it's NCS (National Citizenship Service) time. That means day walks, camping and trying to develop leadership skills in 16 year olds. There's always a new challenge.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Rising Higher

Inspired by the poem High Flight by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee

The earth does not look the same from above, did you know? On the ground you are trapped with a singular view of your surroundings, while the heavens are an open expanse, stretching from horizon to horizon. But when you're up there both air and land are laid out, reaching as far as your eyes can see.
     To be 'free as a bird' is right, for until you have risen from the dark and bitter soil you have not experienced the release as everything is left behind, and then you can truly cut loose; twist and shake, as on a Friday night when the music plays and your feet never seem to touch the floor, and everyone is smiling enough to make the very room sparkle.
     As the ground disappears beneath, so the sky distorts. Clouds shift and envelop and then release you to the clear, bright emptiness above which seems to be full of light and joy and where thrills are common place. Can you imagine? But how could you when it is I that have experienced these things. Spun through the magical heights, chasing the sun though incredible airways and down invisible paths. And while the noise around is deafening, all is quiet.
     Sometimes it seems as though I hardly move at all, while at others I race faster than anything known to man, except the wind as it roars past and around me. So I dive and fall but never seem to descend through these vast arenas. Then up again and all is azure and turquoise. Still I climb and even as I peak there is elegance and simplicity that even the birds have barely discovered. You will have seen them dance the skies, but me you will not have seen as I set myself higher than any other in such a sacred place. And there, stretched to the ultimate point, met with the King of the Universe.

Monday, 15 June 2015


To be experienced is a good thing, it helps you develop and learn, and enables you to help others do the same. All life is experiences. A succession of them. Some good, some not so, but all helpful if you learn from them. Some will teach you how to do things, or how not to. Some will teach you about other people. A lot will teach you about yourself - what you like and what you don't, what you're good at and what you're not, what you understand and what goes straight over your head. A few may give you faith and others may test that faith, but with each passing one you will become more experienced.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

At the same time morning came

There was sunlight on the ivy that made up the woodland floor around him. Sunlight that crept through the green leaves above and cast shifting shadows. Evening sunlight, bright and still warm enough to enjoy. The trees were silent; natural statues of the earth, and as he stood, looking down, a strange idea occurred to him of the ivy twisting around his ankles and rooting him to the ground until he too became part of the forest. Small memories flitted of a bed and a house but they passed and he saw now the sunlight dead ahead of him, bursting though a gap in the sturdy trunks. Brighter it blazed and turned all to white until it dipped suddenly and night arrived.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Blue Eyes and a Broken Arm

"Okay, look at me," I said as she stood on the edge of the abseil tower.
She looked up and immediately I was hit by the brightest blue eyes I've ever seen. The young girl gazed up and her clear eyes were full of confidence and trust. Her soft brown hair was tied back behind her helmet but a few wisps danced across her face.
I knew this would be an easy descent and it proved to be so and those bright eyes continued to smile up at me almost the whole way down.

A short while later another girl arrived up the stairs with a broken arm (in a cast) but having already conquered the giant swing and a climbing challenge she was quite happy to get on with abseiling and quickly showed how to do it one handed. Later in the week I encountered her again on quad biking at which she proved just as adept as the other kids.

There were others less happy about the prospect of going down the outside of the tower but with three sessions back to back I had a fair amount of success in getting some of them over the edge. Some even smiled once they realised it was going to be okay, which is always a special moment.

In other news, I painted this, based loosely on what I see around me each day:

Monday, 11 May 2015

A Titanic Weekend

Whenever you get on an aeroplane you expect to get off somewhere different, even if the flight is only half an hour long. Northern Ireland is, however, exactly like England, which may sound silly, but still I expected it to somehow appear or feel like I had landed somewhere else.
     The roads are the same, the fields identical and Belfast, pleasant as it is, could easily be confused with several other UK cities. That was my first impression, but getting past that I was able to have an enjoyable few days across the Irish sea.
     The Titanic museum is excellent and taught me much about the history of Belfast, the construction of ocean liners and, of course, the great ship herself. The sinking was a disaster not just for those on board, but also for the thousands who had worked incredibly hard to build the largest ship of the time. Their work ethic in difficult conditions and for small pay should be an inspiration to people today who try to put in as little effort as possible, or sometimes simply give up all together, in search of an easy life. It should also be a warning to those who complain that the government is to blame for their "poor" economic situation. The government (no matter who's in charge) will support you, but you have to do your bit. If you don't put anything in, you won't get anything out - true in so many ways.


Sunday, 3 May 2015

From April to Summer

The great thing about being on Abseil during a busy weekend is that you can look out and see all the other activities across the centre. The quad bikes are zipping around their tracks; the lake is crowded with canoes; there are kids climbing up walls, tyres, ropes, logs and poles; others are doing archery or orienteering or problem solving or feeling the adrenaline rush of the giant swing. There are shouts and screams, mostly of delight, from all corners and even though it can't be necessarily measured there is a feeling of fun and challenge and life.
     All this is aided by the signs of spring and even summer (occasionally). The bushes and trees have begun to bloom, and while we're still waiting for the ducklings to hatch there is plenty of new life appearing all the time.