Simon Huggins's blog

Wed, 31 Dec 2014

Losing a friend

Until yesterday I didn't really know what it was like to have someone you are close to die before their time. I'd had grandparents die but they were old and you can think things like "well they had a good innings". Not so with the young.

I learnt yesterday that my good friend Phil Hutchinson died on Saturday in a car accident in Canada. He was only 30. I don't know more details about the accident. His flatmate emailed me and has been letting people know.

He was part way through 5 months in Canada and seizing every opportunity that came his way with tales of skiing and getting out in the cold. He'd been on a training course in Scotland beforehand (toolkitting as he called it) and been to the Alps to use those skills. In his usual way he had loved it all and came back with great stories before he went off to Canada. I'll always remember his enthusiasm for things. And the overdoing it. And the switch to a lecturing tone before a random tale about why such and such worked the way it did.

Suddenly every trite saying about death makes sense. I walked numbly into town after I heard and didn't understand why people were still walking about normally, chatting, laughing, going round the sales. Didn't they know?
But of course they didn't.
I wanted to scream "Stop all the clocks" at them til they understood.
But they wouldn't and shouldn't have to

And then you do the normal things you do because you have to. Because what else is there. And you put a mask on and get on with things.

But I cry.

I miss him.

Thu, 28 Aug 2014

Girona and Figueres

I spent a day in Girona which was plenty of time to look round the cathedral and the walls of the city and wander about a bit. I didn't really realise at the time but there are some good restaurants here which I probably should have found and booked into. Girona's pretty but there isn't a lot there really.


I planned part of my trip around going to Figueres because I wanted to go back to the Dali museum that I had first seen as a kid and which had opened my eyes to modern art. I wasn't disappointed. I mean look at these ceilings!

The queues for the museum are huge so go early but personally I'd say it's well worth the wait.

Figueres also has Castell de Sant Ferran which is an odd fort that's just on the edge of the town.

Then I caught the train all the way back up to Paris and after catching up with three different groups of friends there I came back home.
All in all a pretty successful trip!


To get to Barcelona I left Toledo at stupid o'clock as I had to change at Madrid for an AVE to get me to Barcelona.

Barcelona is in Catalonia where they speak Catalan. They still speak Castillian Spanish though and rumours that they would prefer English to Castillian were vastly overstated. Also I was continually vigilant for pickpockets especially in crowded areas or around pinch-points for crowds but didn't have any problem thankfully.

Barcelona felt very different to the cities of the South and even to Madrid. The Catalan independence issue was very much top of their agenda at every turn and in every museum description or tourist sign which was interesting. It also felt like it was a more independent city proud of its own identity and culture.

There were also so many great things to see. Obviously Gaudi's Sagrada familia which just had so much light coming in such amazing ways.

But there was an amazing Picasso museum, the Joan Miro foundation is worth a look alongside the botanic gardens whilst you're up on Montjuic, the port area, the Catalan history museum, the macba modern art museum... so much to see and so many different areas. I also found some craft beer bars which even had some beer from Siren Craft in Finchampstead in Berkshire just 10 miles or so from home which I wasn't expecting.

I think the most interesting sign was probably this one:

Next up Girona and Figueres


Toledo was very hilly and given its proximity to Madrid full of day-trippers and other tourists. I'm not really sure I would recommend it. It has a huge cathedral which like other cathedrals in Spain is y'know very pretty but I had seen a lot of cathedrals by this point. It also has the world's most confusingly laid out museum in the Alcazar which otherwise is a very impressive building.

The cathedral did however include two things you must see. Freak bird angel things:

And carvings of choristers being spanked and generally having an orgy:

Yup, no idea why. Next up Barcelona


So I spent a bit more time in Granada and I liked it as a city though again it was very touristy. There was more going on than Cordoba though and I imagine it would be a lot of fun if the students from the university were around.

It's home to the Alhambra which is an amazing fortress and collection of palaces. But there are also a huge number of cathedrals and a very good science museum which I retreated to one day to avoid yet more gilded representations of Christ.

I ate well here and even explored Granada's gay scene too which was fun and very relaxed.

Next up Toledo


Worth mentioning straight away that I arrived in Cordoba in style having booked the only ticket I could which happened to be first class from Madrid on an AVE. I had been served drinks and food and had my own socket to charge my phone as I watched the Spanish countryside fly past. It was slightly depressing to watch the shells of unfinished housing fly past; it does seem the crisis hit Spain's construction industry hard which I knew but the visual reminder of it is quite something to see

Cordoba is alleged to be one of the hottest cities in Europe and that was definitely apparent but it was a very dry heat and I didn't die which given I'm blond and quite often overheat in an office at 21 degrees C was surprising. I had a good hotel with aircon here which helped when I was hiding from the hottest times.

You have to go visit Cordoba. It is a truly amazing place because of its history which is shown off in La Mesquita a mosque which is so large that it contains a cathedral inside it.

There are a lot of beautiful streets but basically this is a town that caters for all the tourists that come to see la Mesquita.

Next up Granada


After the tourist town of Salamanca, Madrid seemed much more normal. More mixed for a start and it was a real city that had people working in it rather than just a place people only really go as students or as tourists.

Also the museums in Madrid were great. I loved the permanent collections in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia although the Richard Hamilton exhibition really wasn't for me. The Prado is full of some undeniable masterpieces but they don't really work for me as they are in a period heavily dominated with religion where essentially every picture seemed to be depicting some bible scene or other. It was good to see Las Meninas before I saw the Picasso version in Barcelona though.

El Rastro is a huge flea market on Sundays and it was definitely worth seeing. It was amazing that it was so large that there were very specialist stalls like this pressure gauge one. No I've no idea why either but...

Madrid's old part is lovely to wander through too although I think I preferred Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. I went out on the gay scene in Madrid too and as you do found myself at a party in a bar that had shutdown recently which is just what happens if you start talking to people in a bar apparently...

Next up was Cordoba


So as part of my Spain trip (overview here) I started off with two weeks in Salamanca.

Salamanca is a very pretty town with two cathedrals joined together and a large ancient university which seems to be like the Oxford of Spain. It's therefore very touristy and to be honest pretty white which was a bit strange.

Learning Spanish in Spain definitely seemed the way to go and I booked to do an intensive course (6 hours a day). I also booked to stay in a university style residence. What I hadn't really realised was that it would be full of people who were all a lot younger than me (17-22) and so whilst I'm over the whole find the cheapest place and often go and spend a little more to get something a bit nicer I did regularly have people bound up to me to say "Simon, Simon! I've found somewhere with even cheaper beer". They were a lovely bunch of people though but a lot of English was spoken by the students in the residence. That was good in a way as I didn't really have any Spanish but it did mean I wasn't hearing it all the time. I think I'd suggest people stay with a family if they can.

The school was great and I definitely learned things. I suspect it would feel like I learnt a lot more if I'd started with some basic Spanish to begin with. I definitely had times when I felt great in class because the grammar was quite easy for me given I'd done language learning way back when and then I'd go and attempt a real conversation with someone and realise I didn't actually... know any Spanish :)
But over my five weeks in Spain I managed a few good conversations in between the total lack of getting myself understood and I found that "lo siento para mi espanol muy mal" got me some amount of sympathy.

Next up was Madrid

Wed, 27 Aug 2014

Spending five weeks in Spain

In July I quit my job as the Guardian's Digital Operations Manager and went off to Spain for 5 weeks. I'll probably post per city I stayed in but I thought I'd set off with a general post about my time in Spain.

I had a great time in Spain. I tried to do everything touristy I could in the various places I stayed in and so I saw lots of amazing museums and lots of mosques/cathedrals. It did seem like every other place was either a cafe or a religious building of some kind.

I travelled around a lot; I spent the first two weeks learning some Spanish in Salamanca, then went on to Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, Barcelona, Girona and Figueres all via train. My Google location history looks like this:

See full screen

I guess if you haven't spoken to me then you might not know why anyone would do this. I left the Guardian for a variety of reasons but mostly that I didn't really feel there was anywhere for me to go next inside that department. They're an amazing team and I'm going to be following what they do next. I was lucky that I had some savings and we'd come to a good point with my new boss nicely settled in and stability restored to the platform that it made sense to do new things. I haven't worked out what I'm going to do next; I've been back in the UK for two weeks but I've been away for both of those weekends and haven't really stopped yet!

So why such a long break and why Spain? Well I speak fluent (if rusty) French given I spent two years of my life there one at school and one working and I'd always thought that I should learn another language. Spanish was a natural choice; a romance language so not too far away from the latin and French I learnt at school and very widely spoken. I'd also wanted to visit the Dali museum in Figueres again as it's the first museum that as a kid turned me on to modern art. So I resigned and once I'd negotiated a leaving date I booked a flight to Madrid, two weeks of an intensive language course in Salamanca and a Eurostar back from Paris. The next week I panicked.

Friends will tell you I'm a bit of a control freak and I do like to know things like where my next meal is coming from so not knowing what I was going to do for the 3 weeks in between being in Salamanca did freak me out a little but I took advice from people who had been to Spain (thank you Natasha, Diego and Lydia) and came up with a plan of places to visit. And then I booked all the hotels and trains I'd need to get me where I needed to be when.

I picked places that were easy to get to by train and looked interesting and it really did work out. Ambitiously I had planned my leaving drinks from work the night before I flew to Spain but given it was an early evening flight even that worked out.

I mentioned I'm a control freak and I normally go on holiday in France which given I speak French is quite easy. So it was a bit of a shock when I realised I was in Madrid with basically read-it-from-a-phrasebook level Spanish but I survived my first nights.

Travelling in Spain

The trains were all fine. RENFE's website is terrible to try and book trains but Rail Europe's site was also pretty bad. Essentially "simple" things like needing to change trains didn't work when searching for journeys so unless you knew that you needed to change at Madrid you would think there weren't any trains that did that journey at all. The Deutsche Bahn site is excellent for working out times of trains all the way across Europe as you might expect. I got lots of advice from the man in seat 61. If you need help booking train tickets in Spain then this is a skill I have acquired so bribe me with beer/coffee!

The AVEs, Spain's high-speed trains, were great and the other medium distance trains were all very clean and smart too. Spain has two different railway gauges which means you sometimes stop and go through a shed which is odd but seems to work. I had to book first class from Madrid to Cordoba and it was a lovely experience where they brought me food and drink and I had lots of room. The rest of my trips were all standard though.

The boarding of the TGV to Paris in Barcelona Sants was an utterly laughable experience. Imagine two countries not perhaps reputed for their efficiency both with their own staff, both with in station, print your own tickets at home and mobile ticketing options which all require different machines to check them. There aren't really any useful signs and they have two trains leaving from the platforms that serve these TGVs within 10 minutes of each other. Then add lots of tourists with lots of bags and that probably don't speak Spanish or French and you end up with a big mess.
At one point a member of staff told me that it was obvious that the queue under the sign that read "e-ticket" was only for people who had e-tickets bought and printed in France with absolutely no hint of sarcasm. There wasn't a separate Spanish e-ticket queue of course. Somehow they did seem to manage to get people onto the train before it left though I can only assume this was due to luck.

Things I learnt about Spain

I hadn't spent really any serious amounts of time in Spain before my trip and I didn't know much about their culture or history really so I was definitely there to learn. I was quite surprised about how many cafes there were and how they all did at least a little bit of food. They were also mostly open for breakfast and eating breakfast out seemed to be a normal thing for people to do before work even.

I wasn't very impressed with the food I had in Spain. I did have some really good meals but I had a lot of pretty average ones. I think that was partly not knowing where to go or what to order and partly that I was mostly in very touristy places. The thin cut cured ham was really amazing though and always seemed good and a good Spanish tortilla is hard to beat. I guess because I was eating out I didn't seem to eat many vegetables either so I had the usual travelling thing where I started craving them.
I did really enjoy tapas. Both the free-with-a-beer type and the ordering and paying for small plates seemed an excellent idea and I don't know why we don't do that more in the UK. I have ex-colleagues in the US who mock the Brits for going out drinking without eating and this would be a perfect solution for post-work drinks.

I knew very little about Spain's history and whilst I was there I certainly learnt more about the Moors, the Spanish civil war and the time under Franco along with a bit more about the struggle for Catalonian independence. It's fascinating and it helped me make sense of some of the historical museums and art I was seeing.

I thought it would be ridiculously hot in Spain and it was but I survived a lot better in the hotter, drier places than I did in Barcelona where it seemed just as hot but also humid. There were were a few times that I couldn't cope and retreated to air-con'd hotel rooms.

Service in cafes/restaurants was almost universally terrible in Spain but that seemed to be because of the hordes of tourists and that the waiters didn't seem that bothered by customers. I saw a bunch of people just walk out when they didn't get anywhere near ordering in all sorts of places.

Really going in July and August is very silly. Partly because it's full of tourists and partly because it's very hot but also because the Spaniards know this and take some of that time off to go sit on a beach leaving their recommended restaurant/museum shut. That was sad a couple of times but each time serendipity came to the rescue and I found some lovely places that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Dropping your camera early in a long holiday so it stops working is a very silly thing to do but I managed through miming and bad Spanish to buy tiny screwdrivers, take it apart and by a miracle put it back together again so that this time it worked. That was almost very expensive.

I also definitely had some down times which I was expecting. Often just after a particular terrible failure of speaking Spanish but I managed to get through them and move on to the next exciting thing to see or eat.

Must see things in Spain

You all have to go and see La Mesquita in Cordoba which is a cathedral inside an enormous mosque. It's truly amazing and the way they've kept lots of the original artifacts rather than just razing the place to the ground and building a cathedral instead is brilliant.

I would also recommend the Sofia Reina museum in Madrid and the Picasso and Joan Miro museums in Barcelona along with the Dali museum in Figueres. I loved the art I saw and they had brilliant collections.

I'll blog a little more about each place I went on other days I think but I've put all my photos up on flickr.

I blogged about the places I went to:

Sun, 01 May 2011

Reading Beer Festival 2011

So I've spent most of the past few days drinking in a field in Reading. The beer festival is always a good event and this year was bigger and better than before with more choice of beer.

The additional bank holiday was very useful and meant that there were two full days for the crowds to spread themselves over. This along with the larger capacity this year which was also helped by the lack of rain forecast all meant that we didn't end up with quite as enormous a queue as last year and that it took a good long while before it was one-in, one-out. We queue jumped with our Ale Trail tickets though.

Dickon and I made Wednesday evening, Thursday afternoon and evening, Friday all day and Saturday all day. I managed to get through 60 halves of different beers in that time.

The beer was all impeccably kept as you'd expect but this was all the more impressive given the concerns over the hotter weather before the beer festival. Breweries definitely adapt to people's tastes or their perceived tastes and it seems that milds, porters and stouts have in general got a little sweeter. Also Dickon appreciated that there were more pale ales and hoppier ales at the festival than there have been in previous years; some years the festival has been used as a good example of "May Mild Month" to the possible detriment of other styles. This year with the bigger range every style was well represented.

As ever for me the porters were the stars really and I especially liked:
Mighty Hop - Black Pearl Porter
Box Steam - Steam Porter
Bingham's - Total Eclipse
Plain Ales - Inncognito
Two Towers - Jewellery Porter

In the bitters I really enjoyed:
Bays - Topsail
Arkell's - Moonlight
Dark Star - Partridge Best Bitter
Bewdley - Worcestershire Way

Also whilst I only had a sip of Dickon's pint before the barrel went I always find Thornbridge Jaipur very tasty.
Oh and Art Brew should get an honourable mention for their Lemon which whilst I didn't manage to try at the festival I did have some a few days before in the Hobgoblin; it's a nice drinkable pint that doesn't feel as if the lemon has been forced into it.

Bingham's are in my list above and their Total Eclipse is a fantastic Black IPA. This is a style that I'm very glad to see and wasn't something I knew at all until earlier this year. We're very lucky to have Bingham's; all their beers are superb and they brew down the road in Ruscombe. They managed sales into lots of the ale trail pubs we went into so I'm sure the people who really care about beer in Berkshire already know about them but if you're just passing through or you see one of their beers on at another beer festival then do try some.

On the down side the over-sweetening went too far for me with Bristol Beer Factory's Bristol Stout and Harviestoun's Black Watch IPA. Also Best Mates beer tasted really quite strange; a couple of friends tried some independently and neither liked it.

Five years ago we all looked younger

I'll stick my photos up on my flickr at some point.

Right, where's my bacon sandwich?

Sun, 03 Apr 2011

Walking a marathon

I walked 26 miles on a whim on Saturday. You can see a pretty map of the route.

It was a bit of a crazy idea that kinda just came to me. I knew I wanted to do more exercise and I hadn't been on a long walk since my 15 miles from my house round past Mapledurham, Pangbourne, Tilehurst and home. There's also a really good pub in Frilsham (well, in the middle of nowhere really) called the Pot Kiln. And I've been feeling fairly antisocial lately so why not just fuck off on my own all day long. Oh and the clocks went forward so we have more light during a normal day.
See, perfectly sane.

Anyway, I plotted out a route to the pub and decided it made most sense to go via the canal. And then I plotted out a route back and it seemed to make sense to come back a different way and well when you totted it up it made 26 miles. I realised I'd have to leave early but I was up stupidly early, went and bought some provisions, got my haircut, made sandwiches, got organised and left at 9:50. I reckoned I could get a taxi from Tidmarsh or walk to Pangbourne and get a train if I got fed up.

Like I said, I walked round this route. The pub is at the 14 mile marker; there's a small dog leg if you zoom in. I made Aldermaston Wharf (8.2 miles) at 12:15 and ate a couple of sandwiches, got near Bucklebury by 13:40 and the pub by 14:15. I had a pint of West Berk's Mr. Chubb's lunchtime bitter and a packet of crisps at the pub. But I gave in to temptation and had a pint of Dark Star Espresso stout; still I managed to be out of the pub and back on my way again by 14:45.

I enjoyed the walk through to Bradfield but around the 19 mile mark I was thinking I'd just get a taxi from Tidmarsh. I made the A340 south of Tidmarsh for 17:00 and had a bit of a burst of energy so decided against the taxi. I also stopped at the Greyhound in Tidmarsh but only to ask if they'd fill my water bottle; thankfully they were happy to do so. I must go back and buy something. I made the edge of Tilehurst (22 miles) by 17:00 but my thighs were really aching by this point and the backs of my feet. It was road all the way back from here so not very exciting but I made it back for 19:00. I average 3mph on the whole route; 3.2 to the pub and 2.8 on the way home.

I'm glad I did it though I ached last night. A bath and stretching at home seem to have stopped anything worse happening; I wasn't sore this morning. I took my camera around with me and the photos are up.

Sun, 13 Sep 2009

Thames Festival and Greenwich

I went to the Thames Festival on Saturday.

It was shit.

Essentially it consisted of thousands and thousands of people walking along fairly narrow paths along the southbank in London very, very slowly past stalls of tat which had nothing whatsoever to do with the Thames. They were from random markets around the city brought onto the South Bank.

There was a feast on a bridge. To get there you couldn't go up the steps near the Thames path that everyone was on. You couldn't go up the next set of steps a block further south either. You had to weave your way another block further south and then come back on yourself to get on to it.

When you eventually got onto the bridge, the feast was a bunch of food stalls overrun with people queuing for food which I suppose was predictable. The food was lovely and they had nice ale. They also had hippies persuading people to wear salad hats so you could garnish your neighbours food (wtf?) in some sort of grow-your-own-gone-wrong way because naturally all the salad was wilting in the heat and with the very small amounts of compost in the hats.

They had straw bales too and one organic hen in a coop. Because Londoners are stupid and believe that seeing this stuff once is enough to bring them close to rural life and will do as their part for saving the planet.

So we escaped on a Thames Clipper and sat in the sun in Greenwich park which was lovely, not chock full of people and much more relaxing. We went to the Greenwich Union afterwards and had a great meal with good ale.

All my Greenwich park photos

All my Thames Festival fire garden photos

After another Thames Clipper back up to London Bridge, we wandered up to see the fire garden. To be fair to the Thames Festival, the fire garden outside the Tate Modern was amazing. There was music and lots and lots of burning flowerpots and oil lamps on wires going up and down hooked up to cool machines that whizzed them round in all sorts of different ways. There was a metal, machine-powered man cycling on a high wire whilst balancing oil lamps either side. And big globe like structures with more burning flowerpots.

Sat, 18 Jul 2009

Pewsey to Bristol

This week I walked along the Kennet and Avon canal from Pewsey to Bristol.

It's about 50 miles in all and I deliberately left some time after walking so I could go see places especially Bath.

You can see my route on a google maps pedometer too.

Pewsey to Devizes

A 12 mile walk with a break in the Crown in Bishops Cannings. It started raining once I reached the canal but only for 20 minutes or so; in fact every day I had glorious weather really. I saw a kingfisher very early on too at a point where the canal widened out to a larger pool. I had planned to stop in All Cannings but google told me the pub I'd picked out for lunch didn't do lunch on Mondays so I went to Bishops Cannings instead. I was a little worried that the swing bridge I'd seen wasn't always setup but it was fine. I had a lovely pint of 6X in the Crown with some very good steak sandwiches. Then just an easy walk into Devizes.

In Devizes I wandered round the Wadworth's brewery visitor centre. I stayed in a B&B called Embrea between Devizes and Rowde. I went to Pizza Express that night for food; they missed the chicken out of my chicken dish and then insisted on taking it off the bill so given they fixed it quickly I paid them what it would have been anyway.

The British Lion is an excellent real ale pub in Devizes and I had a couple of pints there before wandering back to the B&B for an early night.

Devizes to Bradford on Avon

Another 12 miles this time stopping in the Somerset Arms in Semington. When I woke up it was pouring with rain but after a good fry up it cleared and when I set out it was just cloudy.

Just after Devizes on the way to Bradford there are 29 locks of which 16 form the Caen Hill flight.

It was an amazing view from there and lots to see. I ended up playing postman delivering messages and gossip between boats going up and down to tell them who was coming which way and wishing them all luck with the locks.

I stopped for lunch in Semington at the Somerset Arms. I had read that it was newly refurbished but hoped that it would be as good as the reviews on beerintheevening. It was great; had a pint and some sausage sandwiches and then off to Bradford.

Bradford on Avon is very pretty. Everything is stone and it's a lot quieter than Bath. The hotel recommended I try the Castle Inn at the top of the hill in Bradford. This proved to be an excellent choice; it's a lovely pub with beer from the Three Castles brewery in Pewsey and really good food.

Bradford on Avon to Bath

This was my shortest walk (9 miles) deliberately so I could arrive for lunch and spend the afternoon exploring. The canal crosses the river Avon on aqueducts at Avoncliff and Dundas and for the rest of the time the canal, railway and river follow the valley round giving great views from the tow path. As you near Bath every town seems to start with Bath.

My first impression of Bath was that after the peace and quiet of the canal it was insanely busy. It is literally full of tourists. Also every time you turn a corner you see yet another postcard view of stone houses which after a while seems a bit odd. It's almost too perfect and a bit like being on a film set instead of a real city.

The Roman baths were interesting and there was more to them than just the main pool thankfully. Reminded me of my trips to various sites around Hadrian's Wall when I used to live up there.

I went to the Old Green Tree for lunch and it was a lovely little wood panelled pub with simple food. Then after more wandering and photo taking I found the Hop Pole (a Bath ales pub) and after dinner at a Thai restaurant I went to the Star Inn which was a bit further out but full of lovely beer.

Bath to Bristol

This was the longest walk of my trip at 16 miles but I really enjoyed it. The Kennet and Avon canal joins the Avon river at Bath so I was following the river for the lenght of this part. The path wasn't as well signed and wasn't always right next to the river so a couple of times I wasn't entirely sure where to go next but it was fine in the end. I did a slight detour via the road into Swineford at one point but found the river again easily enough.

All the planning worked out and I had covered the 8 or so miles to Keynsham for lunch at the Lockkeepers by twelve. Had a nice pint of Young's and sardines before heading out again. Part of the river was alongside Avon Valley Woodlands which seemed well signed. Then suddenly we were back in civilisation and before I knew it I was alongside a cut to Temple Meads station.

The finish

I found a cafe and waited for a friend that I was meeting for coffee then dinner. All my photos are on flickr as ever.

It was a really good thing to have done and I really loved the peace and quiet. On the way home, the train took 10 minutes to get from Bristol to Bath; I had taken five and a half hours of walking but it was definitely worth it.

Thu, 11 Jun 2009


So I've been working in London for a year and three months now and I'm still commuting in. I do constantly think about moving house or moving jobs though.

Today was a tube strike and I walked from Paddington to work. It was a bit of an eye-opener really; I don't think I'd realised that each different bit of London was so individual. I constantly debate with myself the pros and cons of moving in to London. Being able to stay out later, having a better commute to work, being more sociable with the Londoners I know vs living on top of everyone else, not being able to escape as easily, not being able to afford as nice a place to live, missing Twyford friends. But today made me wonder if there is a part of London that's quiet but close in that would suit me. Maybe I should look.

I've also been considering a place closer to the centre of Reading because the annoying bit of my commute is the bus to/from the station too.

Maybe one day I'll make my mind up.

Fri, 22 Feb 2008

Photo printing

It's all Paddy's fault.

Back in May I bought a Nikon D80 which is lovely and since then I've been taking lots of pictures. I've also been discovering how easy it is to spend money on camera bits. Anyway, Paddy suggested I get some of the photos I really liked printed up as they look a lot better that way. I was a bit skeptical at first but I got some printed up by in 6x4 to start with.

It took a bit of work cropping them to exactly the right size but I was really impressed. They do a great job of getting the prints to you quickly and my photos looked better printer somehow (though a couple that needed rotation became obvious). Fotopic lets you blow prints up to 15x10 inches and I chose five of the ones I really liked and get those reprinted larger. They look amazing. You can just see so much more.

The only slight technical hitch was that then I had to frame them to put them on the wall. Noone does 15x10 inch frames (if you know of someone that sells clip frames that size tell me). You can get frames in the A4, A3, A2 etc sizes easily. You can get frames in metric sizes that are the same aspect ratio like 60x40cm and ones that aren't like 40x30. Ho hum. I didn't do my homework and expected that fotopic would only sell enlargements that anyone on the high street would easily frame for me.

In the end I went to picturelizard and got them to make me up frames to the right size. They arrived the other day and putting the pictures on the wall makes it all worth while. It's just a shame I paid more for 1 custom frame than I would have paid for 5 almost-the-right-size-but-not frames. They're also not amazing quality (the 3.50 wrong-sized frame from John Lewis is better) but they're on the wall now.

Basically, if you take digital photos, choose some and get them printed. Even 6x4 they look a lot better than on the computer and it's harder to pass round a computer than a pack of photos. And if you get things enlarged then work out how you're going to frame them first.

Tue, 08 Jan 2008

Books (part 2)

[ Apologies for Debian planet readers expecting something pithy and Debian related. This isn't. But then pkg-xfce packaging just continues. We get more bugs, we fix some of them (if you have a dual-headed setup and want to help us fix or reproduce more we'd love to hear from you). Corsac became a DD at last and has made me more or less redundant in a good way. I should probably investigate libburnia again and prod George Danchev about #450873 since basically it seems to just need the ubuntu packaging brought across into Debian to replace libburn etc. But anyway, on with the irrelevant stuff... ]

Books part 1 was back in April and I've since found myself with some time on my hands before I get a new job so here we go again.

Making Money - Terry Pratchett
This was a Christmas present and I quite enjoyed it and enjoyed the character but didn't really think it lived up to the laugh a minute Pratchett books that I remembered from the good old days.
The Lovely Bones - Alice Seebold
This is quite a weird concept for a book given that it's from the point of view of a dead girl in heaven but it seems to work. It's very well done and I enjoyed it.
Alex Rider series - Anthony Horowitz
I had seen Stormbreaker and wanted to read some more of these as light holiday reading. They work well for that. There's enough plot to keep me interested but not enough to make them at all hard to read. I read a couple of them in French when I was in France (in between traipsing between different bits of Paris since the m├ętro workers were on strike). I wish they'd been around when I was younger.
My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult
Ooh this is a really, really good book. I loved it except perhaps for the very end but I can forgive it that. The idea is that she's suing her parents for the rights to her own body because she was conceived as a donor for her sister to fight off her sister's leukaemia. It's a very thought provoking read with several interesting characters with their own stories woven together.
The Language Instinct - Steven Pinker
This book is fascinating to me. It takes ideas mainly from linguistics, evolution and psychology and explains a theory that seems to hold together and is well illustrated and explained. The central point is that we all are born with the ability to develop a universal grammar from an early age which can be adapted to any human language and which sticks around in the young child and then disappears. If you have any interest in language at all read this book.
A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon
I found this a bit hard to get into as essentially it's about the normal lives of a family (albeit quite a special family). It doesn't really grab you. Towards the end though I was interested to find out how it would all unravel and was pleased with it.
The Mephisto Club - Tess Gerritsen
This is a nice, honest thriller that does what you expect. It keeps you flicking the pages wanting to know what happens next.
The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
I quite enjoyed this and did find new arguments against religion but I don't think he's going to convert anyone with this book. Of course I'd recommend anyone read it because it raises lots of interesting points but it's polemic essentially.
The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins
I enjoyed this though it builds on previous work I'd read. I guess if you're just interested in evolution then read this and not the God Delusion.
The Raw Shark Texts - Steven Hall
I was recommended this by a friend. It's very surreal possibly a bit too surreal for me but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K Dick
I hadn't read the book and saw it at a friend's and borrowed it. You probably all know what it's like. I'm glad I read it because of the references to it but it's not my normal reading material.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J K Rowling
I had to read this of course to finish off the series but I thought it was a lot better than some of the others. I think I enjoyed the first, the one with the tri-wizarding championship and this one the most.
Love in Idleness - Charlotte Mendelson
This is well written and you really get into the character that's painted for you. I really liked some of the descriptions of justifying things to yourself and coping with boredom.
Blood, Sweat & Tea - Tom Reynolds
This was an interesting look at the life of a paramedic and if you don't already read Random acts of reality then read the book first and start reading the blog.
Telling Lies - Paul Ekman
This came from my Blink/Tipping Point reading and I found it hard going. It was interesting but quite detailed and not really a book for late night reading. The theories in it are very interesting though and explain why you probably aren't as good at detecting things as you think you might be and how to look for factors that will help you.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - Oliver Sacks
I read this ages ago and it was fascinating. It's about a number of different cases of problems with the brain. Often physical defects in various areas of the brain that cause odd problems and how it sheds light on how things relate. I really enjoyed it.

As always, do please punt your own recommendations at me.

Sun, 07 Oct 2007

My stomach and me

I'm sure I am only have legs and a brain so that I can keep my stomach happy. Food rules my life. I don't understand people that can miss breakfast; my stomach would be moaning at me if I did. It does have a good side though as it means I really enjoy food and I enjoy cooking it too.

Since I have some more time on my hands these days, I've been experimenting a little more and trying some more things out so I thought I should post about them.

Bread maker

I asked for a bread maker for my birthday. I worked from home and ate bread all the time for lunch but it always went off quickly and supermarket bread isn't always amazing. The machine has been great. The even rapid bake loaves it churns out in just two hours are great. It has a timer so you can put a loaf on over night and come down to lovely fresh bread smells. The dry ingredients are easy to keep around and you just bung them all in the pan, hit a few buttons and later on a loaf appears as if by magic.

I especially like the granary loaves especially if I add a little rye flour but all the standard recipes seem good. The French bread one seems to give the right texture and taste but it's odd eating it in a loaf shape so I might have to make that one as dough and then shape and bake it separately one day.

I didn't like the olive and passata loaf; it came out an interesting orange colour flecked with the chopped olives but didn't really taste of tomatoes or olives. There's a tomato foccacia that uses sundried tomatoes that I might try out though.

There's a croissant recipe which seems to be a quantity of French dough that you put butter in, wrap around butter, and then more butter. How can it possibly go wrong? I need a free morning to try it but I think I will soon.

Basically if you don't have a bread machine you probably want one.


I watched a series of cooking programmes on BBC (Kitchen Criminals) and they seemed to be making pasta from scratch every two minutes so I was intrigued to try it. I mentioned it to my Mum and she had a machine that she'd never used that I borrowed. Sadly it's not quite as easy as it looks after TV editing.

Basically the first bit is really easy: whizzing flour, olive oil, an egg and some salt in a food processor, kneading it a bit and making it into a ball. Bung it in the fridge to rest and then the fun begins of trying to make it into a flat sheet. Lots more flour (in fact my kitchen was covered with it) and lots of patience and many attempts got me something that was vaguely what I wanted. Every time I got close it would stick together or it would rip or it would go in at an angle and I didn't have enough hands to fix all these problems at once. Even using smaller amounts of the dough is tricky. I was making ravioli the first time and it was nice but took lots of time and I didn't feel it was entirely worth the effort. I tried just simple tagliatelle last night but again it took a long time and you end up thinking that you could have just bought fresh pasta in a bag and be grabbing a handful of it instead of spending 40 minutes faffing just to get some strands.

It might be worth it if you had some amazing idea for ravioli filling but I think I'll give Mum her machine back and not buy one.


I've always really loved Pizza Express's cheesecake but never really understood how they did it especially with the texture at the edges. I'd always thought cheesecakes were just an assembly job really; my standard one is lime and mascarpone and icing sugar and it is tasty but not the same. Chatting to various people it seems the Pizza Express one is baked so I tried a recipe from a book Mum had lying around that I was flicking through.

It was a chocolate baked cheesecake and it sort of worked but was almost a little too chocolately and didn't have enough other interest. It probably wants some zest or some stem ginger or something through it. It's a terrible hardship but I think I might have to make another one to perfect it.


Like I said, I want to try croissants and I've always been looking for a good recipe for gingerbread; I really love ginger as a flavour. I never really cook with pastry much so I should perhaps try some pies or similar whilst I'm not working and have time to do these things. Any other suggestions welcome.

Sun, 01 Jul 2007


My courgette plants started taking over the world a while back and covered the raised bed I made in green.

I had some of the courgettes a week or two ago and went out today and found more.

Some have been rotting slightly on the plants so I removed those too but I'm really excited that the tiny, tiny plants I put in ages ago have turned into giant courgette plants and now have started producing things I can eat! Obvious but satisfying.

Thu, 07 Jun 2007

The problem with being a morning person...

When you're tired in the morning you know things aren't really going to improve through the day.

I haven't blogged for ages. I bought a dSLR and put some photos up, Xfce got some bugs cleared out with a spate of uploads (and some hard work by Corsac, ema and myself) after etch was released and I now have a raised vegetable patch with courgette plants, tomatoes, mange tout and chillis.

Wed, 25 Apr 2007


I've been meaning to post about books for a long time now but haven't got around to it so you can have them all at once. It's a bit of a random list from sci-fi to thrillers to prize-winning books to books discussing economics but hopefully you'll pick something out you like.

The Undercover Economist - Tim Harford
Everyone should read this book. Seriously. It's being republished shortly (early May) so you should all preorder it. It's a book that explains how the world works or rather how economics touches much of what we all do day to day. It examines a number of cases and explains in simple terms how some bits of economic theory can be applied to them. But that description makes it sound dry which it isn't at all; it's fascinating.
The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
I think lots of people have read this now but this is just a really good, well written story. The time travel element seems a bit implausible when you first hear of the story but actually you get so absorbed in the story that it really isn't a problem with believing it.
The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
Set in the 80s, it's an interesting story with plenty of references to the excesses of that time.
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
I enjoyed this well thought out sci-fi story with a slightly sinister leaning. It's a classic apparently, but I hadn't heard of it so thought I should read it. I'm glad I did.
Vanish - Tess Gerritsen
A thriller pure and simple. It's quite good but nothing much to it. Good for a holiday or a plane/train journey. (see I don't just rave about every book I read :p)
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
This is a charming, interesting story of families, roots, mixing cultures and relationships. It won a prize 'n everything.
The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins
I do think Richard Dawkins has a good way with words and examples but this was hard going probably down to being read mostly late at night. It provides insights into an area that I don't know a lot about so I'm glad I read it.
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
I'd never read this and someone recommended it to a group so I grabbed a copy and read it. I think it probably means more to people who are English students analysing it to death. There wasn't a lot there for me other than some good observations of human behaviour.
Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
This is one of the recent books about economics which has been in vogue and I think it's worth a read. It looks at a number of more extreme cases than "The Undercover Economist" above by looking at things like drug dealers, the difference your name can make, factors that make people a good parent and how cheating by teachers was discovered in school tests. Interesting read.
Lunar Park - Bret Easton Ellis
Oh this is utter rubbish. Don't bother reading this. I read it based on recommendation and whilst it starts out with an auto-biography and then diverges into an interesting fictional extension of that it soon becomes a really oddball fantasy book.
The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
It seems that this book had to be read; it was just that popular. It's an interesting read. It develops a theory of how an idea becomes a trend and a trend becomes a runaway success. I remember finding some of the language a bit sloppy when I read it but it didn't detract from the ideas.
blink - Malcolm Gladwell
Amazon recommendations are a great thing. I was recommended this by them and given I'd enjoyed The Tipping Point thought I should follow through. It was a good idea to. This book explores first impressions and subconscious reactions to things both when they are right and when they are wrong. It's a little scary in that it looks at your subconscious so it looks at things you don't know you are doing and things you try to rationalise away later (which can work to your advantage or not). Fascinating.
Amsterdam - Ian McEwan
I read Saturday by the same author and didn't fully enjoy it but I liked the writing style and the well filled out descriptions at times so I thought I'd give him another chance. Saturday was after all a novel set on one day so maybe something set over a longer period would be more interesting. Amsterdam just never really got my attention. The plot seemed quite obvious at points and whilst it was well told it just didn't interest me and seemed to have a weak ending.
One Big Damn Puzzler - John Harding
A friend I went to uni with recommended this book and it's definitely worth reading. It's a lovely tale of a lawyer with OCD who ends up on a remote island where the natives are translating Shakespeare into pidgin English. It sounds quite strange but it works well as a framework to hang several threads on. I really liked it.

Don't be scared, I didn't read them all at once but rather over a period of months but hopefully it'll encourage some of you to read some of them.
Do please punt your own recommendations at me.