Month: June 2010

Ranulph Fiennes – in search of adventure.

Interailing around Europe. The first adventure I organised myself (well, Lee helped as well).

The first adventure that I organised myself (well, actually, with my friend Lee, who you can see in this picture studying the European train timetable) was an interailing trip around Europ.

I knew that we would be spending a lot of time sat on a train, so choice of “anti-boredom” equipment was essential. I decided on a cassette walkman and 5 tapes, and a good book (I reasoned, that no matter what happens, a book can’t break, it’s battery’s can’t run out etc).

The question of course, was which book to take. I had seen an interview with Ranulph Fiennes. It made some kind of sense to me, that while going on an adventure, you could read about one of lifes great adventurers and his adventures.

So I bought, living dangerously, the autobiography of Ranulph Feinnes, listed in the Guinness book of records as the worlds greatest living adventurer.

My book, living dangerously, which I read as we travelled hundreds of miles across europe.

It was a fascinating book, he talked about his life, the love of his then wife Ginny, time in the Army, exploring, facing danger and most of all, the inner ability to push yourself and not quit when things get tough.

Basically, loads of useful things, that would help me in later life, in all kinds of ways (some of them, years later, I didn’t actually realise I got from the book, which I’ll explain later).

Ran arrives on stage, and is fitted with a microphone. The woman in front of me, had a very large head.

Twenty years later, Sir Ranulph Fiennes comes to Chester, to give a talk. How could I miss it. A few days in advance, I spoke of my excitement, to colleagues at work. “What do you think is his best film” was a frequent comment.

For clarity, Ranulp Fiennes is the 3rd cousin of Ralph Fiennes, the actor from English patient and others.

I had expected a pretty informal quiet affair. Most people these days want to hear over-the-hill London gangsters or x big brother house mates speak, surely only a handful of people would turn up to listen to a real legend.

Wrong about that. 2000 people, fully booked, and more than 100 outside, hoping for a seat in the event of no shows (of which there were very few).

As he walked onto the stage, I was struck by how fit and healthy he looked, for a man of nearly 70. He spoke with charm and confidence, but at all times modest.

For the first hour, he spoke about his expeditions and adventures, and then for about half an hour about his family history. I wasn’t really interested in the family part, and I don’t believe in high birth anyway, but here, in no particular order, are the things that were said/happened in the first hour.

He was stationed with the Sultans army in Oman. The army had 1 boat and 2 aeroplanes, to fight against the Russian trained and equipped Marxist insurgents. They used 6 land rovers, to patrol a 2000 mile border. He explained that if the land rover drove over an anti tank mine, it would be blown more than 100 metres.

While stationed there he went looking for the lost city of Ubar. He made several trips out to find it, but didn’t succeed. At some point, a NASA satellite, scanned  the area, and found a spot that formed a perfect right angle. Since they dont occur normally in nature, it was presumed that this was the lost city.

Ran managed to get hold of the grid reference and lead an expedition there. It wasn’t the city, and just to show how strange real life, is, was a naturally occurring right angle in nature !.

His wife Ginny died a few years ago. He spoke often about here in his book, and her contribution to his expeditions. Ginny’s father was critical of Ran. When the proposition of marriage was put to him, he cautioned her: this fellow is Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know. A phrase that Ran would later use to name one of his books.

During questions at the end, he was asked what his greatest achievement had been. He said simply it was being married to someone so special for 36 years.

Even though he has climbed Everest (the oldest UK person to do it) and the Eiger, he has vertigo and literally can’t look down at any point while mountaineering.

During an early trip across the Arctic, we saw pictures of some sort of cardboard potting shed that his wife had designed. They could be dropped by plane, and would provide shelter in the evening’s. He said that the snow would collect outside, which would strengthen them, but you would be trapped inside, until morning, when you dug yourself out.

Why would you want to go outside he asked rhetorical ?. Well, your cooking on pressurised petrol in a paper house !.

He spoke honestly about expeditions, and explained that it was all about sponsorship, and you had to pick something that would inspire company’s enough to pay for them. He said that the Arctic had inspired a lot of people in America and that’s why he had moved a lot of of his expeds from Africa.

One thing that surprised me about the Arctic and Antarctic adventures, was how long they took. On one occasion, he was dropped off by boat and set off on foot. The boat would sail around the other side and pick them up 18 months later.

Some interesting stuff about navigation. You basically, look at the time, and as you walk, measure the angle of your shadow. At the time of Scott, that was the best way to navigate in the polar regions, as it still today. He spoke very favourably of Scott and said many of his critics, had never ventured  outside of their study.

While traversing Antarctica, they had a solar powered radio, that would run for 2 minutes each day. At one point, the radio said Britain has declared war with … (the battery’s ran out). Several days later, they established it was Argentina, but until that point, there had been constant debates about who it could be.

At other points, he mentioned leaving school with no A levels and growing up without a father (his father died before he was born in the 2nd world war).

I established throughout the talk, that he had little time for BBC film crews or Eaton, the school he criticised heavily in his book.

After a talk about his ancestors, he accepted questions from the audience. An annoying woman from the MOD language school, started to try and harras him, but he had no truck with her.

He was asked how he selected people for expeditions. I couldn’t believe it when he said something about how you can teach skills, but can’t teach personality traits.

Ive said that every time I’ve been recruiting someone. I forgot that the idea wasn’t my invention, it was something I had read in that book, on the train, all those years before.

He was asked, if he believed in a higher being. He replied that he had a heart attack on an Easyjet plane. For 3 days, he didn’t respond to resuscitation, and came around on the 13th attempt.

Commented that if he hadn’t been resuscitated, he would have been like that forever (after all, he was, to all intents and purposes dead). While in that state, for 3 days, he didn’t see god or angels or anything like that, and concluded that death, must be like having a really good sleep.

People say you should never meet you hero’s. Well I did and it was amazing.


North Cheshire Trail.

Well, I’ve always loved Chester, but I have to say, that living here has made me lazy. When I lived in Manchester, my house was 4 miles from the city centre (which was itself 1 and a half miles across).

In Chester, a pub called the Fat Cat, is considered to be out of town, as it is on the other side of a main road, off the main run of town ?. The whole of Chester city centre (in which I live) is a third of a mile across !.

Delightful then to be out walking again today, as I do most Sunday’s. There are some great trails, walk-able from Chester city centre, but as I now work in Warrington, I have a train pass, which allows me to travel to Helsby and Frodsham for “free”.

I’ve done sections of the Sandstone trail, but today, I decided to walk a part of the North Cheshire way. Most walkers that I meet around the area, just follow the signposts, which is fine. I find, that by using my map, and hard earned navigation skills, I can find alternative sections of the route, which are much quieter.

If you look at the picture above, you can see the grass has grown 2-3 inches, and that this section, has hardly been walked by anyone, in the last couple of days. Places like this are obviously very quiet, and with the undisturbed undergrowth, its possible to “track” which kind of animals have passed this way recently. In this case, its some birds, a fox and a man walking his dog.

I couldn’t work out what kind of dog, but it was a large one. I also deduced from the length of stride, that he is around 5 feet 8, and walks with a stick (although the impressions from the stick are light, and the foot pads are even, which shows that he has no walking problems, and simply carries the stick for pleasure).

As I wandered around the hills, I was reminded of a few years ago, in the Alps. I was doing a mountaineering course with Plas Y Brenin. In the evening, we went for a pint, and met up with the mountaineering club of Ireland. A great bunch of lads, they insisted on a sing song.

Thankfully, Sunday Bloody Sunday, wasn’t one of the tunes, but there, so many miles from home, we started singing The Manchester Rambler. I quite like my job. I know that a lot of people don’t, but I think we all get a slight apprehension on Sunday, knowing that we have to go to work the next day.

The thing for  me, is the fact that we HAVE to go to work. Many of us, would probably still want to anyway, but I think its the lack of freedom that leads to apprehension.

Going back 70 years, to when work for many people, wasn’t the creative challenge, it is today (the time, around the Kinder Scout mass tresspass, when the song was written) one line from the song, really hit me. “I may be a workslave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday”.

That’s the thing about walking. You can choose whichever route your fitness will allow. Walk, stop, drink, sit down, change your route, and do just about anything else whenever you like while walking. It is an illustration of one of our most fundamental rights, the freedom to roam.

Enough Philosophy. I am working hard to get fit, but after 4 and a half hours of walking up hill and down dale, I am quite exhausted. I finish of my water, and treat myself to a Mars bar.

Helsby's award winning station, with one of the vollunteers painting a bench.

I wander back to Helsby, to get the train. I pass the station every morning and evening, it has won many awards, for being one of the best kept stations in the country. That kind of award doesn’t come easily, and as I sat relaxing, waiting for the train, one of the volunteers arrived and started to paint a bench.

Two Monitors. I've waited a long time for those, and I'm delighted.

Things continue to go well at work.  There is a leaving do on Friday, and a few of us, are going for a pint. A year of unemployment, has changed me, so there will be none of my infamous hell-raising, just 2 pints, and then the train home.

One of the other cool things about my job, is that my employer has loads of really cool life balance schemes. One of them, enabled me to finally get 2 monitors for my computer. Its taken me a few years to catch on to the multi monitor idea, but it makes the kind of work I do at home, much faster.

I was talking to Lee the other day (Lee has a teenager at home, as many of my colleagues do). I was explaining a dilemma I had recently. Two friends I have know for years, introduced me to their Children. Matt introduced me to Eve and Dave Littlewood introduced me to his son Dan.

In both cases, it made me think. We were friends when those children were born. For a brief moment, it made me wonder how my life would have been different, if I had chosen/been blessed with children. Would the immense pride of having a healthy and intelligent teenage child, really of-set the hard work and frankly the inconvenience of bringing them up. I have to say simply, that I don’t know. I have to say, that some people are just too selfish to have children, and that basically, I am one them.

Still, made me think of a mate called Jo, when we were in Morocco. We were heading home, and I asked everyone how they were getting back from the airport. Jo said that his daughter was going to pick him up, and he beamed with pride. I was explaining this to Lee, who said simply, considering the mayhem that teenagers cause at home, its probably simpler to live your life as you do, and get a taxi !.

My first attempt at Pasta and Meatballs.

I’ve been trying all sorts of recipes lately. Pasta and Meatballs, was one that I had never cooked for some reason.

I used the Jamie Oliver Botham Burgers recipe, to make the meatballs. Overall impartial opinion (by me) is that I need to work on the Pasta, as its still soggy, and some grated cheese would have finished off the ensemble more fully.

More news next week, when I cook chips and gravy 🙂

Gordon Gekko, in the iconic original Wall Street.

On the media front, there hasn’t been anything I’ve wanted to see on the cinema recently, so my 2 cinema vouchers from Powergen are sat on the shelf.

One film I really do want to see, when it comes out, is Wall Street 2. Do I think it will be as good as the original ? I don’t know. Do I buy the idea of GG becoming a hero and saving corporate America from itself ? Get real.

The main 2 reasons I want to watch it are. 1, how things have change in 30 years since the original (I mean that, as much in terms of sets and clothing, as I do in acting and film making) and 2, how are they going to transition this guy, who is on the outside of a game he dominated and effectively built in the first place (I’ve been listening to Once I was the king by Hard Fi, and it made me thing of it).

On the TV front, the 2nd half of the DR Who finale, is on next week. It looks really good this time, as they seem to have an original plot, rather than just rolling out the Dalek’s peace meal (although there are Dalek’s in it).

I’m still watching Breaking Bad, as recommended by Jason MacDonald, a couple of weeks ago, when he came down for the evening with Caz.

To finish off, I just thought I’d put up this video of a printer, made entirely from Lego.

The IPhone 4 is out on Thursday. I’ll probably get one for personal use, but I’m going to wait a while and see if I can get a better deal. In the meantime I’m trying to get a phone for work, can anyone recommend a good Windows Mobile/Windows phone, its a while since I had one.

Near and Far, best wishes. John

3 days with an Ipad.

The Apple Ipad. Breakthrough in handheld technology or a sollution looking for a problem ?

Okay, the IPad arrived a couple of weeks ago.

New releases from Apple, are normally delivered like some kind of technological Nuremberg Rally.

As much as I am no fan of some of Apples “lock in” business practices, or the nauseating attitude of some of their fans (who treat Apple, and Steve Jobs, like some kind of religion) their record speaks for itself.

For 20 years, personal stereo’s in whatever form, were dominated by Sony. In just a few short years, Apple got involved, and now have 75% of the worldwide market.

Similar can be said of the IPhone. Extremely late to the smart-phone market, and with no “local” experience to draw on, they have effectively created the “app” market and by the end of summer, will have sold 100,000,000 Iphone/Ipod touches, from a virtual standing start over 3 years.

What’s the secret. Well, a couple of years ago, I had a HTC, At the time, it was the most advanced smart-phone in the world. Why then, did I always find myself using my IPhone in preference. The truth, I believe, is that Apple products, were designed for PEOPLE to use.

That might seem nieve and simplified, but the best features in the world are useless, unless they are easy to access, and make simple sense, to ordinary people (that goes for every kind of technology, from toasters that can defrost, to 11th generation Dell Poweredge servers).

I wanted to try one out, so asked that Richard Branson of Gadgets, Glenn,  if I could borrow one (and since he had 2, he agreed ).

Using the Ipad on the train to work.

The first things that struck me, was its size. I had expected it to be the size of an A4 clipboard (which for me, would have been too big). I was delighted to find it was just the right compromise, between ease of handling, and screen real-estate.

The most important thing for me, is how long it takes to start up. If it takes about 30 – 40 seconds like a laptop, than its not much use at all. The reality, is it boots almost instantaneously, and once working, the apps run at startling speeds (well they do compared to the IPhone).

After using it at home for a day or 2, I decided that proper “Sea trials” were needed. I took it with me to work, and got started on the train.

I get the early train, so it was pretty quiet. It occurred to me, that if the train had been busy, and you were standing up, you could still have used the IPad. Its just about the only technology apart from IPods and Phones, that can do this.

I tried out the word-processor – pages. Apart from the silly name, it was pretty good. Locking the IPad into landscape, I typed a couple of pages, with minimal mistakes. I was impressed.

The only problem I found, was 95% of the time being used, I was browsing the internet. Since this wasn’t available, I was quite at a loss (I kept referring back to my IPhone, to check the news, emails etc).

I had a go of a few features like the Todo list, and Calendar, and couldn’t see much advantage over their smaller brothers and sisters on the IPhone.

A sort of blog magazine called Frypaper and a virtual version of the Marvel Comic Iron Man, finished off the journey. When used as interactive media, the IPad is at least as good as FHM or the Telegraph (or some other more appropriate magazine/paper).

Ideal for "Sofa Surfing" the Ipad, was well recieved by everyone at work.

I arrived at work. We have a secure wireless network, and the IPad really came into its own.

The reality, is that its a computer, that can be handled like a magazine this allows it to be interacted with like no other computer.

Lee from work certainly enjoyed using it, its the ultimate “Sofa Surfer”.

It was so solidly built, that I took it around the office with me while working. It went down a treat, and everyone  loved it (but I couldn’t help thinking, did they love it enough to part with £500).

And thats the thing…

In the end, the IPad is basically a tablet browser. Something similar running Google Android and selling for £200, wouldn’t be the coolest thing around, but would probably be just as useful, if your goal was research/information gathering.

The other irony, was that while using it to find information, I always had a pen and paper to hand, to write things down.

If you just couldn’t decide where to go on holiday, and you were travelling on a 2 hour train journey with internet, I can’t think of anything presently on the market that would allow you to do that better than an IPad.

This review has been entirely typed and published to the web, using the IPad. Its the  first time the website has been updated without using a pc,  since the websites inception. Thanks to Glenn for lending me the IPad.

Weekends, Socks and Adventure.

Pairing up my sockes on Saturday Morning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I always try to plan each weekend in advance, so that I get everything possible out of it.

Friday night, the weather was fab. I don’t go out much now, and tend to stop in with a bottle of wine, but ventured out all the same.

The commercial (recently opened) is excellent as I’ve said before. Thing that’s good, is it backs onto a forecourt, which it shares with the Victoria and the Amber Lounge. Away from the main runs of session drinkers, its an oasis.

Saturday mornings are the time when I write emails, do web research (see bellow) and catch up on the TV that I’ve recorded.

Lets just say that some of the TV programs I watch  are action orientated and don’t really require the use of your brain. I therefore schedule some mundane tasks for this time. Above are the socks I was pairing up while watching 2 episodes of Human Target.

Got me thinking. I moved to Chester in September 2001, so in a couple of months, I’ll have lived here 10 years. As I was reviewing my emails, I got an update from the excellent Woodsmoke (they run Adventure Bushcraft courses, you can see some of the stuff I’ve done with them here.)

In the update, Ben Mcnutt (who runs Woodsmoke, along with Lisa Fenton) wrote about various stuff, and that they had written-up their ethos on the revised website (you can read it here.). Its pretty moving stuff and definitely worth a read.

That’s when it hit me. When I came here (worked in Helsby for about 18 months before I actually lived here) I decided to climb Helsby Hill. All these years later, I still hadn’t done it (although I’ve visited 56 countries !).

With that, I grabbed my trusty “old trainers”, jumped on the train, and made it happen.

Me standing on Helsby Hill, after nearly 10 years.

Well here I am, standing on the top.

I have an OS map of the area (It was invaluable, when I was unemployed, to organise walks on the cheap), and using skills I learned on the NNAS Bronze and Silver course, I was able to back track along the Sandstone Trail, and meet the train home, at Frodsham 2 hours later.

Job well done.

Web Res:

On my IPhone, I have a really cool to do list. One thing I frequently do, is put information into it, prefixed with wr. This stands for Web Res or Web Research.

The basic idea, is that I make time, to go and look at things on the web, rather then when they are thrown at me by email or such. I set time aside, to carefully read about things that I’ve decided are important, at a time when my brain can take them in.

For example. If your firm allows it, there is nothing wrong in booking an easyjet flight over lunchtime. If I was selecting an adventure holiday and there were 8 to choose from, you might try something similar over a couple of lunch hours. DON’T.

Sunday morning with a cup of coffee, Tuesday evening after jogging. Only you know, when your imagination and creativity are at their most heightened, and that’s the time to do your wr (it also works for paper catalogues, and tv programmes about interesting places and subjects, but one thing at a time).