Autumn Glory

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The weather has been somewhat of a damp squib of late – damp being very much the operative word – so waking up one morning at the beginning of the week to a beautiful, sunny (if cold) day made a refreshing change and as we had a day or two of annual leave it didn’t take long for us to resolve to spend the day doing something pleasant that would take us out into the fresh air.

The possibility of walks in our local area, around Oxford, was mooted but in the end we plumped for going a little further afield to visit the UK National Arboretum at Westonbirt near Tetbury in Gloucestershire.

It had been many years since I’d last visited the arboretum and as we made our way along the motorway I was looking forward to our visit. As I was soon to find out, the arboretum is home to some real treasures and I wasn’t going to be disappointed!

Although it’s now run by the Forestry Commission and is open to public visitors, the estate that was later to become the arboretum was inherited in the 1800s by a wealthy land owner, Robert Holford, who funded trips by Victorian plant-hunters to far-flung corners of what was then the British empire.

The specimens they brought back with them were planted in the estate and formed the basis of the tree collection at Westonbirt. Some more modern introductions of an entirely different sort raised a smile as we stumbled across a carving of “Gromit”, of Wallace and Gromit fame, on our way through the grounds!

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The original arboretum, now called the “Old Arboretum”, was extended by the Holford family to encompass “Silk Wood” and, after a short discussion on whether we should walk or have lunch first (it was lunch time, after all), we decided some fresh air should be the first item on the agenda it was on the walk round Silk Wood that we started our visit.

The arboretum’s home to some internationally important collections and has an extensive collection of Japanese maples so we were treated to tantalising glimpses of brilliant reds and golds backlit by the early afternoon sun as we made our way along the pathways through the wood.

The route includes what’s called the “Maple Loop” so we had the chance to get up-close-and-personal with some truly beautiful trees and the slideshow, below, hopefully gives a small taster of some of the splendor on offer.

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The beautiful trees and the fresh air combined with a very tasty lunch in the arboretum’s restaurant and a cup of tea and a cake before we finally left at the end of the afternoon all added up to a pretty perfect day out.

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A Day at the Fair

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Well, I say “Day at the Fair” but it was, rather, a really fabulous evening out at Abingdon Michaelmas Fair with some very good friends.

The event has its detractors, of course, and each year I hear the usual complaints about the disruption it causes to local traffic and the congestion it causes round the ring road that circles the town. For my own part as a local resident, though, I welcome it. It’s fun and for the few days it comes to the town – two in the first week and again, a week later, for the Runaway Fair – it brings a bit of colour and liveliness to the town centre.

Accommodating a few days of inconvenience for the sake of something so lively and fun shouldn’t, in my view at any rate, be a problem and judging by the popularity of the event and the rammed-full state of the town centre car parks, that’s also the view of a significant number of locals.

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The Runaway Fair, held a week later, has an interesting history. Traditionally, the Michaelmas Fair was a hiring fair where local landowners could find and hire farmworkers for the coming year. That wasn’t always a happy association, though, and the Runaway Fair was held, a week later, to give those workers who’d found themselves in poor living conditions an opportunity to, quite literally, run away. Back to the town they’d come to have another try at finding paid employment.

Back to our own evening, though, having recently rediscovered my “cycling mojo” (take a look at the companion blog to this one, MAMILity), I was keen to do my regular, 7 o’clock, RPM class before we headed out and was glad I did – a very good workout and, perhaps, earned me some “calorie points” that were almost certainly about to be spent on the junk food on offer at the fair. Well, it is only once a year!

Having showered, we headed down to the town centre to meet up with our friends, the plan being to walk through the fair, maybe have a ride or two, have a snack from some of the food stalls and then make our way back to the center of the town to have a few beers in the newly-opened Wetherspoons pub there, The Narrows.

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I have to say that it’s a pleasure to spend time with them. One of them was bridesmaid at our wedding and she’s bubbly, fun and inclusive. The other’s her partner, who’s a really nice chap, with a great sense of humour. They’re very good companions, which always makes for a fun evening.

With diversions in place to route the traffic away from the town centre and round the ring road, the Michaelmas Fair stretches all the way along the main street, Ock Street, and we walked the whole length, from the town centre out to the other end of the fair near a very conveniently sited pub, the White Horse.

On the way, we took in a very bumpy ride on the dodgems and a tray of Pad Thai noodles from our favourite local Thai restaurant, Chaba Thai. The fair was buzzing and seemed, to me, to be busier and to have more going on than last year, which was good to see.

Having reached the White Horse, we were all up for wetting our whistles, in my case with a cheeky pint of Abingdon Bridge, a fine real ale from the local Loose Cannon Brewery.

Having supped up, we started our stroll back from the White Horse towards the centre of town, picking up some frankly rather rank chips on the way, before heading into The Narrows for our second pint of the evening and I was impressed with the pub, though not surprised as my experience of the Wetherspoons pub in Oxford that I’ve visited from time-to-time has been very good.

Being a big fan of real ales and a member of “CAMRA”, the Campaign for Real Ale, I was pleased to see a good range of real ales were on offer – Wychwood “Hobgoblin”, Rebellion “Gangplank”, Adnams “Ghost Ship” and White Horse “Weyland Smithy”, to name a few – and all very reasonably priced at £2.29 a pint. Bargain!

Food was being served until 11 p.m. and, though we didn’t partake this time, what we saw of the food being taken to other tables looked very good and was, again, very reasonably priced.

By midnight, last orders had been rung and we joined the other patrons in heading out and making our way home. I’m rather looking forward to the Michaelmas Fair next year, now!

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Francesco’s

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The plan had always been to head for Windsor at lunch time to pay a visit to my former stomping ground from my days as an employee of a company based in the town, who have offices in the town centre.

After a morning working on a friend’s soon-to-be-released revamp of their company web site and taking a bath in our newly refurbished bathroom – a pleasant novelty as the bath’s been out of action for a couple of weeks which has meant trips to the local gym to shower – I suggested that Reading might be a good idea as an alternative destination as it was closer and it was already early afternoon.

That was a big mistake! Ordinarily I’d expect a 30 minute drive, or thereabouts, to get there but after a very frustrating hour and a half behind the steering wheel in atrocious traffic we were still at least 40 minutes from parking up in the city centre. Time to revert to plan A. We headed back out of Reading, back onto the motorway and 20 minutes later were pulling into one of the town centre car parks in Windsor.

It’s a rather nice town centre with a busy central street – Peascod Street – open to pedestrians only, rather than cars, lined with a good selection of shops, patisseries, restaurants and a pub or two. The street leads up a gentle incline to the top of the hill where Windsor castle, one of the residences for the British Royal Family, dominates the view.

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When we arrived, we weren’t much interested in sightseeing, though, as we were both famished and on a mission to find somewhere nice to have lunch. Windsor’s well served with a large selection of eateries and we settled for an inviting looking ristorante called Francesco’s.

That turned out to be a very good choice indeed, though it took us some time to decide which of the many mouth-watering menu options we were going to choose. We relaxed over a “basket of bread” with oil and balsamic dip, sipping our choice of wine – a very nice vermentino – while we waited for our antipasti to arrive.

Service was excellent and soon my selection – “gnocchi portofino” – arrived. I’ve always enjoyed the small, soft Italian dumplings and this variation came with a pesto-based sauce with chicken pieces in it and a tasty Parmesan crust.

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It was delicious and, as is often the case with me, pictures were taken and shared on Facebook – my timeline’s populated with more than its fair share of “foodie” pictures and posts and it’s nice to share suggestions for nice places to eat amongst my friends. You never know when one of them might be out and about in need of a recommendation for somewhere to eat!

Although we were both hungry, this was lunch rather than a formal Italian dinner so we opted not to go the whole hog and have all the courses that implies and went next to the “secondo piatto”. In my case that meant fish. “Tonno ai pomodorini”, to be precise – a very tasty tuna steak cooked to my liking (rare) and served with Italian style roasted potatoes and a cherry tomato and white wine sauce.

Having a predominantly “savoury tooth” rather than a “sweet tooth”, I’m not often engaged by the dessert course and often skip it in favour of just a coffee and digestif. Appreciating that this was going to be the only meal of the day, though, and being in “the right mood”, I made an exception and opted for the rather yummy “semifreddo al limone”.

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Having eaten our fill and feeling thoroughly relaxed our next pleasant surprise was the bill! Not only had the food been delicious and the atmosphere pleasant but it was also very reasonably priced. Next time we go shopping in Windsor, I think we may well be paying Francesco’s another visit.

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Photo-Fever

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At the risk of sounding like the proverbial stuck record to regular readers, did you know I have an interest in photography? :-)

The last week or so has seen the usual round of work, RPM-and-spinning-based mix of stress relief and training, liberally interspersed with cooking (food being one of my other great passions, hence the need for regular training to keep in trim!) and, where time allows, the odd hour or two of sleep.

During the busy daily round, though, I’ve also found time to do something with my Flickr and Instagram accounts, that I created some time ago (several years ago, in the case of Flickr) and simply never did anything with.

The evenings this week, when they’ve not been spent on the bike or doing household chores, have been thoroughly enjoyably spent reviewing my reasonably extensive collection of photographs to find ones that I think might be of suitable quality to post, and sufficiently interesting to pique the casual browser’s interest.

One year on from the London 2012 Olympic Games, one of those that I selected was this shot of one of the buildings on the Olympic Park. I forget, now, which events were held in it – basketball, I think – but I remember at the time being impressed by the architecture and I felt it made a fetching picture against the blue of the sky and the grey of the gathering clouds.

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The Folly

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Take a good look at the picture, above. It’s a photograph of a “folly”, built in the 1920s in the grounds of the former Benedictine Abbey of St Mary at Abingdon.

The photograph was evidently taken on a bright, sunny day and you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s not been put through any post-processing that would fundamentally meddle with its appearance.

So, there’s something slightly odd about it. On a bright sunny day, the sky should be bright, yet it’s relatively dark. More striking, though, are the leaves of the trees that form the backdrop to the folly. Being green, while you’d expect them to be well lit they should nevertheless appear comparatively dark against the bright, warm colour of the stone, yet they’re almost brilliant white. The same thing goes for the grass.

So what’s going on?

Regular readers of this blog will know that, recently, we holidayed in the Lake District, staying in the village of Hawkshead. One evening, while we were relaxing over our evening meal and a pint of locally brewed ale at the Red Lion Inn in the village, we started chatting to the couple on the table next to us.

It turned out that he was a photographer and, at the end of the evening, we accepted their kind invitation back to their caravan for a nightcap. While there, he showed me some of the images he’d taken and they were quite breath-taking yet, like the image above, they had an almost haunting air to them.

His secret? The images were infra-red and they were so beautiful and so mesmerising that they inspired me to have a go at infra-red photography myself.

I’d looked at the technique many years ago, before the days of digital photography, but back then the process of loading and unloading the camera and developing images taken on infra-red film seemed pretty painful, even to someone used to doing their own print and slide film developing.

How things have changed. The very generous Amazon voucher I was given as a leaving present from my previous company (regular readers will also know that I’ve just changed job) was spent on an infra-red filter (actually, a visible light blocking filter – the Hoya R72) and this morning saw me heading excitedly towards the Abbey Meadows in Abingdon, eagerly anticipating my first infra-red photo shoot.

The image at the top of this blog is the result. The only post-processing that it’s been put through is to convert to monochrome to remove the red-tint that the filter produces.

Hope you like it.

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Man’s Best (Feathered) Friend

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I know. Man’s best friend is supposed to be a dog, or so the saying goes in Western cultures, at least.

As you may have guessed, I’m carrying on the Mexican theme. When we visited Mexico, staying on the Riviera Cancun, earlier in the year, there wasn’t a dog to be seen but the pelicans were our constant companions, diving for fish just offshore when we were lounging on the beach sipping our cocktails and being generally spoiled by the very accommodating and friendly beach waiters and waitresses.

By the end of our stay, I was quite used to the Pelicans perching on the beach pavilions and looked forward to them accompanying me on my early morning walks, though in truth it’s more the case that my morning walks were of no consequence to their fishing exploits, which would’ve gone ahead anyway whether I was there to watch them or not.

I rather missed them when we left.

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Busy Bees

Mexico’s certainly flavour of the month at the moment, with my recent blog post about Chichen Itza and two very good friends who were recently married having just returned from their honeymoon on the Riviera Cancun, staying at the hotel where we were also fortunate enough to stay during our visit to the country in January.

As you might expect, their honeymoon photos prompted me to go back and reminisce over the images I captured during our own visit and two in particular caught my eye, from our trip to Coba.

Coba is an ancient Mayan site in the province of Qunitana Roo, and is a hub for a number of the walled Mayan white roads, or sacbe, that head off into the jungle surrounding the city and form a network connecting the site to other Mayan cities in the region.

Although it’s not been excavated to the same extent as Chichen Itza and it’s buildings haven’t been reconstructed in the same way, it is still a very impressive site with the 42-metre tall “Nohoch Mul” pyramid at the centre of the site towering over the canopy of the surrounding jungle.

The photographs that caught my eye, though, were of something rather smaller:

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We came across this tiny bees nest, only about three inches long, suspended from the underside of a branch in a clearing and the rather blurry “end-on” view, below, shows what I’m assuming are guard bees guarding the entrance.

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A brief search for information on how to identify the species seems to indicate they’re sweat bees, members of the family halictidae, but if you know better please let me know.

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Filed under Americas, Mexico, Photography, Travel, Wildlife