Today the four of us had another lovely walk in the countryside. (It’s not really 17 months since we’ve done this, it’s just that long since I felt like blogging it 🙂 )

This time we got out of the house fairly promptly, before 1100, and made our way towards Combe Gibbet. This is a lovely spot with a dark history, brief details of which can be found on Wikipedia at the link (the AA have more information in the background to a walk on their website). As well as the gibbet we took in Walbury Hill, the highest point in Berkshire; if we’d walked a couple of kilometres in the other direction we’d have found Pilot Hill, the highest point in Hampshire!

Combe Gibbet walk route

We parked south-east of Walbury Hill, then walked over that hill to Combe Gibbet and followed the Test Way south past the delightfully-named Sheepless Hill (fittingly, it was devoid of sheep) before hooking back through the village of Combe and returning to our car.

The weather was, again, lovely; warm and dry without being oppressive, sunny without needing sunscreen. We tried out two of the local scout group’s brand-new Garmin Oregon 20 GPS receivers and were quite impressed by them! The children were largely uncomplaining until the last half-kilometre or so, which sees a steep 90-metre climb from Combe village back to the ridge (and the car park).

The walk was just shy of five miles, and took us a shocking two hours and twenty minutes. #1 Daughter did dawdle rather and Mrs QrizB kept stopping to sketch things; that’s my excuse anyway!

A good, and particularly literate, friend of mine claims not to be able to express anything in words but to have more luck in writing. This has in tun prompted me to write this note …

On Art.

Art’s a funny thing. Even defining it is difficult. The OED has it as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” which is a bit of a mouthful. Through many discussions over several years I’ve come up with a shorter working definition of “a human creation that has no function other than to be admired”.

Technology has eliminated the utility from some forms of expression such that they are more properly considered art now. For example, painted portraiture has been functionally superseded by photography in essentially all applications; anyone commissioning a painted portrait is doing so for art’s sake, not for any functional reason. Art incorporated into technology is commonly called design (and the two are occasionally lumped together); while form should follow function, some forms are more admirable (have greater “beauty or emotional power”) than others and these design decisions are, I would suggest, more properly artistic ones.

Now I have a complicated relationship with art. I’m a bit of a functionalist, and as you might imagine that means that I’m not a huge art fan. I’m not claiming to be a complete philistine; I’m rather fond of music, and some painting and sculpture really gets to me, but generally these are at the “figurative” end of the figurative-to-abstract spectrum. Rothko and Pollock seem a complete waste of paint and canvas, while the criminal masterminds who stole Henry Moore’s bronze and sold it for scrap may have done the art world a favour.

Looking around my house right now, I’ve chosen to decorate our milky-coffee-coloured walls with my children’s (largely pre-school) art, their certificates of achievement from school, and a large map of Western Europe. I have a couple more maps (one local, the other of the world) I’d like to hang when I get the chance. This is all functional; the maps clearly so, but the children’s things are there to display my pride in and appreciation of their achievements. I’ve got no real desire for prints of “Tennis Girl” or “The Persistence of Memory” let alone “Four Darks In Red” or “Shark in Formaldehyde“.

That would be the not-very-complicated end of it if my wife wasn’t a professional artist.

My wife is an artist. She has wanted to be one since primary school (possibly earlier) and now, in her mid-forties, she’s got the opportunity since the aforementioned children are school-age and I’m earning enough to keep us all in comfortable squalor. I don’t know enough about art to accurately describe her work but she paints and draws, occasionally writes poetry and even-more-occasionally works in 3D. She is passionate about her art and loves being an artist. While she has rented studio space there are always a half-dozen or so of her works literally hanging around the house.

I don’t find her artwork objectionable, but at the same time I struggle to get interested in it. I can see that over the years her technique has improved considerably, but at the same time it has become less figurative and more abstract. This puts me in the odd position of appreciating her artwork less while it’s clearly getting better. I know she gets positive feedback from her friends and colleagues in the art world, I read the reviews and comments, and the fact it sells when exhibited shows that a certain segment of Joe Public also appreciate it. But in general it doesn’t do anything for me, which is a bit of a problem when I’m asked “what do you think of this?”.

It happens that (by accident, not design) I work in dangerous goods packaging. Unless you too have a need to package dangerous goods (and quite possibly even then) this is an inherently boring field of work that strives to make itself more boring since no-one really wants dangerous goods to get exciting. If I was to bring home a new design for a wooden crate and say “what do you think of this?” I’d get a muted response at best. But there seems to be an expectation that I’m a competent art critic, able to say something encouraging about “a suffusion of yellow” or whatever, and “that’s nice, dear” doesn’t quite cut it.

Due to a proliferation of larger children’s bicycles (both the children and the bicycles have become larger) and a new gas BBQ we had a bit of a garden storage crisis. The only possible answer was another shed.

New shed - doors open

It’s a steel shed, nominally 6′ x 4′ but a little smaller in practice. I ordered it from Argos a couple of weeks ago and it was delivered yesterday. The weather today was a bit meh, early morning rain turning into intermittent light showers, but I had a shed to build and it’s nominally summer so I got on with it. My 11-year-old son was also keen to help, although his enthusiasm did wax and wane a bit! Overall it took probably 5 hours to erect, and I could probably knock an hour off that building a second one (for the record, I’m not).

New shed - doors closed

The shed is made by Arrow, a big US-and-Canada-based manufacturer of metal outbuildings. Argos list it under catalogue number 705/3225. The shed isn’t high enough for me (5′ 10″ tall) to stand upright in, although my son can. We joked that we’d have to fit an astrodome (or maybe a washing machine door?) to the roof so I could poke my head out.

Given that it’s largely made of tin-can-thickness steel (the whole thing weighs about the same as the aforementioned 11-year-old), is held together by a profusion of self-tapping screws and cost less than a meal for two at the local gastropub it’s actually pretty good. It doesn’t rattle or wobble, he doors fit together and slide easily, and it gives the general impression of reliability.

Time will tell!

I must apologise to my readers (both of you!) for being away for so long. The summer was packed with stuff that I might’ve blogged about but I never quite got around to doing it.

Noting that today is the Vernal Equinox, autumn is upon us and the evenings are getting darker, it’s possible I’ll pick a few highlights from the summer and blog them retrospectively.

Watch this space!

Various people I know, both in real life and online, have talked about how you can make wonderfully effective firelighters (tinder) using cotton wool and petroleum jelly (the best known brand being Vaseline). On Sunday decided to give them a go, so I made I made 15-20 of them (enough to fill a small sweetie tin). The process I followed is pretty straightforward and goes roughly like this.

Put three good-sized spoonfuls or petroleum jelly into the sweetie tin (not also the compulsory pot of tea to accompany the job; I was boiling the kettle for the next step anyway):

Dishing out the petroleum jelly.

Dishing out the petroleum jelly.

Melted it in a pan of boiling water (once the water has boiled you can turn off the hob, there should be enough heat in the water to melt the jelly):

Melt it in boiling water.

Melt it in boiling water.

Take the cotton wool balls and drop them in the liquid jelly, a few at a time, so they saturate:

Saturate the cotton wool with molten jelly.

Saturate the cotton wool with molten jelly.

Squeezed out the surplus liquid jelly, placed the balls in a pyramid on the lid of the tin to cool:

Cotton wool balls cooling.

Cotton wool balls cooling.

Once cool packed them into the tin:

Firelighters packed into tin.

Firelighters packed into tin.

Finally, wrapped a band of PVC electrical tape around the tin to keep the lid on and stop the greasy balls falling out in my pack!

I tried one out after making them and was very impressed by their ease of lighting and long burn time. My wife (who’s fairly outdoors-ey) also commented on how effective they were.

Two people I know surprisingly well were married yesterday, and I was honoured to be there. Emma Walker and Andrew Wall were joined in matrimony in a conventional Church of England service at 1400 on Saturday the 21st of June 2014.

Didn’t they make a lovely couple? (Please excuse the fuzzy phone photo, you do the best with the tools you have.)

Andy and Emma

Andy and Emma, the newly-married couple, with gathered well-wishers.

Slightly odd is my relationship with Emma and Andy. While I was aware of them vaguely as neighbours since they were children, it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve really known them as I’m now their landlord (and it’s a testament to how well we get on that they even invited me to their wedding). I’ve even seen their daughter grow up from a newborn to a charming two-year-old.

Andy, Emma, I wish you all the best in your married life.

As you might have gathered from previous posts, we quite like getting out in the countryside. There are several local parks and commons, and plenty of footpaths, so it’s quite an easy thing to do.

Last night, however, we did something different; we went on a guided walk with the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. Billed as “A Night On The Common”, the idea was to arrive as night fell, to look for glow worms and to listen for nightjar, woodcock and owls.

http://www.bbowt.org.uk/events/2014/05/30/night-common

Before even arriving we messed up; between Mrs Q. and I we completely failed to book out attendance, and by the time we realised this both the provided telephone numbers were diverting to answering services. Undaunted, we decide to turn up on spec to Snelsmore Common at 2130. 2130 is a late night for our children; they’re usually in bed pretending to go to sleep around hour earlier than that, so we did have some doubts that they’d make it to the start of the event without falling asleep let alone the advertised finish time of 2330. Nevertheless they seemed keen, so (after prompting them to clean their teeth) we set off for Snelsmore Common full of enthusiasm.

We arrived slightly early, which is unusual in itself, and joined up with our guide Keith and his party of mostly middle-aged-or-older nature enthusiasts. We had the only children in the group which was unusual for us and I for one hoped they’d remain well-behaved for the duration and not spoil it for the others. It turned out that we weren’t the only people not to have booked, and as a result the group was larger than the dozen or so that Keith considered ideal. It seemed there were half-a-dozen or so who were well known to Keith (and presumably turn up to these events repeatedly) plus a slightly larger number of new faces, ourselves included. In a brilliant bit of improvisation he nominated a couple of his regulars to bring up the rear and ensure he didn’t lose anyone in the twilight.

After a brief, er, briefing on how the walk wound be conducted, what to look out and listen for, strict instructions to stick together and not get lost, we set off. The pace was gentle, well suited to observation, and the group well-disciplined. After ten minutes or so we stopped to look & listen for wildlife; it was at this point that Keith discovered that, while he hadn’t lost anyone, he’d gained a further five group members who’d arrived late. He took this in his stride and proceeded to advise us of the best places to look and what sort of noises to listen for. A bird did fly over at this point; I thought out loud that it might’ve been a mallard, but Keith corrected me and pointed it out to the group as a woodcock. Our first spot!

Sunday walk route

European woodcock (with earthworm) by Ronald Slabke via Wikimedia Commons

The walk continued in that vein; around 10 minutes of slow walking (across the heath, in falling light) followed by five minutes looking and listening, usually in a clearing or similar open area. Keith the guide was in his element, and as the walk progressed he explained aspects of the flora, fauna and geochemistry that gave Snelsmore Common it’s character.  Unfortunately the wildlife wasn’t playing ball; the glow worms weren’t glowing, the nightjars weren’t calling and the only owls we heard were in the car park before setting out on the walk. We did however find a spinney where there were several calling woodcock, so the evening was at least a partial success.

As the evening went on our children started to complain – very quietly and politely – that they were feeling tired. When the group returned to the metalled loop road around 2230 we made our excuses and returned to our car. The children both fell asleep in the car on the way home and barely woke enough to go to bed; I wasn’t far behind them.

Despite failing to see either nightjar or glow worms it was a good night out and we all hope to repeat it!

It could never last.

Bank Holiday Monday was wet. It rained on and off all day, which put a bit of a damper on any prospect of getting out in the countryside. Instead we stayed home and pottered; the children watched TV, read books and started their homework, Mrs Q. did some art, some laundry and updated her blog, and I finally got around to cutting #1 Son’s hair.

Yes, that’s not a typo, I really did cut his hair.

I’ve never really been a regular at the hairdressers or barbers’ shops. Up until I left home, my mum would cut my hair while I sat on a chair in the kitchen. Some years ago I bought a set of clippers (I like a longish buzzcut with a 3/4″ comb) and managed to talk Mrs Q. into taking up the reins, but she was never entirely happy to do so and perhaps 6 years ago she stopped. I was back to the barber or sweet-talking my mum.

At the same time, #1 Son doesn’t really like having his hair cut. He has been known to flat-out refuse a haircut after we’ve queued up in the barber and even if he allows it he still can get dreadfully fidgety. The answer was, clearly, to do it myself. And so I did, with the same clippers and 3/4″ comb that I use.

The result’s actually fairly presentable. It’s a little ragged around the edges and I keep spotting long hairs that evidently dodged the clippers but it’s no worse than many of his schoolmates. I guess he’s not the only one in his class to get to sit on a chair in the kitchen …

While I have photos, for now I’m going to withhold them so as to protect the innocent (and, you might suspect, the guilty).

On Sunday the four of us had a lovely walk in the countryside.

The plan was to take both cars, drop one off at Snelsmore Common with the picnic, then drive the other to Boxford for the start of the walk. We started a bit later than we really should – getting out of the house on time is a family problem, it seems – but after that it all went fairly well.

Sunday walk route

The weather was near-perfect for a walk in the country. There were occasional complaints from the children – #1 Son got rather grumpy during the 4th kilometre, #1 Daughter dawdled along during the 5th – but that aside everyone had a good time. Oh, and #1 Son lost the (generic, £1) stylus for his smartphone somewhere in the first half of the walk.

The walk took us an hour and three-quarters so we all appreciated our picnic lunch when we finally started it shortly after 3pm!