Going for Bronze

The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme may have changed since I got my award, but in those far-off days gaining an award boiled down to:

  • Being proficient at a skill, and
  • Being proficient at an activity

For my Bronze Award my skill was technical and practical proficiency of at least one musical instrument. Easy.

My activity was orienteering (this being a jolly combination of map-reading, camping, cooking, and showing care and consideration for the wildlife in the countryside). Also easy.

I was about 14 when Mr Hamer approached me and asked if I’d like to take part in the scheme.

He didn’t explain the benefits too well, but, in retrospect, it is fairly clear that he had identified me as something of a wild child, and felt the scheme might benefit a young soul in need of some structure.

I flew through the technical and practical proficiency elements of my skill challenge, and over the next couple of weeks a few basic outdoorsy items were procured from Millets for my activity.

My orienteering team-mates were two other lads from school. Both quieter than me, the kind of people who wouldn’t readily volunteer for too many things.

Again, in retrospect, perhaps Mr Hamer felt they needed bringing out of their shell. Not something that could be said about me at that time.

The Friday morning arrived (this was a Good Thing about the scheme – a whole day out of school!), my orienteering colleagues and I reported, in our civvies and with our packed rucksacks, to Mr Hamer.

He ran us through his checklist one more time and then gave us a map and a bunch of map references with times against each.

The plan was that we would arrive, on time, at each map reference where Mr Hamer may (or may not) be waiting to mark our progress and check on our welfare.

The three of us went off to a table in the hall and with all the right tools we worked out the most logical route to each checkpoint.

I saw two things quite early on in the route planning stage.

The first thing we all noticed was that the timings were tight; and we would have to maintain a fast pace in order to hit every map reference on time.

The second thing that (only) I noticed was that most of Mr Hamer’s route ran straight through the 10sq miles of countryside that I lived in, and knew intimately.

I quickly redesigned the route into an illogical pattern that made use of every shortcut I knew.

So, for example, the first checkpoint was in Llanfoist. The second was in Penpergwm, a long way south east of the first and, very importantly, on the wrong side of the river.

So the only way to the second checkpoint would be to retrace our steps back into Abergavenny, cross the river on one of the road bridges, and then follow the country lane south-east to Penpergwm.

Except I knew a better route.

Similarly, the third checkpoint was back on the other side of the river, at Llanvair Cross, and the only logical way to get there was to trudge a lot of road miles to cross by the roadbridge.

And the fourth (and final checkpoint for day one) was a continuation from the third, a field in Nant-y-Derry where we were supposed to camp for the night.

Well with our redesigned route, we made all of our checkpoints on time. We even had enough intelligence to wait around the corner (snoozing in a field) until five minutes before we were due, and then speed-walking up to our rendezvous points, looking like we’d worked hard.

Reader, we hadn’t worked hard at all.

Instead of heading away from the Llanfoist checkpoint and going back into Abergaveny, I directed our little troupe through the back lane into Llanellen, then onto another back lane towards Llanover.

But you’re thinking that we’re on the wrong side of the river, and you’d be right.

However, opposite Llanover church, a few miles down that second lane, is a private footbridge across the river, for the use of fishermen only (it’s part of the Fisherman’s Cottage, which is rented out to anglers). You can clearly see the bridge here:

We quietly legged it across that footbridge and through the fields to our first checkpoint.

After making sure we weren’t footsore or too weary, Mr Hamer got in to his Rover 80 (P4) and we pretended to make the correct tracks.

When we were sure the coast was clear we walked down through the village of The Bryn and up the embankment onto the railway line.

The railway line (it really sees very little use) took us almost directly to Llanvair Cross, where we had a good long nap in one of the fields, and then arrived at our checkpoint looking like we’d earned some kind of reward.

When Mr Hamer’s car had disappeared into the afternoon sun, we legged it back on to the railway and, much quicker than walking the lanes, soon arrived at the field which was to be our night-stop.

We got our tents up, unrolled our sleeping bags and waited for our night-time visit.

When he’d gone, I took the lads to the back door of the Foxhunter Inn where we bought a flagon of cider and a couple of bottles of ale. We went back to our tents and got tipsy

The next morning, we cleared the debris from the night before and cooked sausage and bacon sandwiches. Mr Hamer joined us for breakfast.

We had just two checkpoints the next day, which we made in good time thanks to the generosity of a couple of motorists on the A4042 and the use of my right thumb.

I don’t feel that we cheated. No, I really don’t.

We used our ingenuity. The rules never said we had to travel by any proscribed route, just that we had to arrive at each checkpoint on time. Which we plainly achieved.

However, you should look at my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award in this way: This exercise taught me a great deal about achieving the objective, using ingenuity, thinking outside the box, and keeping within a simple set of rules.

When I was undergoing my basic military training two years later, the section I was in charge of won our Survival Training by a significant margin, through using similar techniques. That was a great week and the celebrations went on for days.

A year later, the Flight I led won an Evade and Capture exercise against a bunch of Paras. We were equally cunning that week. Our CO gave us all a 72-hour pass for exemplary conduct.

So you see, I have fond thoughts of my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award.

And of Mr Hamer.

Some more whimsy!

Totally inspired by a twitter conversation with @CharlieCoffee, where we started musing about gigs that we went to as youngsters, I’ve been using my dogwalking time to gently step down memory lane.

Charlie’s list is interesting, and I’ll put them here for fun.

But just before Charlie’s much more impressive list, and composed on yet another voyage of whimsy arrived at during random dogwalking moments is, in reverse order…

My Top Gigs Before I left home:

3. Ashton Gardner & Dyke
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow, someone managed to book Ashton, Gardner, & Dyke into Abergavenny Town Hall. I went for the first half (remember when gigs came in halves?), but had to leave to get the bus back home because public transport (like almost everything else in Abergavenny) closed down at 9.30pm in those days. Probably still does to be honest. Missing the second half meant that I missed the big finale including their famous hit. Timing notwithstanding, it was a really odd gig. Bad sound system, unclear accoustics, and sound engineering out of the ark. Oh, and a very poor lightshow. But they were professional musicians and they didn’t let such minor issues get in the way of showing us what they were capable of.

2. Mott The Hoople
Redhill Hostel on the Ross Road, Hereford. This was way before they even graduated to being support artists to bands such as Queen, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac or Nazareth. And therefore this was way before Mott The Hoople became a band in their own right with their own support acts. At this time Mott The Hoople were still getting to grips with their most recent personnel change. Ian Hunter had recently taken over the lead vocal from Stan Tippins. The band had only just recently begun to develop their repertoire, and I felt that they were still looking for their ‘sound’ (which didn’t come along until David Bowie began working with them). Hereford, for Mott The Hoople, was a local gig. So there were a lot of Friends Of Mott The Hoople in the audience. And a lot of those were Drunken Friends of Mott The Hoople. I can’t remember who got me there, but I can remember a joyous night full of stage-to-audience banter, and music so loud that my ears buzzed for days afterwards.

1. Croeso Blues Festival
June 1969 was the first Bath Festival of Blues, held on the Rec in the middle of town (later moved to the Royal Bath and West Showground in Shepton Mallet, a mere 21 miles distant or 2h 18m travel time away by 174 bus). Headlining in the Rec was Fleetwood Mac supported by John Mayall, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, The Nice, and loads of others, all compered by John Peel. Two months later, in August 1969, the first Isle of Wight Festival had Bob Dylan, The Band, The Who, Free, Joe Cocker, The Bonzo Dog Band and The Moody Blues. The following year, September 1970, Pilton (later rebadged to ‘Glastonbury’ because it was more mystical, probably) had its first festival. It starred Tyrannosaurus Rex (later known as T. Rex), Steamhammer, Quintessence, Stackridge, Al Stewart and Keith Christmas. But before all of these, back in May 1969 there was the Croeso Blues Festival. I shouldn’t have been there. I may have told my mother I was camping out for the weekend on one of my Duke Of Edinburgh Award orienteering and camping weekends (to be fair I did those too, and my Bronze Award orienteering and camping weekend was so epic it quickly passed in to folklore back at school. Maybe I’ll revisit it here one day). But Croeso Blues Festival was my very first music festival, if for no other reason than I could actually walk to it (but I hitchiked to Pandy and walked from there). I shouldn’t have been there. I was far too young to be out by myself (Duke of Edinburgh scheme notwithstanding). I was certainly far too young to be at a music festival by myself. But I couldn’t get any of my friends to go. So I went solo. It was a brilliant experience. It was doubly brilliant given that I should have been at home and tucked up in my bed by 9pm. There was no misbehaviour on my part at all. But just to experience live music, in the countryside, and to hear names that I only knew off the TV and the radio. And to be deafened. And to dance – and to dance with strangers – all that was beyond brilliant.

And now, here’s Charlie’s much more comprehensive list:

10. Genesis
Peter Gabriel, custume changes, etc, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Prog Rock heaven

9. Traffic
One of the final gigs by Traffic at the Rainbow (we virtually lived there). Steve Winwood, able to play every instrument, apparently

8. Steely Dan
At the Rainbow (again). An immaculate performance from the coolest of bands

7. Stevie Wonder
At the Rainbow (once more). I’ll never forget his drumming

6. Benefit concert
For the recently paralysed drummer Robert Wyatt at the Rainbow (again), Finsbury Park. Pink Floyd. Only Pink Floyd

5. Stéphane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin
Two college friends and I nursed our drinks for three hours at Ronnie Scott’s. Magic

5. Rory Gallager
Solo at the Marquee Club. Total virtuoso blues rock guitarist

4. The Who
Charlton. But this time for Bad Company. Paul Roders’ voice was sublime

3. T. Rex
At the Boston Gliderdrome. Crowd way more than the safety limit. I watched from a table that broke a leg in the encores. What I should imagine a 60s Beatles gig must have been like

2. The Who
Lyceum. Townshend in his white boiler suit. Daltrey’s cowboy tassle days. A small venue.

1. Lindisfarne
A first-place tie: at Boston Gliderdrome and tying with Lindisfarne at Charlton with The Who, Bad Company, Lou Reed and Humble Pie

Say what?

I’ve been saying, because I thought it was the case, that the phrase ‘May you live in interesting times’ was a Chinese curse.

Well guess what?

It isn’t.

I mentioned the curse thing to one of the braniacs at work (Tony) and in the space of a heartbeat he’d looked it up, rubbished my assumption, provided at least 18 sources, and then (best of all) he gave me a much better Chinese saying.

OK, so some of that may have been very sligtly exaggerated, but the gist of it is true.

And the much better Chinese saying?


You have to admit that’s deeply wise, eh?

Or in English, if you prefer:

Better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos.

Is everybody happy?

Are we all thoroughly enjoying Lockdown Life?

In a number of ways I don’t actually want it to go back to the old normal.

I’m enjoying WFHing, although I’m massively busier than when I was WFOing.

There are a few aspects to WFHing that are enjoyable:

  • The relaxed dress code (he said, in his shorts, and tie/dye t-shirt)
  • Seeing the puppers whenever I look down
  • Being able to roam around the garden with the dogs whenever I get a rare break
  • Being able to turn away from the laptop and the near back-to-back calls to play guitar for just five minutes (I’ve just added a new chord to my repertoire and as a result I’m now practising Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty)
  • The fairly regular deliveries of drinks and food to my side (at work I’d have to go and make my own drinks! I know! How will I ever get used to that?)
  • The sound of childish laughter from downstairs (oddly, there was never much childish laughter in either my building specifically, or from across the campus generally).

I realise that WFHing isn’t an option for a great many people. I also realise that there are a number of people for whom WFH isn’t their cup of tea.

But for me? I think it’s very good. And I’d like this to be the new normal.

Or, at the very least, my new normal.

Lockdown observations

  • The driver of a convertible, on a sunny day, with his roof down, but wearing a mask
  • Our neighbours opposite moving house yesterday, also
  • No removal men had PPE (except for safety boots)
  • A staggering amount of people not understanding that it’s 2m *in every direction*
  • An awesome amount of kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity, both in the village, and on social media
  • How you will never see President Donald Trump and Mrs Brown in the room at the same time
  • The number of people *who have no control over their dogs*
  • The amount of dogshite that I’m picking up on a daily basis, that doesn’t belong to our dogs
  • I needed a haircut and beard trim before lockdown, so now I’m getting used to looking like this:

The WFH routine

This is an interesting study in the evolution of the working day.

When I WFHed before, I’d catch up on overnight work stuff from the comfort of bed. I’d get up, shower, dress (I’d already walked the dogs at 5.30am) and would then assume my position at the laptop downstairs by 8.30am.

There would follow a normal working day which I’d wind up around 5.30pm.

That’s how the lockdown WFHing started out too, but things have gradually morphed.

Nowadays I still walk the dogs at 5.30am, I still go back to bed about 6.30am with tea and breakfast, and do the News and Twitter. And then I still catch up on overnight work stuff from the comfort of bed.

But in a change to published programmes, I go downstairs around 8.30am, boot up the laptop, take it back to bed and get stuck in to the usual routine of back-to-back conference calls meetings, project plans, finances and normal BAU.

Around 12.30/1pm I go downstairs, plug the power pack in and carry on working. The dogs are pleased to see me and so are the humans (usually), but I don’t get much time to socialise with any of them.

Round about 5.30pm I take a break, go up for a shower, change, come downstairs and eat tea with the family. Then I might pick up the baton again and work until 7pm-ish (unless I have network changes, in which case I could finish anywhere between 10pm and 2am).

The afternoon dog-exercising is done by the family; I’m usually on a daily critical call at walkies time.

The change in my routine, from getting showered and dressed in the morning to getting showered and dressed late in the afternoon has been gradual, but not exclusive.

Ian Dunt remarked the other day on his gradual slide to a less fastidious lifestyle.

So what changes have you been seeing in your world?

Motor insurance v2.0

At the beginning of last month I wrote about changing insurers for the Ninja, and moving away from Hastings Premier because expensive, and going to Kawasaki Insurance because cheaper.

Well there’s been an interesting development.

This morning I got a letter from Kawasaki Insurance to say ‘You haven’t sent us your proof of no claims. If we don’t get that in the next 14 days we’re going to cancel your policy’ (and probably keep the full year’s premium that I’ve paid – although they didn’t actually say that bit).

So I got on the phone to Hastings Premier because even though the Covid-19 lockdown is in full effect and I can’t go out on the Ninja, I want to have continuous insurance. It keeps my pristine NCB healthy and intact.

Unfortunately my call to Hastings Premier was pointless and fruitless in equal measures.

Their IVR actually said ‘We’re not taking any calls from you because you don’t tick the right boxes’.

So the place I’m in right now is either get the NCB proof out of Hastings Premier (not possible) or forfeit my new policy with Kawasaki Insurance, probably lose my annual premium, and definitely lose the four years NCB.

So that’s nice.

And the winner of Today’s Idle Thought is…

Fourfoot Said, over on the twitter, the other day, that to relieve the lockdown boredom he was composing a Top Ten list of pubs in Cardigan in the 1990s (he put it much more eloquently than I).

And I thought to myself, that’s a wonderfully fruitless pursuit. I’ll have some of that.

Except mine would be a different flavour of ‘that’, obviously, having been to Cardigan no more than ten times.

So here, on a complete whimsy and composed during some of my more random moments when I’m not working, and presented for the half-dozen or so of my former schoolfriends who pop by occasionally is, in reverse order…

My Top Ten Pubs In Abergavenny, (Just Before I Left)*

10. Hen & Chickens, Flannel Street
The Hen & Chicks was a friendly pub, and Flannel Street is bang in the centre of town. On the downside the pub always seemed smoky, poorly ventilated, a bit gloomy and the windows never seemed to let in much light. A smokers pub. Relatively easy to get served provided you weren’t wearing school uniform – probably due to all the gloom

9. The Black Lion (opposite the market)
Another smokers pub, where you could cut the air with a not very sharp thing, and that was entirely down to the regular gang of heavy smokers who seemed to live in there, and not the atmosphere. Usually full of early-20s hardened drinkers you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Not easy to get a drink here unless they knew you

8. The Sugar Loaf (formerly The Golden Lion), Frogmore Street
I used to love the Golden Lion. It was a fantastically friendly, proper, small town pub. Never full to the brim, never empty. The kind of place where you could go with a friend for a quiet drink and a chat and a gossip. And they kept a fairly decent cellar. So why doesn’t The Golden Lion figure at the top of the list? In the last year I lived down there the pub got taken over by a new landlord. It was extensively refurbed and it became a plastic watering-hole with piped music of very dubious taste. And I got banned on my first visit, by the new landlord who, unfortunately, had recently received a sense of humour bypass. The last laugh is on him though. He got thrown out and the pub was closed. For good

7. The Bridge Inn (on the river, opposite the actual castle)
I wasn’t a regular ‘regular’ at The Bridge Inn. but the few dozen times I visited, it was a really nice pub to go to. A really nice pub to visit

6. Kings Arms (Cross Street, near the town hall)
Very convenient for a swift half. Not a huge pub, but comfortable. Prone to fairly frequent visits from the rozzers

5. King’s Head Hotel (opposite the post office)
At this time in my history The King’s Head was the best pub in Abergavenny. A really nice lounge, occupants of a bar who didn’t make you feel like you were a visiting alien. Great staff. Relaxing and relaxed. And a tidy cellar

4. The Clytha Arms
Tucked away on what was then the A40 and is now a very minor, rural road, The Clytha did decent food, very nice ales and ciders, had a tidy garden, and was just a lovely place to go

3. The Skirrid Inn, Llanvihangel Crucorney
Perhaps getting a higher rating than it should, but The Skirrid Inn was another way-out-of-town rural pub worth visiting. Quiet, good ambience, well looked-after and comfortable, good for a couple of friends or a small group. And historical. If you go to the staircase you can see the rope burns from where Judge Jeffreys (the Hanging Judge) would send the unlucky defendants after he found them guilty in his totally fair ‘trials’, which he used to hold in the Inn

2 The Foxhunter Inn, Nant-y-derry
People, old school friends like him, like her, like her, and like him and him, who I used to hang around with a lot, would think The Foxhunter is an odd inclusion on this list, considering the quality of the other pubs. But The Foxhunter had one very special quality none of the other pubs had. And no, that quality isn’t that the pub was named after the most famous horse belonging to Aberdare’s most famous son, Colonel Sir Harry Llewellyn (though it was, obv). The special quality is that I could walk up the lane from the house, climb down onto the railway line, and walk the 3/4ths of a mile to the pub. And after an evening in the pub, the close proximity and straight-line of the railway track made getting home again very straightforward. Never had to worry about the traffic. The trains didn’t run by hourly timetable on that little line, they barely ran by calendar

1. Goose & Cuckoo (in the middle of absolutely nowhere)
I shall forever associate The Goose with its long departed landlord, Uncle Alf. Alf used to serve me cider from the bar and, when nobody was looking, cider from the special corner of his cellar. The location of The Goose can redefine ‘isolated’. Uncle Alf used to laugh at people who said he should put signs up to guide customers in. He didn’t actually want too many people coming in. Alf liked the pub how it was: so quiet that he rarely opened the lounge, just the bar would do. No food, no music. Just conversation and a decent pint of the very best home-made brewery supplied beers and ciders. This is a worthy winner

*I told you it was whimsy, right?