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Yesterday, Beautiful God-daughter -and others- were giving flute recitals, so naturally I went to watch. The Xtracycle can be seen above in the large plaza outside the town arts centre where the performance was held. It is a very tasteful rebuild of an old tram depot.

The tram used to run through here to a couple of other places, including this town. Unfortunately the line was closed in 1978 ‘for economic reasons’ and ‘because we need the space for cars’. Of course. A local group tried to build a museum on the edge of the town but the local government decided to use the space for a petrol station instead.

A walking/cycle way runs along the old tramway, which is a nice thought, but really, we’d have preferred to have the tram.


Track on old level crossing

But the shell of the old tram depot has a few cycle racks in one corner, so that’s sustainable transport covered.

In 1995 a new road bridge was built over the valley, making it easier to drive, walk, and cycle from one side to the other. It was promptly closed to pedestrian & cycle traffic because it was ‘unsafe’, so schoolchildren now have to be driven by their parents or take the bus.

And the town centres on both sides are crammed full of cars.


Eldest son on tramway.

So now the local governments are looking at plans to possibly, maybe, build a new tramway and/or railway running along a similar route, at a cost of millions of Euros…

Ah, well.

More importantly, Beautiful God-daughter was awesome…


Fountains Abbey, once a centre of learning, then a rather large garden ornament in a formal garden made by John Aislabie (1670 – 1742) , now part of the Studley Royal Park  which we visited with the boys last week.

Our boys are what the Brits and Americans would call “Free range”: they cross the village alone to go to school, see friends, and return when they are bored/hungry/broke something. Eldest goes to school on the other side of the city, which involves riding a bus and a tram every day, on his own, so when we went to  Fountains Abbey they decided to do a treasure hunt with their usual enthusiasm.

And promptly vanished, somewhere in the 323 hectare (800 acre) estate.

After walking the length of the place three times and mindful that it was getting dark -and more importantly, this is a world heritage site and we’re liable if the boys break anything- we asked the staff of the park to keep an eye open, which they duly did, bless them. The boys were found soon after, walking back to the gate after finding the last clue. Of course, yours truly was at the far end of the estate by this time, and so they then came to find me, and get us all back together again. The boys all got ice cream from Grandma.

Heroic rescuer was happy to sit down and used the excuse that I was researching the history of the place, so here it is…

John Aislabie was quite a ‘character’  or more crudely, a lying corrupt toff who sold his principles to the highest bidder. He went from being rich to very rich on the basis of the South Sea Company, which specialised in slaves, government debt and dodgy deals, all ‘backed’ by a slightly illegal bank and in cahoots with the government, the king and the kings girlfriend. Aislabie was the Chancellor of the Exchequer and took bribes to persuade the government to allow the formation of the company, so when the ‘South Sea Bubble’ inevitably collapsed causing hundreds of thousands of people to lose all they had and get stuck in debt, he wasn’t terribly popular.

Aislabie was found guilty of the “most notorious, dangerous and infamous corruption”: by the the House of Commons: being called a very, very, corrupt person by politicians must have hurt. There was a serious suggestion that the bankers should all be tied up in a sack full of snakes and thrown into the Thames but the river was filthy enough as it was, so Aislabie was imprisoned in the tower of London (don’t feel sorry for him: it was a nice snug apartment) then sent back home for being a naughty boy, where he showed his remorse by building the water gardens and introducing landscape gardening to England. He died at 72 and his son managed to scrape enough together to buy the Abbey soon after as a garden ornament.

I’m sure all the thousands of slaves and bankrupted investors must have felt it was all worthwhile.


There was some sort of cycling event recently in York, and one of the ways the area celebrated was by hanging lots of yellow bikes off the sides of buildings. This one is one of my favourites, hanging on ‘a pub for grown-ups’ in the city centre.


So, we made it to the UK without missing a train or getting stuck in the Paris suburbs, and I’m trying to get used to the place. Considering I grew up here that’s a surprisingly complicated process.

So far, We’ve remembered that because vehicles drive on the left you need to get onto the bus on the left hand side. It is therefore pointless to wait at the bus stop on the right-hand side of the road. Fortunately Eldest Son was a bit more awake than me this morning and diverted us all to the correct stop before the bus came.

Further adventures, and hopefully more coherent blog entries to follow.

Suddenly it is the end of year two at college, so we had an exam. The system of putting everyone in a room and telling them to make something perfectly in seven hours because their whole future depends on it still seems very odd to me, but what do I know?


This isn’t the exam: it’s what happens when you get too enthusiastic with a hand plane and have to add an extra piece of wood to make up the difference. That long piece of wood is the replacement for 2mm that I took off by mistake: but for that lack of attention I could have started the next step on making a box. I’m choosing to see this as ‘character building’. Or something.

Anyway, the carpentry is now closed for three weeks and we’re off to the UK, which is always an interesting experience. I will have to get used to offering pounds in shops and looking to the right when I cross the road. We’re going by train which can be fantastic or stressful depending on how well the German and French railways, Eurostar and whoever is currently running trains to York  have got their act together. On previous occasions we’ve been through Brussels but this time we will catch a direct TGV to Paris, where we have to make our way from Paris Est station to Paris Nord without getting lost.

As the two stations are a few hundred metres apart and each the size of a cathedral, that shouldn’t present too many difficulties, but if you don’t hear from me in the next week, you know where to start looking.


Middle Son watching a tram pass near our village. There are a lot of routes all around Stuttgart using these serving the local towns (unfortunately not including ours). According to Wikipedia the trams are 3.7m high, 2.6m wide, and 38m long. They are, as you can see, bright yellow and have headlights, indicators and rear lights, and being rail vehicles they tend to follow the same route every time they pass. You will notice the crossing is protected with lights and signs.

So, I’m wondering, how do you manage to drive a car into or in front of one, or otherwise cause a collision?

Apparently drivers in Stuttgart manage this several times a year, and last month one managed to get tangled up with a tram on a straight road in broad daylight. I happen to know because I was waiting for said tram to come and pick me up so I could go home. Nothing happened for about half an hour, whereupon I gave up, walked to the railway station and caught the train instead. I appreciate that having the choice of tram or train, a service that runs more than once an hour* and a ticket I can use on both, marks me out as spoiled and I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m still wondering.

It turns out that a driver on a straight road parallel to the tramlines simply turned onto a crossing a couple of metres in front of the tram. As the car weighed about 1.5t and the tram is 55 tonnes empty, plus passengers, the car came off rather worse out of the situation.

This is why I don’t bother with reflective high-visibility clothes: if there are drivers out there unable to spot a massive yellow box full of lights, I don’t see that making myself look like an isotope is going to help very much.

*or once a day/week/month, delete as applicable.



It rained a bit while I was at college; Xtracycle reflections on a dip in the cycle way.

For some this is a reason not to cycle to college and use a car instead. For others it is a photo opportunity.


Woken up by a massive thunderclap. Once the weather is satisfied that the entire population of the island is awake, it settles down to some serious raining.
Open curtains. The view is slightly different: the ‘Angel Road’ is above water, with a few people wandering across, complete with umbrellas. In the port in the distance, a gravel ship is being unloaded. The crane is swinging the bucket like a fairground ride, and dumping the contents in an extravagant arc as it goes. It looks like they are burying the entire quayside.
We have a ‘biking’ breakfast. ‘Biking’ in this context is the Japanese pronunciation of ‘Viking’. We know the Vikings as remorseless warriors* but apparently to the Japanese they are the inventors of the buffet meal. Last night we had ‘entertainment’ from a Power Ranger and fluffy mascot, but probably the management took one look at the bleary-eyed guests this morning and went for the safer option of leaving us in peace.
Back on the hotel bus to the ferry. This causes some problems as we have big bags and it is a small bus. Block door with bags and then have to climb over them to get to seat. Land next to Japanese teenager. Say good morning. He looks terrified.
Arrive at port. Ferry leaving. Catch the next one, which is even smaller than yesterdays. The control room is behind a curtain.
The plan had been to catch another ferry to Osaka and then a train through the mountains to Beautiful Wife’s family, but we reluctantly decide time is against us and head back to the Shinkansen. Race through miles of dreary, ugly floodplains covered with jumbled grey houses under tangled power cables, interspersed with equally ugly factories and industrial units.
At Nagoya we finally change to a local train for Ise. After going on a tour of the local oil refineries, where the local pollution is so bad that the doctors have now talk about “Yokkaichi Asthma”, we finally break through to a vaguely rural area and the mountains come a bit closer before arriving, finally, at Beautiful Wife’s home town.

*And makers of furniture.

Not quite a ‘live’ blog of our journey to Japan…

0810: Chaos. Nothing new there. Shuttle bags downstairs.
0815: 2 friends arrive with cars to ferry us to the airport. We’re really making up for out greener-than-thou lifestyle today.
0830: Arrive at the airport. The storm in the night hasn’t shifted the mugginess.
0835: Find check in desk. There’s a new system: you have to print your own boarding card, this makes queue shorter and check in therefore faster. After ten minutes wrestling with computer, we print the cards. Go to check bags in.
0850: Reach front of long queue. Some confusion as we are booked to Nagoya but we’re getting off at Fukuoka, one stopover earlier. Much explanation. Queue grows even longer.
0900: Through security gate. Supervisor is father of Eldest son’s school friend. Place wallet, keys, belt, laptop etc, on machine and go through detector. Set off alarm. This time it is foil from a blister pack of paracetamol.
1048: Boarding for Amsterdam flight.
1105: Safety talk. Between the hangars I can see our village 5km away.
1115: Take off. Fly directly over a house where I worked. Now I know why they wanted thicker windows.
1200: Approaching Amsterdam. Fly directly over Rotterdam and the ferry to Hull.
1230: Land, trundle through airport to terminal, walk to other end of terminal for plane to Fukuoka.
1240: Passport control. When they realise Beautiful Wife is with me they pull the whole family into the ‘European’ line. Passport officer practices Japanese.
1330: Announcement: “If you want to, you can come through for boarding. Of course, you don’t have Otherwise you can stay here, no problem.” Through very strict and somewhat invasive security control.
1335: Realise we left our emergency calorie supply of chocolate and Muesli bars in the lounge. Back to lounge.
1336: Middle son waves bag at me from inside secure area. Go through very strict and somewhat invasive security control again.
1415: Board flight to Japan.
1420: Find seats.
1421: In wrong seats. Move.
1445: Plane starts taxiing
1505: Take off. 10 hours to Fukuoka.
1516: Headphones handed out. Everyone switches on their at-seat video system, which promptly crashes.
1530: Passenger in front puts chair in full recline.
1619: Lunch. Video system comes back online.
1734: Japanese immigration forms handed out.
1915: Drinks. Not terribly exciting but half way through a ten hour flight you take all the entertainment you can get.
2050: Go to the WC. See note above re: entertainment.
2100: still waiting outside. Wonder why people take so long. Decide I don’t really want to know.
2105: Person in toilet finally finished. Into WC.
2106: Out of WC.
2110: Ice cream. Much excitement.
2130: Actually fall asleep. This makes a change from the norm of being wide awake until touchdown then blearg for the next day.
2330: Breakfast. Crossing the Chinese coast.
0100: “Prepare for landing”
0128: Final Approach.
0130: Land.
0140: Out of plane. It’s 0840 and blisteringly hot. Head for the low grade unpleasantness that is Japanese immigration.


Pencil sketch of a pencil, sketched during a break from annoyingly impossible maths problems at college. The pencil was a souvenir of our last visit to Japan: the Japanese seem to make these far better than we manage (see also: erasers, sketchbooks, notebooks, etc…) so whenever I go there I stock up on stationery. If you are wondering how I managed to do a sketch of a pencil using pencil, I always carry a spare. This is less because I’m organised, more that I have an incredible capacity to lose things.


House in Esslingen-am-Neckar. Esslingen is our local ‘big’ town and it emerged relatively unscathed from the war. Faced with an almost unparalleled stock of ancient wood-framed houses, the local council then bulldozed about two hundred of them to make a new ring road, which is now noisy, smelly, congested, and loathed by all who have to use it. Still, there are a lot of traditional, timber-framed buildings left, held together with wooden pegs like this one. There are also a few carpenters who make a living fixing them, because old buildings have to be maintained using traditional methods and hardly anyone is willing to learn the skills any more.

All the better for those of us who are, of course.


Esslingen railway station, where I change from train to bus every weekday. Usually this works but last Friday I arrived just in time to watch the bus leaving. Still, at least I had something to do while I waited for the next one.

More sketches may follow. depending on family, work and me not being caught while drawing at college…

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