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Batton Down the Hatches!

They wanted to join us for breakfastToday was a very low key day.  We were experiencing gale force winds and periodic heavy downpours, so we hunkered down for the day.  It’s a good thing today wasn’t the day we were at the cliffs, we would have been blown away into the English Channel.  Everyone slept in and I made ricotta pancakes topped with bananas for breakfast.  I did take the family out in the rain for a bit to go shop on our little High Street, I do love our little village and it was fun to show it off a bit, and to the post office so they could send off their post cards.  We made a Ploughman’s lunch, which consists of a baguette, cheeses, sliced apples, prosciutto, ploughman’s pickle&, dates, blueberries, and fresh apple cider from our green grocer.  Much Wii Bowling was played and lots of good conversation was had and we finished up our Vicar of Dibley watching too.  Dinner involved a big batch of sangria and build your own soft tacos (the smoked garlic we’ve been buying lately really added a wonderful flavor!) A nice day with the family at home.

The ducks? Oh, they were from the other morning, looking to join us for breakfast. That’s our front door they were nearly going through. I didn’t have a photo for today and just decided they should be here.

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Seven Sisters Cliffs

Deb squishing the lighthouseMy parents went to church this morning (fortunately there is a Catholic church in our village, I wouldn’t have a clue where to send them otherwise).  Our adventure today took us south to the coast and hiked around the Seven Sisters Cliffs gorgeous white chalk cliffs, where you can endanger your own life by walking right up to the VERY EDGE it’s awesome!  Picnic of sandwiches from Marks and Spark’s (M&S being an institution in England), on the cliff edge.  What an amazing place. Sometime, Mark and I will need to return here because, if you time it right with the tide, you can hike a loop along the tops of the cliffs down to the beach below.

Bodiam Castle in KentWe found and stopped at Bodiam Castle on the way home. A castle that looks like what you would think a stereotypical castle would look like, complete with moat. I could live in a castle like this one :)  Driving home through the countryside, we saw many of the Oast houses in Kent, where hops are dried. 

Another spectacular dinner at home tonight which consisted of Kung Pao beef followed by a very British Banoffee Pie. After my own experience, I had to make sure to share this pie with them.

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England: Cheddar Gorge and Caves

DSC_5738After my awesome eggs Benedict for breakfast, we decided to head west. Our goal was to reach Cheddar. We ended up having a nice drive through English countryside on the way as we passed through the Cotswolds and Chilterns, seeing all sorts of varying vernacular architecture region to region. It is amazing that such a small country has so many different regional differences, be it the dialect or the building techniques.

As we drove along we could see the landscape changing in the distance, “that must be where we’re heading!” Following the singular road, we descended into Cheddar Gorge. It was such a dramatic change from what we were just driving through up on a plateau, all was flat and uniform. Here was a craggy narrow pass, Britain’s largest gorge and clearly a different sort of geology surrounding us. The caves and gorge are a product of million year old Ice Age river beds. It was here that Tolkien honeymooned with his new bride in 1916 and this landscape was the inspiration for “Helm’s Deep.” I can see how this place would fire the imagination.

Mark decided to go off on his own and hike around the steep hillsides. He was surrounded by Soay sheep, an ancient breed that makes its living well by living on these sorts of impossible looking cliff walls. My family and I entered and toured the caves. Inside we found Cathedral-like caves, spaces carved out by the action of water. Calcite structures, delicate and impressive. Ancient humans lived here in these caves 40,000 years ago, Cheddar Man is Britain’s oldest complete skeleton. We also had the luxury of the “self guided tour” devices again, which provided so much information on the history and geology of the caves.

Even today, the cheese that bears it’s namesake, is made in the caves of this region. The 500 year old pub we stopped at for lunch featured locally sourced produce and cheese. I opted for the ploughman’s lunch, with none other than a huge chunk of Cheddar holding the seat of honor.

We headed home for another lovely dinner, our pork wiener schnitzel and Oreos! my folks brought over for us for dessert. Oh, my, they were tasty! They are sold here, but as with many US products, they just are not quite the same.

At the end of the day, I do have to say, this is a place I want to visit again. It seems we never plan enough time to really enjoy some of the places we visit. Mark and I could easily go and camp and hike around the Cheddar area for a week and probably still would not have enough time to see all we want to see.

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Family Visit, So Far So Good!

It’s been a pretty busy few days.  And much more walking than my family is used too.  I’ve been having a blast.  When Mark’s mom and grandmother visited last year, we had only been here ourselves for just a few months, we took them out, showed them some sights.  But everything was still so new to us as well.

Now that we’ve been here in England over15 months, there I am marching my folks and brother around like I were a native.  I’ve taken great joy in showing them around our surrounding village area and our village life.  Navigating London neighborhoods, sites and the underground with little to no help from my “London A to Zed.”  It’s just been such a strange and wonderful feeling, having even such a large city feel so comfortable.  Feeling like home.  Even taking them around Windsor I was at ease, having only been there twice before.  Or going so far over into Greenwich where we took silly photos straddling the Prime Meridian wasn’t a big deal without a map.

Tomorrow we venture into new territory.  We head west to the Cheddar Gorge and Caves and on to Bath.  It will be a long driving day, but we’ll get to see some new countryside scenery.  That’s after I treat my family to my awesome Eggs Benedict for breakfast :)

Well, I’m completely knackered,  after I a have a couple of more details sorted for tomorrow I am hitting the sheets.

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England: The Family in London

Family with Big BenWe had a breakfast of Greek yogurt with muesli, honey and fresh blueberries. My family then got to experience what my commute into work is like. We took the local train into London, which it wasn’t one of the terribly fast trains, so they really got a feel for it. Then on to the underground, the Bakerloo line from Paddington over to Trafalgar Square. Here I took them around confidently, like I lived here or something, guiding them around the city seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abby and Parliament. A ride on the London Eye was an excellent way to get a birds eye view of London, to see how it sprawls and doesn’t have a distinct “down town” like so many other cities have. It was also a gorgeous day, clear blue skies and warm sunshine, making it possible to see for miles.

Deb's foot in two hemisphere'sFollowing the Eye, after a snack we hopped on a boat for a trip on a City Cruise with hilarious commentary up to Greenwich where we took numerous silly photos on the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. Here we were in two hemispheres at once, something I think is a unique and memorable experience to have.

I would have liked to take my family to the Natural History Museum, to show them where I worked. But, it was closing time by the time we even got near the place. I’ll just have to take them there the next time they visit. We headed back home, with Mom and Joe taking a nap on the train ride home. Mark and I treated them to a dinner of our home made pasta with fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella. It was nice to cook so much for my family while they were here, a wonderful way to share one of our passions with them. I don’t think they fully understood just how much we enjoy cooking until spending a week living with us.

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Windsor

Mom and Dad portraitWe started off with a simple and quick bagel breakfast.  We needed to make it to the train into Windsor.  Here, we toured the castle.  I love the phenomenon of the personal tour guides.  They are these walkie-talkie like things that you punch in numbers that correspond to rooms or objects and you listen to a narrative about the history and significance.  It seems just about every museum and historical site has these offered for free.  Which is so excellent since with even doing some research ahead of time, you can’t possibly know everything ahead of time.  Unfortunately, photography is not aloud on the inside, so all the photos are of the exterior. Outside the castle we walked around part of the Long Walk, though they were not keen on the idea of actually walking the long walk :)

We puttered around Windsor for some shopping, lunch and cream tea.   We headed home for dinner and after a discussion about the taste differences between US and British beef,  we made fillet steaks, baked potatoes and runner beans, and more Vicar before bed.

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Deb’s Family Arrive

Tea in CookhamMy Mom, Dad and my brother arrived around noon and after the “ten p” tour of our flat we had a little sit down before heading out the door.

I started them out on the Cookham Loop, the favorite four mile walk around our village and the Thames foot path. The walk, fresh air and sunshine is key in combating jet lag. This was a nice little introduction to the area we live in, we talked about village life, the Thames and the walking culture- how everyone walks in England for fun, about Wellies and public foot paths. We walked up through the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Church of England, marveling at the simple beauty in the weathered head stones searching for the oldest dates.

We stopped and had tea in Cookham for a mid walk break. On the way home we stopped back in at the Green grocer on my local High Street for a few supplies and made our way back down the public footpath that leads practically to our front door. While we waited for Mark to arrive home from work we spent time lounging and recovering from jet-lag (and trying to keep the family awake) watching a couple episodes of a British show we have come to love, The Vicar of Dibley (which was set in a village nearby).

We took them out for dinner to a favorite pub of ours. It just happens to be 1000 years old, the oldest pub in England: The Royal Standard, which happens to be right near where we live as well. We have never been disappointed with the fish and chips there, no where else compares, and where else would be a better start to a visit to England than fish and chips in the oldest pub.

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Hiking: Hambleden Estate

Hambleden Hike: 2.6 mile hike  (back dated entry)

DSC_5406It’s just such a lovely sunny day out and what better way to take advantage of the weather than to go for another little ramble through the countryside. This walk took us up and around Hambleden Estate . We could see some areas that would be potential “Bluebell Woods” to visit once the flowers bloomed.

We encountered mobs of rabbits and the holes leading to their dens in the woods. In the nearby distance we heard the sounds of gun shots.  This estate is known for it’s game and the village store you can purchase anything from venison sausages made from estate deer to wild duck, pheasants and rabbits.

We are both easily amused taking photos that make us laugh, or make us look completely insane to the outside observer. I’m sure I looked particularly insane shaking my head back and forth to achieve the above image.

DSC_5316I nearly got myself stuck in a U shaped branch suspended over the meandering little stream. It was easy enough to get up onto and slide into the branches embrace. Getting out was another matter. Mark needed to come to my rescue. The water below me wasn’t deep, but I could imagine it wouldn’t be pleasant to fall into. Mark made it look easy after I was extracted from the position, he hopped up and even started to climb around. I just wouldn’t put my falling in out of the realm of possibility.

Halfway through the day we stopped at the Stag and Huntsman in search of food since we were getting hungry, we had just missed the cut off time for lunch. A break for a pint would have to do. Looking at the specials on the menu board, we could see that it is highly influenced by the game available from the area. A place we’ll need to revisit I think.

Complete photoset from the day

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The Linnean Society and E. O. Wilson

This afternoon, I joined a few coworkers and went to a talk given at the Linnean Society of London. The speaker? E. O. Wilson and the topic was Carl von Linne.

Earlier this year Mark and I were in Lund, Sweden. Linneas attended Lund University, and this year being his 300th birthday anniversary year, there were talks pertaining to Linne (in Swedish) and exhibits at the university library of some of his works and school papers. He was only there a year and rumored to be a poor student.  I am a student of taxonomy, of Linneas, and am following in his footsteps in my own way.

Under portraits of Linneas, Darwin, Wallace and other like minded biological greats, Wilson talked about Systema Naturae and binomial nomenclature. No surprises in the talk to anyone in attendance, I think we were all biologists. Wilson even touched on the plight of the natural historian, a favorite rant of mine, which made my heart sing to hear some of my personal feelings being spoken by such an influential biologist.  He made pleas that we should all be working to get more “-ologies” (taxonomy courses) taught in universities and increasing interest in taxonomy and systematics.

I’m glad I went to see him speak. After all, as a coworker put it, you need to see people like this speak before they’re gone.

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Guess Where We Were Last Friday Night?

Deb at #10

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England: Burnham Beeches

It was so sunny and inviting outside this morning I proclaimed to Mark, “we need to *go* somewhere, or *do* something!” We started looking around for nearby National Trust attractions or parks or caves. We came up with a few ideas that warrant revisiting with a little more planning. For instance, visiting Cheddar, where the largest gorge in England is located along with more cave systems. Or Warwick Castle. Mark came up with the idea of going to Burham Beeches, which is a nature reserve of over 500 acres just a few miles from where we live.

Although I know we weren’t going very far from civilization, both the drive and this park make you feel like you are driving into the middle of nowhere. We were on several single track roads ensconced by trees in full autumn regalia. Once we found a place to park we made our way in on the paths and forest floor carpeted in crunchy leaves. It turns out this is a very special piece of woodland. It is a slice of ancient woodland. More than sixty of the species of plants and animals here are either rare or under threat nationally. The area is protected as a National Nature Reserve and as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

We had such a lovely walk in the woods. Climbing the amazing pollarded trees and running through the leaves. The pollarded (yes, it’s a verb) trees are cut as a woodland management practice. This is where tree limbs are all lopped off at two or three meter height. This encourages a knobbly growth and was used for harvesting firewood that didn’t actually kill the tree. The result are these enormous trees that are hundreds of years old that look fabulously crooked and crinkled with a spray of numerous limbs sprouting from a single point.

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England: Blackpool – Aquarium

I thought I would try to find the theater that was putting on a matinée production of an Agatha Christie mystery play. What actually happened, since I didn’t find the correct theater, is that I was inspired to go shopping. That isn’t too terribly exciting.

It was impossibly windy today, the two mile walk to the town center had me leaning at an angle into the wind as I pushed my way along. At least on the way back I would have the wind at my back. After shopping and a quick cuppa to escape the wind. I wondered back to the Sea Life aquarium I had passed by a few times. Sure, I’ll give it a go. I was surprised at how large the place was compared to the deceptively narrow street side frontage. And once inside, I was upstairs. Upstairs with dozens of large aquarium tanks, just think of the weight of those gallons and gallons of water up there.

I arrived in time for the feeding at the ray tank which was pretty cool. The rays swimming to the surface and playing and vying for attention like strange slippery puppies. They have an active ray breeding program with a half dozen species. In a side room was a nursery of sorts, with egg cases suspended on netting in a tank. I could see tiny immature rays wriggling around inside of them. There was also a tank of baby seahorses that were impossibly adorable. I left feeling like I had an afternoon well spent and learned quite a bit about English coastal wildlife.

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England: Blackpool – Sand Dune Nature Reserve

Here we are again, in Blackpool, in the off season, again. What to do? I can always find somewhere for a hike. On the far south end of the long stretch of beach is a treasure. I spent several hours in and around the Lytham St. Anne Sand Dune Nature Reserve. Here lies but 25 hectares of what was once a huge expanse of habitat. Rolling sand dunes that meet the coast. The vibrant green grasses and sedges buffeted about and rustling in the strong breeze. The soft honey colored limestone sand easily whipped up in the wind. Mini landscapes are carved out by the action of the wind. Is this a mighty desert of undulating naked dunes?

It’s a sunny day on the beach and I’m bundled up in a warm coat and scarf. The wind is chilled and gusting periodically. It’s not so cold, but cold enough that with the speed it hits it causes my ears to ache and eyes to run with tears. No chance to see mini beasts today.

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Beef at Gaucho

I know I mentioned before how beef tastes differently in the UK. The cows are all grass fed, are generally older when slaughtered and produces significantly leaner meat. This makes for beef that admittedly has much more flavor, but to me, this flavor is much more on the gamy side. More like venison. There is something to be said for the high density corn feed lots of the USA.

Anyway, last night, after meeting friends for drinks in Camden and fishing for restaurant recommendations, Mark and I headed out to dinner to Gaucho in Hampstead. Gaucho is an Argentinian steak house and they pride themselves on having Argentine Beef, the waitress brings a platter of raw meat to show the different cuts they have to offer. I was wary, it is hard to shake certain aversions with ten years of being a vegetarian and raw meat of any kind still has the power to turn my appetite. The menu even has a beef sampler plate, with four different types of cuts of beef to the plate. I went with Bife de Lomo, the fillet, that lovely lean and mild flavored cut.

The point I’m getting to is this. The beef tasted like beef from home. It tasted distinctively different from British beef and although I would have liked my steak a bit less rare, it was GOOD. I’m mean, really good. And, yes, yes, I had the grilled vegetables on the side, a colorful and tasty array of asparagus, portabello mushroom cap, red bell pepper, sweet potato and courgette all grilled simply. It wasn’t just all about the beef.

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England: Longleat

If you live in England and have a tv, you’ve probably at one point or another have seen a program titled, “Animal Park.” This show chronicles the goings on of the safari park on the grounds of the 900 acre Longleat House estate. Each episode there seems to be some monumental birth or arrival of one or another exotic animal, or they need to decide to euthanise an animal that has lived there for 30 years, or they document something going on at the house. I have been watching this show for months and feel I’ve come to know the places and animals in the park quite well and have wanted to visit it for some time now. Well, today we went.

Since it turned out to be a beautiful fall day, we decided to make it a motorcycle trip (the ride taking us right by Stonehenge again). Doing so, we knew we wouldn’t be able to go through the safari park, but there are many other things to do there. We took our time going through the largest hedge maze, planted in the 1970’s. It’s funny, we managed to find the natural exit within minutes, but that also meant we missed like 90 percent of the maze, so we cut back in and took our time. Pausing on some of the bridges that gave birds eye views of the maze, although they weren’t helpful, you couldn’t really see where to go, it was just that convoluted of a well designed maze. I wonder how many kids go into the maze to play “Harry Potter”

We wandered through the Butterfly House and admired all the exotic and mostly neotropical butterflies. Of course we toured “Pets Corner” which contains all small cute adorable animals like marmosets and snowy white tiny Siberian chipmunks. And we toured the Longleat house itself. Our tickets are good until November 4th, the drive wasn’t too bad, we’ll have to come back by car to go through the safari park.

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Being an ex-pat’s wife and Volunteering

From all accounts from what we’ve heard and in books we’ve read, if you’re the spouse of an expat who has their work provided work visa, don’t expect to work and get lots of hobbies.

My plan originally, was to find a place where I could work part time, not really for the extra income, but mostly for human interaction. Moving to another city, let alone another country where you know no one can get a bit isolating. This had been looking like a promising idea.

I had talked to someone a the local enormous garden center, who explained how desperate they were for people in the afternoons. Most of the weekday employees are mums, who leave when the kids get out of school. “Perfect!” I had thought, I was only looking for a few hours and afternoons would have worked out just right. A few days after submitting an application I received a letter stating plainly, “We have no available open positions at this time.”

I’ve also looked into “bar birding” aka being a bar tender and waitress at local pubs. Most places are looking for folks to work evenings and weekends only. No thank you. I would like to be home during the same hours as Mark, my favorite person to spend time with and coincidentally one of the few people I know here.

I also had the plan in mind to volunteer at the British Museum of Natural History. In theory, working in a department where I could utilize my training, knowledge and skills (i.e. entomology, botany or the scientific library). Positions weren’t listed on the website, I applied and waited to hear about an opening in any of those departments.

Well, it’s taken months, my application getting lost in the shuffle, waiting for my police vetting to be cleared and arranging a start date. But I started a volunteer position today at the BMNH in the Botany Department’s herbarium.

Today was an excellent day, in addition to starting work I had some behind the scenes tours of all the Botany department rooms, part of the Entomology department and also the Darwin Center. In the special collections room I saw Sloane’s type specimen, that original specimen that was used to describe the species, of chocolate, cocoa (Theobroma cacao). In another several hundred year old book of pressed flora, the collector had also pressed insects, flattened with the flower parts were butterflies, beetles and even a praying mantis. I got to see jars of samples of fishes that Darwin collected, his handwriting on the labels. In the largest glass jar, in the 13C temperature controlled basement room full of large glass jars of specimens, a Coelocanth. The was a jar of preserved echidnas from the first Australian collecting expedition. I even saw the 8.62 meter long giant squid specimen in a special made tank. It was accidentally caught by fishermen off the Falkland Islands and is in amazing condition.

Here’s to volunteering at the museum!

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Trip report to follow soon!

We’re back from our epic canoe trip paddling down the Thames from the headwaters in Cricklade (we could start there this time of year only because of all the rain this summer).

I must say, we are awesome, we are rock stars, we paddled 91.8 miles! 91.8! MILES!. This involved about 10 hours of paddling each day, our big day we paddled just over 28 miles!

Trip report, complete with photos to come soon, for now there are the few camera phone shots from along the way on Flickr.

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Paddling the Thames: Day 4

Near Mapledurham to Mill End

Gmaps route: 16.6 miles

Day 3 campWe were up fairly early and particularly well rested. Although I could have easily crawled back into my warm sleeping bag and enjoyed a lazy morning with a cup of tea. Our campsite was visited by the super cute and rather musically chatting English Robins. They were pretty bold, sitting on our canoe right next to our tent, we must have been in his territory that he was trying to defend or chase us away from, but we just thought he was insanely cute.

The wind was in our faces most of the day and there were far more boats on the water creating a lot of chop which slowed us down. The locks were also time consuming today, we were near more populated areas with larger numbers of boats, not too mention the ferry boats where only one would take up the entire lock, making us wait through several cycles. We lost a lot of time at the locks.

English Robin on our canoeToday we passed through Reading. Here the paths along the river and half a dozen large ferries were riddled with ASBO’s coming from the Reading Festival over this Bank Holiday weekend. It was interesting to note that we were paddling faster than the rocked out campers. On the surface and from the way the paddles and canoe seemed to be moving through the water, we thought possibly we were paddling faster and stronger than we had all weekend. Or maybe the river started to actually have a current. Standing on the bank of the Thames in Bourne End, it really seems like the river is raging past you, surely we’ve reached a point where there current finally has picked up. Alas, I don’t think this was the case at all with the wind coming directly at us and the heavy chop, this really wore us down, as evidenced by the day total of 16.6 miles.

Still no sign of cream tea. I was completely fixated on the idea of having cream tea and scones with clotted cream today. At the Sonning Lock where we ended up waiting through multiple cycles, Mark got out of the boat to see what was going on, he comes back to show me the photo he took on his phone, a picture of a sign saying, “Now serving cream teas!”

We had a special mini-goal of meeting friends at the St. George and Dragon for lunch. After hours of paddling with no breakfast and passing up the lock’s cream tea, and then the waitress telling us they had stopped taking food orders for the next twenty-five minutes and then nearly having an aneurysm at the news, lunch was so well earned, an entire pizza and a steak was quickly inhaled by the two of us. Henley-on-Thames was a particularly lively and festive town, I enjoyed the band and dancers on the upper deck of one of the larger ferry-like boats.

Mark with the River ThamesAfter paddling a couple more hours we started talking about what time or where to stop. We had a number to call to get picked up, we could stop short of our goal if we stopped at a lock and called from there. Not five minutes later, we get a phone call from one of the canoe folks wondering how far along we were and when we thought we anticipated reaching our original goal of Bourne End. It was after four pm and at that point we had about ten miles to go. Paddling around two miles per hour would put us home much later than we would have liked.

We decided to stop early and arranged a pick up point a half mile beyond the next lock. Those last few miles seemed to be the longest and hardest to paddle, the instant we set our end goal short it became so far away.

91.8 miles is an impressive amount and I’m incredibly proud of both of us for what we accomplished. It’s 11.8 miles more than we thought we were getting ourselves into, so it’s a win and quite the accomplishment no matter how we look at it.

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Paddling the Thames: Day 3

Abbingdon to around Mapledurham

Gmaps route: 25.3 miles

Setting off on Day Three!Day three and still no sign of cream tea for breakfast or ice cream as a treat. Despite the rude awakening of the fire alarm in the night and not hearing our alarm but being awakened by breakfast at our door, we woke up fairly refreshed. Sore and stiff, but refreshed none-the-less. We set out bright eyed and bushy tailed, as we paddled through and out of Abbingdon, church bells were ringing from the towers. The river is well into being an actual river in size at this point. Still, no real help from the current.

Moulsford Railway BridgeWe were not nearly as delirious today. Well fed and well rested we were able to make good progress without getting too tired through the first part of the day. We paddled along and passed through our first big city, Oxford, the river became considerably busier today. We passed by where the two rivers Isis and Thame come together to form the Thames (around mile 59) without noticing the other river. I’m not sure how we missed it, we were looking for it to merge on the left. It was one of the landmarks to look for.

We marked our miles by setting mini-goals to look forward too. 2.5 miles to the next lock, 4 miles to the next bridge, 3 miles to the next landmark. This was important on the small scale, not looking or thinking too far forward. It made us feel like we were making progress. Frequently we would again state the obvious, “What mile does this Whitechurch lock mark?” I’d ask for the sixth time, “we’re at 73 miles,” Mark would say, I would then repeat matter-of-factly as if this was surprising new news, “Do you realize we’ve paddled 73 miles so far!”

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)It seemed for awhile that we had started to work the kinks out of our muscles and joints. But, taking a break seemed to only make paddling harder, restarting became harder. I did reach a breaking point today, I think it was before we stopped for dinner, possibly after. The sun was intense today, even with sun screen we are both thoroughly sunburned. The air temperature was nice, but the direct sun wore on us, not too mention the indirect light reflecting back up at us from the water surface. I just needed to stop, but in interest of continuing to make progress, I just sort of laid down in the canoe, leaning back over our gear behind me, while Mark continued paddling. Mark checked up on me, wanting to know where I was mentally, we could abort, stop at the next lock and call it a trip well done. But I was still optimistic that we could and would make it the entire one hundred miles. I just needed this little break, staring at the wisps of clouds and contrails in the clear blue skies above.

We found a nice little secluded nook in sight of the Mapledurham lock to set up camp for the night, and managed to do so at a reasonable hour. Even with our bright yellow little tent you would have been hard pressed to see us. We sat up along the side of the river for a bit, basking in the full moon light that was casting sharp shadows. We both slept well, even for sleeping in a tent, even with as chilly as it did get over night.

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Paddling the Thames: Day 2

Carswell Marsh to Abbingdon

Gmaps route: 28.47 miles

Morning of Day Two, in sight of the riverWe woke up to a world soaked in dew, it hadn’t rained, but everything so wet it might as well have. As we decrinkled ourselves little did we know what was ahead of us on what would turn out to be our longest day of paddling.

We had our two oranges to eat for breakfast and that’s all. They were super juicy though. In the morning, spirits were still high, but as the day rolled on, the paddling did get significantly harder. Remember those gliding sentinels and clouds of damselflies, in our exhaustion and hunger induced delirium, we discussed the merits about the possibility of physically harnessing the flying and swimming biota around us, having a menagerie armada of a chariot, pulling us through the water that at times felt as thick as molasses.

Hot Air Balloons floating aboveWe were treated to some wonderful sights today. Including a couple of hot air balloons crossing our path. I had too wonder as we were looking up and taking photos of the balloons if the balloon people were looking down on and photographing us, the lone canoers on the Thames.

We discovered that some of our assumptions we had about this trip were wildly wrong. Assumption #1: The river has a current. We seriously thought we would have much more help from the current of this river. River! HA! Portions of which, we swear, had a barely perceptible current, it’s just one really long narrow winding lake! In the faster portions, Mark estimated the water was flowing at about one mile per hour. And this is with the river high and in theory moving fast!

Assumption #2: That we could reasonably paddle three miles per hour. No, at best we think we were hitting two and half miles per hour. When talking about distances on the scale of 80-100 miles, the difference between two miles per hour and three miles per hour is a colossal amount of time and energy.

No, that's not a happy DebAssumption #3: That there would be canoe friendly pubs we could paddle up to with welcoming energy providing meals. Did I mention the flooding? The kitchen too damaged to be open for food? Even two pubs, directly across the river from eachother, both boasting signs saying food served all day, both closed for repairs (note my grimace in the photo to the left upon discovering they were both closed). Or the pubs whose kitchens are only open 12-2 and then 7-10pm? And we arrive at said pub shortly after or before kitchen hours?

I’m sure there were further assumptions we had misconceived and discussed, but they currently slip my mind.

Ruins on the riversideWe were operating on the assumption that the guide that said we had 100 miles to cover was the correct mileage (and it was) so we really needed to cover more miles and pressed on well after dark. There were ruins gleaming in the sunset as we paddled on. With a nearly full moon, we had plenty of light to work with. I turned to Mark and remarked, “we are paddling the Thames by moonlight” I know it sounds strange to state the obvious while you are doing the obvious thing, but it was amazing and beautiful and still, with just the sound of our paddles pushing us through the water under the silvery light.

Deb in a lockLock workers leave the locks at 7pm, after which the boaters take charge for their own passage. These are complicated systems, Mark can discuss these in better detail than I could. But to suffice it to say, after 7pm, it was simpler to portage our boat (i.e. empty it’s contents and carry it and contents to the other side of the lock). We were coming up onto one more lock, “Just one more lock,” Mark said, “then we’ll find someplace for the night, the next town is just a half mile after this lock” My spirits were pretty low. I was tired, hungry and rapidly getting a bit cranky.

We weakly paddled into Abbingdon at 10:30 at night hoping to find a room at an inn on the water. I was seriously prepared to cry if Mark came out saying they had no rooms. My psyche was in such a fragile state I nearly shed a tear on hearing that we had a room! Oh, the decadent luxury of a bed and a shower and fast food in town, since all other restaurants kitchens had already closed for the night. And the hotel’s kitchen was closed due to repairs from the flood.

Until 1:00am… I woke up to shouting outside… then the fire alarm went off. Was this for real? Soon, pounding at the door, we needed to get out. It was a false alarm, the arguing had been with one of the workers and the hotel manager. We sat outside for an hour, the entire time the alarm screaming in the background. This is what we get for *not* camping out in the quiet solitude of our tent. We did meet and chat with a fellow American ex-pat and his son until we got the okay to go back in. We again sacked out quickly and too soon our continental breakfast knock on the door rudely awakened us.

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Paddling the Thames: Day 1

Cricklade to near Carswell Marsh

Gmaps route: 21.5 miles

Just about to set off from CrickladeAs we set off this morning, our spirits and morale were high, we were excited about this adventure in true Denovich style. One that sounds, and probably is, a bit insane. Planning to paddle 80 miles of the Thames in four days.

Although technically we were starting on the River Isis, the Thames wouldn’t really be called the Thames until the Thame (with no “s”) River joins the Isis 59 miles down stream. But we are in the headwaters of the Thames starting in Cricklade. We are only able to start this far up stream at this time of year due to how excessively wet this summer has been. The Isis can be a dry trickle normally this far up in August. Where we put in, we could almost reach both banks with outstretched arms, it’s not so much a river as it is a shallow stream.

The first several miles were riddled with fallen trees and debris from the flooding. It was slow going at first, we paddled straight through some branches before getting the knack of maneuvering around these obstacles.

Taking an early break on the bankI also must mention we lucked out on the weather for all four days we were out. Summer really just never happened in England this year, we had that one day that reached 84 degrees, but since then it’s been chilly, gray, drizzly sweater wearing weather. These four days were all sunshine and warm 70’s. We couldn’t have asked for better weather or temperatures for what we were doing.

We had “Canoing the Thames” guides printed out with conflicting distances. The spreadsheet the Thames Canoe folks provided us gave us 80 miles vs. the 100 miles on the detailed mile by mile guide Mark had found online. Twenty miles is a huge margin of error and caused us some distress considering we can paddle maybe 2.5 miles per hour.

Deb and another bridgeThese guides also had listed inns, canoe friendly pubs and camp sites along the way. We anticipated having plenty of places to stop to eat, so we didn’t provision ourselves with a lot of food. Just snacking bits. We did not anticipate nor know the flooding from recent weeks had closed down many of our expected stops for repairs. What does this translate into? For our first day we only ate one meal. When we are paddling for 10 hours a day, not being properly fueled is a problem.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)We were not disappointed with our wildlife sightings. Cormorants, herons, Great Crested Grebes galore and flashes of electric blue Kingfishers skimming the water’s surface ahead of us. We frequently had the white swan sentinels of the river gliding gracefully in front of us as if we were in a chariot and they were our steeds. Fluttering emerald and sapphire jewels of Banded Demoiselle damselflies were ever present clouds around us. Paddling along we were in a meandering maze lined with Great Willowherb, forests of Phragmites and towering Typha (Common Reed and Cat Tails, I just enjoy the alliteration of the genus names).

We more or less had the river to ourselves for the entire first day. A couple kayakers here and there and more smaller boats as we got closer to our campsite. We set up camp just past the Tadpole bridge. We were out for the night quickly, day one was exhausting. Several times in the night I awoke thinking someone was shining a light on our tent only to realize it was the moonlight from the nearly full moon.

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Paddling the Thames

The plan has only just crystallized in the past hour, but Mark and I will be heading out tomorrow morning to paddle 80 miles of the Thames River, starting where the navigable waters begin and ending in Bourne End (the village in which we live). We’ll be leaving Friday morning and returning Monday night, camping out along the way and renting the canoe from the friendly Thames Canoe people. They drop you off and pick you up at whatever start and end points you choose and they provided us with a list of campsites (and inns) to use along the way.

Now to pile up the gear!

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Possibly Published Photo?

Remember this High Dynamic Range image Mark took, combining three separate photos of Stonehenge on nearly the shortest day of the year into one to extract the most amount of detail:

stonehengeHDR

We were contacted by a publisher shortly after we posted the photo on Flickr who wanted to use the image in a book on the History of Britain, and in theory we should be getting a free copy of said book and credit for the photo inside the book.

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Hell Fire Caves of West Wycombe

Deb in the Hell Fire Caves of West WycombeLast night, while out driving in search of a different grocery store we passed a sign for “Hell Fire Caves” (arrow pointing that-a-way). “Hell Fire Caves!” I exclaimed, “we need to go there!”

Outside, the entrance is built and designed in the manner as many of the Gothic style flint stone churches that riddle the country. Winding over a half mile in, the chalk walls were wet and milky deep into the hillside. I imagine digging through chalk to create the caves would be easier than through other solid rock. These caves and chambers were hand dug in the 1740’s and you can still see the marks from tools along the walls. Mosses and small plants were growing in the meager light and warmth of some of the lighting.

Mark in the Hell Fire Caves of West WycombeAt the far end, the inner “temple” room lies 300 feet below a church on the hill above. There was long rumored to be a tunnel that led from the church to the inner temple, but years of searching and logistics of a steep slippery slope have proven it didn’t exist.

From the plaques lining the walls explaining the history and purported purposes of the spaces you get a sense for what it was to be a part of the Hell Fire Club. More or less the Hell Fire Club was a place for boozing, smoking and entertaining women of questionable humors dressed as nuns in order to not raise suspicions. The rich eccentric infamous Sir Francis Dashwood, carved out the ultimate hang out and created a not-so-secret notorious society that held regular meetings.

Notice I’m in a turtle necked sweater, it was a chilly, low 60’s, drizzly August day where one is in need of such attire.

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Ace Cafe

Ace's Cafe, Biker hang out in LondonIs it just me, or does it seem odd that before we set out on a motorcycle ride, we met up with the other couple at the legendary biker hang out Ace Cafe in London and had tea?

What was particularly awesome on this day was a gathering of classic motorcycles and their riders. We didn’t have our camera with us, just the trusty camera phone, but there were these little old men that were motoring up! I mean, the sort of little old men whose first impression if you saw him on the street would not involve being a biker! They too sat there with their tea and admired the gathering throngs of bikes at this mecca.

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