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Expedition to Shropshire

June 14th, 2015

I’ve wanted to visit Shropshire ever since I saw some photos of the hills along the border between England and Wales. However it’s unreasonably difficult to get there from where I live at the moment: either a four hour train journey or a long drive up the M40 and around Birmingham. So as it was a little stressful at work when I got back from Taipei and the weather was nice I decided to take a few days off and make an expedition of it starting from Newport in Wales.

Originally I intended to walk the whole way but that proved to be a bit impractical given the time available and the difficulty of finding cheap places to stay vaguely on-route. So instead I did a couple of sections by bus, green on the map below, which turned out to be a good way to see some interesting places.

The first night I stayed in a very cheap hotel in Newport: I guess it’s not a popular holiday destination despite this excellent promotional music video. Moving swiftly onwards I caught the train to Abergavenny and walked over the eastern part of the Brecon Beacons through the ominously named Black Mountains to Hay-on-Wye.

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Hay-on-Wye is a bit twee and more than a little bit posh. The most striking feature is the number of second hand book shops: the town hosted its world-famous book festival just a week before. Leaving there I followed the river Wye for a bit to the hamlet of Erwood where I caught a bus to Llandrindod. I had intended to walk as far as Builth Wells but I was still somewhat tired from the previous days trekking so I decided to have a rest day of sorts. Good job too as it gave me time to explore the town.

Llandrindod Wells was once a popular Victorian spa town but now there’s little except a large number of hotels and some beautiful buildings. The architecture has the wonderful uniformity of a town thrown together in less than a decade. This hotel is one of the more imposing examples:

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The spa itself is in a small wooded park near the centre of town. The iron-rich water is said to cure anaemia. I tried some: it was foul.

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The next day I travelled by bus to Knighton via Kington (easily confused) on the border with England. In Kington they were having a 60s themed summer fête. While the traders were setting out their stalls a charming geriatric MC rambled enthusiastically over the tannoy. My favourite quote was

They say if you remember the 60s you weren’t there. I remember it. But then I had a job: I was a weekend hippie.

Delightfully English (or perhaps Welsh?). From Knighton I was actually in the original goal of the Shropshire hills. I walked north through Clun to the small village of Wentnor where I stayed the night. The terrain is very Cotswold-ish: rolling hills and quaint villages. Quite a contrast to the mountains in nearby Wales.

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On the last day I walked the length of a huge hill called the Long Mynd. Lovely views all around but it was bordering on unpleasantly hot. From there I wandered to Craven Arms, where there isn’t much to see, and caught an over-priced train back home.

Taipei

June 2nd, 2015

As you might have gathered I spent the last week on a work trip to Taipei. I’ve never visited Asia before so this was pretty awesome! I flew out with another guy from work on Friday evening so we had Sunday and Saturday evening for sightseeing. Sunday was mostly spent wandering around the city, visiting temples and other sites, and then riding the Maokong Gondala to a tea growing area on a nearby mountain. Unfortunately the view was mostly obscured by mist and rain.

The first four days it rained constantly. Never torrential but was more of a persistent heavy drizzle. This actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing, especially for our sightseeing day, as later in the week when the sun came out the 33 degree with near 100% humidity outside was almost unbearable. 20 degrees in light rain was comparatively pleasant.

Exploring by night was a lot of fun. We visited a couple of night markets which you can see in the photos below. It felt quite safe being out and about and everyone was really friendly. No drunk people either, which is more than can be said for the flight back to England.

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On Wednesday evening, the first dry period, we went up the Taipei 101. It’s only the third tallest building in the world but claims to have the fastest elevator. On the 91st floor there’s an open air viewing gallery which was remarkably pleasant given the temperature at street level. Here’s the view out over the city:

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Although I’ve been learning (written) Chinese for ~18 months I only know simplified characters which I thought wouldn’t be much help in Taiwan. But I was pleasantly surprised that I could read quite a lot of signs, metro station names, etc. Often you can apply transforms get the simplified character you know from the traditional one. E.g. 言, 門, 金, etc. are all replaced fairly consistently when they appear as components in other characters. Menus were a bit of a fail however: turns out knowing “beef”, “lamb”, and so on doesn’t really help knowing what the food actually is. At least you can avoid things containing 足 “foot”, 头 “head”, and other suspicious body parts.

No Talking!

May 31st, 2015

The wearing-a-mask-when-ill thing is such a good idea. I wonder what it would take for it to catch on in the West.

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Advances in toilet technology

May 26th, 2015

So my work trips have taken a turn for the exotic and I’m in Taipei all week visiting a contract manufacturer (more on this later). The hotel has the very latest innovations in toilet technology!

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Looks like a normally toilet at first glance but behold the highly complex electronic control panel!

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Thankfully full instructions are provided in multiple languages.

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Magic Unicorn Story

May 18th, 2015

At work last we week were subjected to an interminable two day “New Hire Workshop” despite having worked there for nearly three years. I learned all sorts of useful things like how to “ideate” and that I should be “training at the empowerment gym”. Hmm. Anyway, to pass the time I started writing a story about a disappearing unicorn in Chinese to practice my characters.

In the first chapter we meet the protagonists; their occupations are discussed; and a startling event occurs.

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The second chapter concerns a fruitless exploration of places where the unicorn is not, and our heroes begin to despair.

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In the final chapter a ghostly apparition provides a clue to the unicorn’s whereabouts and a happy conclusion is reached.

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Feedback from friend Winni who is a Real Chinese Person ™ was that it was mostly intelligible with just a few nonsense sentences. I give myself a B+.

UPDATE: by popular demand I have created English translations of chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3! The text in red is where the corresponding Chinese sentence was a bit of grammatical fail.

Watership Down

May 17th, 2015

I’ve been reading Watership Down again recently. One of the cool things about the book is the locations are based on real places and various people have produced maps that you can follow. So I set out trying to roughly follow the path the rabbits took to Watership Down. Unfortunately though rabbits are not hampered by rights-of-way and other barriers, so I ended up going a rather roundabout route.

Early on I had a mildly terrifying experience where a pair of large horses decided to follow me out of their field and down a path. Luckily they were completely baffled by the stile and I made an escape.

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Around lunchtime I made it to the top of Watership Down! At this point the weather decided to ignore the forecast and become very hot and sunny. Unfortunately I’d forgotten my hat and sun cream so today I am looking quite red. Oops.

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I was permanently on the lookout for rabbits, and although I saw three or four they mostly hopped away before I could snap them. The best I could manage is this ultra-cropped picture of a rabbit in a distant field.

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Much later on I met a man on a quest to visit the highest point in Hampshire who, for some reason, had forgotten to bring a map. After helping him on his way I realised there was an even higher point in the other direction. I pondered chasing after him but lucky I didn’t as that one was actually the highest point in Berkshire and he was correctly heading to the top of Hampshire. Phew.

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That’s the highest point in Berkshire on the hill beyond the beacon. I like the idea of bagging county tops: kind of a more sedate alternatives Munroes. Something for retirement perhaps.

Downland ridges are probably my favourite walking terrain but it’s very hard to stop and walk back down before you get to the end. Something psychological about not wanting to lose all that potential energy. So I walked and walked and walked until about 8pm when I decided I really needed to get the train back and made a bee-line for Bedwyn.

I was trying some different shoes on this trip (Scarpa Vortex XCR) which are approach shoes rather than the lightweight boots I normally use. They’re wonderfully comfortable and after 33 miles my feet didn’t really feel at all sore. Time to try something a bit longer perhaps…

Edinburgh

May 15th, 2015

This Monday I had to visit a supplier in Livingston, Scotland for work so I thought I’d take the opportunity to fly up Sunday morning and do a spot of sight seeing in Edinburgh. This is actually my second visit to this part of the world but I don’t think I blogged about it as we only went into the city for an evening meal and spent the rest of the time at the factory and hotel.

So I spent an afternoon wandering around Edinburgh on a whistle stop tour of the various sights: castle, Royal Mile, etc. Afterwards I walked up Arthur’s Seat which I thought was a small city-centre hill but actually turned out to be a very windy minor-mountain which I was thoroughly unprepared for.

Christmas Common

May 6th, 2015

It’s been ages since I last went adventuring in the Chilterns so this May Day holiday I headed off to cheerfully named village of Christmas Common. The long day out had the useful side-effect of distracting me from worrying about the flat I was trying to buy. (I didn’t get it: some cash buyer paid £20k over the already steep asking price; the London property market is bonkers.)

You probably don’t remember but a few years ago I posted about a ruined church I discovered on my travels. Well it seems persons unknown have decided to erect fences and un-ruin it! Honestly I think I preferred it before but I’ll wait and see what they do with it…

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Boris Sighting

April 27th, 2015

Out in Uxbridge buying lunch today who did I see but the almighty God-Emperor of Great Britain and prospective MP, Boris Johnson!

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In real life he’s somewhat shorter and paler than I imagined. Unfortunately I was so overcome with awe I didn’t go up and get my photo taken with him before the minder hustled him away. Shame, as it would have been my greatest celebrity encounter since Mandeville.

Stratford-upon-Avon

April 19th, 2015

Sunny spring Saturday? Sounds like time for an epic adventure! I hadn’t been to the Cotswolds since my adventure to Cheltenham nearly a year ago so it was high time for another visit. I caught the train to Kingham on the edge of Oxfordshire and planned to walk to Stratford-upon-Avon.

I was hampered a bit by a mild bout of hay fever. It doesn’t normally affect me so the pollen density must have been abnormally high. You can see all the wild flowers blooming in the photo below.

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My trip wasn’t entirely successful. The first failure was my usual inability to estimate distance from a map, or perhaps an overestimation of my walking speed. This led to a daft semi-circular detour at the start as I decided to “make a day of it”. The second failure came after lunch when I got a bit lost and walked a mile or more in the wrong direction; dangerously close to the Clarkson/Murdoch/Cameron hive of Chipping Norton. Thirdly, due to the complexity of getting home from Stratford my last sensible connecting train was at 19:37, which was cutting it a bit tight.

So, with about an hour until the train and another five miles to Stratford I decided to cheat and catch a well-timed bus the rest of the way.

Although my first foray into Warwickshire didn’t go quite to plan I think the idea is sound and the route was pleasant so maybe I’ll have another go later in the year.

Stratford itself on first appearances is a generic English market town. Here’s the clock tower where I hopped off the bus.

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I’m sure there was something significant about Stratford… oh yeah… SHAKESPEARE! I spent 15 minutes madly running around following signs to “Shakespeare’s birthplace”. I expected to find an old building with a plaque or something but instead I found a large brick museum. Hmm. I assumed the actual birthplace must be embedded within, snapped a nearby “old” building, and hurried off for the train. But it turns out that old building was Shakespeare’s birthplace! Win.

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