IVFDF 2012

IVFDF. The amazing, legendary Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival.

What more can you say about it? Well something, I hope, or this’ll be a very short blog entry.

This was my third IVFDF; I went to it in Durham in 2010 and again in Bristol last year. This time it was in Aberdeen so not so far to travel. I opted to drive myself up rather than go on the bus with the rest of the Edinburgh crowd so that I could stay an extra night after. For a while on Friday this seemed like the wrong decision as there was a last-minute panic about whether Kwik Fit would have finished replacing what sounded like pretty much all of my car’s suspension components in time (I have to say they weren’t living up to the first part of their name very well at all. Maybe that’s why they spell it wrong so that they can get off on a technicality). But it was done, with fifteen whole minutes to spare.

Despite the fact that most of my previous trips to Aberdeen were for things I’d rather not think about now, I actually still quite like the place, and I quite like the drive up as well. I stopped once, in a layby near Stonehaven, to find a geocache, then made it to the university campus by 7 as planned. At that point, as I wandered among the dark and mostly deserted buildings, I realised I should maybe have actually looked up where I was supposed to be meeting everyone rather than just assuming it would be easy to find. (I had the same realisation last year, funnily enough). After a while I ran into a nice couple who had the same problem. They’d come all the way from Switzerland… and I thought I’d travelled a long way last year when I went to Bristol!

We found the festival reception with the help of my smartphone and got registered. I was just ahead of the New Scotland bus. After they’d signed in it was straight off to the Friday night ceilidh, in Elphinstone Hall.

Nice hall, apart from (a) a very slippery floor that made me frightened to go too fast in case I ended up flying out the door, and (b) the fact that they suddenly stopped letting people in after a while, even people who’d just gone out for fresh air and wanted to come back in because their friends/possessions were still inside. This wouldn’t have been so unreasonable, but the door staff weren’t actually counting people in and out, so how could they possibly know when it had reached capacity?? An impromptu smaller ceilidh started up in one of the other buildings, which I went to for a while and was also fun.

Our sleeping accommodation was miles away (literally), and it wasn’t exactly the Hilton. Actually… technically it was the Hilton:

I never sleep very well on the floor and tonight was no exception. My new inflatable pillow already had a slow puncture and I’d forgotten my face mask so the light from outside the doors was keeping me awake until I decided that at this point I didn’t care how weird I looked and wrapped a scarf right round my head.

But the next morning I still felt a lot better than I had on the first morning of last year’s IVFDF. I guess 4 hours’ sleep on a floor is still preferable to a near-nervous-breakdown followed by 2 hours’ sleep on a floor (don’t ask, it’s a long story). By the time I’d traipsed back to the uni campus through the rain carrying most of my stuff, I decided that I desperately needed coffee, and also that I’d had enough of walking so I just got in my car and drove until I found a Wetherspoons that was open. (I’m afraid I’m one of these dreadful people who visits places and always ends up in Wetherspoons or Starbucks or even McDonalds… in theory I do like the idea of sampling the local cafes and giving them custom, but in practise I always seem to end up in a rush and just wanting a coffee or a burger and no surprises).

I was slightly disappointed to find their kitchen was closed and I could only get a coffee and no breakfast… but not half as disappointed as the two guys who found they weren’t allowed their two pints of Strongbow until 11am… last I saw of them they were desperately phoning someone to ask where in Aberdeen would sell them booze at 9am on a Saturday. Which seemed weird as I’d always have assumed the sort of people who want Strongbow at 9am would mostly be the sort who’d already discovered you can’t get it. Ah well. I took advantage of the time while I drank my two coffees to whip out my netbook, log my geocache find and start writing this blog entry.

Got back to the campus feeling much more awake, in time for the second block of dance workshops. There were plenty to choose from as always at IVFDF and I did a bit of Scottish Country followed by a bit of Contra, which is always fun. In the afternoon I stress-tested my new suspension components on some of Aberdeen’s wide selection of speed bumps and found the showers (which is more than I managed to do last year!). Once again my ignorance of the sporting world came back to bite me, as when I came out of the shower the street was swarming with football fans and it took ages to get my car out… I’d had no idea that the Aberdeen stadium was anywhere near, nevermind that they were playing today. When I looked at the map the stadium was indeed right there. I think my brain just filters them out normally.

Highlight of the afternoon was New Scotland’s “Lord Of The Rings” dem:

which I nearly missed due to being on the slowest bus EVAR back from town, but thankfully I only missed the very start and was there for the gripping finale.

On Saturday night there was a bigger selection of dances. I went to the Contra, intending to maybe check out the Scottish Country dance later on, but I made the mistake of eating too much first and after a few Contra dances I realised if I didn’t stop and get some fresh air, something very bad was likely to happen. (I didn’t actually eat that much at all, but Contra can be a bit like non-stop fast spinning, so even not very much is too much!).

Once again I only got about 4 hours sleep… but then the indoor camping was only £2 for the whole weekend so overall about 25p per hour’s sleep, which is not a bad rate. The coffee shop on campus wasn’t open by the time I stumbled in, so I had to go off on a quest for coffee, which ended in Wetherspoons again. Then… Highland workshop. (When I first started I didn’t know the difference between Highland dancing and Scottish Country. Highland is the one where you dance on your own and point your feet in different places, sometimes around swords, and make the stag’s antlers with your arms. Country is the one where you dance in a set with a partner). I must have been to at least five or six beginners’ Highland workshops since I took up dancing three years ago, and I never was able to quite get it. It just doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I could just about manage the steps, but as soon as I tried to add in the arms and the turning I would find myself turning the other way from everyone else and with the wrong arm up. Today, satisfyingly, I finally succeeded in doing a Highland Fling! (well, close enough). Not bad considering I was on 4 hours sleep.

After all that hard work, some light relief at the “Silly Dances” workshop was welcome. I’ve never done a dance before where the instructions include “Bounce!” and “Hug the person opposite you!”. There should definitely be more of them.

Finally, the festival closed with the Survivors’ Ceilidh, which I did manage to survive despite falling sideways off a chair. Next year’s festival in Sheffield was being heavily advertised. Looking forward to it already :).

The weekend was rounded off nicely by meeting Laura for some geocaching. It was a good haul: we managed to find two in Aberdeen (one in the centre and one on an industrial park on the outskirts), one by an old bridge near Laurencekirk, one amazingly close to the Kingsway in Dundee, and one in Dunfermline (that was a fun one as we had to walk around the abbey collecting clues first to decode the co-ordinates).

So yeah… good weekend 🙂 on the one hand it’s a shame there can’t be a dance weekend away every two weeks. On the other, it would probably kill me.

 

Dance Weekend in Wooler

A couple of weekends ago, I went for a weekend away in Wooler with my dance society. The dancing weekends are always good fun, but I was a bit worried about going back to the village where I was previously nearly knocked unconscious by a flying welly… so on balance I decided that if I came back without a Dunlop logo shaped scar on my head and a concussion, I’d consider the trip a success.

I actually quite enjoyed the coach journey down to Wooler. It made a nice change not to be driving and to have time and space to do some reading (a short story of my mum’s), some meditation, and some DS playing (finally got further in Mario 64 after being stuck for a while). It was also much quicker than I’d expected and we were there in less than two hours. Before the first dancing started there was time to find bedrooms and eat enormous fish suppers to build up our strength for the activity ahead. On the first night this consisted of a ceilidh (with live band!) followed by the traditional Chair Game (everyone sits in chairs in a circle. Someone in the middle shouts out a statement and if it applies to you, you move around the circle by some number of chairs. If there’s already someone sitting in that chair, you sit on top of them. If there’s already someone sitting on top of someone else there, you sit on top of them. If there’s already someone sitting on top of someone sitting on top of… well, you get the idea. Normally, the first person to make it back to their original chair wins… though on this occasion the game was drastically rigged in favour of new members, with statements like “If you’ve been a member of this club for more than a year, go back five places”. Rigged, I tell you).

I didn’t expect to sleep brilliantly the first night, and indeed I didn’t. I never do in hostels, even though this was a nice one that even had two pillows per bed and my roommates were pretty quiet. On the other hand I didn’t expect to be awakened by the Star Wars theme music blasting down the corridors at 8am (but I was!). It was certainly a more epic way to be wakened up than by a plastic Wallace saying “Morning Gromit, time for walkies!” in my ear, as I was accustomed too for many years.

A few cups of coffee later, and I was fine, or at least fine enough to do dance workshops and help in the kitchen, which was the important thing. Workshops included a fiendish Scottish Country dance called Platypus Reel which was probably deliberately designed to confuse people, a refresher course in Contra (a sort of fast moving American ceilidh equivalent, one of my favourites), and learning Mazurka (a Polish folk dance). Food consisted of some delicious dishes from the Kilted Libyan Chef, along with cupcakes decorated during a “Dessert Workshop” for people who wanted a break from dancing.

I also found the time to wander around the village and the hostel. I didn’t find the village green type place where the welly incident occurred, but that was probably for the best. The hostel had several nice murals painted on the walls:

(The ones in the toilets are not pictured. I decided it might be best not to hang around there holding a large camera).

On Saturday night after dinner was the highlight of the weekend – the main dance. This time, the theme was “Masquerade Ball”. I hadn’t had time during the week to make or buy a mask specially, so I had to make do with what I had in the flat. It came down to a choice between some flimsy little cardboard things… or this:

It was variously described as looking like a Mexican Ninja, a pirate, and several other things that I won’t mention to protect my more innocent readers. But it did the job, and won me a well-deserved “Most Disturbing Mask” prize at the end of the night. If it hadn’t been for Stefan’s homemade welding mask, I probably would have won “Most Unrecognisable Person” as well. (I originally bought the mask to use in a very silly parody of Breaking the Magician’s Code, in case you were wondering why I would own such a thing).

The evening was fun and involved plenty of Country dancing, Contra dancing, a bit of other dancing and finally the “other” chair game, during which I kept getting stuck in the middle. Maybe the mask was obstructing my peripheral vision so that I couldn’t see the vacant chairs in time. Or maybe I’m just rubbish at these things anyway.

Again I didn’t sleep very much (Ride of the Valkyries and James Bond served as the second morning’s wake-up call). Luckily there wasn’t very much to do today except clean up the hostel and then go for a walk up a nearby hill. It was actually more tiring than I expected, and so cold at the top that most of the group had to dance Mairi’s Wedding just to keep warm.

Thanks to the bus coming at 3pm instead of 2pm, we had some time after the walk to sit around the hostel and play the most unsuccessful game of Chinese Whispers I’ve ever played.

Anyway… thanks to a busy and tiring couple of weeks, this blog entry is a tad later than I’d planned, but I knew I had to get it done today… because tomorrow I’m off on another dance weekend away! This time to IVFDF 2012 in Aberdeen. This will be my 3rd IVFDF and if it lives up to the other two it should be a great trip. Blog entry probably to follow…

Geocaching!

I’d been meaning to try Geocaching for a while… the combination of exploring places close to home that you wouldn’t normally go and messing around with technology in the process really appealed to me right from when I first heard about it. So when, during a late-night discussion of what we were going to do the next day, Gavin suggested we try geocaching, I was very excited.

Big sticks are essential geocaching equipment.

We decided to meet at Tesco at 1pm to buy supplies, then head off to Cammo for a walk and see if there were any caches near there. I think we all assumed someone else would take care of signing up for an account on geocaching.com and looking for caches in the right area and finding the GPS co-ordinates and all that stuff. But when we met up no-one actually had. One smart phone to the rescue, and soon we were on our way.

Gavin thought the geocache might be in there. It wasn't.

After getting parked and eating my sandwiches, I fired up the phone again and checked for caches nearby. There were several, more than we’d expected. Initially we were going to go for one at a nearby bridge as I knew roughly where it was, but we were tempted by a slightly further away one that was apparently full of CDs and DVDs instead. (Gavin was excited by the prospect of possibly finding a Nutty Professor DVD so we had to give him that chance).

First part of the route was straightforward enough… just down to the river and along. I hadn’t been that way in a long time so it was nice just to see it again. As we walked I messed around with my phone trying to find a good way of downloading the geocache’s co-ordinates. In the end I settled for just memorising them and then staring at the GPS app as our location gradually closed in on the cache’s. There’s probably a more high tech way of doing it but this way was quite fun.

Past Cramond Brig we took a wrong turn or two and the geocache web page decided to choose the worst moment to stop responding so we couldn’t check where we were supposed to have gone. But after retracing our steps and walking another few minutes we were looking at exactly the view in the photo on the web page. We knew we were close! I charged off into the trees, watching the GPS intently as the numbers counted down to the ones fixed in my head. Once again I made the mistake of paying too much attention to my phone and not enough to the real world, and walked straight past the cache without seeing it. But Alex had no phone to distract him… and he found it!

Alex finds the cache!

It was a big metal ammunition box. It reminded me slightly of the ammo dumps in an old board game I used to like (“Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs”), except those didn’t have “Geocache” written on the side in big white letters. Excitedly we pulled it open as Laura and Gavin, who’d been waiting to see if we were actually in the right place before getting too muddy, joined us. Sure enough, there was a big stack of CDs in there! We wrote our names in the log book and had a flick through the previous entries. This cache has been there quite a while, with log entries going back nearly 3 years. No Nutty Professor DVD sadly, but Gavin did pick out a CD (“This can be our geocaching CD!”) and we rummaged through our pockets and bags for something suitable to leave in exchange, but couldn’t find anything. (The general rules say you’re supposed to leave something of equal or better value, but this cache specifically said there was no need to because it’s usually so full of discs anyway, so we didn’t feel too bad. Though I still intend to go back and put something in there at some point).

What's inside?

We packed away the cache and put it back where we found it. All in all this was a pretty successful and fun start to the world of geocaching… I think I could easily get hooked on this, especially as everywhere I search there seem to be loads nearby! We were tempted to go and look for another one straight away but we were running out of daylight and out of time. We had to go and help Gavin’s Dad move his pool table instead, which is a long story (involving brittle slate tops that weigh as much as 3 people, one lift that the table would fit into with less than an inch to spare, a second lift that we discovered too late was an inch smaller than the first one, a garage door that stubbornly refused to open when we needed it most, and a long diversion route around the streets and up fifteen flights of stairs. Yes, fifteen… in fact, thirty if you count the little half-flights individually). On the plus side I did get some amazing pictures from his balcony, if I can manage to get them together into a panorama I might post it.

MoleThrower records his visit for posterity

Update: went again today (11/2/2012), found 4 this time, around north east Edinburgh, and found lots of little corners of the city we never knew existed. Also found a very nice Android app (c:geo) that helped for finding them.

 

Historic Scotland Are Doing A Stirling Job

In one of my random posts last year, I mentioned that Laura and I had won a Historic Scotland competition. We each got a year’s membership for free, and also a VIP tour of Stirling Castle. So on Saturday, we went to have the tour.

It was a cold day and quite misty, but could have been worse… at least it wasn’t windy or raining. The mist meant that the normally impressive views from the castle were cut quite short, but the Wallace Monument looming out of the gloom looked quite atmospheric.

We arrived to a very warm welcome from the Historic Scotland staff, and Laura was presented with a goody bag. Given the choice of a “VIP” tour that started at 10am or a normal tour at a more civilised time, we’d opted for a lie-in and a non-VIP tour. Apparently the only difference was we would have had the guide to ourselves on the VIP one… but as our guide, Brian, had more than enough personality to go round everyone in the group, that wasn’t a problem.

This is the last time I'm letting Laura book the hotel room. Ah well, at least it was en suite (in a manner of speaking)

As well as the tour we also wandered around the castle a lot on our own… and took way too many photos. I managed to take a total of 723 over the course of the whole weekend which is excessive even by my recent standards. I’ve now taken well over 5,000 since buying my DSLR at the end of August. (From time to time I like to calculate how many rolls of film I would have had to buy to take that many pictures and how much it would have cost to buy them all and get them all processed. Of course if I was still using film I probably wouldn’t have taken 723 photos in one weekend… but it still makes me feel a little better about blowing all that money on this camera).

Unfortunately by the time we went to the cafe to spend our £50 food voucher, they were all out of hot food. By this time we were starving so it was time to head to our hotel, where we found a nice restaurant next door and proceeded to eat far too much.

No wonder there was no food in the cafe. The kitchen staff were all standing around like statues not doing anything!

We spent a quiet evening around the hotel. Sunday was cold but much clearer, and since we had our Historic Scotland memberships now, we decided to visit some other sites in the area. First was Doune Castle.

The last time I was here, it was swarming with Monty Python fans dressed up in costume and competing for who could do the best recreation of a Python sketch. Today we only met one Monty Python fanatic, but the audio tours did feature a certain Mr Terry Jones.

Laura managed to take two “ghost photos” with weird transparent swirly things in them that didn’t show up either in real life or on any of my photos. It was a shame in a way because a few years ago I probably would have been really excited by this… but then I stopped believing in ghosts and now all I can think is “meh, probably dust or something”. God damn it ghosts, where were you back when I believed in you?

If this was Laura's photo of the hall, you'd be able to see the swirly ghost thing. But it's mine, so you can't.

The woman in the gift shop recommended Castle Campbell to us. We hadn’t heard of it before but it was roughly on the way home so we decided to stop off there and have a look.

It’s in Dollar Glen which I’d also never been to. There was a bit of a walk up and down a slippery path to get there but it was worth it for the views.

Then it was back to Edinburgh just in time to go see War Horse before the final Sherlock was on (I have one thing to say about the Sherlock episode: What. The. Hell.). All in all a very good weekend.

Goody bag contents

 

Evanescence!

I decided it was about time I went to a gig. Like a big one with a band people have heard of. So when Facebook helpfully informed me that Evanescence were touring in November, I decided “this is the one” and went straight over to Ticketmaster. The Glasgow show was already sold out but, undeterred, I got a ticket for London instead. (I didn’t bother asking anyone else if they wanted to go with me. I just assumed none of them would. Then later on when I sheepishly told people who I was going to see a lot of them said “oh, I like them too”, so maybe I should have. This probably means I should stop using my friend Stuart as a barometer of musical taste. Sorry Stuart).

I had a feeling they would be awesome live after watching their DVD. I was not disappointed.

They were fantastic. God, that girl can sing. And play piano… and both at the same time in fact. The songs sounded just like the album versions (well, apart from there being no vocal harmonies, which would be a bit hard to do live with only one singer). They played a good mix of old and new music, I was glad I’d listened to their new album enough to get to know it a bit, but there was plenty from Fallen and The Open Door as well.

The last encore, My Immortal, was the highlight for me… would’ve been worth the whole ticket price just to be there for that moment when the lights go up and the rest of the band join in near the end. Spine-tingling stuff :D.

So yeah. I’m very glad I went. Highly recommended :). I expect I’ll go see them again some day.

I enjoyed the support act, the Pretty Reckless, as well… I didn’t know them at all before, will have to check out some of their stuff.

Anyway, here’s Evanescence in all their distant blurry glory, courtesy of my old, non-zoom digital camera (sadly SLRs aren’t allowed in the Apollo):

The trip itself’s been mostly fine, though I’m still on the train back just now so there’s still time for disaster to strike and drag me down into public tranport hell, I guess. I didn’t sleep well in the hostel so I’m feeling pretty out of it… just debating whether to try and sleep (though I can never sleep on trains or planes, in fact can hardly sleep anywhere that isn’t my own bed) or whether to dose myself up with caffeine and wake up properly instead.

On the journey down I saw real, proper trainspotters for the first time, standing in a group on the end of a platform and noting down train numbers. I don’t think I ever quite believed they existed before, in my mind they were like some mysterious creature that would have a wide-eyed girl whispering “I have heard such things exist” near the start of a scary film. It got me thinking… why are they considered so sad? Sure, it’s ultimately a pretty pointless way to spend your time, but then so are a lot of things. It’s no worse on that score than playing Angry Birds or watching the X Factor. Trainspotters obviously must enjoy looking at trains and noting down the numbers, otherwise they wouldn’t do it… and what’s so sad about people doing something they enjoy? Personally I’d find it a lot more sad if they gave it up and spent their time doing something they don’t actually like instead, just because it’s considered more normal. So rock on, Trainspotters 🙂 you have your trains, I have my Evanescence gigs and my keyboard playing and my photography, someone else has their football matches and their Xbox… as long as you’re enjoying it then it’s all good.

 

Alton Towers!!!!1!!!, day 2

In theory we should have got a much-needed extra hour’s sleep due to the clocks changing. In practise, my brain decided it wasn’t going to be tricked that easily. Bah. If only my body clock would update itself automatically like my phone clock.

More by chance than for any other reason, we managed to leave all the scariest rides for the second day this time. And boy, did we start with a scary one…

Rita. It’s bloody terrifying. It doesn’t necessarily look it… it doesn’t have any loops or sheer drops or anything like that. But in my opinion (and most people I’ve talked to) the launch at the start where it accelerates you from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds is the scariest thing at Alton Towers. Most rides get less frightening the more you go on them, and turn out to be not as bad as they look (even Oblivion). Not Rita. I get more scared every time I go on her. I’m wondering if some day I’ll find I just can’t do it anymore.

*shudder*

After that was out of the way, we knew the rest of the day would be easy and relaxing in comparison. We had a plan: we were going to spend the morning waiting in the inevitable queues for the rides we didn’t go on yesterday, and for the afternoon we’d bought Fast-track passes for Nemesis, Air and Oblivion (which allow you to skip to the front of the queue once for each ride). So next up was Th13teen.

I really like Th13teen. It’s… different. I won’t spoil the end bit if you don’t know what it does, but even the standard roller coaster bit through the woods at the start is pretty fun.

Last of the big queues was for Sonic Spinball. The queues are always horrendous, but it’s a great ride so we just had to wait anyway. At least it was only an hour and not two hours like it was the day before. Spinball is unpredictable… because the cars spin round while they go down the track, you never know whether you’ll end up going down the big drop backwards or sideways this time, and it feels really erratic like you’re being pulled in all directions at once. So don’t be put off by the queues or the theming… give it a try.

Our afternoon was a bit more sedate than yesterday’s, with less rushing around and standing in queues. We took advantage of our fast track passes to have another go on Nemesis and Air. Something was going on near Nemesis, by the excavations for “What Lies Beneath”. We couldn’t quite work out what, but it involved a worker in a radiation suit lying unconscious while others warned the public to stay back. And possibly a frog. Exciting.

We also finally braved one of the water rides (Congo River Rapids) and got a little bit wet. But by the time we were queueing for the Runaway Mine Train, madness was starting to set in. “Eye Spy” wasn’t sufficient to keep us amused for long and we took to making up terrible jokes of the form “What’s ____’s favourite ride/area at Alton Towers?”. (Most of them aren’t fit to publish, especially the Michael Jackson ones, but if I tell you that “What’s Patrick Stewart’s favourite ride at Alton Towers? Enterprise!” was probably the best one, you’ll get some idea of the standard of the others).

Our final Alton Towers ride of the day (and of the year) was: Oblivion!

Definitely the second most terrifying thing in the park after Rita. This time I was in probably the scariest seat, right on the edge of the front row. At least when you’re in the middle of the front row you can see the track in front of you… on the edge there’s nothing at all apart from the black gaping hole rushing up to meet you. As usual our approach to the drop was punctuated by moans of “oh god, why are we doing this?”, but once you’re up there you don’t really have much time to think about that.

(I’d tell you the story about how I coped with Oblivion the first time I went on it, but I don’t want to end up barred from Alton Towers or anything).

After that it was getting dark and with the drive back to Edinburgh still ahead of us, we decided it was time to call it a night. After a good filling meal at the Woodcutter’s Grill (the kind of place that has an enormous vat of chips on the serving hatch, which can’t be a bad thing) and a quick visit to the gift shop for obligatory purchase of notebooks and T-shirts that were probably intended for people half my age, we were on our way. The drive back was a lot quicker than the drive down – about two hours shorter in fact, even with scary thick fog in the Borders that I had to slow right down for.

So that was Alton Towers 🙂 I’m off on my travels again this weekend, in fact I’m writing this on the train to London, so stay tuned for a first-time gig goer’s account of… Evanescence!

Alton Towers!!!!!!!!!!, day 1

The beds were surprisingly spacious and comfy for a youth hostel so I got a good night’s sleep. After a hot shower and a good filling breakfast I was ready to don my “Air” T-shirt and drive to the park. On the way out we got our first proper look at the hall in daylight. The weather was quite misty but didn’t look too bad.

The park was VERY busy, full of people in every imaginable kind of Hallowe’en costume. I’d expected it to be quite busy due to the Scarefest, but was surprised it was even busier than it usually is on weekends in the summer. By the time we’d queued for our tickets, it was past 10am which meant the rides were already open.

First we took the Sky Ride over to Forbidden Valley where our favourite rides are. (Actually, that’s not quite true. First, I breathed a sigh of relief as the sweet, sweet signal found its way once again to my phone, and felt my racing heart and urge to kill subsiding as I got my much-needed internet fix. I’m half joking. But only half).

It was good to see the Sky Ride back in operation… on two out of my previous three visits it was out of action due to first the Forbidden Valley station and then the Cloud Cuckoo Land station burning down. (This means there is now only one station left that hasn’t at some point gone up in flames. I bet the staff are eyeing that one nervously and hoping bad things don’t really come in threes). From our gondola we saw something strange… kittens on top of the Mexican restaurant near the Flume! About four of them, cute little bundles of fur just playing on the roof… no idea what they were doing up there. If anyone does know, please tell us.

First ride of the day was Nemesis. It’s still my favourite, I think. I don’t find it scary anymore now, just really, really fun. After that we found that the Air queue was still reasonably short so we did Air as well (it used to be my favourite before I plucked up the courage was forced by threats of eternal ridicule to go on Nemesis a couple of years ago).

Heather hates the Blade, so naturally we forced her to go on it twice in a row.

I like it, but I can kind of see where she’s coming from. It is much scarier than you’d expect from watching it, especially if you sit up at the back.

That was all the Forbidden Valley rides done apart from the Ripsaw, which no-one was in a hurry to go on as it was a cold day to risk getting sprayed with water. Instead we wandered around the park taking in some of the less intense rides before lunch. Though opinions vary on what is “less intense”, of course. Alex, for instance, will happily go on any of the big coasters, but refuses point blank to go anywhere near this

… after an unfortunate incident in the past involving Alex having just eaten and Gavin spinning our barrel like a madman and refusing to stop. (Disappointingly, Gavin couldn’t get it to go very fast this time, even with my help. Maybe we were in a dodgy barrel, or maybe it was the one before that was dodgy).

Later in the day, the queues got long… VERY long…

… or maybe they always just run it with a skeleton crew at this time of year ;). But in all seriousness, the queues were longer than I’ve ever seen them before, up to two hours for Sonic Spinball at the peak time. So during the afternoon we avoided the big rides and went on smaller things. We also wandered round the petting zoo and the aquarium:

The new spider crabs were pretty big and freaky. I got a surprisingly good photo of a seahorse:

Gavin and Heather tried to get their fingernails done by the cleaner shrimps like usual, but there were too many kids and not enough shrimps to go round.

(By the way, if the Alton Towers employee who was dressed up as a pirate outside the aquarium and who shouted at a passing woman “What’s that you’re wearing? A Disney T-shirt?? You don’t see us going round Disneyland wearing Alton Towers T-shirts, do you?!” is reading this… you made my day! 😀 ).

For dinner we went to the all you can eat pizza and pasta buffet in Katanga Canyon. It was just as good as I remembered, and I overdid the pasta bolognese just as much as I did last time. After that the queues had died down a little and we decided to go back to Forbidden Valley to ride the rides in the dark!

We got on both Nemesis and Air before they closed. Air in the dark was spectacular, I would highly recommend it. It was weird being in the park at night, it felt as if we weren’t meant to be there. The lighting didn’t really seem bright enough for a theme park and even with a lot of extra portable floodlights there were lots of very dark corners. It all added to the atmosphere.

Alton Towers!!!!!!!!!, day 0

Last weekend it was time for the annual Beyond Alton Towers trip… time to satiate my adrenaline-junkie side for another few months. I’d planned to maybe upload pics and blog entries from the hostel each night, but my camera’s sudden refusal to talk to my netbook put paid to that idea. So here they are now instead.

We stayed at Ilam Hall youth hostel, which is a great place as well as very handy for the Towers. (We were there in 2009, but last year we left it too late to book and had to go to Hartington Hall instead – also nice, but a bit further from A.T.). We had a 4 bed room to ourselves.

Only downside was complete lack of mobile signal, though maybe that’s not a downside if you want to get away from it all. (They do have a couple of internet-connected computers and semi-working wifi so we weren’t completely cut off… this was lucky as I’d completely forgotten to tell anyone I might not have phone signal and had to hastily go online and send some Facebook messages so they didn’t start thinking the Alton Triangle had claimed another victim).

We were all tired the first night, especially me after driving for about six and a half hours (M6 Friday traffic, grrrrr), so we didn’t do much apart from play Scattergories. And go out to take some dark pictures of Ilam Hall:


(Nicer than the Stoke-on-Trent Travelodge I stayed in when I was last down this way back in June, I’m sure you’ll agree).

For some reason I loved being out there in the dark. Unlike the city it was pitch black apart from the hostel lights so you could see hundreds of stars, and it was also absolutely silent apart from owl calls from the nearby woods. No traffic noise at all. Lovely.

Up next on Gcat’s World of Stuff: radiation leaks, stranded kittens, giant spider crabs, and more. Just an ordinary Hallowe’en day at Alton Towers. Don’t miss it!

Moscow: day 3

Despite (or maybe because of?) the excess vodka, I slept much better and woke up feeling refreshed this morning. Though because of the dehydration I had to take another £8 bottle of water from the mini-bar. I hope this project has a good travel budget.

Today we had a short day, just a few hours of talks in the morning, along with a tour of the computer room at the institute, where we got to see their new supercomputer. These days supercomputers are getting more and more like a load of normal computers stuck together, but even so it was weird to see the unused colour-coded surround sound jacks on the back of each board. (A lot of people, including some of my colleagues, would probably take issue with that statement, and of course it is a big oversimplification… it matters a lot that you have the right kind of computers and that you stick them together in the right way, and even then they’re very difficult to program… but the fact is, the components of supercomputers are much more similar to ordinary PCs than they used to be a few years ago).

After the final talks and the signing of the contract, they took us for a tour of the Keldysh museum, where we got to see the former study of Mstislav Keldysh. Apparently not many Westerners have seen it yet. No pictures I’m afraid… I left my camera outside as I wasn’t sure they’d want people taking photos, but other people were happily snapping away on their phones and the staff didn’t seem to mind so it probably would have been fine after all. It was pretty interesting… though as a pacifist I don’t entirely approve of Keldysh’s missile work, it was kind of fascinating to see the office of a genuine Cold War-era Soviet scientist, complete with hotline to the Kremlin and many amazing gifts from other scientists and politicians (including a brandy dispenser built into a miniature electric rocket, and the most beautiful collection of minerals I’ve ever seen).

In early afternoon, after only a day and a half, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts and be on our way. They presented all of us with lovely 2012 Moscow calendars that were so big they hardly fitted in our luggage, and then we were off back to the airport. We weren’t keen to repeat Monday’s taxi ride so we got the train this time. It was cheap enough that we were allowed to go first class and I made full use of the extra leg room and free high speed internet.

The journey home was mostly uneventful, which is generally what you want from air travel as “events” tend to be bad news. They had a weird body scanner thing at the airport security but thankfully it wasn’t one of the X-ray “nude” ones there’s been all the fuss about (thankfully because I didn’t have to be dosed with carcinogenic radiation, and the poor airport staff didn’t have to look at a nude image of me). But beyond security was even weirder… the terminal was very nice but seemed to be only half finished. There were acres of empty space and very little else.

And no restaurants.

We were all quite hungry and had kind of assumed we’d be able to get a meal before the flight, but as it was we had to settle for a snack in a coffee shop. (At least they had decent, if weirdly named, sandwiches… instead of being labelled “Chicken” or “Tuna” they were “With the chicken” and “With the tuna”. I think one of the Friends writers may have a new job designing packaging for sandwiches in Russia). This wouldn’t have been so bad, but then the advertised “meal” on our main flight never materialised either so I was pretty hungry by the time I got home.

(One thing I’ll never understand about airports: WHY, on proper airlines with seat numbers already allocated, does everyone get up and rush to queue up at the gate the moment it opens? It seems utterly pointless to me, they just end up having to stand for ages in the queue, then once they get to their seat they’ll get disturbed by all the people behind trying to get in. Besides, why does anyone want to spend any longer than necessary in an aeroplane seat? I just don’t get it).

Moscow: Day 2

Unfortunately, I didn’t get very much sleep. Moscow is only 3 hours ahead of Edinburgh so I wasn’t anywhere near as jetlagged as I was in Japan… but it was enough to make a bit of a difference, coupled with being unsettled by being in such strange and unusually grand surroundings. So I dosed myself up with coffee in my room and at breakfast, then we headed for the metro station, thankfully guided by a native.

It was cold and a bit wet outside, colder than Edinburgh had been when we left anyway. It was at this point I realised that in my semi-conscious daze yesterday morning I’d brought the wrong shoes with me. Instead of the new ones I had the ones with several small holes in and the heels worn down to a funny angle… bah. Apart from the small number of ticket machines and kiosks resulting in big queues, the metro wasn’t really any scarier or busier than the London or Paris ones… in fact it was a good deal more civil than the Underground when it came to people shoving you out of the way. And was much posher looking.

Soon we arrived at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics for our meeting. By this point I had already been appointed unofficial-official-photographer for the trip, by virtue of having brought the best camera (though admittedly not necessarily knowing how to use it properly).

Once inside, while my colleagues got on with business networking and preparing their talks, I got out my netbook and turned to the important task of finding a way to get online. My internet fix is nearly as important as my caffeine fix in keeping my brain from melting down. The meeting venue didn’t seem to provide wireless networking like some do, but that didn’t stop me for long. I discovered a free public wi-fi network (let’s call it WaspLine_Free, I’ve changed the provider name to avoid them embarrassment), but it was very slow and unreliable… frustrating. Then, purely by accident, I discovered that if you disconnect from the free version of the network and immediately connect to the standard one (WaspLine, much faster but you’re supposed to have to pay for it) you’re still recognised and can surf on the fast network for free! w00t! (Cue lots of comments about Ubuntu being a dodgy hacker tool when other people found out what I was doing).

The meeting passed quite quickly as the talks were interesting. We had a lunch break during which we walked to a nice restaurant nearby, and another session of talks in the afternoon. Then it was time for the Moscow walking tour.

We got some nice views of the river and of the Kremlin, though didn’t go very close to it. We also marvelled at the traffic again, it was like some sort of carefully choreographed daredevil show with cars continually coming within a hair’s breadth of crashing but never actually crashing. (Maybe it actually WAS a carefully choreographed daredevil show. Maybe someone told them we were coming).

Then there was this marvellous example of corporate sponsorship being sensitive to its surroundings:

(Though I wasn’t impressed that the one item of Bench clothing I own started falling apart after only a few months. I hope the Bench benches are more hardwearing than my jumper turned out to be).

Then we had a tour of the art gallery. Despite knowing next to nothing about art, I always like art galleries, and I really wanted to listen to the guide. But I kept getting distracted by how tired I was after not much sleep and how my feet were killing me after walking around for hours in those substandard shoes, and as we reached the last few galleries I became more interested in looking for a vacant chair than in looking at the paintings.

Finally, there was dinner. We returned to the restaurant near the institute and tucked into the generous buffet that was set out for us. I was just starting to feel pleasantly full and there was still piles of food left when I overheard someone saying the main course was on its way! It wasn’t just the food they were generous with… every time I turned round to talk to someone I would turn back to find my glass had been topped up with vodka (I forget which kind of vodka but it was nicer than the kind I usually find the remains of in my kitchen the morning after a party), or with red wine, which I switched to later on in an increasingly futile seeming attempt to remain conscious.