In praise of Vueling

A few days before Jane was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we’d booked a holiday in Barcelona. It’s somewhere neither of us has been. It was meant to be a sign that things were getting back to normal after my stem cell transplant last year …

Treatment obviously means that this trip has been postponed. Fortunately, we’d only booked the flights and hotel. The hotel was easy enough to cancel as we’d opted for a flexible booking (at the Catalonia Magdalenes, if you’re interested). The flights – non-refundable – looked as if they were going to be more tricky. We both have holiday insurance, but through different companies.

The flights were booked with Vueling, so I called their customer service desk to ask for a cancellation invoice. The call was answered promptly and I was offered the invoice, rescheduled flights or a full refund. The customer service advisor I spoke to was empathetic and helpful and I gratefully accepted the refund. All Vueling required was an emailed “fit note” and proof of our kinship. My credit card was refunded within 48 hours of these being provided.

Good customer service does exist, even on low-cost carriers, and Vueling now has two more customers for life.

Barcelona travel guides

I also needed to cancel arrangements for a weekend touring in Wales with the Seven at the same time. One of the hotels (a small, privately-run affair near the base of the Cader Idris) I’d booked was non-refundable. I emailed them to explain and hoped that the notice I’d given would enable them to sell the room to someone else. It’s tough being a small business owner and I thought this might be rather more useful to them than simply being a no-show. I said I understood that my booking didn’t allow refunds and that I didn’t expect one. Sadly, I never received even an acknowledgement of my cancellation from the hotel.

Transplant +68: York

As part of my recovery from the SCT I’ve just returned from a long weekend in York. Other than a few day trips and a weekend there when my children were very small, it’s somewhere I’ve never spent much time. There was also a weekend at York University on an Open University management course in 1990. All of the smart students seemed to be WHSmith trainees. How times change. But I digress.

York was wonderful. We went in the museums and galleries, met friends and enjoyed time together. Some of my favourite experiences were:

Food & Drink:  OXO’s Restaurant. Now that I’m getting my appetite and taste buds back, this was a brilliant place to spend an evening. Well cooked and presented food, an excellent host and waiting staff plus a barman who made great cocktails. Non-alcoholic for me at the moment!

The mulled wine train at York Christmas market
There was also the mulled wine train at York Christmas market …

Culture & History: York has this by the bucketful, obviously. We enjoyed the Castle Museum, York Minster and the Jorvik Centre, but the stand-out for me was the Art Gallery. Specifically the Strata | Rock | Dust | Stars exhibition, which is there until 25th November. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ installation, drawing on her Moon Goose project, is both charming and bizarre. I especially enjoyed the weathered samples of goose eggs showing how they crumble to dust over 500 years or so on the moon (*).

Trains: The National Railway Museum. Free entry (although there is a £5 suggested donation – still a bargain). We spent a few hours on Sunday here before catching the train home. The museum has lockers (£3 or £4) which are handy for overnight bag storage, making it an ideal final stop. The ride on Agecroft No.1 was an extra £4.

The railway ephemera in the collections room is as bizarre as the Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ Moon Geese. An encased cheeseburger package has pride of place in one of the cabinets.

The last cheeseburger
The last cheeseburger

Walking: York is an easy city to walk around, if you avoid the crowds. While we didn’t manage to walk all of the remaining walls, the view of the Minster was rewarding from near the railway station. I managed to clock up more than 30,000 steps in the 3 days we were in York. Thankfully, I seem to be making faster progress on the recovery front.

York Minster
York Minster

(*) Pedantic bit. Technically there is no weathering on the moon, as it has no air or water. However, a similar process occurs through micrometeorite impacts. But I’m not convinced that a goose egg would be dust in as little as 500 years, even so.

Buckfast Abbey and Buckfastleigh

Today’s wanderings around Devon took me to Buckfast Abbey. It’s very quiet at this time of year, so there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and generally poking around the site.

Buckfast Abbey
Buckfast Abbey. The current Abbey (left) was completed in 1937. The monastery is the grey building to the right. The last tower on the right is the oldest part of the complex, dating from the 11th century.

The Benedictine abbey celebrates its millennium this year. However, Dissolution meant that for around 340 years (until 1882) there was no monastic community present at Buckfast.

The Methodist Chapel standing in the middle of the current Abbey site was erected in 1881. It may now look rather incongruous in its surroundings, but it stood by the main road when it was built.

Buckfast Methodist Church
Buckfast Methodist Church. A joint Methodist-Anglican service is held at 3pm on Sundays.

After lunch in The Grange Restaurant it was a short walk into Buckfastleigh. It’s a well-kept, albeit a rather sleepy place – there was almost no-one around this afternoon with many of the shops closed.

Fore Street, Buckfastleigh
Fore Street, Buckfastleigh

However excitement may be on its way. I see from the Town Council notice board that a by-election is in the offing if the current vacancy for a Councillor is contested.

The Globe Inn, Buckfastleigh
The Globe Inn, Buckfastleigh

Stapleford Miniature Railway Open Weekend – August 2017

I’ve been meaning to post a few photographs from this event for some time as a follow-up to the 1974 cine film I wrote about earlier this year. The railway is currently open to the public on a couple of occasions each year in June and August, with profits going to the Leicestershire and Rutland Hospice (LOROS). It’s maintained in fantastic condition by a dedicated army of volunteers known as the Friends of Stapleford Miniature Railway. For once, the August Bank Holiday weather was beautiful.

Stapleford Hall
Stapleford Hall – Car parking for the open weekend was in a field in front of the hotel – which was somewhat challenging terrain for my Caterham!
Queue for the trains
The queue after I’d been on the train – it paid to get there early.
Sir Nigel Gresley
A4 Pacific Sir Nigel Gresley and Southern Railway 4-6-0 Lord Nelson, both visiting from the Eastleigh Lakeside Railway.
White Heron
Diesel Locomotive White Heron. This can also be seen in action on my 1974 cine film of the railway.

As well as the miniature railway there were exhibits of classic cars, stationary engines, fairground organs and miniature steam engines. All told it was an enjoyable morning spent re-living a part of my childhood.

Stapleford Miniature Railway in August 2017 from Tim Holyoake on Vimeo.

Stapleford Park and Miniature Railway: September 1974

In 1974, Stapleford Hall near Melton Mowbray was home to the 2nd Lord Gretton and his family. The park was at its peak as a tourist attraction, with the grounds containing a lion reserve, miniature railway and two scale model cruise liners.

The Derbyshire Caravan Club centre held a rally there that September. I’ve recently digitised a short sequence of cine film that shows the railway and ships in operation during that weekend.

White Heron LocomotiveThe White Heron arriving into the station, delivering its passengers to the model cruise liners.

LighthouseThe lake had a working lighthouse.

Northern StarThe Northern Star setting sail for a cruise of the lake.

Victoria LocomotiveThis would appear to be ‘Victoria’, a model of a LMS Jubilee class locomotive. However, the FSMR website suggests that it didn’t enter service at Stapleford Park until 1975 … and this film was definitely shot in September 1974. Commissioning tests, perhaps?

Automatic barrierThe train-operated automatic level crossing.

Stapleford Park Plaque - September 1974The caravan club plaque recording the event.

The complete cine film sequence.

Today, the hall is a hotel, the lion reserve is long gone and the scale model cruise liners are no more. However, the miniature railway is miraculously intact and is open to the public twice a year. In 2017 these events are scheduled for 10th & 11th June and the long bank holiday weekend at the end of August.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016: The good, the bad and the ugly

… or rather, the excellent, good, meh, bad and ugly. I’ve just had a very enjoyable week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As most of what I saw is on until around the 29th August, it seemed sensible to write a few words about the experience. Most of the shows we went to were pre-booked and definitely met expectations. Unfortunately a couple of the ones we went to after being handed a flyer in the street were firmly in the bad and ugly category.

The excellent

Samurai Drum IKKI – The Power of Japanese Drums. This was a performance that we booked the day before we went and was definitely one of the highlights of the week. The drummers were incredibly enthusiastic and must have been exhausted by the end – I certainly was. Don’t go if you have a headache however!

Rhapsodes. Improvised Shakespeare and more. Absolutely brilliant from the moment the doors opened, with one of the performers showing us to our seats while talking to us in iambic pentameter about Star Trek (he’d noticed Jane’s com badge).

Edinburgh – A Tale of Two Towns. A walking tour from the Greyfriars Bobby Bar, taking in the old and new towns, ending at Waverley Station. Peter was a great guide with an obvious passion for Edinburgh, past and present.

EdinburghThe good

Much that we did that fell into this category, including three things that are there all the time, namely the Cafe at the Hub (friendly service and good food), Camera Obscura (worth the £14.50 admission charge) and Holyrood Palace (even better value at £12).

Many of the fringe shows we saw were good or very good, especially Showstoppers. We were treated to “Boris Blows his Top” – an improvised musical set in a post-apocalypse London. I don’t fancy drinking frothy bilge to be honest (you had to be there), so let’s hope that Trump doesn’t win in November.

Paul Merton’s Improv Chums, Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour, Radio Active, The Improvised James Bond (“From Brexit with Love”) and Katherine Ryan’s stand up comedy were all great value too.

The meh

The Edinburgh weather 🙁

The bad and the ugly

Edinburgh traffic. With thousands of pedestrians and only a half-hearted attempt at temporary pedestrianisation outside St Giles Cathedral you had to have your wits about you constantly. The wait on most of the pedestrian lights also favours buses, taxis, cars and trams over people. Not a particularly good experience. It seems genuinely impossible to recycle glass bottles, at least in the part of Edinburgh we stayed in. A couple of the spur of the moment shows fell into the bad and ugly category. I won’t name either as I’m sure that the performers realise it too.

And while we’re talking ugly, here’s a caricature of me from one of the many fun exhibits at the Camera Obscura.

Caricature of meThis was my first experience of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – and I’m looking forward to returning again soon.

Customer service at the US and UK borders

I never thought I’d say that customer service is better at the U.S. border than the UK border. Until now.

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica, which required connecting flights through Miami. I can’t say that I was looking forward to experiencing U.S. immigration based on past experiences, but this time I was pleasantly surprised. If you travel on certain types of visas or are on the visa waiver scheme with a valid ESTA, your initial clearance is now carried out using automated passport control (APC) self-service kiosks. Get this process right (which I didn’t the first time I used it as one of my fingers slipped off the biometric reader) and you can pass through immigration in a few minutes. Get it wrong (indicated by an “X” on your receipt) and it means that you have to wait in line, but not for too long as the pressure seems to have been taken off the officials by the kiosks.

On both occasions the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel I met were unfailingly professional and polite, combined with good humour. After I’d failed to use the APC kiosk correctly on my first encounter with it, the CBP officer explained to me what I’d got wrong while sharing a joke with my wife (who’d got through APC at the first time of asking). Second time through, on our way back from Costa Rica after both of us had received a clear automated check, the CBP officer who collected our receipts looked at our passports, grinned and alerted his colleagues that the “British were coming (!)”.

Such a contrast to arriving back on Bank Holiday Monday at the UK Border at Heathrow Terminal 3. All of the automated passport gates were out of use as they were being “upgraded”, with a long line of EU nationals waiting to be checked through just two open desks. I’m glad that we were near the front of the queue. Worse, it looked as if all of the UK Border staff had been sent through the Theresa May school of “how to make your face look as if you’re sucking a wasp”. (I remember watching her present medals at the Paralympic swimming in 2012 and she couldn’t have looked more miserable if she’d tried). No smiles, no pleasantries and no obvious humanity present, making the experience a terrible advertisement for visitors to the UK and an unpleasant one for returning UK nationals. Customer service is important – and first impressions are everything.

Three great places to eat in Cyprus. I’m hungry. When can I go back?

At the beginning of the month, my better half and I managed to get away for a few days in Cyprus. There are a number of places that we always seem to go back to, with Pafos Castle (below) and Kourion (I’ve blogged about it here) high on the list. But if I’m being honest, you can definitely have too much history and culture (especially if it’s hot), but you can never have enough good food …

Pafos Castle October 2015Pafos harbour is a wonderful place to be in the early evening at this time of year. There are lots of restaurants to choose from, but Theo’s Seafood Restaurant, a few metres stroll from the castle, is definitely our first choice. The fish meze (at €22 per person) is excellent, but make sure that you haven’t eaten for several hours beforehand if you really want to do it justice!

In Pafos old town is Let Them Eat Cake. The Cyprus Mail review gives a good flavour of what they offer and while I’m sure their cafe food is excellent, we go there simply for the cake and coffee. This year their American-style cheesecakes and cherry cupcakes were very, very good indeed. An excellent place to relax in, especially if you’ve just been to visit the nearby Ethnographical and Byzantine museums.

Finally, along the old (B6) road heading away from Pafos towards Limassol, just past Aphrodite’s rock, is the village of Pissouri. Although the restaurants in the main square hold a popular weekly ‘Cyprus Night’, the restaurant we like most is slightly away from the crowded centre. The Bunch of Grapes Inn has a covered courtyard and an excellent selection of food, including the local favourite Kleftiko and a delicious mixed grill. Their main courses all come with roast garlic potatoes, which are brilliant in their own right.

I’m hungry. When can I go back?

Real World Research

I’ve been fortunate to have been spending a few days on the other side of the planet – Maui, to be precise. As tempting as it was, my notes and books didn’t stay at home in rainy Derby and have accompanied me on the trip. After all, if you’re going to be a distance learner, then there aren’t too many other places you can travel to that are this far away from the University. Let no-one suggest that I go in for half measures …

One of the books that accompanied me out here was Colin Robson’s “Real World Research”(*). I’m just over a hundred pages in and it’s quite the best book that I’ve read on the topic of social science research. I really wish I’d known about it when I was taking my undergraduate psychology degree – it would have saved me a lot of effort.

The clarity with which he discusses the various different approaches to social research, their histories and how the question that you’re trying to answer influences the best design to use has probably been the most useful aspect of the book so far. However, I can already see that it’s going to be indispensable in helping me through the jungle of obtaining ethical approval, providing encouragement when the research isn’t working out quite as I’d hoped and with the all-important aspect of data analysis. The book gives equal treatment to quantitative and qualitative methods and (speak it softly, particularly if you’re stood next to a committed methodologist of one persuasion or another) suggests that sometimes the right approach is to use both – multi-strategy research.

The book hasn’t helped me to finally decide on a topic for my research of course, but it has given me the confidence that provided I follow its recommendations, whatever I choose will be achievable.

It’s time to get back to my sun-lounger before I have to set off on the 27 hour journey to home later on this evening. It hasn’t been all work (or study!) while I’ve been out here and instead of leaving you with the rather uninspiring book jacket of what is an incredibly well written book, here’s a picture of the sea turtle I met a few days ago. Aloha!

Sea Turtle(*) Robson, C. (2011). Real World Research. Chichester: Wiley.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st May 2014.

Childhood memories – Caravan Club rally plaques

Caravan Club Rally Plaques 1968 - 1976Recently rediscovered at my parent’s house. Finding these plaques brought back memories of listening to Friday Night is Music Night on a battery-powered radio and endless card games. I also remember with some fondness the (sometimes rather strange) competitions the rally organisers ran over these weekends, dodging cow-pats and thistles in the fields where the caravans congregated and the faintly sinister “round the flag” gathering on a Sunday afternoon before everyone hitched up their ‘vans and headed for home.

Update: 8th October 2013

The Caravan Club is still around and has recently refreshed its website, which is definitely worth exploring. It’s also good to see that the Derbyshire Centre is still going strong.