Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Chicken, The Dog and The Bats

It's been a busy and animal-centric day here at the Maison Des Girrafes.

First, our Jack Russell Terrier, Canis Secundus Croxorum … disappeared. I had taken the dogs to the beach at Overstrand in the late afternoon. We know that the cliffs immediately behind the beach are riddled with rabbit holes and I think they proved too great a temptation for her. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, a search party consisting of M. P. of Cromer and a number of willing holidaymakers - and the power of social media - she was eventually retrieved (though not by the retriever, Canis Primus Croxorum.)

Second, one of our hens, Princess Elizabeth Banana … died. She'd been ill for three or four days. Torpid, seemingly disoriented, uninterested in activity, food or drink, she had been sustained with water dripped into her beak manually from a drinking bottle helpfully loaned by Buttons, Cromer's only egg-laying rabbit*.

Nothing much goes wrong with chickens, except that they suffer from Old, and it comes on all of a sudden. One week they are fine, clucking around in rude good health - the next they get Old and collapse, suffer strokes, multiple organ failure and turn into feather dusters. It's tragic, but all things must pass.

Princess Elizabeth Banana had led a peaceful free-range life and was found expired in her nestbox accompanied by two (2) eggs. She leaves eleven companions, who, it must be said, haven't noticed - or so it might seem. I fully expect that the next tableau staged by the Cromer Poultry Great War Recreation Society will be of The Last Post.

Finally, our neighbour A. P. of Cromer came round with his Electric Drill and Long Ladder to install two bat boxes, high on respectively the eastern and southern elevations of the Maison Des Girrafes. Mrs Crox bought them for me some time ago as a Father's Day present so I could have somewhere to store my spare bats.

Either that or she's realised I'm a vampire and would sleep more comfortably outside, dangling from my toenails.

* Actually, all rabbits lay eggs. As William Harvey wrote in Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium (1651), 'ex ovo, omnia' - which translates roughly as 'even rabbits lay eggs.'

Gone Out. Backson. Bisy. Backson.

POLITE NOTICE. All next week (27 July - 2 August) I shall be on a Writer's Retreat. I shall not be replying to emails, engaging in social media, answering the phone or answering the door between the hours of 9am and 6pm. Thank you for your understanding.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Obituary: Caroline the Volvo, 1995-2015

Most people who know me already know this, but I feel it's sufficiently important to mark in these annals.

Caroline, my 1995 Volvo 850 CD saloon, has Gone to a Better Place.

She has accumulated 183,200 miles, of thereabouts. Although mechanically sound, her electrics had moved from the charmingly eccentric to the incipiently dangerous. I expect she could have been fixed, but the price would have been far more than she would have been worth, even to me.

It was time for a change.

She is succeeded by Chloë, a genuine one-owner Volvo V70 estate, substantially less old.

Caroline (and passengers) in Happier Times
I bought Caroline in 2001 when, with Crox Minor already here and aged 2, and Crox Minima imminent, Mrs Crox felt that our beloved Peugeot 205 diesel would soon be too small for our needs, and sent me third fourth fifthwith to the local Volvo dealer.

In due course of time I came home with Caroline, who had had one careful owner and had clocked up a mere 63,000 miles. Compared with what we had been used to up to that point, she was très très super grande luxe, a real limo, and had all sorts of features of which we had never heard, such as heated seats. Before I realised what they were such that I could switch them off, I thought I'd peed myself, and Mrs Crox thought her waters had broken.

Once all this had been cleared up, Caroline became our family stalwart, our invariable partner in thousands of supermarket trips, and indeed whenever the service of Dad's Taxis was demanded. Caroline brought the newborn Crox Minima home from hospital. We holidayed with Caroline in Cornwall and South Wales. We went on other trips too, to places as distant as - ooh, well, Bradford. Wherever we went, Caroline was our stout, sure (and, it has to be said, classy) conveyance. She was wonderfully reliable withal, needing only the occasional replacement of consumables. If one doesn't include the man-eating glove boot, and her occasional hypochondria (her complaints that her engine-management system needed servicing were belied by performance and emissions ratings.)

Caroline even featured in a film (Scroll to 8'35")

One might wonder why one invests so much emotional energy in what is in fact a metal box on wheels. But this is like saying that a beloved family member consists of, say, 90% water, 15% fat and small amounts of other stuff sloshing around inside a proteinaceous membrane. Caroline is inextricalbly tied up with our memories. The Minor Croxii can remember no other car.

You might be wondering how Caroline came by her name. She was named by Crox Minor, then aged 3, who got the name (so she said) from the name of a vehicle in Thomas the Tank Engine. Caroline was the name of the car driven by a character called the Fat Controller.

Go figure.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Great War, Remembered #114

'The Night Watch, Saint-Oeufs-en-Cocotte, Picardy, 1917'. Another tableau by the Cromer Poultry Great War Re-Enactment Society.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Remembering 7/7

What were you doing on the morning of the 7th July, 2005?

Exactly ten years ago, several Islamist terrorists exploded bombs on London underground trains and a bus, killing more than 50 people and wounding hundreds. One of the bombs exploded on the underground near King's Cross Station, and had I been going to the orifice that day, I'd have been caught up in the melée.

Except that I wasn't.

Instead, I was doing some science educational outreach at a comprehensive school in Ilford, to the east of London, where I then lived. I was lecturing to students about the science of The Lord of the Rings, concerning which I had just written a book.

When I had finished, I found myself in the reception area of the school, where receptionists were busily phoning parents of students who were due to go on a school trip to central London, but the trip had been abruptly cancelled on rumors of what was thought to be an electrical or mechanical failure in the King's Cross area, what we now know to have been a major terror outrage.

Moments before I had been telling classes of people about how Saruman the wizard might have used nitrogen tri-iodide to blow up the ramparts of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers. This compound is as unstable as it is very easy to make - because of this, my publisher decided against putting a chapter about it in the book. During my school visit I might have made some remarks of the don't-try-this-at-home variety.

The pupils at the school were of overwhelmingly Muslim heritage.

And I was telling them about explosives.

Go figure.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Glaston Buried

The other day I was down the pub playing a concert with my beat combo. This is a regular music pub and the joint  is usually jumpin', but not on this occasion. To say that we were playing to two men and a dog would be to exaggerate, but the audience was definitely on the thin side.

It's at times like this when one wonders if our kind of music - the classic rock of the sixties and seventies - is no longer the draw it once was. Has our music, like that of the now-legendary Spinal Tap, become more 'selective'? Or has the audience simply got older? I think the answer to both questions is a qualified 'yes' and 'no'.

We have been known to pack a place, even in recent memory, and we're always popular at biker festivals. Even if some of those sixties Easy Riders would now rather stay at home and put their feet up with a cup of cocoa, quite a few do like to turn out for a gig - and they bring their kids (and grandkids) along too.

Sometimes one has competition, particularly if it is a televisual emission. It's always tough playing when a big football match is on. The first ever gig I played in a pub, back in the early 1980s, the band had to delay its start until a cup tie between Northern Ireland and Spain had finished. And 2015 was the first year in ages when my band hadn't had to compete with the Eurovision Song Contest.

On the whole, though, we get by - the audiences who stay in for the X-Factor or Britain's Got Talent are not the same as those who go out in search of live music.

Which brings me back to our gig at the local pub - when we were up against Glastonbury on the TV. Festival-goers are just the crowd we'd pitch to, and the choice between us and Glasto was too much.

In a sense, I can't blame them.

Travelling to Glastonbury and spending £££ on a ticket to pitch a tent in a muddy field and sharing one's space crotch by armpit with hundreds of thousands of other smelly mud-caked people to stand in the rain to watch a band play half a mile away is something that approximates to my vision of hell. On the whole, I can't see what the big attraction is. As one music journalist wrote, jaded after spending a summer covering various rock festivals - by the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and 300,000 of us were looking for the toilets.

In any case, as images of any band you see these days will be broadcast on enormous screens either side of the stage, seeing a band at a festival is basically a damp, expensive way of watching the telly. So why not just watch the telly? That way you get all the good bits of a a festival without all the cost, inconvenience and trench foot.

I did go to a big festival - once. It was Monsters of Rock at Castle Donington Racecourse in 1981. And it was great. But I have never had the urge to repeat the experience. Oh, except for seeing Genesis in Roundhay Park in Leeds in the late '80s. Big screens had been invented then, and I seem to remember spending an awful lot of money to stand in the rain looking at close-ups of Tony Banks' nostrils and Phil Collins' bald patch. A damp, expensive way of watching the telly.

Ah, and there was a couple of years ago, when Mrs Crox booked tickets to go with Crox Minor to see Lady Gaga at Twickenham rugby stadium. When Mrs Crox realised that these were standing tickets, she deputised me to go in her place.

Well, the concert was great.

Lady Gaga put on a fantastic show, and - even better - the support band was The Darkness. Super! Except that the next day, every joint in my body ached. It had been a long time since I'd spent much of a day either standing up in a field, or sat down square and flat on the ground. These days I appreciate a sofa. Which is another good reason to watch Glasto on the telly.

And yet, and yet.

One might say that trading the full-on excrement-caked experience for sanitised televisual highlights is to go from one extreme to the other. One could, of course, go and see a band indoors, and get seats. But even better - you could see a band indoors, get seats, be right up close to the band, and get food and drink as well (at reasonable, non-festival-inflated prices), and you wouldn't even need tickets. What's more, you can probably do this walking distance from your home, or at the most, a short drive. How is such a thing possible?

It's easy! Go and see a local band down your local pub. You'll have a great time, and support live music in your community.

Oh, by the way, here is a video of my beat combo doing its stuff. And here is our gig list. We're at the Grapes in GlastonBury St Edmunds this Friday (3 July). Just sayin'.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Dog-Friendly Beaches of North Norfolk - Cromer East Beach

People sometimes ask me about dog-friendly beaches in north Norfolk. Although north Norfolk has lots of beaches, not all are suitable places for taking your dog for a quick constitutional. Some beaches are rocky,  gravelly or don't allow dogs. Others are muddy, marshy or otherwise dangerous.  Some are marvellous, but a long way from a car park, which is OK if your dogs (and you) are in robust good health. This is an occasional series in which I explore the dog-friendly beaches of north Norfolk in the company of Heidi the Arthritic Golden Retriever (Retrieves Tennis Balls from Sea) and Saffron the Bouncy Jack Russell Terrier (Chases Gulls and Plays Tag With Other Dogs.)
Saffron and Heidi on Cromer East Beach, looking westwards
Getting There: Cromer is easy to get to from Norwich, Sheringham or Holt by bus (X44 or K2) or train; from other places on the coast eastwards by the Coasthopper bus, or train from Sheringham; and of course on the A149 by car. Take a look at the following sketch map (not to scale) to make any sense at all of what follows.

Parking: There are pay and display car parks at Canada Road (not illustrated: best for the west end of town); at Meadow Road (by the visitor centre) and on the road out of town towards the Runtons and Sheringham (again, better for the Pier and the west end of town.)

For best access to the East Beach, you can park on the street in Cliff Drive (best), Cliff Avenue, the Overstrand Road or the Warren. This can require patience in the season, but do take care not to park on any yellow lines or disabled access areas - the wardens WILL find you. And fine you.

Beach Access: From Cliff Avenue, take either one of the alleys (crosshatched in the map) to the esplanade and head westwards/downhill to the Doctor's Steps. This is not marked as such - and is not in fact a set of steps. It is a switchback of very gentle slopes which lead down to the beach immediately to the right of a long breakwater. Dogs are not allowed west (to the left) of the breakwater, but are allowed to roam freely to the right (east) all the way to Overstrand. This is a gorgeous walk when the tide is out, and people often combine a beach walk one way with a cliff-top walk the other. The cliff-top path to Overstrand is continuous with the Esplanade as marked.

There are two other ways to reach the dog-friendly part of the beach directly, progressively further away and less easy than the Doctor's Steps. The Beach Hut Steps (this is my own name for them), most easily accessible from the footpath from the top of a cul-de-sac called the Warren, is a switchback of staircases that take you down to the beach through woods, giving out between the beach huts. The top of the steps can be hidden but it's marked by a rotunda I've called the bandstand, because it looks like one, though it isn't. The staircase is short but the stairs are steep, sometimes slippery and of variable pitch, so are more exhausting than they seem at first. There are, however, welcome benches at each turn of the path.

The third and most adventurous access route is The Stairs of Cirith Ungol (likewise not its official name.) Take the esplanade upwards and eastwards away from Cromer until it becomes a track. Almost at the highest point, across a grassy valley from the Lighthouse, take a jog behind a bush and you'll find the head of a wooden staircase. This descends to the east beach in three long sets of stairs, with meandering paths between. It is very picturesque indeed …

Going down the Stairs of Cirith Ungol

… but is much easier to descend than ascend. If you park in Cliff Drive or the Warren, head to the beach via the Stairs of Cirith Ungol and walk westwards, ascending by the Doctor's Steps.

The Beach. This is a mixture of shingle and sand. It's much shinglier when the tide is high, which is why it's best to go when the tide is out. Consult the Cromer Tide Tables for information. Another reason for going at low tide is that it's easier to get over or go round the breakwaters, which can be arduous if your dog is small (Saffron) or arthritic (Heidi).

Facilities. Apart from a water tap at the bottom of the Doctor's Steps, the dog-accessible part of the East Beach has no facilities at all. No cafés, lavatories, benches, shelters or any other services whatsoever. Which is why it's so great. Even in the high season, beach-goers rarely stray far from the Doctor's Steps which means you can have the stretch all the way to Overstrand pretty much to yourself.

West of the Doctor's Steps (towards the pier) and so well into dogs-on-leash territory, the nearest public WCs are in the ground floor of the Rocket House Café. This is in the same building as the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum, and contains an elevator allowing the visitor (with or without dogs) to ascend effortlessly between beach level and clifftop - a boon for the disabled or those with prams and buggies. The nearest café (apart from the Rocket House) is the Lifeboat Café, across the Gangway, at beach level. This has outside seating where wet dogs are welcome. The Lifeboat Café is in a small parade of shops selling ice cream, beach gear and souvenirs.

Cromer more generally has lots of shops and eateries. The Old Rock Shop Bistro and Peggoty's are just two that welcome well-behaved dogs. There are more public WCs in the visitor centre next to the Meadow Car Park.

Others in this series: East Runton.

Remember - ALWAYS clean up after your dog. As well as being good hygiene, it keeps beaches open for dogs to roam freely. All it takes to close a beach to dogs is one complaint over one uncollected dog poo.