Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making My Day

Making my day - and indeed the start to a new working week - is switching on the social meeja and finding unexpected, unsolicited approbation for one's works. So, thank you, Mark Radburn!

Monday, August 31, 2015

In A Silent Way

Many years ago when the world was young (okay, it was in the early 2000s)  the Croxii used to holiday near Tenby in South Wales. Our vacation of the summer of 2003 was especially memorable, as the sun shone uninterruptedly for two weeks. Let me run that past you again:




I know, I know, it's hard to believe.

One of the attractions we visited, more than once, is called The Silent World. This remarkable aquarium and zoo is housed in a deconsecrated Victorian chapel of rest. Upstairs is a café, serving with displays of reptiles and diverse creepy crawlies, but downstairs, in the slaty cool gloom, is the most wonderful aquarium, concentrating on the extraordinarily diverse marine life of South Wales. They even managed to keep an octopus.

Well, we are just about finished setting up our own version. Not a chapel of rest in Tenby, but in the 10'-by-10' summerhouse at the far end of the Jardin des Girrafes. This has been mentioned in despatches as a possible writing space. It's long had a secure electrical supply, and is now fully insulated - ceiling, floor, walls and windows - so gets quite toasty even as autumn storms lash outside, as they are doing as I write. I had planned to do some writing in the summerhouse earlier this month but never got the chance.

It's now been pressed into service as an aquarium and reptile house.

Over the weekend just gone we relocated the fish, both snakes and Squirty Benson Wilberforce III (the axolotl) to what we have renamed 'The Silent World' in honour of fond memories of Pembrokeshire. It was quite a job, but all the animals are now resettled, and here they are.

SBW III enjoys her new digs. Much the same as the old digs.
But why, I hear you cry, have we moved the reptiles and aquatics to the far end of the garden? [More room for bookshelves in the house, maybe? Ed.] Apart, that it, from furnishing a wonderfully calm and contemplative space, ideal for writing, and, more especially, reading, at least, once we have moved mein kampfy chair down there?

The reason is mammalian. 

At this time of the year, the dogs (two) and cats (four) tend to bring their little friends in with them, which, when they get bored, burrow into the soft furnishings and emerge to bite the humans, especially Mrs Crox. 

It doesn't matter how many times we shampoo the mammals, how many times we medicate them, how many times we fit them out with flea collars - we need to fumigate the house. And of course we cannot do this without squirting the sofas, cushions and even mein kampfy chair liberally with insecticide. The sort of insecticide that's lethal to aquatic life, and probably not very nice for reptiles. Hence the need to move them out of the house.

We rid ourselves of carpets years ago - all except, that is, for the stairs. My next task is to rip all that out.

And, it being a wet Bank Holiday Monday and thus ideal for inside DIY jobs, I am now about to do just that. I shall need a stout pair of gloves and a crowbar. Not to rip up the carpet, but to fend off the fleas, which, enraged, attack me from their last remaining lair. Please understand that these fleas are the size of small wolves. They have midnight-black, diamond-hard carapaces, luminous red eyes and fangs like steak knives.

Before that I'm going to have a coffee.

I shall report back.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


This year has seen the combination of warmth and weather for our apples to crop early. The Jardin des Girrafes is dominated by a large, rambling and reliably productive Bramley apple tree of unknown age:

Although I've pruned it now and then, even lopping off the occasional branch, I am entirely the wrong physique for long ladders (think 'inverted pendulum') and so haven't been able to reach the topmost branches either to prune the tree or gather the fruit.

At this time of year, then, unpicked fruit, often starting its fall from altitudes of four or even five metres, hits the deck with the impact of a small asteroid. The peace of the garden is episodically interrupted by the ominous basso crump of an apple the size of a baby's head making landfall .  … if it doesn't come to a painful end en route.


Had Newton sat under our tree, he'd have discovered gravity several years sooner and history might have been irrevocably altered.

Now, this was all good and fine when the tree was all that there was in the Jardin des Gs apart from a lawn. Now that the garden is populated at ground level by several chickens …

                  … and a rabbit …

   … none of whom have been fitted with crash helmets, action has been deemed necessary. Enter, then, this rather wonderful long-handled apple-picker, recently purchased at a local emporium of gardening equipment.

Thanks to this, I can now harvest the highest apples with ease, so they can get corralled into a jam kettle before they can concuss a chicken or bash Bunny's brains out.

As you can see, the apple-collecting attachment can be removed and replaced with attachments for other tasks, notwithstanding inasmuch as which Mrs Crox has promised me the pruning attachment for Christmas.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mozart's Chocolate Balls

Crox Minor is just home from a rip-roaring tour of Bosnia, Croatia and Vienna with her Krewe, and brought me as a souvenir of that last location, this bag of Mozart's chocolate balls...
…which I am enjoying as I write this. In so doing I am minded of the fact that Mozart, creator of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Don Giovanni, the Jupiter Symphony -- just three of a bulging portfolio that includes some of the most bangin' choons ever written -- was buried in an unmarked grave, his mortal remains forever lost (chocolate balls excepted.)

Or so I thought, until I came across a report of two musicologists and an archaeologist who decided to search for Mozart's grave. Scouring contemporary documents, the plans of eighteenth-century Vienna, the sexton's ledgers for the year 1791 (when Mozart died); the records of the Prince-Arshbishop of Salzburg, the local Masonic Society and other notables, they located what they thought was a likely find spot and started to dig.

After a few minutes they came across what looked like the right coffin and prized it open. Inside they saw the maestro, clad in lilac velvet coat and powdered wig, ripping up sheets of music paper.

"What are you doing, Maestro?" they asked.

"I'm De-Composing!" he replied.

Ba-boom, and, moreover, tish.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Writer Retreats

As I am sure you both know, I have just started work on a new book, intended to complement a different book I wrote some time ago. You'll also know that I took some time off specially to break ground on it. As someone once said, even the best battle plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, so I didn't get as much done as I'd have liked.

I took two weeks off, over a period of three weeks. The middle week I was back at my job (during the day I work for the Submerged Log Company.) Think of this entire period, if you will, as a Fortnight Sandwich.

During the first week, Mrs Crox and Crox Minima (15) went to Florida. Crox Minor (17) stayed at home, revising for a medical school admissions test called the UKCAT. The 'CAT' stands for 'Clinical Aptitude Test' and is in no way pet-related.

'You mean to say it's not all about moi?'

So, while Crox Minor studied, I got down to work.

On Monday, I wrote 4,000 words.

On Tuesday, I wrote 3,000 words.

On Wednesday, I wrote 2,400 words.

I expect you can see where this is going.

On Thursday Crox Minor and I decided to take a day off. Friday was similarly relaxed. I expect that we indulged in the displacement activity which, one day, might result in a small publication of local and specialist interest, but which has nothing to do with what I am supposed to be doing.

What I found was that a technical book of this kind doesn't really yield to long bursts of creative writing, as, say, a novel might, in which you just make stuff up. This kind of work is best picked out piece by piece, with references to support each statement. I found that Google Scholar is my friend, so - contrary to my earlier wish to be internet-free - I spent much of my writing time surfing the net and making notes. (To think - back in the day I had to visit, you know, a library. Remember those? Now the mountain really can come to Mohamed.)

So I have reverted to a slower and more careful form of writing. Over my two weeks (more on the second one in a minute) I have gathered around 15,000 words. All things considered I'd rather be in Cromer this isn't so bad. It's at least a good start.

In the third week, which was really the second week (please do at least try to keep up at the back), Mrs Crox and Crox Minima went to Center Parcs. But I couldn't get down to work in earnest, as on Monday Crox Minor was anxious about her UKCAT exam. This took place on Tuesday, and, still surfing the tubular emotional waves on Wednesday, we met the hazardous cross-currents of Thursday when Crox Minor got her A/S-level exam results.

On Wednesday night Crox Minor didn't get a wink of sleep. I know this because she kept waking me up to tell me.

"I've just pulled my first all-nighter," she said.

"Now you know how a junior doctor feels," I replied, helpfully.

On Friday Mrs Crox and Crox Minima returned from Center Parcs; Saturday was lost in family activity; Sunday Dad's Taxi's took Crox Minor to London to meet up with friends preparatory to a tour of some of the lesser-known by-ways of Europe (she is visiting Svitz, Franchia and Lüütnarp); and Monday I was back to work.

All the while this was going on I still had to do the chores. Dogs had to be ironed, hens washed, barges toted and bales lifted. Although Crox Minor wields a mean and forensic vacuum cleaner, this was all time spent away from writing.

So, apart from having had no vacation, I didn't really get too much writing done. If anyone can offer a remote cottage with a desk and broadband connection, please let me know.

I note that next summer Crox Minor will be waiting for her A-level results, and Crox Minima her GCSE results. I shall be looking for a retreat somewhere like Rockall.

Or Patagonia.

Or Mars.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dog-Friendly Beaches of North Norfolk: Happisburgh

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.) 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.

Happisburgh (pronounced 'Hazeboro' 'Chicago') has been a holiday resort for the best part of a million years, longer than Great Yarmouth, Blackpool and Skegness put together. Excavations on Happisburgh beach have uncovered signs of the earliest known human occupation of Britain, or indeed anywhere in northern Europe.

cobbles on Happisburgh beach
Back then, though, Happisburgh was some distance inland - the village today bears the brunt of fearsome coastal erosion.

Back in 1845 a farmer in Happisburgh planted his field with wheat - only to find that a storm overnight had washed the wheat into the sea, taking the field with it. Continuing erosion combined with unfortunate planning decisions have meant that even today whole houses get washed away, as evidenced by the cobbles you find on the beach today, which include well-weathered bricks and fragments of concrete.

It's no surprise, really, when you look at the cliffs. These are low, sandy and friable, and popular with burrowing sand martins.

Getting there: take the B1159 from Stalham (if inland) or Walcott (if on the coast), follow the signs into the village, and from there to the beach car park (pay and display), which is next to the distinctive red-and-white striped lighthouse.

Facilities - At the car park you'll find public loos and a children's play area. Refreshments can be found in the village. My recommendation is the Hill House, an inn patronised by the archaeologists excavating the ancient occupation site, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though not at the same time. The prehistoric site is under the cliffs beyond the caravan park behind the Hill House, and is not accessible at present.

The Beach is a small sheltered bay reached from the car park by a gentle sandy ramp.

At the time of writing the beach to the left of the ramp is out of bounds as the sea defences are being refurbished. To the right is a pleasant if small beach of the bucket-and-spade variety, with no restrictions for dogs.

Also in this series: West Runton, East Runton, Cromer East Beach, Overstrand, Trimingham-to-Mundesley, Sea Palling.

Dog-Friendly Beaches of North Norfolk - Overstrand

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.) 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.

When the railways came to Cromer in the late 19th century and north Norfolk opened up as a holiday destination, the posh people left Cromer itself to the hoi-polloi and settled at Overstrand, a couple of miles to the east. Overstrand still retains its villagey charm, and traces of poshness survive in some of its grand late-Victorian and Edwardian piles and Olde-Worlde hotels such as the Sea Marge that seem to come straight out of the set for an Agatha Christie thriller. The seafront, however, is a let-down, and has all the charm of a World-War-II fortification. For Edwardian seafront promenading, Cromer is a better bet (and has indeed been used as the set for an Agatha Christie thriller.) The beach, although delightfully sandy, it's definitely verboten for dogs. Instead, use Overstrand as a base to explore the glorious dog-friendly beaches to the east and west.

Getting There. From Cromer, take the coast road eastward for a mile or so. Just follow the signs for Overstrand, and then the beach. You will be directed to a clifftop car park (pay and display) where there are public conveniences and, almost invariably, an ice-cream van. There's a café close by. If you decide the beach isn't your bag, you can walk along the cliff path towards Cromer.

The Beach: To get to the beach, take a slope that seems nearly as steep as the north face of the Eiger. Once at the bottom, you'll find that all points eastward (to the right) are dog-unfriendly. No matter - go west (left) and you'll find a gloriously deserted stretch of sandy beach on which you and your dogs can cavort freely for a mile, linking up with Cromer East Beach. This is one of my favourite walks. A beach stroll between Cromer and Overstrand and a return on the cliff top (or vice-versa) is a deservedly popular excursion, especially as there are opportunities for snacks and comfort breaks at either end.

A Beach Alternative: a less-well known (and thus more select) opportunity) exists at the far eastern end of  Overstrand's prom, but there is a far better way to get there than having to walk the entire depressing extent of the prom with your dogs on leads. In the car, and driving as before from Cromer, avoid the signs for the beach and car park at Overstrand. Instead, drive right past the village and just when it looks like you've left it behind, turn left into Coast Road. You should view the sign saying 'No Vehicular Access To Beach' as a challenge.

Follow Coast Road round a few wiggly bends and you'll get to a street called Clifton Way right at the cliff top, where you can park at the kerb. Although there is indeed no vehicular access to the beach, there is free pedestrian access down the slipway. There are no facilities here apart from a dog-poo bin.

At the bottom, turn right (east) onto the beach. Although there are quite a few rather long breakwaters, these eventually give out and it's a three mile stretch of fantastic, deserted and dog-friendly beach all the way to Trimingham.

Two words of warning, though. First, watch the tides. The beach here is broad and shelves hardly at all, which means that the tide can come in faster than you'd think. Second, the cliffs here are riddled with rabbit holes, so take care not to lose your terrier. We've lost Saffron here at least once.

Also in this series: HappisburghSea Palling, West Runton, East Runton, Cromer East Beach, Trimingham-to-Mundesley.