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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Scran : Shakarqandi Gosht

Shakarqandi Gosht (Slow cooked beef with sweet potatoes)

This is a slow-cooker curry which requires a little pre-cooking then, assuming your slow-cooker's timer works, you can leave it cooking for most of the day while you're out, with just the sweet potatoes to add before the end.

It makes it ideal for a filling mid-week curry night, and it's especially warming on autumn and winter nights. Serve with lots of rice, roti, naan, (or all three if you like!)


INGREDIENTS
  • 3 tbsp cooking oil
  • 500g lean shin of beef, cut into 3cm cubes
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp onion seeds
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and diced
  • 1 tbsp crushed garlic
  • 1 tbsp chopped/grated root ginger
  • 400g canned, chopped and sieved tomatoes (or passata)
  • 2 green chillis, finely chopped with seeds removed
  • 4 green cardamoms, bruised to split
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 200ml beef stock
  • 300g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm cubes

METHOD
  1. Heat 3 tbsp cooking oil in a large pan.
  2. Fry 500g lean shin of beef, cut into 3cm cubes for about 3 minutes to seal; remove the meat and place in a slow-cooker.
  3. Re-heat the oil that remains in the pan.
  4. Add 2 tsp mustard seeds and 2 tsp onion seeds and fry until the seeds start to pop.
  5. Add 2 medium onions, peeled and diced and fry to soften for about 2 minutes, then add 1 tbsp crushed garlic and 1 tbsp chopped/grated root ginger and continue to fry for a further minute.
  6. Add 400g canned, chopped and sieved tomatoes (or passata), 2 green chillis, finely chopped with seeds removed, 4 green cardamoms, bruised to split, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1½ tsp ground coriander, ½ tsp ground turmeric and 1 tsp garam masala and continue to cook, mixing well, until the liquid has reduced by about a half.
  7. Pour the onions, spices and tomato mix over the beef in the slow-cooker; add 200ml beef stock, put on the lid and cook on low for 7 hours.
  8. After 7 hours, remove the lid, add 300g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm cubes, replace the lid and cook for a further 30 to 45 minutes.
  9. Stir and serve.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Scran : Pashtun Chicken Pilau

Pashtun Chicken Pilau

(This pilau is cooked 'biryani' style in layers, and has been concocted from bits of other recipes that originate mostly from along the North-west Pakistan / Afghanistan border. The resulting recipe isn't authentically a pashtun recipe then, but it does incorporate things like tandoori chicken (off-the-bone) and fruit and nuts, which are typical of dishes from that area. There's some marinating and roasting involved, but some of the other ingredients and garnishes can be prepared or cooked during the time this takes.)

You can put together 'tandoori masala' yourself using various spice blends (loads of examples/recipes on the web) or you can buy decent ready made ones. We use 'INDUS' brand: £1.69 for 400g - lasts for ages. Try to avoid ready made commercial tandoori pastes though: those things add more colour to the chicken than they do flavour.


Here's the recipe:

INGREDIENTS

The Chicken
  • 3 to 4 tbsp Greek style (or sieved) yoghurt
  • 2 tbsp tandoori masala
  • 600g-750g skinless boneless chicken meat (breast or thigh) cut into medium sized pieces
The Rice
  • 250g basmati rice
  • 3 tbsp cooking oil
  • 10 cloves
  • 5 green cardamoms (bruised to split)
  • 2 two-inch sticks of cinnamon
  • 4 bay leaves
The Herbs and Spices
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 tbsp chopped or grated root ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp garam masala
The Fruit and Nuts
  • 50g (approx) sultanas or golden raisins
  • 50g (approx) toasted flaked almonds
The Cooking Stock
  • 500ml Chicken Stock
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
Optional
  • 1 fresh green chilli, sliced
For Garnish
  • 1 medium onion, peeled, sliced and fried until brown
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, shelled and quartered
  • 2 medium tomatoes, quartered
METHOD
  1. In a bowl, combine 3 to 4 tbsp Greek style (or sieved) yoghurt and 2 tbsp tandoori masala and mix well.
  2. Add 600g-750g skinless boneless chicken meat (breast or thigh) cut into medium sized pieces and stir, ensuring all the pieces of chicken are coated with the yoghurt/masala mix, then leave to marinate for 1 to 2 hours.
  3. Spread the marinated chicken pieces on a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven for 20 to 25 minutes, turning the pieces over during roasting.
  4. Put the roasted tandoori chicken pieces aside.
  5. Wash 250g basmati rice thoroughly and soak in water for half an hour, then drain.
  6. Heat 3 tbsp cooking oil in a large pan, until fairly hot.
  7. Add 10 cloves, 5 green cardamoms (bruised to split), 2 two-inch sticks of cinnamon and 4 bay leaves and heat gently for about 3 minutes.
  8. Add the rice, and stir until all the rice is coated with the spiced oil.
  9. Remove the seasoned rice from the pan (draining away the excess oil,) and put aside.
  10. Heat 2 tbsp cooking oil in a large pan.
  11. Fry 1 large onion, peeled and chopped for about 2 minutes, until softened.
  12. Add 1 tbsp chopped garlic and 1 tbsp chopped or grated root ginger and continue to fry for a further 2 minutes.
  13. Add 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander and 1 tsp garam masala and stir well.
  14. Place the spiced onion, garlic and ginger mixture into a large casserole dish.
  15. Place half the seasoned rice on top of the onion mixture.
  16. Mix together 50g (approx) sultanas or golden raisins and 50g (approx) toasted flaked almonds and spread the mixture over the top of the rice.
  17. Place the remainder of the seasoned rice on top of the fruit and nut mixture.
  18. Heat 500ml Chicken Stock and dissolve 2 tsp ground turmeric into it, then pour the stock into the casserole dish being careful to cover all the rice.
  19. Optionally, place 1 fresh green chilli, sliced on top of the rice. 
  20. Place the roasted tandoori chicken pieces on top of the rice, and place a lid on the casserole dish or alternatively, cover it with foil; (make a double fold down the centre of the foil to allow for expansion through steam.) Note: the lid or foil is important to ensure that the steam from the stock cooks the rice and it also ensures that the chicken remains moist.)
  21. Bake in a preheated moderate oven (180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4) for 20 to 30 minutes until the rice is tender, but the grains are still separate.
  22. When cooked, carefully mix to combine the separate layers and serve.
  23. Garnish with fried sliced onions, hard boiled eggs and tomatoes.

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Scran : Economy & convenience can still be tasty

I post quite a few food posts on Google+ under the hashtag #Scran. These mostly involve Indian food: versions of Indian and Pakistani recipes, that I've put together from various sources, using authentic ingredients, but with the emphasis on convenience and economy (which is why most of them involve chicken or veggies, a few contain beef, and very few are lamb dishes - but of course, most can be adapted.) these I post mostly on Friday nights, under the additional hashtag of #CurryNight.

Someone mentioned that I should do a food blog (possibly because they were fed up of seeing them almost every Friday on G+,) and since I haven't posted anything to this particular blog for quite a while now, I thought I'd make a sample post here, just to see if anyone notices. I'll probably post the recipes for a few curry dishes later, but for now, here's an idea for a quick and economical, Chinese influenced dish.

I was going for economy when we put this together for our evening meal; (of course we could have been very economical by just cooking some pasta and serving it with a bit of sauce, but we prefer something more substantial even when we're cutting costs.)

We'd picked up 6 sachets of microwaveable sweet chilli sauce from the local market for just a pound, and TESCO do a decent vegetable savoury rice for only 25p per packet, so we decided to do...

Sweet Chilli Chicken with Vegetable Fried Rice
(Enough made for serving 3-4 people  for £3.72, (that's 93p to £1.24 per portion!)

This isn't really a 'recipe' as such. It's so simple that it's really just a meal idea, that anyone will be able to prepare successfully as long as they can cut, stir & fry.

Convenience as well as economy was the main aim here, hence the use of microwaveable sauce and of packet veggie rice as a base for the fried rice. We make a potato starch based crust for the chicken pieces (similar to a takeaway sweet and sour 'Hong Kong style' coating) with just potato starch and an egg, and find that the cheapest instant mashed potato does the job perfectly; (powder works well; flakes give the coating an interesting texture; granules just don't work at all, so should be avoided.) The method is simple: just cut the chicken breast into the required size pieces, and place in a bowl; add one large beaten egg and stir to fully coat the chicken with beaten egg, then add about 120g of instant mashed potato (that's usually a standard packet) and stir until it has all been absorbed by the egg that's around the chicken. Then fry the individually coated pieces of chicken.



The total cost breakdown for the entire dish is as follows:
  • Frozen chicken breast (half a bag, about 600g) @£2.00 (Chicken Mini Fillets are available at ICELAND for £4.00 for a 1.2Kg bag)
  • One large egg (for the crust) @£0.12 (Large eggs: 10 for £1.15 at ALDI)
  • One packet (120g) instant mashed potato (for the crust) @£0.28 (Everyday Value brand at TESCO: £0.28 per packet)
  • Two sachets of sweet chilli sauce @£0.34 (a bit of fortune on our part finding this, but there are various jars/bottles of sweet chilli sauce available, for around a pound - half a jar should suffice.)
  • Half a bunch of spring onions @£0.25 (both ASDA & TESCO sell spring onions at 49p per bunch.)
  • Two packets of golden vegetable savoury rice @£0.50 (Everyday Value brand from TESCO again: 25p for a 120g packet)
  • Two large eggs (for the fried rice) @£0.23
Plus a tablespoon or so of leftover chopped peppers to go in the sauce, together with a little dark soy sauce, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, and a little oil for the fried rice, all at negligible cost.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Last Night Out Of The Year - First Night Out Of A New Era

New Year's Eve 1975 was a day I still remember, even after all these years.

The Sex Discrimination Act had come into effect only two days earlier, and one of the many things it outlawed was discrimination between, and segregation of, the sexes in pubs.

In those days, most pubs had multiple rooms, where the smartly decorated and carpeted lounge bar or saloon bar charged a few pennies more for their drinks than the rougher public bar did. The other difference was, that until the practice was outlawed, only men were permitted to drink in the public bar: women were excluded. Some more liberal pubs had relaxed those rules years ago, but from the 29th December 1975, the rest of them were forced to by law.

I'd arrived at my girlfriend, Anita's house, (She's now my wife,) and since we had no party to go to that year, we intended to make our way to my house for midnight celebrations with my family, having a couple of drinks in some of the pubs along the way.

I'd heard earlier that day, that the local pub on Anita's estate was still doing it's best to avoid serving women in the public bar. Anita was livid about this, and though I was a little annoyed myself, it didn't bother me quite as much, because it had always been our choice to drink in the lounge bar, and anyway, the pub in question: The Drum and Cymbals wasn't one we tended to frequent.

There was of course, the appeal of being the first couple to enforce our rights and break their gender ban, and partly because we were both stroppy teenagers in those days, we popped into the public bar of the Drum as our first stop.

Anita sat down at one of the tables, and immediately got strange looks from the old gents on the adjacent tables; a couple of them even shuffled along their seats, away from her as if she were diseased in some way.

I approached the bar, and ordered our drinks from a middle aged barmaid (yes, a woman - they had no problems with women in there to serve!) The lady in question was frowning just about as much as I imagined the old chaps at the tables behind me were, and I suspected she didn't approve as she tutted audibly when I asked for my pint of bitter and Anita's Cherry B (that wasn't her usual tipple, but we wanted to order something we were certain wouldn't be on the shelves in that bar - like I said, we were stroppy teenagers.)

She pulled my pint, then still tutting and grumbling she went off into the other room, the saloon bar, and returned with the required bottle and a glass to pour it into, (the public bar being only equipped with pint pots, half pint glasses and short glasses.)  As she approached me at the bar, she glanced over her shoulder; I looked in the same direction to see the landlord standing half framed in the doorway.

I feared at first that we may have a problem then, because though Anita was 18, I was still almost three months short of reaching my own majority. I knew the landlord from the occasional visits I'd made to that pub in the past though and at nearly 18, I admit I did look quite a bit older than my age. It wasn't as common in those days to have your id checked in pubs, probably because hardly anyone carried adequate id then, (remember that this is in the days before photographs on driving licences.)

I nodded toward the landlord and caught his eye. I half smiled as if to dare him to object to us being there, but he just nodded back, and the transaction between the barmaid and I was completed. I returned to the table and sat with Anita and we began to enjoy our drinks, though it was so uncomfortable, we were hardly savouring the occasion.

I glanced from side to side to see that the other five or six men in there, all much older than me, were staring right at me, though they seemed to be deliberately avoiding looking anywhere toward Anita, so much so that when I looked back at any particular one of them, they'd frown at me; that amused me and when Anita saw me grinning, she'd look toward the old chap in question and he'd immediately look away as though he feared she had a gorgon's gaze or something.

Then the grumbling started. At first it was just a hardly audible muttering, but then one of the old blokes went to the bar to refresh his drink and he said something to the barmaid, who replied in quite a loud voice "He should be bloody well ashamed of himself bringing a woman in here." I looked at Anita as I heard that. She didn't react, so I presume she hadn't heard what was said, (or I'm sure she'd have been ready to speak up and defend both my honour and her own.)

She stayed quiet, so I did too. When we didn't react, the grumbling became more obvious with remarks like "I don't know why they don't just bugger off into t'other room" and "I come drinking in 'ere to avoid bloody women" amongst them.

Just as I was about to tell them that I didn't care at all about what they felt, the door opened and in walked another man. This guy was big, and he was bald, (his head was shaved, probably to enable people to see the tattoos on his scalp) and he was built like a rugby player, a professional wrestler and a weight lifter all rolled into one.

He looked around the pub, and then straight at us. He then walked across to the bar, where the barmaid already had his drink waiting for him. He turned and leaned on the bar and I could feel his eyes burning into the back of my neck (I was right, Anita told me later that he was staring and scowling right at us both.)

The old men in there sat up straight and seemed to puff themselves up a bit now. Now their grumblings were less to each other and more directly toward us. They seemed to have a new found confidence and bravery since this man mountain had walked in.

In the end, I'd had enough so when one particularly aggressive old git said to me "Just piss off will you. You're not welcome here," I replied "I don't care. We've bought our drinks here and we're both going to drink them here."

At that point, the big guy at the bar shouted: "Oy!" which seemed to strike silence into the room, and I must admit, put the fear of god into me. Then he continued: "Shut the fuck up you old farts and let them enjoy their drinks in peace. It's the fucking law now, so live with it!"

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When is a Lake a Lake? Or a Mere? (or a Maer?) Or a Water? (or a Vatr?)

If you're at all familiar with the English Lake District in Cumbria (or spread over Cumberland, Westmorland & Northern Lancashire for the traditionalists,) you'll know that amongst the myriad of tarns, pots and smaller bodies of water, there are nineteen major lakes.

You might also be familiar with the standard trivia quiz question that arises from time to time: 

"How many lakes are there in the Lake District?"

...to which the answer is surprisingly "Only one!" This is down to the fact that only one of them actually contains the word 'lake' in its name, the others being an assortment of 'meres' and 'waters'.

But this all stems from the fact that the names we have for them now are all corruptions of the names they've traditionally had in various languages.

Historically, in what is now Cumbria, there have been various languages in use, by the different communities, the different classes and in the different areas. These include:
  • Cumbric which was a variation of Brythonic Celtic and was similar to modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
  • Old English, spoken in many parts of the area from the 8th century onwards.
  • Old Norse, as a result of the Norse colonization of areas of Cumbria in the 10th century, and predominant in many areas until the 12th century.
  • Anglo-Norman which came into use after the Norman conquest and co-existed with the more traditional languages, being spoken or at least written in some areas until the advent of Middle English in the 12th century.
Most of the places in the Lake District were named in one or more of these languages, and most of their names are still in use today. The origins of the names of each of the nineteen major lakes are as follows:


Bassenthwaite Lake : (Bastun Thveit or Beabstan Thveit) which means "Bastun's clearing" from 'Bastun' an Anglo-Norman nickname (for an Old English name Beabstan) and Old Norse thveit for clearing.

Bassenthwaite Lake "The lake in Beabstan's clearing"

Brother's Water : (Brooirs Vatn or Breior Vatn) From the Old Norse brooir for brother or breior for broad and vatn for lake. The true original name is somewhat lost in history due to the confusion in translation from the Old Norse, though it was known until the 19th century as Broad Water despite being anything but broad (?) which would suggest that the alternative origin is correct. There are unsubstantiated legends of two brothers drowning there, though these are more likely to have been started to support the change of name, rather than being the cause of the name change. 
Brother's Water "The brothers' lake"


Buttermere : (Butere Maer) from the Old English for "Lake by dairy pastures."
Buttermere "The lake by dairy pastures"

Coniston Water : (Konigs Tun Vatn) "Lake in the kings pasture" from Old Norse konigs tun for 'kings pasture' and vatn for lake.
Coniston Water "The lake in the king's pasture"

Crummock Water : (Crumbaco Vatn) "Lake of the crooked river" from Cumbric crumbaco for 'crooked river' and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Crummock Water "The lake of the crooked river"

Derwentwater : (Derwentio Vatn) "Lake of the oaken valley" from Cumbric derwentio for 'oaken valley' and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Derwentwater "The lake of the oaken valley"

Devoke Water : (Dubaco Vatn) "Lake of the little dark one" from Cumbric dubaco for small/dark and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Devoke Water "The lake of the little dark one"

Elter Water : (Eltr Vatn) "Lake of swans" from Old Norse eltr for swan and vatn for lake.
Elter Water "The lake of swans"

Ennerdale Water : (Iain Dalr Vatn) "Lake of the valley of the cold river" from Cumbric Iain for cold, and Old Norse dalr for valley and vatn for lake.
Ennerdale Water "The lake in the valley of the cold river"

Esthwaite Water : (Est Thveit Vatn) "Lake in the eastern clearing" from Old Norse est thveit for 'east clearing' and vatn for lake.
Esthwaite Water "The lake in the eastern clearing"

Grasmere : (Graes Maer) from the Old English for "Lake in pasture."
Grasmere "The lake in pasture"

Haweswater : (Hafs Vatn) "Lake of the he-goat" from the Old Norse hafs for 'male goat'; and vatn for lake.
Haweswater "The lake of the he-goat"

Hayeswater : (Either Vatn or Eith Vatn) which means "Eithr's lake" from an Anglo-Norman nickname 'Eith' (for an Old Norse name Eithr) and Old Norse vatn for lake.
Hayeswater "Eithr's lake"

Loweswater : (Lauf Saer Vatn) "Lake by the leafy place" from the Old Norse lauf saer for 'leafy place'; and vatn for lake.
Loweswater "The lake by the leafy place"

Rydal Water (this is a modern name, named for the valley of Rydal;) it was previously called...
Routhmere : (Rauoi a maer) "Lake of the trout river" from the Old Norse rauoi a for 'trout river' (the River Rothay) and the Old English maer for lake.
Rydal Water (Routhmere) "The lake of the trout river"

Thirlmere : (Thyrel Maer) from the Old English for "Lake with a gap"
Thirlmere "The lake with a gap"

Ullswater : (either Ulf Vatn or Ullr Vatn or Ulphus Vatn) "Ulf's lake" or "Ullr's lake" or "Ulphus' lake" from the Old Norse for either Ulf (a norse chief) or for Ullr (a norse god) or from Ulphus (a local saxon lord) and from vatn the Old Norse for lake.
Ullswater "Ulf's lake"

Wast Water - originally Wasdale Water : (Vatns Dalr Vatn) "Lake in the valley of water" from Old Norse vatn for lake/water and dalr for valley.
Wast Water (Wasdale Water) "The lake in the valley of water"

Windermere : (Vinandr Maer) "Vinandr's lake" from an Old Norse personal name 'Vinandr' and from Old English maer for lake.
Windermere "Vinandr's lake"

Personally I feel that if instead of using the corrupted names, we used the translations of their names from the original languages, they'd sound a whole lot more romantic:


"The lake in Beabstan's clearing"
"The brothers' lake"
"The lake by dairy pastures"
"The lake in the king's pasture"
"The lake of the crooked river"
"The lake of the oaken valley"
"The lake of the little dark one"
"The lake of swans"
"The lake in the valley of the cold river"
"The lake in the eastern clearing"
"The lake in pasture"
"The lake of the he-goat"
"Eithr's lake"
"The lake by the leafy place"
"The lake of the trout river"
"The lake with a gap"
"Ulf's lake"
"The lake in the valley of water"
"Vinandr's lake"

...and it would finally put an end to that stupid trivia trick question!



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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Welcome Home...


When they come home in aeroplanes and boats, how will they be met?

Welcomed by friendly family faces?
Greeted by cheerful children dressed in Sunday best?

Or will there be grim generals in smart tailored uniforms?
And sombre faced politicians, there at last to do their duty?

Will the flags be carried aloft and waved before them on their way?
Or will they be draped gently over the boxes they've come home in?

Should flowers be cast before them in their victorious march?
Or laid upon the ground in quiet remembrance?

Will cheers be heard as we place wreaths upon their heads to bless their brows?
Or will other wreaths be placed upon their graves in silence?

Are rousing speeches to be made telling tales that celebrate brave deeds?
Or will there instead be doleful eulogies recited in hushed tones?

We promised them glory.
We offered them the world.
We said they'd be heroes.

Did we forget to mention that might be dead heroes?

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Available At All Leading Stores!"

The face of retail in the UK has changed incredibly over the past couple of decades. With Sunday trading becoming more common, out of town shopping becoming the norm, and more and more stores opening 24 hours per day, the way we shop and the times we shop nowadays bears little resemblance to how we used to 20 or 30 years ago.

Right up until the mid '70s, the local corner shop was a common sight, whether it be a grocers or a general store, many streets had them, but with competition from the supermarkets these gradually disappeared until there was little other than local newsagents and tobacconists remaining.

Then for a while in the '80s there seemed to be a resurgence in local stores. This new type of local shop was invariably run by hard working immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, and their policy was to provide whatever the local community might require, no matter that it meant that they'd have to work unsociable hours for very little pay. OK, so sometimes the prices were exorbitant, but it was often the convenience the customers paid the price for.

My friend Mick lived in a street of terraced houses in Leeds back in the late 1980s. At the end of the street was a shop run by an old Pakistani gentleman, who prided himself on being able to provide just about anything his customers wanted, at whatever time of day they required it.

Mick didn't make use of this shop very often, except for when his friend from London visited.

Mick's friend was bewildered by the mere existence of this shop, since they had nothing like it where he lived, and was astounded at the range of goods on offer, so much so that whenever he visited Mick in Leeds, they'd play a little game, where he'd challenge Mick to buy something from the shop which he was sure wouldn't be available. Mick always won this little game, because whatever his friend demanded was always in stock.

One day Mick received a phone call from his friend to arrange a visit up north that weekend. He'd be arriving early Friday evening, and he said to Mick: "...and this time, I've DEFINITELY thought of something the shop won't have!"

So it was that on their way to the pub on Friday night, Mick and his friend popped into the corner shop. His friend walked up to the counter and said to the proprietor: "Good evening. I'd like a can of BLACKBOARD PAINT please."

The shopkeeper looked a little confused and replied "Blackboard paint sir?"

"Yes," replied Mick's friend, "You know the stuff. It's black and you use it to touch up blackboards."

The shopkeeper said that he'd check his stock if they'd care to wait and disappeared into the store room at the back of his shop.

Mick and his friend waited for what seemed like about ten minutes before his friend said: "He's not going to have any, is he?" to which Mick reluctantly replied: "No. I think you've got him this time. It looks like you've finally won the game."

They waited a while longer, certain that the shopkeeper would eventually emerge and apologize for not having the required item, until the store room door opened, the shopkeepers head appeared around it and they heard him say: "I'm sorry sir...."

"Yes?" replied Mick's friend, confident in his impending victory, but being more smug than was really necessary.

"Would you like a large tin or a small tin?" replied the shopkeeper.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

A Couple Of Anecdotes

Now that it's becoming increasingly likely that my career in IT is all but over, I thought I'd share a couple of anecdotes with you. I hope you're as amused by them as I was when the episodes occurred, and as I've been when I've retold them over the years.


-------------------- 1 --------------------

Back in my mainframe days, there was a 'punch girl' who worked in the data prep department who was particularly well endowed in the chest area. One day in summer, someone mentioned that she'd decided to not bother with a bra that day and was wearing a quite flimsy t-shirt. My colleague John was particularly enamoured with this lady, and that day he'd arrived at work a little late, and was told about this particular dress choice of hers. He quickly grabbed some papers from his desk drawer, picked up a couple of floppy disks (eight inch ones, back in those days,) and headed down to the data prep room.

When he arrived, the object of his desire was in conversation with one of her workmates, so he spent some minutes waiting, while he gazed lustfully at the assets she had on display.

Eventually, having finished with her conversation, she turned to him and said: "Hello John, what can I do for you?"

To which John unfortunately replied: "I just wondered if you could punch up this couple of tits for me!"


-------------------- 2 --------------------

A business analyst colleague of mine was once walking past one of the offices in the building where we worked, when he heard the phone ringing. He knew there was nobody there to answer it, because even though it was a shared office, one of its occupants, a Glaswegian chap, had left the company about three weeks ago, and the other, my colleague's own manager was away on a business trip.

He went into the office and answered the phone on his manager's desk. He was greeted by a strong Glaswegian accent asking for his manager by name.

"I'm afraid he's away on business today," he replied; then because he was sure he recognised the voice, he added, "and how are things going for you there then? Everything ok?"

"Yes, I suppose so," the caller answered, and then politely added "And how are things there? OK?"

"Could be better," my colleague replied, "We're having a few problems with your countryman."

"My countryman? Who do you mean?"

"That new twat of a financial director. He's an absolutely awkward bastard. It's not enough for him to tell us what he wants. He insists on telling us exactly how we should go about providing it for him. I can tell you, the bossy tosser is causing us all types of problems. I wish he'd just shut the fuck up and leave us to do our jobs, and stop with his frigging interfering."

At this point, the voice on the telephone asked "Do you know who you're speaking to?" 

This was the first time that it crossed my colleague's mind that this might not be a social call from his manager's ex office mate.

"No," he replied sheepishly, "Who am I speaking to?"

"This is that 'twat of a financial director.' You know: the 'absolute awkward bastard' you were talking about."

There was a moment of silence while my colleague took stock of the situation, after which he could only say "Oh. And do you know who you're speaking to?"

"No I don't"

"Well thank fuck for that," replied my colleague and put the phone down.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Campaign Debriefing

Memorandum

To: The Supreme Commander, Galactic Invasion Force
From: Senior Intelligence Officer, Observation Saucer Number 4, Earth Expeditionary Force.
Subject: Campaign Debriefing

Commander,

It is with great regret that I inform you of the failure of our attempts to invade the planet Earth. Our entire offensive force has been wiped out to a man. Of the observation saucers accompanying them, the first three were all shot from the sky; my saucer alone survived, enabling me to report back to you with this grim news.

Our forces vastly outnumbered those of the earthlings and our firepower was eminently superior, so it would seem that it was our strategy that was at fault, since it should not have been possible for a single earthling defender to wipe out some sixty of our most battle hardened troops.

The earthling defender was equipped with an inferior single shot weapon, but still managed to destroy every one of our attackers, with nothing more to defend him than a handful of fragile barrier structures. Our troops had some success in inflicting damage on these barriers, but didn't manage to injure the sole defender himself in any way whatsoever. It seemed that he had some two or three of his compatriots in reserve as reinforcements, but frankly he didn't need them.

Should we attempt to risk any more of our comrades' lives on a further venture, may I suggest the following changes to our strategy:
  1. I cannot see the advantage of our usual attack formation. Standing in five rows of twelve and simply shuffling from side to side makes us an easy target for our enemies. This is, I'm sure, excellent tactics for line dancing, but in the realms of armed combat it falls somewhat short of ideal.
  2. I assume the coordinated raising and lowering of our arms as we move is meant to instil fear into our enemies, but it clearly doesn't work; additionally it had the effect of distracting the men from the task in hand since they had to keep checking that they were keeping time with colleagues adjacent to them.
  3. Our troops MUST be retrained in the use of their weapons; today I saw the majority of our men simply firing randomly downward toward Earth with no attempt whatsoever to aim at specific targets. Also, when our enemy did take cover behind one of his defensive structures, we should have pressed home our advantage by concentrating our firepower to either edge of the said structure, to prevent him from escaping, instead of simply continuing our fixed formation allowing him to intermittently pop out from behind his defences to take sniper shots at us.
  4. On the occasion when our forces, or what was left of them, did get close to the Earth, to their credit, they did speed up their attack, but rather than seize the advantage and attack en masse, they blindly followed orders by continuing with their fixed attack formation, making themselves sitting targets to be picked off one by one
  5. We must consider using stealth to our advantage. If we did, we could probably be upon the Earth before its defenders were even aware of our presence. It does NOT help if our forces continue to announce their arrival by chanting "dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum" repeatedly as they advance. Likewise, my own saucer would have had improved chances of overflying the battle arena with less risk of attack if we hadn't been forced to go "woowoowoowoowoowoo" as we passed.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

FFS Parents: Wake Up!

You worry about your kids, don't you? It's only natural. 

But I don't like to interfere in my son's life too much. I asked him where he was going once, and he gave me such a look, I decided I'd respect his privacy in the future, so now I don't ask.

I was a bit worried about some of the other teenagers he was hanging around with, but he comes home safe every night: well, I must admit he doesn't actually come home at all some nights, but when he does, he comes home safe. I don't know where he's been all night when we don't see him. I don't like to pry.

I suggested to him a few months back that now he's fifteen, he might like to consider getting himself a part time job. "It'll give you some spending money of your own," I told him. I wanted to say that it might teach him a bit about responsibility too, but I didn't mention that, in case it upset him.

"Don't worry about it mum," he said, "I'm ok for money. I have it all in hand" 

I must say I was worried about how he'd manage. Of course his dad and I give him whatever pocket money he needs, any amount he asks for in fact. But of course he needs things like smart phones and iPods. And those designer labels and trainers don't come cheap you know. After all, we don't want him to appear deprived when he's with his friends.

Anyway, it seems my worries were unfounded. He is ok for money. He must be, though I don't know how, (I don't like to pry,) but the other day he came home early in the morning and I suspect he must have been working hard on a night shift somewhere because he was exhausted, almost like he'd been running  all night.

But the money he's getting must be good, because he seems to have already done all his Christmas shopping. He's got everybody a pair of Reeboks. (I don't know when I'll wear mine, and I'm sure his gran won't be too impressed, but it's the thought that counts.) He's also got his little brother a new games console, and one of those new iPad things. He's bought me and his dad a lovely plasma telly, though not quite as nice as the one he now has in his own bedroom. But then, if he's gone to all the trouble of getting them, he deserves the best for himself.

I've just switched his on while I'm cleaning his room. It's a lovely picture. Even the news looks beautiful and I don't usually watch the news, (well, I don't like to pry.) Oh! what's all this about riots and looting?

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Monday, August 01, 2011

What's in a name?

A little piece to highlight the ridiculously counterintuitive pronunciations we have for some words and names in English. Hopefully it will amuse you too.

So there I was sitting in the reception area waiting for my interview to begin.

I was surprisingly relaxed: this wasn't the usual type of interview. For the first time in my life I'd actually been head hunted. I'd received a phone call from a selective recruitment consultancy to tell me that this company were particularly interested, and after a couple of emails and a letter, they'd confirmed that the job was mine.

I'd received a further email the following day, arranging this meeting. They'd described it as more of a 'get to know' session than an interview, but I'd always been particularly cautious, and my subconscious self kept insisting that until I was officially on the payroll, the job wasn't really mine, and to me, this was still an interview.

I looked around the seating area in reception. There were two or three other guys there waiting for meetings, but each of them had what looked like full briefcases and laptop bags. One had a flip chart under his arm and another seemed to be overwhelmed by samples. They were all clearly salesmen. I realised that I must look a lot more relaxed than any of them did.

The lift doors opened and a young girl emerged. She went over to the reception desk for a moment and when she turned to face the seating area she was carrying one of those clip-on 'visitor' badges.

"Saint John?" she called. We all looked up, then the salesmen started looking from one to another. "Saint John," she repeated, "Is Saint John here?"

I stood up, and was immediately met by puzzled looks from the others present. The girl walked over to me. "Are you Saint John?" she asked.

"Sinjun," I replied, "It's pronounced Sinjun."

"What?"

"My name; it's spelled St John, but it's pronounced Sinjun."

"It's pronounced Saint John, as far as I've always been taught."

"When used as a name though, It's pronounced Sinjun."

"Fair enough. It's your name. Would you put this badge on, and follow me please?"

She led me toward the lift and we got in. I watched as she pressed the button. Fourteenth floor. Bugger! We'd be in the lift for quite a while then. I hated using a lift with a stranger. It always seemed so difficult to make conversation in a lift, though I always felt that bit more compelled to try.

We both stood facing the front and I gazed at the lights above the door as the numbers illuminated one by one. 4... 5... I shuffled my feet a little... 6... 7... The girl sighed... 8... Suddenly, the urge to converse was too much for me to ignore. And though I regretted it as soon as I opened my mouth, I came out with the most ridiculously inane thing I could possibly have said: "So, you work here then?" 

She glanced down from the numbers for a brief moment, turned her head to face me, just long enough for the dirty look she gave me to register, and replied "Well, yeah. Of course I do."

"No, I meant to say, how long have you worked here for?"

"Almost two years now," she said, "I'm Trudi's, Mrs James' PA." She emphasized the 'PA' bit as though she was really proud of it.

"It's Trudi James that I'm seeing," I said, latching on to the name I recognised, then realised what an absolutely pointless statement that was.

"Yes, I know," she replied, "That's why I'm taking you to her office."

I expected another dirty look at that point; this girl had clearly already decided that I was a bit of an idiot. Then the 'ding' of the lift sounded and I looked up at the numbers over the door: 14.

I was confused. I was sure I heard the whoosh of the doors opening, but I was still staring at the expanse of shiny steel facing me.

"This way." I heard the girls voice. I turned and realised that the lift had two sets of doors. The one's we'd been staring at all the way up here only opened on the ground floor. All the other floors were accessed via the doors that had opened behind me. She turned and began walking down the corridor as I followed behind her. She was shaking her head slowly from side to side, and I was sure I heard her mutter something like 'Dick'

She showed me into an office where a woman and a guy, both about my age were sitting. The woman stood as I entered and walked around the desk with her hand reaching out to shake mine. "Saint John?" she said.

Before I'd had chance to say anything, my escort spoke up. "No," she said, "It's sinjun, apparently." She emphasised the 'apparently' as though she was convinced I'd been lying to her.

"Thank you Janice," my host replied, "will you get us some coffee please?" Janice left by the door we'd just come through. Trudi, as I realised this was, turned to the man still seated: "This is Ben, my assistant," she said, "You and he will be working at the same level, my two lieutenants." She chuckled. She'd pronounced 'lieutenants' the American way, though in what was clearly a Manchester accent. I felt the urge to point out it was 'leFFtenants' but decided to hold my tongue.

Ben stretched out his arm to shake hands, though didn't bother to stand. "Sinjun? That's an odd name," he said, "especially spelled like that."

"Tell me about it," I replied and forced a chuckle. I wasn't really amused at all. I'd been through situations like this so many times.

"Talking of names, and spelling," Trudi said, "Your surname isn't going to be easy to remember either, or to spell. I've never met anyone with a triple barrelled name."

"I know," I said, "It's the result of having a father from a stuck-up English family, and a mother from a pretentious lowland Scottish family." I realised that I was being a little pretentious myself, feeling it necessary to point out that mum's family were not just Scots, but Lowland Scots.

Ben reached over and pulled Trudi's notepad toward him: "Marjorie-banks-Chol-monder-lee-bel-voowar" he read slowly. "About the only bit of that I'll remember is the Marjoribanks bit. Was that your mother's name then: Marjorie Banks?"

"It was my mother's surname," I replied, "and it's pronounced 'marshbanks'."

"So why's it spelt Marjorie Banks then?"

"That's all part of the pretentious clan culture my mum's family stems from," I said, "though my father's English family, the Chumly Beavers were no less snobbish. I just got stuck with both names."

"The Chumly Beavers?" laughed Ben, "sounds like a bloody cartoon series. What the hell is that?"

"It's the obscure pronunciation of my name again," I replied, "Cholmonderley-Belvoir is pronounced 'Chumly Beaver'."

Ben was doing his best to stifle a giggle by now. Trudi was looking puzzled. "So exactly how is your full name pronounced?" she asked.

"Well," I said, (I'd been through this routine so many, many times,) "it's spelled 'St John Marjoribanks-Cholmonderley-Belvoir' but it's pronounced 'Sinjun Marshbanks-Chumly-Beaver'. I know, it's a pain, but it's something I've had to live with all my life."

"What would you prefer us to call you?" Trudi asked as she smiled sympathetically.

"Sinjun will do nicely," I replied.

"Not BEAVER then?" chuckled Ben, "I quite like the idea of that. I don't know if I'll feel comfortable calling you Sinjun all the time, when I know it's really Saint John. Don't you have a middle name?"

"I do," I replied. I took a deep breath, knowing the confusion that was to come, so I pronounced my middle name as slowly as I could, "it's Dee-ell"

"And what does that stand for?" asked Trudi.

"It doesn't stand for anything," I replied, "It's just Dee-ell. It's actually spelled D-A-L-Z-I-E-L. It was my mother's father's name, lowland Scottish again."

"So he was called Dee-ell Marshbanks," Trudi said, "but it was spelled Dalziel Marjoribanks?"

She was getting the hang of it. "Yes," I replied, trying not to look too annoyed.

"Hey," Ben said as he chuckled, "Do you have a sister called Elsie?"

"No, I don't have any sisters," I replied, looking puzzled.

Ben laughed. "No," he said, "I thought if your parents gave you initials as middle names, they might have a daughter called Elsie - L C, get it?"

I forced a half laugh, "Oh yeah, very amusing. I haven't heard that one before." I actually hadn't. I'd heard hundreds of others, but nobody so far had been sad enough to make jokes about my name by making up girls names.

"That's enough Ben," said Trudi, "We'll get the hang of Sinjun's name soon enough." She grinned at me as she said 'Sinjun' as though she was really pleased with herself for saying it correctly. I smiled back and gave her a  congratulatory nod.

"Or even Ivy," Ben was chuckling to himself now, "You see: Ivy - I V. Are you with me?"

Janice knocked and walked in with a pot of coffee and cups on a tray. She put it down on a table at the side of the office.

"I know names can be quite embarrassing some times," Trudi said, "before I got married I was a Longbottom. I hated that. Janice has an embarrassing middle name too."

"Nobody," Janice said as she turned, "I repeat NOBODY, is ever going to learn what my middle name is. It's far too embarrassing."

"I'm a Pratt," Ben said.

I couldn't resist it. "You certainly seem like one to me Ben," I said. Trudi sniggered, Janice laughed out loud. Ben wasn't pleased but knew there was little he could do about my quip.

"I'd rather be a Pratt than a Beaver," he said, "Hey Jan. Did you know that Saint John Diesel here is a Beaver?"

"Can someone tell me where the gents is," I asked.

It was Trudi that replied. "They're down near the main office," she said, "Janice will show you the way."

I followed Janice out of the office and we walked further down the corridor to where it widened into a big open area where about fifteen or twenty people were working. A few of them looked up and one of them walked over and said hello to Janice. He looked at me. Janice decided to introduce us. 

"George," she said, "this is your new boss." George reached out and we shook hands. "This is George Phillips," Janice said, "and this is Mister Marshbanks-Chumly-Beaver."

"You pronounced it exactly right," I said to Janice after George had gone back to his desk.

"Did I? Oh good," she replied, "I was taken aback a bit by the Saint John, Sinjun bit, so while the coffee was brewing I got out your file and looked up each bit of your name on the internet."

I smiled. I was beginning to like this girl.

"And don't you bother about Ben," she said, "You were dead right about him being a prat. Never did anyone have a more fitting name than that!"

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Taking the Kids Camping...

What the government, with such little imagination, refer to as 'Early May Bank Holiday' in England was a bit special back in 1995. It was special in general because it was the first and only time since this bank holiday was instigated that it didn't take place on the first Monday in May. This was due to the proclamation by the government, that they had decided we all should celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of V.E. day, but that to save them the trouble of giving the nation an extra bank holiday, they would be moving the existing holiday back a week to May 8th.

For me, it was special, because that was the weekend I decided to introduce my two eldest children to camping.


Preparations....

The two weekends before, we'd taken them out shopping, for general camping equipment, plus we had to buy them rucksacks and walking boots.

Finding rucksacks for a 6 year old and a 7 year old that actually served the required purpose was difficult, since most of the ones for kids of that age were designed to carry not much more than P.E. kit and a ninja turtles luchbox, but we managed to find two reasonably small sacks at our local camping supplies shop that despite being very limited in capacity, still had all the devices for attaching equipment with straps. We tried them on the kids while we were in the shop, and they looked massive on them, but that seemed to be part of the appeal for them, so we bought them.

We almost gave up on finding walking boots: it seems that walking boots for children only exist in the most expensive brands, and since they'd hardly use them at all before they grew out of them, I was a little reluctant to spend almost twice as much on a pair of boots for each of them than I'd spent on my own earlier that year. We'd just about resigned ourselves to letting them make do with sturdy trainers instead, when we spotted some reasonably priced leather trekking boots in children's sizes as a one off line in a discount shop in town.

We decided that we'd visit the Lake District. We already had a family rail card; using that would provide a 33% discount on my train fare, and in those days, the kids went for a flat fare of £1.

The night before we left they were excited and wanted to pack their own rucksacks, but we decided to let them put in their clothes, their mugs and their cutlery, and told them to leave the rest to their mother and I.

The morning after, we were all up early. My own backpack looked a little daunting. The few clothes I was taking, along with a single pair of light trainers didn't pose a problem, but the four man dome tent, my sleeping bag and roller mat, and all the rest of the camping equipment either contained within or fastened outside with straps, made me wonder how the hell I was going to manage to walk with it. I tried it on though, and once I'd hoisted it high on my back and fastened the shoulder straps (a little too) tightly, it didn't seem so bad.

The kids wanted to put their own packs on even before they'd got dressed but we managed to persuade them to have their breakfast and then dress themselves before they bothered.

Each of their sacks carried their clothes, a change of shoes and their personal equipment like cutlery, a white enameled tin plate and a tin mug (camping is so much more exciting when you eat and drink from tin utensils.) In addition, they each had a sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of their sacks and a rubber sleeping mat, rolled up and fastened under the top flap of their rucksack. 

My seven year old daughter was the first to don her rucksack. She seemed to struggle a little at first, until we'd tightened her straps, and told her about the importance of carrying it high and not hanging down in the small of her back.

My son, who was six at the time was very small, even for six, and I worried how he'd cope. But he seemed to have a point to prove and wanted to outdo his sister, so he helped as we hoisted his sack onto his back, then braced himself as we pulled the straps tight. He then stood up straight.... and promptly fell over backwards.

After some distribution of loads, I ended up setting out with a sleeping back attached to either side of my pack, as well as having my own hanging underneath, and with what little room was left inside my pack, crammed with most of my son's equipment, and a few items of my daughter's.

I strained under the weight as we left the house. My wife asked if I was sure that I could manage. I wasn't sure I could, but I wasn't going to call off the trip, so I'd just have to.

So with what we thought was everything we needed, we set out. It turned out that there were two things we'd left behind: my camera, (so all the pictures in the rest of this post have been lifted from Google Maps,) and my hat, but more of that later.

Saturday May 6

Hull to Windermere and the ferry at Bowness...

The way to the Lake District from where I live in Hull requires us to cross the entire country from East to West. It involves two train journeys of about two hours each, with a change in the middle at Manchester. Piccadilly railway station in Manchester is a large station, and sod's law states that the platform we arrived on from Hull, was as far away as it possibly could be from the platform we needed for the train to Windermere. 

I thought there'd be plenty of time to change trains, but that didn't take into account the time taken to strap everyone into their packs, then unburden them again when they wanted the toilet. This was before the days of the travelator at Piccadilly, and the lifts were out of order too, so we ended up running to our platform, the kids racing ahead in front, while I followed behind as best as I could, being burdened with my load and carrying a smaller rucksack in each hand.

Despite it being a bank holiday weekend, and even though I hadn't thought to reserve our seats, we managed to get a table to ourselves for most of this second leg of our journey. I thought it was because people felt sympathy for me struggling with two small children and three rucksacks, but everyone seemed keen to chat with my kids for the duration of the journey, so I don't think sympathy for me had anything to do with it.

As we left north Lancashire and entered Cumbria, the kids got excited to see the landscape becoming more hilly and rugged, (where we live is totally flat, so hills held a special appeal for them, and for me too if I'm honest,) and my daughter and son sat at opposite sides of the table from each other in the seats by the window looking out as the scenery got more and more interesting.

My daughter was troubled for a while by the sun shining in her eyes, and I thought about swapping places with her, where I sat, beside my son, but she insisted she wanted to sit by the window. After a while she seemed to be managing much better and I asked if she was OK now. 

"Yes," she replied, "the sun was blinding me, but now it's gone behind a mountain."

My six year old son was tutting and shaking his head. "The sun hasn't gone anywhere," he corrected his sister.

I was quite impressed by that, so I said to him: "Well done son, you're right, it isn't the sun that's moved."

"So what has happened then?" his sister asked.

"It's obvious," he replied, "the mountain has moved in front of the sun!"

Our destination once we'd left the train was Hawkshead on the other side of Windermere between that lake and Coniston Water. Once we'd arrived at Windermere station, we had two choices: Catching a bus around the top of the lake, via Ambleside, or walking down to Bowness-on-Windermere and catching the Ferry. Of course this would mean we'd have a fair amount of walking to do once we'd crossed the lake too, so my own personal preference was for the bus. The kids chose the bus too, as soon as they'd seen the open topped buses. I didn't fancy dragging our luggage all the way up the stairs, but thought we'd be able to leave it safely in a rack downstairs. 

It turned out though that the open topped buses didn't go anyway near Hawkshead; that service was provided by smaller vehicles, almost minibuses, and the kids decided that they'd rather walk instead. Despite my pleading with them, I finally resigned myself to their decision, and we started the trek down to the lake side at Bowness.

I'm glad we did actually, because the scenery on the way was lovely, even though it was mostly through built up semi-urban areas. To me it brought back memories of earlier visits to the lakes; to the kids it was the excitement of being somewhere new that was attractive.

Now, at that time, we'd often keep the kids occupied while we were out walking by encouraging them to play a little game. What they had to do was to watch out for those four wheel drive cars carrying their spare wheels at the rear; whoever spotted one first would point and call out 'wheel on the back' while myself or their mother kept score. A simple game, I know, but exciting enough for kids of that age, and it had served to provide a lot of peace from squabbling and such on past days out.

The problem was that out in the Lake District, being rural, and being somewhat more affluent than where we came from, there were a hell of a lot more 'all-terrain' vehicles around. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be one, so as we walked, my journey was accompanied by an almost constant chant of "Wheel on the back!" from one or another of the kids, and often by both in unison.

"What's the score dad?" my son asked me as we walked down the road into Bowness bay.

"I'm not sure son," I said, "I think I lost count at 196 to 187. Let's just count it as a draw."

Bowness bay stands out against the rest of the Lake District in seeming a little over-touristy. Once you get to know the place, you realise it isn't, but it's very commercial and well visited, especially on bank holiday weekends. The kids were entranced by it: "Can we go on the boats, dad?" "Can we feed the swans, dad?" "Can we ride on that road train, dad?" Requests bombarded my ears. We didn't have time to ride on anything, so we fed the swans for a while, then I got them an ice-cream each (the kids that is, not the swans,) and we carried on down to the ferry.

Waiting for the Windermere ferry

We'd just missed the boat when we got there, so we sat on a low wall alongside the queue of cars waiting for it's next crossing. The weather had turned very warm, and I regretted not joining the kids in an ice-cream. I'd forgotten to bring my hat from home, and the sun was really bothering the top of my 'follicly challenged' head. I had a large white handkerchief I'd been wiping my face with as we'd walked in the heat, and as we waited, I started to tie a knot in each of the corners. The kids asked me what I was doing, and I just told them to wait and see. I placed the knotted handkerchief on my head which reduced the kids to fits of giggles. I laughed, removed it and put it back into my pocket. The ferry arrived and we boarded for our crossing.

Bowness through the Sawreys and on to Hawksead...

At the other side, we started walking, The route was through the two villages of Far Sawrey and Near Sawrey, then along the east side of Esthwaite Water and from there into Hawkshead.

There are two ways to Far Sawrey: via a steep rugged climb up Claife Heights, or up the more gentle rise along the road and around, which though much further, seemed preferable considering our load and the hot sun. The sun really seemed to be beating down now, and after a while, since we were virtually alone on the road, I donned my four cornered knotted hanky again. The kids laughed at me of course, but that was something I could put up with for the comfort afforded to my head, and if people in passing cars should see me, well 'so what?'

Eventually after what seemed like ages, the road curved to the north-west and we reached the southern edge of Far Sawrey. There's a pub there with a pleasant beer garden, so we decided to stop for refreshment.

The Sawrey Hotel - scene of my crushing embarrassment

I helped the kids off with their packs, which we propped up against each other on the grass and 'installed'  both kids at a table in the beer garden, then I went over to the public bar of the hotel to order our drinks.

Being the public bar it was full of locals, rather than tourists; I was pleasantly surprised when first one, then another smiled and nodded at me as I entered. I ordered our drinks and while waiting for my change, turned to see an old couple beside me at the bar, beaming at me. I smiled back. The barmaid returned my change and I asked her if she had a tray. She smiled back at me and said she'd get me one. By the time she returned with the tray, she was smiling so much, it was as if she was almost giggling. I took our drinks outside, passing more locals, all of them raising their glasses and smiling broadly as I passed.

When I reached our table in the beer garden, I gave the kids their drinks and said to them something like: "I must say, the people around here are ever so friendly."

The reply I got from my daughter wasn't one I'd expected, but it was more enlightening than anything else she might have said at that time. She said: "Dad, do you know you still have your hanky on your head?"

After our stop, we walked on through Near Sawrey and down the road toward Hawkshead. We passed Esthwaite water and it looked so cool and inviting, that when we found an area accessible from the road, we walked over to a bench there and stopped for a rest. The kids asked if they could have a little paddle. It was warm and I suspected their feet might benefit from it, so I said OK. Afterwards, after helping my son get his socks and boots back on, I helped my daughter lace up her boots properly and we prepared to continue. 

My son however had decided at this point that he'd carried his rucksack just as far as he possibly could and to avoid arguments, I picked it up and slung the straps over what unoccupied part of my shoulder I could find. Of course a couple of miles later, the same thought occurred to my daughter, and not one for missing an opportunity, she pointed out that since I was carrying his pack, it was only fair that I carried hers too.

So as we turned the final bend in the road, and walked into Hawkshead, the kids' feelings of excitement were matched by my feelings of relief. I could see the multicoloured sight of the campsite just outside the village and so could the kids, as they ran ahead. They were standing at the gates when I eventually caught up. We booked in and pitched our tent and once finished I lay back exhausted. Then one or the other of the kids said: "What are we going to do now, dad?" I didn't want to move. I was tired, hot and thirsty. Then one of them said: "What are we having for tea?" I brightened up as I told them: "As a special treat kids, tonight, we're going to eat in THE PUB!"

The first evening and the longest night...

Eating in a pub, to the kids was like eating in the finest of restaurants. To be honest, as an experience, even to me it wasn't much like eating in a pub back home.

On the bright side, the menu was much more varied than the standard 'pub grub' I was used to, though the children's menu seemed to consist of the usual 'with chips and beans' range of burgers, fish fingers, chicken nuggets, etc.

On the not so bright side, the prices were a hell of a lot more expensive than I was used to, especially when the kids both wanted to choose something from the adult menu. I asked at the bar if they did children's portions of the meals on the main menu, but was met with a look of astonishment. I quickly and casually checked my head for knotted handkerchiefs,  before I realised the astonishment was because I wanted to feed my children something other than deep fried junk food. As it happens, the kids both wanted the same thing from the menu, so I managed to collar one of the ladies serving the food and sweet talked her into providing us with an extra plate and cutlery so that they could share a meal.

The Red Lion, Hawkshead - Dinner Saturday Evening

The food was pleasant, the beer more so, (I assume the cola and lemonade was of an acceptable standard too, since there were no complaints from the kids,) so after eating we decided, since it was a warm night, we'd move to one of the tables outside for more drinks. Obviously I didn't want to get anything like drunk, since I was solely responsible for the kids in a strange place away from home, so I decided to pace myself.

Drinking slowly often provides a sense of relaxation that you don't get when you're in a group of friends, each one keeping pace with the rest. There are times when you realise that the point isn't to drink, it's to enjoy  your surroundings, and the drink just serves to relax you and to help you enjoy it that little bit more.

I was settling in for a pleasant evening of relaxation. The kids had slowed down and were being less boisterous than I remembered them being for a long time. I'd had three pints, though over such a long period, that I wasn't feeling the effects at all. I decided that having another wouldn't show me up as an irresponsible parent, so I asked the kids what they wanted.

"I want to go to bed," My son said. His sister agreed.

"But I thought you wanted to stay up late," I asked them, "I thought you were looking forward to staying out until it got dark." I looked around, the sun had sunk but it was hardly dark, just pleasantly dusky.

"Let's go to bed dad, please," they both asked. So we made our way back to the campsite. On the way, I popped into the village store to buy groceries for breakfast. "You're open late," I said to the shopkeeper. 

"You just caught us before closing," he answered. "We're open until eight pm every night though."

So by eight thirty, the kids were changed for bed, and tucked up in their sleeping bags. There was nothing else for me to do, but to get to bed myself, and I was still a little weary from the journey, so for the first time in more years than I could remember, I was in bed and asleep by nine o'clock.

I was awoken at about ten thirty by screams of panic coming from my son's sleeping bag. I awoke with a start. It was an adult sized sleeping bag, and he'd sunk down into it in his sleep, to the extent that when he'd woke up he was curled up in the bottom quarter of it. He couldn't uncurl himself and couldn't get out so he panicked, and screamed out loud, waking me and probably almost everyone else on the campsite, though noticeably NOT his sister.

I found a solution: I took one of the webbing straps from my rucksack and fastened it tight around his sleeping bag about halfway down, (after rescuing him from it of course; I was hardly likely to imprison him in it; what kind of parent do you take me for?) so after I'd shortened it I persuaded him that he wouldn't get stuck again and managed to get him to go back to sleep.

What seemed like moments later, my daughter woke up. She needed the toilet. The toilet block was only about fifty yards or so away, but I couldn't let her go by herself, but then I couldn't leave her brother alone in the tent either, so after struggling into my trousers and waking my son, the three of us trooped over to the toilets. Having made certain that they'd both made use of the facilities, we returned to our tent; I shortened my daughter's sleeping bag like I had her brother's and all of us finally got back to sleep.

Now I'm an early riser; I always have been: I'm usually up between five and six am every morning. So when I'd been asleep, since nine, it was very unlikely that I was going to sleep through even until that time.

So it was that I suddenly awoke. I realised where I was after a second or two, and then lay there in my sleeping bag between two slumbering children. I was wide awake. I wondered what time it was. I reached out for the camping light and shone it onto my watch. Five past four: too early to start breakfast then. The problem was that my watch was telling me it was the middle of the night, but my body was telling me it was time to get up. I thought about trying to force myself back to sleep, though I had no idea how. Not only that, how would that leave me by eight thirty tonight, when the kids' bedtime came around again?

I struggled out of my sleeping bag and once more into my pants. I reached out and retrieved my cigarettes, unzipped the tent and stepped outside. It was dark. Living in the city, you don't realise how incredibly dark it does get in the country. I sat cross legged on the grass and lit a cigarette. It was a warm night and sitting there was very pleasant indeed. I reached into the tent and retrieved a carton of milk. I opened it and sat on the grass, drinking milk and enjoying a smoke. I realised I should have done this at nine o'clock the day before. It wasn't a bad way to spend the evening.

It was then that I heard footsteps, and a middle aged lady in a bright ruby red velour dressing gown and slippers walked past me. She had curlers in her hair and her handbag tucked under her arm as she headed toward the toilet block. She gave me a strange look, but I just looked back and took another swig from my milk carton and another drag from my cigarette. She returned a few moments later on her way back to her tent. She was frowning at me again, looking at me as though she thought I was some kind of lunatic. I thought I ought to say something. "Morning," I said. It seemed like the logical greeting at the time; however early it was, it was after all 'morning'. She stopped in her tracks and just looked at me. She had obviously decided I was a lunatic and was now determining exactly which kind. I leaned over and my hand fell on my cigarette packet. I don't know what made me do it, but I just picked up the pack, flicked open the top and inquired of her: "Would you like a cigarette?"

She ran. I could hear whispering coming from one of the nearby tents for a few minutes until eventually I heard a man's voice saying "Just shut up and go to sleep woman".

Sunday May 7

Hawkshead to Coniston in the rain, and back in a minibus...

to be continued...

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