Monday, 8 January 2018

In Percy Pilcher's wingsteps

Some time ago, in Leeds, I went to a jolly interesting talk by a sociologist. I'm ashamed to say I have forgotten his name, title, and all other useful details. His broad topic was Louis le Prince (one of my heroes) and his claim to be the first to succeed with moving pictures. The speaker did a good job of telling the story (and detailed that bastard Edison's malign, interfering influence).

He then moved on to some very interesting meta-issues: so, the word "first" can often be a tough one to define: First to make a film? First to screen it? First to screen it publicly? First to make apparatus that could be re-used and generalised? First with a process? And so it is little wonder that there are several, often equally valid, claims to being "first". But he also noted that step changes in engineering and science often emerge because the time was ripe: moving pictures, television, control of fission - there is a long list that had numerous parties pursuing the goal contemporaneously, so it's no surprise if more than one crosses the finishing line pretty much at the same time. Sometimes these teams are competing, sometimes they are ignorant of each other.

So no surprises that powered flight also had a number of keen folk after the prize. There's not much argument that the Wright Brothers were indeed first with their short flight in December 1903, although the fact that it was so short made some question its use. But there were indeed a number of competing claims - the time for powered flight had come.

And presumably no surprises that there were a lot of others of whom we probably haven't heard who tried and missed the cut completely, which brings me to my point. On a Sylvester excursion with the In-laws, we are guided to the Percy Pilcher memorial:

Percy Sinclair

The British aviation pioneer who
conducted extensive trials with full
sized hang gliders of his own design
and construction from 1896-99
He made successful towed flights
in his hawk glider from this site
during 1896-97.

Percy was just one of those who was having a go, but didn't come close enough to be remembered in many history books. His story is fully told elsewhere so I won't retell it here. There's a rather good BBC documentary on him that you can view.

There's a psychogeographic twist to it: the memorial had been in the middle of a golf course (like most things in Kent) which closed recently so that certain reptiles could make more money. This necessitated the moving of the memorial (which is still, however, on the hill from which Pilcher flew) - hence the very new looking railings and barbed wire. This means that in going to view the memorial, you can see what a golf course looks like when it is neglected for 12, 24, 36 months. How thin the veneer of civilisation.

BBC production

Sunday, 29 October 2017

An October anabasis

There is a campaign to record all the SY23 postboxes since the LBSG records can sometimes be unreliable. An October opportunity gave a bike-borne chance to pinpoint some of the remoter instances up toward Cwmsymlog, but the highlight was without doubt the Victorian lamp box at Banc Y Darren.

But, as ever, it's what you find on the way.

  1. At the outset, the mesospheric radar station at Capel Dewi. Photos abound.
  2. Our country was once thronged with public phone boxes, but these have all now been moved 20 yards sideways into somebody's garden.
  3. It can be difficult to know quite what to think about abandoned cottages. I think there is an old sundial high on the south wall of this one - it doesn't work any more, even when the sun shines.
  4. Strangely, a man was hanging in effigy nearby.
  5. The whole area was a mining hellhole, of course. Many miners' cottages survive as twee country residences.
  6. So do the chapels. I liked this egregious extension on this one, where the gateway survives.
  7. To Penbontrhydybeddau, where there was a super Welsh signpost ...
  8. ... and a splendid shelter in the playground [sic].
  9. And thence to Cwmsymlog, intended destination and one of the country's premier silver sources in its day. It proved impossible to find the purported postbox, but there was ample compensation in the industrial remains and the disused chapel. Other highlights were a remote beehive and a tanker whose driver was lost. I mean really lost.
  10. Homeward through Penrhyn: how pretty is their Neuadd?
  11. Via Gogerddan, where the university are protecting their newts, and making sure that nobody occupies four eminently usable houses.
In all, 7 boxes sighted.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


An ad hoc trip to Oswestry (Croesowallt), which spun some interesting surprises.
  1. There is no rail station in Oswestry, but there were once two, separated by 50 yards. It was a big rail town, now teeming with relics.
  2. Apparently people have been doing this to coffee for years, but I had never seen it before.
  3. The Michelin Man lives on in Oswestry.
  4. What's in the container?
  5. Wow! A custom built post box used for torching love letters.
  6. Little Chef's become scarce, but there is a fine example in Oswestry, keeping up the best of their traditions.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Hartpury bee shelter

A deviant route from Aberystwyth (Welsh: mouth of the wiggly river) to Wokingham ('Wocca's people's home') can take you past the Hartpury Bee Shelter. It's down a road beside Hartpury church, some way from the village.

Not perhaps a 21st century approach to bee husbandry, but how fascinating - a rack of skeps with beekeepers "looking out" for swarms to capture and re-skep.

I met two beekeepers there on the same mission - they told me something about foundation that perhaps is best not published.

The church is an ancient gem. In the graveyard is buried, lavishly tended, a victim of the 1999 Ladbroke Grove train crash, which was really a very sad thing to behold.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Discreet history in Catalonia

During an extended stay in Catalonia in and around several sites heavily involved in the Civil War, we found memorials few and understated (although, to my eye, Catalonian sympathies were pretty clear). In the scale of things, that ghastly business is all still fairly recent so it is not hard to understand sensitivities.

There is a relatively recent programme of establishing memorials. The Girona cemetery has an imposing long metal memorial naming an unhappy number of local-born Republicans who are somewhere in unmarked graves, most being post-war executions - it's less than 10 years old. There's stuff about this to be read.

We went on an outing to the old France/Spain frontier between Portbou and Cerbère, which commands stunning views and offers various ghostly ex-border buildings. Low-key signage pointed us to some display materials on the refugee plight in 1939, a surviving Francoist memorial (these are very rare - it was pleasantly defaced with red paint), and a 2016 Catalan plaque commemorating the International Brigades.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624

(I sang a bit of The Red Flag, but it seemed a little inadequate).

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Celtic Challenge

I think the Celtic Challenge must be one of the most undersung endurance tests I have witnessed. Open boats (Celtic longboats) are rowed by crews of 4 and cox from Arklow to Aberystwyth; journey time is between 18 and 30 hours, with teams of 12 spelling the boat duties. The sea is cold and quickly becomes rough. Additionally, it is dark at night.
Vartry coming through the harbour trap, to Irish delight

The race is run every 2 years: weather cancelled the 2016 event which was postponed until this year. About 15 crews left Arklow on Coastguard advice at noon, Friday 28th. Tracking software predicted the winner arriving at Aber harbour at 6am on Saturday, and I actually thought about getting up to see this happen. But then I thought "stuff it", which was good as overnight the weather had been unkind and the prediction had become 10am.

Aber coming through the harbour trap

First over the line was the Irish Vartry crew, with Aber men coming in just 30 minutes later, both boats receiving enormous applause. The very unkind conditions caused all but one of the other crews to retire: third in was a women's boat.

Brave boys and girls embark on a mid-ocean rescue trip

It is, of course, event of the year (well, every other year) for the longboat clubs and so very well known in some communities. But Aberystwyth town makes little of it: no sign of the BBC, S4C, Cambrian News, or even the ubiquitous Keith Morris. Well, I'm doing my bit.

Other pictures exist.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

PAU Canolfan Chwaraeon/Sports Centre

Three helpful people staff the reception desk.

Me: Do the lockers take the new pound coin?
Person 1: Yes.
Person 2: I don't know.
Person 3: The man from the company came and did something to all the locks a few weeks ago. So they might.