Friday, 19 December 2014

Things I've done for the first time

This is a list of things that I've done for the first time during 2014. I thought it would be interesting to keep a little list (although it turned into a long list) of 'firsts'. It's by no means everything, but I think I have the main ones sorted.
  1. I retired
It was my 60th birthday in July 2013 and I'd decided a few years back that I should retire at 60 if I could afford to. I thought I could afford to, but I wasn't dead sure and it would have been easy to have said I'll do another year, save another £10,000, just make sure.
I didn't, and I'm pleased that I didn't. I've had enough money and should have enough to see me out, so I did the best thing and asked for early retirement back in June. Somewhat annoyingly, the company offered a voluntary redundancy scheme just a month before my retirement date and I bet I would have qualified. That would have added maybe £75,000 to my pot, but it's no use beating yourself up for decisions that might have been. I made the best decision I could at the time, based on the knowledge I had.
I was a little apprehensive about retirement. I wasn't worried about boredom, but I was concerned about stimulation and missing work colleagues, relationships/friendships and gossip (the social side of work, if you like).
Retirement has been great; I've had the chance to do lots of new things and I've never sat down and thought: "what am I going to do now?" It's been quite the reverse in fact. I've not had time to do lots of the things I thought I'd do - without the dead time of commuting, I'm reading less and writing less.

Last-day-in-the-office selfie - only me left 
  1. I became a school governor
I said that when I retired I'd volunteer for a number of things. Life has been pretty good to me, so I thought I should put something back. I read that there was a shortage of people willing to become school governors, I thought that might utilise some of the skills I used in my job, so I signed up for a website called SGOSS, which is an abbreviation for something, and aims to link volunteers with vacancies. In the meantime, I'd mentioned it to my friend Pauline Coakley, who is chair of governors at the Duke of Bedford School in Thorney, and it turned out there was a vacancy there.
So I became a governor in April and it's been interesting. It's good to be involved with the school again, having had no contact since our children left, and I do feel that I'm doing something useful. There's very little as important as education.
The school got a rating of "good" in its Ofsted inspection in April, our head teacher resigned in June, we recruited a new head in October, I became vice-chair and now I'm involved with projects to set up a new website and to look at provision of school meals. So it's been quite a busy eight months and with a new head in place from January and a deputy head to appoint in spring, it looks as if it will stay that way. I’ve also met lots of new people from the village.
  1. I used snowshoes
At the start of the year, Sam and Lucy were living in Villaret sur la Rosiere, near Bourg-saint-Maurice in the French Alps in order to do a full ski season. We'd gone down with them in December 2013 to help carry their gear and made several other trips to spend time with them.
Because Margaret doesn't ski (and doesn't want to learn) we skied for a few days and looked for other things to do on others. She was quite keen on snowshoeing, Sam and Lucy had reconnoitered a route and so we set off to walk through the snow from St Foy to Le Monal, a small village which is uninhabited in winter. It was a lovely, sunny day, the views were great and the climbs not too severe.
Walking on modern snowshoes is very easy, you just need to remember to walk with your legs a little further apart so you don't step on your own shoes. You also need to keep fairly close to the trodden path, move off into soft snow and the relatively small snowshoes they use here won't stop you sinking in.
In Le Monal, we were able to sit in the snow and bask in the sun, while enjoying some magnificent views of the north side of Mont Pourri. We liked St Foy so much we're going back this January.

Le Monal in January.
  1. I raised ornamental grass from seed
This doesn't sound much of a first, but it was quite demanding. I grew Angel Hair (stipa tenuissima) and Blue Grass (leymus arenarius) partly because Margaret wanted to convert our patio to gravel with assorted pots/planters and partly because were had agreed to run the plant stall at the church flower festival and I needed some plants to sell. I thought the Angel Hair would go down a bomb, but it was tricky to shift. Lots of people already had it in their garden and said it seeded everywhere. Considering how tricky they were for me to germinate it, I found that hard to take.
The Blue Grass was the hard one to germinate. It was in and out of the fridge, in and out of a plastic bag, in the sun, in the shade and I even took it on holiday to France because I thought it might die if I left it unattended for a week.
Having babies is easier (for me, not Margaret).
  1. I skied in La Plagne, took the Vanoise Express
I skied a lot this year and there were lots of firsts in terms of new runs (Reynard will forever be etched in my memory) but I did do a couple of bigger firsts. Sam and I skied across to La Plagne from Les Arcs, taking the massive cable car that links the two resorts. It’s called the Vanoise Express; the cars are double-deckers and can carry over 100 people and it gets you across pretty quickly. The cables stretch 1,800 metres and it rides 400 metres (1,200ft) above the valley floor. I went back to La Plagne several times in the spring, sadly it was later in the season when the weather was quite warm and the snow was not very good.

On the Vanoise Express.
  1. I drunk Genepi and Green Chartreuse
Genepi is a sweet, alcoholic nectar of the gods. I love it. Green Chartreuse has 60 herbs infused, but it's the high level of alcohol that does it. After a hard day's skiing it can kick-start your evening. It also revived Tim Dawkins, Davina's boyfriend, restoring his voice after three children's parties in one day.
Both drinks are essentially alcohol, sugar syrup and a few herbs. Once I( get my still sorted (a first for 2015) I’ll be aiming to recreate these great tastes of the French Alps.
  1. I got an allotment
When Sam and Lucy came back to England following their six months in France, they were planning to live with us for a while to allow them to find new jobs outside London. I thought it would be a good idea for Lucy to have an allotment to cultivate, otherwise she'd be digging up my lawn to plant beetroot. As it happened, they went straight to Jersey and I'm left alone with the biggest allotment in Thorney!
I have enjoyed working the plot and I’ve got half of it pretty much dug over. I’ve spent about £1,000 on shed, weedkiller, wood, plants, compost, bark and manure and so far I’ve had about 2kg or onions, all the courgettes and runner beans we could eat, a barrow-load of apples and some leeks.

Plenty of digging required when this was taken.
  1. I used a rotovator
See above! I bought a rotovator to help with the digging and when that proved useless, I bought a bigger one. Here's some advice, don't buy a rotovator until you have tried digging with a fork. It's the best way and also good exercise.
Rotovators chop up the weeds so you end up with three times as much bindweed as when you started; they are stolen or they break down! Having said that, if you had a large plot of weed-free, previously dug loam, they are great for creating a fine seed bed.
  1. I swam in Lake Annecy off a pedalo
About 30 years ago, I swam in the Thunersee at Interlaken in Switzerland. It was a hot June day and the water was absolutely bloody freezing! I resolved never to take a dip in an Alpine lake ever again.
Well, in July (after being assured by Sam and Lucy that the water was like a warm bath) I broke that rule and had a swim in Lake Annecy. I was back in France to help bring their stuff back to the UK and we had a trip to Annecy for the day. The lake is huge, it is warm and you can hire a pedalo for an hour or swim from a beach. The bed of the lake shelves very gently, so you can still stand up even 100 metres from the shore, so a pedalo saves you wading out for ages.
If I was making an argument that the quality of life is so much better in France than in England, I’d take my opposing protagonist for a swim in Lake Annecy.
  1. I walked on a volcano
The next four firsts are all connected with another first - I visited Ecuador. I wasn’t planning to visit Ecuador, but Tom and Lucy announced they were getting married and Margaret and I, together with my sister, flew across for the wedding.
There were lots of firsts in Ecuador, including visiting Ecuador, but the volcanoes really made an impression on me. Who isn’t fascinated by a volcano? There are lots of them in Ecuador including one (Tungarahua) which is currently erupting. Cotopaxi is only a few miles from the capital Quito and is a classic strato-volcano; if you asked a child to draw a picture of a volcano, they would draw Cotopaxi.
We were able to visit on a clear day when the whole of the mountain was visible and got up to about 4500m. We would have reached the snow line, but there was a fierce wind which was whipping up ash and sharp cinders and blasting them straight into our faces. See my blog:

If you asked a child to draw a picture of a volcano, they would draw Cotopaxi
  1. I crossed the equator
When I was a young boy, many of the heroes presented to me were explorers - Shackleton, Scott. Hillary ... the world still seemed to have undiscovered places and if you wanted to get to America, Australia or even France, you went by ship. Cheap jet travel hadn’t shrunk the Earth and satellite mapping hadn’t catalogued every square inch.
For me, there was a fascination with crossing the equator. On board ship, people crossing the equator for the first time (at least in the books I read) had to undergo an initiation ceremony involving Neptune, shellbacks and polywogs (see: so this seemed to possess a magical quality to me.
Now, we cross the equator at 500mph and at 35,000ft, so the magic is lost. Tom and Lucy were married in Cayambe, more or less on the equator and I must have been back and to across the line several times. I would liked to have visited the equatorial line in a park near Cayambe (not the one the French built, which is several hundred yards awry), but there just wasn’t time. I missed a great photo opportunity, but nevertheless, I knew I was on and across the equator and I can say I have stood on both the equator and on the Greenwich meridian.
  1. I saw the Southern Cross
I have always wanted to see the Southern Cross, the iconic star constellation of the southern hemisphere, which is famously featured on the Australian flag. Christobal Cobo, an old friend of Lucy’s who now lives at the Hacienda Guachala with his wife Gabriella, knows a fair bit about astronomy and we were talking about stars in the southern hemisphere the night before the wedding (when it was too cloudy to see anything).
Wedding day night was much clearer and so he took me into the darker part of the courtyard to see the Southern Cross. On the equator, it's quite low in the sky (directly south, of course) and, looking north, you can also see the Great Bear (the Plough), which is the iconic constellation of the northern hemisphere. It is possible also to see the North Star from Cayambe, but Christoble explained it was very close to the horizon and you needed to gain some elevation in order to get a view.
  1. I swam in a volcanic pool
Natural hot springs are 10 a penny in Ecuador and we were booked into Termas de Papallacta, a spa resort on the slopes of the volcano Antisana. This is a popular place with tourists and natives (as it’s within easy reach of Quito) and it was busier than other places we’d visited.
The water from the hot springs is piped into pools around the resort and these vary in temperature, ranging from warm to “like a very hot bath”. We tried them all. Several pools are large enough and deep enough to swim in, others are more for wallowing. Our chalets, also had their own network of hot pools and we were able to enjoy those after nightfall. I was going to have a dip the next morning, but they has all been drained overnight and were still filling up.
You can see why ancient peoples found hot springs such a magical thing. We’re used to baths and showers and it’s still pretty amazing.
  1. I ate at Rules
Rules is one of the oldest restaurants in London. It specialises in game and was one of Winston Churchill’s favourite places to eat. I’ve often thought I’d like to eat there (more for the experience than the cuisine) and so when my boss Marc Tucker offered to take me out for a farewell meal following my retirement, I suggested Rules.
It’s a superb place,somewhat of a different age but not out of place in modern London. Service is excellent and I had roast suckling pig and a syrup sponge pudding to finish.
  1. I organised Ciderfest
We staged Ciderfest in July to say thank you to people who had helped with the cider making and who had donated apples in 2013.
It may become an annual event. People seemed to have a great time, although we were really lucky with the weather and had it been raining, we wouldn’t have been able to cope with the numbers indoors.
This coming year, if it all turns out OK, we will have more cider for drinking and also a couple of new people to invite. It might become our annual party.
  1. I visited Ripon Cathedral and Fountains Abbey
I took a motorcycle trip with Tom to Derbyshire and Yorkshire in August and there were a lot of firsts - Snake Pass, Holme Moss and Skipton ...
Two other firsts were a visit to Fountains Abbey and Ripon Cathedral (or Minster). Fountains Abbey is the ruined remains of what would have been one of the most magnificent religious complexes in the country. It would have been amazing in its day, which is odd because it was founded by the Cistercians, who eschewed luxuries and comfort. I guess they thought the magnificent buildings were to the glory of their god and not for their aggrandisement? Anyway, Henry VIII confiscated the land and riches during the Dissolution and so plunged them back into poverty, where they were happy. It’s a great place to visit.
The crypt at Ripon Minster is one of the oldest buildings in England - it’s the remains of an old Saxon church. It’s reached by narrow staircases and is quite atmospheric. Worth going if you’re in the area.

Fountains Abbey - magnificent ruin.
  1. I used a stump grinder
This is an unusual entry and it’s the second power tool I’ve used for the first time this year (see rotavator). We had three large conifers cut down in late spring; you can never get the stumps cut low enough to the ground with a chainsaw, so I hired a stump grinder to finish the job.
I wasn’t sure what to expect and it is a strange tool. The cutter is set in the vertical plane is is basically a heavy wheel with a large notch. You position the machine over the stump and lock one wheel. You then draw it back and forth across the stump, cutting a large groove. You then reposition it and make another pass. I created three barrow-loads of sawdust and a lot of noise, but the stumps were dispatched in a couple of hours.
I hope to put a small octagonal greenhouse on the site next year. It will be the first time I have owned a greenhouse.
  1. I am learning Spanish
I love languages and I feel quite uneducated that I cannot speak a foreign language with any fluency. I can get by in French, order beer and food ... that kind of thing, but I couldn’t have a proper conversation. After “hello, how are you? I’m fine too thanks”, I’d be struggling.
I can’t even do that in Spanish and when we were in Ecuador, I felt slightly disrespectful at not being able to at least make a gesture in speaking Spanish. If I’m lucky enough to be able to go again, then I aim to at least have better Spanish than French.
I’m having classes at U3A and I really enjoy them; it’s also an excuse to travel more in Spain. I tell you what, if any Spaniards want to know what the time is I’ll be right on it.
  1. I went to Jersey
Sam and Lucy have moved to Jersey and we made a trip across in September to take them some of their possessions which had been left in our garage.
The ferry goes from Weymouth to Guernsey and then on to Jersey and it takes about four-and-a-half hours. Jersey is granite, it has some lovely beaches and pretty villages; it’s also really small (nine miles by five miles) and the speed limit across the island is only 30mph (20mph in many villages) with a small section of dual-carriageway at 40mph.
We’ll be going back to Jersey at least a couple of times a year I hope.
  1. I went to an Allen Jones exhibition
This was two firsts for me - it was the first time I’d seen any works by this famous pop-art/shock-art artist and it was the first time I’d been to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly.
The exhibition made me feel very uncomfortable; it presents women in a way that I don’t like. It treats them as exaggerated sex objects; as vulnerable and exploited, and also as predatory. I couldn’t tune-in to his message.
  1. I went for dinner at Lutyens
Lutyens is a swanky, fashionable restaurant in Fleet Street. It just happens to be in the building that used to house the Press Association.
Our actuaries and our lawyers took members of the pension fund trustees there for an end-of-year dinner. For the trustees who worked for the PA in Fleet Street it was a nostalgic return. We dined in what used to be the post room and dispatch department and lots of my fellow trustees were getting quite misty-eyed about it.
We polished off three bottles of Pol Roger to start and the meal was very nice. The most amusing thing was that there was an Allen Jones painting on the wall!