Category Archives: 2014 England

Planting Poppies at The Tower of London

Back in August I managed to get up to London to see the Poppies in the Moat installation at the Tower of London and thought that it was incredible. Then Helen came home from work saying that others had volunteered to plant the poppies and that we should too, so we applied.

Our first choice date in early September was already full and so we were allocated the morning of 31st October. October 31st! So we got out our waterproofs in readiness for what was obviously going to be a cold and wet morning in the moat of the Tower. They day before the forecast was for 21 degrees and even then I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it and so took a coat and sweatshirt. As it turned out it reached 24 degrees (October 31st!) and it was definitely tee shirt weather.

After a orientation video our “team” was taken to the spot where we were going to be planting. It was a long way as you can see from this video, in fact it was as far away as you could get from the entry point. It did give us an opportunity to see the whole installation at very close range.

We were split into two “teams” – one planting and the others putting together the stems (“small washer, larger washer, spacer, cap”). There wasn’t anything taxing about the planting but the poppies aren’t all at the same level so we had to make sure the changes in height were smooth but apart from that it was a doddle. Assembling the stems was another matter however. The washers were a complete sod to put on and the spacers were drilled with ever so different sized holes and I quickly became able to spot those with a larger hole.

It was while we were assembling stems that others on our table started looking over into the distance and whispering. “Isn’t that Nicholas Witchell?”, “Who’s he?”, “You know, off Radio 4”. A look over quickly established that it was in fact John Humphreys from the Today programme. He came over and interviewed a couple of others in our “team” before having a go at assembling a stem and planting. When he struggled with assembling the stem our team leader showed him a quick way which he had neglected to show us…

Here is Humphreys including a picture I took but not attributed as the BBC said they would.

If you have been wondering why I have referred to our team as “team” that’s because it became obvious that some weren’t happy to act as a team. Poppy planting is what everyone had come to do. It was fun and not terribly hard work. Making stems was not what we had signed up for and was hard work (comparatively speaking) and so some chose not to come and swap at the allotted times and there was some dissension in the ranks at this. Notwithstanding this we raced through our allotted poppies and were able to leave an hour earlier than we had expected which was a bit of a relief.

Poppies in the moat is a fantastic piece of art and incredibly popular: there were crowds of people above us watching while we planted, the volunteering was over subscribed and every single one of the poppies has been sold. A tremendous success all round.

Of course it is there to mark the death of British and colonial soldiers in the first world war, one poppy for each death. With it being a time of relative peace now and with modern warfare not based on the deployment of so many ground troops we are unlikely to see so many combat deaths again. At least I hope that’s the case.

Reading Abbey, Heritage Open Days 2014

Once a year places of historic interest that wouldn’t normaly be open to the public throw open their doors for Heritage Open Days. I read somewhere that these places are obliged to do so annually as part of the conditions of government/lottery funding, although I can’t find any evidence to back that statement up. Either way it is great as you get to visit places that would otherwise not be accessible.

Reading Abbey is a great example of this. Closed four years ago when it became too dangerous to allow public access this is now the only way you get to visit. Actually this was a lot more than simply a tour of the abbey as this encompassed the whole of the Reading abbey quarter, something that I didn’t even know existed until our guide, Matthew Williams, manager of the Reading Museum, took us round.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at what is left of the abbey but it covered a huge area and cost a fortune when it was built in 1121. Much of it is now under other more modern buildings, such as the prison, also a listed building. It also shaped the layout of the rest of the town too as London Street was built as a new road leading to the abbey with Broad Street and Friar Street being added at the same time.

The tour also touched on the difficulties of managing the upkeep of the ruins and the surrounding area. For example the wall that runs around St Laurence Church has been in a poor state for as long as I can remember. In fact Matthew told us that the scaffolding holding up the wall has been there for forty years and should also be listed! The issue in this case is not simply one of money but of conflicting priorities. The wall is being forced back by trees that are planted close to it but the trees also have a preservation order and in law have the same status as the wall. Simply put you cannot make a change to one that will affect the other. Classic Catch 22.

With Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries Reading abbey was hard hit and much of the stone was sold off leaving only a few buildings intact. Now the abbey is in a poor state and the flint walls that once would have been lined with limestone are now crumbling. With the help of lottery funding the grounds could be reopened to the public in four to five years time, so dig deep! In the interim the intention is to add much more information around the town signposting the areas of significance. This should also tie into the opening of the prison site, the use of which is still being decided. Before that is done I am hoping that we can get to see inside it as is because it is said to be like you see in the TV show Porridge. Maybe that’s a tour for next year’s heritage open days…

The Making of Harry Potter

As a birthday treat we went to the glamorous setting of the outskirts of Watford at the weekend to visit The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studios. There was much excitement!

Caution – spoilers if you read on.

The tickets are for a timed entry that ensures that there isn’t an overwhelming flow of people through the exhibits. I was a bit concerned that this would mean that we would be herded through but this wasn’t the case. We were told that we could go through at our own pace and that the record for time spent there was 13 hours, set by a couple of Canadians!

As you queue at the entrance you can see the cupboard under the stairs. I’m going to have to watch the films again as I don’t remember there being so many gas and electric meters under there. Taking a leaf out of Disney this was the first of three holding areas. The next was where we were given instructions on what we could and couldn’t do and then the next room was a short film introduced by Harry, Ron and Hermione. Then, in an unexpected move, the wall shot up and we were in front of the doors to the great hall. The hall itself is enormous and pretty impressive even without the enchanted ceiling! This was the only part of the tour where you were herded through to ensure that it was clear for the next party. That wasn’t an issue as you still got plenty of time walkthrough.

The next area was a huge open space containing loads of sets including the bedroom and common room from Hogwarts, the clock from the entrance to Hogwarts, the rather unsettling centerpiece from the hall at the ministry of magic and much much more. This also included the only interactive piece in the whole place – a change to ride a broomstick or enchanted car on a green screen background followed by the opportunity to purchase a photo of video of your ride. You really could spend hours in this area looking at all the props that have been created – the number and the detail really is mind boggling.

Then you outside with the Knight Bus, Privet Drive and other larger props. Here you can get to take a rest, grab a bite to eat and try out the butter beer.

Next you are back inside for Diagon Alley with all it’s quirky charm and a selection of scale models of some of the major buildings used in the films. The detail in these and the concept artist paintings was amazing, it’s no wonder that these films cost so much to make. The paintings by concept artist Andrew Williamson are good enough to hang in a gallery.

The penultimate treat was coming into a darkened room where the centrepiece was a scale model of the whole of Hogwarts which I assume was used for the overhead and fly-through shots.

Finally (before the obligatory gift shop) was the interior of wandmakers Ollivanders. Here were thousands of wand boxes all individually made and labelled each with the name of a cast or crew member. It was fun wandering through to see how many people you could spot.


A cynical view might be that this was Warner Bros. making back some money by opening up the sets used but it was brilliantly done and for us well worth the ticket price.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

We’re incredibly lucky in the UK to have many wonderful museums that are also free to access. Last weekend my Dad and I went to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which has recently reopened following a £2M restoration of the roof. It is an amazing space full of light and interesting exhibits, as you can see from the pictures below.

The front of the building is full of skeletons of animals and dominated by two dinosaurs but hidden away at the back without much fanfare is a dark room containing the Pitt Rivers Museum. This museum was started from the collection of 22,000 objects donated by Pitt Rivers, a variety of objects from different cultures around the globe. I love looking at the oddeties in the collection and I am particularly fond of the display of shrunken heads.

If you are in Oxford I highly recommend a visit.


Yesterday was the National Gardens’ Scheme annual open day when gardens all over the country are opened up with the proceeds going to charity. We had chosen to go to Inhomes, just outside of Newbury as it was close and, more importantly (to me) is the home of Sir Frank Williams founder of the Williams formula one team.

This weekend was also the Canadian Grand Prix and Sir Frank had wisely chosen to go there rather than sit at home and be gawped at by people traipsing round his garden! And quite a few did.

Of course the garden wasn’t really Franks passion (that’s F1 for him) but that of his late wife who spent years creating the beautiful garden set in 10 acres of grounds. Surrounding the house are a number of distinct gardens, including a lovely walled garden.

If you were a casual observer you wouldn’t know who the owner was and the only clue was the inscription on a bench (seen above) in one of the gardens dedicated to the late Aytron Senna.

It was a really beautiful and tranquil place to be and quite a difference to the F1 paddocks usually frequented by its owner.

Not a Trip up the Shard, London

In this post I was expecting to bore you with a trip to the top of the viewing area of the Shard in London and some marvellous pictures of the view. Instead this is what we saw:










Lots and lots of fire engines and other blue light vehicles (if you like firemen, this was the place to be yesterday). This was not part of the plan.

We did other local stuff for a couple of hours and had some lunch but by this time it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to be able to go up.

This was really disappointing not least because this has been planned since January and the weather was fine unlike the day before when it had been raining.

So we get to do it all again at some point in the future but I’m taking my lucky clover with me next time!


This arrived this morning. Seem like a pretty stupid email to send out the day after it was shut but I am guessing it was too difficult to turn off or they just didn’t know how to.


Bletchley Park & The National Museum of Computing

Bletchley Park is somewhere that I have wanted to visit for quite a while given it’s historical significance to both the country and myself. To the country for the work on cracking Enigma and to me as so many of the iconic computers I have worked on are housed in the separate National Museum of Computing there.

The park museum was brought to life for us by a talk showing the Enigma machine in action and explaining how it worked. This meant that we got to see the machine with the protective glass casing removed and even better beneath the keyboard so you could see the inner workings. This was followed by a short talk and demonstration of one of the ‘bombe’ machines. Regrettably I struggled to understand this as well as I had the Enigma explanation.

We then wandered around the rest of the park looking into some of the huts that are open to the general public but none were as interesting as the main museum.

After lunch we made our way to  National Museum of Computing. The Colossus and Tunny galleries are open daily but the rest of the museum is only open on selected days. The place is a veritable Tardis going on for seemingly ever covering computing over a very long period and includes the worlds oldest working computer.

ICL 2900What was fascinating to Helen and I was that it has so many of the computers we have used in our lives, including a room housing an ICL 2900 which we both used extensively in our first job at CAP in Reading. We were able to reminisce about VME, Application Master and magnetic tapes!

Of course, this may well not have the same significance to you but it is still a fascinating snapshot of just how far computing has come in a very short space of time.

If you are to visit Bletchley I would ensure that you enquire before setting off if a demonstration is due for day of your visit as if made a world of difference to our tour. Also make sure that you go on a day when the Nation Museum of Computing is fully open (currently Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 12 noon) as you can pass quite a bit of time there but be aware that there is a separate charge for this.

If you like your history, code braking and computing then there is no better place to be than Bletchley Park.

Canterbury Tales

I’d never been to Canterbury before last week and that’s a shame as it is a lovely place. Even better was that the sun came out after nearly three months with enough rain to make Russell Crowe consider building a boat.

The heart of Canterbury is the cathedral. I made the mistake of assuming that it was just the, admittedly, very grand church but, in fact, the grounds are extensive, something that isn’t evident from outside the gates. The cloisters were particularly atmospheric with the morning sun streaming through. There is also a very posh looking school there where the very well behaved pupils wandered by some in bright purple gowns.

The rest of the town has much to see too, including a relatively short stretch of wall, the view from which is great to one side and pretty bleak to the other. It was easy to spend a day there wandering around but do expect to pay handsomely to get into the cathedral but it is worth it.

Much Maligned Birmingham

I’ve decided that Birmingham gets a bad rap. This last weekend Helen and I spent the weekend there, ostensibly  to visit our younger son who is studying at university there but also as a chance to spend a weekend away. And Birmingham is really not as bad as people make out. In fact it is quite attractive in an urban sort of way.

To prove it here is a selection of photos that I took around the town including the canal area and the stunning new library building, though quite who thought building a library in the age of the ebook was a good idea I’m not sure.