Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Office & My Name is Earl

An announcement for all interested parties:

The third series of The Office (aired in the UK as The Office: An American Workplace, to differentiate it from the original) is due to start on September the 21st (8:30-9p.m. ET) on NBC.

This is preceded by My Name is Earl (8-8:30p.m. ET). Both are well worth watching.

Here's a couple of NBC's The Office vs. BBC's The Office articles, just to whet your appetite:
The Office Heavyweight Bout: NBC vs. BBC
The Office (BBC) vs. The Office (NBC)

Carolina Beach

Last January, for the Martin Luther King weekend, we went up to Asheville, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since then, we have been intending to try out one of the NC beaches, but had not had the opportunity until now.

It turns out that someone we know owns a three bedroomed, two and a half bathroomed (Translation: two bathrooms and a toilet) condominium that overlooked Carolina Beach. They lent us the keys for a weekend away. We drove down on the Friday evening after school and came back on the Sunday, spending all day Saturday at Carolina Beach.

Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach
The town itself is not beautiful, but the beach boasts lovely big Atlantic waves and a warmth that comes from the Gulf Stream. The area of the beach that we were in was very long and narrow, even at low tide, but one doesn't have to go out far from the shore to be quite deep. There is also a fairly strong undercurrent, so if a wave knocks you off your feet, it's not always easy to get up again.

A sign for the Shag Club at Carolina BeachCarolina Beach is also famous for the invention of the Carolina Shag. One might think that the Shag did not need inventing; that it has been around since Adam and Eve; and that it comes fairly naturally to most people. However, the sign in the picture does not point the way to a house of ill repute, but to a dance hall. The Carolina Shag dance craze started on the North/South Carolina coast and the term "Carolina Shag" was supposedly coined at Carolina Beach, where this picture was taken.

Friday, August 25, 2006

An Amazing Story

We were watching Newsnight over the internet and they covered an amazing story about a young girl who was abducted on her way home from school when she was ten years old and held captive in a cellar for eight years before managing to escape.

'Incredible' case grips nation
Vienna cellar girl 'our daughter'
What now for Natascha?

Although this is very good news that the girl escaped, she still spent much of her childhood in captivity with who-knows-what happening to her. Let's hope that her traumas are now over (ie not exacerbated by endless media coverage). It's a reminder to all of us parents that the world has more than its fair share of dangerous weirdos who look normal and function well in society. Scary, but true.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Journey Home

After driving a total of 2375 miles in our hired car (spent £280 (approx. $530) on petrol), we drove up to Manchester. On the last night of our trip, we stayed in a TravelLodge (a motel) near Manchester Airport, where our sleep was broken by being awoken in the early hours of the morning by the fire alarm. We, and all the other residents had to stand around in the car park waiting for the fire brigade to give the all clear before we could go back to bed. It turned out that someone had fallen asleep after having lit a candle. As far as I know, nobody was hurt.

The real trawl was, however, the journey itself. The previous Thursday, the security level at UK Airports was increased to "critical" and pandemonium ensued. Even though by the time that we were travelling the security level had been brought down a step to "severe", the journey was still difficult.

We got to the airport at about 8am, but the queues were such that we didn't get through checking in our luggage and security until 10:30, so went straight to our gate. Boarding was slow as they were seating a few rows at a time and separating men from women so that almost every passenger could be frisked and hand luggage searched before we could get on the plane. They were so strict that they even confiscated Lauren's ball-point pen. As none of the passengers had pens, the flight attendants had to then hand out complementary pens (of which, there were not enough to go around) so that we could fill in the necessary forms for entry to the US.

The plane then couldn't take off until a full manifest listing all passengers had been approved by US Homeland Security. In the end, the plane left about 3 hours late.

Once in the US, there were more body searches and my hand luggage was thoroughly searched. Next, all flights from the UK had to go through customs. One couldn't just walk through the "nothing to declare" bit. About every other person was having suitcases opened up, but thankfully they just asked us a few questions and let us through.

We missed our flight from Philadelphia to Raleigh by about 4 hours, but they put us on a later flight that got into Raleigh at 10pm (3am in the UK). Unfortunately only one of our seven cases made it to Raleigh with us, which meant spending an hour or so standing in a queue to report the missing bags before we could get the taxi home. Thankfully, however, the missing bags arrived at our door the next day (two of which had been opened and searched at some point in the journey).

All in all, though, compared to others' stories, we came off quite lightly. We're also now thankful that we didn't take our usual direct flight to/from Gatwick, but flew to/from Manchester instead, which was outside the core of the hubbub.

Here's the latest on the police investigation:
More time for terror probe police

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Everyone enjoying a game of CluedoBrother-in-law carrying a pitcher of beerBishop's Castle is a small town in Shropshire that dates back to the eighth century or earlier. The town used to have a motte and bailey castle, which was replaced by a Norman stone castle in 1167. Now, all that remains of the castle is a hill and a couple of stone walls. Click here to watch the videoWe used this as a base, from where we went on country walks and day trips. Each evening, we would bring home a pitcher of locally brewed real ale from the local pub and enjoy a game with the children.

Offa's Dyke

Offa's Dyke
Offa's Dyke
An Elizabethan church in Mainstone, near Offa's Dyke
An Elizabethan church in
Mainstone, near Offa's Dyke

On the first day, we went for a countryside walk through fields of wheat, cows and sheep. The next day, we went in search of Offa's Dyke. This is a big earthwork dyke that was built by the Mercian King Offa as a defence against the Welsh hoardes.


Ludlow is a busy market town on the River Teme. It has many tudor buildings and a rather large Norman castle ruin at its centre. One of my favourite things is looking around castles -- whether or not they're intact and functional. There's something exciting about looking around a ruin -- climbing up the narrow winding staircases to the parapet and into what were once rooms and imagining what it may have been like in its heyday.

Ludlow Castle
Ludlow Castle
Eating ice creams outside an old tudor building in Ludlow
Eating Ice Creams

Bridge on the River Teme
Bridge on the River Teme
Ludlow Market
Ludlow Market

Blackberry Picking

Blackberry pickingBlackberry pickingWhile on one of our country walks, we engaged in the ancient art of blackberry picking. The trick is to be fussy and only collect the blackest berries that involve the most stretching and the greatest exposure to stinging nettles. It is a law of nature, however, that the best berries are always just out of reach.

Severn Valley Railway

At Highley StationClick here to watch the videoThe Severn Valley Railway is a standard-gauge railway that used to be a part of the old Great Western Railway, but now operates mainly as an attraction for tourists such as ourselves. The children mainly loved it because they could sit in carriages that were similar to those in the Hogwarts Express. Skimming stonesAll they needed were some of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans and a few chocolate frogs to catch. After lunch in a nice little pub that sold almost-only local ciders, we took the train from Bridgnorth to Highley. At Highley we went for a short riverside walk and skimmed stones before taking the train back to Bridgnorth.

Blists Hill Victorian Town

A horse drawn carriage goes past in Blists HillWe also visited the Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge. It can best be described as an open air, living museum. Mark and Emily had visited the town before, but the rest of us hadn't. At first, we tried quizzing shopkeepers in various shops that we entered about Victorian life, but, with the odd exception, found that their level of knowledge was only surface deep. In the end, we just stopped asking questions and just enjoyed the day. It was especially good to see how much the children entered into it -- especially becoming pupils for a while in a mock nineteenth century schoolhouse.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Family Tour: Part 2

Mark, Grandad and the girls in a pubFrom Cambridge we drove to Northampton to visit Mark's Grandad. We took him out for a pub lunch in a lovely old Tudor pub, to celebrate his 95th Birthday. Only five years to go before he gets a birthday card from The Queen.

At Mark's parents' houseFrom there, we drove back to Mark's parents', where we were visited by an old friend who was at college with Mark. From there, it was back to Birmingham for lunch, visiting some more old friends. From there we drove to Shropshire for a week's holiday in a small rural town called Bishop's Castle.

A family gatheringWe then drove back to Peterborough to see my sister, who was touring India during our previous visit, before heading off back to Manchester, ready to fly back to NC.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lauren's Birthday

Lauren woke us up at about 5am, excitedly exclaiming that it was her birthday. The reply was a sleepy "Happy Birthday, now go back to bed."

Lauren on the train to London, holding up a badge that says Birthday GirlEveryone trying to get through to platform nine and three quartersAt a more earthly hour and after presents were unwrapped we caught a train to King's Cross, where we tried to catch the Hogwarts Express. Unfortunately, as we're all Muggles born and bred, none of us could get through to platform 93/4. We consoled ourselves with some sight-seeing around London. Neither Emily nor Lauren had ever visited London before, so they were as keen to see the sights as we were to show them.

Everyone in front of St Stephen's TowerWe started our tour of London (led by Lauren's uncle) by taking the tube to Westminster, where we saw Westminster Palace and St Stephen's Tower.

Emily on the London Eye, overlooking WestminsterLauren with a street performerFrom there, it was across the bridge to the South Bank for a ride on the London Eye, some street entertainment and lunch.

Next, we went to Downing Street to show the girls where the Prime Minister lives. (One used to be able to walk down when I was a child, but now has big metal gates and police officers with machine guns). A Buckingham Palace sentry from the Coldstream GuardsNext, it was Horse Guards, Trafalgar Square, then up The Mall to Buckingham Palace. The Buckingham Palace sentry in the picture was, I'm told, from the Coldstream Guards regiment (established in 1650) and has a medal on his chest that was earned in Iraq.

Mark's brother in a taxiAfter ice creams in Green Park, we visited my favourite museum -- The Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, we got there only about half an hour before closing time, so only got to see around the dinosaur section. We'll have to take the girls again another time. We finished the day off with a ride in a Hackney carriage back to King's Cross where we rounded the trip to London off with a slap-up meal at Pizza Express.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Family Tour: Part 1

The traditional Family Tour T-shirt is worn by Mark's cousinAfter our week in Cornwall, we began our tour of the country, visiting family and friends. From Cornwall, we visited friends in Oxford, then drove up to Birmingham where Emily and Lauren stayed with their friends and we stayed with ours. From Birmingham, it was up to Derbyshire to visit Mark's parents for a few days. Mark's aunts and cousins with Mark, Emily and LaurenEmily, Lauren, Mark's dad and I went to see the new Anthony Horowitz film Stormbreaker. We were keen to see this, having read the book. The next day, we had a day trip to Birmingham to see more friends, who were also Anthony Horowitz fans, so we went to see Stormbreaker again.

Cousins chat on the beach, with a rainbow overheadFrom Mark's parents' it was off to Preston to visit more relatives, then down to Cheshire to visit my brother and his family. Kayaking on the seaWe has a lovely day trip to the beach. It rained in the morning, but cleared up into a lovely beach day involving a picnic lunch, relaxing and kayaking, and a barbecue. The intermittent rain also produced a beautiful rainbow.

Building a sandcastle village on the beachBarbecue on the beach

My niece and great nephewFrom there, it was off to Peterborough to visit more of my family. It's been lovely to see more nieces and nephews My niece and great nieceas well as my gorgeous little great niece who I haven't seen since Christmas and who is now walking and talking. We also got to meet our six week old great nephew who is also absolutely gorgeous.

Tomorrow we go to Cambridge and London (for Lauren's Birthday).