The year of changing tastes – Life List review 2013

It’s the last day of the year, and this is the time when people start making New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t tend to do that anymore, instead working from a broader Life List instead.

When I set about thinking of this annual round-up, I felt a little disappointed about how much (or how little) I’ve achieved this year. Looking back can be useful though, as I hadn’t quite realised I’d been to so many places!

Alphabet Adventure

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When 2013 dawned, I was frantically searching for a Q to visit in my alphabetical trip around the United Kingdom. Somehow, I managed to cross six letters off the list this year, with some brilliant visits.

The end of the alphabet is in sight, and I think I have plans for each of the remaining letters. Maybe 2014 will be the year!

Film Watch

We managed to watch the most films ever this year, mostly because by taking on heaps of studying, I had plenty of evenings where I couldn’t think to do anything else but watch moving pictures on the big screen.

Film Watch also has a nice new home, and I’m really excited about how it looks. Keeping it separate from the main blog helps filter out the noise for anyone that isn’t interested in the film nonsense, and also makes it feel just a little bit special.

Some of the highlights this year include Skyfall, Crimson Tide, Pitch Perfect and Star Trek. Meanwhile, more than a year later, I am still not over the horror that was Prometheus.

Doctor Who

Just as in last year’s Life List roundup, I’ve managed to keep up with all the new episodes, but haven’t made much progress on the backlog. I did write about The Girl in the Fireplace but most of my attention was on the new – particularly as we have a brand new Doctor to worry about!

Live sports

One of the highlights of the year was a trip to Eastbourne to see my very first tennis at the Aegon International tournament.

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I didn’t plan very well, and only saw a couple of junior players and some doubles matches, and it was hideously windy, but it felt like I learnt a lot about what to do in the future. I definitely want to see more tennis up close.

Big Read

The Big Read Bonanza list didn’t get a huge amount ticked off this year, but I did catch up on a few of the more classic entries that I had been leaving until last. A couple of Charles Dickens novels, The Count of Monte Cristo (which I mostly loved), and harder things like Anna Karenina, they were all reviewed this year.

I’ve been reading just as much as ever, but I suddenly realised that focusing on the list was seeing my digital stack of unread books was towering in a worrying fashion, and probably needed some attention. I’m hoping to switch my attention back to the list again this year.

Other items

The Panorama Party is up and running, but the page needs a bit of work to it. The trouble with panoramas is they are quite big, as photos go, so sharing them well on the web can be tricky. I have been learning what makes a good and bad panorama though, particularly when it comes to landscapes – I took one that mostly seemed to be a field, whilst a view over the Ilfracombe town was much better.

The bread/tea/new foods items have not had very much attention. I’ve gone off fancy teas at the moment, preferring the more standard tea bag and milk combination. Baking has also dropped off my hobby list for now, due to a lack of time, and a lack of inspiration from the Great British Bake Off. And I was never any good at the trying new foods one. Experimental, I am not.

Added items

As recently discussed, I have put the Backstreet Boys concert back on the list and soon it will be happening in the same year, which is pretty scary. I also added something about completing 30 day challenges, because I love the idea but have little in the way of commitment. I got a bit obsessed with walking after my trip to Snowdonia, so added “Walk on each of the UK National Trails” and “Climb a mountain.” What I can’t figure out is why I haven’t put climb a mountain under Grand Ambitions, because I think it counts as one of those!

So looking back, it hasn’t been the worst year in terms of Life List excitement, but I’m ready for 2014 to be just that little bit better.

Puzzle me this

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about my ambitions to complete a puzzle book. Not a grand aim, I’ll grant you, and not one I thought it would take me almost twelve months to get back to.

I have, on occasion, sat down to write an update about my adventures through puzzle land, but as it turns out, writing about puzzles isn’t as entertaining as I thought it might be! Then again, actually doing them isn’t as good as I thought it would be either.

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There are 51 puzzles in the book I bought, and so far I have completed 29 of them. That’s about 56% complete in twelve months. This could be a new record for the slowest completion of a monthly puzzle book ever!

For anyone that does actually care about these things, I liked the Arroword, I’ve always liked Logic ones, I managed a Codeword I didn’t think I could do, and one called Backwards that I didn’t even understand until I put pencil to paper.

Those I have left are either normal crosswords (there are a lot of these!), cryptic crosswords (which I don’t even…), repeats of ones I have already done, or they are so sparse I have no idea what to do with them. I mean, for example, this one.

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If I wanted to stare at a simple grid, I’d have bought a pad of squared paper, right?

Five parts awesome, one part terrifying

When I first starting putting together my Life List, I pondered adding “See a Backstreet Boys concert” to it. I added it, then I took it off again, then added it, then removed it, and repeated the process a few more times.

In the end, I left it off. I wasn’t totally convinced I wanted to see the band with just four members anyway, and besides, going to gigs isn’t really my thing.

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I went to one, once, a long, long while ago, hated almost every second of it, and swore I wouldn’t do it again. It’s the usual thing: too loud, too many people, not enough personal space, much better to wait for a video and watch at home. It wasn’t even a particularly big gig that I went to, some kind of university student union type thing. I just couldn’t handle it.

Of course, now, I am older and wiser and generally a more capable human being.

And the Backstreet Boys have five members.

And they’re being supported by All Saints.

So yea, I’m going to see them next year, which means I can a) put it back on the Life List and b) spend, oh, only the next few months freaking out about it.

V is for Valley of the Rocks

The Valley of the Rocks is in North Devon, accessible from the nearby village of Lynton. It’s steeped in history, all sorts of Ice Age glacier references and rocky bits and pieces. The Wikipedia entry has what is now my new favourite word – fossiliferous – included in the description. Apparently parts of the book Lorna Doone were set there, although I can’t really picture that in my head, despite having read it relatively recently.

Anyway, to North Devon I ventured to complete the V of my alphabet adventure. From Lynton, there’s a narrow road leading past heaps of bed and breakfasts and guest houses, and eventually it leads out onto the pathway heading towards the valley and the rocks. It’s a steep drop, and there’s not much in the way of guard rails, but the view is fantastic – both of the rocks to the left hand side, and the masses of water to the right.

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There’s also the goats. They’re wild goats, free to roam around the valley as they please (although I think someone must be looking after them a little bit, like the horses in the New Forest or the Exmoor ponies). The places they get to on the steep cliffs are amazing, and you can be walking along and suddenly a pair of horns/antlers appears out of nowhere on the side of an impossibly steep hillside.

It’s a beautiful walk, that gets progressively more interesting as you go along, until eventually you round away from the sea and then through the valley itself and back round to the village. It’s definitely a walk for good weather, and it was a very fortuitous day for me – breezy but no rain, which is as much as you can ask for in October. If it had been raining, it would be an absolute nightmare, totally exposed and with sheer drops to try and avoid.

Thankfully, that was not the case, and I managed to log a successful V in my alphabet adventure.

U is for Uffington White Horse

I had a few options for the letter U in my alphabet adventure, but I opted for the Uffington White Horse as it was something a little bit different. I’ve done castles, gardens, museums and attractions, but I had not, as yet, done a chalk drawing on the side of a hill.

Naturally, October isn’t the ideal time to get out and about in the British Countryside, and it was a breezy morning when I clambered up the hill. Located on some rolling hills in Oxfordshire, the horse is a National Trust destination. There’s a car park across a field from the hill that hosts the horse, and as you head towards the hill you get some brilliant views. Or you would, in slightly better conditions.

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They say the horse looks better from an aerial point of view, but I wasn’t totally convinced it looked like a horse from above either. It definitely doesn’t from close up.

Of course, it’s just some lines on a hill, and if you stumbled across it, you’d think it was just the way nature is sometimes. A bit rocky here and there. Knowing that it’s Ye Olde Bronze-Age makes it slightly more interesting. As the National Trust so expressively put it:

The internationally-renowned Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse can be seen for miles away leaping across the head of a dramatic dry valley in the Ridgeway escarpment.

The horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland.

It was a bit of an odd one all in all. Tucked away down some very narrow lanes, and a close-up view that leaves a lot to be desired. It’s nice to have white horses, but I don’t think they make for great visitor destinations.

T is for Tyneham

When I was a kid, I remember being driven across Salisbury Plain, and spotting a pristine but empty looking village tucked away in the fields. My parents told me this was an army village, not for living in, but for exercises and drills. My imagination was absolutely caught by this and whenever I travelled around, across or anywhere near Salisbury Plain, I would always be on the lookout for this exceptional village.

I think I must not have driven across that same road since because I’ve never seen it, and the village has taken on a magical, mythical, Brigadoon-esque quality in my mind.

I have since learned that, of course, it’s not Brigadoon, but Imber – a so-called ghost village, evacuated by demand of the Army during the second world war and never relinquished.

From what I can tell, it’s pretty difficult to get a look at Imber, it being a site of gun battles and terrifying army exercises. But there is an easier ghost village to get to and that is Tyneham.

I took advantage of what may be the final day of sunshine available in the UK, and hot-footed it to the Dorset coast. You can park at Tyneham, for free, and have a look round, but I decided to make a bit more of an adventure of it. I parked at Kimmeridge and walked through the military range, up and over the cliffs, and down to Tyneham. I kept my eyes peeled for any tanks or camouflaged personnel elbowing their way through the long grass, but as the military ranges were open and the public were allowed in, I guess they were having a day off.

Tyneham was a little underwhelming, if I’m honest. It was fascinating to see the shells of houses and they put storyboards in some of the buildings to describe the previous inhabitants. Just like Imber, this village was taken by the military and never returned to the owners, despite vigorous protesting on their part. It’s very rundown now, with just the main wall structures remaining.

There just weren’t as many buildings as I’d imagined. The church looked the most complete, but that had a heap of scaffolding around it, taking away any picturesque qualities. There’s a schoolhouse too, but that was fenced off for repairs, leaving me with just two sets of houses and the church interior to really enjoy.

There is a creepy feeling about the idea that people were just forced to leave with no return, but I had thought it would be a little more atmospheric. It didn’t help that there were a lot of other nosey tourists like me around, so that it really didn’t feel very ghostly! It seemed to be a popular destination for bikers.

It wasn’t a disappointing day, because I really enjoyed the walk to and from the village but I can’t say I stayed very long once there. On the one hand, I felt a bit deflated about the ghost village, but on the other hand, I’m glad it was Tyneham I saw and not Imber. The mythical mystery in my mind lives on!

S is for Snowdon Mountain Railway

There were a few options for the S of my Alphabet Adventure, but when I thought of Snowdon, there could be no other contender. The point of the adventure is to go to new places, visit different things and get a view of the country I haven’t had before. Going up a mountain fits into all those categories and then some. I opted for the Snowdon Mountain Railway, because I thought climbing a mountain on my first go would be a bit much and… well, it was so hot.

It was beautiful, incredible, an outstanding view and perspective that was made even better by the clear conditions we were very lucky to get. Although it was baking hot on the ground, by the time we got to the top of the mountain it was cloudy and a cool breeze was blowing through. It was refreshing and lovely.

So it was a good experience but I have a list of things that were less positive about the day. None of them were enough to dour the trip entirely, and in some cases it’s just because of the type of person I am. But these things do add up to take away from what could have been brilliant.

  • It costs £27.
  • It was supremely busy. I arrived at their stated opening time of 8:30am, and there were two or three people queuing at the day tickets and a huge line at the pre-orders. As I was buying on the day, the first train I could get on was for half twelve, which gave me four hours to while away.
  • The trains are cramped. You’re assigned a compartment so they can keep things orderly, and make sure they bring you back down off the mountain as well as take you up. There were two benches facing each other, and five thin cushioned areas on each. On the way up I was in the middle of one side, and personal space was limited.
  • It takes an hour. The views don’t really get good until the last twenty minutes or so. There’s a recorded audio tour guide but it was almost impossible to hear it over the loud engines.
  • I was ever so slightly disappointed to find that all there was at the summit was more people who had gone up a mountain.
  • There’s a building, hosting a fast food style café, a dingy souvenir shop and toilets. It smells like a locker room, because these are mostly people who have been climbing for several hours.
  • There was no signal.
  • I felt like I’d cheated because a lot of people there were experiencing the reward of having climbed. All I had to revel in was surviving the claustrophobia of the train compartment.
  • The way back down was slightly better because one of our fellow travellers didn’t show up so I got to scooch over by the window and take photos. Having said that, my back was starting to ache from the hard seats.
  • All the best souvenirs say “I climbed Snowdon” and I couldn’t buy one of those. I ended up with a less than impressive mug with a photo of the concrete summit building on it.

These sound like moans and complaints, and I suppose they are, but I want to accurately reflect the experience. It was amazing to do, and I’m happy to have done it, but now that it is done and in the past, it feels more disappointing than it should have.

It has made me want to climb a mountain though. An easy one. Not with ropes and stuff. Then I can buy the good souvenirs.

Open-top touring in Brighton

I can get a bit stressed at using public transport for getting where you need to go, but as a recreational activity planes, trains and automobiles can be a lot of fun. I decided a while back that although my Alphabet Adventure is taking me to a lot of new places, I’m not always seeing what a city or town is really like, concentrating solely on where I have to go for that specific letter. To address this, I thought it would be fun to add a new Life List item, and visit as many open-bus sightseeing tours as possible.

My recent trip to Brighton provided the perfect opportunity for my first one. I can’t believe that this is my first ever open-top bus experience, but having said that, neither I nor my parents (who accompanied me on the tour) can remember a time where I have done it before. Regardless, this is the first documented one – pics or it didn’t happen, you know.

It was a pretty windy day in Brighton, not ideal for open-top bussing, but we were determined to do it, so headed up top. We could have had a bit of protection at the front of the bus, where the mini windscreen is, but decided there would be better photo opportunities at the back. It really was windy though, I took this video earlier in the day, which demonstrates a) the waves created by the huge winds and b) the crazy people trying to surf.

The audio guide was a recording, which was okay to start with but gradually got out of sync in places. I assume the bus driver has the opportunity to pause it in places, as there were a couple of times where we could hear him grappling to find the right section. It was quite a good tour though, lots of information, particularly on the sea front with the old pier remains and the rebuilt Grand Hotel. We also got a sneak peek at the sandcastle competition, which costs £6 to get in to on the ground.

The route started at a central point along the seafront, then took us along the front, round into town and through the busy shopping sections, past the railway station, then back down to the front by the new Marina area. The return to the starting point from there was the worst bit – straight into the wind, so that my hair was whipping about my face painfully, and we were really just hunkered in waiting for it to end.

Up until that point, though, I’d been really enjoying myself. Looking at all the stuff, learning all about the area, seeing bits I wouldn’t normally have seen, and taking some pictures along the way. I wasn’t sure about the open-top bus tour when I added it to my Life List, but now it’s something I definitely want to do again!

R is for Royal Pavilion

There were a range of options available to me for the R stop on my Alphabet Adventure, but when I realised it coincided with a trip I was taking to Brighton, it seemed to make sense that I visited the Royal Pavilion. To make things slightly more interesting, my parents were joining me for the visit too, so I got to enjoy the wonders of the pavilion with company.

The Royal Pavilion was built by King George IV as something of a play home, showing off and trying to outdo everyone else in terms of style and decoration. There’s an odd visual straight away because the outside is very Indian in style, whilst the inside is all the reds, blacks, bamboos and dragons of China.

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royal-pavilion-entrance

The Pavilion is unfortunately one of those locations that doesn’t allow photography inside the building, but once inside, it was easy to see that wouldn’t be a problem. The rooms are so dark and cluttered and dingy, that it’s hard to think of a good photograph you could actually take. There is an audio tour that guides you around each room, although both my mum and I struggled with the unintuitive handsets and kept pressing the wrong buttons at the wrong time.

So, we wandered from room to room, listening, chatting, gazing around. I was a bit disappointed at how closed off everything felt. There was a section about halfway through which demonstrated the damage that millions of visitors could have on wallpaper and furniture and the like. I can understand the need for presentation, but it was such a hands off experience that it was quite hard to totally engage with it.

Some of the rooms were better than others (in terms of taste), I was astounded at how busy everything was/is. In some of the more decadent rooms there is just no single block of colour to give your brain a break. Busy wallpapers, patterns, a myriad of colours, glittering chandeliers and gold-leaf on everything. It made me long for a plain white wall!

I found the kitchen interesting, particularly the horrendously large menu, as well as the King’s bedroom with the secret doors. I also enjoyed the music room with its acres of space. There were snakes curling around the curtains in that room though, so I went off it pretty sharpish.

Anyway, as I couldn’t take any pictures inside, I opted for a couple of postcards from the gift shop.

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Overall, it was an interesting experience but not one I would particularly recommend. The rooms inside are not to everyone’s taste (my mum’s impression after two rooms: “Dark and dingy… and horrible!”), and they are pretty intense. As mentioned, the preservation of history takes far more precedence than the enjoyment of it, so you may as well just look at the postcards rather than pay the entrance fee.

Aegon International tennis at Eastbourne

With a trip to Brighton already on the cards, a need to add another sport to my Life List endeavour, and a timely reminder from the fabulous Lou, I found myself clutching tickets to the penultimate day of the Aegon International competition in Eastbourne. I made a slight error in entering the Devonshire Park grounds round the back, rather than the main entrance, which means when I was later in search of the ticket booths, I was too late to snap up any Centre Court tickets.

That was the only downside to the day, and I’ll start with that now to get it out the way. With all the cheers and clapping and noises coming from Centre Court, and the fact that all the semi-final matches for the singles competition were taking place there, I think I missed out.

eastbourne-tennis-katy-dunneI had tickets for Court 1, and the action there didn’t start until 1pm, so I spent the first portion of the day touring the outer courts and seeing what was going on there. I got caught up in a match that was part of the Maureen Connelly Challenge Trophy, featuring some junior girls – GBR versus USA. The first match I saw featured Brit Katy Dunne against Taylor Townsend.

It was really interesting seeing the sport played live compared to watching it on TV. This particular match being on a smaller outside court, the first thing I realised was you can’t blink because there are no replays. When you watch on TV, the players make it look effortless, swooshing about the court this way and that and crafting together a great game to win the point.

In real life, you can see the effort that is being put in – particularly these juniors when just trying to return a serve! You can see up close how much every point means to the player, even those that don’t really… well, matter is the wrong word, but you know, losing a point returning serve, that’s quite  normal. There was a moment where one of Katy’s shots went long and she swore really loudly. It was surprising, because we’re mostly shielded from that via the medium of TV.

Anyway, Katy won that match, and it was about time for the action on Court 1 to begin, so I made my way to my seat. It was a ladies’ doubles match, and doubles isn’t really my thing but it was still more interesting for seeing it played live. The wind was causing havoc with the serves, and a plastic bag blew on court at one point, but otherwise the match was without incident.

A few things I thought were interesting in this tournament – the doubles partners could request their coach to come jogging out on court and chat to them. There was also a “deciding point – receiver’s choice” thing instead of deuce that I didn’t quite understand. When the pair took one set each, they went straight to a ten-point tiebreak. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have played a third set, but I wasn’t too bothered. The people behind me were very annoyed though, complaining vehemently through the entire tiebreak.

I was quite glad when the doubles was over though. There’s far too much pausing between points to discuss tactics.

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There was an hour to kill before the mens’ doubles final so I went back out to peruse the outer courts and watched another Maureen Connelly match. This time, the GBR girl was being coached by Judy Murray – who I was ashamed to admit:

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Overall, it was a good day out, but I think I made all the rookie errors under the sun. (Actually, I made an error with the sun too. Planned for cold and rain and boredom. Did not plan for sunshine, and ended up with a burnt nose.) I abandoned my good seat by the first Maureen Connelly match to go in search of Centre Court tickets, found they were sold out and returned to find the match suddenly very popular and all the good seats taken. I should have thought about the order of play a bit more carefully, I hadn’t realised this was so near the end of the tournament so that all the best matches would be on Centre rather than any other courts.

I definitely want to go again, the nature of the tournament is that there are famous enough people there, without there being the epic crowds and pressure that comes from Wimbledon. It’s right up my street! I really enjoyed my day, but next year I will have to plan things better – perhaps even try a couple of days to get the most out of it. I also need to rethink the camera situation. I was more than cautious about running out of battery on my iPhone, and whilst I had the Lumix, tennis appears to be more of a “big zoom lens” kind of sport. Once you’ve got the atmosphere, you need the close-ups otherwise all the pictures end up looking very similar.

I have to go to some more tennis anyway, there’s an outstanding “see a top ten player” item on the Life List still to complete.