Portrait of a lizard

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t find me in the reptile house of any theme park or zoo. I’m not that keen on zoos anymore, and dude, there are snakes in there. However, our visit to Drayton Manor was on one of the coldest days of the year, and snakes do at least have the right idea when it comes to sleeping somewhere warm.

I was snapping pictures here and there, still testing out the reaches of this iPhone 8 Plus camera – a huge improvement on my last. And somewhere along the way, I took this:

I never thought I’d be using portrait mode on a lizard, but damn if it wasn’t worth it.

Thomas Land

It’s been a bit of a busy year, so expeditions and adventures have been few and far between, but every December we are obliged to leave the house. The brilliant Giggles Advent calendar features jokes from many contributors of which I’m honoured to be one, and to make a fun and interesting video, Mr C and I look for new places to explore.

This year, it was Drayton Manor – the medium sized theme park that features a large section of ground designated to Thomas the Tank Engine, otherwise known as Thomas Land. They were turning Thomas Land festive, and we thought what better place to capture a Christmas joke.

Along the way, I tested out some more of the brilliance that is the iPhone 8 Plus camera, and the results continue to be astounding.

Tour of the city

I found myself with a spare hour or so whilst in Bath recently, and suddenly remembered something I’d spotted online – an audio walking tour of the city. Rather than having to wait at a tour stop and join with a random group of people to be ferried around the famous streets, this was a solo adventure. The site offers two tours, for free, and the one I opted for was the Jane Austen Walking Tour.

You can download in advance or on the go, and you get 15 individual mp3 tracks that guide you around the city and its sights. There’s a pdf map too, which I only referred to when checking the starting place – although this was outside the Roman Baths, so not too hard to find. I plugged in, and listened to the first track and at the end, it tells you where to walk with some really decent directions, and then tells you to play the next track when you arrive at your destination.

I really enjoyed the tour. It had interesting facts, sometimes interviewing historians about the place, sometimes reading relevant passages from Jane Austen’s book, but always limiting each section to just a couple of minutes so there was no time to get bored. I did feel a bit conspicuous at the start, loitering around some of the areas and gazing up at the buildings, but by the end I’d got into a good pattern of listening as I arrived and then perusing as I passed.

The tour fixed all the things that I don’t like about some of the more touristy tour experiences – the loitering, the boring bits, the inability to go rogue on the way round. Here, you’re totally in charge. Follow it in order at your own pace, pause it to go shopping, skip bits, mix it up, it’s all down to you and which mp3 you opt to listen to next.

This got me thinking about what a great idea it is and how it’d be great if more people did audio walking tours. A quick search proved that there are other ones available out there, including the VoiceMap app and a handful of things to listen to here as well. I’d like to go one step further and have audio guides to more rural walks – coastal paths, or national trails – because I’m starting to grow my love for walking but I require a lot of direction along the way. It’s a great addition to my walking library though, and I know now that Jane Austen would have been aware of the Sally Lunn bun! I’m definitely going to check out more of these types of experiences in future.

It’s a Grand Place, Brussels

I was allowed to lift my head from my study books for two weeks recently, to head to Belgium for a fortnight work trip. It was crazy busy and there wasn’t a lot of time to be a tourist, but I did manage to snap a couple of pictures in Brussels.

It’s a lovely place, full of juxtapositions of old and new, and a big mish-mash of languages. I wish I could have had more time to spend nosing around, but had to settle for just a few glimpses of the sights.

I did get to have a waffle, though, so no major complaints. There are a couple more pictures up on Flickr, but now I have to head back to the books!

Half castle, half fort, all awesome

My interest in forts, bunkers and castles is well-documented, and recently I managed to squeeze in a visit to another place of interest that falls into this category. Somehow, it is both fort and castle, as Hurst Castle on the south coast was initially a Tudor dwelling, converted into a sea defending fort during the war. The castle is at the end of long shingle walkway that takes it out of you if you try and walk it. Well, so I’m told. Naturally, I took a boat.

What I love most about forts is there are just so many nooks and crannies. There are so many places to hide, and thus so many to investigate. I was dashing down the paths, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, some of which were dark and quite intimidating. Never has my iPhone torchlight come in handy quite so much.

Some of the rooms have been converted to displays about the local lighthouse heritage association, but I was more interested in those that had been left mostly alone. The underground theatre, the shower block, particularly the gunpowder room – a huge dark circular room at the bottom of a dank staircase.

Then of course, at the top, you’ve got the lookout towers and some pretty impressive views. Looking across the fort, you get a really clear idea of the juxtaposition of old and new (or old and not quite so old), where the stone castle meets the brick fort. So many great lines and corners, just truly a joy to behold. I’ve posted more pictures over on Flickr, but highly recommend a visit of your own!

Open top bus tour of the New Forest

Much of the UK experienced some very hot weather in July, weeks of sunshine and muggy conditions bringing out the sandals and making it hard to sleep. That being the case, it’s typical that when my parents invited me on an open top bus tour of the New Forest, it absolutely poured down.

The New Forest Tours are really quite a good deal. £14 may seem a bit pricey to start with, but you can jump on and off any of the three routes at any time for a limited period. Upgrade your ticket and you can get weekend and week-long extensions, so if you’re holidaying in the area, it can be a good way to get round.

The central part of the tour, where two routes start, is Lyndhurst – a nice little village, although very busy. We managed to have a quick wander round before hopping on the bus, and despite it raining before-hand, we made our way to the top deck.

The precipitation held off for the start of the journey, although we experienced an interesting phenomenon. The bus whooshing past the wet trees, whilst not hitting them directly, provided enough movement for water to flick directly at us. It was like being on the water rides at a theme park. Thankfully, the weather was still in its muggy stage so despite the rain and the occasional dousing, it wasn’t cold.

Remaining decidedly British about the whole thing, we stuck it out, ending up the only people on the upper level.

We got off the bus at Hythe, where a quick glimpse across the water to the Southampton docks showed several cruise ships waiting to go out. The rain moved back in again so we stopped off for a quick cup of tea before hot footing it back on the bus.

We only planned to do the green route, but the sun came out as we were winding our way across the beautiful New Forest towards Lyndhurst. Briefly, we pondered extending our trip to include another route, but with the weather so changeable, we decided to call it quits. Even though it had been a damp day, it was still a lot of fun, I got a handful of pictures, and managed to notch up another open top bus tour for my Life List collection.

Space Center, Houston

My interest in science and space has grown exponentially over the last few years. Science was one of those subjects that was beaten out of me at school and it’s taken a long while for me to really give it the time of day. Since I have, though, I’ve been fascinated, particularly developing a fledgling obsession with the moon. Over on Sidepodcast, we live commented some of the launch and landings of the space shuttle and its successors, and who can argue with an astronaut making a Rocket Man video in actual space?

So, when I learned I was going to Houston, there was one place I knew I would have to visit before I left. The Space Center.

It’s a visitor’s centre with exhibits and things to entertain, attached to real life NASA offices, where work is ongoing for the agency’s next exploration projects. We went on a Sunday, so I’m not convinced many people were actually on site that day, but it was fun to think we were right next door to rocket scientists and astronauts.

Like any good science attraction, the main body of the building was crammed with artefacts and entertainments. We didn’t really have time to investigate the simulator and theatres, mostly concentrating on the visual elements surrounding us, including: an incredible wall of crew photos, a glimpse into the cockpit of the space shuttle, and various space suits throughout the decades hoisted above our heads and in glass cabinets. What really hits home about the suit displays is that they’ve actually BEEN INTO SPACE.

There’s a tram tour with two destinations – mission control or astronaut training. Sadly, we only had time to do one, particularly as they keep you waiting in line to get on the little tour buggy train thing, and then keep you waiting until every single space is full as well. Choosing between them was easy, mission control every time, right?

When the buggy pulls away from the centre, it takes you round some of the offices, where you just think you’re in an industrial estate somewhere and it’s hard to believe that anything magical comes out of these buildings.

I specifically took a picture of building 17 because the tour guide said something exciting was going on in there. I can’t for the life of me remember what it is, so you’ll just have to take my/his word for it.

Rounding a final corner, you approach one of the buildings which is taller and far more special than the others.

When we walked through the door of the mission control room and saw the bank of screens ahead, I think almost every single person let out an audible gasp. This is where it all happens! I may have misheard someone saying that no missions have actually been controlled from this room yet, it’s a future project space, which took the sheen off it a little bit, but even so. I immediately thought of Mr C, with so many screens on so many desks you could watch anything and everything!

We had a thirty minute chat from a young NASA guy who was essentially trying to convince everyone that the organisation still has a place, still has important work to do, despite the fact the shuttle programme has ended. He talked in brief about their plans for future missions into space, and of course that they’re working with others on the space station.

On the way back, the tour stops off at what they call Rocket Park. It has some rockets scattered around in the grass, but it’s the building that really impresses. On the way in, we saw a Saturn V painted on the side of this building and thought, hey, that’s a cool drawing.

After looking at the rockets, we headed to the nearest door in the hopes of finding some air conditioning and we absolutely weren’t expecting to find the actual enormous, humungous rocket to be there, on its side, from pointy end to rocket exhausts. I snapped a couple of pictures but it’s so hard to capture the scope of this thing, they just don’t do it justice.

It was fun to see the part where the humans go, the bit that has been touched by the sea and started rusting. Space isn’t an easy ride, people!

After walking round the entire rocket, we headed back to the centre. There was only time for a quick gift shop stop. I love a gift shop on a normal day, so it wasn’t a surprise to find I had to be dragged out of this one. I picked up some good bits and pieces though.

Part of me wishes there had been more time to do both tours and experience more in the actual visitor centre itself, but ultimately I couldn’t be happier with the visit. And Mr C got his astronaut ice cream, so I think he’s happy too.