Book Review: The Trees by Ali Shaw

First off, if that cover doesn’t draw you in nothing will. Just look at it!

One look at that cover and I was half way to the till. I read the back first and nearly put it back down. ‘An English ecological version of The Road‘. I really didn’t enjoy The Road. It was far too bleak and depressing. I know that by their very nature post apocalyptic books will be darker, but that went too far for me. While we’re on the subject of post apocalypse novels, or films and TV for that matter, why don’t people use cars. Roads will last for decades, as will cars, and fuel is easy enough to obtain from a HGV tanker, while basic car maintenance isn’t too difficult. In The Walking Dead, all the ‘alive’ characters are walking as well. If cars are too difficult, why not use bicycles. You will easily out run a zombie on a bicycle.

Anyway, back to The Trees. The author currently lives in Oxford, my old town, and he used to study at Lancaster Uni, so in the end I did pick up the book.

The beginning is breathtaking. One night, trees explode into being, suddenly appearing fully grown everywhere, bursting through roads and houses, obliterating shops, and unfortunately killing a fair few people. Obviously in this scenario cars and bicycles are of no use. Our intrepid group head off looking for one of their siblings, who already lives in a forest, before searching for the main characters wife, who was on a business trip in Ireland when the trees arrive.

The whole book is an allegory, although the hidden meaning, that humans are destroying our world, isn’t very hidden. The book stumbles along in places, but I was hooked, and even though some comments online suggest that there isn’t any real plot, I didn’t find this to be a problem as it is more of a journey. A physical, mental and spiritual journey for various characters.

I enjoyed it immensely and gave it five out of five on Goodreads.

Battenburg Cake

Battenburg has never been one of my favourite cakes, but with the welcome return of the Great British Bake Off (#GBBO) I decided to have a go at making one.

For those of you not up to speed on GBBO, the very first challenge of the new series was to bake a Battenburg, including marzipan. Both me and my lovely baking wife enjoyed the first episode, especially with new host Matt Lucas. His take on Boris was brilliant and he has added a lot to the show. That’s not to take anything away from Sandi Toksvig, as she was also very good. If anything, I think the weak link might be Noel Fielding!

Anyway, back to my attempt at a Battenburg. We already had most of the ingredients, all that we needed was some ground almonds, cocoa powder and some ready made marzipan. Maybe next time I will have a go at that as well. I was using a recipe from Lorraine Pascale, with one sponge vanilla and the other mocha. First problem was that the butter wasn’t softened so creaming it with the sugar was hard work, probably should have used the food mixer! Once the mixture was made it needed to be split into two, with cocoa powder and coffee added to one half. I’m not a baker, but surely the extra dry ingredient will make the sponge less light. We also don’t own a specialist baking tin, so two loaf tins were used.

The vanilla sponge took a few minutes longer to bake, but unlike in GBBO I could leave both sponges as much time to cool as was necessary. I trimmed them and cut them in half, before using warm apricot jam to hold it all together. Next issue was the marzipan. I had rolled it out and measured it using the measurements from the recipe, rather than measuring my cake. Obviously the wasn’t enough, so with some of it stuck to the cake I had to roll the ‘flaps’ a bit thinner.

End result can be seen in the photo below, although the photo isn’t very good.

I left the cake for Helen, who had gone for a longish run with friends, while I nipped out on my bike. Upon returning, Helen told me how good my Battenburg cake was, she even gave me a Hollywood handshake. The neighbours were also impressed.

One small issue I had with Lorraine’s recipe was at the end she states that it would be a great cake to make for your man!

I have to say that while my Battenburg wasn’t perfect, I think it was a mighty fine first attempt.

Book Review: The House of Thunder by Leigh Nichols

Leigh Nichols is, or was, a pseudonym, hence why the cover picture gives the author as Dean Koontz.

Early on in Dean’s career his publishers felt that he was too prolific for his fans to keep up with, so he published a few books under pseudonyms. Obviously as he became more and more popular it made financial sense to re-release these books under his own name. Unfortunately, some books should remain under a pseudonym. This isn’t one of Dean’s better books by a long way.

The main character wakes up in a hospital after a near fatal car crash suffering from partial amnesia. As she recovers she is haunted by ghosts from her past, notably the four college ‘boys’ (young men) who killed her then boyfriend in a fraternity hazing gone wrong. All four of the killers have since died, but they appear all too real to our heroine.

For me the characters are very two dimensional, with simple shock tactics reminiscent of early 1980’s horror in general, whether it be books or films. There is also far too much dialogue. The book could easily lose at least a hundred pages and would be better for it. I will admit I skim read most of the middle section until the last 40 or 50 pages. I would expect that most people would have given up by then.

The book also touches on some familiar themes to fans of Dean Koontz, namely secret government organisations, brain washing and morally dubious scientific advances, with thunder storms to add tension.

I picked up the book second hand in Coniston after we had walked up the Old Man (read about it here), with the money going towards the local hospice. As it was only £2 I’m not too fussed that it wasn’t that good, and I only gave it 2 stars on Goodreads. One for hardcore Dean Koontz fans only.

The Old Man of Coniston

The last full day of our mini Lake District break and my lovely wife agreed to walk up Coniston Old Man with me. Even though I had been to Coniston a few times in the past; on a first year undergraduate field trip, swimming in the lake and cycling along the quieter side of the lake, I had never walked up the Old Man.

We parked up in the town so that we could do the whole walk, rather than using the car park half-way up the hill. Setting off and the weather wasn’t too bad, although we both knew that it conditions at the summit could be very different. We managed to miss the disguised footpath next to The Sun public house and instead walked up the steep road to the Walna Scar carpark. From there we could follow the path as it joined what is known as the ‘Tourist’ path.

There were a number of other walkers, although it couldn’t be called ‘busy’. We slowly made our way up the steep path, stopping at the old mines.

As you can see from the photo the visibility wasn’t great. We continued up, overtaking some people, and being overtaken by others, until we were at the top and could take in the glorious views. Just kidding, we couldn’t see a thing and the wind was ferocious. We took a quick photo and started to descend the other side.

Helen was in charge of navigation and knew that the path round the back past Goat’s Water was less steep and was also likely to be quieter. She was correct on both counts as she expertly guided us onto the correct paths.

Soon we joined the larger bridleway between Coniston and Seathwaite, which was more popular, and we were now beneath the clouds and could see all of the lake and the fells beyond. We stopped to have lunch on a rock placed next to a sign indicating the Old Man. Obligatory photo of an old man standing next to the sign.

We quickly walked through the very full car park and returned to Coniston. In need of coffee and cake we stopped at the Meadowdore Cafe. As we did it started to rain. Brilliant timing and the first time that we hadn’t go absolutely soaked. A great day was had by all. Of course it might be nice to visit again when the views are better, or we could go off up a different hill. There are so many more that we haven’t walked yet.

The other blogs about our little Lake District break can be found here and here.

Ravenglass and Eskdale Miniature Railway

After our mammoth run/walk a couple of days earlier (read about it here) we took the Sunday off, but, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Miniature Steam Railway beckoned on the Monday morning, including a dog ticket for Nelly.

Quite possibly the best photo of Nelly ever

Nelly was looking smart in her little coat as we were expecting more rain and we intended to walk back. Most of the people getting on the train looked like they were going for a good walk and many were probably also planning on walking back to Ravenglass.

The train was a little rickety as we made our way through the Eskdale valley, an area I had cycled many years ago when I wanted to tackle Hardknott pass. After a very enjoyable 40 minute journey we alighted at our destination, and as Helen took a few photos of the train I bumped into a couple with their own pointer. I mentioned how they aren’t the most popular of breeds, probably because of how unruly they are when they are young, to which the woman added that their pointer was still unruly.

We set off from the small Dalegarth station in the ‘wrong’ direction. I didn’t want to walk back along the road and from looking at the map I knew that there was a footpath next to the River Esk. Due to the rain over the last few days, the stepping stones to cross the river were underwater. Fortunately there was a bridge a little way upstream. We then followed the path through Milkingstead Wood and into Thwaite Wood, although it was impossible to look at the map as it was raining so hard, hence why there are no more photos.

We joined an old logging track which forms a cycle path, although in places it would be tough going on a bike. With the low cloud there wasn’t much of a view, but the track was nice and flat and easy to walk along. We stopped for lunch next to the Eskdale Golf course, before encountering a nasty sting in the tail. The footpath took us up and over Muncaster Fell, climbing up into the clouds. On a clear day I’m sure you would be able to see the Isle of Man.

Dropping down we joined the main road back into Ravenglass, passing the entrance to the Muncaster Estate. The last mile and a bit on the pavement was a little hard on our feet, but even in the rain we had thoroughly enjoyed our 8 mile walk.

Like many people, me and Helen have never really visited the coast from Millom up to Silloth, opting to remain in the Lake District, but hopefully we will visit again in the future.

The only negative of the day was driving on the dangerous coast road, with lorries right up behind us or cars overtaking when there was no way they could see if anything was coming.

The Cumbria Way – Keswick to Caldbeck

Me and my lovely wife generally take the first week of September off work as children are back at school and the weather is likely to be not too bad. Originally we had looked at cycling for a week, but due to a pandemic and such like we opted for just a few days away at Helen’s brother’s caravan in the south lakes. However, before we stayed at the caravan we had planned a mini adventure at a dog friendly hotel/pub in Caldbeck.

Saturday morning, wearing our running gear, we set off nice and early to drive to Caldbeck. The village of Caldbeck used to have daily buses to and from Keswick and Carlisle, now there are two buses on a Saturday and nothing on any other day of the week. First bus arrived at 8.30am and after a short loop to Hesketh Newmarket and back we were on our way to Keswick. A short stop to allow a herd of cows to pass and another brief stop for an Audi driver to get out of the way before we arrived at our destination. Keswick was very busy, even at 9.30am so we were happy to head off north out of the town and onto the Cumbria Way.

The Cumbria Way is a 73 mile route from Ulverston to Carlisle. We were using the Cicerone guide book which splits the route into 5 stages, with optional mountain versions. We were sticking to the regular route as the mountain route added an extra couple of miles.

As we walked past Fitz Park we noticed that there was an event on, although we only saw a couple of runners much later on. The start of the route was again busy as we walked up Spooneygreen Lane, the main walking path up to the start of Skiddaw. Fortunately when we reached the Skiddaw carpark most people headed off up the climb while we skirted Lonscale Fell, gently making our way upwards.

As soon as the route flattened a little bit we began to gently run. The idea was that we would walk the uphill sections and run the flat and downhill sections.

Soon the amazing Skiddaw House Youth Hostel came into sight, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. A former shooting lodge which could easily have become derelict, but was saved by volunteers and today thrives as a very out of the way place to stay.

From Skiddaw House we followed the river Caldew all the way to the end of Mosedale road, below the slopes of the formidable Carrock Fell. This brought back many fond memories as I went on a week long field trip at the start of my second year studying Environmental Science as an undergraduate at Lancaster University. Perfect place to stop for a sandwich.

From here the Cumbria Way headed up Great Lingy Hill, made harder by the torrential rain which had begun just as we had finished our lunch. (This is why there is a lack of photos from here to the finish). We sought refuge in the Lingy Hut, along with another man who was walking all 214 of the Wainwrights. He seemed in good spirits despite the weather, although he only had another 30 to do which he hoped would only take another three or four days.

The route from here to Caldbeck looked fairly straight forward, up and over High Peak and down into Caldbeck. However, during a nasty hailstorm at the top we managed to lose the correct route as we descended. At an unexpected junction a walker pointed us in the right direction as we could see the village in the distance. Another wayward footpath sign sent us off into a random field before we found the route once again. At least it had stopped raining at this point.

We ran the last mile into the village, and as I went into the Oddfellows Arms for our room key, Helen dried off Nelly, who had been the best dog in the world all day. The Oddfellows Arms has mixed reviews, and while the room was a little shabby it was very clean and the shower was hot. Additionally the staff were incredibly friendly and food couldn’t be faulted.

It had been a long tough day, with almost 17 miles under our belts in 6 hours. We had 8 very tired legs between us, although I don’t think it will be too long before we’re looking at doing other sections of the Cumbria Way.

Three Very Different Books

Sometimes when I finish a book it might only be a day or two before I get round to writing a review. More often than not, life gets in the way, and it can take a week or two so that I have a build up of books in need of reviewing. The last three books that I’ve read have all been very good, but very different.

First up is Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare, where the author requests passage across the seas on shipping containers. The first half of the book is on one of the largest vessels in the world as it travels from Europe, through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and ultimately to Japan and China. The second half of the book he travels on a much smaller boat across the Atlantic from Europe to Canada.

The book covers everything, especially the crew, who are mainly low paid Phillipinos with much better paid European officers. The work is tough with long hours and the conditions are not always that good. A very fascinating book and gives a very good insight to the world of shipping.

Next up is In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park. The author was born and raised in North Korea and escapes with her mother across into China and ultimately to South Korea. The brutal North Korean regime is described in detail, as is the constant search for food and the blatant corruption among officials. Eventually, they can take no more and pay for transport in China, not knowing that they will in fact be sold to farmers as wives. What they went through in China is horrific, but eventually they find their way to South Korea via Mongolia. Yeonmi works incredibly hard on her education as she is so far behind, where she excels and ends up travelling the world telling her story and raising awareness about the life of ordinary people in North Korea. An excellent book.

Finally, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I read this book many years ago as I was completing my PhD, and as such had completely forgotten the whole plot. Therefore, when my lovely wife finished reading it I picked it up to read again. There isn’t too much to say about this book, as almost everyone will have heard about it. The main character, Allan, has lead a very interesting life, meeting presidents, despots and dictators, almost like a Swedish Forrest Gump, without the running. Definitely one of the best books written in the last decade. A laugh out loud tale on historic shenanigans and modern day mayhem.

Flagged Strava Activity

We’ve all lost a KOM and had a quick look at who the culprit was. I expect that sometimes it is an error. They’ve left their Garmin on while driving home, or logged a ride as a run. I’ve done it a couple of times, and I’ve also had to flag a couple of erroneous activities from friends. Unfortunately, it appears that Strava no longer sends notification if an activity of yours has been flagged. Fortunately, Veloviewer lists any flagged activities you might have. I only upload my Strava activities to Veloviewer once or twice a month, and I’ve had a flagged activity listed for a few years. A two mile walk where the GPS was a bit funky at the start. I couldn’t be bothered to crop the activity so I left it flagged.

However, when I uploaded Veloviewer this week there was a second flagged activity. A hilly 200km ride back in July 2013. At the time I was doing a lot of big rides, and often fairly quick. This ride my average speed was just under 18mph. I have plenty of friends who can average faster over longer distances. There wasn’t anything untoward about my ride, especially as I was wearing a heart rate monitor, so I have absolutely no idea why someone would feel the need to flag it, and I’ve had no reasoning from Strava.

Anyway, I unflagged it and hopefully it will stay that way. Here is a link to that particular ride. Can you see anything wrong with it?