Mayday Mayday

May Day Morning

Twenty years ago today I had been working all night at Stationer’s Hall up in London setting up an event for the following day. Driving back to Rochester in the early hours my plan was to go to the Jack in the Green awakening Ceremony on Bluebell Hill which started at dawn or 5:32am. I’d been living in Rochester for about 5 months at this point and although I’d been to most of the festivals in the city I had never been to the Sweeps festival. It seemed to make sense that I go to the opening ceremony in preparation for the weekend ahead.

The only thing was it was absolutely pouring down with rain as I drove back down the A2. I um’d and ah’d  all the way back but as I came off at the Rochester exit I decided to go even though, I reasoned, I’d probably be the only one there! I drove into Bluebell village and found the turn off to the picnic site and to my surprise the lane was jam packed with cars. I eventually found a space and parked before grabbing my camera and getting out to walk down the lane to the picnic site.

The first thing I saw as I looked round, through the half light and the mist, was a man wearing antlers on his head silhouetted by the headlights of another car coming up the lane. I raised my camera but by the time I got it to my eye the scene had gone – I’ve regretted not getting that shot ever since! I followed antler man down the road to the carpark and if I recall correctly we had to climb over the gate to get in. The were lots of people standing around a circle of flaming pots and in the centre stood the Jack in the Green.

Jack in the Green

The ceremony was just starting as I arrived and I saw a group of Morris Dancers in brightly coloured ragged clothes standing around the Jack and they were singing….

Now winter is over, I’m happy to say,
That we’ll all meet again on the first day of May.
And we’ll all meet again on the first day of Spring,
And go about dancing with Jack in the Green.
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green,
And we’ll dance every spring time with Jack in the Green.

At the end of the song music started and they danced around the jack banging their sticks against the shovels they were carrying. Over the next hour or so a number of Morris sides took turns to dance and I took photographs and enjoyed the entertainment. After a while people started to drift away and I headed home, arriving soggy but happy on my doorstep at the same time as the milkman!

Over the next 16 years I went every year first as a spectator and then after I joined Wolf’s Head, as a participant. I even turned down the chance to dance with the side a week before Sweeps because I wanted my first public dance to be atop Bluebell Hill on May Day morning. In a similar fashion I danced the Wolf’s Head signature dance The Four Seasons for the first time on May Day 2003.

My first Four Seasons

Since 1992 I’d only missed 2 May Day mornings – 2006 when I’d been up all night with one of my cluster headaches and 2009 when I’d worked 13 days straight without a day off and decided to stay in bed! That was until this morning…..

I got up at 4:15 and got dressed, went down stairs and made myself a cup of tea. I sat in the living room and drank my tea before putting my boots on ready to go. It was at this point as I sat back in the early morning silence that I heard the rain lashing against the windows (or Beltane down as my friend put it on Facebook!). I looked out of the window and just like the last couple of weeks which accounted for the wettest April in 100 years it was pouring. It looked cold and wet and I decided that no matter how much I enjoy the Jack in the Green awakening ceremony I just couldn’t be bothered to go out there and get soaked to the skin. So I got undressed and went back to bed.

No sooner had I got into bed than I heard a bird singing outside the window and instantly regretted my decision! Happy Beltane everyone!

Beltane Fire

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The shopping trip

IMAG0093

Today we took my Gran, who will be 100 next month, on a shopping trip. She is mostly housebound these days and this was her first trip to Asda for many years. In the picture above my youngest Ben who is 5 walking along holding his Great Gran’s hand.

Kicking Against the Pricks

Now don’t get me wrong I love my Android phone – I won’t join the sheep and sell my soul to Apple for an iphone which does half of what my Android can do but costs twice as much. But……I had a problem. Eighteen months ago I signed up to a two year contract with my HTC magic phone and for most of that time I’ve been really really happy. Until a few months ago.

My HTC Magic had been running Android V1.6 and as such was a lovely little phone. Then suddenly, out of the blue, Vodafone released an upgrade for Magic users which took the phone up to the latest version which was 2.2 or Froyo as it was widely known. In retrospect this was a mistake which I will explain shortly but I think Vodafone had been under a lot of pressure to release the upgrade and for a long time it looked as if they were dragging their feet. However looking back they were actually being quite sensible. The problem would appear to be that the Magic just simply wasn’t powerful enough or had enough memory to run the new software.

Not that anyone at Vodafaone would actually admit that out loud but it did leave me with a problem. The phone became very sluggish and crashed every so often – usually when you really needed it to work. I use the phone as a camera a lot and when you have to wait 2 minutes for the camera function to start up it can be a bit embarrassing – especially when everyone else has taken the shot and you’re still standing there saying “Oh sorry can you just hang on a minute!” It also locked when phonecalls came in and meant I had to call people back. It was getting to the point where it was almost getting chucked with fustration!”

So a week ago I was walking past the Vodafone shop and saw the Sumsung Tablet as shown in the picture above) so I popped in to have a look. While I was standing there one of the assistants came over and asked if he could help. I explained that I was just looking and that I was tied to a 24 month contact that still had a while to run. He told me that I could upgrade 6 months early and when he checked the new date I could upgrade was 16th April. I made a note in my diary and took his name just in case! I also picked up a copy of the brochure so I could peruse the phones and decide which on to go for.

So after another frustrating day I e-mailed Vodafone to see if I could speed up the process and on the Tuesday I got a message which now said I could upgrade on the 4th April which was moving in the right direction. I decided to call them and see if I could push this further but their customer service department was awful. I don’t know where it’s based but none of the staff seem to have been taught how to empathise with customers, it’s all very deadpan and matter of fact. After arguing with the guy for a few minutes and trying to get across to him that simply repeating what he had just said doesn’t constitue explaining something he put me on hold to speak to technical services. While I was waiting the line went dead.

I decided to wait before calling back and while I waited I got a text saying my order had been dispatched!!!! What order!! So I phoned back and spoke to another deadpan individual who informed me that the technical people had said that the problem was most likely to be the sim card and they were sending me another one. I told him that I didn’t think that was the problem and hung up – shortly afterwards I got an e-mail in rather poor English telling me the same thing.

The card arrived on Thursday and as I had come to expect from Vodafone there was no instructions as to what I should do. So I called up and spoke to the same call centre who once again had no customer empathy and were less than helpful. I eventually got it out of them what I should do and hung up. A few minutes later I got an automated call asking me to rank the service I had just recieved so I gave them 2 out of 5 for service and gave them one for would I recommend Vodafone to a friend. A few minutes later a call back – I told him that I was driving and asked him to call back 10 minutes later which he did but I couldn’t answer the call because the bloody phone had locked up! Needless to say the sim card didn’t make any difference.

As far as I was concerned they had seriously pissed me off and this wasn’t over. Ideally what I would have liked to do was  ride out the contract and then move my business elsewhere but with a phone that the thought of having to wait 2 weeks to upgrade was not pleasing then the thought of waiting 6 months was a nightmare. I decided to go back to the shop on Saturday and try again only this time face to face. I wanted to look at phones anyway as I couldn’t make my mind up between the Nexus S and the Desire HD.

So on Saturday I went into the shop and was disappointed that the guy I’d spoken to the previous week wasn’t there. They were very busy and I had to wait a while. Then luckily for me the guy suddenly appeared and I told him my whole tale of woe. He was very apologetic about the service that I had received and suggested that I complain. Curiously some of the things he said were the exact opposite of what I’d been told online/phone. I said to him that it was like dealing with two different companies and that it appeared that the shops and online/phone parts of Vodafone were in competition with each other, and that they used that to play customers off.

At first he said that there was nothing he could do but as we talked he asked me if I would mind a new telephone number. I said that it wouldn’t be the end of the world so he made a suggestion. He said he would reduce my current price paln down to the bare minimum – £10 a month. Then he would give me the phone on a 24 month contract but would give me the first two months free (That’s a £60 refund to cover the cost of the 6 months at £10 a month). That sounded good to me – especially as the two contracts would run together for the first 6 months so that I would end up with the new 24 month contract starting in October when the current one finished effectively making it a 30 month contract. (I’d been told that this wouldn’t happen by the man on the phone but didn’t believe it for one second.)

So all I had to do was decide which of the two phones to go for! I eventually went for the Desire HD because the Nexus doesn’t have a memory card slot and although it had a massive 16GB of storage if anything happened to the phone I wouldn’t be able to retrieve the data. So the man went out the back to get me a phone and guess what – they’d run out!! So I have to wait till tomorrow to get my hands on it.

It just goes to show that if you kick hard enough against big corporations eventually you’ll get what you want!

Battery bonus

A few weeks ago I blogged about how I got a Nikon Coolpix digital camera from Freecycle because the owner said it took fuzzy pictures only to find that this was due to finger trouble and a setting change has given me a nice little pocket camera which incidentally took this picture today

Anyway when I got it Sarah moaned at me because she said that she wanted one so I kept my eye out on Freecycle and yesterday managed to pick one up for her. The owner had said that the camera “ate batteries” but I’m always willing to give it a go so I went and picked it up. As she handed it to me she said that she had just put fresh batteries in it but as I walked away I couldn’t get the lens to retract so I put it in my bag. When I tried later I realised that the battery had gone flat so maybe there was something in her story.

However when I flicked open the battery cover I discovered that she had put two of the batteries that you get from the 99p shop in a packet of 12. I keep telling the kids that if they must buy batteries from the 99p shop for their cameras they are much better off buying the ones that are 6 for 99p than the ones that are 12 for 99p. Anyway I put a decent set of batteries in it and hey presto another working camera albeit without an SD card but that’s no biggie.

So once again someone’s technological ineptitude is my gain – love it!

One man’s loss is another’s gain!

Got a Nikon Coolpix L3 from Freecycle yesterday. The previous owner was giving it away because she said it was working but the pictures were coming out fuzzy!

So I got the camera and tried it out and sure enough the pictures did look fuzzy

So I had a look at the settings and noticed that the flash was set to the slow sync setting.
So I put it back on auto and hey presto

Amazing isn’t it how some people have more money than sense. Still musn’t grumble I’ve got a nice little camera out of it!!

Beauty beyond images

As a photographer I like to record images but sometimes I’m glad I didn’t take a picture that wouldn’t have done justice to the original vision. Two such occasions occurred within a few hours of each other while we were away in Weardale over the new year period. We had booked a cottage in a small village called Sunniside which is near Bishop Auckland in Country Durham. We knew the village because we had stayed at a smaller cottage just down the road earlier in the year. Both cottages are owned by the same man and as we had the full tribe with us this time we thought we better take the larger of the two. Most of the snow in the south had melted by the time we set off but further north there was a lot more snow around. In fact as we drove into the village there was still snow in the middle of the road and by the look of the piles on the roadside the road must have had to have been cleared by a snowplough at some point. When we reached the cottage the paths were icy and the doorstep was very slippery. After unloading the car we left the kids and headed off to the chip shop to get something to eat.

I find that there is nothing so frustrating than driving along and seeing something that would make a good photograph but not being able to stop and take one. This usually is more prevalent during the day but occasionally it happens at night too. Tonight was no exception – as we drove along the dark road the headlights of the car picked out a fence that bordered a field and hanging from the cross pieces of the fence were hundreds of icicles. The headlights of the car illuminated them and the light reflected off them, it was truly beautiful. I couldn’t stop to photograph them because we needed to get food and had no idea what time the chip shop was open till, also it wasn’t really safe to pull up as there was a great deal of snow on the roadside so I had to drive on making a mental note to maybe return the following evening to see if I could get a shot. Sadly that night the thaw started and the icicles were gone.

Icicles on hanging basket in back garden of cottage

The second opportunity presented itself the following morning and again there was no time to stop as we were already running an hour late to meet my brother at my dad’s house. The village of Sunniside is in a very rural setting and consists mostly of the main street and a few houses behind that. The village itself is surrounded by fields and as you travel out of the village the fields open up on either side of the road as you leave the village. These fields fall away from the road on both sides but on one side the slope is quite steep and there is a fine view down towards Bishop Auckland. The other side of the road has a number of wind turbines scattered across the fields which afford their own sort of beauty as they spin slowly in the breeze.

That morning had been very misty and the sun was struggling to break through, a watery outline could be seen through the haze as it struggled to make itself known as it climbed to it’s height as the time approached midday. It was just after 12 when we set off to go to Sunderland to meet up with my family. As we drove east out of the village we passed the houses and the little farm building at the end of the street where we take Ben to see the sheep on out nocturnal walks. As we passed the last building and the fields took over we saw the most beautiful sight. the sun had broken the cloud cover and although it was itself still hidden behind the clouds the rays were protruding above and below. The bight rays of light we then bouncing off the snow covered fields and producing the most spectacular celestial display – almost biblical in it’s grandeur! Almost everyone in the car stopped and just went wow!

Red Sky in the Morning

The sun just before we set off that morning

Once again I couldn’t really stop and I don’t think I had my camera with me anyway. I think that maybe that was a good thing as any photograph, no matter how good, could have reproduced the sight we were witnessing. It would have probably produced a really great picture but I doubt that it could ever have been as good as the real thing. So I consoled myself with this though as I drove on – I still think I was right on both occasions and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t have reproduced the images that are still in my head as I write. I guess sometime you just have to put the camera down and record those images into your brain instead.

There was another set of visual images that I witnessed while we were in the north that made me have very conflicting feelings about the same phenomenon! As we were returning to the cottage one night we drove over a hill road and as we went over the brow of the hill there was a wonderful view of the town below with all the lights from streets and houses spread out before us and I thought to myself isn’t that beautiful. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind than I remembered that it conflicted with another thought I had had in the early hours of New Years Day as we returned from the Tar Barrel ceremony in Allendale. The traditional new years eve event takes place in a small town on top of the moors about 8 miles outside Hexham. To get there we followed the SatNav as although we had been before we had always travelled from my dad’s house so I set the SatNav to find the best route. I should have known when we got to the end of the road through the village and the road sign pointed right to Corbridge and the SatNav told me to turn left that perhaps we could be in trouble!

The route it took us on ran down through Weardale to Stanhope and just after we left the town it told me to turn right. Initially I missed the turn off and had to do a u-turn to get back onto the route. The road it directed us on was quite narrow and started to rise quite sharply! It turned out to be a single track road that took us up onto the top of the moors through darkness and snow covered fields. The route twisted and turned in the darkness, went over cattle grids and had ominously tall poles on either side of it to show snow ploughs where the road was! We climbed and climbed until we finally levelled out and as the road did we hit this patch of ice which, in the darkness looked just like a bit of damaged road surface but it must have been about 4 inches deep in the middle of the road and the car bounced over it rattling and shaking. We slowed right down as we began our descent and we did come across two or three more patches but we were ready for them this time.

The Allendale Tar Barrel Ceremony

The road that we had travelled on had taken us to a height of around 1000ft above sea level to a place called Rookhope which is an old lead mining town where, apparently, the Poet WH Auden first realised he was a poet! I’m sure if it hadn’t been so dark and scary it would have been a beautiful trip. We slowly decended down to the village of Allenheads and got back onto a main road which took us without incident down to Allendale itself where we arrived in time for the tar barrels. Sarah had already told me that we weren’t going back that way so I figured we would head back towards Hexham afterwards and then pick up the A68 which would take us back to Sunniside.

As we left the tar barrels behind we travelled out of Allendale and along the road which runs the 8 miles down to Hexham. Although being much bigger than the road we had arrived on it still runs across the moors and as we drove through the darkness I was aware of a huge amount of light pollution in the sky. There seems to be two sources, one closer that the other and I guess the distant source was coming from Newcastle some 30 miles distant. It was this light that I thought spoiled the dark of the night and ruined any chance of seeing stars and other astronomical effects that I would later consider to be beautiful when seen in a different context a few days later. Strange how things can be ugly and beautiful at the same time!