Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back to skool

After last year's abortive attempt at an MA, I've opted for something less academic but more creative: a beginner's course in digital photography. 24 weeks, 60 hours, of learning how to use my rather nice Pentax digital SLR camera properly -- no more "Auto" settings for me! We kicked off last night with an "in at the deep end" session on what all the different settings on our cameras mean, which was something of a revelation. Tv = shutter speed priority; Av = aperture priority; AWB = auto white balance; ISO is sensor (or old-skool film) sensitivity; P = program (more control than Auto, but no difficult calculations of aperture or shutter speed); M = manual (scary stuff). We then moved onto apertures and shutter speed. Let me see if I got this right.

Aperture is the size of the hole through which light passes on to the sensor. The shutter speed is how long the light is allowed through that hole. You're aiming to get a perfect amount of light onto the sensor for the picture you're taking. The wider the aperture, the shorter the shutter speed can be; the narrower the aperture, the longer the shutter speed. Now, the complicated stuff comes with the numbers. The widest aperture setting has the lowest number (F1.8); the higher the number, the narrower the aperture, which seems completely counterintuitive but I'm sure there's a good reason for this -- if only there were some kind of worldwide network of computers that shared all this information in an easily accessible format ... oh yes, let's see what Wikipedia has to say.

"The lens aperture is usually specified as an f-number, the ratio of focal length to effective aperture diameter. A lens typically has a set of marked "f-stops" that the f-number can be set to. A lower f-number denotes a greater aperture opening which allows more light to reach the film or image sensor. The photography term "one f-stop" refers to a factor of √2 (approx. 1.41) change in f-number, which in turn corresponds to a factor of 2 change in light intensity."

O-K. This is veering dangerously close to physics, a subject that made me cry when I studied it at O level. I will just take a deep breath, try to repress the awful memories of ticker-tape machines and wave pools, and focus on remembering that the lower the aperture number, the higher the shutter speed.

One week down, 23 to go. There are 17 in the class -- 12 women and 5 men. I was a little surprised by that, stereotypically figuring that more men might be interested in photography, but perhaps the name of the class "Digital Photography For Complete Beginners" provides the explanation; are women more willing to acknowledge that they are complete beginners?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Steep? I should say so!

The Reading Detectives project is keeping me healthy in both mind and body. After reading the poems of Hampshire-based poet Edward Thomas, killed in WW1, we set out on the literary trail that East Hants so kindly provided. It's a killer!

You set out from the church in the village of Steep and amble gently through some woodland, past some sheep in a field, and then alongside the sort of houses I plan to buy when my lottery numbers come up. Then, it's onto a bridleway by a stagnant pool, and up ... and up ... and up. All the exercise in the world will not help a bit when it comes to climbing hills! Thankfully, the climb was "relatively" short and we got our breath back on a long, winding line, full of yet more gorgeous houses and kamikaze pheasants, launching themselves out of the bushes at us.

However, these heart-attack-inducing efforts were worth it. Just look at that view!

We rested here by the Edward Thomas memorial stone, just amazed at the countryside spread out below us. And, as is so often the case in September, the weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, a slight breeze tempering the warm sun. This was good. But steep -- see?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Days 6 and 7: A487, A55, A470

A week back at work and the holiday is already receding into the past, so I'll keep this short.

1. The Welsh Highland Railway from Caernafon to Hafod y Llyn and back, via the Aberglaslyn Pass: Excellent. Steam trains, beautiful scenery (especially on a nice day), and lots of men with beards and cameras, heads poking out of the windows in a flagrant violation of the many notices that say "Do not stick your head out of the window". Civil disobedience is alive and well on the railways.

2. Llandudno: A great seaside resort and not just for the oldies (although there are quite a few of them). Victorian trams up the steep slopes of the Great Orme! Terrifying cable cars back down to the pier! Fish 'n' chips! HMV!! If you go, please stay at the Space boutique B&B -- it's lovely. Charming owners, excellent breakfasts (from what I could see, as I was still recovering from cooked-breakfast overload), and attractive rooms, just a short walk from the town centre. Delightful!

Ah well, it's all over now. Back to clearing away decapitated and incapacitated mice -- 13 in the past 7 days.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 5: A487, A497, B4413, B4417, A499, A487 -- or, the Llyn Peninsula

This was the day that the holiday really gelled. We'd set the alarm for 7 a.m. to see if the weather had improved, and it had. Not a cloud in the sky, just early morning mist, so we set off to explore Portmeirion village while it was empty. It's hard to describe just how bonkers this place is and the lack of other visitors made it particularly odd -- as if we'd just walked onto a deserted film set. Well worth a visit if you're in the area.

We headed down to the beach, cursing the fact that we'd failed to buy an inflatable "Rover" at the gift shop the previous day, so couldn't film each other being chased across the sands by it, a la Number Six, but still -- gorgeous. And again, slightly spooky, mainly because of the texture of the sand and all the signs warning you to get off the beach at least 2 hours before high tide or risk being sucked into the quicksand.

After a heartyish breakfast (toast and a boiled egg for me by this point), we set off for our tour of the Llyn Peninsula -- otherwise known as the pointy bit that hangs down from the top. We drove through Pwllheli, called in at the art gallery at Llanbedrog, and pottered down to Aberdaron at the very tip, where some brave souls were swimming in the sea. Then, it was up to Porth Dinllaen to visit what a US colleague had described as her favorite pub in the entire world. She wasn't wrong. The Ty Coch Inn is gorgeous -- or rather, it's in a gorgeous location, overlooking a huge bay, with little fishing boats floating out in the harbour. I mean, look at that view! And then imagine looking at it with a pint in one hand and a pack of scampi-flavoured Nik-Naks in the other! Bliss!

By the time we'd walked back along the beach to the car, we were starting to flag -- too much fresh air and an early start made us nappy. So, we headed off to our B&B inside the walls of Caernafon, had a quick bite to eat at a pub, and then retired to bed -- at 8 pm! Holidays: exhausting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How many full "English" breakfasts is too many?

Three, apparently. One of the twin glories of the British B&B is the full "English" (even if you're in Wales) breakfast: cereal, juice, toast, and a fry-up.* All B&Bs now have their act together and provide a hearty vegetarian variation on the theme -- but after three days of fried eggs, veggie sausages, fried bread, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and hash browns, I called it quits. From then on, I could only manage cereal or a slice of toast -- my body just can't take that much protein that early in the morning! PJ soldiered on manfully for a few more days before admitting defeat in Llandudno; getting value for money is one thing, but feeling stuffed by 9.30 a.m. is just not worth it.

*The other glory? Tea- and coffee-making facilities in every room. With biscuits.

Day 4: A496, A487, A497

Oh boy! When it decides to rain in Wales, it really rains! Our plans to visit Harlech Castle and stroll around Porthmadog were abandoned for a quick drive-by/through in each case, followed by a trip to Criccieth in search of a promised but never found Lloyd George museum. We ended up at Outdoor World instead, checking out the tents that we will (I hope) never buy.

I didn't mess up the lighting on this photo; it really was that grim!

We'd planned to spend the afternoon wandering around Portmeirion -- home of The Prisoner! -- but the rain meant that we managed just half an hour wading through the mud on the woodland trail before giving in and heading back to our enormous suite in the Castell Deudraeth and a hot (whirlpool) bath. Still wet, but in a good way.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Day 3: Barmouth to Dolgellau ... and back

This is why we came to Wales -- to do the walk along the old railway line and over the railway bridge into Barmouth. Or rather, to cycle it -- we're not total gluttons for punishment. Actually, after 2 years of only sporadic cycling (Hampshire is hilly!), getting back on bikes was both good and painful. Luckily, the weather improved greatly from the night before, giving us blue skies and sunshine for the first time in the week. The round trip was 20 miles; we stopped for lunch at Penmaenpool, by the cutest bridge and old railway station imaginable; and the whole expedition was just delightful (albeit somewhat muddy, given our lack of mudguards) -- beautiful scenery and an excellent path, thanks to the Snowdonia National Park authorities. If only all cycling was as enjoyable (and flat) as this!

Later that evening, it was off along the A496 (in the car -- like I said, we're gluttons, not gluttons for punishment) to watch the sun set over Cardigan Bay while eating great fish n' chips from the Wayside Fish Bar, as recommended by the gourmand from whom we'd hired bikes. Not a bad day at all.

Day 2: A49, A489, A490, A483, A458, A470 ...

This is not what you want to see as the mist descends over the Cambrian Mountains, the light starts to fade, and there are no signs of a diversion around what turns out to be a landslide. Some helpful Welsh ladies told us we would need to go via a town that sounded like a sneeze but was actually Machynlleth, something we figured out after a Penguin (for sustenance) and 5 minutes staring at a map. ALL Welsh place names sound like a sneeze, so it's difficult to tell one from t'other. 30 miles later, we were the other side of the landslide and heading down the Mawddach estuary to the seaside resort of Barmouth, just in time for a damp, dusky walk up the hill above the town, some dinner at The Last Inn, and then a sodden, rain-swept trot back to our B&B. So far, so not great.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Day 1: M3, A34, M4, M48, A466, A49

Our tour of aging British seaside resorts, accompanied by lashing rain and lots of fish 'n' chips, continues in 2009: This time its Wales. North Wales to be exact. We've just spent the night at The Clive (very pleasant, great food, lovely service), outside Ludlow, and will shortly head over to the very not-Welsh-sounding Barmouth on the mid-Wales coast for a couple of nights. After that, it's on to Portmeirion (home of The Prisoner), the Llyn Peninsula, and Llandudno, before moseying on back home and liberating the cats from their cat hotel. Both PJ and I and the Hampshire wildlife are looking forward to a break from their relentless slaughter.

As I was in charge of map-reading yesterday, we took a diversion from our/sat-nav's planned route from Otterbourne to Ludlow and headed up the Wye Valley, calling in at Tintern Abbey. This was well worth the detour (and getting stuck behind what was probably the only bus of the day on the road). Tintern Abbey was stunning, not dissimilar to Fountains Abbey up in Yorkshire, and in a truly beautiful setting. The rain, that had threatened since we'd left the Severn Bridge, held off, giving us dramatic clouds and bursts of sunshine.

Let's hope Powis Castle is equally impressive.