Thursday 22 December 2016

Steaming into the Past - The Sherborne Christmas Carol

One of my favourite aspects of mainline steam-hauled trains is the incongruence that they bring to the present day. Not only are they incongruent to a present day railway scene dominated by modern sprinter, voyager and pendolino units, overhead wires and electronic arrivals/departures boards, but also to contemporary passenger habits, including using mobile devices to check trains times, for which passengers of the 19th and early 20th century would most likely have used Michael Portillo's favourite book - the Bradshaws.

Black Fives 44871 and 45407 at London Victoria
In many ways, mainline steam-hauled trains are like time machines that have travelled from the past. But as well as coming from the past, my latest mainline steam experience also took me into the past. Travelling on the Sherborne Christmas Carol, double-headed by former London Midland and Scottish Railway Class 5's (known to many rail enthusiasts as 'Black Fives') 44871 and 45407 The Lancashire Fusilier (named in preservation), what I felt was especially noticeable travelling behind a double header was that there seemed to be thicker clouds of smoke flying past the windows as the train gathered momentum. The late former Poet Laureate and lover of railway journeys Sir John Betjeman wrote extensively about how railways create their own landscapes. Watching the smoke shroud the nearby woodlands, in this way steam-hauled journeys also often create their own scenery.

The Parade, Sherborne
Passing through Worting Junction, well-known as a pivotal location during the holiday season on the Southern Railway where holiday season specials either went across the bridge in the direction of Southampton or under the bridge along the former Atlantic Coast Express route to North Cornwall, the train stopped to take on water at Salisbury before heading onto Sherborne. Whereas it felt that the train had come from the past to the present, Sherborne's medieval architecture made it feel like the train had taken me into the past. As described by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Woodlanders*, it is as if some medieval stone masons had been flashed down through the centuries.

Tombs of Aethelbald and Ethelbert, Sherborne Abbey
Dominated by its abbey, Sherborne is said to be where Alfred the Great was educated. Though much of Sherborne Abbey that is seen today dates mainly from the 15th century, there is still some evidence of Norman and Saxon architecture. The abbey's north choir aisle contains two tombs that are said to be those of King Aethelbald of Wessex and King Ethelbert of Wessex, elder brothers of Alfred. History perhaps best remembers Alfred as the only English King to defeat the Vikings and burning cakes, but also had a vision of a new kind of kingdom for his time based on his love of reading. According to history, Alfred learned to read from his mother Osburh with his brothers, who read a book brightly illuminated by monks. Osburh said that whoever learned to read the quickest could have the book. The visual appeal of the illumination encouraged Alfred to learn and the book became his, though historians now think that rather than being able to read fluently, he was able to memorise the texts so well. Believing that without learning and Christian wisdom there could be no peace and prosperity, Alfred proposed to make works of literature, including holy texts, accessible to his subjects by translating them from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, over 500 years before the Protestant Reformation.

Ladybird Books' title Alfred the Great,
first published in 1956
This led me on personal trip down memory lane to a formula that was part of my childhood, and of many other British childhoods, Ladybird Books. Memories of Ladybird childhoods may well have been aroused recently through the presence of parody Ladybird titles on the shelves of WH Smiths satirising what the generation that read the originals feel they may since have been through (a midlife crisis) or have become (a hipster). For me though, growing up, Ladybird Books provided me with a beautifully illustrated window to learning, which suited my visual ways of thinking as a child with Asperger's Syndrome (then undiagnosed). Written in a simple language that could easily be understood by children, they were accompanied with beautiful illustrations, of which Sherborne's picturesque streets could well have adorned. I remember being attracted to the illustrations in Ladybird Books on many different subjects that arouse childhood fascinations including animals, historical figures, transport etc. but to understand what was happening in the illustrations, I learned to realise that I also needed to pay attention to the written text, which encouraged me to read and later explore further, something which many of us take into later life with us, including myself. Over a hundred years since the first book published by Ladybird Books, one can only wonder how many lifelong pursuits of learning and exploration began with them.

Reading about Alfred the Great with Ladybird Books, I also learned about the burh (later called boroughs) system Alfred developed to help defend his kingdom from possible future attacks. Alfred's burh system help to connect towns via fortified roads and bridges (in some cases reusing existing Roman roads), which as well as for defence purposes, also enabled a network of commerce. It is possible that without Alfred's translation programme and development of the burh system, subsequent events that I also learned about through Ladybird Books like the Industrial Revolution and with that, the coming of the railways, both of great importance to shaping the present day society we live in, might not have happened. In Alfred's time, most people rarely travelled much further than the village or settlement the lived in. Often it would take days to travel distances by horse or on foot that, in contemporary times, can be done in a few hours by train, bus or plane. The idea of inter-connection through the burh system would later enable future generations to travel beyond where, at one time, their 'world' would have stopped in a much more accessible, affordable and quicker way when the appropriate technology, railways and later motor vehicles, to make this possible arrived.

Sherborne Abbey
A special carols service was held at the abbey for passengers and staff of the Sherborne Christmas Carol. Travelling back to London Victoria, while Christmas tree lights from nearby houses shone through the clouds of smoke Black Fives 44871 and 45407 performed their own Christmas carol - 'Chuffing Home for Christmas'.

Wishing all readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

*In Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Sherborne is named 'Sherton Abbas'

Special thanks to the Railway Touring Company for a fantastic day out.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

A Midnight Sun Adventure - A Week of Kayaking, Summitt Trekking and Glacier Hiking in Svalbard

After having experienced a week of days limited to just two hours of sunlight per day in the Finnish Far North, I felt encouraged to revisit the Arctic during the other extreme. This time during Midnight Sun season, where the Sun doesn't set for up to six months. Visiting the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean, I found that not only do the extremes of lighting at northern latitudes have different effects on the landscape, but also on mind and body.

The Midnight Sun shines brightly over Svalbard's Isfjorden

A Norwegian territory located on a latitude of 78 degrees north, the Svalbard archipelago is located about halfway between the northernmost part of mainland Norway and the North Pole. Being so far north means that the Sun is still high in the sky as late as 1.00 am, not even going behind the mountains! Spending a week camping under the Midnight Sun on Svalbard not only took me right out of my comfort zone but, being in a largely untouched landscape away from many modern conveniences e.g. wi-fi.

It is understandable how Norway's landscape of steep-sided fjords, bays and inlets, together with the difficulties much of the landscape presented for farming and overland travel, were made use of as transportation networks by the Vikings. Most likely, curiosity aroused by wondering what was on the other side of the horizon led them to build strong ships to embark on voyages into what then was the unknown. One of the first reminders of the world that the Vikings lived in that Svalbard presents is the Isfjorden, a long fjord that cuts through Spitsbergen (the archipelago's largest island) around where many of its settlements, including the largest Longyearbyen, are based. Apart from the road that links Longyearbyen to the airport, there are no roads on the archipelago, making sailing one of few viable ways of getting around, using the fjords as natural sailing routes. With little of the now known world then explored, heading out to the open sea could very easily have seemed, within their mindset, like heading out to the 'ends of the earth', not knowing what was over the horizon, including encountering any unexpected hazards. Though such mindsets now though are largely a thing of the past with Google maps and satellite navigation technology, there are still some challenges nature presents on which one can't rely on technology to navigate successfully to avoid collisions or pitfalls. Instead, one has to rely on their intuition, concentration and presence of mind, including making use of all five senses.

Two such experiences I had in Svalbard included kayaking towards the front of Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen) before later hiking on the glacier using crampons and an ice axe. An active glacier, carving, Esmarkbreen creates its own tides and waves when large chunks of ice break off the glacier into the sea making thunderous sounds which the Vikings could have mistaken for the sound of Thor's hammer! Svalbard's existence was confirmed by Dutch explorers who discovered the archipelago in 1596. It is possible but unconfirmed as to whether it had previously been visited by Viking explorers. Though there is a description of Svalbard in the Viking sagas, meaning 'cold shores', it is perhaps more likely that they refer to parts of Greenland's coastline.

Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen), Svalbard
The very name Svalbard may have meant cold shores to explorers over 800 years ago, but being in the Gulf Stream, Svalbard's shores can be surprisingly warm during summer. Kayaking towards the front of Esmarkbreen, I felt I had to be alert at all times using all five senses, listening for thunder sounds from the glacier to anticipate and prepare for  any sudden waves while keeping an eye open for floating pieces of ice approaching. Floating ice for a glacier can be very deceiving to the eye as, often only a small part of the ice is visible about the water surface, so you don't know at first whether an ice chunk is either relatively harmless or a major obstacle. When rowing towards floating ice, I found it useful to, where possible tap piece of ice to see if they could be pushed aside easily or if they were too heavy to move and I needed to steer around. As large pieces of ice carved from the glacier break up in the water they gradually spread out forming a ring, almost simulating Saturn's rings on Earth. Finding space to row a kayak through a ring of ice pieces was difficult and even harder work rowing through it when an opportunity came. With the ice moving constantly in the water, I to to be quick to row through before the gap became too narrow and I would get stuck!

Practising Crevice Rescue
After kayaking towards Esmarkbreen's mighty front, the next adventure was to walk up it. As well as an opportunity to practice mindfulness of walking, setting foot on a surface that is not only obviously outside of one's comfort zone, but despite having previously walked on glaciers, Esmarkbreen presented a completely different challenge.Unless one does it regularly, stepping on a glacier feels like learning to walk again and re-learning tying your shoelaces when putting on crampons. For much of the year, Svalbard's glaciers are under heavy snow. Even after much of the snow has melted during summer, there are still patches of thick snow on the ice into which one can sink. Numerous deep crevices in the glacier also present a hazard. Before going any further up the ice flow, groups trekking Esmarkbreen are instructed in crevice rescue should one be unfortunate to fall in. Being roped together in a trek team provided assurance that should you fall into a crevice or get your foot stuck in thick snow to help pull you out if they can.

Initially, when walking on Esmarkbreen, I found that it was difficult to distinguish between ice and snow surfaces with the eye alone when I got my foot stuck in patch of snow! This was where, for the next stage of the trek that the ice axe became invaluable, almost becoming like a 'sixth sense' to test whether the immediate yard in front of me was solid enough to walk on, or if I would have to take a diversion. All glaciers have their own individually shaped surfaces in accordance with their surrounding conditions, their flow gradually carving their own landscapes within the mountains. As with trekking in any landscape, it helps to adapt to it with an open approach, making using of the forces and properties of nature, including using the ice shapes as steps, and where necessary, carving steps in the ice with the ice axe, while at the same time having a conscious awareness of whom you are roped to, offering assistance where needed.

View from Varmlandsryggen
Making the forces and properties of nature your own by adapting to and going with them, it also enables one to see the journeys that natural processes bring, not just down the mountains, but through the seasons, where the effects of Svalbard's five seasons are visible. Svalbard has five seasons, As well as Spring, Summer and Autumn, there is also Light Winter and Dark Winter. During Dark Winter which there is no sunlight for up to five months, known locally as the 'Polar Night'. Though Svalbard must feel like a different world during Polar Night, the effects its seasons bring don't exist in isolation, but are inter-connected with the rhythms and flow of nature and time. Ascending the Varmlandsryggen, a steep 575m, in summer there is still a lot of thick snow at the summit, around which much of the landscape would be covered by during winter. But looking down the surrounding ice flows towards the shore, a different landscape of glacier carved fjords and inlets, permafrost and huge amounts rocks and sediments deposited by melted ice flows (moraine) is revealed. Coming down the mountain, the journeys that the snow and ice bring are revealed when running water is sighted. Most interesting is the route by which the flows of water find their way into the Isfjorden, which isn't often obvious. it often appears that flowing streams from the ice flows seems to suddenly 'stop' at large deposits of moraine before they find their way to the Isfjorden. But just like one finds their own way, at their own physical level, to the summit at Varmlandsryggen or to inner peace in a meditative context, each stream finds its own way into the Isfjorden going through or around the moraine deposits.

Wild Reindeer
Bearded Seal
During a season without darkness, such physically demanding activity was necessary to ensure that I would get to sleep later, but even with such excess physical activity, it felt difficult to get tired under the Midnight Sun. This provided me with a little reminder though of how I used to find it very difficult to 'switch off' and relax most of the time before I started practising mindfulness. Though even now there are times when I still find this difficult, with mindfulness I feel as though I have more control. I felt I managed to sleep under a very bright Midnight Sun, though even when feeling exhausted physically, it took a lot of effort. During the evening hours, campers had to take it in turns to be on watch duty, in case a polar bear, one of few animals that will attack and eat humans if hungry enough, came near the camp. When going beyond Longyearbyen, visitors to Svalbard must be accompanied by a guide with a rifle in case of an encounter with one of Svalbard's 3,500 polar bears. Though on this occasion the King of the Arctic didn't make an appearance, there were some traces that a polar bear had been in the area hunting their prize prey of ring seals, including footprints and seal skin. Wildlife that I did see from a distance though included a bearded seal floating on ice near Esmarkbreen's front and some wild reindeer.

Gokstad Viking Ship, Oslo
Returning home via Oslo, I had a reminder of lost worlds I felt I had a glimpse into during a memorable week in Svalbard when visiting the Viking Ship and Fram Museums, the latter dedicated to polar expeditions .During the kayaking expedition, I felt I was able to experience a mentality that existed in the minds of the Viking sailors of 1,200 years ago and during the glacier hike, a mentality that polar explorers of the early 20th century, may well have experienced. Though many written histories still often portray the Vikings as brutal raiders, pillagers and plunderers (many of which were written by those to whom they were fierce enemies), underneath that, as suggested by some of the artefacts in the Viking Ship Museum, there was also a sophisticated civilisation that made great technological advances for their time, especially in shipbuilding. With that they gave us a spirit of travel and exploration, which has taken human ingenuity to testing environments including the North and South Poles and the Moon, and who knows where next? The impressive Gokstad and Oseberg ships in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum, serve as a reminder of how testing human ingenuity in such extreme conditions leads various innovations worth having that make up the present day world we may often take for granted.

As so often when travelling, something that I felt I brought back from Svalbard was an intuitive awareness and understanding of a completely different environment in which I had to adjust and adapt to regularly. In relation to being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, getting use to environments different from what is the norm for me as well as managing and adapting to change isn't naturally easy for me, but coping with it by being present with it I find enables greater confidence in myself. Having said that, when I arrived home, it took me at least a week to get used to darkness again!

Huge thanks to Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions and their fabulous guides for all their help and support during the camp.



Tuesday 16 February 2016

Noticing Patterns - From Construction of Ancient Monuments to Classifying Galaxies

Of things that the human brain can still do so much better than computers, it is in being able to recognise patterns and inconsistencies in data, something that people with Asperger's Syndrome can excel in, including in software scripts. This is why the amateur can still make significant contributions to science, particularly astronomy.

Stonehenge viewed from the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
The ability of the human brain to observe and recognise patterns goes back many thousands of years together with the nature to keep the mind both active and occupied, which is evident in the construction of ancient monuments, including Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge’s function is still largely unknown, it is commonly accepted that it served  as a solar calendar. What is also highly likely is that its construction originated from observation of patterns in the movement of the Sun. Over time, another aspect of the human mind would lead us to find out why such patterns occur, one often commonly found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome, curiosity. 

It can be an easy assumption for one to make that the further known reaches of the universe at inter-galactic level, the technology needed to go so far is only available to professional astronomers working in observatories. Though technology required to collect and process astronomical data is largely the realm of professionals who have access to the equipment needed, analysing and classifying data, including noticing patterns is where the amateur astronomy enthusiast can not only still make a significant contribution the further into Deep Space we explore. In astronomy, an advantage that the amateur can sometimes have is that he or she has freedom from the often rigid nature of professional frameworks and classification systems. In this way public participation can be an invaluable resource to scientific research.

Hubble's Turning Fork, system by Galaxy Zoo used for classifying galaxies
At an introduction to Sunderland Astronomical Society’s public open evening, Graham Darke, a long-time member of the society, explained why with Galaxy Zoo. Galaxy Zoo is an online citizen science project that gives the public access to astronomical data obtained from the world’s largest telescopes from the ground based observatories of La Palma in the Canary Islands and Gemini South in Chile’s Atacama Desert to those in orbit including the Hubble Space Telescope. In his introductory talk, Darke explained that as well as the human mind being better at recognising patterns than computers, members of the public often have the spare time to analyse it than the professionals who are busy collecting the dataWith the huge amounts of data on other galaxies throughout the universe being collected, it had initially been thought that to analyse, classify and catalogue so many galaxies would take many years, but courtesy of Galaxy Zoo, more than 50 million galaxies have been classified by over 150,000 people since the project was launched in 2007.

Within the universe that observable to humankind with current technology, there is estimated to be over one hundred billion galaxies, which are enormously variable in shape, size and composition and yet also similar, ranging from large spiral-shaped galaxies like Andromeda and smaller irregular shaped galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. Much can be learned about galaxies from their shapes, including the possibility that larger galaxies formed due to a merging of two or more smaller galaxies. Also interesting are the surroundings of galaxies, including their gravitational fields and radio waves and X-rays emitted from their centre. Public participation through Galaxy Zoo further has opened up humankind to an ever-expanding universe, including the recent discovery of gravitational waves, caused by merging black holes. 

Heelstone, Stonehenge. Just behind it there is an arrow
show the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
Meanwhile, present-day visitors to Stonehenge marvel at how it was constructed without modern technology, not just in being able to move such large and heavy stones, but also the accuracy of the alignment of the stones are in accordance with the the Sun's position in the sky during different seasons. Traditionally a favourite site for Summer Solstice celebrations, the original purpose of Stonehenge may rather have been to mark the Midwinter Solstice as there is a 'sunstone', or 'heelstone', placed in the direction of where the Sun would appear at the Midwinter Solstice. Whereas in the present day, most of us have access to conveniences to keep us occupied when we feel 'bored' such as smartphones, iPads or indeed Galaxy Zoo, apart from hunting, chanting and telling stories, our Neolithic ancestors would have had little else to do to keep themselves occupied, but to make a game of tracking and recording the positions of the Sun in the sky from sunrise to sunset and the Moon and stars during the night. Without present-day light pollution, they would have been able to see so many more stars on a clear winter's night. So like mass participation in classifying galaxies, 5,000 years ago, it could possibly have been the participation by many prehistoric sky watchers that enabled the construction of Stonehenge.

It is well-known that being able to recognise patterns through eye for detail as well as working to set set of rules and classifications is where aspects of Asperger's Syndrome can present strengths. Going beyond this, a curious mind, through wanting to find out reasons for why such patterns occur opens us up to new theories and possibilities, including being able to notice interdependent existences, including our own. as with all life, we depend on Earth and the Sun for our existence, yet also exist independently. But to exist independently, it helps to be able to make the Sun's strength our own, including for agricultural purposes (when to plant and harvest crops) as Stonehenge was very possibly used for. Together with the other planets, Earth and the Sun depend on each other for their existence, yet also exist independently. Further afield, the Sun is depends on the Milky Way for its existence, while the Milky May depends on the Local Group of Galaxies and the Local Group of Galaxies depends on the larger Virgo Cluster for one another's existence and their place in the universe. Yet within one another's interdependent existence, they also exist independently, their independence being enabled by interdependence.  

When applying the ability to recognise and interpret patterns together with curiosity, these factors can become one, thus enabling us to expand our awareness. With our awareness expanded, we can then notice that time and space merge into one from within 5,000 years since the construction of Stonehenge to within billions of years during the formation of the Solar System and further beyond that, the formation and evolution of galaxies of all shapes and sizes.

Galaxy Zoo, including information on how to participate in classification of galaxies, can be access at  

More about Sunderland Astronomical Society can be found at

To find out how to participate in astronomy locally elsewhere in the UK, you can find your astronomical society at the following link