Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Wisdom of Wormwood

If you have asked Santa for a Kindle or an iPad for Christmas you’ll be wanting something to read on it. So what could be nicer than to snuggle down after Christmas dinner, in front of a big log fire, dipping into an assortment of bite-sized literary delights from the pen of your very own Wormwood.

Now, with the kind permission of Horsley’s Over The Wall magazine, you can enjoy all of your favourite Wormwoods, gathered together in one handy electronic book.

And, as a way of wishing everyone a very Happy Christmas, you can download it FREE OF CHARGE between now and Boxing Day.

I hope you enjoy it. (It goes without saying that enthusiastic, five-star, on-line reviews will be greatly appreciated)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Tommy Flowers: would-be wealth creator

Earlier this week I watched a BBC Timewatch documentary: Code Breakers, Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes. The program told the stories of two men who had worked at the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the second world war - Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. Between them, it was argued, they had helped bring the war to an end, avoiding the needless loss of millions of lives. But it was Tommy Flowers’ story that touched me most deeply.

Tommy Flowers was born in the East End of London in 1905. His father was a bricklayer. He was a bright young man and studied for an engineering degree at night-school before going to work at Dollis Hill, the General Post Office research laboratory in London. In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War he was assigned to Bletchley Park to assist in the codebreaking activity for which that place is now famous. In the course of this work he invented the world’s first electronic computer - Colossus.

Built of glass valves and no more powerful than a modern calculator, Colossus represented an immense engineering achievement. The first machine was delivered in December 1943 and worked first time. The second followed in June 1944 just in time for the D-Day landings. Throughout the last years of the war both machines were used to read communications between Hitler and his general staff - messages that were encrypted using a code which the Germans mistakenly believed to be unbreakable.

With the end of the war, Tommy Flowers was sworn to secrecy and returned to work for the GPO. The Colossus machines were quietly shipped away to GCHQ where, remarkably, they continued to be used until the 1960s.

Meanwhile Flowers, possibly recognising the enormous peacetime potential of computing machines, applied for a loan from the Bank of England to build another machine like Colossus. He was denied the loan because the bank did not believe that such a machine could work and the the Official Secrets Act prevented him from providing the evidence necessary to persuade them.

The Timewatch program described how Tommy Flowers faded into relative obscurity, haunted by a persistent sense of ‘what might have been’ had his working-class roots and cockney accent not weighed against him. He died in 1998 at the age of 92.

Further development of computer technology was largely confined to the USA where, in February 1946, the US Army announced the creation of “the world’s first computer” - ENIAC.

The program concluded with what for me was an unbearably poignant detail. In 1993, at the age of 87, Tommy Flowers bought himself a PC. Finding it difficult to get the hang of, he enrolled on a course in Basic Information Processing at Hendon College at the conclusion of which got a certificate with his name written on it by his tutor - who I imagine was entirely unaware of Tommy’s story.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chloe Smith MP

The sudden cancellation of the rise in fuel duty was defended on Channel 4 News and Newsnight by junior treasury minister Chloe Smith MP.

Personally, I don't think I have ever seen a better example of what might be termed the blocking interview technique, in which the aim is to stick resolutely to one's own ground and at all costs to avoid answering questions or confirming the interviewer's assertions, however innocent-seeming. And in this specialised skill I have to acknowledge Chloe Smith to be something of an expert. You can judge for yourself here: (the fun starts 6 minutes in)

Anyway, it led me to speculate on behind the scenes conversations at the treasury:

It's Tuesday, 26th June and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander summons rising star, Chloe Smith MP for a briefing:

DA: So Chloe, we have to put someone up against Paxman tonight. I'd do it myself but I have a parent's evening. It's a nuisance but I really can't get out of it. Anyway, I've been discussing it with George and we both think you're totally capable of handling this one.
CS: Oh thank you boss. If you think I can help then I'll give it all I've got.
DA: Brilliant! I felt sure we could rely on you. Now as you know, Paxman is a vicious bruiser. It's not going to be easy.
CS: Don't worry boss - I know what to do. I came top of my group in the training and I'm ready to put it to work.  
DA: Good girl. Show him what you're made of.

DA (Later on the phone to George): Well she's plucky - that's for sure. I just hope she's up to it.

At the Newsnight studios, later that evening - Chloe Smith MP is interviewed by the formidable Jeremy Paxman.

JP: So Mrs Smith, what time did you get up this morning?
CS: I slept very well thankyou (as I always do) and found it very refreshing.
JP: I am sure we are all very pleased to hear that but that wasn't my question. My question was what time did you get out of bed this morning?
CS: My bed is very comfortable. It is a kingsize bed with a Hungarian goose down duvet.
JP: So it is clear that you did sleep last night and now here you are in the studio, so at some point in between you must have got up. Or is there some flaw in my reasoning?
CS: I am not here to comment on your reasoning; I am here to report on the fact that I had a deep and refreshing sleep.
JP: So if we can take it that you are no longer asleep right now then at some point since last night you must have woken up. When exactly was that Mrs Smith?
CS: What your viewers are more concerned with is the fact that, after a good night's sleep, I am here -  awake, alert and working on their behalf.
JP: So you're not going to tell us what time you got up then?
CS: As I have said, I slept extremely well.
JP: Chloe Smith, thankyou.

DA (on the phone to George Osborne after the show): Isn't she a little cracker? Wow! Told you George. What a performance! Might be an idea for you to give her a call and thank her personally George. You know - she's hungry and ambitious and up for anything I reckon.  
GO: You're right Danny. We're going to need her again.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


I was prepared for the final part of my journey to be quite difficult. My guidebook talks about rivers that are difficult to cross and an absence of defined paths. As it turns out, I find myself in the middle of a heat wave. The streams are almost dry, there isn't a cloud in the sky and the sea is still and glittering in the sunlight.

For the last six days I have passed through a landscape that seems literally timeless. Huge mountains, crowned with shattered rock - pale and still in the sunlight. Every hollow in between holding a loch - some large, others tiny. And everywhere a warm breeze fragrant with the smells of the slowly drying vegetation. The black peat mud is cracked and baked to the consistency of chocolate brownie and takes my weight. The sphagnum moss - normally sodden with water - dried to a crackly pale grey. The stones I choose to anchor my guy ropes are heavy, coarse and crystalline, sparkling with minerals.

At night it never gets quite dark. As I lie in my tent watching the sun sliding at a shallow angle behind the mountains I momentarily forget where I am. This feels like a world that might have existed millions of years ago, when our ancestors moved across a similar landscape - maybe even marking the way with piles of stones. I make a new pile myself - careful to check it indicates the correct route. I wonder how long it will last and whether people will add further stones of their own.

Right now though I am 'back in civilisation', staying at the Kinlochbervie hotel for the sake of a shower and to wash my clothes. I'm just two short days from the end of my journey and I'm experiencing a mixture of extreme tiredness and an emotion somewhere between elation and horror at the distance I have come. I'll be home soon and that's exactly where I intend staying for quite some time. But first there's Sandwood Bay - one of my favourite places. I'll camp there tomorrow night and do the short walk to Cape Wrath the next morning.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A storm in the mountains

It was towards the end of the first day after leaving Fort William on the Cape Wrath Trail that I found myself walking alone along a forest track.  Up till this point, the whole journey had been reassuringly within reach of human habitation but now I was entering a different kind of landscape - one that was unfamiliar to me and unquestionably more remote.  I had decided to stay at the bothy at the end of the forest and I found myself wondering whether I would prefer to find it empty or whether it would be nicer to have company. Of course there was always the chance that the 'company' might turn out to be a lone, enthusiastic weirdo who would likely claim me as his best friend within an hour or two of first meeting - giving rise to anxiety, fear of being murdered later in the night in my sleeping bag and so on.  As it turned out, I arrived to find two other perfectly sane walkers preparing a meal.

The weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse and over the course of the evening other walkers arrived until there were 11 of us crammed into two tiny rooms. A fire was lit - if not very expertly. It consisted of one end of a thick, 4ft pine log, thrust into the small fireplace and licked by the flames from a few twigs which needed to be constantly replenished. The unspoken, general view appeared to value the psychological element over any warming effect.  With each new arrival came an accompanying intrusion of extreme wetness, barely registering with those already there. A space would be made round the 'fire' and introductions gone through.  The conversation, which lasted well into the evening, centred on an exchange of the latest intelligence on obscure routes through the mountains, on richly-embroidered tales of hairs-breadth river crossings, nights spent on open mountainsides, the relative merits of various bothies and the eccentricities of semi-legendary walkers and bothy-trolls.

Having been one of the first to arrive, I slept that night on a wooden platform. Others had to settle for the  stone floor. I slept well and got up early, just as three of my companions from the previous evening were leaving. Two were heading 'out' to the relative safety of the long, 23-mile track heading east whilst the third was going west, towards higher ground and into the weather (This was the direction that I planned taking later). Standing within the shelter of the doorway, I watched him as he  made his way across the boggy landscape.  There were ragged clouds around the mountaintops and huge, slow-moving curtains of rain sweeping from the west. To my inexperienced eye, they looked quite graceful and not particularly threatening but the mountainsides were already running with the thick, white braids of swollen streams. By the time I left the streams had turned to torrents, the paths to streams and everywhere else into a sodden, spongy mass.

Just 3 miles into the walk I came across a stream that was impossible to cross. What, in normal circumstances, would have been a gurgling brook had turned into a frightening torrent. Looking higher up the hillside, in search of an alternative crossing point, all I could see was white water interspersed with peacock-tail fans of spray bursting over the bigger boulders.  I decided that maybe it would be possible to cross the stream lower down in the wood, where it joined the main river and, after a long detour, I reached the spot I had in mind. But here, though the stream was broader and less turbulent, the speed of the current was alarming and there was the risk that, if I missed my footing I could be carried into the main river that was rushing by at a frightening speed.  Reluctantly I decided to return to the bothy and either wait until the water levels were lower or follow the other walkers down the track.  I'd not been at the bothy for more than 5 minutes when a woman arrived together with her dog, which was wearing a muzzle. Given the remoteness of out situation, this surprised me.

"Don't touch him; he'll go for you. He doesn't like men." were her first words.

We discussed the weather. She was a Mountain Rescue volunteer - not on a mission, on this occasion, but on the way back from a few days' recreational trip. She had diverted to the bothy simply in order to have somewhere dry to have a cup of coffee from a thermos. Her car was parked at the head of the long road (about 4 miles away) and she offered me a lift out 'if it wouldn't spoil my trip'. After weighing the alternatives, I decided it was probably the best option.

On the way to her car the weather got worse. The wind came in gusts that threatened to blow us off our feet. I can best describe it as being in a combination of a car-wash and a wind-tunnel. Krissie - for that was the woman's name - was in her element. It appeared she'd waded, knee-deep across the lower, faster stream - the one I had been too timid to cross. But then she was more experienced than I am and younger too. What's more she was on her way 'out' and knew there was safety ahead whereas I had been heading into the unknown.

The long drive back down the track seemed unending. At one point I had to get out of the car to drag a fallen tree to one side.  Eventually though I got dropped off at Spean Bridge which seemed depressingly suburban after the grandeur of the mountains. I checked into a hotel where I peeled off my clothes and unpacked my rucksack. Everything was wet through. It appears that water has a way of getting everywhere in those conditions.

All in all I felt vaguely depressed and defeated. I had made virtually no progress and found myself questioning whether trying to do the Cape Wrath Trail was a huge, self-delusory conceit.  Next day however I began the slow business of getting back on track and was astounded to encounter seven of my companions from the bothy (in four separate places). All of them had their own hair-raising stories from the previous day. One had found himself trapped between two streams in spate and had tried to set up his tent, but the frame had broken in the wind and, after a desperate flounder across the stream, he eventually made it back to the bothy, soaked to the skin.  Piecing together this picture it became clear that the weather had been quite exceptional - 3 to 4 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. And here I was thinking this was just Scottish weather and I better get used to it.

I fully recovered my spirits a few days later sitting by a huge log fire in Gerry's hostel in Craig where I sat up late leafing through a pile of old mountaineering magazines and reading accounts of freak weather conditions in the Cairngorms in the depths of winter, 170 mph winds and suchlike, with people having to take refuge in snow holes - all of which had the combined effect of putting my own somewhat modest experience into perspective whilst stimulating my appetite for adventure.

I'm back on track now and the weather is set to be fine for the next few days. All things considered, on the adventure scale, I think this is probably just about right for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How I'm gettin' on

I am sitting writing this in front of a coal fire at the Youth Hostel in Dufton, Cumbria. I am the only guest. 

As is the case most evenings, my thoughts right now are centred on going to bed, reading for a while and thinking about what the next day holds. 

All the same, it occurs to me that people might like to know how the journey is going. So I'll try to explain how it looks from here with about 660 miles behind me and some 400 or more still to go. 

At times the path behind me seems immensely long. I occasionally review it while I am falling asleep at night. Sometimes a whole section of the journey is a complete blank and then the only thing to do is to go back a little - nearer to the start, to a part I remember - and to 'walk back in' to the forgotten part, to rediscover it again.

To be more specific: yesterday I set out from the youth hostel ... but I should explain, I've jumped ahead; I'm now in Once Brewed, by Hadrian's Wall; it's two days since I wrote the first part. 

... I set out in sunshine and under a clear, blue sky, climbing steadily along a sunken, tree-lined path, past abandoned barns and farm buildings, away from the village towards the high fells. And, as has been the case for weeks, the fields are full of sheep -the ewes moving to one side on my approach, followed by the lambs, who wait for a while before running to their mother and suckling at her roughly for reassurance.

The tops of the fells are swathed in cloud or thick mist. The distinction is important because mist will burn off in the sun, whereas cloud promises rain or worse. 

It turns out to be cloud and after a long climb across open moor, past the remnants of snowdrifts, I am in it. There's a bitter east wind blowing and when the clouds open it's not rain that lashes my face but a fine hail. Raising my head to glimpse what's ahead, I take note of a ghostly stone cairn on the sky-line, a vital landmark in the otherwise featureless, mist-enshrouded landscape. Over the next three hours, working from cairn to cairn and occasionally, when no cairn is visible, with aid of a compass, I work my way across Knock Fell, Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell - the highest point on the Pennines. 

On the other side of Cross Fell is Greg's Hut - an unlocked bothy - in which travellers can find some shelter from the elements. There's a dry sleeping platform and a stove and it's clear that people pass the night here - either out of choice or on account of the weather. 

After Greg's Hut there is a long, 7-mile walk along an old miners' road. Not describing it in detail is a fair reflection of it's interest. The road leads down to the little former mining village of Garrigill but the day isn't over till I've walked a further 4 miles through river meadows to Alston where I seek out a bed for the night. 

All in all a fairly ordinary day. 

(I must post this on my blog now. I have a good Internet connection and there's no time for polishing)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A walk of two halves

I am somewhere in the middle of a long walk from Land's End to Cape Wrath at the northwest tip of Scotland

It was on a long, lonely road in Shropshire that I came to the startling realisation that there are two of us doing this journey.

There's 'the bottom half' - the bit that does all the walking, negotiates fallen trees and climbs over stiles. Then there's 'the top half' - the part that gazes across distant vistas, lost in poetic reverie and philosophic reflection.

Needless to say, it is the top half that is writing this piece. It has been clear for quite some time that philosophic reflection is not one of the bottom half's strong points. The bottom half is not a great communicator. His conversation - if you can call it that - is confined to an endless series of grumbles and complaints such as "how he would never have agreed to come along if he had known what was involved" and "Just name me one thing I'm getting out of this?" and - the one that irritates me the most - "Are we nearly there yet?"

With regard to what he's getting out of it, I remind him that the giant pork pies and chocolate brownies are solely for his benefit and that, left to myself, I would just as soon exist on rough oatcakes and green salads. That's usually enough to shut him up.  If there's one thing I'm sure of it's this - there's nothing the bottom half likes so much as a good feed. At times I suspect it's the only thing that keeps him going. 

All the same I have to admit he has a point - it can't be very much fun down there; it can be quite wet and the view isn't anything to write home about. Sometimes I find myself admiring the dogged persistence with which the bottom half approaches his task and I like to imagine his efforts are rewarded with some form of brutish gratification . Enduring a few grumbles seems a small price to pay if that's all that's needed to keep him 'at it'. Besides, I've found if I pretend I'm not listening he quietens down after a while. 

So, on the whole, we get along quite well and though it would be ridiculous to expect the bottom half to come up with much in the conversation department, I am happy to spend some time introducing him to 'higher things'. I'm probably fooling myself, but like to think that something might be 'going in'. 

It was only the other day: I was telling him the story of Robinson Crusoe and I could swear he was listening quite intently. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Island, St Ives

In planning my walk from Lands End to Cape Wrath, I always had it in mind that it would be nice to pass through St Ives on my father's birthday - March 1st.  

As it happens setting out around this time makes a lot of sense: there's a chance to catch the start of spring in England and to arrive  in Scotland before the start of the midge season. So to choose to coincide with my father's birthday was just a matter of fine tuning.

The Island at St Ives was my mother and father's favourite place. Every year, during their annual holiday they would set themselves up on the grass, facing the sea, with folding chairs and the cool-box. My mother would knit and my father would read the paper and worry about tomorrow's weather. 

There's a part of them that remains there: 

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

      Shakespeare - The Tempest

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Rumba Ride

It turns out my old friend Pete Mustill, together with his fiddle-playing mate Jim Broadbent John Hymas are setting off to ride from John O'Groats to Lands End, on April Fools day, travelling on recumbent, electric bikes and playing music at a different venue every night, along the way.

Needless to say - apart from the April Fools Day bit - this is all wrong on at least three distinct counts. But, not wishing to appear mean-spirited, I say:

Good luck to you boys. It's not everyone who is called upon to make the same journey on foot and in the right direction.

As my path goes somewhat to the east of theirs, it is possible we won't link up. So, should you find yourself hanging around Westmoreland in mid-April looking for something to do on a Thursday evening, you will be able to choose between:
  1. What I am sure will be a very ordinary evening of music, fun and merriment with Pete and John, somewhere in downtown Carlisle.
  2. A deep philosophical discussion with me over a pint of beer and a bag of cheese and onion crisps at the Black Pig in Haltwhistle.
No contest really

You can check out the Rumba Ride at:

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