Monday, 25 April 2011

The train departing from platform 5 will depart from platform 3

Last Friday I started writing some notes for this blog on my way back to Manchester but I didn't get very far as I ended up chatting most of the way with three Americans from Washington (state) who are over here travelling around England. I warned them against telling people they are travelling around 'England' when they got up as far as Edinburgh and then on to Aberdeen, before making their way back down to York. I was a little perplexed that they had chosen Manchester as a suitable tourist destination but they explained that they were taking the opportunity to see a soccer game and apparently, to people from across the pond, these usually take place at Old Trafford. (Just for the record, I love Manchester and think there are plenty of interesting things to see, but I just wouldn't place it in my top ten holiday destinations in the UK, especially not alongside London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and York)

My travelling companions, as I found out, should actually have been on the next train and would probably have been asked to pay a hefty surcharge had a ticket inspector come round. Fortunately, the inspector was nowhere to be seen, as I have found to be the case whenever (a) the train is late, (b) the train is crowded and (c) all the passengers had been told, after boarding at Euston and wondering what the hold-up was, to get off platform 5 and traipse over to platform 3 instead. I think the guard was watching me to make sure I had just finished settling myself down before making that announcement. As it happens, the train departed at about the time the three Americans' train should have left anyway, so I think they would have had a fairly strong case in their favour (or favor?). Not only this, but they had just raced across London, after some helpful soul had instructed that they needed to get to London Victoria.

I was travelling back to Manchester on the Friday morning so that I could get to the Maundy Thursday Mass in Winchester on the previous evening. This weekend is the most important time in the Christian calendar and the tradition in the Catholic church is to celebrate what is called the Easter Triduum comprising three services on the Thursday evening, Friday afternoon and Saturday evening. These three services form a unity, and so it felt a little odd to travel a couple of hundred miles from the first part to the second. I wonder if this is some sort of record. Probably not; for that I would probably need to get up to somewhere like Inverness for the Easter vigil on Saturday night. (Is this the correct use of a semi-colon? I have never really been clear on this punctuation, but what I have been told is that it is for a break that is more than a comma but less than a full-stop, and that seems appropriate here)

I took a few photographs last week but didn't get round to uploading them. My (rather lame) excuse is that I had been put in a room in the hotel that was too far away from the wireless access point, and so was practically unusable. Here, then, are some of those pictures.

On the main street, High Street, there is a section called The Pentice seen here from the East (right) and the West (left). I took these photographs early on a sunny day on a phone camera, so I apologise for the quality. I discovered that the word 'pentice' comes from the Latin 'appendo', meaning 'to hang', and the word 'penthouse', an apartment added to the top of a building, is a corruption of it. The Pentice in Winchester seems to have been built and rebuilt over last seven or eight centuries. Up until the 12th century, this area was probably part of a Norman palace and then, after this was destroyed, it became the site of the Winchester Mint until the start of the 13th century.
There then appeared The Drapery, where drapes and cloth were sold, and it is possible that it was a covered market from this time. In the 14th century, the name changed from The Drapery to The Pentice but the actual colonnade probably dates from the 15th century, with number 32 being rebuilt in the 19th. The shops are not numbered, but it is quite easy to spot which is number 32 - there are three buildings with similar sloping roofs with a big square building nestling between them. You can see this on the first picture, between the black-and-white and the green buildings with sloping roofs, although a picture from a different angle would have been better.

In case you were wondering, this is not actually my own research but taken from Winchester and Late Medieval Urban Development: From Palace to Pentice by Tom Beaumont James and Edward Roberts - worth a read if you are interested.

Across the road from The Pentice is Parchment Street, with WH Smith taking over the entire block before it crosses over St George's Street. The picture is the best I could do, bearing in mind that it was taken underneath The Pentice so the ceiling and pillars got in the way a bit. I am guessing that Parchment Street originally housed bookshops and stationers, and perhaps this is why WH Smith chose this site. As it is, I could find only one other shop, a second-hand bookshop, that would be apropriate for the street name.

I hope this wasn't too incoherent and disjointed. Once again, this was written while travelling down to sunny Hampshire and posted with minimal editing before heading off to bed.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The train arriving on platforms 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 is coming in sideways.

I am back on the train to Winchester again, this time going via London, and I thought I would use my GPS enabled phone to track the route this time. Being a phone, and not a specialised GPS receiver, it is probably not best suited for use on a high-speed train (anyone who has been on a train in the rest of Europe may think I am being ironic refering to our trains as "high-speed" but for us the Manchester-London line is fast) and GPS is only accurate to few meters at the best of times so it doesn't surprise me that the position appears to veer off the railway line from time to time but I found it amusing that it seemed to think I was still travelling at 1 mph while stopped at Stockport. Not only that, but we appeared to move across a few platforms. (As I write this, I see that it has lost it's GPS position completely, so this track is not really going to be too accuarate)

The reason I am taking the route via London is that I was singing in a concert at the Bridgewater Hall that was billed as "Music for a Royal Wedding", and thus was likely to miss the last direct train (don't talk to me about the vagaries of pre-booked rail ticket restrictions). It was originally billed as a "St George's Day Concert" but the organisers, never one to miss a trick, changed it to cash in on the Royal Wedding in a couple of weeks time. However, I think they missed a trick here as the hall was about half full (or half empty?) even with a last minute "two for the price of one" offer. I put this down to the fact that the wedding isn't for another couple of weeks with Easter in between to act as a huge mental block in most people's minds, not to mention that many of the people who would have loved to go to a concert to celebrate St George's day wouldn't really have felt the same way under the new billing. The programme was pretty much unchanged from the same concert last year (which, incidentally, has a lot of the same repetoir as most other concerts by this particular concert organiser, be it the "Last Night of the Autumn Proms", "Sping Gala" or "Classics for Christmas") with a few changes such as the omision of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" (what message would that have sent to the happy couple?) and the inclusion of an excerpt from Wagner's Lohengrin (ie, the Wedding March).

I was going to make a comment about the presenter but I think something an alto from the choir posted on Facebook tops anything I could say:

The narrator at our concert this afternoon was Ian Lavender of "Private Pike in Dad's Army" fame. Half way through the concert he tried to make a joke about the FA Cup score, saying that, "It didn't matter which side won the match because ultimately Manchester still won it" ... There was a moment of stunned silence in the audience before someone shouted out loudly, "Stupid Boy!"

Now I have arrived in Winchester having left Manchester on the 18:35 to London Euston, then going from London Euston I went to London Waterloo on the underground, then London Waterloo to Basingstoke and finally picking up the direct train that had left Manchester at 18:27 for the last stop. Oh well.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Sound of Silence

"No seat reservations on board this service, due to a fault." So say the electronic displays all the way along the carriage of the train I am currently on on my way back to Manchester. There are no passengers standing, so this is not a particular problem from that point of view, but the lack of reservations means that the designation of a "Quiet Zone" becomes little more than a token gesture. The baby who has been making noises since she got on does not particularly bother me - that is, after all, what babies do and she is not to know any better - but the two guys who, by chance, have between them what are in my opinion the two ugliest accents in the British isles are starting to get on my nerves. Far be it for me to slander any particular accent, but as we pull out of Lemington Spa I am sure that one of them will be leaving soon, while the other is probably on his way to Manchester so that he can then travel a further 30 miles or so West.

The facard of a particular building on St George's street in Winchester caught my eye this week. In an historic city such as this it is an occupational hazard when excavating that you should unearth some ancient treasure and this seems to have happened here, as a plaque on the wall explains: "When repairs were being made to this building in 1959 the carved stones displayed in this wall were found. One stone above the plaque is Saxon work of the 9th century, the others are Norman. They probaly came from the Church of St. Ruel, the site of which lies to the south of here. The church was in existence by 1172. Some bricks from a Roman building which lay beneath the church are also built into the wall."
I have tried to capture some of this, with the 9th century Saxon work on the right and the Norman stone on the left. Below is a view of the whole wall. I wonder if, in centuries to come, an excavation across the road from this site will honour the discovery of the Golden Arches from Ronald's Temple of the Church of American Consumerism.

Another interesting building is the Guildhall, across the road from the bus station. These days this building is a hotel and restaurants, including a Pitcher and Piano on the ground floor of the section shown in the picture. In the windows above this are a number of shields. Being the Guildhall, I would guess that these are the shields of the tradesmen's guilds of the city, or perhaps they are the coats of arms of various nobles, from the time when Winchester was the capital of England. I would be interested to find out - answers on a postcard.

Most of the photographs so far have been of various parts of Winchester. By way of variety, then, here are a couple from the IBM site at Hursley.
First is a picture of the main building, Hursley House where important people and customers who need to be impressed are taken. Sadly, the lab I am working in is located elsewhere but I did have a meeting in the auditaurium, in the right wing of the building at the back, when it took a room full of engineers fifteen minutes to work out how to bring down the blinds and turn on the projector. The other is taken with my back to the hall and shows the cricket ground - not exactly what you expect to find on a company's development campus.
I have made contact with the person in charge of our group's cricket team but it is likely that I will be back in Manchester before they play any games.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sweet dreams are made of these

I would like to get some more pictures of the town centre of Winchester but the weather has turned bad today so I will leave it for another day. What I will say is that the main shopping streets are now, as is the case with most places in Britain, filled with all the usual suspects; Starbucks across the road from Cafe Nero, Marks & Spencer competing with Debenhams, Clintons for greeting cards and JJB for sports. You get the picture.

Although the shops you see while walking through the centre of town could make you think of pretty much any other town centre in the country, there are still one or two charming local shops here and there such as Henleys, a Traditional Sweet Shop with candy canes and jars of all sorts of multi-coloured delights in the window. Sadly, as with much of Winchester (the Cathedral, the museums, the shops), it is only open at precisely the time I have to be at work and having travelled the length of the country to be on site I do not think I would get away with asking to "work from home".

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk

Kesler, a colleague who is over from the Shanghai office, very kindly offered to take us out, before he flies back to the Far East, to a Chinese restaurant. The plan was to go to a place just across the road by the name of Terracotta, which has two members of this famous army outside facing King Alfred, but it turned out that they were open every day except Tuesdays. What are the chances, eh? There is only other one is Mr So, at the other end of town, but when I was out yesterday evening I saw that they were closed for refurbishment so we decided that the Chinese evening had to wait until tomorrow night and we set of in search of alternative victuals. I was a bit perturbed to find that Mr So was actually open, making me think I had dreamed it yesterday, but this turned out to be their opening night after the place had been taken over by new management.

The food was excellent, thanks to careful selection by Kesler, but the service, I'm afraid, was less so. We saw one group threaten to walk out after waiting for over an hour and I'm sure that at least one other group did. We did wait (for over an hour), which was fortunate as the food was, as I have already said, excellent. I don't go in for taking photographs of my meals as I have noticed that some people do on Facebook, but two particular highlights were a steamed fish (trout? I'm afraid I don't know my fish very well) and oysters, which for me is a new experience. I would like to say that the poor service was due to being particularly busy on the first night but I don't really think another night would be much better. However, if you are willing to wait it is worth it.

Finally, after the photograph from yesterday of the cathedral surrounded by fire engines I thought that I should have another one without obstruction, so here is one from the other end, taken this morning. So far, the beautiful weather is holding, but for how long I cannot say.

Monday, 11 April 2011

A morning stroll

The hotel I am staying at looks out onto Winchester cathedral, which is a beautiful view to have in the morning. This week I am fortunate enough to have a room on this side, rather than one overlooking the backstreet as I did last week. However, the view is probably not best augmented by fire engines, as in the picture. Fortunately, there doesn't look to be anything serious happening, although the fire engines stayed around for a few hours, which is not a good sign. As I write this, they have all just driven off.

So, where is Winchester? Apparently, it is 63 miles from London, 12 miles from Southampton, 27 miles from Portsmouth and 25 miles from Salisbury, so says the side of this building (left). I found this on a walk this morning, which took me past the last remaining part of the original Roman walls that remain.

A plaque on the wall, shown right but not visible on the picture of the whole wall section because of the tree, that shows the full extent of the original walls. Westgate still exists, and it is by the law courts and military museum. There is also a section of the castle from when Winchester was the capital of England. Here is the best view I could find from Google Streetview, based on the Geotag on the photograph of the plaque.

It gets everywhere

One for my colleagues here. On my walk I found a house that looks like it hasn't been lived in for years, but look closely at the bottom right window and you will see someone has written 'AIX' in the dust. Is there no escape?

Sitting on a railway station, got a ticket for my destination ...

Well, more like sitting on a train on the last stretch back to Manchester after three and a half days in darkest Hampshire. The people who pay to keep me off the streets have seen fit to send me on a jollywork trip down to the labs in Hursley to help out with the last stage of testing on a soon to be released product. This being a blog open to the public, I am obviously not going to give too many details about that but I thought I would jot a few notes about the non-work related aspects. I have for some time intended to start a blog but have never had enough things of interest to write about before. Now I have, lets see how long it lasts.

This started a few weeks ago when someone gave a presentation in our lab about new projects we are starting to work on in conjuction with the site in Hursley, and mentioned that they were keen for a few of our number to go and help them in their release cycle. This would be mutually beneficial as those who went down would return with a lot of valuable experience to spread around when they got back. Not really expecting much, I told my manager that I was curious about what this would involve. This slight curiousity somehow arrived at a lab managers meeting as a strong desire and, a few rushed discussions and arrangements later, I was on the train down to Winchester with a colleage, Norman, to do what both of us only had the slightest inkiling about.

And so to the blog. I thought I would try to write something every day or two but I am now on the journey back on the first Friday evening. Is it of interest? Will I make it to a second post this time? Will my writing style cause anyone with the slightest knowledge of the English language howl with agony? Only time will tell. Oh, and you too, if you decide to comment below.

[Edit] What I wrote above, and most of what I wrote below, was indeed written on Friday night on the train but my good intention to edit and publish it over the weekend went awry and so it is now Monday night that I am polishing this up.

Alfred and the Lion

One of the first things that I noticed when arriving at the hotel we are staying at in Winchester is that in the middle of the road there is a huge statue of some bloke holding a sword aloft. Someone with a better grasp of British history than I would probably know instantly who this is likely to be but I, who am a bear with very little brain, did not. Discovering this, I decided, was my task for the week. I admit that this is not something that would have taxed Herculese, considering that it just involved going up to the statue and looking at the plaque, but it was something to do.

This gentleman is, of course, King Alfred the Great, or Ælfred as the engraving says. There is a plaque under the statue which I have photographed, right,
but it is a bit illegible, so if you do not want to strain your eyes, it reads, "Alfred, king of the West Saxons (AD 871-899) drove the Danish invaders from Wessex. He created fortified centres, of which Winchester, the largest, was his capital. During his reign, the streets in use today were first established. Alfred was the most esteemed of English kings. He encouraged the revival of learning and monastic life, and laid the foundation for a single kingdom of England. This statue by Hamo Thorneycroft was erected in 1901."

It's not fire, it's only bell!

One of the last things I experienced in the lab before leaving to get on this train was a test of the file alarms. This may not appear immediately as anything particularly noteworthy except that it very nearly gave me a heart attack. Prior to the test there was an announcement over the PA system, just loud enough to make out the general gist but not loud enough to actually be able to hear clearly, to the effect that the alarms would shortly be tested and this is just a test and people should not evacuate the building and how we would know if there happened to be a real fire and on and on and on. This went on for close to a minute and was then followed by a pause that allowed me, and I'm sure other people as well, to pass from heightened anticipation, through slight impatience all the way down to completely forgetting that anything had happened. There then came the Ride of the Valkyrie in bell form that only lasted a few seconds, so even without the preceeding warning there was not long enough for people to recover from the mild trauma and start leaving the building. There was another pause to lull us all back into a sense of security only to be jolted back to reality by another short blast of the bell. This happened once more that I can remember, but it is possible that my mind has blocked this ordeal from my mind. The Chinese water torture came to my mind but happily there was then another announcement declared that the test was over although I couldn't hear the details over the ringing in my ears.

A sport for animals played by gentlemen

And now on as I get to the end, the train has just filled up with people at Stockport on their way into Manchester. From what I can overhear, it sounds more like a rugby crowd rather than football - little things like the mention of Glocester, Worcester (who are apparently more of a rival than Bath) and only losing by 5 points, not to mention that they all appear to be sober, civilised and not making me hope that I can pass the last part of the journey without being noticed.