Thames Path day five: Oxford to Culham

We started walking the Thames Path, a 180-odd mile walk, back in October last year. Travel was just about okay – an island between lockdowns – even if it still felt a bit edgy at times. We did the first four days’ worth of the walk in one chunk as it is the more remote part of the walk and travel to and from the Path itself is not easy. This meant we were lucky enough to stay at a number of nice places – both the towns/villages and the accommodations themselves. 

With this chunk out of the way, and having made it as far as Oxford, we knew that later sections would be much more accessible, enabling us to tackle it in day-long stages.

Write-ups of the first four sections are found here: Section one from the source at Kemble to Cricklade is here. Section two from Cricklade to Lechlade-on-Thames is here. Section three from Lechlade-on-Thames to the Rose Revived at Newbridge is here. Section four from The Rose Revived at Newbridge to Oxford is here.

Read on for section five… Oxford to Culham.


Returning to Oxford nearly eight months after ending our last section of the Thames Path had that uncanny feeling of it being a totally alien place and yet feeling like it was just yesterday that we left.

We’ve done a few long distance walks before, where we travel to Point A, walk to Point B, then travel home, and then some time later return to Point B to walk on to Point C. This process creates a slightly strange disjointedness – because each journey to and from is different, and yet it is to the same places visited previously. So it was with our return to Oxford and the usual short walk from the station to the last point where we left the main Thames Path last time, so as to create a continuous unbroken walk. Fortunately – and particularly with this walk following a river – this meant the nearest bridge, and a ‘proper’ start and finish line.

The other uncanny thing about starting a walk like this at Oxford is knowing that the ensuing walk would shortly become very remote and rural despite starting at a busy railway station. But first we had some interesting buildings – wharves and warehouses – to pass, which highlighted previous(?) industries along the riverside.

The next lot of buildings which we found alongside the river were of a very different nature  – boathouses and rowing clubhouses as far as the eye could see. We also inevitably saw a number of rowers, scullers and canoeists on this stretch, bringing a brief flurry of energy and speed to an otherwise sleepy section of the river. This also served to highlight my deep lack of knowledge when it comes to the different names for people on boats as I grasped for the right names and M just looked on, exasperated, she having done rowing on the Thames in uni. 

Case in point, the first draft of this post used the spelling ‘skullers’ rather than scullers. 

From this point on, the riverside was very quiet, and we were very much in bucolic countryside on a stunning day. At many points the air was thick with blossom, and the recent wet weather throughout May followed by the warm sunshine had led to a real flourish of new growth across the board.

We paused for a breather at a point just after the impressive Radley College boathouse and noticed damsel flies alighting on the surrounding vegetation, and a number of black-headed gulls swooping fast and low just above the surface of the water, no doubt scooping up whatever tiny flying creatures were enjoying the humid weather. Possibly the aforementioned damsel flies.

I like birds like black-headed gulls: you look at this random bird and think to yourself “I don’t know what that bird is called, but if I had to rename it, I’d say it sure looks like a black headed gull. I’ll google it. Oh. It is a ‘black-headed gull’. Turns out.”


Later, we passed under the Culham railway Bridge, noting that this was not particularly far north of our day’s destination of Culham railway station, but the map showed us we had a large curve of river to follow before we would end up there. This was fine by us on two fronts: first, it was a truly glorious day and to be out and about and we were happy for the walk to continue as long as it desired to. And secondly, this loop of river took us through beautiful Abingdon – or Abingdon-on-Thames, to give it the proper name we saw adorning a number of signs. Apparently it was known simply as Abingdon between 1974 and 2012, and my only prior knowledge of the town was by its proximity to Truck Festival which I attended a few times in the mid-2000s, and which took place in a field near Steventon, off the Abingdon road. 

Abingdon-on-Thames could not possibly have looked more glorious than it did this sunny afternoon. Having crossed the roaring Abingdon weir, and passed adjacent Abingdon Lock, we could see and hear the Saturday afternoon crowds filling Abbey Meadows. From here the river curves slightly towards an attractive stone bridge which spans two channels, and gives access to what is essentially an island in the Thames, home to some pretty parkland, the Nag’s Head pub, a boat hire company, and Annie’s at the Boathouse, a nice cafe that served us exquisite ice creams which we devoured in the sun overlooking the river.

After Cricklade and Lechlade, Abingdon-on-Thames is yet another pretty little place spanning the river, with a stone bridge and church coming into view as you approach. I savour these milestones along the river towards London and look forward to them slowly evolving as we continue along the Thames Path.

The remainder of our day’s walk led us further around this curve in the river, to a point where we left the Thames briefly, instead walking along a different section of waterway named Culham Cut. Along this stretch we noticed the curious presence of what must be permanent boat moorings – at that time sans boat – where the vegetation had been strimmed back neatly, forming a small path between the edges of fields and the river itself.

At Culham Lock, we turned away from the Cut, and headed ‘in-land’ away from the river, passing the small village of Culham itself, and onwards towards the railway station. This latter part was, as is often unfortunately the case, the least elegant and least enjoyable part of the walk: it took us up to the main road out of Culham and a long, hot stretch of pavement next to a fast road. Thankfully, as this is a well-used route to the station for the nearby European School and various scientific buildings, the road has a decent shared bike/footpath running alongside. It’s just a bit close to the fast traffic and you wish there was an alternative path through the adjacent lower-lying fields. The worst part is we will have to retrace our steps along a couple of KMs of this road when we next return to Culham to continue the walk. But we will have another lovely section of riverside walking to look forward to, and we will press on.

The good news, if you find yourself waiting for a train at the pretty but isolated Culham station, is that there is a perfectly serviceable pub directly alongside, and if visiting in good weather, their beer garden is pretty and extensive. I couldn’t help but want to improve their signage/branding, but a pub’s a pub if it serves a cold pint of beer or cider at the end of a long walk.

I hope it’s not another eight months before our next section of the Thames Path.

NZ Music Month x National Library of NZ x Flying Nun

May is New Zealand Music Month and it’s a good time to shine the spotlight on bands, stories and projects from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Admittedly, my obsessive following of NZ music has dwindled in recent years, and my interests are atrophying into pure nostalgia rather than keeping my finger on the pulse of new music. That being said, with the advent of Bandcamp Fridays last year, I did a bit more research (read: listening to the 95bFM Top Ten) which led to some purchases of some pretty bleeding edge stuff. 

But it paints a certain picture where my only real acknowledgement of NZ Music Month this year has been via some excellent blog posts from the National Library of New Zealand, and which themselves dealt primarily with the preservation and digitisation of the Flying Nun Records archive. But what a fascinating series of posts they are.

Stacks of audio master tapes on a shelf at Nightshift Studios
Nightshift Studios Christchurch, February 2008

The first post was Flying Nun in the spotlight, which deals with the photographing of the physical objects of the Flying Nun Records collection.

The post makes it clear why such a careful record is required for what is not just a musical archive but a physical and visual one, too. But it goes beyond the distinctive artwork and tour posters the indie label became known for: there is a ton of meta art and information embedded in the collection’s artefacts that help flesh out the story even further.

Objects such as: recording and engineering notes handwritten on master tape sleeves and letters to the pressing plants; Chris Knox doodles everywhere; and extra session information jotted down on scraps of paper that somehow survived the various moves the archive has been subjected to over the years.

It also reveals the great breadth of formats the archive encompasses, not just of recording media, but the extra documents, boxes and fluff that goes with it. It’s also led to some clever innovations in the equipment they have brought in to enable them to systematically photograph the collection as carefully as possible. (The team photo at the bottom of that post is a delight.)


The second post is Flying Nun in the studio, and it talks about Nick Guy’s clinical approach to digitising the recordings and preserving the media on which they live – and hopefully will continue to live for as long as possible.

Degradation of these media is inevitable, and the goal is to try and create the best digital copy of these recordings – whether demos, live recordings, pressing masters, or multitrack masters – so that they can be remastered or analysed and studied in future, and possibly even be improved by future processing techniques.

But this digitisation of the sound itself isn’t even as ‘simple’ as that might sound – the raw audio on those tapes is not all created equally, and the blog post goes into some really interesting detail about the different ways audio can be recorded to different tape stocks, at different speeds, and with different processing or noise reduction techniques applied.

And then you get to the knotty problem of finding reliable equipment to play this stuff back on, while praying that the tape itself survives one more playback having been sat spooled up in a cupboard for decades. Tapes often need to be ‘baked’ to make them more tolerant of being woken from their slumber after all this time.

It all creates quite the headache for Nick Guy and his team, but they are doing sterling work. It’s so cool knowing that this work is taking place, and it’s great to be able to read about the world-class processes and techniques in use here – not to mention the amazing actual documents and recordings they are working with.


The final(?) post in a trio from the National Library of NZ that has been such a eye-opener this NZ Music Month is Download Now… Free!: “Introducing a new born-digital collection that includes music production files and uses digital audio workstation software, which is a first for the Library.”

Years ago I remember learning that, via the Rockband/Guitar Hero videogames, the multi-track masters of some classic rock songs are either lost or no longer usable for such multi-stemmed dissection for future use.

This blew my mind, but only because I had up till that point naively assumed that all recording sessions were carried out the same way, that the masters were preserved and indexed carefully at the time, and that to remaster those old multitracks (or indeed to use them for a videogame genre that wasn’t even dreamt of when the sessions took place) would simply be a case of calling up the label and requesting them. In my mind this also, of course, applied to all sessions, even those done by tiny indie labels on tiny budgets, for songs that later went on to become classics. What a silly notion!

When you spend more than a minute or two imagining a real-world case study of what would actually be involved in that process, and all the various people and physical items and locations and contracts and so on involved… you begin to realise how fragile that entire ecosystem is, and how it’s frankly miraculous that such retrospective projects are even possible.

And so imagine how my mind verily exploded this morning reading the above post, which discusses not the preservation of analogue multi-track master tapes, but digital-native music: stuff created using Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) using plugins, samples, MIDI and so on.

We’re not simply talking about digital multi-tracked WAV file stems, but purely electronic instructions interpreted by a vast panoply of different software and plugins, each carefully cobbled together at the time of the session, and most likely not carefully documented once the finished product is exported as, at best, a multi-stemmed audio file, but, more likely, a mixed-down stereo master for distribution.

Crumbs. What a headache.

The above third post will appeal to you if this tangle of new issues sounds interesting to you, and it also features Luke Rowell aka Disasteradio’s collaboration with the National Library of NZ on this pioneering project including making available for free remixing and research of his own music projects under a Creative Commons licence.

Check out Disasteradio’s modern classic Gravy Rainbow below, and then have a delve into this new collection if it’s your cuppa tea.


The National Library of New Zealand have been smashing stuff like this out of the park for years. Not just the processes and projects they routinely work on, but the sharing of knowledge and best practices that can be carried forward by others around the world. And making it all sound so vibrant and interesting and fun. 

Runblings – an audio narrative of a cross-country run

Runblings, 19 May 2021 [MP3]
Amersham, UK | Moto G7 Power | 30 May 2020 | 18m08s

A few days ago I went for a run in Amersham, following the route of my old school sponsored walk. It was a step back in time for me, retracing a route I haven’t walked in full for probably twenty five years, and even more familiar bits of it I haven’t done for a decade or more.

What prompted me to run it was knowing that the distance was something like 9km – a distance I can comfortably run – and that I now have decent trail running shoes, which would suit the kind of terrain of the route (particularly after rain).

I had a go at recording myself narrating my own progress around the course, and I should say that this is heavily inspired by the lovely Radio 4 show Ramblings* with Clare Balding. Clare obviously walks with another person and it’s more of an interview, where my attempt is just me talking to myself. But perhaps it is of interest?

* hence the stupid name of this post

I recorded it using a budget Android handset, rather than my Tascam DR-05, which is a much higher quality device, records in stereo, and has a decent wind shield. So, the quality of the audio of the above is relatively poor – but I think it is listenable. And much like the old adage that ‘the best camera is the one you have with you at the time’, so it goes with audio devices too.

I’d like to do more of these sorts of things in future. Possibly not while running, but a nice narrated walk would be fun I think, with more focus on incorporating field recordings and general ambience. A kind of ‘experience this place with me’ sort of recording.

Weak notes for mid-May 2021

Here are some weak notes, instead of weeknotes. Do you see? I’ll not bother to try and catch up on the weeks I’ve missed. They’ve been and gone. What’s been happening lately?

Photos!

I spent some of my enforced self-isolation editing some old photos from the past decade or so, partly to breathe new life into old photos that would otherwise languish on my hard drives, and partly to brush up on some Lightroom techniques I want to be more confident with. 

I have… enough photos now, that I can sort of pick a general assortment from my archive to just work on a particular selection based on a theme or mood, and that’s so cool. The process of finding those photos is actually a bit easier than I would have expected – I’m either searching chronologically for a particular event or trip, or I’m searching Google Photos for ‘fog’ or ‘orange’ or ‘guitarist’ or whatever. (I have basically my entire photo archive in Google Photos partly as a low-res backup, and partly to leverage the insanely good search algorithms.) These searches do mean I then need to identify an image’s filename or date, so that I can re-find it in Lightroom. But that’s not so difficult. It would be cool to squirt Google Photos’ metadata findings into the actual metadata or the master images themselves which Lightroom could then search. But still – this is a workable solution. 

I’ve not decided yet if this is to be a new, ongoing practice, or whether to call the current crop a set and move on. Certainly I am still taking new pictures and will continue trying to post those in the usual places. But the current set of re-edits is available here.

Robins!

Robin activities continue, and the DIY trailcam that monitors the bird feeder continues to work reliably, with the Moto G4 cameraphone at the heart of it continuing to give really surprisingly decent and detailed close-up photos. The birds’ activities have shifted in the last week or so. Last time I wrote, I think we had the three babies bossing their parents around, crying out to be fed, and then one or two of them feeding themselves but still squeaping for attention occasionally.

More recently, the activities have continued to change: the parents have not been seen for weeks now (almost), which is odd, but I think they are nesting and hatching a second brood somewhere. Hopefully we will see new babies in a month or so. And the babies are now very quiet and jumpy and stealthy. My trailcam catches one or possibly two of the three babies coming to the feeder regularly. Honestly, it could be all three – they’re surprisingly hard to tell apart even with their individual new growth of adult red breast feathers, which change almost daily.

And to bring you completely up to date, yesterday was the first morning I woke to find no notifications on my phone, meaning no sightings of any birds that morning. Normally there is a flurry of activity between sunrise and the time I wake up. This lack of activity was unprecedented and, naturally, a bit worrying. But a baby appeared mid-morning, showing its face a few more times in the day, but nowhere near as active as it had been. Meanwhile, M thinks she heard it singing once – a far cry (!) from the plaintive squeepings we are so used to hearing when they were dependant babies.

And then this morning, no sign of the baby on the early morning trailcam shots – but an adult! For the first time in weeks. And possibly a different adult than the last lot? Only one or two sightings today – and to confirm that it’s not a very advanced adolescent, I did see the baby separately at other times today – but again, far less than normal. So things are changing…

Websites!

I considered having another go at the latest Sunday Sites prompt, but once again bottled it.

The prompt was weather, and I had this neat idea of a screen resembling the inside wall of a room, in the centre of which would be a blind/curtains. When opened, the view out of the “window” would be either an image/video of real weather conditions, or animated ASCII art resembling some weather. (M also suggested using a source of public domain artworks that represent weather, which would be very smart; you could also grab such Creative Commons content from Flickr as well.) Closing and re-opening the curtains/blind would reveal a different weather pattern, refreshing the frame each time. 

This concept reminded me that when I occasionally sit down to think of standalone web projects, they are often skeuomorphic in attempting to resemble a real-world object – for example this project from 2010 I did for uni: an instruction manual for an SLR camera. For this reason – and my woefully lacking web design skills – these projects basically never escape the pages of my notebook. Thankfully, not everyone is as non-committal as me, and the examples of the sites that other Sunday Sites participants created from that prompt are, as ever, fun to look through.

Fortunately, one project which has – finally! – made it into the real world is the refreshed website for the Katherine Mansfield Society.

I’ve been looking after the web admin for the KMS for… god, a lot of years now. A decade or so? But when I initially took it over, my main role was to upload content to the existing CMS. This then evolved over time to me taking over the hosting of the website, and looking after the domain as well. When I took over the hosting, the previous webmaster kindly ported the Silverstripe-based CMS/database over to the new host (as they were removing themselves from involvement with the KMS website), leaving me in charge of the whole thing.

Ever since then, it has long been my intention to create a new WordPress-based website for the KMS, porting over some content, but keeping the new site lean and fresh. The old website was absolutely packed full of good content, but in quite unusual formats, structures and hierarchies. And the tricky part was that the Silverstripe install was getting more and more out of date as the years went on. I didn’t have the knowledge to keep Silverstripe up to date – I can just about do a WordPress site – and I was really concerned it would one day just break. It was a toss-up between me trying to update it or just leaving it as it was for as long as possible. Both routes would inevitably lead to the site breaking beyond repair one day. Fortunately, that never happened, and the CMS puttered on happily, if clunkily, well into 2021, albeit on a very old version of PHP. 

I have therefore done a full site-rip of the old site so it can continue to be hosted as a complete archive. It’s not the ideal solution, but there’s just too much good content that it would a) take forever to manually port it over to the new site, and b) be a terrible shame for it to just disappear overnight. There’s work to be done – a bunch of redirects to be set up – but I’m happy with this compromise. 

Meanwhile, the new site is fairly bare bones at the moment. I dragged my heals a bit on this project as it was all being done in my spare time, but we at least have all the sections we want it to initially have, and relevant content has been created or ported across. Next steps include adding more flesh to the bones, and then stepping back to refine the site’s design with fresh eyes with more content in place. The mobile-sized home page doesn’t look great, to my eyes, although I am perfectly happy with the responsive layout I’m using. And then there’s a bunch of back-end stuff to implement and tweak, and user accounts to be set up, so that KMS folks can edit pages easily.

So, it’s taken a while to get here: in some ways a number of years of good intentions, and in other ways about seven months of sporadic building and iterating. And – in the best way (e.g. from the perspective of the site’s users) – only about twenty minutes of downtime between the old site and the new, which is about as good as I could have hoped for. Onwards.

Radios!

More on this in future I’m sure, but I continue to tinker with radios of various flavours in my spare time. Whether it’s scanning the shortwave bands for weak signals, catching up with London pirate FM stations, finding decent ‘local’ stations to stream while playing American Truck Simulator, or hopping around a web-based SDR from another location, I’m often playing with radios, or learning about its history and development. 

Some recent prompts have led to me picking up a cheap Baofeng walkie-talkie style radio to see what it can do, and I’ve also taken the first steps towards studying for the Foundation amateur radio licence. In all honesty I don’t know how much I want to pursue being a ham, and I am currently apprehensive about ever actually transmitting via amateur radio. But at the same time, the medium interests me, and always has done, and it feels like there’s no great harm in studying for the licence, and then probably even taking the test to get a licence, as much for the education, and then seeing where it takes me.

I haven’t studied for a specific test in ages – most of my self-taught learning (e.g. web design, above) involves me trying to muddle out a problem, and spending far more time googling things than actually making much progress. This is a fine form of self-educating, but I do also miss studying a specific syllabus and taking a test at the end of it. So I figured studying for an amateur radio licence might be a fun activity and a way to test myself, both literally and figuratively.

OPML files of yesteryear (audio post)

This is a bit of an experiment, so please bear with me – or, if it’s not your cup of tea please move right along.

Roy Tang recently wrote a couple of posts looking back at some of the blogs he used to follow a few years ago, to see which ones were still going and which had disappeared.

I found this really interesting, and it reminded me that something I had been meaning to do for a while was to load up an old .OPML* file and add it to a modern RSS feed reader and see what blogs I used to follow on a given date, compared with those I follow now.

* this is the format of file you get when you export an RSS feed reader’s list of blogs – it’s a nice transferable file which is pretty human readable, but it’s also easy to just take it from one feed reader to another. I was often in the habit of changing feed readers, so I also got into the habit of making periodic backups of these small files.

Roy presented his findings in a neat list of blogs and some narrative. Mine were a bit busier, and I honestly didn’t have the patience to type as much as I would’ve needed to. So I decided to just talk for half an hour instead.

Here’s me loading up an .OPML file from 2010, discussing the kinds of blogs I followed then, and what has happened to some of them: