A day trip to Cheltenham

So Cheltenham, then. A day at the races – almost.

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A couple of years ago I visited Gloucester to research a book I was writing. Almost exactly two years on, I visited neighbouring Cheltenham last weekend, but for different reasons.

As I mentioned in my last post, my good buddy John Tucker was attending his first comic convention – True Believers – and I just had to be involved somehow. Purely selfish reasons, naturally, although I knew the look on his face would be worth it, and it turned out to tickle his wife pink in the process, too.

I have fond memories of living with John (no, I do!), and integral to that was the frequent sight of stacks of paper, pens everywhere, and then every now and again a published zine or mini-comic that he’d hand-folded and stapled himself. I think I might have even traipsed around Manchester watering holes dropping off copies with him on at least one occasion.

Several years on, he’s now got several properly printed publications ready, a nice website, and the stones to take a stall at a comic con to get his name out there. Not only that, but he came up with a fantastic novelty gimmick for the day where he’d sell a portrait done while-u-wait, involving a roulette wheel which would dictate the method of death he would incorporate into the picture.

This instantly took me back to the long evenings he’d spend hunched over his laptop and tablet on Chatroulette drawing doodles for strangers. John tells the story better in his excellent round-up of his day, but it was extremely cool to see this natural progression at his first con.

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All I can really add to the story is that it was an absolute hoot to show up at the day, to contemplate John and his craft among the bigger picture of something like a comic festival, and just to catch up with him and Lauren.

The comic festival was a little of what I expected, and also a little more than what I’d expected. Mostly it was just a really cool, inclusive, friendly place where people could sell their craft, dress up like their heroes, hang out with like-minded folk, and feel a part of something.  I will say I hadn’t anticipated the level of cosplay – both in terms of quality and numbers of participants.

As I later explained to John, I won’t be following him around the country going to every single one of his public appearances like a mouth-breathing groupie, but the hands of fate had massaged my neck muscles lovingly the morning I decided to look into the trip, and I discovered that Great Western Railway were offering ridiculously cheap fares.

I couldn’t not go.

Anyway, beyond the comic con itself, I quite enjoy the odd day trip to a random town, and I knew Cheltenham had a few things to see that were up my street. Plus it would be interesting to me to compare Gloucester and Cheltenham, albeit while remembering that to visit both towns anew in February should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

No-one looks good in grey.

Still, bundled up against the cold, I did enjoy my wander around. There are some very pretty streets, some lovely examples of Cotswold-stone architecture, a few nice churches, and a really fantastic museum. There’s also a great variety of eateries and drinkeries.

As can be seen above, the colour palette was restricted to sandstone-yellow and winter-grey, but still rather appealing.

Wikipedia has curiously little to say about Cheltenham’s medieval history – there appears to be one remaining building from the era, and then the history books skip five hundred years until someone decided it would be a good idea to set it up as a spa town.

The town centre itself was about as you’d expect from any town centre on a rainy Saturday morning, but I will say Cheltenham has a thoroughly decent selection of shops.

Fortunately, it also has a well-thought-out selection of public gardens, from those near the centre, to Pittville Park a little further out.

Back in the town centre, I needed some indoor amusement. The Wilson, the name given to Cheltenham’s municipal museum (and visitor centre and gallery and so on), is a gem.

I’m so glad I took the time to have a look around as, not only did I find much to entertain and inspire me, but it was also an almost derelict sanctuary on such a rainy Saturday afternoon as this one. I pretty much had the place to myself, for better or worse.

Within minutes I was entranced by a mid-19th-century Dutch painting of a dockside by Cornelis Springer. The kinds of paintings that grab me are the hyper-real, the almost photographic document of a place or a person.

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This painting was of such exquisite detail that I spent several minutes scanning its surface for clues and characters and stories. There were numerous examples of all of these.

But the overall thing that got me with this one was the fine detail of the brush strokes.

The painting, above, is probably 150cm x 100cm, and yet when stood almost nose-to-canvas I could make out not just the fine rope hung from a pulley on a warehouse building, but the rope’s shadow, barely a hair’s width – a tiny stroke. Elsewhere were the outlines of individual bricks, or a man’s pipe. You can expect this level of detail on a canvas 4-5 times larger, but on this scale the detail is almost microscopic. It was wonderful.

As I learned, the Wilson also holds an important and vast collection of Arts and Crafts artefacts, and I was so pleased to find a current exhibition of the stuff. My day job is in the conservation of an Arts and Crafts-inspired suburb, and so I find this stuff very interesting and inspiring.

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I saw lots that inspired me, mostly the use of marquetry in wooden furniture, and adding splendid detail to everyday objects like door handles and tables, some really fine stuff by CR Ashbee, and the likes of that shown above which tried to encapsulate the whole ethos. (I didn’t take many photographs of the objects themselves as it was hard to reproduce the fine detail.)

The 1920 inscription above, by Joseph Cribb, screamed to me passages from Parker and Unwin’s The Art of Building a Home, along with other ideals stemming from the Arts and Crafts movement.

I also lingered a little too long by the above radio, probably a metre tall, dreaming of having it sat in the corner of a beautiful room, and imagining the warm tones it must emit.

I had a fantastic time in Cheltenham. I came away with a few new obsessions, and things and people to look up. The trip there and back was a breeze – also meant I could play some PSP and 2DS, even – and catching up with John without his prior knowledge was priceless.

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Image from A London Year

What a busy week it’s been. Truly sticking it to January, I was. I think after too long these short days and dark evenings get to you and you just start to do things almost to spite it. I even managed two runs home.

Now February is here, perhaps there’s been a surge of energy, willing Spring to come along sooner. It’s also been nice to start a new month as it means turning the page in this lovely little book, which talks all about weather, the night sky, food, plants and folklore.

Workwise, I’ve had my head buried in the General Data Protection Regulation trying to work out how much of it applies to us. A lot, it turns out. There’s a bit of work to do, but it’s all fairly systematic and understandable and I don’t mind tackling it. It makes me think about things on a different level, too, with implications beyond just policy. It actually makes one consider people and other processes, too. I suppose it appeals to the side of me that quite likes rules and systems and processes.

To that end, a colleague and I attended a seminar on the subject in London which was helpful and got our minds going in terms of how it applies to us. It was also just really nice to be ‘forced’ into Central London on a weekday evening. The trip was bookended by witnessing an unusual chinook flight overhead and a post-wine meander across London Bridge looking either side and remembering that London is indeed okay.

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A few of my usual estate inspections this week, too. A utility company needed to dig a hole in one of our roads, so I’ve been keeping an eye on that. And about the most estate-management-thing that I did all week: clawing at fistfuls of damp earth, trying to locate an allotment water meter before realising it was actually located under a neat cover just nearby.

Mid-week we had supermegadeathmoon which did indeed stop me and my colleagues in our tracks: on our way to the pub, we stopped several times to take pictures on camera with lenses and sensors far to small to even replicate the unusualness of it all. It’s humbling but apt to realise how this very subtle difference in ‘size’ of a celestial object can have such an impact on our feeble monkey brains.

We celebrated the moon’s engorgement with the traditional scotch egg, cheese, platter of meats and red wine.

In radio this week, I learned about a self-described ‘pop-up’ DAB radio station which plays out repetitive sounds including tumble dryers etc to soothe babies to sleep. It reminded me of the Birdsong DAB station and got me looking into how such a station can exist.

I was recently made aware of the ‘trial’ London DAB multiplex as I’d been trying to see if I could get Resonance FM at home (I can – just barely), and of course, there are a number of other mini multiplex trials (also known as minimuxes) around the UK. A lot of them are trialling quite innovative systems, from using the newer DAB+ codecs (better efficiency and sound quality) to pioneering new ideas of what a radio station can be.

It also led to me learning about Upload Radio, where Joe Bloggs can record an hour of radio, upload it to a server to be moderated, and pay £20 to have it played out on a local DAB station. It’s an idea so ‘obvious’ but so great that I’m just thrilled to know it exists. Ditto the programmatic local weather services that just suck in Met Office data and use pre-recorded snippets to play it out. This is all done via cloud servers and is about as stripped-back a radio service as I can imagine.

What I’ve realised is that there is a lot of innovation occurring in the ten trial DAB multiplexes as much in terms of the business models as the actual output. Some are simply enabling a re-broadcast of community/local stations, but others are taking a look at the rather expensive, commercial side of getting on DAB and tearing apart the rulebook and I love it.

Later on this week I was thrilled to see an Ofcom licence awarded to Skylark, a Dartmoor-based setup which aims to broadcast field and folk recordings locally. I believe this is actually via FM, proving that innovation is taking place all over the place on radio.

I can’t resist the local angle on the radio – that a station can exist in a particular time or place. Of course, it’s fabulous that via the web one can just tune into any station and get a local flavour. But knowing the constraints of local broadcasting makes it all the more fascinating to actually be in the reception zone for a unique broadcast. I’m pleased to see Skylark, much like Sleepyhead did, has gathered a fair amount of press interest.

I assume I’ll be able to listen to Skylark on the web – but how much cooler to be within the FM broadcast area.

Finally in radio for this week, I happened to catch James and Nicky from the Manics on 6Music on Friday, sitting in for Iggy Pop. They played some fantastic music and it made me realise how rarely I listen to music radio these days. Not necessarily a bad thing, but a lovely reminder all the same of what’s out there.

Two things I enjoyed reading this week: Paul Stamatiou’s novella-length write-up of building a PC geared towards Lightroom, and I started Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which I’ve enjoyed the first few chapters of. It feels familiar, somehow, having read Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, although for whatever reason I never finished that one.

This continues to amuse me whenever we happen to catch it on TV:

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After finishing Super Mario Land 2 last week, I made a start on the sequel, the first Wario game proper. I’ve only played a short while and it’s kind of got a different feel to it. Different flow. But it’s still great to play a game like this for the first time.

We also played more Trials Fusion (Megan is getting great at this and it’s fun to watch – Trials causes such twitchy fingers as you watch someone else attempt something that you’re SURE you could do – but then you try and fail just the same).

The big success this week has been trying out Portal 2‘s two-player co-op mode, which is surprisingly well-written and full-featured. It works really well as a two-player puzzler. Words can’t describe the joy I felt upon initiating my first infinite loop – truly one of my favourite moments in videogaming.

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This, followed by the use of the ‘see-saw’ bouncing platform also brought back fond memories of Circus Atari which, along with the use of those weird analogue ‘paddle’ controllers, was a very early taster of physics in videogames.

I also played a bit of Wipeout Pure on PSP this weekend, which I forgot made me very competitive. I like a bit of Mario Kart, but Wipeout‘s pulsing dance music soundtrack and insane high speeds (and high FPS) are pretty addictive.

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Why did I have time to play PSP this weekend? Well, I was on the train for a quite bit of it…

Y’see, my buddy John Tucker mentioned a few months ago that he was to attend his first ever comic festival (as an artist or an attendee), and I just had to get involved. But secretly.

For, you see, getting the upper hand on John isn’t easy.

So this weekend involved me hopping on a train to Cheltenham and going to said comic festival solely to show up at John’s stall and see his curmudgeonly face turn, however briefly, to one of genuine shock and surprise. It was very much worth it.

20180203_130028More on Cheltenham, and Sunday’s walk, to come…