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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from October 2020

A Night-Time Terror

Or, a true story of the paranormal from Cornwall

As it’s nearly Hallowe’en, I thought it might be time to post a creepy story. And this is a true creepy story. I posted it originally on my Tumblr, six years ago, as an account of something that happened to K and I when The Children were both still only crawling and we took them away on holiday for the first time, to a holiday cottage on a farm in North Cornwall. It happened a few weeks before I wrote it down, more or less exactly as it is set down here, in the middle of the night just before we were due to leave. I haven’t edited the originally, so “about a month ago” should be read as “September, 2014”.

This is not a ghost story. It has no climatic ending, no plot and no dramatic arc. It is, however, something of a paranormal story. Moreover, the reason it has no plot and no ending is that it is a true story. The reason I’m writing it down is because it was strange enough to merit remembering, and I wanted to write it down before its strangeness was corrupted and faded away.

About a month ago, my partner K and I took our 10-month-old twins away for their first holiday. They had reached the stage of crawling, climbing, and taking an interest in everything they saw, but had not quite mastered their first steps or their first words. Thinking it best not to travel too far away for a first holiday, we hired a cottage on a farm in North Cornwall, in the wedge of land between the River Camel and the sea, the landscape that is famously the home of both King Arthur and the North Cornwall Railway. The cottage was, to be frank, more like a modern bungalow than a stereotypical Cornish cottage; but it was indeed on a small, slightly ramshackle farm, and was surrounded by beautiful countryside. It overlooked rolling hills, small ancient fields divided in haphazard fashion by twisting raised hedges and sunken holloway lanes. It was a beautiful, disorienting landscape: looking out from the picture windows of our cottage’s front room, I was convinced I was looking north or north-east until careful correlation of maps and hedge-lines persuaded me we actually faced southwards. A small ravine led the eye gently towards the distant lights of the nearest town, but otherwise there were no landmarks in sight, not even a church tower or a sign of the nearest village. Not being able to find north is unusual for me: I’m normally fairly good at orienting myself. When I was a child, I read lots of Enid Blyton books in which the characters always wake up on the first day of a holiday and, forgetting they’ve gone on holiday, have no idea where they are. To me, this is an entirely alien concept.

We stayed for a week, Saturday to Saturday as is the custom, and greatly enjoyed ourselves; this isn’t the story of our holiday, but suffice to say we had a wonderful time, and returned to our cottage each night to settle down cosily on the sofa. Not having a TV at home, we enjoyed the illicit treat of snuggling up, sleepy babies alongside us in their sleeping bags, quietly watching inane programmes about home redecoration and suchlike.

I wondered a few times just what the night sky looked like on a clear night there, given how dark our cottage felt with the lights out, but most nights, at least when I remembered, the sky was overcast and no stars could be seen. On our final night, though, I needed to go outside, and saw what seemed a perfect black sky, scattered everywhere with starlight pinpricks.

We were cleaning up the kitchen that night, after the babies had settled down to bed, and I said to K, my partner, that we should go outside to look at the stars. It would be romantic, I thought. Outside, though, a mist had started to drift in. Towards the south, the stars were still on show; towards the north the sky was black, and the mist was already thick enough to be noticeable over the hundred yards or so across the farmyard, between our cottage and the farmhouse. “Can we go inside?” said K, nervously. Not to get ahead of things, but she admitted later that, just before this, just as the mist had started to drift around the farm buildings, was the point at which she had started to feel anxious about our surroundings.

We went to bed as normal, hoping that we might get an uninterrupted night of sleep - an unusual treat for us at the moment, as it’s rare that our daughter doesn’t wake up wanting a cuddle and a small drink. In the strange surroundings of our holiday cottage, much darker and quieter than our city home, both babies had tended to go to extremes, either sleeping soundly all night, or waking and refusing to settle back down to sleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke. There was screaming from the babies; loud, urgent screaming from both of them. Where was it coming from, though? I knew instantly, as if the idea had been pushed into my head: the babies were outside. We had left the windows open, I thought, which was why we could hear them; the babies were outside, in the garden, crawling around on the grass surrounded by fog, and I had to go outside and rescue them. It was the one thought in my otherwise terrified mind: I had to go outside. I couldn’t find where I was, though. I stood, next to the bed, and whirled around, arms out, trying to find a wall or a door.

Before I had left the room my mind had cleared slightly, and I realised there was no way the babies could have left the cottage, or even have climbed out of their cots. As I still kept trying to work out which direction the crying babies were in, though, I suddenly realised that something, something nearby, was trying to make me leave the cottage.

Staggering a little, I made it out into the hallway, and quickly closed all of the doors off to the other rooms. Going to the desperately crying babies, I tried all the usual methods of settling them back to sleep: a drink of water, a tight hug, soft words. Nothing worked. I was trying not to think about the dark feeling I had that something else was inside the building, trying to help the babies relax, but the babies were still clearly very upset, still crying, definitely not going to go back to sleep on their own.

One at a time, I hurriedly carried them back into our bedroom, so that all four of us could settle back down together in bed. K has also started to wake, and held them close to her. “Have you shut all the doors?” she mumbled.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I feel like there’s someone else in the cottage.”

Rationally, I knew I had locked the doors. The only way in was through a door with a bolt on the inside, which I had bolted before bed. So why did we both suddenly feel that someone or something else was inside? Why had I felt it was trying to trick me into going outside?

I quickly went, trembling slightly, into the hallway. Open the living room door. Flash the light on. Nobody there. Despite what I had thought earlier, the windows were firmly closed and locked. Into the kitchen: nobody there, the windows closed and the door still bolted.

Back to bed. “There’s nobody else here,” I said, “and the doors are all shut.” The babies were slowly calming, drifting back to sleep making quiet whimpering sounds. Slowly, me hugging our son and K hugging our daughter, we drifted back to sleep.

The next morning the mist had gone, the cottage was itself, and it almost felt welcoming again. We were glad to leave, though. I don’t think we even dared discuss it, hardly, until we had loaded the car, had our final chat with the farmer and his wife, and were driving the car under the horse chestnut tree that shaded the farm’s gates, and off down the long dead-end lane that took us back towards the Atlantic Highway. We had no idea, no idea at all, what we had felt, or what could have been influencing us. What struck both me and K, though, was that without discussing it - without even being able to - all four of us had apparently woke up with great distress in our minds. Obviously we don’t know what the two babies were actually thinking; but they were most certainly not their usual awake-in-the-night selves, and nor were K and I. K had been, as I said above, nervous that something was approaching before we’d gone to bed, but she didn’t mention a word of it until the next morning.

I’ve searched for information, since we came home, about possible haunted mists and rural panic attacks associated with that area. I have a vague memory, after all, that the word “panic” originally meant a specifically bucolic terror, after Pan himself. Nothing I’ve found, though, has been connected to that part of the country. K suggested that panics can be caused by ultrasonic noises, which could be a plausible and non-supernatural explanation for us all feeling the same terror. At root, though, I don’t think this is ever going to be fully explained, or fully explainable. All I can tell you is that: it did happen, exactly as I’ve told you above.

Photo post of the week

Or, autumn in the park

I know it can be a bit of a cliche, photos of yellow and orange leaves falling in autumn, but the park was looking so seasonally russet-hued the other day that I regretted not bringing a Proper Camera along. We fed the swans and the ducks, and caused a flurry of seagulls frenzied enough to have Du Maurier reaching for her notebook.

Birds in the park

Birds in the park

Birds in the park

Naturally, the local pigeons also wanted to get involved, despite their inability to swim.

The pigeons arrive

The pigeons arrive

After the food was gone, all was calm again. I photographed The Child Who Likes Fairies staring pensively out across the lake, and in return she took a photo of a tree she particularly liked.

The lake quietens down

The child who likes fairies

A particularly nice tree

We can rebuild it! We have the technology! (part four)

Or, finishing off the odds and ends

Settling down to see what else I should write in the series of posts about how I rebuilt this website, I realised that the main issues now have already been covered. The previous posts in this series have discussed the following:

And throughout the last two, we touched on some other important software engineering topics, such as refactoring your code so that you Don’t Repeat Yourself, and optimising your code when it’s clear that (and where) it is needed.

There are a few other topics to touch on, but I wasn’t sure they warranted a full post each, so this post is on a couple of those issues, and any other odds and ends that spring to mind whilst I am writing it.

Firstly, the old blog was not at all responsive: in web front-end terms, that means it didn’t mould itself to fit the needs of the users and their devices. Rather, it expected the world to all use a monitor the same size as mine, and if they didn’t, then tough. When I wrote the last designs the majority of the traffic the site was receiving was from people on regular computers; nowadays, that has changed completely.

However, the reason that this isn’t a particularly exciting topic to write about is that I didn’t learn any new skills or dive into interesting new programming techniques. I went the straightforward route, installed Bootstrap 4.5, and went from there. Now, I should say, using Bootstrap doesn’t magically mean your site will become responsive overnight; in fact, it’s very straightforward to accidentally write an entirely non-responsive website. Responsiveness needs carefully planning. However, with that careful planning, and some careful use of the Bootstrap CSS layout classes, I achieved the following aims:

  • The source code is laid out so that the main content of the page always comes before the sidebars in the code, wherever the sidebars are actually displayed. This didn’t matter so much on this blog, but on the Garden Blog, which on desktop screens has sidebars on both sides of the page, it does need to be specifically coded. Bootstrap’s layout classes, though, allow you to separate the order in which columns appear on a page from the order in which they appear in the code.
  • More importantly, the sidebars move about depending on page width. If you view this site on a desktop screen it has a menu sidebar over on the right. On a narrow mobile screen, the sidebar content is down below at the bottom of the page.
  • The font resizes based on screen size for easier reading on small screens. You can’t do this with Bootstrap itself; this required @media selectors in the CSS code with breakpoints chosen to match the Bootstrap ones (which, fortunately, are clearly documented).
  • Content images (as opposed to what you could call “structural images”) have max-width: 100%; set. Without this, if the image is bigger than the computed pixel size of the content column, your mobile browser will likely rescale things to get the whole image on screen, so the content column (and the text in it) will become too narrow to read.

On the last point, manual intervention is still required on a couple of types of content. Embedded YouTube videos like in this post need to have the embed code manually edited, and very long lines of text without spaces need to have soft hyphens or zero-width spaces inserted, in order to stop the same thing happening. The latter usually occurs in example code, where zero-width spaces are more appropriate than soft hyphens. All in all though, I’ve managed to produce something that is suitably responsive 95% of the time.

The other point that is worth writing about is the build process of the site. As Wintersmith is a static site generator, every change to the site needs the static files to be built and deployed. The files from the previous version need to be deleted (in case any stale ones, that have disappeared completely from the latest iteration of the output, are still lying about) and then Wintersmith is run to generate the new version. You could do this very simply with a one-liner: rm -rf ../../build/* && wintersmith build if you’re using Bash, for example. However, this site actually consists of three separate Wintersmith sites in parallel. The delete step might only have to be done once, but doing the build step three separate times is a pain. Moreover, what if you only want to delete and rebuild one of the three?

As Wintersmith is a JavaScript program, and uses npm (the Node Package Manager) for managing its dependencies, it turns out that there’s an easy solution to this. Every npm package or package-consumer uses a package.json file to control how npm works; and each package.json file can include a scripts section containing arbitrary commands to run. So, in the package.json file for this blog, I inserted the following:

"scripts": {
  "clean": "node ../shared/js/unlink.js ../../build/blog",
  "build": "wintersmith build"
}

You might be wondering what unlink.js is. I said before that “if you’re using Bash” you could use rm -rf ../../build. However, I develop on a Windows machine, and for this site I use VS Code to do most of the writing. Sometimes therefore I want to build the site using PowerShell, because that’s the default VS Code terminal. Sometimes, though, I’ll be using GitBash, because that’s convenient for my source control commands. One day I might want to develop on a Linux machine. One of the big changes between these different environments is how you delete things: del or Remove-Item in PowerShell; rm in Bash and friends. unlink.js is a small script that reproduces some of the functionality of rm using the JavaScript del package, so that I have a command that will work in the same way across any environment.

So, this means that in the main blog’s folder I can type npm run clean && npm run build and it will do just the same thing as the one-liner command above (although note that the clean step only deletes the main blog’s files). In the other Wintersmith site folders, we have a very similar thing. Then, in the folder above, we have a package.json file which contains clean and build commands for each subsite, and a top-level command that runs each of the others in succession.

"scripts": {
  "clean:main": "cd main && npm run clean",
  "clean:misc": "cd misc && npm run clean",
  "clean:garden": "cd garden && npm run clean",
  "clean": "npm run clean:misc && npm run clean:main && npm run clean:garden",
  "build:main": "cd main && npm run build",
  "build:misc": "cd misc && npm run build",
  "build:garden": "cd garden && npm run build",
  "build": "npm run build:misc && npm run build:main && npm run build:garden"
}

And there you have it. By typing npm run clean && npm run build at the top level, it will recurse into each subsite and clean and build all of them. By typing the same command one folder down, it will clean and build that site alone, leaving the others untouched.

When that’s done, all I have to do is upload the changed files; and I have a tool to do that efficiently. Maybe I’ll go through that another day. I also haven’t really touched on my source-control and change management process; and all I have to say there is, it doesn’t matter what process you use, but you will find things a lot more straightforward if you find a process you like and stick to it. Even if you’re just a lone developer, using a sensible source control workflow and release process makes life much easier and makes you less likely to make mistakes; you don’t need anything as rigid as a big commercial organisation, but just having a set process for storing your changes and releasing them to the public means that you are less likely to slip up and make mistakes. This is probably something else I’ll expand into an essay at some point.

Is the site perfect now? No, of course not. There are always more changes to be made, and more features to add; I haven’t even touched on the things I decided not to do right now but might bring in one day. Thoe changes are for the future, though. Right now, for a small spare-time project, I’m quite pleased with what we have.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part one)

Or, going back to the early days

The Child Who Likes Animals is a great devourer of television, particularly documentaries, and can recite great swathes of the hours of television he has watched. Usually this involves things about his usual interests, such as animals, or palaeontology, or Brian Cox talking about planets. Recently, though he’s rediscovered a CBBC series from a few years ago that has recently been repeated: Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, in which said presenters learn about great STEM figures from history. He was rather taken with the episodes on Darwin (naturally), the Herschels, and Delia Derbyshire;* but became particularly obsessed with the inventor of the photographic negative, Henry Fox Talbot. In that one, Dick and Dom build a pinhole camera out of an industrial-size wheelie-bin, making it into a binhole camera; the episode is worth it for that pun alone. The Child Who Likes Animals, naturally, wanted us to build our own.

Making one quite that large, I pointed out, wouldn’t really be practical for taking around the place; but pinhole cameras themselves aren’t that hard to build. In fact, as it turned out, we had a papercraft one already lurking in the rainy-day-activities cupboard. Naturally I would have to do most of the building work, but why not get started?

The starting point

The instructions on the packet said it could be built in as little as two hours. If you use some sort of instant-setting impact glue that might be possible, but with standard PVA (the packaging recommended “white glue”) I suspect it will take rather a lot longer, given how sensible it is to stop and let things set properly between steps.

Folding up the innermost box

As expected, not only did I end up doing all of the building work, but The Children rapidly disappeared to go and watch a film or something. In theory, though, you would think a pinhole camera would be an ideal subject for papercraft, because all cameras are essentially just a black box with a hole (or lens) at one end and something light-sensitive at the other. This build seems largely to consist of folding up a few card boxes, gluing them together, and attaching a fiddly-looking but entirely cosmetic fake pentaprism housing on top. By the time it’s finished, I suspect it will end up 75% PVA by weight.

Folding up the takeup spindle housing, with a lot of excess glue

There are two potential issues I can see with the whole thing. Firstly, building a working and light-tight takeup spindle out of card is going to be a very fiddly exercise which might well prove to be the Achilles Heel of the project. Secondly, there are a couple of card edges that the film has to pass over, emulsion-side down, and I can imagine them scratching the emulsion to buggery. Oh well, I wasn’t exactly expecting it to take pin-sharp perfect results in any case.

The basic carcass of the thing

I have to admit that previous papercraft projects have foundered, incomplete, after one or two building sessions. Hopefully given that this thing is at least intended to produce something usable, I’ll manage to get it finished to the point of being able to put a film through it. Whether anything will be visible on the film afterwards (and whether The Child Who Likes Animals will actually want to use it) is another story. I’ll keep you posted.

* Personally I rather liked the episode about James Watt, which featured the Newcomen Engine at the Black Country Living Museum, the Crofton Pumping Engine, and a few brief moments of the Severn Valley Railway’s Stanier Mogul 42968 at Kidderminster.

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.

Putting things into practice

Or, time to get the model trains out

A couple of times recently I’ve mentioned my vague model railway plans and projects, including the occasional veiled hint that I’ve already been building stock for the most fully-fleshed out of these ideas. At the weekend I had some time to myself, so I unpacked my “mobile workbench” (an IKEA tray with a cutting mat taped firmly to it) and had a look at which projects I could move on with.

The other week I’d been passing my local model shop and popped in to support them by buying whatever bits and pieces I could remember I needed. I’ve been wondering the best way to weight some of my stock, so bought a packet of self-adhesive model aircraft weights. I wasn’t convinced they would be ideal because they’re a bit on the large side for 009 scale, but the 5g size do just fit nicely inside a van.

Wagon and weights

Yes, I know I didn’t clean off the feed mark on the inside of the wagon; nobody’s going to see it, are they. The weights are very keen to tell everyone they are steel, not lead. I wasn’t really sure what amount to go with especially given that (like most Dundas wagon kits) it has plastic bearings; it now has 10g of steel inside it and feels rather heavy in the hand.

Another project that’s been progressing slowly is a Dundas kit for a Ffestiniog & Blaenau Railway coach, which will be a reasonable representation of the first generation of Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway coaches. The sides were painted early on with this kit so that I could glaze it before it was assembled; it still needs another coat on the panels but the area around the window glazing shouldn’t need to see the paintbrush again I hope. In my last train-building session I fitted its interior seating; in this one, it gained solebars and wheels and can now stand on the rails. Its ride is very low, so low that, given typical 009 flanges, it needs clearance slots in the floor for the wheels.

Coach underside

This made it a little awkward to slot the wheels into place, but when I did it all fitted together rather nicely, with little lateral slop in the wheels and a quick test showing everything was nice and square.

Standing on a perspex block to check for squareness

To show just how low-riding it is—like many early narrow gauge carriages—I used a piece of card and a rule to measure how much clearance there is above rail level.

!Height measurement

This shows rather harshly that I’ve let this model get a bit dusty on the workbench.

It needs couplings, of course, so I made a start on folding up a pair of Greenwich couplings for it. I’m still trying to find the perfect pliers for making Greenwich couplings. They don’t need any soldering, at least, but they do need folding up from the fret and then fitting the two parts—buffer and loop—together with a pin. These small flat-nosed pliers are very good for getting a crisp fold.

Greenwich coupling fret

Part-folded Greenwich buffer

I should give those pictures a caption about the importance of white balance in photography, given how differently the green cutting mat has come out between them. By the time I got to this stage it was starting to get a bit too dark to fit two tiny black pieces of brass together with a black pin and get them moving freely, never mind wrapping ferromagnetic wire around the loop tail. Still, all in all, I think everything seemed to be coming along quite nicely.

On the map

Or, a curious Ordnance Survey oddity

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed the other day I posted an intriguing extract from an Ordnance Survey map I’d never noticed before: a railway station that has a long, peculiar siding shown on a particular revision of the One Inch map, that isn’t shown on other revisions of the same map; that isn’t shown on other contemporary Ordnance Survey maps of different scales, and that isn’t mentioned in any books I’ve seen that cover the railway line in question. Now, this isn’t a post about that particular map, and part of the reason is that the OS spotted my tweet, and suggested I investigate the OS-related holdings in the National Archves, as they may contain notes that answer the question. There’s also another lead I want to chase up, which might contain more information, and I didn’t really want to write half a post.

However, it did remind me of another smaller Ordnance Survey curiosity that has intrigued me for years, even though it’s not that much of a mystery. Back in the 1970s, my dad wanted to walk the length of the Pennine Way; and as part of his planning, he bought a number of guidebooks and a copy of every Landranger sheet that covered the route. It’s quite a stack of maps to take along with you, even at Landranger scale, so I’m not sure how easily he would have packed them all; however, as he never did the walk, he never faced that particular challenge. The walk—if you do it in the usual direction from Derbyshire to Scotland—starts here, on Sheet 110.

A small extract of Sheet 110

There’s Edale and there’s the start of the Pennine Way; its original route up onto Kinder Scout, not the current one. There’s Mam Tor, before the road across its flanks was permanently closed, and the railway line past Hope and Earles Sidings. Look what’s odd, though. The typefaces roughly North of Edale and roughly South of Edale are different. The north (and most of this sheet, and every other sheet of this vintage) uses a set of sans typefaces; the south uses a serif typeface.

I remember poring over all of my dad’s Pennine Way maps as a kid, and being intrigued by the sudden switch in font, which applies to a strip of land all across the bottom of this map. To be honest, though, it’s fairly easy to explain. I said earlier that this is a Landranger map; but when it was published, that name hadn’t been invented. At the time these were the “1:50,000 First Series” maps, published and prepared in double-quick time in the first half of the 1970s to keep pace with the project (never quite completed) to switch the UK over to metric measurements. The First Series were produced by taking the previous generation of One Inch maps and photographically enlarging them, to expand them from 1:63,360 scale to 1:50,000. They then had changes applied to bring major features, motorways and such, up to date. As they were published in 1974, all the county boundaries were replaced with the newly tidied up and rationalised ones. Presumably sheets covering South-East Wales had the national boundary moved from Cardiff to Chepstow, and the note about the disputed status of Monmouthshire removed from the key.

All the First Series map covers included a paragraph of information about the process, and a little diagram in the key explaining how old the maps used to make each sheet were. Here’s the diagram for Sheet 110; the wonkiness is from me holding it up to the camera badly.

The source maps

That strip along the bottom, revised 1960? That’s the part of the map that uses different fonts to the rest. Intriguingly, though, the major part of the map is from an older revision, albeit only a couple of years older. I wonder why this particular One Inch sheet with the older set of typefaces crept through to the First Series of metric maps, and why it wasn’t made consistent with the rest.

Incidentally, it’s only the First Series that were produced by enlarging the One Inch maps. The 1:50,000 Second Series were drawn from scratch, with their own new typeface, and with new, metric contours at 10m intervals. The First Series still had the 50ft contours of the One Inch maps, but relabelled to the nearest metre, giving you odd contour line measurements such as 76m and 427m.

Maybe one day I will solve the other map puzzle, search through the records at Kew, find out the answer to my railway siding puzzle and post the answer to that here too. We live in hope. As, indeed, do the people in the bottom-left corner of that map extract.

The only perfect railway is the one you invent yourself

Or, some completely fictional history

The other week, I wrote about how there are just too many interesting railways to pick one to build a model of, which is one reason that none of my modelling projects ever approach completion; indeed, most of them never approach being started. Some, though, have developed further than others. In particular, I mentioned a plan for a fictitious narrow-gauge railway in the Rhinogydd, and said I’ve started slowly aquiring suitable stock for it. What I didn’t mention is that I’ve also put together the start of a history of this entirely invented railway. I first wrote it down a few years ago, and although it is a very high-level sketch, has a fairly high level of implausibility to it, and probably needs a lot of tweaks to its details, I think it’s a fair enough basis for a railway that is fictional but interesting.

Narrow-gauge modelling general does seem to have something of a history of the planning and creation of entire fictional systems; rather, I think it’s something that has disappeared from British standard gauge railway modelling, partly due to the history of the British railway network. This, then, is my attempt at an entry into this genre. If you don’t know the Rhinogydd: they are the mountain range that forms the core of Ardudwy, the mountains behind Harlech that form a compact block between the Afon Mawddach and the Vale of Ffestiniog. The main change I have made to real-world geography is to replace Harlech itself with a similar town more usable as a port; all the other villages, hamlets and wild mountain passes are essentially in the same place as in the real world, and if you sit down with this fictional history and the Outdoor Leisure map that covers the district, you should be able to trace the route of these various railways without too much trouble.

The primary idea behind the railway is that profitable industry was discovered in the heart of the Rhinogydd. Not slate as in Ffestiniog; the geology is all wrong for that. The industry here would be mining for metal ores, and it isn’t really too far from the truth. There genuinely were a whole host of mines, largely digging up manganese ore, in the middle of what was and is a very inhospitable area; all of them were very small and ultimately unsuccessful. The fiction is that an intelligent landowner realised that a railway would enable the mines to develop; so, using part of an earlier horse-drawn tramway, a rather circuituous route was built from the middle of the mountains down to a port at the mouth of the Afon Dwyryd. The earlier tramway, also fictional, would have run in a very different direction, from the Afon Artro up to the small farms in the hills overlooking Maentwrog. Why you would want to build a horse tramway over such a route I’m still not entirely sure, but it means that my Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway can be a network, a busy well-trafficked main line in one direction, and a half-abandoned branch line in the other. This is of course not too dissimilar to the Welsh Highland Railway, with its Croesor and Bryngwyn branches, originally both main lines but both later superseded.

I did, a few years ago, draft a whole outline history for the railway, trying to explain quite why such a thing would and could exist, and how it might have at least partially survived through to the present day. It was an interesting exercise, although I’m not sure it would be a very interesting piece of writing to post here. I do like the thought, though, of writing it up as a full history, complete with some unanswered questions; and then, when I do build models of the line, I can claim that it is at least an approximately accurate model of something that actually did run on the railway. I quite like the idea of steadfastly maintaining that it is actually a real place—what do you mean, you’ve never heard of it before?—and that I am trying to model, however imperfectly, trains that really did exist. I can always be very apologetic when my model “isn’t as accurate as I’d like”, or when I “haven’t been able to find out” exactly what colour a given train was painted in a given year. I wonder how persuasive I will manage to be.

Readers' Letters

Or, some of your questions answered

Time to answer some of the questions that have been sent in over the month or so since I revived this site.

Occasional reader Harold from Winchester read yesterday’s post about the Battle of Hastings and wrote:

Didn’t you write about that before?

Well, yes, it turns out that exactly ten years ago today I also wrote a “what might have happened if the outcome of the Battle of Hastings was different” post, including the same story of how the outcome was nearly different, and the side comments on how the battle has always been treated in English historiography. I suppose, if anything, it’s interesting to read the two side by side and see if my opinions have changed much over the past ten years, or if my writing style has evolved in the meantime too. Let me know if you think it’s better or worse than it used to be.

Regular reader Sarah from Ipswich writes:

Can I come with you on one of your trips to Wales?

Frankly, I wish I was going to Wales in the near future. All the nearby bits of Wales are closed to visitors at the moment, though. At some point I need to get myself back up to North-West Wales and visit the trains again, of course. Hopefully that will happen, even if it doesn’t now happen this year. As for the nearer bits of Wales: well, we’ll have to see how things progress I suppose.

And finally, long time reader E Shrdlu of Clacton writes:

Now you’ve brought this website back from the dead, are you still going to keep up the same running jokes and bring back all those series of posts you used to do years and years ago, like reviewing books you hadn’t finished?

Back in the mists of time I did indeed write reviews of books I hadn’t finished reading. I suppose you could call it a deconstruction of sorts, or an exercise in honesty, because they were at least all (I think) books I had tried to read, and failed to finish. Investigating why I failed to finish a particular book is interesting in itself, and admitting I didn’t finish it is more honest than just writing a review and saying “this is a bad book”. Moreover, if you read through those posts, you’ll see there were a broad range of different reasons for not finishing each book. One of them ended up being found by its author, who I had carefully not accused of plagiarism because I knew he was a former top barrister with lots more money than me.

I have to admit, I’m in the middle of drafting the next Books I Haven’t Read article. It’s probably going to be quite a long article, because it’s about quite a long book. I’ve also made sure it’s by a safely-dead author, so I can freely express my opinions about their poor understanding of archaeology or their failed attempt at polyamory. Feel free to guess who, and what, it’s going to be about; it’s a complex book, a complex topic, and it’s probably going to take me a while to finish it.

The Battle of Battle

Although we don't call it that, do we

It’s time for an anniversary! Nine hundred and fifty-four years ago tomorrow, give or take a calendrical change in the meantime, was the Battle of Hastings. An all-day affair, it is famously that One Date That Everyone Knows from all of British history. If you believe the more mouth-frothing end of the political spectrum, England has not been successfully invaded since, although that arguably isn’t really true.

Although it has become that one key fixed date in British history, the battle itself was rather more narrow than you might think. In the Traditional Whig History of Britain, that of course is completely forgotten: instead, the battle is something that in essence had to happen so that Britain could be rescued from peasants in brown robes and conquered by knights on horseback to drag us kicking and screaming into the medieval period. This is how I recall it being portrayed even as recently as the 1980s, when everyone became greatly excited about the 900th anniversary of the compilation of Domesday Book. However, one of the problems with teaching Whig History is that this whole concept, the idea that everything “good” that happened in history is both inevitable and inevitably a Good Thing, and that everything else in history is a misstep or a mistake, is an enormous fallacy propped up with industrial quantities of hindsight.

What actually happened in detail on October 14th 1066 is now probably lost to us. Despite what you might think, there have always been a number of conflicting sources as to the progress of the battle and what happened in the confusion of the fighting. Contemporary estimates of the size of the winning side vary by a factor of 10; the winning side’s estimates of the size of the losing side were in some cases 100 times more than a plausible figure. What is clear is that the English forces consisted solely of infantry; the Normans had a mixed army of infantry, cavalry and archers; the battle lasted pretty much a full day from 9am until dusk; and the Normans definitely won. Almost certainly the English king died, although there are stories he managed to escape, but how he died and what happened to his body afterwards has been retold in too many conflicting versions to know which is true. What’s also very likely is that, pretty early on in the battle, certainly before lunch, the Norman army started to think that Duke William was already dead and started to retreat from the field. William took off his helmet so they could see his face, the story goes, encouraging his men to turn around and fight, and so they did. If they hadn’t, or if doing that had led to an injury, the ending would have been very different; we would remember Hastings about as well as, say, the Battle of Largs or the Battle Of The Standard.

The question there, though, is: what would have been different. But in some ways posing a counterfactual nearly a thousand years back in time is itself a pointless exercise. Everything would have been different, yet everything would still be the same. Me, you, everyone reading this: we wouldn’t exist. None of the people you know would. England wouldn’t exist in its current form, or the UK, or the EU, or the USA. The English language would probably sound very different, too. All these things that we take for granted as basic facts about the world around us, all of them would be different in ways that are almost impossible for us to imagine. Other things, though, would be just the same. The Black Death would still have happened, and many more plagues since. We’d still have had an industrial revolution; we’d still have a climate crisis; we’d still have invented nuclear power and nuclear war, reached the Moon, and be talking to each other through an Internet of some sort. It would be in so many ways an entirely alien world, that you would be surprised just how many things wouldn’t have changed at all.

Historians aren’t really bothered overmuch with what might have happened. What actually happened is far too confusing and debatable and unknown as it is, without introducing hypotheticals that would change the world completely. Imagine, somewhere in an alternate universe, someone is reading a blog post about how the Normans might potentially have beaten the English at the Battle of Hastings, and how if so, everyone in England now might be speaking Normande, part of a single great Normandy stretching from the Meditteranean to the Trent. Of course, they wouldn’t be reading it in a language you or I would recognise as English, but they’d probably be using some sort of device like the one you’ve got, some sort of physically similar screen. Humans and physics wouldn’t have changed, after all. Sit back tomorrow, wherever you are, and think about the Battle of Hastings all those years ago. Without it, the world would be completely different even though it would be still the same.