Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In Buxton: July 29-31, a yeomen effort

Regular readers will remember I've used that title before too. Old Milligan's running out of ideas.

On Monday I must go shopping, it'll be the last chance before we get stuck into Savoynet rehearsals. Apart from that we had pretty much nothing to do until the Pavilion Arts Centre opened for Salad Days. We left it a bit late and got the last couple of seats in the house - but John Wellington was the usher and made sure we got to see it.

The uni shows have quite a different character to the ones we do at home. I suspect the style of direction being taught now is much more like drama than musical theatre in the classic sense. What I noticed was that in both this and yesterday's show, all the characters are 100% believable in the role. Nobody fills a role with a good singer who can't act. Maybe there's a higher calibre of cast member here...

The same was true of the Oxbridge Yeomen in the evening. Two of the cast are in the same wing of the halls as us so we've met them and chatted all things G&S on several occasions. We're both very glad to be able to give them a glowing review with perfect honesty. It's a little bit awkward because it's almost like we're checking out the competition - but whatever competition there is between shows is between all of them, not just Yeomens.

What was really interesting was that the opening scene seemed to be a carbon copy of the one we did in 2011 - right down to the shadowy lighting. Luckily that was only the first scene, after that it brightened up quickly. Realistic acting was the hallmark of the show - I could have sworn there was real water in the horse trough when Elsie washed her hands in it after being manhandled by the crowd.

At the Festival Club afterwards Diana and our Dame Curruthers joined us at our Table Within Reach Of A Power Point. Diana didn't join us singing choruses in public but a good time was had by all (as far as I know). At the end of the cabaret Rachel Middle came over came over to say hi - and as it turned out she and Diana had never met before! She must have just happened to skip all the shows Diana directed...

So we made a fairly early night of it, promising each other we'd all meet again in just a few more hours. As indeed we did - principals' rehearsal, before the official meet and greet. Prinnies rehearsals are fun - no pressure, amusing muck-ups, anecdotes, chocolate... I got to stand in for the Second Citizen, who gets slapped in the face by Elsie. She was very apologetic, which must mean I overacted it somewhat. It's what I do.

From there we went to a meet and greet dinner. There are only a few in this cast we haven't already met at least once, so we can't do any twins tricks. And there are enough Aussies in and around the show that we can't do any tricks in that area either. We'll just have to use our hard work and charm to work our way into the hearts of these people.

And then to the Opera House for Trent's Ruddigore. Last time we were here Trent did Princess Ida in motorbike helmets, which worked fairly well. This time... Bad Baronet meets Bambi. You'll have seen Chris's review, I thought it was a bit better than that but still thought there's a lot of room for improvement. The concept of a G&S show done with animals in a forest glade was about 95% there, but they concentrated so much on the concept (particularly the visual effect of the ghosts' scene, which was very well done) that every other aspect of the show was completely flat. Dialogue in particular was rendered like a first read-through.

Comments in the Festival Club afterwards were fairly negative. Most were centered around the fact that the concept wasn't delivered through to completion, as Chris said in his review. That's the thing about concept shows - it's all or nothing, you don't get half marks for trying.

Of course we had done our usual trick of out-flanking the rest of the audience by sheer speed in order to get the Table Within Reach Of A Power Point, and had been joined by both the Pinels and the Halls. Singing choruses in public with fun people like that is fun. One day we should tell a performing group to skip the cabaret and just have community singing all night. Oh right, those are pot lucks, we already do them and I rave about them every time.

Derby's cabaret consisted of jokes interspersed with musical numbers. The jokes were the kind that go round the internet every few months but it was fun to predict the punch lines.

At half past midnight I gave the table a nine hour call for rehearsal, which was greeted with a mix of sighs and amusement. There were no other Savoynetters in the club... it's just us young ones (according to someone's definition) that can party all night and rehearse all day.

This morning I was woken by my alarm rather than being alerted by it after waking early. Maybe I'm not quite so young. But it's worth it. Hearing the chorus bits of Yeomen done by some of the world's best G&S performers is something not to be missed.

It's early days of course, and I'm basically just sitting here doing nothing while the MD puts the cast through their paces. She's obviously very experienced (she's picking up on things I'd never have even noticed) but she looks about 25! Her style of conducting is incredibly precise, and yet she uses her whole upper body to make a movement. Hopefully she's used to it and doesn't wrench a muscle...

Right now it's lunch time and I've just had a cheese and onion pasty. They don't seem to have pies here - pasties form a complete drop-in replacement in a slightly different shape.

It's just about time to call the cast back in so I'll post this and update you on tonight's show later on.

Monday, July 29, 2013

In Buxton: July 28, the shape of things to come

It took me some time to realise it was Sunday morning. All days are pretty much the same at the Festival, with the exception of pro shows on weekends and the attendant special events at the Festival Club afterwards.

So I glanced over my emails and replied to a few important ones. One of those contained a suggestion for how to choose a sermon topic - no more "kerplonk" method, even though it served me well for the two sermons I preached in similar circumstances two years ago. What have I learned recently? About the book of Job. Nobody likes the book of Job, it's full of Hebrew poetry. It couldn't be drier reading if it had a big pack of silica gel in it. As for dullness, it would be easier to shave with a bowling pin.

But it really does have some interesting themes, which you don't find until you read it five chapters at a time, and gradually realise that even though they all insult each other about how wrong they are, they're basically saying the same thing. Once you get that, you're on the way to cracking the book's secrets wide open.

So after sermon, breakfast and lunch (all taken simultaneously) we headed for the PAC to see Grand Duke. We love Grand Duke, it's got a clever plot and some of the best music G&S ever wrote, and it isn't performed often enough to get stale like some shows do.

The performance wasn't as good as the Savoynet one we did four years ago, but that would be almost impossible to achieve. But the concept of putting a big clock tower on the stage and using it to indicate plot points was brilliant, and I have to give top marks to the set construction team for it.

From there we went straight to the stage door of the opera house, where we had an appointment to move costumes for the pro company. Reprising our role from two years ago. The comments flew thick and fast, "Just like old times, what?"

These people know they can call on us, and we're happy to be called on because we know they do the same thing we do - fly half way across the world to do something behind the limelight, without pay, knowing it's longer hours and harder work than "normal" employment.

After dinner we went back to the opera house for a production of the Mikado, done by a cast of over-60s! "Schoolgirls we, 18 and under", not so much. "In Japan girls do not arrive at the age of discretion until they are 50, or 60, or even 70!"

As a production it was perfectly traditional - in fact it was a re-creation of a show most of this cast had been in back in the dark days when G&S was copyrighted and any form of innovation was streng verboten. A few of the cast were clearly getting beyond it, but let me tell you, if I can sing and move like that chorus when I'm 60+ I'll be very happy about it.

And then to the festival club. Choruses from Mikado, fun fun fun. Cabaret by the Over 60s, wow, they've sure kept their voices. I'll just keep my head down til the plaster stops falling from the ceiling!

Now for an early night. The costume ladies want us at the Octagon at 9am tomorrow.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

In Buxton: July 27, where it all begins

Regular listeners will recall that we spent a night at the station like hobos, before heading home for a good day's sleep. Jetlag, what jetlag, we just operate on weird hours!

So I woke at about 4pm and started to think about what to do. The festival's official opening is tonight - let's get there early-ish so we can pick up our tickets from the box office. And of course lots of people we know will be there, so leave time for casual conversation-o.

As we were sitting in the kitchen with hot chocolate John Wellington came in to say hi. He had apparently seen the sausages in the fridge and Chris's handwriting on the shopping list and deduced that we must be in the vicinity. What can we say, guilty as charged!

We headed for the opera house just before seven. Various Smiths were around outside and welcomed us heartily. Several Savoynetters were around too.

The show itself was great. I didn't know it was even possible to put so much funny stuff into Pirates and remain faithful to the character of the show! Definitely one to get the DVD of. And Amy Spruce was in it, as Isabel! I don't know if she was aware we were heading to Buxton but she recognized us in the Festival Club and we had a chance to catch up. She'll be rehearsing flat out for the rest of the festival so we might not see much of her.

Stuart and Sarah (the second Savoynet couple, married at the festival three years ago) had grabbed a good table and invited us to share it. Not that they sat at it much - they were both in the pot-luck Patience so we looked after their bags for them.

Pot-luck shows are the best fun (stop me if you've heard this one before) anyone can have without being strapped into the cockpit of a jet fighter. Patience isn't well known, but in Buxton that doesn't matter. Have you ever heard a whole room full of dragoons (male and female) linking in friendly tether? Awesome!

I surprised myself slightly by remembering every note of the second tenor part as it came up. Even the Off Note. I even hit most of them!

By about half past midnight it was time to be heading home, but the English weather had closed in and I hadn't brought my coat. Oh well - this is why I always know where my towel is.

Goodnight all, tomorrow's going to be pretty busy so I'm heading for bed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

In Buxton: July 26, a day in Wonderland

After the mega day out yesterday I didn't feel like getting up early, so I'm on the 10:27 out of Buxton, heading for the suburbs to take lots of luvverly photos of trains going by. It's the perfect day for it. Chris will be following on the 12:29 because we're headed for Oxford to visit Alice in Wonderland and it takes four hours or more to get there. And back, which means we'll most likely miss the last train and spend a rough night on the platform at Piccadilly until the first train tomorrow morning. Good thing I'm equipped.

We stopped at Dove Holes, I haven't done that yet this year. Nobody got on or off... a two hourly service doesn't exactly encourage patronage. They should make it a request stop on all services, that would fix it.

I'm starting to realise just how hilly this line is. We go from full power with an exciting rumble from the engines and an exhibition of why hydraulic transmission is only really efficient at high speed on level ground, to long stretches of rolling down hill with the engine at idle. Couple that with the scenery and the classic architecture and you have to say that the Buxton line is an absolute dream of a train trip. It even has a nice mix of welded and non-welded rails, steel and concrete sleepers, and semaphore and colour light signals. Any tourist railway in Australia would give their right arm for it. And yet the ride is as smooth as a drop of water in zero gravity.

Incidentally, the speed restriction on the Dove Holes tunnel seems to have been lifted since I was here last. They've fixed up the track and the body roll doesn't threaten to contact the tunnel walls. Thank goodness for that.

On the up side of Hazel Grove quite a few people get on and it's like an off-peak suburban train at home. To me that says we need a two tier service, sparks every 10min (or 15 if that's really not achievable) to Hazel Grove and Buxton trains running express to Stockport. None of this hourly Hazel Grove service done with a single pair of Railbuses. Still, at least they coordinate the two so it's half hourly (approximately) from Hazel Grove to Piccadilly with all trains running the same stopping pattern.

So I've got two hours to kill, minus whatever time we need to spend finding each other again. What to do on a brilliant blue sky sunny day? Why, take photos at Heaton Chapel of course! The sun is shining almost directly along the track, which means taking photos from the down platform is approximately perfect. There's signal gantries, brick bridges and lots of greenery to provide a backdrop. And the track is dead straight for a long distance so I can see trains approaching and get myself set up for them. As a bonus, there's a train through every couple of minutes!

After a while I jump onto a passing Class 323 spark and head for Piccadilly in good time to meet Chris. We get held outside the station and I wonder if he'll get in first... especially when I see a Sprinter overhauling us. But then I notice it's coupled to a Railbus! We don't get them on the Buxton line (thank goodness). Well I knew they were capable of MU operation but I'd never seen it before.

I found Chris and we stopped for lunch. Apparently he's been using his battery quite substatially and needs a charge... and there isn't a power point in the entire station. So we basically headed straight for our train and got plugged in. Thank you Alstom, power points on 200km/h tilt trains are the crowning glory on a brilliant product.

The trip to Oxford was a longish one. Thankfully the squalling toddler across the aisle from us fell asleep after about half an hour so we were free to talk about programming, architecture, railway technology, human nature and whatever else came into our minds.

On arrival at Oxford I was slightly surprised to see that it bore a remarkable similarity to Cambridge in design - not only the station but the whole area around it. Even the buses look similar.

We walked to Alice's Shop without getting lost once. It turned out to be a tiny place, crowded with Asian tourists, so I stayed outside with the backpacks and allowed the BOFH to amuse me with his comments about inkjet printers. Eventually Chris came out, having confirmed details of the tour, and we repaired to a nearby cafe to pass the time before it started.

I'll let Chris tell you about the tour itself. I'll just mention that I managed to convince five people from three countries that I'm an expert in architectural history, merely by twice guessing the decade a bridge was built in. They were old railway bridges, you see.

At the end of the tour we headed back to the station and a train to Manchester was due in about ten minutes. NICE. It was behind another (late running) service so it was delayed a bit. I happened to look at the late one and it was a Mk.3 set - the prototype for our XPTs. Apparently now a lot of them are with First Great Western, which makes them accessories to the crime of turning Brunel's masterpiece into the worst performing railway system in Britain. We saw a sample of that today, with several late running trains and a station toilet that wouldn't look out of place in the Elizabeth Street underpass at Flinders Street.

By the next station we're back on time, there's quite a bit of slack in the timetable. Could it be that we'll actually have a chance of catching the last train to Buxton, which is timetabled five minutes before our train is timetabled in? If not, we can get the bus which is ten minutes after that.

Approaching Stockport we were all ready - packed, loins girded, in the vestibule, observing through the windows to see signs of a late running Buxton train. Nothing. Oh well.

We headed towards the bus bay and saw on the PIDS "2340 Buxton, Platform 4, On time" - does that mean there's another train that the journey planner didn't tell us about? Quick, to platform 4!

As it turned out - that PIDS was for arrivals, not departures. Disappointing. Well let's try Plan B, B for bus. Uh... where on earth is the bus bay? We got lost looking for it, timetabled time passed and we gave up and headed back. Piccadilly is a more comfortable place to be benighted than Stockport so we headed there. The shops closed one by one, the last trains arrived and the passengers left, and the place was deserted. Well not really. A couple of other passengers seemed to be benighted like us. And there were a few cleaners around, with the noisiest equipment you could imagine! Add to that the immovable armrests on all the station seats, and you can guess we spent a rough night. Chris found a power point and stayed up all night with Traal, I eventually managed to bend my body into the shape of a starting handle, lie the foam padding of my backpack on the next armrest and sleep a few hours... until the station opened for business again at 4am. Just three more hours til the first Buxton train!

So you can imagine how sarcastic my temper was (and uncertain my age, if the common saying "act your age!" works backwards) when I saw not only a mischannelled unsubscribe message on Savoynet but an invitation to a protest rally from one of the bigwigs of the Greens, who thinks I'm one of them (despite many occurrences like this in the past) just because I advocate for public transport. So I told her, publicly, that the gas energy project she was protesting about was actually one of the more environmentally clean options for Victoria's energy needs, and that by protesting she was not only on the wrong side but helping bring down the whole worldwide Greens movement in the eyes of the increasingly well-informed public. Two minutes later there was a long reply, rife with grammatical and punctuation errors and completely un-paragraphed, from one of her fanboys. Oh Michael, how on earth can you justify such claims?

Well folks, if you ever wanted to see a textbook example of the reasoning behind the rule "Don't feed the trolls", this is it. By this time I had found some liquefied artificial sweetener in order to contain the bushfire raging in my throat from the rough night, so my brain was functioning on all cylinders. Suffice it to say that I justified my claims individually, concluding each paragraph with "Strike [n]". It was all in terms of environmental impact too, so I didn't look like an Andrew Bolt-esque anti-Green either. One upset fanboy coming up, oh noes, I can't groupthink my way out of this one, groupthink is all I know how to do, now what? Now you know not to feed the trolls.

We're now on the train back to Buxton where the order of the day is likely to be hot chocolate while listening to Dan & Kel via streaming, sleep, dinner, breakfast, clean up and then go and watch the festival start. And volunteer to be extra crew members or costume carriers as required. Woohoo!

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Buxton: 25 July, a day out

Yeah, I guess I should blog. (Astute readers may remember I did that one last time too.)

Yesterday was a day of settling in - we laid in supplies of food, established communications with the outside world (phone for me, 3G modem for Chris), sorted out the cash passport problem, watched several episodes of Mythbusters and had an early night. I did manage to pause the movie and look out the window whenever a Class 66 went by with a limestone train, but that was about it.

So today I woke early, shaved so as to look less like an anorak-wearing gricer (that's British for gunzel), gathered Clippy and my gunzelling gear and caught the 5:59am train from Buxton. Yep, told you I woke early. If only I felt that alert when I was working at Clayton and did 6am starts five days a week.

Not that I was all that alert, because I managed to leave the power cables for both Clippy and my phone on my desk in my room. Conserve power!

On the way to the station I discovered that I hadn't finished getting my phone onto 3G. No internet connection except free WiFi hotspots. ARGH! So when I got to Manchester Piccadilly (which is a place I never weary of, no matter how much I yearn for Australian life and am willing to live and learn) I scouted around the restaurants looking for WiFi symbols. There was one, but I had trouble connecting, so I went in, bought some breakfast (eggs benedict, very yummy) and asked about it. The waiter rebooted the router and I had a connection.

Now to find a Three shop within walking distance. Hm, there's one off Market Street. I know where that is, it's on the tram system. Oh dear, that means seeing how they're going with their massive expansion project!

I headed down to the tram stop and went for the ticket machine, having found out the hard way that a BritRailPass doesn't count. It was perfectly simple to understand and operate, which is good because it doesn't have the excuse that it's a huge system like Myki does. The new trams are pretty well identical to the old ones on the inside, and even have that cute steamboat whistle!

Unfortunately the Three shop opened at 9am so I had to kill about 40 minutes. So much for getting up early. Never mind, plenty of time left in the day. Once they opened I told the tech my problem and she said "Oh yes, you have to fill in the APN", and proceeded to put the whole lot in, from memory, in about ten seconds flat. It connected and immediately started syncing emails. I told her she was amazing and she told me to have a great day.

So I went back to the tram stop and caught the next tram toward Bury - off-road running at a good speed, fun. For some reason I couldn't get a GPS signal to see just how fast we were going, which made me stop and think about getting an up-to-date version of the rollingstock book - the main reason I had decided to go to York. So I jumped ship at the next stop and headed across to the other platform.

It was crowded. Duh, it's the middle of peak time. Clever time to pick to just gunzel around, NOT. Ah well, I managed to show them what a good PT traveller can learn in the land of crowded trains and bad track - everyone else was holding on for dear life and I was standing there with my arms folded, toes responding to every bump (there were very few of them) and never even bumping into anyone. Later I saw coupled sets of trams running in the peak direction - smart idea, because obviously the Metrolink concept is catching on and people want to commute by tram. Or rather, high platform light rail vehicle - because these things behave like trains except when they happen to run on road median tracks.

While I was standing in my own sixth of a square meter of doorway I journey planned my way to York. Cool, it's just as easy to go from Manchester Victoria as from Piccadilly. That means I can bale out early and give the remaining pax a bit more space. Two years ago Victoria was having a bit of a facelift done. Now it's a lot further advanced but still obviously a work in progress. Looks like they're doing a good job, on first impressions - but I'll have to check it out in more detail later, because my train for Stalybridge is here.

It's a Class 150 Sprinter, same as we get on the Buxton line. They've had a refurb and it looks like they've tried to cram more seats in - which means the seats don't line up with the windows any more. Shame. It was a short ride, and we got to Stalybridge on time, with just 13 minutes before the Trans Pennine to York was due. NICE.

I headed for the station cafe and the staff were chatting about various things including special trains. There was a heritage diesel tour through yesterday, and there's a steam tour due tomorrow, but nothing today. Ah well!

In the middle of that a PA announcement came over saying that a fast train was coming through, not stopping. My camera jumped out of Clippy's case of its own volition, thrust itself into my hands and said "VIDEO IT!" I'm never one to disappoint my inanimate gunzelling tools, so I did. Unfortunately it wasn't fast at all, it limited itself to about 60km/h, but it was a Class 170 set in Trans-Pennine livery, so it was quite worthwhile.

Then my train was about due so I thanked the cafe staff for their tips and went to catch it. It was a Class 185, naturally. My favourite DMU of all time. Can I take it home?

It was fairly crowded so I got to show off my Australian adaptability by sitting cross legged in the doorway with Clippy on my lap. Now for those of you who aren't gunricers I have to remind you that the Class 185 are a Siemens build, same as ours except different. The stability of the ride is the same - if you've ever been on a Siemens passing (say) a V/Line loco hauled set, and compared the noise and the rocking to how it is on any other kind of train you'll know what I mean. The 185 has that same steadiness. I was sitting with my back against the door, and just occasionally another train would pass at speed. The door would recess very slightly, like when someone sits in the seat next to you. No more. That's why these things got an engineering excellence award! Now if only Siemens had acknowledged their mistake and fitted sanders to our sparks instead of leaving the job to Metro...

On the train I struck up a conversation with a dad and son who, as it turns out, are also heading to York to visit the trains. That made it a pleasant trip, train talk is train talk the world over.

York was amazing, as always. I started in the bookshop, where I picked up not only the rollingstock book I was after, but an atlas of rail lines in the UK, showing every track and every crossover just like Vicsig does. I dread to think how much of a hit my Visa card took for that but it's worth it.

The Great Hall was full of screaming kids, but I managed to avoid them long enough to - hey wait, go back a bit. A railway museum, full of screaming kids? In Oz we'd be lucky to get ten through in a day! But that's the point of York - it's more of a Scienceworks than a North Williamstown. OK can I go on with my story now? I avoided the kids and just admired the beautiful craftsmanship of the early high speed express locos - first a high wheeler 4-4-0, then, wonder on wonder, FOUR of Gresley's finest streamlined A4s! That would be like seeing a pair of 520s double heading the Southern Encounter, or triple 38s up the Blue Mountains. No wait, it's more like three and a half Rs to Seymour - really awesome, but not impossible to arrange.

Then I looked at the foreigners - a Shinkansen 0 (the original 1960s Bullet Train) and a Chinese KF7 steam loco with an amazing wartime history. The placards for the Chinese loco explained a bit of railway engineering in layman's terms - explained what loading gauge is and how it's different to track gauge, pointed out the leading, trailing and driving wheels, and explained the function of each set. We need some foreigners at North Williamstown - an ML3 maybe, since they were built alongside our Bs and Ss? Or a QJ just because they're awesome and historically significant?

There was a "Mallard Experience" ride, built like a full motion flight simulator but smaller. I must admit I was expecting a bit more than a CG rendering of a very highly dramatised account of the record breaking run, accompanied by random joltings. The least they could have done was make the jolting line up with the video. Ah well, they can't all be winners.

Then I went out to the viewing platform - a second storey balcony overlooking the down end of the station. Very conveniently there was a full PIDS screen there, identical to the ones on the major stations. Thanks Network Rail! The third entry down was interesting - "PRIVATE CHARTER 13:02". This promises to be worth hanging around for!

The viewing platform slowly filled with old men with white beards. About three minutes after scheduled time we heard a steam whistle and a long funnel with a name plate attached shuffled into Platform 5. A few minutes later it whistled out again and we could see it had a diesel behind, followed by a VERY long train of ultra-posh dining and parlour cars. Some charter! I videoed it but there were bratty kids arguing in the background so I might not bother uploading it.

It's really hard to be sure what you've done and what you haven't at York. There are several separate buildings and they're all easy to get to so there's no logical order to do them in. But by this time I was feeling peckish so I went to the Station Hall - home of the collection of LMS locos, quite a number of royal carriages, and a full on restaurant. 12 quid for a lamb pie, roast potatoes, veg and a bottle of old style lemonade (brewed like ginger beer) in a replica 19th century bottle. Beats the self-catered functions in the Spirit of Progress dining car!

Excuse me a minute while I check the guide book to see what I've missed. Ah yes, the warehouse. Everything not on show is stacked in pallet racking in a huge shed. It's carefully labelled by someone who's obviously a professional curator, and delicate things are in glass cases so the hoi polloi don't touch them. But other than that it's all open - go through, look at what you like. This is the storage vaults, the York equivalent of East Block!

Next door was the workshop. A Class 08 shunter was in for a paint job, there was another diesel loco stripped back to the frame, and behind them was... Flying Scotsman! Slightly modified from how it looked when it ran to Seymour in the company of an R with us behind it, but sure looking a lot better than when I saw it last, as a recognizable tender surrounded by frame, boiler and wheels all in different places. Do a good job on her, guys. Do it slowly, do it well.

From there, outside. Mmmm, what's that smell? Coal smoke! Oooooooh lookie there, it's Stephenson's Rocket! In steam, no less! Two pounds for a ride? I'll do it!

Standing in the front of the open wagon that carried the passengers it struck me - Stephenson probably built the original out of off-the-shelf components - a water barrel from the nearest cooper's shop, a chimney from whatever bits of pipe he could get cheap, body work from the coach builder that put in the lowest bid... and the people that built the replica had to copy every detail exactly as it was.

That was really it for the displays. The South Yard has a few exhibits under a tent-like structure, but only one is of particular interest. Remember 199, the "spam can"? "Send 199 back to the Other Railway", said the Fat Controller. Well this one is number 200. But you can't mistake the design, it looks familiar before you even see the 1Co-Co1 wheel arrangement.

One last walk around and it's time to go. I have an all day ticket for the Metrolink, after all!

If I've said it once I've said it hundreds of times - it pays to be a gunzel. How many people, after a few trips to England, would immediately know that a train from York to Liverpool Lime Street is going to be a high speed express stopping at Manchester Piccadilly? I had to run to catch it, so if I'd stopped to look at the PIDS I'd have missed it.

There were a bunch of train crew from the East Coast line, in full uniform. Checking out the competition? No, just heading for Leeds to start their shift. I got chatting with one, and we passed a pleasant trip talking about Australia and England and railways and whatever else came up. In England that's the way things are - pass one word and you automatically spend the rest of the trip chatting. That doesn't happen often in Australia.

And so back to Manchester Piccadilly. I headed straight down to the dungeon where the trams live and proceeded to ride every line apart from the Eccles, Bury and Alchingham lines, which I've done in previous years. It's quite a puzzling system, the Metrolink. Most of the track is really high quality, except for some which seems to be mounted on two sections of sleeper only as big as the chair, with a steel rod to hold them in gauge. They've invested in flying junctions at a lot of places, even when one of the lines only goes into a workshop, and yet they've got really restrictive speed limits on some of those very same junctions. Or the speed limit might be because it's a blind corner and they haven't put up convex mirrors to prevent accidents. There's works going on everywhere, including new lines being built, and yet some of the curves are so bad the flange squeal and vibration is downright painful. The top speed of the trams seems to be 100km/h or more, but at the outer reaches of the system where the stations are spaced out and a bit of speed would be nice, the track speed limit means a journey takes a lot longer than it should. What puzzled me most was the very restrictive rule about clearance - there were signs up on most bridges saying "Restricted clearance for distance of x meters", which just said you can't drive a truck beside the track without fouling the line. What's the point of that? People everywhere have to deal with bridges, it's no big deal! And horror of horrors, there's a few single track sections! A lot of the tech is cool though, like the interior lights that turn on automatically on a sensor, so they're off most of the time but kick in when the tram goes into a tunnel. That's nice. Most of the new sections are fully separated, including a couple of grade separations that look new. A few sections of on-street running but not much.

By the time I'd ridden every line and got back to Piccadilly it was getting dark. Time to head home and upload a whole stack of photos! 6am to 10pm is quite long enough, if I wanted to be on my feet for those hours I'd have stayed at work.

Tomorrow, Alice in Wonderland. Chris will probably tell that story better than I could.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Buxton Bound: last leg, Dubai-Manchester (23/7/13)

While waiting for the boarding call at Dubai we struck up conversation with two sisters also waiting for the flight. They must have spotted us for true patriotic English gentlemen because they asked us to help carry their bags. Eight of them. All good, all loaded and all beautiful. Beautifully heavy I mean.

They were seated several rows back from us so we didn't get a chance to chat to them in flight, which was probably a good thing because Chris was only semi-conscious for a good deal of it.

Not much happened during the flight, except that I was struck with an ice cube. I suspect a few of the cabin crew were in training, because there were 17 of them instead of 12 and some seemed to be working in pairs. One of those pairs was serving drinks and they both grabbed at the ice cubes at the same time, with the result that one flew out of the trolley and settled in the region of my back pocket. And that will get a bigger laugh than any of the other funny things I've related about the trip so far - that's the nature of the business.

Apart from being fed, I spent the time playing OpenTTD with Clippy. Brain activity had dropped below the point where critiquing the Melbourne Airport Rail Line study could have any benefit.

On arrival at Manchester Chris swam upstream to help the girls with their bags, which was good because they'd never have managed alone. So I grabbed our bags - my backpack on the back, Chris's on the front, Clippy on the side, that's how normal people travel isn't it? I had to do some more dancing movements to get through the aisle without hitting anything - it was kind of like a waltz where you take two steps and then swing around for the third. Or it might have been just changing from backwards to forwards to sideways at a moment's notice. I'll have to find a dance instructor and patent the moves - any suggestions for a name? I'm thinking something on the lines of par der arriere pour klismas.

So we got out to the airport terminal, into the air conditioning, and looked for a trolley. NONE to be found! So we ended up carrying some of the girls' bags right up to the spot where we split up because they were on UK passports and we're foreigners. On a side note, I found a long livid mark upon my nearly shaven right shoulder, a sort of dark reddish colour. Like a bruise but nobody's been thwacking me there. Peculiar!

So we made our way out, and got through immigration by answering some perfectly friendly questions about where the G&S Festival is held and whether it would feature three little maids from school. That's the way they grill suspects these days, by trying to sound like fellow GaSbags. Anyway they must have been satisfied.

Then we went to customs, and the "Anything to declare" desk was unattended. I used the red phone as instructed and asked if rehearsal lollies needed clearance and was just told to "come through". Nobody was there to ask me more so I presume Australian sugar is considered safe to eat over here. Thanks for the vote of confidence, mother country.

That took me so long that Chris went on ahead and met the girls at the exit. They had to run but he got email addresses and is going to try getting them along to a show or two!

So we found each other back and made our way to the bus terminal, and it was just ten minutes before the next Buxton bus, yay! Because more than fatigue or saddle soreness or even jetlag I'm acutely conscious of the fact that I've had my shoes on for 30-something hours.

So we got on the bus, paid our fare with all our leftover coins from two years ago (the driver was very nice about it) and sat back to enjoy the summer weather. I should have mentioned that the aerobridge off the plane was sweltering and the walk from the terminal to the bus stop was humid. But as I write on the bus heading through the various towns on the way to Buxton, the windows are all open, there's a cool evening breeze coming through, the seat is comfy, the sound of a bus at speed is exhilarating, and the scenery is beautiful. Ah, England.

Soon we'll be home and settled in, essentials dealt with and unpacking started. It's all happening!

Buxton Bound: Second leg, Kuala Lumpur-Dubai (23/7/13)

We're back on the same plane, which is nice because it has in-seat power points for charging up laptops and phones and stuff. We haven't had that in previous years, A6-ENG must be one of the newer birds in the fleet. Thanks Emirates!

Lunch has just been served and curry was on the menu. [voice="PFY"]CURRY![/voice] And coffee at the end. What kind of coffee do they serve on an airline based in an Arab state? Arabian coffee. [voice="Danny Kaye"]Doing doing doing![/voice] OK I'm awake now!

The "airshow" on the in-flight entertainment system shows our flight path, with an icon of a plane showing where our nose is pointing. They're about 45 degrees apart... strong cross-winds at altitude. If we were back in the days of astro navigation and dead reckoning our navigator would have his work cut out right now. It's also been quite bumpy - the seat belt light has been on for most of the flight, and several times the captain has piped "Cabin crew please take your seats". That's pretty awkward when they're trying to serve our lunch, all the people behind us had to wait about 20 minutes to get theirs. Note to self: booking early and getting the seats at the front of the cabin is a good idea, keep it up. We had the empty trays on our laps longer than usual, but it wasn't too much of a problem because there's a vacant seat in front so I used my go-go-gadget-arms to open the tray table and put my empty tray there in order to get Clippy out and start typing up this post. And to continue dissecting pages 139-144 of the Melbourne Airport Rail Link Study. Can you believe they'd decide the route and stations and then after that start thinking about which population centres and designated business districts it's going to serve? Town planning first, transport planning follows - you promised that in 2006!

During the turbulence I had a full cup of coffee and decided to entrust it to my hand rather than the tray table. I thought my own on-board device driver would be more of a stable platform than the fixed tray. That led to a discussion about the nature of brain function and reflex actions, which eventually came to the conclusion that God designed us with a Just In Time compiler that binds directly to EPROM. Seriously cool tech. It's a self-learning algorithm, the actions used most often are the ones pushed down toward the hardware layer for maximum performance - the conscious brain doesn't have to select the "Add to favourites" option. God is the most ubercool system designer. Creation vs evolution is like The Story of Mel vs a script kiddie's drag and drop programming prowess - except that evolution somehow expects the script kiddie to use drag and drop to create the drag and drop programming environment and all the libraries too. Like the story of Richard Dawkins telling God "Hey it's not that hard to create life, let's have a contest!" So God gets some dirt off the ground and creates Adam and then carves a rib out of him and creates Eve. (We leave time lines out of this story - somehow God takes Dawkins back to creation week and shows him how his great-great-etc-grandparents were made.) So Dawkins says "Doesn't look too hard, let me have a go," and picks up some dirt and starts making a person. "Hang on a minute," God says, "that's my dirt, go make your own!" Moral of the story: you can't design a system from inside it.

Well how else do you pass the time on board a bumpy plane.

From the highly intellectual we swung full circle and started playing games. Chris (of course) had a short length of Cat-5 in his backpack so we set up an ad-hoc network between our two laptops and played multi-player Anno 1602. It was only a short length of cable, and both our laptops (being Thinkpads) had network ports on the left side. So we took turns sitting sideways with the laptops arranged carefully on the seats and tray tables. It worked fine except when I had to go to the toilet - you've heard of the pas de chat, well I did the par der shuffle, with a lunge and a jump at the end.

Funny thing about the toilets - even though it was a brand new plane and smoking has been banned on all international flights for years, it had a pull-out ash tray in the back of the door!

By the time we'd turned the corner in the game it was time to descend so we paused the game and packed our stuff. Very carefully. Losing important things on the way home is bad enough, but losing them on the way out is worse because we need to find replacements in an unfamiliar environment.

So here we are in Dubai International Shopping Centre. The WiFi is flawless, the air conditioning makes it hard to believe it's 40 degrees outside, and after scanning through several hundred flight numbers all starting with either EK or QF, we now know which gate to hang around outside. So all we can do is wait.

And refill our water bottles of course. A good water bottle which really seals is quite amusing to take flying. In flight it's a pressure vessel, so the only safe way to open it is with your teeth - and you get a spray of air and water into your mouth. Then of course if you close it in flight it ends up squashed in when you get back on the ground. For this leg it was empty because I hadn't found anywhere to fill it in KL. That meant I was REALLY thirsty, so when we found our gate I dug it out of my backpack with a raspy "My precious!" - which I amended mid-speech to "My pressure vessel!" Ehee! I made a funny! >SPLAT<

That'll do for now. next stop, Manchester!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Buxton Bound: First leg (23/7/13)

Living on the most sparsely populated continent on the planet can sometimes be inconvenient, but occasionally it means riding a sparsely populated plane - and that's quite the opposite.

We have one stopover between Melbourne and Dubai, which happens to be Kuala Lupmur, famous for its brand new airport that people are saying Sydney should imitate (if they can ever decide where to put it). (On a completely parenthetical note, I'm typing this up in SciTE and it uses syntax highlighting by default. So it bolded the "if" on that last clause - which I think strangely appropriate.) So anyway, we're stopping over - which gives Emirates the chance to cram more pax on board. But if you look at that the other way, it means we have a plane flying half empty, which means just about everyone can have a complete row of seats to themselves!

I initially tried just leaning my seat back, taking advantage of the fact that the seat behind me is empty. I didn't sleep much. So I tried applying what I learned on that horrible XPT trip ages ago - for a wink of sleep, lie on the floor. It worked well for a bit - the floor was quite comfy (carpeted, warmish, and I could steal all the KUL pax's pillows to fill up the dents in my body) and the slight vibration wasn't all that distracting. But then a hostess told me it was against safety regs so she moved me to an even less populated part of the plane. She even found a middle section (four seats abreast) which fitted me exactly! Nobody seems to worry about feet on seats somehow, which makes everything more pleasant.

This, folks, is why we have wide body jets. 3+3 in a 737NG is great for daytime flights when everyone wants to be within a bull's roar of a window, but when it's dark outside there's no substitute for a bit of business-class-for-the-price-of-economy-at-least-as-far-as-the-first-stopover comfort.

Must remember that about long flights - direct is convenient, but stopovers have their advantages.

We're almost over the equator at the moment. Breakfast has just been cleared away and we're just under an hour away from KL.