Monthly Archives: January 2011

Up Helly Aa – 2011

Imagine a place only 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, with strong Norse links, a beautiful landscape, and strong traditions.

That place is Shetland – specifically Lerwick – and it is eerily quiet today. The roads are deserted, the shops are shut; even the seagulls have quietened down. For last night was the Viking Fire Festival – Up Helly Aa – and the residents of Lerwick are either not long in bed, or still carousing around the town.

Up Helly Aa (from Up Halli Day – meaning the end of the holiday period) is not an ancient festival, although its roots go back a long way, stretching back to the Viking settlers around 800-900AD. The festival in its current form began in the late 1800s, after the Victorian Christmas tradition of rolling burning tar barrels through the streets was banned in 1874.

The festival began at 6.00am, when the Proclamation was posted in the square in Lerwick – a partially-impenetrable (to outsiders) document satirising local events, news and citizens, and proclaiming the start of Up Helly Aa.

Up Helly Aa Proclamation

Shortly thereafter, the galley – a miniature Viking longboat built specially for the event by one of the Squads – is paraded through the streets and put on display down by the harbour. It’s a beautifully built thing, and it made me feel a little sad to think of it being burned!

It is around mid-morning when the Squads start to visit the local schools, hospitals and old folks’ homes. Joe and I did not make it out of bed in time to see the early stuff, due to excessive alcohol consumption the evening before…

…but we did take a look at the galley:

Galley on display

…and were at the Lerwick Museum when the Jarl Squad arrived. Which was a bit of a treat.

A Viking of the Jarl Squad visits the Lerwick Museum

A note on the Squads:

  • Total number of participants, or guizers – 969 (all male – no women in this festival!)
  • The Squads are made up of guizers – men in disguise
  • There are 50 groups, or Squads, altogether – each with their own theme and costumes
  • The Jarl Squad is squad number one, and is led by the Guizer Jarl (Jarl is from the Norse word for Earl). Men of Shetland can wait up to 15 years for this honour, and it’s the biggest day of their lives
  • The Jarl Squad contains 50 guizers, and they traditionally wear a Viking costume that they make themselves, from scratch, over the course of a year. The detail is beautiful, and the costumes can cost thousands of pounds (up to £10,000) – so men will save up for years

There are also junior guizer squads, and kids are part of the main squads too. They are beyond cute:

The cutest baby Viking in Shetland

Back to the schedule: crowds start thronging the streets at around 6.45pm, waiting for the torchlit parade. It’s quite a sight, and not one to be seen on an empty stomach. So to a carvery we went. It was enormous. And a little panicky. There were meat sweats.

Weeble-like, we wobbled down to the park.

The galley is paraded at the head of the procession, then installed in the park. The park is helpfully surrounded by a stone wall, which is perfect for us to stand behind and watch proceedings.

A dull glow at the top of the hill marked the beginning of the parade. That, or the town hall was on fire…

There are 900-odd flaming torches up there...

We waited, and faffed with the cameras (there was unbelievable camera faffage) and froze a little bit. Then they arrived – 900 men with flaming torches and a powerful thirst, dressed in costumes ranging from authentic Viking to Catholic cardinals to buxom Baywatch lifeguards and many, many unfathomable things in between.

It was quite a sight to see. I’ve never seen anything like it; there is likely nothing else to equal it! There is a lot of power in ritual; you could feel the excitement, the energy, the camaraderie between the guizers and this feeling spread to the crowd. People were friendly, warm and kind. And cold.

The Guizers parade around the streets of Lerwick

And from a short distance it was like a river of fire.

River of fire leading to the galley

The guizers march to the burning site and surround the galley, circumnavigating it several times. The Jarl Squad are first in line, throwing their flaming torches onto the galley (after the Guizer Jarl has jumped off!). Then ensues semi-organised chaos: guizers duck and head backwards as those behind them throw their torches on, until the galley is aflame and the guizers stand back and watch.

Galley aflame!

It was truly spectacular! But tinged with sadness, as it had the air of a funeral pyre.

Part two of Up Helly Aa – what they get up to in the Halls – coming soon, to a blog near you…


Day Two Shetland: A tombolo, a lighthouse and a photography lesson

Today I have learned that two Weetabix is not enough to keep you going from breakfast until dinner. Even the peanuts did not help for much more than an hour…

We set off on a mini-adventure, down to the south of the mainland, in search of kittiwakes, a lighthouse and some treasure.

Jarlshof is fantastic. There is a couple of thousand years’ of history crammed into quite a small area. There is a stone-age hut, iron-age houses and a broch, a wheel house (which Joe has decided he wants to build anew!), Norse long-houses and a Laird’s house overlooking it all.

Wandering the paths between and within the dwellings was fascinating; you get a real sense of the people who once lived and worked and struggled there. And although the weather and terrain can be harsh, the houses – especially the wheel house and broch – were incredibly well protected. Cosy is probably the word; especially when you consider there would have been dozens of people crammed into a small space, with animals wandering by too!

You could almost hear them. Standing within the wheel house, or the broch, with closed eyes and open mind allowed them back in; just for a moment. A half-remembered snatch of sound; something flitting by at the edge of vision. A smell; a feeling.

Jarlshof is an incredibly evocative place. And beautiful – and commanding a stunning view.

Iron-age dwellings at Jarlshof, Shetland.

Mortar and grinding stone from Jarlshof

The zen-like nature of the mortar and grinding stones appealed to me. There were also piles of limpet shells, whelk shells and pebbles. I don’t know whether they were genuinely left from iron-age times, but I like to think they were!

Iron age broch

Hiding in a window at Jarlshof

I was really enjoying wandering around those houses, crawling into all the nooks and crannies…

The lighthouse and kittiwake cliffs

We knew there were cliffs up by the lighthouse, in which kittiwakes nest and soar. So off we went. It was quite windy, and the kittiwakes didn’t disappoint – they were showing off for us; posing, and playing in the swirling eddies, seemingly for the sheer joy of it. There are few things that symbolise freedom better than birds. If ever an animal shouldn’t be caged, birds are they.

They were magnificent, and very obliging…

Kittiwake posing for the papparazzi

And they posed for the profile shot too…

Soaring for the camera

The lighthouse is beautiful. It looks exactly like a lighthouse should, based upon multiple readings of books such as The Famous Five. Sadly, we couldn’t get in there, but there was – just yards away – a tower housing the fog-horn. And that we could climb. So climb it we did. I would imagine that being that close to it when it’s sounded would be an experience…

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse

Aaaand the fog-horn. I bet it’s quite loud.

Big red fog-horn...

Quendale Beach

In quest of treasure, we mooched northwards up to Quendale Beach. I know people think geocaching is a little geeky; and perhaps it is. However, we would never have visited this beach if we hadn’t been after the geocache hidden there… It was beautiful. Deserted, sheltered and dramatic. A storm front came across from the west. It passed us by, going around the outside of the bay – but the light was spectacular.

A storm front rolling in across the bay from Quendale Beach

And in no time, the storm front had passed, and the sun returned. The light was divine:

Just before sunset on Quendale Beach

More perfect light. And an arty shot of some seaweed, just because it looked cool.

Eventide. Magical light.

Arty shot of seaweed. Shame about the tracks... needs cropping!

St Ninian’s Treasure was next on our road trip. There lies the largest tombolo in the UK – a strip of beach connecting mainland to an island. St Ninian’s Isle in this case:

The largest tombolo in the UK

We found the treasure – well, the cache – and placed Owen the Travelling Hedgehog in there. We made friends with a sheepdog, hoped for the clouds to clear for a sunset, and I had a short photography lesson from Emma.

Long exposure and a tripod makes dreamy sea pictures…

Long exposure; sea at St Ninian's Isle.

By this time, the Weetabix had well and truly run out.

I love Shetland. It’s beautiful. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring…

Day One in Shetland: The Far North and Similarities to Old Folks’ Homes

Purple Parking. A frightening bus journey. Checking for explosives. Emma and Nick and much anticipatory excitement. New Scientist on board. The Earth from above. Meringue clouds. A bumpy landing.

Yomping through Glasgow Airport at pace. Sammich. Anger abatement. A plane with a big propeller.

Hang on. Yes, it has large propellers. Alarming. Look:


Anyway. What followed was an explanation of how aeroplanes leave the ground by means of magic elves. I don’t see how what is essentially a fan with ideas above its station can possibly achieve lift-off. But I did learn that filming propellers is really very cool indeed. I have just found out it’s called a stroboscopic effect:

This video pleases me greatly. Please note: I am fairly easily pleased.

Cars with too many people and too much luggage. A Corsa filled with four people, four suitcases, two rucksacks, a camera and a laptop. We had to pedal up the hills…

Scary but helpful ladies in shops; bad Tescos. Tesco is hated on Shetland; it’s putting smaller shops out of business. We visited with a sense of shame, but also shopped in the little shop.

Pubs; chips; conversations in old people’s homes. A pint of Tartan was delicious. Haddock and chips on the harbour wall was absolutely delicious – but I think getting fish and chips wrong on a small island such as this would get you a lynching at the very least.

The Lounge was a very blokey pub – but upstairs was an oasis. There were guitars on the walls, and beer in the taps. The conversation turned to tea, as it is often wont to do.

Emma: “I don’t drink milk, so I don’t drink tea in the morning.”

Me: “Caffeine gives me a stomach ache if I’ve not eaten anything. So we don’t have tea tea.”

Emma: “I like honey and lemon.”

Me: “Oh, we have hot water, and lemon juice, and honey! It’s delicious. Joe makes it.”

Everyone else: “So that’s honey and lemon then?”

Me: “Errr… yes.”

*Gales of hysterical laughter*

Yes. It’s been a long day. But we’re about on a level with the Arctic Circle, so altitude sickness must come into play somewhere…

Treasure hunting in Wellesbourne

Treasure hunting in Wellesbourne is best begun in the Airfield Café with a humungous fry-up and several pints of tea. It’s great in there – a large breakfast is a fiver, and a small one is four of your finest English pounds. All the tableclothes are air maps under glass, so if you love maps, it’s just about perfect.

Biblical rain had been forecast, but undeterred we set out. Full of breakfast we were, and the dogs were going mental with excitement. Charlie’s pick-up took us to Charlecote Park, where we discovered that although parking is free, walking through the park was not. So he parked in the garden centre next door while I manfully controlled the dogs and searched for the first treasure.

The rain held off (for most of the day, brilliantly!) and we yomped off along the riverside, finding our first three caches fairly easily. Buoyed up with satisfaction and a hint of smug, we swaggered up to the next cache, which was somewhere around the bridge under the A429, and utterly failed to find the treasure. I have a feeling, now, that we were looking on the wrong side of the river. This is annoying.

On we went, we three intrepid treasure hunters. I despatched Freddy the Frog (a Travel Bug) in to one of the caches, and picked up another – a keyword TB which is seeking only to land in caches with the word “end” somewhere in the title. Some of the hiding places are great: in hollow trees, hidden in tree trunks or under rocks, secreted into a chicken wire fence – in plain view if you’re looking for it; invisible if you’re not.

The final cache of the day, Theresa Green (yes, really…) held a fabulous prize: Owen the Travelling Hedgehog. His mission is – wait for it – to visit Scotland! So he is going through Scotland and on to the Shetland Islands. I’m delighted – and I’m going to try and purchase a TB to start in Shetland, and make its way as far south as is possible.

The total miles walked were as follows:

Men: 5.5miles

Me: 6miles

Dogs: 24,459miles

We were powered by: breakfast, tea, Charlie’s home-made flapjack, our home-made lemon biscuits.

Wellesbourne and the surrounding areas are very pretty indeed; the river was quite high, and flowing pretty quickly, but in summer I bet it’s delightful.

My legs are a little achey. But that was such a fun day – and everything is so miserable at the moment, weather and money-wise, that it’s really great to be able to have loads of fun and spend the grand total of a fiver each.

I didn’t bake ginger biscuits though. Fail.


We are off to Shetland on Friday morning, for the Up Helly Aa Viking Fire Festival – and we’re really really looking forward to it. This has been in the pipelines for a couple of years now. Tonight and tomorrow night will be spent planning and plotting, to make sure we see all sorts of fascinating stuff right up north.

Useful Christmas presents

My lovely and long-suffering husband, Joe, is marvellous at presents. For our first wedding anniversary, he bought me a 1940s fountain pen because I had said that I was going to revive the ancient art of letter writing. It’s beautiful, it writes smoothly, and it somehow gives weight to the words on the paper. Letters written with love, using a beautiful device.

For Christmas, he bought me a scientific calculator, because I need one for S104: Exploring Science. It’s a fabulous present, one that I really need, and that frightens me just a little bit. Because the manual resembles a medium-sized paperback novel. It’s a Casio Power Graphic fx-9750G with 32KB of memory. Apparently it can plug into a Personal Computer. Crivens.


Its name is now ScaryCalc.

So, the first thing I did with it was to write BOOBIES and SHELLOIL, then turn them into a graph. I am not twelve.

Book 1: Global Warming

I’m still working through chapter three. This is good, as I’m a week or so ahead of the schedule, and we’re going away for a week on Friday. I’d like to have begun chapter four before we leave.

I’ve just learned how to input exponentials into ScaryCalc. I actually worked this out on my own, then looked at the manual to check I was really correct. So I can calculate:

2.45 x 105 x 3.2 x 107

And the answer, incidentally, is 7.84 x 1012

This is good. I’ve not got much further than this yet though. It took me ages. This doesn’t bode well. However, I’m now learning about significant figures, and all their uses. I’m not quite sure I totally understand this yet. For example, I’m not entirely sure how you can write 543 to one significant figure. I think it would be 500, and I guess the extreme error would be a reflection of the accuracy of the rest of the data used to get that figure. I’m sure I’ll get there. I’m okay with something like 2.434 to two significant figures (2.4).

Hmm. I find maths really difficult. 1111.1 x 104 + 1.1111 x 104 equals 1.1122 x 107 which I got wrong, but I’m not really sure why. I shall revisit that question in a day or so, and see if I get it correct. I came up with 1122111.0 which is clearly ridiculous.

Anyway, I’m done for the day. We’re off to my mum and dad’s place for a chilli. But first I’m making lemon biscuits and we’re going treasure hunting.

I have a travelbug to place in a cache in the canal. Freddy the Frog is trying to get to Oxford.

And on that note, sayonara sausages.

On evaporation and blissful motion

I am three quarters of the way through my two week precipitation experiment, which I have mostly been very good about recording. I totally forgot last night, which is a bit piss poor, to be honest. And my only excuse is that I was knackered. Oh, and we had to tighten the chain on my motorbike, which was the flappiest, crappiest thing ever. I’ve ordered a new one, and sprockets, because it’s pretty FUBAR’d.

Anyway – tonight’s precipitation was more interesting than of late; it’s been raining quite a lot, with the Met Office predicting floods because the ground is pretty saturated after the snow.

Vessel A (no funnel) now contains 20mm of water.

Vessel B (funnel) now contains 30mm of water. I also noted that the underside of the funnel was liberally coated with condensation. It’s been pretty breezy and dry today, so I am thinking that much of the water from vessel A upped and left. Either that, or my neighbours are playing silly buggers with my experiment (although it doesn’t smell of wee, so I should be thankful for that, I guess).

Evaporation interests me. I know how it happens, and why, but it still seems sort of magical. All that water contained in the air – a little like something into nothing. I love clouds too. Especially when viewed from above, because they look so solidly soft and inviting. I always find it difficult to believe that I would just plummet to a pancakey death, when it looks like I should be able to roll around in them…

But I digress. Evaporation and precipitation massively influence our planet’s climate, and temperatures. Water vapour is the most abundant greenhouse gas of all – I always assumed it was carbon dioxide. Clouds are a pretty efficient way to move all that water around. I also like to think of all the water that ever was just being shuffled around in different forms. A little like energy – it’s not created or destroyed, just changed.

So the experiment is almost over. I’m not sure how accurate my measurements have been – but I don’t think that’s the point. I think they want us to really think about experimental design, and observation, which I think I have done. I’ve enjoyed it, in a “back at school” kind of way. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Blissful motion

For the first time in ages, I really enjoyed my journey to work this morning. I remembered why I love my motorbike. The freedom it engenders; the thrill and the beauty of the ride. It was much warmer and drier, and I flowed through bends and past imprisoned people half asleep in their boxes. It was just bliss.


I know some people who can write. I mean really write. They’re very good, and often very funny. I’m a little envious. Not too envious though – because they actually spend time doing it. I always think I want to, but never quite do. I have ideas, but don’t write them down (ha!) and I do my thinking on the bike, or somewhere equally unsuited to making notes. And my memory is pants.

I must do better. And I must do more reading!

Near death experiences and poker games…

Friday morning. Weather forecast: rain, with a little snow later on in the day. I start at 8am on a Friday (so I can do the Friday leaving early thing). I’m back on the motorbike now, after the Christmas snow – which is wonderful, as I really miss it when I have to take the car. It’s so much more fun, and is considerably quicker through the Birmingham traffic.

Anyway, off I potter. It’s chilly, but by no means freezing. As I hop onto the motorway, it starts to rain lightly. There’s a lot of spray, so I take it easy – but visibility isn’t too bad. As I join the M42, my visibility suddenly worsens, my visor steams up, and I can see nothing. Literally nothing. I struggle back into lane one, hoping against hope that nothing drives over me, and more frightened than I have ever been in my life. I slow down as much as I dare – I’ve now got lorries overtaking me, and don’t dare stop on the hard shoulder. It’s too nasty. I open my visor, and stinging pellets of sleet hit me. Then it becomes full on snow.

I stop breathing, because that’s not helping, and wonder, for the first time, if this is it. I really thought I was going to die on that road. The relief when I saw the slip road peel off in front of me was phenomenal. I burst into tears at the lights at the roundabout, potter around the roundabout, and stop in the layby with the bacon butty man.

It was at this point that I got off, looked around, and realised that half an inch of snow had fallen in about ten minutes. Do I go back? On the motorway? Not on your nelly! To be honest, slippery roads and a bit of snow wouldn’t normally faze me, but after that motorway journey I was seriously shaken up. But I decided to carry on – it probably wouldn’t be that bad.

It was pretty bad. No gritting, idiots in cars right up onto my back wheel because I choose to leave a large space so I don’t have to stop. Stopping and starting is the worst, you see. Firstly, because when your foot goes down, you don’t know if it’ll stay down, or shoot off sideways landing yourself on the ground with the bike on top of you. And starting involves a lot of back wheel sliding. Incidentally, the back wheel sliding out sideways six inches can be useful, as the muppet up your backside generally clears off when it sees how tricky biking in the snow is.

I did see a couple of other motorbikes around, which made me feel better. And when I stopped at the side of the road, considering phoning a colleague and asking for a lift, a girl on a motorbike went past me! Well, that made me MTFU, anyway. And off I went again. It was not a fun journey at all, but I didn’t die, and I kept it upright. And my soundtrack through town was The War of the Worlds, which was, quite frankly, ace.

Anyway. As I said: I have never before really thought I was going to die. Strange things go through your mind. I felt really guilty at the thought that Joe was going to get the phone call I always dread when he goes out on his bike. I wondered whether it would hurt. If it would just be eternal darkness, or something else, or nothing at all. Also, it makes you feel sick, which is a little unnecessary, I think. Relief is a wonderful thing, and in true “fucking hippy” style, I’m so grateful to be here. Lucky doesn’t even begin to describe it. Everything seemed brighter and sparklier and more colourful, and it still does.

Poker games and good friends

We made a lamb tagine with dates, and they came. Our mates. To play poker. Muzz and Dawn, Andy Mac, Andy (Easy Now), and Dan. And it was good. And fun. And we laughed and drank and ate gooey cheese.

Mrs Mac sent me a gift: a home-made candle from her new business, Mrs Mac Makes. Which is absolutely gorgeous, and a lovely thing to do. Y’see, they have a dog. SamTheDog. He steals cheese and thinks he’d like to eat small children. He’s aces. But he couldn’t come, because of Noodle and Whiskey, so Mrs Mac stayed home with him, and I felt The Guilt. So the gift was lovely!

Andy Mac brought us a log. It burned until Sunday, and we relit the fire from it. An impressive log, that.

Dawn and Muzz brought us a bag and a half of cat litter. Our friends are odd. Lovely, but odd. And they won. First and second prizes in the longest game of poker in the history of Radford Semele. Ridiculous, but fun.

And we learned that cheese distorts reality around itself. Look:

Poker being distorted by cheese

It was a great night, I love my friends, and I thank them all for coming, bringing gifts, and entertaining us.

Treasure hunting

We went treasure hunting with Charlie, Pepper and Freebie on Sunday. We were moderately successful – we found a Motorway Madness cache near Sherbourne, and one at the Barford Bridge. Twas a good walk, although Joe was suffering somewhat from a rather large hangover. On return to Charlie’s abode, we had a quick look around the area, and formulated what is possibly the best plan of this year so far:

Wellesbourne Airfield next Sunday. We’re going to go for a fry up at the airfield, then walk around Wellesbourne with the dogs, munching home-made flapjack, and picking up the 20 or so caches on a five mile walk. Then back to the airfield for pints of tea. Aces!

And we had a bit of a fail on the way home. Joe and I decided to swing by Chesterton Windmill and pick up the cache hidden up there. It was sunset, so the trip wasn’t completely wasted…

Sunset at the windmill

We couldn’t find the cache. We worked out the clue, but the co-ordinates are given in a strange format, and we couldn’t find it. The additional hint helped, and we think we know where it may be, but it got incredibly cold extremely quickly, and our fingers froze, so home we came, in disgrace.

Any excuse to go up to the windmill though. It’s beautiful up there at the worst of times, let alone at sunset on a perfect, clear winter’s day.