Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best of Kendal Mountain Film Festival Day 2

It was the second evening of Matt Heason's 'Best of Kendal' roadshow, which for Monday and Tuesday had set up a high camp in Sheffield's cosy Showroom cinema, home to Kendal's precocious cousin, ShAFF.

Jude and I ventured from the cold comfort of our overpriced lagers in the otherwise Ikea-comfy surroundings of the bar, to sit right on the front row, for the full-on IMAX effect, dude, yeah?

As with Monday's films, these were a varied bunch. First up was Journey of a Red Fridge, directed and produced by Lucian Muntean and Nataša Stankovica. A hard-to-place docu about a 17 year old Nepalese boy, Hari, carrying a Coca-Cola fridge down from the high mountains to the buzz and fume of Pokhara to be repaired. All so he could earn some money to supplement the peanuts he earns from portering for expeditions (5 cents a day!)

Along the way he meets friends and relatives, fellow travellers and the odd westerner. All are gracious, open and warm, with little of the guardedness and mistrust which now seems to permeate our culture here in England. At one point, he encounters two teenage girls bearing heavy baskets of hay (on a head-strap, as is the custom). One is dark-skinned, obviously of Indian ancestry. The other has the asiatic, Tibetan-looking features of a Nepali. Both are beautiful by western standards, and both behave exactly as teenage girls do the world over, flirting with Hari, whilst laughing at the 'tourists' making the film, with their funny clothes (the Nepalis refer to all westerners as 'tourists', even the climbers, who for some reason like to think of themselves as being above that categorisation).

Running through the film, pinning together this strange road-trip, is the powerful desire of Hari to earn enough money to buy a good education and to escape from the life which is set out for him, earning subsistence wages as a porter. At one point, we see him squirm as his elderly, infirm father, whom he hasn't seen for some time, virtually demands money from Hari, who is torn between his love and loyalty for his father, and his need to save what money he has to further his dreams.

Whether Hari ultimately achieves what he sets out to do, we never find out. In the more prosaic journey of the fridge, he reaches Pokhara and the fridge is repaired, as Hari sits on the dusty step outside, in the traffic fumes, musing on his future.

For our part, we see the spectacular landscape he lives in, the beauty of it, and we ask, 'why would he want to leave that place, those people, their culture?' But to Hari, it represents hardship, poverty and a trap from which he must escape. We wish him success in his journey.

That was followed by a 2 minute short animation called Climber, directed and produced by Carlos Villarreal Kwasek, which is about an ice climber, soloing a hard route, who has a moment of doubt and fear, and has to face, quite literally, his inner demon. Shown at ShAFF this year, it benefits from the big screen but you can watch it in its entirety here.

The third film, directed and produced by Justine Curgenven, This is The Sea 4 - Circumnavigation of New Zealand, is another road trip, a home movie of sorts, following Justine Curgenven and Barry Shaw as they attempt to paddle sea kayaks 1700 miles around the South Island of New Zealand. The film shows the hardhips they encounter, both from the sea (tide rips, heavy swells and the killer surf) and from the land (sand flies and a decomposing dead whale right by their campsite). It also shows that two people, ordinary brits like us, can embark on a huge expedition like that, entirely self-supported, and pull it off, making it look like any other kayaking trip.

The fourth film was for my money the best of the 'action' films. Taken from Hot Aches Productions 'Committed Vol. 2', 'The Walk of Life' follows Matlock climber James Pearson as he works to complete the first ascent of the route of that name on North Devon's Hartland Point. The route climbs straight up a blank, rippled slab of shale(?), for almost a full rope length (50m). He describes it as his 'silly obsession' and the route has been tried and eyed by the likes of Johnny Dawes and other stars of the modern era, all unsuccessfully, though these early inspections/attempts left a legacy of rusting pegs in the tiny overlaps and slots which occur sporadically on the huge slab.

James, to his eternal credit, 'gives it a facelift', removing the pegs, some of which are little more than rust anyway. In doing so, he creates a line which is terrifying in its blankness and its boldness, and commits himself to what he must know will be a fearfully exposed and run-out lead.

We see him cleaning the holds on abseil, trying moves; just enough of that to give us a flavour of his approach to the lead. Then, without further ado, he is on the route, having to climb the first 10m just to get his first piece of gear, a psychological wire which he admits wouldn't hold a fall. He works higher and higher, now a long way above the boulders on the shore, adrift in a vertical grey sea. Two thirds of the way up, he loses it. Something, a foot slips, a finger loses purchase, he's off, and he falls. And falls. He takes one of the longest lead falls I've ever seen, down the steep slab, maybe 15, 18m or more. That attempt is over.

He returns later, mentally and physically armed for another try. He shows no sign that his big fall has affected him, as he works his way back to his high point, then passes it, the cliff top betraying its closeness by the tufted lichen growing on the rock around him. He is now in a terrifying place, but close to safety. A last tentative move and he is there, whooping, hugging his girlfriend, whilst poor Rich Mayfield, belaying below, scampers off the rocks to escape the incoming tide. E12! That's the grade he gave it. Time will tell whether that sticks but whatever grade it settles at, it's an incredible line (or lack of a line), inescapable, committing and frighteningly bold.

The last film of the evening was Hand Cut, directed and produced by
Nick Waggoner, about the AAAHsome (dude) powder skiiing on the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Graceful, almost balletic footage of skiers and snowboarders is accompanied by suitably subtle music, with none of the fist-thrusting metal edge of other films of the genre. Cut into the film are voice-overs from old-timers who lived and worked in these mountains when they were still frontier mining towns, giving the contrast between the hardship of that environment back then, and the way it has become a playground now, for the bold and the wealthy. The film tells us very little, outside the grizzled voices of the pioneers, but the majesty of the swooping figures surging through the vertical oceans of powder holds us spellbound, like watching big wave surfers on a frozen wave of snow and rock. Almost made me want to ski.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

DRIP - you wanna see something really scary?

Are you the sort of person who finds it scary, being in a house on your own? The darkness of the empty rooms upstairs. The shadows. The silence, broken by unexplained creaks and muffled bumps from rooms you know are empty. Ever get that fear? That fear which defies logic and stops you going up those stairs, or which makes you glance up at the loft trapdoor as you cross the landing?

Yeah? You one of those people? If you are, then you need to watch this...

'Drip' was a short film, only 10 minutes long, which was shown oh, maybe ten years ago now, late one night on Channel 4. It went unnoticed by most people, but not by me. And now, after years of looking fruitlessly for it, here it is, popping up on Youtube. I suggest you watch this when you're alone in the house, and it's dark outside. Remember how 'The Blair Witch Project' is just a big laugh when you're with your mates, but how it assumes a completely different mantle if you watch it alone at night? Same here.

It's only short, but it has a powerful psychological fear at its heart, which taps into something primeval in us.

By the way, 'You wanna see something really scary?' comes from the opening scene of 'Twilight Zone - the Movie', which was the only scary part. If you haven't seen/don't remember it, here it is...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Garden of Mud and Stone: Part 2

Hi folks. Sorry it's been so long since my last post! Things have got in the way. I'm too busy at work; I've been editing Jude's soon-to-be-published book 'Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law' and working on the garden as well. On top of that, I've had flu (the seasonal variety, not the much-dreaded H5N1!), necessitating three days off work. Returning to work once I began to improve, I then was alarmed to find myself relapsing, quickly becoming even more ill than I was before. I was diagnosed with a bacterial chest infection and instructed to stay off work the rest of the week and "take it easy". I think blogging counts as 'taking it easy' so here goes.

Once I'd explored the garden and ideas had begun to creep like rampant slime moulds through the recesses of my mind (nice simile, eh?), it was obvious that the first job was to clear the crap at the bottom of the garden. The previous occupants had simply used the bottom ten yards or so as a dump, piling it high with hedge clippings, timber offcuts from DIY projects, broken patio furniture, plant pots, tree branches, soil, stones, old bricks and broken concrete. It was a mess. The hawthorn hedge marking the boundary of the garden, where it meets the woods, was buried under this ton of shit, to the point where I didn't think it was even alive.

One of the first things I did was set light to the dry prunings and twiggy rubbish, which formed a barrier some four feet high, across the garden. This was very dry and the flames raced through it in seconds, reducing it in height and saving me a lot of work. I stamped the fire out before it reached the healthy hedges on either side, but had cause to regret the fire, when I discovered that beneath the mountain of rubbish were some perfectly healthy hawthorns, bent horizontal by the weight. Unfortunately, these got scorched and a couple of them never recovered.

There was still a hell of a lot to shift, so I got one of those garden incinerators from B&Q; one of those metal dustbins on legs, with a chimney in the lid. Know the ones? They are an ace way to burn stuff quickly and in a controlled way. For several days, I fed mine with the woody rubbish from the garden. It burned it up as fast as I could throw it in. All the plastic, metal and non-combustible stuff, I bagged up and took to the local tip.

Above: me burning the twigs and rubbish in my incinerator

It took me a couple of weeks altogether but I eventually got it down to bare soil. I lifted up the poor, flattened, scorched hawthorns, staking them until they could stay upright. Only two died as a result of my fire. The rest formed a fine, if leggy, hedge which was just begging for a man with a billhook to get cracking and lay it; a job for the autumn.

It was good to be doing this stuff. Moving into a new house is all very exciting but it's really only when you start getting to grips with the soil and the growing things out there that you begin to feel some sort of bond with the place. This was enhanced by the fact that our garden is so long and at the bottom, you are, quite literally, in the woods. Going down there from the house is like making a little journey to a different place and, when you're down there, you get a sense of being watched, not by neighbours, as might normally be the case, but by the trees, the birds, the unseen creatures out there. By the woods themselves, which I'm sure some of you will understand.

Once I'd cleared the bottom of the garden, I left it to its own processes for some weeks, whilst Jude and I converted the house into our home. When I came back to it, it was well into Autumn. The early November winds were bringing blizzards of brown and yellow leaves down, covering the ground in deep drifts. Sitting at the foot of the garden, the woods suddenly sounded echoey, empty. The air smelled different, now carrying a rich perfume of decay, laced with the exhalations of fungi, as contrasted with the oxygen pumped out by the green trees just weeks before.

I always reckon that you can tell when autumn arives, irrespective of 'official' starting dates, or of the onset of so-called 'autumnal' weather. The real measure of it is when, quite suddenly, over the space of a week or two, the trees, the big trees of the woods, stop breathing out. That change in the air, as their oxygen production shuts down for the winter, is the real herald of autumn.

That change is married to a change in the woodland soil, too. In summer, through into the weeks leading up to Autumn, any rain falling in the woods is quickly sucked up by the thirsty trees and other plants. The soil never really gets saturated, except during freakishly heavy rains. Come autumn however, the trees are going to sleep. They aren't photosynthesising. They are busy pulling all the goodness back out of their leaves, into their branches and trunks and roots, to store and re-use next year, leaving the leaves empty, the green chlorophyll removed, browns and yellows and reds of unwanted pigments and dead cells painting their drying, rustling remains. The trees seal off the join at the base of the leaf stalk, and it eventually drops off, blown by the wind, to fertilise the soil, the tree eventually feeding on itself as it takes up the nutrients released from its own decomposed foliage.

When this process starts, the trees no longer need the water. They no longer take it up and liberate the oxygen from the water molecule, releasing it to sustain our lives and those of all animals. When the rain falls, it sits there in the soil, only a few evergreens staying awake to drink, and to keep watch over their sleeping cousins. The soil becomes wet, a different wetness to that which you normally encounter in summer. That, and the change in the air, are the true signs that Autumn is here.

Most of us who live in urban areas, and many even in rural areas, have lost that connection with the seasons; our ability to smell the onset of Autumn. Not so long ago, almost everyone working out in the woods and fields would have known that smell, those signs, and would have nodded to themselves and checked their store of firewood against the hardships of the months ahead.

Spring is the same. You know Spring is here, not because you have a few warm days, or it's the 21st of bloody March, or because daffodils are out but because, all of a sudden, some time in March, the woodland soils dry out. What has been wet and cold, sticky and dead, becomes, over the space of just a couple of days, merely damp, seemingly warmer and somehow filled with life. It's hard to describe in words's as if something has suddenly sucked up all that standing water from the winter-sodden ground. Which, of course, is what has happened. The big trees have woken from their winter sleep. The sleeping giants have woken thirsty, and they immediately begin to drink up all that rain and snow-melt. The breaking of the buds comes some days after this initial explosion of invisible activity but is, to most people, the first visible sign of life in the trees. For days leading up to that, however, the water being sucked up from the ground by these giants goes rushing up, through their trunks, to swell the buds and unfurl new leaves to the warming, life-giving sun. It even makes a sound that you can hear - the pulse of the living tree!

It's at this time, given a good reading of the signs, that certain trees can be tapped, bled of a little of their sap, which can be boiled down to make syrup (that's how Maple Syrup is made) or fermented into a delicate wine. The sap rises strongly enough to do this only for maybe a week, ten days at most, each year, until the buds break when it slows to a comparative trickle. To draw sap, you have to be able to read the signs. Tree hugger? You may laugh at the notion, but I know things that most people don't. I've rediscovered them, just by making connections, listening, smelling, observing the lives of things around me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh aye. Autumn in the garden. Sorry about the digression, but the woods are such a barometer of the seasons I just had to wander off into a bit of a Jack Hargreaves.

The hedge along the bottom boundary of the garden caught my attention. It was tall; some of the hawthorns were perhaps twenty feet high. But it was also gappy and leggy. Anyone could just walk into the garden through the gaps. What I wanted was a solid, thorny hedge; a living barrier to people, but not to wildlife. But, crucially, I also wanted to be able to get out into the woods whenever I pleased. So I needed a hedge with a gate set into it, Secret Garden style.

Outside the hedge, the slope of the garden flattens off, right at the top of a steep bank, dropping down to a small beck (a stream, to non-Yorkshire folks. Bloody off-comers!). The top of the bank was crowded with a tangled growth of a nondescript shrub, something like an old privet, with straggly roses growing through it. To help the hedge, I had to get rid of that first, so I set to with loppers and bowsaw, burning the still-green offcuts in the incinerator, until the top of the bank was clear, letting lots of light in (or as much as the overhead sycamores, ash, lilac and spruce would allow!).

Many years ago, in the 1970s, a moody teenage Brian used to spend a considerable proportion of his weekends undertaking a variety of practical conservation projects, in the Tong-Cockersdale Country Park, just South of Pudsey. I was a member of the Tong-Cockersdale Volunteers, or TCV. We were based in the old Stables Block of Tong Hall, which was then a public museum owned by Bradford Council (they later sold it off, scandalously, to become a 'Business Park', and the Stables Block became a private home).

The TCV were affiliated to the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, or BTCV (patron; Prince Charles). Indeed, should any BTCV members read this, I and my TCV colleagues were the first people to go and have a look at Hollybush Farm, then derelict, as a potential Northern HQ for the BTCV, who wanted to move out of their tiny place on Copley Road, Doncaster, to somewhere bigger. We were impressed. Our Head Ranger, Bill Shaw (who later became a Green MP, I believe), recommended it to the BTCV and the rest is history.

Anyway, whilst normal teenagers were drinking cider in parks and bus shelters, talking about imaginary girls they'd shagged, and mugging old ladies, I was out in the countryside, learning drystone walling, hedge-laying, fencing and footpath construction. Brilliant stuff, and I'm forever grateful to Bill and the all the rest (see list below) for giving my adolescence such an odd and lasting spin.

What the hedge needed was the application of my rather rusty hedge-laying skills, something I'd only done once since the end of the 70s, when I laid a huge hedge alongside the allotments where I used to have a plot, in Pudsey.

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves cutting partway through the basal stem of a healthy hedge tree or shrub, in such a weay that it can be bent over and 'laid', literally. Adjoining stems can be laid in turn, until one is left with a strong, interwoven, stock-proof hedge of horizontal stems, sometimes supported by stakes. It will regrow and is almost infinitely renewable. Look at any old hawthorn hedge and you'll probably be able to see some gnarled old stems at the base which are laid along horizontally, with new growth coming out vertically from them. That's where a hedge was laid, perhaps generations ago. And that's what I chose to do with ours, where many householders would have replaced it with a short-lived fence or just filled the gaps with wire. The old ways are the best. They didn't evolve and last for centuries without good reason, you know.

So I laid the hedge, all the way around the bottom of the garden. I have a small collection of billhooks, the choping tool used for this practice, because I love them; they are an tool which is redolent with history, and can be picked up for a few quid at car boot sales or on ebay. Go back four hundred years and you'd find men using billhooks identical to those in use today (indeed, the mediaeval military bill - a heavy spiked blade on the end of a long pole, was developed from the billhook). And to make it more fascinating, there are myriad regional variations on the blade shape and length, and each manufacturer had their own patterns within those regional styles. Lovely things, billhooks.

So I got to use my billhooks, which was fantastic. To begin though, I used loppers to trim bushy side-growth off the hedge, and to reduce the height of the tallest stems (which also encourages new growth and the production of defensive thorns). This made the laying easier, as some of the larger bushes were pretty big and heavy and, of course, covered in heavy thorns!

Above: this is from a later stage in the garden, but clearly shows the recently laid hedge behind me
I'm right handed, so it was easier for me to lay left to right, using the billhook in my right hand. It took me, all told, a whole weekend to do. A good hedge-layer would have taken half a day, probably!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A garden of mud and stone - part 1

When we moved into our house in May 2004, we didn't do so because of the house, an unremarkable 1930s semi. We did so because of its location, on a quiet, almost semi-rural backstreet, some three miles South of Sheffield city centre, and its situation. The street sits in the S8 postal district, which encompasses Woodseats, Heeley, Meersbrook, Norton Lees, Meadowhead, Norton and Beauchief.

It sits within an easy drive or cycle ride of the Eastern edge of the Peak District, which was important and, even more importantly for us, short of money as we were/are, it was (and remains) one of Sheffield's relatively 'undiscovered' areas, in terms of its housing potential.

Whereas areas like Nether Edge, Hunter's Bar, Walkley and Crookes have been colonised by incomers, looking for good houses in a nice area, well served by amenities and transport options, the S8 districts are only just coming to people's attention in that respect. The housing slump has put a temporary halt to any potential influx of house-buyers but I can see this part of the city becoming one of the main areas of interest once the market picks up again.

Well, I digress: I'm not blogging about the housing slump and the up and coming suburbs of Sheffield. Nope, what I want to say about our house is why we are here; what moved us to buy it in the first place.

We'd sought long and hard for a house we could afford. I, being from Pudsey, had few preconceptions about where I wanted to live in Sheffield. Jude however, had fixed ideas about that matter, wanting a house close to Nether Green, where her last house had been, so as to be close to her son, and also to the people she knew and felt comfortable with, to her area.

But the houses over in Nether Green and nearby suburbs were expensive; too much so for us. We had to look further afield. One day, hard at work in Leeds, I ventured onto an Estate Agent's website to look at houses on the market in Sheffield, and came across this one. It was Monday morning, and the house had just been added to the website. I rang Jude, who showed little interest, it being miles away from where she wanted to live. Well, a 15 minute drive or an hour's walk anyway.

But it was affordable and the description enticingly said "Backs onto woods". That last statement was enough leverage to get Jude interested enough to go and view it. We did so on the Tuesday, negotiating unfamiliar streets and driving past the house twice, before we identified it as the one we wanted to see.

The house was nice enough; a bit small, but enough for two of us and two old cats. We made an offer the very next day. The couple selling were desperate to move, and wanted a quick sale, so accepted our offer of the asking price immediately. What had really swayed us, and particularly Jude, was not just the price, nor the location, nor even the house itself, but its physical situation and what we saw, as we looked beyond the house to what lay behind it.

The house sits, somewhat paradoxically, in a tiny valley, which itself is high on a hill, some 3 miles from, and 350 feet above, the city. No risk of flooding here.

The house sits on a scarp of sandstone lying just a few feet under the soil, on a steep slope which runs down into the little valley. Out at the front, a tiny, paved patio overlooks the street and the long drystone wall opposite, and gives no hint of what lies behind the house.

The valley is bounded by broad ridges on three sides, and itself runs down towards the distant city. This has a peculiar acoustic effect, whereby the traffic noise from the various trunk roads, which run less than a mile away in three directions, barely register here, being deflected by the aforementioned ridges. Conversely, the small valley serves to channel the sounds of the city centre up the hill to us, so that on a Saturday afternoon the roars of the crowd at Bramall Lane reach our ears, and we can hear the clang and boom of distant forges away on the East of the city. But overall, we are in a quiet pocket of the land, something we never anticipated when we moved here.

On an average evening, the ambient noise is dominated by the song of birds, the sound of occasional passing cars on the street outside, neighbour's voices or music from back-garden socialising, and the wind in the trees.

Ah yes, the trees. The trees are probably the real reason we moved here.

Go through the house, and out through the sliding doors at the back, and you emerge onto a flagged patio, some 20 by 25 feet, as big as the entire garden for some houses of this vintage. This, in turn, leads to a couple of steps down onto a timber decked area, 10 feet by 20 feet, bounded on its downhill side by a wooden balustrade.

This is what we saw when we first viewed the house, as we looked out of the patio doors. And, nice though it was, it was what lay beyond that which really fired our imaginations and sold the house to us.

The decking is perched atop heavy poles, some 6 feet above the top end of a steeply sloping garden. A long, steeply sloping garden; altogether, the garden extends over 130 feet from the back wall of the house, being around 22 feet wide along its length.

The bottom of the garden is invisible from the house because, as the Estate Agent's blurb said, it "backs onto woods", to the extent that the trees swallow the garden. In addition, because of the steep slope, the house itself lies level with the canopy of the trees. Even though the woods are just a narrow strip, Ashes Wood, which is an offshoot of the larger Carr Woods (see my blog article about these woods), they are all we can see, at least when the trees are in leaf, as we look out from the back of the house.

The trees consist of numerous sycamores, some of them old and huge, with crazed and shaggy bark, so unlike the smoother bark of their younger cousins, oaks of various vintages, a scattering of silver birches, some giant ashes and venerable willows, and an underclass of hazel, elder, holly alder and hawthorn. Elsewhere in the woods are giant beeches, at the northern extent of their range, and the odd yew.

So, we bought the house. But this blog article ain't about t' bloody 'ouse, it's about t'garden. It were t'garden wot med us buy t'place, and wot really fired up me imagination, as ah stood an' looked arr it that day when wi went t'view t'place.

S'cuse my lapsing into dialect. I'm from Pudsey you know.

The garden, when we first moved in, was barely worthy of the name. The only kempt parts were the fairly new patio and decking: the rest of the garden, the other 100ft or more of it(!), consisted of a coarse grass and weed-strewn slope, with a few remnant shrubs and a clump of rhubarb, defiantly reminding me of long-past cultivation. This slope ran down the hill, past a huge weeping willow, to where an Anderson Shelter still stood, relict of the era of the house's birth at the outbreak of WW2, when it was intended to protect the occupants from German bombs.

The garden continued for perhaps 25 feet beyond the shelter, but this entire expanse was a no-man's land of weeds, rubbish, hedge-clippings, broken plant pots, dead branches and other detritus, so deep and tangled that it was a fight to make a way through/across it all, to reach the true termination of the garden. This was marked by a series of concrete posts, which had once carried a strained wire fence, but were now relegated to the role of boundary markers.

More interestingly, the boundary was also marked by a hawthorn hedge, leggy and gappy, and with most of its semi-mature bushes half buried and bent horizontal by the weight of crap plied against and on top of them. Most were still alive though, green foliage fizzing with life amidst the rot.

Stepping past the struggling hawthorns brought me to the rounded top of a steep bank, where the ground dropped away into what can only be described as a ravine, along the bottom of which, maybe 20 feet below, ran a little beck. On the opposite, even steeper bank, bluebells and ferns carpeted the ground under the trees. That bank rose, 25-30 feet, to meet a ribbon of a footpath contouring along through the woods, the angle above that easing, flattening out, until rising steeply again to meet a high mesh fence, marking the perimeter of playing fields belonging to the University of Sheffield.

Looking at all this, at my new playground, ideas popped to the surface of my mind like bubbles in lemonade, most bursting uselessly, but some floating there, coalescing around three immutable factors:
  1. We have no money
  2. The garden lies on a steep slope
  3. The woods are full of stuff
These three facts are what led the garden to become what it is now. If you're interested in gardens, then revisit the blog and I'll tell the story. I have lots of pictures too, though unfortunately none of the garden as it was before I began to work on it.

It was late August 2004 before I even put a spade in the ground and well into 2005 before I began, in earnest, to form clear ideas in my head, and to begin to translate them into a physical reality.

One of my great personal weaknesses, almost to the point of inability, is concrete, scheduled, detailed planning. I tend to form ideas which become vague plans or intentions, and which I often begin work on without benefit of timescales or precise details. They develop organically, evolving and mutating as they go, depending on what problems may arise or whether my often unpredictable materials behave as I originally envisaged. My initial 'plans' were:-
  1. Clear the rubbish from the bottom of the garden, burning the woody stuff and binning everything else, unless I saw a use for it.
  2. Rescue the hawthorn hedge and lay it, traditionally.
  3. Dig away the soil at the bottom of the garden to make a flat area, where I could build a shed and have a workspace for woodland crafts, woodcarving and the like.
  4. Terrace the rest of the garden, to a greater or lesser extent, dividing it informally into 'zones', becoming wilder and more 'woodsy' as one progresses down the garden.
  5. Have a pond, somewhere amidst all that.
That was my starting point. I had, effectively, a budget of bugger all and no materials other than what I could find or scrounge. What I did have, however, was a collection of good tools, a fertile imagination, physical ability and some of the skills needed to cultivate my ideas to fruition. Occasional injections of cash from unexpected sources enabled the odd luxury in terms of materials I mightn't otherwise have been able to afford, and allowed certain bottlenecks in progress to be overcome but, generally, I worked with found materials and made it up as I went along!

The garden has been one of my passions since moving here and, even now in 2008, it still is. It has a long way to go before completion, and continues to evolve, guiding me as much as I guide it.

I should have told this story from the beginning perhaps, but I'm a relative newcomer to blogging, and was certainly not blogging when we moved in here. My partner, Jude, has described parts of the garden and its evolution, on her blog. It's elicited such interest from people that I decided I'm going to tell the tale myself, going right back to the start of it all. I'll do it in instalments, recalling what I did and how the ideas became reality, and I'll continue, once we're up to date, so that the continuing evolution of the garden is broadcast to anyone who may have an interest in such things.

The significance of the garden's location and situation will become ever more apparent as the episodes unfold, as will our lack of disposable income. With ample money, there is no way that the garden would have ended up the way it is and is becoming. Poverty is the artist, every bit as much as I am. Hopefully I can show you that, even with almost nothing, you can create a fantastic garden, and that the resultant garden will be all the better for it, because you'll be pushed into using that most powerful and creative of the tools at your disposal; your imagination.

I intend to tell the story of how this...

Was turned into this...

Friday, June 20, 2008

I am The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Waters...

When I was a kid, in the early 70s, there were a series of Public Information Films aimed at children, mainly to do with learning to swim, staying away from railways and deep water, and not taking sweets off strange men. Some of them were genuinely disturbing, and probably wouldn't be allowed on telly these days in case they traumatised the kiddies, which perhaps wouldn't be a bad thing.

This one used to give me nightmares...

Lots of people felt the same about that one. For years it worked, and dirty, deep-looking water terrified me, and I kept away, unless there were lots of mates around to boost my confidence.

Another one I was fond of was 'Charley says...' which was a series of two or three, aimed at preventing young children being abducted, raped and butchered by sinister strangers. This was immediately in the wake of the horrific Moors Murders, where Ian Brady, aided and abetted by Myra Hindley, tortured and killed a number of small children, burying their little bodies on the moors above Saddleworth in West Yorkshire.

Charley was a stripey, animated cat, who spoke to his small boy companion in a kind of secret cat language. he was much cleverer than the boy, recognising the man in the park for the sick pervert that he was.

For a while, me and my mates used to talk to each other in Charley style. Not for long though.

This is the first in the 'Charley...' films...

I like the way "the man" walks.

Not only were we not to go off with men whose legs bend the wrong way, we were also to stay away from matches, according to our inarticulate feline guardian...

or teapots (!)...


going away somwhere without telling your mummy...

and water, obviously, in case you meet a terrifying phantom in a monk's habit, who will make matches, hot teapots and paedophiles seem like a holiday, as your nightmares become reality...

The Charley ads, of course, formed the basis for The Prodigy's first big hit 'Charly' (note the mis-spelling), back in the late 80s. Still a stonking tune...

As for the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Waters, on YouTube, I found that someone has set it to a drum 'n' bass mix...

I'll be BACKBACKbackbackback......!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

RIP Cyd Charisse

The woman with the million dollar legs died last night aged 86, in hospital, after suffering a heart attack on Monday. At the height of her fame her gorgeously long legs were allegedly insured for a million dollars (she later revealed that to be a publicity stunt by the studio).

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas in 1921, and began dancing with the Ballet Russe as a teenager.

She fell in love with, and married, a young French dancer, Nico Charisse, whom she met whilst on a European tour and who had been her dance teacher in Los Angeles. They married in Paris in 1939, providing Cyd with the surname which would later become so famous.

Her appearance dancing a ballet sequence in the musical 'Something to Shout About' in 1943, attracted the attention of the MGM studio. MGM gave her a seven-year contract and also (as they did in those days) changed her name, adapting her childhood nickname, Sid, to "Cyd".

Her great forte was her dancing, and her natural habitat was the lavish song and dance spectaculars of the 40s and 50s. Although I personally aren't keen on musicals, I can watch her in anything, and the dance sequences in films such as 'Silk Stockings' and 'The Bandwagon' are mesmerising, even for me. She was an undeniably beautiful woman, exuding a lithe, animal grace in her athletic dance sequences. It was often said of her that she wasn't a very good actress, something also said about Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth. I could argue that point; something to do with them all being beautiful and great dancers, and the jealous sniping of lesser mortals. But I won't.

Whatever you think of her acting, you cannot fault her dancing. Just watch this scene from 'The Bandwagon', featuring Cyd and Fred Astaire.

Want more? How about this, from 'Singin' in the Rain', featuring Gene Kelly. From a gorgeous red dress, to a gorgeous green one...

In later years, after the demise of the mucical, and the hollywood bias against starring actresses over 40, her career waned. She was reduced to appearing in shit such as 'Warlords of Atlantis'.

Good bye Cyd. Your legs will still go on forever.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Congratulations Manchester United!

Bet you didn't expect to hear that coming from a Leeds fan eh?
Well whatever, I watched perhaps the most exciting European Cup Final match of modern times last night, and loath though I am to admit it, the best side won. They were only just the best side though, by a whisker, but I felt they deserved it.

High points and low points?

Ryan Giggs, whom I've always admired, breaking professional misery-guts Bobby Charlton's club record number of appearances, when he came on late as a sub. Nice one Giggsy. If only you'd been English instead of Welsh, what might have been...sigh...

Didier Drogba blaming everyone but himself, every time he cocked up, and typically play acting outrageously, feigning agony every time someone made a bit of physical contact with him. This from a huge man, built like an oak tree.

John Terry's heartbreak at losing Chelsea the match when he slipped and blew his penalty. I felt genuinely sorry for him.

Carlos Tevez, playing like a terminator, unstoppable and determined, for me the man of the match, for all Ronaldo's flowery skill.

Ronaldo literally dancing round opponents, seemingly touching the ground only fleetingly, as though he weighed no more than a feather. Love him or loathe him, you have to admire him.

Wayne Rooney's anonymity throughout almost the whole game. What's happened to the British Bulldog Chewing a Wasp? Where was he? The boy wonder of Everton and his early ManUre appearances was worryingly (from an England perspective) ineffective.

Joe Cole's head-slapping histrionics when the linesman failed to award the blues a (deserved) corner. Ho ho.

The ManU players applauding the Chelsea players as they trudged up in the belting rain, to collect their loser's medals and crackerjack pencils.

Avram Grant standing in the deluge, hugging a disconsolate John Terry, his suit darkening as the rain soaked into it, looking like a man comforting his own son. Touching.

The mediaeval style crimson and gold painted executive seats, which resembled the sort of throne-like seats rich robber barons and suchlike might have sat on at major jousting tournaments in the 14th century. Roman Abramovich was sitting there.

There were loads more; the certainty that Nicolas Anelka would miss his penalty. You just knew it, as he stepped up to the ball, his body language that of a man who didn't believe in himself.

One last point: when Chelsea, and then Man United, all trooped up to shake hands with Michel Platini and the rest of the UEFA bigwigs, and to collect the trophy in the latter case, there was, strangely and slightly mystifyingly, a young woman, in beautiful national costume, standing in the row of football and Muscovite dignitaries. The players and club officials mounted the platform and shook hands with, hugged or spoke to, every man along the line of suits. The girl stood there, applauding the players, smiling bravely, as every single one of them ignored her completely.

It wasn't as if she was stood at the back, or right at the end; she was right there, prominent in the line-up. Her costume was magnificent, and made more so, flanked as it was by drab, if expensive grey suits. She herself was stunningly beautiful, so much so that the oversized, vulgar trophy that is the European Cup was completely outshone by her proximity. Not one of the players even looked at her, or offered a comment on her fantastic costume, or even acknowledged that she existed. Football eh? It's (still) a man's world.
Of course, the media this morning is predictably full of photos of the players gurning and waving their giant silver phallus at the crowd, but the invisible token girl proudly wearing her national costume can just be seen in this image (below) over on the far left...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Screen YOUR film at ShAFF 2009

Are you a budding or established film-maker who is making films about climbing, caving, mountaineering, surfing, BASE jumping, paragliding, bouldering, snowboarding, parkour, skateboarding, mountain biking, windsurfing, SCUBA diving, mine exploration, skiing, hang-gliding, ice-climbing, exploration, fell running, kayaking or any other activity which might fit under the term 'adventure', then we are looking for you!

If you fit the bill, or you know someone who does, and you think your/their film(s) might be suitable for screening at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival in February 2009, then get in touch with me at and let me know about your film.

For ShAFF 2009, I'm working as film programmer, actively seeking new films to screen at the festival, so I'm interested in any films that might be appropriate, be they 5 minute shorts or hour-long professional documentaries.

The main festival programme features compilations of films, usually up to an hour long, but sometimes longer, often loosely grouped into common themes, such as snow sports, climbing or mountain biking. It makes no odds whether the film is made by a professional production company or one girl and a hand-held camera. What matters is that the film is interesting and/or exciting, has visual impact, hopefully says something or presents something in an original manner, and that the production values (visual and audio) are high enough for public screening on a full size cinema screen (we can determine that when you submit the film).

If you think your film fits the criteria, then don't be shy, get in touch and let's see it! If we decide it's not suitable for the main, ticket-selling programme, there is also a fringe programme where such films are shown in satellite venues for free. At ShAFF 2008, these drew audiences often as large as the main events!

In addition to these film programmes, ShAFF will also be screening a wide selection of the best adventure sports videos from YouTube. If you have a clip or film on YouTube, or have found one you think is good enough in quality and content, then please send us the link! Your help is valuable, and every link or suggestion is greatly appreciated.

For anyone who is interested in submitting a film, please note that we can not afford to pay you for the use of your film. However, there are several prize categories for films screened, to be judged at the festival's end, and your film could be a winner. Aside from that, you also get your film screened at a major adventure film festival, which is pretty cool in itself!

Information for submissions can be found at the useful documents page on the ShAFF website.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


On 12th and 13th of July 2008, Millhouses Park in Sheffield will play host to the second Cliffhanger Adventure Sports Festival, which will be bigger and better than ever.

The inaugural festival took place in Graves Park last year, during one of the wettest summers on record, and was plagued by torrential rain, turning parts of the site into a quagmire. Nonetheless, over 10,000 people visited the event over the 2 days, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive, visitors recognising the value of the festival, despite the atrocious weather (you may remember Sheffield had a bit of a flooding problem last year).

This year, the site is easier to access from the city centre, by public transport, foot, or bike, and is close to the Climbing Works, the superb state of the art bouldering wall, largest of its kind in the UK, which is owned and managed by Sheffield climbers Sam Whittaker, Graeme Alderson and Percy Bishton. It is also in the heart of the S7 and S8 postal districts, which are the areas of choice for many climbers to live in the city.

Organiser Matt Heason of Heason Events is this year, of course, hoping for better weather, which in mid-July is not an unreasonable expectation! He has arranged for an open-air celebration of all that makes the city of Sheffield a mecca for adventure sports enthusiasts of all kinds.

Sheffield nestles into the flank of the southern end of the Pennine hills, the 'backbone of England', which form the moors, hills and valleys of the Peak District. More than any other city in England, Sheffield has an intimate association with these hills, which extend eastwards into the city itself, forming the 'seven hills' for which it is famous.

Of course, Sheffield has, because of this proximity to the hills, with their plethora of gritstone crags and beautiful scenery, long been a magnet for hillwalkers and subsequently, rock climbers. The famous and pivotal Kinder Trespass, led by the late Benny Rothman in 1932, where ordinary working men and women defied the upper-class landowners, to claim their right of access to the Peak District Moors, included many ramblers from Sheffield and surrounding areas. Without them, we may not have the open access we enjoy now.

It's not all about climbing though! The Peak is nowadays a legendary mountain biking destination, featuring some stunning trails and desperately technical and rocky descents, pulling bikers from all over the UK and even Europe. Whilst they rattle and bounce down the rock steps of the White and Dark Peak, down below their feet, cavers squeeze through the tight fissures underlying the limestone dales, or spin in space in the mighty shaft of Titan, part of the Peak Cavern system near Castleton (seen below). Up above soar paragliders, riding the summer thermals as they launch off the high ridges.

Meanwhile, urban adventurers in the city itself ride skateboards and bmx bikes, at venues like The House, in Neepsend, or the Devonshire Green skatepark, or on the streets themselves, competing at times with the relatively new sport of Parkour, or freerunning, which is catching the imagination of young people all over the UK, practitioners of which can be seen in Hallam Square, in front of Hallam University's main entrance.

Most of these activities are represented at Cliffhanger. The festival is a celebration and promotion of Sheffield's historic and growing heritage, often unrecognised, as a centre for adventure sports. With the growing acknowledgement by the City Council (co-sponsors of Cliffhanger) of this facet of Sheffield's culture, perhaps it may lead to further capitalisation on the attractions of the City for participants in both urban and outdoor adventure. There was even talk of turning the Tinsley Cooling Towers into an extreme adventure centre, with huge bolted climbs up its walls, and bungee jumps from walkways across the tops. Sadly not to be, and perhaps an opportunity missed. But the people who enjoy events like Cliffhanger may influence such decisions in future.

For those who can live without adrenaline bursting through their arteries, the festival is also very much a spectator event, a chance to see some of the UK's finest climbers in action, and to watch demonstrations of less obvious outdoor activities, like bushcraft, or even iron smelting! If you like Ray Mears, then you'll love the bushcraft demos. There is a market, an angling competition, white knuckle fairground rides, a SCUBA pool for you to try diving, and loads more. Above all, it's a grand day out!

To give you a bit of a flavour, here's a youtube video of some of last year's festival:

If watching all the activity makes you want to take part, then join the orienteering ultra-sprint event, a short course direct from and back to, the festival site. After that, (or instead of it), relax with a pint or two from the CAMRA-run beer festival, this year featuring a beer brewed specially for the event by a local brewery!

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Yawning Man

I yawned this morning. It was a big yawn, the sort that forces your eyes shut and squeezes out tears, whilst your face contorts like an opera singer on a high note. You can't help it.

And yawns breed yawns, don't they? You yawn, and then you can feel the next one, down in the top of your chest, like a geyser waiting to erupt.

It got me thinking of this film I saw as a kid. Saw it at the pictures with my mam and dad. Tom Thumb, with Russ Tamblyn as Tom. It was a musical. I don't like musicals, with the exception of The Blues Brothers, and maybe The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I kind of like but dislike at the same time.

Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show which, apart from the makeup, could be me in my 5th form school year photo; same expression, same pose, everything (will scan and post it to compare later)

Anyway, there was this scene, right, in Tom Thumb, where Tom is introduced to The Yawning Man, a claymation figure who comes out of a box to sing the Yawning Man song. The character is voiced by the great Stan Freberg, who voiced many characters in classic Warner Bros cartoons of the '40s and '50s.

The reason I thought of this was the way in which the scene in the film, where the Yawning Man sings his yawning song, had the effect of making everyone in the cinema yawn! You just couldn't help yourself; proof, if needed, that yawns really are infectious, and the old phrase "I caught your yawn" has some basis in truth.

So, here it is. I just watched it and it still makes me yawn. How about you?

Unfortunately, youtube no longer allow embedding for this clip, so here's a dirtect link. I challenge you to watch without yawning!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

'Klunkerz'; a film about mountain bike history, and ShAFF opening night

Well folks (if anyone's reading this), tonight is the official opening night of the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF), at The Showroom Cinema. There'll be an opening ceremony to herald several days of top outdoor action films from around the world (see my last blog entry below).

The festival has actually already started, hosting a series of FREE films at the Cafe Euro on John Street (just off Bramall lane). Last night, me and Jude went to see Klunkerz there, a great film about the bizarre mix of Californian hippies and road-racers who 'invented' mountain biking, and without which we would likely not have the mountain bike as we know it today. A great movie and totally free! Clip below...

There's a film on at Cafe Euro every night this week. The cafe is just a short walk from town, not far past Decathlon, and is worth it. So if you want to be entertained for an hour or two, for the price of a coffee or a beer, go there!
The programme of films is here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sheffield Adventure Film Festival 2008 - ShAFF

ShAFF - February 29th to March 2nd 2008

Baffin - an Island of Children

NB. all photos are authorised publicity stills from actual films shown at ShAFF; click on image for full size pic.

Above; Aerialist

Above; Committed

Next week sees the opening of what is becoming one of the UK's premier film festivals, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, or ShAFF for short. Organised by the ubiquitous and industrious Matt Heason, who also organises the Cliffhanger Festival in August, it is perhaps a little different from the various other 'mountain' film festivals in the UK and around the World.


Different? Well, although Sheffield is unarguably one of the cultural meccas of the UK climbing community, due to its proximity to the Peak District's prime rock, coupled to the self-contained climbing 'scene' which has long been a feature of the city, ShAFF reflects not just this specific heritage but also that of other outdoor activities, adventure 'sports' if you will (though I loathe the term 'sport' applied to climbing and the like - sport has rules, these activities are anarchic and self-governing, without formal structures).


These other activites include many familiar to Sheffield's climbers: mountain biking, in all its forms (and to the non biker, you'll be surprised how varied it is); skiiing (and we aren't talking ski Sunday here!); skateboarding; BASE jumping (jumping off big cliffs with parachutes); kayaking; surfing; high-lining (tightropes, sort of); kiting; ice-caving and many more.

No Friends on a Powder Day

Cerro Lautarro - Patagonia's Ice Volcano

There's even climbing animation!

Coast to Coast

Climbing itself is represented in all its disciplines: bouldering; traditional rock climbing; soloing (ie. climbing without ropes); ice climbing; big wall rock climbing; mountaineering. These disciplines have evolved over the past 30 years to the point where they are almost separate activities, and some climbers nowadays specialise only in one or two, unlike the past, when climbers would do a bit of all of these, as well as caving when the weather was too wet to climb!


The Tower

Whether you climb, ride, chuck yourself off cliffs or just want a couple of hours of sweaty-palmed excitement, I urge you to go to the ShAFF website, look at the film programme and pick yourself a film in the early part of the festival. Most are on at the Showroom cinema which is, quite literally, a stone's throw from Sheffield train station.

24 solo -XC mountain biking at its most gruelling

Just in case you're thinking that this smacks of macho flexing and testosterone-fuelled willy-waving, enshrined in narcissistic, self-referential films, let me tell you that not only will these films give you an insight into the mindset of the people who do these sort of things (who are, by and large, surprisingly normal), but you'll find that there are a lot of films featuring women, and not a few featuring people who aren't old enough to buy a pint yet.

Contrary to media portrayals of 'adrenaline' or 'extreme' sports, we're not all air-punching frat-boys, straining for the ultimate rush. Most of us find such portrayals laughable and embarrassing. Come to the bar after filming and you can probably meet a good few of the people portrayed in the films.


Tickets for each show cost around a fiver, and the reason I urge you to get a ticket for an early show is that I guarantee you'll want to see more! I ought to point out that some of the films are short, and where this is the case, they are grouped together so that no programme is less than about 80-90 minutes, and some are way longer. If you wanna see a few, use the film selection tool at the top of the ShAFF website programme.

Ama Dablam

The Showroom itself also has a large and comfy bar which serves excellent food by daytime, and is a great social venue at al times. Beer choice is restricted to quality continentals (Leffe Blonde and Hoegaarden) or generic keg beers and guinness.

The Showroom, from just outside the train station entrance

Should the Showroom prices or choice not appeal, then the Rutland Arms is one of Sheffield's finest real ale pubs and lies 150m along the road (walk along the road past the giant 'kettles' of the HUBS student's union,
and keep going til you come to the Rutland on the corner). If the weather is nice, it has a superb outdoor beer garden. This is one of the few pubs where you can sink a pint of real ale whilst listening to the Cocteau Twins, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Miles Davis or a variety of 60s ska or 70s punk, jazz, soul or folk.

Close to the Edge

The full programme is available in list format here.

20 Seconds of Joy


My name is BrianT. If you see me there, say hi, and you'll find that I'm a very friendly bloke. Hope to see you there. If you need any advice about Sheffield (pubs, food, transport, where is it?), don't hesitate to mail me at, and if you are on facebook, feel free to add me to your collection of friends.

My glamorous partner, Sheffield author Jude Calvert-Toulmin, has also blogged about ShAFF. She was recently interviewed on a local radio station, so the ShAFF entry is beneath the most recent one, about the interview. She will be taking time out from her full-time job as her own PR Manager, to attend many of the screenings at ShAFF.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin