Friday, 28 May 2010

Birding

┼×encan and I did a superb walk around the Isle of Portland on Saturday. It was a lovely day, with bright, sunny weather and a relatively short walk, which meant that we could take our time and enjoy the stroll. I remembered my previous walk around the island in 2003 with fondness, and the views more than made up for the exertion.

On the ascent up from Church Ope Cove ┼×encan found a small metal ring, pink in colour with a series of letters and numbers on it. It was a bird-ring, and there was no sign of the bird that it was once attached to.

When we got home I went onto the Internet and looked into reporting the finding of the ring. It proved to be a fairly painless process - the ring belonged to a racing pigeon, and it proved easy to report via their website. The only problem was that there was not a field for a ring found without a bird.

I thought nothing more of it until I got a letter through the post from 'The Royal Pigeon Racing Association'. It thanked me for reporting the bird and saying that the owner had been informed. Although it was a fairly proforma letter, it was very pleasant to receive it.

As a matter of interest, the owner was from Brockenhurst in the New Forest, not too far away from where the ring was found on the island.

So if you ever find a bird ring, then report it. The process is quick and fairly painless.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Porn on a train

I did a 26-mile walk yesterday, from Bath to Avonmouth via Bristol. It was a scenic stroll, and it is good to know that I have recovered enough of my fitness to do marathon-length walks with few problems.

There was a little incident on the train journey to Bath that disquieted me. I caught the seven o'clock train from Romsey, which due to the early hour was very quiet. A copy of the day's Sun lay abandoned on the table opposite, and I flicked through it for a few minutes before putting it back and getting a book out of my rucksack.

A man and his pretty young daughter - barely six or seven - got on the train at Salisbury and sat at the table opposite me. The father spread the newspaper out on the table and started reading, his daughter peering across the table to read as well. Soon he reached Page 3 and started staring at the topless woman. At this point the girl turned her attention to the window, only looking back after he had turned the page.

Later on he finished the newspaper and handed it to her. She turned straight from the front cover to page 4, ignoring pages 2 and 3. Later on she got out a set of crayons and a colouring book, which seemed to occupy her until I got off the train.

I found the father's blatant staring at the nude model, and the girl's reaction to it, quite off-putting. There was something callously unthinking about the father's actions. I am certainly not anti-porn, but I cannot help but feel that normalising young children to porn (even the low-grade topless kind) is wrong. Let them grow up in their own time.

The modern world is becoming increasingly sexualised. From pop videos that have scantily-clad women on dog leashes, to women's magazines that have covers dominated by lurid sexual descriptions ("My rape hell" being a favourite - surely the 'hell' is rather redundant). I am a broad-minded adult and these do not particularly bother me. However, if I ever have children, would I want to try to shield them from much of this? And would it be possible to shield them?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Six new walks on the website

I have added six walks to the website:
Walk #DescriptionMileageDate walked
856Marshwood to Lyme Regis 8.8 13/05/2010
855Rampisham Down to Marshwood 19.6 12/05/2010
854Bulbarrow Hill to Rampisham Down 23.2 11/05/2010
853A circular walk from Ludwell to Iwerne Courtney 23.8 04/05/2010
852A circular walk from Heytesbury to Hindon 16.5 28/04/2010
851Westbury to Warminster 19.6 26/04/2010

Additionally, a page about the Wessex Ridgeway has been added at http://www.britishwalks.org/walks/Named/WessexRidgeway.php

Monday, 17 May 2010

Kit review: Thermarest Neoair mattress

I am partial to camping. As I have mentioned before, I am not a great fan of the lightweight hiking ethic, preferring to carry a little more weight and to be more comfortable. Sometimes, however, a product comes along that meets both the lightweight and comfort requirements.

For the last eight years I have been using an Artiach skin-mat, an inflatable sleeping mat that I picked up cheap from a chop in Cambridge. It had served me fairly well, and was far superior to the foam pad that I had been using before - it was more compact and comfortable.

Recently, however, the skin-mat has started deflating during the night, and it became time to change it. I was aware that technology had moved on, and I started reading reviews of the new Thermarest Neoair inflatable mattress. All of the reviews were glowing, so with some reluctance I got out my credit card and ordered one from Backpackinglight. It comes in four sizes and I picked the regular size, the second-longest available (of small, medium, regular and large). The cost was just under a hundred pounds, and I could only hope that it was worth the money.

The mattress arrived two days later, along with a few other small bits and bobs and a tube of complimentary sweets. I munched on the latter as I opened the mattress packaging. My first impressions of the mattress were positive - it was much smaller and lighter than I had expected when rolled up, about half the weight and size of the skin-mat (see right). The underside has a reflective barrier, whilst the top surface is a rather sickly yellow-green colour. One problem with ultralight gear is robustness, but the mat did not feel particularly fragile; the material seemed strong and fairly rip-proof. Having said that, it will be less robust than (say) a thick foam mat, and I wold not want to use it without a ground sheet.

I inflated the mattress in our living room, much to the amusement of a Turkish house-guest who was staying with us due to the disruption caused by the ash cloud. Again, my impressions were positive - the mattress is far thicker than the skin-mat, slightly longer (I had ordered the long version) and warmer against the skin. The only downside was that it took much more puff to inflate it; hardly a major problem.

It took me a few minutes to deflate it and roll it up, a process that proved surprisingly difficult to get right first time. I spent a night sleeping on it in my small Jack Wolfskin Gossamer tent, and it proved to be a brilliant mattress - comfortable and well insulated from the ground. The only problems were that it was thicker, reducing the head height in the cramped tent, and that it took me an age to deflate and pack up.

Last week I set off on my first backpacking trip with the new mat. My first night was spent wild camping on a grassy lowland hillside. The pitch was uneven, but after checking for any sharp objects I inflated the mat. It was a cold and frosty night, but at no time did my back feel a chill from the ground. It proved easier to deflate after a little practice, the secret being to get rid of all the air before even trying to pack it up (rolling the skin-mat up ready for packing tended to squeeze all of the air out; the air escapes into other parts of the Neoair if I try this, a bit like squeezing a half-inflated balloon). I let the air out of it as I was lying on it, and a sign of its insulating properties is that my back got cold as it deflated.

The next night was spent on a slightly-sloping campsite, and again the Neoair performed sterling service. One of the problems with camping matresses is slipping down it during the night, causing you to have to shuffle up every few hours. This did not occur with the Neoair despite the slope, perhaps due to the lateral ridges on the surface.

Although I have only had limited experience of this mattress, I have been very impressed. If you are going to be doing a great deal of camping then it is well worth the cost. My only nagging doubt is about how robust it is: unlike a foam or self-inflating mat, when it deflates it is essentially useless, with no insulating value at all. Time will tell, but for the moment I am more than happy with this mattress.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The future of the website.

It is strange to think that I have now spent over 850 days of my life on what I call my 'official' walks - i.e. ones that I put up on my website afterwards. My reasons for starting the website now seem naive - I had just recovered from a serious operation on my ankle and wanted to walk the Pennine Way. I gave myself a year to do it, and decided to log my walks to judge the progress of my recovery. Since I was working on web-enabled devices, it seemed natural to put those logs on the web. There was no grand plan, no great idea, and certainly no revenue stream. Then, as now, it was a labour of love. I had no idea of the monster that the website would eventually become.

I completed the Pennine Way slightly behind schedule - I started in August, fifteen months after the operation. In the process the walking bug well and truly caught me. The Pennine Way marked the start of my love of walking and, what is more, the dawning knowledge that I could walk.

Naturally enough the Pennine Way went onto my website, as did many other walks afterwards. When I walked around the coast I spent many hours typing notes into my tiny Psion 5 before putting them onto my PC and sending them to a friend for uploading. Now, just eight years later, it would be much easier to update the 'site from the road, and many hikers blog as they walk.

It is hard to conceive how many hours I have spent not just walking, but also writing those walks up afterwards; annotating my notes and photographs, writing the scripts that create the pages and replying to the many emails that I receive. For every ten hours that I walk, I would reckon that I need to spend five on the website. It is a heavy workload, but one that I find hard to drop.

Unfortunately the wonderful world of the web has moved on. Britishwalks.org is about as Web 1.0 as you can get; it is not interactive, has no forum and is stylistically dated (although a competent programmer, I am certainly not a web designer). Over the years I have squeezed more and more information onto the pages; walk profiles, distances, some panoramas, and now, finally, Google Earth Maps. One thing became clear as I added the maps: the current page layout is broken and cluttered.

Additionally, the scripts that generate the pages are increasingly obese and obtuse and are in desperate need of a good rewrite. A small amount of work can pay dividends. Yesterday morning I sped up one particularly slow script: before it took ten or eleven minutes to run; afterwards it took a little over a minute. That script is run several times whenever I regenerate the website, so the savings are considerable.

For these reasons I have started a redesign of the website. I am happy enough with the main index page, which seems to do its job in an unfussy manner. All walk pages will gain a map of the route (if not as recorded at the time with my GPS, as recreated afterwards), and will be laid out in a more user-friendly manner. The 'site will not become Web 2.0 (an awful phrase that covers a multitude of sins), but will hopefully become more user-friendly.

This is easier to say than do. I am fairly happy with the HTML, PHP and Javascript coding that would be required, but the page layout is a different matter. I am looking at various other websites, looking for ideas and concepts that I can steal^h^h^h^h^h borrow for my site. Essentially this will alter the look-and-feel of the site. In the meantime there may be some oddities. These things are not easy, especially when there are near to a thousand pages to be altered.

I can only hope that people get as much joy from reading britishwalks.org as I got from doing the walks.

Regards,
David