Saturday, May 30, 2009

Back on Track...

Argh.

The first 5 minutes of waking up are always the worst. Blurred vision, mild (temporary) headache, mild temporary hypersensitivity to sound...

To be completely honest, I'm still knackered.

*twenty minutes later*

Right, I feel ten times better now, in fact, apart from the fact that I can feel my skin beginning to tighten up in response to the ultra-violet assault it's been under all day, and the fact that my right (again, always my right, why?!) shin is a little sore, I feel fantastic.

Today has heralded a return trip to Strensall, the army training center that I last visited in january last year. Having got my army application back on track, I was given a date for a bunch of assessments, and the assessments tiptoed closer and closer over the course of the weeks.

After a fairly sleepness night (so damn hot, doo damn nervous), I woke up at 06:45. True to form, about 25 minutes before I was due to get out of bed. Too early to get up, too late to go back to sleep. Damn.

Grabbed some weetabix, grabbed a banana, and off we went.

30 minutes later, after light traffic, we stopped wenting, and got busy arriving. There was already a crowd, one of the sergeants I recognised, and another lad who must have been along to provide moral support or some such.

My banana - of the yellow variety, had turned out to be related to the one I grabbed for the last assessment, as this one also not only opened itself, but bent in the middle the wrong way, revealing a mess of banana pate.

Turns out that in an attempt to get the day through as quickly as possible, lads were already going through their icebreakers even as they were waiting for the transport. The principle's simple - it's designed to test your ability to talk in public, to measure your confidence and communication skills.
Even as our lads were working their way through their icebreakers, I noticed once again how many 16, 17 and 18 year olds there were, and how few 22+ lads there were. Not sure why, the max age for joining is 33 so something must be going awry somewhere.

Remember gobby Simon? The cute, lovable but gobby fifteen year old kid from last year's selection?
I was certain that I saw him again in the crowd. Surely it was Simon, back for a rerun.

Except this kid, a sixteen year old called Josh, was a brand new kid. So hey, so what, someone new to make friends with.

To my pleasant surprise, one lad, from Mombasa no less, turned out to be 25. The scary looking (but ultimately very friendly and sociable) heavily tattoed lad turned out to be 24, which was cool. Not only that, but he and I were both after the same job. Tank Crewman on the Challenger 2.

Geez, I dunno, 24 and I'm developing an age complex already.
We had a young woman introduce herself, telling us she was from Uganda, which I, in my ignorance didn't even know was in the Commonwealth.

I've brushed up on it a little since then.

Soon enough, the coach turned up. Not a little pissy minibus like last time, a big coach driven by one of xyz 1234 squadron's transport division's finest. As we started moving, we continued with the icebreakers. I started mine, got into the intro, and then described the job I wanted to do and the role I wanted to go for.
"I want to join the Royal Armoured Corps, as a Main-Battle-Tank Tank Crewman. As soon as the words got out of my mouth, the big scary bald lad in front of me stared intently.

"Yes" I said to him, in a look, "We are both gonna be tankies, dude". The same hopes for the same job, knocked barriers down straight away. We kinda hit it off in a non homo totally heterosexual brothers-in-arms type way. We're both gonna be tankies. Screw rifles and 4 ton transport wagons, those poor guys carry their weapons - me and [whatsisname?] Our weapons are gonna carry us.

Better than last time. No pauses, no struggling for words, just (as was requested) two minutes of waffle to keep the assessors happy.
A short trip later, and we were in Doncaster to pick up some other kids. The bus filled up some, and off we went again.

I got chatting to the young lad behind me, just for something to do. This lad was determined he was gonna become a Para, one of the British Army's finest. Fair play to him, if he's got what it takes, he's a stronger young man than the majority of us there. He looked the type. Very short hair, your typical US Army haircut. His expression didn't give much away.
As time went on though and we headed over to Strensall, I got to know the lad a little. He was 18, nervous about the upcoming selection, but pretty sociable. At one stage I figured I was boring the lad, but just as I go quiet, he pipes up with another question - remember, I've done this before. Fair enough, it's nice to be wanted.

Again, we headed north. Past Ferrybridge Power Station, past Tadcaster Brewery, tunnelling through the tunnels, under underpasses, over overpasses, and all without resting at rest stops.

We got there eventually. The streets and little roundabouts and country lanes became more familiar, eventually the one or two houses dotted along the side of the road gave way to a long perimeter fence, which gave way to the entrance to Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Strensall.

We turned up, in time honoured fashion, with full bladders and (according to one lad who didn't put too fine a point on it) other pressing needs. Still, we were directed into the nearest prefab building.

It's at this point that we get marked up for the day's events. Coloured bibs were handed out left right and center. My bib? Red. My number? One.

Red one, RED ONE!, Red leader, you couldn't make it up!
I sat there, in my t-shirt, with a red bib, the giant "1" on it.
"This takes the piss. If they made a movie of my life no one would believe it".

Due to having recently imbibed three strong beers, my memory is a little hazy at this point.

The first order of the day was to drop our stuff off in the "classroom" and then "dress" (go) outside for the first test of the day. Which turned out to be the Jerry Can Carry. Two jerry cans full of water, weighing 25 kilos (55 pounds) a piece. Take one in each hand, and at walking pace, walk 150 meters without dropping them, or putting them down.
Joy! I only barely passed this last time.

The "course" looked fearsome enough, but when we overheard that it was only 25 meters end to end, and we'd have to do it six times each, nervous glances started shooting back and forth.

We dressed forward in a number of ranks, six I think it was. The instruction came to pick up the jerry cans and get ready to walk. As soon as I gripped them and lifted them, fifty kilograms of dead weight pulled my arms to my side.
"For fcuk's sake" I thought.

"Okay, walk with me" calls the sergeant, and keeping pace we get to the end of the first "lap".
"Turn to your right, so as not to hit the guy next to you" we're told. At the end of lap one all I'm thinking about is how much these bastards weigh. The water sloshes around inside them, and the cans seem to move of their own free will.

We get to the other end, then back, then back again, we finish a third circuit.

As I head up to the end of the fourth lap, my confidence starts wavering as the cans seem insurmountably heavy. They've gone from pulling my arms against my sides to pulling my shoulders out of their sockets.

Two of our number, two girls (not saying anything about girls, just saying it as it was!!!) dropped their cans, one after the other, at the end of the fourth lap. "you've passed" says the sergeant. As I listen on, the pain in my hands temporarily forgotten, he mentions to the two that "you only need to do 100 meters to pass", and we're carrying 150 meters.

"Right you bugger, I'm not being fcuked around with, you want 150 meters, you'll bloody well get it", thinks I.

At the start of the fifth lap, the cans slip, almost out of my grip. Steeling myself, grabbing them by my fingertips and forcing my hands tightly closed, I end up with the handles digging into the flesh between my knuckles, hurting more than they did before.

But slowly, we get towards the end, each footstep takes us twice as close to the end, and remembering last time when I all but threw my cans down, I take care to lower them to the ground, with a grin, having just passed.

As the first group, we get the most rest while another two or three groups do their thing. "Your cans hit mine on the turn" says Para Boy, grinning. I shrug. Nothing I can do about that, I was busy trying not to drop the damn things.

Eventually though, we're all back together and we're marched into the Gym.

PTI Bastard is nowhere to be seen, this time we have a guy who seems a lot less scary (while commanding the same respect! don't let anyone say otherwise!) and more sociable. We've got to do the heaves again, measuring your ability to lift your own bodyweight.
In the field, maybe in afghanistan, fighting house to house, there'll be a few times when you've got to pull yourself up through a window into a building. If not, there will be times when you need to scramble up a wall and get down the other side while Terry's letting loose at your sorry arse.

Hence this assessment - how many times can you lift your bodyweight.

This time could have gone better. I was towards the back of the queue, and watched both in admiration and in contact embarassment as the strongest of our group did 20 pullups/heaves, his muscles sticking out far enough for him to crack his head on. The little sod.

Others didn't fare so well, one lad dangling from the bar, seemed content to stay there, as his feet pedalled in circles, scooby-doo style, as if he was trying to gain purchase on the very air itself. I would have cried out of horrified pity, but I've seen worse.

Then, for all my arrogance, came my turn.
I jumped up, grabbed the bar, and my fingers almost lost grip there and then.
The varnished wooden bar, slick with sweat, was none too easy to grip, but still determined to pass, I began.

Up, down. "One"

As I began my second ascent, it was clear I'd misjudged my body position. As I lifted myself up a second time, my legs swung forward, pulling my hands and the bar away from me.

"Two".

I pulled myself up a third time, swinging violently like a pendulum, the anger on my face. I'd trained for hours to be the strongest I could be, but because of poor technique, because of the slick sweat-lubricated bar, my strength may as well have not been there!
I felt my body and head going backwards as my feet narrowly avoided hitting the PTI in the chest, and with an angry grunt I half lowered, half dropped myself onto the floor.

"Three".

I managed five last time, I wasn't tired, not even a bit, I could have done better, if it wasn't for my technique and that fcuking bar! I know, they say a bad workman always blames his tools, but I was riding a goddamn motoGP bike with one wheel!

I wandered over to the corner, dejected, embarrassed and angry.

I was one of the last to do the test, and so, quickly, we were told to go outside ready for the run.
This was it, the bit that I would have put off if I could have, the hardest, most horrible bit.

We got led around the route, same as last time. No humour, nothing nasty, just a quick route tour.

We got back to the start, the same place PTI bastard told us he hated our guts, 18 months ago.

"I'll give you a tip" says PTI-not-bastard. "Stick to the left hand side, and you'll knock about 200 meters off your circuit. 'cos the guys who measured it, didn't measure it properly".

Course I'm a veteran of MotoGp games, I use the racing line when i'm walking, much less when I'm on the scoot or whatever, Stick to the racing line and you will have a fecking easier time!

"Go" he says.
"Big deal" I think to myself as I sprint off. This isn't like last time.

This isn't where I nearly make myself throw up because I don't know how to run, this is about setting the best time I can. There's no point doing the first lap of a 2 lap race in 4 minutes if you're puking like a dog with food poisoning halfway through lap two. Pace yourself. Don't stay behind to help your mates, and don't expect them to stay behind to help you. I set a decent pace, breathing hard, I would have sworn but I was too busy breathing out of my arse. I passsed para lad, using what scragged breath I had free to grunt some kind of encouragement to the kid. "Keep up with me" or something like that.

A couple of dudes I'd never seen before passed me. I got mad, I got angry, towards the end of lap one, in the 27C (80F) heat, with no breeze, I was bloody angry.
I thought about giving up, I slowed a couple of times, in front of me, lads that I were chasing suddenly dropped behind me. Others that were far ahead and lost to my sight appeared again, leaning against trees, feeling sorry for themselves.

What could I say? It was hard, I found it very hard. But if I couldn't even run 1.5 miles in trainers and trackies as a civilian, how the hell would I run it in combats and boots?

"It's hard, and it's only going to get harder" I thought to myself, as I powered on. I got to the end of the main straight, the main road into the camp, before it turns off into the backstreets around the mess halls, the training buildings etc.

I was narrowly aware of someone, no, two people overtaking me. One talking to the other. Neither was our para lad. "He has to be somewhere behind me, he'll be close by" I said to myself.
The two lads passed me, one, our lad from donny with the bright purple hair as his mate runs alongside shouting support. "Fcuk this" I think, "I'm not lagging behind. I'm staying here" I thought and glancing around, acknowledging the lad behind me who is also breathing out of his arse at this point, "you are not passing me!"

We got past one of the outbuildings, as one lad - another unfamiliar face - passed me, before we turned the corner though, he was back behind me. The lads in front kept pace, as i closed in on them. We turned the final corner, to the home straight, which horribly, wasn't straight, and it wasn't until we got past the elbow in the corner that we could see the instructors shouting us on.

"Come on! Get a fucking move on! Come on lads, hurry it up! Close in!"

"Fuck this" I thought, I've just done a mile and a half breathing out of my arse, I'm not going to show a weak side now. Like a total dick, All the reservations, all my reserves, second thoughts and pacing disappeared as I sprinted to the end. My first priority was to finish, now it looked like that was a cert, my new priority was to finish well. I sprinted, grunting and swearing, my legs making small circles behind me as the sergeants cheered me on.

I got 11 minutes exactly. 11:00.
How about that.

I sprinted to the outbuilding next to us to calm down. Don't bend over, don't lie down. Stand straight, stand tall. Anything less, and you won't get the oxygen in your lungs.

Sweat pouring down us, our words coming in ragged gasps, we shared "victory tales" and compared times and experiences. The fastest was our little lad Josh, at 9 minutes 9 seconds. (very, very very fast by the Army's standards). the slowest (that finished under their own power) came in at about 14 and a half minutes.

As for my lad, my mate, the para kid...
DNF, all the way, or not as the case may be. The kid hadn't kept himself hydrated, he hadn't been drinking water, and even as he ran past, the sergeant could tell by his red face that he was struggling, and he said to him "I don't want you to run anymore".

We repaired to the changing rooms.
As I and a few other lads were getting ready to get a nice cold shower, the younger lads were blushing and inspecting their fingernails.

"Come on lads" I said, "You didn't think you'd join the Army and NOT have to shower together did you?"

Eventually I manhandle myself over to the shower which is pretty vacant - our lot would rather be scruffs than be clean. I climb into the shower with a warning "Look all you want, just don't fcuking touch!"

I hit the nozzle, right before I yell obscenities.
The water is cold, no heating whatsoever, even as I'm backing away, I'm swearing.
Then I notice my forehead is dripping with sweat and I smell like a moose.

"What the hell" I think, and throw myself under the shower.
"How is it?" ask the other lads.
"It's okay mate, a bit warm for me" says I, getting out of the shower and laughing to their cries of anguish as they cover themselves in ice.

After the showers, rehydrate, get water down your throat, and listen to the sergeant.
Our sergeant sat us down and talked to us about the dangers of dehydration. The dangers of isotonic sports drinks, the trouble you get with drinking lucozade before a run.

The general synopsis is that the best thing to drink before, during and after physical excersise, is water, H20, and water. And don't let Glaxosmithkline tell you otherwise.
Water, Water and water. Not lucozade, not sports drinks, Water!

Next comes dinner. Even as we enter the building, I see the "Sodexo" signs above the door.
The Number of the Beast himself may as well have been carved into the wooden doors.

Back in the day, when I was a boy of seventeen, a young man in the TA (British Army Reservists) our food was provided by chefs of the Royal Logistics Corps. Army chefs trained to serve army soldiers with good solid food.

Since then, under Gordon Brown (I spell his name with capitals, because it's the last fcuking time it will happen in his lifetime) and the various politicians have outsourced practically all functions of the army. Now we have a french company called Sodexo providing all the British Army's food.

Isn't the EU awesome, eh?
Bleh.

So the army is outsourced to contractors, Sodexo provide the food, some european company provides our ammunion, what the fcuking hell happened to an army being self sufficient?

I'll tell you what happened to it! New Fcuking Labour!!!

Back in the day, the army used to blast an an enemy out of his position with artilliery, before the soldiers move in to flush the stragglers out. Then our lads would move in, set up ammo dumps, kitchens, forward operating bases, etc.

These days, it seems that we don't do wars anymore, we only do "combat engagements".

"The historians can't seem to settle whether to call this one "The Third Space War" (or the "Fourth"), or whether "The First Interstellar War" fits it better. We just call it "The Bug War" if we call it anything, which we usually don't and in any case the historians date the beginning of "war" after the time I joined my first outfit and ship. Everything up to then and still later were "incidents," "patrols," or "police actions." However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an "incident" as you are if you buy it in a declared war." - Johnny Rico - Starship Troopers.

We do the combat then some wiseass civilian contractor moves in. Some guys who don't carry weapons, who don't do the fighting, but because they're not PAID to fight or to be anywhere dangerous, earn quadruple salary just by being in a warzone.
Jackasses.

Anyways, we make our way along the queue to the food, under the watchful eye of the food guardian. We keep an equally close eye on this guy to make sure he doesn't drip any sweat into the food, and we grab whatever he's touched the least.

For me, pasta and meatball bologneise, with chips.
Can't complain.

I'm enlightning the guys about the virtues (or lack thereof) of sodhexo and how much the regular army hate them (their new policy, "pay as you dine" (or known amongst the soldiers, Save as you starve) having proved deeply unpopular, I'm busy slagging Sodexo off to all and sundry when the grins and giggle in front of me go quiet.
"What?" I say...
"What were you saying about me?" says sergeant whatsisface who has magically appeared behind me.
To a completely unconvincing burst of laughter from the lads in front of me, I manage to get out "Absolutely nothing, Staff".
He took it in good humour - I hope.

Eventually, time comes to assemble for the command tasks - an assessment of your ability to function as part of a team.The first two teams go off and do their thing while we sit in the sunshin and chill, waiting for the slots to become available. The birds were singing, we were laid back throwing questions back and forth with the local sergeant, one of whom recognised me as an ex reservist. Nice one.If a little embarrassing.

Eventually time goes to do one of the command tasks.
We turn up under some big-ass tree, a beech or something. Below it is a gravel pit, bordered by wood, maybe eleven feet wide and 22 foot deep (3.5 meters x 7 meters deep)

In the middle of this pit is a wooden frame, two logs buried into the earth, standing vertical.
Between them, is lashed another log to the horizontal.
From this log hangs a tyre, like you'd find on a tractor.

The helmets go on.
"Right" says the sergeant.
"Say that this gas canister" - he points to a heavy LPG bottle at our feet "is ammunition - you need to get it to the soldiers at the front".
"You don't touch the floor, at all.".

"You can use the ammo boxes to get across".

Great. Crystal maze, let the timer begin!!!

Picture here:







So we got two minutes to plan what we were gonna do, and ten minutes to get round it.
The sergeant counted out the seconds, "you can start planning...now".

Which was followed by a profound silence while the ammo boxes laid there in the dirt.
At which point I piped up (Do I sound bigheaded? Damn right I do, I practically lead the entire team to victory!)

I noticed the planks on the floor. "What we should do is get those boxes, throw them towards the tyre, and rest the plank between the two, walking across.
So who's gonna be first across?"

Course, my idea, I get to try it out. Under the watchful eye of the sergeant, I'm edging across a wooden plank balanced on two ammo boxes, on top of a virtual minefield, as I grab hold of the tyre.

"FFS" I think as i edge through the tyre and pull myself vertical before setting myself down on one of the ammo boxes on the other side of the tyre.

"You ready for the ammo" said my mate on the other side, right before he tossed the gas bottle through the tyre at me.

I wasn't, but I figured I could handle the weight and keep my balance.
It was a close thing.

30 seconds later, witha big grin, I tossed (gently enough to not break it) the "ammo" gas bottle to the other side of the obstacle, and my buddies started following through the tyre, down to my side.

At which point the sergeant called time on the exercise.
With two minutes to go, he called a halt to the proceedings.

Seems me and my pals (my pals and I) had already crossed the obstacle, carrying the cargo, and to all intents and purposes, had succeeded.

But the rest of the "section", a section being 8 people, had done fcuk all.
I don't know this, I didn't see them doing this, I was too busy getting the job done.

Me and maybe two or three pals had concentrated on getting the ammo through, while the other four or five stood there thinking "hey look at those guys doing that thing", and the sergeant pulled us up on it, big time.

The end result? Had we been assessed as a team, we would have passed.
Since we were assessed as individuals, based on our level of participation, three out of eight passed.
And me?
I got the highest score of all, the score for best participation and the credit for leading the team to a pass. Apparently I was the only one who did any real talking, and had we been allowed to finish, our entire team would have got across with the cargo, from one side of the obstacle to the other.

When we finished, the sergeant asked me what job I did.
I told him that I rode pizza scooters for a living.
You could see the gears grinding in his mind - "that doesn't account for it"
"What job did you do before?"

I told him I worked at a call center.

Apparently that accounts for my "great communication skills".

In the words of a Sergeant of the British Army, I have a "Very Strong Personality".
You'd have to shove a helium balloon up my nose to make my head any bigger than it is now :-D
Apparently, and I made sure to listen in to make sure I wasn't getting confuzzled with someone else, as soon as the exercise started, I started banging ideas, and solutions and strategies out."Do you lot know how to do it? Well I do if you don't, listen in"...

Personally I think I was being a gobby knowall.
But hey, I aced that test.
One of our team, a poor spiky haired fifteen year old kid failed with zero score, big time kick up the ass. He stood there in the command task and for 10 minutes didn't say a thing.

His fault, his loss, I still feel sorry for the kid. He got off the coach with a face like a wet weekend.

We got on the coach without much warning, "Is that it?" and it was.

Our scores were called out on the way home. Did I pass?
I did.
I don't know what happened with the heaves or whatever, but I managed to pass pretty well.

And on the way home, we slept, we chatted, we reflected.
those that didn't pass today will pass later.
Maybe para boy will get his place in his regiment.

Let's see how things go, eh?

EPILOGUE:

It's just gone 4am, and the sky is already brightening. It's that shade of blue that promises a beautiful day. The dawn chorus is as beautiful as it's ever been, and by the looks of it, we're in for another lovely hot day.
As for me, I've been chilling out, drinking beer for the last 6 hours. I'd be lying if I said I was stone cold sober, but hey, I've got cause to celebrate.
Just about everything that can go right, has gone right. I've done the assessments that I was dreading, and I've passed every single one. I went thinking I'd have done well to scrape a pass, and as it was, I stormed through it.

So lets hope that before long, I can become a British Soldier.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my day as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Here are today's tunes.

"All Summer Long" - Chris Rea
"All Summer Long" - Kid Rock - hey, look at that! (scuse the advertisements)
"Gott ist ein popstar" Yikes! - A German band, getting angry in English!

Sums up the start of what looks like it's gonna be a beautiful summer :).

And this day didn't cost me a single penny. It cost me not a pound, nicht ein deustchmark, awesome stuff.
I've been in a better mood than I've been for ages.
At least for today, life is good, and I've got a week off :).





Sunday, May 24, 2009

New gear!

Not much to report, I'm afraid.

Sorry I haven't been active of late, there has been absolutely nothing going on in my life. Work, eat sleep, get drunk, hangover, work eat sleep, etc. week on week of this, without change, let or hindrance. Or at least it feels like week on week, I haven't been able to tell recently.

I've managed to order some sparkly new photo gear to go with my Think Tank Digital Holster 50. Not content with carrying it about with its shoulder strap, which although comfortable and unobtrusive, defeats the entire bloody point of having a belt mounted system, I've finally stumped up the cash to buy the Think Tank "Pro Speed Belt". A photographer's version of the army's webbing/PLCE system.

To spread the load further, I've ordered a double-wide lens pouch, a pouch on my left side that I can just drop my lenses into when i'm done with them. Twice as wide as I expect to use, but hey, My equipment grows from month to month.

One of the priveliges of being up at this time is seeing the sunrise. and at this time of year it has to be mentioned.
there's not a cloud in the sky, the sun scythes across the rooftops, the shadows as sharp as a knife-edge, the entire world is turning into a beautiful orange, and I'm sat inside watching the contrails as dozens of passengers above fly to andalucia, florida, etc.
I don't think I'll be outside today, but hey, after weeks of rain, it's a beautiful sight.

17:32. "I don't think I'll be outside today". How wrong can a guy be.
I have spent the day outside helping my dad do 101 things with the garden, not the least of which was to repaint the roof with silver sun-reflecting paint. And the sunrise?

Well there's another success story - too much so in fact.
After the crappy weather of the past few days, the heat is absolutely insane (for this time of month and this part of the world). It wouldn't surprise me if it was nearly touching 30C (86f). I'm pretty certain I'll have got myself sunburnt, which I will probably begin to feel tomorrow. But for now, I'm doing much the same as everyone else, which is wandering around outside marvelling at the nice weather, then coming inside to try and escape the worst of it.

Nuts!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lots of greenery, lots of walking, lots of overdraft!

Hmm, where to begin.

Work has been pretty uneventful, and after some rapid and violent fluctuations in my finances ~(during which I blasted through my newly established "safety zone" overdraft to the tune of 200%), I'm now back in credit and happy to leave it like that. Let's leave the money idle for a couple of weeks, the payments I need to make will be made automatically, and what's left is mine, all mine and only mine.

Anyway...

My mum has this habit of springing things on me. She'll wait until either I'm sobering up after a heavy night, and just about to go to bed, or completely asleep and unable to understand what's going on, before coming out with "right we're going to xyz and everyone's coming along".

She's done it twice in the past couple of weeks, and to be honest, both times have turned out to be okay. Sure I felt a mess at the time, but lots of fun was had by all :-).

First stop, Chestnut Park, or something like that.
Synopsis? A load of hills and trees in the middle of nowhere, within which is cunningly hidden an otter and owl sanctuary. It was cool. I always figured otters were little things the size of squirrels or whatever, turns out (the larger ones) are closer to the size of small dogs. Tame too, these guys would come right up to the fence dancing with excitement in the hope that we had food for them. I noted with surprise that when the largest one, a Giant Otter called "unknown name" decided he was bored, he grabbed his food dish with his teeth and threw it into the pond, before leaping after it and grappling with it in much the same way that a dog would play with a toy.

When he was tempted back to land by a bowl full of fish, the guy tucked into it. Damn, those things are noisy eaters.

It was a good day out. Granted, I managed to lose the eyepiece off my camera (it's probably in a stream somewhere now) but it was a good day nonetheless.

Today!

Today, I crawled into bed reluctantly at about 4am. Having just eaten, I didn't sleep particularly well, and it was gone 5am before I fell asleep.

At 9am, my mum sticks her head round the door, and asks me if I want to go to Fountains Abbey. Of course, I was happy to go, eager even, as I'd always wanted to go and see what it was like. The sun was out, the weather was (very!) hot, and it was a beautiful day.

On the way there, we stopped in Ripon for a bit of lunch - and this is where I go off on a tangent...

Salad!

I've never really been a fan of salad. I'm not a panda so I don't see any benefit in eating leaves and stuff like that. Don't get me wrong, I love fruit but lettuce and stuff like that? No thanks.

But, my mum took me along to a place in Ripon called "The Warehouse", despite its name, a rather quaint olde-english cafe/tearoom thing. Fair enough, nto KFC but then I'm not paying am I :-).

Following my mum's advice, I ordered a ham salad, and I was amazed by what turned up.
This thing was fantastic - I didn't wanna take a photo cos people would have looked at me weird, but it was easily the best salad I've ever had.

Loads of lettuce, onions, cucumber, coleslaw, potato salad, eggs, tomato, and nice thick tender and incredibly tasty cuts of ham, served with a hot breadroll and butter that ISN'T flash frozen before being sold.
Sure a salad is a salad is a salad, but this was good! A tad expensive at nearly £7, but very very good! The best salad I've ever had.

Check out the place, it's a bit... Well, suited to senior citizens, but the food is really good.

After stocking up on pork crunch (I love the stuff!), we eventually made our way to the Abbey, about 20 minutes out of the town.

Abbey!


I'm not going to go into the history of the place because there's already a link to the wiki article up there somewhere. But it was fascinating walking around the place, and seeing these magnificent buildings still (partially) standing after so many hundreds of years. Testament to the skill of their builders, and to the care of their er, carers, no doubt.

And yet. As I said to my mum after a fantastic day taking photos of this and that, the beautiful scenery, the gorgeous sunshine, fields coloured white or purple by thousands of flowers, I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad to see the abbey in that condition.

At its peak, the place would have been huge. The abbey itself is a large building even by modern standards, and it was surrounded by many smaller buildings each with its own purpose and function, all built in this fantastic Cistercian architectural style.
Today, it lies in ruins, inhabited by no one except squadrons of pigeons and families of tourists.
It seems that the place is being built back up very slowly, but never far from my thoughts was the fact that this place was every bit a cemetery for an entire community, as it was a museum dedicated to their way of life. It was beautiful, stunning, and sad in equal measure.

That said, as my mum says, things change, and the communities that the abbey housed didn't die, they just moved on. Apparently Cistercianism is alive and well, elsewhere in Europe.
Not that I share their religious beliefs of course, or any at all, for that matter. But nevertheless, it is nice to know that the community avoided destruction.

But hey, I'm a tourist, not a historical curator.
A beautiful day, a really nice day out :-).

If I seemed a little distracted or noncommital, please bear in mind that I started falling asleep about 3 hours ago on the way home, and at the moment am only awake because of coffee. If I don't sound like I'm concentrating, it's because at the moment, I'm not really with it - sorry!

Still, here are some photos (In no particular order).

Have fun!