Sunday, 29 April 2012

Challenge Number 20 – Solve A Medium Level Sudoku

A few years ago, Dave bought me an “easy Sudoku” book for my birthday, and it pretty much took me until my next birthday to work my way through it. So it was time, stealing this challenge from Sam, to up my game and move on to the next level. I trawled through the Guardian archive of puzzles and, rather than making a completely random choice, I spotted that they had a medium level Sudoku on my birthday this year, so that’s the one I picked. It had a rather nice symmetry to it too. It took me about half an hour to complete. I could actually feel my brain hurting all the way through.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Challenge Number 30: Take Charlotte To An Aquarium.

I actually completed this challenge a few weeks ago but haven’t managed to make time to write about it until now. I love aquariums (aquaria? Wikipedia says both terms are acceptable, but that doesn’t make it true). As I can’t even swim breaststroke with my face in the water (and no, you don’t need to tell me how rubbish that is), I know I’ll never be a deep-sea diver, so the opportunity to see exotic marine life while breathing normal air is one I relish. Over the years, I’ve seen some very cool aquariums in some far-flung places – Baltimore, Genoa, London, Singapore – but Charlotte had to make do (at least for now) with The Deep in Hull. 
Oh, but she loved it. She didn’t stop running from the moment we arrived until the moment we left. The place was one giant ramp as far as she was concerned, which is currently her idea of heaven. (Really, we could have taken her to a building site and she’d have been just as happy.) But she was running around making her (unaspirated voiceless bilabial plosive) fish noise so must have been noticing at least some of the tanks as she raced past. Chasing Charlotte means it’s all a bit of a blur, like the photograph, but I’d definitely score The Deep very highly on an aquarium ratings system. It has a glass tunnel under one of its tanks and a lift that rises up through another. It has sharks and information about environmental responsibility. It has a nautical themed soft play area. It serves fish and chips in the restaurant.
Technically, The Deep calls itself a submarium, which I believe is because a lot of the action takes place under the River Humber, but what the heck, it’s an aquarium. And we took Charlotte. And I hope we can go back to see some more very soon.

Challenge Number 34: Bake 40 Loaves Of Bread In A Year.

I’ve managed to bake five so far. All using the breadmaker, but that’s allowed at the moment.
Numbers one and two were on a rapid bake white loaf setting. The first (half-eaten with daffodils in the background on its photo) was for some friends who came to lunch. The second contained olive oil rather than butter as Charlotte had been throwing up and tends not to tolerate any dairy for a while after a stomach bug. The yeast I used for both loaves was also about two years out of date but the loaves still rose OK. I did have some yeast in date; I just removed the wrong packet from the cupboard. 
The third loaf was made with in-date yeast, still a rapid white loaf, but on a darker crust setting. As it turned out, there’s a fine line between darker crust and burnt crust.
The fourth loaf was done on a normal length bake setting, and contained mixed seeds. This was the best loaf I’ve made so far. But I was worried that the pumpkin seeds were just the right size for Charlotte to choke on, so I didn’t let her have any of this one. Seems completely paranoid in retrospect.
The fifth loaf was to feed our friends Ann, Rich and Tom as an accompaniment to leek and cauliflower soup, and was once again a rapid bake white loaf. I need to organise myself to bake bread more than two hours before I need to eat it, then I can diversify a lot more. But hey, there’s a nice fruit bowl in the background of the photo of this loaf at least.
Am I really going to post about 40 loaves of bread on this blog? It seems that way. If I don’t, you won’t have proof that all 40 loaves existed, but I'm sure you will find reading about and looking at them more than tedious. So part of the challenge is to make loaves of bread seem more interesting, I guess. 

But I’m an eighth of the way there on this challenge! 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Two Half Challenges: Part Two

Challenge Number 27: To visit both Clapham Junction stations
This challenge was also half-completed during our week in Dentdale. Technically, North Yorkshire’s Clapham Junction station no longer exists as it was on a branch line shut down by Dr Beeching, but Clapham station does, on the Leeds to Lancaster line.
I chose this challenge because I lived in Clapham SW4 for nearly two years during my time in London, renting a small room in a shared house (shared with a German who liked to practise home colonic irrigation and complain when I opened my bedroom drawers too loudly) for half my salary (before bills). I spent a further two and a half years in SW postcodes after that, with Clapham Junction station always a regular fixture in my commuting and weekend life.
North Yorkshire’s Clapham embodies everything I craved when living in the capital – fresh air, a babbling brook, beautiful scenery all around, great countryside walking, a quaint, peaceful village. And Clapham Junction embodies everything I miss about London now that I’ve moved away to North Yorkshire – excellent public transport, a 24-hour multi-ethnic buzz, and great bars, shops and restaurants just a short hop away.
Both Claphams exude wealth and class privilege. Both, as it turns out, have traditional London taxis.

Two Half Challenges: Part One

The going on the Settle-Carlisle railway challenge of course allowed me to half-complete another, Challenge Number 37: Take Charlotte To See Both Her Parents’ Home Towns, as Carlisle is where Dave grew up. I established a family tradition as, like my mother before me, I married a man called David from Cumbria with a PhD. Dave was actually living in Carlisle for the first few months after we got together in 2001 (working as a political assistant for the –ahem- Conservative party of the city council), which meant a lot of time spent on the far less scenic Virgin West Coast line, trekking to and from London. This sounds crazy now (it must have been love), but having tried to conduct a transatlantic long-distance relationship when I was a teenager, the journeying really didn’t seem too big a deal. Besides, rail fares were super cheap that year after the Hatfield crash forced so many speed restrictions to be imposed, thus doubling most journey times. And Cumbria, in the grip of foot and mouth, was glad of the extra visitor, I’m sure.
Charlotte had actually been to Carlisle once before, to her grandparents’ house on Boxing Day, but she’d never seen the city centre. I’m not sure what she made of the place, but she decided to inject some cool by insisting on wearing her sunglasses throughout lunch. Or maybe she just felt the need for disguise.

Challenge Number 35: Go On The Settle-Carlisle Railway

I chose this challenge because it was just one of those things I’d always been meaning to do. Every time we drove along the A65 past Settle on our way to see my dad in Grasmere we’d say “We must go on the Settle-Carlisle railway one day” and that would be all we’d do about it. So given the opportunity to stay for a few days at a friend’s converted barn in nearby Dentdale, we decided to finally seize the opportunity. Although Dent was our nearest station on the line we decided to do the full route, as travelling from Dent we wouldn’t have been able to go over the Ribblehead viaduct, which once you’ve seen it from the road just has to be done. Two further massively impressive viaducts cross the end of Dentdale which you would also miss if you only travelled from Dent station. (Although that said, the viaducts are often scarcely noticeable from the train itself.)

We had a week of very mixed weather, but our journeys on the day were mostly clear, and torrential rain only set in once we were safely back in Settle. We boarded the 9.50 to Carlisle and returned on the 14.04, with just enough time for a quick stroll around the remarkably sunny Cumbrian capital and a very bad lunch in Pizza Express (having a serious off day) in between. And the railway journey really was stunning. It is beautiful every inch of the way, and totally worth the steep £22 return fare. From the forbidding peaks of Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough, through dry-stone walled limestone valleys, past remote sheep farms (“Look at baa-baas!” said Charlotte, between readings of the Gruffalo), over the aforementioned viaducts, and then through the lush Eden valley, with the Lakeland fells in the distance, covered in snow like Alpine peaks.

It would be wrong not to pause and remember all those navvies who gave their lives building the Settle-Carlisle railway in terrible weather and working conditions, armed with only their brute strength and the occasional stick of dynamite. We must also give thanks to all those who devoted their lives to sparing the railway from closure in 1989, and who still help run and maintain it as a partial charitable organisation today.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Challenge Number 38: To Take Charlotte To See The Queen And/Or The Olympic Flame

Conveniently, the Queen decided to visit York today for the traditional handing out of the Maundy money in the Minster. York's celebrating 800 years as a self-governing city, she's celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, Micklegate's decided to reinvent itself as a nice place to be - so all in all, lots of reasons for a party.

I dressed Charlotte up in her Sunday best (you know, just in case Ma'am decided to stoop down and speak to her) and we headed off to a remarkably sunny Micklegate, where the Queen was going to ask permission to enter the city (she has to, apparently) at the Bar. The empty Royal Car drove past us as we entered Nunnery Lane at Bishopthorpe Road shops, going to pick up Her Maj from her Royal Train at the station. (There's never any taxis, you see.) Charlotte and I entered the walls at Victoria Bar and found a front-row spot outside Micklegate post office. Charlotte had a Union Jack flag, but before long she'd chewed it, dropped it and let a little boy stamp on it and break it, and there was still no sign of the Queen. Sigh. But eventually the ceremony at the Bar was over and convoy came past, heading to the Minster. I got a quick glimpse of the Duke of Edinburgh smiling and waving but then got so distracted trying to take photographs (one picture got flags in the way, then the camera was resetting, then she was already past) that my recollection of the Queen is rather fleeting and consists of little more than a turquoise hat. I'd like to say Charlotte saw more, but she seemed to be busy enjoying the hovering helicopter above us, the helium balloons floating skywards, and the buttons on the coat of the lady standing next to us. But however little Charlotte may have taken in, I took her to see the Queen.

Next stop: Olympic Flame on Bishopthorpe Road, June 19th 2012.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Challenge Number Five: Grow Something New

My friend Beth phoned to ask if I could use a spare bean plant from her back yard improvement project. It seems as good a “something new” as any.

I haven’t grown vegetables since I was in the Brownies. The highlights of my vegetable patch back then were a row of wimpy lettuces that couldn’t thrive as my dad had allocated me a corner at the very bottom of our garden where the sun never shone, and a pumpkin that looked quite impressive until I turned it over and realised half of it had been eaten by slugs. My brother subsequently annihilated the patch by digging a giant hole, the reason for which I can’t quite recall, but it was probably something more scientific than merely trying to escape from the clutches of our family by burrowing to Australia. Anyway, eventually we buried our dead cat in the hole when he got hit by a bus so it came in useful in the end.

So back to the bean plant. Beth couldn’t remember if it was a broad bean or a runner bean plant. Maybe someone less novice than me will be able to tell from the photos, but I think it will be exciting just to wait and see. Either will be most welcome, should it thrive. Our back yard gets about as much sun as my childhood vegetable patch so I can’t hold my breath on this one. I’ve also had to cover the tub with an improvised cat deterrent, since our boys Ingo and Otto have a habit of using my flower tubs as litter trays.

After Easter, I may try and get some tomatoes under way as well...

Challenge Number Ten: Do “Something” For Charity

On March 17th, I volunteered for a day in the cafe at the NCT Bump And Baby Fair. I baked some orange and poppy seed muffins (which I assure you tasted better than my icing makes them look). I piled these and other cakes onto plates, priced them all at 75p and then completely failed to remember my 75 times table (the trick of being good at the numbers round in Countdown) when it came to adding up customers’ bills. I also forgot what people had ordered in the first place as soon as I turned away from the queue towards the hot water urns. "I'll have three teas, two coffees, two chocolate brownies and three slices of carrot cake, please." "So that's er, two teas, how many coffees, one muffin and a which cake?" I was spectacularly useless, and this only added to my fears that my brain will never recover from having a baby.

However, I’m not sure that the day really counts as doing “something” for charity since I was only there because I was selling piles of Charlotte’s old clothes and all sellers have to volunteer. And I made £82.55 on the day, which I get to keep. I’ll come up with something less mercenary as the year progresses. But this is just in case I don’t.