Film Review: Gravity

I’ve been seriously slacking on the blogging front lately, sorry!  I haven’t had all that much to write about, I’m afraid.

I recently saw the film Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I’d never heard of it until I saw a poster on the side of a bus (old fashioned marketing still works in the digital age) and was sufficiently intrigued to look it up. What I saw convinced me to see it.

The film centres around a rookie astronaut, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on her first trip into space where she’s helped by George Clooney’s retiring veteran Matt Kowalsky. There’s an accident and they end up the only survivors of their mission, with the shuttle too damaged for them to return to earth. The film is the story of their attempts to survive and to say much more would ruin it!

The film does a spectacular job of conveying the vastness and loneliness of space, helped by spectacular (and seamless), CGI which must have taken years to plan and produce. The effects are staggering, but never showy. It’s designed to be watched in 3D and while I’m not normally a fan of 3D, it did work for this – I was particularly impressed by tears floating towards the camera in zero gravity.

I can easily see this film walking away with a good handful of Oscars and confidently predict it to be at least nominated for Best Actress, Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

If you can handle the tension it’s easily worth watching.

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Lake District Adventure Holiday

A few weeks ago I headed up to the Lake District with the family for a week. I’d been able to get a caravan cheaply through work so why not? We were based on the shores of Ullswater, which was perfect. It’s a beautiful lake, much more rugged than, for example, Windermere, but also with a few small centres of civilisation so it doesn’t take half an hour to go out for some milk.

During the week, I climbed 3 mountains (Blencathra, Helvellyn and Skiddaw), swam in the lake and canoed to an island and around the southern section of Ullswater, as well as seeing the Aira Force waterfall. It really was a great week! Naturally, I took my camera – here are some shots.

Ullswater with the fells behind

Blencathra

Hall’s Fell Ridge – our Blencathra descent route

Our routes were chosen to be exciting – on Blencathra we chose to ascend via Sharp Edge, a narrow rocky ridge, and descend via Hall’s Fell Ridge, which is almost as bad! A bit of scrambling and climbing brings interest to any walk!

A mini waterfall in a brook at the bottom of Blencathra – photography practice time!

After a day’s rest we tackled Helvellyn, 3rd tallest mountain in England. Striding Edge was to be our ascent and we planned to descend via Swirral Edge and then Catsty Cam.

Our lunch spot on Helvellyn!

We decided to stop for lunch before taking on the mighty Striding Edge. Lots of other people had the same thought but full credit to my brother for spotting this place for lunch – what a view!

Helvellyn’s Striding Edge

View from Helvellyn

Our walk up Skiddaw was a bit less exciting. Not only is the route less interesting than Blencathra or Helvellyn (no ridge walks) but the weather was bad and got worse. It was quite cloudy on the lower slopes – this is the best shot I managed to get – but as we got higher the cloud surrounded us completely so we couldn’t see a thing. It also started to rain and the summit was incredibly windy, so between the cloud, the wind and the rain it wasn’t the best mountain experience of my life! At the summit there’s a plaque showing what you can see in the distance on a clear day, which was pretty annoying as we couldn’t even see the edge of the summit plateau!

View of Keswick and Derwentwater from Skiddaw

On the last day we went to Aira Force, a 62 ft waterfall. I took my camera tripod on the holiday for that reason and that reason alone, so I was able to experiment with slow shutter speeds to blur the water. I was really pleased with the results!

Aira Force from a distance

Brook at Aira Force

Aira Force and bridge

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Restaurant Review: Fumo, Birmingham

Having had Fumo recommended to me a while ago, I suggested it as a venue for dinner with some work colleagues last night.

Fumo, at 1 Waterloo Street in the heart of the city centre, is an Italian with a difference, offering what we might call Italian tapas. These small plates are known as chichetti and are a Venetian idea.

Unfortunately, you can’t book unless you’re a large party, so we were rather surprised to be able to be seated immediately on a Friday evening. The restaurant was quite busy so I think we were just lucky! The menu is divided into several categories, including breads, meats, salads, pastas and pizzas and they suggest 5 or 6 dishes between two people. There was so much choice that making a decision was difficult but I eventually plumped for Sicilian Arancini (fried rice balls with a ragu filling, much nicer than they sound) and Trofie di Pesto, a pasta dish with green pesto. Both were very nice and the pasta in particular was a large portion for a small plate, albeit somewhat lacking in variety as it was just pasta with pesto and parmesan cheese. We also had two portions of battered calamari on the table which I tried. The batter was lovely but the calamari, as is so often the case, was chewy and rather tasteless in my view. On the other hand, I always feel that way about calamari but the others who ate it enjoyed it immensely so maybe it’s just me!

The food comes whenever it is ready which means dishes keep arriving, but it’s not a problem as it started appearing very quickly. My colleagues and I all enjoyed our dishes greatly. A few of us also ordered desserts. These took rather longer to appear and once perhaps 10 minutes or so had passed since we ordered we flagged down a passing waiter to ask after them and request the bill. We weren’t complaining but wanted to explain that two of the group had a train to catch. He disappeared off to check on them and returned to apologise and tell us they would be complementary. You can’t say fairer than that!

I was a little disappointed with my Torta di Caprese (chocolate and almond torte) when it arrived as the body of the tart wasn’t rich enough for my taste, but the chocolate topping was delicious.

All in all the bill came to £140 between 6 people, which isn’t bad when you consider that we had 5 cocktails and a cognac between us. The cocktails are on the pricey side (ranging from £6.50 to £9.50) but there is a huge choice. The bar seems to be rather popular and that led to my main complaint about Fumo – it’s rather noisy. It was a strain to hear conversation at times over the music and bustle of the restaurant. Fumo is designed in a stylish, modern way, but that means there are lots of hard surfaces and no soft furnishings to absorb sound. We were sat near the bar though so it may well be that the problem isn’t as bad in other parts of the restaurant.

Overall, 7.5/10. I’d happily go back.

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Bucket List Update: Have A Photograph In An Exhibition

This item in my Bucket List has a full title of ‘Get a Photograph Published or in an Exhibition’ and having had a picture used in Christmas cards last year, I had already ticked it off. Now, though, I’ve doubly completed it as 3 of my photographs are currently in display in an exhibition.

Since last September I’ve been attending a photography class, starting with the beginners’ class and progressing through intermediate to advanced. Our tutor suggested that after the advanced class we might like to hold an exhibition and a number of us jumped at the chance! Unfortunately I was away for the opening night (I’ve just come back from a week in the Lake District – pictures to follow) but I was able to go and see them all yesterday. It’s quite thrilling to see my photographs on display in a real exhibition!

IMG_2419

My section of the exhibition!

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Book Review: ‘Our Man In Havana’, by Graham Greene

I haven’t done a book review in months – I’ve read plenty of books, just got out of the habit of reviewing them!

Having never read a Graham Greene novel before I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I picked this up, but I did have the impression that it was a serious spy novel. Not so much, as it turns out.

The story focuses on Jim Wormold, a British expat living a quiet life in Havana with his daughter. He has a shop selling vaccuum cleaners and is fairly content with his life, including regular meetings for daiquiries with his German friend Dr Hasselbacher. One day, however, his life is turned upside down when a British secret service agent tries, in somewhat unclear and bumbling fashion, to recruit him to be their ‘man in Havana’.

Wormold tries to say no but Hasselbacher convinces him to take their money and send made up reports in exchange. Wormold gets sucked in to the lies, inventing other agents who pass him reports and creating imaginary military installations by drawing the internal workings of his vaccuum cleaners.

It’s the Cold War and London needs all the intelligence they can get on Cuba so they devour his reports urgently, and even send him more staff. Wormold has no idea how he’s going to keep his inventions secret but then, reality starts to mirror fiction in any event.

It’s a quick read at 220 pages and I felt it kept the humour light enough to not become too silly. I also liked that you do get a good sense of life in Havana from the book. Reading it has certainly made me more likely to read other Graham Greene novels in the future!

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Recent Nature Shots

It’s been ages since I posted but I haven’t had much to say!

I thought I might blog quickly about some nature photographs I was able to take this weekend whilst out in Worcestershire with my walking group. I was really pleased with how they came out!

I spotted a dew covered web in the grass on the side of the footpath through a field. I didn’t even realise at first, but someone else pointed out that it was a funnel web spider! I’ve never seen one before and later that same walk I saw another 5 or 6!

I didn’t get any shots of the actual spider but I was able to photograph the dew-covered web and the cricket perched on a blade of grass above it:

After that I saw a thistle – symbol of Scotland in deepest Worcestershire:

A little further on I stopped briefly to photograph a dandelion with its seeds ready for dispersal. I think these were my favourite shots of the afternoon:

I was out on a walk so you would think that my main subject would have been landscapes, but actually the haze and cloud meant that it was better to look nearer for inspiration!

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Two Castles 10K Race Completed

As I posted a while ago, earlier this year I signed up for a 10k race as a bit of a challenge. I chose the Two Castles, the course for which is between Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle. I thought that would be a bit more interesting and notable than other courses.

The race was last Sunday and despite having to get there far earlier than was really necessary, I actually quite enjoyed it. My aim was to complete the race in under an hour. I’d managed it in training but I wasn’t sure how plausible it was for the actual race, because it’s quite a hilly course and obviously there were lots of other runners around, which there aren’t when I trained!

I’m delighted to say I finished in 56:51 which, as well as being comfortably under my 1 hour target, is the fastest I’ve yet run the distance.

Local people came out to support the runners throughout the race and cheered for other runners as well as their own friends and family. The crowds were thick in Kenilworth, especially up the hill at the end. For some reason, I didn’t struggle with the hill at all. I’d deliberately planned a training route which had some hills but I think it was partly because I had a bit of a second wind at that point – I was so keen to finish in under an hour!

Before I ran the race I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it again. Now, I’m not so sure…

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Brecon Beacons Walking Weekend

I spent last weekend walking with my brother in the Brecon Beacons. It’s an idea that had been brewing since the weather on a weekend away last March ruined my plan to walk Sugar Loaf.

View of Pen – Y – Fan

We drove down on Saturday morning for the first day’s walk, which was a 9 mile walk around the Pen – Y – Fan horseshoe, taking in Corn Du, Cribyn, Fan – Y – Big and Pen – Y – Fan (the tallest mountain in south Wales) itself. All four are in a horseshoe ridge shape, though there is quite a drop and subsequent climb between some of them.

The walk done, we headed to the hostel where we were staying and had tepid showers before driving up to Brecon where we ate some Chinese.

Summit view from Sugar Loaf

The next morning we drove to Sugar Loaf. We had printed some instructions from the internet but the directions to the parking for the start of the walk were impossible to follow, so we ended up parking elsewhere and finding our own way using the map. This made it a much shorter walk – we were back at the car less than 2 hours after we set off – but that was just as well as we had to get back. Sugaar Loaf isn’t part of a range so the views from the top are truly panoramic and because it’s not as high as Pen – Y – Fan there were far less people, which is always nice!

Both great walks, I’m very glad we got to do them!

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Bucket List Update: Sail a Boat #2

Following on from my first attempt at sailing last year, last weekend I took to the seas again.

I’ve been getting emails from the Tall Ships Youth Trust for a while and keeping a close eye out for a suitable trip. The Trust is a charity which runs sailing trips primarily for young people, but runs adult voyages as well.

The trip I found really appealed because it was a circumnavigation race of the Isle of Wight, which is a bit more adventurous and interesting than other sailing trips. My dad, who has always wanted to sail, came with me.

On Friday we arrived and got settled in on the boat. We were assigned to Challenger 1, the first of the Trust’s four 72 foot Challenger yachts. They have been around the world the wrong way twice and weigh 50 tonnes! We had a tour of the boat and sailed over to Cowes, practicing some sailing manoeuvres (tacking and jibes) before mooring for the night and heading into Cowes for some fish and chips.

It was an early night as the race start the following day was due to be 6 am, which meant getting up at 4am! There’s not much space on board and the beds are narrow cots – difficult to get in and out of and impossible for larger people to sleep on their sides, but not uncomfortable other than that.

I wasn’t great at the sailing because I didn’t have time to really get to grips with what to do when, but I got stuck in! Our skipper, Mike, volunteered me to go out over the side of the boat on a climbing harness attached to a pole holding a sail out to the starboard side. I was happy to oblige! The view of the boat was completely different from 10ft away from the vessel!

Winds were relatively low most of the time so we spent large periods of time sitting around moving very slowly! The circumnavigation is 50 miles and took the whole day to complete. By the end it was clear we weren’t going to improve on our third position and we returned the last short distance under motor because the wind was almost non-existent at that point. We had to be back in good time to make the dinner for all four crews at the Island Sailing Club, which was actually great fun. Our crew of 12 volunteers (with varying experience of sailing), two volunteer watch leaders, and the paid skipper and first mate, were a great bunch with interesting lives.

I had a cracking weekend. I’m really pleased I got to do it and I’ll be looking out for another trip – maybe this time on the Trust’s 200 foot tall ship, the Stavros S. Niarchos.

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Roadtrip Recap Part 5: Las Vegas

Fabulous Las VegasThe Strip at Night 2Caesar's Palace TempleThe Strip at Night 1Rock On!The Rialto at The Venetian
Fabulous Las Vegas (Black and White)Mandalay BayInside The PyramidCasino In New York New YorkStatue of Liberty at New York New YorkCampanile and Rialto at The Venetian
ParisThe Eiffel Tower at ParisView from the Hoover DamLake Mead from the Hoover DamIntake Towers at the Hoover DamThe Grand Canyon From Eagle Point
Hulapai Native DanceThe Grand Canyon from Guano PointThe Grand Canyon from Guano Point 2The Grand Canyon From Guano Point 3Lights and AnglesCaesar's Palace and The Bellagio's Lake

So, on to the final part of my roadtrip recap!

After our morning in the Hollywood Hills and driving out of Los Angeles, we hit the Interstate for the drive to Las Vegas. It takes about four hours, but the further you go the more interesting the desert landscape becomes.

We arrived about 7.30pm. It was dark and as we stopped at a red light just off The Strip, we took the opportunity to put the roof down on the Mustang. If you’ve got a convertible, you have to arrive with the roof down. It’s the rules. The effect was spoiled somewhat by the fact that the radio was playing perhaps the least appropriate ‘Arriving in Las Vegas’ song imaginable – the live version of ‘Candle in the Wind’ by Elton John! It was funny though, so we didn’t change the station.

We checked in at our hotel, The Flamingo. It’s in the middle of The Strip so it’s easy to get about from there and it’s reasonably priced – though our room was next to some sort of cleaning cupboard, around which the maids gathered every morning at about 8am, talking rather loudly.

Sin City

Once checked in, we went out for the evening. With all the neon lights, Las Vegas looks far more impressive at night, though the seedy side of the city is also more apparent. There are people handing out cards for hookers and advertising strip clubs all day, but they multiply enormously at night. It’s hilarious though, more than once I witnessed these people try to pass a hooker’s card to a man walking hand-in-hand with his significant other. Nobody takes the cards, so you end up with pavements littered with business cards featuring naked women. It’s an odd place. Even the bar we ended up in that first night, in The Cosmopolitan, had three dancers in booths above the bar. After a drink or two, we decided we had to spend a couple of dollars on the slot machines (it has to be done, after all). I even won a couple of dollars. Another day I decided I had to play a table game and promptly lost $20 at roulette.

Guns, Guns, Guns

The following morning we tried one of the buffets for which Vegas is famous. This was at the neighbouring hotel, Ballys, and was ok but nothing special. Fortified on eggs and American solid bacon, we went to the Las Vegas Machine Gun Experience for go at a shooting range. They offer various packages at about $150 each, but they allow you to split the cost between you. One of my friends and I split the ‘Zombie Hunt’ package which let us fire an M4 machine gun, 12 guage shotgun and a pistol. The M4 was my favourite and the recoil of the shotgun hurt! The world is now safe from zombie Father Christmas. You’re welcome.

The staff at the shooting range got their minibus to drop us off at a bar they recommended a little out of town. After a quick drink, I left the others to enjoy happy hour and walked back into town to look at the hotels. I stopped by the famous ‘Welcome To Las Vegas’ sign – the picture above has been thoroughly photoshopped to remove all the distracting wires behind it! From there I started at that end of The Strip and went to look at a lot of the hotels: Mandalay Bay, Luxor, New York New York, Excalibur, Paris, Caesar’s Palace and The Venetian. After dinner we went to a KISS-themed glow-in-the-dark min golf course near the Hard Rock Hotel. Strange, but fun!

The Grand Canyon

The next day was the one I’d been looking forward to – the Grand Canyon! On the way we made a brief pit stop at the Hoover Dam, which is an impressive piece of engineering.

I’d assumed we’d be heading to the main tourist area, the South Rim, but my friends understandably expressed some unwillingness to make the 4-5 hour drive. Instead, we decided to go to the West Rim. While the North and South Rims are operated by the National Parks Service, the West Rim is run by the local Indian tribe, the Hulapai, who own the land. This meant a bouncy journey over a very uneven unpaved road to reach the visitor centre and an almost complete lack of any explanatory information about how the Canyon was formed or its importance in the culture of the Hulapai.

However, the scenery was impressive! Your ticket includes a free regular shuttle bus running between four points – the visitor centre, viewpoints Eagle Point and Guano Point, and Hulapai Ranch. We didn’t have time to go to the ranch but did enjoy the views from the other stops. The scale of the place is enormous, and the West Rim is apparently less impressive than the South! I’ll have to go there one day. Unfortunately, the choice of the West Rim meant no helicopter ride, which I’d been really looking forward to. We did discuss taking a night flight over The Strip instead but in the end there wasn’t time for that.

More Views

On eventually making it back to Las Vegas we went to check out the Fremont Street Experience. Fremont Street is the old Strip; they’ve covered several blocks over and the roof has a light show. It was busy and had a better atmosphere than the main tourist area, but there wasn’t that much happening so after a late buffet dinner we split into two groups. Three stayed there and the rest of us went to The Stratosphere. It’s a large tower hotel, 110 or so floors of it, at one end of The Strip. We had a drink and enjoyed the night-time view of the city from the 108th floor bar, while being impressed at the guts of the people on the amusement rides on the top of the tower. One of them involves riders jumping off the top of the tower and falling down a line to a landing pad hundreds of feet below!

Leaving Las Vegas

I had planned to spend the Friday at Zion National Park, which looks amazing. One of my friends had intended to come with me, but once we had arrived in Vegas he told me he wasn’t sure he was going to want to do all that driving. What I should have done was push him for a definite answer so I could book a tour if I needed to, but I thought he might decide to come after all, so I didn’t. After the Grand Canyon, I asked for a definite answer, was told ‘no’ and tried to book a tour, but it was too late. It was disappointing, but in some ways it might work out for the best. There are holidays which purely go around the National Parks in the American southwest, which would allow me to spend more time at Zion than a day trip as well as visiting other parks I’d like to go to, such as Bryce Canyon, Arches and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Instead, our final full day began with perhaps the best food of the holiday – breakfast at the Caesar’s Palace buffet. It was expensive, but worth it. We arrived at ten to eleven – they change the menu to the lunch menu at eleven, so we loaded up on the vast options of (mainly) breakfast food before realising that there was a dessert table and stocking up there too!

We then went to look around the shops, mostly within Caesar’s Palace. The whole thing is done on a Roman theme, with statues and the like scattered everywhere. For the last night we wanted a really nice meal, so after a recommendation from the Concierge we booked Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, Saypo. The food was pricey but lovely!

We finished off the evening by watching the free fountain display at The Bellagio (excellent) and the Sirens of TI show at Treasure Island (awful, but also free) and a few drinks.

While the holiday wasn’t perfect and I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to (helicopter flight, whale watching trip, Zion National Park, second day in Yosemite), with a group of eight people there will always be some compromise. I got to see so many places I’ve always wanted to go so I can’t complain!

The only problem is now I need another epic trip to look forward to… maybe Peru next year?

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