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The big grey man of Ben MacDhui

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the May 2014 issue of Spotlight

We’ve got one of those.”

I turned my head to see if the voice was talking to me. I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for the bus that would take me to the foot of Ben MacDhui for a day’s walk on one of Scotland’s wildest mountains. I hadn’t noticed the old man.

He pointed at the newspaper I was reading.

“We’ve got one ofthose,” he repeated.

I looked him up and down: short, with a tough appearance, a white beard.

“You’ve got one of what?” I asked.

“One of those.”

He tapped the headline in the newspaper: “New sighting of yeti.”

“Up there, he is,” he said, and he nodded towards the mountains, still topped with snow, although the summer was already here.

“Tell me more,” I said, trying hard not to smile.

“Saw him with my own eyes,” the old man went on.“Thirty years ago, it was. A Sunday in the early spring. The snow was still deep on the mountains.”

He turned his head and spat on to the road.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I was up there, and I’d got myself a wee bit lost. The wind was getting up, and it wasjust beginning to snow again. Then I heard it.”

“What, the yeti?” I said, eyes wide.

“Not the yeti — and anyway, we don’t call him that round here. No, it was a groaning sound, someone in pain.I followed the sound, and I found him.”

“You found the yeti?” I asked.

“No, not him. Just a man. Lying by a big rock. His eyes were closed. Snow was settling on his clothes and face. I leaned down and put my hand on his shoulder. His eyes opened wide, and he screamed, trying to get away from me, whimpering and waving his arms around. ‘Calm yourself down,’ I said. ‘I’m here to help you, you fool.’”

The old man spat again and continued: “So he started talking to himself. In Gaelic, it was: ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr’— the big grey man, that means. Kept saying it. ‘Where’s the trouble?’ I asked, looking for an injury. I touched his leg, and he howled — broken. He wouldn’t be walking off that mountain.”

“What did you do?” I asked the old man, beginning to find the story interesting.

“Aye, what was I to do? The snow was coming down,the wind was blowing. I tell you, I began to fear for both me and him. I had flares in my rucksack, but there was no point in sending one up in a blizzard. I couldn’t leave the man there to die. So I decided to build a snow hole to keep us safe for the night.”

“A snow hole? You’re joking,” I laughed.

The old man looked me up and down, from my newboots to my new jacket.

“You haven’t spent a lot of time in the mountains,” he said to me.

“You’re right,” I admitted. “Please, tell me more.”

“Well, anyway,” the old man continued, “I found a good spot and started digging. It was tough work, and it was dark when I’d finished, but there it was: an ice cave. So I pulled the man in, lit a couple of candles and closedup the entrance.”

The old man stopped for a moment, and then he leaned towards me. “It was a wild night,” he said. “Thewind was howling like a hungry wolf until…”

The old man’s voice dropped, and I leaned closer.

“Until… in the wee small hours, as the wind dropped, I heard something else out there in the icy dark. First, I heard footsteps crunching on fresh snow; then a deep-throated breathing, and a snuffling of something sniffing the air, sniffing the ground, searching, hunting. Closer it came. The man beside me, who I had thought asleep, began to whimper again. ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr,’ he whispered. Then there was a scuffle and a crack, and something squealed terribly as it died. The wind began to moan again.”

The old man stopped and studied my face. “Well, the morning came, and the sun was shining, so I sent up a flare, and all we could do was wait. I left the man in the snow hole until a helicopter from Dunmarne airbase saw us. They were putting him on a stretcher, when he started muttering in Gaelic again. The paramedic says to me: ‘So you’ve been having fun with the big grey man, have you? Tall as a house, all covered in hair, they say.’”

The old man blew his nose loudly. “Well,” he continued,“after the helicopter left, I started down the mountain.I went past the rock where I’d found him. And there it was.”

“What, the big grey man?” I asked, surprised.

“No, it wasn’t the big grey man. It was the head of a mountain hare, torn from its body. There it was, lying in apatch of red snow. When I saw that, I started to run. I ran down that mountain, and I didn’t stop until I reached the village.”

The old man rubbed his beard.

“Maybe it was just a dog,” I said as I stood up. My bus had arrived.

He grinned. “Maybe. — Anyway, enjoy your day onthe mountain.”

Coming home

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the March 2014 issue of Spotlight

An early-morning heron rose from the shadows as Frank climbed over the wooden stile into the next field. The bird flapped its large wings slowly and flew in the direction of a church tower in the distance. The red-brick tower was the only part of Tilbury village that could be seen from here.

“You will be going to the village pond,” thought Frank as he watched the heron disappear, “or the lake on the other side of Harding Woods.” Like the people of Tilbury, the local herons didn’t travel very far. They were born here, and they died here, without ever seeing much of the world in between those two events.

Frank walked straight across the field. Ahead, he could see the old gate that would bring him out on to the road. Beneath his old, brown, leather boots, the ground was mostly soft, but it crunched in those places where the mud was still frozen.

As the spring sun rose higher, the land around him was emerging from what he had been told was Britain’s worst ever winter. Beyond these fields, there was still snow on the higher hills that surrounded the valley, but yesterday’s biting north wind had gone now and had been replaced by warmer air flowing in gently from the west.

Once through the gate and on to the road, he stopped to rest for a moment, putting down his khaki rucksack on the wall and taking the weight off his bad leg. As the months went by, it was getting better, but sometimes the pain made him close his eyes and breathe hard for a few seconds. Mostly, though, he just ignored it and got on with the job, did his duty.

He heard a vehicle coming closer from the direction of the village. As it came round the corner and over the Millstream bridge, he could see that it was a post van driven by a young woman. She stopped the van and stared at the weather-beaten face and sun-bleached hair of the stranger for a few seconds, a questioning look on her own face, as though she were trying to remember something. Then she opened the van window, smiled and called out to Frank, “Are you all right?”

He nodded. “Yes, fine. Just resting.”

She nodded in return and drove off down the road.

He lifted the heavy rucksack back on to his shoulders and crossed the bridge, following the road into Tilbury. As he entered the village, he looked up at the sign hanging outside the Rising Sun pub. Although the paint had peeled slightly here and there, the cheerful face of the yellow sun smiled down on him as it always had.

Across the road from the pub, though, the village shop was gone. The old building remained, but the shop itself had become The Village Tea Rooms. He stopped to lookthrough the window. Inside, a man and a young girl were cleaning and polishing.

Frank stopped again outside old Mrs Westcott’s cottage, leaning on the wall of the prettiest garden in the village. The curtains were different: bright and modern, not the rose pattern he remembered. On the lawn were a toy car and a football. And there, a movement of black and orange, a butterfly and then another one, its twin, coming out of their winter hideaway.

He carried on down the high street until he reached Arden Lane. As he took in the two rows of old stone houses, he felt a mixture of excitement and fear. The telegraph pole at the far end of the street marked his destination. Its lines stretched out from the tip, connecting all the houses to each other and to the whole world. Frank stopped when he reached the pole and stared at the quiet house across the road, its curtains still closed and the faded blue door with the brass knocker waiting for him to make himself known.

A noise caught his attention, a twitter that made him look away from the house and up into the sky. Something moved fast, circling and diving. The little blue and cream feathered bird had elegantly curved wings and a long tail that split into two: a swallow, back home after the winter. It had flown up from southern Africa, crossing the Sahara Desert back into Europe, then north to France, making its final journey across the Channel in the last day or two. Resting for a moment, the swallow landed on the telegraph lines to sing to all who might hear it, a fellow traveller safely back home, up on the wires, singing a song of welcome.

Frank raised his hand in greeting to the bird, calling a soft “Welcome home!” before crossing the road and opening the little gate. He walked along the path to the door and raised the knocker for a gentle a-rat-a-tat-tat.

The Westminster Poverty Trap?

6 March, 2015 0 Comments

The Palace of Westminister

This is my first article proposal for the May edition of Contributoria. It has now been commissioned. It will be in production throughout April. If you are a member of Contributoria, you will be able to take part in the editorial process of this article once the first draft has been submitted.

According to MPs, £67,000 just isn’t a living wage – for an MP. It’s time then, that we took a look at how they earned a crust before they were elected. What did they do for a living? What would it have brought in and was entering Parliament really a step down into relative poverty?

This article will present information on the past and present careers of our MPs so that we can discover just how much of a lifestyle step down or a step up it has been to become a Member of Parliament. What have they sacrificed or gained?

With more than one MP announcing that they are stepping down as a result of poor pay, the article will also look at what happens when the years of public service are over. What can our MPs expect to earn once they or we bring their parliamentary careers to an end? The article will examine the earning potential of former Members of Parliament and see how much of a career boost it is to have ‘MP’ on your CV.

Adding Tweet Button to Posts

4 March, 2015 0 Comments
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Added to both single.php and index1.php

Exclude category from homepage

4 March, 2015 0 Comments

To exclude some categories from the the loop on the frontage, you can use this snippet in your function.php.

function excludeCat($query) { if ( $query->is_home ) { $query->set(‘cat’, ‘-3,-5,-23’); } return $query; } add_filter(‘pre_get_posts’, ‘excludeCat’);

The Government Inspector – Cornerstone, Didcot

2 March, 2015 0 Comments

On Saturday we spent a very enjoyable evening being entertained by Flintlock Theatre’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at Cornerstone in Didcot.

The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector

When the mayor and other local dignitaries of a small town in Russia learn that an inspector from the government is due to pay them a visit, they are thrown into a state of panic, fearful that their bribery, corruption and misuse of government funds are about to be exposed. On learning that there is young gentleman of extravagant tastes and strange habits staying in the town hotel, they mistakenly jump to the conclusion that this must be the inspector travelling incognito. The attempts by the mayor and his cronies to win over the young man (in reality, a penniless wastrel who cannot pay his hotel bill) become increasingly absurd while he, once he realises that they are not about to throw him in jail, can’t believe believe his good fortune.

The four players tell the tale with manic exuberance, taking every opportunity to get a laugh. It’s a very physical performance, bordering on the acrobatic – very Basil Fawlty and Manuel (particularly reminiscent of the Hotel Inspectors episode). With very few props, several quick changes of costume and some ad hoc assistance from members of the audience, the almost bare stage is filled with action, absurdity and laughter.

Abbey Brass at the ODBBA Winter Contest

1 March, 2015 0 Comments

Bright and early on this beautiful Spring morning Abbey Brass were at Marlborough School in Woodstock to take part in the 4th and Unregistered Section of the ODBBA (Oxford and District Brass Band Association) Winter Contest. Abbey Brass are a 4th section band.

There were 21 bands altogether, from Championship down to 4th and Unregistered. Our Adjudicator for the day was renowned conductor and broadODDBAProgcaster Frank Renton.

In our section, we had to play a march and test piece, both of our own choosing. We were up against 5 other bands, including Crystal Palace who had travelled all the way from South London.

For our march, we played Death or Glory by American composer R. B. Hall, written in 1895.

Like most of the bands there today, for our test piece we chose the same piece that we have to play for the Area Qualifier contests that take place in Stevenage later this month. For our section this is An English Pastorale by Dean Jones. We have been working hard on this piece since before Christmas – including a rehearsal taken by the composer himself.

Both the march and the test piece went well though unfortunately we finished in 6th place this time round.

Abingdon Hydro

20 February, 2015 0 Comments
Trees by Abingdon weir, 19th Feb. '15

Trees by Abingdon weir, 19th Feb. 2015

They’ve been cutting down trees by Abingdon weir. This is to make way for Abingdon Hydro, a scheme to install two Archimedes screws by the weir to use the difference in height above and below the weir to generate electricity. I can’t find any figures on the Abingdon Hydro site that show clearly how much energy they expect to produce. However, my calculation based on the average 55kW* output for the scheme quoted on the Abingdon Hydro website and Ofgem’s 2011 electricity consumption figures is that in a year, the scheme could generate the equivalent of enough electricity to supply the annual energy needs of 146 houses.

The Feed-In Tariff

It’s important to understand that none of the electricity from this project will actually go to any particular houses in Abingdon or elsewhere. There are small and micro-scale hydro schemes around the world that directly power individual houses and small communities, generally in remote areas that would otherwise be without electrical power. However, any electricity generated by the Abingdon Hydro turbines will feed into the national grid through Scottish and Southern Electricity. According to the schemes website, Abingdon Hydro expect their electricity to either be sold to the grid at the feed-in tariff, a rate determined and subsidised by the government, or to a larger green electricity generator.

Friends of the Earth have this to say about the governments feed-in tariff,

‘The feed-in tariff (FIT) is a payment to people generating their own electricity from renewable sources. The electricity you generate and use during the day is free, and you also get paid for every unit that you don’t use but export back into the grid.’

As you can see from this, the expectation is that micro-generation projects are generating electricity for personal use or for the use of a community and then ‘exporting’ whatever is not used back into the grid. Abingdon Hydro, on the other hand, are proposing to only export to the grid and will not be generating electricity for local use.


So, the electricity won’t be directly for the community as such, but will it be ‘green electricity’ nonetheless? The first thing to look at is the cost of installing the turbines, their connection to the grid and the associated infrastructure costs. It isn’t clear from the Abingdon Hydro website which turbines will be installed at the weir. Perhaps, like much of the detail of the project, this is still unknown. However, if they choose Landustrie, the manufacturer of the screw used at Osney Lock Hydro, pictured on the Abingdon Hydro website, then the two estimated 9 tonne chunks of engineered metal will be transported by land and sea from Sneek in the Netherlands. This, along with the relative inaccessibility of the site means that there will be considerable carbon outlay on transport, installation and infrastructure works before the first watt of power is generated. There is no indication on the website of whether a calculation of this carbon cost has been made by Abingdon Hydro.

An Investment in the Future

Whatever the cost may be, it is not unreasonable to have a higher capital and carbon outlay on something that will bring the longer term green benefits of sustainable, low carbon power generation. But will the scheme generate an amount of power that achieves this goal? This is a very small-scale scheme – what is termed a ‘micro-generation’ scheme. At best, it will provide the national grid with a trickle of power at certain times of the year.  Scottish and Southern Electricity will install a meter for the scheme which will measure how much electricity the turbines have generated each year.  Even in a successful year, this meter will show that the weir has produced enough electricity for fewer than 150 average homes over a year. However, because this power is being fed directly into the grid, it is not clear that the power will in reality ever reach any home. There are big fluctuations in the demand for electricity throughout the day and the grid brings reserves in and out of service to match this.  Against this, the arbitrary trickle from the turbines at Abingdon Hydro, dependent on variable river flow and canoeists (the scheme has agreed to provide a button at water level that will allow canoeists to open gates on the weir that allows them to train but reduces the flow to the turbines), is insignificant.  It appears to me that the weir scheme may not actually make any contribution to the nation’s power supply. The company would, however, still receive a payment for this non-contribution.

Proof of Concept

Could the scheme be regarded as a ‘proof of concept’, pointing the way to potential future, sustainable, power generation? Not really. As mentioned above, it is an established technology that has been used in numerous projects around the world – it can certainly make economic sense if you are directly powering a small village or a single property. Proof of concept would also imply that if successful, more turbines would be installed along the Thames and this would become a pattern for electricity generation. That can’t happen. There are very few places along the Thames suitable for turbines and even if there were more suitable locations, the cumulative effect of the number of installations required to make it a useful source of power would reduce the flow of the river, rendering the screws ineffective.

An Amenity

One of the aspirations expressed on the scheme’s website is that it will become a ‘visitor attraction’, bringing tourists to the town. However, the river, the weir, the lock and the lockkeeper’s cottage are already an attractive focus for this part of town. It’s difficult to see what the scheme is adding in this respect and I haven’t been able to find any examples of hydro schemes having brought extra visitors to a town. If we are to expect additional visitors then we would need the infrastructure improvements to match such as additional car parking. Currently, the car park at the adjacent Health and Wellbeing Centre is already full to overflowing on some days and additional cars would need to be accommodated elsewhere on one side of the river or the other. On a sunny, summer day the weir itself and the area around the lock also get fairly crowded so if extra visitors are genuinely expected or are going to be encouraged, this needs addressing.

A similar hope is expressed that it would be an ‘educational resource’, a place where schoolchildren could learn about green energy and sustainability. As the scheme would not be an example of either of these, however, it couldn’t fulfill this hope with any sincerity.


Looking at the Abingdon Hydro website, it does seem to be a project built on a sunny but rather narrow optimism. The website states ‘We live here and we want to make it something attractive that our town is pleased to own, not just an electricity generator but a local amenity’. To function as an amenity, it needs to be doing something useful. Until we see the facts are figures to prove that it can be something useful, it can only be regarded as a white elephant and a hobby for the scheme’s members.

Contributoria – first proposal

16 February, 2015 0 Comments


My first Contributoria proposal, ‘The Masque of Anarchy – artistic responses to the Peterloo massacre of 1819’, has been approved for bidding and is at at

Image Map Test

13 February, 2015 0 Comments

This is a a test of an image map posting in WordPress. The bottom right of the picture contains a link to Google.

Seo wordpress plugin by