Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A Letter from England: October 2015

Around this time of year we generally take a trip to the English Lake District to watch the leaves turn. Autumn paints the forestscape with magnificent blazes of red, yellow and gold, and even if the spectacle does not quite match the glories of New England in the Fall, it more than rewards the effort of making the journey.
A favourite spot of ours is Tarn Hows, where we have enjoyed picnic lunches amid the double vista of the canopy and its image reflected in still water, and where, at ten-years-old, our son was once inspired to describe 'leaves the colour of a dragon's flame.'
I have to say that we found this year's display somewhat disappointing. Everything is behindhand this year and the verdancy of summer lingers on with the leaves merely beginning to hint at the visions  to come. Perhaps it is churlish to complain that the climate which has treated us so gently this year has afforded the woodlands a longer growing season, though the suspicion persists that all is not well in Mother Nature's world.
In a not entirely unconnected matter another loved location in this idyllic quarter of England finds itself at the centre of some controversy. A leaftlet newly circulated by 'Friends of the Earth' bears an image of the picturesque village and lake of Grasmere alongside the injunction: 'Don't let fracking destroy all of this.'  It goes on to assert a range of dire environmental consequences arising from hydraulic fracturing and the chemicals involved in its application: contamination of ground water, atmospheric pollution and increased risk of cancer.
It was pointed out to the disseminators that the minerals beneath the County of Cumbria are for the most part volcanic in nature and therefore contain little in the way of recoverable fuel. The chances of fracking ever taking place in or near to Grasmere approximate to zero.
The defence that '...the picture is illustrative of the sorts of areas which the government is opening up for fracking' might have been a little more convincing were it not for the barrage of sanction about scientific and technical inaccuracies and errors put forth in the pamphlet, followed by several official complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and the Fundraising Standards Board - official bodies whose functions are self-explanatory.
To discredit the leaflet is not to prove the lack of a valid case against fracking. Rather, it underlines the importance of using valid information in our arguments. Further, it reminds us of the ongoing controversy over the pros and cons of fracking: whether the associated environmental damage and continued burning of fossil fuels can be justified, or whether the risks of shortfalls in our energy supplies before greener resources can be brought to market are acceptable. Which body of opinion will prevail remains to be seen, but decisions will need to be taken soon.
Perhaps Friends of the Earth would have served their case better with a photograph of Tarn Hows, and a caption: 'Autumn is late this year; It's later than you think.'

Post script. 

In the couple of weeks since I posted this letter, the British Forestry Commission has declared that this autumn's colours are the most striking for years. Look from my window now, I am bound to agree. The reason for the spectacular show, it is suggested, is the good weather and growing conditions for trees in the summertime.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Worse than Nothing?

This is a real grumble.

You can read below about our cruise in March 2012 to the Canary Islands. The trip was marred by an ongoing outbreak of Norovirus on the ship. Many passengers were affected, and part of the remedy was to ask them to remain in their cabins for 48 hours. As an incentive, there was mention of a discount on on a further cruise for those who comply. As a precaution passengers who might not have been affected, but showed symptoms were also asked to comply. My Mrs was one such - it cost her two days of a 12-day holiday, and myself, too to some extent, although I was able to make more of the time since I was able to leave the cabin and go ashore as well as sitting and keeping her company.

The voucher for a future cruise discount had not arrived by mid-August, so I wrote to ask why not. To be fair, the reply was very prompt, and came with a voucher for £61 off a future cruise, valid until the end of 2013.

Now £61 compared with a ticket price of £1259 amounts to a discount of 5% for one person. Better than nothing I suppose, in monetary terms, at least. Worse than nothing in terms of customer relations. I doubt whether we will use it. I just negotiated a discount of more than 5% for two on our next cruise, but with a different cruise line. I don't think we will be using our Fred.Olsen voucher.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Short Stories to Read on the Bus

I belong to Panocticon, a small creative writing group in Whalley, Lancashire, UK. We meet every week at Whalley Abbey to swap ideas, consider each other's work and socialise. We have published a few things that you will find on http://www.flspanocticonshowcase.blogspot.com That's where you'll see my own book, a collection of short stories: 'Short Stories to read on the Bus'
I just thought I'd mention it, but I won't dwell on it - I have much more interesting things to say here.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Compatibility

It may be this blog will have to be discontinued soon, or switched to a new provider.  The thing is that the new Blogger interface is incompatible with Windows 7.  So far I have been able to switch back to the old interface when it has changed to the new one without asking, but I'm not getting a new computer just so I can get Windows 8 just so I can use Blogger.  What's more I am definitely NOT going to be coerced into installing Google Chrome.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

More On Cruising

One issue to be addressed when considering a cruise is where to start from.

Cruising from a UK port has advantages and drawbacks.

A recent cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands took three days at sea to reach our first port of call: Funchal Madeira.  The return leg from Lisbon took two.  That's quite a chunk from a two-week holiday, and to be honest the time spent in Lisbon was disappointingly short.  Some will opine that every minute on board is part of the experience to be enjoyed and I wouldn't argue with that.  I would assert that waking up in a different port every day is an attraction, too, and the more of that the better. 
On the other hand there's effectively no luggage limit if you're not flying.  A 2-week cruise with themed and formal nights has a hefty luggage demand and flying guests will invariably be up to the limit.  And if you're bringing lots of presents back...  don't get me started on that one.
Even sailing from the UK there is still the matter of reaching your departure port - with all your luggage.  You can fly from the north of England to Southampton, which gives you the worst of both worlds, or go by the shuttle coaches arranged by cruise companies.  These rarely pick up near home so you still have the same problem on a smaller scale.  We invariably end up driving there, staying overnight and leaving our car by arrangement at the hotel.  (Hilton Hotel, Chilworth, I'll give you a plug here so long as you promise to prompt your guests to book the with-taxi-to-the-port option when they book to keep their costs down.)

There is another issue likely to cost you days from your holiday.  The ship we travelled on seems to have an endemic problem with Norovirus.  (That's winter vomiting virus to you, and an attack is very unpleasant, if short-lived.)  Not short-lived is the 48-hour quarantine period.  They'll confine you to your cabin if you get sick, even if it's just a tummy upset, so every aspect of hygiene deserves attention.  Wash hands often, use the germicidal gels and be very picky about what you eat and drink.  Use your own pen to sign the tabs and use your pen as a prodder for the elevator buttons.  They promise a voucher for discount on your next cruise is you are confined, but we haven't seen it yet.  Perhaps you have to ask.  I'll give them to the end of the month before I begin to push the issue.

The third issue which is close to my heart is that of disabled access.  Some ports put on shuttle buses if the ship is very far from the port entrance or resort: others do not.  Similarly cruise lines, who should always do so in my opinion.  Even when they are provided they might not run all the time, so beware.  And  cruise lines please remember: "Only 500 metres to the port gates.."  means exactly the same as "A full half-kilometre to the gates and them some."  Would you say that to a guest with mobility problems without offering help?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

On Cruising

For anyone considering a cruise for the first time, I would offer a few pieces of advice:

1.   Go for it.  Go for the whole deal - formal dress as appropriate, and enjoy the full range of entertainment and activities.  Enjoy the food, but don't overdo it.  Enjoy the ports of call but do your research before you book any excursions, you might do better going independently. 

2.   Don’t expect the ticket price to be all you pay.

First of all there will be gratuities.  The domestic staff, you will be told (that’s waiters, cleaners, bar staff and others), rely on gratuities to bring their pay up to a reasonable level. The least we have been asked for is £2.00 per day.  For two of us on a 10-day cruise that’s only £40 which was not going to break the bank – and it was entirely voluntary.  Guests were given envelopes to hand to the cabin steward or waiter.  With another line the figure was £10 each per day and this was automatically added to your cabin bill and felt very far from voluntary.  Most cruise lines operate in this way, and the extra expense can come as an unwelcome surprise to some first-time cruisers.  I wish they would just add it all into the ticket price so you can see up-front what the cost of the cruise is.  But they don’t.  You need to find out what is expected before you book.

Second of all, as a captive audience you have no option but to pay on-board prices for extras.  Meals are included of course, and with the better lines you can get a snack or a cup of tea or coffee at any time.  Drinks at the bar are not free and it is easy to run-up a significant bill (ships are cash-free these days – everything goes on your cabin card.)  One cruise line we tried had a low ticket price and moderate gratuities, but charged top prices for everything on-board.  Not only this, there was significant periods of the day and night when snacks and tea and coffee were only available to purchase, and at €2.50 every time you want a coffee it soon adds up.  A bottle of wine with your meal started at €40.  In retrospect the business model of this cruise line becomes very clear.
What I’m saying is: ask what level of gratuities is expected and get a list of typical on-board prices before you book.  What looks like a cheap deal might not be.

Third of all: excursions.  There is little point in calling in at interesting places if you don’t see the sights, but booking excursions can run away with a lot of money and it can be infuriating to find that you have paid through the nose to be taken to and dumped in a remote tourist shop where you are expected to spend even more, whilst fellow passengers have made their own ways and had a much better deal.  In most cruise ports local operators will provide excursions.  What you need to find out about – and get in writing – is how far it will be from the ship to where you want to be and what the arrangements are for getting there.  Sometimes it is a coach ride and the fare can be pricy if it is provided by the cruise line.  There will nearly always be local taxis waiting for the liner to arrive.  You need to get as much information as you can and plan accordingly.  Do bear in mind, though, that those on booked excursions are often given priority when disembarking.  The wait can be agonising for others.

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned any names yet.  All I will say is that we found Fred.Olsen and Cunard very satisfactory.  Significantly not named are the ones who dealt least well with our special needs – mobility and special diets – as well as leaving the impression that they were trying to rip us off.



'Short Stories to Read on the Bus' (See below) is now available in print on http://www.lulu.com

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Short Stories to Read on the Bus

My collection of short stories is now on Kindle.  Print version now also available on Lulu.com.


It's a mixed bag with something for every mood, I hope.  The idea is to present a set of entertaining tales suitable for reading on a short bus journey - that is around 1500 words each, though some are a little longer.  Twenty-two stories for eighty-six pence can't be bad value.

Download a free sample or buy it here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0060Y39AS

A detective in Manhattan thinks he’s losing his grip; another in ancient Britain definitely isn’t. 
A boy falls for the wrong girl and it’s all going horribly wrong, a girl runs from a failed relationship into more trouble than she ever bargained for, and a secretary with a crush on the boss thinks her moment has come.
A know-it-all drinks too much, a busybody gets an invitation to the ball, and a band of Irishmen buy a racehorse.  With hilarious results.
Tension and romance,  humour and mystery, and the quirkiness of human nature.  Add a few exotic locations, drop in the odd fairy, a handful of ghosts and a flying saucer and you have a set of stories with something for every mood
A ten-minute bus ride gives enough time to find a seat, exchange the odd pleasantry and read a thousand or two words.  This set of tales is chosen with that in mind. Some are a little longer, some a little shorter, but all can be enjoyed on that short bus journey into town.