Saturday, February 28

Back in the Big Apple

I was in New York for work last week. During the week myself and several colleagues took a lunch break in Central Park one afternoon. I'll share photos of our stroll when I next have a spare moment. Watch for some superb images of the park's quirkly Belvedere Castle.

Space Geek Heaven

The US Rocket & Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama was well worth the detour. I arrived in Huntsville shortly after dark on Saturday evening and was immediately greeted by steady rain. I was heartbroken. With less than 24 hours in town the weather looked set to spoil my carefully laid plans. However, my spirit lifted as I drove towards town thanks to a most unexpected moment.

The Rocket Museum sits along side the local Interstate Highway. Its location is unmistakable. As you near the site, a majestic Saturn V rocket soars 363 foot into the air, dominating the skyline for miles around. It's easily the tallest structure in town. On Saturday, as I drove through the night nothing could have prepared me for the moment I first saw this floodlit spectacle rise above the horizon. I couldn't help myself and took the first exit off the highway. The rain-soaked image above captures this first encounter, 14 hours after leaving Heathrow. I was in Space Geek heaven.

The following morning dawned bright and clear. My geek weekend was back on track. I reached the Rocket Museum shortly after opening and spent the next five hours exploring every nook and cranny. The Museum has one of the best rocket parks in the world, featuring all the largest manned space rockets ever built; the Saturn V and the Saturn 1B. All of the hardware was space-rated but withdrawn from flight as the Nixon administration slashed budgets to fund the burgeoning Vietnam War.

The Museum even has a fully stacked shuttle; consisting of a test rig it used to develop assembly procedures for subsequent shuttles that were built. The Pathfinder Shuttle as its called has subsequently be retro-fitted with retired shuttle engines from Columbia; the first shuttle launched into orbit. Walking around and under this stack was mind-blowing. The size and scale of this machine is hard to fathom until you actually stand underneath it. This thing is huge! I'm once again filled with awe that it ever reaches space.

Inside the museum are numerous space artifacts including remnants of Skylab recovered from the West Australian desert, the Apollo 16 command module and the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU) once used to fly untethered astronauts around the orbiting shuttle. The ground also boost numerous simulators and full-scale mock-ups used to train astronauts including those used with Skylab and the Apollo missions.

Elsewhere lies flight-ready hardware that never saw service due to budget cuts and mission changes. I saw more than one object whose eventual fate I'd never ascertained until now. You quickly discover that only a small fraction of NASA's budget results in machinery that ever reaches orbit. Another unexpected highlight was a full-size mock-up of Orion, the replacement vehicle for manned flight when the shuttle retires next year. I was surprised to see just how roomy this capsule was compared to those used by the Apollo astronauts.

I could go on for pages but I think you get the message. The museum was pure candy for a space geek like me and boundless blue sky last Sunday was simply icing on the cake.

Sunday, February 22

You only live once

It's 5.30pm. I'm sitting at Memphis Airport in Tennessee. The city is renown for many things; Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated here in 1968 and Elvis Presley once lived nearby on his Graceland estate. However, I'm not stopping in Memphis. I'm off to Huntsville, Alabama for a 24-hour flying visit before heading to New York for work.

Huntsville is home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Museum. The Space Shuttle's giant orange external tank is manufactured here. It's rocket engines were also tested here, as were many of America's greatest rockets - including the Saturn V which eventually took men to the moon.

I've always wanted to visit the Space Centre and its museum. During the Christmas holidays I saw some cheap tickets from New York to Huntsville. In a moment of consumer impulse madness I decided to fulfil another childhood dream and booked myself a flight. Watch out for photos of a Saturn V rocket, Apollo 16's command module and fragments of Skylab salvaged from the West Australian desert. Yes, I am a space geek.

The photo illustrating this post was added after my visit to the Museum.

Sunday, February 15

Fernhurst rambling

I made the most of today’s all-too-rare sunshine by driving to Fernhurst to spent a delightful afternoon catching up with family. I'm pleased to report that everyone is in good health. Auntie Shirley joined us for lunch, while cousin Nicolas dropped by for coffee. My cousin Hilary cooked a delicious lunch (a sampling from Waitrose’s complimentary winter cookbook). As we ate the winter sun streamed in the windows making for delightful meal.

David then took all of us for a leisurely ramble through the nearby village fields. The UK has an established tradition called the 'right to roam' that protects public access to England's most wild and dramatic landscapes, heaths, moors, down and areas of registered common land. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act requires private landowners to grant unrestricted walking access across their land via a network of public pathways nationwide.

We wandered through the soggy fields to the site of Fernhurst’s North Park Furnace. More than two hundred years ago a small iron furnace operated on the banks of a local stream, casting cannons and wheels. This early site of the Industrial Revolution is remarkably well preserved. A brick dam still stands, holding preserving a small lake. Water from the lake was used once to power the furnace bellows. Brick water channels and the circular brickwork of the cannon casting pit are also visible.

It was hard to imagine that this quiet, picturesque stream was once the setting for a flourishing iron industry until 1777. However, David indicated the numerous natural resources surrounding this early Industrial Revolution site. Oak trees provided charcoal for furnace, the stream powered the foundry and local sands yielded iron-rich nodules. Once again, I’m reminded that history is very much alive everywhere you look in England.

Friday, February 13

Semana Santa sojourn

Memories of Ronda in 1990

We’ve finalized plans for our Easter vacation in Andalucía. We’re renting a car and touring this popular Spanish region for six scenic days. In 1990 I spent a week here as a backpacker but missed many of the classic sights. It’s been a personal goal to back ever since.

We fly in Malaga, one of the side legs on our latest Round-the-World ticket, around lunchtime on Maundy Thursday. We’ll then head straight to Granada nestled in the foothills of Sierra Nevada mountains for 2.5 days of Easter festivities. These spectacular Holy Week, or Semana Santa, events are supposed to be at their most memorable on Thursday evening with the procession of Cristo del Silencio, or Procession of Silence.

The streets come alive again with more festivities throughout the day on Friday. At three o´clock precisely thousands of locals gather together on the streets, forming a thick blanket of bodies, praying and making three traditional wishes. Then at dusk the procession of the oldest of the confraternities, Soledad de San Jerónimo, takes place. The procession is feast for the senses with pointed hoods of an intense yellow and a squadron of Roman troops pounding the ground with lances.

On Saturday we plan to visit the Alhambra and the Generalife. This spectacular palace and its grounds were the final seat of the Moors in the West. I’ve seen so many amazing images over the years. I can’t wait to see it all for real.

Easter Sunday sees us making our way from Granada to the town of Ronda. I visited this town on a whim in 1990 and was astonished by what I found. It’s home to first bullring in Spain, a classic stadium that sits on the edge of a stunning 100 metre chasm. Ronda is also renowned for its equally spectacular 18th century stone Puente Nuevo 'new' bridge.

The following morning, we’ll be making our way back to Malaga through the picturesque white-washed mountain villages of Andalucía. Again, the photos look amazing. Our final day, Tuesday, has us taking us residence at a coast resort. We’ll grab a classic Costa del Sol experience by the hotel pool before heading off to the airport that evening.

Our car is reserved and the hotel are all booked. Only eight weeks to go and we’ll be there!

PS: Did I mention it started snowing again tonight? We already have a light dusting on the ground and there's more promised before dawn.

Monday, February 9

Deadly extremes

The UK remains in the grip of bitterly cold weather. After a week of heavy snowfalls across the nation, more is forecast. Tonight the Met Office has issued weather warnings for the entire country (that's the wonderful orange colour you can see on the map above). In London we've been told to expect stormy rain and wind on Monday, turning to heavy snow overnight, followed by snow showers for most of Tuesday.

While London was spared the worst of the snow, enduring only a day of disruption last Monday, other part of the country haven't fared so well. Last night the mercury fell to -15 °C in Scotland, beating this winter's previous low of -13°C, recorded last month. On Friday, 200 people were rescued by emergency crews in Devon after spending hours stranded in their vehicles during heavy snow. As the bitter weather continues some councils are rapidly running out of road salt to grit the roads. A container ship with 40,000 tonnes of salt has been ordered from Spain and second from Germany. Both are scheduled to dock on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, southeastern Australia has been enduring a record-breaking heatwave. Melbourne saw the temperature hit a staggering 46.4 °C yesterday, while Adelaide hit 45.7 °C on January 28. In fact Adelaide experienced six straight days of temperatures above 40°C between January 27 and February 1. However, it was Mildura that's been suffering the most. It recorded twelve consecutive days over 40 °C. Even Tasmania was in on the act, reporting its highest ever temperature; 42.4 °C.

Sadly, we woke this morning to news of tragic bushfires that swept the rural fringes of Melbourne overnight. So far 108 deaths have been reported, a toll that's expected to rise, with at least 750 homes destroyed. Entire towns appear to have been wiped off the map in a matter of hours, making these the deadliest bushfires in Australian history.

Here in the UK the tragedy has dominated headlines throughout the day. No doubt it will also be the cover story of every morning newspaper. I can only imagine the rolling news coverage in Sydney. It's hard to grasp the deadly scale of Australia's continuing heatwave as we shiver in the midst of London's coldest winter for more than two decades. 2009 is set to be remembered as a year of extremes.

UPDATE: Monday 7.15am
Overnight the death toll for the Australian bushfires has risen to 131. The scale and horror of this event is difficult to comprehend.

UPDATE: Monday 11.15pm
The toll has reached 173 this evening, with reports that the final number is likely to exceed 200. Terribly sad news.

UPDATE: Tuesday 9.35pm
London didn't see much of a storm yesterday. We also had absolutely no snow last night. Since last week's single snow day the local weather forecast has been wrong every single day. It's almost as depressing as the weather itself.

Friday, February 6

To be or not to be?

Since Monday a running tally of wildly varying forecasts have kept me entertained. At various times we've been told; it will snow on Friday (tomorrow), won't snow at all, will snow lightly, will snow heavily in the afternoon and finally, this evening we're told it'll snow heavily shortly after dawn.

BBC weather forecasters warn that similar quantities of snow will fall on London as on Monday. The north west of London is most at risk, with a forecast of eight inches (20cm). We're almost due north so it'll only require this band of snow to drift a few miles west and we'll be inundated.

Further north, much of mid and northern England has been enduring day after day of regular snowfall since the weekend. At least 20cm of snow has been reported in parts of the Cotswolds today. Further north more than a foot of snow has fallen in two days. The full extend of nation's snow cover can be clearly seen in satellite photos above taken earlier in the week. It's the white stuff running up the middle of the country.

UPDATE: 7.30am Friday
The weather forecast changed again overnight from heavy snow to nothing more than sleet. We woke to extraordinarily large flakes falling. The snow lasted 15 minutes before turning into freezing rain. It's seems we're in for nothing more than a light dusting today.

UPDATE: 6.00pm Friday
The snow never came. We had a couple of hours of bitterly cold sleet around 4pm and not much else. The weather left a thick layer of slippy sludge on roads and pavements every where. While no more snow is forecast, we've been told to expect temperatures hovering around 0C for the next few days. The cold weather is forecast to continue for most of February.

Wednesday, February 4

The big thaw

The second wave of heavy snow forecast for last night eventually drifted further north and missed the city altogether. As a result, the predicted additional four inches never hit us. Instead, temperatures fell below zero and much of yesterday's snow turned to ice.

We woke this morning to a thick sheet of ice covering roads and footpaths everywhere. My morning walk to the local tube station was risky affair as I gingerly made my way on an inch thick slab of solid ice. However, as quickly as it came, it's rapidly disappearing.

This evening the roads are largely clear, most of the ice has melted and the snow in our yard its looks increasingly patchy. All is not lost. The Met Office is predicting more heavy snow on Thursday evening and through the day on Friday. It estimates anything from 2cms to 10cms will fall. We could be in for more chaos.

I've rescheduled the car's service for Friday after cancelling on Monday. I can't help but wonder if I'll be cancelling again? The Association of British Insurers said that reported car accidents were 30 per cent higher than normal yesterday, even though the average number of car journeys was 31% down on normal. Equally unsurprising, an estimated that 2 million Londoners took the day off work.

Tuesday, February 3

Final snow report

I had to share a few more photos from today's snow. I took the photo above on the way to Tesco this afternoon. We desperately needed some milk and thought we'd better stock up just in case we're both stuck at home again tomorrow. At the moment, snow has stopped falling. However the Met Office is still predicts heavy falls later this evening.

More snow on the way

It's now 2pm in London. The snow has been falling continuously for more than two hours now, with the heaviest falls still to come. The photo above shows the scene in our backyard shortly before the heavy falls began. At noon the Met Office confirmed that London was enduring its worst snowfall in 18 years.

The Met Office is also warning us to expect another four inches of snow between now and midnight. When we wake up tomorrow there will be almost a foot of snow on the ground. You can see the snow falling in the photo above that was taken from our living room window. The neighbours have built a cute snowman on their park bench.

News reports on the weather dominate the afternoon news headlines. Airports are badly hit. British Airways cancelled all flights out of Heathrow until 5pm, while EasyJet cancelled all flights from Luton Airport until 6pm. This morning Heathrow shut both runways, but not before the last plane to land slid off a taxiway. At last count more than 790 flights out of 1,350 daily flights from Heathrow are now cancelled.

Only two tube lines are currently operating without delay. Traffic is banked up for 52 miles on the M25 ring road following an earlier accident. Every school in the city is closed. The Mayor has kindly suspended the Congestion Charge in the centre of town; not that there are many cars venturing on to the road, or into the city.

It's incredible that London cannot cope with a decent snowfall unlike it's European neighbours. With four days to prepare you'd think we'd be in better shape today. Enough blogging until tonight. Lunch is over. Back to work.

Monday, February 2

Swiss Cottage ski report

I couldn't help myself. I just had to dash up to Primrose Hill this morning during a break in the weather (it's started snowing heavily again). The scene on the streets is magic. The photo above shows our poor Saab buried and abandoned. It was booked in for a service today but I decided not to take my chances on the road. I'm glad I cancelled as I later saw cars skid in the snow outside our door.

This photo shows the scene that greeted me from our front door. At least five inches of snow had fallen overnight. The scene just got better and better as I made my way up the street. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. I watched a small dog almost bury itself in a snow drift.

Primrose Hill was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people have taken to the Southern slope in all manner of equipment. I watched snowboaders, skiers and dozens of kids on tobbogans jostling for space. One guy was even using a road sign to ride the hill. Today's ski conditions are variable at best. The snow is powdery, with some slopes rapidly losing cover under heavy use. No chairlifts are currently operating in the area. This is fun!

London shuts down

As expected we've woken to five inches of snow covering absolutely everything. The snow is still falling as I type, with more forecast throughout the day. You can see the image last night on the left as we went to bed, followed by the sight that greeted us this morning.

London is now in total chaos. All bus services have been cancelled. Several mainline train stations are closed including Paddington station. Garry's office has called its staff and asked them to work from home. All tubes lines to my office are currently suspended. The tube map above shows the extent of the chaos. This real-time map only highlights lines that are suspended or suffering severe delays. In short, only two tube lines are operating at normal level..

Elsewhere there's the usual news of jack-knifed lorries on the motorway and schools closed. Heathrow has shut both of its runways. London City Airport is closed. Gatwick is open but suffering severe delays as its runway was closed earlier. Passengers on cancelled flights everywhere are effectively trapped as most mainline trains are also cancelled.

The Met Office is warning of severe weather for another two days. Odds are high this will be London's heaviest snowfall since 1991. My brother in Austria must be laughing as he reads all of this. Kitzbuhel is covered insnow all winter and life goes on as normal. Get a few inches in London and the entire city grinds to a shuddering halt.

Sunday, February 1

And so it begins...

The first flurries of snow have started falling outside. As I type, large fluffy white crystals of snow are swirling aroung our yard. I'm so excited! Until now we've rarely seen snow fall heavily during the day. In London we generally wake to the sight of snow that's fallen overnight, giving it's arrival an air of mystery. Look for some super snow photos tomorrow.

It seems that my excitment was a little premature. We've ended up having brief flurries followed by sunny intervals for much of the afternoon. However, by 8pm this evening, the snow was finally settling as you can see from the photo above.