Dunwich Dynamo

Dunwich Dynamo-11

The Dunwich Dynamo is the stuff of legend. Well sort of. It began in 1993 when some cycling messengers organised a fun-ride to the Suffolk coast. It’s now turned into a big turn-up-and-ride event taking place in July over the closest Saturday/Sunday night to a full moon. Everyone meets in London Fields and then heads off as they choose, heading out through London, Essex and then Suffolk to the village of Dunwich situated between Aldeburgh and Southwold. It’s also close to Mimsmere – recently home to Springwatch!

The “Dun Run” takes place over night, and riders are completely self-supported. But there are places to help out. Over the years a variety of pubs, village halls and wayside stalls have been set up to provide food and drink to riders.

I’ve been wanting to do the Dunwich Dynamo for years, but either had chickened out because of the length – 182km/113m – or had failed to organise transport back. The latter is a big issue because there really isn’t a great deal of public transport in the area. There is a local train service about 5 miles away, but it’s tiny branch line, and the operator has now banned bikes using it on the day of Dun Run since it gets too full of bikes. The other option is to cycle another 30 miles to Ipswich where you can get a mainline train. This year Abellio Greater Anglia laid out additional space for riders who took this option.

If you don’t have a willing partner to pick you up, or haven’t deposited your car in the car park the day before, then you’re best bet is the coach back. But tickets do sell out.

There’s one final option of course – turn around and cycle back. This wasn’t an option for me.

This year I made certain to buy a ticket early, along with a couple of friends.

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In the end one friend pulled out due to injury so Michael and I met up in a packed London Fields on a hot Saturday afternoon. There you can pick up a route map, which I did. While I’d uploaded the route to my Garmin, my concern was keeping the battery alive for the whole route. I had a USB charger to help me out. Either way, a paper backup is useful.

Just after 8.00pm we headed out. The route through Hackney and onwards out of London is easily the worst part of the route. You face heavy Saturday traffic, bemused and even irate drivers, and traffic lights everywhere. It’s slow going snaking through the traffic, and it’s not until you get over the North Circular and head out through Woodford that it becomes a little easier. Indeed I could quite as easily have met the route somewhere out here rather than travelling in and out of London. But that would seem to be cheating.

Then it’s out through Epping Forest and through the town itself, roads I know reasonably well.

Soon you’re in proper countryside. But the sun is setting and it’s getting dark. The road is now an endless stream of blinking LEDs. The route is fairly flat, and what hills there are start to sneak up on you since it’s so dark. You begin to think about eating and drinking regularly.

Last year, as several people told me, it was raining for much of the “Run”. But we were having good weather, and it was pretty mild. This was as well, because I had stupidly forgotten my arm warmers.

What to wear and what to bring are reasonably big questions for any Dun Runner. And people go about things very differently. Some travel as light as possible – perhaps a spare tube, pump and a couple of tools shoved in a jersey pocket. Others go fully-loaded – with backpacks, panniers and all things in between. I was doing the ride on my racing bike and didn’t fancy slogging through the countryside with a pannier, so had stuffed jersey pockets. The one additional thing I had was a large Ortlieb saddle pack. This took the contents of my usual saddle-bag, but also had space for a bit of extra food, a rain jacket, a microfibre towel, and a pair of swimming shorts. I was able to hook a couple of LED lights from the back of the saddle pack. I found it useful to have two lights on the front and the back – again to ensure that I had enough battery life to get me through the night.

Many of the pubs along the route get late licences especially for the Dun Run, often cooking up food late into the evening. Many cyclists stop at these pubs – it is a social event after all. However in my case, I didn’t think pub-stops were a good idea.

Our first proper stop was in the village of Sible Hedingham, where the locals regularly open their village hall for late night food and drink. Outside, you can fill your bottles of water free of charge, and they have toilets available. The turn-off to the hall can be easy to miss, and despite a helpful person telling me to turn right at the bottom of the hill, many swept on round to the left, keeping their momentum up. I doubled back and met up with Michael who’d been ahead of me a fair bit during this part of the route.

Refreshed and rested we headed on into the Essex night. It was now gone midnight, but inital qualms about tiredness didn’t seem to be an issue. I’d meant to catch forty winks during the day, but hadn’t. Would I feel tired later on? Keeping the food and gels going was the way to avoid that.

If you read what others have written about the Dun Run, you’ll know that it is possible to go the wrong way. And somewhere in Sudbury, we did just that. A whole group of us gathered at a roundabout when it was clear we’d gone wrong. I retrieved my GPS from pocket where it was charging, and helped direct people back onto the correct route.

At later points when I was at a junction waiting for Michael, I’d regularly shout at people who’d missed the turning. “Fairies” do go out and either chalk the directions onto the road, or leave little candles in jamjars to indicate the right route.

We stopped later on at a roadside set-up where drinks were being sold. A warm cup of tea was good there. We’d also worked out that we were making good time, so didn’t want to go too fast as it might lead to hours of sitting on the beach in the cold.

The best stop along the route was at Helmingham, where they sold bacon rolls, gave free tea and coffee out in return for Air Ambulance donations, and even had a yurt that weary riders could sit in.

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Dunwich Dynamo-3

From there we ploughed on towards the end as it was beginning to get light in the pre-dawn, and the dawn chorus was in evidence. I had a second wind (possibly down to eating energy products) and was flying now – up hills in particular! But Michael was finding it a bit tougher going.

But we both kept going, buoyed on by the sun finally rising.

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Dunwich Dynamo-5

Finally we reached familiar roads into Dunwich. Coming in the other direction was a scary number of people heading back to London!

We finally arrived at Dunwich beach a little before 6am. The pub was doing good business, and there was a queue outside the café which was selling breakfasts.

On the beach, bikes and bodies were sprawled all over the place.

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The first coach back to London wasn’t until 9am (At least of those organised by Southward Cyclists. Some clubs do sort out their own transport). And first we had to wait until 7am when riders could choose which bus to get back. It’s worth being in the right place at the right time to ensure that you get the bus you want. I managed to secure a couple of tickets for the first bus. So after a quick, but very welcome breakfast, I found myself changing into my swimming trunks.

Dunwich is actually a really nice place to swim. The water is lovely, and even at 7.30am, it was actually really warm. It felt like the day was really hotting up quite early on.

Dunwich Dynamo-8

Dunwich Dynamo-9

Then it was time to load the bikes onto the furniture lorries, and get our places on the bus. The journey back was slower than hoped due to some accidents, and I just can’t sleep on buses – today was no exception, even though I’d gone a night without sleep. But the weather had turned wet, and we were glad not to be on the beach. Worse still for those going by train from Ipswich was that a major problem at one the stations along the route meant a bus replacement service had been implemented. They don’t usually even let you take bikes on them, although photos on Twitter suggest they relented this time.

In London we collected out bikes, said our goodbyes and headed home. I’d managed a problem-free ride all day, although now I started hearing some grinding from my bottom bracket, so I ended up dropping off my bike for a service on the way home.

All in all, it was good fun, and highly recommended. I’m not sure I’d want to do it in the wet – so it was good that we’d missed the previous night’s electric storms. But the camaraderie is great. And you just can’t take it to heart when someone on a Brompton overtakes you going up a hill…

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Electric Storm

Lightning

I love a good electric storm, and we had one in London last night (indeed most of the country). I pounced into action with photo, audio and video. That said, I’m not altogether happy with my results.

The above represents the best photo I took. There are a couple of video frame grabs below, but they’re much lower resolution.

Slightly better is an audio recording I left running through the night and edited down to this synthesis.

Then there’s the video. I think I pushed the ISO too far for this, and the sound isn’t great coming straight from the camera (the audio above was recorded with a Zoom H2 I had to hand).

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Apple, Spotify and a Binary Way of Selling Music

Microphone in Studio 2

Apple Music is now up and running. If you have an iPhone, you’ll be pestered to update your device, and a new Music app will appear that on first open is desperate to give you a 90 day free trial of Apple’s Spotify-like experience.

So I dusted off an iPod Touch (mainly bought to use Lightroom Mobile when there was no sign of an Android version), and updated last night to see what the fuss was about. But I didn’t bother with the free subscription because I’m old. I already own lots of music – far more than I actually listen to. So I don’t feel the need to invest in a paid subscription music service.

Beats 1 seemed to work fine when I tuned in. But I tuned out again pretty quickly because, well, it’s not really up my street musically. Their exclusive upcoming Eminem interview is not really something I’m likely to tune in for.

But the station worked, which was more than could be said for all the other “stations” I was presented with. Perhaps they didn’t work because I’m not a subscriber? Or perhaps because it was day one, and there are some bugs to fix?

The BBC World Service – seemingly the only non-Apple station on the service at launch – did work though. So in practice I was presented with a choice of either Beats 1 or the World Service. I confidently predict a surge in World Service streamed listening! (Disclaimer: I’m working alongside the team that did this deal. Radio folk – I bet you’re jealous that your stations aren’t there!)

The question then is, what impact will Apple have on other people’s music usage? Will they tempt new users or bring Spotify users across? How invested are they in their playlists? Or do you want to hear an exclusive new Pharrell song? (So good you can only get it there, or just a particular live version?)

No sooner had Apple announced it’s Music proposition a few weeks ago, than Spotify responded with new record figures.

In a blog post, it reported that it now has 20 million paying subscribers globally up from 10 million a year ago. And it also now has 75 million active users – defined as those who’ve used the service in the past 30 days.

Those would seem to be some very solid growth figures. But although all 20 million are paying customers, it’s not clear that they’re all paying £9.99/$9.99, and whether they’re doing so directly out of choice. It’s quite a big step to hand over £120/$120 a year for music, even if it’s in small “insignificant” monthly payments.

It’s notable, for example, that various mobile carriers around the world are bundling Spotify into their offerings.

In the UK Vodafone offers Spotify on some of its packages, in the Phillipines Globe Telecom offers it with some tariffs, while in Hungary Maygar Telecom offers it. Of course Spotify isn’t alone in doing these kinds of deals. I first used Deezer via an Orange tie-up for example.

The problem is that these are not necessarily permanent offers. Telecoms operators provide them for a while as marketing initiatives, but can quite as easily switch to something else. Orange became EE, and I no longer have Deezer. That has the potential for seeing premium subscriptions fall in the future if operators choose different marketing initiatives to attract and retain customers. Alternatively, telecoms groups will be able to drive down prices because the streaming companies need them to keep paying customer numbers up, more than vice versa. I suspect that some of the most important jobs in streaming companies like Spotify are handling relationships with mobile operators.

Spotify has also published a slightly defensive video explaining why it has a freemium model. It says that 80% of its premium customers began on its free plans, and it likens its model to music being available free on the radio, leading to music sales in record shops.

Undoubtedly the revenues that Spotify is earning are growing, and therefore so are the amounts that are being paid out to artists. (Cumulative payments to artists, incidentally, are meaningless, and we should stop looking at them. Annual revenues are the real benchmark.)

But it’s not at all clear to me that the subscription model provides a net gain for the music industry over Digital To Own (DTO – or downloads, to you and me).

While streaming revenue is growing, album and single sales are declining in value (regardless of whether in physical or digital format), and overall in 2014 there was a decline in value of the UK recorded music industry of 1.6%. And globally, industry revenues fell 0.4%.

I’ve argued before that this must largely be down to the inequal way people used to buy music, and the binary way we are being pushed into paying for it today.

Put another way, the BPI says that the average UK spend on music in the UK in 2014 was £39.52.

While averages can be dangerous, remember that this incorporates both those who spend nothing at all, and those who buy many albums a week. In essence then, a lot of people are buying perhaps the equivalent of 2-3 albums a year, and a significant minority of music fans, spend an awful lot more than that.

Or at least they used to. Here’s a thought experiment:

Think of a light music purchaser and a very heavy one.

The light music buyer used to buy perhaps the equivalent of a couple of albums a year. Maybe a few big tracks and one of the big albums in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe they spent £25 in total (£39.52 was the average remember, lots of people are spending less than this).

Today, in a convenient streaming world, they instead get Spotify Free, and put up with the limitations it offers and the adverts. This actually gives them access to much more music than they had previously when they were hearing the same few tracks or albums over and over.

But does the value of the advertising revenue Spotify hands on to labels make up for their share of what was previously £25? No, they don’t have all the convenience of mobile apps and offline listening, but these people really aren’t interested in music that much. There are a lot of them, and a shift to Spotify is a net loss.

The heavy music buyer used to spend perhaps £30 a month on music. Once upon a time they’d have been trawling the shelves on a Monday in a record shop looking at the new releases. They shifted online, but they were buying a lot. Perhaps they were driven by the music press or blogs. Those who bought physical formats had collections that spanned walls or even rooms. They were spending £360 a year!

Today, in a convenient streaming world, they instead pay £10 a month for Spotify Premium (or Apple Music) – or £120 a year. Sure they buy a handful of other albums to own, perhaps those of favourite artists. Let’s be generous and say £100 worth. But that’s still a massive shortfall: £220 instead of £360.

Indeed it’s reported that the top 10% of digital music buyers accounted for 55% of digital music spend in 2014 (Enders).

These people who are the bread and butter of the music industry – those who bought the magazines, and spent hours drifting through record shops – are now much less valuable if they shift to Spotify Premium or similar.

So even though consumption of music is probably higher than ever, with just about all recorded music at their finger-tips, the net revenues from them are less.

This is probably a bit of a simplistic model, but it explains why even though Spotify is showing solid growth, and ever increased revenues paid out to rights holders, that’s not really the whole story. (Inicentally, if anyone has access to the more detailed BPI numbers as published in their Music Matters yearbook, I’d love to see them. But not enough to pay £85!)

I’m left asking the question as to why the music industry thinks that this is a good model? Or if it is, why are the prices set at the levels that they are? And the binary “free” or “pay £10/$10″ doesn’t seem to allow for any nuance. Tidal might have tried quality for £20/$20 but that seems unlikely to work.

The only way the sums can stack up for the music industry is if Apple or Spotify can persuade many more people to spend significantly more money on music than they’ve ever done before. They have to convert a £40 a year spender into a £120 a year spender. That’s a massive challenge in economic terms.

It’s not at all clear to me that the one-size-fits-all model works.

If it did, we’d see a lot more all-you-can-eat buffets instead of restaurants with set menus.

Chilled Cyclists

Today was apparently the hottest day since 2006 or something in London.

I can certainly attest that it was warm. Nobody wants to be on the tube in this heat, so there were even more cyclists that usual on my ride in this morning.

But I do have a little complaint. Undoubtedly there were lots of very infrequent cyclists on the roads this morning. I’m not having a go at them. I hope they carry on riding for the rest of the summer.

None of this excuses some of the behaviour I saw entering Tavistock Square this morning. Tavistock Place is part of a major East-West cycle route across London, and it’s always popular. It has a 2-way separated cycle lane down the northern side of the road. It meets some traffic lights at the junction with Woburn Place on the corner of Tavistock Square. There is always a decent line of cyclists in single file at these traffic lights.

This morning the lights changed as I reached the junction, so I stopped. I could have run them, but it was going from amber to red, and aside from the danger, a long stream of cyclists was almost certainly being held up ahead. It’s actually easier to a wait a minute or so for the sequence to complete and get a nice quiet ride.

But regular cyclists know that the actual next phase of these lights is for pedestrians both east-west and north-south. In other words, if you run the lights you don’t actually take the risk of being mown down by traffic. So one or two cyclist behind me decided to overtake. Then a few more. However there were pedestrians trying to cross on the green man – a chap with his dog. But cyclists were pushing through. I said something like, “Are we not bothering with red lights?” or similar. And one chap did actually stop.

I hate the fact that so many people have been killed in London this year – mostly women, and mostly by tipper trucks.

I love the fact that we’re getting so much more cycling infrastructure in London. Indeed this very route is due to change substantially next month when a year long trial allows more cyclists access at the expense of motor vehicles.

But it does nobody any favours when people run red lights and stop pedestrians crossing.

And in any case, it’s hot today. Is there any benefit in getting to work 60 seconds earlier, but hotter and sweatier than necessary?

On the way home, one cyclist ran a zebra crossing narrowly missing a pedestrian who was on it. But just to be completely “fair,” an Addison Lee driver nearly took me out when he turned into the cycle lane without looking to see if anyone was on it. And I also experienced several pedestrians walking straight out into the cycle lane without looking to see if bikes are coming. A bell is essential in London mostly for this reason alone.

So let’s all chill out a little tomorrow if we can…

Discovery Buys The Olympics In Europe

Well here’s something a little unexpected. Discovery has swooped in and bought exclusive Olympic rights across Europe for €1.3 billion for the years 2018-2024.

In the UK, the BBC already had a deal in place that stretched out until the 2020 summer games in Tokyo, as does France TV. But the BBC would not have automatic coverage of the 2022 winter games or the 2024 summer games.

Discovery bought Eurosport last year, and this potentially gives them something big to play with. But there are some interesting questions to be asked about the whole deal.

First of all, the UK, like some other European nations, has “Listed Events” – sporting events that are considered so important that they’re protected. “The Olympic Games” falls into Category A in its entirety, which means it must be made freely available live to UK audiences. As it stands, the only broadcasters that meet that requirement are BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 and Channel 5 (not all Freeview muxes cover the whole of the UK. Look out for some annoyed football fans who won’t be able to see BT Sport Showcase on Freeview, for example).

The UK isn’t alone – according to an Ofcom document, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy all also have listed events that include at least some of the Olympics.

While legislation might have changed by 2022, it should be noted that the most recent attempt to amend it, in 2009, was in the ignored by government.

In any case, Discovery’s CEO David Daslav says that events might be sub-licenced to the BBC (or another broadcaster one imagines).

What’ll be interesting to learn is the detail of the IOC’s agreement.

There are some particular lines in the press release to warrant examination:

“In a world of increasingly “anytime, anywhere” viewing, the Olympic Games are an unparalleled live event that aggregate enormous audiences and capture the world’s attention in a way that continues to become more valuable for marketers, distributors and fans.”

Well it’s good to know fans come first…

“This agreement ensures comprehensive coverage of the Olympic Games across Europe, including the guarantee to provide extensive free-to-air television coverage in all territories.”

That doesn’t say “live.” And it’s not clear how it’ll be delivered.

UK viewers were perhaps spoilt in 2012, when coverage was as complete as possible anywhere on the planet – every minute of every event streamed live, and on platforms like Sky Digital and Freesat, all in HD, free of charge. Beyond that, it was all on iPlayer too. Will that be bettered? The bar is pretty high already.

“Consistent with IOC and local market requirements, Discovery has committed to broadcasting a minimum of 200 hours of the Olympic Games and 100 hours of the Olympic Winter Games on free-to-air television during the Games period. Discovery will sub-license a portion of the rights in many markets across Europe.”

To put that in perspective, in the UK, viewers had 2,500 hours of coverage in 2012.

“This new partnership is an exciting win for European sports fans as we will deliver record amounts of content across platforms to ensure the Olympic flame burns bright all year long.”

It’s not really a “win” if it costs European sports fans more than it currently does.

Then there’s the Olympic Charter. Section 48.1 says:

The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

That would seem to infer that delivery of the Olympics via Discovery/Eurosport will need to at least match what is currently being delivered. It’ll be interesting to see how that works in the UK. Judging by the line above, it seems that 200 hours of coverage of the summer games is deemed enough.

A big part of this deal is that Discovery will activity promote the IOC’s planned Olympic TV channel – hence the line about “all year long.”

Although quite what this will show between games is still unclear. Rights to events of any value tend to be bought by other pay-TV sports channels or free-to-air broadcasters. And repeats of a dressage event from two years ago are of relatively little interest (Not that this stops Skys Sports F1 filling hours of its schedule with repeats. The F1 season is at least annual, and runs for much of the year).

One final thought. If access to the Olympics were to become in some way limited to UK viewers, the question should then be asked, why are National Lottery proceeds being directed to sports men and women who viewers will have limited access to seeing achieving their goals? I think this same question can be asked of any sport that locks out a proportion of the general public by selling their rights to pay TV providers.

A Microadventure in the Fenlands

Sunset on the Little Ouse

A Fenland Microadventure from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I’ve been meaning to do one of these for ages. I can’t remember what path of serendipity sent me in the direction of Alastair Humphreys and his blog, but I’ve been reading it for quite a while now. He describes himself as an adventurer, author and motivational speaker, and that would seem to be pretty accurate.

In particular he’s coined the name “Microadventures” for a more accessible form of adventuring. Instead of needing months of planning, and many thousands of pounds in the application, microadventures are the kind of thing you can do overnight. An example would be the 5-9 microadventure where you leave work at 5pm, head out to a hill somewhere, spend a night under the stars, and get the train back into work for 9am the next morning.

He’s written a lovely book which elaborates a lot on what microadventures can be, and his blog is full of ideas and inspiration. He also organises an annual charity evening called Night of Adventure where he and like minded individuals tell stories – both big and small – full of lots of inspiration. I went for the first time this year, and it was packed full of ideas and fun stories.

But I hadn’t made that final leap. I’d not gone on my own microadventure.

Sure, I’d thought about it a lot. I’ve been camping – wild camping even – in the past. But that was part of something bigger – a cycle tour of the Outer Hebrides in that instance. The last time – the only time? – I’d slept out under the stars, was in Morocco on a terrific mountain biking trip many years ago. We had tents, but it was a hot night.

Alastair put up a challenge a couple of weeks ago: The Summer Solstice Challenge.

The challenge was that you should spend a night under the stars over the weekend of 20/21 June (or before the end of June anyway) and to record it in some way.

So I gathered a few bits and pieces together:

– Sleeping Bag
– Bivvy Bag (bought before wimping out of a previous challenge)
– Inflatable mat
– Towel
– Swimming trunks

And some camera gear.

I also had a few extra bits like a camping stove, that I ended up not using because to be honest, I don’t really need tea or coffee to get going in the morning. These all went into a bike pannier.

The next question was where should I go?

I really fancied the idea of somewhere near a river that I could go swimming in. But it always feels that the southeast is a bit built up for that. However there are of course rivers and ponds you can go swimming in. But wild camping too?

(Just to be clear, strictly speaking you can’t camp in England unless you have the landowner’s permission. There are the odd exceptions, but that’s the rule. However, in reality, if you get there late and leave early, the worst that’s likely to happen is that you’ll meet an early morning dog-walker finding you.)

For various reasons somewhere near The Little Ouse on the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk/Suffolk borders seemed ideal. Although lots of time spent looking at an Ordnance Survey Map can help (Alastair notes that Bing Maps has an OS option making it better for this sort of thing than Google Maps), I turned to the recently published Wild Guide to Southern and Eastern England. It has hundreds of suggestions of places off the beaten track to try.

I alighted on a spot near Lakenheath in the Fenlands; it was near a nature reserve and would meet my needs perfectly.

Although there’s a very nearby railway station, the service is relatively infrequent, and I was planning on using a bike anyway (my trusty “tourer” – in reality a 20+ year old mountain bike converted for the purpose). So I decided I’d set out to Littleport on the London-King’s Lynn railway line. From there the flat straight roads of the Fens would take me near to where I wanted to get to.

I’d checked the weather and while it wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t bad. Except…

I checked again as I traveled into King’s Cross, and suddenly there was a chance of rain in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to get wet, and hadn’t brought an actual tent. What should I do?

I headed to a small camping shop in Camden where the chap sold me a cheap tarpaulin, and some rope. It cost £8 all in. This would keep me dry.

Then it was the train to Littleport followed by a 25km cycle ride. In retrospect, it might have been better had I not already cycled 80km earlier in the day. And the excursion into Camden from King’s Cross meant I’d got a later train to Littleport than I’d originally planned. That meant no time to get a proper evening meal at a pub before I found a place for the night. I’d rely on the few provisions I was taking with me.

I was cycling some miles further southwest of the area I’d been in for the Tour of Cambridgeshire a couple of weeks earlier, but the roads and the landscape were very similar; pan flat with exposure to winds. The land has been drained artificially over the centuries, but being very fertile is dominated by agriculture. The roads are mostly dead straight, turning at right-angles. They tend to be called Droves, a name that implies that they were once used for herding animals. Criss-crossing the landscape are a mixture of dykes, drains and ditches. In the fields, hoses were watering crops.

I finally reached the point where the road met the Little Ouse by whose banks I planned to camp. But now I had a choice.

A dirt road ran towards where I was going, but it ran some way away from the river, and while following it would be easier, I might miss a good spot to make camp. On the other hand, the 1:25,000 OS Map I’d loaded onto my phone showed a bridlepath running right along the river bank. I could cycle along that, and try to find a nice place to stop.

That was the plan. In fact, the bridlepath was barely a footpath, atop an artificial bank. Thick grass and thistles meant that I had to walk my bike much of the way.

And then there were the cows.

These fields were used for cattle – a variety that had horns. And the relative narrowness of the fields between the river to my left, the bank I was walking along, and the fence to my right, meant that I had to pass close by them in each of the three fields I passed through.

Each time, we played a game where the cattle would glance up to see me coming. A staring contest would then ensue as I wheeled my bike in their direction. The cattle would “blink” first and run to the other end of the field – invariably the end I needed to exit from. Then I had to hope they’d go left or right and let me pass.

The first two fields were without incident, the cattle heading down towards the river bank and away from my path. But in the third field, the cattle had gathered right by the gate I needed to pass through. And there was little place for them to move. They had youngsters with them – and I know mothers get protective.

They did pass me. Quite close by, and at quite some speed. “Stampede” might be overselling it, but it was a thunderous sounds, and I wouldn’t have wanted to get in the way of them. They’d made their presence felt on the ground too. I tip-toed around the fresh cow-pats and through the gate.

The next field seemed to be empty of cattle which was just as well for camping. I didn’t want any bovine interruptions in the middle of the night. And there was a nice copse down by the riverbank that looked like it was on dry land. Perfect for spending the night.

I wheeled my bike over a patch of dried out marshland and into the copse, where a small footpath trailed along the river bank. I found a suitably flat area of ground to place my sleeping bag. However, I was still worried about the prospect of rain, so I set about tying my tarp to a few nearby trees to provide some shelter. I’d seen enough of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears to know that keeping dry was important, although I suspect neither of them would have been too impressed with my efforts.

In the event, it never rained, and the tarp mostly made quite a racket blowing in the wind.

The spot was indeed lovely, although there was the small matter of insects. Being close to the river meant that there were a fair few flies. I’d brought what I thought was a small mosquito net that I’d bought years ago and had never used. But on closer inspection, the “net” turned out to be bits of string and hooks to support a net.

Another lesson learnt: know your kit before you go.

The long grass, thistles and nettles during the walk to the site, along with these insects meant that I did come away with a certain amount of bites and skin irritation.

I’d love to say that I had a quiet night’s sleep, but sleep is always intermittent for me camping. There were some wonderful bird sounds. I’d seen kestrals on my way into the area, and I heard owls during the night. But in the distance I could also hear a pump somewhere – the Fens rely on pumps for water maintenance. I was actually pretty close to the Lakenheath airbase, but I wasn’t disturbed by USAF planes. However sleeping outdoors is such an unusual experience, that your brain over-compensates and your imagination runs wild. At one point I was sure that a motorised boat was coming down the river – guards patrolling the banks. It was my imagination… and that pump again.

Dawn was around 4.25am, although the birds woke me earlier than that. I got back to sleep and by around 5.30am there was a the sun was bright and sky golden. I should have been up at that point to take photos or video. But I drifted off again, and by the time I actually got up at about 6.30am clouds had come across and the day was a little grey.

It’s worth noting that because my bivvy was a super-cheap one, there was a lot of condensation that collected on the inside. That meant that later at home both it and the sleeping bag needed a proper airing to dry them out.

I took some more video footage, and then decided that to complete my challenge, I needed to go for a swim.

I’m not scared of a bit of water, and the ability to swim in the Little Ouse had been a major reason for coming here. Swimming trunks at the ready I approached the water’s edge and put my feet in.

It was really quite pleasant. But there was a lot of mud and silt at the water’s edge, and it wasn’t clear how deep that went. I lowered myself into the water and quickly my legs went thigh deep into the mud. I could just about wade a single step, but the mud was so deep that I was actually quite worried about my restricted movement. I had to grab hold roots and branches to pull myself out and back onto the bank. I tried a couple of other points in the river. The same problem.

I was on my own, and did not fancy drowning because the mud near the bank was too deep.

I suspect that if I’d leapt into the water further out, I ‘d have been fine. And perhaps I could have swam from the deep into the shallows of the bank and pulled myself out that way. But frustrating though it was, I had to opt out of the swim, even though the water was so inviting.

I packed up my camp and headed out. I had planned to complete a loop back to Littleport using some smaller drove roads I’d identified on the map. But a barrier blocked my way, so I had to return via a dirt track road past some remote farmhouses and out to the main road. Then it was a slog, mostly into a headwind, cycling back towards Littleport.

The station only gets one train an hour, and it was clear that the headwind was hampering me to such an extent, I’d be getting the 10.50am rather than the 9.50am. Eventually I reached Littleport, found a newsagent which sold sugary drinks to both rehydrate me and provide some energy after my sapping bike ride.

Then finally it was the train back home.

A good day out, and despite some unpreparedness, and a failure to get a swim, great fun.

In the meantime, I think the following are worth looking at for the future:

– A mosquito net hood
– Insect repellent
– A portable hammock

(- And I’d love to try an inflatable kayak too)

So where next?

Poppies

Abandoned Cab

Bookazines

Boris Johnson - Cripes!

I’m slightly obsessed by bookazines.

But first, let me apologise for using that word (also known, equally unattractively, as magbooks). It’s clearly made up by the publishing industry, and so perhaps I need to explain it first. It’s obviously a contraction of two words.

Books need no real explanation. They get published; they sit on bookshelves and hopefully sell; sometimes they’re available permanently; other times they eventually get returned (“sale or return”) to the publisher and are pulped.

Then there magazines. These also need no explanation. They come out perhaps weekly or monthly. They have a literal shelf life at a newsagent. And unsold copies get returned to the publisher (and pulped) when the new issue comes out to replace it on the shelf.

Bookazines somehow sit between these two things, and if you’ve been to the unholy mess that is W H Smith recently, you’ll know what I mean. They occupy shelving in roughly the same place as magazines, but their editorial’s lifespan is less “freshly squeezed” and more “made from concentrate.”

Titles often cover technical subjects such as issues around computing or perhaps using your new camera. A company called Imagine Publishing seems to specialise in these a great deal, with several feet of shelf-space occupied by their output.

Then there are rushed out jobs, when, for example, there’s a royal baby!

DSC_0190

Note three bookazines rushed to print with essentially the same photo taken when Kate came out of the hospital. The presses were probably rolling a few hours later.

For some publishers it’s a handy way to “re-purpose content” and essentially republish features that have appeared in old magazines, bundling them up into something “new.” Cycling magazines seem to do this – perhaps gathering together routes from a couple of year’s worth of magazines and publishing them in a single handy package.

And then there are the packages that come with DVDs – usually obtained at low or no-cost (in the case of out of copyright material). So lots of WWII, Ancient Rome, Laurel and Hardy, Volcanoes. You name it.

The extended half-life of the average bookazine means that the shelves can be a bit stale. While many of them should clearly be printed on slightly better paper and reissued as actual, well, books, someone has worked out that people perhaps are more likely to see them in an ever-changing magazine environment rather than the more static non-fiction shelves of the book section.

This also papers over some of the cracks in the magazine publishing business, which in some sectors is in real decline as readers move to online sources and away from the printed page. These titles fill some of those gaps on the magazine shelves left from titles that have closed.

My real obsession has been ignited recently by a couple of titles that are getting a bit of promotion in W H Smiths – I assume because the publisher has paid for shelf hangers (or whatever the correct terminology in this sector is).

The election over, and Labour is busy picking a new leader, but somebody somewhere has decided that this should be Boris Johnson’s moment in the sun as he took his place in Parliament as an MP (while also being Mayor of London, something he said he wouldn’t do). And they published “Boris Johnson: Cripes!”

As you can see from the picture at the top it is somehow a “Special Edition.” Of what, isn’t clear, although that may well be a sobriquet that W H Smiths has given it. But it has been placed squarely among the political and current affairs magazines. Indeed it’s foremost of them all.

You do get the feeling that these titles are aimed at, well, a Daily Mail audience. Slightly right leaning, who do their shopping in Smiths, and don’t mind spending a few quid on an otherwise unheard of “magazine.”

But who else would fit the bill? Who else has been in the news a little and would make a good subject?

Jeremy Clarkson - Driven

Jeremy Clarkson: Driven! “A controversial life in the fast lane,” says the sign.

It’s obvious now isn’t it? And there it is, sitting proudly ahead of the other car magazines in my local Smiths. Kicked off Top Gear; friend of the Camerons and the Chipping Norton Set! He’s ripe for the bookazine treatment. Except whisper it, but this magazine is copyrighted 2014 suggesting his recent Top Gear “fracas” hasn’t made it in (I didn’t either purchase or read through to check).

Both the Boris and Jezza titles come from an imprint called Endeavour Press, who seem to specialise in ebook publishing, and they’re both written by a chap called Nigel Cawthorne. I’m not familiar with the man, so I did a little searching to see what I could find out. I was mostly interested to see if he’d been turning out any more of these. But I found something even better!

Simply put, this man is a pure writing machine.

Based on ebooks available in the Kindle store on Amazon, he’s already had the following titles published in 2015 to date:

Blond Ambition: The Rise and Rise of Boris Johnson
David Cameron: A Class Act
Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession: The Hidden Testimony of Britain’s First Serial Killer (he’s a co-writer on this one)
Alexander the Great
Roger Courtney: By Strength and Guile – The Story Of The Founder Of The SBS
Julius Caesar
Alan Johnson: Left Standing
Jeremy Clarkson: Motormouth (Updated To Include His Sacking By The BBC)
Prince Philip: I Know I am Rude, But I Like It: The Royals and the Rest of Us as Seen By Prince Philip

(And those three political biographies are also available in an omnibus!)

In 2014 there were:

A Bit of Stephen Fry
The Magical Mythtery Tour
The Alien Who Thought He Was Elvis
Ian Fleming: Licence to Kill
Alan Turing: The Enigma Man
Harry: A Prince Among Men
Bodies in the Back Garden – True Stories of Brutal Murders Close to Home
Tesla: The Life and Times of an Electric Messiah
A Brief Guide To Agatha Christie
Flight MH370 – The Mystery
The King Of The Crime Writers: The Biography of John Creasey
The Empress of South America
The Sex Lives of Hollywood idols
The Sex Lives of Famous Gays
The Sex Lives of Famous Lesbians
The Sex Lives of US Presidents
The Sex Lives of Popes
Che Guevara: The Last Conquistador

I didn’t look any further back.

Honestly, he puts Ed Reardon to shame with his sheer volume. And what a range of interests – particularly sex lives!

I would suggest that the two bookazines I’ve spotted published by him are “repurposed” versions of his biographies of Johnson and Clarkson, pacakged together with agency photos. He’s obviously recently updated his Clarkson book online, but as I say, it’s not clear that this is the version you can find in Smiths.

Now I have to confess that I’ve not bought or read either of these titles, or any of Cawthorne’s book, so they may be masterpieces. Or they may not be.

The quickie unauthorised biography has been around for years, with some publishers making a living rushing titles to bookshelves when someone either dies unusually young (e.g. Michael Jackson) or does something extraordinary in the public’s eye. To a large extent that business has moved online, where anyone can get an Amazon listing for their ebook in no time at all. I’m sure up and down the country, a few “biographers” are updating their old Chris Evans biographies with a few new chapters to ride the wave of Top Gear news.

Part of me wants to applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of the individual who came up with this idea and has implemented their plan so successfully. Another part of me wonders who on earth is buying and reading them?

Can We Have A Moratorium on Shallow Depth of Field in TV?

If you’re a photographer you might know what I mean in the title of this blog.

If you’re not, then I might need to explain a little. The depth of field in an image or piece of video is a measure of how much of the image is in focus at any one time. By using different lenses and controlling the amount of light you let through to the lens via its aperture, you can control how much of an image is in focus.

For a landscape, you typically want the whole scene in focus. That tends to mean a small hole letting light in for a longer period of time.

Walking to The Unthanks-3

For a portrait or close-up, you might want to blur the background out, leaving the subject in focus. A larger hole letting more light in for a shorter period of time.

Life Ring

Camera technology is always improving and we’re now seeing a lot of TV productions use some very high quality cameras. In the past, TV lenses might have been quite “slow.” That is you let a lot of light in meaning everything is fairly flat looking. But now you can use an f1.8 or faster lens and create a cinematic look by controlling the extent to which parts of the frame are in sharp focus.

The trouble is that everyone’s doing it all the time, and it become intensely irritating.

A recent case in point was a wonderful documentary series on BBC – The Detectives. This followed the casework of some Manchester detectives as they investigated a number of cases over a period of about a year. It was fascinating stuff, and beautifully told over three hour long episodes.

Except that the director or director of photography chose to shoot everything with a very narrow depth of field, meaning that aside from the subject of the frame, much else was blurred out. The problem with that, particularly in terms of an observational documentary, is that unlike a drama, you can’t place your characters precisely. And using a narrow depth of field means that you have to be very precise with your focusing. My suspicion would be that they were using DSLRs to shoot the documentary, which can mean that focusing is done manually.

In The Detectives the camera operator was clearly struggling to maintain focus as an interviewee or subject shifted around in their seat. It becomes very distracting to the viewer if different bits of the frame keep going in and out of focus. But of course, while in a drama you’d do another take and ensure focus was maintained, in a documentary you’re capturing reality and usually can’t go again.

I don’t want to pick on The Detectives, because it was a very fine documentary. The same issue occurs all the time in dramas too. I’ve no problem if it’s used as a specific device – perhaps to show that a character is somehow isolated from the world around them – but maintaining it for long periods of time is actually quite frustrating as a viewer. We don’t naturally see that way unless we’re short-sighted.

It can feel like someone being given a new toy, and them playing with it exclusively until they – and we viewers – are bored. So please use the device sparingly if your a director or DoP. Thanks!

While we’re at it, did you really need to shoot your TV series in 2.35:1? “The Interceptor” – I’m looking at you. 1.85:1 (or 16:9, the shape of our TVs these days) not good enough? Or are we a wannabe Sergio Leone?

Platform Exclusives

On Monday, Game of Thrones finished its fifth series run on Sky Atlantic with an explosive episode. Don’t worry, you won’t find any spoilers on this site (Unlike certain news sites). Anyone who wanted to, could watch it on Sky Atlantic.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If you’re a Virgin Media customer, then you don’t get Sky Atlantic. Sky sees the channel as a point of difference between it’s own platforms and others. So while Sky One and Sky Living are offered to third parties like Virgin Media, Sky Atlantic is held back.

You can, as of Tuesday this week, legally access that entire fifth series of Game of Thrones via platforms like iTunes, Amazon Instant Video or Google Play. But obviously that’ll cost you.

Also this week came the announcement that AMC Networks is launching a UK offering, but that it’ll be exclusively available via BT TV on YouView. AMC in the US has been home of series such as Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Mad Men and The Walking Dead.

But who broadcasts those shows in the UK can vary quite a lot. The new Channel 4 Sunday night series, Humans, is an AMC co-production. The Walking Dead, which is the biggest drama in the US, goes out on Fox TV in the UK, with Channel 5 having had second run rights. Mad Men went out on Sky Atlantic having been poached from BBC Two in the UK, and Breaking Bad and its spin-off are on Netflix (although Breaking Bad is also now on free-to-air Spike). Other AMC shows can be found on Amazon too.

What’s interesting about this deal with BT is that they’ll have exclusive access to Fear the Walking Dead – a new spin-off series set in the same world as The Walking Dead. And to watch it, you’ll need new hardware. BT is seemingly trying beef up its non-sport TV portfolio.

Of course AMC now owns a near 50% stake of BBC America, and this means that you’d anticipate some BBC co-productions down the line between the two broadcasters – John Le Carré’s The Night Porter with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston seems like a good example of this (although I believe this was presented to both parties by a third party who put the package together).

So how this will all fit together with regard to BT-exclusive access to AMC programming in the longer term remains to be seen. However it should be noted that despite the Sky/HBO deal, there are still instances where, say, the BBC does a deal with HBO and Sky is cut-out – The Casual Vacancy being a recent example.

But what this clearly means is that viewers are going to be faced with some hard choices.

At the moment, should I want to watch Game of Thrones, Daredevil and Transparent, I can do one of three things (or a mix of them).

– Subscribe, respectively, to Sky Atlantic (via Sky or Now TV), Netflix and Amazon Prime
– Wait until they become available through DVD/digital
– Pirate them

(I’m not advocating the third, incidentally).

Assuming I’m a Walking Dead fan who also wants to watch the other series, at least until now I could access to the OTT services through an inexpensive one-off purchase of a Google Chromecast, Now TV, Roku or Apple TV box. To see the Walking Dead spin-off, I’m going to need a full-on BT TV subscription and one of their boxes. Or I’ll have to wait until the DVD/digital downloads are made available.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

At the moment, most of these productions are actually owned by third party companies, and they simply licence their output for specific windows to services like Netflix or Amazon. But that has meant that when Netflix launched in France, they had to do so without House of Cards, because it had been licenced to another channel. That’s also why DVDs/downloads are made available of the series in due course – the studio that owns them distributes the DVDs and earns revenues from them – not Netflix. House of Cards tends to be exclusive to Netflix for about six months before the DVD/download option becomes available.

Netflix in future says it wants to own as much of its own programming as possible. In other words, it wants to close off those avenues, or at least have control of them. Holding back programming could make long-term sense in platform building, even if it leaves money on the table in the short term.

In the meantime, I’m not sure that this deal on its own is enough to make a compelling case for anyone to cancel Sky and take up BT TV – as it hasn’t been with their sports rights so far. But I can see some of those AMC catalogue programmes disappearing from Amazon in due course, and I can also imagine that there’ll be a significant amount of piracy surrounding Fear the Walking Dead when fans realise that they need a whole different subscription to watch it legally, unless they’re prepared to wait for the DVDs/downloads.

Don’t Bring Back TFI Friday: And Why Are Today’s Most “Dangerous” Presenters All Working on Radio 2?

This isn’t a proper review of TFI Friday since I must admit that I dipped out a few times during near two hour run-time of last night’s show – and it over-ran massively last night, even becoming a joke in the show.

TFI Friday was a terrific programme of its time. Because Chris Evans first became a Virgin Radio presenter and then its owner, early during its run, there was a large crossover of staff who would work on the show. The TFI team ended up in the basement of One Golden Square. In the Virgin Radio sales team, it was a regular thing to take clients out to lunch then down to Riverside Studios in Hammersmith where the show was recorded. They’d get to be in the bar. I even got to stand it the bar myself for one episode when the entire staff of Golden Square decamped to watch an episode recorded. I had a jacket which had both TFI Friday and Virgin Radio logos stitched into it.

I liked and admired many of the people involved in TFI.

So I should be a massive fan. But… well… I was curious about Friday night’s show. And yet…

TFI Friday was a product of its time, just as The Tube and The Word were before it. They caught the zeitgeist of their moments. They were live… well until TFI was pre-recorded as live. And they spoke to their generation.

Yes, this one-off edition of TFI crammed in lots of clips from old episodes – although they played a clip of bowling balls hitting mirrored wardrobes a few too many times. But it was a little shambolic. It could be argued that this was what the show was like anyway, but I’m not sure that’s true. When you get into the run of a series, you make things tighter and perhaps are willing to jettison ideas that might have at first seemed good on paper, but turned out not to be so.

In this instance it felt like anything that was thought up made the cut. And that just made the show baggy. By the time Evans was playing a game with Lewis Hamilton about how long the show might be allowed to overrun, it just felt tired. It really didn’t help that Hamilton was the big guest since he’s really not the most animated of guests at the best of times. And if you’re going to get the audience to ask questions, then at least prep them in advance.

Incidentally, the audience in the bar was way more distracting than it ever used to be. They really needed some floor managers up there shutting them up. I’m sure that tickets were really hot to get, but if you’re going to be an audience member of a show, please shut up.

The ratings, of course, were great. 3.7m in the overnights, giving Channel 4 a rare slot win. But I would say that there were two contributory factors. First BBC1 and ITV weren’t really playing the game. Have I Got News For You ended its run last week, so BBC1 had a repeat of New Tricks. Meanwhile ITV wasn’t really bothering either, with a repeat of Doc Martin. Arguably only Channel 5 was in the mix with a Big Brother live eviction. But nobody cares about that programme any longer – particularly the non-“celebrity” editions.

And yes, I believe that the show did well in the younger demos that Channel 4 so prizes from a sales perspective. But this really counted as event television. Frankly, if you were at home on Friday night, you might as well see what it was all about.

My fear is now that Channel 4 will look at those numbers and commission a new series. But they shouldn’t, even with a new host. And here’s why.

In the ad-breaks, we repeatedly got to see ads for a new TFI Friday compilation album, packed full of 90s music (not live performances from the show, as far as I can see). I really hate to say this, but in 2015, this is dad rock in 2015.

The TFI brand is fairly meaningless to a 20 year old today – something that was pretty clear from the various kids/babies that appeared on the show reprising their appearances from years before. Even with a new host, it would be akin to the BBC bringing back Jukebox Jury or The Old Grey Whistle Test with Reggie Yates. The only people who’d relish that thought would be the people outside the target market.

Then there are the presenters. Now we have find generation of presenters, and Chris Evans is clearly one of them. The clips showed him to be massively confident when TFI was in its heydey, and he still is.

But why are all our biggest, and arguably most “dangerous” TV presenters on Radio 2? Evans; Graham Norton; Dermot O’Leary; Paul O’Grady. And then there are ex-hosts like Alan Carr and Jonathan Ross. Kudos to Radio 2, but that can’t be right?

Channel 4 absolutely should be making a new show like this. But it needs to speak to today’s audience. So it needs a presenter who’s not about to turn 50 (in any case, Evans is now doing Top Gear). Look again at Evans’ confidence in those shows, or further back, Jonathan Ross’s confidence when he launched The Last Resort. Even the Network 7 crew.

They need someone new bursting with that kind of energy.

Channel 4 needs to discover people like that. And ideally not just someone from the conveyor-belt of stand-ups who appear everywhere all the time (Live From The Apollo, HIGNFY, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, QI…).

Even the idea of “anointing” Nick Grimshaw as his successor doesn’t seem sensible. I thought Grimmy didn’t do himself too many favours on the night, and he now seems to be aligned with The X-Factor.

In short then, this was fine as a retrospective, although it was flabby.

But Channel 4 needs new blood in a new format.