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Learning, Travel

We just met a NASA Scientist!

It was Herstmonceux’s Astronomy Festival this weekend. We went yesterday and blew our minds.

As a society, we talk about quality time. We want to spend time with our families learning about each other, having fun together and bonding. We squeeze these moments into our frantically busy lives and wait for the satisfied feeling to hit us, asking if this is the moment that feels like quality.

In my experience, quality is fleeting. It depends on how much attention you put into your moments. Whether you’re fully there or distracted by planning or regrets or communication with people you’re not with.

You have no choice but to be fully present when you and your entire family are thrilled to buzzing point about the endless possibilities of space exploration.

The word astronaut comes from the Greek for Star Sailor (Astra = Star and nautical = navigation by sea).

Star Sailors.

People who sail through the stars as ancient explorers sailed the seven seas, guided by the stars. The spirit of exploration drives humanity like nothing else.

I saw the sun and moon through large telescopes – in the day time. The surface of the potted moon seen through the lens of a star-gazing device is something legendary. We know what the moon looks like. No big deal. Except – yes, it is. Each crater, each mountain, each valley has a story to tell. Ancient lava lies cooled on the surface.

Moon dust is similar to volcanic basalt found on earth. Scientists are experimenting with volcanic basalt (ancient earth dust) from Germany to see if moon-dust bricks could be constructed on the moon. Wow.

We stepped into a tiny, inflatable planetarium with a very happy and very knowledgable guide to the universe – Jasper. Jasper is one of those rare people with the power to enthuse from the depths of their own enthusiasm.

Mars, Venus, Jupiter? Sure, let’s visit them from inside a tiny dome and gaze up at their ethereal surfaces.

Mars – we’re visiting there soon, there might be water and where there’s water, there’s life.

Venus – too hot to touch, the Russians sent a rocket there that lasted just over two hours before it melted.

Jupiter – a swirling giant with an ever-growing number of moons. We’re visiting Europa soon – it’s ice crust hides an ocean larger than earth. Where there’s water..

I love the inclusivity. “We’re going exploring” – we’re star sailors by proxy because we are part of the human race. “We’re” exploring the stars together.

Lucky us.

The edge of the universe? Sure let’s visit – we go as far as the human eye can see – a vastly distant star and behind it we see billions of galaxies holding billions of stars. Beyond those galaxies is the beginning of time. Wow.

Black holes? Black holes in the blackness of space – with stars orbiting them, drawn in by their massive gravitational pull. Black holes swallow other black holes. We haven’t looked inside one yet because of spaghettification – yep, it’s a thing – the gravitational pull of black holes would pull at your feet and your entire body would be stretched like spaghetti and you wouldn’t survive your trip through the event horizon. In theory.

Carl Sagan talks to us from Earth’s recent past – like the light from a star reaching us after it’s gone – as we glimpse a tiny speck of light captured in footage on Voyager 2.

That “mote of dust” is our home in the vastness of space and all the people we love, all the 7.5billion people walking about on its surface are suspended on Earth, in space.

The NASA Scientist – Christopher -has travelled over from Pasadena, America. He sits inside one of the giant copper domes and waits for questions.

What does he do at NASA? He measures quasars. How much patience does he have with the children and their questions? Endless.

They want to know how to deal with space junk, how to make new materials from elements on other planets and how to find new life in the solar system. They want to know if there are aliens. They want more info on black holes. Spaghetti.

They’re told to keep questioning the universe and to invent equipment and tech for future star sailors to use on the endless voyage into the cosmic unknown. Could they go into space? Today, anything seems possible.

I want to know what there was before the Big Bang. Well if you get the chance to talk to NASA.. he smiles at me and says “oh, you’re coming in with the big one.” Yep, that’s me!

He says we have to look to theology or philosophy for that answer. Science doesn’t know.

He asks whether time exists. If time began when the Big Bang exploded and is travelling with the energy from the blast: will time stop when the energy from the Big Bang runs out? Would time then reverse?

If you play that model of the universe out in your mind for a while, it starts yo-yoing back and forth. Leaving you with the question:

If time can go forwards and backwards, what would happen when time met it’s beginning. Would it explode in a Big Bang?

We met storm troopers and astronomers and beautiful people and we thought incredible thoughts and walked out of the Observatory on astral clouds of giddiness.

Quality.

Mind blasting quality.

Family, Travel

Drusillas Park: Alfriston zoo and playground

I promised a post about Drusillas Park. Here it is!

I love it. Literally. We come at least once a month – though it’s been once a week during these Summer Holidays. Some people I mention it to pull a face and say something like “oh the poor animals” or “zoos are so cruel” or something similar. Like visiting the zoo actually endorses cruelty to animals. It doesn’t.

The Drusillas animals are well loved, well fed and well cared for.

There’s an eight week old baby Macaque – we’ve visited him every week since he’s been born. Yup, he’s that gorgeous! He’s called Mango. Mango the Macaque! He cuddles his mum and tries to walk and climb and jump and peers out of his enclosure at all the crazy humans wandering round his home. He’s utterly contented. So am I when I stand gazing at the little Macaque family.

The baby Common Marmosets are nearing adult size but are still notably young – as are the Rock Hyraxes.

The baby Coatis are also up and about, climbing precariously around the branches of their habitat. The South Downs frame their view of the world, across sweeping fields of potatoes and sweet corn.

I haven’t caught a glimpse of the baby Kookaburra yet but I’m holding out hope.

For there to be baby animals in the zoo, the adult animals must be happy and contented.

Last year’s squirrel monkeys – everyone should spend time in their life watching baby squirrel monkeys – are full of fun and vim and tearing about the treetops.

I read an article in the National Geographic yesterday about Red Pandas being fertile for 24 hours once a year. Last year, the Drusillas Red Pandas gave birth to two healthy babies.

They’re doing something really right!

The young Spectacled Owls have tried to breed two years running, maybe next year they’ll figure it out.

The new ant eat eaters, Olivia and Diego are a treat to observe, as are the flamingos, the Lar Gibbons and the meerkats.

The capybaras are a sight to behold as are the beavers and otters.

The capuchin monkeys are a must-see along with all the other marmosets and monkeys and who couldn’t gaze in wonder at a party of ring tailed lemurs?

For my children, the fun never ends. They’ve been going for five years – with more frequency in the latter years – and their learning opportunities are endless. The outdoor play and soft play provide hours of exercise and temporary friendship and thrills and they’ve both learned to rock climb there.

I could extol the virtues of Drusillas over and over.

Actually, I’ve just convinced myself to go. Perhaps we could fit a couple of hours in later today..

Travel

Alfriston Camping

Alfriston Camping Field – Pleasant Rise Farm. A field, toilets, showers, washing up sinks and water from a tap at the end of the hedge. A tent, airbeds, duvets, blankets, food without a fridge, a gas cooker, plastic plates, a kettle, table, chairs, games and books.

Sure – the airbeds started sinking a few hours after they’d been inflated; sure – the tail of a hurricane whipped us as it flew past; sure- rain and mizzle (misty drizzle) found us and toyed with us; sure- there’s nothing perfect about camping – and not looking for perfection is a reminder that we don’t need to look for perfection. Life is what it is.

There was an old, abandoned tennis court we tried to play on – grit from the deconstructing ground surface made us skid and slide as we hurtled the little green balls around the semi-fenceless, unloved space. Except we did love it – while we played. There’s something about camping that strips away your preconceptions about how things aught to be. A space for playing in – no matter how unkempt – becomes just that. Somewhere to play.

A space to wash yourself or your dishes becomes a haven- thank goodness we have access to water-from-a-tap. We remember how lucky we are and we feel lucky.

I love how everything has a solution when we’re camping: life simplifies around us.

The children make friends instantly – die hard BFFs – and disappear into the woods. Their laughter rings round the whole field. They find a rope to swing on so they swing on it; though their hands hurt when they hold the stick; though they fall off endless times; though their legs are bruised and scratched; they play on and on. They play with mud and discarded things, they laugh and explore.

I tend house and revel in the simple chores: boil the kettle, make the beds, prepare the food, tidy our space. I sit and look at the sky, the field, the hills, the trees. I hear the kettle bubbling, birds singing, children playing and people talking. I get out my books or magazines or my crosswords or notepaper and read or puzzle or write and sigh – deeply contented.

We climb a hill, over wild flowers and long grass to the summit where the view rolls around us, green and lush. Horses and cattle graze, bees buzz by and we pluck blackberries – ripe and juicy – from the bushes.

Some days, the wind and rain drive us in so we play card games cross-legged on the floor. We loaded a couple of devices with movies before we came and David Bowie croons to us about magic and tears as the Goblin King toys with the stolen babe while Sarah fights her way through dangers untold to the Goblin City.

We pop out to the zoo (see Drusillas) and a beautiful medieval house and garden (see the Clergy House). We visit a fourteenth century pub and the village church, we find the village store and walk along the timber framed street, surrounded by ancient beauty. We stop to admire a dragon figurehead reclaimed from a ship wrecked at the Battle of Beach Head in 1690.

We cross the river Cuckmere and down to a tributary where a pair of swans nestle and a heron flies over our heads. I lower the children from a bridge into the shallow waters of the rivulet and watch them splash and explore, “can we stay here all day?” They ask. Can we stay here forever? I think.

Pack up day comes and my cousin comes to help us end our retreat. We stuff and roll and squeeze our camp-life into bags and load the car for the journey home.

A sadness pervades as we drive away, we’re leaving paradise and we know it. We’ll come back next year we promise each other. We drive through the field, saying goodbye to the rope swing and the haunted tennis court, we say goodbye to the idyllic village as we drive through and out into the farmland beyond.

We are renewed and rejuvenated and pleased to be home where the fridge is cold and the mattresses stay plump. But we are already yearning for a field and a tent and a wide blue sky.

I’m not so sure we can wait till next year…

Travel

Herstmonceux

Castle, Observatory and Science Centre.

I’ve never been inside the castle. The 15th century moated castle houses an international study centre within its walls and you have to time your visit right to gain a peek inside. The gardens are fabulous.

That is where we didn’t go this weekend. We went to the Observatory and Science Centre next door. I last visited there a couple of years ago and a couple of years before that and a couple of years before that. It’s one of those places.. visitable every now and then but pace yourself. Of course, you need children to go there with, relatives or borrowed children count.

I had – been there with other children – and enjoyed their reactions to the hands on experiments. But there’s something so special about seeing your own children light up when they identify a constellation or explore electricity or suddenly understand earthquakes.

There’s a woman in a lone observatory down by the castle who beams light into space to help the satellites figure out where they are in orbit. She can tell where active volcanoes are on earth as the heated air from bubbling lava rises out of the atmosphere and registers on satellite sensors.

There’s a man in the Science Centre who knows an awful lot about space and Isaac Newton and stars and telescopes. He gives a mind blowing tour of the old Greenwich observatories; moved to Sussex after the last war so astronomers could view far off lights without the glare of inner city neon.

There are things to press and squeeze and pick up and spin and build and inspect and learn and I enjoyed every minute. My children enjoyed every minute too.

My husband wonders if he’s too old to learn about the wonders of the universe as seen through a rather large telescope: No, he’s not.

We joined, as members for the year. The cost of a family membership for the year is less than a family day pass to Lego land. In an age where family entertainment, days out and pastimes are often based on deep pockets, it’s a good reminder that our lives are what we make them. Yes, we could spend all our time at family fun parks watching the children whizz around but I prefer to join in with their learning Journeys – the children’s and their dad’s – and mine.

We’re looking forward to spending many more days together there exploring the wonders of science and astronomy.

It dawned on me as my small children grew in heart and mind that we should ignite our children’s love of learning far beyond what is expected of them. It dawned on me again as we watched them soaking up scientific ideas with delight and enthusiasm. They can fuel their own interests – follow their curiosities and genuinely enjoy discovering what the world is about.

Beyond the confines of classroom, beyond imposed restrictions and testable knowledge.

Amid the copper-green domes, lush vegetation, flint brick walls and landscaped paths; within the beautiful Sussex countryside among wood and Field and marsh; there is much to enjoy; much to learn.

As the nights lengthen and evenings arrive earlier and earlier, we’ll be heading down to the Observatory to peer through massive telescopes at the unbound universe.

I for one, can’t wait!

Entertainment, Travel

Danny Baker Live: oh so funny

I am surprising myself Day-by-day lately.

Danny Baker! Who? That bloke from the radio – mates with Chris Evans and Gazza. Talks about football. I supposed I could yawn my way through his live show and daydream about something or other.

My preconceptions were way off.

Friday night. Good Time Charlie’s Back. Decent view from the balcony. I sit back and hope for a few laughs.

Instead, I am drawn into a world of cockney dockers and costers, on a Bermondsey estate in the sixties as a young Danny boy grows up in a strong, loving, hard-working family.

I have never before met such an engaging and authentic story teller. Danny blends fact and fiction into an autobiography of sheer delight and enthusiasm. He paces the stage for the entire show – back and forwards, back and forwards, using photos from his life to prompt each new story – each cherished memory.

The entire audience is attuned to his every word. Danny is mesmerising and fascinating. Seeing the world through his eyes is beyond refreshing. It’s illuminating.

He retells each coincidence, each event in his life and each chance encounter that propelled him forward into each new adventure. And the people in his life who he counts as friends are people we’ve grown up viewing from afar.

Elton John, Roger Daltry, the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury, Michael Jackson.. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

It’s clear throughout his engaging narrative that Danny has spent his entire life enjoying people and them enjoying him.

Was it coincidence that led Danny at the age of 15 to work in One Stop Records and spend his days listening to American imports serving and advising the likes of Jimmy Paige?

Was it coincidence that he co-developed the first punk-rock fanzine with his one time schoolmate and helped raise punk from obscure to cool?

Was it coincidence that from there he wound up writing for NME and travelling round the world from party to concert to party reviewing the freshest music scenes, befriending talented artists?

Was it coincidence that he was selected to star in a tv show about London life and from there become propelled to radio broadcasting?

Danny says the gods were playing with him – giving him a lucky life.

I think that Danny is very probably one of the most engaging, humble and friendly men on the planet and I would defy anyone to witness his live show and not to fall a little in love with this candid raconteur.

I think Danny made his own luck.

Four hours later, I walk bleary-eyed from the theatre and head-full of Danny Baker’s stories, make for Home.

John Lennon? Bumped into him in New York and gained a brief interview.

Paul Weller? You’d never confuse him with a ray of sunshine!

Danny Baker? You have another new fan.

Archaeology, Learning

Plumpton Roman villa: Archaeology in Sussex

It was a teaching day yesterday. I had a glorious day out at Plumpton working on the villa and teaching a new group of people about archaeology. There’s so much joy in teaching, learning and discovery.

It’ll never fail to fascinate me that I can touch with my hand something that hasn’t been touched by anyone else for nearly 2000 years; my fingers can trace the grooves made by the Potter or the tile-maker and finger print to finger print, the years fade away.

There’s a humanness to Archaeology that defies category.

We study the objects that humans made and used and left behind. We learn of people’s cultures and lives and find what’s left of their humanity. And in this fleeting passage of time that constitutes human life, we can pause and reflect on how lives were then and how lives are now and see the changes that time and ingenuity have wrought on humankind.

It’s not all prosaic, this gathering of artefacts and blisters. It’s searching for structures and features in the soil, it’s looking for the echoes of past civilisations in the soil; broken things and rusty things, shiny things and once-loved things. It’s hard, dusty work. It’s digging with trowels and mattocks, shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows. It’s sweating profusely in a 29 degree heatwave while teaching and remembering the joy that brought me here in the first place. The joy that set me on this journey 16 years ago.

In this blistering heat, the desire to feel connected to the past- to learn what has never been learned before – must outweigh the desire for human comfort. We spend the day outside of ourselves, learning how to see the past, how to record these echoes of humanity.

We learn of our own human-ness as we search for traces of past human-ness in the soil. We learn about ourselves and our essential natures.

We suspend our regular pattern of days and set aside our worldly concerns. We are – for a brief and precious time – aware of the importance of human life and we grant ourselves the perspective to view thousands of years of human life – generation upon generation of lives – without fear or pity of our own mortality but with reverence and awe.

There are days in each of our lives that remind us who we are. Yesterday was one of them.

Uncategorized

Normandy road trip.. ooh I can’t wait!

I’m planning a family road trip to Normandy. Normandy has a soft, gooey place in my heart, like one of its unctuous cheeses. We’ve got a few months build-up time and I’ll be using that time to ramp up the excitement.

I love to explore and I love the build-up to exploring: planning. I’m going to spend the next few months learning as much as I can about Normandy before we explore it.

There will be parts of this blog that are utterly-Normandy-focused – as I work my way through this current obsession. Of course, I’ve picked a destination that we can reach in a few hours. But is it really adventure if we don’t have to travel for days and battle terminals and stations and crowds to get there?

Yes! It’s a dive into the culture of another country – a different-but-familiar language; different-but-familiar food; different-but-familiar landscape and a shared but tumultuous history.

Expect references to geology, archaeology, prehistory, history, linguistics, genetics and gastronomics. It’s going to be quite a ride!

I’ll be exploring themes of nationalism and farming; culture and comparison. I want to find out if being French is very different from being English.

After all, we can see the cliffs of Normandy from the Southern-English shores on a clear day.