Letters home, 2001, March 11

March 11 2001

Dear Mum and Dad

It’s Sunday and I’m just in from running 21 miles.  That is SUCH a long way – it’s more than 30km and everything on me that I try to move hurts.  My schedule wanted me to do 20 miles in 3 hours, but I was a bit quicker than that and I did the 21 miles in 2:58:06.  I didn’t intend to be quicker, but I had picked up a rhythm at the start and simply kept it up.  To run a marathon in under 3:30 hrs means I have to be able to do a 1:37 half-marathon and a 42 minute 10km.

Last weekend I did my half-marathon in the prescribed time, but I haven’t met the 10km speed requirement yet.  I’m sure it will come.  I have to do another half-marathon next weekend and I really want to attack that time.  The following Sunday I have to do 20 miles, the next Sunday, 22 miles and the Sunday after that 18 miles.  My schedule is following the theory of a very famous British coach, Bruce Tulloch, who says that in order to get the time you want in a marathon, you have to run 100 miles in the long runs (those Sunday runs) in the month or so before the start.  On Tuesdays I do speed training and on Wednesdays and Thursdays I do medium distance runs of 8 to 10 miles at just under or just over my marathon pace.  Fridays I always have off, Saturday morning is a funny little slow run of 5 miles and Monday night is a slow run of 4-6 miles to help recover from the Sunday exertion.

The trouble is I don’t know if the London Marathon is even going to be run this year.  I have entered 3 races so far and all of them have been cancelled because of the foot and mouth disease outbreak.  They kept my entry cheque, too.  I have had notice that the two other races I have entered are also cancelled, so I won’t get a race before the marathon and even that looks doubtful because the race starts in a big park in Greenwich and there is a lot of stock in that park.  There are movement restrictions on all farm animals so the stock can’t be moved out of the park unless it’s to slaughter – and then only under a special permit.  

In St Albans, all the local parks have been closed including Jersey Farm Woodland Park just up the road and Verulamium Park where we like to go sometimes in the weekend.  The area around us is large-scale commercial cropping, mostly for rapeseed oil (canola) and oats or barley and there are very few animals of any sort.  However, most of the farms have notices on the front gate asking people not to drive onto their properties and all the local walkways and bridle paths that go through farmland are closed.  

The road gates of all the farms are padlocked and the front gate of each farm has a bed of bright yellow straw soaked in antiseptic that a visitor would have to drive or walk over.  Some of the restrictions have been put in place by government and also by local bodies. However, some restrictions have been set up voluntarily by desperately worried farmers, who have also lobbied their local clubs and organizations to close events that encouraged large groups of people to go on or near rural roads or byways. All except one of the races that I have entered was closed by the organizer after approaches were made by their local farmers. The other one was closed by order of the local council.  Strangely, though, the football is unaffected.  I suppose that is because the football grounds that the big clubs own are all urban and the visitors are kept in town.  But I still think it’s odd.  The golf clubs are still well attended, too.

I’ve got a bit of a problem with other countries selecting the English to treat specially. Foot&Mouth isn’t carried in sandwiches, dairy products or handbags. It’s held in a pig’s throat and the pig breathes out millions of the virus onto the wind where it will waft for about 30 miles. It is also carried on feet and wheels and can live in the earth for 6 months. When an infected animal is killed, the virus dies with it. The virus is not in its meat, it’s in the throat, but of course it can also be in the soil attached to the animal’s coat.

So let’s say I walked along a country road and a Landrover from a farm drove past me and I stood on the dirt thrown up from its wheels and say that dirt had the virus in it. A week later I got on a plane and headed for Germany. Everyone on the plane should be disinfected, because anyone on the plane could have picked up the virus from the tracks left by my shoes, not just me and the other people from England. It’s silly just to sterilise only the English. If there’s one person from England on the plane, and they are going to disinfect that person then the entire crew, passengers and interior
of the plane should be disinfected as well. I still think they have absolutely slack border controls.

We were horrified when the government allowed doggy passports and the free passage of dogs with the passport … I mean, what border controls? If you mention such things as F&M you’re scare-mongering, aren’t you? They’ve just forgotten how incredibly expensive these things can be and how eternally vigilant your borders have to be to keep them out. Look at all the illegal immigrants that get in! As I said, what border controls? I have just seen on the BBC website that F&M is in France. Let’s see if they can do any better. They are blaming imported British animals. I wonder if countries are now going to sterilize all French people coming off planes?

It’s actually the tourism industry that is suffering the most. Farming gives the economy about 21BN pounds a year, but tourism injects about 200BN. Farming is small bikkies by comparison. All of rural Britain is shut down and farming is losing about 20M pounds a week … tourism, though, is losing about 10x that.

We are not in gaol, though. I can still run on the rural roads, we can still go to rural towns; it’s just that all the bridle paths and walkways are closed as well as most of the parks and common lands. It’s not as dramatic as the fuel blockade was, but it is going to last a lot longer. In 1967, the number of cases ended up at over 1200 and we are only at about 200. There’s a long way to go, I think.

And then there’s the weather.  After a month of absolutely beautiful weather in NZ, we came back to a very cold welcome in England.  We had heard about the snow near Christmas time and we were very disappointed we had missed it because till now, there had been only one snow in a year and last year it had been very light.  A couple of days after we returned, we had a 2-week visit from one of our best friends from Otorohanga, Elizabeth Marshall, and for her the weather turned on all the fireworks.

I was sitting at work on the first day and there was just the slightest flurry of little white flakes and I had to go to the window to have a look.  Gradually throughout the afternoon the snowfall became heavier and the bare trees on the other side of Shire Park became more indistinct.  I even drove home through the falling snow. It was pitch black, of course, because at that time of year night falls at 4:30pm and I was on the shift that finishes at 6:00pm.

It snowed on and off for the next three days and while it didn’t actually inconvenience anyone because it didn’t build up into drifts like you see in other cities, clearing the snow and frost off the car each morning was a pretty cold chore.  Elizabeth went off adventuring each day, mostly catching the bus to the station and then the train into London about 40min away.  In the evenings she would show us her treasures and tell us the stories of places she had been and people she had met.  She is a straight-forward, no-nonsense sort of person but someone who can also tell the funniest stories about her day of anyone I have ever met.  It didn’t matter how cold she felt or how lost she got, Elizabeth kept her cool and soaked up everything London and St Albans offered her.  She also managed to get home every day before dark.

Anyway, this is about the weather and I have digressed.  On the Sunday morning I went early for a long run through the country and I was very surprised to feel how cold it was and to see how much snow was lying about.  There was even snow on the footpath and my feet were crunching through it and sliding slightly as though it was sand or little glass pebbles.  We thought we’d take Elizabeth to Kingsbury Mill for a breakfast of waffles and a tour around Verulamium Park and St Albans’ beautiful cathedral.  For the first time, we saw snow on the ground around the cathedral deep enough to cover the grass and there was snow on its roof and hanging on the trees.  

We took photos of the graveyard with the snow sitting on the gravestones and helped people up who had slipped on the frozen path.  We walked down the hill past the Fighting Cocks pub, with deep snow on its shingled roof, and as we walked on into the park we saw that Verulamium Lake was almost completely frozen over and there were black-coated people walking and even skating on the ice.  Of course I went for a walk on the lake; gingerly, carefully, but I did it nonetheless. Later, Ivor said that the last time the lake was frozen was in the 1960’s.  We probably would not see it again in our lifetime.  

We walked right through the park marvelling at the hoare frost clinging to the bare branches of winter-bound trees and watched the geese splash-landing in the small patch of water left unfrozen on the whole lake.  We had wrapped up very warmly at home with long-johns, heavy winter trousers, jerseys, big coats and thermal gloves, but our feet were still really cold when we finally arrived at Kingsbury Mill on the far side of the park.  

The waffle house there has a big fire and a warm atmosphere and we ate our breakfast waffles of hot raspberries and maple syrup while our feet warmed up.  We now have three beautiful photos: one looking back over the River Ver to the Fighting Cocks pub, one of the Victorian brick bridge over the narrowest part of Verulamium Lake and the last is of Elizabeth and Elaine close to the edge of the iced-over lake with its island of frozen trees in the background.  Everything is white, dark green, black or grey; the photos are almost monochrome and the day you can see in the photos is overcast and foggy with a dead white sky.

Then it rained.  It’s only just stopped, really.  House Lane, the road from here to Sandridge, is closed because it’s flooded in two places between us and the village.  It’s also flooded between us and Smallford, on the road to work.  Fortunately, there’s a diversion so I can still get to work without too much trouble.  House Lane is about 60 feet below us, so there’s no possibility of our being flooded, although we do get quite a flow of water, from the football field near us, past our front step when it rains heavily.  

The locals say that the water is so high in House Lane and it won’t drain away because the level it is sitting at is the water table.  Also, it doesn’t have to rain very much here for the water table to stay high, because it is being replenished by rains on the Chiltern Hills.  People are reporting flooded cellars and garages, but it doesn’t seem as though their houses are flooded.  The storm-water pipes are so full of water that it is pouring out of the inspection covers.

Now, it’s nearly spring.  Here, spring starts officially on 22 March, when day and night are the same length, but the peach trees are getting pinker by the day and the cherry blossom is fat with expectation.  The daffodils are massing and the crocuses are already in full and glorious colour.  The English bush them up around the trees and they make a very colourful display while much else is still in its winter browns.  

We can see why the Europeans like spring so much – it is such a contrast to the winter and it comes on in such a burst of colour and activity.  Also, it’s considerably warmer.  Only a week ago, it was –2C in the mornings and barely above 8C all day long, now the frost is gone and the day temps are around 13C.  No wonder the plants get into such vigorous action because they are spurred on by the sudden change in temperature and the rapidly increasing daylight hours.

After lunch today Elaine wanted to try out a new route to her work so we hopped in her nice new (1993!) Rover Metro (aren’t we going up in the world?) and I navigated while Elaine drove up the M1 until we got to junction 12 and I had to wake up and pay attention to the map. Normally she has to drive through much of Luton in 8:00am rush-hour(s) traffic and this new route is designed to keep her out of Luton.

Well, it was a very pleasant trip through a bit of rural Bedfordshire to Barton-le-Clay. Did I tell you that Barton was where William the Conqueror and a few of the kings after him got bricks made? It’s a very cosy and tightly packed little village with an old heart of Tudor houses with their bricked in wattle and daub walls surrounded by a substantial new housing estate in very late 20th Century brick.

Elaine was quite pleased with the new route and thought it might save her a bit of time, but more importantly would give her a much quieter, more rural and more scenic road to work. We went along the road a little more to have coffee and lemonade at The Raven, a majestic older-style pub in Hexton where Elaine and some of the staff have lunch on a Friday. We thought we’d see if there was anything interesting going on in Milton Keyenes, but got waylaid by the sight of a most beautiful church in Toddington.

Opposite it was a Greene King pub called The Sow and Pigs. Greene King pubs are always interesting because they are always in an old building and serve real ale, so they are keen to keep up English traditions. Alongside, and possibly part of the inn history of the pub is a Tudor building in all sorts of angles with white-washed walls, blackened timbers and a deeply hollowed tiled roof. Inside, there was a crackling fire and all the jokes in the world about pigs and sows, in frames on the walls. The tables were blackened oak, but the benches had comfortable padding. I pinched a Greene King cardboard coaster to put in the treasure chest because they are an unusual shape and design.

We had coffee and a pint of lemonade (I have to drink a fair bit after a run) and because it was after 4:00pm we decided that Milton Keynes could wait and we would go home. I’d had a long look at the church opposite from the warmth of the pub and I’ve decided we must go back to Toddington to have a much closer look, but wandering around the outsides of buildings in winter in England is not good sport. We drove home through flurries of what is called snow showers. A snow shower has a bit of snow, a bit of rain and sometimes a bit of hail. They don’t all come at once, they are interspersed, but now when they warn us of snow showers on the weather forecast, I know what they are referring to.

ET1 has gone. I am very unhappy about it because I loved that little car, but it refused to start a couple of mornings in a row so I took it to the Metro Centre. They pointed out all the things that would have to be done to it and I reluctantly gave it up to be scrapped. I now run around in Elaine’s former car, ET2, and Elaine has the nice new, white Rover Metro I referred to above. ET1 was only supposed to last us a few months and she would still have saved us a lot of money in car hire and a lot of time in missed bus trips, but she lasted for over a year, so I can’t complain, but she was a little sweety.

About three weeks ago, Elaine and I went to Eastleach. It’s not easy to find because it’s a bit off the Oxford road, down some country lanes and hidden deep in the Cotswolds. Elaine was trying to find traces of her grandmother’s father’s family, the Whitings. Joe Whiting had a huge fight with his blacksmith father, went to Durham at only 14 and then left for NZ. He never returned. We didn’t find the Whitings or any sign of them and none of the locals we stopped and asked could remember the name, but we did find two beautiful Norman churches, built around 1100AD, and a little Cotswold village of substantial wealth.

We looked through both churches and tried to read many of the gravestones, but the name just didn’t seem to be there. The Cotswold cottages are made of quarried limestone blocks, not much bigger than a brick, but enough bigger that you can easily see the difference. We were invited to visit the house of Mary and Ray Jenkinson, one of the longest-standing families in the Eastleach area and they were in a 16th century house. You could see that the blocks were cut with a saw, because of the vertical saw-cuts on the outside face.

These people knew a lot about the Saxon and even the Celtic history of Eastleach, but they couldn’t remember ever having heard the name Whiting. Still, the 1880’s were a fair while ago. We also found out that the early wealth of Eastleach (apart from farming) came from water cress. The Leach River is absolutely the clearest water we have seen anywhere. It reminded me of standing watching trout in Ngongotaha, but the river is not that deep. I looked for trout, though.

The water cress used to be laden onto wagons and sold in Covent Garden in London. I forgot to ask him if was still harvested, but he showed us his orchard, the river running through it and the fountain by the river that used to supply the locals with their house water. The villagers would come to this very ornate fountain with their buckets and be uplifted by the religious figures carved into it while they filled up before lugging the heavy burden home. We had lunch in the Victoria pub, which was also made mostly of Cotswold limestone blocks, and was quite self-consciously Victorian in its décor, as well as having a few pictures of the great queen herself. We debated going the extra 50 miles to Gloucester, but we decided that one town well explored on one day was a good day out.

I looked up my stats at work on Friday and compared them to the others on the team. My stats are so far ahead of anyone else, it’s a crime. I have logged 889 jobs in the month and the nearest other is 720. I have recorded 47% contact time with the customer and the nearest other is 36%, I have an average talk time of 284 secs, which is within acceptable limits, though the ideal is 240, so although I have a high number of jobs and a high amount of customer contact time, my talk time is not too high nor too low. I still had time to train two new analysts. So now not only am I the most senior person on the Online side of the helpdesk, I am also the best. That’s a nice thought.

Lots of love

Ewart and Elaine