Royal Ascot

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

RoyalAscot08-3400.jpgLast week, the biggest event here in the Ascot area–indeed, one of the big calendar events for the entire country–took place. Royal Ascot is a colorful, fascinating, and bizarrely British annual happening. It started as a horse race, but it got bigger.

The royals have always been keen on horses. They’ve always had a lot of acreage in the area of Windsor, so back in the early 18th century, they built a race track within a carriage ride of Windsor.

The track in Ascot has races and other events all year, but none are as famous or formal as the Royal Ascot week. The queen arrives every day in her carriage (belief is that half the trip is in a Range Rover), which crosses the length of the final part of the race track, and then she and her entourage walk up to the royal enclosure. The strict dress code of the royal enclosure has an impact on the entire event. Even the cameramen wear top hat and tails.

The pictures on my web site gallery are from ladies day last year. This is the Thursday event that includes the most outlandish hats and shoes. Royal Ascot is a place to see and be seen.

To be honest, I hardly saw a horse when we spent the day there last year. The people are a lot more interesting than the horses. It brings out the entire spectrum of English society, from the posh to the potted.

Most of the local cabbies try to avoid the event because they want to keep the back of their cars clean. When Royal Ascot is taking place, we follow the lead of our neighbors and stay off the roads.

Mechanical Orgy: The Great Dorset Steam Fair

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Several traction engines haul their load up a hillThe English revere their industrial heritage and glory in their eccentricity, two traits that indulged to the nth degree at what is reputedly the largest event of its kind, The Great Dorset Steam Fair. I’ve been to steam fairs before, but nothing on this grand scale. where else can you go to see a couple dozen steam rollers, all merrily driving around a couple miles of pasture land? A veritable orgy of steam and rivets, the air thick with the acrid coal smoke of hundreds of fireboxes, the air rent with the shrill sound of steam whistles, the rattling of chains and gears, and the cloying sound of colliopes, the overall effect of the thing is beyond words. 200,000 people were expected to visit this year’s 40th anniversary event. [see my full photo gallery]


Central stage at GDSF is the Heavy Haulage Area. All day long, steam engines of various sorts, along with the occaisional Diesel interloper, circle around about a 2 mile loop, the far end of which is relatively steep. Although there are some steam rollers (see the two at the far left), the real stars are the transport engines, the road locomotives that hauled heavy wagons, or short trains of lighter wagons, on public roads. Loads being pulled in the Heavy Haulage Area included a large generator, a huge tree, and big bulldozer on a trailer. Shown coming up the steepest part of the hill in the picture at the top, a train of 3 traction engines, 2 in the front and 1 in the back, chuffed out huge clouds of dense black smoke hauling this load.


Other traction engines, although they could haul themselves and their attachments to the job site, were used primarily as stationary power, running threshers, balers, and saw mills. Steam rollers were demonstrated not only smoothing down a road being constructed at the site, but were also used to pull grader blades and tar wagons, and were demonstrated powering a rock crusher. The most powerful steam engines working at the fair were the plough engines. Even as late as the 1950s, traction machines were used to plow large fields in the UK. A matched set of engines, right handed and left handed, with huge winches located under the boiler, alternated pulling a multi-gang plow.


Most of the engines, and their owners, were eager to get their hands dirty, but one class of engines are in a class apart. A showman’s tractor has an electrical generator and is traditionally used to power the rides and calliopes at fairs, carnivals and other events. Decked out in gleaming paint, with ornate twisted brass brackets, they were also used as tractors to haul fairground equipment between events. Many of these were in evidence at Dorset, powering calliopes big and small, and fair ground rides.


Signs of the times: decoding the pub

Monday, July 28th, 2008

20071222-IMG_1309.jpgNo matter how long we live in England, we still seem to have difficulty understanding exactly what the signs are trying to communicate. Language conventions are just different here.

Take tonight, for instance. Getting the urge for some exercise, Elizabeth and I decided we could walk 10 minutes to the Dog and Partridge and get a couple of pints, too. Unfortunately, it is closed on Mondays. This being England, another pub was just minutes away. Even better, the sign outside of the pub advertised both Real Ale and some sort of pseudo-Mexican food.

In America, when an establishment goes to the trouble of making and displaying a sign, it generally means that this is what’s on offer. Not in this culture and not at this pub. Food is only served during lunch hours, and they weren’t pouring anything that didn’t come out of a very large and very generic factory. The Carpenters Arms did have taps for London Pride and at least one other real ale, but the barkeep wouldn’t give me any. Disappointed that I couldn’t get a proper pint, and unwilling to take a generic lager (like it makes sense to ship urine all the way from Australia, let alone Belgium), I took a Strongbow, an overly sweet fermented apple juice intended to give young people something to swill.

LondonFeb2007-33-Edit.jpgWe encountered signage ambiguity during our first several weeks in England, when we were living in a temp flat in Windsor. Heading out of town on foot, we stopped at the first building with a sign advertising ‘food’. Inside, we were told that they actually hadn’t been serving anything but beer and crisps for 2 years. Nobody else was wandering around looking for nourishment, and they seemed almost amused that these funny foreigners would think that a sign advertising food would actually mean that they serve food. I’m convinced that there is some sort of subtle signal, other than the overt and misleading one of the signage, that allows the native English to know whether or not a pub actually has food.

I think I’m beginning to crack some of the code, though. Assuming that the pub does have food, I can usually tell whether it is going to be any good or not. If the sign says “Good Food Served All Day,” it means “We Have a Microwave.”

The Igel has Landed

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Kirk was at an event with friends from church the other night, and Elizabeth and I decided to walk down the high street to the Italian restaurant. After a wonderful meal and a bottle of vino, we hurried back home, thinking we’d probably need to pickup Kirk. A couple hundred yards from the restaurant, Elizabeth says “Jay, LOOK, There’s a RAT!” Sure enough, some grey little animal was running down the gutter ahead of us. I said “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it!” and gallantly ran ahead to do battle with the vermin.

I was totally shocked; gobsmacked, I should say. Instead of running away from me, the little bugger just hunkered down at the side of the road, apparently hoping I’d continue on past. As soon as I came up level with him, it was obvious that this was no ordinary rat, this was Sonic. The Hedgehog. Finally, after years of hoping beyond hope that we’d have an encounter with one of these much beloved little garden critters (at least one that was thicker than a pancake), the big moment had finally arrived.

He just stood there, all pitiful, quivering like he was going to expire at any second–terminally cute, with a pointed little button nose, tiny little ears, little whiskers, and cute little spines.

Given our history with hedgehogs, we weren’t sure that he wasn’t suicidal, just waiting for a passing Range Rover so he could terminate his fearful and fragile existence. We decided to intervene.

Elizabeth figured that once she touched him, he’d fold up into a ball, and we could just roll him off the street. Sure enough, one tip of the Texas boot and he turned into a spindly little ball of fat. The weird thing is, once he’d gone into protection mode, there was no telling even which way was up.

ALL the bits came inside (she?). It was practically seamless. Elizabeth’s boot toe rolled the featureless little sucker up to safety -over and over again, without any evidence of ears, legs, nose, tail……….or bits.

With a little imagination, I’m sure that you can picture two well-fed Americans, standing out in the dark on Sunningdale High Street, getting the giggles over this little palm-sized bundle of spine.