Monday, November 28, 2016

Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon 2016 - Lessons Learned

London, England. Sunday 09-October-2016.

When the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon published the age group analysis I was 97th out of 173 over-60's. In the middle of the pack. That tallest bar in the middle of the graph. I'll take that, thank you. The average time for this cohort was 02:18:45 so I was faster than the average, thanks to the long tail. Happy with that too, as a first timer who only started running in February.

Things I have learned:

  • People sponsored the training. Sponsorship is for doing something hard. Doing training runs twice a week for six months is the hard part. The half marathon itself was a doddle, I just trotted along beside the pacemaker. The last couple of km I was chatting away to him. Over the finish line and wandered off to find Mary. No real after effects at all. I could not have done that without the training.
  • I can't listen to music. I tried it once and it threw me off my stride trying unconsciously to run to the beat. Instead I used my mental jukebox which had the right beats per minute. Mainly Little Eva and The Loco-Motion.
  • I can't drink. I tried it once and it threw me off my breathing. I need my mouth for air! The conventional wisdom is "keep hydrated" but, apart from that one attempt I ran dry. Even on the half marathon I literally drank about five mouthfuls of water from my neighbour's bottle. If I do a full marathon I will probably have to work on this.
  • I don't eat carbs. I went on a training seminar with sessions on nurtrition, pacing and a yoga class. The nutrition advice mentioned the five food groups and loading up on carbs for two or three days prior, not more. Looking at my diet I realised that I eat very little carbs. A couple of slices of toast for breakfast but the evening meal is typically a piece of protein grilled, baked or shallow fried and a heap of vegetable. No potatoes, rice, cous-cous nor pasta except once or maybe twice a week. So it was a real effort to pre-load before the race. I don't eat much fruit either. On the day my fuel was two slices of toast and a small granola bar.
  • I don't enjoy it. I just don't get the attraction of running. It's like being a hamster in a wheel. As someone commented - I deserve especial credit for doing it despite not liking it.
  • I don't get an endorphin high. Or 'runners' rush' or whatever you want to call it. My body doesn't seem to work that way. The first five minutes post-run are getting breath and pulse back to normal, then I spontaneously combust - sweat bursts of of every pore and drenches me - and then I feel relaxed because it's all over. If that feeling is this supposed euphoric state then all I can say is "sod that for a game of soldiers", the game's not worth the candle.
  • I was Billy No-Mates. All my training was done entirely on my own (49 runs totalling 360km). It was really weird on the day to be surrounded by 16,000 other people all around me that I had to dance around to keep my pace.
  • I am a human metronome. Looking at the splits there is less than a minute between average and target all the way through except the first. The only reason the first one is fast is because I had to catch up to the pace runner who had worked his way forward in the queue while we were waiting to start.
    • Chip Time 02:14:52
    • Split Time (Target)
      • 5km 00:30:26 (00:31:57)
      • 10km 01:03:28 (01:03:54)
      • 15km 01:35:05 (01:35:51)
      • 20km 02:07:59 (02:07:48)
      • 21.1km 02:14:52 (02:14:50)
  • I did OK for my age and a newbie. See opening para. There were only 173 runners over 60 which, at just over, 1% surprised me, I would have thought there would have been a few more.
  • Put your name on your T-shirt. Prostate UK send me the letters in my name for me to iron on my vest. All the way round complete strangers were shouting my name, "Go Mark!" and giving me high fives. That is why I have a grin in all the photos.
  • Top tip from the professionals. "If you can see your feet you need to look up".
Was it fun? I am tempted to say No but the smile on my face in all the pictures say otherwise.
Would I do it again? No but I will do a full marathon, this was a stepping stone to prove that end goal is plausible.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Olive Harvest 2016

Puglia, Italy.

Another wet summer, another lost harvest. Because of the summer rains the olives had rotted and dropped, rather like 2014. Only those who harvested early got any reasonable crop but we understand that the acidity was poor and may have been too high to technically count as "extra virgin". Extra-virgin olive oil is required to have no more than 0.8% free acidity (Wikipedia).

Not a single olive to be harvested on our nine trees and we had three disappointed friends who came to help with the harvest.  Still not as bad as our friend Mino who has 150 trees and 11 friends over from the UK.

Nothing for it but to eat, drink and do the tourist thing. Over the week we went out for four excellent meals of very different styles:
  • Arrosteria del Vicoletto (Cisternino). A fornello pronto - basically a butcher where you choose your meat, they cook it in an wood oven and serve with baked potato and salad and wine by the jug. A mixture of chops, sausage and bombette - meat balls available in a variety of meats, flavours and seasonings.
  • Il Cortiletto (Speziale) - we visited this trattoria a couple of years ago with Nigel and he was keen to re-visit so we booked without telling him, as a surprise. The dining room is the size of someone's living room, there cannot be more that 20 covers. They have a chalk board menu of the day and it is freshly cooked and changing every day. A real gem.
  • Osteria Sant'Anna (Cisternino) - the best restaurant in Cisternino and an obvious choice to celebrate our friends Tony and Terri's 39th anniversary. The food is excellent and the ambience is stylish without being too formal with lovely stone-vaulted ceilings. 
  • Osteria del Porto (Savelletri) - on our way back to the airport we stopped in Savelletri and ate in this harbour-side restaurant. We had eaten there before so knew it was good and, despite it being 2:30, they were still able to serve us.
Pomodoro al filo

These air dried tomatoes on a string are an essential ingredient for a really authentic orecchiette con cime di rapa [recipe]. Seeing them in the local supermarket I snapped up a bunch and made the dish for supper the following day. Very tasty.

During the daytime we did visits to several of the lovely towns in the area.

Martina Franca. A beautiful city with lots of baroque architecture.

Ceglia Messapica. Our first visit to this town and it was a pleasant surprise. The area has a reputation for poverty and crime especially if you live out in the countryside where the risk of burglary is not inconsiderable. However there is a fair amount on money being invested in the area including public work in the town to improve facilities. Word is that it is up and coming.

Ceglia Messapica - The castle

Ceglia Messapica - The castle courtyard

Ceglia Massapica - Streets

What impressed me was the "suburbs". A typical arrangment for towns in the area is a historic centre on a hill top, full of characterful, winding, narrow lanes, surrounded by a ring of ugly, modern, concrete apartment blocks on the slopes. Here the streets surrounding the old city walls are, themselves, old and full of chararacter making for a more charming aspect.

Egnazia excavations and museum - over the years we have revisited this fascinating site many times. New areas are being uncovered including a very impressive set of public baths. The signage has improved as well with lots of explanatory boards, The museum has also been been given a makeover and now is less text heavy and more visual displays covering the evolution of the site.

Egnazia - forum

Alberobello - no pictures as we've been there so many times. It is a must see for first-timers to the area.

Polignano a Mare - a pretty port often featured in brochures for the area. Even in the dark it was worth breaking our journey to the aiport for an evening stroll.

Trullo Azzurro logoTrullo Azzurro: beautifully restored trullo in delightful, secluded valley near Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy. Available to rent on a per week basis, sleeps 8-10. For more information visit

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Winter Droving 2016

Penrith, Cumbria, UK. Saturday 12-November-2016.

Well that was much more fun than I was expecting. Not that I knew what I was expecting exactly.

We were in the Lake District for a week's walking, visiting our friends Kate and Nigel who have just moved into a little two-up, two-down in the centre of Penrith. Since their house is work-in-progress we stayed at the nearby Whitbarrow holiday village by trading in one of our timeshare weeks in the bank. When we were told about this event we extended our stay by one day in order to take it in.

First up was a three way competition between the young farmers, police and local bar staff including a tray-of-beer race, haybale relay race and an egg throwing competition. I've no idea who won but it was a bit of a larf.

Wandering around town there was lots of entertainment: various stalls, street theater, clog dancing, sword dancing, buskers and several live bands including The Windy Bottom Boys, Opera Anywhere and Mylittltebrother.

Rimski was a bizarre piano on wheels that lurched around scattering spectators while the Chaplin-esque pianist played and crooned a whimsical ditty.

Special mention for sheer silliness must also go to the Feminist Mouse Circus including a mouse called Germaine Gruyere.

Part of the deal was that attendees are invited to wear masks. I had a wild creature of the woods mask - actually it was made by nine-year-old Charlie, the son of a friend of a friend, out of a toy shop batman mask with bits of feather and fur stuck on. Mary wore a mask that belonged to her friend Christine, in her memory.

We donned our masks and went back out for the parade and festivities

The whole thing was very impressive with large, illuminated creatures. There were marching bands, revellers in costume and a candlelit parade. It was all suitably spectacular.

After supper at a local florist and part-time restaurant Green Wheat and Fika The last event of the night was a concert in the Arts Centre from Gypsy Hill.

After that we staggered off home having had a thoroughly entertaining day. Well done to all concerned.

More photos on Flickr:

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Van Morrison and Jeff Beck at The O2

"London. Sunday 30-October-2016.

Once again Van Morrison's appearance at the BluesFest has coincided with our wedding anniversary, this year our 23rd. This time a double bill with Jeff Beck who we also last saw at The O2 back in 2010, then in concert with Eric Clapton.

So we preceded the concert with very nice meal at Gaucho and consequently felt suitably mellow as we took our seats.

Jeff Beck was up first and was excellent followed by Van The Man. Having seen Van Morrison many times (we think this is the eighth) we have never been disappointed. I particularly liked Moondance which he did in preference to Brown Eyed Girl which I have never been that fond of.

It was very different seeing him from way back in the O2 where you had to rely on the big screens as opposed to smaller venues where you can see him directly. The music is the same but the experience isn't quite the same. That aside it was a good concert, both The Evening Standard and The Upcoming gave it four stars.

Sarah Bradbury, The Upcoming: "What better way to end a packed weekend of blues, rock and soul than with two British masters of their craft: Jeff Beck and Van Morrison. [...] The Northern Irish songwriter may have failed to get his Sunday night crowd up and dancing but he proved his transcendental style and sublimely soulful voice still have much to offer with this masterclass in blues." Full review...

A great way to end the BluesFest and celebrate 23 year of marriage.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bill Wyman and The Rhythm Kings at Indigo at the O2

London. Friday 28-October-2016.

The first of two visits to the BluesFest at the O2, this in the smaller venue that is the Indigo.

The show was billed as an 80th birthday gala for Bill Wyman with a host of guests.  The first dozen or so rows were clearly marked off for VIP tickets or invited guests. We had excellent seats in the middle of the second row of the bookable seats.

The general format was each guest came on for two or three songs. Behind the stage the screen showed images of the original artist and the original 45. Almost without exception the originals were black artists which shows the depth of gratitude rhythm and blues, soul, and rock'n'roll owes to African American musicians.

Joe Brown was the first guest introduced by Bill. It was entertaining to see a real rock'n'roll survivor. He's a bit like Cliff Richard, wholesome and aged very well. Nice man.

Joe Brown

Mark Knopfler joined Joe Brown. Boy can he play guitar! The genius behind Dire Straights. His guitar playing made it look so effortless, fluid, unmistakeable. Loved it.

We were due to see Van Morrison two days later on the Sunday so this was a bonus. He was on good form.

Van Morrison

Robert Plant was one of the highlights amongst the guests - never thought I'd tick him off my bucket list. More than slightly surreal to hear him singing Let the Boogie Woogie Roll.

Robert Plant

Bob Geldof gave a speech in praise on Bill. Very touching and clearly heartfelt, the man's OK but many commenters on Bill's FaceBook page seemed to think it's ok to be rude about him, I don't hold with that.

The full list of guests. These were mostly golden oldies.
  • Joe Brown.
  • Molly Marriott - daughter of Steve Marriott.
  • Mark Knopfler
  • Andy Fairweather-Low
  • Van Morrison
  • Martin Taylor
  • Holly Stephenson
  • Bob Geldof
  • Little Steven
  • Mick Hucknall
  • Mike Sanchez
  • Imelda May
  • Robert Plant

The Telegraph gave this gig five stars and well they might, it was a superb night.
"The stage may have been filled by bald heads, grey hair and wrinkles, but close your eyes and that dirty blues remained as thrilling as ever. Great music is not just timeless, it effectively suspends time. And this was a night of really great music, played with love and style by masters of the art.

The vintage stars came out for Wyman’s 80th Birthday Gala at the O2 Indigo in London, as part of the Bluesfest. Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Mick Hucknall, Imelda May and Joe Brown all joined the Rhythm Kings for slick, rich, heartfelt runs through blues and soul classics." Full review...
Cracking evening.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

There will be beer

It was a couple of very beery days.

Thursday 27-October-2016:

Meet the brewer. We went to our local (The County Arms) for supper and, unbeknownst to us, Wimbledon Brewery were there for a "Meet the Brewer" event. They came round and gave us tasting samples of three of their beers: Common Pale Ale, Tower Special Pale Ale and Phoenix Smoked Porter. The pale ales are low ABV, session beers, and an interesting business decision to contrast with another local brewery, Sambrook's, whose range is by-and-large much higher in alcohol.

Wandsworth Common Beer Festival. After supper a short stroll round the corner to Le Gothique for a serious beer festival. Not knowing what to expect I was amazed at the massive selection of beers. Mary and I drank halves so we were able to try five beers apiece.

Box Steam - Chuffing Ale (bitter)Bradford Brewery - Farmers Stout
Downton - Honey Blonde (golden ale)Downton - Chocolate Orange (dark ale)
Peerless - True Brit (English IPA)Downton - Roman Imperial Stout
Dynamite Valley - Prospector (wheat beer)Isle of Avalon - Pomparles Porter
Mad Dog - Its All Propaganda (black IPA) Sarah Hughes Brewery - Snowflake (Barley wine style)

The two extremes for me were both from Downton - the Roman Imperial Stout at 9% was a seriously delicious, heavy duty tipple best followed by a siesta; the Chocolate Orange was described in the catalogue as "consistently one of the most popular beers at every festival", personally I thought it was disgusting, after a few mouthfuls I poured it away on the gravel and moved on to something more palatable.

Mary enjoyed all of hers except for the black IPA which seemed a bit too bitter after a few mouthfuls.

Friday 28-October-2016:

Young's Winter Warmer Launch. Tipped off by our beer aficionado friend, Tony, we went to The White Cross in Richmond for the official launch of this season's Winter Warmer. The deal was a full English breakfast and two pints of beer accompanied by live music.

We could have had a ride on the dray but we concentrated on eating and drinking instead.

Meantime Pop-Up Bar. The main event was a concert to celebrate Bill Wyman's 80th birthday as part of the Blues fest. We started the evening with a visit to Meantime's special beer pop-up bar. It was, our barman claimed, the smallest bar in the UK; it was a shed with seating for two and a couple standing.

The master brewer had developed six beers for six cities. This being London they were serving "Luminor" British style pale ale designed for the great metropolis.

As a souvenir we both got personalised bottles of pale ale.

At the concert Mary drank Brewdog's Dead Pony Club while I switched to red wine having had enough beer.

A very interesting range of beers and experiences.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon 2016

London, England. Sunday 09-October-2016.

Having stopped work I was no longer cycling to work so I'd thought I'd try this running malarkey.

I thought "How hard can it be to run a marathon. Tens of thousands of people do it every year. I could do that!" Mary wisely counseled to try running a half marathon and see how that goes.

I have friends who used an app to get from Couch to 5k over several months. I went for my first run in February and did 2 miles. Two days later, for my second run, I did 5k. Feeling smug I then did ten more 5k runs over the next six weeks.

Encouraged I decided I would give the half marathon a go. I googled and found the Royal Parks Half Marathon in aid of Prostate Cancer UK, signed up and downloaded the training plan. Kept quiet about it for a couple of months until I had done some longer distances and decided that I might actually be able to do it. Only then did I go public. Raising money for Prostate Cancer UK via my fund raising page:

Some people are motivated by pursuit of pleasure, some by avoidance of pain; you're a stick person or a carrot person. Some people relish a challenge, that's for gung-ho "pursuit of pleasure" types. To me "Challenge" means pain, discomfort, danger. Why would anyone actively seek out a "Challenge"? I am the "avoidance of pain" type. In this case the pain of public shame and humiliation if I failed to to complete the course. That is why I waited until late August when I was up to 12.9km before admitting to FaceBook about my half marathon and fear provided the spur for training.

I followed the training plan in spirit rather than to the letter. Two runs per week, one short, one long. Every couple of weeks extending the long run by another circuit of Wandsworth Common. Each additional circuit adds another 2.7km including the little dimple round the duck pond that is Bolingbroke Stock Pond. By the end I was going six times round the common. In total I did 49 training runs over 8 months totalling 360km.

In all those runs my speed did not improve, although my stamina did. My pace in September was no faster than it was at the start back in February. This consistency enabled me to predict a race time of 2 hours, 14 minutes and 50 seconds. The plot of time vs distance is a pretty good straight line.

The training runs I did in Italy were generally shorter and harder work. The country lanes were like an M C Escher staircase - they were uphill all the way round. How is that even possible?

The Royals Parks Foundation offered a training workshop which I found very useful. Sessions on nutrition and hydration, and pacing followed by a yoga class. It was there I learned about the existance of pace runners - being as this is my first ever charity run I was unaware of this support. Given my pace consistency this was greatly reassuring - I would find the 2:15 guy and stick with him. On the day that is exactly what I did.

Off we went and I plodded round with Mr 2:15. He had dozens of followers at the start. By the end we were down to a handful although I'm not sure if they ran ahead or dropped behind - I'm guessing the latter.

Running down Serpentine Road with Wellington Arch in the background.

Down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace with Admiralty Arch behind me.

Still smiling.

This is me at the 8.5 mile mark passing the Prostate Cancer UK cheering station and feeling fine.

Crossing the finishing line.

Map My Ride gave my time as 02:14:52 which matches the official chip time. So close to my predicted time that I laughed out loud and felt very smug indeed.

Looking at the splits I am a human metronome, less than a minute between average and actual all the way through except the first. The only reason the first one is fast is because I had to catch up to the 2:15 pace runner who had worked his way forward in the queue while we were waiting to start.


They don't publish the age-related positions so I cannot tell how I did against my peers. Not that it matters, my only plan was to cross the finish line before they started to dismantle it. I ran all the way and felt absolutely fine at the end. All the training clearly paid off. No after effects to speak of.


What I have learned is that I don't enjoy running. I just don't get it, cannot see the attraction. It's like being a hamster in a cage. Part of it, I think, is that I do not get a runners' rush or endorphin high. For the first five minutes after a run my breathing and heart rate subside to normal. Then I spontaneously combust and for the next five minutes sweat pours out of every pore, salt water stings my eyes. After that I feel calm which I have attributed to relief that the run is over. Certainly doesn't feel like a natural high and if that is it then it is so imperceptible as to not be worth the effort.

All that is irrelevant as it was about raising money for Prostate Cancer UK via my fund raising page: Please join my generous friends and sponsor me.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Other Place 02 - The Building

Cisternino, Puglia, Italy.

The new apartment building forms one corner of the old town walls which dates it to some time in the 1600's is a best guess from our builder. It is on the corner of Corso Umberto I which is L-shaped, one half of which is pedestrianised.

It is clear looking from the outside that it spans three separate buildings. That explains the different ceilings, the different roofs and the low doors that must have been hacked through from one building to the next.

The stairs from the street come up in the middle of the apartment. The first (left hand) part is the living room and bedroom, above an apartment which is above a seamstress. The room immediately to the right is the kitchen / dining room above the another part of the first floor apartment which is above an archway into the old town. The far right hand part is the subdivided room with a terrazzo and will be another bedroom.

The aerial view makes it clear with the grey roof on the corner covering the rooms on the left side, then first red tiled roof and then the red one next to it wth terrace. The grey roof is currently undulating because of the barrel-vaulted ceilings below but we are getting part of that levelled for a roof top terrace.

The roof has a stunning 360 degree view over the town roofscape to the Itria valley and the sea beyond.

This is the view from the top of Via Regina Margherita showing our neighbour's balcony below. You can see the exterior will need some work - re-pointing and whitewashing.

This is the view of the back showing the old town gate with our kitchen-diner above, again some repointing and repainting is in order. To the left of that is the terrazzo that adjoins the bedroom and overlooks the alley.

Next up we demolish the recently added internal walls in the bedroom and work out how to make best use of the space...

Trullo Azzurro logoTrullo Azzurro: beautifully restored trullo in delightful, secluded valley near Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy. Available to rent on a per week basis, sleeps 8-10. For more information visit

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Other Place 01 - The Back Story

Cisternino, Puglia, Italy. Saturday 01-October-2016.

It is exactly one month to the day that we exchanged on the purchase of our latest home. We have not yet given it a name so its working title is "The Other Place" until we can think of a more appropriate moniker.

Our current apartment in Cisternino is small but perfectly formed. It is a one room apartment with limited storage which is fine when we spend six weeks a year here but with the plan to spend six months here we need more living space.

We have a takeaway pizza place on the ground floor directly under our feet providing unwanted underfloor heating through the summer. The dream was to buy the place and convert it into a bedroom with en-suite bathroom and kitchen corner. For that dream to come true three things would have had to happen. The pizza place had to go out of business, the owner had to be prepared to sell and he had to ask a sensible price.

On our visit in July the first happened, we bumped into the pizza guy working in the nearest bar as the business had folded. We put out discrete feelers to discover that the owner would rather rent for the income. Then later that he might sell for a price that was 50% above the going rate. Had he sussed that we were the interested parties? Anyway we were not prepared to be ripped off so decided to let him stew.

In the meantime we started to investigate alternatives in the old town, either for ourselves or for our friends Grant and Helen who loved our apartment and could be tempted to buy a holiday home in Cisternino if one like ours came up.

After several interesting viewings in the old town we saw "The Other Place" a four room apartment on the second floor in the old town. Three times the size of Sotto-Le-Stelle and not much more expensive. We gave Grant and Helen the details but they passed. It was too good a bargain to pass up. In the end we made an offer which was declined, we split the difference and sealed the deal.

This is what will be the kitchen and dining room with a star vaulted stone ceiling under the plaster.

The living room with barrel vaulted ceiling.

The view from one of the bedrooms down Via Regina Margherita.

The plan of the building as it is today. The room at the top of the plan has been subdivided with internal walls. They will be the first to go.

We came back a month later to complete the purchase and pick up the keys. We originally thought of it as a buy-to-let investment but then realised that the extra space made it an idea home for us. So we decided to move and in future Sotto-Le-Stelle will be let as a holiday apartment.

More about the place in the next post...

Trullo Azzurro logoTrullo Azzurro: beautifully restored trullo in delightful, secluded valley near Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy. Available to rent on a per week basis, sleeps 8-10. For more information visit