Saturday, 28 September 2019

favourite photos: summer 2019

It hasn’t been a good summer. I had surgery to remove two basal cell carcinomas from my face in April, and it has taken five months for the wounds to heal, during which time my cycling activity has been severely curtailed, and I’ve struggled to focus on writing. I haven’t taken as many photographs as I would usually take during this period, but here are the best.

The first photo is of a scarecrow in the allotments near my house (allotments are areas that can be rented from the local council for cultivation purposes):

Compare this with the measures taken by Chinese farmers to protect their crops in Stone the Crows.

The pond in the Thacka Beck Nature Reserve is often teeming with ducks, but Canada geese are a rarity. This is the only one I’ve seen this year:

The dandelion (‘tooth of lion’) is a common weed in the UK that is difficult to eradicate once it has become established. It is ubiquitous for two reasons: the roots go deep and are difficult to remove completely; and the seeds are distributed by the wind from the seed head shown in the next photo:

I wonder whether the concept of a ‘dandelion clock’ still has some currency. When I was growing up, you picked a seed head like this one and blew at it. If it took four blows to remove all the seeds, then it was 4 o’clock; five blows, 5 o’clock; and so on.

A few years ago, I was puzzled by the appearance of a plant that I’d never seen before outside my local pub. Our local natural history expert identified it as toadflax, but I wasn’t totally convinced. This is an example that appeared this summer at the top of Mill Street:

I think that this is purple loosestrife. If you can confirm or gainsay this identification, please leave a comment below.

The subject of the next photo may not be obvious. It’s a picture of Penrith’s police station:

…and it’s for sale!

Having featured a lounging teddy bear in my last highlights collection from Hong Kong, I simply had to include the following image:

This was photographed as found and involves no rearrangement of the subject.

Although my cycling activities have been severely restricted this summer, I was able to do some shorter rides (15–25km), and on most of these rides I passed through the village of Blencow. The following photo was taken from the road leading east out of the village. As you can see, there are a lot of crows, and the odd thing is that apart from the occasion when I took this photo, I never saw a single other crow in this location:

I was walking to Penrith’s health centre back in July when I spotted this:

The road coming in from the left is quite steep, and my guess is that the car’s brakes failed, causing the car to shoot across the road you can see and knock a hole in the wall surrounding the Cricket Club (to date, it hasn’t been repaired).

The next photo is of a painted lady butterfly on the buddleia in my garden:

Thacka Lane is the ‘horsey’ part of town. Not only do you see horses in many of the fields west of the railway, horse-drawn vehicles are also a common sight. This photo is spoiled to some extent by the telegraph pole, which I didn’t notice when I positioned myself to take it:

I had an appointment last month with a specialist at the county infirmary, which is located in the mediƦval city of Carlisle, 18 miles north of Penrith. While I was waiting for the train, an announcement came over the PA to the effect that the next train to pass the platform where I was waiting would not be stopping. When I saw this train approaching, I noticed immediately that it was headed by a locomotive, so I assumed that it was a goods train, because all the passenger trains that pass through Penrith are electric multiple units operated by one of two companies.

I was surprised to discover that the locomotive was hauling carriages, although I wasn’t able to identify the livery and therefore the company operating the train. However, when I arrived in Carlisle, I spotted the train that had just passed through Penrith and decided to take a closer look:

I was able to identify the livery of TransPennine Express, one of the two companies that operate trains through Penrith, and it appears that this train was on a test run. By the way, the locomotive’s name is Black Douglas.

I took the following photo a few moments later. It shows a flight of steps leading down from the station’s footbridge, and I’ve included it here as an example of geometric abstraction:

Unless you’re familiar with Penrith, you will probably think there is nothing unusual about the next photo, which shows part of the town’s main street. However, the street is never this empty, except when the road is being dug up (behind the camera). This street is one-way, so there aren’t even any parked cars:

The clock tower in the middle distance is the Musgrave Monument, which is generally acknowledged to be the centre of town. It was built in 1861 as a tribute to a prominent local family, who lost their eldest son in the Crimean War (1853–56).

I was walking through the car park of the local supermarket a few days ago when I spotted a trail of oil/petrol spots on the wet surface. They would probably have been much more impressive 10 minutes earlier, but the more volatile components of the spill soon evaporate. This was the only one with a multiple halo:

I don’t often see rainbows, but I was walking up the hill on the left of the next photo when I spotted one. I crossed immediately to the opposite side of the road to see whether it was complete. It was:

This roundabout is probably the busiest junction in Penrith, so it was an added bonus to get a picture with absolutely no traffic.

I’m back on Thacka Lane for my final photo:

This photo was taken just west of the railway, where Thacka Beck flows under the road (the beck is directly behind the horse). While I was taking this photo, the following conversation took place:

“I hope you don’t mind me taking a photo.”

“Not at all. Where are you from?”


“What’s your name?”


“I know the Hodgsons.”

“I’m not related to any other Hodgsons in town, apart from my brother and his family.”

The driver never slowed down, and within a few seconds he was gone.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

paving the way

When I was growing up, the pavements in Penrith’s main streets were constructed using thin rectangular slabs of the local stone—Penrith sandstone—known as ‘flagstones’. Sadly, these were all ripped up in the 1960s and replaced by either concrete or tarmac. However, in the last couple of decades, amorphous concrete has been replaced by parallel courses of precast concrete blocks, which are certainly more interesting than featureless concrete.

I don’t think I’d have noticed any of this had my attention not previously been attracted by the brick pavements in Fanling and the incredible range of patterns to be seen there. There are no deliberate colour variations in the pavements of Penrith, although the basic hue of the blocks does vary from location to location. However, when walking over them, I couldn’t help but wonder what criteria were used by the paviour to determine which block to lay next.

This is a typical example of block paving:

The blocks have been arranged in parallel courses running transverse to the direction of travel of most of the foot traffic hereabouts. This is the standard arrangement. The first thing I noticed was that there appears to be an absolute prohibition against having the corners of four blocks meet at a single point, what I will refer to subsequently as a ‘crossroads’.

The next thing I noticed was that the blocks are not of arbitrary sizes. In the example above, there are three distinct and consistent sizes, examples of which I’ve labelled L, M and S. Closer inspection shows that the mathematical relationship between the lengths of the blocks is S+M=L (I’ve defined length in terms of the orientation of the course, which in the case of the S block means that it’s wider than it is long). The other point to note is the frequency: it makes sense to use an L block wherever possible, and, conversely, S blocks are relatively uncommon.

However, in the next example, M blocks have been used most frequently—the total is significantly more than the combined totals of the frequencies of the two other blocks. And there is no obvious mathematical relationship between the lengths of the blocks although it may be that 2S=L:

I had thought that more than two contiguous blocks was a rare occurrence—check out the first photo, where even two blocks of the same size touching is a relatively infrequent occurrence. However, there are examples of six in a row in this photo, and in the area where the photo was taken, I’ve noted several such sequences that are significantly longer! In this location, the courses are up to 6–7 metres long, and there are benches to sit on, so I can imagine a game for bored children: who can find the longest sequence of blocks that are all the same size?

It seems to me that the easiest way to decide which size of block to lay next is to make alternate courses identical, as in this example of a narrow pavement:

The next photo shows something similar, although in this case, the relevant section is part of a larger area of paving with courses running in different directions. The thing to note here is that the mathematical relationship between the block sizes is 3M=L+2S. Also, while there is only one way to arrange three contiguous blocks that are the same size, an L and two S blocks can be arranged in three different ways, none of which result in a crossroads. However, none of the alternatives has been used here.

Note too the single narrow course near the bottom of the photo. This feature can be seen in a number of locations, although where it does occur, the number of standard-width courses between each narrow course is arbitrary.

The next photo shows an added complication. With a narrow section of parallel courses like this, it’s probably going to be necessary to cut blocks to fit. The blocks that have been cut are marked:

I had begun to think that every block-paved area consisted of three sizes of block, but I eventually discovered a location where four sizes have been used:

In this photo, there are alternating wider and narrower courses. Four blocks have been used for the wider course, indicated by the numbers 1–4 in ascending size order. Only three blocks (1–3) have been used for the narrower course. Notice that while the smallest and largest blocks in each course are the same length, the intermediate lengths are different.

Unbelievably, I found a location where only two sizes have been used, although as usual I’m defining size as the dimension parallel to the orientation of the course. This is another example of alternating narrower/wider courses, but the lengths are the same in both courses:

I mentioned above the requirement that there should be no ‘crossroads’ in the gaps between blocks, but of course I did find an example:

You might think that I’m being picky here, because there is a slight offset, but I regard this as a mistake anyway, because the next two junctions to the right have an only slightly larger offset.

However, I do not consider the next example a mistake. I think it was deliberate:

Look again! The crossroads here is right in the middle of the pavement and would thus be noticeable by anyone looking down as they passed. It stands out. At least, it does for me. And it could have been avoided merely by exchanging the two blocks marked X!

And there’s a lot more to block paving than you think.

Sod’s Law in action! When I posted this analysis yesterday, I did so because I thought that I’d covered all the significant features of block paving. However, this morning I was walking through a yard that I rarely pass through, because there is a parallel yard a few metres to the north with an excellent example of English bond brickwork. I took the following photograph:

This is the only example I’ve found of a repeating sequence of blocks—in this case SSSSL—in each course. And there are only two block sizes. There is also a narrow course following each run of five wide courses.

I took the photo because the repeating sequence of four S blocks seemed obvious, but when I examined the photo, I noticed that there is a run of five S blocks in the foreground. And it doesn’t seem necessary.