Settlers of Catan + Man of Aran

Founding the new country, working hard

Settlers of Catan was the gateway game for me and the one the made me realise that boardgames didn’t have to be rubbish fun traps. It’s probably the most well known ‘good’ board game now and for good reason. It’s pretty easy to pick up, every player is involved a lot of the time and there are a lot of different ways to win meaning that you often have to change your strategy throughout the game. It’s also unusual in that the board is a collection of hexagon tiles which are arranged in different ways each time, so each game is different.

Catan is all about colonising new land, making bricks, bringing in the wheat and chopping down wood. The music choice for this is by one of my favourite bands ever: British Sea Power.

British Sea Power are a very rural band and many of their songs are about nature (sample song titles: “Apologies to Insect Life”, “Favours in the Beetroot Fields”, “Oh Larsen B”, “The Great Skua”). They’re incredible live, I saw them at Oxford Brookes and most of the crowd had attached foliage to their clothes. The band climbed around the scaffolding, at one point I think there was a guy in a bear suit, it was fantastic.

They’ve also done some interesting soundtracks for some great documentaries. Highly recommended is “Happiness” about a child in Bhutan who goes from his village with his dad to bring back a TV which have just been allowed into the country. This choice though is “Man of Aran”, a 1934 film for which British Sea Power wrote a new soundtrack. It’s epic and fits perfectly with the game. It always seems like the tension picks up in the music at just the right time. The film is great as well.

So get Catan out, and put Sea Power on.

Brecon Glamping Microadventure

I think this counts as a microadventure. It didn’t involve wild camping or sleeping outside but there was a fair amount of walking, some of it in pretty terrible conditions so I’m counting it as the February entry in the year of adventure.

We’d been given a voucher for Canopy and Stars by some friends for our wedding and had finally gotten around to actually booking somewhere. A lot of places on that site need you to book for a week or a minimum of 3 nights which is a bit frustrating but eventually we found somewhere after speaking to the company.

We booked two nights at the Shepherd’s Hut at Argoed, near Brecon

The Shepherd's Hut
You can’t see the massive house just out of shot, but the hut is far enough away to feel private
The inside of the hut
Very cosy, incredibly warm with the fire + underfloor heating

So plan was to leave work earlyish on Friday, get the train out to Reading where we would pick up a hire car and then drive to Brecon. I got the hire car through Budget, a 10min walk from Reading station for the great price of £41 until Sunday afternoon. There wasn’t a problem or extra charge with dropping it off out of hours either so this worked out perfectly and something I’d definitely look at doing again.

Saturday we got up fairly early to a cooked breakfast in the main house and then drove into the park to attempt a fairly ambitious walk around the Brecon Beacons. The weather was not good, it had been snowing the past few days and visibility was very poor when we got out of the car. I was excited and up for the challenge of some more difficult navigation and conditions but I probably underestimated just how bad it could be.

Walking on a bearing
Not a huge amount to work off here…

As we got up to Corn Du the wind was coming in very strongly and the snow was quite thick. I don’t have any photos as neither of us really wanted to hang around and take photos. Sarah had injured herself earlier slipping on the snow and so we decided to come down off the hill and cut the walk short. We walked down past a lot of people heading up in jeans and trainers – not sure they knew what they were letting themselves in for. Everyone else along the ridge was in full Goretex plus crampons. Once you got down out of the cloud the weather was pretty reasonable though, amazing the difference up at the top.

That cloud contains bad things
Looks ok down here…

So back to the hut and then later we walked down to the Felin Fach Griffen for dinner. This is a great gastropub with fantastic food which was a lot better than I was expecting in a random Welsh village.

The next day the weather wasn’t much better so we decided on a low level walk to the waterfall at Sgwd yr Eira. This is a big waterfall which you can actually walk around the back of and was good to go and see. It was interesting seeing the remains of gunpowder works along the way as well and to see the different varieties of landscape. This walk worked out a bit longer than expected though as we took a wrong turning at one point, deceived by what looked like a place to cross the river. After weighing up our chances of wading across or building some sort of bridge or stepping stones we doubled back on ourselves, adding about an extra 45min to the walk. This was a lesson to carry more food than you think you’ll need – by the end I was starving. However, I can vouch that a long walk outside will do wonders for hangovers brought on by excessive wine, beer, food and whisky.

So despite the lack of any camping, I’m going to call this my February microadventure. I’ll be looking for an excuse to go back to the Brecon beacons as we had a great time.

What would I do differently next time?

  • Give more respect to the weather forecast and adjust plans where necessary – should have come up with a different walk for the Saturday
  • Be sure on where river crossings are
  • Carry more food than I think I’ll need

Burns Night Toast to the Lassies

I was asked / told to give the toast to the lassies at my rugby club Burns night. I looked quite extensively online for tips and example toasts but nothing was that good so, in the hope that it might help someone else out here’s the toast that I gave, or at least the toast that I wrote beforehand.

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. For those who don’t know me my name is Rob Mitchell and I play second row for the 1st XV. I also compile the statistics for the 1st XV, noting how many appearances players have made and so because I love statistics I note that this is the third Burns night I can remember attending here and since my first appearance I’ve learnt not to wear a kilt to these occasions and John Hines has learnt not to ask me in front of assembled dignitaries to prove whether I am a true Scotsman in my wearing of said kilt…

So when David Dick asked me to give the Toast to the Lassies, I said I’d think about it but wasn’t sure if I could do it… he then thanked me for agreeing to do it and here we are. I have to confess that despite being born in Glasgow and with parents living in Aberdeen I had to go and look up what was expected from the Toast to the Lassies. My hopes were immediately dashed when I realised it had nothing to do with those incredible dogs who save so many children from abandoned mine shafts every year, or the Guildford RFC backline.

Scotland still being just part of Britain I went to the BBC site which describes the Toast to the Lassies as “the humorous highlight of any Burns Night”. I’m not sure who wrote that but no pressure I suppose… at least not if you’ve spent the rest of this evening sitting on Rory Andrews’s table.

The BBC goes on to say that this toast “is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This should be done by selective quotation from Burns’s work and should build towards a positive note.” I don’t know if that means I should start on a negative note or something. However one important point that the BBC does not mention is that in preparation the speaker should spend 80min running round a muddy field getting his head kicked in, followed by 4 hours of aggressive drinking, but we can all read between the lines here.

Here at Guildford we are lucky to be able to count on the involvement of many women, from the players in the mighty Gazelles, to coaches, physios, administrators, volunteers, bar and catering staff and supporters. Not to mention those partners of players who put up with weekend disruption as Saturdays (or Sundays) are spent playing and then the rest of the weekend involves their partner lying around in pain and asking for back rubs. I’m glad and proud to be part of a club which has such an active involvement from the other 50% of the population.

So on to Robert Burns. He was a big fan of women but however not such a big fan of responsibility, commitment or the withdrawal method and is thought to have fathered somewhere between 12 and 16 children with at least 4 women before he died at the age of 37. For a fan of statistics such as myself the implications of that are pretty mind-boggling. Assuming that there were no twins, that’s 1 child every year since the age of 20.

I’ve never really read much Robert Burns but I started looking through his work to prepare some of those selective quotations that the BBC recommends and was struck by how alive a lot of those poems and songs felt. You can really get a sense of the person behind the writing and the 16 children by 4 women in 20 years seems less outlandish. I am no Burns scholar but reading some of this stuff and picturing the man behind it, it seemed like there were three types of writing that Burns did.

First up are those poems where Burns is delighting in his conquests and showing what a lad he is. This one is thought to be inspired by Elisabeth Paton, a servant girl who worked in the Burns household:

My girl she’s airy, she’s buxom and gay,
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite.
She’s always good natur’d, good humor’d, and free;
She dances, she glances, she smiles with a glee;
Her eyes are the lightenings of joy and delight:
Her slender neck, her handsome waist,
Her hair well buckl’d, her stays well lac’d,
Her taper white leg with an et, and a, c,
For her a, b, e, d, and her c, u, n, t,
And Oh! For the joys of a long winter night!!!

The second type of verse has a long lineage and was all too easy for a rugby player to recognise. No doubt many here are familiar with the story of the man who used to have a retail job in Chicago but lost it due to many misunderstandings with female customers and the items they came into the store looking for. Or the joys of being a Rifle Ranger, or the bear that I know that you don’t know, and so on and so on. If you were in the vicinity of the A3 between Gosport and here this evening it’s possible you may have heard some of these stories set to music…

It’s impossible to read something like Coming through the Rye (chorus:

O gin a body meet a body,
Comin’ throu the rye:
Gin a body fuck a body,
Need a body cry.)

Or the fantastically crude “Nine Inch will please a lady”:

`Come rede me, dame, come tell me, dame,
`My dame come tell me truly,
`What length o’ graith, when weel ca’d hame,
`Will sair a woman duly?’

The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready
I learn’d a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady.

and not imagine Robert Burns and his mates getting pretty severely boozed before launching into drunken renditions of these and several others.

Now the BBC says that this toast should build towards a positive note so after reciting some of Burns’s cruder work (John Hines might be wishing that he’d asked me to prove my Scots heritage instead now…) I’d like to look at the final category of Burns’s work, those poems which go furthest to explain the multitude of women he was involved with. It is easy to imagine the average standard of wooing from farmers in 18th Century Ayrshire and then the success that someone would have with verses like these from “O Saw ye Bonie Lesley”.

To see her is to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is
And never made anither.

Thou art a queen, fair Lesley,
Thy subjects we, before thee:
Thou art divine, fair Lesley,
The hearts o’ men adore thee.

So to conclude, would you please be upstanding and I’d like to finish with some final words from Burns as we toast to the lassies:

Old Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice hand she tried on man,
And then she made the lassies, O.

Best Brompton Improvements

I’ve been riding my Brompton for about 7 years now, commuting to and from work about 25min each way. I’ve also done a few longer trips with it including a trip from London to Aberdeen, riding about 60 miles each day. So I think I’ve put some pretty serious mileage on it and have learnt a bit about what on it is good and what can be improved.

When I bought it, my Brompton was an M6L. That is it had the classic U shaped handlebars, 6 gears and lights and a rear rack. The lights were the bottle dynamo type, powered by a small wheel rubbing against the rear tyre and that was the first thing I got rid of. I didn’t really want the L type but I needed to get the bike in a bit of a rush (before the Scotland trip) and that was what was available at a reasonable price. The bottle dynamo is a waste of time, so much so that I think it has been discontinued. It would often flick on when going over a bump and seemed to make cycling a lot harder. LED lights are cheap and the batteries last a long time so they are a much better option.

Having said that, one good thing about the dynamo light is that the front light is mounted down near the wheel and is not obstructed by any luggage you might have. When using handlebar lights in conjunction with a large bag, the bag can obstruct the light, meaning that there is a shadow about 9 feet in front of you.

As mentioned above, LED lights are cheap so I have several on my bike. I keep a couple of Electron Backupz on for emergencies and as my main lights I have a Cateye Nanoshot on the front and the Moon Gem 3.0 on the back. Both of these are USB rechargeable which is essential for a commuter and the Nanoshot is bright enough to illuminate a dark road. I’ve had them for a couple of years and they are both great.

Another major improvement I’ve made is swapping out the basic foam grips for some Ergon GP3 grips. I cannot recommend these enough and Brompton should be offering them as an option. You have to cut them down to get them to fit (and it helps if you have the 2014 brake levers with the narrower bracket) but they will fit and not interfere with the fold, at least if you have the rack. They are incredibly comfortable and I can’t imagine going back to something else. On the trip to Scotland, my hands probably suffered more than anything and I wish I had had these then.

I was so impressed with the grips that I went back to Ergon for some pedals and got a pair of their PC2s. I only actually use the right pedal as I keep the folding one on the left but you can’t buy just one pedal… The main benefit of these is that they are flat – I found the standard Brompton pedal could tear up my shoe a fair bit, the problem is less on the folding pedal as the spindle area is larger.

This one might seem minor but has made a difference: a metal chain guard from Tiller Cycles. I was having issues with my plastic one coming loose, falling off and cracking so after seeing these on My Orange Brompton I bought one, and again it’s great. Makes the bike look better and I never worry about knocking it loose with my shoe.

Other changes I’ve made have mainly been to take advantage of the development that Brompton is doing. One of the best things about Brompton is that you can buy every individual part should you so wish so it is easy to upgrade and replace items. So over the years I have…

  • Swapped the standard tyres for Marathon plus on the back and Kojak on the front, then just Marathon plus on both as punctures are a real pain. The old Marathon plus seems to be better than the new one…
  • Upgraded the brake levers to the ones Brompton brought out in 2013-14. These are much much better
  • Upgraded the hub to the wide range version. To be honest I didn’t notice much difference with this and probably wouldn’t bother again. You don’t need as many gears as you think
  • When I got the new hub on, I had a new style rim put on as well. I’m pretty heavy and I kept breaking spokes on the rear wheel but since having the new rim (which is meant to have more sympathetic angles for the spokes) I haven’t had any problems
  • Replacement rear triangle when the bike shop spotted a crack in it, this Brompton replaced for free (credit to Simpsons Cycles for spotting the issue)
  • Added the EZ wheels to the rear rack. Again these are much better than the standard ones

Bromptons are fantastic machines, but they can be improved. If you do one thing to yours put the Ergon grips on. It is very easy to do and a step change in comfort when cycling, especially if you are like me and have the seat above the level of the handlebars, resulting in a lot of weight going through your hands and wrists.

Brompton on the way to Aberdeen
Coming up to Dundee I think – before I replaced the grips (or much else)

Whisky Fuelled January Microadventure

This was in some ways the most ambitious microadventure I’d attempted to date. Firstly it was mid-week (Thursday night) so more logistically complex in having to leave from work and go to work the next day. Secondly it was the middle of January and some of the coldest nights of the year. All previous microadventures having been done in the summer at the weekend, this would be a couple of important firsts. To allow for this most other elements of the plan were kept as simple as possible.

What I packed, might go through this in more detail in another post
What I packed, might go through this in more detail in another post
Ready to go
Ready to go

So, I met up with Rob and Tad at Waterloo after work and we got the train down to Guildford with a couple of excited cans on the way. We then took a short walk from the station to the Kings Head pub for dinner and a couple more pints. In the cold weather it’s important to fuel the fire and fill up properly, and the Kings Head proved completely up to the task with large portions of burgers, pizza and chicken. (This article has some great tips on how to be as warm as possible in your bag.)

After dinner we took a short walk up to Pewley down (map here) to find a spot to make camp. This plan was pretty easy to come up with but I think I may finally have found the reason for Bing maps: planning microadventures. The combination of having OS maps available and the birds eye view makes it very useful for spotting potential wild camp areas, much more so than Google maps.

The hill was a lot steeper and higher than expected which was good news in that the views would be that much better. The first task was to collect some suitable sticks to use with the tarp. We had thought about just going with bivvy bags but Tad didn’t have one and we didn’t fancy waking up with our bags covered in frozen condensation so tarp was the only way. Finding sticks was very easy and I’m glad we didn’t bother bringing walking poles to use. After a bit of scouting round we found a flat spot with a good view and set up camp.

Camp complete with whisky drinking porch
Camp complete with whisky drinking porch

Doing this in winter means that you can set up camp earlier and worry less about being discreet as there is no one else around. We saw one dog walker at around 6.20am who shone his torch at us but no one apart from that.

We then sat down to enjoy the outdoors and some whisky. Top marks here went to Tad for bringing a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask – an excellent whisky. I had in my split hip flask some Ardbeg Uigeadail and some new make spirit from Glenglassaugh which I had aged for a month or so in a very small cask.

New spirit and mini cask
New spirit and mini cask

Rob had brought a couple of mystery choices that had been in hip flasks for a while, they all went down excellently.

Getting stuck in
Getting stuck in

After drinking a fair amount of whisky and realising we still had to go to work in the morning we got into our bags. It took a bit of sorting to get in and snug but I was then warm for the whole evening, wearing a lot of merino and sleeping in my silk liner inside my bag, inside my bivvy bag. I woke up a few times during the night but on the whole was warm and comfortable. Tad on the other hand had a worse night – doing this in -4 temperatures does need some more serious gear than what you can borrow from your girlfriend.

We got up about 6.40, packed up the gear, had some coffee from a flask prepared at work the previous day and headed to the station.

Stuff sacks seem to shrink overnight, or was it the ice on everything
Stuff sacks seem to shrink overnight, or was it the ice on everything
This is why you do it
This is why you do it
Heading back to civilisation
Heading back to civilisation

Train back to Waterloo, shower and change at work and then into meetings. I was pretty spaced out during the morning, not sure if that was due to sleeping out or the 5 pints and multiple whiskies. All in all this was a great success

What would I do differently next time?

  • Get a better pillow setup, it was a bit low and stopped me sleeping well on my side
  • Make sure I knew my knots before leaving
  • Take a different waterbottle or have it in my bag to stop it freezing overnight

Dartmoor Microadventure – legal wild camp

In the summer while we were down in Devon we took the opportunity to go for a microadventure in one of the only places in England where you can wild camp legally – Dartmoor. Amazingly in England and Wales (but not Scotland) it is illegal to wild camp pretty much everywhere, this site gives some good info. As it says on there, you can in practice get away with wild camping in lots of places where it is technically illegal, like Ditchling Beacon, but it’s great on Dartmoor to not have to worry at all about being discreet.

So we walked up during the afternoon (I can’t remember exactly where we parked or camped) and although we had grand plans about a big walk before pitching camp, pretty soon we got a bit tired and bored of walking and started looking for a place to pitch the tarp.

Thinking about not walking any more...
Thinking about not walking any more…

The weather was fantastic with amazing visibility although it was quite windy. So we went and found a flat spot with a hill behind us where we were a bit sheltered from the wind.

Lean to setup blocks wind from behind...
Lean to setup blocks wind from behind…
...while giving great views in front
…while giving great views in front

We’d picked up a stick from earlier in the walk to use as a lifter and set up the tarp in the same lean to way. We’d obviously got a bit out of practice on the knots though as I woke up during the night to the sound of one of the guylines flapping around and had to jump out of my bag to go and re-tie it. This was more difficult than it might have been as I had drunk a fair amount of wine and whisky before bed. I did though manage to catch sight of a fox who was sniffing round our camp.

We cooked a reasonable 2 course dinner of pasta and steamed pudding and then wrapped up to watch the stars and also the firework displays celebrating the various regattas along the coast. Seeing fireworks from above is quite strange but it was great being able to see them.

Don't have to be subtle when wild camping on Dartmoor
Don’t have to be subtle when wild camping on Dartmoor

Fairy lights threaded through the tarp attachment points make a great lightweight lighting solution.

The neighbourhood fox, during daylight
The neighbourhood fox, during daylight
Catching sunrise is one of the biggest upsides of wild camping
Catching sunrise is one of the biggest upsides of wild camping

I was surprised how cold it was overnight considering it was during summer. It was a completely clear night though and we were in a pretty exposed spot. Having said that I was very cosy in my sleeping bag and bivvy bag combo and just wore a t-shirt and boxer shorts to sleep. In the morning it took us a long time to get out of our bags because they were so snug, but we did get up, had a quick breakfast and walked back down to the car. Microadventures are great.

What would I do differently next time?

  • Take nicer food for dinner and focus the evening more on dinner than the walking
  • Tie the knots right first time
  • That’s about it

Matching Music to Board Games – King of Tokyo

Playing a board game is enhanced by having suitable music or background noise, making it a more immersive experience. In this series of posts I will provide some recommendations for music to go with particular board games.

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First up is the game King of Tokyo. This is a fun game to play, pretty short and easy to pick up with a fun concept and great board design. The music recommendation for this is very straightforward and obvious: the original soundtrack to Godzilla by Akira Ifukube (Spotify link). Definitely not any of the soundtracks to the more recent films.

I genuinely enjoy the soundtrack in itself and it works perfectly with the game. Moving your piece into the city while the monster noises come through on the soundtrack is great.

Self Delusion Armour

The recommendation here is primarily for the You Are Not So Smart podcast (http://youarenotsosmart.com/podcast/) by David McRaney. Each episode is between 30min and an hour and is usually a discussion or interview with someone who has written something interesting explaining how we delude and sabotage ourselves.

It is too easy and tempting to think of ourselves as rational people making rational decisions, even more so now as we use computers and mechanical devices more and more. Listening to this podcast though, you start to realise all the ways in which your supposedly rational thoughts are influenced. I think it was Descartes but it may have been someone else entirely (even perhaps a fictional character) who talked about how pain and other bodily sensations can override all thoughts – McRaney shows how delusions can be created much more subtley.

For example, research has shown that for the greatest happiness we should spend money on experiences rather than on things. Research has also shown that most people agree with this statement, but go on to spend money on objects rather than experiences. Why do we sabotage ourselves like this?

Listening to this podcast is a good way to protect ourselves from these acts of sabotage and self-delusion. Better understanding how we think, knowing for example that our ego is subject to depletion, allows us to manage these problems more effectively and think better.

The topics covered here are similar to Daniel Kahneman’s classic Thinking Fast and Slow but it’s easier for me to listen to a podcast as I cycle to work. McRaney is a good presenter as well, with a clear voice that doesn’t get irritating and clearly a genuine interest in the people he interviews.

I listen to podcasts using the Podcast Addict app. There might be better apps available but this one is free and works well for me.