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The Australian Government Spill

A very quick primer for people outside Australia who may not know who the players are in the current demolition of the Federal Government in Australia.

To begin with, here is the current Prime Minister, Tony Abbot:



Here is his challenger, and most probable next Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull:




And the leader of the opposition, who I think is called Bill Shorten:



(Mobile) Weapons of Choice

Like any other code-worrier, I have a ton of applications on my (i)Phone, ranging from “things that look shiny but are useless”, through “things that I use once a year”, up to “indispensable and every-day”. Out of interest I’ve tried to work out what apps are the once that fall into the latter category, apps that are essential to getting my work done and which contribute strongly to the sense of never being out of the office.

First and obviously, mobile Safari and Mail. Nothing really interesting to say there, apart from mentioning that the relationship between Apple’s Mail and Google Mail using IMAP remains flaky and annoying, lending an aggravating persistence to messages you just want to erase forever. I find at worst I have to log into the web interface to really purge the stream of mail from servers and services and mail lists – all the things that are absolutely read-once.

The Google Authenticator for two-factor authentication works really well, particularly where you have a friendly system administrator who knows how to get a QCode up on screen that you can scan. An undocumented feature that is very handy is touching any token copies it to the clipboard, ready for pasting into another app.

The PagerDuty mobile app is superb, and Just Works. It perfectly fits the use case of being annoying at 3:00 AM and providing big friendly buttons that can be stabbed with a thumb while you are trying to wake up. They have obviously thought very hard about the use cases, and the features that are up front emphasise “are there any issues?” and “acknowledge this alert”. 10 out of 10.

I would also call out the AWS Console app. I actually find this somewhat simpler to use than the web interface for being able to quickly scan system metrics and statuses. The information delivered through this is super rich, and there are handy management features available (such as modifying DynamoDB provisioning) when you’re away from the keyboard. It’s got bullet-proof two-factor authentication, which fits nicely with the Authenticator. It’s a relatively painless cycle to jump into 1Password for the login password, paste into the AWS Console, flip out to the Authenticator, and flip back to paste the authentication token. The authentication lasts a reasonable amount of time too, so there’s not the pain of having to do the dance several times an hour.

1Password is indispensible. I can entirely rely on it being a secure repository for anything I need to hold securely, and because it’s dataset is distributed across all my devices, I am comfortable updating passwords frequently. On an older phone I did find it a bit annoying how frequently I would need to unlock it, but on my current phone (and I am guessing all future phones) I can use my thumbprint.

Slack has similarly thought well about the use case of their service on the phone – the experience mirrors the web and desktop interfaces nicely, and the delivered UI makes it pleasant to use (much more so than Skype by the way). I would not like to hold an enormous conversation across Slack on the phone, but for on-the-go messaging it’s best of breed.

Finally, I could not live without Things from Cultured Code. I’m not a subscriber to the GTD religion, but can see that the shape of the app is closely aligned with those ideas. For me it’s trivially easy to create new to-do items, and categorise existing items into “do today”, “do soon” and “god knows when i can do this”. I swing like a pendulum between being calmed by the ability to just focus on one or two immediate tasks, to freaking out at the length of the backlog of things not done. I’ve been using Things in various incarnations since it was an early beta, and love it to bits.

Actually, not finally. Three lesser stars. Agile Cards I only use every two weeks during sprint planning, but it just nicely does what it says on the box. There are dozens of these apps, this is the one that I have. Not indispensable, but handy.

Evernote should be indispensable, and I wish it was, but I cannot quite get comfortable with it. I need to school myself to use it more on both desktop and mobile, as I think that it should work as a general “dump stuff to remember here” – when I remember to use it, the snippets that I drop in there are useful, but I often find that I remember stuff by trying to keep the browser tab open, or pushing them to the Safari Reading List, rather than tossing the bookmark or a snippet into Evernote. The same problem exists with the Apple Notes – it’s a very handy place to drop small snippets of text and reminders, and synchs everywhere, but tends to be write-only.


It’s rather annoying that in 2015 the ORM (Object-Relational-Mapping) problem is still tedious to deal with. While in general terms it is a solved problem – JPA and Hibernate and similar frameworks do the heavy lifting of doing the SQL queries for you and getting stuff in and out of the JDBC transport objects – there does not seem to be any way to remove the grinding grunt work of making a bunch of beans to transport things from the data layer up to the “display” layer. It remains an annoying fact that database tables tend to be wide, so you wind up with beans with potentially dozens of attributes, and even with the best aid of the IDE you wind up fiddling with a brain-numbing set of getters, setters, hash and equals methods and more-or-less identical tests.

I would love to suggest an alternative – or build an alternative – but this remains a space where it feels like for non-trivial use there are enough niggling edge cases that the best tool is a human brain.

Doing More With Less (Part 1 of N)

In recent weeks I have been massively overhauling the monitoring and alerting infrastructure. Most of the low-level box checks are easily handled by CloudWatch, and some of the more sophisticated trip-wires can be handled by looking for patterns in our logs, collated by LogStash and exported to Loggly. In either case, I have trip wires handing off to PagerDuty to do the actual alerting. This appeals to my preference for strong separation of concerns – LogStash/Loggly are good at collating logs, CloudWatch is good at triggering events off metrics, and PagerDuty knows how to navigate escalation paths and how to send outgoing messages to which poor benighted bastard – generally and almost always me – has to be woken at 1:00 AM.

One hole in the new scheme was a simple reachability test for some of our web end points. These are mostly simple enough that a positive response is a reliable indicator that the service is working, so sophisticated monitoring is not needed (yet). I looked around at the various offerings akin to Pingdom, and wondered if there was a cheaper way of doing it. Half an hour with the (excellent) API documentation from PagerDuty, and I’ve got a series of tiny shell scripts being executed via RunDeck.

if [ $(curl -sL -w "%{http_code}\\n" "" -o /dev/null) -ne 200 ] 
   echo "Service not responding, raising PagerDuty alert"

    curl -H "Content-type: application/json" -X POST \
        -d '{
          "service_key": "66c69479d8b4a00c609245f656d443f1",
          "event_type": "trigger",
          "description": "Service on is not responding with HTTP 200",
          "client": "Infra RunDeck",
          "client_url": ""

This weekend I hope to replace the remaining staff with a series of cunning shell scripts. Meanwhile the above script saves us potentially hundreds of pounds a year in monitoring costs.

Roads untravelled

My mind has turned to reflection on the jobs I wish I had pursued in my youth, possibly because it is Monday morning.

Foremost is probably ‘carpenter’. I did not know I should have been a carpenter until my father, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, had passed away, and I was far too old to begin an apprenticeship. I like working with wood, and I very much like the journey from idea and visualisation to the concrete object. I like the ritual of preparing and cleaning up a workspace, and the calming repetition of maintaining the tools. In the foolishness of youth I looked at the rates of pay for carpenters in Australia in the late 70’s and early 80’s and pursued computers instead. Given a time machine I would travel back and smack myself in the head, fruitlessly telling myself that satisfaction and low stress was worth the dollars. Then there was that whole construction boom thing in the 90’s which saw carpenters and bricklayers become some of the best paid people in the country. So it goes.

I toyed with the idea of being a stage manager. Being able to snatch crystalline order out of the whirling chaos backstage during a performance, to martial resources so that at the right moment it just… worked… This was exciting and satisfying, even if the role even in amateur circles (or perhaps especially in amateur circles) was poorly recognised. But again, I looked at Australia at the time and saw the number of stages and performances diminishing, and the available jobs dwindling close to zero. Who needs stages when there is cinema and television, right?

And a clown. I could have been a clown, the chance was there for me to get the training, and I have the disposition. To be able to balance on the edge of chaos, to break expectations and jar perception – now there’s some job satisfaction. But again, that Australian problem. There were enough clowns already. The country did not need any more, thanks. Not exactly a job with career prospects either. It’s like a priesthood, with years of service rewarded only by penury and obscurity at the end.

Or a professional tuba player. I was pretty good in school, good enough that I could have pursued it academically. The tuba is to my ear the horn most like a voice, and while not quick to speak it speaks lyrically and authoritatively. Even played softly it’s sound has a solidity of presence not heard in the rest of the brasses, which is odd as most of the time you do not consciously hear it. In an orchestral and brass band context it’s role is mainly to provide a platform for the other instruments to stand on. But again, it was Australia, and there was less than a handful of jobs for tuba players in the country. Financially a foolish thing to pursue.

Are there any common themes to be found in the roads I did not travel? Hard to say, really. Perhaps one is a desire to enable and support creation, to provide stability and foundation for concerted endeavours. Definitely a desire to create something from nothing, to make the thought concrete. All in all it means nothing, except that it is Monday morning, and I want more coffee.

Making sawdust

I finally got a chance to spend a few hours in the workshop last night and progress some pieces. My current focus is to finish setting up the workshop, and to make a cat-run for the balcony, both of which are grinding along slowly.

The cat-run is in theory a simple task, which is proving maddeningly slow. It’s just a set of 9 slats of low grade pine (25mm x 30mm, if I recall correctly), to be connected with nuts and bolts so it can be collapsed, and some lengths of dowel to provide horizontal support. I’ll post photos when it is done, of course. Cutting the timber to length was quick and trivial, now that I’ve got a good cross-cut and and a good rip saw for doing small work. Next step was to drill holes… but then the cheap and nasty electric drill from Wilco packed it in, and the cheap and nasty drill bits from Wilco started to break. Plus I needed a spade bit to do the large holes for the dowel. Off to Wickes (which is the Bunnings analogue, for Australian readers) to get slightly less cheap and nasty drill bits, and a new 16mm spade bit. So last night I popped the bit into a brace, bored a scrap piece of timber… and realised that I had 18mm dowel. So that’s one project back on the waiting list.

The other focus for the workshop at the moment is storage. I need boxes, and some racks for storing timber. Yes, I could have gone down and gotten plastic boxes from somewhere fairly cheaply, but that’s not quite the point. Instead I want to make a set of boxes for tools using just 19mm boards and plywood bottoms, largely for the practice of sizing and cutting and preparing the joints. Not too long before the plan to move from Australia to England crystalised, I bit the bullet and bought the (fairly expensive) Leigh dovetail jig. In the time between acquiring it and heading to England, I made a total of one box before it had to be packed away, so essentially this is a new piece of kit that I need to get on top of.

Now, this is a fairly complex jig, with a number of precise moving pieces. Two of the key parts are the specific e7 Eliptical Router Bush, and the 1/2″ collet reducer for their specific router bits. And a router of course. So there was a delay while I ordered a router (which arrived just before we went to Dijon), and a delay while I familiarised myself with the router, which I was doing last weekend. As an aside, the Trend T11EK is an awesome router, I think much better than the Triton I’d had in Australia – it’s quieter, has a soft smooth start, and the depth adjustment (while initially cryptic) is very accurate and simple.

So last weekend I got the router out, did a variety of test cuts on scrap timber, and sat down to get the Leigh jig working. I’d been smart enough to ensure that I’d grabbed the Trend universal base plate for the router, and the Leigh base-plate adaptor. Now where did I put the other pieces… yep, the Router Bush and collet reducer were nowhere to be found. By the time I discovered this, it was too late to get out to Axminster to grab replacements, so I went out to the storage unit to check if they had been missed when unpacking. To my relief, the Router Bush was there, but the collet was nowhere to be found. Another delay, while I ordered a replacement collet reducer, which arrived during the week.

Long story, I finally had all the pieces ready to go for the jig, and whipped through some test cuts to get the jig setup for box joints. I’d pre-cut the sides for the first box, so that should have been a quick project. Except when time came to cut the joints, I cut the joint for one of the end pieces onto one of (longer) side pieces, and vice versa. Sigh. Back to the timber pile, re-cut the sides, re-route the joints. Based on the first attempt, I tightened the joint slightly, and then found on this second attempt that it was slightly too tight. Nothing that a mallet cannot fix, I thought as I tapped the sides together. Wham! That’s the corner of the mallet into my finger and thumb, substantially mashing the side of my finger. I said rude words, checked the box for square, then nailed a plywood base on.

Three hours, a hell of a lot of sawdust (which reminds me, I need to get a shop vacuum), a mashed finger, and the satisfaction of one initial dodgy box. The good thing is that on the weekend I will be able to knock out two or three more in short order.

Subsequent to these tool boxes, I’ll make some racks for timber, just to get it up off the floor so that I can figure out what to do next. At the rate things are progressing, I anticipate being able to start producing re-enactment and re-production pieces by around October. It’s been a long wait.

The Perfect Shoe

I’ve been thinking about shoes lately, specifically shoes for HEMA. Now, for any chance of deciphering this rambling rant, the reader needs the context. When I was young and more foolish than I am now, I buggered up my right knee. This was not a world changing, oh my god there is blood everywhere kind of injury, it was just the sort of strain that causes you to limp for a month and curse stairs. Except I’ve been limping and cursing ever since. Stairs make it hurt. Sitting at a desk for hours makes it hurt. Standing makes it hurt. Running makes it hurt. Fencing makes it hurt. Most of the time it’s a dull annoying ache, like that work colleague who just won’t shut up, but after exercise it tends to become genuinely sore, and occasionally feels like evil dwarves are hammering 4″ roofing nails into the joint to make it stronger.

And there is the key word, right there. Stronger. The only thing other than very good whisky that helps is to be doing sufficient exercise of the right kinds to keep the joint mobile, and to build up the muscles around it to strengthen and stabilise the joint. Various herbal remedies have been recommended, and physiotherapists have suggested surgery which may improve matters or may make it worse, but as with many modern life style complaints the key is to get off my lazy fat 21st Century Arse and do frequent strenuous exercise. You know, the sort of thing that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has spent several million years of it’s evolutionary history doing.

So it is that I’ve been looking for the best type of HEMA shoe for myself for quite a while. (An editorial interruption at this point: shoes that are best for me, not necessarily best for anyone else.) I want a shoe that does not hide what my feet are doing, shoes that let me feel whether my ankle is rolling in or out, how my foot moves as I step, which way my toes are pointing. On the other hand, I don’t want a shoe that has the risk of sliding on the sorts of polished floors we often train on. I owe it to my training partner not to skid forward in a lunge or strike and accidentally take out their remaining teeth.

Modern trainers are frankly rubbish for fencing in. Unless you go for a very (very) expensive trainer, modern trainers are designed to encase and protect the foot (and often ankle) so that the wearer does not have to think about what their feet are doing in order to prevent injury. Perversely, for HEMA purposes, the amount of grip that modern trainers give on the floor can be quite dangerous, as they can “grab” at the floor when you need them to be able to turn your foot in order to stop your kneecap falling off. The big sports shoes companies realised back in the 90’s that this was a problem, when they saw the rate of knee injuries in professional basketball players start to rise alarmingly. These days pro players wear shoes with an Adidas or Nike logo on them, but they are to consumer trainers what a Lamborghini is to a roller skate, and equally inaccessible to the average consumer.

The historical context comes into this. Prior to around the end of the 15th century, fencers were wearing turn shoes, or turn shoes with an extra sole added. These were necessarily made of leather thin and soft enough to turn the right side out during fabrication, and were intended to fit like a glove for the foot. Somewhere in the early part of the 16th century cordwainers switched to making shoes on a last, which allowed the transition to a stiffer sole (and later a built up heel). Still, all the fencers in any treatise you read prior to the 20th century are wearing shoes that have a leather sole, which have the gripping capability on polished wood floors of an ice-cube skittering over an oiled frying pan. It’s also worth noting that shoes for most of the medieval and renaissance period had no heel, or virtually no heel, which makes a very big difference in the way you walk or fence.

The Museum of London “Shoes and Pattens” book has an interesting discussion on this by the way – analysis of the (many) shoe soles plucked out of the Thames for the 14th and 15th centuries show a very different wear pattern on the bottom than modern shoes. When you need to be concerned what is going to jab through the sole if you walk carelessly or heavily, or cannot trust that the heel is going to shoot out from underneath you, you don’t walk by throwing the foot forward and slamming the heel down before rolling straight onto the toe. Instead medieval folk, like barefoot runners, tend to put the side of their foot down and cautiously roll forward onto the ball of the foot, really feeling the ground underfoot before committing their weight. And isn’t that what we need to do when fencing? Surely there’s an advantage to knowing and controlling exactly what your foot is doing when stepping? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason why many past masters emphasised that?

I’ve tried many different types of shoes for fencing. Modern trainers, school shoes, court shoes. I’ve not tried fancy bare-foot trainers yet, nor specialist fencing shoes, although I suspect they are closer to medieval shoes in their feel. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have the ready cash to spend on a high-end pair of specialist fencing shoes or bare-foot trainers in the hope that they might be good for me. Instead, I’ve taken the Sam Vimes approach.

When I was a student, I lived constantly in cheap and nasty Dunlop Volleys. Yes, Volleys are now kind of expensive and a fashion item, but way back then they were the cheap shoes for amateur tennis players. They were canvas, with a flat fairly thin rubber sole, and provided zero support for your foot or ankle. Also, if you wore them every day for months at a time in a subtropical climate, they took on a smell that makes your eyes water. When I lived at college, I would leave them outside my door in the fire hose cabinet, with a bio-hazard sign on the outside. Toward the end I switched to super cheap and nasty “kung fu” slippers. You know the type – cost £3, black canvas, hard plastic sole, fall apart kind of quickly. They didn’t last as long as the Volleys, but they were cheaper and stank less. Eventually of course I grew up and had to go to work, and went back to wearing “proper shoes”.

So it is that many years later, now I no longer particularly care about wearing the right clothes and shoes to work, I started to wonder about moving away from modern trainers and back to Volleys. To my surprise, the Volleys of yesteryear don’t seem to exist any more. There are Volleys on the market, but they have got a more built up heel, and are quite expensive, so I’ve been scratching my head about an alternative. A few months ago I undertook the walk from York to Towton in 15th century clothes and period reproduction shoes. I knew that I had to make some sort of preparations for this other than drinking lots of coffee, and so took to the internet in search of Kung Fu slippers – my thinking was that if I did a bunch of walking in these before the Towton walk, I’d be a little bit prepared.

To my delight, I found on Amazon “M.A.R International Kung Fu Shoes Rubber Sole Slippers Martial Arts Gear Wu Shu Wing Chun Tai Chi Black Size 46” for the price of a hamburger that you regret some hours later. These are the same Sam Vimes paper-thin soled throw-away shoes I remembered from my youth, with a slight twist: unlike the old ones which had a very rigid and slippery plastic sole, these have a soft and very flexible thin-rubber sole. I’ve been wearing them virtually non-stop for about 12 weeks now, and am delighted with the results.

I’m not sure how much longer I will get out of this pair, they have started to wear at the heel and are probably going to fall apart in a week or so, but at throw-away prices that’s acceptable (for comparison, the pair of Nike Freerunners that I usually wear for fencing got about 1 year before starting to fall apart, although in their defence they are still hanging together after 3 years).

It may be a placebo effect, but I believe that the (essentially) bare foot feel is causing me to actively use the muscles in my feet and lower legs with a generally beneficial effect on my fencing. Because they are quite thin, I am not just throwing my foot forward to slam the heel down as I walk to work, but rather feel more like I am placing my foot before rolling and pushing off with my toe. I can feel the big toes and feet working a lot more as I walk, and am much more conscious of which way my feet are pointing. This is a big thing for my knee. I can see that mostly when I walk my right foot points outward, as the instep collapses and the pressure goes off my knee somewhat. Over the decades my body has learned this laziness, and it’s a hard habit to break. I’d not been able to see it before wearing these cheap slippers, but now can consciously sense when it happens, and when the instep falls in, and correct it as I walk. This in turn is helping to re-strengthen the knee joint. So hooray!

How are they for fencing though?

I had the opportunity about two weeks ago to spar in Victoria Park with various HEMA folk from around London. Mainly rapier, a little bit of longsword, a little bit of sword and buckler. A very pleasant afternoon, rounded off by a few pints in a nearby pub, which is very much the shape of HEMA in England. We fenced on the grass, which had the usual mix of loose sticks, small humps and divots, and surprise slippery patches. The shoes were excellent. My footing felt very secure, and I could consciously choose how to step and place my feet. Heaven!

Given the success of that afternoon, I wore them to training the following night. The venue is the usual rented space most HMEMA practioners use – a polished wood floor, not quite enough room, and the occasional surprise of having to move all the tables and chairs that the previous users neglected to restore to their place. I can’t remember what we were doing – rapier that night – but we were doing a lot of lunging, and a lot of moving off the line. And the shoes were a disaster. The soft rubber sole, on the hard wood surface, proved to be their undoing, as they grabbed at the floor even more than the Nikes. By the end of the night, and certainly the next day, it felt as though the evil dwarves had been hammering on my knee and walking was distinctly painful.

After all that, I’m not sure what to try next. I wore the Nikes throughout Dijon 2015 and found that the benefits of the slippers carried over somewhat to them, but I was conscious of the raised heel and how it shaped my step. As an aside, the surface there was outstanding, being that slightly rubbery composite material used for good basketball courts now, and so giving very secure footing for drilling and tournaments. I saw all sorts of shoes at the event. Quite a few of the weird bare-foot foot-gloves with toes, specialist fencing shoes, the usual panoply of trainers, and a few people wearing what looked like rock-climbing shoes but probably weren’t.

Suggestions are welcomed and sought. I must say that for playing with Thibault, the temptation to wear my lovely reproduction early 17th C shoes from Plantagenet Shoes is great.

Australians in London, A Guide For The Bewildered.

I have been meaning to write this for a while, but since Brian and Louise are coming over in a few months I’m spurred to get it done. This semi-structured rant is a keyboard-dump of some of the things I’ve learned since being here in the mother country.

Let me get one thing out of the way first. London is big. Really big. You have no idea how immeasurably big London really is. In very loose terms, take most of the population of Australia, including all those awful people you wish would leave, and pack them into an area about the size of Brisbane. It is dirty, busy, loud, frantic, endlessly exciting, smelly, permanently under construction and entirely nerve-jangling. Don’t expect many quiet and peaceful moments unless you are comatose, or very adventurous.

Unless you’ve hopped across continents, you will arrive at Heathrow after a flight that can only be described as excruciating. You will be tired and your inner clock will be ten hours out of phase with the sun. The walk from the plane to border control is long, usually there’s no accessible toilet, and there is definitely no coffee. Also, keep your camera in your bag, they are a bit nervous about photos. When you get to border control you will understand how little the Commonwealth means. There’s a quick short queue for returning Brits, a slightly longer and slightly slower queue for people on EU passports, and an eternally long miserable grinding queue for Everyone Else. Guess which one you get in. Like you, this line is full of people who have flown for days, and everyone is grumpy, tired, caffeine-deprived, and desperate for a loo. When you do get to the border control officer, don’t try to be jolly. They’ve heard it all, and have no souls or sense of humour. The best approach is to exude a strong air of being well off, white, and definitely leaving in two weeks. It helps if you can remember the address of your hotel, but at this point you will have trouble remembering your date of birth, and in extreme circumstances your name.

Weirdly, on the other side of the border control the baggage check and import control is virtually non-existent. They do not worry too much about contraband coming in people’s bags by plane here – it’s much more of a concern that it will come in a lorry from the continent in industrial quantities. Good news though, there’s coffee at the other end. Just Costa coffee, but drinkable.

The next part of the adventure is getting to the center of London. Because you don’t know the geography of London, you’ve got a hotel somewhere in the middle in a area whose name you recognise. Victoria or Kensington or Hammersmith or Shepherds Bush or similar. You will be taking the Picadilly line (that’s the dark blue one) because taking a taxi will set you back £80 or more. When you get down toward the line, consider getting an Oyster card. If you are going to be in London for a few weeks, then it’s cost effective to get a season ticket on the Oyster card. Otherwise, if you have a contactless debit card like a Visa, you can use that for exactly the same price as the Oyster card – although of course you will be getting hit by exchange fees. The Oyster card is a stored-value card, and just works. Throw £20 on it, and you’ll be absolutely set for the first few days. When you get to the Tube platform, go down to one of the extreme ends rather than boarding in the middle. Unless you have been lucky, you have probably arrived in the middle of either morning or evening peak hour, and the Picadilly line is a commuter line, and the commuters will hate you and your bags. Don’t worry, it’s not personal, they hate everyone who is coming to or from Heathrow with suitcases. If you’re at the very front or back of the train it’s less crowded, and they will hate you less.

Phones and tablets are the best thing that ever happened for the Tube, it allows everyone to retreat as much as possible into their own bubble to try to shut out the awfulness of the commute, so anything you do which may break that bubble will be viewed with alarm and horror. Speaking of which, get the “London Tubes” and “Real Tube” and “Met Office” apps for your phone if you have an iPhone. Enjoy the first 15 minutes of the tube ride. Yes! You are really in LONDON! Riding a real TUBE TRAIN! The people have ACCENTS! Do try to maintain that enthusiasm for the whole trip, it’s a long one. Anticipate spending more than an hour getting from Heathrow (it’s no quicker by taxi). If you are getting off at Victoria station, be aware that it’s a disaster area as it’s disappeared under construction, and none of the roads appear to match anything you can see on a a map. Other stations will be a lot more calm. Oh, and mostly don’t expect that there will be a lift or escalator – generally you should anticipate humping your suitcase up and down several flights of stairs and along long corridors. Victorian design sensibilities you see – most of the stations were constructed over a century ago, when only the brave and the strong used the Tube.

You want another coffee now. Despite what you may have heard, coffee in London is pretty good, or to be precise, pretty good coffee is available in London. There are two pervasive chain cafes – Caffe Nero and Costa – which do reliably OK coffee (for my money, I think Caffe Nero is better, but only just). Of course, Starbucks is everywhere, but I am guessing you want coffee. Don’t get coffee in a pub, it will be horrible. There’s also good coffee at small independent cafes, frequently run by Australians and Kiwis. If you see Monmouth Coffee, run in and hug the ankles of the barrista, sobbing quietly, because the coffee is superb. The hipster colonies are a good bet for decent coffee, so you can judge the likelyhood of good coffee by the presence of irony, piercings, lots of tattoos, braces, and declarations that the beans are fairtrade and washed in the tears of Peruvian virgins.

You may or may not get good food at hipster cafes, it’s hit and miss. Cafe Nero and Costa do ok food, but it tends towards cakes and pastries, and can be expensive for the quality. Do trust some of the chains – Itsu, Pret, Marks and Spencer, Leon, Benugo and Abokado all do good healthy food at McDonald’s prices, and the quality is reliably good. ‘Eat’ is also not bad, but I don’t think as good as the others. Avoid the fried chicken and kebab shops unless you want to flirt with food poisoning, but consider getting food in pubs, it can be good. It can also be awful. Also, while in London treat yourself to a fancy meal at a fancy place. These may not look fancy, and may well be tucked in an alley in Soho, or next to a McDonalds, so use the internet to find them rather than looking for them on the high street. If you are prepared to pay, you can get a life-changing and unforgettable meal here.

Pubs! Yes, someone mentioned drink, didn’t they? There are some chain pubs. Do not go into an “All Bar One”, they are absolutely hideous. Avoid Wetherspoons, they are the McDonald’s of pubs, but at least not as bad as the “All Bar One”. Look for places with minimal, or no, television screens. Look for places that have cask ales and ciders, and if you find a place with a Campaign For Real Ale sticker you are in luck. Very often the good pubs are not on the high street in London, but tucked away a bit from the tourist zones. Oh, and don’t expect to find a good pub right near the Trafalgar Square / Picadilly Circus / Leicester Square / Covent Garden zone, you will need to wander across the river, or a bit further afield.

Don’t expect to find somewhere for a quiet drink on Thursday night. That is when London goes drinking, and everywhere will be absolutely packed and spilling out onto the streets. Friday night can also be pretty full on, but Thursday is the big night. No, I don’t know why, but most businesses operate on the expectation that everyone is hung over on Friday morning. And another thing. When you get that pint (which may be room temperature, meaning somewhere around 10 C), do not drink it like an Australian. A pint is a *lot* of alcohol, and it’s probably 4.5 – 6.5%. Sip it. Nurse it. Cradle it and spend a leisurely hour with it. It’s not unusual for a Londoner to down six or eight pints on a Thursday night, but they have had years of training. Trust me, Australians are rank amateurs when it comes to heavy drinking, and trying to match a Londoner drink for drink will be a regret-filled experience that may lead to Scotch Eggs or dubious fried chicken.

Being Australian, you will want to go to all the usual things – British Museum, Tower of London, Big Ben, The Eye, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus. Here’s the trick – all the ‘good’ stuff is within a small area, and it’s very often quicker to walk from one place to another rather than mucking about getting on and off the Tubes. Do take note of the real-world map when thinking about taking the Tube, as the Tube map has no geographical meaning. There are famously a few interchanges between lines where emerging to ground level, walking 5 minutes and descending again can save 30 or 40 minutes of mucking around on the train. The same goes for buses – you can probably walk faster than the bus.

As an example, as I am going past it now, it is entirely feasible to spend three or four hours walking from Westminster, across the bridge, past the Eye, Festival Hall, South Bank, the Globe, back over the Tower Bridge to the Tower, through the City, back to Leicester Square/Picadilly Circus, down to the Palace and up to Hyde Park. All the attractions in one stroll, no waiting. There, you’ve done London. Even doing something like taking the tube up to Holborn to the British Museum and then walking back to Soho is a pleasant stroll.

A note on being a pedestrian in London. You can expect the crowds to be stupidly dense and composed of stupidly dense tourists at certain key places, but that’s not the real risk. Londoners treat pedestrian crossings and pedestrian lights as mild suggestions, not obligations, and will stroll across through all sorts of traffic. Don’t attempt this yourself, you will die. London taxis and buses treat traffic lights with the same sort of contempt, and indeed have a right (granted by Charles II) to run you down and bill your family for the cost of cleaning the vehicle.

Now I’m sure you will want to go to Oxford Street to do some shopping, because everyone else on the planet does. Please, don’t. Just don’t. It’s a mile or so of crazed crowds, bad food, dull department stores and misery. Do yourself a huge favour and explore the back streets and alleys just adjacent to Oxford street – particularly around Carnaby Street – if you want great shopping and food. Or stroll over to Seven Dials. Or do both. Just avoid Oxford Street, it’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy the likes of which you will not experience elsewhere.

Much the same can be said of Picadilly Circus – the half of the planet that is not in Oxford Street are in the Circus at any one time. Take a photo, push through the crowds to Leicester Square and take another photo, then head over toward Covent Garden instead (by the way, New Row Coffee in New Row is outstandingly good, and oddly enough not run by Kiwis). One thing worth seeing is the carillion donated by some Swiss canton to London as you head toward Leicester Square, outside M&M World. It is gloriously silly and incongruous.

When you are tired of London, you can take it as a sign that you are not entirely mad. Getting out of London is reasonably straight forward as there are a good number of semi-functional train lines heading in various directions. Be aware that there is no single central station these depart from, you will have to lug your suitcases on the Tube to any one of about 8 different stations, depending where you are going. If you know that you are going to be taking a train, book well ahead of time. Months if possible. Otherwise the price rises with an interestingly steep curve the closer to the time you are hoping to depart, up to the point that it is probably cheaper to buy the train. This is because of an insane philosophy of managing the crowding of services by making train travel hideously expensive unless you book a long time ahead. Driving is a reasonably good option as long as you are doing nothing on London roads except escaping – head to the M25, go around it to whichever motorway is taking you to where you need to go, and blast off. By the way, the speed limit on the motorway is theoretically 70 MPH, but it is widely known that the speed cameras were turned off years ago. Beware of Audi and BMW drivers, they are trying to get their money’s worth out of their cars.

The weather can vary wildly from day to day, but you can absolutely trust the predictions from the Met Office. The great thing is that, unlike Melbourne, the weather throughout the day stays pretty consistent. The likelyhood is that it won’t be raining (much) if you are here in summer: interestingly the annual rainfall in London is quite a bit lower than Brisbane, and it is very unusual for there to be constant rain over several days. On the other hand, that seems to happen whenever any Australians I know turn up, which makes it hard to convince people just how good the weather usually is here.

The same goes for crime. Being brought up on years of BBC shows on the ABC, Australians expect to be menaced by (insert bogey man here, depending on which decade you graduated in) in every back alley. Absolute bollocks. In general terms the streets here are as safe as any Australian city, with one caveat. Most crime is, of course, property crime. There’s a certain amount of gang violence in some spots, but if you are not in those spots, and not a gang member you have nothing to worry about. I do however advise some caution with your wallet and phone in the key tourist areas, such as Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus and particularly Waterloo Bridge and the area around the Eye. There are always crowds of tourists here, and naturally their predators pool in the same patch.

When the time comes to go back to Heathrow, allow a lot more time than you expect. Just take whatever allowance you have made to get from your hotel to the plane, and double it. Don’t take a taxi out to the airport, the drivers do the same with their fares. It will take at least an hour just to get to Heathrow, and the check in lines are invariably hell on earth.

York To Towton

The march to Towton

Work pressures and logistical problems meant that I did not get to do the inaugural (well, second, technically) march from York to Towton in 2014. This year we did make it, and on reflection it feels like after many years my kit – our kit – is almost complete and correct.

We pampered ourselves on either side of the walk, leaving London midday after a good lunch to get to the hotel (Hazelwood Castle) nearest Towton which was dog-friendly. In the end it was a 5 hour drive, by the time we stopped on several occasions to walk the dog, but we arrived comfortably around 7:00pm, were unpacked and the dog settled in his crate for dinner at 8:00pm, then a reasonably early night. Of course, it would not be re-enactment if I was not sewing the night before, as I had discovered late in my preparations that I needed to move some lacing holes in my petti-cote. (A footnote for the now-bewildered, a petti-cote is a garment something like a waistcoat, with lacing holes along the bottom to hold my hose up).


Logistics the next morning were a bit fraught, as we needed to try to get to the Rockingham Arms in Towton by 7:30. Which was what time breakfast was starting at the hotel. We rose at 6:00, threw most of our kit on, threw kit in the car, threw the dog in the car, and lobbed into the restaurant at about 7:15 with a mournful expression. The staff rose to the occasion, and very kindly whipped up some bacon sandwiches in tin-foil for us and sent us on the way. We got to Towton in time to hurl stuff into the shared mini-van that had been rented, and we left the Rockingham Arms only 5 minutes later than planned. The driver was a textbook example of “surly”, and his anxiety to leave promptly was explained by his stopping to fill the petrol tank – and chat with half the village – before we’d gone more than a few miles. What sort of taxi company does not ensure the tank is full before picking up a booking?

Anyway, we arrived at Clifford’s Tower in good time, and with no more than the usual level of re-enactor fussing about and adjusting of kit, were on the road at 9:00. Then there was 15-ish miles of tromping. The end.


(Photo credit Mike Wilson)


Not really. Our guide and organiser and intrepid worrier Ghost had managed to work out a route that was almost entirely off main roads, and was about 50-60% through fields and parks. Necessarily we had to tromp through a couple of small villages, and Tadcaster, but were only along the side of the biggest road for about a mile. As Ghost put it, we were not necessarily along the route that the bulk of the troops took (as that has disappeared under a major road), but there are records of local musters gathering at various key places, and we would have been sharing parts of our route with those troops. And of course, the final approach up the hill and over the ridge to the battle site was where the Lancastrians would have moved in force.


(Photo credit Mike Wilson)


The walk ended (because this is England) at the Rockingham Arms, who did not seem at all fazed by 13 smelly re-enactors and a small dog piling in and strewing kit everywhere. A pint of a local pale ale – or two – was definitely welcomed, and earned. Back into the car, and we were unpacked and in the hotel bar by 7:00pm. Whereon we consumed a very nice Rioja in front of the fire. In retrospect, two ales and 2/3rd of a bottle of Rioja while dehydrated and exhausted was not the best of ideas, but totally worth it at the time.




(Photo credit Rob Atkin)

(Photo credit Rob Atkin)

You may have missed what I said above: 13 re-enactors and a small dog. Because we are not sufficiently mad to just do a 15 mile wander in 15th century clothing, we decided that it was completely feasible to take Bo with us. He was a champion, and seemed to enjoy the experience (mostly). At the beginning through the fields he was racing around like a maniac, running from one end of the troupe to the other, racing down to the river and back, racing around the fields and back. We walked 15 miles. He must have gone 20 miles. Later in the day he was much more subdued, and was not very happy about walking along beside the main roads, but he perked up a lot toward the end, and met quite a few dogs as we did the final leg through the woods and up to the site. Once we got to the pub though, the tiredness caught up with him, and he deflated big time. We put him back in his crate as soon as we got back to the hotel room, and he slept solidly for 12 hours like a soggy rag doll.


The logistics around Bo were a little mad, and it was something of a last minute scramble of getting a number of disparate pieces to come together at the last minute. We’d picked up some leather strap, and a 15th C cast buckle, and some rope (sadly not hemp rope, but not sisal or cotton either), and had made him a plausibly medieval collar. Which is to say, a short strap with a buckle on it and a rope tied to it. We knew we’d need to carry treats, and a water bowl, and other accoutrements, but we were working on the assumption that we’d need to carry him part way. So Delia found a company in Poland making reproduction wicker back-packs from the styles seen in period art, and they got it to us on the Thursday before we drove up on Friday. In the end, we did not need to carry him at all, and the backpack proved brilliant for carrying lunch, water bottles, spare coat and his (many) treats. But not the water bowl, which got completely forgotten. Thankfully he was able to drink from some streams and puddles, and was quite happy with that.

On reflection on the drive back to London, I had a sense that finally, after much scrambling since we’ve been here, everything just worked as we intended. The roof-rack arrived for the car in time for us to put the dog crate and a halberd on the roof. The soft-kit and my harness, and the dog and his stuff, and modern kit for around the hotel, all fitted. Snugly, because our car is very small, but comfortably. We had raided Cloaked and Daggered at TORM for a new doublet, braies and hose for Delia/Bob, and I picked up a pair of off-the shelf hose that were a remarkably good fit from Historic Enterprises. The latter are a stop-gap until Malina gets my soft kit done, but the thought had occurred to me it would be handy to have a pair that are sufficiently ok to wear while I’m on the field.


(Photo credit Ian Brandt)


I wore hose and petti-cote, with period braies and shirt, and the jack over the top. I limited myself to wearing just the sallet, and had the deerskin gloves I made to keep my hands worn. Pilgrim’s bag and water bottle over my shoulders, a Percy bend tucked into my belt, and pouch on the belt. Period shoes as well: I wore the low shoes that I made years ago, and which continue to stand up brilliantly – I’ve clumped replacement soles on a few times, so the bottom is quite impervious to stones. Very slick on the bottom of course, and muddy patches of the path were treacherous, but I was as comfortable as I am in my modern shoes.

Delia did not fair as well with her shoes – they are low ankle boots that are a bit big for her, and lacked a heel stiffener. Of course as she walked and they got wet, they accordioned down the back of her heel until she did much of the walk on the thin heel, not the sole. By the end they had worn through (probably irreparably), and it was as though she had walked the last 5 miles in high-heels.

The summary is thus: it feels like I have one set of kit that is sufficiently good and comfortable to be usable in a variety of contexts. If called on to do something tomorrow, I’m confident that I could competently present soldier-with-pole-weapon to a high standard.

Of course, that does not mean my kit is finished – is any re-enactor ever finished? We are the very definition of gear-fetishists, always trying to get the next bit done. I’ve got good soft kit in the queue being made by Malina which will see me comfortable with the basic clothes. I’ve got a decent jack, sallet, and breastplate. I’ve got decent belts, pouches, drinking vessels, spoons, bowls, etc. The missing bits are finally a manageable and not terrifying list:

  • we need scabbards and belts for my new longsword and Delia’s messer;
  • it would be very useful to have an additional stool or bench;
  • we both need good daggers;
  • it would be good to either get the poles and ropes for our giant tent, or get a small tent.

Daggers are an interesting problem – not finding them, we can get outstandingly good items from Tod’s Stuff, or from Dr Fabrice Cognot – but in a way we really need two daggers each: good functional sharps for demonstration and bling, and decent blunts safe enough to demonstrate knife-fighting technique. Longer term of course I’m also keen to have one or more decent sharp swords, to allow demonstration of cutting, but that is a very slow burn.


Apologies to anyone for whom I have missed photo credits, or have misattributed – yell out, I would love to get the right attribution for the shots published.

Making sawdust

Finally got to spend some time in the shed – interspersed with dealing with the dog , and a bunch of running around. We got the roof rack on the Panda early Saturday morning, went Wickes (which is the English equivalent of the Australian Bunnings) and loaded up the roof rack with ½” ply and a dozen 2″x4″x8′. The timber calculations were… rough… so I was not sure that I would get two benches out of what I had or not. So I spent about 10 hours over two days turning the pile of bits into the first of two putting-stuff-on-top-of benches. At the end, I found I had estimated correctly, and I have exactly enough timber left to make a second one, which I will begin next week. This week has to be about preparations for the Towton walk.

The pile of timber started like this – some framing pine and some plywood.



And the trick of course is that I needed a bench to make a bench. I am anticipating this will be the overall pattern for a while – build the thing to allow the next thing to be built.




It’s deliberately a very stable bench, but not one that I want to hammer heavily on – this one will get the Leigh router jig attached, and be mainly for that, and for tool sharpening. The other one will be the “put things on top of this to dry when gluing up” bench.
I am hoping within a few months I will have this all up and functioning. Next step – the second bench. The step after that is to get all the tools cleaned and sharpened and stored or hung properly.