Rev Christopher Harold Weller MC

25th November 1916 – 101 years ago today:

“His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned Officers, in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the field;-

Rev Christopher Harold Weller, temp Chaplain to the forces, 4th Class A Chaplain Department

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He afforded the wounded a magnificent example of coolness and courage, and was instrumental in saving many lives. Later although severely wounded, he continued to carry on his fine work.”

I am Christopher Weller’s very proud grandson. I never knew him, as he had died even before my parents met, but my father and his siblings, and my cousins who did meet him, have talked of him often.

Not long before my father died at the very end of 2012, he travelled to Belgium with a group of friends from his local archives group; they were not far from Ypres. While there, Dad was visiting a chapel and suddenly realised that his father had been to that same chapel some 95 years previously. As you might imagine, this made him very emotional (and is making me emotional as I write this post). It was probably the closest he had felt to his father since his death in 1960. I am so pleased that Dad got to make the trip before he became ill.

Rev Christopher Harold Weller MC

A month with the iOS11 Public Beta

I am a self-professed geek (my Twitter name is @gatesheadgeek) and I wear that badge with some pride! For me, then, the recent trend for Apple to release their upcoming major software releases as a Public Beta to help test its bugs and foibles before releasing to the masses is great. I’m not one to wait for things (I was once caught by my father looking for my Christmas presents on the top shelf of his study bookcase for example) and so the Public Beta programme is aimed at people like me. After 4 weeks of use, I feel able to comment on its performance so far. Continue reading “A month with the iOS11 Public Beta”

In Praise of the iPad Mini

I am now on my second iPad Mini & I fear it may be my last. Not because I don’t like it – I love it – but because all the signs are that Apple will discontinue it as a product before long. For me it is an almost perfect size – I’m writing this article on my iPad Mini 4 without difficulty and can use it pretty much anywhere.

So why do I think Apple might not be selling iPad Minis for much longer? Well, it is now nearly 2 years since it was last updated and, in March 2017, the available model options were limited to just one storage size (128GB) & three colours. At the same time, Apple released a cheaper 9.7″ iPad which is actually cheaper than the iPad Mini – the larger model has a lower quality screen than the Mini 4, which was much improved from that in the Mini 2. The screen on the Mini 4, discontinued iPad Air/Air 2, and the iPad Pro models all have laminated screens which look & feel much better. The screen on my iPad Mini 2 was one of the annoying features – poor colour and less pleasant as a touchscreen compared to the fantastic Retina screen on my current device. So, the lowest price iPad is the 9.7″ model released in March at £339 and the iPad Mini 4 sells for £419. It’s possible that Apple were testing to see whether the Mini was just selling because it was the cheapest model, or just trying to maximse their profit but I think other signs point to it being ready for the chop. The tablet market has been in decline and the iPad Mini is probably the worst-selling of the iPad range, so why would they keep it?

At the June 2017 WWDC, Apple unusually launched hardware alongside their usual look at the new software development. This included updates to the iPad Pro models and – more interestingly – some major changes to the iOS software that are focused entirely on making iPads a better productivity tool and a viable replacement for a laptop. These changes include a file manager – something that has been missing since the iPads were first launched – and better multitasking tools. The demonstrations of these new features at WWDC were impressive but highlighted (to me) that Apple had focused on the larger models. I just don’t see that the multitasking features will be easy to use on the smaller iPad Mini screen.

It is of course possible that Apple will relaunch the Mini with thinner side bezels like the new 10.5″ iPad Pro in the same size as the 9.7″ models, but Apple are obsessed about the user experience and I fear that they will decide that this is compromised with iOS 11 on the Mini.  I really do hope I’m wrong. The Mini size is perfect for me – as it’s very easy to travel with, fits in a jacket pocket and can be used one handed without any trouble. The iPhone Plus is 2 inches smaller and is too big (again in my view) to carry around day to day.

So, in the unlikely event that Tim Cook or any of the hierarchy at Apple care, please can we give the iPad Mini a chance?

Hyperloop – Loopy Hype?

Over the past few years, Elon Musk’s concept of a hyper fast train in a tube has been doing the rounds. Various engineering companies and others have become involved. Various small prototypes have been mooted too. Now, Hyperloop One has suggested 6 routes could be developed in the UK, with staggering journey times down to less than 20 minutes for journeys that currently take hours.

Is this reality or is it just fantasy?

The standard depiction of Hyperloop is of a 3-4m diameter metal tube on stilts and usually dead straight. Various suggestions have been made that Hyperloop could be built along motorways but this seems completely improbable. Most UK motorways curve around towns and cities and try to blend in (as best they can) with the topography. Given how much opposition HS2 has had wherever it has been proposed and given that HS2 can curve far more than Hyperloop, and can work with gradients, I fear that the promoters are completely unrealistic in thinking that it’s feasible in the UK. Given that it is very difficult to route high speed rail alongside motorways for any significant distance, then Hyperloop must surely be even more difficult to route through our countryside (and towns).

So those’re the alignment issues. Next is the small matter of safety. The Channel Tunnel & the proposed HS2 tunnels are designed such that trains will always be alongside emergency escape passages & there are also fans which are designed to blow smoke away from a stricken train to allow safe passenger evacuation and keep fire-fighters safe. These design features have worked relatively well on the Channel Tunnel when fires have occurred. So these trains have tried and tested designs to aid speedy evacuation into relative safety. How will a Hyperloop pod be evacuated when a problem occurs? Hands up anyone who wants to be stuck in a 2.5 metre diameter windowless capsule in a tube? No idea what’s happening & no easy means of escape? Hyperloop have suggested in the past that the pods will deploy small wheels & crawl to a safe place. I’m not sure how this would work in the event of total power loss. Maybe passengers could put their legs through the floor and “walk” the pod to safety? (I am picturing The Flintstones here).

Finally, all depictions of a Hyperloop system show small pods with a few dozen passengers each. How will the massive cost of building a Hyperloop tube be recouped when its capacity is so low? There would have to be a massive safety distance between pods at the proposed speeds, so you might get a pod every 10 minutes. Even HS2, with a service proposed at 18 trains per hour in each direction and each train carrying 1,000 passengers, only has a medium value return on investment.

Construction of a high speed railway, compared to Hyperloop, is a very mature technology with 1000s of miles of track built in China alone. Risks are well known, the technology is known and railways work well, despite the fact that they are a variation on technology invented 200 years ago. Steel wheel on steel rail is actually remarkably efficient. Brunel (& others) tried early variations of Hyperloop and failed to make a success of it. I’m by no means a Luddite but remain very sceptical that Hyperloop can ever be a commercial success.

Anticipating Apple’s WWDC 2017

Every year in June, Apple holds its Worldwide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) in California. The WWDC starts with a Keynote address on the Monday morning (6pm UK time) which is given by its CEO, Tim Cook. The Keynote usually previews the release of the company’s operating systems for Mobile (iOS) and computers (MacOS) as well as, latterly, WatchOS & TvOS for the Apple Watch & Apple TV respectively. Sometimes new hardware is also announced, although this now usually happens at special events held at other times of the year. The iPhone is generally launched in September, with other hardware often being announced in October or, sometimes, in March. If necessary, hardware teasers might be given as these allow developers to make a start on developing apps before launch to the public. It is possible that tomorrow will see new iPad Pro models released, along with updated Mac laptops. Rumours also abound that Apple will preview a new Siri Speaker to compete with Amazon & Google hardware.

The two main Apple operating systems for mobile devices & computers will be previewed on stage by Craig Federighi who is one of the more charismatic senior Apple executives (though that’s not saying much). Usually there will be demonstrations of features and, sometimes, another company will be allowed on stage to show off a game or app/program they have developed for the new software. There are usually lots of bad, in-jokes and the enthusiastic audience of software developers will generally whoop a lot when new features, big or small, are shown. To mere mortals it can be very cringe-worthy!

As 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone, speculation is high that this year’s iPhone will be a major change when announced in September. In support of this, there’s a chance that tomorrow’s announcements will herald some key changes in iOS that support the new hardware. Often though, changes that are specific to new models are not formally announced until the phone itself is revealed. Sometimes however, clues are found in the beta versions that are released during the summer.

Tomorrow will be Apple’s opportunity to set the scene for the year ahead & it will be interesting to see the direction they take. Notwithstanding the significance of 2017 in iPhone history, the expectation is that changes will be focused on the iPad, partly to address the challenge from Microsoft’s Surface devices and more generally to halt the decline in iPad sales and those of tablets in general.

Runswick Bay

I often join my family for a holiday in Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast (between Whitby and Saltburn). One of our favourite day trips is to the pretty village of Runswick Bay which is perched on the cliff and has a jumble of cottages and houses all linked by a labyrinth of paths.

  • RNLI station and a variety of boats and kayaks
    RNLI station and a variety of boats and kayaks
  • One of many alleys in Runwswick Bay
    One of many alleys in Runwswick Bay
  • Cottages clustered around another alley
    Cottages clustered around another alley
  • Runswick Bay cottages and alleys climbing up from the bay
    Runswick Bay cottages and alleys climbing up from the bay
  • Looking south across the bay towards the sailing club
    Looking south across the bay towards the sailing club
  • Runswick Bay Sailing Club
    Runswick Bay Sailing Club
  • Looking across the bay from the sea defences at the northern end of the village
    Looking across the bay from the sea defences at the northern end of the village
  • Old lifeboat station and inland rescue boat station at Runswick Bay
    Old lifeboat station and inland rescue boat station at Runswick Bay
  • seaside houses old & new at Runswick Bay
    seaside houses old & new at Runswick Bay
  • Old boat winch
    Old boat winch
  • Looking across the bay towards Kettleness
    Looking across the bay towards Kettleness
  • Runswick Bay village & old lifeboat station
    Runswick Bay village & old lifeboat station
  • Thatched old coastguard cottage
    Thatched old coastguard cottage
  • Looking out to sea. Old ship's anchor in foreground
    Looking out to sea. Old ship's anchor in foreground

Bordeaux to Bilbao by Train

Bordeaux’s Gare Saint Joan railway station is a fabulous structure with a spectacular 19th century glass-roofed concourse on 2 levels that features a wall-map of the area’s historic rail network – not only a work of art but a historical reference of long-gone railway lines. It’s not just the UK that has suffered major line closures in recent past.

The station’s platform areas are being rebuilt in readiness for the arrival of the extended Altantique LGV which will soon carry TGV services on dedicated tracks all the way from Paris. As a result of these works, many platforms are currently full of scaffolding, with small areas every few metres for passengers to stand and wait for trains away from the platform edge. When the 1051 TGV service to the French-Spanish border at Hendaye & Irun arrived, there were quite chaotic scenes as alighting passengers jostled for space with passengers trying to board and walking up and down the platform to find their carriage.

South of Bordeaux, progress was quite leisurely as the TGV services use slower-speed classic railway lines to reach the border. The journey is timetabled to take just over 2 hours, but an hour into the journey we rapidly slowed to a halt near Bayonne. My French isn’t good enough to understand all the announcements made, but the words I did snatch suggested the halt was due to a trespasser or blockage on the line. There was lots of tutting from some nearby passengers who were seasoned travellers on a tight schedule and I was glad that I had decided to stay overnight in Bordeaux to get an earlier train to the border than trying to travel all the way from La Rochelle in one day – if I’d got a later train I would have been far less relaxed about the delay. We were stationary for about 20 minutes before we pulled into Bayonne station shortly after.

On arrival at Hendaye, which is the station on the French side of the border, the train split into two. Although I got off at Hendaye, the TGV set I had been on, and which formed the front portion of the train, uncoupled from the rear set and carried onto Irun on the Spanish side, although this was a short journey. At Irun, there are direct connections to Pamplona and beyond using the national RENFE Spanish services. A few RENFE services seem to use Hendaye station too. Having previously done my research using the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website, I knew that I needed the Euskotren train which left from a small, separate station adjacent to the SNCF station.

Euskotren is a Basque train company which operates a narrow gauge rail network in northwest Spain using modern electric trains. The train from Hendaye crosses the La Bidassoa river into Irun and largely hugs the coastline for a 30 minute journey to San Sebastiân. From there, which is a key interchange on the network, it is necessary to change onto a separate train to Bilbao, a journey which takes around 2.5 hours. The single fare for the whole 3 hour journey to Bilbao was less than €6 – a real bargain.

As I had to change at San Sebastiân, I decided to break my journey there and spend an hour to take a quick look around. I was glad that I did. It is an attractive city with a spectacular cathedral and a large bay with an attractive sandy beach. I sat in the square outside the cathedral and ate the small quiche I had bought at Bordeaux and vowed to return someday for a longer stay.

When I returned to the station however, I found that my through ticket to Bilbao wouldn’t work on the ticket barriers. Although an irritation, I couldn’t really begrudge getting a new ticket even though it was only €0.10 less than the ticket I had bought in Hendaye. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to try and blag myself through the barriers.

The train journey from San Sebastiân to Bilbao was as scenic as I had hoped, with the railway line following river valleys through the mountains on the way. Some of the rustic views were spoiled by characteristic large Spanish apartment blocks but overall it was a pleasant journey. As the train got towards Bilbao, the railway surroundings became more urban until the train pulled into Axturo station beside Bilbao’s Ria river.

After leaving the station I made for the tram stop I had worked out would get me to the hotel. Unfortunately, it appeared that trams were not running and I continued walking – I was glad that I only had my small wheeled case. My sense of direction was assisted by checking Apple Maps on my phone before reaching the main square and a city map adjacent to the tourism office in the city centre. By this time it was clear that it would be easier to continue walking and I got to the hotel just before a light drizzle turned into heavier rain for the rest of the evening.

10 Days on Île de Ré

Île de Ré s a smallish island off the west coast of France in the Charante-Maritime Department. It is close to La Rochelle, with a modern toll bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Île de Ré is one of several islands around La Rochelle, with the other main island, Île de Ôléron being to the south and visible from parts of Ré on clear days.

Ré is a popular tourist spot with the French, as it is a viable weekend destination from Paris and other large cities such as Bordeaux. La Rochelle is connected to Paris by a regular TGV railway service and has an airport with regular flights to Paris; Easyjet also serve La Rochelle from several UK airports and hence the area remains popular with British tourists. Ré has some great beaches, with wide expanses of sand and generally safe swimming.

We have been staying in the pretty harbour town of La Flotte, which is the largest town on the island; La Flotte is also close to the fortified harbour town of Saint-Martin. Saint-Martin de Ré is probably the more popular and attractive town, and also the more expensive in terms of accommodation and restaurant prices. The town’s fortifications are by the famed French engineer Vauban and part of the old fortress is still used as a prison. Saint-Martin is a World Heritage site.

Another pretty harbour is to be found at Ars en Ré, which has a prominent church steeple painted in black and white to serve as a navigation aid for boats entering the harbour.

There are some fantastic beaches on Ré, many of which still have German WW2 concrete bunkers that were built to protect key military assets, including large guns protecting the U-boat pens in La Rochelle from naval attack, although these bunkers have been slowly slipping down the dunes onto the beach in the past few decades. A small number of these bunkers have even been converted into holiday homes. Beaches on the island were used in the filming of the classic WW2 film The Longest Day.

Another notable feature of the island is the preponderance of hollyhocks. These distinctive flowers are all over the island and a feature of many quiet alleyways and streets across the island.

A holiday on the island is very relaxing and is great for cycling. Cyclists abound wherever you look. It is a popular yachting destination and has been a favourite destination of celebrities, including Johnny Depp. For seafood lovers, the area is a perfect location to visit as the island has a thriving fishing fleet. For wine lovers, Ré’s wine is a local speciality and bottles of eminently quaffable wine can be had from supermarkets for around €3. Pineau, a fortified wine, is another speciality – Cognac eau-de-vie mixed with lightly fermented grape juice.

As this is my second visit to the region (we had a 5 day holiday on nearby Ôléron in 2014), I have become as fond of the area as my brother and his family. Sadly, this year, weather has been quite mixed (as it has across Europe this summer), however it is normally dependably hot and sunny in July & August.

Paris to Île de Ré via an Orange Boutique

After a quick breakfast, I had a morning free before catching the TGV to La Rochelle. No time to relax though as I had an assignment.

Prior to arriving in France, we had bought a wifi dongle device as experience last year was that using our phones for Internet while in France was not really viable. I had established the night before that while Orange had several shops in central Paris, few were open on Sundays. The only viable store, timing wise, was at La Defense. This store opened at 11 and even with some time to buy the required mobile data sim, would allow me time to get back to Montparnasse station to catch the TGV south. The RATP website told me that it would take 30 minutes to get to La Defense from the Metro station close to my hotel.

Paris Metro Ligne 6 was a surprise as, soon after leaving Montparnasse station, it emerges from tunnel and passes through Paris on viaducts through the streets. In fact, you get a great view of Paris architecture and of the Eiffel Tower. The Seine is crossed on a bridge before the line descends back into tunnel as it gets close to its terminus around the Arc de Triomphe.

When I reached the shopping centre at La Defense, I soon found the Orange shop. Unfortunately the shop was closed. Despite the Orange website’s information, it clearly didn’t open on a Sunday – there were no signs of life inside. This was a major blow as there was no chance to get to any other Orange store and back to Montparnasse before my train left some 2 hours later. So, after using my new camera to take some picures of La Defense, which I’d last visited around 19 years ago, it was time to retrace my steps back to Montparnasse.

My trip to La Rochelle was a repeat of one I’d made almost exactly a year previously when joining my brother and family on Ile d’Oleron, so I knew my way around Montparnasse and knew that it was worth getting food before boarding. British railway catering may have a bad image but it beats TGV catering hands-down. In fact First Class travel on TGV is just more comfortable than 2nd class – there are none of the benefits like wifi, free food or at-seat service that you get on East Coast etc. that said, the First Class fares are generally only slightly higher than in Standard.

The countryside south of Paris is fairly flat and mostly arable farming. A few industrial sites are noticeable and Poitiers is an interesting sight – the biggest station that is served by the La Rochelle service. The train was busy, even in First Class, my seat was an aisle seat so the ability to window-gaze was limited.

At La Rochelle, I knew that an express bus met the TGV to take passengers to île de Ré and sure enough there was a crowd milling around by some bus stops in the station car park. Shortly after, two smart buses arrived and passengers placed their luggage in the side lockers before boarding. The journey was quite short and so within 40 minutes or so (after some confusion with my brother about exactly where I had got off the bus), I was enjoying a cold beer with him, his partner and my nephew in their holiday apartment.