Skiing Indoors

Skiing at Sno-Zone

Skiing at Sno-Zone

Skiing at Sno-Zone

Skiing at Sno-Zone

DSC04140To comfort my poor snow-deprived child, we went in search of snow in the UK. And one can find indoor ski hills with snow here, which to me seems quite bizarre.

We went to the town of Milton Keynes to a very large shopping mall which had inside it a “sno zone” with a small indoor ski hill. The two older boys went skiing for about an hour and had a good time.  As with the dry ski slope, there was a requirement that people be reasonably competent skiiers before being allowed on the slopes presumably because of the relatively compact space.



Dry Skiing

Our eldest child loves winter, loves snow, loves skiing. He has been very disappointed at the lack of snow here in Cambridge.  Whilst searching for the nearest ski places for him, I stumbled across both indoor ski centres and dry ski hills, both of which seemed extremely exotic to me but are dotted about the country here. The indoor ski centres are, as the name suggests, artificial environments which make snow on a slope in an indoor centre.  For our first non-traditional ski experience, we decided to try something which seemed even more unusual, dry skiing.

A dry ski slope is a ski slope which attempts to replicate the experience of skiing or snowboarding on snow by using artificial materials to cover the hill. We went to a dry ski slope about 30 miles away from our house at Gosling Sports centre.

Dry Ski Slope

Dry Ski Slope

Dry Ski Slope Material close up

Dry Ski Slope Material close up

Having done a Wikipedia search, I am guessing the material on the slope we went to was made of Dendrix, which looks like short broom bristles stuck together in a mesh pattern. One of the instructors I spoke to said skiing on the dry slope was similar to (snow) skiing in icy conditions.  A big difference I noticed was that people were not allowed to just use the main slope without having some sort of competency, as opposed to in Canada where I have never heard anybody ask if you can actually ski before hitting the slopes. Before going I had assumed this was because the dry ski slope was smaller and there would be more of a chance of a bunch of inexperienced people running into one another. But the dry ski slope we went to turned out to be not much different in size to a (smallish) hill near us in Canada. I now suspect the competency requirement may be because the material covering the hill (again according to Wikipedia) gives little or no impact protection if you fall on it.

The important thing though, was whether the kids had a good time, and they did. Our smallest and least experienced child stayed in the small lodge/ski rental/change area whilst the other two went out and enjoyed skiing in the rain. But on a dry slope, rain doesn’t matter! Except to make the surface a bit more slippery.


p.s. Now watching the Olympics coverage here in the UK, we have learned that it is common for British skiers and snowboarders to have trained in the indoor ski centres and dry ski slopes.

Sutton Hoo

As we arrived at the site of a 1300 year old ship burial of an AngloSaxon King, the children, predictably, just wanted to hit the playground.

So, before dragging them off to see the burial mounds and artifacts, we did that.

The Burial Mounds

The Burial Mounds

Afterwards we walked to the site which encompassed 19 or 20 burial mounds dating from the 7th century, including that of an Anglo-Saxon king. While we stood and looked over this monumental field, which is a key site for understanding Anglo-Saxon traditions and in addition contains evidence of 6,000 years of human habitation, one of the children was repeatedly and very loudly complaining about wanting to go.  We got to contemplate this vast span of history for about 30 seconds and then we were off again.

Entranced by History

Entranced by History

The visitor centre was more enjoyed by all. It was nicely set up with a timeline of the site set round a large room and a display of the reproductions of the finds that were discovered there (the original finds are in the British Museum). The craftsmanship displayed was really quite astonishing, especially considering the limited tools that would have been available. The most famous find was a fabulous and rather frightening helmet, but the metalworking displayed in other objects was also incredible.  There was a replica of the 90 foot long ship in which the warrior/king was buried and assumed possible set up of the grave goods buried with him.  There had likely been another ship burial close by which had unfortunately been completely destroyed by grave robbers.

The Fearsome Helmet

The Fearsome Helmet

At Sutton Hoo they seemed pretty certain that the person buried in the ship was King Raedwald of East Anglia. The British Museum seems to be hedging its bets rather more, though they consider Raedwald to be a strong candidate.  It was an interesting time in terms of the intersection of Christianity and Paganism.  Raedwald had converted to Christianity but his wife had not.  In Raedwald’s temple there were both Christian altars and pagan shrines apparently, and both Christian and pagan elements were indicated in grave goods in the burial ship.

From the British museum:  “Many of these possessions, even to the modern eye, are extraordinary and they allow us a glimpse into a life that relied on simple technology but was still sumptuous and sophisticated – a lifestyle that is described in the poem Beowulf, which, although written down a couple of centuries after the burial, vividly brings to life this earlier heroic period.”

I need to go and read Beowulf now….

Ely Cathedral

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About 20 km from Cambridge lies the tiny city of Ely (pronounced “eely” and yes, there used to be a lot of eels nearby although I am not sure if that is where the name originated). Ely Cathedral is considered one of the wonders of the medieval world and is enormous and very beautiful.  It was begun during the time of  William the Conqueror, around 1089, and finished about 100 years later, save for a famous octagonal crossing (crossing, in ecclesiastical architecture, is the junction of the four arms of a cruciform (cross-shaped) church) which was finished in 1351.  As old as the cathedral is, it was built on the site of an earlier abbey established by St. Ethelreda in 673 but destroyed by the Danes a couple of hundred years later.

Unfortunately in the dissolution of the monasteries done by Henry VIII (after he took over The Church, including all the money he could grab, it seems), some of the interior features as well as medieval stained glass windows of Ely Cathedral were destroyed. Apparently the lead from the stained glass windows was valuable.  The posts where statues used to stand, and the hundreds of statues with missing heads which remain in place are a memorial of the vandalism and deliberate destruction which was orchestrated by Henry VIII’s First Minister, Thomas Cromwell.

The Lady Chapel (original alter destroyed, along with statues and paintings)

The Lady Chapel (original alter destroyed, along with statues and paintings)

Statues whose heads have been chopped off

Statues whose heads have been chopped off

Thomas Cromwell was an indirect ancestor of Oliver Cromwell, who lived about a century later and was known as “The Lord Protector” and executed King Charles I.  Oliver Cromwell lived in Ely at one time and his house in Ely is now a museum. Oliver Cromwell was responsible for closing Ely Cathedral for about 10 years and used it as a stable for his cavalry horses, so he made his own mark on the Cathedral.

If you would like to read more, here is a history posted by the current Cathedral staff:

Christmas in Cambridge

Happy New Year to Everyone!

New Year's Eve in our back garden

New Year’s Eve in our back garden

Having spent Christmas here, I think are more similarities than differences between the way it is celebrated in England and Canada, which made things comfortingly familiar for the children. We did notice a few differences however.

One of the first things I noticed in the leadup to Christmas was the predominance of Advent Calendars. The wide assortment of different styles and aspects was quite surprising to me.

Outside, although many deciduous trees finally lost their leaves (the local church had a leaf-raking session on Dec 14th, to get it done “before the snow”) so much is still green. Holly is quite common in gardens as are other plants/trees with red berries. The forsythia vine outside our window just started blooming with little yellow flowers.

In the garden of Anglesey Abbey Garden, December 20th, 2013

In the garden of Anglesey Abbey with friends, December 20th, 2013

Enjoying the hillside in Ely, Jan 2nd

Enjoying the hillside in Ely, Jan 2nd

Before Christmas we had a little open house gathering we enjoyed with some of our very nice neighbours and a couple of friends who could make it and learned that mulled wine is apparently extremely popular here at Christmas. I share this in case you should ever throw a Christmas gathering in England :).  Sparkling wine came next in popularity, with white wine being a distant third. Out of the 30 or so adults who came, not a single one had any (unmulled) red wine, or beer for that matter, which was a bit of a surprise to us.

Christmas dinner is similar here, with turkey being a popular option but people eat other main dishes as well, such as goose. The turkeys available are more varied, with different coloured feathers and skin, not just the monochromatic white I was used to seeing.  The kids enjoyed the Christmas crackers (with hats and trinkets inside) which our family does at Christmas as well.  My cousin kindly supplied us with delicious mince tarts and a traditional Christmas pudding accompanied by brandy sauce and cream sauce… mmm…

What hard work getting those crackers open!

What hard work getting those crackers open!

The queen presents an annual speech on Christmas day but we missed that (apparently it’s on the Royal Youtube channel for anyone who would like to watch it).

Another English tradition is to go to a Christmas Pantomime, or “Panto”. Our understanding before we went to one was that a Panto was a sort of farcical play with lots of slapstick and at least one of the female leads, the “Dame”, being played by a man.  There are common bits expected in these productions, as described in this (rather long) article, which I wish I had read before going:

We went to see the Pantomime “Robin Hood” in Cambridge.  It was, I felt, meant for a more mature audience than the ‘Family’ entertainment advertised. The production we went to had some bits which were quite scary for our younger two.  A lot of jokes are aimed at adults – in fact, most of the jokes seemed to me to be aimed at adults, although our guys gamely chuckled at the right spots anyway. At the end I concluded it is the sort of thing it would help to have grown up with or seen a few times as part of a tradition to really appreciate, but maybe that was just me. Probably if our kids hadn’t been scared I would have enjoyed it more.

A not very clear picture taken at the Pantomime

A (not very clear) picture taken at the Pantomime

Today is the 12th day of Christmas. A common tradition here is to take down Christmas decorations before January 6th, or at the end of 12th night, I was told, however, that it can also be traditional to leave one Christmas decoration until the feast of Candlemas on February 2nd.

I’ll end with a picture of one of the most enormous and stunningly beautiful Christmas trees I have ever seen. This was at Ely Cathedral (soon to be a subject of its own post!).


Punting in Cambridge

DSC02382DSC02416Punting is a classic thing to do in Cambridge. It involves travelling along the river in a flat-bottomed boat with a square cut bow, called, fittingly enough, a punt. The punt is propelled along by the punter who uses a long pole to push against the bottom of the river.

The river Cam runs through the city, and from it one has a wonderful view of the ‘Backs’ of the magnificent college buildings, as well as some of the beautiful bridges. We enjoyed a relaxing guided tour on a cushioned boat propelled by a friendly and knowledgeable punter. The boys were amazingly quiet and absorbed during the 45 minute ride.

If we go again, Geoff would like to try punting, and I am sure the boys will want to ‘help’, so it will be a different experience but just as lovely (although probably not as peaceful!).


Fall Festivities

ImageFall Festivities are rather different in England than in Canada. They do not celebrate Thanksgiving and although it seems to me that many have heard of American Thanksgiving, very few have heard of Canadian Thanksgiving. Fair enough. Guy Fawkes day (November 5), widely celebrated here with fireworks, is not particularly well known in Canada, I would say. Halloween festivities, and in particular, Trick-or-Treating, is less popular here, particularly with some of the older generation, although I am given to understand that it is much more common now than even a decade ago. Our three bravely went off with some of our neighbours in search of treats anyway. The secret code as to whether a home welcomed trick-or-treaters was, apparently, a pumpkin outside the house. Probably only one house in every 15-20 had a pumpkin in our neighbourhood, but the boys enjoyed just running around with their new friends. It made trick-or-treating more exciting in some ways, as they had to search harder to find treats. Thankfully they are not avaricious and even a couple of treats makes them happy. Towards the end of our walk around we were told that houses with lights on may also be participating, but after disturbing a couple of elderly ladies in their homes who in spite of our protests insisted upon rummaging through their cupboards to search for treats for the children, we stuck to the pumpkins.